The Philippines

When Pastor Leo invited me to speak in the Philippines, I felt really honored. If it worked out that I could visit during the winter school break in China, I figured I would probably speak once or twice, go to some church functions, do some sightseeing, and that would be about it.

Well, I spoke seven times, was overwhelmed by how deeply the church and the students welcomed me in, and had a truly “culinary” tour of the Philippines!

Lord, I wish I could describe how excited I was to get Pastor Leo’s emails suggesting topics for my lectures. He offered these: the value of reading good books, the spirituality of reading (in 2 parts), and words of delight – with a lecture on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in honor of February, and a devotional I did on Psalm 84, one of my very favorites.

To be honest, I completely underestimated how long it would take me to write each of the lectures. For my classes in China, it takes me about half a day to pull a 2-hour class together. However, my China classes usually center around a basic topic or informational video, with games and discussions thrown in. I don’t really lecture. Each lecture for the Philippines, on my calculations, had to be around 6700 words, and I’m still far too much a novice teacher to feel confident in my ability to talk for 45 minutes based on an outline. So yeah, I completely scripted each lecture. Each one took me hours, because they weren’t about “pre-set” topics like, say, the powerpoint on American politics I just spent the afternoon putting together.

Writing out these lectures was an enormous task. These topics are topics I adore and have been exploring and building up as major pillars of the way I look at the world since I started to read. But this was the first time I had to move it all from its nebulous place in my mind onto paper – I had to give it a heart, and a soul, and a body. I had to articulate what turned out to be my personal theology of reading.

As a side note, I was kind of surprised by how much all this stuff is linked to Scripture for me. I understand now why James says “let not many of you be teachers.” It’s easy to tell students to use quotations as evidence to back up your claims, but it’s different with Scripture. We are in submission to, or implicated by Scripture, which means that we have to tread very carefully when using Scripture as a teacher. Nevertheless, it startled me to see how thoroughly Scripture has taken over my philosophy of literature and learning, like those broken Japanese vases that are repaired with gold.

All that, and I didn’t start until almost three weeks before my trip to really start writing. Basically, I spent probably around 6-10 hours daily all that time writing. Now, I’m neither a fast writer nor a creative one, so I wasn’t able to complete all my lectures before I left, and ended up finishing the last one while in the Philippines.

Finally the day rolled around to fly out to the Philippines and the flying experience was awful, but frankly, I don’t want to be rereading this in ten years and relive all that nonsense so I’ll just leave that part out 😉

I got a grand welcome when I finally arrived at the Philippines. The Galanzas are very dear family friends, but the way things panned out, I was always at school or abroad when they came and stayed at my parents’ home in California. Because this last year my visa to China was so delayed, we overlapped and I was finally able to see for myself why my parents refuse to let them stay with anyone else when they’re in California and why even my resolutely solitary younger sister gets a sparkle in her eye when she talks about them. We don’t even call them “Pastor Leo” and “Hannah” anymore – they are Kuya Leo and Ate Hannah, which is Tagalog for big brother and big sister.

They remind me in a lot of ways of the family I stayed with when I was in England a couple years ago – significantly, also a pastor and his wife, moved and motivated by the love of the Lord. The pastor takes care of all the people stuff, and his wife is his rock and the paragon working behind the scenes. He is a scholar as well as a pastor, and she is all elegance and grace. They can talk about tricky issues with tact but know how and when to laugh and not take things too seriously. They are both kind and warm and crazy generous – and their kids mirror all their best qualities. They really took me into their family and made me feel like another daughter to them.

Also Kuya Leo has a personal library that makes me drool. Thousands of neatly stacked books on theology, philosophy, history, and more have pretty much taken over the whole house.

My stay got off to a running start. By the time my flight, which had been delayed, came in  and we made it back to the house and to sleep it was nearly 2AM Sunday morning. We had to be downtown early in the morning for church, and I would be giving my first lecture, on the value of reading good books, later that afternoon.

I was looking forward to church. I don’t have a church in China, but I have been missing more than consistent preaching. I’ve been missing being part of a community specifically in service to Christ. In China I’m either the subject of stares and curiosity, or I’m left entirely alone. In either case, I’m a sovereign nation, so to speak. Or the Harvard grad.

It was good, in the deepest sense, to be able to sit next to Ate Hannah and be included in the worship and the preaching. Mt. Holy Church is deliciously inclusive, but I don’t mean that in the politicized sense. It was more like a day-long family get-together, with everyone extending the warmest attention to Pastor Leo and Elder Wilbur, who in turn made sure to give everyone space at the table, so to speak. All of us made one through the love of the Lord. I loved hearing the preaching too. Everyone talks, at least seemingly naturally, half in Tagalog, half in English, and it was just enough for me to get the big ideas and to be able to pay attention to the speakers themselves.

I love it when the love of the Lord animates people; it’s unmistakable because of how full-hearted and sincere it is. It means we wear our hearts on our sleeves when God is the topic of conversation, and I think there are few things more precious and beautiful than that. It meant the world to me to be able to see that again before going up and revealing my heart to a hundred people who were all strangers.

Lord, there was actually a lot to sort through emotionally and mentally before going up there. I knew what I had to say was solid, so I wasn’t nervous on that account. I was and am convinced that what I had to say was something that God has given to me specifically -but while the content was good, I had my doubts on my execution.

I am weirdly aware of my being only 25. I don’t think I’m lacking in self-confidence, but in all honesty, how much credibility would you give a 25 year old lecturer? Perhaps I’ve done more than some 25-year-olds, but I’d still take what I say with a grain of salt. Not to mention, most of the people I spoke to in the Philippines would be about my age. I expect, too, that the ideas I talked about are still pretty germinal. I fully expect that these are things that I’ll be exploring and unpacking for the rest of my life, and I’m really excited about that. But at the time I was putting them on paper, I was praying that God would give me the right words so that I could express just how deeply these ideas informed my way of looking at the world and how lovely and precious they have been to me as a part of my identity.

To express something so deeply rooted in my heart, though, it was necessary to make it absolutely clear that I wasn’t speaking as a Harvard graduate. I have said this before, but I still resent how thoroughly Harvard has taken over my reputation. In fact, honestly, I’m actually angry about it. Harvard has nothing to do with my identity; it is a thing I did, a blessing that God gave me, an impressive enough couple of words on my resume. But it doesn’t make me me; and to share what God has been building in my heart it was imperative to me that I didn’t stand on my reputation, but on the reality of what God has done in my life–a reality that I thoroughly shared with my brothers and sisters there.

I can’t describe the relief, the “hole that felt filled-ness” I experienced – like cracking your back, or taking a hot shower after a long and tiring day, or a headache dissipating with a ripple off the back of your neck; something eased, there in the Philippines.

They took me at my word.

I felt it, the way the atmosphere flexed and shifted without a sound. I never felt the slightest bit unwelcome, but just the usual response anyone would have to a stranger (never mind a baby-faced American with a Harvard degree!): reserved expectation, a bit of wariness. I told them that I didn’t want them to look at me and think Harvard; I wanted to stand before them only as a sister in the Lord and they took me at my word. And I felt it in my bones, and there was an attendant shift in my own apprehension. I moved onto solid ground; I forgot about being impressive, and felt the way the words I’d written still resounded through my bones – how I meant them with everything I’ve got. At the end, after a bit of initial shyness, I was rewarded with people showing me how what I said moved them, sometimes in spite of themselves, with questions, comments, and responses that, just a little bit, at the very back of things, were a little bit giddy. I recognize that giddiness – it’s a river of joy that spills out over its banks every now and again to cleanse your eyes and to reenchant you with the loveliness of the Risen One. I get it too.

It was such a treasure to sit at the edge of the pew, neck craned forward, watching the conversation continue, and to realize – Lord, you did what I asked. You took over, and people are coming into contact with you through what you taught to me.

More than three weeks later, and I’m still getting misty-eyed over it.

And that was just the first talk, of course. There were six more to go, and they all proceeded in much the same way, with students coming up shyly to me after I spoke to shake my hand and to tell me how they looked at reading differently now. Kuya Leo and his daughter Em had their students all write me feedback, which was an incredible benefit and luxury for this novice teacher. It moved me, how so many of them responded not merely to me, but to the Christ who had graced me with words that actually started to do what I had been hoping and praying for months beforehand that they would: point only to him, and have nothing to do with me (which, bless, they got down 100%. I kept expecting actionable concrete criticism on how to improve my lecturing skills, but they had picked up on my excitement and ran with it, and that is 100% what I want as a teacher, a reader, and a believer.)

