We like programs, events. They have defined timelines and an expected outcome. We like to show up and give money or time to a cause. We want to help but we want boundaries too.
Reading Shawn Smucker’s new memoir Once We Were Strangers, I was reminded of the time my “event” of helping a refugee family from Afghanistan as they resettled in their new home in America. We felt accomplished when we helped set up their apartment. We felt less accomplished when we spent hours sitting with the family of 10 talking and letting the kids play. But we found something we didn’t expect, that this family needed less help and more friendship. "Help" wasn’t definable or simple. It required more than we imagined we could give.
Smucker unfolds the story of his growing relationship with Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, with the same ease and grace of a leisurely afternoon having coffee with a friend. In this beautiful true story, we get to be the witnesses of a life slowing down, a perspective changing, and a conviction to love deepening.
“What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority?” asks Smucker who met Mohammad with the intention of helping him write the story of his flight from Syria. But the two find something much more than they expected in a friendship that unites their families.
I received an advance copy of this book to read with excitement on so many levels. I believe Shawn Smucker is one of the best storyteller’s of our day (and have highly recommended his novels to you). I have a passion for seeing the stories of refugees elevated and think this couldn’t be a timelier story, as there are more refugees in the world than ever before as my own country is turning it’s back on them. I currently live in a country housing the second largest refugee population in the world after the Syrian refugee community and work for an NGO that seeks to serve this people without a country. My own life has been changed by friendship with people outside my own faith tradition and I think those in the Western Church need constant reminders to get outside our own culture and faith communities. There is so much beauty to gain from cross-cultural friendships.
Smucker delivered on every hope I had for Once We Were Strangers.
It is a vivid and inspiring story of embracing the diversity that challenges our biases:
“Every time I leave Mohammad and his family, I feel I’ve been given so much. Every time I leave them, I feel they have given me a small gift of peace, a kind of shalom absent from so much of our culture these days. It’s good to have friends who life quiet, peaceful lives. It seems strange to me that of all the families I know, most of whom are Christian, Mohammad’s family lives the most quiet, peaceful life of all.”
It is a gentle battle cry for Americans to wake up to the needs of others (from an author who admits this very friendship was both diagnosis and beginning of the cure of his own prejudices):
“There are days I wonder if this world can continue to exist under the current load of hate and misunderstanding and evil, when I wonder if the hearts of all people can somehow find a vaccination from racism and virulent nationalism and a concern only for ourselves.”
“We have to pull out all the stops in welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, in getting to know those who live around us, in showing love to our neighbors. We can’t afford to isolate people anymore. We can’t afford to push people to the fringes of our society. This world we’ve created is a product of isolationism and fear, distrust and anger.”
And it was a surprising challenge to me to open myself up beyond programs and my ideas of what “help” looks like. It is a call to slow down and see others, to love:
“Our desire to help is often an arms length. People actually need a friend.”
Grab a copy of Once We Were Strangers, be inspired, and then get out there and meet someone different than you. Experience the life-changing power of community.
The question stayed with me for days but I didn’t have an answer. In one of my online tribes a question was posed: What do you know so well that you could teach on for 45 minutes without notes?
I could easily ramble about some things I am passionate about for 45 minutes but I am not expert enough in any of them that I could truly teach about them. I realized how much of my life is that of a learner. I joke that I would go to school for the rest of my life if someone else would pay for it. I have a thousand different interests and I dabble in many of them, but I am expert in none—save my own life experiences that I invite others into through my writing.
I have poured countless hours into writing, editing, learning about the craft and the industry, building a website, making connections. But, what is the purpose of this thing I pour my time and my heart into? What do my readers come to my writing hoping to gain?
Earlier this year, overwhelmed by language study and culture shock of a huge international move, I stepped back from writing. When the words started tumbling out again, they sounded different. I realized I needed to step back and ask, “What do I really have to say?”
When I started sharing my writing online several years ago I invited others to quiet the noise without and within and listen for the One voice that mattered. I have encountered God in my writing and in my life in those years and my faith has shifted as a result. How could it not in the midst of the changing seasons of my life, motherhood, geography, and the cultural context of the world and church around me? My writing has changed because I have changed. I have changed because I have listened. I have placed myself under teachers who have guided me. I realized my writing has been guiding too—toward a life of listening, learning, loving.
