Entering a Season of Joyful Anticipation

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m still recovering from a fantastic extended weekend of great food, family, friends new and old, and lots and lots of cleaning up. I managed to somehow be involved in three Thanksgivings: one at my in-laws’ with fifteen people; a quick visit to my aunt & uncle’s house to see them, my parents, and one of my cousins; and one at home a couple days later with eleven people that I actually prepared singlehandedly.

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It ended up being a very multicultural Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law invited four international students who wouldn’t be able to be home over the holiday. Our Kenyan friend Grace we have known since she was nine and her father Jeremiah was attending seminary in Grand Rapids. She brought three friends: Korean Grace who grew up in China, Korean Grace who grew up in India, and Nigerian Oyin who grew up in Nigeria. The meal we had at our home on Sunday night was our little family and eight Bhutanese-Nepali friends from one of the congregations that uses our church building for their church services.

It was fun to share the story of the first Thanksgiving with our Nepali friends who had never heard it. And it was fun to discover, through my mother-in-law’s careful genealogical research over many years, that my husband Zach has two ancestors who were actually on the Mayflower! Thinking about that distant connection gave new meaning to the very old story.

And as Advent began on Sunday, Zach (who is also my pastor, in case you didn’t know) made a poignant connection for me. The same distance in time that exists between us modern Americans and the Mayflower existed between the close of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ as a baby in the manger. Four hundred years. Four hundred years from when God said this:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6

to when God said this:

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17

I think about those four hundred years of waiting, listening, wishing for a word from one’s God, wishing for fulfillment of a promise. And I believe I shall think on it all during Advent, in a time in our world when it can feel like God is silent and everyone simply does “what is right in his own eyes.”

Tonight we’ll finally have time to decorate the house for Christmas. On our pre-lit tree, I believe there are four hundred lights. One tiny light for every dark year of anguished waiting. Altogether they make a bright and beautiful light and will point me toward the one Light that was soon to make His humble entrance into His creation, in order to redeem it.

So Much for Which to Be Thankful

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US and therefore we are all beginning to think of the things for which we are most grateful. We’re also beginning to stress about food preparation, where all these guests are going to sit, and whether it’s worth it to go out shopping on Friday amongst the hordes to save a few bucks. But mostly, let’s hope, we are counting our blessings. I thought I’d share a few with you.

I am thankful…

…for a husband who is caring, talented, funny, and supportive

…for a son who is enthusiastic and hilarious and so, so sweet

…for a warm home with a fireplace and a well-stocked pantry

…that we found a new home for our cat and that our son’s allergies have greatly improved

…that last night I reached 50,000 words on my WIP and became a winner of National Novel Writing Month

…that my extended family is intact and that we all enjoy spending time together

…that I have a few days of relaxation coming up during which I can chat with people I don’t get to see often enough and quilt a baby quilt for a friend

…for a good job at a great company where I feel our collective work makes a difference in people’s lives

…for a beautiful, if broken, earth to care for and enjoy

That’s just a short list. I could go on, but you’d probably stop reading because it would get too long.

Most importantly, I’m not thankful for these things in some vague “I’m happy about these things” way. You can’t just be thankful for something. You also have to be thankful to someone for providing those things. So this Thanksgiving, and every day, I am thankful to God for these material blessings. And I’m most thankful to Him for creating everything that is, for creating it “good,” for not abandoning that creation when it turned against Him, and for sending His Son to redeem it. Because Thanksgiving, to me, is the first step into the Advent season, when we wait with joyful anticipation for God’s long-promised and yet still somehow unexpected gift: Jesus.

If you live in America, I hope that no matter what your faith you have time to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. I hope you’ll take time to count your blessings. I hope you’ll meditate on the story of the first Thanksgiving. And I hope especially for those of you who don’t know what you believe about God, that you’ll feel the pull, either a gentle tug or a disorienting jerk, of the One who knew you before you were born and who has lovingly sustained you, even to this very moment.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

August on My Mind

It’s no secret that August has been an…interesting month. Volatile. Heartbreaking. Incomprehensible. Israel and Gaza. ISIS and extermination of Christians. Depression and suicide. Ice buckets and ALS. Clashes between police and community.

There are a lot of people out there saying and writing plenty about these things. I have little to nothing to add. In many cases I’m just not sure what to even think let alone what to say.

So this post isn’t really about any of those things. It’s about the times when we’re overwhelmed by the brokenness of this world, when we realize that no amount of awareness or legislation or fundraising or foreign policy can fix things. It’s about the moments we teeter on the edge of despair and wonder what it’s all for, when we want to escape into a book or a movie or our own little family circle and block out all the bad, but at the same time we feel guilty for doing it. It’s about wishing for another world. Waiting.

It’s about putting our hope in the promise of all things made new.

What I Learned from a Chatty Iraqi Woman at the Park

Yesterday I met a woman from Iraq at an area playground. A teacher, she was there with a number of young girls and two other teachers. She has lived in the US for 6 years, coming here with her two young daughters after her husband was killed in the war. She was much more talkative than any other Muslim woman I’ve ever encountered, and I probably see Muslim women every other day in the Greater Lansing Area. It may be because she had been living in the US for so long and spoke such good English that there was no language barrier. We talked for perhaps twenty minutes, and in that short time frame she shared a number of interesting things with me.

