Guest Post – Into the darkness there came a Great Light

Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Image via Wikipedia

Bhai Lal was our electrician in Varanasi. He lived down near the Ganges River. His wife had died years before and he parented half a dozen hooligans on his own. Bhai Lal was an entrepreneur. He had crazy ideas and they worked! One year he created a boat entirely out of recycled water bottles. He would row into the middle of the river to demonstrate how clever his little boat was. His electrical skills enabled him to add lights to his boat. It glowed red and blue and green down into the water. We’d shake our heads and laugh, which was exactly the reaction Bhai Lal wanted!

Bhai Lal was an electrical genius. If our electricity ever went out, or if there was a mysterious brown out that affected just our house, or if half our house had lights but the other half didn’t we’d go up to the south-eastern corner of our roof and call down for Bhai Lal. If Bhai Lal wasn’t there we’d groan and ask whoever was down in the darkness to give him a message to come as soon as he could. If Bhai Lal was there he’d shout right back up at us that he was coming. He’d come and chatter away as he twisted and tweaked wires, fiddled with fuses, taping and splicing light back into our rooms, current back into our outlets.

Bhai Lal believed in a good sense of humour, he believed in working hard, he believed in the Hindu pantheon and he believed that as long as he stood on a piece of cloth he would not be electrocuted—in fact he’d take off his rubber flip-flops and stand on a measly rag and claim he was now safe!

Christmas in 2005 was a particularly intense holiday. Together with friends we had written a Christmas pageant and I was the director. The play would be performed on our property adjacent to our home. Lowell, the prophet Simeon in our production, had to have an emergency appendectomy on the 22nd of December. He was released from the hospital on the 23rd. We had our last dress rehearsal on the morning of the 24th. I then commissioned the cast to go home and celebrate Christmas. We would meet again on Christmas Day for the performance. The still weakened Simeon-Lowell and I walked back across the yard to our home determined to rest and celebrate the Advent of Hope. Lowell suggested we throw an impromptu party. Let’s invite all those of our friends who didn’t have any other place to be. Let’s celebrate Christmas. That was the plan.

Lowell received a very strange visitor shortly thereafter, just before lunch. Rajesh was a man we had known for years. He had dabbled in the demonic, he battled bipolar, he was a displaced soul with a need to incite and provoke. In the guise of visiting Lowell who was still recovering from surgery, Rajesh showed up. He went straight to the roof, where we often entertained guests in the winter–the river expansively displayed, the sunlight bathing the day in a comforting glow, and he settled in. From there Rajesh proceeded to shout horrendous insults. He blasphemed. He cussed. He set up several Hindu idols and proclaimed their deity over our house and over the city. He threatened our children. He promised to return on Christmas Day to destroy the pageant. He jumped over the wall and stood precariously close to the edge of our roof and the 30 foot drop to the river. Lowell didn’t know if he’d jump or not. And Rajesh wouldn’t leave. We called his wife. We called friends for advice. We called a friend with connections at the psychiatric hospital. Rajesh got louder and louder, his insults more horrifying, his threats more unnerving as the day went on. Lunch time and supper time came and went– still he stayed.

Our friends began to trickle in for the party. We no longer really wanted a party but we wanted desperately to reclaim Christmas and we needed the comfort of friends. I made hot cocoa. We pulled out snacks and tasty treats. We added space in our party for Rajesh’s wife and his two bewildered, pained children.

Suddenly, and without cause, our electricity surged. We were supposed to have 220 volts but it rarely came in any higher than 170. In the middle of that moment the current surged well over 300 volts. Everything in the house not connected to a voltage stabilizer blew! We were submerged in complete darkness. It was the sympathetic element reinforcing the state of our spirits. I felt so trapped. We lit the candles and because our invertor still was working Lowell was able to push play on our Christmas movie. None of us wanted to venture to the roof to summon Bhai Lal. That could wait. For now the party would continue. Lowell pushed play and we all tried to push mute on the sounds still coming off the roof. Alas, it wasn’t the sounds of “eight tiny raindeer”…

Eventually, about three-fourths of the way through our movie, nine and a half hours after he arrived on our roof, Rajesh came down. Lowell and I and Rajesh’s family all accompanied him to the gate. We wished them a Merry Christmas and it was over.

