For World Refugee Day, Let Love Come First

It’s been nearly a year since I first traveled overseas. While there, I worked with refugees near the Syrian border. The intervening year has brought plenty of surprises (both fortunate and not so fortunate), and, as sad as I am to admit it, after so many months of the humdrum repetition of daily life I often forgot some of the things I learned there about what love really means.

For World Refugee Day I want to remind myself and others of a situation that we often, whether consciously or unconsciously, drive to the background of our lives. I also want to remember those that touched my life in that hot July, who continue to live, work, and dream as I write this.

One of the greatest problems I run into when people talk about the refugee crisis is that we fall into “statistic speak.” Treating those affected by it like some homogeneous set of numbers, we toss around the awfulness of something like ‘7 million displaced people’ with a disturbing lightness of mood, following it with little more than a shaking head and a canned comment indicating a casual remorse. The sheer magnitude of independent lives affected should crush us. Instead, we respond with a unilateral and simplified “pity” toward ambiguous suffering. In my own experience, the suffering is overwhelmingly individual. While others may just recall numbers and news clips, I remember faces and names.

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One of the refugee camps I spent some time in last July

I met mothers who’ve suffered losses I can’t imagine, I met fathers who exhibited constant love for their children, I met young men close to my age trying to make the best out of a horrible situation, and I met children who, despite all the pain they suffered or violence they survived, laughed, played, and made this silly American’s first classroom an extraordinary (and often exasperating) place to work in.

And, in thinking about them all over again, I wept.

At the most basic level, the lives of those I met were incredibly familiar to me. They shared many of the same basic desires, hopes, and flaws that populate my own hometown. In the midst of enormous divides, I was reminded that at the core of every man, woman, and child is a universal nature that I often neglect to notice among my own neighbors. Each one embodied an enormous soul of humanity, warts and all.

They don’t need our pity, they need our understanding. I believe any one can tell you that a romance can’t get much further than infatuation without mutual understanding. There are similar rules for the higher, more selfless forms of love; to love others more effectively, we must earnestly seek to understand them.

You may or may not have a refugee population in your own city, but you can take a few minutes to learn about them no matter where you are. You can watch a few videos on Youtube, watch a film on Netflix or Amazon (I can recommend a few, including 50 Feet From Syria, The White Helmets, and The Return to Homs to understand the Syria crisis in paticular) or read some quick articles on not only the problems but the creative, inspiring solutions nonprofits and businesses around the world are coming up with.

Today, even as media coverage of the refugee crisis continues to play second fiddle (if not third or fourth) to the American political circus, it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon. As Syrians, Rohingya, Yemeni, South Sudanese, and many other groups continue to seek safety from prolonged, devastating conflicts, we must remember that we have a humanitarian duty (especially those among us who claim to be Christians) to love those suffering around the world for no other reason than they are human beings like us, images of awesome divinity and elemental mortality. Whatever you can do, whether it’s praying, sharing, learning, or giving, I challenge you to show some love toward refugees today.

To close, I want to encourage you with a quote from the Prayer of St. Francis (which may or may not have actually been written by him) in which the author cries to God:

“-grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

Love comes first. Remember that.

 

If you can afford it, consider giving a one-time gift (or even better, become a regular donor) to one of the following charities helping to build back lives both here in the states and abroad:

World Relief: https://www.worldrelief.org/give 

Preemptive Love: https://preemptivelove.org/donate/

World Vision: https://www.worldvision.org/donate

“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” -Deuteronomy 10:18-19

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This Week’s Outdated Recommendations

You Should Have Watched . . .

  • A Perpetual Procrastinator’s Guide to What You Might Have Missed

The Square (2013)

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Tahrir Square in 2011, filled with revolutionaries.

The Square (not to be confused with the 2017 film of the same name) is a model of what a great documentary should look like, bringing a problem that seems distant and foreign into intimate focus. Centering on the planning and aftermath of the famous 2011 Egyptian revolution (a series of peaceful demonstrations revolving around an enormous protest in Tahrir Square). Considered to be the primary reason for President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the demonstrations set off a series of events that resulted in chaos overwhelming Egypt and despotism returning in different forms. This film traces the inspiring and heartbreaking journey of Egyptian activists, who, after achieving arguably the greatest victory for a peaceful revolution in recent memory, face lingering sectarian and religious divisions within their own ranks as they watch their democracy suffer again (and again, and again).

As a character-focused piece, the film presents the viewer with several figures of the movement, representing different sub-groups and roles. From the young, fiery Muslim activist Ahmed Hassan to the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (known for his roles in The Kite Runner and the recent adaptation of Assassin’s Creed), the revolutionaries challenge our preconceptions.