I have dipped my toes into the waters of what faith looks like through different practices and in different seasons. Together we’ve gone on journeys into contemplative prayer, social justice, mental health, transition, and more. And I am not an expert in any of these areas. But I am learning more every day from those who are and from the God who wants our lives to fully embody a life of loving Him and others. And I think there are others out there who don’t want to sit still and let the noise of this world overtake them. They too want to sift through the noise to find what God is saying about how to live in this world.
I’m no mental health authority but I can share how fear and anxiety has shaped my faith and maybe we find we have similar wounds. I don’t know all there is to know about interfaith dialogue or international life but I know what it looks like to sit with my Muslim neighbors and try to love them better. Maybe you want to know what that looks like. I struggle with contemplative prayer more days than I manage to sit with silence but maybe we can walk toward life-giving practices of faith together.
In Four Gifts: Seeking Self-care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength April Yamasaki talks about how the word “Listen” positioned at the beginning of the great commandment struck her as vital to the commandment itself:
Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ – Mark 12.29-31, NLT
Yamasaki says, “If we are to love God, we need to listen. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to listen. As far as great commandments go, listening ranks right up there with loving. Listening and loving go together.”
No, I’m not an expert on much. Not even on listening. Just ask my husband. I am full of pride more often than I am humble. I like to hear my own voice and have to work on being still. But in my journeys in faith, in loving cultures not my own, in stumbling toward seeing my part in God’s plan of restoration, I have seen the truth that I must listen to God and listen to others if I am to live a life of love. And this is the journey I invite you to take together with me. Maybe we can make some space in this noisy online world and be still to listen together. I don’t know about you but I would be happy to be known simply as a listener. Let’s be known for being humble learners and fierce lovers!
I want to hear from you. I am listening with you. Keep the conversation going in the comments or on social media:
How are you listening to God? What areas do you struggle in your practice and experience of faith?
Who are you listening to in this noisy world clamoring for our attention? Do you place yourself under the teaching of a diverse group of people? Where do you feel you are lacking in what you are learning or who you are listening to these days?
I spent the better part of the first six months of our international move neglecting to care for myself in any consistent way. My attempts were sporadic and felt selfish. I knew I needed time on my mat each day as my muscles ached with the need to stretch after hours of sedentary language study. But in March I was still working through the 30-days of yoga series I started in January. I was tired all the time dealing with culture shock and a new...well, everything. But there was homework to finish and children's homework to finish and so many more things to do than I had hours in the day.
I knew I was heading towards burnout fast and some of the ways to avoid it, but I let it happen anyway. Anxiety and depression hit hard. And then I had nothing good left to give anyone. I spent the better part of the next few months just trying to function and heal. Self-care didn't seem selfish anymore. At the encouragement of a coach/counselor, my husband, and my boss to name a few—I realized I couldn't do it all without taking some time to care for my self. And that didn't mean sporadically working out or praying when the work was done. In the state I found myself, I couldn't hear God and I couldn't be what anyone around me needed.
“We're not actually responsible for everything in the world or even in our own lives, so we don't need to act as if we are.” - April Yamasaki
I know my tendencies to want to take the reigns instead of letting God be in control, my desire for perfection and thinking I can work my way to it. But when a counselor told me that my desire even to want to protect everyone and meet everyone's else's needs was also pride and control, I was stunned. Here I thought I was serving people and taking care of my family but I was trying to be God for them. I needed to step out of the way and make space for Him to work in my life and in the lives of others.
It was about that time that I was able to read April Yamasaki's new book Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. Her words echoed the warnings against pride and the need to take care of my self to better care for others. Hers were the words I needed to hear.
“In our day a high interest in self-care seems to move in the opposite direction toward disengagement, withdrawal, and focusing on one's self to the exlusion of larger social concerns...What concerns do you have for social and structural change in our world and in your own life? In what ways does self-care empower you to engage these?” - April Yamasaki
If you're anything like me "self-care" can feel selfish because popular culture has turned self-care into ideas of pampering and taking time out for yourself, solitude or vacations, and things that don't seem to fit into everyday life. I see people on social media talking about self-care and think, "yeah, that would be nice if we all had time off or disposable income." I like a good day to myself as much as the next mom and do make time for it every now and then. But this kind of self-care wasn't what I was looking for and it wasn't going to be what healed me. I needed to find ways to care for my whole self on a daily basis. I also wanted to find ways to be whole so that I could engage with the needs around me.
That is why April Yamasaki's words were so refreshing. She writes in a practical and relatable way about holistic care for your mind, your body, spirit, and soul, and how to do so in a way that sets healthy rhythms for your daily life so you can care for others with a full and equipped heart.
