Grief is real…and so is resurrection

Several weeks ago, I attended a funeral for the husband of one of the members of the Nuer congregation. Pastor John came into my office a few days before and told me there would be a funeral on Sunday afternoon for this man who had died in South Sudan. While the fighting continues in South Sudan and many members have lost loved ones, or are waiting to hear from them, my first thought went to that. It turns out that he died from natural causes related to high blood pressure, which is still very sad. Death is sad, no matter the circumstances.

His wife is one of the women who regularly attends the Bible study, and one of the first women I met when I started working with the Nuer women. She has a wonderful sense of humor and is fiercely proud of her eight children. When the day of the funeral came, she sat in the front row, with tears running down her cheeks and her shoulders slumped. There were several eulogies and a powerful sermon. All through these, she cried and cried.

And then the youth choir came forward to sing. I don’t remember the words exactly, but they were something along the lines of “At the name of Jesus, there will be life.” And there was life, indeed. It wasn’t long before she was standing up, with a huge smile across her face, singing along and dancing with the members of the community who were moved by the Spirit at work through the song of their children. I felt like I was watching resurrection play out right in front of me. Her grief was still raw and real, but the hope that she clings to was resurrected and made plainly clear before her, and before the packed congregation of people–from several tribes and congregations–who had come to pay their respects and show their support for her.

I’ve been working through the lectionary texts for this week. David Lose’s commentary on John 11 lends an interesting perspective to this familiar text. In it, he writes,

I think it’s significant that after Jesus calls Lazarus by name to come out, and even after Lazarus does indeed hear Jesus’ voice and come out (note the similarity of action to Jesus’ promises in the previous chapter), the miracle – or, in John, sign – is not over. For after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd as well: ‘unbind him and let him go.’ The community, in other words, is commanded to participate in God’s action, to bring it to its desired end and outcome, to join in completing God’s redemptive act.

He goes on to write,

Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.

There is no question that the promise of resurrection was clear in the eulogies and in the sermon that day.  Jesus’ promise to raise James, and all of us, from death to life was clear and that message was proclaimed loudly and clearly. But it was also clear that day that the community–particularly in the form of twenty or so 8-18 year olds and the gathered community who joined in their singing–was invited to participate and what they did was essential, meaningful, and important, not just for the grieving wife, but for this pastor, and for all who gathered that day.

Grief is still real and raw. But the promise of resurrection, along with the work of a community coming together to do the important work of lifting up and supporting those who grieve, was also very real that day. It’s the strange paradox of the promise of resurrection in Christ. It’s the strange paradox we’re preparing to proclaim in just a few short weeks. Death will not and does not get the final say. The last word is life, proclaimed in Jesus’ name.

PS The meal served after the funeral was fried chicken. It was delicious. It turns out that comfort food is comfort food. And there’s grace in that, too.

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Blessed are the … playmakers?

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  I don’t think it should come as any surprise why this particular blessing stands out among the list we’ll hear in churches around the world this weekend.  Cairo saw a surge in violence over the weekend as Egyptians remembered the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of the revolution.  Our brothers and sisters from South Sudan anxiously await news from family and friends still in the country.  One friend has missing twelve-year-old nephews, a few others have heard confirmation that family members or close friends have been killed in the violence there.   We long for peace and pray for it, for Egypt, South Sudan, Syria, and so many places around the world.  We need peace makers.

I’ve been working my way through the book The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa, after I learned about Maggy Barankitse and Maison Shalom.  Several stories of peacemakers throughout Africa are told in the book, and after reading Bishop Paride Taban’s story, I’ve been doing a little more research about him.  He started the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, South Sudan, after seeing Neve Shalom in Jerusalem, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews live together in harmony.  “Wow!” he recalls in an interview, “I will retire from the administration of the diocese and start the peace village as soon as the peace is signed.”  Now, members of several tribes live, play, and learn together in peace and harmony that was previously unheard of.  While young men had previously stolen cattle from neighboring tribes, these former cattle raiders now play football together.

Today, I watched as young men played football (soccer) in the makeshift pitch that we usually call the courtyard.  The youngest is probably 10, a bright young man whose smile lights up the room and who grew about 4 inches over the Christmas break.  I watched as he made a fantastic header, impressing even the coolest older boys.  The young men come from Somalia, Eritrea, and South Sudan.  And while the competition is fierce, the laughter is contagious.  Younger students gathered around watching.  It becomes a community event when they play after lunch.  I’ve learned that dodging footballs can become a means of grace.

I know I’ve said it before, but it’s so true.  I see hope in the courtyard pitch.  I see hope in the faces of these young people, taking a break from their learning to play.  And I wonder, maybe there’s something to it, blessed are the playmakers.

Maybe the world has something to learn from these young men who come from so many places, whose stories could go so many ways, and yet, find themselves together in our little courtyard, laughing and playing.  From the former cattle raiders who let the cattle be so they can play football instead.  Blessed are the playmakers…for in their play, we see glimpses of peace.

