Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Spa for the Soul

The sun was just settling into a bank of clouds over the sea as I tapped this on my keyboard from a balcony of that funky old village house perched on the rocky hillside. That dream we purchased three years ago. Mid-November. At last, renovation had begun.*

The five story tower was not much more than a shell after two weeks of cement saws and sledge hammers. A shell filled with hope. New openings to the outdoors will be enclosed with French doors to welcome the clear Mediterranean light and air. New openings and closings inside mean guest rooms with private baths, a private floor for Curt and me to rest and work, a working kitchen, and a garden studio to create, experiment and play. Each space opens onto a balcony or terrace. Olive trees and scattered tile roofs in the foreground below with islands, sea and sky spreading huge beyond.

Peaceful. Quiet-but-not-really, for birds chatter and the voices of children at play echo up from the village. That day I watched the tiniest of hummingbirds, not more than three centimeters from beak to tail, feed on the bougainvillea.

We work to create a spa for the soul. Prayer by prayer, brick by brick, worker by worker. “Spa”—a place to be pampered, massaged (to work out the kinks), scrubbed (to get rid of the dead stuff and bring on a glow), and anointed with oil (for softness and renewal). Fragrant with life. “For the soul”—a place to be still, to let the competing voices of daily life or work or technology fall silent, to pray, and write or paint or cook, and to dream. A meld of ancient Christian disciplines of communal solitude, listening prayer and spiritual accompaniment with more contemporary ideas of hospitable spaces for fellowship, exploration and play. We hope.

Today we watch from faraway Abu Dhabi as carpenters build 26 windows, 19 doors, shutters for the ground floor, the wood-and-glass studio and a rooftop pergola. Electricians and plumbers lay the hidden things necessary to the magic of water and light, guided by marks we drew on the walls and my pencil drawings covered with Őzer’s notes in Turkish. The tile layer arrives today. Next week I rejoin the workers for a few days—armed with sketches and ideas for the carpenter who will build cabinets, tables, bookshelves and dining chairs. And more for the ironmonger who will make bed and sofa frames. Everything home-designed and hand-crafted.

This place, this “spa”--we prepare an offering. Not a business, or a “ministry.” Just a couple of cracked old pots, retired folks, who want to share their mix of good food, listening, quiet, beautiful private spaces and hospitality with whoever wants to come and partake—from wherever they may come.

*Check out www.curtbidinger.phanfare.com for photos of the breaking, the deconstruction necessary to any real transformation.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Economics of love

Frankly, a source of deep puzzlement to me is the well-documented trend in my culture towards delayed marriage.

Curt and I spend a lot of time around single adults. For going on 20 years we've welcomed them to our home and lives. We listen, teach, mentor, and learn from them. They compel us.

At first, in Alaska, they were 20-somethings. Those particular 20-somethings are now 40-somethings. Along the way some married. A few married each other. But a fair proportion of those gifted and able friends remain single.

Today in Abu Dhabi our dear ones are expatriate professionals from everywhere, 20- and 30-somethings. Sharp, educated, mature men and women. Many embody deep faith in Jesus. They are employed and well-compensated.

And there’s the puzzle. Put a room full of them together week after week to fellowship over good food, study, pray, and connect socially. Watch them chat and share and obviously enjoy one another. Watch friendships grow over the sharing of scripture and prayer, movies, camping trips, parties, ministry projects, hobbies, and coffee together. And wonder at how disinterested most seem in exploring anything further.

Don’t get me wrong. We are not inclined to be match-makers. We work hard to create a safe, un-loaded environment for those who describe other “singles group” experiences as like being in a meat market. I rejoice that we don’t suffer from relational tensions of the infatuation/disappointment/breakup/who-likes-who-this-week variety. Discretion reigns among these men and women of God.

It is the disinterest, as if it is just not on the radar, that intrigues me.

Because WE WERE SO NOT LIKE THAT! (You know, back in the olden days.)

Some allow me to explore my dilemma with questions. Which leave me more confounded. “I’ve been busy with my education.” (We thought part of education was the relationships, the search for a life-partner.) “My field, well, there are a lot more men than women there. I’ve never been around many women. And what with close friendships in my fraternity, I never thought much about it.” (HUH????)

The advanced degrees that must be completed, the school debts that must be paid, the travel and adventure that apparently can only be accomplished single, the debt-free homeownership goal…. Things that Curt and I did together are explained to me as necessities of singleness, prerequisite to love.

And then there are the boundaries. “I can’t see myself married to a man who isn’t at least five years old than me.” “I love where I live. I would only consider someone who wants to spend her life there, too. And she must have a career that fits in with that.” Boundaries of place, race, denomination, profession, education, age and personal history. Maybe it’s the influence of e-Harmony, because it starts to sound like a very customized order.

So what is going on?

History moral and economic
A hundred years ago, people married younger, had more children, and stayed married for life. Families stayed closer together. For women, at least, sexual promiscuity was out of the question. Moms stayed close to the house with the kids, cooked and cleaned, gardened, canned and sewed. Dads were nearby working the land, and were likely to pull out the Bible and lead family worship after dinner. The church looks back to those days as more moral times—better times.

Perhaps that sounds a “moral” picture. But at the same time universities were filled with men, and women were excluded from most professions. Women could not vote, and were denied other civil rights we deem basic human dignities today. As were countless others based on the color of their skin. Moral times? A wife could not resort to law to protect herself or her children from a husband’s abuse, nor could she leave the marriage. A single woman would find it very hard—or impossible—to make a living, and all who worked the land needed stable marriage and several children to achieve efficiency sufficient to provide a moderate standard of living.

Yet in the midst of it all, there were some powerful, fulfilling marriages.

Fast-forward fifty years to Ward and June Cleaver. The Industrial Revolution changed the landscape. Ward spent most of his waking hours away from the family in an office or factory while June dressed in high heels and pearls to run the vacuum cleaner. Technology rendered her contribution to family wealth minimal and her time empty, and she became luxury and ornament. If she did leave the house for work, she was paid a fraction of what a male doing the same job would make—even if she did the job better. (This was my own mother’s lot until she landed a union job when I was 13.)

June Cleaver still had no access to police or courts for domestic abuse, little control over family property, and her dignity and worth as a contributor to the family well-being was vastly diminished. In TV fiction they were happy. In the real world women of her era found their lives less laborious, but their choices about what to do with the freed-up time and energy were limited, and their satisfaction and fulfillment greatly diminished. They became restless. And poor Ward was far less involved with his wife and children, and his role in their lives narrowed to financial provider and figurehead.

Yet in the midst of it all, there were some powerful, fulfilled marriages.

The church has glorified the Cleavers with their two kids and stay-at-home mom, and faithful Ward who turned up every night for dinner, briefcase in hand. Even touted it as a biblical norm and today’s “feminism,” including the travesties of divorce, abortion and sexual promiscuity as gross moral decline and godlessness. At the same time, and similarly to the rest of the culture, Christians now marry later or not at all. Without necessarily delaying sexual activity, or marrying “until death do us part.”

Yet in the midst of it all, there are some powerful, fulfilling marriages.

Does the state of marriage today represent gross moral decline? Has not sin abounded at all times since the Fall? Could it be that changing economic realities, rather than a less moral humanity, has simply changed the conversation? A hundred years ago marriage--early and permanent, along with a plethora of children, made sound economic sense. Maybe even was economic necessity. It was a coveted marker of the passage into adulthood.

But with technology, child labor lost value and the need for higher education brought the cost of rearing a child to astronomic levels. The traditional work of wife and mother contributed less and less to the family budget. And the capstone: as earning capacity depended less on physical size and strength and as women received more equal schooling, both young men and young women could make a go of life alone.

Children, and then marriage, became luxuries. Optional. A nice thing to add to a whole list of experiences and acquisitions. Or not.

The Bible on marriage
So, if what I witness in my living room has more to do with changing economics than with moral decline and diminished “family values,” how are we who love Jesus to think about marriage and family?

As I read and pray I am struck more and more these days by things the Bible does not say, as well as by what it says. Paul, famously, makes it plain that to remain (chastely) single for the sake of the gospel is a legitimate calling. Marriage is not, apparently, necessary to a fulfilled or a godly life.

In fact, the Bible says very little about the mechanics of marriage: age, methods of choosing a mate, roles and duties. It does tell believers to marry within the faith (2 Corinthians 6:14), and that God hates divorce and family violence (Malachi 2:10-16), which Jesus permitted only in very limited circumstances, and that sexual chastity is the rule for the unmarried (Matthew 19:1-12). The loyalty of a husband is to be to his wife above all others (the “leave and cleave” principle of Genesis 2:24). And a wife is called to voluntary submission to her husband’s leadership—all within the context of their mutual submission and his sacrificial self-giving towards her best fulfillment (Ephesians 5:21-33).