Yamasaki talks about ways to care for your heart (like boundaries and community), your soul (Sabbath, lament, and self-discipline), your mind (focus, your digital world, mental health, renewing your mind), and your strength (sleep, food, health). I have never thought about some of these areas as self-care before and certainly never considered the ramifications on my ability to connect with God and others as a result of my own well-being.
“If we are to love God, we need to listen. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to listen. As far as great commandments go, listening ranks right up there with loving. Listening and loving go together." - April Yamasaki
I talk a lot about listening to God, about wanting to hear His voice. I know there are things in my life I need to keep attuned to be able to listen. But Four Gifts also reminded me that to listen to and love our neighbor well we need this attunement as well. So whether you need a little tune-up or a complete overhaul of your self-care, I hope Four Gifts can bring you closer to listening and loving well.
Listening with you,
The roar of a mob of students fills my ears as I try to read. I walk over to my window to watch the protestors filing down the street carrying signs and chanting slogans about corrupt governments and unsafe roads. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. In our sprawling city, protests often shut down the roads for days and remind us of the conflict raging all around us. Some days it can feel overwhelming. Where is my voice in the din? I don’t belong on the streets with the local students. Do I have a say at all? Can there ever be peace?
Living in a majority Muslim country, some might think I live in a place that sees more conflict than most. I am not sure anymore. I see just as much conflict these days on my computer screen, from the voices in my home country, in the news coming out of Western culture. As I sat down to read Mending the Divides: Creating Love in a Conflicted World my heart ached with the truth of Lynne Hybel’s words in the introduction describing my own home country as one “increasingly polarized into divisive factions, even at war with itself.”
I wanted to read Mending the Divides because of the increasing conflict I see in the world and my adjacent feelings of powerlessness. What can I possibly do to help? I knew the authors, Jon Huckins and Jer Swigart, to be the founders of the Global Immersion Project. Through peacemaking workshops, webinars, and immersion trips their organization seeks to train individuals and organizations how to be everyday peacemakers in the world.
But peace—really? How can we have any part in such a lofty concept?...
Utterly alone, you don’t believe anyone could understand the way you feel. Lost, you don’t know how you’ll ever find your way back. And then…a friend calls at just the right time. A song says the words you needed to hear. You read a line in a book that might have been taken out of your very journal. Suddenly, you know there is hope. You aren’t alone. If someone else has felt this way and found their way forward, so can you.
Liz Ditty’s book God’s Many Voices: Learning to Listen, Expectant to Hear was my friend calling to console me, the song to my heart, the “me too” moment that spoke hope into my weary soul. Though I’ve had the joy of meeting Liz, fellow Redbud Writer’s Guild member, in real life it was through the words of her book that I realized just how valuable her voice is to anyone longing to see God more clearly.
I was thrilled to support a fellow author in her book launch and get an early peek at her new book. But I mostly wanted to read it hoping it would meet me in the way I so desperately needed. I knew Liz to be dynamic speaker and spiritual director and I so longed to hear from someone like her that would walk with me to the Father I felt like I had lost touch with.
“It’s possible to seek God’s voice but not seek God. We won’t find Him if we are moving toward our own goals and desires and trying to see Him there. God is who He is, and if we want to hear Him, we have to come to Him in our own broken desire to love Him. Listening should be an act of love, not a grasp for certainty. We have to move only toward Him and His love, not toward His wisdom or blessing or direction.” - Liz Ditty
My early life of faith was lived out in an evangelical tradition that places a heavy emphasis on hearing God through Scripture. I am so grateful for a tradition that instilled a hunger for God’s Word in me. But over the years I’ve been exposed to many other traditions—from the Episcopal church of my college years to the Coptic Church of my time in Egypt, the traditional church of South Asia to the Benedectine Monastery where I discovered the daily office, and the contemplative prayer of fellow authors and friends. I’ve learned that we have many ways of attempting to hear God and I feel like I’ve dipped my toes in the water of many disciplines but never gotten very far in actually listening through any.
In the wilderness I have found myself in after our international move, I knew God hadn’t stopped speaking and I was trying to listen. I just wasn’t hearing anything. I kept going back to the ways of my youth – read more, study more, try harder. Nothing. For nine months now a still voice has been whispering, “Listen. Just be still.”
As I read God’s Many Voices all those How is Liz in my head? moments showed me this: In all my movement and all my attempts to know the answers of why I was drowning in depression, how to get out, and what should come next—I was looking for answers, for a fix. But not for God.
