Indescribable Joy – Reflections from Surviving a Suicide Bomb

In the midst of such horror and hurt, Kate’s overwhelming memory was of the indescribable joy knowing she had saved her son.

On March 18, 2002, a suicide bomber attacked the international church in Islamabad, Pakistan. It felt personal as it was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. I will never forget the letter we received from two friends soon after the attack, written as she was recovering from an injury sustained during the event. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that event, an event that by their own admission changed our friends Jon and Kate Mitchell. They have graciously given permission for me to share this powerful story with hopes that the God who revealed himself to them, and continues to do so, will do the same for those who read the narrative. I urge you to pass this on for in Jon’s words “These things need to be shared!”

Today, March 18, 2012 is a special day for us.  It marks the 10th anniversary of a day that was both horrific and blessed for us.  10 years ago today, a suicide bomber attacked our church in Islamabad, changing our lives forever.

We were about half way through the service, the sermon having just begun.  Our son Daniel was downstairs in children’s church and Iain was in the sanctuary with us, sitting in Kate’s lap.  I remember the bomber bursting in through a rear door, and I can still see his silhouette as he tossed some objects in among the pews.  I instinctively ran to the back of the church, not sure what I was going to do when I got to him, but certain he had to be stopped.  Then the first grenade exploded, and a wave of panic swept over me.  “Kate and Iain are down there.  I’ve got to protect them”.  As I desperately raced back down the aisle towards where they were sitting there was another explosion in front of me.  I remember the heat of the blast, the sand and grit hitting my face and I can still see chairs flying through the air past me.  The explosions continued and when I got to our row of chairs I tried to peer through the smoke and dust to where Kate and Iain had been.  I didn’t know what I would find.

Kate and Iain were on the floor, lying side by side where we had been sitting.  Kate’s clothes were torn and she was bleeding, but the wounds looked superficial to me.  My heart rejoiced, and then I saw it.  There was an unexploded grenade just to Kate’s right.  Thank God for Russian grenades.   I helped her to her feet, grabbed Iain and ushered them out of the church before going in to help others get out of the building.  Each time I came out of the church I stopped to check on Kate and our boys, but I didn’t realize she had a serious lung injury until she told me she could taste blood in her mouth.

As I raced her and another injured family to Shifa hospital, I remember Iain stating “That was a bad bad man.  He did that on purpose”.  Even his three-year old mind was able to grasp what had just happened.

Later that evening, after Kate’s lung had been re-inflated we were recounting the events of the day, giving thanks for God’s hand of protection on us.  Kate had recognized the seriousness of the attack before I did, and she had thrown Iain on the floor and jumped on top of him. As she looked back towards the attacker she could see three grenades rolling across the floor towards her.  “Here I come Lord” she thought as she did her best to cover Iain with her body to shield him from what she knew was coming.  One grenade exploded under the chair in which I had been sitting.  The force of the blast threw her off of Iain, and when she opened her eyes her first thought was for him.  In her words

I wanted to save my boy.  I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

As Kate said that, it struck us both at the same time.  Wow, in the midst of such horror and hurt, Kate’s overwhelming memory was of the indescribable joy knowing she had saved her son.  Jesus loves us more than we could ever love Iain.  There must have been an element of joy in Christ’s suffering on the cross, knowing that he was taking the punishment intended for us. What a revelation!  We were reminded of Ephesians 1:17-18 where Paul prays that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray also, that eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know the hope to which he has called you . . . ”

We have much to be thankful for and rejoice in.  We were given a Spirit of revelation, and the eyes of our hearts were opened that day.  The next year God gave us our beloved Sarah, new life and hope coming on the heels of death and destruction.  And God brought us to a place of safety and rest and a caring church here in Cary North Carolina.  Now he has privileged us with a call to minister to Christian ministries through Concentric Development.

We invite you to rejoice with us today.  We serve a mighty God who is still revealing himself, and may our blessing be a blessing to you.  These things are not to be kept to ourselves, and you are welcome to share this story with others.


