Waiting on Election Day

Advent is still officially a few weeks away.  But I often think that, here, we are in a state of perpetual advent.  A state of waiting.  A state of hoping.  A state of watching for signs of the in breaking of God’s vision for the world.

As I walked through the gates of this little church where I have the honor and privilege of serving as pastor, there were already a number of people waiting.  Waiting for appointments.  Waiting to speak with someone.  Waiting to see what today will bring.

This is not unusual.  In fact, it is the norm.  We work primarily with refugees.  And for refugees, waiting is a constant state.  Waiting for appointments.  Waiting for news.  Waiting…and hoping…that something might change, something that will give them a break from the constant state of waiting. They are waiting for a chance to begin a new life in a new place, a chance for a new opportunity, a chance to enroll children in education, or have access to desperately needed medical treatment.  They are waiting to share their stories.  They are waiting for their voices to be heard.

This state of waiting is especially heightened for me today, as I wait to see what will happen as, across America, people vote.  I am waiting to see what happens as this long and vicious election cycle finally comes to an end.  I am waiting to see what happens tomorrow when a lot of people are angry and upset that their candidate did not win.  I am waiting to see what happens the next day and the day after that as we figure out just what it means for us to be citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I am waiting for a whole number of reasons, but one of the big ones, for me these days, is to find out what will happen for the people with whom I work who look to my country as a place of refuge.  People who have waited for a long time to have the chance to start again in America.  People who, by the time they arrive, will have waited for 18-24 months from the time they heard that their interview process would begin.  Almost all of them have waited years to even get to that interview point.  People who have waited for countless interviews, who have told their stories multiple times.  Their stories have been checked against their family members’.  They have been vetted, questioned, interviewed, checked, re-checked, vetted again, interviewed again.  It is a long, drawn out, painful, often disappointing process.  Do not believe for a second that “they” are just “let in.”  That is plain and simply not the way resettlement works.  If you have questions about the resettlement process, please let me know and I would be happy to talk more about them with you.

I am waiting to find out if my country will still be a place where refugees can look to with hope, or it will be, yet another, disappointment.  Yet another place where the walls are built up (physically and metaphorically) and they are told they are unwanted, unwelcome.

I find myself turning to Ephesians 2 this morning:

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” 

There is so much that divides us.  And we are never better divided.  We are always better united.  We are always stronger when we work, together, for justice, for mercy, for grace, and for love.  We are always better when we look at each other and see, not a stranger or an enemy, but another child of God, also created in God’s image, also known and loved.

Please vote.  The results of this election matter.  Not just for you and your family, but for families across America and around the world.

Please, pray.  And love.  Love, love, love.

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In memoriam: My brother, Simon



Kirsten & Simon, Fall 2013

There are some misperceptions about what it takes to be a resettled refugee in the US.  The resettlement process is long and complicated.  By the time a resettled refugee sets foot in the US, he or she has been vetted by a whole number of agencies, including the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the US government.  He or she has been through security clearances and health checks.  He or she has sat through countless interviews.  He or she has waited to be identified as a refugee.  The process takes years.

And people die waiting.

People like my colleague, friend, and brother in Christ, Simon, who died last Thursday from kidney failure.  Simon was the pastor of the Sudanese Lutheran congregation that meets at St. Andrew’s.  Originally from South Sudan, Simon had been sick, and on dialysis, the whole time we have been in Cairo.  He applied for refugee status when he arrived, and it was, eventually, granted.  Then, he waited.  And waited.  And waited.  He had been accepted into the resettlement process for the US.  But his body gave out while he was waiting.

When I received the call about Simon on Friday morning, I broke down into sobs.  For Simon and for those whose names I do not and will not know.  There is a whole lot of heart break in this work.  There is so much that is not fair or just.  There is so much that is left up to luck or chance or where you happen to have been born.

We’re coming up on three years here in Egypt.  I have learned so much.  I have met incredibly brilliant, compassionate, and deeply faithful people.  I have had countless deep, gratifying conversations where I have learned more about the world around me and the realities of it.   I have cried some tears and heard stories that will haunt me for years to come.  I have been moved to frustration and anger by bureaucracy.  I have a whole new empathy and understanding about the refugee crisis, the largest the world has ever faced.

And, with brothers and sisters here and around the world, I keep turning back to the promise and hope of Revelation 21:3-4.

See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.

My brother, Simon, clung to that promise.  Our brothers and sisters who mourn his death do, too.  I have heard it from them over and over again these past few days.

