Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lessons I learned from Nadeek

He stands at the edge of the kitchen. Slight and muscled, with rich brown skin, the young-ish man in jeans and polo shirt watches and waits. His stance is erect. His brown eyes are alert, yet calm. Invisible, yet fully present. Willing to do nothing; ready to do anything.

The house is quiet, but a walk from room to room counts a dozen or more people reading, resting, scribbling in journals, praying. Christians leaning into the Lord Jesus in a space set apart for them this day.

We are hosts to a silent retreat. Men and women spread in comfortable chairs, or on cushions piled in a corner. Others stand gazing out the window or into a painting. Nadeek is not a participant. He is here to serve, to make sure the juice pitcher is full, the fruit bowl is replenished, and the dishes get washed. He works for us.

I work, too. As retreat leader, chief cook, and hostess I have plenty to do. Still, Nadeek’s undivided attention arrests me.

I am here to serve, a guardian of space, peace and the silence conducive to focus and meditation. Yet within all that I have my own agenda. I, too, desire as much holy solitude as I can carve for myself. So I come and go from my space in the study. My attention is divided.

“I lift up my eyes to You, to You whose throne is in heaven. …As the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till He shows us His mercy.” Psalm 123:1-2.

I see myself as servant. Yet Nadeek takes me aback. How flawed is my understanding of genuine servanthood. As a creature of the West, where individual trumps community, I see “service” is an activity of the moment. “My time” is to be maximized to get in as much “me-time” as I can around my responsibilities to others.

Nadeek is from Sri Lanka, a child of the East. He turns “servant” into a dignified profession as he gives me a lesson in humility. I asked him to help out with lunch and dishes. He is otherwise free to disappear into his own pursuits. I don’t see “enough” for him to do. Nadeek, on the other hand, sees this set-apart day as filled with opportunities to bless in quiet ways and has set himself as guardian. Most of the day he will stand invisible, but empty cups magically disappear, tea and coffee are ever replenished, the kitchen serving area is spotless. The smallest needs are intercepted before they have a chance to become disruptions.

Suddenly I stand on holy ground as witness to the heart and soul of a true servant. Nadeek could be out about town, resting, or pouring over his beloved sports page. But his master has something going, and he can’t imagine not being there, alert to faces and body language, giving full support to my agenda as he attends those I’ve taken in today.

“Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in Your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name. I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify Your name forever.” Psalm 86:11-12.

With gratitude to my teacher, Nadeek.

Planes, plans and reality

Wow! The plans I make in that rarified space of air travel between one world and another today meet the crunch of real life where laundry and dishes must be done, mail opened and business paperwork addressed, and no one has been to the grocery store for two weeks. Where traffic and lines undermine every schedule; and conversations, in person or cyberspace, fill the margins reserved for the writing of profound thoughts.


Gas bottle
Pick up house/unpack
Arensens for dinner
Follow-up e-mails: Gordon/Holta
10,000 steps

And, please God, can I work on the book a bit, and blog???

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Picture Jesus...

Jesus stands at the full-wall window of my high-rise living room gazing out over Abu Dhabi. His back is to me, and I glimpse Him more in profile. Below us spread tall buildings, 5-star hotels, shops, port facilities, a marina, and heavy traffic. People crammed together because housing is costly and scarce, others in long lines for taxis that don’t come because rampant development has made the way too congested, laborers sweeping walks and washing street signs for $150 a month to send home to their hungry families, locals in their gorgeous vehicles with the dark black windows.

His back is to me, but the sense is companionable, me with Bible and journal in my morning chair, Jesus in contemplation of the city.

“Why are you looking out the window?” it occurs to me to ask. “Because I care about this city.” An obvious reply.

And so we dwell there in quiet fellowship—Jesus lovingly brooding, me turning over this fresh sense of inclusion. My prayer of late has been so focused on my “stuff”: failure and guilt as I cling to two specific ways of emptiness I love while He whispers, “Let them go.” Today I see something wonderful. Jesus, there at the window, so matter-of-factly includes me in what He is doing. He brought me to Abu Dhabi, and I, too, often gaze out that window with compassion, or drive the streets with anger over development that chases wealth for a few while destroying quality of life for so many. With Jesus and through Him I am moved to receive the people who inhabit this place. He includes me as companion, as instrument, as incarnation.

Yes, the “stuff” remains, and I need to give attention to ways I resist His voice, and stay with Jesus in it until I break through to surrender. But that’s not all of Jesus, or all of me, or nearly as big a block in our companionship as I’ve made it. He sees me differently than I see myself: as one of His own, as with Him in His ministry, as a co-lover of those He loves. His perspective is life-giving.

And it may even make it easier to loosen my grip and let go of the “stuff!”

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's in the details!

“It’s all in the details,” I tell the builder, the cooking-helper, the table-setter. Yet with You, Lord, I am sloppy. Part-obedience and sort-of discipline. Hearing Your voice of reminder and saying, “Be with you in a minute.” Restless nights and morning “sorries.” Oh, Father, lead me to repentance that is REAL.

Resolutions revisited...

“Save me from warm feelings that are a substitute for effective action!”

“Compassion” is a word of love that is much more than warm feelings. It means I am moved to the core to DO SOMETHING, to get involved.