When Kids Kill Kids

When our daughter Annie was two years old she saw television for the first time. We were in Islamabad, Pakistan and she was invited to a birthday party of some older children. My husband took her while I stayed home with our brand new baby boy. When they came home he relayed to me her reaction to this first time of watching TV. She was watching a cartoon and the character was hit over the head with something. As often happens with cartoons, there was a bonk, birds flew over the head of the character and then the scene faded out. She began to cry. She thought the character was dead and was inconsolable. In her 2-year-old mind she was unable to distinguish real from imaginary on the screen.

This is huge. Until a child is seven years old, they cannot differentiate between imaginary and real; fantasy and reality. So when young children see television violence, it’s accepted as not only real, but a part of “normal” life.

Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, in an article released in 2000 called “Trained to Kill”, speaks in-depth to this problem. In nature, he says, “Healthy members of most species have a powerful, natural resistance to killing their own kind.” So while rattlesnakes bite others, they wrestle each other; while piranhas use their fangs on others, they fight each other by flicking their tails. So it is true with humans – we don’t naturally want to kill, we are taught to kill.

He talks about three ways of being conditioned to kill – the first is something we would think of when we think of boot camp. Everyone is taken and their heads are shaved, they are shouted at, they get up at unearthly hours and go through relentless discipline and violence. At the end the recruit believes this is normal. This is a perfect segue into a war zone.

The second is “classical conditioning” where violence is associated with pleasure. The author would suggest that “classical conditioning” takes place in kids as they watch violence while eating their favorite foods of popcorn and soda, or smelling a girlfriend’s perfume, all while watching horrific movie violence as “entertainment”.

The third is “operant conditioning” which is a stimulus response. This is where in target practice a target shaped like a man would pop up. If you shoot the target correctly, it will fall, and so on. Contrast this, he says, to video games, where for hours at a time a kid is pointing and shooting, pointing and shooting, getting better and better at hitting the targets and gaining points every time they do so.

The article is well worth looking at and provides irrefutable evidence of the problem: all this is teaching kids how to kill. The evidence is present in the tragedies that read like headlines from newspapers – because they are.

  • Jonestown, Arkansas Massacre 1998 – An 11 and a 13 year-old, camouflaged in the woods kill four kids and a teacher with ten others wounded.
  • Paducah, Kentucky 1999 – A 14-year-old opens fire on a prayer group at school and hits eight kids.
  • Columbine High School, 1999 – Two kids in trench coats terrorize the school ultimately killing twelve students, one teacher. 21 other students are injured and ultimately the kids kill themselves.

There are more but this makes the point. All of these have one thing in common – they are kids killing kids. It begs the question: Why are we shocked when we see child soldiers from the widely seen Kony 2012 video?

So why am I suddenly bringing up violence and kids killing kids? In the newly released movie “The Hunger Games” that is the premise and it has some people disturbed. And that is the very point of the author. My friend Stacy, who blogs at Slowing the Racing Mind, wrote an excellent post on this called “Hunger Games – Disturbing? Indeed” Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, wants us to be disturbed so that we can discuss this and question it, talk with our kids and know that there are times where we must stand up to what is wrong.

I won’t go into The Hunger Games further, as others have done a fine job of doing just that, but I would argue books like these, and movies like these, are not what creates violence in our kids. It’s gratuitous violence in movies and video games that evokes laughter as opposed to tears, mocking as opposed to compassion. That’s what we should be worried about. Crying because a 12-year-old was killed in a society’s sick attempt at control is a human response; laughing when a teacher tells you that a middle schooler ambushed a school, killing kids and a teacher, is a an inhuman response born of inappropriate exposure to violence at young ages.

It’s a big issue – What do you think?

“On June 10th, 1992, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a definitive study on the impact of TV violence. In nations, regions, or cities where television appears there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That’s how long it takes for a brutalized toddler to reach the “prime crime” years. That’s how long it takes before you begin to reap what you sow when you traumatize and desensitize children. (Centerwall, 1992).” (from Teaching Our Kids to Kill)


Fractions of Understanding

Every once in a while I am given the gift of understanding a fraction more about the incarnation and incarnational living. Over this past holiday I experienced one of these fraction gifts.

Prior to going to Cairo we were asked many times “Is it safe?” “Are you sure you should go?” The queries grew more urgent in tone as Egypt began making news headlines the week before we left. While I believe that safety is a relative term, I appreciated the concern.  But safety didn’t enter into our decision. We wanted to see our oldest daughter and experience her world. Where did she live? Shop? Eat? Who were her friends? What was daily life like? What are her current joys and struggles? We wanted to experience these because we love her. We don’t want to be absent from or oblivious to her world.

