The Beatitudes for Cross-Cultural Workers

Blessed are the language learners, for theirs is the gift of idioms and verbs, of words and communication.

Blessed are the visa holders, for they shall never forget what it is to live as a guest in a country.

Blessed are the homesick, for they shall know and understand longing and displacement, the themes of our time.

Blessed are those who weep for injustice, for they shall be comforted by a God who cries out for justice to roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Blessed are the culturally humble, for they shall see the world and faith through the eyes of curiosity and questions.

Blessed are the jetlagged, for they shall have time to drink tea and pray.

Blessed are the lonely, for they shall be connected to the pain of humanity and better understand the value of connection.

Blessed are those in transition, for they shall know more fully the joy and privilege of home.

Blessed are those who miss their fathers and mothers, their siblings and their friends, for they shall discover friends that become as close as sisters and brothers, and families that transcend blood and borders.

Blessed are the translators and the doctors, the businesspeople and the nurses, the developers and the diplomats, the farmers and the planters, the harvesters and the homemakers, the educators and the writers, the linguists and the administrators – for together they shall work to build God’s kingdom on earth.

Blessed are the visionaries and the dreamers, the builders and the plodders, the idealists and the realists, the wishful thinkers and the critical thinkers, the intelligent and the blessedly naive – for the Kingdom is made of such as these.

Blessed are you who know and love the God who invited you into his story; you who were created and formed, equipped and placed. May you know and love him a little more each day. May you delight in His story and rest in His love.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage…..they go from strength to strength until each appears before God in Zion.*

Psalm 84:5 & 7

Uprooted with no RAFT

It is mid-September and six months since borders closed, masks became mandatory, and life changed for people around the globe. 

While fall is always a time of movement and change for expats and third culture kids, for TCKs transtioning to college, and for those who have tried to make transitions during the summer from their lives overseas, the tools that many of us have used and used well in the past are not necessarily helpful in this new world. 

Many of us have seen and used the RAFT acronym (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Transition) developed by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, our iconic leaders on all things TCK related. In fact, I myself wrote an essay on transition a few years ago, citing their acronym and connecting the dots to my own experiences. 

As I think about the acronym in the year 2020 and the unexpected chaos and uprootedness that a worldwide pandemic has caused, I think we may need another acronym that gives us a different tool for unexpected departures, virtual goodbyes, and long periods of waiting in the in between. 

It’s with this in mind that I offer a few tips that I’m calling CRAFT, because a Crisis before the RAFT changes everything.

A full disclaimer is that I have been uprooted unexpectedly myself a couple of times, but never in a worldwide crisis like the one we have faced these past six months. I come at this from a public health nurse perspective, a writer, a TCK, and three times over expat. Though I have been through several difficult transitions, they are transitions that are far different than what I know many of you are experiencing. So keep what is worth keeping, and blow the rest away. 

Crisis Management. Response & Resilience. Aftershocks. Forging Ahead. Time.

Crisis Management – First and foremost – Covid has been a worldwide crisis with a dominoe effect. There are three stages to crisis management: Pre-crisis or creating a crisis management plan; mid-crisis – the point where all hell breaks loose and you respond to what’s happening in the moment and try to put the plan into place; and post-crisis – where you evaluate how you, your family, and the team responded to the crisis and evaluate whether your plan was effective. This is the point where you refine and change your crisis management plan based on what you’ve learned. 

Perhaps your organization never even had a plan to begin with and you were left trying to craft your own crisis plan with little support. Perhaps your organization had a well-defined crisis management plan, but it hadn’t been fully tested. This was the first test and leadership is reeling. Or perhaps your organization’s plan was comprehensive and well done, but hadn’t ever considered that there may be a worldwide crisis at the same time as the company crisis. There are all kinds of scenarios. But it is important to recognize that a crisis changes everything. 

The general guidelines for phases of crisis management are to: 

  • Understand the three phases of a crisis
  • Prepare as best as you can to handle each stage
  • Identify and focus on the most critical phase.*

By now, most of us are in the post crisis phase, but perhaps not. Perhaps a whole new crisis has come along with the crisis of COVID 19. Perhaps you are like my friend Mariam, who has had multiple crises along with a pending international move. Very few of us really understand crisis management, and it feels critical to have more information and understanding on this. 

No matter where you find yourself in these three stages, know that this is a very real crisis. You aren’t making it up. You aren’t making a bigger deal of it than you need to. You are simply doing what all of us do in a crisis. Trying ot figure out what is next. 

Response & Resilience – This phase utilizes past experience. If in the past you have seen crises handled well, then your response may be far calmer than a colleague or friends’ response. As I’ve faced COVID 19 myself, I have faced it as someone who has never been risk averse, who grew up in the developing world with every year bringing another crisis. This is really different than some of my friends. In addition, I’ve faced it as someone who doesn’t have health problems. Those two realities have everything to do with the way I’ve responded. We go into any crisis with tools from our past at our disposal. The key is to remember those tools.