And then we called for Bhai Lal. He wasn’t home. We went to bed despondent in the dark.

Christmas day, after a special family morning of gifts and brunch and remembering the birth of Christ, we began in earnest to prepare for the evening pageant. Lowell rested and reviewed his lines. I supervised the tents going up, the generators set up, the lights being strung, the strings of flowers being hung. The caterers organized the food: the samosas were fried, the tomatoes and onions cut up for the chutney, the tamarind and the yogurt sauces ready for the pani puri. The sound people came in. Speakers were hung precariously from poles. Systems were tested with countless, “hello…. Hello…. Hello”s.

And after Mary had given birth to a doll-Jesus and the shepherds had rushed to see, and knocked over the lantern in the stable. After the wisemen traipsed through the crowd of nearly three hundred guests, one of them tripping over and stumbling after the star, and they discovered the Christ child. And after Simeon, the prophet who was missing his appendix, proclaimed loudly, boldly who the Christ was and why he was born… after all that— Bhai Lal showed up!

The play was over and it had been a huge success! While the music played on and the food was served I went back to change out of my costume and into my Christmas sari. I was so relieved that Rajesh hadn’t shown up! I was thrilled at how many people had come and how well the play had gone off! I was just putting on my bangles when Bhai Lal banged on the door. He shouted through the screen door that he was there! The timing wasn’t great but I was ready for the electrical problems of the previous night to be fixed. But Bhai Lal hadn’t come to fix our lights. He was full of joy and good news.

“Didi!! You won’t believe what I just heard on the radio! Did you know that God sent his son, the only one he had, at Christmas, as a baby? Did you know didi? Did you know that son was Jesus and he was born so that he could grow up and then he would die on the cross? Did you know this didi? I came to tell you! I came as soon as I heard! Jesus would die to save us from our sin? That’s how much God loves us! Did you know this didi?”

I stood staring at him through the screen door, the sounds of the music across the yard dimly playing in the background, a flashlight in my bangle bedecked hand, tears in my eyes. Yes, I nodded, I had heard that. Bhai Lal was radiant. His joy was enormous. Bhai Lal, the electrician was full of light. He had come as soon as he heard. He kicked off his shoes, and stood there, holiness all around him. We both stood, barefooted and aware of the sacred place. The dismal darkness, the spiritual claustrophobia, the entrapped spirit of Christmas eve replaced with Light and Space and Grace. I set down my flashlight. Christ was born!

Shout that from the roof tops!

Thank you Robynn Bliss for this Christmas Eve Read!

Beyond the Pyramids – Glimpses of Cairo

Jet lagged bodies and eyes are suddenly awakened through the comfort of familiarity. Traffic that would send many in the west into fits of frustration over “inefficiency”, crowds of people, and the sun and pollution hanging heavy over the city of Cairo have instead sent us into a state of contentment in that which is familiar. “Ah – this city, we love this city” If we don’t say it audibly, we think it so loudly that others can hear.

Arriving in early afternoon is the perfect time to arrive. We settled into the Diocesan guest house and were ready for the rest of the day. Initial glimpses of the city show old and beautiful American University of Cairo buildings with windows smashed in, other buildings and restaurants burnt during the revolution, and a car a few feet away from our daughter’s building crisply torched, an empty shell remaining.  All is evidence of a city and country that are resilient and continue to hope and long for a better future, despite the obvious obstacles. I will never be a political commentator; but when a “trusted commentator” of the New York Times talks about Egypt and wonders if they are ready for democracy, I want to throw up from the imperialism that flavors their words. Already we have heard from Egyptians two things – that no one wishes Mubarak back and that there is still legitimate concern and awareness that the future is uncertain. But for all of us, the future is a hope, never a certainty.

