Waiting with Hope

Of all the books I’ve read, Wendell Berry’s character of Hannah Coulter is perhaps my favorite fictional character. You journey with Hannah throughout her life from when she is a girl until she is an old woman, entering into events and relationships that tell you who she is and what she longs for and loves. As Hannah enters her later years in life, she has some things to say about the difference between hope and expectations.

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.” It is not surprising that Hannah is talking about her adult children when she says this. Every time I read this book, I find myself nodding in agreement, for parenting has been one of my best teachers about hope vs. expectation. When you are a parent, it is easy to get these two confused. Hoping for your children vs. expecting for them gives a parent a necessary freedom. You realize you cannot control the outcome. Instead, you must trust the process.

This distinction between hope and expectation feels profoundly important in our world. Hope means to cherish or desire with anticipation. It’s about a process, a state of being, about faith and trust. Expectation is about an outcome. It depends on certain things happening that we may have no control over.

On this first week of Advent, hope is the theme, and it is a good theme for me to reflect on. In truth, I have not felt hopeful lately. I have felt desolate and resigned. It is difficult for me to imagine resolution in some areas where I am struggling, some areas where our world is struggling, and I realize I have neither expectation nor hope. I simply have resignation and sadness.

How do I turn this into hope? We cannot conjure up hope like magicians who produce rabbits out of hats, but there are times when we can take baby steps that move us toward hope. Hope is often a long wait and walk in the dark. But when we’re walking in the dark, even one step towards a glimmer of light moves us closer. And so it is with hope. Fractions turn into wholes and small sparks into full fires.

You think the winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Then there are those times when we need others to hope for us. I remember a few years ago saying to someone “I know you don’t have any hope, but I can hope for you.” And so it is with me right now – I don’t have a lot of hope, but I do have others who are hoping for me. This is what it is to belong to the living body of the Church. When I begin to fall, others reach out to catch me. When I lose hope, others hope for me.

I have often wondered why hope is the first in this season, why we cannot begin with something else like peace or joy, but I think hope sets a foundation for us as we wait. A sure foundation that begins this season where we wait for the Incarnation and the one who is Hope personified.

In a beautiful reflection, writer Ann Voskamp recently offered these words about hope:

Hope against hope- that the emptiness will fill, that the wound will heal, that the miracle will happen, that the ashes will rise, that the prodigal will come home, that the marriage will mend, that the page will turn, that the next chapter will dare to bring any dreams come true and more than enough grace to meet you and carry you through, regardless. What you don’t know how to live through, Hope Himself will carry you through.

Ann Voskamp

Perhaps this year, you are one walking in the dark without hope. If so, can I and others hope for you? Can we offer a fraction that can turn into a whole? Or perhaps, you are one who can hope for others this year. Will you offer it this Advent Season, without reservations or conditions?

“I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Psalm 130:5

Winter Fruit Pie and the Taste of Memory

My father was not a cook. While my mother’s early journals record his cautious steps into baking cookies and occasional cakes, he was far more comfortable asking “What’s for dinner?” than he was making dinner.

It was in his last few years of life that he developed one baking specialty, and that was his famous Winter Fruit Pie.

While he was alive we never really knew what was in the pie. It was full of fruit, nuts, flavor, and texture, but the exact ingredients remained a mystery. I don’t think he purposely withheld the ingredients, I don’t think I ever asked. When complimented on his offering, Dad would just smile and willingly accept the praise.

In the fall of 2017 we knew that my father’s health was declining and that his days this side of Heaven were numbered. So it was that in October, on Canadian Thanksgiving, our extended family gathered together in Rochester, New York for a feast that could send a man straight to heaven.

We gathered outside at my brother’s house, seated around long tables, plates filled with every kind of Thanksgiving delicacy. Homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce – it was all there and with it, the goodness of conversation and family banter. There was laughter and joy, running children and toddlers, new marriages and new grandchildren. It was glorious.

And for dessert, there was pie.

Because of my dad’s health decline, I had proudly designated myself the ‘Baker of the Winter Fruit Pie.’ “How hard could it be?” I said to myself and my dad. He smiled knowingly. My pie was terrible. It was dry and crumbly. It had none of the rich, moist sweetness characteristic of my dad’s recipe. I humbly acknowledged that, despite being a good baker, I had failed. Being the good-natured, easy person that he was, he ate it, remarking that’s “it was delicious!” But I knew better.