One of those tools is to initially focus just on the physical. The emotional pieces will come, but you don’t have the energy nor should you focus on them right now. It’s fight or flight, not fight or share your deepest feelings about what is going on. This may sound obvious to many of you, but I am an empath. The ability to empathize is a gift, but it has to be used in the right context. Someone who is bleeding out doesn’t need me to sit beside them and say “How are you feeling? How does that blood loss make you feel?” Rather, they need me to do everything I can to stop the flow of blood. Response means you respond to the immediate issue. Responding appropriately to the immediate issue builds resilience for later in the crisis. 

Aftershocks – On October 12th, 1992 Cairo, Egypt experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. The earthquake was considered “unusually destructive” for its size. We were living in an area called Maadi in a second floor apartment. It was 3:09 in the afternoon local time and I was at home with all four of the kids. The house began shaking as windows rattled and a major wall in our apartment cracked down the center. I thought there had been a subway accident and that the subway, a few blocks from our house, was headed our way. The noise and shaking were terrifying. I had no idea it was an earthquake, but gathered the three older ones to me. The youngest one, Stefanie, was 9 months old and in her crib taking an afternoon nap. “Kids, let’s pray!” I said in desperation. In a few seconds Stefanie began to scream. I ran in just as a picture flew off the wall over her head and crashed on the ground shattering glass. It was terrifying. Equally terrifying were the significant aftershocks felt even days after the earthquake. We would brace ourselves for the shaking and wonder if it was yet another earthquake. 

So what’s my point? Aftershocks of a crisis can be as difficult emotionally as the crisis itself. Aftershocks come unexpectedly and set off previously felt trauma and feelings of shock and helplessness. COVID-19 has been a crisis similar to an earthquake and there are aftershocks that bring up all sorts of feelings. If you feel this, it is not you being weak. These are real and these are hard. Aftershocks can continue for days, months, or sometimes even years. The larger the earthquake, the larger the aftershocks. 

So what do you do? You remain on the alert for aftershocks. They will probably come. Keep in mind that crisis management is the first step. Stay calm – this is a normal part of a massive crisis. Gather your kids to you and talk about what is going on. If you ask adult third culture kids what made the difference in making it through a crisis and building resilience, many will say that it was that their parents and other adults in their lives allowed them to talk about what was going on. Call people that you trust. You too need someone who will be able to actively listen to what you are thinking and feeling. 

Forging ahead with baby steps – People who have had spinal cord injuries have to learn to walk again. It happens step by painful step. This is a lot like what it is to forge ahead when you’ve been or are continuing in a crisis. There is the acute phase, then there is the maintenance phase. Forging ahead is the maintenance phase. What is the new routine? What can we put off, and what needs to be done today? What resources are around us that can help us with what needs to be done today? Gather your resources in a small notebook. Who are the people who can help with the practical pieces of setting up a new household or routine? Who are the people who can help with the emotional pieces? Those who won’t tell you to count your blessings, instead listening as you pour out your heart and by listening help you move forward. Who are those who can help with the details with this life that you least expected? Who can help with the logistics of car shopping? Insurance coverage? Healthcare? All the details that go into setting up a new life. Forging ahead in baby steps sometimes just means knowing who to call for what. 

Time – The last word in the acronym is ‘time.’ In the expat world, we are always looking ahead. Part of this is the nature of the work and experience. We have to look ahead. The task of living outside our passport countries forces us to look at future actions that may include visa or residence permit expirations, transtion times, future plans, ages of our kids as we make moves. Suddenly the pandemic has put everyone in the world in stop mode. We go from being future oriented to not being able to plan for tomorrow, let alone what will happen in a month, three months, or a year. All the careful plans we made have crumbled and the costs in money, time, and emotional health are impossible to quantify. We have to redefine our concepts of time. 

I think recovering addicts have a tremendous amount to teach us about this time. A recovering addict knows that all they have is the next hour. It comes and as they face it without drinking or doing drugs or doing whatever it is that they are addicted to they know that it is a baby step in the right direction. They feel like they are climbing the walls. Their skin crawls. Their heart beats faster. And then, the hour is over. A sigh and on to the next hour. The hours turn into days, the days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, but they will never forget that all they have is today. All they have is the next hour. Recovering addicts are our teachers in this moment. Do what we must in the next hour. Then when the next hour comes, do what we must. 