In the midst of the drugged mind of jet lag, we looked over Annie’s rooftop at glimpses of the city to the sounds of the Call to Prayer, echoing from mosques throughout the area. These glimpses are best captured through the camera lens so here is Cairo – a city that is so much more than the pyramids and King Tut.

View of the City
Cairo Rooftop
Another view - captures the Coptic church toward the right
Building across the way
Coptic church - Evidence of Egypt's large Coptic Christian population
Ancient window on the rooftop - I wish roof tops could talk
Steaming chai at a coffee shop. A perfect way to end our first day!

Once You Drink From the Nile, You are Destined to Return

 

At our goodbye party in Egypt, fifteen years ago, we gave out tiny bottles filled with water from the Nile River. Written on the front of the bottle were the words of an Egyptian proverb:

Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return

Cairo is a city that gets into your blood, under your skin, becomes a part of your DNA and every other phrase you can imagine to describe the connection that is Cairo. For all it’s dirt and chaos, our family loves this city. I think it’s because we are like the city. We’re loud, we’re chaotic, and we’re complicated; we can’t be put in a box.

We arrived in Cairo in 1989, just a few months shy of my thirtieth birthday.We were fledglings, learning to walk, talk and live as a family. We were described as “that cute young couple with all those kids!” After seven years we were leaving to move to the United States. Amidst the chaos of five kids aged one to eleven we packed up a life in Cairo. We put seven years of memories, friendships, household goods, and stories (oh the stories!) into twenty-six suitcases. The chapter in the narrative of our life called “Cairo” had closed; there would only be epilogues but the chapter itself was edited and complete.

We had gone through our last everything. Our last felucca ride*, our last trip to Felfela restaurant, our last ride in taxis, and our last view of the city that had taken us in as that fledgling family and dealt with us kindly. It was a traumatic and necessary move, orchestrated by God and grudgingly accepted by the family.

The proverb has proved true for all of us at different points and times and today it proves itself once again. Five of us board a plane at New York’s JFK airport and fly non stop from New York to Cairo, joining our oldest for a Christmas celebration. The trip is a gift of grace. A lot of life has been lived since we left as a family. We are all older and our interactions more complex. Wrinkles light up our smiles and grey frosts the hair of me and my husband (well, not me-I take advantage of all the amazing products that guarantee my hair will look younger than my body!)

But despite being older and more complicated, minarets of mosques are awaiting our footsteps; fuul beans, hot from street restaurants are ready to be eaten; and favorite haunts are shouting at us to come relive our memories. We have drunk from the Nile and we are returning.

*A felucca is a large wooden sailboat. Felucca rides on the Nile are indescribably fun and relaxing – memorable experiences.

The Power of the Narrative

It is the function of Art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.~ Anais Nin

While living internationally, we rarely went a day without having a story to tell that demonstrated our clumsy negotiations in a country where we were guests. Whether it was wrong translations on birth certificates, getting completely lost in a city of millions, or using the wrong word when communicating, there was always a story. At parties a game favorite was Two Truths and a Lie. While many in the United States may have played this, the responses are totally different when you live overseas. Responses such as “My maid of honor was a Nigerian gentleman”I had dinner with Yasser Arafat’s brother” “My appendix were taken out by a CIA operative” “I grew up with the Ambassador to Mongolia” and more are just a few of the interesting responses that are given. Contrast that to the first time I played this game in Massachusetts where the most exciting response was “I’ve been to Connecticut” (that was the lie…)

A few years ago my husband was talking to a friend from college years. This friend had come to the US from Iran for university and has since made his home here. He was relaying a story of his cousin coming to the US from Iran. She arrived in Michigan for a brief visit before moving on to Toronto. For three days, he said, they listened to her stories and laughed. At the end of three days, she turned to them and said “What are your stories? Tell me your stories?” My husband’s friend and his wife looked at her blankly. “We don’t have stories.” “How can you not have stories? Of course you have stories!” They explained to her that they really didn’t. Life was efficient and rarely brought surprises. They had no stories to tell. She was aghast.