Oh, there are the stories, the history—how certain people did it in a long-ago Eastern agrarian tradition. Samson, Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Bathsheba. The less-than-traditional wives Deborah and Huldah. Hosea. No good marriages described, but plenty of dysfunctional ones. Real life variety played out by messy people in a fallen world.

What is clear about God’s design for marriage is captured in just four places, and it is beautiful!

Genesis 1-3 display marriage as the God-designed fundamental human community. The first human was lonely and inadequate despite the companionship of animals, and even of God Himself. The only “not good” of creation. And so God made gender—male and female from the one human. When the man beheld the woman, he cried a joyful “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” “Wo-man:” fully as human as he was, perfect counterpart to meet his loneliness and to provide strong support in the task of stewarding God’s earth. Companion and partner. Until the Fall, his joyful exclamation declared her beloved, admired, cherished, his true completion.

The Fall brought intrinsic consequences to the fundamental natures of both the man and the woman. He would now act to dominate, as first demonstrated when he asserted over her the authority God had given him over animals. He named her. And, post-Fall he did not choose “Beloved,” or “Joyful Completion.” Instead, “Eve.” “Mom.” A name descriptive of function and economic value in a new world of scarce resources and toil for basic needs. By the end of Genesis 4 God’s perfect design of one-man-one-woman-as-one-flesh-for-life was so perverted that only 5 generations later Lamach married multiple wives and called them by names meaning “trinket” and “tinkling.” And the woman, in order to preserve the relationship, put up with (or even enabled) him to do it.

But there in Eden existed a pure married love. Companions. Partners. Because they knew no scarcity or fruitless labor, economics played no part in their community. No competition. No need for children, and reproduction is not mentioned as a reason for God’s creation of gender. Though children would surely have come as added joy and delightful expression of their one-flesh existence together, they were not needed in order to complete the man, the woman, or their union.

Song of Songs is delightful erotic poetry depicting the growth of married love between a man and woman from initial infatuation through realization of the cost of committed love to a life-bond entwining heart and soul. “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a might flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” Songs 8:6-7.

Powerful and exciting language of passion and admiration. Never once does Songs refer to economics or reproduction as reasons to marry. The lover is a shepherd and his beloved prefers him to wealthy and powerful Solomon. He longs to know her fully, body and soul, with no reference to whether she will bear him children to share his labor, protect his inheritance and continue his name.

Nor does Songs define roles like breadwinner and/or homemaker. None of that matters to the power and potential of their married love for one another.

Ephesians 5, oh, that most-quoted passage. Last year I conducted an impromptu gender seminar in an evangelical Bible school. To start, I asked students to tell me what they could recall the Bible to say about gender. They talked about Genesis, and about Ephesians 5, but what they noticed was that women are to submit. None mentioned the miracle of God’s gift of gender; the fulfilled need for companionship and community; the depth of passion, safety and sacrificial love involved in leaving and cleaving. And no one noticed the call to mutual submission or the charge to the husband to love sacrificially in the manner of Jesus Christ.

How sad! For Ephesians 5:21-33 describes marriage as loving and sacrificial self-giving, supportive partnership, and empowering respect and honor.

• Both Ephesians 5 and Revelation 19:6-9 invite us to consider human marriage as testimony, as shadow, as image of Christ’s relationship with His Church. The Church is Bride! Beloved, protected, chosen, beautiful. Chosen not because of need or for what labor or reputation she can bring, but out of pure, self-giving love.

To sum up, in God’s design and description, marriage is a deep, committed and passionate love for another human being for life. A place to find loneliness met and gifts and callings complemented and supported. A relationship with the potential to illustrate Christ’s love and desire for His people, and ours for Him. God’s design was deeply marred by the Fall as human sin perverted love’s potential and purity and an economics of scarcity created new reasons for marriage and childbearing that had nothing to do with love.

Application to what’s going on in my living room
Technology has brought to the West, at least, a wealth unimaginable even 50 years ago. And along with that, a lot of freedom and choice. The single professionals we love so much do not need marriage—or children—to build economic security, or to find a satisfying, fulfilled life. In fact many are financially better off unmarried. Along with that, they are free to go where they want, buy what they want, and do what they want without consulting anyone else or caring about another’s hopes and dreams. Marriage and childbearing are risky, and for one committed to following Jesus, they are lifetime risks.

And so marriage and childbearing are on the decline. Children are expensive, and certainly not needed to provide for old age, and with contraception and abortion readily available, sexual activity outside of committed marriage has little in the way of an economic or social downside.

Perhaps for the first time in human history, for many people singleness is a viable choice. Which means marriage is no longer a necessity either, but also choice.

We dwell in a fallen world where self prevails more often than not. Where freedom is used to serve self. Singleness is a legitimate calling for a believer when it allows a heart to be free to focus on building Christ’s Kingdom. But where it simply allows a heart to be free to play, to spend, to build one’s own kingdom—well, it is the way of our sin nature to pervert freedom and end up in lonely waste.

But what opportunity! To be free from the constraints of an economic need to marry—well, could that not be seen as a return to Eden’s potential? A return to the possibility of marriage purely for love, with all the depth and potential that entails in Jesus Christ? A shimmering, vibrant witness to the reality of God’s love for the world poured out through our lives of love for one another?

Lord, grant these ones that we love courage to love, to give themselves wholeheartedly to You—and to others as You invite them. Grant them completion in You—in whatever form You have for each one. Amen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Parables, pictures and prayers from Kaş ... economies and investments

This is another re-post--perhaps more for me as I pray for Jesus' choice resolution to title problems with the villa.... It has been over three years, and today finds us deep in renovation of this "Spa for the Soul."

Nearly two years ago we rolled in Kaş for the first time. Another stop in a multi-year, multi-national search for a place we’d visited in God’s dreams, a place where we would “retire” and throw our doors open to the world. Without knowing what it looked like we had our shopping list: great natural beauty, fabulous view, attractive year-round climate, walkable, plenty of private spaces, outdoor activities, good local food, and culturally interesting. A place people would love to visit. Preferably in the Muslim world. Er… and something we could afford to operate without having to act like a business.

We’d considered Albania, Italy, the south of France, Morocco, Oman and the UAE. We’d been in Turkey six days and hadn’t even come close. But I’d had email contact with an English fellow who made Kaş sound worth a visit.

As we cleared the last curve and saw the town spread down the rocky hillside to the sea below we both caught our breath. It looked, well, like the dream. The road wound down to the now-familiar harbor. We located the estate agent’s office, ready to go.

“Not today,” he said. “You really should get the feel of the place first.” “But we only have this afternoon and tomorrow!” we pled. “Go. Walk around. Talk to people. Tomorrow, if you still want to, we’ll look at houses.”

So we wandered the town’s heart, stopping to talk with shopkeepers and artisans, remarking on the absence of hawkers and mass-market tourist junk, the pleasant music and easy converse floating from coffee shops, restaurants and bars. Curt took photos: the ancient sarcophagus at the top of the delightfully-preserved old streets in the pedestrian area, and the pelicans and boats in the harbor.

We looked at a lot of places the next day. We saw a gorgeous new villa with infinity pool overlooking the sea, and a weird old place that ran straight up and down a cliffside with a tiny terrace at the bottom. One villa had a huge barn-roof, and three really ugly new houses just in front of it. Another was almost right, but not enough rooms and the only access to the pool was through a bedroom.

We arrived at the last place sweaty, weary, and disappointed. Access was down a narrow, weedy track in the highest part of Gőkseke village. Behind the iron gate a vine-shaded rock stairwell led straight up the mountain-side through an weedy, overgrown garden to a tower of a house almost covered with vines and bougainvillea. Junk everywhere, and three little dogs yapping and growling.

As we wandered the disheveled five stories, it felt like we had entered God’s dream. Five shady, quiet balconies overlooked the Mediterranean and beckoned us to rest and to pray. Olive trees in the rocky, unspoilt side-yard whispered to us of the Mount of Olives, and called up images of oil and lamps. Vines invited us to abide in the True Vine. We leaned our arms on the third floor balcony railing and felt we had come home.

We bought the place the next morning.

Since that day in late August I’ve had ample opportunity to revisit our decision and to wonder whether, reality suspended, we momentarily lost our minds. I’ve lived through periods of blind panic. The place has title problems. We knew that and went ahead anyway, choosing the risk. But I’m a lawyer. Shouldn’t I have known better? Since we bought, the world economy has cratered. The dollar is much stronger, so if we had waited, maybe we could have paid less. Turns out renovation costs more in Turkey than the cheerful estate agent said it would. It might have been cheaper to build a place from scratch than to remodel this one. We bat around names for the place. Curt favors something peaceful and romantic like “Fair Haven.” I call it “House of the Cracked Pots!”