“A resolution that is a fine flame of feeling allowed to burn itself out without appropriate action is not merely a lost opportunity, but a bar to future action.”

(with gratitude to the author of Sacred Space—whoever you are…)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Curt did something really cool the other day. We were teaching at the Torchbearer school in Albania and were asked to “give our testimony” as a way of introducing ourselves.

Curt started by asking if anyone knew what he did in his work. As I think about it, I suppose all their other teachers are pastors or missionaries or somehow in full-time employment in the church. Curt’s an oil guy. He works the upstream (subsurface) side of things—the side of the industry that gets that dark green stuff up out of the ground--and he loves his work. That came clear as he described to the students some of the excitment of getting a six-inch pipe and drill bit through several miles of rock to reach the deep places of trapped oil. “Miles” and “barrels” and “millions” and “billions” peppered his sharing.

Translator, students, staff—the collective mental gasp registered on their faces. “This is a testimony?”

Curt went on to speak of the people he works with: UAE nationals, Egyptians, Jordanians, Sudanese. Men and women. All Muslims. He talked about ways he and his colleagues share their lives in the workplace, and how much he enjoys his co-workers and the challenges they embrace as a multi-cultural team. I didn’t know that some of them call him “the preacher.” Curt also talked some about the people who come to our house, and the food, games, conversation, studies, movies and prayer that happen in our living room.

As Curt and I travel and occasionally get to teach or preach in the US, Europe or Asia people often ask what mission board we serve with. They look so disappointed when we tell them that an oil company brought us to the Middle East.

So often we think of “ministry” as something “missionaries” and “pastors” do. Or something we “normal people” do in our spare time under the auspices of some church program. Something with a title and a job description to validate it. “Youth worker.” “Sunday school teacher.” “Board member.” And don’t we elevate in degrees of status or hierarchy those who make their living from the church over those whose income derives from “secular” work?

Yet the human calling, from creation, is to fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:28.) To live in this world God made and to care for it, use it, steward it, tend to it.

We are spiritual beings, but we are also physical--of the earth and earthy. This earth God put us in charge of is full of possibilities, but it needs to be creatively, enthusiastically tended if it is to supply human need—especially as we live out the other charge to multiply and fill it up. To be a farmer or a scientist or a doctor or a water-quality inspector or a day-care provider or a bookkeeper or a civil servant or a mother—OR AN OIL GUY—is a HOLY calling.

Curt’s testimony vividly illustrated his self-understanding: “I am a full-time Christian!” No distinction exists between his “secular” and his “sacred” work. It all belongs to God. Whether he is planning a new well, engaged in dialogue about faith, exploring the back alleys and souks, or playing a game in our living room, if he is there because Jesus opened the way and gifted him to be there, and if his heart is submitted and attentive, God will be glorified and His Kingdom will be advanced.

And that’s COOL!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Twelve days of Christmas...

Tonight is Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany when the arrival of the magi is celebrated. It's the end of the Christmas season. As the years pass I am ever more delighted that there are twelve days of Christmas. For no matter how hard I try, the rush to Christmas Eve, with the decorations, celebrations, gifts and their wrappings, letters and greetings, guest lists and cooking always overtakes quieter contemplation of Advent.

But on Christmas Day the myriad details of “must do,” “I hope I can find,” and “oh please, don’t forget” resolve as gifts shed their wrappings and the feast is consumed. Then come twelve glorious days of early morning solitude aglow with tree lights and a dozen candles. With the wonder of the incarnation and its gospel stories still fresh, my inner self comes, coffee in hand, to rest and to revel in the joyous relationship at the heart of it all.

I watch Joseph. Mary, his betrothed, turns up pregnant. “Do not be afraid," cries the angel, "to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20.)

I turn over some fear-filled “pregnancies” in my life: the birthing of my book, or our house of prayer in Turkey. Joseph shows me that to embrace a holy calling one must reject fear to embrace the mystery. For Joseph, the mystery that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit. For all of us, that the human can reside in the divine, and the divine in the human in a totally physical, yet totally spiritual unity.

I watch Mary. Gabriel visits her, too, and again, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. … The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:26-38.) “Mary,” says Gabriel, “turn your face full TOWARDS the shekinah glory, a place of terror to be embraced!” “Here I am, the Lord’s servant,” she replies. “Let it be according to your word.”

And then the angel left.

How did that feel, Mary? Relief? “Did this really happen?” It seems a lonely place the angel left you in, bereft of testimony, witness and support. But there would be Elizabeth. Gabriel would also visit Joseph. The shepherds would turn up against a backdrop of angel song. The magi would follow a star to your door.

Finally, I watch Elizabeth and Zechariah as she bears John the Baptist. (Luke 1:57-66.) Luke tells us that when the neighbors and relatives heard she bore a healthy baby in her old age they rejoiced with her.

Just the neighbors, family and friends. Simple people related to her in simple ways.

God had closed Zechariah’s mouth for a season. As soon as He opened it, Zechariah poured out praise and mystery—to those same village neighbors, just family and friends. But now they were filled with fearful awe, and the word spread. Zechariah turned his face full to the shekinah radiance of the Living God, and his hearers moved from human joy at the good fortune of a barren couple to an encounter with divine mystery—a powerful Presence right in their midst.