My Unfair Life

Scene 1

I approached a tall metal gate with my sister. She showed her ID to a guard. Dust swirled around us.

“Can my sister come in with me?” she asked him. “Just for 10 minutes?”

“No.”

I tried to make it easier for him to say yes. “Just for 2 minutes?”

“No. No ID, no entry.”

It was the day before Christmas, and I was at the entrance to Camp Moria on the Greek island Lesvos. Refugees milled around us, wrapped in coats, talking on cell phones.

My sister, working in the camp with her husband, had done the required paper work and could go in and out of the camp when she showed her ID on the lanyard she wore. I waited at the gate while she went in to talk with Butterfly, the Iranian friend she wanted to invite to cook a meal for us.

I stood outside the gate, my eyes taking in everything they could. I squinted as wind swirled the dust around us. A tall chain link fence with razor wire towered above us. I couldn’t be angry at the guard for refusing to let me enter because this place held hundreds of vulnerable people who needed protection, and even though the razor wire looked dehumanizing, it gave a semblance of safety for the ones inside.

I waited and watched. Bright sun. Clouds of dust. Cold air. Umpteen nationalities and ages. Then an African man stepped up to me and asked what I was doing and where I was from.

“I’m from America. I’m waiting on my sister. She works here.”

“Oh! You have come a long way! Why are you here?”

“I came for ten days to be with my sister for Christmas.”

In that moment, I felt the immense weight of injustice fall onto my shoulders. This man had probably risked his life to come here, and I got to jet in and out like any other pleasure-seeking, happy-go-lucky tourist. There was no justice between our stories. The man had every right to scowl at me and resent my privilege.

“Oh! You did a good thing. You must love your sister very much!”

“Yes, I do love her very much.”

I blinked in the sunlight as the man kept smiling, nodding his head and repeating his words. “You did a very good thing.”

His grace and joy crushes me. I don’t know why he was so happy for me. I don’t know why I got to travel in ease and go back to a steady job that automatically deposits money into my bank account.

There is no justice in this scene.

Scene 2

Several days later, I stood at the same chain-link gate again with my sister, and she asked the guard if I could come in for ten minutes.

“Only for ten minutes.”

So we walked fast.

She took me to the info tent, the hub of activity that EuroRelief organizes. In the portable cabin behind that, sealed off with chain link, I saw stacks of hats, coats, and gloves. I noticed white boards and diagrams and numbers that kept track of spaces and families. It looked like organized mayhem that does its best to give the barest basics to the neediest. I’m so proud of the men and women who pour their souls into this overwhelming, gritty, endless work.

We walked up the hill. Tinny Turkish music blared from a radio. Pieces of clothing stuck into the chain link to dry in the cold sunshine. A few sullen faces glared at each other and us. Are they angry? Let’s get out of here. Past the latrine. Past the fenced-in family compound where a friend stood to guard the door so no unauthorized person would come in. He must have been freezing and bored, but he grinned and waved at us.

Tents lined the gravel path, four or five deep. They were a mass of billowing, flimsy canvas, roped to any available stable surface.

Then the scene that seared itself onto my brain and replays itself endlessly: two hands reach out of a little tent, fumbling to pull in the thin layer of blankets that poke out onto the gravel. Fumble. Pull. Shake. Yank. Get the blankets in and the zipper closed. A pair of sandals lies outside the zipper because someone doesn’t want dirt in their tent. Someone sleeps on a very thin layer of blankets. The padding can’t possibly be warm enough or protect from the gravel underneath.

Ten minutes is up. We walk out of the dusty gate that has razor wire over it.

Reflection

All good stories have a conclusion but this one doesn’t. Greece broke me in a way that I’ve not recovered from. These scenes are still with me, over 2 years later. They part of the texture of my life of ethnic food, colorful people, and stimulating conversations. Are they also inciting incidents that will usher me to another chapter of service and care?

I don’t know.

I only know that it’s right for me to be thankful. Every night when I lie on my thick mattress and under my feather duvet, I don’t have enough words to say how grateful I am. And when sit in front of a fresh, colorful meal. And when I buzz down the interstate in my car or walk onto a plane.

I know that, after seeing all those flimsy tents and thin blankets, I should never again complain about living in a swampy area that has 6 months of winter. I also know it’s right to use my resources to nurture His kingdom that stretches all over the globe.

But I don’t know what that will look like.

 

photo credit, a refugee artist in Moria Camp: https://www.facebook.com/riadh04

This post was first written for Daughters of Promise, and was first posted on their beautiful blog.

Camp Moria, about the size of a large Walmart and its parking lot, was built as an army barracks to hold 1,500 people. Right now, about 7,000 people are crammed in it, with more arriving.

Melancholy and Dazzling Light

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Closing down one year and turning the page to another always makes me a simmering mess of melancholy and excited, reliving sweet memories, shuddering at hard memories, anticipating and apprehensive and curious about what’s next.