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The Light Shines in the Darkness: Christmas in Cairo

Christmas 2013

In my humble opinion, one of the greatest gifts a congregation gives a pastor is the gift of looking out on their candle lit faces on Christmas Eve, while singing “Silent Night.”  And St. Andrew’s delivered that gift.  Twice.

The first service of Christmas Eve was a pretty familiar service for me.  Lessons and carols.  All of the American favorites–“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” even “The Little Drummer Boy.”  One of the children in the congregation, who recently turned nine, sang, in that beautiful, clear boy soprano “Once in Royal David’s City.”  Gloria, the Filipina who is St. Andrew’s number one cheerleader and meal planner extraordinaire, sang a medley of Filipino Christmas songs.  The readers were Egyptian and American.  A young woman who just arrived from South Korea played her violin.  When it came time for communion, I stood next to my ELCA colleague, a professor at the seminary, and placed bread into the outstretched hands of the people I have grown to love so dearly over the past four months.  From Indonesia, the Philippines, South Sudan, South Korea, and the United States.  From a whole variety of denominational backgrounds.  Coming together to celebrate that good news of great joy for all the people.  While we worshipped in the sanctuary, the Ethiopian congregation, worshipping in Amharic, met in the one of the classrooms for their regular Tuesday evening worship.  Good news of great joy for all the people.

At the end of the service, I read John 1:1-14 and the ushers started lighting candles.  They were brand newly made and took awhile to light.  Apparently the message to turn off the lights while I read had not been delivered and, even though I read pretty slowly, the candles were only about half lit when I finished reading.  I stepped from the lectern to turn off the light closest to me (the switches line the wall of the old building) and a number of people took the cues to turn off the ones closest to them.  Soon, the candles were lit and the organist started to play.  It was perfect.  As I looked out over these candlelit faces, I saw a vision of the body of Christ, in all of its quirkiness.  There were at least four other ordained pastors there that night, someone who may eventually go to law school, an diplomat and his family, an American family living in Germany who were visiting Cairo over the Christmas break.  People who work as electricians and cleaners.  Professors, teachers, students.  People who ask for prayers that they might find work soon.  The church guard had gone to get the woman who cleans the Guild Hall on Fridays and on special occasions, and they stood in the back with their candles lighting their faces.  We are an unlikely band of brothers and sisters, brought together by the one whose birth we celebrated that night.  We ended with “Joy to the World,” and it seemed totally appropriate that we sing that joyful tune, remembering that God-with-us has indeed come for this whole wide world.

Gloria made sure that none of us would go hungry and there was quite the banquet spread out for us in the Guild Hall after the service.  As usual, there were conversations in at least two languages, and we enjoyed traditional food from many places.  There was even a turkey.

But the night was still young.  The Nuer congregation had invited us to their worship service, which was to include 32 baptisms.  They told me to go ahead and eat and visit and if it got to be time for me to come, someone would come and find me.  I walked in about half way through the baptisms and saw a whole bunch of people gathered around the old stone font.  Parents and children, two women’s elders proudly standing next to the pastor to lift up the little ones.  As assisting minister read the names and helped corral all the children.  It was a little bit chaotic, yet so very holy.  The pastors had asked me to participate in the baptisms, and soon it was my turn.  I looked into the shining eyes of mothers, and the sleepy eyes of more than one little child.  The water was warm as I poured it over their heads, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and traced that cross on their foreheads, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  Brothers and sisters in Christ, named and claimed in the waters of baptism.

There was joy in the air we finished the baptisms and the congregation welcomed the newly baptized with their special clap: clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap.  A couple of women ululated.  Mothers beamed and a few stirred in their mothers arms, having fallen back to sleep after the water had been poured over their heads.

And then it was time to sing.  Someone handed the keyboard player a song book and stood over him with a candle.  The pastors stood at the lectern and looked out over their congregation.  Ushers made sure everyone had candles and turned out the lights.  A few even lit sparklers.  It was a totally different “Silent Night,” upbeat, a different melody, the drummer beat steadily on the oil can drum.  And, for the second time that night, I tried not to let the tears spill out over my cheeks.

And then there was Christmas Day.

If you’ve been following the news from South Sudan, you’ll understand why I will treasure Christmas Day 2013 for a very long time.  Even while Nuer and Dinka in South Sudan fight and kill one another, the two communities in Cairo, as well as the Sudanese Lutheran congregation that worships at St. Andrew’s, and representatives from the Shilluk congregation that worships elsewhere in the city, came together for worship on Christmas Day.  In Arabic and English, Nuer, Dinka, and Shilluk, we prayed and sang and came together at the Lord’s Table.  For those three and a half hours, differences were set aside and prayers were lifted up, together, in thanksgiving and celebration.  Prayers were lifted up for peace, in South Sudan and Syria and throughout the world.

