How to Travel Well

Somehow people are more beautiful when they’re removed from you in some way: a different language; a different shape. Make sure you really see them. Don’t be blind to the marvel of the person in front of you. Be he the toothless, chatty guy on the bus or the girl too shy to speak but beaming a megawatt smile, see them. Look him or her in the eye and smile. You’re a miracle. Jesus died for you. You’re beautiful.

Be flexible. Be ready to change plans at a moment’s notice–expect plans to change at a moment’s notice. Don’t resent it when they do. It makes life so much easier and more pleasant.

Be still. In front of difference, be still. This is related to #1. God speaks through stillness. He will teach you how to appreciate the world around you; to be just the right amount of “whelmed” at the whatness of it all. He will teach you how to care for it; how to give it your heart, and how to see him in it.

Be present. Recognize that you aren’t at home any more, and that people do things differently here. Sometimes, really really differently. Learn how to appreciate life the way the citizens do, and you just might learn how to value your own culture and country in a different light.

Appreciate solitude. For the first time in my life, this time around in China I realized that being an extrovert isn’t always easy, after hearing about an acquaintance be absolutely miserable abroad because she didn’t have anybody to talk in English with.  In solitude and silence, you can actually process your experiences. You can, like daffodils, pull them out and look at them, touch them, nudge them apart, taste them all over again.

 Understand that people want to eat good food. Don’t be afraid. It’s fun – and you might get pleasantly surprised! On that note – go to grocery stores! I love grocery stores. I went to one earlier tonight: a 3-story labyrinth of a Carrefour in Beijing – a riot of colors, sounds, smells, sights, and people. Grocery stores tell you so much about the people of a city.

Expect that getting from A to B will take longer than anticipated. Enjoy it. If you get lost, find yourself. Look around! Nothing will increase your confidence like knowing that you can take care of yourself. Explore. Landmarks, history, culture – they’ll wait long enough for you to get there. Don’t be stupid – but don’t be afraid.

Let go of the needs for personal space. There is something – remarkable – in the bonhomie of piling into an elevator, 15 people neck and neck, pillowing up against down coats and getting fluff from hoods in your face, for example. You may not understand one another, but you come intractably face to face with one of the most incredible truths of the universe: we are all made in God’s image, and the things that make us alike far outweigh the things that make us different. (The things that make us different, though, say far lovelier things about our Creator.)

Let go of the need to be understood in your own language. This is hard, but this is crucial to communication – more even, I think, than online translators. I hate online translators – usually they just lead to stressing people out. Just smile, say yes to whatever is asked of you, and roll with the punches.  I had one of my favorite encounters a couple weeks ago when I bought some apples at the grocery store. I took them up to get weighed and the cashier spoke at me in Chinese. I spoke back in English, both of us laughing at not being able to understand one another. As we left, my friend whispered to me, “He just said you are more beautiful than the other girls!”

Expect beauty. It’s everywhere. It’s in the faces that bashfully replace English with smiles that spill over with welcome. It’s in the tentative touch of a new acquaintance’s hand taking your arm, wanting both to look after you and to include you with the girls. It’s in the thoughtful quiet on your friends’/colleagues’/translators’ faces as they listen to what you are saying, understand it, and put together a response. It’s in the crisp lines of the security guard’s uniform as he stands to attention bundled up in the cold. It’s in the faces of the little kiddos bundled up like marshmallows in the cold as they waddle, giggling, next to their equally well wrapped parents. It’s in the careful rules that dictate good food. It’s in the absolutely mind-boggling generosity that makes it hard to shut your luggage for the trip back. It’s everywhere.

“I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Psalm 27:13


China: Kaiyuan, Craby, and CC

I’ve traveled enough and met enough people from different countries to know not to set too much stock by American ethnic stereotypes; even when the stereotypes aren’t unkind, they are usually smaller than the real thing. China was no exception. Sure, some of the stereotypes are accurate to an extent: Chinese people are reserved (at first, and even when they get comfortable it’s not as loud and chaotic as American comfort can be.) for example. The differences between the cultures of the East and the West are real and endlessly fascinating; they were particularly noticeable to me as a teacher.