Writing things out helps unscramble the mass of the months and moments, sifts the favorites from the non-favorites, and reminds me of what is true.

Here is a sanitized, public-reader-appropriate list of 2018’s high points. Those closest to me know the crazy and the agony parts, the hysterical and impossible and guffawing and sparkling moments that we shared this year. But that stays with us, not the world-wide web.

This list is neither chronological nor ordered in priority, but savored, round and round, like pearls on a string.

2018

  • Introducing 40 women to doodling at a women’s retreat. Helping them find their inner artist.
  • Traveling to KS with friends and singing in a concert for Nelson & Hannah’s wedding
  • Tea with mentor friends, late, after an age-long day. Tears. Decision. Unutterable peace.
  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterworth
  • 2 visits to NYC
  • A Makers Weekend where a pile of friends made stuff and talked and ate food and talked and talked
  • A late-night invitation to neighbors on my birthday. Fire and jackets and stories. Laughter and star light.
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • A week auditing a Christian anthropology class in a seminary.
  • A week in Greece. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Swimming. Family. Unbelievable food. Sunshine.
  • This concert of peace. In the heat of summer. In the front row. Healing tears dripping off my chin.
  • Thanksgiving Sunday. Carnegie Hall. Messiah. 500 voices.
  • Connections in my new church, surprising and sweet.
  • An Ola Gjeilo concert where the composer was the accompanist and we heard him improv “Ubi Cartitas” with music heard only that one time.
  • Rings of friends, arriving alone or in dozens, in our living room. Rollicking laughter. Stories. Art parties. Tea.
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Friends who took me in as one of their family. Different states. Different occasions. So much love.

2018 brought me choking anxiety and peace, sobs and shrieking laughter, a staggering, preposterous torrent of blessings, joy, and love so deep and so tall, there is no way to measure or describe it.
This reality, of living surrounded by love, tells me to walk into 2019, hands opened wide for more.

Amazed to Witness Such a Thing

I’d heard friends talk about Gilead for several years. I’d seen it was a best seller, and heard authors quote it. It must be good, so I picked it up. Read through the first page or two. Nothing happened. I put it down. A couple months later, picked it up again. Nothing happened again. Blah.

I resigned myself to missing out on what everyone else was enjoying in the book.

Then one recent Saturday morning, my brother-in-law mentioned it in a family email. He said Gilead resets a person like a good night of sleep, and he wanted to discuss it with someone. I decided valiantly to try the book again, trotted up to the library, brought it home, and was absolutely taken in, like a fuzzy blanket wraps you up and you can’t untangle yourself.

Maybe it was the air, the leisure I was feeling, or the invitation to discuss. Probably it was mostly that I was mellow enough to absorb the words that had no great action, no shimmering plot line to pull me forward. It was the slow, steady beat of an aged man’s heart dribbling out of his pen to write messages to his young son, and he wrote so beautifully and lovingly that I read half the book that first day.

A dying pastor is writing to his young son, not yet seven. Seeing life and people and love through those old, gentle, wizened lenses felt sacred and sweet,  like I couldn’t get enough sweetness. It’s sweet but not cloying. Insightful, but not ponderous or stuffy. Full of love and longing but not sentimental or fluffy.

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. (p. 23)

I’m glad it’s not just pastors who can bless when they pronounce the benediction. All of us can bless each other, and when we say simple words like “Bless you” (not for sneezes, but for big assignments and partings and dilemmas) we acknowledge and affirm the sacredness of that person and that moment, which is an enormous gesture to receive from anyone, a privilege to pronounce on someone, and something to practice generously. What if we sprinkled blessings around like confetti?

The next lines need no commentary, only long pauses to think about the lines for several days. If you read the book, let me know what you think!

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she [the newborn] did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. (p. 76)

 

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. (p.238)

 

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)

 

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. (p. 245)

Not long ago, I was driving in a dusk of golds and blues, and remembered these lines. I aspire to living in this wonder:

So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (p. 246)

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Come to the Feast of Love

You pass by this scene every day on your walk to work:

Candles flicker on the stone step outside the door. String lights swoop toward the center of the ceiling. Waiters place hors d’oeuvres onto tables sparkling with goblets and silver. You catch whiffs of expensive cologne, alfredo, lemon, basil, coffee.

You peer into the banquet room and linger in its fragrance for a couple seconds. But you never step further because you know you could never eat there.

It’s way too expensive.

I’m alone and it’s a place for couples.

I wouldn’t know what to do with all those forks and spoons.

My clothes smell like work.

This banquet and this hesitating is the setting for George Herbert’s poem called “Love.” The poem is a story recounting the exchange between Love and a soul. Each of us can read it in the first person, first placing our souls at the banquet door. (The words in parentheses are my responses.)

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
 (My clothes smell like work.)
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack  
From my first entrance in, (He saw me every time I lingered outside the door.)
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.  

