A Hymn, a Flag, and a Father-in-Law


The lights dim in the First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Florida. Music begins to play, and the music director welcomes us to the service.

And then we begin to sing.

My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

We are singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a patriotic favorite that links parts of the books of Isaiah and Revelation with the American Civil War. A multimedia show of flags and stars swirls on the walls around us. We are mixing our Lord with our Flag and the triumphant tune and well-dressed choir begs us sing along with them and their red, white, and blue.

He is trampling out the vintage, where the grapes of wrath are stored.

I want to throw up my hands in frustration; my sense of being “other” is at its height. This God and country connection is too much — I can’t do it.

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

The tribute continues with homage to the flag and an admittedly touching short video interviewing a gentleman who lost his brother to World War II. But I am still impatient, willing myself to be gone, challenging the God and Country patriotism that marks this part of the country, that marks a Memorial Day weekend. I miss my Orthodox Church and worshiping with people from Russia, Greece, Romania, Lebanon, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and more. I tap my foot, frustrated and caught up in my frustration.

Until I hear a motion beside me and turn to look. I am sitting beside my father-in-law and he has raised his hand to brush away the tears forming in his eyes.

My father-in-law, Richard Gardner, is a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also another in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.

My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family felt the absence of a father during his tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went.

I struggle with the notion of Christianity as a political force that is uniquely American. I struggle with a definition that includes allegiance to a country and flag as opposed to what I believe is a transformative gospel, indiscriminately available to all people at all times. My faith has never been rooted in something as fragile as a nation.

“The identification of religion with nation and nation with religion is something Christians should avoid at all costs. It is a direct violation of the growth of a body in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28).”

But right now, that’s not what this is about. Right now, it’s about my father -in-law.

To my father-in-law, memories of the past are clearer than memories of yesterday. The aging process, that process that respects no person, but creeps in and takes over the wealthy, the poor, the strong, and the weak, is quickly taking over. I am aware as I look at him that he will not be with us forever, and a rush of affection comes over me for this man. I am convicted and humbled – my frustration fading along with the strains of the music.

As I put my hand on the man beside me, as I see his tears, and feel his poignant memories of times gone by, I realize that I can and I do honor this man and his service.

Because people and relationships are always more important than ideas. 

It comes down to being capable of complexity; of recognizing that even as I disagree with the God and Country ethos that defines our military and much of our nation, I can and do honor the men and women who serve.

There’s another reason I am convicted. And it is this: I’m constantly asking people to be okay with paradox and complexity when it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to third culture kids, when it comes to those things I care deeply about. Can I then be willing to be equally capable of complexity when it comes to things that others care about? 

The hymn, video, and homage to the flag are over. My father-in-law still sits beside me, lost in his own world of memories.

The strains of the last lines stay in my mind, because I believe them. Not in the way that the author of the hymn intended, but in the way I know them to be true.

His truth is indeed marching on. And I am humbled by that Truth. 

*quote from Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens

The Sweet Smell of Freedom Re-visited

Gas Mask
Tahrir Square Graffiti – A fight for freedom

On an October weekend over a year and a half ago I wrote a post I called “Waking Up to the Sweet Smell of Freedom”.  I remember well the day I wrote it. It was a holiday weekend and as I woke up to the strong smell of good coffee, I realized in an instant how different my life was from so many in the world that day. While this is not a new realization for me, it is a welcome reminder. Specifically, that post was about the pastor in Iran who was imprisoned at the time – Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. Since that time he was freed, rearrested, and is now free again.

Today is Memorial Day in the United States and I am revisiting this sweet smell of freedom. It is the day set aside to honor military men and women who have fought for this country.  As someone who was not raised here and struggles with nationalism I struggle with a day like today.  I am tremendously grateful for those who serve. And I recognize that the freedom I wake to has a cost. The struggle comes as I think of what this country has done with freedom and the way we have warped the definition.

And today again I wake to the sweet smell of freedom. I wake to the awareness that I am a privileged person in a country of privilege.  I also wake to a world with a warped sense of what freedom means. We have changed the definition of freedom in the west to mean no boundaries, no barriers, ability to do whatever we want, when we want  – this is not freedom, as someone like Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani would likely tell us. The west is obsessed with freedom, with right to choose, with ‘self’ – yet I don’t see evidence of freedom in those around me. Most are bound by the angst that this definition of freedom brings about.

Our suicide rate has become a societal epidemic – yet we call ourselves free.

Our churches fight and argue and call each other by names both online and in person – yet we call ourselves free.

The national debt is to the sky in many western countries – yet we call ourselves free.

Our personal debt in both school loans and life spending continues to be a crisis and bind us to jobs we abhor – yet we call ourselves free.