There was lots of music.  The song leader would begin to sing, and soon voices were raised throughout the sanctuary, not just by one group, but by the whole congregation.  Even at the point in the different congregations sang a special song, everyone joined in.  Women danced in the aisles and voices were raised throughout the old, dusty sanctuary, decorated in its Christmas finest.  We were welcomed at the Lord’s Table and came forward with outstretched hands, each fed with the bread of life, regardless of where we came from or what marks might other wise distinguish us.

The Spirit moved among us and did not distinguish us by tribe or language, but called us together as brothers and sisters in Christ and made us witnesses of the good news of great joy for all the people.  The good news of great joy that brought us together.  The good news of great joy that takes strangers and enemies and calls them brothers and sisters.

On Christmas Day, I looked out over this congregation that the world news would lead us to believe shouldn’t be together.  Couldn’t be together.  And yet we were.  In peace and joy and celebration.  I was struck by the promise of incarnation.  By the promise that we celebrate on Christmas–that God comes to us.  That God comes, not as the mighty and powerful warrior, but as the humble and vulnerable child.  And then continues to breathe life and hope and promise into the lives of people, even with all of the baggage that we bring.  With all of the joys and sorrows that we bear.  With all of the struggles we face.  That God continues to come to us, God’s beloved people, is worth remembering and celebrating, not just on Christmas, but always.  It is indeed good news of great joy for all the people.  And light that shines in the darkness.

Merry Christmas from Cairo.

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An open letter to my godson, at Advent

Dear Rocco,

From the night you were born, from that very first picture we saw, of you on the scale, your face red and your mouth wide open, wailing at the surprise of being out in the world, your Uncle Justin and I loved you so much. We kept looking at that picture, with huge smiles, and tears running down our cheeks, so excited and so much in love with you, our Number One nephew.

We met you for the first time when you were six weeks old. I love the picture of your Uncle Justin looking down at you, sleeping, in your stroller. We loved you before we had even met you, but when we finally got to hold you, we were smitten.

I know that I would do practically anything to make sure that you are safe in the world. Your Uncle Justin would do the same. We, along with your parents and grandparents, and all of the people who love you so much, want to make sure that you have what you need to be safe, to be warm, to be fed. At the end of the day, I think that’s what most parents (and godparents, too!) want–for their children to be safe, warm, and fed. For them to grow up healthy and strong. For them to be free to be the people God calls them to be. To live in a peaceful world, where kids don’t go to bed at night hungry or afraid. I hope that, as you grow, you will know that your Uncle Justin and I hope so much for you to live in a world that is better than the one we live. And we hope that the work that we do helps to contribute to that–a better world–for kids here in Egypt, but also in South Sudan, and the United States, and in so many places around the world.

While you’ve been visiting Mimi and Papa in Indiana, Mimi and your mom have sent us lots of funny pictures, and a few videos, of you playing in the snow, and reading with Papa, and feeding yourself spaghetti at La Cucina. You have grown so much in the past 20 months and you don’t like to sit still for very long anymore. But when you were a little, tiny baby, that first time we met you, you could barely hold up your head. Uncle Justin hadn’t spent much time around babies, and we had to remind him to support your head. Because even though you’d try to hold it up by yourself, you weren’t strong enough yet to hold it up for very long, and it would come crashing down on our shoulders, or if we were really unlucky, our chins.

Your mom and dad had to do everything for you, and we tried to help however we could while we visited, including babysitting for you while your mom and dad went out to dinner without you for the first time since you were born. You were really good at eating, and crying, and sleeping, and yes, pooping, but you needed someone to feed you, and burp you, and change your diaper. You, like all babies, were completely helpless. You needed other people to help you, to take care of you, and to help you grow.

This is exactly the same way God came into the world, in the baby Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, the angel tells Joseph that the baby Mary will have shall be named Jesus. And Matthew goes on to write that “all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,” Isaiah… “‘and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”

As you grow, I hope you will learn all kinds of names for God. Rock, I am, Good Shepherd. Wonderful counselor, almighty God. Prince of Peace. But, maybe most of all, I hope that you will know this one. “God with us.” For me, that is the promise of Christmas all wrapped up into three little words. “God with us”–Emmanuel–came into this world, just like you did, as a tiny little baby who was completely reliant upon the people who loved him. The people who cradled his head so that he wouldn’t come crashing into their chins. The people who looked down at him and would have given anything to make sure that the world he lived in was safe and peaceful.

People didn’t expect God to come that way. They expected that God-with-us would be powerful. That he would be a mighty, strong, and brave warrior. That he would punish his enemies and come with vengeance. But one of the things I love about reading the Bible is seeing all of the stories about God surprising people. Like when he surprised Abraham and Sarah with a baby, even though they were really old. The way he helped the Israelites find a way out of the slavery in Egypt, and then surprised them with manna in the wilderness so they would have something to eat. The way he helped Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fiery furnace, and Daniel out of the lion’s den. The story of Jonah trying to get away, and then ending up in the belly of a great, big fish. There are so many stories of God surprising people and also so many ways that God tried to get people to understand that God’s mission is mercy, grace, and love. That God’s vision is about making sure that the people who are hungry have food, and that God’s creation is taken care of, and that the people who are sick are healed. That all of God’s people would live in a safe world and that they would know peace, down to the depths of their bones.

