Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.
We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission.
We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say.
I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.
When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary...
“Why are you here?” she asked suspiciously when we sat down knee to knee on the dirt floor of her shelter. She had seen other foreigners before. They brought food and water, set up medical camps. Were we here to do the same? “We just want to hear your story,” one of the women in our circle said. The Rohingya woman tugged the violet scarf behind her ears as she smiled widely and let out a contented sigh.
When I was younger I never imagined I would be sitting in a circle like that one. Everything in me loved to color inside the lines. A risk-averse rule follower asks where the boundaries are and then stays a few feet inside of them.
My faith stayed inside the lines for years, too. I clung to right answers and thought I knew all the rules to follow to please God and to make a difference in the world.
And then, I went out and met people who looked, lived, and believed nothing like me. I started listening and realizing how little I knew at all.
Thankfully, I met people who valued people’s stories over quick solutions. When one organization I worked with wanted to combat slavery in India they asked the people in bondage how they could help and listened when they responded: “Educated our children. Don’t let this cycle continue with the next generation.” So, they started schools and empowered national teachers to run them.
“It is easy to know what is good for someone else,” says nun and human rights advocate, Joan Chissiter, “It is difficult to listen and let them define it themselves.” I don’t always make the effort to listen. But when I do, I realize the gravity of carrying someone else’s story…and the privilege.
Back in that camp, we leaned in closer around the quiet woman, eager to hear her story...
I am thrilled to share my story today at Cara Meredith's Coloring Outside the Lines blog. Cara is the author of The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. The proceeds from the article will go to the work of Preemptive Love.
Ask anyone who knows me: I am obsessed with books. My dream house includes plans for a library with bookshelves tall enough to necessitate a sliding ladder. Belle was always my favorite princess because of her love of reading. Some of the world's most magnificent libraries have brought me to tears (Alexandria, Egypt to name one).
It's this love of the written word that made me want to be a writer to begin with. Maybe it's this love of words that drew me to study the stories people tell about God and get a degree in Religion. I have an abnormal love of learning and have said I would go to school forever if someone would pay for it (Anyone dying to fund my return to an incomplete seminary degree I started sixteen years ago? No?). If you ask any expert on writing what to do to become a better writer, the first thing they will say is, "read more."
So I set out this year with a goal to read 52 books. I read on my kindle and on my phone, listened to audiobooks, borrowed from the library, and supported author friends in launching their precious book babies into the world. By the beginning of December, I had busted my goal apart and read 59 books (and countless essays and articles online).
My head was swimming with all the beautiful, wonderful words. And I needed a break. My love of reading had become a duty as a writer. I needed to read more to grow my craft. I needed to support every author friend that was putting together a launch team. I needed to recommend the best books in my monthly newsletter to my reader (and articles and podcasts, and oh, so much noise in my mind!). My love of story had turned into a duty to take in more information at a breakneck pace. And I wasn't loving it anymore. Sometimes even the things we love can become burdensome. Sometimes we need to reevaluate our reasons.
So, I took December off of social media, reading, podcasts, news. I work in online communications so I couldn't log off completely. But outside of work, I let the only words I take into my mind during Advent be one short devotional and Scripture.
It was a relief to have some quiet for a time. But it is not sustainable as a writer or even as a lover of words. I long to be a learner but I also have limited time (and limited capacity in a middle-aged brain that is pulled in a million different directions). I want to be smarter in what I consume and I don't ever want it to just be more information. I want it to be part of transformation.
So, here's a look back on what I read in 2019 and my goals for the coming year. What about you—what do your bookshelves look like? Continue Reading
“Oh, boys don’t wear mehndi,” we were told when our six-year-old proudly displayed the bright red paisley design he got on his palm during a recent celebration. We’d seen young boys on the streets with the designs and he just wanted to be included in the festivities, but a trusted friend told us it is a bit taboo. I nodded and made a mental note for next time. There’s always something new to learn.
Learning to live well in a new culture is like being a small child again. We are helpless without the guidance of others. Some may think this ends after we’ve learned where to shop and how to navigate public transportation, how to have a simple conversation or what hospitality looks like. It doesn’t, not if we want to be good students of culture and open ourselves to truly connecting with people in our adopted home. We have to make choices every day to set aside our pride and to place ourselves under the wisdom of those wiser than us.
Humility looks like being embarrassed when we are told to always serve tea in dainty teacups (now knowing why we got funny looks when we gave our guests our enormous American mugs. More is better, right? Wrong.). It looks like serving dinner at the end of the night instead of the beginning like we’d do in American because here visiting first is a priority and serving the meal means the visit is now over. We can’t ever assume we understand and we can’t stop seeking to go deeper in respect for and a willingness to learn from our neighbors.
We need to know how to respect the traditions of our neighbors, how to walk the line between what we hold onto from our own culture and how we fit into our new one. I wear the local clothing (not all foreigners here choose to) but my young daughter doesn’t need to. We fumble with attempts to learn the language but our kids go to an English school and only know a few phrases in Bangla. We eat Bengali food for lunch but don’t deny our son his Nutella.
I am not a natural at humility or taking correction. It actually takes a lot of work for me. While I can easily submit myself to the wisdom of people in my adopted country, I often am rigid when it comes to taking direction on issues I think I know a lot about. I’m not happy about this. God is leading me to the roots of this pride, the insecurity that fuels it.
Feeling like a child again shows me how little I know and I am working to allow trusted people to speak into my life in more than just issues of culture. I especially want to look to those with a different perspective than me. I want to read more books by and follow people on social media who are outside my own culture, faith tradition, and race—people who can speak into blind spots my own experiences have left me with. In areas I know I am weak, I look to those who are strong. In areas where I think I am strong, I remind myself I’m not as capable as I think I am. I still need some work. Okay, a lot of work.
It may not come naturally to humble ourselves but that is why we work at it. When it comes to wanting to belong in a place or to a people, sometimes it is easy to say, “here I am; teach me!” When it is a group we aren’t sure we love yet, a people who rub us the wrong way—it takes a little more effort and is that much more necessary.
Yes, I’m like a child in a culture where I am an outsider. But in so many other ways as well I am like my kids easily take correction on their spelling words. They know their mom knows a few more things about the English language than they do in first and fourth grade. But they don’t exactly love it when I point out their bad attitudes or unkind words. I remind them that I am trying to help them grow into better people and make a mental note that I need to take my own advice. All of us children need reminders that correction is loving, humility is necessary, and we should never stop trying to grow.
In what areas of learning do you feel you are weak?
How do you work towards humility in your life? Does it come naturally to live as a learner?
What steps are you taking to take correction and move towards understanding, in what areas of your life?
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?
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