But the people of China are just lovely. We don’t do generosity and hospitality the same way they do, and the nature of their kindness is just different from ours. Steadier and quieter, somehow. There was a core group of three postgrads who constantly moved me by the depth of their kindness, humility, and affection: Kaiyuan and his girlfriend CC, and Craby (who also has a darling girlfriend who was absolutely swamped with her nursing school program).

I met Craby first. We were connected through one of my students, and he messaged me to ask if we could meet to practice his English. I admit, the first time I met this good-natured and smiling man I had no idea what a dear friend he would become to me. He later brought Kaiyuan to a class I was teaching, and Kaiyuan later introduced me to CC. I then introduced them to Anna (the only other woman foreign English teacher and a wonderful sister in the Lord) and her boyfriend Godfrey, and together we did a lot! I have probably thousands of pictures on FB documenting nearly every moment.

What follows are some of my favorite memories of our times together.


Kaiyuan, CC, and Craby take me to a Chinese barbeque restaurant at the mall. Afterwards, Craby buys me a mango drink and then the three of them corner me.

Kaiyuan: Mary, can I ask you a private question? Maybe you will not want to answer.

Me (expecting a question about any boyfriends I have, or salary): Sure, I trust you guys. What’s up?

Kaiyuan: Does Anna have a boyfriend?

Me (amused, but uncertain if it’s my place to say): … Ye-es. Why do you ask?

 Excited gasps.

 Kaiyuan: Is it Geff? (pronounced phonetically: G as in grand!)

Me: How do you know??

Craby: Because we saw Anna driving his e-bike very fast, and he was sitting behind her like this! (Mimes Geff with his arms wrapped around Anna’s back and his face down)

Me, giggling, caught: yes, he is!

More laughter and excitement. After more discussion:

Kaiyuan: but Mary, we think Anna has betrayed you!

Me, confused: betrayed me?

Kaiyuan: yes, because you used to go together to places all the time, and now they go together!

Me: wait, but that’s not a betrayal – I like Godfrey and Anna together, he is very nice—

Craby: Don’t worry, we will take care of you now.

Me, suppressing laughter: Awww you guys! Thank you!!


Kaiyuan and CC, Craby, Anna and Godfrey and I hung out a lot in the weeks before I left. Anna and I both had everyone over on separate occasions and made American food (enchiladas, salsa, banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, frittatas, and more) for them and played games. Godfrey, an excellent cook, also made delicious Filipino foods: lechon, a purple pudding that was both lovely and delicious, and some other foods whose name I forget.

CC: Mary, before we met you and Anna, I thought Americans only ate pizza and hamburgers!

When we were at Anna’s house, we played a game where everyone started out a handful of paper. For the first round, everyone writes an idea down on their paper (like, say, let’s go fly a kite!). Then, for the second round, you hand your stack of paper over to the next person. They will read what you wrote, and then draw it on the fresh sheet behind it. You keep alternating until your original stack comes back to you, and you get to see where your original idea went.

We played several rounds, and quickly descended into hilarity: giggles at failed sketching attempts, apologies to those who were going to receive our failed attempts, tongues stuck out in concentration, and adorable CC, falling over into me with laughter at the results. She would alternate uncontrollable laughter with practicing her English pronunciation with me: frittata! Rhinoceros! (we’d gone to the Beijing zoo not long before). Hippopotamus!


Baiyangdian was another special memory with the gang. It’s a lotus lake in the wetlands, and it is breathtaking, one of my favorite places in China. Here are some pictures.

The tour we took included transportation to the lake plus boat transportation to two islands: one that featured dozens of kinds of lotuses and one that was a sort of amusement park.