One character, whose presence elevates the film’s message through the sheer complexity of his situation, is that of Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour. Walking alongside liberals, conservatives, Christians, and Muslims as a part of the greater movement, Ashour reminds us that behind the curtain of a particular ideology lie real human beings, with family and friends. The violence or abuse of authority perpetrated by a group, no matter how despicable, does not nullify the humanity of its members.

His struggle to handle the sometimes opposite pulls from his two allegiances creates some uncomfortable scenes of tension that, no matter your orientation, makes you feel for his predicament. Ashour, while I don’t want to give away spoilers (although, if you’ve googled his name, you already know what I’m talking about), is the film’s tragic figure, perpetually trapped between powerful forces of tyranny, religious and political. In today’s increasingly toxic and divided socio-political climate in the US, his story is timely.

That being said, the film’s oversight of the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist and terrorist-affiliated actions is irresponsible, giving viewers a simplified and sanitized picture instead of the complicated and often grotesque reality.

 

You Should Have Listened . . .

  • A Look Back at The Overlooked
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Matthew Perryman Jones, an angsty philosopher-songwriter you’ve probably never heard of.

Land of the Living (2012)

Nashville-based artist Matthew Perryman Jones is anything but a household name. His music, however, marked by a distinctive, atmospheric folk rock-style has earned him a devoted following (of which I unashamedly identify as). His recent albums have utilized crowdfunding methods to great effect. By cutting out the “middle-man” Jones creates just the kind of music he wants to make, not having to yield to the needs of “the market” or the wiles of mainstream record producers.

The result of his first big crowdfunding effort was his 2012 album The Land of The Living. I purchased my own copy about three or four years ago, but I recently rediscovered it. It’s an album that is incredibly rich in both its poetic lyrics and its audio. One main influence for the album is the correspondence of Vicent Van Gogh with his brother Theo Van Gogh, which, if you listen to any of Jones’ music, is perfect source material for his songwriting and musical style. Jones took the title of the album from one of these letters, and one of the songs is even titled, “Dear Theo.”

Some could accuse Jones’ of being a bit repetitive, and, in a sense, they would be right. Jones has a signature style, which he pulls off very well. However, I believe that Land of the Living showcases a greater variety of sounds that his other albums. This diversity of sounds appears in the first four tracks, slipping from the idyllic, melancholic folk “Stones From The Riverbed” into two thumping, clattering rock-inspired meditations in “Poisoning the Well” and “I Won’t Let You Down Again,” until finally transitioning into the lofty orchestral ode of “O Theo.”

If you haven’t listened to Matthew Perryman Jones, give this album a listen on wherever you stream your music, and, after you’re done, consider supporting Jones’ next album at PledgeMusic. Since he’s already raised over 100% of his original goal, 10% of the money you pledge will go to blood:water mission, which partners with groups and individuals throughout Africa to empower communities to tackle both water/sanitation problems and the HIV/AIDS crisis. The other 90% will go to make sure that Jones create what will hopefully turn out to be another great album.

Confessions (On Graduation and Premature Eggs)

At the beginning of this semester (oh, crap! Adult life doesn’t happen in semesters!). Scratch that, at the beginning of this past season (or is it phase? section? chapter?), nevermind, at the end of the summer, my life faced a little implosion. Fresh off the plane in America after taking a big risk by serving overseas, my plans were upended by financial and spiritual struggle. Plans that were once set in stone now splintered like wood under an ax. My career aspirations split into several camps, like warring tribes of ideals in my own head (not exactly what you’d like to hear from a recent college graduate that, after showing up back at home, should have some inkling of a career path). All the things I “should” have had: the internship hours, the work experience, and the extracurriculars that lead right to that modern fantasy of the ideal “adult life.” College felt like an incubator, protecting me with a shell of security as I soldiered on toward receiving that golden ticket of a diploma. Instead, I came out a soft, sickly yellow egg, only half-baked, dragging with me an extraordinarily expensive piece of paper. Unfortunately, there is no reentering after exiting the birth canal of graduation. Life has officially started.

Yet I still cling tightly to the inside of my egg, still surrounded by the protective reality created by undergraduate attitudes. I try to ignore the cracks that form in the shell that protected me from the barbs of real-life as the demands of a world that, despite all the “preparation” I was supposedly getting, served to help me rest inside my yolk., suckling on the last remains of that membrane we like to call “liberal arts.”

