But Fear Itself

fearfulI was a very fearful child. Bookish, imaginative, and prone to strange fancies, I was about as neurotic as they come. I used to sit in the backseat of the car and worry about the overpasses crashing down on us, killing my parents and leaving me alone and traumatized in the world. I grew up in the 70s, at the height of the Cold War, and I had nightmares of the Communists coming to kill my parents that left me shaking,  afraid of going to bed for weeks afterwards. I can still remember in excruciating detail an extraordinarily vivid dream of watching my parents get shot for being Christians.  I even had plans of where to hide Bibles so they wouldn’t get found (in a loaf of baking bread, although I was always worried that we wouldn’t happen to be baking bread when the soldiers knocked on the door. It was a valid fear. My mother never made homemade bread.)

But I didn’t want to be like this. I didn’t like being timid. I read stories of adventuresome children who, true, were mostly orphans but were still out having a great time, taming wild stallions and sword-fighting and sledding in the mountains. I fought hard against my fearfulness, and I learned that the first battlefield is the mind (cf Rom. 12:2)  I worked to not picture bookcases crashing down on my baby’s head, or sharks eating my swimming husband, and I learned to relax and let my kids swim in oceans with fierce currants, or jump off high walls onto packed sand, or eat street food in developing countries.

I know fear. I know how it paralyzes, how it lies to you, how it curls up in the pit of your stomach and reaches cold hands to grip your shoulders. I am well aware of the seductiveness of worse-case-scenarios, and how one thing can lead to another as you lie awake in the cold watches of the night, dismayed and restless. Fear is something we all struggle with. This is why the commandment stated most often, number one, in the Bible is, “Fear not!”  (And I always think if a heavenly being suddenly materialized beside me, I would no doubt shriek and wet my pants. I get it)

That was a super long introduction but my point is this: We live in fearful times. I watch in dismay as many of my believing brothers and sisters fall under its powerful sway. When 2 Muslims shoot up a holiday party in San Bernadino, we fear all Muslims because they look homogeneous to us, but when a white man shoots up a Planned Parenthood office we’re not afraid because we know a lot of white men who would never in a million years do that. Since fear is irrational, this makes sense.

My Muslim friends are fearful too, because they can’t ignore all the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric being spilled out onto the pages of Facebook and Yahoo! News. Refugees, in general, are not coming from places with religious freedom, and that is an idea they like about their new home. They are vocally very grateful, and it gets mentioned most year in the Thanksgiving ESL classes where we talk about what we are thankful for in our lives. Freedom from fear of being pulled over and shot because your name shows you’re the wrong kind of Muslim. Freedom to wear or not wear the hijab (head scarf) according to your own convictions, and not be hassled on the street for showing a bit of hair. This taste of freedom makes it all the much harder to go back to being afraid. “But even people from your church are saying things on Facebook,” said one of my Muslim friends to me the other day, and my heart just broke. She doesn’t want her husband to go for coffee with other Arab friends. She has stopped her son from going to Arabic lessons, fearing they might be a target.

The other day I was out for coffee with an unbelieving friend, and she said to me, “What is up with Christians? Why are they being so hateful to Muslims and refugees? That’s not in the Bible, right?” I told her, “No, it’s not, but they’re afraid.” In one way, this is okay. We are all so far from perfect, and that’s why we need grace. Maybe the people struggling with fear are doing great in other areas–hospitality and service and faithfulness. Fear itself is not a sin, I don’t think–like any other emotion, it’s what you do with it. If fear is keeping you from obeying the God who came to earth and lived as poor, displaced, rejected, the God who told us that when we welcome the stranger it’s as if we’re doing it to him, then I think that fear has become sin.

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The good news is that Christ sets us free–from sin, from fear. Fear paralyzes, makes us disgusted with ourselves and others. It keeps us from joy.

But perfect love casts out fear.