I have turned to these words when young people known to us go missing, presumed dead at sea.  I have turned to these words when people die from diseases that should have been curable.  I have turned to these words when I have listened to stories about what caused people to leave their countries, to seek refugee status, to leave behind family, homes, what was known and familiar to them.  I have turned to these words when I have heard about actions borne out of evil, hatred, and fear.  I have turned to these words, and will keep turning to them, because I believe, down to the depths of my being, that they are true.  That the promise is true for each and every single one of us.  And that, in spite of everything that appears otherwise, God is still working to bring about that day when “death will be no more;” when “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

O, Lord, may it be so.  For Simon.  For you.  For me.  And for each and every single one of God’s beloved children, of all times and places.

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The Syrophoenician and the Syrian

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”  –Mark 7:24-37 (Lectionary 23 B/15th Sunday after Pentecost)

This story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, I’ll admit, is one I struggle with.  Every single time I read it.  I call it “the one where Jesus is a jerk.”  There are all kinds of explanations about Jesus’ behavior, but to me, they all try to explain it away.  This is not the Jesus who welcomes with open arms, who loves without condition.  This is Jesus who is very much a human being, a product of his time and culture and religion.  And, to be completely honest, I don’t know what to do with that.  I don’t know what to make of this story.

But I know this.  When I was reading this week, the Syrophoenician woman wasn’t living in the country side outside of first century Tyre.  She is living here in Cairo.  She is the refugee woman, waiting in the courtyard to speak to someone from psycho-social or RLAP, desperate to secure housing and education and medical care for her child.  She is the refugee woman, holding her baby above the water, after being thrown from a boat on the Mediterranean.  She is the refugee woman, living in squalor in a camp in Kenya or Lebanon or Ethiopia or Jordan.  She is one of millions of women in the world, displaced by war and poverty. 

All these years after Jesus called the Syrophoenician woman a little dog, too often, she is scorned and told she does not have a place.  In spite of the heartwarming stories, such as 10,000 Icelanders offering their homes to refugees or the train in Dresden welcoming refugees with اهلًا وسهلاً (ahlan wa sahlan), there are far too many stories of refugees being told they are not welcome.  There is far too much talk of building walls and fences along borders in Europe and the US, and too many bodies washed up on shores, or found decaying in a truck in Austria or in the deserts of the southwestern United States.  Too many innocent lives lost because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Because they carry the wrong passport or no passport at all.

The Syrophoenician woman defied a lot of social customs.  A woman approaching a man.  A Gentile approaching a Jew.  Most would scoff and call it inappropriate.  Some would see it as incredibly brave.  And at the same time, incredibly desperate.  This is the last resort.  She’s likely tried everything else in her power to help her sick daughter.  She doesn’t do this on a whim.  She does it because she has no other choice.

Thursday’s New York Times’ top headlines included, “Unicef Warns of Lost Generation of War Children Out of School.”  Across the Middle East and North Africa, 13 million children have been driven from school.  Rick Gladstone writes, “In some countries — particularly Syria, which once had one of the world’s highest literacy rates — many children who ordinarily would be third or fourth graders by now have rarely if ever been inside a classroom.” (1)  And, “death, mayhem, hunger and disease are among the most obvious risks to civilians in these conflict zones, the collapse in primary education is another compelling reason for families with young children to flee.”(2)  Parents who choose to try to get to Europe aren’t doing this on a whim or for fun.  They are desperate.  They do it for their children.

David Lose writes about the woman, “I have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus time.  But I know that she believed her daughter was.” (3)  This unnamed Syrophoenician woman, by some accounts a wealthy Tyrian and by others, an ostracized villager, is a fierce advocate for her daughter.  No matter what she believed about herself, she wanted the best for her daughter.  She believed that her daughter was worthy.

So do they, all of these women who risk everything on the Mediterranean and in Europe and on the border between the US and Mexico.  They believe their children are worthy.  Of safety.  Of healthcare.  Of education.  They will do whatever it takes, including risking their own lives and the lives of their children, because they believe those precious children are worthy. 

What parent out there can blame them?  Who doesn’t believe that her child is worthy of a place in the world?  Who doesn’t want her child to have education and health care and a safe place just to be?  Who doesn’t want to exorcise the demons from her child’s life so that her child can simply grow up?

I struggle with this story as I read the news because Jesus isn’t supposed to be the one who turns people away.  Jesus isn’t supposed to be the one slinging racial slurs.  Jesus isn’t supposed to insult and shame.  Jesus is supposed to be the one who welcomes with open arms, who keeps making room at the table.  Jesus is supposed to tear down barriers.  Jesus is the one who is supposed to say yes when everyone else says no.