All we know is that we have the next hour. Maybe not even that – maybe all we have is the next second, the next minute. So we breathe. Because a minute is all you need right now. An hour is all you need. You can redefine time – don’t let time define you. Expect to be like the recovering addict – climbing the walls but making it through. In the words of an addict “Over the past 23 years, I’ve worked to trick my brain into staying in the moment, and not dwelling on the future or the past.”**

As I’ve spoken with family members after the death of my brother it has come up time and time again the wonderful days and hours preceding my brother’s death. By all accounts, he had a joy-filled month with joy-filled minutes turning to joy-filled hours. The death that took him shocked all of us, none more so than those closest to him. But each day of the month preceding his death seemed filled with abundant life. He did not know he would die and we did not know he would die. It seemed he had learned to live each moment, and in doing so find great joy. 

I don’t know, but I do know that when it comes to time, all we really have is now. 

Even as I write this I know that for someone in the midst of all of this transtion, reading this could be annoying. We can have all the tools in the world, but still struggle. One of the things I love about my faith tradition is that we honor the struggle. There is life and growth in the struggle. So I leave you with that: Honor the struggle.

What about you? Where are you in the CRAFT? How do you CRAFT a way to move forward? What would you add? What would you subtract?

*Understanding the three phases of crisis

**Molly Jong-Fast as written in The Atlantic

Decision Making and Transition

In all my years of coming and going, of moving and transition, I’ve never experienced anything like the transition and confusion that the last months of pandemic chaos have brought into our world. Its impossible to quantify the amount of grief and loss that people around the globe and in this community have experienced. I wrote this piece eight months ago when I was living, breathing and eating transition and the impossible decision making that goes with transition. I hope it helps some of you during this time.

The other night I woke up to fierce wind and rain. On the right side of the house an alley way created a wind tunnel and I could hear the wind howling through it. This house is still new to us and the sounds are unfamiliar. I lay listening for while, thinking of the fierce wind, of storms, and of the comfort of my bed within the storm. There is something deeply comforting about feeling safe during a storm. It is a privileged comfort. 

I don’t always feel that way. There are times when storms make me feel deeply afraid. But not the other night. 

For those who have been following along with me, my journey and the sometimes storm of our transition continues. 

During this time I’ve found it difficult to make decisions. It makes sense. We made a massive decision a year and a half ago that included many smaller decisions along the way. Then in May, a decision was made far above us that changed our lives. This resulted in us making another massive decision and smaller decisions along the way. The result is that I have felt trapped in decision making. 

When I am feeling low, the questions are heavy and unrelenting. How do I know what decisions are right? How do I decide what to do next? Our lives were turned upside down two years in a row. What does that mean? Did we make the wrong choice even though it felt so clear at the time? Or did we make the right choice, and nothing and no one could have predicted what came next? Asking too many of these questions is not healthy. It spins your head and your heart and you end up not trusting yourself with any decision. 

One of the ways I have chosen to walk through this season is by reading Emily Freeman’s latest book The Next Right Thing. The subtitle of the book is “A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions.” 

Before Freeman even addresses decision making, she introduces some foundational concepts that are key to being in a place where you can make good decisions. 

Her first concept is to become what she calls a “soul minimalist.” Clear clutter and create space for silence. It’s this that sets a foundation for making decisions. “The world is run by worn-out people, and our soul is often lost beneath the piles of our everyday life.”

“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space. This space is necessary for you to speak out against the injustices you see in the world, the problems you know you can help solve, and the beauty you long to deliver.”

Emily P. Freeman in The Next Right Thing

Her second concept is the powerful practice of naming the narrative. Naming those hidden things that are affecting our decision making. This has been a hard, painful process for me. Naming grief, disappointment, dead dreams, and anger are not easy, but the process of doing this and being honest with my emotions has been significant. 

Freeman’s third foundational concept is examining our beliefs about God, discovering the disconnect between what we say we believe and how that works out in practice. This is an eye-opening exercise. While many of us say we believe and trust in God, our daily lives are more like those of practicing atheists. Inside we are a bit like two-year-olds convincing ourselves we can “do by self,” while on the outside we choose the right words and phrases to make our beliefs about God sound good and safe. What happens when we are honest, and we admit the disconnect between our actions and our beliefs?

Reading this book and taking an in-depth look at these concepts as I move forward in decision making has pushed me to grow in meaningful ways. 

“Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place.  

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

When we left for Kurdistan, we had no idea that we would be back here a year later, trying to make sense of a dream cut short, of a closed door. It would be easy to look back and accuse ourselves of making the wrong decision in the first place. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we made the right decision. 

I’m think we made the right decision for a lot of reasons – probably the most significant being who we became as a result of going. From learning more about empathy and incarnational living to being humbled by all the areas where we fell short, it was an important process in who we are and in who we are becoming. 

I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up then He is in who we are becoming. Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

I have read and reread the words above – “Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.” 