Common Sense & Syrian Refugees

Let’s all take a deep breath and look rationally at this whole thing. I know, gallons of pixels have been spilled (aside: can we update this metaphor?) and you probably think that enough has been written on this subject. And you may be right. On the other hand, although I’m not an expert, I lived in Muslim nations for 9 years and I’ve worked with Iraqi refugees for 5. That’s 14 times 365 of day in and day out life lived across culture and religion, which qualifies me to have an opinion at least as much as the people shouting things on Facebook.

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  1. The risk is minuscule. Yes, yes, I know. One of the Paris bombers allegedly came into the country posing as a refugee. But the others were already there legally. Some American citizens have also joined Daesh (or ISIS). If they want to bomb us, they have much easier ways in than to pose as refugees. We’re geographically more protected than Europe and as a result, all of the refugees we admit have been thoroughly vetted. Trust me on this. I know how long and thorough the process is, and I’ve been frustrated by it. One man came ahead of his family, leaving a pregnant wife and 2 children to join him later. The baby was born, and it took the family two entire years to get that infant refugee status and join the dad. Two years to vet a newborn. It can take up to 5 years for adults.
  2. The risk is misjudged. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone on FB explaining earnestly how Syrians want to overrun our culture, make us all submit to Shariah law, etc etc. They don’t. What they want: for their kids to get an education, to be able to work and provide for their families, to live in peace and safety, hope.
  3. We are already at risk. Life is risk. Can we please be honest with ourselves for a minute? We are all at far greater risk of being shot by a white man with lots of guns and mental issues than we are by a darker-skinned man who shouts “Allah u Akbar!”
    The family I mentioned above sent the husband on ahead to make sure it was safe for them. They were afraid to come to America. They understood that we are a violent people, where many people carry guns and people shoot other people just for entering their property, not to mention school shootings, movie theater shootings, mall shootings, church shootings, synagogue shootings, and mosque shootings. Many families are afraid to raise their daughters in such a promiscuous society.  And then they come, and they relax. They meet Americans, realize life isn’t like TV, and settle into getting kids in school, getting to know their neighbors, learning to live in a totally different culture and language.
    But can we just look at ourselves from the outside for a minute and see how uninviting and scary our own beloved culture might look?
  4. The best way to minimize risk is to welcome and engage refugees. Leaving families to rot in refugee camp limbo, to raise their kids without education or hope for a better tomorrow, while we continue to show the world via our sleek media that we all have gorgeous houses, shiny hair, white teeth and new cars, is pretty much a recipe for future terrorism. But letting them in and keeping them marginalized won’t do it either. Here’s a radical idea: what if we welcomed them, helped them adapt, engaged them with friendship, and loved them? Don’t you think this is also the best way to fight radicalization of young men? Let’s show them love, introduce them to Jesus, be kind to those who are different from us, serve them without strings attached. This is also the right thing to do, but I’m not even bringing WWJD into this. This one is purely pragmatic.
  5. Jesus commands us to love our enemies. Oh yeah, I went there. I have saved the best for last. If we claim to follow him, then we can’t hide behind arguments of “oh sure I will love them if they live next to me but I don’t have to love them now and my government sure doesn’t have to!” (a very rough paraphrase of many comments I’ve read) “Love your enemies and pray for those who misuse you,” he commanded us. The idea that we would put our own imaginary safety (for no one in this life is truly safe–there are always airborne viruses and earthquakes) above the needs of hurting people is nowhere even allowed in Scripture. As for the government, they are simply wrong-headed about this, because as I’ve already pointed out, we incur more risk by not letting them in.

This is one of those beautiful times when doing the right thing is also the most pragmatic, I believe. I welcome your respectful and thoughtful comments.

A Tale of Two Friends

I cannot say one was the best of friends and one was the worst, but I must admit to feeling annoyed with one of these 2 friends of mine. One Iraqi, one American. One Muslim, one Christian. One married, one divorced. One jaded from abuse suffered long ago…and the other too.