He gets there.  He just needs a little nudge.  From a brave, desperate woman who says, in the imagination of Karoline Lewis, “Guess what, Jesus?  God said yes to me.  God said yes to me when God tore open the heavens.  God said yes to me when God decided to show up in the wilderness rather than in the temple.  God said yes to me when you came here instead of spending all your time in Jerusalem.” (4)  This woman is the only character in Mark to best Jesus in an argument. (5)  Her daughter is healed.  And soon after, a deaf Gentile will hear and 4,000 will be fed.  All of the sudden, the borders that had been drawn are breaking down.  And we see the Jesus, who came for the sake of the whole world, at work.

Like the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man in Decapolis, there are a lot of us out there who yearn for healing.  Physical healing, but also healing of our hearts and souls.  Healing of this world that is so very broken.  Healing from all of the things that cause people to be displaced and get on boats and cross dangerous borders.  Healing from all of the things that cause so much hatred among people. 

We long for the world Isaiah speaks of in Isaiah 35:4-7a, where “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.”  Where “the lame shall lead like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  Where “the waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”  Where “the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”  We long for this world.  And, sometimes, we lose hope that it will ever come.

I can’t say when it will come.  But I can only trust that it will.  I can only place my trust in the God who tore open the heavens to enter in a broken, desperate world.  I can only place my trust in the one who opened his arms, who died, and who rose so that the world could know life.  I can only place my trust in the promise that, somehow, in the midst of all of this brokenness, the Spirit is working to restore this weary world and to make all things new.

And that is the promise, isn’t it?  To the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man at Decapolis.  To the people desperate to hear good news from the prophet Isaiah.  To people across the ages who long for healing and cling to little, tiny threads of hope, all the way to us, weary of war and violence and oppression and poverty.

When Jesus looked at a Syrophoenician woman and saw not a stranger, but one worthy, the heavens tore open a little wider.  When Jesus healed that little girl, they tore even wider.  They tore a little wider and showed a little more clearly that the world as it is is not the world as God intends it to be.  God knows it is still not.

God is still working.  God is still mending and healing.  God has not, and will not, and will never, abandon us, no matter where we find ourselves on this planet.  God doesn’t care about passports or countries of origin.  God cares about people.  Every single one of the precious children who is born on this planet.  God is tearing open the heavens and working in this world for each and every single one of them.  Like the Syrophoenician woman who fights for her daughter, God will keep fighting for each and every single one of God’s beautiful, beloved, worthy children.

Even when it seems impossible and so unbelievably unlikely, God is, somehow, working in this world to restore and redeem.  God is at work tearing down boundaries and breaking down barriers and making all things new.  For us and for our children.  For the stranger and the enemy and the friend and the neighbor, for the refugee and for the migrant.  And for their children.  They are worthy.  We are worthy.  God, let it be so.  Show us it is so. 

  1.  Rick Gladstone, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/world/middleeast/unicef-warns-of-lost-generation-of-war-children-out-of-school.html?emc=edit_th_20150903&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=57351645, 3 September 2015
  2. Ibid
  3. David Lose, “Pentecost 15B: What the Syrophoenician Woman Teaches,” http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-15-b-what-the-syrophoenician-woman-teaches/, 31 August 2015
  4. Karoline Lewis, “God Said Yes to Me,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3679, 30 August 2015
  5. Mary Ann Tolbert, Women’s Bible Commentary, “Mark”, p. 356
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On Armistice Day


My Arabic teacher asked me yesterday if I had been to the pool.  “Ah,” I said, “you see my sunburn!  No, I wasn’t at the pool.  I was at the cemetery.”

Tonight at our rehearsal, our choir mates will likely be able to tell who sang at the Remembrance service on Sunday because we all have sun burned, red necks.  That’s what happens when you sit outside, with your back to the sun, on a beautiful November day in Cairo.

Red necks aside, the view that we had, sitting to the side facing the gathered congregation was quite lovely.  We could see the faces of the representatives of close to two dozen countries who gathered to remember those who died in the war that started 100 years ago.  I watched as representatives from countries spanning the globe–among them: Japan, Australia, Canada, India, France, Pakistan, the US, Tanzania, South Africa–laid wreaths on the memorial.  At one point, I saw a tall, suit-clad man wipe a tear from his eye.  My voice caught in my throat when our director paused from his directing to place his hand on his heart, as he so often does as a sign of sincere respect, as the US representatives placed a wreath on the memorial.