In closing, I think of an episode of the new season of The Crown that we watched last night. In this particular episode there is a tragedy that takes place in a mining town. Many have died, most of them children. The queen is slow to make the decision to go and there are many reasons and excuses as to why. When she finally does decide to go, it’s clear that people just want her to be with them, to bear witness to the pain they are going through, to sit with them in their sorrow. 

Our Father just wants to be with us…” No matter our decisions, whether they are big or small, whether they will change lives or just our next hour, these are words to live by.

Amazing Grace & a Prayer for the Human Family

Sunset over Cairo – 2011
Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

I’m sitting at my desk in our guest bedroom when the bells from the church across the street begin to ring. They began at eight in the morning and they end at ten at night, giving us a full ten hours without being reminded of the time.

This is new for me. While hearing the call to prayer was a sound embedded into my childhood, I rarely heard church bells. These church bells also tend to peel out the tune of “God Bless America” a bit too often for my liking.

But this morning, as though sensing my despair, I heard the sound of “Amazing Grace.”

Amazing Grace – that hymn sung by believers and non-believers with its haunting melody and stunning truth.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see

John Newton

Most of us know the history of this song. John Newton’s past as a slave trader, his conversion, his stepping into grace and writing a song. But nothing is quite as simple as the short histories that we read, In fact, it took him three more slave trading voyages before he’d had enough. It took him even longer, 34 years longer, to write a “blazing pamphlet” called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” – a publication used by John Wilberforce, a member of British Parliament, to put forward a bill to abolish the slave trade. Newton died six months after the bill was passed in 1807.

I relate with this history. We often take baby steps along our journey toward understanding better what it is to love our world and seek justice as Jesus would, only to look back in stunned disbelief that it took us so long. We look back at our excuses and they seem so pitiful.

And yet – Grace.

Most of us at A Life Overseas are deeply involved in organizations, projects, and with people around the world where injustice is a daily reality. I would submit that it is easier to face injustice in countries and places that we don’t legally belong to. We can see these and have an outsider’s view even if they are a daily part of our work. Turn the camera on our passport countries and suddenly it gets personal.

At least, that is how it’s been for me.

If you , like me, are mourning and longing for a better world; if you, like me are praying for your passport country, wherever it is, and the injustices you see there; if you, like me are longing to do more, longing to fight injustice wherever you see it, feeling guilty about not doing enough yet completely overwhelmed with all that life has brought you in the past weeks – displacement, death, sickness, loss of friendships, goodbyes, uncertainty, inability to plan for the future – I offer you this prayer today.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord…..

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer – Prayer for the Human Family and Prayer for Social Justice

In closing, may you soak in these words from Eugene Cho:

Chaos ensues. Anxiety rises. Lament is in the air. Yet, Christ is our anchor. Hold tight. Be steadfast. Resist the empire. Be compassionate. Pursue justice. Stand with the oppressed. Fight for the vulnerable. Seek God’s Kingdom. And keep pointing people to Jesus.

Amen. Come quickly Lord Jesus.


Posts on A Life Overseas that focus on Racism

Cultural Hope

wheelchair-1581642_1920

“But what on earth can I write?”

This was what I wrestled with last week as I thought about writing for A Life Overseas. Half of you are displaced, wrestling with when you can get back to your host countries and homes. Half of you are sheltered in place in various places around the world, struggling with what that means. All of you are wondering “Did we make the right decision?”

All of these realities are compounded by the unknown world beyond Covid-19. Some of you are farther ahead. I have friends in Shanghai that encourage me there is life beyond shelter in place and quarantine orders. My son in Greece will be able to attend church next week for the first time in eight weeks. Others are still cautiously waiting. Still others are grieving things beyond Covid-19, worried for things that cannot easily be shared.

All of us are in need of the deep healing that only comes from God.

A few years ago, my husband and I were in an art gallery. Various paintings by different artists were beautifully displayed in an open space. There was light and beauty all around us.

I don’t remember any of the paintings except one. And that one I will never forget.

It was two feet wide and at least three and a half feet long. It hung on a dominant wall in the gallery and, despite sharing the space with several other paintings, this was the painting that I could not stop looking at. It was striking.

It was a picture of an art gallery, much like the gallery we were in. Within the gallery in the picture was a painting of Jesus on the cross on the central wall. Looking up at the painting, hope and longing pouring from the canvas was a man in a wheelchair. The painting was called “Cultural Hope.”

It was a moment of awe as we in the studio stood, invited in to this private moment between Jesus and a wheelchair-bound man. It was reminiscent of stories long ago where in a crowded room a paralyzed man was healed – only this man was still wheel-chair bound.

I knew nothing of the artist. Nothing of what had inspired the painting, but I wanted to stand there forever. Was it the longing in the man’s eyes? Was it the distinctive connection between the two? Was it that moment of shared suffering between cross and wheelchair that shouted of pain and only whispered of redemption?