One sat me down in her kitchen, served me tea, pushed me to eat. She told me about her nephew. He lived in an area of Baghdad segregated by the Sunni-Shi’a rift, although he has a parent from each sect. His mother grew increasingly frantic as she watched police come through and round up all the young men, who disappeared–where? To jail, for being the wrong sect? To conscription in a militia, which would probably mean death? To a mass grave for being the wrong sort of Muslim?

When her son turned 16, she concocted a plan. Yes it’s a desperate plan, but it’s one being followed by millions of people right now and no doubt that makes it sound more feasible. She and a group of other mothers gathered up all the money they could, thousands of dollars, and sent a group of their teenaged sons to Turkey. There, the boys found smugglers getting rich off the desperation of parents.

My other friend posts articles on Facebook. “Security before Compassion,” they trumpet. She writes me emails. She says things like, “I know as Christians we are supposed to care for the needy. But these so-called refugees are all young men! Why aren’t they working? Why aren’t they fighting for their country?” She is offended at what she sees as a lack of gratitude.

This friend doesn’t understand the point of leaving. “They are safe and secure in Turkey,” she tells me. I have never heard refugee camps referred to in this way. Doesn’t she understand that countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon don’t allow refugees to work, keep them marginalized, on the fringes? (This isn’t meant as criticism. Each country has taken in millions of desperate people) The children grow up uneducated, their childhood spent trying to hawk small things to help the family survive. Now the UNHCR is cutting the small funds they’ve needed to survive. No wonder everyone is leaving. But when I point these things out, she doesn’t listen. She insists that only women and children are “real” refugees.

Migrantspicture credit: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror

“My nephew, he took boat, very small…like Titanic,” my first friend tells me. I nod. She means a life-boat. I’ve seen the pictures and I’m sure you have too. She tells me that there were 50 people on it. Thankfully they made it though, to Greece, and then her nephew and his friends started the long, arduous journey north. Along the way, they all got separated, but her nephew made it to Germany. Because of his age and the fact that he had no family with him, they processed him quickly. Now he’s in an apartment with 2 other single young men, Syrians. He’s in high school. All his needs are met except for his emotional ones. He’s lonely and homesick.

“He calls my sister and says ‘I want to go back.’ She says NO,” says my friend. I nod. “No he mustn’t go back,” I agree. “It will get better for him. It will be very hard at first but it will get better.”

The child is homesick. He doesn’t like the food. He misses his mother and her cooking. My heart breaks, thinking of my own children, of my daughter calling me in her second week of college and saying, “Why aren’t you here to do my laundry?” in a manner that was joking but also carried a note of longing. It’s hard to grow up, harder still to do it in a new country and culture, alone.

My other friend says things like, “Oh sure some of them are legitimate. But many of these refugees are not the same ones we are being told are supposedly being rescued.  They are opportunists, with insurgents mixed in, who are riding the wave.”

I point out that if my family was in that situation, we too would send our boys. My husband and I would stay, and our daughter would certainly be raped and possibly kidnapped and trafficked if we tried to send her alone. If we couldn’t all go (and the cost is 1000s per person for smugglers), I would send my sons. I can’t imagine a more heart-breaking decision, but I already know I would do as many families in the Middle East are doing and have done. And I would pray and bless anyone who showed them kindness, anyone who didn’t assume that the color of their skin made them suspicious, or that their name branded them a potential terrorist.

Yes we need to be smart, but security can’t come before compassion. If you pause a moment and run the entire Bible through your head, you would be hard-pressed to find a verse that even sorta kinda supports that attitude. God didn’t give us a spirit of fear. Jesus looked on the crowds (of mostly men) with compassion.

Sadly, her attitude is not unusual for people dwelling in safety with overstocked barns. Every week we sing songs. “Spirit take me where my faith is without borders.” “I stand with heart abandoned to the One who gave it all.” But the moment at which we put ourselves before others’ desperate need, when we imply that God likes us best of all and doesn’t really care about the lost, we have become the desperate ones in great peril. Thankfully, we too can receive mercy and find help–if only we recognize our need of it.