The book gives you opportunities to sit with what you’ve learned and practice it in various sections, reminding you that God’s voice doesn’t just speak through Scripture. Liz focuses on God’s voice as He speaks through Scripture – yes. But also through Prayer, Community, Our Daily Lives, Coincidences and Interruptions, in Beauty All Around Us, and in Desire, Waiting, and Silence.
“If you are wandering in the meantime of waiting, God is with you. He has something tender to say to you here and a profound purpose for what may seem like wasted time. The promised land will be sweet, but God is not withholding good things from you now. He has good things for you, and He is doing good things in you, right there in the wilderness of waiting.” - Liz Ditty
Maybe you are in a season where God is speaking to you more through nature or through a community. Maybe you are growing and hearing from God or perhaps you too feel a bit lost. And reading Liz’s book has reminded me that all of those places are okay. We all have seasons of listening well, of not really hearing, of silence, and of hearing God’s voice differently. It’s the ebb and flow of life and growth and, I believe, also the creativity and diversity of our God. Right now I am in am a wilderness wanderer, telling myself daily that God is with me in it and holding onto words of people like Liz who tell me He is working even when I don’t see it.
Wherever you find yourself, I know you could use a helping hand to guide you. I encourage you to pick up God’s Many Voices and keep listening. Because I believe if you do, you can expect to hear. I look forward to hearing what God has to say to you.
Listening with you,
After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering, I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms and so I looked to her for guidance...
"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." - 1 Thessalonians 1:5, ESV.
“You’re so brave,” she said admiringly as she slipped the receipt across the counter. I fought back the urge to laugh or cry, I wasn’t sure which. She saw me one side of me—the foreigner in her country, hopping onto the public buses that merely slowed a bit before one needed to jump off onto the cracking curb. In her eyes, there stood this NGO-worker leaving the familiar to serve the people of her country. It was something she didn’t dream she could do and she said as much.
She didn’t see me thirty minutes earlier, sitting in my quiet apartment before my family began to stir, fighting back the fear that was churning in my stomach like yesterday’s spicy fish curry refusing to go down quietly. She didn’t witness this formerly proudly independent woman trying to talk herself into just opening that door to face the world outside. She didn't see that version of me.
When I lived in my home country I had a weekly ritual. I would slip out of the house under the still dark sky and escape to a coffee shop to write. I wouldn’t emerge until the sun was rising high in the sky and I had explored the depths of my soul on the page. I would return home to my family just beginning their days while I was buzzing with caffeine and passion. I felt powerful, invincible.
When the sunlight hit my face that morning I sat straight up in bed reaching for my phone to check the time. I forgot how early the dawn comes here and I saw it is not yet six. I eased out of bed and got ready quickly only to then sit there staring at that menacing door. I’d barely left my house all week, hemmed in by culture shock and depression, a kind of fear and anxiety that were as unexplainable as they were unpredictable. After eight months in this South Asian Mega-city, I felt breakable, broken....
“Are you going to break up with me next?” she cried in frustration and anger. That anger should have been directed completely at me but it was also pointed at God.
I will never forget the look on my sister’s face when I told her I had broken up with my boyfriend. Disbelief mixed with pain and anger flashed in her eyes. I had caused that. Four years older than me, she was no longer in high school but we were in the same circles and shared a lot of friends. We shared a lot in common—except my faith in Jesus. There were other reasons this guy and I parting ways but my sister got around to asking me if it was because he didn’t share my faith and I admitted that was partly it.
It always came back to this with us. I pushed (hard). She pushed back (harder). Disagreeing never accomplished anything except for driving a wedge between two people who couldn’t see the world the same way. I thought I could argue her into believing. I think she would have stopped herself from believing just to spite me ... and she would have been right.
I cringe when I think back to the headstrong and arrogant youth that saw the world one way and expected to debate others into the Kingdom of God. I wish I could change this part of my history but what I can do is learn from it. Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is the fear of disagreeing altogether.
I spent so many years mending the damage from my ignorance and never wanting to harm another, especially in the name of the Jesus who never pushed His way into anyone’s life. I have taken the backseat of being a learner and I am more comfortable there.
I still have strong opinions. Just ask my small circle of friends close enough to hear my real political opinions. These are things I do not air publically. The thought of doing so recalls memories of that unkind girl and makes my heart beat faster than it should.
Enter social media and the fact that I am a writer in Christian circles—both of which these days means airing opinions and feelings, writing them out for all to see. I would say I picked the wrong vocation if I had actually picked it. Ask most writers and they’ll tell you it picked them, that they can’t help it. But that doesn’t negate the dread I feel about disagreement (especially about matters as deeply personal as faith and the way we express it)...
