A day of Midwestern culture

One day last week, I started out the day with a friend and dusty chaff in a soybean field. It was a lovely way to celebrate my favorite season: the dry plains that stretch into the horizon, the banter of voices over the radios, the roar of machinery, the swirling haze of dust every time the combine approaches. There is something about growing up on a farm that makes the joy of the countryside stick in your blood.

But in the afternoon, I drove to the city to shop. Within minutes, I had exchanged the hazy corn and bean fields for the asphalt and concrete of the glaring city. And I loved it, as I always do. Right down to the traffic (as long as I’m not in a hurry).

After inhaling the exotic spices in the Asian Market, I had fun browsing up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart with a short list and a lot of time. Of course, I did this in a Wal-Mart that is sometimes referred to as “ghetto-mart.” But it’s my favorite Wal-Mart because one can escape the SUV, soccer-mom rush that usually accompanies Wal-Mart trips closer to home.

After crossing a few things off of my list, I paid and exited the store. The cart man met me in the doorway, gave me a bright look, and said cheerily, “Goodbye, Saint! Have a nice day. Praise the Lord!” And I smiled all of the way out to my car.

In fact, my heart was still warm even after 30 minutes of wandering around on obscure backstreets that inevitably turned into dead ends. (I had left the directions to my friend’s orchestra concert on my nightstand.) I told myself not to despair of ever hearing her play the violin and stopped at Arby’s for directions (and roast beef and curly fries, if you must know). I chatted with the helpful cashier and then tried not to spill the oozing Arby’s sauce on my shirt as I embarked on the remainder of my journey.

The free concert was lovely, but there was a catch: it was in an assisted living facility and I was the only person in the audience under 50 (or maybe 70). But I didn’t care because I had a great view. Plus, I didn’t feel out of place tapping my feet or humming my way along through “The Sound of Music”, “Chicago”, and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Happy birthday, Albert

The way he oohs and aahs over simple pleasures. The way he slobbers out motor sounds while he drives his cars and tractors across the carpet. The way he points at things with an excited gasp, expecting you to look in wonder. The way he giggles with Eskimo hugs. The way he “dances” when he hears bouncy music. And the way he sings in church– “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

We met only a few months ago, but he has already managed to steal my heart.

Happy first birthday, Albert Harris.

Oh, the people you meet

A short two-day trip to a land not so far away yielded a wealth of interactions and acquaintances that made it hard to leave. Oh, the people you meet!

  • A fellow passenger in a grand taxi, who spoke to me only a few minutes before inviting my roommate and me to her niece’s evening wedding.
  • A lady passing by on the street who helped us pound on the locked riad door and stuck with us until the owner and his maid came back from the market.
  • The riad owner with a surprisingly Western perspective and his maid who loved engaging in deep conversation about cross-cultural marriage and religion. But just when I thought I was making an excellent point, the owner leaned back in his chair, grinned, and said that if he had met me 24 years ago, he would have married me. The maid, an adorable but hopeless romantic, kept returning to the cross-cultural marriage part of the conversation.
  • A young lady who seemed to know everyone in town and was delighted to take us around to her favorite places…and even fish out a party invitation for us (which we turned down). But before we parted, she took us to a crumbling café for evening tea above the sea. There, she told us about her life. At the end of her story she shrugged away any traces of self-pity, smiled, and said, “Well, what are we going to do? Praise God.”
  • An old gentleman who led me to a store to buy water, waited for me, and led me back. He escaped before I could thank him.
  • A taxi driver who took us to an ancient ruins sight and then meekly offered his phone number in case we couldn’t find a taxi back into town.
  • Our guide at the ruins who led us through the layers of sights on the hillside. But he stayed far ahead of us to not disturb our sight-seeing. And he topped off his hospitality by calling the taxi driver to return for us (thus saving me a phone call in Arabic).
  • Our guide at the music conservatory who didn’t seem to mind that class was in session as he banged around on a piano in the courtyard… and then tried to get us to show off as well. He made my heart swell in hollow pride when he mistook me for a local.
  • The owner of a souvenir shop who seemed sincere in his beliefs, but wanting to listen as much as explain.
  • A family on the train who knew how to enjoy each other and the people around them. What fun to be a part of their lives for that ride. And before they got off at their stop, the father found us seats with other women so we wouldn’t have to travel alone in our cabin.