It was this epiphany of sorts that struck me as I entered gladly into her world. That God, in his love for us, wanted to experience life as it was like for us with our human bodies and boundaries. That he entered gladly through the person of Christ to live out the joys and struggles of life locked within the limitations of the human body. This is the story of incarnation.

Through visiting Annie and entering her world I know more than I ever could from talking with her. I have met her friends – I know their names. I have seen where she lives – I know she is on the 9th floor with a view of the Mokhattam Hills. I know she has an elevator that can break down and send the passenger into a raw fear. I know the places where she eats and shops, I have seen the faces and eyes of men who ogle her and know the blind rage that she has felt at being seen as an object, nothing more than a piece of meat. I experienced the boundaries she lives with as a single woman in a predominantly Muslim country. I saw the limitations she has in the area of the city where she lives, where barbed wire and walls are placed without notice blocking movement. I felt her frustration with the nonstop crowds when she feels she needs space. I learned about her world. I felt what she felt, saw what she sees, ate where she eats and walked the steps that she walks. I had the joy and struggle of being locked in her world.

I have not just heard about her life, I have experienced her life, walking with her through her neighborhood and beyond.

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was the father of Robynn Bliss who readers know from several guest posts. Another was a friend of ours who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.  In a poignant letter describing the event, she tells of her response. “I had always thought it was ‘hard-nosed’ of God to allow His son to be offered as a sacrifice for us and experience the pain and death of the cross instead of us”. She went on to say that in that moment, protecting her child was her greatest joy, the thing she wanted to do more than anything. To save him despite the cost to her  – a severe injury and punctured lung. In wonder she realized that it is God’s great joy to send Jesus – who wrapped his body around us as it were, so that we would be saved from the sin shrapnel that would kill us.  The cost for her was great, but nothing in comparison to the joy of saving her child.

The wonder of incarnation – whether understood through walking in the shoes of a daughter and understanding her world, or protecting a child at the cost of great injury and potential death. All of these are picture gifts to help me in my finite mind and ability to understand a fraction more of  the mystery and wonder of the incarnation – to comprehend a bit more of the ultimate love that walked this path willingly. Fractions of understanding – not a full picture but an important piece of the whole.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Romans 8:32

Memories of an Expatriate 4th of July

It will be six more years before I have spent as many fourth of July’s in the United States as I have overseas.

In capitals like Islamabad and Cairo, the celebrations were a highlight of our year. Free food and entertainment combined with celebratory fireworks and raffle prizes were enjoyed by all passport holders. Our children loved the chance to meet with friends and eat the uniquely American fare of hamburgers and hotdogs coupled with canned soda and topped off by ice cream cups.

In Islamabad the parties were held at the large compound that housed the American club and pool. As life has become increasingly more precarious for Americans living in Pakistan, I have no doubt the celebrations are far more low-key if at all. Cairo’s venue was Cairo American College, the large international school compound and hundreds came to these events.

One of my best memories came in the summer of 1992. We had received news of the death of my maternal grandmother only days before the 4th of July. She was my only living grandparent and a compassionate soul who deeply loved all of her grandchildren. My mom and dad had left Pakistan after making it their home for 35 years  in December of 1988 to be closer to her, knowing that her earthly body was declining and longing to be near her during the remaining time she had left. On news of her death I experienced a deep longing for family. Coupled with that I had given birth to my fourth child, a baby girl,  just six month before. The only relatives who had met this personality-filled baby were my sister-in-law Terry and my niece, Christi-Lynn. With a tiny, still breast-feeding baby in my arms and three other small children, I wanted the comfort of blood relatives but knew that the trip was financially impossible.

It was during this time that we packed up our young family and set off by foot to the large 4th of July party. There my sadness was in temporary reprieve as our kids got their faces painted, ate hotdogs until they were sick and played with friends.

There was also a raffle. Companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Swiss Air had donated large prizes like nights in hotels, and free airline tickets to the lucky ticket holders.