So when Jesus comes, not as the mighty warrior, but as the helpless, little baby, its no wonder that people were surprised. I’m still surprised that God would choose to come into the world this way. When we remember that God came just like you did, I wonder what would happen if we thought about the feelings that are stirred up inside of us when we hold little babies, that deep, deep love, but also that deep, deep desire for peace. What would happen if we remembered that God came into the world that way? If we worked toward guaranteeing that the world you grow up in is better than the world we live in right now. And not just you, but kids in Egypt, South Sudan and Sudan. In Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. In the Philippines and Indonesia and Nigeria and the United Staes and throughout the whole world.

When I was in seminary, studying to become a pastor, I had a really wise, old professor named Dr. Klein. He taught us about the Old Testament and he was so smart that he could read his Bible in Hebrew and translate it on the spot for us. When he talked about Isaiah, chapter 7, where Isaiah tells King Ahaz to look for a sign–a little baby–who will be called Immanuel, Dr. Klein said to us, “It is a challenge that God is with us–look what God with us did! He challenged us to take care of the people who are hard to care for, he challenged us to be servants, he challenged us to give up everything to follow him.” And then he reminded us that God loves us so deeply that God hopes that we will be transformed.

I don’t know what you will grow up to be. But I hope that, as you grow, you will pay attention to the people around you who need a little extra love. That you will be kind to the people who are hard to love. That you won’t stop noticing the people on the streets of New York who are hungry or sick or really, really poor. That there will be something stirring inside of you that will work toward making a difference in the world.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, know that your Uncle Justin and I love you and miss you very much. We hope that you will trust the promise of God-with-us, and be challenged by it, and find a whole lot of hope in it. We hope that you will know that you are loved by God-with-us, as are God’s children all around this world that God loves so much that he came into it, not as a mighty warrior, but, just like you and me, as a little, tiny baby. As Emmanuel, which means “God-with-us.”

Aunt Kirsten
Advent 2013

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Advent in Cairo

I love Advent.  It’s probably my favorite liturgical season.  I love the waiting, the hope, the anticipation.  I love the way it looks forward to a coming kingdom, a world as it should be.  I love the way it challenges and contradicts.  I’m never entirely sure what to do with John, but I love him for his proclamation and his questions.  I love the Advent candles and the music.  I love the blue paraments and my blue stole.

And, with the work I do in Cairo, Advent has never been more clear to me.  Anticipation.  Waiting.  Watching.  Hoping.

I’ve noticed it this past week in the courtyard, as the Adult Education students gather before their final exams.  They sit in small groups, with books open in front of them, reviewing, trying to get in those last precious moments of studying before heading in to take the exams that might result in a certificate that might give them a better chance at a job or make a stronger case for resettlement.

I notice it outside the Resettlement and Legal Aid office, as people wait their turn to meet with one of the legal advisors.  In the stories I hear from the legal staff, who meet with hundreds of people during the year and help them make their cases for resettlement.  In the hopes that this will be the year, that something will make their case strong enough to be resettled in Europe, or the US, or Canada, or Australia.

I notice it in the desperate prayers for work, for health, for children.  For families that are separated to be reunited, or at least kept safe in the meantime.

I notice in the ways the women I meet with for Bible study talk about the hope they place in Christ.  The ways that they are carried by the promise of God-with-us.  The way that faith is palpable, deep, strong, and contagious.  The way they read the Advent passages about God’s vision for the world–where lion and lamb lay down together, where streams flow in the wilderness–and see visions of peace that they so desperately hope and long for.

In some ways, this work keeps us perpetually in Advent.  Hoping, waiting, watching, anticipating.  We wait and hope with and for particular clients, but we also wait and hope for the sake of the world.  I think we’d all agree that we’d be glad to be out of jobs if it meant that peace and justice reigned in this place and in the places from where our clients come.  If people had what they needed–clothing, food, shelter, jobs, safety, security.  If children who were sick could get the care they needed.  If families didn’t go to bed hungry and cold at night.  We’re waiting, watching, working for that to be reality.

We, of course, don’t do it alone.  We work with a number of organizations here in Cairo.  But we also rely on the work of people in places like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria.  We wait for world leaders to work toward policies that bring justice and work toward peace for all people.  We hope for a day when people, all people, can feel safe where ever they are.

In this season of Advent, thank you for your prayers and support.  For the ways that you work for peace and justice where ever you are.  As we wait and watch and hope, may we be courageous to work toward a world where peace reigns, where expectations are interrupted, and none of God’s people are forced to live in fear or neglect or poverty.  May it be so.