I walked away challenged and moved. While this man’s wheelchair was visual, my wheelchair is in my mind. While his paralysis was obvious, mine is hidden. But I, like the man in the painting, have looked up at the cross shouting with pain and hearing only the whisper of redemption.

Throughout history people have come to the cross. Sometimes they have come with their own pain, illness, and suffering, and other times they have come with the burdens of others. Sometimes they have come with the weight and fury of injustice and unfair systems. Always they have come with longing for comfort in a broken world – comfort that can be found in a Savior that entered our world and knows our suffering.

As I reflected on the world wide suffering, confusion, fear, and even anger, I remembered this painting. I remembered what it evoked in me as I entered the moment portrayed through the painting. It struck me that this is us during this time. We are the man in the wheelchair. We look up toward Jesus on the cross from whatever binds us, from those things that paralyze us. We come to the cross with shouts of pain, longing, confusion, worry, or fear. Our cries are general and our cries are personal.

“Will you hear our public cries for the world? Will you hear our private cries for those we love? Will you heal our lands of the many things that prevent us from flourishing? Will you heal us – not only of disease but of so many other deep wrongs? Will you heal our paralysis and help us to act?”

Will you heal; will you act?

Shouts of pain and only whispers of redemption.

The longer I stand before the cross, the louder is the whisper. It compels me, urging me to wait, reminding me that the cross was replaced by an empty tomb, that the painting goes beyond “cultural hope” to a living reality.

This is our cultural hope. This is our living reality. We can’t see it, but that is the very definition of faith. We hold out for “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And, if only for a moment, we rest.

Grief at Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.

Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway. 

My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane. 

A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon. 

Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive. 

We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages.

In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges. 

I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?

And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.

We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.

So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.

It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.

The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

On Safety and Sanity

“Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

Call the Midwife, Season 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety.

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe?

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next.

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well.

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew?

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving.

Here are a few things that may help:

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth.

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand.

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis.

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity.

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision.

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.”

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn:

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Robynn Bliss

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

Living Borrowed Lives

“A Syrian painter recently told me that we all have a map in our bodies, composed of the places we have lived, that we are constantly in the process of redrawing. A street from our childhood might be traversed by a train car in which we once fell in love. A garden from a year in London might yield, unexpectedly, a rose from the graveside of our grandmother. This map not only marks who we are but informs the way in which we encounter the world. The painter, a refugee originally from Damascus, was busily sketching the buildings of Istanbul, trying to move his map forward to the new country he now called home.” Stephanie Saldaña as quoted in Plough Magazine

I am writing my map in the other direction. I am trying to remember who I am.

Stephanie Saldaña

I curl up on the couch, reading an old letter from a friend. We were friends during our Cairo days years ago. We saw each other regularly, went to Bible Studies together, had coffee dates, traded ideas on how to adapt recipes with substitutions. How to make a cranberry-orange salad with no cranberries? What is the right proportion of molasses to sugar to create a brown sugar substitute? We arranged play dates and talked to each other about our family members who were far away.

I’m lost in memories as I read her letter. I left Cairo years ago. She left much later, but we both left. A good description of our lives as expatriates is that that we lived borrowed lives. The maps of our lives have had to be redrawn as the places have changed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about borrowed lives as I continue to face my own transition. I thought about this recently as I heard about someone who had to leave her adopted country. She did not want, much less plan, to leave. But like my own story in Iraq, governmental decisions sometimes dictate the time when our borrowed lives end.

In the past few months I have heard of over 25 families having to unexpectedly leave their adopted countries. Just now, as I opened my email, I read yet another story of a family unexpectedly repatriated.

These are hard, hard stories. Each story has different details but the common thread is that it is not their choice. Their choice, indeed my choice, would be to stay. They have forged relationships and created homes in places far from their passport countries. Sometimes they have lived for years in a place, only to arrive at an airport and be refused entry.

Admitting our expat lives are borrowed is a difficult thing to do. We often fight this, imagining perhaps that we have more control over our lives than we actually do. But with admission comes great, great freedom.

As I thought more about our borrowed lives, I realized that we can apply some of the same principles of borrowing things to our borrowed lives.

A borrowed life may be borrowed, but it is still a life. When I borrowed my neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, it may have been my neighbor’s but it was still a vacuum cleaner, and actually a far better one than I had ever owned! And what do we do in life? We live – we don’t fear what might happen. God doesn’t give us grace for our imagination, he gives us grace for what actually happens. We plant gardens and hang up pictures. We buy furniture and we create homes. We make friends and we find coffee shops. We seek the welfare of the cities where we live. Our life may be borrowed, but it’s still a life.

