At the table

“Am I gay?” An American friend of mine wrote these words after walking down the street holding the hand of a young Afghan man. His was an ironic question.

I’ve watched Afghan men collect flowers, hold one another’s hands, and kiss one another’s cheeks. I’ve seen them sit thigh to thigh, arms draped around one another, and laugh. I always loved the laughter. I’ve also watched Afghan men weep.

None of these behaviors strike me as particularly masculine, at least not in my American understanding. Still, I wouldn’t question the maleness of the Afghan men I knew.

When we study different cultures, we learn about things like power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and yes, masculinity and femininity. We learn that cultural aspects are defined differently for different groups in different times.

I’ve always thought Afghanistan was much closer to 1st century Judea than America is now. The words of Scripture just seem to make so much more sense in a context where men and women are segregated, men still mind sheep and plant fields, and religious leaders hold extreme power.

The beauty of reading Scripture in such a context is that it comes alive in very different ways.

Recently, I was reading about the Last Supper. I tried to picture the scene; a group of men sitting around a low table, sharing a meal. At one point, a young man lays his head on the Master’s chest.

I pause, because this scene is not American. When was the last time any of us walked into church and saw the young associate pastor leaning his head against the chest of the senior pastor? As much as we want to be like Jesus, this behavior just doesn’t happen.

Why has this caught my attention today?

I suppose because my American culture is immersed in a conversation about sexual orientation and I’m not sure that’s what Jesus wants us, or at least me, to focus on.


Because I’m sitting in the upper room and no one’s talking about John’s sexuality.

On Sunday, I’ll return to church and the entire congregation will gather around the Lord’s table. We’ll remember that Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross of Calvary. We’ll receive the bread and the wine, knowing that we’re saved only by His grace. And really, that’s what matters, isn’t it?

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Choosing to love regardless

I heard a story from Germany. A refugee approached a health worker. She spoke of her understanding of the Christian God – he must be God, she said. After all, our people are destroying us and yours are trying to help us.

In Afghanistan, another woman said the same thing. “They plant mines. Rape women. Destroy our country! And they are our brothers! You? You build our roads and bridges. You give us food and schools. You help us and you’re our enemy!”

When we open our hands to bless those who call themselves our enemies, we step into the sandals of Jesus.

The testimony of our faith expressed in real life actions rattles the foundations of misconceptions and opens the doors to freedom.

For those of us who choose to love those who call themselves our enemies, the joy is deep and real.

For those who experience our love expressed in action, the challenge is equally deep. Some will face that challenge, reevaluate their perceptions and step forward into the grace God offers us all.

Others will not.

A young Afghan man told me with absolute confidence that Germans experience sickness and die young because they eat pork. When I pointed out the life expectancy of Germans, the young Afghan man was shocked and confused. “Are you sure?” He demanded. “Yes. I’m sure.”

The young man considered and made a choice. In that moment, he chose to resent those who don’t suffer the consequence of disobedience to Islam.

I watched all of this unfold in a matter of minutes.

Yes, it’s a small example, but all examples are small.

Here’s my understanding; some people will experience a contradictory truth, consider it, accept it, and step into it. Others will rebel against it.

We don’t get to control how others respond. We only choose how we will act.

Right now, the world is in the middle of a refugee crisis. Our hearts see the human disaster. If we are Christ followers, we choose love. We want to believe that as we open our borders and our neighborhoods, everyone who enters will find welcome and move from enemy to friend.

The truth is, some will not. And that is the price we pay for walking in Jesus sandals.

Are you willing to love regardless of others response?

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A Beautiful letter from a young worker – home from her first summer overseas…such heart!

“I have officially made it back to the United States after being overseas for eight weeks and am now learning how to transition back into American culture. It is surprisingly harder than I thought it would be and I have found myself not remembering simple things I thought I never would forget. Those two months flew by, and the Lord has taught me things I never imagined I would learn. I would like to share some of those things with you. It has been a slow process piecing together all the lessons and happenings of the summer, but I will try my best to communicate what I can.

“I would like to begin by saying God truly works in mysterious ways. What I thought was shaping up to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, was indeed just that, but so much more. The grass grows greenest in the deepest valley, right? I found myself arguing with God half way through the summer about the salvation of my Muslim family and my new friends. I was bitter that there was nothing I could seem to do and I felt as though God was not helping. I somehow thought that I loved these people more than God, and it had hardened my heart. Slowly, He had to bring me face to face with the reality of who He actually is, which is often times not what we expect.