How can you not have stories?

She left soon after and settled with her family in Toronto. A couple of years later another relative from Iran visited her in Toronto. For three days they listened to her stories. And then she turned to them, in the same way that they had turned to our friend and the same question was asked “Now tell me your stories!”. They were blank. They had no stories.

While I know that there are stories in this part of the world, I completely get the response of having no stories in comparison to our lives overseas. The best stories are ones that involve people. People are what make life infinitely interesting. In cultures that are more relationship oriented, there are more opportunities for interaction, whether positive or negative. When human interaction is limited by our high value of individualism and efficiency we can lose some of what makes a good story.

But I think it’s more than that. I think that the power of the narrative, the story, needs to be revived in our country. We hang ourselves on sound bites and 140 characters and we have lost the ability to concentrate on stories that are longer than a blog post. How often can the tweet of 140 characters make you feel and cry, rejoice and laugh, rage and empathize. Stories do. Narratives of life lived and our response to how it was lived. There is a power in stories – a power in the telling, and a power through the listening.

So bring on the stories – tell your story! Think about the life you’ve lived and what your story offers others.  I guarantee it will be worth the telling.

Advent Reflection – Raining Tears

As often happens in life, one day there’s a party and the next there is grief. The other day there was a party and all felt sunny. One day later, the sky was the grey of winter and rain fell steadily. As I was walking to my local drug store I walked over cigarette butts, paper leaflets trapped in puddles, and wet leaves mixed together on the sidewalk, all evidence of life in a city. I was glad for the rain falling on my cheeks; it gave me grace to weep tears that I didn’t want seen in public but came on like a sudden summer storm. I felt like I was raining tears.

All around me I saw evidence of a world broken. It was in the glum, moodiness of passers-by. It was in the grocery cart pushed by the homeless woman, piled high with bottles and filthy blankets. It was in the impatient honking of a car, angry at the vehicle in front of him. Had the vehicle kept on moving, it would have hit two people in the cross walk – and then there would have been more brokenness.

The tears had come from looking at a set of 45 images that represented this past year. Almost every picture was evidence of sadness, loss of life, and a shattered world. As the tears flowed I asked the age-old question: Are you good, God? In the midst of all of this, are you good? It was raining tears as I asked the question.

And so I went back through the images. Could I find even a glimpse of redemption in any of these pictures? Could I see something that sparked hope? I resolved that when I got home I would look through the pictures again with the a different lens, a redemptive lens.

Instead of just seeing coffins, destruction, and crisis I saw beyond the images, to the sidelines or back stage. In the midst of death, was mourning – redemptive evidence of someone who loved. In the midst of buildings ripped from the ground from a tornado was a person – redemptive evidence of a life spared. In the middle of sadness was the redemptive and inexplicable joy that comes from human connection. One image showed Christians guarding Muslims as they prayed in Tahrir Square, ensuring no one was disrupted –  a redemptive image of compassion and care that could transcend different belief systems.

The tears continued to fall but they became redemptive tears renewing my vision and enabling me to see the marks and manifestation of God=breathed redemption.  

The Book Giveaway!

If you’re just tuning in this week then you aren’t yet aware of the book giveaway in celebration of a year of blogging!

Here are the rules:

  1. Comment on this post giving the title of your favorite post, perhaps a reason why it’s a favorite and suggestions for future posts…..or
  2. Invite someone to read Communicating Across Boundaries who you think would enjoy the blog.  Make sure they comment and let me know that you recommended the blog. If you choose this way to participate,here are some of the choices that readers have picked as their favorite posts:

A New Kind of Mommy Blog  – picked by Christi-Lynn Martin

Hookah Hypocrisy – picked by Cary Schulte

The Benediction – Picked by Wilma Brown

Chocolate Jesus – picked by Petra Riggins

Angels from the Rooftop – picked by Tiffany Kim

I will put the names of those who take part into a hat and randomly select three. Those three people will have their choice of one of the books I love and have talked about on this blog.