One anxious day when I was feeling certain we are complete fools, I leaned into Jesus and began to muse over images of real estate investment in the Bible. My self-critical mind turned first to Proverbs, to wisdom and stewardship images of shrewd understanding and principled management.

But then actual purchases of land rose in my mind. I can think of four that God deemed worthy of record.

In Genesis 23, Abraham buys a cave at Machpelah. Though God had promised him the whole of Canaan, he’d lived for years as an alien stranger and still possessed nothing when Sarah died. He wanted a place of his own to bury her. Given the climate, there wasn’t much time to haggle. In a formal meeting with the Hittites he refuses to use one of their tombs, and insists on giving the full asking price for Ephron’s field. That cave was Israel’s first foothold in the promised land. Generations later, Joseph honored Jacob’s deathbed request and carried his bones from Egypt to be buried alongside his ancestors.

Several hundred years later, Boaz bought some land, Naomi’s land. By then, Israel had possession of Canaan, and had divided it among tribes and families. Under the Law, if there were no direct descendants left to take title to family land, it could be redeemed by a next-of-kin, but with a catch. The land came with the dead man’s wife, and any children born of that union were deemed to belong to the dead man so that the land would stay in the family. Naomi was old, and her husband and sons were all dead. Her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, had moved to Israel with her to share her sorrow and desperate poverty. Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, but another guy was in line for the land—and the woman. Seems like Boaz already had plenty of land of his own, and no need for Naomi’s, but he had to buy it to get Ruth. So in Ruth 4 we see him buying the land, along with its “baggage”—a title problem that meant his own children would be deemed the sons of another and the land would revert to that man’s family. All for the gracious love of an alien woman who would become one of the four women named in the line of Christ.

Fast forward to David. God calls him the man after His own heart, but David still did stupid things and angered God from time to time. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 record a census he ordered, and makes it clear that everyone knew this was a huge offense to the Lord. The repentant David is given a choice of judgments, and throws himself on God’s mercy. Seventy thousand die of plague, but at the threshing floor of Araunah, the Lord relents. David is commanded to build an altar there. Araunah, after encountering the angel, urges David to take the site and the animals. But David insists on paying full price to buy the place before he will worship, refusing to sacrifice in a way that costs him nothing. That bit of land would become the site of the Temple, a pivotal piece of land for both Jews and Muslims yet today.

Lastly, in the dark days just before Judah was conquered by Babylon and carried into exile, God directed his prophet Jeremiah to buy a field. Jeremiah 32 finds Jeremiah in prison and Jerusalem under siege, but he obeys this crazy command that no doubt made him look even more like a collaborator. After the deed is sealed away, Jeremiah wonders what God could possibly be doing, and God gives His promise to restore His people and to bring again a day when land would be bought and sold in a prosperous Israel.

Economies and investments. We evaluate a house or a piece of land in terms of financial return, or a safe and pleasant place for a home. These few purchases God thought noteworthy represent pure worship, investment in relationships, and radical acts of obedient faith. Abraham believed God would give him the whole land, and Jacob clung to that promise when he died in exile in Egypt. Boaz desired to marry to a foreign woman of faith and noble character, and was willing to incur the cost and take on the baggage that came with her. David owned his sin with a costly repentance and refused to take advantage of his God-given kingship to avoid the price of sacrifice. Jeremiah made a ludicrous purchase in a costly act of sheer faith.

All these are kingdom investments, and God’s economy knows no scarcity, no downturn. My anxious fear of loss, of appearing foolish for following what I perceived as God’s dream, and my temptation to second-guess our timing, is met and satisfied in His “do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-34.

I don’t doubt we could have heard wrong on that sweltering hot day. We may indeed have been foolish. But I think I’m beginning to grasp something about God’s economics, and I can trust Him with my feeble efforts to follow. Joyfully, truth is I’ve still never visited “House of the Cracked Pots” without a profound sense of peace descending on my spirit.

Oh Lord, we do continue to ask you for resolution to the title process in Gőkseke. Today we ask for that to happen soon so that we can begin the renovation, and start welcoming the world there.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

At Home at the Crossroads

This is a repost. I think it is worthy. We are now in our 7th year in Abu Dhabi, still profoundly surprised and amazed.

Abu Dhabi--Crossroads of the World
When in 2004 Curt accepted a transfer to Abu Dhabi, I wasn’t sure whether I would smuggle my Bible in a brown paper bag, figure out how to plug myself into a circumscribed expat[1] lifestyle, find a job to fill my days, or immerse myself in local culture and learn enough Arabic to befriend a few nationals[2] and get involved with Islam. Turned out to be “none of the above,” but something richer, more challenging and more satisfying than my wildest imagination.[3]

After 26 years in Alaska, Abu Dhabi sounded like the edge of the world. Turns out to be anything but: glitzy island city, architectural dream, and capital of United Arab Emirates (UAE)—that wealthy, booming Islamic state on the Persian Gulf. Not an edge, but a crossroads, a transitional center of the world. A million people live and work here. Some 85% of them are from someplace else—expatriate to their home countries. Every “tribe and nation[4]” is gathered to build and maintain this oil-producing giant.

Crossroads of Life
People come to Abu Dhabi for a few months, or a year, or five. Some stay 30 years and raise children who barely know their home country. Expats work in every job from street sweeper to corporate manager, even in high government posts. Some, like Curt and me, come for the adventure. Most come for the money. Some bring families; many more must leave family behind to take the jobs no one wants. These sacrificial souls subsist in overcrowded housing without privacy, community or personal time, all to send home every dirham they can in hopes of a better life, a future for parents, siblings and children.

Abu Dhabi is a place to feel displaced, or even misplaced. Transient. We live at a stop on the way to someplace else—a stop chosen with the hope that staying awhile here will mean better choices on the way out. A demographic crossroad of the world peopled by those at a crossroad of life, a between-place of opportunity, risk and impermanence where new people come and good friends leave, and nobody knows or understands your roots. All that is familiar is far away, and everyone is “alien and stranger,[5]” even the nationals, I think, who find themselves a tiny minority in their own country.

At a crossroad, people ask questions. The obvious: “which road will I take from here? But other biggies like “why am I here?” and “what am I doing with my life?” and “what is important to me?” and “Am I important to Anybody Else?” The pervasive publicness of Islamic worship puts people in the way of God. “Is there a God?” “What is He like?” “Does He know or care about me?” “Would God hear me if I pray?” At this crossroads of the world a searchlight turns on the eternal Crossroad, [6] that “between” place of heart-certainty that we are not just random chemicals and energy, and that this world we can see is but a junction on the way to someplace else.

At Home at the Crossroads
Abu Dhabi surprised us with its variety and opportunity and freedom and suffering; with its piercing questions that leave people open and vulnerable. A crossroads compels people running headlong through life to pause and ponder. Whether they are bemused, or weary, or terrified, pauses and spaces of safety, refreshment, listening encouragement, and direction bless them. Far from home, homey welcome can be life-giving.

Four years have passed. We’ve made a home at the crossroads, and delight to invite “the multitude”[7] and welcome whoever God brings to our door from whatever nation, language, or station in life. And they have come--from every continent and social background, sometimes 15 nations present at one meal, or six living in our household. Cleaners, diplomats, mechanics, teachers, executives and clerks. A miracle of God’s grace that feels to us like a foretaste of heaven[8] even as we puzzle and experiment with mixing cultures in the between-space of this fallen world.

Nothing big, no clear program, definitely no titles—just “people who have time” to make place and give ear and prayer. We’ve learned and stretched and been pushed on. Maybe we’ve cracked open a little more. Our sense is that this lifestyle of giving space and welcome to the world is a call: that Jesus would have us continue to welcome whoever He brings and offer refreshment, play, quiet, listening and prayerful loving, with a measure of teaching and nurture thrown in.

Welcome to the Crossroads. Let’s talk. I’m glad to find you here.

[1] “Expat,” short for “expatriate,” here used as a noun to describe one who lives temporarily in a nation other than one’s own, generally for reasons of employment.
[2] “National” –noun. A citizen or subject of a particular nation who is entitled to its protection.
[3] Ephesians 3:20
[4] Revelation 14:6
[5] Hebrews 11:13-16
[6] Jeremiah 6:16
[7] Joel 3:14; Revelation 7:9; 19:6
[8] Ephesians 2:19; Revelation 7:9

Monday, October 18, 2010

On the third day... (John 2:1-11)

“On the third day a wedding took place….”

Jesus was an invited guest.

Ordinary pots stood by. Like in every house. Necessary to day-in-day-out cleansing, the repetitive, never-finished work. Mundane ritual.

Jesus. Invited guest. Pots filled with household water.