We respect and care well for the things we borrow. We know we don’t own them and some day we will need to return them, so we take good care of these things. We treat them with respect. This same principle applies to our expat lives. We treat these lives with the respect they deserve. It’s an honor to be invited as a guest into another country or home – yet often we act like they are the people lucky to have us. We may come with specific skills, but we are not God’s gift to any country or place. God is the gift, not us. God has been at work in places far before we arrived, he will continue to be at work once we leave, so we treat our borrowed lives as the gifts that they are.

We borrow things we need. The reality is that we need this expat life more than we admit. We have come to rely on the rhythms, though they be difficult. We reach a level of comfort living between and we don’t want to lose that. We are also often more comfortable with our economic status in our adopted countries. Often our residence comes with a government stipend that we would never have in our home countries. Other times, the currency of our passport countries yields a good return on exchange, putting us into places where we don’t have to worry about money in the same way. The cost of living in Kurdistan for my husband and I was a fraction of what our current Boston life costs us. Yes, there were hard things about living in Kurdistan – but I think we needed Kurdistan far more than Kurdistan needed us. I’m still trying to process that one.

Sometimes borrowed things get lost or damaged. The mature person will admit this and make proper restitution. So it is with our borrowed lives – sometimes we don’t treat them with care. Sometimes we take relationships for granted. Sometimes we assume our lives hold greater value simply because of the color of our skin or our passport. While this is rarely an open admission, this attitude subtly works its way into our work and relationships. Confession, repentance, and restitution are the only healthy ways forward.

Everyone has a borrowed life, we are just more aware of this fact. Here’s the truth – every breath, every step, every word – it’s all borrowed. We have been given this life for such a time as this, but none of us – whether expat or not – know when this life will be over. Job loss, health loss, death – all of these things are part of our journey. The worker or expat can be in a much healthier position to realize this than many of their peers in their passport countries.

The question remains, what happens when I lose my borrowed life? How do I move forward? How do we move forward? We grieve. We cry. We pray. We praise. We redraw our maps with the One who created us. We continue our borrowed life in another place, trusting that one day this will all make sense.

On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile.

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.

In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

Dr. Michelle Harwell

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?

As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

Dr. Michelle Harwell

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self:

Let them grieve the walls that have moved! Those walls are so much more than just safety from the elements. The walls and roofs are places that provide comfort and safety when the outside world feels too much. Let them grieve the memories and people who have wandered into that space. It will never be the same, and they need room to grieve this – whether they understand it or not. Let them grieve the stuff left behind.

Let them find their sacred spaces and their sacred objects, for sometimes it’s all they feel they have. Give them time to reclaim what was lost, for reclaiming is an Edenic quality.

Let them grieve, and then walk with them as they move on. Encourage their tentative forays into new relationships and hobbies. Remind them that they can love two places without being disloyal. Listen to their faith questions and encourage them to seek truth. Help them to understand saudade and how to “kill the saudade.”

Learn the language of transition and use it in your family. Even if others don’t understand, your family can grow in their connection and understanding of each other through a language of transition. Find transferable rhythms, rhythms that are more than place. Reading and tea times, portable traditions, and regular times of remembering are transferable across geographic boundaries.

Build in them a sense of resilience by connecting them to the bigger family story, the bigger spiritual story. The research on resilience being integrally connected to knowing they are part of a bigger story is critically important in this conversation.

Let them know that God is a God of place, creator of space. That through His story is a thread of remembrance and redemption; woven in his word is a story of home and belonging. Give them glimpses of the eternal as they struggle with the fleeting.

And know that it will be okay.

How do I know? Because I now have the privilege of friendships with five adult children spread across four time zones, three states, and two countries. I have listened in wonder as they each articulate their own stories. As we have talked through some of this with them I have marveled at their grace and forgiveness toward two parents who didn’t know, two parents who loved deeply but didn’t have the tools of transition and navigating the third space and defining home. Two parents who continue to find rhythms of transition and figure out this mobile life where place matters.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

Danau Tanu author of Growing up in Transit

Mountains of Transition

“Beyond the Mountains, There are Mountains”

Northern Iraq is a place of mountains. From our front balcony in Ranya we looked across at the snow covered mountains of Iran. At the back of our apartment, beyond the mosque, were the rugged Kewa-Rash or “black mountains” famous in our region. Beyond those mountains were more mountains. We never tired of looking out over the mountains and seeing more and more mountains. As far as the eye could see, there were mountains.

Looking at those mountains and climbing them are two different things. They are beautiful to look at, but they are not easy to climb.

We have just begun settling after mountains of transition. As I have journeyed through this and lacked the energy to express publicly what I have felt, it has helped to look back at some of what I’ve written in the past. The words of God to the Israelites urging them to “Remember” are not lost on me. In our journeys, God calls on all of us to remember. Remember what came before, remember what God has done. Remember and Rest.

So today I am remembering and resting, trying to take in what I wrote a year and a half ago and follow my own advice.