At the time my husband was taking a summer Arabic course at the American University in Cairo. He had befriended other classmates, some American, who had come to our home to escape the inevitable culture shock that had overtaken them. He told them about the “Free party on the 4th!” and as a result a couple of them had come. They were on their way back to “real Cairo”  when they saw Cliff and asked him if he wanted their raffle tickets. Realizing that he would lose nothing, he took them and so we had in our possession 8 tickets.

You know the rest of the story before I put it down – Yes, we won. Not one prize but two. The first was a breakfast at the Marriot Hotel in Zamalek, renowned for its amazing morning spread. The second? A round-trip airline ticket, generously donated by Swiss Air from Cairo to my choice of anywhere in the continental United States.

To say I was over the moon does not adequately describe my excitement, or gratefulness. I felt in that time when I needed to know my heart was heard, God with great grace gave me a free pass. Like I was losing at a game of Life, only to land on a “Win a TV Game Show, Collect $100,000!” only this was real.

While other 4th of July celebrations have come my way, each holding their share of beautiful fireworks, fun foods, and a grudging recognition that it is one holiday where I proudly carry my U.S. passport, none will ever come close to that day when God met me at an expatriate celebration.

Painting Pakistan

If you have followed my blog, you will see that this week Pakistan has figured significantly into my posts. From Masoor Dal and Boarding School Bedtime Stories, Pittsfield to Pakistan and Baby Switching,instead of going on the usual tangential trajectory, my writing has kept this theme. Perhaps it’s the whirring of the fan signifying summer has come to Cambridge that reminds me of warm Pakistani evenings and the ever-present sound of the Call to Prayer or perhaps the significance of my father’s birthday and seeing old friends.  Regardless of the reason, in keeping with this unintentional ‘theme’ of the week today I offer something far better than my words: Pictures!

Most in the west will never have the privilege of seeing beyond the headlines to the world of people, scenery, food, and hospitality that was and is Pakistan. The pictures below are a snapshot of a country that has faced more than its share of crisis and catastrophe. They show life in various parts of Pakistan and I hope they will resonate with readers bringing a human side that is not from a journalist or the news media, but from a virtually unknown blogger. We are told that pictures paint a thousand words. My hope is that this poetic saying rings true for the viewer.

The photographer is primarily Tim Irwin. Tim grew up in Pakistan, son of one of my closest high school friends, Marty. He returned in May of this year and used his significant skill with a camera to take some beautiful shots of the country and people. Jason Philbrick, a friend from Pakistan took the shot of teapots at a Chai stall. Enjoy this trip to a world of paradox.

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An Expat Lady & a Ramadan Baby

I originally wrote this piece in 2011, during my first year of blogging. I repost it today in celebration of my “Ramadan Baby” turning 30! 

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was the middle of Ramadan and earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a woman in transition and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

Two babies were born in those hours just past midnight, as the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night. The last azaan, calling the faithful to pray, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast.  At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains..

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a “first class” hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toe’d, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing me labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff  in by two’s to see “the engraze who had her husband in with her during the delivery.” Something unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebi’s and barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras, ensuring a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy, which, though not very much, was a huge thing to publicly acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes, and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.  Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life. 

Relief or Revelry?

At 11:28 last night I heard the news that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Minutes later I was listening to a live feed from President Obama as he gave brief details confirming the news that Osama had been found and killed in a gun battle in a large compound in the city of Abbotabad, Pakistan. Abbotabad is not far from the capital of Islamabad and, like many other places in Pakistan, figures significantly into my past. My sister-in-law grew up a few miles from the city, a best friend from childhood often invited me to spend weekends at her home in Abbotabad, and our equivalent of ‘Junior Prom’ was held in a local hotel. At the time it was a lovely cantonment city with wide tree-lined streets and a feel of modernity as compared to some of the more remote locations in Pakistan.

News of his capture and demise brought me back to the hours following 9/11 when my daughter and I sat in a town outside of Boston watching television, praying that the day’s events hadn’t been orchestrated by Muslim extremists, only to discover moments after that Al Qaeda was claiming responsibility and the figure of Osama Bin Laden rose to world-wide notoriety. And it’s been a long road since then for victims of 9/11, victims of wars, moms and dads of victims, and tired citizens. One of my colleagues from a previous job lost her daughter on 9/11 – she was engaged to be married and had visited her parents, returning to her fiancée in New York that morning. My sense is that she is experiencing deep relief and perhaps closure as she takes in the news of last night.