Jesus present. Old pots. Everyday obedience. In the secret place where the hosts face their lack and a woman prays while the party rolls on.

Jesus invited into the secret place. Instructions heeded even without comprehension.

And the ordinary pots spill out the choicest of wine. A marriage blessed and inhabited by His grace, guests treated with the best heaven and earth joined can offer.

“He thus revealed his glory, and the disciples put their faith in him.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fairy Tale

Once upon a time a young princess of noble heritage confided in me a dream. Often in the night, she said, she would find herself in some terrible danger. Always in the dream she would whistle for Shadowfax, who would come galloping across the hilltop to bear her away. If the noble steed’s speed was not enough she would cry for Aragorn, ever strong to save her.

As I listened the dream unfolded as a vision, if you will, a God-bestowed image of her own dignity, her worthiness of an Aragorn’s love.

Over time many princes crossed into her realm, and each was measured against her strong dream. Aragorn, the hero, the ever-wise and strong warrior whose very presence turns whole peoples to life-giving hope, would come and stand beside the suitor. The image was powerful to protect her from frivolous, empty young princes of lesser character, lesser capacity for courageous, tenacious love.

But as years passed this larger-than-life hero became a block. Never a mis-step. No weakness, frailty or uncertainty. The princess could see no other man who fit the measure, not even her own noble daddy.

For the princess regarded Aragorn through Eowyn’s eyes. Lovely, brave, vulnerable Eowyn, for whom Aragorn was knight, completely other, one to adore.

Until finally, one day, the princess noticed that Eowyn was not the one Aragorn could love. His heart belonged to Arwin, the elf-maiden whose gifts, strength and wisdom equaled and sometimes surpassed his own. Arwin, who knew his past and his fears, knew he sometimes longed to flee duty and destiny, and who supported and challenged him so that he became more than he thought he could be. Arwin, who regarded a real human man in strength and in frailty and loved him with her life.

Eowyn, for her part, got over her hero worship of Aragorn and found a better, truer love in the noble Faromir, an equally brave prince of gentler, quieter character. He, too, stood among his people as leader and hero. But Faromir was a man her strength, experience and noble lineage inspired--so that they, too, could love entirely as equals, partners who would enable one another to reach beyond themselves to something higher, to serve well, and to love long and strong.

A wiser princess still watches for her Aragorn, that man of vision for life beyond himself, committed, sacrificially brave and true. She knows herself worthy of such a prince. But she no longer looks for a hero to worship, preferring instead a real man inspired by her dignity and beauty, and who will grow through her as much as she through him.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I lie naked, enfolded in water-sound and mist. The polished stone is warm beneath me, and I am surprised to notice how my aging body rests without pain on its hard flatness. The room is small, secluded and secure.

Firm hands scrub hard every inch of me, then anoint tender skin with oil. Scents born on steam permeate the intimate space and minister calm to my deep inside. Warm water sprays away detritus of dirt and death. Strong fingers entangle long hair to massage my scalp, and more water is poured, again and again, until the suds of cleansing swirl down the drain and all residue is gone.

I think of You, Jesus. You are always here, but today I am conscious of Your presence.

I am awash in the stories of Your naked body removed gently from the cross, of the ministry of loving hands to enfold Your death in oily spices and herbs of preparation. Doing unto You as Your Father looked on.

I wonder how the extravagant anointing of that sinful woman, and later of Your dear friend Mary, felt to you. The fragrance, their tears that understood some small part of all that Your love could mean to them. You experienced their touch, and I wonder today if it was balm to Your soul? You, Lord of All, in frail human body. Incarnate. Physical. Sensual. Did you, too, love the flow of fragrance and salt tears, the warm spread of cleansing water and nourishing oil?

And how about that day when you bent to wash their feet? To scrub with water and the towel. Perhaps to massage away the tight aches of long walking, the bruises of hard ground and stone? The sure touch of quiet ministry to body in a way that penetrated their frightened, weary souls.

I recall the stories. I muse whether the hammam, this ancient Roman bathing tradition, was a way of life for You. But there is more. You are today present here, indwelling my frail tent. As I receive this ministry with gratitude, You also receive. As I dwell in the grace of this moment, we share the pleasure.

You are Lord of the Universe. I am frail child in aging body lying on warm, smooth stone. Somehow invested with Your glory. Full of praise, deeply grateful, a tad mystified.

Blessed be Your Name. Amen.

Monday, September 27, 2010


I opened the door. There she stood, a touch of whimsy in the frill on her t-top, jeans, hair long and loose and unashamedly gray. Her smile dappled through to her eyes and we moved to embrace. Kathleen--come to visit me in my empty new house.

“Would you like coffee? Or can I take you to lunch?” I wanted to care for my guest, to treat her, to honor her travel to my place. “No! Please. Can we just sit right here and talk? I want to be with you! No, no, I don’t want to wait while you make coffee--I don’t want to waste a minute!”

And so, over my protests of desire to feed my guest, to carry her off somewhere with furniture and china and a marina full of boats and blue sparkle, we sat in junk-store chairs turned to the window in the empty room. And we talked.

Kathleen hails from my long-ago. Thirty years have passed since my friend Susan and her friend Kathleen house-sat. Memory is oh-so-vague. A young woman in prairie dress with long hair done up in a bun. No make-up, no jewelry, as mandated by the sect to which they belonged. Fun, happy-spirited, easy-going.

We reconnected last year. Susan put Kathleen onto Cracked Old Pots, and she engaged me. She told me how in ’95 she left the sect and put her hand in that of Jesus. How in some mysterious way we had played a part through impressions and memories. Joyous surprise.

Since then we’ve read each other’s work and conversed a bit. Kathleen exudes energy and encouragement with books to recommend, articles and music to explore, creative groups to join with--introducing me to a far-away creative world of which I know nothing. I, in overwhelmed weariness, have been more passive. So touched by the extravagance of her love for a quiet near-stranger in a faraway place.

So when I headed to Sequim a few weeks ago to take possession of our newly-purchased bolt-hole in the US I floated a suggestion. “Would you come and spend a day with me?”

Oh, the blessed conversation! We shared our families, our love for our husbands, our passion for hospitality and mutual appreciation of the work that it is. We talked about the church and genuine community. She spoke wonderful, expressive phrases: “workbook Christianity,” and “community happens in circles, not in rows.” She confessed to trepidation as she stood outside my door. Who would greet her? Her memory retains a sleek, sophisticated Jeri. (I laugh.) She rejoiced over the worn, old-comfy-clothes, no-makeup-wet-hair-braided-back version. Her only inarticulate moment of the day was in response to my “what if” a tan and classy woman had greeted her in my voice.

But then she rose to speak of true beauty, of the beauty of one who knows herself beloved. Passion pervaded her voice once more. “What is the best gift I can give my husband? To let him love me! To receive his love with joy and gratitude! To affirm it and desire it and celebrate it!” She continues. “The Bible tells us that to Christ WE are BRIDE! That what He most desires is that we enjoy and celebrate His love!”

The Hallelujah chorus swelled in my mind. In her utterance the sweep, the trembling desire of Song of Songs reverberated and echoed. She spoke my journey better than I had verbalized it even to myself--so that today I hold, I rest in, that crystal vantage point.

Kathleen, the beloved bride, alive and free enough to know it in a way that radiated from her whole being. Thank you, sister of my heart.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Can I only imagine?

In 2001 MercyMe released a song by lead singer Bart Millard. “I Can Only Imagine” is a simple meditation that became enormously popular among Christians, and also among secular Country listeners.

I can only imagine
What it will be like
When I walk
By your side.

I can only imagine
What my eyes will see
When your face
Is before me.

I can only imagine.

Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine.

Our Abu Dhabi congregation was singing this song when we arrived for worship this week. The words grabbed at me.

“Is that true?” I wondered. “Can we ‘only imagine’ what it is to be in the Presence of Jesus?”

For the Bible tells us that we who believe Him are indwelt NOW by His Spirit, that together we are His body, Jesus in this world. That wherever two or three gather He is there, right there, PRESENT in our midst.

I now know that Millard’s words are about the death of his father, the heart-cry of an 18-year-old who longed to understand what is so great about God that his dad would rather be in Heaven that on earth with him. A different spin, and a meaningful one. But that morning in church my thoughts went to John and what he wrote in Revelation 1.

“On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…. I turned around to see the voice that was speaking….” And John beheld Jesus in heavenly glory. “His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said; ‘Do not be afraid.’”

John, exiled for his faith, maybe 90 years old, is worshipping on the Lord’s Day. Whatever “in the Spirit” means exactly, we know that John was consciously aware of God’s presence, actively watching and listening. He didn’t need to “only imagine.” But the surprise! Suddenly the veil between heaven and earth disappeared and he glimpsed Jesus in heavenly glory! John’s reaction? This one who once leaned on Jesus at that last meal together? He fell at Jesus’ feet in stark terror. So awed to behold utter purity and brilliance, and to know himself undeserving.