I’m on a balcony in South Carolina looking across at a lake and then mountains. There are mountains, and then more mountains, and beyond that, there are even more mountains.

My view is stunning and soul-quieting; soul-quieting during a time where my soul deeply needs rest and my heart is beginning to feel the deep loneliness of transition. I feel it most when I wake up. A feeling of disorientation surrounds me and I am lost. It’s as though something or someone has died. I lie quiet for a moment, breathing through the panic. And then, it’s gone. I sigh and hold out my hands, the Jesus Prayer on my lips.

A Haitian proverb says “Deye mon, gen mon” – “beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This afternoon, as I quiet my soul and look out towards the horizon, I realize that transition is like this. One mountain after another to be climbed and conquered, or at least climbed. Mountains of change and mountains of moving; mountains of decisions; mountains of goodbyes and ‘see you laters’; mountains of letting go of what I hold so tightly and don’t even realize. Mountains of explaining and re-explaining; of prayers and laying all at the mercy of God.

And that mountain of loneliness? For me, this is the biggest mountain of all. There are both universal and uniquely individual components to this loneliness. I am humbled as I recognize those attributes. I realize that many in our world understand these feelings, yet they are still deeply personal, still difficult to articulate.

In a recent piece on “Going Home“, Tanya Crossman ends with these words:

Right now the best I can manage most days is just getting by. Take small steps toward building a life here. Celebrate tiny achievements. Look for little moments that encourage me, that tell me it’s going to work out and one day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life. Transition is hard. It’s exhausting. But it’s also worth it.”

Small steps.

Tiny achievements.

Little moments.

It’s going to work out.

One day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life.

Yes, beyond the mountains are more mountains. Taken all together, the view may be beautiful, but the steps are overwhelming. But taken one by one, reaching out to others in the journey, I just might make it.

What about you?

On Scarcity and Abundance

I’m sitting on my couch, feet stretched out. The mosque next door has just begun their Friday sermon, broadcast loud in a language that is still unfamiliar to me. The electricity is on and I am trying to be grateful instead of fearful that it will go off. 

In recent weeks, I have thought a great deal about scarcity. I began thinking about it after a conversation with one of my sons in Greece, where he described someone as living and loving out of scarcity instead of abundance. This stayed with me and I find myself deeply challenged. 

I grew up with frequent power outages, food rations, and water shortages. Nevertheless, as an adult I’ve lived for many years in busy, wealthy, western cities. Until moving to Kurdistan last year, I didn’t think much about electricity, heat, or hot water. Now, these are regular thoughts on my mind. Will the electricity be on? Will it be cold in my office? Will it be cold in my apartment? (The answer is Yes – it will be extremely cold.) Will there be enough hot water to have a shower? To wash my hair? To wash dishes? I find that I want to hoard what I have, to try and capture it so it won’t go away. I think about this all the time. I am living out of fear that there will not be enough – I am living from a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. 

In the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives the authors say this: “Scarcity captures the mind…when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.  The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food…For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent…Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little.  It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.” Similarly, Michael Beckwith says:

There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’

I fear this is how I have begun to live. 

 And yet, I am surrounded by people who are extraordinarily generous with their time, their food, their homes, and their help. I am surrounded by people who live with this scarcity but don’t let it affect their daily lives. 

Years ago while living in Pakistan, I had a secret stash of special food. Ironically, the food I stored I no longer care for, but at the time cake mixes, taco mix, and chocolate chips were special and unavailable where we lived. I never let anyone know that I had these special, uniquely American food items. Chocolate chip cookies would appear, as if by magic, baked when no one was around to see what treasures I had hidden deep within my cupboard. I was obsessive about my secret stash. 

One day, I went to the cupboard anticipating baking with some of my special supplies. I gasped in dismay. There were the unmistakable sharp marks of a rat’s teeth. I looked farther, holding my breath in hope that my beautiful, secret, special stash of food would be salvageable. It was not to be. There were rat droppings everywhere, teeth marks on bags that had been chewed through – all of it totally destroyed. I pictured the rats having their midnight feasts, an abundant feast sponsored by an unwilling, silent me in my bed. I was furious. I cried tears of anger and persecution. What had I ever done to deserve this? 

My stash was gone. In those moments, I realized how tightly I held to those food items. They had become a security, a secret way to cope with what I found difficult. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized it was symbolic of the way I lived my life. I lived as one who operated out of scarcity and secret food stashes. I didn’t live out of the abundance of the joy and goodness that surrounded me. Whether it was money, food, time, or emotional capacity my subconscious mindset was one of “not enough”. 

It affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  

There was never enough. I was not enough. I did not have enough. And God was not enough. My mindset was one of scarcity and it affected all of my life. 