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A Day in the Life

This is my second call as a pastor.  My first was in the suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin, where I was the associate pastor.  Needless to say, this tiny church in the heart of downtown Cairo, Egypt, is a different context.  But at both Peace and St. Andrew’s one of the things I love about being a pastor is that no day is the same.  I can’t give a specific run down about what every day looks like, but yesterday was one of those particularly rich days, so let me share a little bit about it.

When I arrived at the gate after Arabic class, the guards invited me for a Pepsi (which most Egyptians pronounce Bebsi).  I treasure this time as time to practice Arabic, watch the comings and goings, and get to know the guards a little better.  I sat down in the green plastic chair and chatted a bit in my very broken Arabic.  Soon, the Nuer service was done and the children, finished with Sunday School, were running around the courtyard.  Usually, only one guard is there at a time, but because the other two were working on a project, all three were there yesterday.  The one who was technically on guard duty at the time, a man even shorter than me, who is about 60 and has a smile that lights up his face, stopped a few before they made it to the gate and sent them running back toward the main courtyard.  I can finally partake in a bit of the joking and tried to remember the word for angry that I had learned that morning.  I pulled out my book to look it up, and then pointed to him, with a huge smile on my face, and said it.  He laughed and said, la, la, la, and then pointed and said the word for happy.  We all laughed and laughed.

When he heard me say that we went to Saqqara on Saturday, he got very excited and said that his daughter goes to University near Saqqara.  I now have the words for daughter and son and was able to learn a little bit about his family.  One of the other guards, who has been practicing his English, took my vocabulary book and we started practicing, me sounding out the Arabic, and often, him correcting my pronunciation.  We laugh a lot when I practice Arabic with him because I don’t think my Minnesota born and bred throat will ever be able to correctly make the sounds Egyptians make so easily.  Sounds that sound beautiful when they make them are ugly and/or non-existent coming from me.

While we sat, drinking our Pepsi, engaged in a make-shift Arabic tutoring session, people began to leave to head home after the Nuer service.  I’ve been meeting for a weekly Bible study with the Nuer women.  The Bible stories come alive in new ways as they share their insights and questions.  They have taught me a few words of Nuer, one of them the greeting, “male mi guaa,” which can be used for something like “how are you?” and “God bless you.”  As I stood up to greet them, I was caught up in their firm embraces, with “males” exchanged, along with a few words of Arabic and English.  I got to meet several of their children, which was a delight.

And this was all before I had made it more than three steps beyond the gate.

Eventually, I finished my Pepsi and figured I better head up to my office.  I wasn’t there long before I was invited for lunch with the StARS Psycho-social and RLAP (Resettlement and Legal Aid Program) staff who had an inservice in the morning.  I came down and some of the staff were standing next to the front door.  “Don’t be alarmed,” the property manager said, “it’s really raining.”  We stood at the door, watching the rain fall, waiting for the meeting to end.  When it was clear they were finished, she poked her head in and said, “It’s raining.”  Several people, American, Canadian, South Sudanese, and Egyptian, ran for the door.  “I haven’t seen rain in a year!” one said.  “It smells so good!” said another.  They stretched out their hands and lifted their faces to the sky to try to catch the last few drops of what was actually a decent rain storm.  Justin even said he heard thunder from our apartment!

Lunch was catered by an awesome Iraqi restaurant.  The food was wonderful–a variety of vegetables stuffed with seasoned rice, a sort of patty stuffed with ground beef and potato, and rice with chicken.  Even though our property is not that big, I rarely see some of the RLAP and PS staff since they are in a different building.  It was good to sit, chat, and catch up with them.  To hear a little bit about what they’re working on and what’s been happening in their worlds.  Everyone is always busy and there is certainly more to do than we can ever accomplish.  But it is an honor to work alongside people who are so dedicated, compassionate, and passionate about the work they do.

When I got back to my office, I checked my email to see an e-mail from a congregation in the States who has had a connection with St. Andrew’s in the past looking to reconnect.  I finished the bulletin for the Sunday evening service, gave the guard in charge of trash removal the money he needed for the garbage man, and chatted a bit with the woman who is using the other desk in my office for a few weeks until there is space for her in the StARS office, as well as the property manager and Medical Focal Point physician before they finished up their work for the day.

I went down to start setting up for the Sunday evening service.  Soon, a couple who came last week for the first time arrived.  I chatted with them a bit and learned that he was an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, who worked primarily at Luxor.  We chatted a bit about Luxor, in an anticipation of our upcoming trip, as I set up candles and got things arranged for the service.

St. Andrew’s is a ecumenical and international congregation.  There are members from South Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Canada, Egypt, and the US.  I am often reminded of the beauty in the diversity of the Body of Christ, but also how small (and fragile) the world is.  One of our Filipino members learned last week that her cousin and his 3 year old had been killed by the Typhoon in the Philippines, and she was anxiously awaiting news about his wife and 7 year old.  She told me last night that they had given up the search for them when they had not located their bodies at a mass grave site.  In this little community, we grieve together, pray together, and give lots of hugs to this sister whom we love so dearly and is grieving so deeply.  We also prayed for friends and family undergoing treatment for cancer, heart disease, and mental health issues.  We prayed for forgiveness.  We gathered around the Table for communion and were fed and nourished by the body and blood of Christ.