One of the talks I did on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in honor of Valentine’s Day. I had never read it in its entirety before preparing for the lecture, and I admit it surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but that was stupid because it is Shakespeare, and you’d think I have learned by now that Shakespeare is usually quite impressive. The more that I studied the play, the more I found in it, and as it happened I ended up cutting out paragraphs of material even as I was up there speaking. I remember thinking at the end of it: Lord, thank you that you are you, I am me, Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and I am not Shakespeare. It made me giggle – what a funny thing to be thankful for – but I love that luxuriant feeling of plenty I get when I teach literature written by others, particularly when I’m free to “take it home,” so to speak, and discuss it in relation to the Gospel. The talks that were my own were solid, sure, but I’m still at the very beginning of things. There’s still tons of development to do, even if I think the heart and the bones are mostly there.

That Shakespeare Sunday, the church had something else planned for me. I’ve already said this was a “culinary” trip – I’ve never been on a vacation where so many foods have been brought for my pleasure. Everything was delicious, and everyone’s constant surprise that I liked it cracked me up. “Here try this! You like it?”

“Yes, thanks! It’s good! What is it?”

“WOW, you liked it? Really? Wow, you are so brave!”

EVERY time! Finally I asked, “Do Americans not usually like Filipino food?”

“Oh no! It is too new to them, especially since there are so many new dishes. But not you – you are tough!”

Ahh. Well after having had lamb intestine sprung on me in England, I came to the realization that I can eat anything, and that people want to eat good food.

Now, truly, all the food in the Philippines was delicious, and everyone graced me with it in so many different ways; I’ve lost track of all the restaurants and homes people took me to and the wonderful dishes they made for me. But that Sunday, the church – especially the youth – took it upon themselves to ensure that I did not leave the Philippines without partaking of that particularly Filipino delicacy, balut.

Balut is boiled, fertilized duck egg.

I ate that.

There’s a video on my Facebook if you want proof. The commentary is amazing – one of the teenagers explained, to everyone’s roaring laughter, how to eat the balut (What do you call the yellow? The sunshine!) and you can hear someone say, “Don’t see, don’t see!” The running joke is that you eat balut in the dark, so you can’t see the chick.

Later Kuya Leo told me they had been keeping an eye on me afterward to make sure I was feeling ok after eating it.

(I was.)

And to be honest, it tastes just like an egg. If you don’t see it, you wouldn’t realize it’s any different from a regular hard boiled egg; it tastes pretty much the same.

They had brought other things for me to try too – and then after we went to dinner! Just another example of that unparalleled generosity!

It’s hard to keep track of all the foods I got to sample. Even at the Bible Institute, where we had lunch several times, people were telling me: Stay, stay! We get better food because of you!

I don’t know how much I buy that though – the food was always very delicious!

The day before I left, I got some going away presents, and I still smile when I see them on my bookshelf. We had lunch that day at the school, but before we ate everyone paid attention to Pastor Leo as he called me up to the front of the room. He presented me with a lovely plaque of appreciation from the school and a present later discovered to be a pretty lilac purse from the staff and faculty of the school. And after he had finished, the student body had a gift for me too – another pretty bag of traditional Filipino craftsmanship.

And later, we all took pictures together.17159269_10155050290998607_7195040393774307509_o.jpg What a precious memory of a precious time I will treasure all my life. It was such a privilege and blessing to spend time with you all and to rejoice with you in what God has done for us!

 

Comparing the Philippines with my experiences in China, Lebanon, and the US over the past couple years, I remember what my pastor in Boston said once about the “radical individuality” that characterizes Americans. After going to the Philippines, it strikes me that this concept of radical individuality makes every man a nation. We aren’t one nation, indivisible, heck, we aren’t even a global community or a diverse one. We’re each isolated little islands, and at best what we can do is support other nations’ concepts of sovereignty without ever actually setting foot on those islands, if I’m not torturing the analogy.

This really begins to get at what I felt at Harvard – I know I could depend on others to support my right to be a Christian, but when it comes to actually setting foot on my island very few people dared, ostensibly for reasons of “keeping the peace,” which is well and good until we come to the point where we realize that we don’t actually know each other at all in any real and meaningful sense.

And also like actual nations, there’s always a lot of skepticism about motives for doing things – we second guess one another, we twist each others’ words, we overanalyze them for the slightest hint of animosity. We’re suspicious – nastily suspicious of one another, and this, I have to admit, is true of me too.

While I do think a bit of skepticism is healthy, being in the Philippines showed me just how much this radical individuality has shaped me without my permission. The Filipino people were all extraordinarily generous – not just with stuff, though two weeks after leaving I’m still enjoying the gifts and snacks they showered me with, but with themselves. When I said anything, they took it at face value. They expected me to mean what I said, and they meant what they said. It took me a while to figure it out – it’s not that they are a simple people, because unfortunately today “simple” means stupid, and they most certainly are not that at all, and it’s more than “honest,” because today “honest” can carry connotations of bluntness or poverty (why?) and those aren’t necessarily true either.

Though it carries overtones of simplicity and honesty, I think the right word to describe the Filipinos is generous – in meaning what they say (and the things they say are also always generous), and extending you the courtesy of believing you mean what you say, that idea of individuals as sovereign nations dissipates. You hear a lot of talk of “family” in the Philippines, and from my very first day there that’s what they extended to me. In some ways, that is (or ought to be) true of any church, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I think that you’d be hard pressed to find it done more beautifully or more fully than I did in the Philippines. Now again, my experiences were very limited; I really shouldn’t generalize. But from what I saw, and comparing it to western “radical individuality,” I think Filipino people are really brave in the way they relate to people and ideas. It’s true “open borders,” and the warmth and generosity with which they extend their welcome is beautiful and God-glorifying.

And in the weeks since I closed out that last Word document and have left the community of the Philippines for the sovereignty of China I’ve been coming to realize what a grace it all was, not just because I was able to be a part of the community but also because of the work of writing out the lectures. More than once since then, I’ve run into echoes of the things that I labored to bring out in my lectures – echoes sounded by men and women of God who are my elders in the faith, and I’ve realized that it is just that all of us are fording further up and further in to the oceans of God’s goodness, and getting touched by the waves.

I listened to an old sermon from my pastor in Boston recently, and he called God’s walking with us grace, which electrified me because that’s exactly how I defined grace in one of my lectures – a selfless walking with. Only I had used it in reference to a professor of mine; I didn’t quite make the connection to that being what God does with us. I’d felt a little hesitant about the definition when I wrote it, but not any longer.

I read Peter Hessler’s River Town a couple weeks ago, about an Ivy League educated man who taught English literature in rural China. He isn’t a believer, but he captured and expressed some of the same discomforts and reservations about academia that I have – again, God telling me that my following Him and my youth don’t invalidate my judgments.

I read Ann Voskamp’s A Thousand Gifts after I got back, and was pleasantly shocked to find that what she said about living a life of gratitude is what I told the students in the Philippines is the secret to reading poetry – take all the time a poem needs to talk to you. See with alert and alive eyes the graces of the world around you, don’t hurry. Ann Voskamp showed me how to put two and two together.

It’s amazing to me to see how truly that “In Him we live and move and have our being,” and I love seeing how, without my even being conscious of it, the loveliest and most precious things and ideas I’m built upon–that we as sons and daughters of the living God are built upon–are all intrinsically designed to bring us further up and further in to the outrageous grace of knowing him.

Psalm 27:13

My favorite class at Harvard was actually one I took at the Divinity School. It was called “Holy Ordinary: Religious Dimensions in Modern and Contemporary Fiction,” and it was taught by Dr. Albert Raboteau, visiting Professor Emeritus from Princeton in religion and history.

His class was nothing less than a sanctuary for me – which sounds melodramatic; Harvard really doesn’t merit melodramatics, but it became clear to me very early on that Dr. Raboteau is–I don’t want to say just a firm Christian; I know lots of firm Christians who don’t inspire the same kind of affection and respect he does in me. He is very much at ease in discussing spiritual matters, and perhaps more importantly, he is crucially aware of just how present God is in the world.

When I think of him, the word that comes to mind is holy, the way the old church fathers were holy, I think. 