Just two weeks after that memorable weekend, my father died.

Last night I made Winter Fruit Pie. I had learned my lesson and wisely, I asked for the recipe in our extended family group chat. The aroma of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and fruit filled the kitchen and my heart. As I made it, taste testing at least once, my heart was full – full of gratitude and of the sweet taste of memories.

Feast days, like thanksgiving, are times of gathering and with the gathering comes memories and the taste of memories. Whether you are a family that sticks to die hard recipe traditions or a family that forges new foods and gathers new places, most of us will have the taste of memories as we fill our plates. It could be Grandma’s raisin cookies or YaYa’s baklava. Perhaps it’s saag served next to turkey, a tribute to a childhood spent in Pakistan, or spanakopita as a side dish. It could even be the ghastly brussels sprouts that your aunt made (and your mom made you eat.) Whatever it is, food at holidays is so much more than food. It is stories and memories, gathered pieces of history and tastes of belonging.

Food memories and feast days are part of the strong glue that hold families and friendships together. We taste, we remember, we laugh and we cry. We break bread together and with it there is an opportunity for resentments to dissolve, for the arguments and ideas that break us apart to be overcome by the sweet and savory flavors that bind us together.

This Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you eat, may you know the joy of gratitude, the mystery of how friendships and families survive, the delight of making new memories, and the sweet taste of old memories.

And may your pie, whether it be pumpkin, apple, or winter fruit, be especially delicious.

It’s Complicated

It’s a complicated time to be an American. From wearing masks to views of political parties to ideas for restrictions on police, we are a divided nation. So divided it seems, that when someone says something is purple, you are guaranteed a response of “well, maybe it’s not really purple. I mean – you think it’s purple but it’s really not.” Or worse “Let’s crucify them and cancel them on social media because they dared to say it was purple!” Bam. Canceled.

It’s exhausting. It’s defeating. It’s depressing.

As we end July 4th weekend, a weekend normally given to barbecues, fireworks, parades, and large gatherings, we have a skyrocketing number of COVID 19 cases, a huge segment of our society that is feeling the effects of inequality not only through virus deaths but through the injustice in law enforcement, and seemingly irreperable divisions between hardline party members of both sides.

People are angry. People are dissatisfied. People are depressed – and it’s not just about a virus.

Celebrating a nation’s idependence during this time is not easy.

Even before I learned about Juneteenth, I had a complicated relationship with America’s “birthday.” Living between worlds gives one the unique perspective of seeing through a double lens, of being able to both love and criticize across cultures and cultural values. I have loved some of the freedoms afforded in this country even as I am uncomfortable with the high view given to individualism, often at the high cost of community.

Through the eyes of my non-American friends, I have seen the United States as a place that has given many people and entire families great opportunities. The places I’ve lived here have been places of diversity of thought and appearance and many of my friends in Kurdistan, Egypt, and Pakistan dream of a ticket to this country. At the same time, through their eyes I’ve seen many of America’s flaws and weaknesses. I’ve also seen a different America through the eyes of my friends from minority populations in the United States. Through friendship, reading, and film I have seen two countries emerge – the one of opportunity and the one of inequality at best and oppression at worst.

The echoes of “Make America Great Again” ideology are ugly and have allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech feels trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

I have always known that my allegiance is to something far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined not by a country, but by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far better identity than that which is indicated in my passport. The idea that God’s awesome redemptive story is aligned to or limited by a country, a people, or a political party is far from the truth I know and believe.

Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

My faith calls me to pray for countries and the leadership of those countries. It is part of every liturgy and even though I sometimes cringe and think “No! I don’t want to pray for the United States!” I do it. I do it out of obedience, and when I do I feel a sweet relief, not because things are better, but because I have a clearer picture of God as not ruled or defined by any country or place. I know that leaders ultimately answer to God.