Perhaps my personal feelings most resemble those I felt earlier in the evening while in a theater watching Hanna – a movie released only a couple of weeks ago. There are a couple of truly evil people in the movie and as I watched their ruthless actions and disregard for human life I wanted them dead. I felt relief when they died and could no longer hunt for a teenager who, seemingly through no will of her own, was trained to kill. I felt relief and satisfaction for justice served. In real life as I watched the news I was well aware that while a man, significant in orchestrating tragic events and becoming the face of evil, was now dead the problem of evil remained. Later as I watched reactions through pictures and video I was struck that there is a difference between relief and revelry, something of the frat party variety. Revelry makes this seem like cheap entertainment of the B-movie genre as opposed to a real act in a real world with real victims. Revelry seems to spit in the face of a creator God – not willing that any should perish. Relief as in pain taken away and distress relieved, particularly for those directly affected seems right and proper. And when I drill a little deeper, my relief is colored with sadness of lives wasted.

So relief or revelry? What’s right? A friend of mine dug deeper than I this morning and put her feelings into these words: “Pleased that justice is done. But it disturbs me to see rejoicing in the streets over the death of human life. How can we condemn others for rejoicing in the streets over death of Americans if we’re doing the same thing? She goes on to quote this: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?…..For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” Ezekiel 18:23, 32

Coats too Big, Shoes too Small – Shopping as an Immigrant

“When Cesar modeled his new coat, my father nodded his approval and remarked that my brother would surely grow into it. It would surely help him survive his first American winter. Alas, the opposite proved to be true. The coat was so large it shielded him far less effectively than one his own size. It was as if, marooned in America, we had lost our perspective, our sense of proportion…” from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado 2007

Who of us that have made our homes in different countries do not relate with this poignant picture of a family, struggling to figure out how to live, shop, and survive in new territory?

Our first winter in New England after living in Cairo and Islamabad was painfully cold as two of my sons walked around in jackets 3 sizes too large. “But they were on sale!” I exclaimed to my husband, completely overwhelmed with the task of clothing a family of seven for winter. Gone were the Cairo winters where it rarely reached freezing, where honeysuckle and magnolias came out in early February lining the streets with a color and fragrance that dramatically indicated spring was upon us.

Not only were the coats too large, the BOGO (buy one, get one half off) Payless Shoes filled our entryway with only one problem. The shoes and boots bought in the midst of culture shock were too small – the tightness causing blisters on the uncomplaining feet of kids who were completely flexible and thought this was normal.

I tried to explain some of this recently at a workshop on ‘Culture & Healthcare’, the words to articulate failing to come. How could I find words to describe how badly we wanted this new country to work for us? How silently desperate we felt, not wanting to seem as outsiders or ‘other’ but failing so miserably at the minor tasks in life that the larger tasks were pushed hopelessly aside, our angst obvious.

The more I failed, the more defeated I became. I sensed I could never make this work and like the Israelites who wandered in the Sinai wilderness I had the unspoken memory of “the fish I ate in Egypt at no cost!” * ‘Take me back to Egypt where I belong’ was my silent prayer.

Years after those first traumas, I found Lucette Lagnado’s poignant portrayal of her family’s journey from Cairo to the United States. I felt like I was going to bed with my friends every night as I read chapter after chapter, not wanting the book to end. The pictures that she created with words were a salve, a precious ointment, soothing my memories and the hidden wounds I had sustained during those first years of arrival to the United States. They mirrored our journey and experience despite being of a different time and the move to the United States being for different reasons.

Just as Lucette’s family left Egypt with 26 suitcases, so did our family consolidate our years of living as a family in Cairo  down to 26 suitcases and the backpacks on our shoulders. Just as they felt lost, displaced and without context in their new world, so did we.

The shopping experience was merely a symbol of the far greater adjustment to a country whose lifestyle, beliefs, and values would create in us a conflict and discomfort akin to the cold from a coat too large, or blisters from shoes too small; our consolation and solace coming from those who understood – whether in person or through a book.

*(Numbers 11 verse 5)

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