He is a frail, elderly gentleman with Einsteinian frizzy white hair. When he talks, I have to strain to hear – he speaks softly and gently. When any of us spoke, he listened just as intently. I always felt a little bit startled and on display when he turned his eyes onto me–always with the greatest of gentleness, but his gaze really made me want to say something worth hearing. I’m afraid I stretched it a bit at times, but I wanted him to know that Christ had knocked at my heart, too.

Every book we read was a gem. I’d read some of them before – O’Connor, Eliot, Hopkins, Robinson. But there were others that were new to me – Percy. Bernanos. Baldwin. We started out by reading William Trevor’s Death in Summer, the story of a man grieving the loss of his wife and trying to raise their baby girl.

[Spoiler alert] Encouraged by his mother in law, he decides to look for someone to care for the baby. One of the girls interviewed is mentally ill, though he doesn’t know it, after being abused while growing up in an orphanage. She becomes obsessed with the protagonist and his baby. In the end, she dies offscreen and is lovingly memorialized by a friend of hers in a deeply moving scene. [End spoiler alert].

One of my dearest and most vivid memories from Harvard is Dr. Raboteau’s eyes tearing up and his voice shaking when we discussed that final scene. I remember immediately going to God about it and hoping for that same kind of spirit, that welcomes even flawed and simple characters into the heart and joyfully grants them weight. It’s more than just loving a story; this is an Ivy League professor with years of experience and a life story that is full of real sorrow going to the level of a simple-minded, troubled child as an equal, and entering into her griefs just as completely – more so, even – than she has. The lived out Christlikeness of that still grips me.

Later in the semester, Dr. Raboteau arranged for our class to watch Nathaniel Dorsky’s 2002 silent film The Visitation. I still remember walking into the Carpenter Center feeling a little off-kilter–my philosophy of film/tv is perhaps a bit too shaped by Neil Postman, and I wasn’t sure how a film was meant to fit into the space our prior readings had crafted in my mind. Also, the film was silent, so I had suspicions that I tried to shove to the back of my mind that I would be bored. Of course, I was there early, and we were delayed a bit waiting for classmates to find the place and for the film to get set up, and somehow I ended up sitting next to Dr. Raboteau.

Looking back– I always knew that if I have the opportunity to spend time with someone I truly look up to, I’m not going to know what to talk about. I don’t know why I felt so obligated to make small talk then; I knew Dr. Raboteau was going to welcome silence as much as conversation, but I didn’t know how to stop talking. Finally, finally, the film began.

It took me a few minutes to wrest my attention away from dissecting the inanities I’d been offering. A deep breath, a quick prayer, and then a sinking into the film, like the sea being drawn into the sand.

I didn’t know a film could do what Dorsky’s did. Does. It’s hard to describe the content of the film, exactly. It’s a montage of short snippets of video; each snippet is more or less the equivalent of a still life. You can see a couple of the stills here. Some of them are recognizable scenes; others aren’t. There is no plot, either to the stills or the film as a whole, and no characters either. In fact, people only make a few appearances at all. And of course, it’s completely silent.

It sounds like it should be boring, and pretentiously arty, but it took my breath away. To say that it reflected the beauty and love with which God created the world is as close as I can come to saying why it affected me the way it did, but that still cheapens it somehow. It did more than that–I think it takes the viewer into the mind of a stranger, so the viewer can literally see the world through the eyes of another, and that’s — sacred. And intimate, and made more so by the silence and the grace of the film. Even the lengths of video used startled me; long enough to defamiliarize the familiar, and by doing so, to show the many ways God makes himself known to us.

I was profoundly grateful for the few minutes of silence that followed after the film was finished. I felt like crying, and I wasn’t even sure why. All of us were floored by what we had watched, and I think we all felt a little exposed around each other. Class afterward felt stilted and a little awkward (I had too much words before, and none after!), but that silence was good. The quality of it–it wasn’t a “calm before the storm” quiet, or a deathly quiet, or a bored quiet; it was the sort of quiet that to me feels like bedrock, that’s tied to deep-seated contentment. I love that sort of quiet, but I pretty much only feel it when I’m alone (which is mostly why I’m so jealous of my solitude!)  To experience it with people around was overwhelming, but that’s on me, not on any of my classmates.

I remember being really quiet and really content the rest of the day. I remember walking home late that night, and finding my Massachusetts street, populated with trees and charming old houses, covered in fog that glowed orange-y gray from the streetlights, and finding it breathtaking too, as though it belonged too in the Dorsky film.

Structure

I still don’t know how to answer when people ask me, “How was Harvard?” So what follows will my attempt at working it out. Bear with me.

I think I have to start with structuralism. We’re big on structuralism at Harvard, and frankly, it provides a lot of insight into the racism wreaking havoc in our country, particularly its schools and universities. Entire systems have been built up with the intent of improving the lot of certain groups, and implicit within that is the denigration of other groups–not always actively or consciously done by the groups in power, but that doesn’t excuse the crime. The work now being done to unravel those structures and provide an equitable playing field is not always done sensitively or well (which of itself provides insight into the contemporary mindset–what it’s trying to achieve, what it’s trying to atone for. Not that I necessarily know how to do it better though!) but it is work that needs to be done, and work that implicates Christians.

Structuralism – I think – also applies to one’s actual structures of thought–the epistemological processes, rooted in our experiences and identities, by which we make sense of the world.

It started with my Philosophy of Education class, taught by a scrappy, razor-sharp New Englander. Throughout the semester we always (ALWAYS!) came back to the concept that we are getting closer and closer to truth through convergences of thought, and though we probably can’t ever get to absolute truth we can trust the process of asking questions (or learning) to keep us on the right path.

Thing is, she took that concept as a first-order principle. To question it would be like questioning that you breath oxygen. It in itself is just not a thing you question.

So if you come from a perspective where it isn’t a first-order principle you get into what I’m calling language issues.

I don’t have it all sorted out, but basically, my hang-up with the idea is what I’m calling directionality. I can back the convergence of truth idea, but how do you know which way is up and which way is down? How can we know we’re on the right path? How can we know if we are ever wrong?

My professor was always a bit biting, but she answered with admirable honesty that those are questions without answers – at least for now. Religion – where I found my answers – was fine for those who were into it, but she personally saw it as a sort of cop out (I’m extrapolating here; she didn’t actually say that.)

After I finally understood that (poor woman. We both irritated each other, I think), I began seeing that same sort of uneasy boundary between the realms of religion and knowledge everywhere. Basically, I realized I could depend on any one there to defend my rights of religion and freedom of speech – but that generosity would not extend to actual engagement with the stuff of my beliefs.

It is really important to me to stress that everyone I met at Harvard was wonderfully kind and intelligent. I never felt any friction over my faith. But as my friend Alex put it, “it’s in the air.”

He’s right, and I think the reason for that is has to do with the ways in which we understand reality.

It is hard for me to embody the immensity of how my faith moves my learning, but on some level I’ve come to realize that I need to stop shoving it into the little boxes of human rationality. Faith is not a product of human understanding. If the Bible doesn’t apologize for being Divine –if in fact the entire Gospel is built upon Divine Wisdom, and not human–then I have no business apologizing for it either (1 Corinthians 1:18). In the words of the formidable Marilynne Robinson, “…there is no justification for applying the test of common sense to what the religious must assume are reality’s deeper structures, the orders and affinities that make human wisdom in its larger sense efficacious, beautiful, vital, and full of satisfactions” (“Proofs,” from The Givenness of Things, p. 156).

If we take faith (or at least, one facet of it) to be a response to the divine work in us, then we have to look at how it affects our inner workings, not just the content of what we believe. How it shifts perspectives, so that I can be fully aware of how and why Christianity is so different from alternative worldviews, and still be so bowled over by the lovely Truth of it that I have to examine every new experience and idea in its light. Its light!

I so love all the Biblical language about God being like light. I truly believe it. He is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).

That is the basis of my epistemology, my philosophy of learning. I remember the jolt I felt when I realized in high school that that was the heart of my desire to study Modernist literature–my heart, and my justification wrapped into one. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

When I realized what that verse meant was that Christ has gone into the darkest places and come out through them alive, and himself, I was–am!–struck dumb by the implications. By doing that, Christ gave the dark places value. Not the frivolous monetary associations we place on the word today (oh the tragedy of an ever-evolving language!) but rare, precious, dearly-bought and validated, real redemption.

It changes everything. Dark places are everywhere, literal and metaphorical, physical and emotional, internal and external. But look at it from the point of view of the light. Why would He sully himself with a desolate humanity? Why would He enter into our suffering? Why would He make us this way, and not perfect the way He wants us to be?