Then Jesus touched him with gracious love. What did John do next? He listened—carefully. And he did what Jesus told him to do. Am I alert to Jesus in a posture of listening dependence that amounts to consciously living in His Present Spirit in me and in my brothers and sisters? So that I hear Him in whatever surprising way He chooses to touch me? How about the doing? Jesus said, “Write!” and John wrote. Today, at this moment, am I doing what Jesus has told me to do—whether general or specific?

My mind meandered on to another story of human response to Jesus’ tangible presence. “Then the little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” Matthew 19: 13-15. And they watched Jesus place on those small ones the same hands he would later lay on John. Oh, glorious touch of acceptance, blessing and compassion.

But think about it! There they were, with Jesus physically tangible in human body. “I can only imagine” that I would dance and swoon and give Him full attention! But watch these committed followers. They see the small ones, and their human culture tells them that Jesus is too important to give his time and attention to these. (And they are, too!) They shoo them away. They aren’t even kind about it. Ask Jesus what He wants? It does not occur to them. With Jesus right there, they cavalierly move to marginalize people He longs to bless!

Ouch! Before I move into action on Jesus’ behalf, do I ask Him what He wants me to do? Who are the small ones that cross my path? How is my welcome? Where are my hands? Oh, that’s right! They are His hands, for we who belong to Him are His living hands and feet in this world today!

Lord, the realm of imagination allows me to presume easy, exuberant awe and faithfulness. Here in the “real world,” well, it is not quite like that. Lord, change imagination to desire, desire to freedom to choose faithfulness, and faithfulness to tangible action. Amen!

(Photos in this post are by Angie Fuessel and Brad Kerr)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Back in line...

Still pondering the willingness to wait in line as a celebration of plenty. Enough to go around. We can afford to wait our turn. Lines like that celebrate generosity of spirit. “You can go ahead of me. I acknowledge your worth. You are as fully human as I am.”

But Giridharadas invites us further. The common queue is under attack, he says, by greed. How quickly the human spirit moves from celebration of “enough for everyone” to “my time is worth more than yours! And I can prove it by buying my way to the front!”

Recently I’ve had occasion to fly business or first class due to bumps or company-paid tickets. I LOVE skipping the long lines at security checkpoints, check-in and boarding gates. I LOVE to see my luggage first off the plane. At the same time, it bothers me. A lot. Is it humility? Guilt? Why should I receive this fancy treatment (along with bigger seats and better food) while my companions on the journey endure? Some of them are infirm, others are pregnant, and a few may have been on the road for a very long time. But because of money (BP’s money, or other money that allows me to be such a frequent traveler that I get noticed for the bump), I am chosen. Wealth buys me out of the queue, proclaims me as one-who-shouldn’t-have-to-stand-in-line. Wealth allows the illusion of superiority.

Celebration of plenty, of an “enough” that frees us to respect the dignity of others without going hungry for it so quickly gives way to celebration of self. Wealth is not evil. In fact, it is a glorious part of the Kingdom of God. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. In Him there is “always more where that came from.” But love of wealth—oh how easily that leads to self-satisfied complacency, neglect of God, and indifference to the plight of my sister or brother!

Lord Jesus, You have granted wealth. Oh such wealth! Your love. A long, grand marriage. Admirable children. A big house chock-full of stuff. Income. Early retirement to follow a dream. Faithful friends. Intelligence and creative energy. Depth in Your Word. Training, and opportunities to use it in myriad places and ways. A world (literally) of experiences. Even occasional first-class rides around the world! Please, oh please, save us from greedy presumption and fill us with radical generosity—a freedom to share it, to give it away, to cast it to the winds like a farmer casts seed in the springtime because we know for certain that in You there is plenty more where that came from! Grant us the freedom to overflow with the plenty of Your love.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


A volcano erupts in Iceland, and we are stuck six extra days in Dublin. The idiot lights blaze on the dashboard of my little car and the thermostat rises out of control. The guard pounds on the door in the night shouting "Fire!" and insists we must evacuate, and I look around at all the stuff that may go up in flames. The title to the villa turns out to be irreparably tainted. The company is downsizing, and there could be lay-offs.

Time and again when some mini- (or maxi-) crisis erupts, I notice how much less angst I suffer now than I would have, say, 20 years ago. Gone are the days when car problems keep me awake nights for fear we won’t be able to make the house payment.

So have I grown up some? Matured in faith?

Not so much. It is just that now I know we have the money to deal with it. Extra days in Dublin become gift, an unplanned holiday. Redundancy (with severance package) would be gravy. Even loss of our stuff could be refreshing!

I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. About Jesus, hanging on the cross, surrounded by mockers yet still able to cry, “Father, forgive them!” About a love so great that He would die that horrific death for a people who didn’t know they needed His forgiveness and didn’t care—all to open the door to reconciliation, to heal a broken relationship.

And about how He calls His people to the same quality of loving forgiveness. Jesus looked human sin full in the face and refused to hold it against us. Though we are already dead because of it, separated from Him by a vast chasm we have no power cross, Jesus built the bridge with His own body so that we can cross into living-giving community with God.

He regarded all our mocking rejection, and our frailty, and loved us anyway.

How could He do that? Not such a big question. Jesus, God, is, well... ABLE. He has it all, needs nothing, dwells in the eternal now.

Here’s the BIG question: how can I offer that same love to those who do evil to me?

Forgiveness is on my mind because when I taught on it the other night I watched pain play on the faces of some of my listeners. I knew their eyes masked stories of betrayal, injustice, and even disappointment with God-who-did-not-rescue-but-allowed-suffering-and-death.

In his essay in the International Herald Tribune on August 7th. Anand Giridharadas posed the theory that cultural willingness to stand in line evidences the growth of a middle class. Poverty must fight and claw in a terrifying free-for-all for survival. The middle class knows there is enough to go around, and so grows the generosity to recognize the dignity and need of another, a generosity that will patiently wait for the fairness of one’s “turn.”

Could it be that our ability to be generous with forgiveness reflects the same kind of security? That there is enough—enough for me and for everyone else, too? Enough that I not only don’t need to scratch and push and grab to take care of my own, but I don’t need to cling to what I do have. “There’s plenty more where that came from!”--a shout of rejoicing that can absorb hurt, refuse offense, give grace, display equanimity, LOVE even when nothing, or even evil, is returned.

A shout like that would imply confidence that I am boundlessly, endlessly forgiven; boundlessly, endlessly loved. Not that we no longer experience pain, grief, humiliation, or disruption. Jesus suffered it all. But there is no fear. Just as I no longer fear losing my job if my car breaks down, there is no fear in Jesus that I will end up alone if another person rejects me or even hates me. Fear is replaced with the humble dignity of one who, like Jesus, needs nothing more than the endless resources of God.

God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.... Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion…. (from 2 Corinthians 9:6-11)

We serve the God who is sovereign over all. We can never use up His resources or outgive Him!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

People who call me "Mom" (in order of appearance)

Caitlin. Unexpected treasure granted this “infertile” couple. “Ha ha!” spake the Father-God in the fall of 1982. “Let me show you what I can do!” Now grown to woman beautiful-in-form made more lovely through abiding faith, depth of character, and courageous mind. Funny. Creative. Lover of science in the real world. Ever ready to celebrate and play. Comfortable in her own skin. Wise in the ways of animals--like she can see into their spirits and capture them with compassion. Hero-eyes for her dad. Valued contributor wherever she goes. Watching for Aragorn, investing in everyone.

Daniel. Experts are defied again as God grants a second baby. Cait’s prayer answered in a strapping-in-size yet fragile baby brother. “I have a boy-sister!” the three-year-old proclaimed when told her prayer had come to pass. God celebrated Dan’s birth with a full-arch rainbow out the window. A child who arrived with promises. Taller than we would have dreamed, he builds “tallest” things. Experimental, agile, with deeply perceptive mind and fast reflexes. Adaptable to original work and contented life in the developing world. I love to hear him sing. Devoted husband full of tender connection to his great love. Respect must be earned with Dan, but once you have it he is unswervingly loyal in work and in friendship. Keeper of confidences. Giver of magnificent hugs.

Eda. My first child-by-marriage is an Albanian beauty, gentle and incredibly strong. She first called me “Mom” to satisfy culture, and then we grew in love and our spirits intertwined. What privilege to have the young couple live in our home, to share with her the journeys of language-learning and all the rest of adapting to life in a strange new land. Quieter than my natural-born lot, she is the one who connects with others who, though so lovely, feel themselves outside the circle of rowdy American easiness. Yet she,too, will black a tooth and don a crazy hat to lip-synch a rock song. Or chase Cait through the house until both fall down and roll with laughter. Teacher of children, studious learner, and creative keeper of home, Eda may be the bravest woman I know. Proof-certain that Dan has wonderful taste in women!

