Saturday, August 23, 2008

No one to wash their feet

Is there a better metaphor for cultural differences than the public toilet?

A pit stop at a gas station, shopping mall or movie theater in UAE gives graphic demonstration that we are indeed at the crossroads
[1]. Check the various stalls and take your pick. Traditional? (That’s a ceramic platform set level with the floor, designed for squatting.) Western? (My readers know this one!)Toilet paper? (A nasty contact with filth that grosses out many in this world.) Backside-sprayer hose? (Running water is necessary to lots of folks for ritual cleansing and purity. But I so want to know how one dries oneself enough to get dressed again!)

Hospitality manifests in providing choice of toileting style. Even in our apartment, we have sprayers installed in the guest toilet and maid’s quarters.

That the prevailing culture here is Islam manifests in the prayer-time mess.

A key tenet of Islam is ritual prayer five times each day. To prepare, one must purify oneself by washing hands, face, head, and feet--three times up to the ankle. Since few public toilets offer a convenient place for washing, the faithful resort to the sinks. Result: water everywhere! Nobody likes it. I took this photo at the Istanbul airport.

A quick google while last in the US taught me that we non-Muslims don’t tolerate it very well, either. Any number of news articles railed against the mess, the practice, and the affrontery to be so public on “our” turf.

Back in April I sat barefoot and cross-legged on a chapel floor and listened before a lovely stained glass of Jesus washing Peter’s feet
[2]. I could hear the collective gasp as Jesus took up the basin and wrapped himself in servant’s towel. I regarded my own feet and Peter’s protest welled up in me. The event is pregnant with Jesus’ magnificent humility as he stoops from eternity to lovingly attend to the stuff that clings after a day of following him, but it also speaks of our human need for purification to be fit to rest in his presence. Those weary men needed washing, but there was no one to do it until the Lord of the Universe displayed such love.

Islam requires clean feet to come to God’s presence, but provides no one (and often no place) to wash them. And the rest of us are irritated by the mess. I wonder—how can you, how can I serve as foot-washer to a Muslim neighbor? What act of grace, what gentle humility, what open acknowledgement of a need would provide winsome, even provocative relevance that would draw her into the presence of Jesus himself?

[1] At Home at the Crossroads, posted 20 July 2008
[2] John 13:1-17

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

From the departure platform

I pull up to the curb on the departure platform--again. I crawl out of the car, and help drag bags out of the back.

Mid-day and 42 degrees Celsius. Sweat beads on Margje’s face and flows down Gordon’s as they wrestle luggage, stroller and babe dressed in their destination garb—black trench-style jacket over long slacks and blouse for Margje, with scarf around her shoulders ready for the mandatory head-covering of Iran. Long trousers and long-sleeved shirt in place of Gordon’s favored shorts and polo that announce his Afrikaans heritage. I take Eli-Anne from her mom for a last hug. Margje and I embrace and the tears flow. Then to Gordon for the cheek-to-cheek etiquette that gives way to a bear hug.

Though they’ve been out of their apartment and staying with us for the past ten days, we’ve all managed to ignore the coming separation. Such dear friends that Eli-Anne knows us as “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” Best camping buddies, dune-bashers extraordinaire, game partners and co-hosts with us of innumerable adventures and feasts. They stood alongside us as Daniel-fans and Cait-supporters, taking Eda in as family with the rest of us when she and Dan married in January; we stood with them as doting grandparents through invitrio, pregnant health crises, and their first year as parents.

I drive home (in Gordon’s SUV, now owned by Dan) and walk through a house so empty without Eli-Anne’s giggly, jumping explorations. Curt comes home and no 15-month old runs to hug his leg and crawl into his lap. No sharing of their days between the two men. No foursome in the kitchen pulling together something wonderful to eat for dinner.

Curt and I both grew up in mobile families. We’ve lived in transient communities before. We’ve moved a fair bit ourselves. But never like here. Expat life in UAE is defined by the frequency with which people come and go. Someone new to welcome and make place for; someone you’ve allowed in as a heart companion takes off on a different journey. When Gordon called to tell us about the job in Tehran, my heart cried out even as my brain told me that if they didn’t leave we’d be gone in a year anyway.

I’m thinking about that cracked-pot thing. With each dear leave-taking we crack a little bit more. Or maybe that’s a choice. Will we seal the cracks against the pain and form a shell that looks nice but is a hard surface that people connect with and bounce off, with nothing real coming through? Or will we allow ourselves to crack open a little bit more, so that the life of Jesus continues to pour through?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Out of my head...

Sometimes when I pray I try to picture Jesus in the room with me. As a thinker (you know--“thinker” as opposed to “feeler,” one of those intense folk whose guiding star is analysis and logic—and, honest, I can’t help it!), I have not always been sure when I was truly at prayer, talking to and listening for the eternal sovereign God, and when I was still trapped in my own head analyzing, applying truth, imagining what I think God might think. To picture Jesus can help. As I move out of internal conversation and into communion/communication, He surprises me like fresh wind. Another is present Who introduces surprising perspective, a way of seeing that I am simply unable to get to on my own.

Journal: 25 February--Abu Dhabi and a full house. “To picture You, Lord, present in each room of this house…. As I look around our bedroom, suddenly conscious of my environment, I’m struck by evidences of Your grace in our life together: Cait’s childhood art, ‘miracle’ furniture we could not have afforded, the artistry of the carpet under my feet. The kitchen: You see what I eat and HOW I eat it (with furtive guilt, or with gratitude and health), and You are present during all the meal prep, fellowship and laughter. The living room: the words on the wall become Your words; the warmth and space reflect Your safety, welcome, protection.

Journal: 2 July—the flat in Kas, Turkey. “Early morning, watching the town awake. When I close my eyes and try to picture You, Lord Jesus, I again sense You standing and stooping to serve us communion—the same impression I had as we prayed together on the balcony at the Gokseke house Sunday night. This balcony and that other—places You have chosen and anointed to share Your flesh and blood. Dare I believe this image is from You and not my own hope alone?”

Journal: 4 July 2008, home in Abu Dhabi after nearly four months away. “Your presence here today: You twisted the tree that became the lamp. You knew the Indian carpenter that carved the flowers on the high bench, and the American one that built the oak sofa 100 years ago. You gifted Steve Gordon to paint, and You love the women who knotted the carpets, and the metal smiths of Oman, Afghanistan and Iran who pounded the pots and trays. You created cows that give meat and leather, sheep that provide wool, peacocks, whale bone, moose, and sand for concrete and glass.

“You call forth the creativity in artists and inventors—people You gift to see possibilities in raw materials. You see and love the workers who work today in the heat of Abu Dhabi, Suleyman who installs his handcrafted cabinets in our kitchen in Kas, and the sweet daughter who helps him.”

Journal: 21 July 2008. “This morning as I turn my mind to focus on You, Jesus, here with me, I am awed (and timid) to recognize that life lived in Your presence is HOLY.

“We are children-at-play in whom You delight as we listen and take You seriously with childlike trust, and as we ‘work out’ our day before You with the sober understanding that our “play’ has purpose, hope, reality. For a child, ‘play’ is serious business, concentrated, abandoned in time and energy, experimental, and rich in love.”