This weekend feels like a time of reckoning and sobriety. A time to pray harder for a nation that has tremendous potential but is part of an imperfect world and functions with an imperfect government. The absence of large gatherings and parades, with fireworks cancelled and travel limited feels appropriate, a reminder that perhaps we need to grow into the greatness we celebrate and the potential we have by challenging injustice, caring for the weak, welcoming the outsider, having empathy for the marginalized and feeding the poor.

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Hubert Humphrey- 1977

On Patriotic Parfaits and Competing Loyalties

patriotic parfaits

The picture shows a perfect patriotic parfait: blue jello, white whipped cream, red strawberries. Above the perfect parfait was a sign that read “Patriotic Parfait. These Colors Don’t Run!” Click the mouse and there’s another version – blueberries, whipped cream, strawberries, more whipped cream. Red.White.Blue.Red.White.Blue – the colors echo through the dessert. And indeed, it is gorgeous. 

At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true

Even if you wanted to, you could not escape that there is a national holiday in the United States this week. From patriotic table settings to patriotic menu themes, red, white, and blue abound. July 4th is the quintessential holiday in the United States. It brings out a fierce patriotism and loyalty, along with the ever-present colors of the American flag on everything. From cupcakes to plates, from store decor to napkins — everything screams nationalism. There are even instructions for patriotic manicures! 

The holiday is a strange one for me. It forces my divided loyalties and living between worlds to the forefront and it’s not necessarily comfortable.

What is the ‘right’ response for the third culture kid, the one who lives between worlds, at home on both sides of the globe to independence day celebrations in their passport countries?

More importantly, what is the proper response for a citizen of Heaven? One who defines their loyalty less on their country and more on their faith?

The first one is less complicated than the second. I always loved the 4th of July overseas. Throughout the world, amazing 4th of July parties hosted by embassies are held. These parties are like nothing I’ve ever experienced in the United States. From hot dogs to face painting, they are incredible celebrations. One of my personal favorite stories is about winning a trip to anywhere in the United States at a 4th of July celebration in Cairo. It came at a time when I was aching for extended family and the trip was a gift of grace. On those days I held my American passport and citizenship with pride and excitement.

I’ve come to recognize a phenomenon of many of us who live between worlds: when we are in the West we are fierce supporters of the East, challenging those who would criticize these places we love; when in the East we veer toward fiercely defending the West, aware of all its faults but wanting to explain it to others. It’s like family – I can criticize my family, but if you criticize them you are in big trouble.

Living between worlds gives one the unique perspective of seeing through a double lens, of being able to both love and criticize across cultures and cultural values. So from a third culture kid perspective, I had no problem accepting the party piece of the celebration and not thinking too deeply about the rest of it. And truth be told, I like it that way. I don’t want to think too deeply about it other than this is a holiday celebrating an event in history. Just as August 14 is a holiday in Pakistan celebrating Pakistan’s independence from British rule as well as from its neighboring country, India, so July 4th is a holiday celebrating independence, where friends and food, small town parades and fireworks come together in a day off from work.

There are many things I love about the United States. This is a country of extraordinary diversity and the cities that I have been privileged to work and live in offer opportunities to interact with people from all over the world. From restaurants to cafés, from hotels to green spaces, from recreation activities to public transportation there is much to enjoy, to be grateful for. And we do have freedom.  I wake up daily to the sweet smell of freedom and it is a gift.

There are also things I love about Pakistan – from food to hospitality; from the beauty of the north to the Indian ocean in the south; from the resilience of a people to the friendships I’ve been privileged to have. And then there is Egypt – one of my beloved places. I have learned what it is to love on both sides of the globe, and this is a huge step for me. And with this in mind the TCK question I posed is easy: I can enjoy barbecues, I can enjoy burgers, I can enjoy fireworks, I can enjoy parfaits — no matter what color they are.

But the second question is more difficult. We are in an era where American exceptionalism is touted by many, where the United States is seen as a country “blessed” by God and therefore superior.

More recently, the “Make America Great Again” ideology is an ugly one that has allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech is trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

This thinking is highly concentrated in many conservative Christian groups. This is deeply troubling. When the underlying message becomes about the supposed moral superiority of the U.S. – that it is intrinsically ‘better’ than other countries, I cringe and step back. The pretty parfaits turn to bile in my mouth and I struggle to find words that articulate my issues with this thinking.

