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.

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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.

Angels from the Rooftops – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

There are some stories that remain in a family and become a part of our DNA. These stories are told year after year, but they never get old. Here is one of our stories that reminds me each year of the wonder of Christmas.

My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse named Clyde created in 1912 stood under a pavilion in the center of town, a symbol of the town’s history.

My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Hers was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.

The long sea journey that took her, my father, and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 transferred her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.

Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and gold twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties, and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.

When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children. They were acutely aware of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.

The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. We were the only foreigners in town and our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood. Mosques surrounded the house, their tall minarets ever present; the call to prayer echoing into our home five times a day.

When I was almost three years old, my mom experienced deep sadness during the Christmas season and, despite the excitement of  my brothers and me, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:

“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)

It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky. As she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing just as on that night so long ago the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.

There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them. Out of love for our family they had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:

“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128

My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear. Instead it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Where is the God of Deborah?

Village in Pakistan

“Where was the God of Deborah? Deborah, whose words ‘March on, my soul; Be strong!’ echoed God’s affirmation of the strength and leadership of women. Where was the God of Hagar? Hagar, who was cast out in a desert as hot as the one where I stood, certain she would die only to be met by the living God and living water. Where was the God of Mary? Mary, who was greeted with the words, ‘The Lord is with you,’ words unmistakable in their promise. My soul ached with the absence of God; the woman’s eyes mirrored the vacancy I felt.” fromWhat a Woman is Worth Civitas Press 2014 “Relentless Pursuit” by Marilyn Gardner page 87.*

The story was in a well-known newspaper in Pakistan, published back in May. The title hid nothing and I didn’t want to read the article. “Woman Stoned to Death Outside Lahore High Court”.

I clutched my stomach, nauseated and feeling weak. An honor killing outside the High Court in Lahore, a city in Pakistan; a 25 year-old woman stoned to death, large bricks picked up and thrown at her until she was pronounced dead at the hospital. Her family? They were included in the group of attackers stating they had a right to do this, she had shamed the family name.

And I weep at this injustice, this gross misunderstanding of honor and shame, this tragic and polluted view of women. A distorted theology, an incorrect belief. Cultural views are not all benign. Some are plain wrong. There is no excuse for this atrocity. Neither is there an excuse for the atrocities of rape on college campuses in Ivy league schools with people who have no cultural view of honor and shame. Or the gang rapes resulting in death in India. All are wrong. All are sinful. All should be condemned. There are too many events like this in our world and the heart of evil and sin is like a killer weed that takes over and covers everything in its path, crowding out the beauty with ugly.

And I wonder – Where is the God of Deborah? Where is the God who fights, who goes before us? And I wonder – Where is the God of Hagar? Where was he with this woman? And I wonder – Where is the God of Mary, the God-bearer? The blessed Theotokos?

But he is here. He is with the women around the world who fight against this every, single day at great cost. Those who stand up for justice and fight for human rights and dignity; those who are in the business of rescue and advocacy. They are the Deborahs of our world. They are the ones who march on. They are the ones who give of their time, their talent, their love to make a difference.

Where is the God of Deborah? He is with Myra Lal Din – a Pakistani woman with a dream to change the status of education for girls in Pakistan. Myra attended the same school that I did in Pakistan. When she was 13 the school was attacked by fundamentalist terrorists and she relocated to Thailand to finish her education. She recognizes that most girls in Pakistan are not so lucky. And so she longs to make a difference. She says this: “Through my work with young children, I discovered that I felt called to use education to try to bring real, lasting change to the kinds of opportunities that are available for young women in my own country. I want to make sure that every woman in Pakistan has an opportunity to experience the kind of life-changing education I did without having to escape to another country to do it.” 

Where is the God of Deborah? He is at a women and children’s hospital in Shikarpur, Sindh where primarily Pakistani staff work daily to meet the health care needs of the community, offering living hope, living water in the desert.

Where is the God of Deborah? He’s in Haiti where midwives work to provide safe care and deliveries to those most in need.

Where is the God of Deborah? He is in Djibouti, where girls learn to love running, to find safety in community.

Where is the God of Deborah? He’s with the rescuers in Thailand, who brave a corrupt system and dangerous pimps to rescue, to love, to speak truth into the lives of women.

Where is the God of Deborah? He is in the hard places, with us as we take a stand against injustice even as we reel with nausea from the horror of these acts of violence.

Where is the God of Deborah? He is still here. He is still present. He is still at work. He is still saying ‘Who touched me’ like he did so long ago on dusty streets in Palestine. He is still restoring, relentlessly pursuing, loving, healing, freeing women from their suffering. This I must believe. This I do believe. 

“I would never stop believing that worth could be restored by a relentless pursuit, an unstoppable love, and the words “Go in peace and be free from your suffering.” from What a Woman is Worth Civitas Press 2014 “Relentless Pursuit” page 88.*

Where have you seen the God of Deborah work in your community? 

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging is available for purchase here: 

It’s also coming to a Kindle near you in a few weeks. Proceeds for books purchased in the month of November will go toward the Syrian Refugee Crisis to be used in a refugee clinic in Istanbul. Stay tuned for more details.

Note: This article has been adapted from one previously published on Communicating Across Boundaries. 

Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Children in a Cross-cultural Context

sheep

Beginning Monday evening through all day Tuesday, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al Adha – the feast of sacrifice. 

Eid al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered the ‘Greater Eid’.