Pawan. From Nepal, he was born just a month before Caitlin. We connected while he worked as guard in our building. I asked whether he knew of someone to do housework. He told me of Deepak, then said, “Madame, now I have told you about my friend, Deepak. Will you please tell me about your friend, Jesus?” Born to a Hindu family, Pawan met Jesus in Nepal and is ever-hungry to know Him better. Tai Kwan Do champion, supporter of his parents and siblings, networker to find work for his brothers. We love the evenings he comes by to cook his home food and share it with us. Pawan has vision to build his home church, and a heart that embraces many. A treasure.

Halil. Turkish. Married to Gül and father of sweet baby Yasmine. Lover of flowers who covers our table with garden blossoms whenever he senses a special occasion. A restaurant waiter caught in the cyclical tornado of the tourist year, Halil (and Gül, too, who is a cook) work non-stop through the season. Not wanting to leave his family for more plentiful off-season work, he finds what he can in Kaş in the winter. Time then to play backgammon with other men, and Halil willingly includes Curt with his local friends. Our family and guests—well, he takes them in as his own. It is “Momi” in Turkish to this lively, open young man. Halil worries some for the future and dreams for his little family. But he bounces, like some lively melody pours out from his core to give rhythm to his gait.

Tahir. The newest of the lot, just a year older than Dan and Eda. From Pakistan, he is another who guards our building. Trained in criminology, he longs for a position in his field. Just like Cait. Meanwhile he works 12-hour shifts, often seven days a week, watching and serving. His tenderness towards Dad and comfort around wheelchairs and walkers opened doors to learn that his mother suffered and died with MS. Like a few others, he loves to drop by to borrow DVDs, and to talk. Wants to know of our faith, and shares elements of his Islam. High hopes his family will arrange his marriage while he is home this month. So far he’s only named me “Mom” on a birthday card, but when he left on holiday he wanted a photo of his “family” here to share with those at home.

The first three—of course they call me “Mom.” High privilege to belong to them. Pawan, Halil, Tahir—well, do I just appear more motherly as I expand, wrinkle and sag? (My friend Chom, from Korea, longs to be fatter for she believes that softness in an older woman speaks of love and wisdom. Come to think of it, she, too, calls me "Mom," though she is older than me. For her it is the address for a spiritual mentor.) Or is it something else flowing through those cracks? Such admirable young men, all three. Hard-working, generous and sacrificial supporters of their own families. Elements of lonely longing in each journey. Diverse in faith, language, heritage. High privilege to be chosen by them.

Lord God, Father-by-adoption, thank you for this grace, pure gift from You. Bless them all, natural-born and born-of-love with ever-deeper knowledge of Your loving engagement in their lives.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Music to Dad's ears . . . remix

Something still niggled when I posted “Music” earlier this month. The piece was met with energetic amens from several over 45’s, and, I would guess, the silence of the offended.

The thing still out there for me was that, for all Dad’s affirmation of the church music of his early years, he did not find faith, and he left the church pretty much as soon as he left home. I grew up with the impression that for Dad the church represented harsh rules and rigidity.

Then I ran across Denis Haack’s recent essay “None Other Lamb None Other Name.” (Check out www.ransomfellowship.com.)

“I grew up around hymns and early learned to dislike them. It was the only music allowed in our fundamentalist home. I didn’t have a word for it when I was young, but I do remember the huge disconnect that existed between the lyrics we sang and the reality of our lives. The lyrics spoke of abounding joy, rich freedom, the sweetness of God’s presence, while our lives were solemn, judgmental, withdrawn, and regimented. The hymns we sang slowly ate away at my faith…,” he begins.

Denis struggled with the disjunct between words and life. With words he realized he could not sing with integrity. Though Denis did, in time, come to profound faith in Jesus, he says he says there is still Christian music that he cannot sing. He goes on, in his article, to celebrate and expound the beauty and truth of Christina Rossetti’s 1892 meditation on Revelation 5:6, “None Other Lamb.”

Last week I reminded Dad of what he had said about the beauty of the music of his boyhood. I noticed that, for all his love of it, he did not stay with the church, and asked him to share what that was about.

Dad explored my question in vignettes of memory. Being required, even as a young man on leave from military service, to be in church any time the door was open. The embarrassment of sitting in the midst of the congregation one Sunday evening when he knew he reeked of beer and could feel the disapproving glances of all seated nearby. The same 50 songs sung over and over. Dad spoke of visits from music leaders who worked long Sunday afternoons to teach the congregation to sing even more beautifully. “The music made the skin crawl up and down my spine--the sound was that amazing. But it was all about the sound. We never paid attention to the words.” He talked about how belonging to the church obligated his dad to patronize members’ businesses. Seventy years after the fact his shock and disillusionment still penetrated his voice as he told of two church members who cheated his dad, reminding me of a time in the US when church membership was tied to status and commercial interest. He spoke of his dad’s severity and fast, harsh punishments “though I know he always loved me.” And of his mom’s mental instability that often manifested in abuse. Of how she refused to acknowledge that I could be her granddaughter, and would not come anywhere near me.

“I remember when Elvis Presley first was famous. For about 10 years your mom and I wouldn’t listen to him. The morality, the suggestive way he moved. But a day came when we started enjoying it.” Yet, says Dad, “when the church copied Elvis,” when worship music began to take on his style, “well, why would the church imitate someone like him?”

“In the end,” said Dad, “I could never make sense of faith. I still can’t. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years, but I just can’t.”

Dear friends enjoy a 46-year “mixed marriage.” He is English, of Anglican stock; she is Irish from a Baptist family. Today, she experiences Anglican liturgy and sacramental practice as powerful, life-giving worship; while he, who grew up with it, finds it dry, mindless repetition. Dad recalls the music as beautiful, the words as irrelevant, and the community as legalistic, with a few who would even exploit the others. Childhood experiences and lasting impressions. Who knows what the faith of the adults of so long ago actually meant in their lives?

I still think we need to ask what message the medium communicates, or even what it reveals. But we must always look over and beyond form to the underlying reality. Is there integrity of faith and love that makes the words—and all the rhythms and body language—an expression of something powerful because it is indeed worked out in transformed, grace-filled, faithful lives?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Render unto Caesar...

You know how some people use Facebook, blogs and text messages to quote what they are reading? They put great thoughts out there, but I feel cheated. “What’s on Brent’s heart that led him to send that verse? How does Steve relate to this author? Does Krista relate this philosopher with the different one she quoted last week? What is happening in her thinking?” I want to hear what the person I care about, the one who wanted others to see that quote, is thinking and experiencing.

So, you friends with the quotes, this is for you. Steve, in Turkey, posted something a dead journalist called Sydney J. Harris said a long time ago. I copied the quote and have been kicking it around in odd moments ever since. What started as a quick essay three weeks ago has turned into a meandering ramble. If you are in the mood for it, keep reading. Steve, you had better read on, AND say something back. Because you got me started.

The other day, at a gathering of expatriates in Gökseke (Turkey), a woman asked about life in the Middle East. “Do you have many friendships with locals?” I tried to describe Abu Dhabi where maybe only13% of the population is local and the rest are expats from everywhere. “I have a few Emirati friends, but it is difficult. Curt has more through work.” I talked about cultural differences: how most nationals do not socialize as couples, and women do not venture out unaccompanied to meet foreigners for coffee or visit the home of someone outside of her family or tribe, about the focus on family and extended family.

My questioner’s shocked voice: “But I would have thought that at least some of the women are educated, modern, working in careers!”

UAE nationals, male or female, that I meet are well-educated and in careers. That does not mean they have adopted western patterns of dress or socializing, which is, I guess, what was meant by “modern.” With those women who do pursue friendship I dance a delicate dance of exploration as we visit the other’s home or attend weddings and other festival gatherings. We chat by email or text messages--flowery greetings and loving thoughts. Rewarding, but a lot of work with willingness among all to be confused, to feel awkward, and to forgive faux pas.

Why assume that ways different from my own are wrong, or that local women are chaffing to be more like me?

Take the covering. In the West it stands as a symbol of oppression. But where I live the shimmery black abaya is a mark of self-respect and decency. And a fashion statement that may bear a Parisian designer label. Sometimes I interrupt my bustle to sit in a coffee shop and watch the kaleidoscope of people amble by. White dish-dash and gutra, sandaled feet, flowing shirts and baggy trousers. Indian women in bright shalwars and saris, Filipinas in simple jeans and t-shirts. And, invariably, frumpy and flushed Westerners like me in wrinkled tops and crop pants. Local women glide by in elegant black. Anything could be underneath! I wonder whether they might be on to something.