The second one was a bit bizarre. It had a theatrical performance that we were told was about Chinese and Japanese battles in World War II. We sat down in the amphitheater for what turned out to be a bizarre variety show featuring fireworks, gun shots, jokes and laughter, people dancing on one end of the stage and dying on the other. We couldn’t stomach being jerked from one extreme to the other, struck by the inappropriateness of it all. Anna later said, “It felt like whiplash!”

So we had time to kill before the show ended and our tour guide was ready to take us back. We ended up standing outside by the gate and teaching Kaiyuan, CC, and Craby the Chicken Dance and the Macarena.

We felt quite proud about bringing American culture to China 😛

On our way back on the boat we played musical chairs. Not on purpose – we just didn’t want Anna to turn any redder from the sun, and because the guys were all gentlemen. Then, this happened: 19250402_10213391979456907_3589047251181104913_o

One of the most impressive things I saw in China was actually thanks to Craby on our way back from Baiyangdian. We had gotten back into our tour bus and sat down together, but the tour guides (who were a couple of girls still in college) had permitted tourists who had not originally come with us to return on our bus, and these new girls kicked up a gigantic fuss about not sitting together – to the point of stopping the bus, yelling, glaring, and making a bus-full of around 40 people uncomfortable. We foreigners had no clue what was going on, but Craby (who is Chinese) stood up, spoke to both the tour guides and the girls in an effort to resolve things and calm things down. Eventually, they did and we were able to continue back, but poor Craby gave up his seat and ended up being the sole person reduced to standing up for the approximately two hours back. He did it without complaining and went out of his way to make excuses for the girls with the gentlest, sweetest demeanor ever. That is the type of person I would like to be.

After we got back from Baiyangdian, we ate dinner together at a bbq place. One of the things we ordered was grilled enoki mushrooms (they are the small stringy mushrooms that grow together in a bunch.)

Kaiyuan, deadpan: You know, in Chinese, the name translates to “see you tomorrow.”

Me: What? Why?

Kaiyuan, mildly embarrassed: Well, because you see them again the next day.

Me: I don’t get it.

Kaiyuan: in the toilet! They’re indigestible!

I am usually pretty good about keeping it together with language differences, but I laughed until I cried, and giggled the rest of the night. I hadn’t come across any sort of humor like that in China, and hadn’t expected to: they are so polite and unflappable, and this completely broke my paradigm.

Then, Godfrey pipes up: It’s the same in the Philippines (he’s Filipino.) We call it, “I’ll be back.” You know what Macarthur said when he left the Philippines, right? “I’ll be back?”

Me, giggling: So does that say something about what people think of him?

Godfrey, good humor glinting in his eyes: Weeeeeelll……


Before I left, I wanted to figure out some way of expressing my thanks to Kaiyuan and Craby for the countless ways in which they had helped me and made my time in China so pleasant. Besides cooking “American” food for them, I settled on giving them Bibles. I took the time to write each of them letters outlining Scriptures and to put in sticky notes at key and favorite Scriptures.

And they had expressed interest in the Bible in one of our earliest times together – Kaiyuan asking me about the Bible, telling me he had bought one online, asking me what it’s all about, Craby listening attentively and commenting now and again. Later, Kaiyuan showed me his “Bible:” a beautiful DQ illustrated coffee table book with historical and archaeological background to the Bible.

Once I gave it to them and explained, Craby said, in his dear and accented way: Wow! I will save this letter to read later because if I read it now, I am afraid I will not be able to contain my emotions!

(I nearly cried then.)

Later, when I left China, he came to see me off a little earlier than everyone else, a little shy. “Mary,” he said. “I wrote a letter for you that I want to hide in your luggage for you to read later!”

It turned out to be a lovely, warm-hearted letter that I will cherish as a symbol of friendship for the rest of my life.


19656965_121064008503063_7857451166183080238_n.jpgOliver is Anna’s cat. She rescued him her first year as an itty bitty kitten. Now, he is a fat and feisty orange furball who is just as happy to bite you as to cuddle with you (and if he wants to cuddle and you don’t, he’ll bite you.) CC and Kaiyuan adore him, coming regularly to visit him and bring him “pudding.” Anna and I were relieved to discover that cat pudding is individual sealed plastic cups full of cat food.