Because freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, whenever we want, with whomever we want. I can’t help thinking of the CS Lewis quote as I think about freedom as it is practiced today in my passport country – “The lost enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded.”

And so I wake – I wake to the smell and taste of freedom and the challenge of figuring out what this really means.

What does it mean to you? How do you define freedom? How do those in the country where you live define freedom?

Wrapping up the Week – 5.25.13

This weekend in the United States is Memorial Day Weekend. Practically speaking, in the U.S this means we have a 3-day weekend bringing some extra rest and fun. The weekend always brings about nostalgia for two reasons: When we moved to the United States from Cairo, we would celebrate this weekend with my cousins. Even if we hadn’t seen them all year Memorial Day would find us at a (usually) cloudy but delicious barbecue and playing killer croquet with my Great Aunt Lottie. Aunt Lottie died some time ago, and we moved, and my cousins and the Scuzzins (cousins kids) moved.

The second reason is that 26 years ago today we welcomed our second child, first-born son to the world on a hot day in Islamabad, Pakistan. You can read more about that in my post An Expat Lady and a Ramadan Baby. So nostalgia reigns today as I think of life as it was, breathe a sigh, and embrace life as it is.

On to the wrapping up the week.

On Memorial Day: A Life Overseas posted an excellent essay on Memorial Day. Called “God Bless the World“, it captured much of what many of us who have lived overseas feel about this event. Take a look and see what you think. One of the quotes that stood out to me was this:

A life led overseas often reveals the enmeshment between our faith and our nationalism.  And we begin to ask questions that we may not have considered, questions that we might not like the answer to.

On Place: You can’t hang around Communicating Across Boundaries for long before there will be a conversation around identity or place.  These things matter. Place matters. Place shapes us. Place is used in our lives, for good or for ill. I found a short op-ed in the NY Times particularly poignant this week. It’s not about third culture kids, or global nomads, or expats. But it is about Place. Because everyone can relate to Place. The quote that shouted out to me was this: “Place is not meant to be eulogized. I don’t want to think that my place may have to be.” And yet many people have had to eulogize Place. My husband’s childhood home was razed to the ground to build a parking lot for a zoo in Miami. Places where many of us vacationed in Pakistan have been droned, and a eulogy rises creating further conflict between two countries who don’t “get” each other. The specific place in this article is Seaside Park, NJ – severely affected by Hurricane Sandy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on place and eulogizing place. Here is the article called Seaside’s Last Summer?

On the blog: There was great conversation on prejudice and bigotry on CAB this week! One of my favorite comments was from Jenni:

“I grew up in urban Australia, under the influence of my father’s extreme prejudice against indigenous Australians. Before going to live in an Aboriginal community as an adult, I confessed my prejudice & asked my church family to pray that I would learn to love “Aboriginal people”. I didn’t. I learned to love June and Stephanie, Peterson and Wurrip, to be disgusted by the behaviour of others, (some of them friends), hurt by some, to ache for the children and love little Jethro (though not so much when he taught my son how to turn a frog inside out) – I learnt relationship”

Also – There’s a new look on the blog….take a look and see what you think! 

On my bedside stand: A great new read called Americanah about a Nigerian immigrant who returns to Nigeria. It’s about identity, place, culture and so much more that I am not doing it justice. Stay tuned for more on this book.

What about you? What did you read, see, hear this week? Would love it if you shared through the comments.

And a Very Happy Birthday to my son Joel!

Put Down That Map and Get Wonderfully Lost!

I think that perhaps this is my favorite new travel quote. I have no idea where it came from, but I love both the words and the meaning behind the words.

The quote says stop planning everything. Be willing to risk. It says you don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t have to be in control. Take off your shoes and walk in the grass, sit down on the couch and put your feet up, put down the map for a time.

True for travel, true for life.

I have often thought of my life as this map, predetermined at every turn; if I don’t stay on course, all sorts of terrible things will follow me. And so when things don’t go according to this imaginary map I think I’m doing something wrong – I think “Where did I go off course? Where did I lose my way?” There are times when this is helpful and self-analysis shows me areas that I can change or routes that I can take to get on course. But other times, it’s not about the map. It’s about life. It’s about being willing to let go and give up control to the Map Maker. It’s those times when I need to put down that map and get wonderfully lost.

So today at the start of a holiday weekend, put down that map and get wonderfully lost!

Blogger’s note: I’m heading south so stay tuned for a post next week called “Boiled Peanuts and Bless Her Heart – Memorial Day Weekend in the South!” I won’t be able to respond to comments right away but be sure that I will read and respond when I get back. Have a great weekend and thank you for reading this blog – it is a gift to me!