Of late, Turkey has been in the news. Prime Minister Erdogan had the audacity to speak forthrightly against Israel’s attack on a Turkish flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in blockaded Gaza. Nine Turks were killed. America’s response: “How dare you, Turkey! Don’t you know we like Israel?” The US objects to Turkey’s growing relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors, especially Iran, supplier of energy second only to Russia. The tone is deprecating, as though Turkey was not the fifteenth largest economy in the world and the sixth largest in Europe. As though Turkey is dependant on the US for aid, which it is not. As though Turkey’s application to the EU has not been vehemently opposed because most of Turkey’s 75 million people are Muslim. Turkey is a secular democracy with strong historic and cultural ties to Europe, but it shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Is it not the most reasonable thing for Turkey to cultivate political and economic ties with all its neighbors?

Which brings me (at last) to the quote Steve posted on Facebook:

"Patriotism is proud of a country's virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country's virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, 'the greatest', but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is." Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author (1917-1986)

Provocative. I come from a nation founded on concepts like the equal dignity of all human beings, inalienable rights, democratic self-determination. I love that! These ideals form part of what has enabled us to thrive and to lead in the world. The American system of law and justice that protects rights, of reasonableness that overcomes corrupt oppression—well, some days I long for those tools of my home place to set wrongs right in other dominions. But there is a dark side, too. Is the US not the nation that conspired to overthrow Iran’s duly-elected government to re-install the Shah in 1953 and protect our oil interest? Did we not arm, train and otherwise resource the people who later became the Taliban and Al Qaeda when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979? Have we not repeatedly intervened in the affairs of sovereign nations to further a US agenda with little regard for the consequences to those peoples? How many hundreds of thousands (much debated, with figures ranging from 100,000 to 1,000,000 Iraqi casualties) have died in Iraq because the individual terrorist Osama bin Ladan, former ally of the US in Afghanistan, flew commercial jets into buildings and killed 2,995 (including the 19 highjackers and nationals of 70 other countries) on US soil? Where is nobility in that? What will fill the vacuum?

Perhaps I oversimplify, but Harris compels me. Convicts me. “Greatness is not required…;” he whispers, “only goodness is.” He speaks to nations, to our political allegiance. But his truth echoes for me in arenas of culture and ethnic identity, political party and denomination. How easy it is to take such pride in our nation, church or human family that we forget humility, truth, wide-eyed delight in diversity, and generous equanimity; so that we seek only to be first, and forget to love.

“Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and unto God that which belongs to God.” (Collective gasp! Words so profound that all three synoptic gospel writers record them.) Jesus spoke in response to one of those “trick questions” that was supposed to trap the Lord of the Universe into either declaring against Caesar (sedition) or against God (blasphemy). (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26.) Allegiance to state, social group or institution is never co-extensive (nor should it be allowed to compete) with faithfulness to the Lord of the Universe.

We who follow Jesus sometimes forget that our overriding loyalty must always be to Him—to love what He loves, to hate injustice, greed and a self-protective spirit that runs roughshod over others and over truth—wherever we find it. For Jesus, “If anyone wants to be first (great), he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35.) “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” He explained after he washed their dirty feet. “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:1-17.)

Harris has much to say to me as a follower of Jesus who is also American, expatriate, and someone others look to for direction or leadership. Am I honest about failings as well as virtues of my nation, culture, or faith group? Do I speak meanly about those with whom I disagree? Do I forget to listen before I tell people what “should” happen? Or how things are done where I come from? Do I consider their interests and needs? How often to I teach when I should free another to make her own discovery? Do I forget to listen, period? Am I open to something different than my habit? Do I seek and celebrate beauty wherever I find it? Or ever wonder whether their way might actually be better, worthy of imitation, or at least worthy of respect?

O Lord Jesus, I confess that I critique, condemn, compete, and seek my interest even though You modeled and called me to mirror Your benevolence, charity, equanimity, and delight in the dignity of all people. I am of an arrogant and complacent people--nation, church, social class. We assume our ways and interests are superior. We strive for greatness more than we pursue goodness. O Lord Jesus, teach us gratitude that values your good gifts of heritage and identity while granting legitimacy, respect, and grace that opens doors of relationship with those not like us. Grant us longing to bring glory to You.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Music to Dad's ears...

My dad is not a churchgoer. Oh, he’s been to church. He grew up in southern parts in the old Church of Christ. He has his reasons for moving away. But he still pokes his head in the door from time to time.

The last time I was in a church with Dad happened in the months after Mom died. I think he hoped to find something to meet the emptiness of his brand-new unwanted life. It wasn’t a good experience. He couldn’t hear the sermon, and the regulars ignored us.

Dad told me that the worst part of that church was the music. I wasn’t surprised, and I jumped to my own conclusions about why. “Too modern. Too loud. Unfamiliar songs and tempos. He is unable to receive the new ways.”

Another lesson in listening. Dad elaborated, and the shallowness of my assumptions was exposed.

The denomination Dad grew up in was one that kept musical instruments out of worship. I don’t know the theology behind it, but I’m familiar with the concept. I would have thought that contributed to a somber, stoic, dare-I-say boring atmosphere.

“The music is sloppy!” Dad told me. “The congregation doesn’t know how to sing! Even the people up front don’t sing well.” I learned that when Dad was a boy, everyone in the congregation was involved in the music. Though they didn’t use them in church, many played instruments and read music. They practiced as they went about their everydays. They learned harmony and descant. They broke into spontaneous song alone and together. They mastered all the words. “The congregation was like a choir, and the singing was beautiful. It was an offering, like we cared about how it sounded to God.”

I often think about what Dad said when I’m in church. The fashion today is for the “worship team” to belt into amplifiers so loud I can’t hear the person next to me, much less the community of faith. When I look around I see that many don’t bother to sing. Maybe it seems pointless when you can’t hear your own voice. Hymnals have vanished so we can’t learn parts and harmony, or memorize words. Rich older hymns are sung at dirge-like pace.

How we express Christian community—or fail to—is a topic that fascinates me. Dad gave me this beautiful image of the community of faith at worship together, each important, each making a unique contribution. No one just a face in a crowd—or perhaps everyone was. No stage personalities.

I never was part of what Dad describes, but I miss the days before amplifiers. I recall worship leaders who delighted in encouraging the congregation to lift harmony and joyful noise, who suggested descants and harmonies, and invited us to blend our voices by listening to the people around us. No trance-like closed eyes, no one voice overshadowing all others.I remember learning, in church at the side of my more-musical friend, how to read music. Grappling to get it, working on it on my own. I remember other things, too. Occasional liturgy, praying the Lord’s prayer as a body, reciting the Apostles’ Creed, sharing prayer requests and being free to make an announcement or share a bit of good news. Has church become a spectator sport? “Sit. Stand. Watch me worship. Listen to me talk.” And what of passers-by outside the building? Do they hear corporate worship, or a single (and not-so-good) miked singer or lecturer?

So, I ask my 55-year-old self, is there something transcendent here, and worth pondering? Is there really a message in the medium, or is this a matter of taste and changing times?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Celebrating Cait

I recently did an article for Evangelical Missions Quarterly on the potential of expatriate professionals to global mission. I’d been asked to write about what I do, but wanted to say something of more substance. “Tales of a Trailing Spouse” shares stories of several like me who, though professionally skilled and experienced, have set career aside to “trail” their mates on expatriate assignments in “closed” countries in the Middle East. Along the way each was drawn into surprising and fruitful ministry, with access and legitimate presence to people that would never be available to “full-time Christian workers.”

As I often do, I invited Cait to read and comment on the draft. Her exuberant feedback: “I love the article, Mom! And I see myself—I’m a ‘trailing daughter’! I love being part of the ministry you do in Abu Dhabi.”

The thing that is so cool about that is that Cait has been on a journey shared by lots of bright, able, well-trained professionals in this economy. She left the Albanian mission field to seek work in her profession (environmental health) just as the world economy crashed. She spent nearly a year in the US, during which she found few openings for which to even apply. Never idle, she washed dogs and cared for children, served her grandfather and enabled him to have a last year in his own home. She took some hard hits, too. A meanly jealous supervisor in one job; the employer’s health crisis and bankruptcy (yep, lots of unpaid wages) in another. A paid-for education in the school of what-the-working-poor-face taught her compassion for people she might never have noticed had she not lived what she lived. Then she joined us in UAE, hoping that jobs would be more plentiful. She continues to search.

Along the journey, all the emotions: self-doubt, loneliness, anger, confusion, regret. Seasons of ardent prayer; seasons of prayerlessness because it seemed all had been said over and over. Self-pity. Feelings of worthlessness, of hopelessness, of being the only one no one wanted.