Yet I wouldn’t trade it away for anything. I wouldn’t be the same person without college, not because of the utility of it, but the more intangible abilities involved in developing connections with people irrespective of their value in setting me on the path toward a specific career or attaining financial stability. It helped shape who I am and challenged me to think outside of the boxes I had created for myself (all whilst remaining ironically inside of a box).

As a slightly non-traditional student, I spent the first two years embedded in academic work, quietly hidden behind a computer screen as I tried to obtain that mythic 4.0. The fact that I was able to finish the last couple seasons of The Office during finals week should not be counted as academic brilliance, but a severe case of social stasis. College posed a two-fold problem to me, indicative of the nature of the two different institutions I attended. I dove straight into academics at my junior college, and upon arriving at university, discovered how small my world had become. For me, this lack of patience and fearlessness ended with me, at the beginning of my Junior year, “starting over” just in time for my college experience to almost be over. Those last two years embodied the paradoxical experience that liberal arts college represents. While supposedly preparing me for a “career” through a generalized set of skills, I sacrificed the ideal “work-experiences” that cast a shadow over nearly any job applications. While establishing relationships with students and faculty, I missed out on other forms of “networking” (a term which retains an inherent ickiness for me) with a specific career field. My extracurriculars, with a mind toward “expanding” myself, have actually served to limit the kinds of opportunities I can apply to. That dissonance between my academics and my personal endeavors seem only to confuse people looking for candidates they can snugly fit into a pre-fabricated position.

College reminds me of a great book, that despite all the praise and adoration showered on it, cannot be dissected effectively. It cannot be balanced with sets of weights. It cannot be added to an equation or judged by a set of statistics. As soon as you try to grasp at an absolute value, it slips through your fingers again. All the while it sinks a little farther into memory, evermore unclear in its purpose. College is a time for transformation and can be a catalyst for enormous growth. Unfortunately, I never gave myself to time to discover how to put that transformation to work. Sometimes, the pain of solace (which, while effective to encourage me to write and share pieces like this, pierces deeper than a knife), makes it hard to remember any detail about my undergraduate experience that changed me. In these times of forgetfulness, I feel the weight of its shadow, which, unclear and foggy, constitutes a more oppressing substance in its absence.

Sometimes, I simply want to run after some wayward and simple dreams, irrespective of the training I received. To learn to be a carpenter in New England, a miner in West Virginia, a deep-sea fisherman across the Atlantic, or a cow-herder in some far-off country. One of my favorite songs, by the band The Head and the Heart starts with a simple line, “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade/ Riding along railcars and working long days.” College’s greatest burden is the weight of ambition. Often, more than anything, I wish I could be freed from that expectation of success. The reminders about my “potential,” although intended as thoughtful and true statements of my ability to grow, now elicit soft pangs with every memory. Why must I be so filled with the need to find purpose and the spectre of “potential”, when all I really need right now is a job?

Today, though, there remains hope that someday it will be worth it. One thing college teaches you is that a moment is just that, a moment, and we are not defined by one day or one season. Mistakes are not death sentences and life does indeed go on. A season of struggle does not decide your direction, and in the midst greatest times of conflict and uncertainty, the seeds of success are being sown. Facing rejection and regret can be steps toward a brighter future. Returning to my egg metaphor, that shell, which, dim and discolored as it appears, may be the key to that future. The very unpreparedness I resent could enable me to see the world through different lenses, not limited to one path toward fulfillment. Life is short, but it’s also wide. Possibilities still lie on the horizon, and it might take some time to find my path again. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t appreciate the journey, with all of its peaks and pits. Like all great stories, something’s bound to go wrong. All I can do is get to work writing the next chapter.

 

 

Lost Love

Lost Love

As it drifts toward memory,

a slow, suspended journey,

Dark and lonely heights,

Carved out by the flames

of bittersweet days

descending toward the dark.

 

Looking back I see

idol hours spent for naught

I sit forsaken

by my own burning heart,

a flaming shrine

to passion undone.

My mind is dust,

an urn full of ashes

freshly gathered from a fire.

 

Alone,

A word too often writ,

Doesn’t sting,

It crushes.

 

Cruel time,

Without a pause

Rolls onward, and when I push

For one last fight

Against its ever-steady pace

I stumble against its motion.

 

I crack upon the sidewalk,

Blood pools on the pavement,

A harsh release,

I rise a little less of a man,

But readier to walk again.

 

Thank God for that wasted time,

Rejoice at what is lost,

To live a little is to die,

Bit by bit,

With pieces

Left behind

In pursuit of wayward dreams

And useless memories.

On Returning to Old Things

I’m not the best cleaner in my household. My room has been notoriously dusty for years, and when the time to finally manage the mess comes around, I can remain stopped up for days, breathing through a film of years-old decay gathered under my bed, my drawers, or my bookshelf. The dust bothers my lungs, and once, when I still had carpet, it got so bad after a serious vacuuming session that I moved myself and all those that matter most to me (that being my sheets, comforter, and three pillows, onto the living  room couch for several days. I was worse off after cleaning than I was before.

Sometimes, when you start cleaning up though, despite all of the dust and grime that emerges from years of carelessness, you find something valuable in the midst of it. An old collectible, a tattered middle-school notebook, or even a favorite sweater shoved under a box of unread books can bring light to a dark day. Even as particles of dead skin of any number of people or animals fly through the air, memories can flood irresistible joy in the moment you find something you love again.

That’s what getting back to writing feels like. It’s a little dusty and decayed, but it’s mostly stayed the same. In college I wrote a lot, but it was all for classes that demanded unnatural adherence to academic style. I didn’t spend much of my own time writing and spent most of my free hours wandering campus, talking to people, working, or doing whatever random extra-curricular I would fall into. The craft I once loved sat in the back of my mind, with tools of prose and poetry that I once used often remaining untouched for months at a time. I brought out my best only when it was absolutely necessary, when I needed an especially good closing paragraph, or a catchy metaphor. Exchanging what I was comfortable with for a drier, formulaic tone more appropriate for term papers on Milton or Medieval poetry, I forgot what it was like to love writing and to breathe in the fumes of creativity like sniffing the wafting scents of wildflowers. Instead, I traded the ecstasy of expression in for a quieter satisfaction, like exchanging the scent of those real wildflowers in for a Yankee Candle substitute on my window sill.

And so I’m back, for at least a moment, in the wild outdoors of creative thought, where the things aren’t real and the points don’t matter. I missed it, and now I begin the process of intentionally pursuing that which was lost.

Today begins a journey to rediscover that joy, perhaps even try to make something out of it. It’s time to dust off the old tool chest, polish my pen, and sit down, learning to love the art of creation again. I hope you enjoy.

A Few Stories to Tell

More than two months ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity to go to Lebanon for nearly three-and-a-half weeks. When I left, I had no idea what to expect, having never been out of the country. Heading to the Middle East, I knew I was taking the high dive before the short one. The reactions of people before I left was usually one of shock, followed by either a routine pat on the back “I could never do what you’re doing” or a dismal prophecy of how terrorists would blow up my apartment, kidnap my little brother, hold my crappy computer for ransom, and any other horrible outcome in-between. I knew it was what I needed to do. Spiritually, emotionally, and mentally, it felt like the right time to take this chance, to do what I had always said I wanted to do, travel, and travel right.

By travelling right, I mean working. There was very little cross-continental galivanting, no late-night-partying, no dangerous escapades with random foreign strangers who would eventually steal my credit card, and definitely no pictures of myself on Instagram hanging out by the Mediterranean (I think it’s for the best if I keep all my clothes on). I came to work and to teach. I’ll leave the Instagram selfies for the Protestant white girls in Jamaica. So, with no real communication back home besides the occasional phone-call back home, I committed myself fully to living into an often stressful, distressing, confusing, and all around fantastic experience. I only really knew three things that were definite before leaving, a) I was teaching English to Syrian Refugees 2) I was working in the middle of an actual refugee camp and c) I was technically working for a private school exclusively serving Syrians, which, when all the other aid agencies leave, sticks around to do the hard work. The rest was a total unknown until I got there.

Before the trip began, I emailed the head teacher with my teaching preferences (as requested by the school) and put down high-level learners as I wasn’t particularly excited about handling Kindergartener. It’s not that I didn’t love kids, I do, but I had never considered myself good with kids. Often I thought I was not only awkward in dealing with them but fundamentally disconcerting to them. With my thin rail of a body, my long head, bony cheeks, and my unintentionally supervillainesque smile I hardly thought I was made, neither physically or mentally, for handling toddlers. Imagine my surprise when class started on Monday with me looking over a class of 16 low-level students where almost all of them still had all of their baby teeth in. With no previous experience (besides some tutoring in college), no teaching certificate to back me up, and no other qualifications besides a fresh off the press English Degree, I had to transform myself into a great Kindergarten teacher in three weeks. This was not even considering these were Syrian kids, many of whom had not known life before having to live in tents. So yeah, I was in for quite a ride. And that ride changed my life forever.

I’ve got a few stories to tell. Over the next few days, I will be posting some writings on the trip that I’ve been working on over the past while. I need to learn to share more, and this is where it starts.

