Holding Open a Space for the “Other” (further thoughts)

A few days ago I wrote about holding a space open for the “other”.  You might want to start there before reading this post.

I’m writing from the perspective of different cultures getting along together and different faiths respecting each other but these principles are also useful in knowing and understanding our children (teenagers for example), divorced spouses, teachers, employers….really anyone it’s difficult to understand and come to a middle ground with.

If we don’t hold the space open, reserve judgment and keep learning new things about the ‘other’ we will get it wrong. We will miss the truth because we’ve already decided what the truth is (damn the facts). I see this all the time here. People decide, based on their experiences with a certain group of people, that they are liars, inept, incompetent, arrogant, careless, or any number of other things. Once they have put them in that category they are incapable of seeing much more. It might feel good to feel like you have some things figured out, but it will be a part truth.

When we first moved here to Qatar, it was 45 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). Every room has air conditioning so it wasn’t a big hardship. Our villa hadn’t been lived in for a year so the a/c was a little temperamental and kept freezing up. Maintenance was called in several times. They repeatedly told me not to set the a/c  lower than 18 degrees. I assured them that I never did. I set it between 22-25.  Yet every time they came in they tried to talk me into not turning it under 18.  They eventually taped a note under the control to remind me.  They said, “We know you Canadians like it cold”. I could not convince them that I did not move to this beautifully hot country to freeze in the air conditioning. It didn’t do any good.

Several weeks later I met another Canadian woman in our compound. She complained about her air conditioning freezing up and the repeated repairs being done and about maintenance telling her not to put it below 18. She said “I don’t care what they say, I like my a/c set at 15 degrees, they can just deal with it.”

Ahhhh…and henceforth, they know us Canadians and, they know we like it cold. It makes sense of course because we also come from the land of permanent snow and we live in igloos.

Whoever you’re trying to come to an understanding with/of, I implore you, resist the temptation to peg them. Keep learning, keep listening. Expect your perceptions to change. Hold your understandings lightly. Walk humbly. Be kind.



Holding a Space Open for the “Other”

How good are you at hearing someone else’s opinion? How long can you hold a space in your heart open for someone who is very “other” than you?

I’m new at living in a Middle Eastern country. I’ve been in Qatar 6 months now and although I’m new to it I am also immersed in it. Everyday I’m watching and processing what I’m seeing. Everyday I’m confronted by differences and everyday I’m trying to understand. Everyday I’m reading about the culture around me. This does not make me an expert. Everyday I resist the temptation to move from a position of learning into a position of ‘got it figured out now’. This would only yield partial understanding and half truths and block the way for clearer understanding.

Part of the process is learning that I was wrong about some things. We know, intellectually that we are shaped by the news we hear, other people’s opinions and our own cultures biases, but when a new piece of information arrives on our doorstep, how do we handle it? Especially if it’s not really what we want to believe or if we don’t like it.

I’m going to invite you to an exercise that I partake in regularly. Exercising my ability to stay open even when I’m uncomfortable with the information being provided. This has become so important for me, here in the Middle East. And I believe it’s important for all of us in our increasingly interconnected global village.

It’s become so important to have and cultivate skills in restraining our egocentrism and ethnocentrism, skills in critical thinking and in waiting, and holding our opinion at least long enough to let other’s opinions sink in. It requires restraint and humility.

Here’s an opportunity for you to test those skills and see how you do. I’m going to share with you some thoughts that are new to me since moving here. Ideas that were hard to find a place to hook into my western/feminist steeped ideologies.

Remember this: 1) you don’t have to agree with these thoughts, just sit with them and stay open to them for longer than you’re comfortable with. Try to remove yourself from your own culture and enter someone else’s. Observe how long you can be open before you find yourself making opposing arguments. What are your opposing arguments based on? Do you know for sure? Do you need to be right? Why do you feel the need to jump to reiterating your arguments? Do you feel you have something to lose? Is your reaction and response proportional to the issue at hand?

And 2) When you do start to make your argument (if you do) ask yourself if there is a reflection of what you’re arguing against in your own culture/church/family/life. (ie. do you find yourself saying ‘that’s not religious, they’re socialized to think that way’? Are there things we’ve thought are “christian” but are really more an expression of socialization?)