“This summer I expected to see people who wanted to hear the truth, and who wanted it to set them free. Instead, I met many people who did not want truth and were not open to hearing the message we had for them. Indeed, I had many opportunities to share my faith and some people were curious which was a gift but many others did not want to listen. I learned that it is not our job to “make” people believe in Jesus. Rather, we are to share the treasure of the gospel and allow Jesus to do the transforming.

“I quickly learned that God needed to tell my heart a little more about the Gospel as well. God revealed to me what freedom truly means, which is the opposite of living in fear. I had been living in the fear of my future (regarding missions), fear of sin, fear of failing my team and fear of not leaving an impact on those I had come to love. All of these came to a head when Jesus visited me one evening and asked me to accept myself in spite of all my fears and in spite of my future. Accepting where I was and my situation in Indonesia, allowed me to begin accepting others and their situations. It all starts within our own hearts and as soon as we begin to behold Jesus Christ, things become clearer. I realized that it is a daily process for the spirit to pour living water onto our hearts and minds. We must drink deeply first before we can show others how to do so as well.

“It is often when we feel that we have something to offer, that God reveals to us how little we have indeed and how little we can do without his power within us. In weakness, God is able to prove His strength. My final thought is that beholding Jesus allows all other worries and struggles to fade dimly into the shadows that one day we will never see again. Let us all strive to behold the only one worth beholding.”

~ Posted with permission, hiding the author’s name to protect her future.


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On Hospitality

Years ago, my coworkers and I entered a rain drenched village street. We were soaked and covered in mud. The men in our party went to the mosque and left us, the women, shivering in the rain.

In the distance, we saw a woman leaning out of her window, waving wildly. We hoped she was offering an invitation. We climbed the steep muddy hillside to her house.

At her door, she took our filthy boots and soaked headscarves, gave us dry scarves and led us into a sitting room. There, she wrapped us with blankets, then served us Afghan tea and eggs fried in oil and tomato paste.

That was one of the best days of my Afghan life.

Jacques Derrida says, “…for hospitality to occur, it is necessary for hospitality to go beyond hospitality. That requires that the host must, in a moment of madness, tear up the understanding between him and the guest, act with “excess,” make an absolute gift of his property, which is of course impossible. But that is the only way the guest can go away feeling as if he was really made at home.”

Hospitality is power. It breaks down the dividing wall and welcomes strangers as family.

I’ve often thought of the communion table as perfect hospitality.

We enter church, soaked in the world. Inside, we encounter a table. The host is none other than Jesus, himself. Jesus who in a particular moment in the history tore through the distance between himself and us. Jesus who acted with excess, who made an absolute gift of his body and blood, his very life.

Jesus invites us; come, take, eat and drink.

And so we do knowing it’s his great desire to welcome us no matter how mud soaked and filthy we are.

But something astonishing happens the moment we take the bread and cup. We who are guest become host. Jesus asks us to receive him. To tear up the contract that says God is out there and I am here. To act with excess and offer all that we have and all that we are. To make an absolute gift of ourselves.

When we do, we, the host and guest, the guest and host, become one. Hospitality has occurred.

What do you think happens when we celebrate communion?

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Accepting our own diversity

An American Muslim friend lectured me on true Islam. According to her, the Islam I met in Afghanistan isn’t Islam at all. It’s a perversion born of ignorance.

I shrugged.

My Afghan friends often said the same thing. Sunnis said Shiites weren’t true Muslims because they didn’t pray properly. Burqa (covered face) wearers said Hijab (open face) wearers weren’t Muslims because they exposed their faces to strange men. A female university student told me satellite TV watchers weren’t Muslims and a gray bearded man told me women seeking education weren’t Muslims.

Most Afghans told me emphatically that the Taleban weren’t Muslims.

Do all Muslims believe the same thing? No. Absolutely not! Especially when it comes to cultural practices.

And so what, really?

Many Mennonite women cover their heads. Some Christians refrain from alcohol. Some prioritize Bible study while others devote themselves to prayer. Some are political liberals and others, conservatives. Some bring drums into their sanctuaries and others worship a cappella.

Diversity. It’s woven into our DNA. Enter a Christian church anywhere in the world and you will engage in an expression of faith unique to that particular culture.

My take; the Muslim community will never accept the Christian community as long as Muslims refuse to accept one another. And until they accept one another, they’ll never live in peace.

Naïve? Maybe. But hear me out.

Perhaps this is the speck in their eye, the irritation that compels my Muslim friends to school me on true Islam. Perhaps it’s the real cause of the blindness that drives Boko Haram to forbid education, al Qaeda affiliated insurgents to torch historic manuscripts, and ISIS to destroy ancient Muslim shrines.