And when the light is a Person. 

I won’t quote T.S. Eliot, I won’t, but oh, love.

It changes everything, and there is my metaphysics. Just by virtue of His coming down, the darkness is never absolute. And you know what? By His light you can see what He came down to save.

And so for me learning–literature, the humanities, philosophy, the arts–has become my means of following the light.  And there’s so much light everywhere. Everywhere you look, there’s more grace to discover, if you want to see it.

You’d be right to remind me that I started out talking about structures of racism. How, Mary Sue, can you hold a world with such ugly problems in tandem with the idealized worldview you’ve just articulated?

It’s never that we are excused from working to fix those problems. Ever. Grace, as a professor once told me, does not excuse effort. The thing is, grace transforms that effort so that we are no longer working to correct insurmountable-seeming ugly problems like racism and human trafficking and more, that start with human evil and end with human limits. Grace makes the hard and bloody work about finding the light instead, the countless places and ways of seeing that God shows Himself through, and clearing the darkness around them, and finding that it was just our eyes closed. That our hearts need to be transformed, if we are to fix our problems. That reality is much bigger than we thought, and that God loves us so very much it makes our hearts ache.

Aaah, there’s so much beauty in the way of things. Pt. 2 to follow soon. And, I bet, Pt 3!

 

Dorothy L. Sayers, Introduction from the Man Born to be King

“We are so much accustomed to viewing the whole story from a post-Resurrection, and indeed from a post-Nicene, point of view, that we are apt, without realising it, to attribute to all the New Testament characters the same kind of detailed theological awareness which we have ourselves. We judge their behaviour as though all of them–disciples, Pharisees, Romans, and men-in-the-street, had known with Whom they were dealing and what the meaning of all the events actually was. But they did not know it. The disciples had only the foggiest inkling of it, and nobody else came anywhere near grasping what it was all about. If the Chief Priests and the Roman Governor had been aware that they were engaged in crucifying God–if Herod the Great had ordered his famous massacre with the express intention of doing away with God–then they would have been quite exceptionally and diabolically wicked people. And indeed, we like to think that they were: it gives us a reassuring sensation that “it can’t happen here.” And to this comfortable persuasion we are assisted by the stately and ancient language of the Authorised Version, and by the general air of stained-glass-window decorum with which the tale is usually presented to us. The characters are not men and women: they are all “sacred personages”, standing about in symbolic attitudes, and self-consciously awaiting the fulfillment of prophecies…

Unhappily, if we think about it at all, we must think otherwise. God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own–in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government renowned for its efficiency, He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators. His executioners made vulgar jokes about Him, called Him filthy names, taunted Him, smacked Him in the face, flogged Him with the cat, and hanged Him on the common gibbet–a bloody, dusty, sweaty, and sordid business.

If you show people that, they are shocked. So they should be. If that does not shock them, nothing can. If the mere representation of it has an air of irreverence, what is to be said about the deed? It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear the story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all.

from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Introduction to her play, “The Man Born to be King”

On Christ’s life as a dramatic piece:

       From the linguistic material we may pass to the architectural material. The structure of the Gospel drama is interesting. Up to and including the Crucifixion it has, as I have said, the strict form of classical tragedy, though not of what Aristotle would consider a tragedy of the best type. For it depicts the fall of a good man to undeserved misfortune, and this he reckons only the second worst of the four possible forms. Nor would Aristotle have altogether approved the character of the Protagonist, for “the hero of a tragedy should be a mixed character, neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad”. The hero is, indeed, one of the major difficulties in this particular drama, since perfect goodness is apt to be unsympathetic, and generally speaking permits of little development. But this hero’s goodness was not of the static kind; He was a lively person. He excited people. Wherever He went He brought not peace but a sword, and fire in the earth; that is why they killed Him. He said surprising things, in language ranging from the loftiest poetry to the most lucid narrative and the raciest repartee. )If we did not know all His retorts by heart, if we had not taken the sting out of them by incessant repetition in the accents of the pulpit, and if we had not somehow got it into our heads that brains were rather reprehensible, we should reckon Him among the greatest wits of all time. Nobody else, in three brief years, has achieved such an output of epigram.) And if He had no hamartia in the literal sense, there was at any rate that clash between His environment and Himself which is the mainspring of drama. He suffered misfortune because HE was what He was and could not be otherwise; and since His time tragedy has become the tragedy of will and character, and not of an external and arbitrary destiny.

Thus far, then, a classical tragedy. But in the fifth act there occurs a peripeteia, again of the classical kind, brought about by an anagnorisis. The Hero is recognized for what He is: and immediately, what was the blackest human tragedy turns into Divine Comedy.

In the light of this fact, the interesting question arises whether such a thing as a Christian tragedy is possible. It has been said on the one hand that it is off the essence of Christianity to take a deeply tragic view of human nature. So indeed it is. Seen form the earthly end, mankind, haunted from the womb to the grave by a hamartia that sets him at odds with himself, with society, and with the very nature of things, is a being whose every action is fraught with tragic significance. His native virtues are but “splendid sins”, issuing in ineluctable judgment; his divine graces involve him in a disharmony with his fellow-men that can end only in his crucifixion. Either way he is–like Oedipus, like the House of Atreus–doomed to self-destruction. But, viewed from the other end, his worst sins are redeemable by his worst suffering; his evil is not merely purged–it is in the literal sense made good. The iron necessity that binds him is the working of the Divine will–and lo! the gods are friendly.

Short of damnation, it seems, there can be no Christian tragedy. Indeed, if a man is going to write a tragedy of the classic type, he must be careful to keep Christianity out of it. At least, it will not do to introduce a complete Catholic theology; where Christ is, cheerfulness will keep breaking in. Marlowe the atheist did indeed write a Christian tragedy, and by a just instinct chose the only possible subject for unrelieved Christian gloom; Dr. Faustus is a tragedy of damnation. But it is not classical. Faustus is not the victim of fate: he has what he chooses; his hell is bought and paid for. Moreover, it is an individual catastrophe; his damnation is not shown in any relation to the Divine Economy; whereas the sin of Judas played its part in the great Comedy of Redemption, and if he damned himself, it was because he did not choose to wait for the last act.

Heart for Lebanon

Before I came to Lebanon, I contacted a Lebanese Christian friend I met the last time we visited Lebanon and asked her: can I come to your church, and can you connect me with any Christian organizations that can use a volunteer for a couple months?

She connected me with Heart for Lebanon, a Christian non-governmental organization that seeks to aid refugees in Lebanon (there are over a million refugees from Syria alone registered in Lebanon, according to United Nations Refugee Agency).

I got to volunteer at H4L’s summer school for at-risk kids two days a week. I had a grand total of three weeks before school let out, but that ended up being a good thing.

It was one of the harder things I’ve done, shall we say 😉

The kids, who go up to about age 11, are instructed in math, Arabic, and English.

All the teachers are young women like me, only a year or two out of university. Jamie, the English teacher, is an energetic woman who used to teach drama. So her gestures are grand and sweeping and she is bright and charismatic. She switches between Arabic and English with ease, saying each sentence in English before translating it into Arabic for the kids.

The only problem is, authority=who can yell the loudest. (for the Syrian refugee children, at any rate, though I have a sneaking suspicion it is true for Arab kids in general. I’m told teachers in Syria hit their students).

They’re not bad kids, they’re just…chaotic. On the first day, Jamie told me, “feel free to speak harshly to them; it’s the only way to maintain control.”

Boy did she ever! But she was right; it was the only way to maintain control (though sometimes barely!) but the kids adore her. The kids adore all their teachers. It’s odd to contrast that with my experiences in the US as a homeschooler. Yelling rarely ever occurred and I teach my classes with that perception. But it just doesn’t wash here.

I want to stress that yelling isn’t necessarily equivalent to abuse here in Lebanon. I intend to do some sort of blog post on the Lebanese people at some point and one of the things that I realized very quickly is that the Lebanese people are very happy to have things out publically, and that’s a cultural characteristic. A big explosion, and then it’s over. Even in everyday life, people talk at a higher volume. I think westerners would be surprised by daily conversation too, and would find it rather stern and blunt—but it’s not usually meant to offend or hurt. That’s just how people are here.

However, I think everyone who knows me realizes that that’s not true of me. I’m not loud and I’m usually pretty polite (“Oh you Americans,” a new English friend I met here in Lebanon told me. “You’re always so polite!”)

