“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.
“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?
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,