First, she was compelled by one of her charges to go down a slide. Afterward, she came back to our bench and said, “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I may hurt my baby.” She shared that she was two months pregnant and that in Iraq, when a woman is pregnant, she basically does nothing but sit around all day. “We are afraid that the glue that holds the baby in will come loose. But American women do everything–they work, they run.” I told her that it was my understanding that as long as you had a normal healthy pregnancy, nothing much was forbidden by American doctors except flying in the last month of your term. She said her husband, who has lived in America for 18 years, told her the same thing. “He says, ‘Get out of the house. American women do not just sit around when they are pregnant.'”

Second, she said that her daughters, now both in high school, live with their grandmother rather than her and her new husband. He had proposed to her not long after she arrived in the US and she refused him because her daughters were “still missing their father.” But a few years later, when he proposed again, she accepted and the girls from her first marriage moved in with their grandmother. “I can tell my girls are sad without me, but it is hard for a new husband and wife to live with older children from another marriage.” I found this very interesting. At first, her focus was on her daughters who were grieving, but then they are sent out of her house, as high schoolers, so that she and her new husband can focus on their new relationship. I’m still not sure what I think of this method of not blending families. But apparently, that’s how it’s done back in Iraq.

Lastly, when I asked her if she liked living here she said yes. She mentioned that her neighborhood was very safe, but that she used to live in the area where two men were shot back in May (you may remember me blogging on that incident). Coming from a war-torn country, she was very concerned that she be somewhere safe. But even in her East Lansing neighborhood, she said, there had been a recent break-in and robbery. I told her that there really is nowhere that is safe from all crime and she seemed surprised by this. This seemed so odd to me since she has come out of a situation in which the worst of human nature is on display.

Soon my son retrieved me and I had to leave. I was reluctant to stop talking with this woman and we never even exchanged names. I don’t know that I will ever run into her again. But I wanted to share our conversation with you. She and I are of different origins and different faiths, but we came together on a bench, connecting first through the common subject of children. We chatted, told each other “it was nice talking to you,” and went our separate ways.

I see those “Coexist” bumper stickers all over town. I’m not a particularly big fan of them because they seem to imply to me that we should ignore all of our difference and leave each other alone. But I don’t want to ignore our differences. I want to discuss them, learn from them, and struggle with them–in a civil manner. And I don’t want to leave other people alone. I want to have conversations and strike up friendships.

My short time with this kind, thoughtful, and sweet-spirited Iraqi woman on a bench in an East Lansing park is what coexisting really looks like, and I’m so grateful that she struck up this conversation with me. I will (hopefully) never know the horrors she had to live through, but regardless of that, we had a lot in common. We both love our families. We worry a little about safety. And frankly, we think that perhaps the new equipment at this playground is a little on the dangerous side for small children.

Thinking of how often Muslims in the US probably encounter hostility from others, I hope that my friendly demeanor reinforced a positive view of this woman’s adopted country. After all, one of the foundational principles upon which this country was built was religious toleration (brought to you by the Baptists via Roger Williams…You’re welcome, America). Toleration doesn’t mean that you accept that the religious beliefs of others are correct or that you never debate about them. It means that you don’t let those differences cause you to persecute those not of your own faith. You live side by side in peace.

So who have you encountered lately that broadened your horizons?

The Thrill of that First Paragraph

This morning as I drove home from dropping my son off at school, I found my mind working on words. I’ve been thinking about and taking notes on a new novel since the very day I wrote the last word of the first draft of my last novel. But I couldn’t start anything new at the time. I wasn’t mentally ready. I was still embroiled in the last plot, the last set of characters, the last setting. Which is good, because I still had revising and editing to do!

So I just let things start percolating in my mind and committed only notes to paper. I started to do some background reading for the new novel idea. I tested the idea out on a few friends and got instant and enthusiastic validation (thank you Zach, Valerie, and Ted) as well as great plot ideas. These friends were immediately excited about the story idea and their synapses began firing. What if this happened? What if that happened? One friend, also a writer, said, “This has legs. I want to write the screenplay when you’re done with it.”

I don’t think I have to tell you that I wanted to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys) right then and there. I couldn’t, of course, mainly because I was driving 75 mph, but also because the idea was in its infancy. It needed more time. I needed more space from the manuscript I had just finished.

Then this morning, the first sentence wormed its way into my mind. Then the next. Then the next. And I ended up with 126 mood- and scene-setting words that can usher me into this new story. It’s a great feeling. The feeling of something new and never-before-seen. It continues to amaze me that we humans can take our thoughts, put them into words, string letters together to make words and words to make sentences and sentences to make stories. Something that doesn’t exist comes slowly into being. And it’s all made up of 26 arbitrary black marks on a white page.

It’s truly thrilling and it remains for me some of the most convincing evidence that this world came about and we came about as the product of an endlessly creative mind rather than a chaotic string of random events, and that we bear the mark of our Maker.