So when Jamie asked me to sub for the first two classes of the next day, as she had a dentist appointment, I definitely hid a groan. But sure, I said, figuring that as long as I keep them from hurting themselves it would be okay. I knew anything they learned would be a bonus.

It was awful.

I was yelling so hard that the sweat was falling off my face in fat ugly drops and leaving embarrassing spots on my clothes, and I still wasn’t loud enough. Twenty minutes in, the lady helping me said, “Mind if I do something?”

“Sure,” I said gratefully.

Poor woman pretty much taught the class, restoring discipline in a matter of minutes and drilling the kids on their letters while I stood around and tried to look like I belonged there.

That was embarrassing.

Definitely, definitely not cut out to be a teacher of young kids.

The next class was the oldest class, and my Arabic was definitely not strong enough to carry that one. So I read the English bits while Tamar did everything else.

Few things have incentivized me to improve my Arabic like that experience did. That was really hard. I hate feeling useless like that. I came to help, and didn’t do anything at all beyond just stand there.

I liked the one-on-one stuff though; I always do. I got to work with two older girls on their English in some after-school tutoring. Their names were Nejwa and Yasmeena. They’re both sweet, soft-spoken girls who work hard on improving themselves. The teachers are trying to get them ready to join their own grades in school as quickly as possible.

Nejwa looks like a typical Arabic girl: dark skin, dark hair, and big, soft, dark eyes you can get lost in. She has an adorable baby brother who sometimes came in and rattled around while we were working. He’d giggle and ask questions and so many times I came this close to grabbing him and kissing him. We’d try to include him a bit in the English lessons (“What’s that?” I’d ask, pointing to a picture. “Cat!” he’d answer. “What’s a cat?” In Arabic, he’d answer, “beeseh!”)

But most of the time it was just me and Nejwa for an hour or so together after school. We’d work through a book together, translating the English words back and forth into Arabic and drilling her on dictation and vocabulary.

One day, I sat in on an Arabic class with her and Yasmeena. Both of them smiled at me and their eyes twinkled at our little secret: I can’t read and write Arabic!

In appearance, Yasmeena is the opposite of Nejwa. Everything about her is fair, but like Nejwa, she’s quiet and intelligent and soft-voiced.

(In some ways, the experience has made me nervous about applying to the Peace Corps. I submitted my application and requested a position in ESOL education in Jordan, South Africa, or the eastern Caribbean. It’s a two-year commitment and it provides extensive training in language and other skills as well. That’s why Jordan was my first choice: extensive language training AND two years there? I’d have great Arabic at the end of it. But Lord! If they put me with Arab kids I’ll want to quit for the first six months.)

Lord, please protect these kids and their families. Have mercy on the Middle East, and please God – come quickly!

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One day, I had the privilege of going to the south of Lebanon one day with a Heart for Lebanon medical team from Georgia, USA (of all places!) as a translator (yes, me, with my all of my extensive knowledge of the Arabic language).

All we had was a structure that provided shade. We set up stations for triage, general medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. All of it was pretty basic (though the dentist had a pretty sweet set-up, with a chair, sterilized tools, and everything). We had antibiotics, vitamins, probiotics, painkillers, and that was about it.

There was a sense of expectancy about the camp as we set up. I thought it was just because we were gearing up for a long hard day, but looking back I realize now that it was an expectancy that God would be at work in sobering ways. We prayed before we started, asking God to work through us to minister both to their hearts and their bodies.

And then they came, and they were so beautiful! They are beautiful. Syrian refugees and Bedouins from the camp on the other side of the road flooded in, men, women, and children of all ages. Most of them were shy, unsure of their welcome with the confident Western men and women who carried themselves so differently. They came so timidly, until we smiled at them and welcomed them to sit down and asked them what they were feeling. Despite being warned against it, I couldn’t help reaching out to touch them (the women, anyway), clasping their shoulder, or running my hand up their arm, or letting them take my hand or hug and kiss me. We’d rarely take more than ten minutes with each one, but they’d walk away with palpable relief and gratefulness on their faces. And really, most of that came from being treated as human beings.

I remember one Muslim lady who was terrified that she had diabetes; she had been so thirsty lately and she’d heard that being unquenchably thirsty was a sign of diabetes. The doctors I was translating for immediately nixed the idea (many of the immigrants work in the fields and it is SWELTERING hot in Lebanon in the summer. Dehydration is a real issue. On top of that, Ramadan fell in July this year.) but we did a blood sugar test and she came back well within normal ranges. When we told her, she nearly cried with relief, taking my hands and kissing them. “We have no money for the doctor,” she said, “and I was so afraid! I’ve been self-medicating – trying not to eat sugar and stuff like that – and so worried. Such flutterings in my stomach, here, feel!” She grabbed my hand and held it against her rib cage.

I couldn’t feel anything, but I didn’t tell her that. Teresa said that’d be from dehydration, tell her to drink more water.

“Don’t be afraid any more!” we told her. “Just drink lots of water, as much as you want and more!” and she walked away to get the vitamins the doctor prescribed with a spring in her step. All from a simple blood test. Truly, we are privileged to live in these days.

We prayed with nearly every one of them. We’d ask them for permission first, and then proceed. At first, Beverly or Teresa prayed for them in English, but then they started asking me to pray.

I was scared, at first. God, my Arabic isn’t good enough to talk to You in it and to express the depth of my heart for these people! Especially in front of them!

“Just say something about Jesus the Messiah – Yasou el Massih – and how He loves each of them and can heal them,” said Teresa and Beverly, the doctor and nurse I was assigned to.

“Okay.”

Lord, at least You’ll know what I mean. Please God, give me the words in Arabic! Please let them understand what I’m praying for them!

Most of the time, my prayers ended up being a mixed-up jumble of Arabic. I just tried to make it obvious that I was talking specifically to Jesus the Messiah, asking Him to show each one how He loves them, how He knows them personally, and how their hurts hurt Him too.

But Lord, I know You know what I meant. You know all of them by name, and all their ailments. Please, in the name of Your Son who came to earth and died and rose again for every one of them, break into their lives and save them!

I remember one old woman who came to us. I don’t remember what was wrong, but the doctor, Teresa, wanted to do a blood sugar test on her, just to be sure. The doctor asked me to get her permission, because it required a needle. At first, she was hesitant. “I don’t like needles,” she confessed. “I’m the same,” I told her. “But this will tell us definitely if you have diabetes or not.”

So she agreed, drawing her scarf up over her mouth and covering the blue tattoos that decorated her chin. She was Bedouin. I kept up a steady ramble for the ten seconds it took to do the test. I remember her because she looked away, and I do that too. It’s not that the needle hurts that much, but watching it slide into your skin is gross and unsettling.

There was the young girl who came to us with a sick little boy in her arms. I could tell she was young—I thought she was probably closer to 16. She was the boy’s mother. The doctor was more aware than I was. She asked me to ask the girl’s age.

14. I met a 14-year-old mother. I was so shocked I asked the girl to repeat it, thinking for sure I’d misheard. To her credit, the doctor didn’t bat an eyelash, but my heart broke for the girl. At 23, I’m only just beginning to feel like maybe I wouldn’t be as incapable a mother as I’m afraid I’d be. At 14, the most important thing in my life was what’s the next book I’m going to read! Please God, protect her and her child and let there be real love in that family!

Another woman came with her two girls and pushed the older one in front of us. “She doesn’t hear. Please, can you help? We’ve taken her to a doctor and he told us that she needs tubes put in her ears and her tonsils should be taken out.” She handed us a packet of x-rays. Teresa verified the diagnosis but we only had the most rudimentary supplies—the camp was in no way set up to perform operations like that. I hated having to explain that to her, that we just couldn’t do it here and she’d have to go to a hospital.

She shook her head. “We just don’t have the money. Is it life-threatening if we have to wait?”

“No, but the longer you wait, the more the quality of life will be compromised. She’ll get headaches, infections, dizzy spells, and her hearing will worsen.”

She was disappointed, but I think she already figured out that we couldn’t do it here. She gestured to the fussing baby in her arms. “When we were there, the doctor listened to her breathing and said that when she grows up, she’ll need the same thing, but how we’re to find the money, I don’t know.”

“I’m so sorry! But for what it’s worth, the surgeries they need are easy. I had my tonsils taken out when I was little, and I didn’t even spend a day in the hospital. And my dad had tubes put down his ears, and he didn’t stay overnight either. So don’t be afraid on that account at any rate; they’re easy surgeries.”