Every nation, tribe, and tongue

When I heard that a nearby university was hosting a Christmas carol festival, I didn’t need any other motivation to jump in a taxi and go. After all, North Africa isn’t the easiest place to celebrate Christmas. There are no Salvation Army bell ringers, no Christmas flyers or billboards announcing unbeatable sales, no Christmas lights, no store aisles filled with Christmas candy, hardly any Christmas shopping at all.

You may write off those things as obnoxious, an assault to your everyday life. But for me, those little things help remind me of God’s greatest Gift to mankind. This year I don’t have those reminders, and it’s hard to fully enjoy the season.

But now, in this university auditorium, I could overlook the giant poster of the country’s king on the wall and remember the coming of another King.

There were beautiful classic carols, contemporary carols, worship songs, gospel songs, touches of opera, and Bible readings. Children and adults took turns on stage, representing the evangelical churches of the country.

Some songs filled the auditorium with life, eliciting applause and cheers. In the wake of one particularly lively group, a Spanish monk walked up to the podium and read the Christmas story. The irony of the moment was stifled by the beauty of it.

Is this what heaven will be like?

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

(Rev. 7:9-10)

Worship isn’t uniformity, but it is unifying. The variation of style, genre, and the mix of at least eleven languages was remarkable…but inconsequential. We were there to celebrate the birth of the Savior. 

The wedding I didn’t attend

I didn’t attend a wedding. That statement, of course, depends on one’s definition of “wedding”, I suppose. I did attend one or two ceremonies during the six day celebration, but the ceremonies were so low-key that I didn’t even see the bride. That’s why I say I didn’t attend because how can one attend a wedding without seeing who the wedding was for?

What I did experience, however, was enough to send my cultural senses spinning. Colorful clothing, drums and horns, dancing, green and rolling countryside, bread baking in an outside oven, a restless night curled up foot-to-foot with a stranger who kept stealing my blanket, mint tea and sweets to accompany the luscious wedding feast…

But I wasn’t only observing; I was being observed. My status as the only foreigner at this countryside wedding earned me plenty of stares, questions, and giggling girls developing heroine crushes on the uncomfortable-looking foreigner in the green dress.

After only 29 hours away from home, I returned feeling both culturally enriched and overwhelmed.

little girls holding hands next to adults in robes
people dancing
beef and prune tagine in center of table

Bad mood

I am telling myself it’s a combination of yet another rainy day and of not having a break from school. I’m exhausted and on the last day of the school week, I am required to slosh through puddles and mud and still be late for class.

And then I get home, reheat the coffee I didn’t have time to finish before school, and try to drown my melancholy mood in language study.

But in the apartment below, I hear the neighbors playing the Qur’an. The sing-songy chant grates on me. So I turn on my own music:

You’re the God of this city.
You’re the King of these people.
You’re the Lord of this nation.
You are.

You’re the Light in this darkness.
You’re the Hope to the hopeless.
You’re the Peace to the restless.
You are.

There is no one like our God.
For greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done in this city.

No matter how “done” I feel with life right now, His work has only begun in this city. And He wants to use me now, right where I am. In the middle of puddles, mud, and too much homework.

My calling to glorify Him isn’t based on circumstance.

Let us become more aware

I shielded my eyes from the morning sun as we walked the familiar streets to church. My heart was quiet and my mind was ready to receive a word from Him. Any word. Yet, I was still grappling with the paradox of God feeling absent even when I knew He wasn’t.

“Let us become more aware of Your presence.”

The words became my prayer as we sang them together. And it happened. Not in a warm, fuzzy feeling, but in the faces around me.