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
 (Me? No, you can’t mean me.)
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,  
I cannot look on Thee.’ (You are very kind, but I don’t belong here.)
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made thine eyes but I?’ (Hmmmm. He made this banquet—He even made me.)
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’ 

‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’ (He says He made me worthy of this feast. He wants me here!)
‘My dear, then I will serve.’ (No, no—I won’t eat. You are my master. I’ll be your waiter tonight.)
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my Meat.’ (‘Says’ is present tense: He is still speaking!)
So I did sit and eat.

As we read George Herbert’s lines, we see that he knows how to be proper, dutiful, and fair. He knows about protocol and propriety to maintain at all costs. When Love pronounces him as the worthy guest of the feast, Herbert is incredulous and gives reasons why he can’t possibly accept. Sounds familiar, right?

When Love invites us to His feast, we learn, like Herbert did, that love is not a place, or a feeling, or a flavor. Love is a person, and His name is Jesus. Hearing His voice and seeing His eyes is the best thing that could ever, ever happen to us. And the banquet never, ever ends.

*****This is the final in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday from now on!

Love’s Posture

I wonder if you’ve seen how you’re surrounded by love this month. I wonder if you’ve been surprised or disappointed. I wonder how you’re responding to that surprise or let-down.

When we open our hearts to ahava, we risk loss, misunderstandings, and even heartbreak. One human response to this is anger and a commitment to avoid ahava in the future.

But the posture of ahava is an open hand. I’m here to serve you. What do you need that I can give?

Alternatively, the posture of anger is a clenched fist. I can’t wash my neighbor’s feet with my fists, and it’s hard to ahava (give to) someone if their hands are closed. There are a lot of clenched fists around these days. And sometimes the fists belong to me.

John, who found his identity in being the disciple Jesus loved, pointed out that love casts out fear, and he added that fear possesses terror. Apparently, he believed that the opposite of love is fear. Let’s contrast more words connected to love and fear.

These lists demonstrate love’s enormous power to transform, heal, and free. Like the sun shining on a cold day inviting you take off your coat, instead of the wind that makes you hang onto the coat even tighter, love melts open a clenched fist and a stiff exterior. It invites dialogue and a smile. It gives a cup of water, the simplest of gifts.

If we would love like Jesus did, generously and winsomely and in hidden ways, we could change the world! We can live in love and not fear when we embrace our deepest reality—that we are deeply, outrageously, undeservedly loved. It seems John knew how much Jesus loved him, and he never got over the wonder of it. It shaped how he saw himself, and influenced how he spoke and taught.

The ahava God pours on us is our endless supply to share with our world. We can approach the difficult person and the stranger with open hands, and mirror His warmth and comfort. In doing so, we help to soothe the crippling, damaging fear that keeps people from living with open hands.

If the posture of ahava is open hands, it means that love has nothing to defend and no personae to keep polished. It is genuine and honest, simple and frank. It is not driven by the destructive, irrational fear of criticism or failure. Living with open hands is possible by a power far beyond human limitations, and its results reach further than we can know or dream.

Will you move into this week with open hands, giving and receiving love?

*****This is the third in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!

God So Loved That He Gave

One of times I felt most alive was when my friends and I swam in the Dead Sea. The buoyant water let us do gymnastics we could never do before! The clear, turquoise water, briny with salt and minerals, made my skin silky smooth, and soothed the sunburn I’d gotten a day earlier.

An Israeli company takes the salts and minerals from the Dead Sea and produces a beautiful line of skin care products, choosing the name Ahava for their brand. A friend gave me a tub of lovely Ahava body sorbet that I love using.

Ahava means love. It’s the same word God used in Leviticus: You shall ahava the Lord your God, and your neighbor, and the foreigner among you.

Why did God command a condition of the heart instead of action with the hands or feet?

The root word of ahavah means “to give.” To ahava the Lord and our neighbor is an act of intentional giving, serving, focusing on another. Love is far more than a warm feeling deep inside. It is action and generosity, sacrifice and service.

In this week of masses of pink and white fuzzy animals, red-foil balloons, and heart-shaped chocolates, it is normal to focus on what we might or might not get, and what makes us feel loved. Romantic love is beautiful and life-changing, and carries enormous power to heal and restore. Valentine’s Day is often the most noticeable, accessible form of love, but ahava is far bigger than a special day on the calendar.

God modelled ahava for us when He loved us so much that He spared nothing and gave His Son. God’s call for us to ahava is a call to the shape of a life, the deeds and habits of a heart that gives and serves the neighbor and the family member and the stranger. Ahava is not expecting to receive nice things or to stay comfortable. However, in a beautiful paradox and a curious exchange, when we ahava God and others, we receive stupendously in return.

In this week of pink and white and red all around you, how will you receive and give ahava?

*****This is the second in a series of 4 weekly devotionals that I’ve written for the lovely Daughters of Promise. Sign up here to get all of them in your inbox every Monday!

Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.