We listened as the British ambassador read the Beatitudes and the British Defence Attache read the Act of Remembrance,

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.  At the going down of the sun, and in the morning.  We will remember them.”

And then we all spoke together, “We will remember them.”

But it wasn’t just about remembering, and certainly not about glorifying, the Great War.  The Anglican priest who led the service spoke beautifully and eloquently about working for peace.  He acknowledged the countries represented don’t always agree and don’t always get along.  And yet, there is a yearning and desire for peace.  He spoke about the poppy as a sign of resurrection, growing out of the ruined land of Flanders.

During the silence, the military personnel saluting, I listened.  Though the people gathered stood quietly, life went on around us.  I could hear children laughing from somewhere near by.  And there was something about that that served as a reminder of the tenacity of life.  Though we stood in the middle of a cemetery filled with the graves of members of the Commonwealth military, from around the world, who had been killed in numerous conflicts and wars, we heard the laughter of children playing.

Life persists in spite of the cruelty and hatred, in spite of the violence and war.  And when life persists, there is a little part of us that stands up to say that war and violence will not ultimately win the day.  When life persists, there is a witness to the hope that the world will be better for the children who are born today.  As children’s laughter drifted over an international and interfaith assembly observing a moment of silence, I gave thanks for the tenacious spirit of life that has persisted in spite of humanity’s best efforts to drown it out.

In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut writes:

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

There was something sacred, holy, set-apart, about that gathering on Sunday.  The fact that people from a number of countries, not always friends, came together.  There was no denying that they were there, representing their respective countries, yes, but also representing something bigger–the desire and yearning and hope for peace.

And though I was there as part of a group to provide music, beautiful music if I must say, the most sacred music of the day was that laughter, drifting over us and calling us to remember and celebrate and protect the sacredness of life.  Unbeknownst to them, but recognized by more than one who stood in silence, the laughter of those unseen Egyptian children was a witness to the tenacity of life, in the midst of a field dedicated to the reality of death.

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Interruptions of Ministry

One of the things I love best about Egypt is the way relationships are valued.  There’s a sense that the person in front of you right now is the most important person.  And whether it is someone you have known forever or have just met, that person is important.

I experienced that today in a frame shop.  Earlier this morning, a couple of members of the church met here so one could take the other to her favorite Cairo frame shop.  They invited me to have coffee with them.  I had a to-do list for the day, but it’s hard to turn down coffee and good conversation, so I went with them.  After good coffee and laughter and conversation, we headed to the frame shop.

When we got there, the owner, who speaks good English, wasn’t in.  The three of us each speak a little Arabic, but not nearly enough to explain what we wanted.  Lucky for us, a middle aged man was there whose English was excellent.  He had stopped into get a couple of photos framed.  He was wearing a shirt and tie and looked like he would probably be heading back to work after he finished what he had thought would be a quick errand.

Instead, he patiently translated for us, staying for close to 30 minutes to help us pick out the frames and mats for my friend’s prints, translating and visiting with us.  His name was Mohammed and he is a demonstration of so much of the kindness and hospitality we have experienced here.  We will probably never see him again, but he put whatever else he had on his to-do list for the day and stayed around to help us.  It’s these little things that add up and make up for the traffic and pollution and noise that can make me crazy.

I’m glad I put my to-do list on hold for a few hours this morning.  It will all get done.  I am well-caffeinated and my heart is full.  Thanks, Mohammed, for your time and kindness and the reminder of all of the beauty that is hidden among the dust of this crazy city.

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Why do I love Cairo?


During our recent visit to the States to see friends and family, we were asked many times, “Do you like it in Egypt?”  I always answered yes, which is 100% true.  Sometimes, though, its hard to explain just why I do like it.  A friend, also an expat who arrived just a few days after us last summer, is writing an article about expat life in Cairo.  We spent a good chunk of a dinner conversation trying to explain just what it is.

Cairo is loud.  It’s dirty and crowded.  Things rarely work as planned and people are perpetually late.  You are never entirely certain if you’re getting a straight answer from someone.  Arabic is hard, and though mine is coming along, I still get frustrated by the language barrier more often than not.

Both of us have been beyond blessed by amazingly smart, talented, funny, and interesting colleagues.  We have met people from many walks of life, and from many places, who have enriched our own stories by sharing theirs with us.  And at the end of the day, it’s the people who allow me to say, without hesitation, that I love it here.