Here are the books you can choose from:

You have until Tuesday, December 20th to participate. I’ll send out a couple of reminders as a way to tell you how much I want you to take part!

Hope in a City – Shikarpur, Sindh

an old building architecture of Shikarpur.
Image via Wikipedia

Shikarpur is a city in the Sindh area of Pakistan that I have mentioned in earlier posts. It has figured prominently into my past; a place where best friends and favorite families lived and a place that was home for me during my high school years. It is also the place where I was based for flood relief in October a year ago.

While growing up, periodically someone would talk about the days when Shikarpur was a beautiful city with gardens, roses, and large homes gracing the streets. It was a banking city, a financial capital strategically located because of its accessibility from Central Asia and West Asia. History points to this being a city with culture, trade, architecture, and green space. Shikarpur was described as the capital of “merchants, money changers, and bankers”

When Pakistan gained independence from India and established itself as a separate Muslim nation, hundreds of thousands of Hindus were displaced and journeyed to India to begin a new life. Just as Hindus left, Muslims entered and Shikarpur continued to grow. I don’t know when Shikarpur began to lose its beauty and former glory. Part of the change came with partition and strained relations with India, but well before that time of transition and war, the city was not what it had been in the 1800’s. A time where horse-drawn Victorian carriages carried the wealthy to the Shahi Bagh gardens complete with a zoo that had cheetahs, lions and wild boar.

This was a Shikarpur I never knew. While walking through the bazaar, if you look up, you can see faint glimpses of the former glory in old, beautifully crafted windows. Then as your eyes shift and take in the surroundings at eye level, they will see tremendous poverty, crumbling buildings, trash and general disarray. When I reflect on Shikarpur I am saddened for what used to be a place of beauty – a place where gardens and lawns were valued and developed for people to enjoy.

What goes into the demise of a city? How does a place once known as a banking capital with lush gardens become a place that is valued by only those who live there? History is full of descriptions of cities that once were places where life was happening at economic and social levels, cities known for their beauty and culture. Now they are crumbled ruins, their value in what was, not what now is.

Even as the former glory has faded, there is hope and beauty in Shikarpur. One place where this hope is personified is in a small group of people who work in the Shikarpur Christian Hospital. Pakistanis from various ethnic groups, Americans, Canadians and at any given time various other nationalities, work side by side to provide care to women and children in the region. Though worthy, this hospital will never be highlighted in a news story but day after day the doors open to people who would otherwise have no care. Perhaps it seems but a small glimmer of hope compared to the renowned city that once was, but walk through the bazaar in Pakistan and women, anonymous in their burqas, will walk up to any one who looks foreign and say “Are you from the Christian hospital? That hospital saved my life!” or “When will the hospital be opening to deliver babies again? You have to open! You are the only place that cares”. 

While the glory days of Shikarpur would have been a delight to experience, this hospital and the work that is accomplished through the hospital are far greater in the economy of eternity. So despite dusty roads and an infrastructure that belongs more in the early 19th century than the 21st, there is hope. It is a hope often operated by a generator because of frequent power outages, but it shines brightly nonetheless, between a mosque and a Hindu temple off a dusty street full of ox carts, rickshaws and motor vehicles, in Shikarpur.

Blogger’s Note: This post does not do justice to the history and God-breathed work of Shikarpur Christian Hospital so stay tuned for another post that gives more information about this place of hope. For some real-life/in person stories – take a look at The Day the Chicken Cackled: Reflections of a Life in Pakistan by Bettie Rose Addleton. You will travel inside her homes and friendships in Shikarpur and other parts of Pakistan.