Muslim Women Covering Their Heads/Faces

I am a Canadian woman, born in the 60’s, into a family of brothers whom I had to compete with (and did so successfully). I’m a mother who has had a number of successful careers. I’m deeply concerned about women’s issues and equality. I have been treated as an equal participant in family, marriage, ministry and business. I can spot chauvinism a mile away and can sniff out even a hint of male superiority. I react like most North American women (and many men) to issues of inequality. If you understand where I’m coming from then I suspect you could easily make an argument against women being veiled. I can.

Here’s what I’ve been confronted with in Qatar, which, it should be noted, is a relatively moderate Muslim country where veiling is optional as far as the law is concerned but very definitely the social norm.

One of my first jarring realizations made me feel like I was a poor excuse for a feminist. My neighbour is a divorced, single mother from Lebanon. I wondered for far too long as to why she covered her head. If you wanted to shed the head covering, moving to another country, away from the social pressures of family and culture would do it. Lebanese women here are very mixed about covering and no one would have thought twice if she didn’t cover. Also, she has no husband here that might make her submit to wearing a head covering. I’m ashamed to admit that it took far too long for me to come to the conclusion that she has a faith of her own, that she has considered the teachings and practices of Islam herself and that she has decided for herself that this is how she’d like to express her own faith and submission to God alone. She has her own religious convictions. I know that many women here say that it’s their choice, but I suspect social conformity to be a really big factor. Until you remove yourself from your culture I doubt you can actually tell how much is your choice and how much you are keeping the peace. But for my neighbour, I see no other reason.

There are many expressions of covering. There are women who have just their heads covered, sometimes with very colourful scarves (I believe these women are from neighbouring Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan). The Qatari women are all in black but still with a lot of variety. Some are completely covered, head to toe, including faces and gloves. Others have openings in the veil for their eyes, some covered from the nose down and a lot have just their head (and body of course) covered. This leads me to believe that there is a lot of discussion and decision that goes along with their clothes. I know that there is lively discussion about faith and tradition, about what is acceptable and why. Why did I think it was done without thought, following traditions and pressures without thought? (Arrogance?)

The reasoning they often give for covering the women is that they are “precious jewels” to be protected and cherished, not to be flaunted or judged by others. I admit suspicion of this. I wonder, is this code, used by obsessively jealous husbands and prudishly protective fathers? Is this a mask for extreme subjugation of women? Maybe it is. I can tell you this; these women do not carry themselves like they are subjugated. They carry themselves like they are royalty (indeed, some may be). They walk tall. They smile kindly. The ones I have met are smart and determined. They are not wallflowers. Is it possible that they carry with them the feeling of being cherished like a jewel? Is it possible that they enjoy this tradition?

Many of the women say that what they like about being covered is that no one can judge them for their appearance. This made me really sad. I wanted to say to them, ‘my sisters, it’s ok, we won’t judge you, please come out and be loved for who you are.’ Then I realized just how blind to my own culture I really am. Is this my experience? Do western women accept each other and refrain from judging each other? On the contrary!! Western society is fraught with the repercussions of being very judgmental of the appearance of women and the illusive perfect shape and size. We are very hard on ourselves as a result. Is our way better?

Some may assume that the abaya/hijab coverings are an old fashioned, medieval reflection of this culture’s lack of exposure to the world around them and their submersion in the past.’ Au contraire again friends. The women covered by these abayas are actually driving the haute couture industry in the world today.

Assumption: Women do not want to be covered and are looking to be rescued from this oppression.

It took me a while to really enter into the thought that these women have never known any different. It’s not like they were all of a sudden covered and now want out. (On the contrary…it was I who was new to the covering of women…was it I who was anxious to have it changed? Projection?) Surely there are some who would like to break out of this tradition. I now suspect most are just fine with it. I have actually come to appreciate the fact that while so many cultures have been sucked into the vortex of the North American dress code this group of people has proudly hung onto theirs. Not just the women but the men in their crisp white thobes as well. I feel an unexpected “good for you!” rise up in my soul when I see them.

As I have been writing this post another one of my Muslim neighbours, who has not been covered up, has made the decision that she will now be wearing an abaya and a hijab. She was born and raised in England, is a school teacher in her 40’s and has no social or marital pressure to do so. This is her decision. She is also very open about it and I look forward to talking with her and finding out what is triggering this change.