Significant to Eid al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

Thinking about Eid al Adha takes me back to both my childhood in Pakistan and to raising children in the Middle East. My mind returns to a walk-up apartment, a dark stair-well, and a bleating sheep.

Every year as Eid al Adha came around our neighbors purchased a sheep and, in the absence of green space, the sheep made its home in our stairwell. At the time we had no household pet and our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the plaintive brown eyes and the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment.  This was ‘their’ pet. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep had a preordained purpose – to be fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter.

And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs. “Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep?” 

As parents we were in a predicament. Not only did we know that the “pet” sheep had been sacrificed, we knew that we would be offered tasty meat from our neighbor’s kitchen later in the day. What do you tell your kids?

You tell them the truth.

You tell them it was never their pet and that our family would be invited to share a feast with people who graciously invited us to witness and celebrate something that meant a great deal to them, and that included eating meat from the sheep. We needn’t have worried about communicating the truth; children make things far less complicated than adults – they accept, they learn early that the world is bigger than them, that people are more important than pets and dogma.

When you are raising children in a country where you are graciously received as guests, you learn valuable lessons of what is important. My own parents had modeled well respect and love for their adopted country of Pakistan so it was not difficult to remember what the bottom line was — and that is relationships and loving your neighbor as yourself. Growing up in Pakistan I don’t remember big religious debates, but I do remember a lot of tea being served, a lot of laughter, many holiday celebrations with neighbors and friends, and in all that some wonderful talks. It was this that was important as we celebrated Eid al Adha with our neighbors and friends.

As guests in the country of Egypt, we were treated kindly despite our frequent mistakes and gaffes in both language and culture. While we didn’t hold to the same truth claims, bridges were built and relationships strengthened as we shared in the celebrations of our Muslim friends and neighbors. And in doing so we prayed that some of the nails in the coffin of misunderstanding between east and west, between Muslim and Christian would be removed.

Sheep were going to come and go but our neighbors and friends? They would be staying. And so our children learned early and reminded us later (when we, their parents were prone to forget) that people and our relationships with people were key to living out a life of authentic faith in a cross-cultural context. 

What have you learned from your children about understanding and acceptance in the context of living an authentic life of faith overseas?

Marilyn blogs about communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture at Communicating Across Boundaries and can be found on Twitter@marilyngard

Image credit: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo

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“This is My Fate” A Lesson in Cultural Humility

As soon as the angry words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I was speaking to Rehmet, the woman who helped me care for my kids and my home.

She was a Punjabi woman, uneducated, illiterate, with a smile that stretched across a beautiful, weathered face and a personality as big as her smile.

We were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and Rehmet had come into my life by way of her husband who had done some handiwork for us around the house. She had five children and lived in a slum on the outskirts of the city. She was tireless in her energy and her talking. At one point I despaired to my mom that I couldn’t understand her. “She speaks so quickly!” I wailed. “My Urdu can’t keep up”. My mom began to laugh – “Don’t worry” she said. “She’s actually speaking Punjabi”.

Fate - Homes in a Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan. [1500x1000] - Imgur

(photo credit)

We had slowly developed a relationship that went far beyond employee/employer. I considered her my friend. We would sit down with tea, communicating with my limited Urdu and her fluent Punjabi. We would mate socks together, cook, scrub vegetables, and rearrange furniture. She loved my kids, and I thought I loved her.

But there we were. A Pakistani woman and an American woman side by side, me letting my tongue loose. She had ruined some clothes by bleaching them and I was angry. After all, if this had happened in the United States I would voice disapproval over the mistake and demand my money back.

But, I was not in the United States.

Looking back on the event, I cringe in embarrassment. I don’t even remember what the clothes looked like – but I will never forget the sadness and resignation on Rehmet’s face. She looked as though she had been kissed by a Judas, betrayed by one she thought she knew.

I began to apologize. My speech, so articulate while angry, suddenly lost any semblance of cohesion. I was fumbling over my words, over my grammar, most of all over my ugly heart.

She looked at me with tired, brown eyes, her gaze steady and unyielding. Then without pause, she shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is my fate.”

I went cold. I would rather have heard anything but this. I would rather she yelled, screamed, got sarcastic, quit the job… anything would have been better.

I, the person who talked long and wrote hard about wanting to empower people, had taken advantage of what I knew to be a cultural value – a servant is subservient to the employer. In a culture where she was a minority as a woman and as a Christian she would never have other opportunities, this was her fate. Even if she wanted to walk out on the job, she couldn’t have. Rehmet did not have choices and I had used that against her. I had taken advantage of education, relative wealth, and influence in my ridiculous reaction to a simple mistake.

And I had done this, subconsciously knowing that it would pack a mighty punch. That is what made it so painfully wrong. My white-skinned entitlement made me cringe. Who was I? Why had I reacted this way

It was important to confess – to Rehmet, but also to God. For I had acted in a way that hurt another, had wounded knowing she had no recourse.

Rehmet and I were able to repair the relationship, largely because of her generosity of spirit and sheer joy in life. In her bucket of life experience, this was small change and she would not remain low for long. But the story has stayed with me, for it reminds me of how important it is to have cultural humility.

For cultural humility demands a process of self-evaluation and critique; a constant check of attempting to understand the view of another before we react and recognizing our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up a role as expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.

It’s a hard subject that demands honesty but what do you do when you have caused offense? When you have wounded in a place where you are a guest? When you have exhibited cultural superiority instead of cultural humility?

By Marilyn Gardner

Marilyn Gardner grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard