Awkward. Week One of Advent: Befriending Discomfort as You Wait

 

 

We’re all waiting for something.

 

Perhaps it’s for that overdue promotion, or for our child to make a good friend, or to finally find love. We may simply be waiting to feel like ourselves again. No matter who you are, something has you waiting.

 

As we enter into Advent we’re invited on a journey of waiting. It’s the kind of waiting that calls us to the edge of our seats and beckons us into a cosmic count down. The Christ is coming.

 

We’re all invited into this joyous anticipation. But most of us live with a waiting that feels so far from anticipatory; it’s a wait that feels….well, weighty. It’s charged with ache, exhaustion, and the muscle memory of disappointment.

 

I know that weighty wait all too well. So, during this Advent season I plan to explore the tension between anticipation and the less shiny waiting. How does the coming of The Christ (God’s great solidarity with us) stir in us deeper hope and joy? And how does the reality that Divine Love has thrown in His lot with us mark our painful waiting…and perhaps even transform it? Yes, that’s what I want to explore…and I invite you to join me.

 

I’m doing a 4-part series during Advent. Each post will focus on an aspect of waiting, include an orienting Scripture and offer a spiritual practice or two to posture us for divine transformation.

 

We begin our journey in the Land of the Awkward.

 

The next three weeks may contain the greatest opportunities for awkward than the rest of the year combined.

 

Is your colleague being ironic with that Christmas sweater….or not? How do you tell your mom you’re not coming home for Christmas but rather going to Iceland with your latest boyfriend…and his family? If you get your new neighbors a $25 Amazon gift card will they give you a deluxe grill…or a fruitcake?

 

The holidays have always been high real estate for awkward. The coming of The Christ was preceded by 400 years of [awkward] silence from God. And there was Mary having to tell her fiancé that she was pregnant but completely innocent. Then there was Joseph having to tell his rabbi that he was just as innocent as his pregnant fiancé. Almost every character in the Christmas story experiences some form of discomfort.

 

At the heart of awkward is a gap. It can be a gap between how we’re seen and how we long to be seen. Or it’s a gap between what we have and what we long to have. And the most perilous gap is that canyon between who we are and who we long to be.

 

Perhaps the hardest thing about waiting is that we’re stuck in this awkward gap.

 

In the opening scene in the Gospel of Luke is a character who has endured the profound discomfort of life’s gaps. She’s had to face the gap of perception, desire and identity. And the injustice of it all: these awkward gaps weren’t even self-induced. They weren’t her fault.

 

Meet Elizabeth[1].

 

She was refined. She had an impressive pedigree, i.e., able to trace her family tree back to Aaron (Moses’ brother). She married well. She had integrity. There was just this one thing, one little thing that forced her on the long bitter march of waiting…and all the awkwardness and shame that accompanied it. She was infertile.

 

Elizabeth lived during a time and in a culture where having children (especially sons) defined you. In many parts in the Middle East it still does. For a time I lived in a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem and the women would introduce themselves not by their own name but as “The Mother of ______(the name of their oldest son).”

 

It’s the equivalent in our culture to: “What do you do?” And responding: “I’m unemployed.” Every time.

 

Here’s what Luke says about Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias:

 

“They were good and just people in God’s sight, walking with integrity in the Lord’s ways and laws. Yet they had this sadness. Due to Elizabeth’s infertility, they were childless, and at this time, they were both quite old-well past normal childbearing years.” Luke 1:6-7, Voice

 

Elizabeth had been faithful. And yet a sadness trailed her through the years. She shared the sadness with the person she loved most. She was the cause of his sadness too…though it wasn’t her fault. And now…well, it seemed too late. All the wishing, the praying, the what-ifs and even alternative medicines couldn’t turn back time.

 

We’re all waiting for something. What has you waiting?

 

Is there something you’re waiting for that is beginning to feel impossible? You may have had dreams when you were younger…and now you scramble to pay the bills and fill your nights with noise so you don’t have to think about the gap between where you are and where you thought you’d be. Perhaps for years you’ve determined to lose weight or get out of debt, but only more weight, debt and now shame have piled on. You might have had visions of the happily ever after and you find yourself in shock how long it’s been since the divorce papers were signed…or how long since you’ve felt happiness in your marriage. Maybe you’ve struggled with your health and you’ve done all the right things and you’re still not getting better.

 

Those gaps that waiting exposes can not only feel awkward…they can feel cruel. Soul-crushing, at times.

 

Last night I was on another first date. The guy asked a very natural—and all too familiar—question: “So, you’ve never married and don’t have kids?” As many times as I get that question I never know precisely how to answer. I tend to go straight for candor these days: “I’m befuddled by it myself. I’ve desired to marry. I love kids. I’ve had a very rich life…and am so grateful for it…and I’ve prayed ten thousand prayers to have a family.” And often I’ll end my monologue with a hearty laugh: “What the hell? I really don’t know why.” Then I take a sip of wine and try to deftly steer the conversation to international affairs.

 

My singleness has been a stellar setup for awkward conversations. From a multi-hour taxi ride in Malaysia to short ones in more countries than I can remember, taxi drivers seem most confused by my marital status…them, and my relatives in Texas. It’s so curious trying to explain a core aspect of my life I don’t fully understand myself.

 

I can only imagine how Elizabeth felt through the years. Perhaps she hoped people wouldn’t notice anymore. Or maybe she longed to talk about this big piece of her life that she could never quite find the words for. Maybe it was a bit of both.

 

Whatever she felt, something happened to Elizabeth that usurped words (Luke 1:8-25…culminating with this):

 

“Elizabeth: I have lived with the disgrace of being barren for all these years. Now God has looked on me with favor. When I go out in public with my baby, I will not be disgraced any longer.” Luke 1:25, Voice

 

Not everyone has an angel chat with their partner and ends up giving birth in their retirement years. So perhaps Elizabeth’s story isn’t for all of us.

 

But here’s the invitation I sense from God. He sees me in my waiting. He sees you in yours as well. I believe there’s still mystery in whose gaps are closed in what ways…what prayers get answered in the affirmative. However, I believe one of the greatest gifts of the Coming of the Christ is that God entered into Israel’s waiting—ultimately humanity’s longings and shame, hopes and questions—and said: “I see you. I haven’t forgotten you. I actually look upon you with favor.”

 

Or as Anthony de Mello wrote: “Behold the one beholding you, and smiling.”

 

That’s what God did for Elizabeth. Even in the waiting, that is what He is doing for you and me. But sometimes it takes us pausing to realize it. And so here are a couple of spiritual practices for the week to help us awake to the favor God looks on us in our waiting.

 

Spiritual Practices

 

  1. 5 minutes to feel the awkwardness of waiting. Ok, this may seem like an uber odd spiritual practice. But I invite you to join me and put away our phones for 5 minutes each day when we would naturally use them to rescue us from awkward waiting. Take an elevator ride without looking at your phone. (I know, I know, it puts you at risk of the whole awkward eye-contact thing….but nonetheless…) Stand in line at Trader Joes with your phone still in your pocket or purse. Wait without props…and who knows, you may have a less-than-awkward conversation with someone…and find yourself smiling. Or it could be uncomfortable, and that’s ok too. But try. I dare you (and me).

 

  1. 5 minutes to feel God’s pleasure in the waiting. I encourage you to carve out 5 minutes to simply sit in silence with God. Remind Him of your desires. But also, let Him remind you of His love for you, His absolute pleasure in you. You may begin your time reading this Scripture:

 

“The Eternal your God is standing right here among you, and He is the champion who will rescue you. He will joyfully celebrate over you; He will rest in His love for you; He will joyfully sing because of you like a new husband.” Zephaniah 3:17, Voice

 

Later in Luke 1 Elizabeth enters the scene again. She hosts Mary for a visit. And here’s what happens:

 

“Elizabeth (shouting): You are blessed, Mary, blessed among all women, and the child you bear is blessed! And blessed I am as well, that the mother of my Lord has come to me! As soon as I heard your voice greet me, my baby leaped for joy within me. How fortunate you are, Mary, for you believed that what the Lord told you would be fulfilled.” Luke 1:42-45, Voice

 

Elizabeth’s painful wait for God to show up in her own gaps turned into true anticipation of the coming of the Christ.

May God also meet you in your waiting and may something so deep in you jump for joy knowing Christ has come and He will come again.

 

[1] Read Luke 1, specifically paying attention to Elizabeth.

An Open [Love] Letter to Aleppo

Here's Wahid's drawing of his crossing from Turkey to Greece. The waters were rough and he thought he would die.

Here’s Wahid’s drawing of his crossing from Turkey to Greece. The waters were rough and he thought he would die.

Dearest Aleppo,

I can’t imagine the intensity of your days…and the crushing fatigue of your nights. I hear your losses come too quickly for you to properly grieve, too often for your mother’s heart to count.

I’m so sorry.

I know you weep for your babies, the ones whose cries have now been silenced. While I know not that kind of heartbreak, I want to encourage you with hope.

I have met some of your children, ones who have ran to refuge in neighboring states and have washed up on shores in distant lands.

They are alive, beautifully alive.

I met one of your daughters, Maya, who gave birth in the midst of barrel bombs. She and her baby survived—thank God—and now she serves others with expanded love and prays for your peace each day. She asks God that love would rebuild your streets and repair your walls.

I met two of your sons, brothers, who journeyed by boat. They never knew school in your halls, and childhood play in your neighborhoods held adult-sized risks. Even still, they miss and love you dearly. Wahid, 8-years-old, dreams of being an engineer. He longs to restore you back to your glory. And Yuseph, 11-years-old, desires to be a doctor and help heal all Syrians. Your boys await your peace and unity.

I don’t know what’s ahead for you, but I pray the prayers of Maya and the dreams of Wahid and Yuseph come true…someday soon.

May love win,

Tamara

In 2005 I had the gift of spending time in Aleppo…and in this past year I traveled to Lebanon and interviewed mothers from Aleppo and then went to Greece and got to interview children from the region.

How Syrian hospitality rescued me…

I stumbled into Syria a decade ago. I was exhausted and sick, desperate for help.

I had been traveling for weeks—essentially making the reverse sojourn of so many recent refugees. My trek began in Rome, and almost 1,500 miles later—by foot, boat, train, a short flight over a war-torn area, bus, and taxi—I made it to the border of Syria.

Of all the countries on my journey, my friends and family had been most concerned about my visit to Syria. And, I have to admit, I had been a little nervous myself. My main worry had been that I would be singled out because one of my tattoos is written in Hebrew. I had planned to black it out with a Sharpie right before I crossed the border. Seriously, I’d carried a Sharpie all those miles to conduct this less than covert cover-up job.

But when I reached the border the absurdity of my plan became clear…and I realized that, even if there had been a tattoo inspection, I was too tired to care. The border guard simply smiled at me through the taxi window, and I went back to focusing on my navel. Okay, it was my whole belly that captured my attention. I had acquired a pesky amoeba in Turkey, though I had yet to figure that out. All I knew was that my belly felt like a bag full of water and almost-dead goldfish in the hands of a toddler. Slosh. Panic. Slosh.

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I had set off on this journey, not as a refugee, but as a pilgrim. I traveled all those miles with one intention: to ask strangers throughout the Balkans and the Middle East how they would describe God. I was especially curious how people living in lands cracked open by conflict viewed God…and how I might gain a greater vision of the divine through their insights.

People had not only responded to my question, they had also shared their life stories, given me gifts, and invited me into their homes. But by the time I reached Aleppo, my thoughtful question descended into a desperate quest. I began to ask strangers on the street for the cure to my stomach ailment. Everyone seemed willing to take up my cause, but they all had different solutions.

While stuffing food into my goldfish-graveyard-of-a-stomach seemed like the least helpful answer, once I met Mustafa I couldn’t resist. Mustafa owned a falafel stand near where I was staying. People waited in line day and night for his falafels, but curiously enough, everyone seemed ridiculously happy to stand in his line. I wanted to be ridiculously happy, too, even though just the thought of eating was nauseating. I joined the blissful masses in line, but when I went to pay, the old man in charge of payment asked my two friends and me where we were from. When I said, “America,” a commotion broke out.

Mustafa approached. He insisted our falafels were on the house. Then he took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of his falafel stand, where we got to see his refrigeration system and taste the condiments. Afterward we had a lovely chat about family and culture. Mustafa explained that though he didn’t always agree with our president and our policies, he loved Americans.

Mustafa and his crew. Photo credit: Krista Sedarwall-Casey

Mustafa and his crew. Photo credit: Krista Sedarwall-Casey

The next day I imbibed many of the solutions strangers had recommended, only to find that my sloshing stomach was solidifying like hardening concrete. (If you’re wondering, this was an even less desirable state than the bag of goldfish.)

Nonetheless, I returned to Mustafa’s stand with all its ridiculously happy people. This time I was determined to order more food (which I had no plans of eating) and leave a big tip to repay him for his kindness. Again, Mustafa insisted I not pay a dime.

On day three I waddled over to Mustafa to simply say hello. When I arrived he suddenly seemed distracted. I began to wonder if I had offended him or overreached in my hopes of friendship. But soon enough he returned and said he had arranged a surprise. He paid for a taxi to take my friends and me across town to see where and how the falafels were made.

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Mustafa wasn’t able to cure my gastrointestinal situation. But his extravagant hospitality invited me to hope I’d eventually get the help I needed.

For the next few days I tried more treatments, I was prayed for by a nun in convent in Saidnaya, and then I happened upon a pharmacy attached to another convent in ancient Maaloula. There I found the right medicine. Twenty-four hours later I said good riddance to the amoeba.

Shortly after that, I left for Lebanon. I only experienced Syria as a haggard invalid. I didn’t have the energy to ask Syrians about their descriptions of God. However, my understanding of God grew stronger while I was there.

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I had so little to offer, but I was shown a wealth of kindness. I was reminded of the long legacy of hospitality tied to my faith. In fact, Aleppo’s name harkens back to it. In Arabic it is Halab, meaning “gave out milk.” One explanation for the name is the ancient tradition that Abraham gave milk to travelers as they trekked through the region.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the faithful are told to care for strangers. And then in the Gospels, Jesus says that when you welcome those considered the least among you, you welcome God himself.

When you’re traveling, tired, and sick, you can feel at your most vulnerable. And when someone offers you kindness, you get a glimpse of the generosity of God in ways you wouldn’t otherwise.

Through the Syrians, I got to gaze at a God who showed me grace…grace that I neither deserved nor could repay.

So much has changed since I visited Syria. Now Aleppo has been razed by war; it’s been reported the Assad regime even used chemical weapons there. I don’t know if Mustafa is still alive and if he and his family are among the refugees. I don’t know if the nun who prayed for me in Saidnaya and the pharmacist who helped me in Maaloula are living either. Those ancient cities have been targets of ISIS.

I pray they have all miraculously survived. I’d love to one day show them a bit of the hospitality they extended to me.

I did get to spend some time with Syrian refugees in Beirut this spring. While their needs were great, something more powerful emerged: their kindness. Refugee after refugee entrusted me with their stories. I interviewed one mother from Aleppo–I’ll call her Maya–who had given birth when the city was being hit by chemical weapons. She was sent home from the hospital out of concern that the injured would put her baby at risk. Then only a short time later a bomb went off near her house. Despite the horrors she experienced, she shared with me about her newfound relationship with Jesus and her own discovery of a God of grace. She now volunteers at a community center in Beirut and is helping other refugees, even as her and her family are dealing with being displaced.

Delightful Syrian refugee girl I met in Beirut.

Delightful Syrian refugee girl I met in Beirut.

My life is richer because of the Syrians I’ve met. My view of God is bigger too because of them.

I hope we as Americans can respond in a similar manner as Mustafa did with me. While he didn’t agree with all the approaches of our leaders and our policies, he embraced us as a people. I am heartbroken by the cruelty of the Assad regime, and gut-wrenched over the tactics of ISIS, but the Syrians have suffered. They know what it’s like to be weary from being on the move, sick and fatigued in ways I could never fathom.

And for those of us who call ourselves Christians, may we be like the nun who prayed for me–who advocated on my behalf asking a powerful and loving God to intervene for me. And may we too be like the pharmacist who was so thrilled to provide me with practical help to address my need. And may we be like Maya who in the midst of her own losses is helping others.

Now is our opportunity to show a bit of hospitality to Syrians, and in doing so welcome God. And I can’t help but believe we will be enriched even more.

PS

Being welcoming doesn’t disregard wisdom; here are resources explaining the US’s stringent vetting policies:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/17/how-were-welcoming-syrian-refugees

http://bearingdrift.com/2015/11/18/myths-vs-facts-in-the-syrian-refugee-issue/

And here’s a helpful 5-minute look at the Syrian crisis: http://www.designmadeingermany.de/2015/91231/

Photo credit: Krista Sedarwall-Casey

Photo credit: Krista Sedarwall-Casey

 

 

 

 

Going Tandem

Recently a sense of free-fall has stolen my breath. Perhaps it’s because I’m edging toward a year on my Self-Employment Tour. Or, maybe it’s because I’ve been traveling non-stop since June. But likely it’s because I’m about to take the biggest leap I’ve ever made. I hope—scratch that—I plan to pursue my first documentary on my own.

 

In the midst of these free-fall sensations, I’ve been reminded of when I went skydiving about a decade ago. Before I jumped out of the plane I did my due diligence. I got to know the guy I was partnered with and found out that he was happily married, just had a baby girl he adored and had gone tandem over a hundred times. I concluded this was a man who had something to live for…and knew how to stick a landing.

 

Once I had those gems of information I told him to make it as exciting as possible. Do tricks. Go for it!

 

We did amazing flips and I laughed all the way down to the ground.

 

I believe God gave me that memory to remind me I’m not in freefall alone. The beauty of my faith invites me to trust that I am in tandem with God, the One who made earth and sky, laughter and courage.

 

So with that the case, my prayer has become “Make this journey exciting…full of meaning and contribution…I want to be tethered to a God who shows off…and I desire to have my mouth agape…laughing through the adventure.”

 

Ok, that’s the prayer I want ready on my lips. But here’s a confession: I have such a tendency to forget the truth and freedom of Going Tandem.

 

So, I’m discovering more and more in this season how I need other people to remind me of the good reality of God. It’s such a paradox: other people’s generosity helps me catch my breath, still my heart and jog my memory that I’m ultimately tethered to a loving God.

 

And I desire to be that for others…to be a breathing reminder: You’re not alone. Savor the journey. Trust that love overwhelms fear. Leap.

 

Next week I’ll share more about the documentary…and invite you to join me in the adventure. Until then…

 

Note: that's not me...nor the guy...but same joy. Thanks http://www.goskydive.com/

Note: that’s not me…nor the guy…but same joy. Thanks http://www.goskydive.com/

May whatever has been stealing your breath recently be no match to the invitation to go tandem…and may you find yourself laughing as you make the leap.

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