Pain and Faith

“It’s going to be an amazing experience!”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that about my trip next month. I love the sentiment, but I often worry about the assumption behind it. Going overseas and serving is definitely something that will be pretty crazy and challenging, but I often worry what people mean when they say “amazing.” It often seems like what people mean by that is usually designated by fun, exciting adventures, filled with joy and fulfillment. When we step out in faith, we may have some struggles, but all in all, it’ll be “awesome.”

I’m not sure if life works like that.

Those kind of expectations might even be bad for the experience of such a trip. Life never goes according to plan and I earnestly believe that God’s will doesn’t always place us where it’s fun or “amazing” all the time. Often, God places us somewhere where it’s going to be difficult, uncomfortable, and virtually impossible to adapt to. God doesn’t change us without challenges. The Psalms are filled with songs of lament, real struggles by real men following after the Lord. Whatever one does, whether they think it is a good thing or not, God may yet have it in the cards to wound us. Job, though he seemed righteous, had lessons to learn through pain. God’s is not limited to “amazing experiences” but to some pretty gosh-awful ones. He moves in the tears and in the laughter.

As I approach my departure I am reminded of the need to keep an open mind, and to be ready to deal with whatever comes. As I step out to try to serve as best I can, I need to stay aware that God moves in uncomfortable spaces, and that the joy of the Lord exceeds understanding and my situation.

Once I talked to someone about the experience of culture shock and how, despite how awful it can be, it has to happen for us to grow. Someone who does not go through that phase of really wrestling with their place as they try to adapt to a new setting may in fact be resisting change, and actively escaping the reality around them. I must be ready and willing to go through pain and discomfort. I must not settle for false visions but must be open to the hurt around me.

I cannot begin to predict the pain that I will experience, the lives that I will interact with, and the discomfort I will be in. No matter how much I research, I cannot begin to know what it will look like, and that is something that simultaneously terrifies me and excites me. When St. Francis decided to give up all he had and embody a radical faith in poverty, there was relatively no knowledge of what waited on the other side, except that it was going to be painful. I do not mean to make any parallels between me and St. Francis, as what he did was far more drastic than me. I will simply be taking one month out of my summer to serve and returning to a cushy grad school gig that pays me to go to school, but I understand that his decisions were based on the knowledge that he didn’t know what he was getting into, but he knew he would have to go through pain. Many times faith means jumping in somewhere even though we know it will hurt.

Hosea says in chapter 6, verses 1-2: “Come, let us return to the Lord. For he has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.” God uses pain to change our perspectives. Many times, as American Christians, who have been immensely blessed with wealth, status, and safety, pain is a symptom of a sinful life, not just a sinful world. We cannot embrace it as a part of faith. Yet, as we see throughout history, with Christ as the supreme example, pain was often found an essential part of the Christian walk.

God is good even when life stinks.

A Prayer of Peace

On Monday night, the world was reminded of the terrible things human beings are capable of. A young British man walked into a crowd mainly composed of pre-teen and teenage girls, and, in a moment, ignited a bomb that would engulf himself and kill 21 other people, injuring dozens more. This is an act that undoubtedly deserves a swift response, but unfortunately, the most common reaction seems to be one of fear, and as the fear spread I begin to see more accusations than acts of grace. While I think that justice should definitely be done for those lives lost, that job is best left to the authorities that are responsible for it. For the ordinary person, and especially for the ordinary Christian, this is a chance to embody a spirit of love, with our thoughts and prayers reflecting a holy grief alongside divine hope. Although we should fulfill our civic duties and be educated in the issues surrounding such an aberrant act of violence, we must listen to a higher call. This attack may continue to spread fear and destruction, but we must make ourselves living vessels of a healing power.

This is not to say we must explain away or shroud the evil at the root of this act. We must not ignore the evil in the world and we must not dismiss the power of the darkness in it, but we must overwhelm it with the glory of grace.  Recently, I found an old prayer (often attributed to St. Francis, but more likely the work of a writer in the early 20th century) that made me think about how I should respond to such an attack.  So, when I am tempted to fear before I love, I challenge myself to think about these words:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me bring love.

Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.

Where there is discord, let me bring union.

Where there is error, let me bring truth.

Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.

Where there is despair, let me bring hope.

Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.

Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.

O Master, let me not seek as much

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love,

for it is in giving that once receives,

it is in self-forgetting that one finds,

it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,

it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life”

– Anonymous

 

There is one passage from the prayer I’d like to quickly remark on:

“O Lord let me not seek as much/ to be consoled as to console, / to be understood as to understand”

Sometimes we must learn before we can love. I must never assume to know the pain of another. So I pray, more than ever, to understand more, not because I want to be smart or seem well-informed, but because I want to love more.