I do not believe that the United States is uniquely “blessed”. I do not believe it has a divinely appointed mission to police and save the world. In fact, right now I believe the United States is in an age of reckoning.

I do not believe that my friends, from all parts of the world, are to be pitied for where they live and what nationalities they hold. And in no way do I believe that America or Americans are more deserving, more unique than others that God has placed on his earth, in his world.

My allegiance is to a citizenship far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined less by a country and more by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far greater identity than that which is indicated by my passport.

So as a Christian, I will enjoy July 4th — because it’s a holiday, because I love a good barbecue and a small town parade, because it’s a day off, because there are many things I am grateful for – and freedom is one of them. But if I ever confuse my identity as an ‘American’ with that of being a ‘Christian’ may I be called out and challenged by those around me. Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

*****

 *Robynn and Marilyn in What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us

Thanksgiving for the Broken-hearted

Robynn and I were recently texting about Thanksgiving. This year both of us will fill our houses and hearts with people who are hurting. These will be the tables of the broken-hearted, chairs of the grieving, glasses of the bewildered, and dessert plates of the deserted.

What do we do when our tables are filled with the broken-hearted?When comfort feels as elusive as sunshine in winter?

We raise glasses of gratitude, because gratitude precedes the miracle. And God knows, we need miracles.

As we texted back and forth, comfort and friendship were in every word. Though miles away, we were walking beside each other.

Robynn’s last text to me that day is the one I have posted below. May you who fellowship with the broken-hearted know that we are with you through this Thanksgiving weekend. We pray that your tables will be ones of grace and the deepest of peace.


Broken tables and backless chairs—- we gather with pain and imperfections and pray for the great grace of gratitude to accompany our mashed potatoes and gravy.

The whole world is grey. Even the geese have flown south. We sit abandoned and isolated surrounded by noise and green bean casserole.

Jesus come. Be our healing. Be our holy guest. Make house calls to the weary and worn down. Sit with us a spell. Turn our water into wine and our emptiness into something that can hold second helpings of hope. With whip cream perhaps… wouldn’t that be all kinds of yummy?!

With love,

Marilyn and Robynn

About Mother’s Day – aka Holidays Out of Control

Of all the negative traits of capitalism, the co-opting of holidays is one of the most insidious and destructive to our bank accounts and our relationships. 

It’s almost mother’s day – and what was started in the United States during Civil War days to bring honor to a mother deeply loved by her daughter has become a day that causes bitterness, strife, guilt, and all the things that mothers hate so much. Articles circulate the World Wide Web applauding moms as the jewels of the planet or rebuking pastors about not making those who are not moms feel bad.

It is all exhausting

A woman named Anna Jarvis started this holiday. During the civil war she worked hard to promote peace between moms on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, women with either Confederate or Union loyalties, recognizing that they had far more in common then they disagreed on. She loved her own mom deeply and grieved when she died, working to commemorate her by promoting a day to honor mothers. Although it took several years she pushed the idea through to Congress and in 1914 the first official Mother’s Day was recognized, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson.

Jarvis would later be enraged at the commercialism of the holiday, throwing a “Mother’s Day Salad” onto the floor of a restaurant and walking out in disgust as well as trying to rescind the holiday.[Source-The Founder of Mother’s Day Later Fought to Have It Abolished http://shar.es/Sy61D ]

Her beloved idea had spiraled out of control and she was appalled. Her idea of the holiday was “a visit home or writing a long letter to your mother.” She is quoted as saying “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.”

Let me be clear: I love holidays as much as anybody. I love family, I love getting together, I love tradition. And I love being honored on Mother’s Day.

I also love mothers – a spot soft as velvet is in my heart for mothers everywhere. We have been gifted with so much but there is a cost.

What I don’t love is what we have done with holidays, turning them – all of them, not just Mother’s Day — into opportunities to spend money, times where we feel guilt, experiences where we are left with a sense of inadequacy or inability to do things “right.”, times of mourning our singleness or grieving our losses.