I caught a taxi home after the service and gave him directions (in Arabic) to our apartment.  When he turned the corner, it looked like a carnival was happening down the street.  As we got closer, I realized there were lights strung up all around the church across the street for a wedding.  It was quite a spectacle, with strings crossing the street and running above the sidewalk for several yards.  Flashing colors and twirling stars made for a joyous wedding scene.  Later, we heard the joyous ululations coming from women guests as the bride and groom came out of the church.

Not every day is like this, but each day brings its own joys and challenges.  And that is what I love.  Having the privilege of sitting with people in the midst of the joys and sorrows, in the shadow of the cross and in the rays of resurrection.  Learning and sharing stories about life in all of its ups and downs.

For all of the ways I catch glimpses of God at work in this place, I give thanks.  For the ways that communities form and the world grows smaller, I am grateful.  For shared laughter and tears, for prayers lifted up in many languages, and the ways that we come together from many places to this particular place at this particular time.  It’s good work if you can get it.

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Reflections on a Living God

The Gospel for this weekend is Luke 20:27-38, in which Jesus proclaims, “God is God not of the dead, but of the living.” I shared some reflections in my sermon this morning about how I experienced this God of the living this week.

It was one of those weeks when nothing seemed to go as planned. But as one of my mentors reminded me weeks before my ordination, ministry is about interruptions. And in those interruptions, sometimes, we experience the most life, the most joy. Those spirit filled moments that we couldn’t plan, but can only come as pure grace.

A photographer arrived last Sunday to document life in Cairo among the refugees served by StARS. When I arrived in the office after our Arabic class on Sunday, he asked about the services. It turns out that the only one he was available for was the one that was happening right then. I offered to walk down with him and, in timing that must be attributed to pure grace, Pastor John had just stepped out. He invited the photographer to come into the service, and I went along, too. I often sneak in the back of the church on Sunday afternoon to hear the youth choir sing at the end of the Nuer service. But on Sunday, it happened that I made it in time for communion. A gift of grace indeed. And then the music broke out. The youth choir sang and the Spirit moved. We danced, we sang. Well, they sang, I hummed. I can barely speak Arabic, and definitely have a ways to go before I can sing it. People danced in the aisles. Smiles broke out across faces. God was praised and the Spirit was moving among us. God is a God of the living.

Yesterday, after a visit to the American cemetery, I bought some plants for my office. They made it back to the office relatively unharmed after a very crowded Metro ride. I decided to pot them in the courtyard, and had soon attracted the attention of some of the StARS students. Soon, I had six or seven little helpers, helping me dump the soil into the pot, dig holes, and pot the tiny plants. “Beautiful!” and “Wow!” they exclaimed. “Where should this one go?” they asked. In a matter of a minute or two, I had a beautiful arrangement for my office. We wiped the the dirt from our hands and most of the kids ran off to keep playing. But a few of the girls proudly carried the pot to my office. I suspect that I will see them peeking in occasionally to check on their masterpiece. God is a God of the living.

I had a couple of things I needed to do before I sat down to write. But then, I was invited to get henna from one of the fine henna artists from the StARS community. As the photographer snapped away, seven of us gathered in the conference room, marveling at the artistry, and amazed at the ways that each one received a completely different design on her hand. I learned about the traditions in some of the countries represented in the StARS community. We laughed, especially when some of the men decided they wanted in too, and she free handed spiders and scorpions wrapped around their thumbs. God is a God of the living.

And then it rained. For the first time since we’ve been in Cairo. I was getting ready to leave, standing at the gate chatting with the guards. All of the sudden, I felt rain drops. I looked up, confused. “Mayya,” one said. “I know,” I said, “but from the sky?” They looked a little confused, and then a huge smile broke out across my face, “From the sky! It’s the first time since I’ve been here. It’s raining!” I walked home with an extra spring in my step, smiling at the children dancing and even more at the young man dancing on the clothing platform of one of the stores as he pulled in mannequins to prevent them from getting too wet. I must have looked ridiculous with the smile on my face as I occasionally looked up to confirm that there was indeed water coming out of the sky. It was glorious. And I was, admittedly, a little disappointed that it had stopped by the time I got to the bridge, where I would have been completely unprotected. I was looking forward to getting drenched. And thanks to the extra bag of potting soil from the plants I had purchased earlier in the day, my purse stayed dry in the plastic bag. Our God is a God of the living.

I trust that this God of the living walks with us, in these moments when God’s presence is so clear, and also in the moments of heartbreak, despair, and frustration. In an attempt to capture some of the ways I’ve seen God at work through the work I do and to give a short explanation about what I’m doing, I created this video to share with friends and sponsors/sponsoring congregations.