We returned from our home leave at the very end of Ramadan.  On the last work night of the month, StARS hosted an Iftar dinner for staff and friends of StARS.  In preparation for over one hundred people attending, several staff members worked to set up chairs and tables in the courtyard.  As sunset approached, the tables were set with bottles of water, dates, and salads.  Food started to come in from a number of staff members and friends of StARS.  Huge bowls of rice, massive trays of bread. Chicken and meat.  Eggplant stuffed with meat.  Yemini, Iraqi, Eritrean, Sudanese.  At 6:54, the sun officially set and the feasting began.  Muslims who had abstained from food and drink all day guzzled down water.  The line represented our community–refugees and expats, Muslims and Christians–all together, laughing, chatting, looking forward to the feast we were about to share. 

As we walked through the line, our plates grew heavier and heavier with food.  My Arabic tutor told me it’s not uncommon for people to gain five kilograms during Ramadan (about 11 pounds) because even though they fast during the day, they make up for it at night.  After eating the meal we ate that night, I believe it!  We each had a piece of Yemeni bread, which is a huge flat bread (think BIG lefse griddle size for all you midwest Norwegian readers!), sort of like naan.  About halfway through the meal, I realized that I had been using bread to scoop up the various meat dishes and hadn’t even touched the rice that was hiding under it.  I made a valiant effort, but still couldn’t finish everything.  We all ate until we were stuffed (and then some) and no one went away hungry.  Anyone who wanted to take home leftovers could, and did.

And while the food was delicious, it was the conversation and laughter that made the evening so satisfying.  People sat around, chatting, sharing jokes, telling stories, speaking in several languages.  Kids ran around and played.  Our resident DJ played music and people danced.  At one point, a favorite Sudanese song came on and several Sudanese staff members rushed to the makeshift dance floor (a clear spot in the courtyard) to dance, pulling along friends from Eritrea, Somalia, the Netherlands, and the States to dance with them.

About a week later, we gathered once again, this time in the Guild Hall (built in 1920 with funds from the Scottish Presbyterian Women’s Guild), for the wedding celebration for one of the StARS staff.  Again, we laughed, we danced, we shared stories.  Babies were passed around.  Cake was shared.  The couple was welcomed and congratulated.  The groom beamed.  Once again, our resident DJ was on hand to provide music.  The joy was palpable in the air.  It was an absolutely delightful evening.  We returned home, after having helped to clean up, exhausted, but with overwhelmingly happy hearts.

These are the things that keep us going.  These people who make us laugh and pull us up to dance and allow their stories to become interwined with ours; these experiences that remind us that inspite of all the darkness and despair, there is still a lot of happiness and a lot of hope.  There are still a lot of things that bring us together–music, and dancing, and weddings, and food.  Though there are differences, there are more things that unite us.  And is this unity, this sharing, that keeps smiles on our faces, in spite of the layers of dust and sweat.  It’s the joy that makes our hearts happy, even as we collapse exhausted on the sofa.  It’s the warmth of community that makes up for the warmth of the air.

Why do I love Cairo?  For the same reason I love Chicago or Madison or Portland or New York or Stewartville or Vincennes or any of the other places I love to be.  Because Cairo is where my people are.  The people who make me smile and laugh and might even convince me to dance.  And with people like that, its hard not to love the city they’re in.

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World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day.  For most of the refugees living in Cairo and around the world, it’s just another day.  Another day of being far from the place they long to call home.  Another day of looking for a job or standing in line for water.  Another day of dreaming of a new home.  Another day of wondering where friends or family are and if they are safe.  Another day of waiting, hoping, dreaming.

As of January 2014, there were 253,268 registered refugees in Egypt.  As of June 17, there are 137,916 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt.  The numbers of Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Iraqi, and other refugees are not released as often, but the total number of refugees in Egypt has certainly grown since January.  When we think of refugees, we often think of camps–places where, though meager, food, shelter, and water are provided.  Education is offered for the children and health care is available.  For the nearly 280,000 refugees living in Egypt, this is not the case.  Here, urban refugees must find a place to live.  They need money to buy food and pay for health care.  Tuition is charged at nearly all of the schools.  They face different challenges, as they struggle to find a place in a strange land.  Many speak Arabic, but even then, the dialect is sometimes different.  Though there are many NGOs in Cairo serving the refugee community, there’s never enough money, time, or space.  We all have our wish lists.  We all have dreams about what we could do, if only there was more time, more money, more space, even as we fervently wish that peace would come to countries ravaged by violence and war.  We listen to horrific stories and it’s sometimes really hard to see hope.