I didn’t grow up under the shadow of Hallmark. There were no card stores in Pakistan and no television shouting at me that “if he loved me he would go to Jared’s”. No stores did campaigns of pink or blue and there were no florist’s shops – just street hawkers with their glorious Irises and Day Lilies sold on the mall of the town of Murree. I feel fortunate that my formative years were free of these images.

Despite this, I have become a product of the society where I currently live and it is sometimes terrifying.

I don’t want to be that mom that imagines her children don’t love her because they forget a card or a phone call. I don’t want to be that person that spends money she doesn’t have to get things other don’t need because of advertising that excels in digging into the human psyche and finding the cracks in our well-oiled armor. I don’t want my holidays and traditions to be characterized by green and red M&M’s and bunny rabbits; by large pink “Remember Your Mom” posters and guilt-ridden stress; by silver hearts from Jared’s and kisses beginning with Kay; by Hollywood and Hallmark telling me what my family, my marriage, my love, and my Mother’s Day should look like.

I want to own my holidays – I don’t want my holidays to own me. 

How can we take back what has been strategically taken from us? How can we reshape our thinking and our expectations so that the goal becomes fun memories and healthy interactions , holidays reconstructed with less money, less stuff, fewer expectations and ultimately more fun?

Can we be brave enough to live counter-culture, set our own agenda our own traditions? Can we turn off the television with its brilliant messaging that tells us how we are supposed to celebrate, that lures us in with soft porn Victoria’s Secret ads and super glossy symbols of false love ? Can we turn down our hearing aids so we are not affected by the insidious words that tell us “this – this is how it’s supposed to be – and it it isn’t then something is wrong?”

I for one want to live free of the bondage of false images and expectations and reclaim my holidays, my relationships, and my money. Is any one else in ? 

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Posting at A Life Overseas – Holiday Grace

A Fourth of July fireworks display at the Wash...

Readers – today I’m over at A Life Overseas writing about Holiday Grace. Would love to have you join me there! Here is an excerpt from that piece:

Tomorrow is the 4th of July – Independence Day in the United States and a national holiday. It’s a day that causes laughter and cross national joking in expatriate communities where those from Britain and the United States work and play side by side; where nation building dissolves and friendships build strong.

I grew up knowing Holiday Grace. Grace that seemed shaken together, running over, doled out in extra measure during holidays celebrated far away from family and passport country.

Because holidays were times when my parents, native to Massachusetts where picture book houses and white picket fences abound, would feel the tug of  home and family. Home and family would grab the heart and squeeze with a vice-like grip of unbelonging and a loud ‘What am I doing here, six thousand miles from all that is familiar?”

Holidays were the times when it was too easy to use the words “God forsaken” knowing that God does not forsake. Holidays were the times when it was easy to feel ‘foreign’. 

There was the time when my mom felt desperately lonely in a small city with no other English speakers, no other expatriates. The large house we lived in was surrounded on four sides by mosques, the Call to Prayer loud in the morning hours and lonely in the evening. It was Christmas time and her heart throbbed with a longing for Christmas at home in New England. Her mind was far away with real Christmas trees, snowy evenings, and family – but her body was in a small town in Pakistan. Holiday Grace came when missionaries from a town two hours away made the long trek on a dusty, partially unpaved road to surprise our family on Christmas eve.  She had gone up to the flat roof and was looking over the city, tears of longing and pity welling in her eyes, when she heard the ever familiar sounds of “Joy to the World.” She thought it was angels heard from the rooftops. And in many ways she was correct. These friends brought Holiday Grace to a young woman’s aching heart as they sat and drank hot cocoa and laughed together until late in the evening.

There was the time when we had no sugar, no flour, and little butter at Christmas. But somehow Holiday Grace abounded and our kitchen was full of spicy goodness. There were Thanksgiving meals at an international boarding school, where those who were not from the United States celebrated hard and graciously. And there were the Eid celebrations when we were invited to join the feasts of our Muslim friends, experiencing the Holiday Grace of acceptance from our adopted country.

Each holiday seemed to be met with this extra grace, Holiday Grace.

I went on to raise a family overseas and began experiencing Holiday Grace as an adult. But it was in our fourth year living in Cairo, Egypt that Holiday Grace came in a way I could never have imagined, much less orchestrated.

It was text-book unmerited favor surrounding me. Read the rest of the piece here.