The descriptions in this post are of life in Qatar. This is not a statement, for example, of the burka experience of women in Afghanistan or the experience of women in the Sudan etc.  My point here is to question an assumption that I’ve had for years. Is the covering of women, in and of itself, a symbol of the oppression of women? Is that what I see every time I look at a covered woman? Is there room for my thinking to be broadened and therefore more respectful of their rights, opinions and culture?

I was not prepared to respect the decision of women to cover up. Can you consider this? Can you hold a place open for the women who are intelligent and diligent about their faith and who chose to cover their heads? Can you see similarities with the Christian faith? How quickly do you want to fire off a comment to this blog? Can you take a breath first? Are there other issues in different cultures that you need to pull back your initial reactions and at least think about?

Adventures in cross cultural relations. May the open space we create be a place for us to meet with “others” in peace, understanding and mutual respect.






I Am Christmas

 Somehow I thought the Christmas spirit was a force of nature. It was a spiritual tsunami that hit every year because of the power of the birth of the Messiah. How could the tides not roll toward wonder and worship? How could we not get caught up in the mystery of a little baby, the fulfillment of hundreds of years of prophecies and the hope for all mankind born in a manger?

As it turns out, if the malls and the grocery stores and the radio station aren’t playing Christmas carols and the houses don’t start to sprout festively coloured lights and the temperatures aren’t dropping …the Christmas spirit forgets to show up.

I saw it on the calendar. I knew the season was upon us and I made a few feeble attempts to drum it up.  I treated it with the respect of a force of nature though, knowing that if I got too close the feeling of loneliness and separation from family and friends could wash me away.

I couldn’t help puzzle about the absence of it in my heart though and I must admit…I went another round with getting all theologically forensic. It’s like an involuntary reflex.

So I went down the dark road of, was it really a virgin birth? If not, what? An illegitimate teenage mistake? What about the star? The wise men? The angels and the shepherds?   Is it a real story, or a myth? And if it’s a myth…if a lot of the things I used to believe as literal truth are myth then why am I still calling myself a christian? Was Jesus actually God? Like, there before the earth was formed, G-d? If not, what’s it all about? What’s any of it all about?

Oh ya baby, why not make a new Christmas tradition…International Torture Yourself With Existential Angst Day? It’s somewhere between the 8th and the 12th day of advent. 

Troy, bless his heart, threw a life ring out to my floundering soul. We emailed back and forth a bit about it. He lives so comfortably with the tension and the mystery. I always think that I do, and then I backslide into the abyss of needing-to-know. 

Troy talked about the holiday being bigger than the birth of Christ and that was ok for him and that for him, theologically, the anchor to hold onto for him was: There is a God that loves us and Jesus is really important, the Messiah even. 

That stopped the downward trajectory of my mood and the general loss of Christmas for me. A knot in the end of the rope so to speak.

Now we’re in Sri Lanka, opting for vacationing rather than sitting at home missing children. 

Sri Lanka is about 67% Buddhist and then Muslim, Christian and Hindu make up the rest. I’ve really enjoyed seeing monks around in their bright orange robes. I brighten up every time I see them. They seem especially set apart to bear peace and joy to all around them. I’ve also gained a great deal of respect for Muslims as I’ve gotten to know our neighbours who are diligent and devoted to their faith and who want to please Allah and do what’s right. They are loving and peaceful as well. I’ve taken them all very seriously and respectfully. And of course, I’ve wondered if there is greater truth in their religion than in mine. Ok – I said it. I can’t even help myself. Why must I do this?

Christmas eve was the worst of the family-friend-christmas-snow-hustle-bustle-missing-home moments. Somehow the anticipation of Christmas comes to a crescendo on Christmas eve day for me and I felt the weight of it as we skyped with our girls. Of course I was brave online but I’ll admit to one melt down and a lump in my throat for most of the day.

The anticipation, the last of the preparations quickly getting finished up and the long awaited time of celebration just hours away. Calls to loved ones, “merry Christmas”’s to everyone you pass by. The pressure and the power of love for everyone, the thoughts for peace on earth and joy to the world and all that is good and right all coming together like a tidal wave of love. It’s almost impossible to resist. Something in me started to unravel. All the theological wonderings and wanderings began to spin away and the power of the story, whether myth or fact, gripped my heart again. Love coming down to humanity, to be with us, to show us love and how to live in peace and to bring forth justice. A baby, the most humble human expression, the most vulnerable and innocent and pure, coming to get all down and dirty with us so that we might be whole and connected to Divine Love. Whether the truth is in the story or behind the story doesn’t seem that important to me today. It is the story I have loved, and it is a beautiful and powerful story of a God who loves us and it is a story I felt myself choosing to identify with in a more whole hearted way than I had in a long time.