Oliver usually can be found lounging around outside the Teachers’ Flat.

CC: Mary, Mary! Did you know Oliver has a girlfriend?

I got the news not long after a new teensy orange kitten appeared on the scene. He frolicked with Oliver every chance he got. CC, noticing how Oliver allowed the kitten to roughhouse with him, christened him Little Oliver. (They chortled to discover that Oliver had had a special “surgery” that made it highly unlikely Little Oliver was actually his progeny.)

Me: Oh really? No, I haven’t noticed any new cats?

CC points out a pregnant calico cat lurking in the distance. “Do you know what her name is?”

Me: No, what?

CC: Jimmy!

Oliver, little Oliver, and Jimmy. What a family.


Dear Academia

We read Robert Creeley’s “The Rain” in poetry class I taught last semester. I can’t remember if we got around to discussing it, but I do remember the way the sense of it would begin to coalesce, and then fade away untranslated. It was a group effort to put meaning together. But it popped up in yesterday’s “Poem of the Day,” and when I opened it today it came with startling clarity, and now I’m kind of unsettled and not ready to give in to sleep yet, even though it’s nearing midnight.

All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls

this quiet, persistent rain.

That is it, isn’t it. The nagging patter tugging ceaselessly at my lungs, itching up my throat sometimes: last year unresolved, making me feel weighted down and restless, like the sudden rain squalls in Virginia used to.

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon

so often? Is it

Yes, I did that. I’m really wary of being ungrateful, but more often than not it was me against all of you. Was that right? I’m not entirely sure. I didn’t mean for it to be like that, but you pull in different directions and don’t believe in the ground beneath your feet, and me – me I am too aware of the roots that pull down and the limbs that reach out heavenward in supplication.

But I tried. Didn’t I? I tried. You told me that faith is childish, and I looked – I did, I swear I did – but I couldn’t find anything worthy of replacing human sorrow and divine grace. What am I to myself is a sinner, but also I am beloved – he ate with Zaccheus, after all, and he forgave Peter. I insist on that. I insist on atonement, and nothing less. I need it for being. Nothing less will do.

that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling

will have for me

something other than this,
something not so insistent—
am I to be locked in this

final uneasiness.

I know that the answer is yes. Creeley did too; the question isn’t a question. Did I not know before? No. Something of naivete is gone now, and I rue the cynicism that edges in, too sharp sometimes and needing reprimand, needing – sacrifice.

No, I don’t rue it, though these contradictions exceed me. Or at least, I don’t rue the sacrifice. I knew I don’t belong, and now I feel it too. This final uneasiness. Let it rattle my convictions. In daring to insist on atonement, I’m claiming real reality.

Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,

the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
Be wet

with a decent happiness.

My idea of it isn’t real enough to lie next to me. The “real” is no better – there are heart sore and heart hungry among you, but you are proudest of your children who are content with small worlds. It isn’t fair of me to call you fatuous, but tired yes and intentionally indifferent yes.

You do carry yourselves with that elusive well-educated air. It’s attractive, I grant. Sophisticated – the maddening kind, like Fitzgerald without his hidden grief. Daisy-like. Maybe I’m not being fair. But being wet with a decent happiness is alien; it’s too gauche.

I’m sorry. You’re okay, but you’re not okay too. You could be more, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe I have to learn to sacrifice my ideal for the really real. Other echoes inhabit the garden.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Eliot, not Creeley.

I wish I could take you with me. I wish I could pull the whole edifice of it all along with me. I wish you could feel the ground solid beneath you, and that it could give you a decent happiness. A giddy happiness, even, sometimes.

But that’s not my role. He came down for that, and you have to see him on your own.

In the waiting, then, Lord, here I am.

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.


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!


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.


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.