Which is why the World Refugee Day celebration last night was so important.  Held in the garden of one of the private clubs in Cairo, I watched as refugee children sat in the grass and ran their hands through it–a rare treat in this (broken) concrete jungle.  I watched as children ran and played together, seemingly oblivious to the cultural differences that might threaten to divide them.  When music started, a group of Iraqi men joined together to dance and were soon surrounded by Somali, Sudanese, Eritrean, and other refugees who clapped along and held up phones to take photos.  Soon, they traded places with Eritrean dancers.  And then a group of South Sudanese children took the stage to perform a play they had written together.  Handicrafts from the different communities were available for sale.  We sampled delicious Somali and Eritrean food.

We don’t get a chance to celebrate all that often.  A lot of the time, it feels like there isn’t anything to celebrate.  But last night was a respite for all of us–refugees and those of us who work with and for refugee organizations.  It was a celebration of the beauty of the cultures that refugees here in Cairo treasure.  It was a celebration of the ways that people can set aside differences and laugh, dance, and play together.  It was a celebration of the beauty that is in the world, despite all of the things that threaten to divide us.

We keep our eyes open for these little things, signs of hope, promise, light in the midst of darkness.  We dream of a day where there won’t be a need for World Refugee Day because peace will reign in every land.  Until then, we listen to stories, we learn from one another.  We work for justice and pray for peace.

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Dreams of a son

Below is the reflection I shared at Joseph’s memorial service last week at St. Andrew’s (with a few tiny revisions).

Joseph Michael F.K..  A name that was held in hope for a long time.  Before we knew we would be living in Egypt.  Before we knew we would have a son.  Even before we decided to start a family, we had chosen this name.  Joseph—a family name, Justin’s grandfather and cousin; Joanna, the feminine form, his aunt and sister. Our Joseph would be the fourth generation to bear this name.  Michael—my father’s name.  Each of our last names so that there would be no confusion that we were his parents.  Joseph Michael F.K.  A big name for a little boy, but one filled with meaning for us.

I love that Joseph is the Biblical dreamer.  Joseph in Genesis with his dreams of grandeur.  Joseph in Matthew with his dreams to reassure him and protect his family, particularly the infant Jesus.  And then, when it became clear that our son would be born in Egypt, we loved that this name had so much significance here.  Both Josephs, both dreamers, spent time here in Egypt.

Many of you know that this pregnancy was not an easy one.  We learned fairly early that our first child would be a son when some early tests were recommended after an unusual scan.  We would have been happy with a boy or a girl, but as soon as we learned that we would have a son, we dreamed of raising a little boy.  We dreamed of him playing at the lake with his cousins, Rocco & Jeffrey.  We dreamed of what he would look like, whose features he would have.  What would he love to do?  These day dreams carried me through the long days of bed rest and filled me with hope in spite of the frustrations that came with things not going perfectly well.  I rested and I dreamed, in hope that I would carry this child to term.

As we know all to well, though, not all dreams come true.  Joseph, our little dreamer, was held for all of his brief life.  We were able to kiss him and tell him we loved him.  He had Justin’s chin and the beginnings of blonde hair.  His tiny little feet and hands held long fingers and long toes.  Everything about his tiny body seemed perfect.  But something wasn’t right, something happened to make him come so early that his life could not be sustained.  Early that morning, as we held our tiny son, we knew that our dreams of this son would die along with him.

We don’t know why it happened.  Our doctors assure us that it was nothing that we did.  We just had bad luck.  And, for the most part, it’s awful.  We’ve cried more tears than I knew were possible to cry.  I wish that I still carried this child inside of me, that he could be healthy, that whatever went wrong wouldn’t have.  And yet, in spite of our grief, we have felt support come from all over the globe.  You all have been a source of comfort and hope for us, in being here tonight, in your hugs, messages, visits, food, and flowers.

Although I feel that so many dreams have been crushed–dreams of an easy pregnancy, dreams of a healthy baby, dreams of raising this son—I have felt God’s presence in the midst of our grief.  We cling to Christ’s promise of resurrection.  We cling to the promise of a communion of saints.  We lean on our friends—on all of you—to remind us that we are not alone in this journey.  To remind us that we, and Joseph, are loved.  By friends and family around the world.  And by a God who loves us all more than we can begin to imagine.

