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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Come, Holy Spirit

This is just a hint of what my afternoon was like:

I was invited to participate in an ordination today with our Sudanese sister congregations. The service was full of music–from groups from several congregations and sung in at least five different languages.  There was nearly an hour of special music, shared by groups from several congregations.  It was beautiful to watch as women from at least three different South Sudanese tribes were moved by the music and joined in the singing and dancing.  There is no question that the Holy Spirit was at work!

I was one of about ten pastors participating in the service.  As we laid hands on the ordinand, the retired moderator, himself nearing ninety, of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan prayed over him, “Father in heaven, for Jesus sake….”  It was emotional and beautiful and all of the things that I love about an ordination.  After the prayer and laying on of hands, the other pastors went to work, buttoning the top button of his shirt and inserting a tab into it, slipping his black pastoral robe over his head, placing a stole on his shoulders.  Once he was properly dressed, the moderator introduced him for the first time as pastor and the congregation erupted in applause and ululation.  It was a beautiful moment of community lifting up a brother and a leader and celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit among us.

Yesterday, my brothers and sisters in South Central Wisconsin elected a new bishop, the Rev. Mary Froiland.  In an article in one of the Madison papers this morning, she recalls how her father told her she could be the first female bishop someday.  During the service today, I watched as a young boy, no older than two, climbed into the elevated pulpit and shut the door.  I couldn’t see him once the door was shut, but I like to pretend that he was “preaching.”  As I watched this little boy and thought about Mary’s election and the story she shared and celebrated with this newly ordained brother pastor, I thought about the ways God calls us in so many different ways.  Perhaps this little boy will someday grace that pulpit as a pastor and perhaps he will feel called in another direction.  But no matter where he goes, where any of us go, we go with a promise that there is no where we go where our God has not already been.  As I listened to the praise of Jesus’ name in the singing today, it was readily apparent that these people know and believe and trust that there is truth to that promise that this God goes with us where ever we go.  That God meets us there and promises never to leave us.  That’s a powerful promise, and now more than ever, it carries me.

I give thanks for this opportunity to celebrate, to pray, to lay on hands.  I give thanks for the opportunity to be reminded of our partnerships within a wider church.  I give thanks for the promise that where ever we go, God is right there with us.

An ordination is always a special event and it was a particular honor to be present at this one today and to be reminded, once again, of the ways the Holy Spirit comes, how she surprises and nourishes and makes new.  How she blows in our midst, sometimes in whispers and sometimes in the sounds of clapping and dancing, singing and ululation.  And no matter how she makes herself known, we find ourselves refreshed, renewed, and reminded of the promises that carry us where ever we go.


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