The Sri Lankan’s in their broken english seem to have changed the word Christian to Christmas.  Several of them have asked us “you are Buddha? or you are Christmas?”

I am Christmas.




Incarnation – Do You See What I See?

It was about a half hour past bedtime when my 5 year-old son Elias asked me the question. “Is Santa real Daddy?”

We had already been through this the year prior but apparently Elias had new ‘intel’.

“My teacher told me Santa is real” he continued, “not pretend real but really real! So is he? Seriously, I want to know.” I could see the desire to believe and yet know the truth no matter what shimmering in my son’s bright blue eyes. (How accurately does this describe many of our own faith journeys?) I tried an evasive tactic telling him it was fun to believe in Santa Claus at Christmas time but he would have none of it. “Knowing the truth changes things.” I warned him. “Do you want to change Christmas?” He insisted. So I told him the truth (for the second year in a row).

Well I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as they say. Like my son, I have always needed to know the truth – or in more appropriate postmodern language – to know with expanding perspective and greater understanding. I recall my own questions that changed Christmas for me around 10 years ago. These were not questions about Santa but about the birth of Jesus.

I can’t say I ever remember believing Jesus was actually born on December 25th but it wasn’t till my late twenties before I began wondering why we celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25th.

We do not know when Jesus was born. Some Biblical scholars speculate it was likely mid to late September but this is only an educated guess. Historical records indicate that most Christians may not have celebrated the birth of Jesus at all before the 3rd or 4th century and it was likely around 324CE when the church began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

Why did they choose this date in particular? It seems during the three hundred years between Jesus’ death and resurrection and Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman empire, the Christian church began adopting or was influenced by certain pagan practices, rituals, beliefs and observances.

In the Roman Empire, December 25th was the day worshippers of Sol and Mithras celebrated the sun god’s birthday. December 25th was known as Natalis Solis Invicti or the “birth of the unconquered sun”. December 25th was also the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, the day the sun starts pushing back against the threatening darkness. (It is December 21st according to the Gregorian calendar we use.) December 25th was also the last day of the Roman winter festival Saturnalia comprised of general merry making and gift giving.

When we look into history we find most of our Christmas traditions have pagan origins; from Christmas trees and gift giving to yule logs, hollyberry and mistletoe.

There are a number of other similarities between Mithras and Jesus in addition to many curious parallels between Christianity and Mithraism. One noteworthy commonality is our day of worship. Mithraists worshipped on Sun-Day as Mithras was a solar deity. At some point the early church stopped observing the Sabbath and began worshipping on Sun-Day, sharing the same “day of our Lord” as the Mithraists. Saint Jerome commented on this controversy in the fifth century “If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth.”

When I first discovered these pagan origins and influences it shook my faith a little. Now I see this assimilation as evidence of the incarnational approach of the early church. Incarnation means “embodied in flesh”. When the early church saw God’s story of love embodied in other cultures, religions, rituals and practices – they saw Immanuel (God with us) and celebrated it. This is what the apostle Paul did in Acts 17 when he saw the statue to the unknown God and celebrated it as a statue to Christ.

I have started practicing an incarnational approach myself. Whenever I see or hear something that reflects God’s story – I see Christ, Immauneal – I see God’s love embodied in the “flesh” of that culture, religion, practice or person. I am surprised at how often I see Christ these days in “unchristian” people and places. I am starting to see what Paul meant when he said “Christ is all and in all.” Jesus said even the rocks will reveal the truth of Immanuel (God with us).

Truly the story of God’s love is weaved into the very fabric of the universe if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Good Neighbourliness Day

Turkmenistan has an official holiday called Good Neighbourliness Day which is celebrated today (or this past Sunday depending on the source.)

Why don’t we get in on the action and be mindful about being good neighbours today (you can extend this all week if you want:) What are your ideas about how to be a good neighbour? Share some of your experiences practicing good neighbourliness today.

Here are a few ideas on Good Neighbourliness:

1. Invite a person/family in your neighbourhood over for a meal, coffee, activity, whatever.
2. Bake something and drop in on your neighbours bearing gifts of holiday cheer.
3. Help our neighbours in need by going to your local community services directory http://www.niagararegion.ca/social-services/wish-list-default.aspx for a list of agencies and services that serve those in need and at risk in our community and support them.