Through it, I watched Cait lean into her Lord Jesus. Then came a season like the dawn of a new day. Reflections on biblical stories that celebrate quiet humility, unorthodox fruit, like Mary “wasting” her precious perfume to lavish Jesus’ head and feet so that it ran down and the fragrance filled the house. The value of investing in lives over financial or career success. The freedom to walk her own journey without anxiety or fear. A coming-alongside of Jesus in the things He holds dear. As I prayed from the sidelines, I saw Cait take on joy and gratitude around a uniquely-precious love of her grandfather and quiet opportunities to encourage others. I listened to words that showed she went deep with the Lord and journeyed hidden paths of nourishment and satisfaction in His presence most rare in 26-year-old Americans. I saw her grasp that God’s economy and values are not of this world, that her life and destiny are truly safe in His watch-care, and that what will bring Him glory unfolds in the mundane of everyday life.

Today, in Abu Dhabi, Cait is a catalyst for connections and community. The pair—Cait and our daughter-in-law Eda—are unstoppable hostesses and homemakers. I know her as ministry partner, whether it’s about cooking or communicating or taking her grandfather (who lives with us now) to medical appointments. She has become research assistant on my book for the Albanian church, organizer of all manner of dynamic fun for singles, willing help around the church, and prayer partner to several young women. Perceptive, solidly grounded, gracious communicator. Generous.

And yes, she continues the job-search. We continue to pray for sustaining and engaging employment for her. All the while, full of joy in her noble (yet fun) beauty, proud of her intelligent maturity, and oh-so-grateful to know her not just as daughter, but also as ministry partner and friend.

Happy birthday, from Mom

Monday, March 1, 2010


In prayer this morning I find an invitation to reflect on the experiences and feelings of the last day. Where have I been aware of Your presence? Where, in the quiet peace of hindsight, do I now notice a touch of glory that was missed in the press of action and reaction?

It’s all murk, Lord!

It was a good Saturday. Restful. Curt and I worked side by side on separate projects. We enjoyed a break over coffee. Yes, I had that melt-down when my brain disengaged from my hands and I couldn’t do a simple ponytail, but the family surrounded me with understanding and I was reassured. A chest-cold begins to clear. Cait made tasty curry for the 20 who turned up to fellowship and study together. Her delightful kitchen-hostess ways sparked laughter as stories were swapped among her helpers and lonely ones found a place. It was nice to sit with Angie and Laura, “protecting the diners from my germs.” Amanda, Nate, George—new ones to welcome and listen to. Missed Pawan. I also notice I have retreated from a difficult one to love, and give that back to You.

But did I witness Your presence? In majestic glory? In subtle whisper? I recall inner movements toward or away from food, people, action and inaction. But You? Did I see You? Can I recognize Your imprint now?

The Lenten reading today sent me to Luke 9, the Transfiguration. (The event deserves a capital “T,” don’t You think?) Peter, John and James were on the mountain with You. While You prayed Your appearance changed to reveal the dazzling splendor of Your shekinah glory, and You were joined by Moses and Elijah. But Peter and his buddies were dull with sleep. They almost missed it. Yet somehow they fought the heaviness and stayed awake—and so they saw Your unimaginable radiance.

That’s how I feel. Dull with sleep; struggling towards wakefulness but so heavy. Tempted to despair over my dim, inattentive ways. But this morning You meet me with consolation: “It was as they struggled into wakefulness” (JB Phillips) that they saw Your glory! As I struggle today towards wakefulness, You allow me a glimpse, too.

Still, good old Peter immediately misses the point. “It’s a good thing we are here so we can fix things up for You, Lord!” But You quiet him. You hold him in Your presence. More than that, You advance and envelope him in it. The voice of the Father penetrates the cloudy confusion: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!”

Next, they found themselves alone again with the "everyday"Jesus they knew. Somehow more able to listen, I think. Headed back down the mountain into the mundane, to resume the journey toward the Cross.

Thank You, Lord Jesus, King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God. Amen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Ambassador's Plate

The underside tells me the elegant plate is Limoge. Rimmed with gold, it bears the state seal of a Gulf nation. On it a lop-sided chocolate cake that drools with icing and sprinkled M&Ms. A joyous thing, a gift from the housemaids in 1701. These Filipinas are Christian, and far from home. We don’t know them, but a believing security guard assured them of welcome at our table on Christmas Day. We were delighted, but word came that they were refused time off for this feast of their faith. They stopped in with the cake on Christmas afternoon. Baked it and snuck it out while the Ambassador was away. Didn’t stay long lest he return and find them absent.

It is the day after Christmas. The cake half-eaten reveals the fancy plate, and I examine it and wonder how to get it back to them without getting them in trouble.

The doorbell rings and there they stand, all smiles. “We need the plate!” I laugh. We chat briefly. They worked together in Morocco before UAE. Liked it there. “Abu Dhabi?” “Not so much.”

Liking fleeting angels they are gone, these young believers placed by Jesus in the heart of that state official’s home.

Christmas table

Curt and I traveled during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Were home for just seven fast days before the Christmas feast. No time or head-space for any big plan. We prayed and only a few came to mind to invite.

As we took our places at the table I looked around and marveled. Pawan, Ehab, Naomi, Alfonso and Marli had joined us other years. This year Pawan brought two brothers who also work in UAE. Khadka is a new friend who helps with
housework, and he brought his wife. What joy to serve him for a day, and to sit together and play a game. Mike moved to UAE last summer. Jenn joined our household in October. All these, book-ended by four Bidingers. Nepal, Brazil, Switzerland, Japan and Peru, Jordan, Albania, and the US. A housemaid, a military advisor, a jeweler, a midwife, an urban planner, a security guard, an office boy, an oil guy, teachers and laborers, housewives. Christian, Hindu and Muslim.

Some we invited; some found their way to our table. I say Jesus invited them. I recall His banquet story
in Luke 14 where this rich guy invites all the expected guests to a feast and few could be bothered to come. So the host sent to the streets and brought in the people no one would think to invite. Not that our friends had refused our invitation, but I was humbled and awed at the company Jesus chose. People we would never meet to invite in the normal way. Rich fellowship of nations, the essential dignity of all people, and a common invitation to take a place at the table of the Kingdom of God.

Glorious celebration of God come in human flesh!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Prodigal lovers

I want to tell you more about those parents….

You would enjoy them, I think. George and Martha are intelligent, lively, full of laughter and comfortable with themselves. Companionable in marriage, but outward-focused so that others are encompassed by their love rather than made to feel intruders on a private thing. The most mundane aspects of business and home become celebrations of God’s goodness when George and Martha are around. Whether things are calm or crazy, these two radiate inner stillness so that in all parts of their life and business generosity and compassion ripple out.

Martha—well, she’s a tad counter-culture, dressing softly with a glimmer of makeup. She exudes the artistry and fun
of it. She and George both love the countryside. Their house rings with conversation and laughter as others find rest, safety and shelter there. Though life and home are ever full, George and Martha always seem to have time to listen, to make place, to pray.

These two have suffered much pain and prayer over both of their children. Though onlookers question their prodigal generosity, George and Martha are not fools, nor are they sentimental. They see both Grace and Hazel for who they are: immature, greedy, competitive, lustful, foolish and lost. It’s a place of great weariness, of restlessness—overwhelming at times with the sadness that neither child shares their vision or wants to grow to be like them and to grow to take their place.

As Grace returns home, and as Hazel is forced to confront her shallow understanding of the love and gift it is to be a child of this family, parenting has also become a place of fresh hope.


The Prodigal Story is a Kingdom image. Even as they take and waste their parents’ prodigal generosity, neither child perceives what it means to be a child and heir—the call and the potential to one day step into their place. Neither child desires to be like the parents. And so BOTH the older and the younger miss tremendous blessing, and the whole community suffers loss.

God, as our Father, invites us to grow up into His likeness, to become increasingly worthy partners through ever greater appropriation of His endless love and resources. These resources, He says, are already ours, but we:
• see them as scarce
• see them as insufficient
• see the Father’s ways as foolish and wasteful
• see the Father’s priorities as boring
• think our own agendas and plans are better
• compete with and judge our siblings
• dwell in fear of loss
• can’t wait until the Father releases His grip and lets us own in it all and run things our way
• miss the whole point of our adoption as heirs, that is, that children are to grow up into the character and responsibilities of worthy parents.

Again, let me invite you to spend time with this parent Jesus describes in Luke 15. What does it mean to you to be a child and an heir of this Person? By your choices, actions and responses—your treatment of His love and bounty--what role have you cast Him in?

I wonder what He will say to you through this story as you contemplate Him.