Then a bit of relief came into her eyes. “That’s good to know. That’s better than nothing.”

That afternoon, I went out to them to do two house calls in the camp itself. Ramshackle structures made of cardboard and scraps, there’s little light and electricity in these tiny little one-room homes. And yet the humanity, the good-humor and hospitality, that shone from those faces, was just as recognizable on those brown faces in their hijabs and abayas as it is on my own mother’s face.

My Arabic didn’t hold up at our first stop, where we saw an old man who must have been a hundred. I had to go and get the driver/photographer (really, they didn’t need me; he was much more able than I to translate.) to relate Teresa’s instructions to them. He had the only mattress in the house, which was just one room with a little cove to the side for the “kitchen.” He was so frail—tiny, stiff, and tired, with not a whole lot of comprehension in his eyes, which rested wearily on Teresa’s face as she instructed him to follow her pen with his eyes or to breathe deeply. But oh, when the photographer asked him to smile the most darling good-humored glint came into his eyes and he lifted his hands in thanks. There it was again. Humanity, made-in- God’s-image-ness, irrepressible and unmistakable and oh so beautiful and relatable.

For the second call, we followed a gangly little girl back into another dark, barren one-room house, where her mother, an overweight woman in dark robes, sat cross-legged on the floor within the circle of light the open door threw into the room. For this one, I was able to translate, the words flowing with reassuring ease into my mind. “From here to the door, I get out of breath,” she told me. “My heart pounds and pounds like I’ve been running for miles, and I ache everywhere. Especially my back.”

So Teresa tested her, guessing right away that blood pressure was the issue. Sure enough, hers was so high she was at risk for a stroke. “Please take care of yourself, aunt!” I told her, and she blessed us for coming out to see her.

The people in the camp have nothing. They don’t have two cents to rub together, and yet: they’re more real, more alive, somehow, than the other people I’ve seen here. They’ve gone through so much, and yet they still smile.

Educated upper class Lebanese people are all wary of the refugees flooding into Lebanon. To be honest, it’s not entirely without cause. Lebanon’s economy is not particularly well equipped to handle the influx. Prices are going up, and water and electricity (both of which are a bit short) have to stretch farther the more people come in. There’s bad blood between Syria and Lebanon. In addition, many Lebanese non-Muslims are eager to disassociate themselves from Islam as much as possible, especially as Muslim extremists terrorize the Middle East.

The attitude makes me uncomfortable. Before I went to England, I was warned that it was dangerous because of the many Muslims living there. That turned out to be a load of piffle. I met a number of generous, kind-hearted women who follow Islam. They were constantly serving others and they really loved their husbands. They are my friends (you can find stories about them in previous entries.) Because of them I’m not comfortable with the way many Lebanese perceive Islam, especially since fear, which I suspect is mostly unwarranted, prevents loving, which prevents bridging gaps and probably the extremism that is the cause of the fear in the first place. (I mean, think about it. The more one feels isolated, the more strongly one will cleave to what comforts him, or what gives him his identity, or what he loves—and that can easily go to extremes.)

One more story: a youngish man with sad, bright eyes came in for his little son and himself. His son was having tummy troubles. So Teresa asked him about the boy’s bathroom habits. “Wallah,” he told me, “I don’t know. My wife takes him to the bathroom.”

So he came back later with his wife and she was the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in Lebanon yet. Big, blue-green eyes in a milk-and-coffee colored face and a warm, bright smile. She was tall, with a sturdy graceful figure, wrapped up in pretty, feminine Muslim wear. I couldn’t stop staring at how lovely she was.

So we figured the little one out and turned to the man. Teresa (did I mention the entire medical team was from Georgia?) looked at the chart he handed us. “He has some psychological issues,” she said, looking over at me. “Because of some sort of deformity that keeps him from working.”

Oh dear.

He sat down tiredly and smiled hesitantly at me.

“Get him to talk to you,” said Teresa. “Ask him what’s the problem.”

So he showed me his hand. It didn’t seem like a major deformity to me; his thumb was bent inwards toward his second finger, but it kept him from working.

Of course, to an Arab man that’s misery. It’s his job, his God-given duty to provide for his family. As a refugee, this man doesn’t exactly have a lot of job options beside manual labor.

“I’m so depressed about it,” he told me. “My wife has to work for us and wait on me while I just sit around doing nothing all day, being useless. My whole body aches with it.”

“Tell him that in America we don’t look down on people with deformities; it’s not a problem, and it shows that his family really loves him to support him.”

We’re not in America! I thought, half-angry and half-amused. So I stressed the “it’s not a problem and it shows your family loves you” bit more than the American bit. We couldn’t do anything for him, as it was deformed from birth, but prescribed vitamins and suggested drinking more water. But his sad eyes and his wife’s beautiful ones stand sharply in my memory. Please God, comfort that man!

Comfort all the refugees, Lord. Break into their lives and let them find their peace and love in You. Please, God, have mercy on the Middle East!

The Good-Morrow, by John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

 

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

 

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

I ate sheep’s stomach and I liked it. Sort of.

If California’s palette is made of Mexicans, Eastern Asians, and African Americans (think, I guess, bright happy colors, sharp flavors and angled syllables, and music with a clean, hard beat), then Derby, surprisingly enough, is colored Central and West Asian, Caribbean, African, Eastern European, and more. Rich jewel tones, hot, smoky spices and scents, curves everywhere – the language, the dresses, the music. It’s a palette of a completely different range than the one I’m used to.

The more I pay attention to it, the more I’m entranced by it. There’s so much potential in Derby; I can’t get over it. I love walking down the street and seeing a Caribbean hair salon right next to an Eastern European corner market with a Pakistani couple entering into it, or hearing an unmistakably Asian accent break through carefully modulated British tones.

The Hispanic accents are probably my favorite, though. There aren’t as many of them, but they remind me so much of home. “Hasta luego,” a short, beaming Ecuadorian told me at ESOL class a couple weeks ago, and I smiled for two days. “Plesed to met yu!” labored another, shaking my hand firmly, and for a short while I was back in California amid its sun-faded boxy buildings.

Differently from California, though, my being here has a more missional focus. I’m in England to serve the local church community as well as to share the gospel through friendship evangelism (which I’m a big fan of.)

It does, however, lead to a lot of reflection on differentiating religions from cultures. I’m increasingly convinced that it’s a responsibility of every human being and it’s one that Americans and American Christians tend to fail at.

It’s so untouched. We’re afraid that admitting that a head scarf is beautiful means we’re becoming Muslim, or we’re so alarmed by the reputation of Islam that we daren’t talk to one. Worse, we don’t dare to open ourselves to friendships with them, perhaps because we’re afraid of being tainted by association.

Load of nonsense, people. If we truly desire to reach out to Muslims, let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by refusing to get to know and care for them. Through friendship we earn the right and credibility to push back gently against their beliefs—because they know we take them and their beliefs seriously enough to engage thoughtfully. When we can recognize the truths in their belief systems, we have discerned the thread that will lead to the Bible. We can’t force them to it, mind, but at the very least we have forged meaningful connections that aren’t intrusive and rude. In fact, they’re fruitful for both sides.

I experienced this with my Sudanese friend Nioal, who is Muslim. At English class some months ago I saw her write that she’s from Sudan. I asked her if she spoke Arabic. It was pretty much a total guess, but it worked (looking back, it looks like providence 😉

I saw her a month or so later, at a recipe book launch the ESOL centre hosted. After finally working up the courage, I approached her and the two other Muslim ladies with her. “It’s so nice to hear Arabic again!”

Not, perhaps, the most intelligent thing to say but it did get me three excited women talking at me in Arabic faster than I could process! No matter; the conversation quickly turned maternal as they cooed at my limited Arabic and my baby face. Nioal invited me to her home, so some weeks later, I visited her.

Walking through the door, I got my first inkling that this would be different. It was so dark that I almost didn’t realize there was someone in front of me until I saw the gleam of white teeth and doe eyes in a velvety dark face and was duly introduced to her youngest child, an 8-year-old girl (with a British accent!). It was also hazy inside, the scent of pungent spices and herbs lingering in the air. She ushered me into the sitting room and brought sweets and drinks. It was sumptuously decorated – again, dark, with dark fabrics that soaked up the light that seeped through the curtains and gigantic pieces of dark wood furniture that housed the requisite television and gold Islamic urns and artwork. We soon left for a more familiar scene: the dining room and kitchen.