Perhaps this is the heart of the problem; a refusal to accept one another.

But here’s the thing; I can’t take the speck out of my neighbor’s eyes. They have to do that themselves.

What I can do is look at my own eyes. I do, and here’s what I choose: Christianity is a messy community of cultural practices, social, political, and economic perspectives. We are reformed, Catholic, Anabaptist, Baptinian and more. We are, in our diversity, one body, one community of faith. I don’t understand nor am I comfortable in every expression of us, but I’m so grateful for each!

How do you view our diversity?

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Fear awakened

Fear is a wide-eye, heart racing, blood pumping companion. In a flash, he leaps from sleepy peace to air gasping, muscle-flexing, ready-for-anything action. He’s a prize fighter, a company commander fueling his men with adrenaline until they shake with a fire ready to explode.

This kind of fear is autonomic, by definition unreasoned. It’s quick, fierce, and powerful.

We’ve all experienced it; when a car crosses the red in front of us, when the phone rings in the middle of the night, when our feet slip from a ladder.

Then there’s conditioned fear. Anticipatory. Terror of what will happen next. In Afghanistan, I learned to fear the weight and sound of explosions, mobs of angry men spilling out of mosques, the knock of police at my gate. I don’t face these anymore, but they’ve certainly left their mark on my psyche, or more accurately, my amygdala.

After another foreigner was killed in Afghanistan, fear stayed awake and vigilant until I could coax it back to sleep. That took over a month and some devoted attention.

How did I do it?

First, I recognized fear as my healthy companion. A gift from God, not a sin from which I ought to repent.

Then, Fear, Jesus and I had a conversation. Together, we looked at our reality, named the possibilities, explored the ramifications, dismissed some, took action to prepare for some and entrusted others to God – knowing He would be with me no matter what happened.

Fear yawned and returned to sleep.

Now, I look at pictures of terrified Syrians and remember, fear is gift. Fear awakened compels them to flee, gives them courage to cross oceans in flimsy boats, and empowers resilience to survive hunger, hatred, and homelessness.

Fear fuels survival when survival is at stake.

In America, thank God, most of us rarely know this kind of fear. Soldiers, missionaries, first responders, certainly. But for most of us, fear is a slowly unfolding dread; cancer, war, economic collapse, our children’s bad decisions.

To such, Jesus speaks – come to me, bring your fear with you, let’s find peace. And I’m so grateful for that because fear awakened is a gift that keeps us alive. Fear sleepless is a curse that keeps us from living.

How do you face fear?

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Seeing Jesus in strangers

Before I went to Afghanistan, I was a good, churchgoing Christ follower. I led an appropriate life; worshiped, prayed, studied my Bible, enjoyed fellowship and endeavored to do my work to the glory of God.

I also looked out at my culture and saw our flaws, failures and weaknesses. I saw the harshness in our evangelical culture and the chaos in our secular culture. I saw materialism, selfishness, and self-destruction. My myopia prevented me from seeing Jesus manifested my neighbors.

My experience in Afghanistan changed all that. There, forgiveness is fully optional and never complete. The Good Samaritan is a stranger and judging one another’s neighbor is a basic responsibility. And yet, even there I learned to recognize glimpses of God expressed.

  • My Muslim friend reaches out to me. “Your family is far away, don’t be a sad. Come to my house”. I saw God’s kindness – the one who sets the single in families.
  • A taxi driver searches for over an hour until he finds the gate through which a safe friend is waiting for me, his charge. “You are our guest. I cannot simply leave you on the street.” I saw God is my protector, my guide and shepherd.
  • An Afghan man accosted me as I stepped down from a bus bound for Kabul. He motioned toward his wife. “Today, you will be our daughter. Come and eat lunch with us.” Again, I saw God who protects and provides for me.

Now, I’m back in America and I see God everywhere.

  • A friend opens her home to me. “Come. I’ll have your room ready.” And I see God who loves me, goes before me, and prepares a place for me.
  • A stranger steps forward, pulls a heavy bag of dog food out of the bottom of my shopping cart and drops it into my car. “I saw you struggling. I thought you could use some help.” And I see Jesus who shares our burdens.
  • A woman in church knows that my mother has been sick and asks after her health. And I see Jesus who invites us to bring our anxiety to him.

Maybe I learned this in Afghanistan because I had to look harder. Regardless, I’m grateful for the lessons.

Where do you see Jesus?

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