A little over a week after Joseph died, I read this quote in a daily devotion I receive.  A young Jewish woman, dying in a camp in the arms of her sister, said to her, “No pit is so deep that God is not deeper still.”  The God in whom we take comfort in the throws of grief is one who stops at nothing to catch us when we fall.  Who promises to walk with us through the dark valleys of the shadow of death.  Who hears our cries and can handle our questions, questions like the ones asked in Psalm 13, one of my favorite psalms and one I have turned to again in these past weeks.  My faith has carried me in my grief, and I trust in the promise proclaimed in Revelation, that “the home of God is among mortals,” that “God will dwell with them as their God,” that “they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them,” wiping every tear from their eyes.  I trust in the promise proclaimed for Joseph and for all of us that there will be a day when “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  I trust in the promise of a God who says, over and over again, “do not be afraid” and “see I am making all things new.”

After Joseph’s dream, Matthew reports that it all took place to fulfill what had been spoken and that the name of the child would be “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”  This dreamer, this Joseph, the one who must have held the sleeping Christ child, God-with-us, looked down with love, as so many parents have, at the tiny child in his arms.  Surely he dreamed of what this child would grow up to do.  Knowing that this one was the one he and his people had been waiting for so long.  Little did he know that this child would grow up to suffer and to die, so that we could have life.

It is this child, grown up, the one who lived and died and rose, Christ in whose promise I cling in these days darkened by grief.  It is in Christ that I now place my hope for Joseph–that in Christ he lives, a member of the great circle of saints, experiencing God’s dream for a world where there is no more pain and suffering, where tears are wiped from eyes and where death is no more.  While most dreams for our son will not be, this is the one, God’s dream for God’s kingdom come, that brings us comfort, that refills the hope that was sucked from us as we held our dying son in our arms.  As we commend our son to God, we dream of God’s kingdom come, for Joseph, for us, and for all of God’s people of every time and place.

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Easter is a season

Easter is a whole season.  I think we forget that sometimes.  We celebrate and sing and shout our alleluias on Easter Sunday, with the smells of Easter lilies filling the sanctuary.  And then we go back to the grind of daily life and, sometimes, we forget that Easter is not just one Sunday, but a whole season.  Fifty days when the resurrection promise is set boldly before us.  Because Christ lives, we live.

It’s hard to believe that the Easter season is almost over.  We’ve been planning the Pentecost service at St. Andrew’s and I’ve seen lots of Facebook posts about brothers and sisters planning theirs in congregations near and far.  But we’re still in the Easter season, which is good, since I have yet to write about the Easter Sunday festivities at St. Andrew’s.

The day started with a lovely English service.  We sang all the Easter favorites, accompanied by organ and surrounded by gorgeous arrangements of white gladiolas, daisies, and Easter lilies.  After the service, we feasted with an potluck that reflected our international community.  Indonesian noodles, pancit, sushi, Egyptian sweets, potato salad, and corn casserole, just to name a few.  It was fun to see what people brought and, of course, even more fun to try dishes from around the world!  I loved the way our international community was reflected on the banquet table.  It was a delicious and delightful celebration of Christ’s resurrection!

The Nuer congregation’s tradition is to baptize on Christmas and Easter.  They had invited me to be a part of the Easter Sunday baptisms so after I had eaten and visited, I headed back into the sanctuary for the second service of the day.  When I arrived, they were calling the names of those who would be baptized and they gathered around the font, some holding hands of parents, others held in their arms, still others playing or standing obediently next to their moms.  With eighteen children and a mom to baptize, it was quite a crowd.  Once everyone had assembled, they were asked questions and the congregation recited the Apostle’s Creed in Nuer.  Pastor John baptized about half of the children and I baptized the other half.  In English and Nuer, we said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” with water dripping down foreheads and bright eyes looking up at us.  It was an honor to be a part of the service and to be present to welcome nineteen new brothers and sisters in Christ.  I love the way cultural and language barriers are broken down and with simple words and water, we are united as brothers and sisters in Christ, made one by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Later that afternoon, I participated in service #3 of the day with the Dinka congregation.  At the beginning of the service, they sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” in Dinka.  It was so neat to hear the familiar melody and have a sense of what was being sung, even though the only word I understood was alleluia!  They sang and sang and sang, celebrating the resurrection promise in Dinka, Arabic, and English.  After the service, Pastor Ayad invited me to join them for dinner.  By that point, I HAD to get home and get my feet up, but he insisted I at least come at “eat with my eyes.”  The Guild Hall tables were set with take out containers and the banquet table was covered with huge pots that held several different types of meat.  They sent a box home with me and Justin was delighted to find that there was even a tripe dish!