  • The beggar who spoke blessing on me, my health, my parents, (and possibly everyone and everything that I’ve ever known!).
  • The moment of reconnecting with a lady I had met on the train.
  • The little boy who ignored my words until I got down to his level and placed my hand on his shoulder.
  • The church guardian who offered to drive me home from church.

It wasn’t until I was home that I realized what had happened. And I thought of Martin in Tolstoy’s “Where Love Is, There God Is Also.” Sometimes God’s presence is as quiet as the weak and powerless.

The Noisemaker

Somewhere along our street lives a tiny man, perhaps no taller than my shoulder. I can’t say for sure because I’ve never seen him. He sleeps during the day and when the neighborhood goes to sleep, he steps out of his musty little house and begins his work.

See, although I have no proof, I do have ears. Every night I go to sleep, and every night the Noisemaker awakens me.

One night he walked up and down the street making a noise like a hoarse donkey’s bray. The dogs at every house barked furiously as he came and went, back and forth, back and forth. I lay in my bed, stricken with fear because the noise sounded like what I imagined a lion’s hiss to sound like. Now, I’m not even sure that lions hiss, but that wasn’t a factor I considered in my sleep-deprived state.

Just last night, the Noisemaker borrowed a keyboard and put it on the chorus setting. He played three notes and pause, three notes and pause. At least that’s what it sounded like: carolers outside the door starting and restarting their song. AhAHah, ahAHah. This time I wasn’t afraid because I knew it was just the Noisemaker.

Sometimes he comes in pattering feet up and down the hallway. Sometimes he pretends to be the wind and bang the poles that fasten the courtyard tarp.

And I’m sure he must smile as he snuggles up in his bed about the time the rest of the world struggles to get out of theirs. And he dreams of creative noises to make when the city once again goes to sleep.

What I want to know is: does he get paid?

How far is heaven?

Was it even open?

The handle turned beneath my eager fingertips. It was!

I hadn’t been to the library in months. I wasn’t even sure why I’d come today except that I wasn’t ready to leave town and go home. I wanted to be alone. It was one of those days: interruptions at every turn; repeating everything I said at least once; everyone expecting me to be a team player when I just wanted to grab my journal and disappear until next week.

That’s why the library was such a good place to vanish for an hour. Here, the shelves were lined with stories of people who had lived and breathed life’s struggle. They had faced the same problems I faced today. I felt a camaraderie with these characters beyond the lettered spines on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

“Are you looking for something in particular?” A librarian approached me, even as I was still inhaling the tawny scent of explored pages.

She seemed satisfied when I said, “No, just looking.”

I fought the urge to just stand and soak in the stories. I was in the fiction section anyway, so I slipped over to the next aisle. Art. Music. History. Sewing. Biography. Religion. I pulled books off the shelf to page through them before adding them to the growing stack tucked in the crook of my elbow.

There were books for sale- 5 cents each- that town citizens had donated to the library. I browsed that section and found a book about heaven.

Heaven.

I wove through the displays of cheap romance novels and heaved my stack onto the check-out counter.

“Do you need a sack?”

“No. Thanks. I have one in the car.”

“Can I get the door for you?”

“Thanks. I got it.”

I loaded my car and was on the way home–beside the elementary school and the reduced speed limit signs–when I remembered the book about heaven.

I had only forked over the nickel to give the book away. I didn’t read books about heaven. The incessant chatter of an afternoon radio show interrupted my emerging thoughts. I hit the power button.

“Why?” I said aloud. “Why don’t I think about heaven?”

Was it that I was comfortable on earth? Hardly! I was always yearning for something.

“But what is it?” Was I yearning for heaven or the “next big thing” in my life wherein lie coveted fulfillment? Couldn’t I pretend that it was all just a subconscious longing to be with God?

Or was it more like a choice of where I based my citizenship?

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seem them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”

(Heb. 11:13-14)

On the drive home, the dusty wind and thick, angry raindrops reminded me of life’s trials. But somehow, with the hope of heaven, trials didn’t look so scary.