God is at work here, and throughout the world, in beautiful, perplexing, and grace-filled ways. Thank you for your prayer, support, and encouragement!

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Hurry Up and Wait

Hurry up and wait.  I don’t know how to say it in Arabic, but I should probably learn.  Waiting is a big part of living in Cairo.  Waiting for a taxi.  Waiting in the taxi that finally comes because traffic is horrible.  Waiting for people who are stuck in other taxis in horrible traffic.  Things just take longer here.  But it’s not all bad.

On Saturday, we went to our first Egyptian wedding.  I seriously underestimated the amount of time it would take to get from our apartment to church, where we would be meeting our friend, Nabil, whose nephew would drive us all to the wedding.  We were twenty-five minutes late.  But, no worries, the driver was still stuck in traffic and would be another ten minutes.  When he finally arrived, we had twenty minutes to get to the church for a 4:00 wedding.

I shouldn’t have feared.  When we got there at 4:35, the groom hadn’t even arrived yet.  The wedding started about 5:00, a full hour later than scheduled.  It was chanted entirely in Coptic, with incense, and ritual, in a gorgeous Coptic church.  I didn’t understand a word (except for God, George, and Mariam–the groom and bride), but the liturgi-nerd in me was in awe of the liturgy and the chanting and the beautiful icons, carving, and painting throughout the sanctuary.

After the couple walked out, a long receiving line formed.  And since we were with the groom’s aunt and uncle, we actually had seats close to the front-ish, so we were toward the end of the line.  I practiced Arabic with Nabil, snapped a few photos, and waited to greet the beaming couple.  I even made my first joke in Arabic!

Though we followed the couple’s limo to the reception, we still waited for nearly an hour for them to make their grand entrance.  I thought I heard bag pipes, and sure enough, there was a bag piper, accompanied by drums and horns, as well as dancers balancing huge candelabras on their heads.  We watched for awhile on the screen and then realized we might not get this chance again and went out to join the festivities.

Eventually, the couple made their way into the reception hall, where we were entertained for nearly an hour by a large live band, with two singers, four male dancers who danced with canes, and an incredible belly dancer who had three costume changes.  The couple had their first dance, danced with their parents, and then the dancing began.  At one point during the entertainment, appetizer plates were delivered to the tables.  But it was 10:45 before the buffet opened.  Not knowing how much waiting we would have to do in pre-curfew traffic, we ate quickly and left earlier than many of the guests.  There was hardly any traffic and we made it home in record time, with almost an hour to go before the 1:00 AM curfew.  It was quite an experience and we were honored to be included.  I’ll try to post some photos on my Shutterfly site later tonight.  Arabic class did come way too early on Sunday morning and we were very grateful for coffee!

This afternoon, I sat with several Nuer women while we waited for the pastor who translates our Bible study to arrive after being at the hospital all afternoon with a member of their congregation.  They spoke mostly in Nuer, with a little Arabic and English thrown in.  And though I didn’t understand much of what they said, it was delightful just to sit with them.  To laugh with them.  To watch their animated faces and the laughter break out across faces.  To see the ways they look to each other for community and support.  It was a beautiful evening, and as we sat, I watched as Adult Education Program students arrived for their evening classes.  I don’t get to just sit and watch very often.  But there’s something about doing that that is holy and good.

Hurry up and wait.  Be still and know that I am God.  In the best moments, I recognize that the two can go hand in hand.  At many other times, I take deep breaths and practice reading Arabic.  It certainly can be frustrating, but sometimes it’s not all bad either.

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Exploration and Reformation

Blood ran down the streets of Cairo last Tuesday, October 15.  It was the first day of the Eid al-Adha, when Muslims commemorate Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son.  In the days leading up to Tuesday, sheep and cows showed up in the streets.  Sheep munched on hay thrown on the streets, milling about with no clue about what would be coming in the days ahead.  Cows were tied to railings and lamp posts.  One of our friends was introduced to the sheep the bawwab had in the garage.  We headed down to the main street in the neighborhood a little after 6:00 on that Tuesday morning, feeling like it was something that we needed to see while we were here.  People prayed at masjids (prayer rooms) along the way, spilling out on to the sidewalks, on this holiday.  All the while, butchers prepared themselves, making sure knives were sharp and meat hooks were secure.  And once the prayers ended, people gathered around the front of the shops.  With ropes securing the hooves, a butcher swiped a sharp blade across the neck, and the blood began to pour out.  Over the course of the day, thousands of sheep and cows were slaughtered in Cairo.  Muslim families are to keep a third for themselves, share a third with friends and family, and a third with the poor.

We took advantage of a relatively quiet day to explore the city a bit.  We headed toward the Citadel, but couldn’t seem to find the gate.  As we walked around the base of the fortress that was established in the 12th century, men sat at cafes, drinking tea and smoking sheshaas.  Children played in the streets.  Young men shaved hair off of sheep heads.  Others drove around in little trucks collecting hides that would, presumably, be scraped and treated for leather.  Butchers chopped and their assistants washed the blood from the stoops.  At one point, I had to walk around the bloody water that ran down the small hill.  The smell was, um, less than pleasant.