I love that it is my job to join in worship with brothers and sisters in Christ.  This was an Easter to remember, filled with hope and promise.  It was clear throughout the day that, even though we so often feel that we are walking in darkness, our faith and hope are in Christ, and in Christ there is light and life.  We cling to the resurrection promise, no matter where we come from.  Because Christ lives, we live, and we are united in that promise, here in Cairo and throughout the world.

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Some thoughts on Good Friday

I certainly did not set out to do this, but through pure coincidence in the past week or so, I’ve been reading a lot about caves.  The most recent New Yorker had an article about exploration of very deep caves and in her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor works up the courage to enter into a wild cave and spends some time sitting in the deep, deep darkness that one experiences inside the earth.  Last summer, when Justin and I visited Wind Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at one point in the tour, the guide turned out the light and we experienced a darkness that I have never experienced anywhere else.  It was so dark that we could not see our hands when we put them on our noses.  No metaphorical darkness there.  It was pitch black.

Though John doesn’t include this detail in his Passion Narrative, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do.  From noon until three, darkness covered the whole land.  Darkness covered the whole land.  Not metaphorical darkness, although that certainly filled the hearts of those who stood by to watch Jesus die, but real darkness, covering the land while the Savior hung on the cross to die.

There is darkness about this day.  It is solemn and somber.  It seems funny to me when Good Friday dawns bright and sunny (as it has on this 90+ degree Cairo day).  It should be rainy and dreary and dark.  This is the day when we remember that our Lord died.  Really truly died.  Breathed his last.  Bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  It is a dark day, and though we know that the story is not yet finished, still, our hearts are heavy on this day.

There is darkness covering the land today, on this strange paradoxical day we call Good.  Darkness of violence and uncertainty, darkness of illness and unemployment.  Darkness of despair and hopelessness.  Darkness that comes along with waiting for word from family and friends stuck in the middle of fighting in South Sudan.  Darkness that comes with not knowing whether your three missing nephews are alive or dead, as is the case of one of our South Sudanese friends.  And though the sun shines this morning, there is darkness in our hearts.  The kind that comes from fear and dread and grief.  The kind that comes with facing our own mortality, even as we contemplate the death of our Lord.  Sometimes it feels as though this darkness cannot, and will not, go away.  Cannot and will not give way to light.  There is darkness, if not literally, certainly metaphorically, in our hearts and in our world.

Jesus entered the darkness.  He entered the darkness of this world and hung on the cross when the sun refused to shine that afternoon so long ago.  In Christ, God entered the darkness of death.  And though we might be afraid, though we might despair, we can find some solace in the fact that, in Christ, on this day, God entered the darkness.  God has been there.  God knows.  As Andrew Root writes,

It is when we are up against death, when we find ourselves in despair, that the God of cross is near to us.  It is through suffering and despair that God is made known to us, for God is found on the cross. (1)

This is a day that is full of paradox, when God-with-us, the one in whom we have life, dies.  It is full of questions and it should be.  It isn’t a day that we understand readily or easily.  And yet, it is truth, deeper than we might be able to comprehend.  In the darkness of the day, God finds us, for it is on this day that God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one who “stands over and against nothingness,” who speaks “life and possibility out of darkness,” takes darkness within Godself and allows it to come between Father and Son, becoming part of God’s story, and, consequently, our story as God’s people, forever. (2)

We have a God who dies.  This is a central tenant of our faith.  One that many find strange and weird and heretical.  But, as Christians, we believe that God takes on human form, really truly human form, and God dies.  And though we know that this story is not yet over, for today, we sit in the darkness, in the shadow of the cross, bearing witness to the darkness and despair that are so very real in our lives and in this world.  And God promises to meet us there.

At the end of the day, after Jesus had declared, “it is finished,” and bowed his head and breathed his last, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus, who had first come by night, take Jesus’ body and laid it in a fresh tomb.  It’s quite likely that that tomb was a cave.  We learn from the other Gospels that it was sealed with a stone.  Jesus’ dead body was laid in a dark tomb, one that matched the darkness that filled the hearts of his disciples and those brave followers who had stood by to watch him die.

As we ponder, as we wait and watch and pray, consider this, written by Barbara Brown Taylor:

Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after.  Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.  As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.  Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.  Sitting deep of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark.  Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. (3)

Though we sit in the shadow of the cross, in the darkness of this day, we live in the paradox, this in between place, where we grieve, and yet we know that new life can and will and does start right here, in the darkness of this day.

1 Root, The Promise of Despair, p. 72
2 Root, p. 115 & 87
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Kindle location 1436
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