I’m a sentimental person by nature. I love gifts that have a personal meaning, heirlooms, and reminders of the ones I love. Other than my wedding ring I don’t own any fancy jewelry but I do own pieces that are absolutely priceless to me like the small diamond necklace that belonged to my grandmother that I wore in my wedding or the ring that my sister got made for me out of a piece of Gram’s silverware.
I am however also a person who loves order and organization. When my mom, whom I learned my sentimentality from, gave me an envelope of childhood items she had kept for me, she was disgusted that I didn’t plan on keeping many of them. Sure that cute picture I drew in kindergarten is nice to show my kids but do I need every report card I ever got in school and every newspaper clipping from the times I made the honor roll?
My distaste for clutter and my love of memory often collide and I am conflicted in what truly matters enough to keep. So I am trying to find a balance with my own kids and the difficulty is compounded as we downsize to two suitcases apiece that we will take with us in our move to South Asia next month.
When we lived in the Middle East before we had children we packed as light as we could. I remember in moments of culture shock and homesickness how I longed for something to remind me of home. Maybe I am erring on the side of taking too much now as we look at paying for a couple extra bags but I don’t want to regret not having those items that connect us to home. That pillow made for our kids by the teacher who cared for them after school since birth, the dollhouse lovingly made by my childhood best friend for my own daughter (even though it weighs twenty pounds), those stuffed animals given as gifts that they cuddle with each night—all going.
I’ve tried to catalog memories in such a way that we will actually relive them one day. I have boxes full of old-school photo albums that I do actually revisit from time to time (You know, when we used to actually print photos and stick them in books? Many of mine are actually Polaroid’s, gasp!) We don’t have many photos of my husband’s childhood because most of his were lost years ago in a flood. I regret not having those every time someone says how much our son looks like his dad.
In the busyness of life I had gotten behind on making the computer-generated photo books I have made for each year of our children’s lives, so I spent hours in the last few weeks before our big move pouring over pictures from the last three years. I met my goal of getting the books done but those books were bulky and expensive and I didn’t want to risk losing them on the move, so straight into storage they went. Knowing how much the faces of the people we love would bring comfort, I set out to make a smaller book of family and friends to take with us.
I was surprised at the pictures that gripped my heart and I felt like I needed to include...
I know what it must feel like to be a ghost. I am haunting the life I used to live but haven’t moved on yet, hanging out on the fringes of what I once called mine. I watch everyone around me go about their days as they always have but I am on the outside looking in. I ache to be seen but I also know my presence brings up all kinds of hurt, so I remain in the wings. Yes, I know what it must feel like to be but a shadow, haunting your own life. This is life in transition.
Have you ever felt it before? Maybe you moved from the place you long called home or left your church, had an illness that separated you from others, or lost your job while others went on with life as usual?
We are moving to South Asia in less than two months. Our house is sold and our belongings are stored. I watched someone take over my job of six years as I stepped aside, getting the kids ready for uprooting their lives. Their little hearts are unfazed, it seems, as they adjust well while I feel more invisible every day. Next week we sell our car, the last big thing that links us to life in the United States. We will drive in a borrowed car as we live in a borrowed house, feeling like we are borrowing a life that isn’t ours anymore.
I am glad I have this “in-between” time in our move to prepare me for the loneliness I know is coming living 8500 miles from what has been home for most of my life. I feel like I am building up callouses now for the big hurt that is to come. But I also am wounded in another way, the conviction in my heart that is God saying “who else have you made to feel this way in the past? Who are you shutting out even now?”
Faces float to the surface of my memory as I try to push them back under. There’s the friend who encouraged me when my whole life was changing with a move, a new job, a second baby. I sat daily on her couch and we laughed and cried together. We had a fellowship I was sure would withstand the miles when she moved away. We haven’t talked in years. There’s the church small group I was a part of when all this transition happened and we were so busy we couldn’t make it to group but a couple times in a year and we just drifted away from budding relationships. I miss them and wonder how they are doing but it feels like it’s been too long to reach out now.
Relationships ebb and flow. Few last forever, I know that. Out of high school, I have one friendship that has stood the test of time and from college two real friends remain. I read the findings of a psychological study recently that concluded most friendships last no longer than seven years as people change and move on with their lives. But there are those moments when it feels like every relationship you have is changing or all have fallen away. Only loneliness remains and it gets you thinking about how we were designed for real fellowship and how empty we are without it...