Other ideas?

btw – see Luke 10:25-37 if you are having trouble figuring out who your neighbour is.

Reflection Questions – November 28 Week

Let’s keep the conversation on the way of Jesus and money going. Here are the reflection questions from Sunday night.

1.  What does it mean for us to be in the empire but not of the empire?
How would my lifestyle, decisions, etc. be different?
Like Zacchaeus – how do we work in but not for the Empire?

2.  Reflect on Jesus & the early church’s non-violent anti-empire position
(i.e. Gerasene Demoniac story). How ought we to resist empire
today? How do we embody our allegiance to God’s kingdom instead?

3.    How do we seek the kingdom of God first in our lives?
What has worked for you or others you know?
What inhibits or hinders your seeking?

4.  Is economic growth really the god of our modern world?
What does healthy (Godly) economic growth look like?

5.  What are the implications of Jesus proclaiming salvation coming to
the household of Zacchaeus because of what he does with his money.

May 21 – The End of What?

Well it’s almost here kids – the beginning of the end of the world! I’m referring of course to Harold Camping’s bold prediction that Judgment Day will begin around 6pm (Pacific time) this Saturday evening. The big question for me as a follower of the way of Jesus is how should I respond to this kind of nonsense?

My initial reaction to Family Radio’s “fire and brimstone” announcement plastered on the imposing billboard overlooking St. Paul Street West was experiencing a flashback to the time I lived in the southern United States. You just don’t see these kooky apocalyptic proclamations in Canada very often. My second response was one of curiosity. Was this for real? Or was this a hoax, prank or some artist’s satirical concept piece on religion?

Once I realized this was serious, the foreboding forecast raised some sobering questions for me.

How did Harold Camping’s inane prophecy based on sloppy numerology and dubious Biblical interpretation spread around the world so successfully and quickly? How did this 89 year-old civil engineer’s end-times calculation come to be posted on over 2000 giant billboards across the planet and broadcast nonstop in over 40 languages on his international radio network with over 150 outlets in the United States alone? How did his Family Radio ministry accrue tens of thousands of followers, accumulate over 120 million dollars in assets and find the resources to launch this audacious “Judgment Day” campaign?

The answer: an enormous amount of time, money and labor from true believers. May 21, 2011 would have quietly slipped by like any other Spring day if not for the thousands of volunteer hours and millions of dollars donated by his followers.

I don’t understand how people continue to fall for “prophetic” preachers like Harold Camping. Especially given his previous erroneous prediction that the world would end in September 1994. But even more disturbing to me is that most Canadians today associate Christianity with people like Harold Camping and his undiscerning herd of sheeple.

It’s characters like Camping and the Reverend Terry Jones and his small Qur’an burning congregation that unfortunately represent Christianity to the world instead of the countless Christians who have devoted their lives working for peace and justice. It pains me that the loudest and most mobilized Christian sects have made the words “Christian” and “church” synonymous with anti-gay, anti-science, judgmental self-righteousness rather than compassion, peace, hope and joy. It angers me that we’ve allowed a few bigoted Bible bullies to so passionately and arrogantly claim to speak on behalf of Jesus, that they have drowned out the actual voice of Jesus who taught that his true followers would be known principally by their love. (John 13:35)

I don’t know when the world will end but it’s definitely time this current state of the world shaped by hatred and violence, archaic tribalism, segregating ideologies, and antagonistic relationships between world religions, faith and science and spirituality and reason, came to an end.

It’s time for Christians to stop fueling these negative energies and focus on making the earth a more Spirit filled place, by seeking to develop peace and unity with all people rather than judging or proselytizing them.

It’s time for the way of Jesus to be known as the way of peace and hope again.

It’s time for Christians to stop wasting time on distractions like eschatological speculation and start investing our energy and money into making the love of God an experienced reality for all on this planet.

It’s time to once more make the Christian message about the ridiculous unconditional love of God, not what Camping and company make it out to be – merely ridiculous.

It’s time for a different brand of Christianity to rise and represent to the world around us what following the way of Jesus is really about.

It’s time for us to see the end of a paradigm (where authentic spirituality was replaced with religion) as a good thing – as a beginning of a new thing God is doing in the world.

I hope May 21 is the end of the world as we know it.