And then we arrived at Ibn Tulun mosque.  We walked through the huge doors of the complex and it was quiet.  With the exception of a couple sharing lunch, and a few middle school aged boys hanging out on the holiday, we were the only ones there.  We marveled at the beautiful 9th century architecture.  Simple, yet grand.  The mosque has recently been renovated as is no longer used for worship, but one can imagine the huge courtyard filled with people praying, and the acoustics allowing for many to hear, even from a distance.  Before we left, the guard offered to take us up the minaret, which afforded a picturesque view of the Citadel, Muquattam Hills, and Downtown Cairo.  It was lovely, and nice to finally get out to explore a bit of the old part of the city.

Before we left the compound, we took a tour of the Gayer-Anderson museum.  A beautifully preserved 17th-century home, the house was a maze of rooms, filled with the extensive art collection of Major Gayer-Anderson.  We’re still working on our Arabic, and the guide only knew a few words of English so we didn’t understand everything, but I think we got the general gist.  The wooden screens and huge windows are lovely.  Inside the walls, it was quiet and serene.  The guide knew “picture” and insisted on taking many of us, seeming to enjoy posing us in various poses around the house.  It was a little bit like senior picture day, but since we were still inside the walls of the mosque and I wasn’t quite sure about the protocol, I had a scarf covering my head.

After a quiet holiday week, it was nice to walk in the church yard and have the students back on Monday.  It was strange to be there alone during the holiday week.  I didn’t realize how much I love the constant chatter of the StARS programs.  The coming and going of the staff and clients.  The soccer ball dodging during recess.

I had a couple of meetings around the city this week and it was fun to get out and explore a bit more.  One of the church council members showed me around, taking me to some of her favorite little stalls and markets, while we walked to the train station from our meeting at the seminary.  She reminisced about growing up in Cairo and lamented about the current instability making it harder for people to get around.  On Tuesday afternoon, though, it was as normal as normal can be here.  Shop keepers swept their stoops, children ran and played in the streets.  Vegetable vendors from the country brought their produce in on donkey drawn carts.  I am still amazed by the ways you can move so quickly from a loud, busy street, packed with taxis, buses, and cars, to a quiet side street/ally, where people smile and say sabbaH ilxeer (good day).  She pointed to Arabic signs for me to read as we walked.

Today, we sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” at the English service and I preached at the Sudanese Lutheran service.  The worship is mostly in Arabic and I listened to the familiar cadences of the Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer.  Though I recognize only a few words, the cadences were there and it was a good reminder of the ways that we are made free to worship in so many languages, yet called into one body of Christ.  As I looked into the faces of my Sudanese brothers and sisters, I saw a vision of an always reforming church.  Had I remembered to wear my red shoes, it would have been a perfect Reformation Friday.

Our Arabic is coming along.  We are making new friends, from all over the world.  Justin’s classes are going well and I feel so blessed to do the work I do.  We’ve now been in Cairo two months.  I can even say “I have been in Egypt for two months” in Arabic.  There’s lots more to explore and experience.  We continue to learn and are challenged by contexts completely different than anything else we’ve ever experienced.  But tonight, as chicken soup simmers on the stove, I’m content in a place that is increasingly feeling more like home.

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If not for hope…

I write stories of hope, and watch for them, because if I didn’t, it would be too much.  It would be too much for my heart to see the brokenness, the despair, the poverty.  For as many times as my heart sings in this city, it breaks as many times, too.

It breaks when I see the young man, no more than fifteen years old, crawling down the filthy street on arms that don’t seem like they could possibly support him, legs so skinny that, even if he could stand, couldn’t possibly hold him up.

It breaks when the old woman comes and asks for money, miming that she just wants to eat; when I see the old man curled up under the thin blanket, sleeping on the hard patch of sidewalk that is his only home.

It breaks when I see young children on the street, begging or selling small packets of tissues instead of sitting at desks or playing with friends.

It breaks when I hear stories of men, both refugee and Egyptian, who can’t find work, no matter how much skill or education they have.

It breaks when I hear stories of women separated from their children, far from their homeland that was lush and green.  Where cows grazed and crops were raised and fish came from the river to feed their families.

It breaks when I hear stories of clashes around the city and wonder what this means for the people I have already come to love so much.

I write stories of hope because if I did not, the stories of brokenness would simply break me, break my spirit, shake my faith.  I cling to the promise that this is not God’s vision for the world–to promises like the one in this weekend’s reading from Habakkuk “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.”  I turn again to the Prophets who both challenge broken systems and speak words of hope.  I turn again to Jesus who promises to bring new life amidst the stench of death.

I listen; I pray; I wait; I watch.  I hope.

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