It has been a long time since that food stash, and in truth, after the rat incident I never again tried to store up treasures that would be eaten by rats. But I find myself thinking about that time during these long days where electricity is scarce, where heat is scarce, where I live far from the abundance I have been used to. Because even though I am not hoarding food, I am well aware that I am operating out of scarcity. 

If scarcity is a mindset, then so is abundance. I recently wrote about my friend Betsy, a friend who lived her life out of abundance not out of scarcity. “Scarcity was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She lived her life extravagantly and radiated the joy of giving.” I ended the post by saying that I want to live like this. I want to live out of abundance. 

As I Finish writing this I’m sitting in one of two coffee shops in Rania, and the electricity has just come on. Adele plays on repeat, her beautiful voice burrowed into my mind. I want to capture this moment because I am content, I am warm. And the electricity is on. But capturing the moment is yet again acting out of scarcity. So I sigh. I breathe. And Adele says “Hello!”

Author’s Note: This piece was originally published in January 2019

What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us About Christianity

Badshahi_Mosque_July_1_2005_pic32_by_Ali_Imran_(1)

By Robynn Bliss & Marilyn Gardner

For Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan ended on Monday night. Here in Kurdistan the excitement as the month ended was palpable. Loud chanting at 4:30 in the morning from the mosque next door marked the end of the fast and the beginning of the feast. The piece below was written seven years ago, but in an age where fear rules and friendship is held back for fear of the one who is other, it feels important to republish it.

*****

As Christians raised in Pakistan our memories of Ramadan days are as strong as our memories of the Call to Prayer waking us at dawn.

As we think about the end of Ramadan and the Eid celebrations that have been going on around the world, our minds and hearts remember what we have learned about our own faith from our Muslim friends.

  • 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.
  • We learned that Christians are not the only ones with deep faith. Indeed the Muslims that we were surrounded by were zealous of keeping to the tenants of their faith. They were sincere. They were devoted.
  • We learned that worship has little to do with pews or worship bands; versions of scripture or language. Worship has everything to do with the heart.
  • We learned that as women with white skin we had arrogant tendencies, as though we had  birthrights. When our behavior reflected that it was ugly.
  • We learned that caring for women and children, the poor and the broken was never to be separated from the love of God and his call to holiness. We learned that the invitation of the Father that extends to the those in the “highways and byways” included the beggar woman, the street children, the dismembered, the leper.
  • We learned that the mud huts and dusty streets of Pakistan were far closer to the streets walked by Jesus than the clean suburbs and white steeples that we encountered every four years in the United States. Our Jesus was brown and slightly sweaty with dusty calloused feet; he wasn’t pink and pressed and clean. Blue eyes he did not have.
  • We learned that Christian community comes in all denominations and many interpretations, that sprinkling and dunking could be argued with equal passion but would ultimately not change our need for a Saviour. We learned that the strong cultural value of individualism in the west could make it harder to selflessly love. When Jesus reiterated that the greatest commandment was loving God and the second greatest was loving each other he meant it. Love is the language of the community. Any other dialect is suspect.
  • We learned that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and, while one can argue character qualities of God, to be afraid of that word was not wise. Fear rarely motivates faith and holy conversation.
  • We learned that people are not the enemy. And costumes, like book covers, are not to be judged.
  • We learned that bridge-building often means drinking 25 cups of tea and serving 100. Hospitality fleshes out acceptance and leads to friendship and deep loyalty. Those are strong bridges built of steel and concrete.
  • We learned that Muslims make the best of friends; that to share our hearts with them grew our understanding and faith. We were shown kindness, generosity and acceptance. We grew to understand their love for a good joke;their loyalty, their devotion.  We learned that once you have a Muslim friend, you always have a friend.  They will grieve your losses as if they were their own. They will enter your celebrations with abandon!
  • We learned that being invited to break the fast was a gift, not something to refuse because of difference in belief, but something to enter with joy and prayer – prayer for our friends and prayer for their land. A land we called home.

And as we close this post we offer you a taste of the Eid celebrations we enjoyed for so many years.  It is the journey of going from the simplicity of daily life and the discipline of fasting to the joyous contrast of color, noise and taste of celebrations! It is deep-fried sweet sticky gulab jamun. It is color-infused sweet rice with chunks of fresh coconut and plump raisins; plain rice suddenly dressed up with fatty morsels of meat and sticks of cinnamon; bread normally made on a flat dry pan now fried in oil and served with sweet oily cream of wheat cereal. Muslims knew how to celebrate and invited us into their celebrations. May we do the same during our joyous feasts on Easter and Christmas.

Through the richness of our lives and watching life unfold at weddings, at Eid celebrations, and at the breaking of the fast, we learned more of the creative mystery of the God we continue to love and serve. 

This post was first published by Robynn Bliss and Marilyn Gardner on Communicating Across Boundaries.