Broken Chairs and Bitter Coffee

I sat in what surely must be one of most uncomfortable chairs in America, a straight-backed kitchen chair whose seat was entirely broken so that I had to balance uneasily against the back ridge, my feet a few inches off the floor, my butt slowing going numb. This was the home of a refugee, filled with cast-off furniture, and it was clear from the way other women were sitting that the couch wasn’t any better. A few feet away, a woman clad entirely in black, a triangle of cloth from head to toe, mumbled, cleared her throat, and began chanting into a microphone, which was entirely unnecessary in that tiny, crowded room. The women, seated on cushions against the wall all round the room, crowded onto broken couches, fidgeting on broken chairs, joined in. Subhan Allah. Al’Ham Dulillah*, they chanted. Subhan Allah. Allah u Akbar.

It’s my second funeral in less than a week. I know the ritual now. When you arrive, you are served what I think of as funeral coffee. It’s similar to Turkish coffee but made with Nescafe instead of water, and it’s potent and bitter. Booklets containing sections of the Qu’ran are passed out, and various people take them and read them and sometimes kiss them. The entire Qu’ran must be read by the 3rd day after death, which is the day this ceremony takes place.This is counted as a good deed done on behalf of the recently deceased.

Then the chanting woman arrives with 2 older women. They settle themselves in the place of honour and set up the loudspeaker and microphone. Sometimes, they will stand up and begin to sing and beat themselves, and then everyone in the room will follow their lead, beating their breasts or their foreheads with their hands, hard. At a certain point in the ceremony, everyone in the room will weep. They will grab two, three tissues and press them helplessly to their eyes. Sobs will ring out. And then, suddenly, magically, at the end of the song they will stop. The chanting will stop. Everyone will dry their eyes. Bottles of water will be handed out, then cans of Coke and platters of food. We will eat. People will chatter. And then they will leave.

This time, the sobs don’t stop. A woman has lost her father. I know her only minimally, am not even sure of her name, so I don’t know how long it’s been since she saw him, but I’m sure it’s been several years. She grieves, crushed in spirit, collapsing on the ground. Another woman goes to her, fills a glass with water, and lifts it to her lips.

One thing I have always loved about my glimpses into Arab societies and cultures is the way it helps me understand my Bible more. As a modern American, so much of the narrative is strange to me, lost to the intervening years and worldviews, buried under a couple centuries of industrialization and technology. But here in this crowded living room in suburban America, it was all too easy to imagine how Jesus could have dealt with the situation. I prayed and prayed, wanting so badly to represent him well, to give comfort the way he did.

I shifted subtly in that broken chair and read the gospels on my phone. While the women wailed and beat their breasts, I caught my breath anew at an image of Jesus walking in and saying, “She is only sleeping” (at the raising of Jairus’ daughter; Luke 8) and it was easy to imagine the tears instantly stopping while they laughed at him. I read and re-read John 11, where he went to a graveyard and said “I am the resurrection and the life!” and I prayed for each woman round the room, that she would come to see that and be given the hope it represents.

My very first Muslim funeral was also for a daughter who had lost her father. She gripped me frantically. “Tell me that he’s okay! Tell me that he’s in heaven!” she pleaded with me. I wanted to be able to reassure her, but all I could say was, “God loves your father” and “God will do right.” I don’t know how helpful either of those were, but when a woman whom you love pleads with you for reassurance that you can’t give, what can you say? You seek ways to comfort without losing the truth. I don’t doubt her father lived and died without ever hearing the gospel, the good news that changes how we face death. The next day we visited again, and I told her the story of Lazarus, and Jesus’ words blazing with life and hope in the midst of that dark hopeless graveyard.

We left this latest funeral early. I had carpooled with friends, and I think they were tired of those chairs. I knelt before the still-weeping daughter and gave her what hope I could, with our limited language. I hugged her and cried with her, told her I’d be praying for her. She thanked me brokenly, but I know she doesn’t know what it means to run to the God of the universe as if he were your own father, confident of being heard and loved. And so I left with my own heart broken, longing for her to know and have this peace.

*the first two both basically mean Praise God. The last one means God is great.