Here the spicy smell was decidedly stronger, but the rooms were much more lived in so I felt more comfortable. Shortly after, Salwa, another Muslim Sudanese lady from the centre, showed up and I quickly realized that Nioal is very much a shy woman.

Then Nioal brought out the food (and kept bringing it out.).

“Do you like lamb?” she asked me.

Well, not exactly. “Oh, I’ll eat anything,” I answered.

So she brought out great big hunks of roast lamb still on the bone dripping with fat, a tub full of roast eggplant salad, bread, fresh salad, and a platter full of, well…

Sheep stomach.

Ohhh dear. Oh no! Eww. What do I do? She’ll be so disappointed if I don’t like it. I have to at least try it. Yuck. Well, buck up, Mary Sue. She’s probably not trying to poison you. Just hang on; it’ll be over soon.

To my surprise, it was actually not bad. NOT something I’d cook for myself, but I didn’t dislike it. The food was amazing in general—so very different. Two hours later, I literally ached from all the food that she kept ladling on to my plate. “Nioal, stop! I’m gonna—”

Oh dear. How to explain? She wouldn’t understand “explode,” and I don’t know how to explain that in Arabic, so she took my hand gestures to mean “Get fat.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she said, putting another piece of roast lamb, dripping with grease, on my plate. “It’s meat, it doesn’t make you fat.”

Blink.  “Ohh right, haha! Thanks!” Lord have mercy!

Salwa provided the commentary while we ate (after, that is, after kindly explaining all the food to me. In detail.) “Do you have boyfriend?”

I froze. “Umm, no, I don’t!”

“What?!? You don’t have boyfriend? Why not??” Surprise and consternation from both of them.

“Well I—I just, umm, I, God hasn’t given me one yet.”

“Don’t you know any men?”

“Well yes, but…” But I believe in marrying for love, but do I dare try to explain that to you? “I do, but they’re just not the right ones. I’m waiting until God sends me the right one.”

“Yes, yes. How old are you?!”

“Twenty-three.”

Salwa’s eyes positively gleamed. “You know Sudanese men make good husbands?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, they provide for them and they don’t abuse them and they love their families.”

“Oh, that’s so nice!”

“Yeah! Are you Muslim or Christian?”

“Christian,” I replied, thinking that’ll squash the conversation.

“Oh you can convert!” Salwa replied enthusiastically. “Muslim men can marry whatever religion they want, but if Muslim women convert to another religion they can be put to death. And you know, half-caste children are beautiful, with a white and a black parent. They are so beautiful. Beeeeyootiful!!

Torn between amusement and panic, I almost asked her if she had someone in mind but then decided, better not. “Oh yeah, we know a mixed-race family like that and their children are incredibly attractive.”

After that the conversation moved on, thank heaven, and we had tea, coffee, and baklava and basbousa, an Arabic cake. It was all fascinatingly foreign, the tea cardamom spiced with star anise, the coffee thick and syrupy sweet enough to set my jaw on edge. She also lit incense. She lit charcoal on the stove, set it in a brazier, and sprinkled herbs and dried flowers on it (hence the haze and the spicy smell.) The smoke rising high above the little brazier was mesmerizing.

We walked Salwa out soon after. Before she left, both women were praying to God that my wedding will come soon. Every time I’ve seen Nioal after that she affirms, dear heart, that she will come to America to help me prepare for my wedding. It’s so humbling to have a woman wish for me the height of what she knows as happiness so sincerely and so often.

It was such a privilege to spend time with her and get to know her. She’s such a gentle, hardworking soul. Her husband is still in Sudan, helping support his brothers’ families (after his brothers were killed in war), leaving her to raise her six children and navigate immigrating to a new country and learning the language and customs on her own. So she’s taking classes in English and in driving and involved in volunteering for charities and refugees and trying to start up her own business doing henna and feminine products.

On the second visit, it was all about perfumes. After a couple hours over English, unbelievable amounts of food, and visiting, she brought out her oils and handmade scrubs and perfumes to show me.

They are so different from the perfumes and scents we’re used to in the western world! Much less sweet and so much more exotic. I opened and smelled all of them (being rather wary about the non-handmade soap labeled “Virginity Soap”), oohed, and handed them back to her.

Of course, she wouldn’t take the virginity soap back. “It’s for you,” she said enthusiastically.

My confusion must have been apparent on my face (what on earth does that mean? Do I look a bit…not virginal? Was that an insult?) because she continued, “Do you know what this is? It’s to clean down there,” she said, gesturing vaguely down!

“Umm, wow, gosh, thank you! That’s so kind of you! I really appreciate it!” I said, and prayed God would keep me from breaking down into helpless laughter then and there.

Then she grabbed my hand and poured sandalwood oil into our palms. Hunh? Umm, what’s this for? Then, she stands up, reaches her hand down her sleeve, and just starts patting it into her armpits.

So of course I do the same. Two newly acquainted women, one from Sudan and one from America, in a sitting room in England, casually patting their armpits with sandalwood oil. Nbd. And it stays. If I smell different next time you see me, you know why!

My poor English friends are terrific sports, because when I convinced her to come visit us on our Wednesday hangout, she came back the second time with roast lamb, baklava, basbousa, and – you guessed it – sheep stomach. Poor dear, while walking back to her house together afterwards she confided in me, “I think the stomach is too spicy for your friends.”

Yes, that’s exactly what’s wrong with it, hahaha. “Yeah, you know, English tastes,” I told her. “They aren’t used to strong flavors like that. It’s just too different for them.”

“Ok,” she said. “I won’t make it for them anymore—”

Whew, that was—

“I’ll just make it for you when you come.”

Drat.

 ><><><><

 That I know her brings an urgency to my desire to share the gospel with her. That is, I think, the true power of the gospel: that we are afforded, indeed urged to seize, the luxury of loving the person as Jesus loves them, or rather, as He loves us. In the painful vulnerability it requires, we have the opportunity to grow in our humanity and our love for each other. If true friendship means wanting the best for a person, then the man or woman who knows and loves the Lord will want nothing less for her friend. Nothing less will suffice. I want her to know the One I love and I really want her to love Him as well.

I was grumpy when I woke up the day I was going to visit her the second time. Lord, I prayed. Put me in a better mood, please. Help me get over myself. Please, Lord, use me to speak to her. You are the one who put her into my life—please let her get to know You through me.

It was electrifying to hear her ask me later that day, “How can we know that God loves us?”

Did you—did you really just ask me that? God, did you just do that? Did you answer my prayer just like that? Once I picked my jaw up the floor, I told her about Jesus. Between my limping Arabic and her limping English I am not sure she understood that I disagreed with her Islam rather comprehensively, but I’m content to hold on to God’s promise that His Word won’t return to Him void.

After a painfully awkward situation wherein a waiter flirted with me so outrageously that it never even crossed my mind he was hitting on me – until he asked me for my number – things got even more awkward. Shocked stupid, I gave it to him when Nioal suggested it (I know, I know. He stopped texting me when I asked him to, thankfully.)

“I can’t give him my number! I’m—he’s Muslim, isn’t he? I’m a Christian—I can’t, uhh, I don’t, uhhh…”

“You won’t have a Muslim boyfriend? Why?”

AAHH GOD HELP! I was NOT expecting to have to answer this today, whatamigonnasay? How do I explain the whole unequally yoked thing without insulting anybody?

 So I stuttered my way through explaining that as best I could (again, I don’t know if it clicked). We left soon after and then, again providentially, I think, we met a relative of hers on the street, a Ukrainian woman who’d converted and married into the family—and then converted back to “Christianity” after separating from her husband.

Thank heaven for a bone! “If I convert to Islam, Nioal, I want it to be because it’s serious to me, not because I want to marry a guy or anything like that.”

She immediately agreed with me. “Yes, religion is serious, good, you’re right.”

After that she looked at me a bit differently – I think it clicked with her that I take being a Christian very seriously. And the elements that Christianity and Islam share have provided fodder for lots of conversations, which is amazing. We haven’t progressed quite to what we disagree on yet, but I have a feeling God will provide opportunities for that as her English improves.

But it’s set the stage so beautifully. She’s coming to hangout with my English church after I agreed with her that western society’s ideas of family are sadly lacking, especially compared to the beautiful Arabic/Muslim ideas. But I told her how my parents in California would never leave their church because the church has become their family, and I’ve told her again and again how much Urban Life has welcomed me as one of their own and that I consider them another family. And now when she comes to hangout she always thinks everyone must be related; she can’t quite comprehend “friends” that are quite that loving and comfortable with each other. She’s noticing that we are different, too; that we live life according to different standards than other people do. I’m so relieved and grateful that she intends to keep coming to hangout after I leave because that kind of steady, loving witness will speak directly to her heart.

And I’m so grateful for the privilege of knowing her and having her so close to my heart. Not only have I had a ton of fun experiencing her culture, but also it was a great way to live life as a Christian, both to appreciate and to stand apart.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of hard work to be done in distinguishing between the wrong and the merely different. But it’s not as black and white as we think. Religion isn’t just a book—it’s the people that live it, and in the case of Islam they’re so much more diverse than we might think (and we should know this; it’s true of Christians as well).

So we can say definitely that the Quran’s picture of Jesus is wrong and misleading and not the way to Heaven—but surely we may appreciate the gentleness and generosity and family-oriented spirit of the Muslim without compromising our stances on the person of Jesus and the importance of the Cross. Surely we may evaluate their statements in the light of the Gospel; we can glean and value the truths and insights without becoming hell-bent radical insurgents, and we can in fact maintain the integrity of the Gospel throughout and be the proverbial lights in the darkness. Surely we may value them as fellow human beings made in the image of God and loved by Him. LOVED. He will use that to speak to their hearts. And you’ll enjoy the experience too.

Christian, be active in appreciating difference. God uses it to reveal so much about who He is and why He loves us.

Sohaib, age 4, I think.

*marches eagerly into the classroom.*

“Miss, I got a bizz (mumble)! I got a bizz! A bizz!”

“A what?”

He keeps touching his hair, which I absently realize is short. “A bizz!”

“I don’t understand. What is that?”

“A HAIRCUT!”

“Oh! Do you mean a buzz cut?”

“Yeah, yeah! A bizz!”

I’d love to be a fairy’s child

The little people are a big part of my life here in England (I don’t mean fairies, though).

I’ve never spent this much time around children – especially of so many different ages – before. I spend nearly all day Thursday with children. There’s the mums and tots group Thursday mornings, where I have a couple special little friends. Little Ayna, who won’t leave her mother’s side but beams at me most mischievously from sparkling dark eyes and giggles madly and bats my hand away when I reach out to tickle her.Two little ones – I don’t know their names – who are hands down the most gorgeous children I have ever seen, with huge blue almond shaped eyes looking out of faces the color of coffee and milk. They stare and stare when they see me, but lately there have been glimmerings of a smile twinkling in the girl’s face. The little Pakistani girl who with her mother keep almost totally to themselves, but will stop and talk to me. Even the Pakistani matriarch who comes in with her two grandchildren (one of whom is always screaming) complimented me on my skirt and asked me why I didn’t speak Urdu or Punjabi (Well…).Or the girl who always shows up in dresses and insists on bringing me a toy phone so I can call my mom (“Mom” never fails. There were purple elephants in the backyard last time.)

Then it’s to the ESOL centre. Class has become so jam-packed that we moved down to the lounge to accommodate everybody, but for the month or two previous I had charge of little Nabikh, who is 18 months old, I believe. His parents recently came as refugees from Pakistan and are busily engaged in learning English. The first time, he behaved – cried, of course, but quieted down when I picked him up and walked around with him – and when a child starts falling asleep on you, it’s kind of hard to stay frustrated. Sadly, it didn’t last. Now all I have to do is walk into the room for him to start crying. Sigh. He’s not a bad kid, but these children usually go through trauma coming as refugees and aren’t used to being separated from their parents at all.

After that it’s lunch at the ESOL centre (usually cooked by volunteers, and they make the most AMAZING ethnic dishes. We’ve had Angolan food, several kinds of Brazilian and Colombian food, and I forget what else, and it has all been amazing.) Then a sewing class, during which I do childcare with another lady named Jeanne. Nabikh has been my primary concern, but we have had other delightful children. There’s been Asher, who is the most amiable little man I have ever met. He can only just sit up on his own, but with his blue eyes and fat cheeks – and constant giggles and smiles – he is eternally kissable =D. Or the four Sudanese children. The three girls played furiously with the 7 or 8 baby dolls in the toy box, changing their clothes and taking them out for shopping and to see their friends. Their little brother, the youngest, watched sleepily from where he was cuddled up – either with me or Jeanne –  until he decided to venture out to join them.

There’s Friday mornings at a local primary school with 27 4 and 5 year old children. It’s completely different from anything else I’ve ever done!! For one, I was homeschooled all my life so this was my first experience with that many kids in one place. For two, the noise! It’s chaos, but organized chaos – I am in AWE of primary/kindergarten/elementary school teachers now. If I’ve learned anything during my time in England, it’s that I’m not meant to be one of them. There’s the teacher (a gregarious young blonde that all the kids adore), the teacher’s assistant (less gregarious but no less loved), and a university student doing her placement there (she’s a bit austere, but we’re making progress :). It is amazing to watch the three of them maintain discipline. Miss G will break the kids up into groups and have each of the adults look after that group while they’re doing whatever activity. The other three operate like clockwork, while with me it’s a constant litany. “Keep going! What are you doing? Look where you’re going! Are you okay? NO STOP THAT! Get back here! Look how far everyone is ahead of you! Keep in line! Don’t cut! What? What? Don’t hurt yourself! Keep going. Keep Going. KEEP GOING. Why have you stopped? Go. GO! Was it an accident? Say you’re sorry. Get up! No, it’s not your turn yet. Hold on, I need to help her first, she was waiting before you. No, I’m not done helping her yet. Don’t be silly. STOPPIT!”

Life goal: learn how to maintain discipline among a group of little ones. College teaching is looking better and better.

But the kids are so cute. I love watching them. “Miss Mary,” they call me, and most of them have the darlingest Pakistani-British accent hybrid. Or just “Miss,” if they forget the Mary part.

Every time I see Sohaib, I want to grab him and kiss his cheeks. Or Hayder, who has a crush on meek little Hafsa. He planted a Hello Kitty sticker smack dab in the middle of her chest on the playground the other day, and they held hands the rest of playtime. Or tiny Maria, who giggles with mischief when she sees me and grabs my skirt. Or Vanessa, who is Romanian, doesn’t understand English, and thinks it’s a hoot to make the teachers chase after her in the playground. Or Darakshan, who is a crack reader. Thomas and Gabriel, who are two inseparable strawberry blondes. The other day, Thomas was distracted when Miss G was calling class to order. To save him from getting into trouble, Gabriel grabbed Thomas’ head and turned him to face the teacher.  And of course, well-behaved, solemn little Mollie.

My favorite thing to do with them is practice their reading. Most of them are already reading, thanks to phonics time in the morning. I wouldn’t mind doing that – literacy stuff. But that’s a given.

I also am spending time with preteens/teens, who are a different element altogether. I teach preteens in the US, but here it’s more about being friends with/mentoring them, and that’s weirdly different. The family I’m staying with has four kids. The oldest is immersed in schoolwork, so I don’t see a ton of her. The third one, the only boy, and I get along fine, and the youngest is all around adorable. I’m probably closest to the second one, who is 13 (which is funny because I think she took the longest to warm up to me. Now she scares me by creeping up behind me.)

Not too long ago, I offered to look after the kids, and invite some friends of theirs over, so their parents could go to a conference together. I planned to make pizza with them and watch a movie – but they arrived and I realized with a jolt: I have no idea what to do with you all! Somehow we got through the day in one piece and with minimal boredom 😛

Later, at a Tough Talks session, I had lunch with the preteen I’d looked after and ended up being her sounding board on some relationship issues she was trying to navigate. Suffice it to say, I had no idea there could be so many nuances to take into consideration when it comes to “liking a guy but wanting to be friends first but being pressured by x and y and z” and etc. and etc. and etc.

She’s twelve.

Twelve. I’m twenty-two and I have never had guy problems like that. How the heck did I get here? And then, her parents are going to kill me.

On top of that, that same day I badly unsettled another eleven-year old who joined our table by telling her I’m twenty-two. “I thought you were our age!” she kept repeating dazedly. The twelve-year old tried to reassure her, but she finally just left the table altogether. I kept catching her staring at me from across the room.

Sorry, kid! I’m sorry!!

I definitely want to be a mom someday. But – not yet. I’m in no hurry, hahaha.