Tag Archives: suffering

Christ and Other Sheep: Reading the Gospel in Iraq

Most journalists I meet in the Middle East are disenchanted with religion. They are spiritually cynical, agnostic at best. Many are unusually humane, intently aware of our world’s wounds, yet invariably critical and distant from any organized faith.

I can see why. I’ve just spent 6 weeks reporting from Iraq, where faith seems saturated in hatred and blood. “Christians are not Arabs. Arabs cannot be Christians,” a displaced Chaldean from Mosul tells me. “We can never live with Muslims,” a widowed Yazidi cries. “Watch these Shi’a bastards,” a Kurd says as he sends me videos of elite militias abusing Sunni civilians. “You dog,” the soldiers in the videos laugh as they kick and beat a cowering man.

Religion starts to hurt. “In the name of God” becomes the sound of sectarianism, the anthem of a thousand gleaming daggers cutting lines and boundaries across the broken earth: I’m in, you’re out. I’m a believer, you’re not. I am good, you are bad. You dog. I could never live with you. You could never be like me. In the name of God, the merciful, the beneficent, you heretic! You infidel, in the name of God, go to hell. In the name of God, the merciful, burn.

As a reporter, I tread the lines between Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis and Shias. I see giant crosses and green flags demarcating different neighborhoods of Beirut. I see Jewish stars graffiti-ed on the staircases of Amman with “Al-Mot, Death” scribbled underneath. I see overflowing refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and I am seized with an urge to damn religion. To hell with this hell, I want to say. To hell with the institutions and social constructs that give men self-justified license to rip other human beings apart. To hell with the lines, the walls, the moral police and everyone judging everyone else as unrighteous. To hell with God, I almost think.

But LORD have mercy, I cannot pray this. I almost curse the name of God, but then I stop, I cannot, I don’t.

I read the Bible in Iraq out of desperation. I needed to know that God is good and understand how that could be true when our world is as poisoned as it is. I couldn’t understand how God could be loving and exclusive at the same time. “Christ is the only Way,” I thought, “But what does that mean for all those who don’t know Him? Shall I condemn them, as other religions will condemn me?” Deuteronomy reads like an instruction manual for ISIS, I thought[1]. I spent my days collecting testimonies of genocide and my nights fearing that God was pleased to see this happen. I reported on violent religious extremism and feared: what if God actually condones this?

This fear paralyzed me for a while. Then I picked up the Gospel and read.

It’s much easier to picture Christ now that I live in His neighborhood. I picture Him coming to a land under oppression and celebrating life. Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine.[2] He walks around healing, casting out spirits, multiplying food and telling tantalizing parables. He shows Martha that being with God is better than doing anything for Him. He weeps with Mary when she tells Him, My brother has died, and if you were there, it wouldn’t have happened. But she still calls him Lord as she says this. Jesus weeps- and raises Lazarus from the dead.[3] The next day, Mary pours expensive perfume on Him, worshipping, and small-hearted Judas says, “What a waste.” Think of the food distributions, cash programming, and hygiene projects that money could have funded. But Judas is a thief who’s been helping himself to the disciples’ moneybag. He’s really thinking of himself, selfishness twisted with self-righteousness, and Jesus sees right through him.[4]

I picture Jesus coming to historic Palestine, where the Israelites are under Roman occupation. Surely our LORD will save, his disciples must have thought. Our people worship the One True God and now the Messiah will break these chains of oppression, they must have hoped. FREEDOM, I imagine them whispering to one another, the way my Syrian friends tell me they spoke in 2011 for the first, daring, dangerous time. The word tingled on your tongue, they say, then grew until it grabbed your whole being, flung you into the street and had you yelling, roaring, electrified in sudden exultation with brothers and sisters and countrymen: FREEDOM, we stand and claim our humanity. Freedom, we protest and demand.

Surely Jesus’ followers thought this way as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Hosanna, they cried, save us now.[5]
Surely they thought he would lead them to social and political release.

I imagine how the earth must have shattered beneath the disciples’ feet when they found their leader had no intent of rebellion. No uprising, no overthrow, no victory – rather, death. I see photos of ISIS crucifying people in Raqqa and I picture Christ, then I picture his dearly beloved wracked with heartbreak and fear. So injustice continues. The world wins. All things are broken and we thought you’d fix them, but you’re gone, we’re lost, LORD -[6]

What the hell is this Gospel? Why would the disciples believe it, as Jesus died and Roman rule continued? Why should I believe it, as I stand in front of a Yazidi woman whose daughter is enslaved, counting atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Sudan, feeling like the smallest person in the world, taking notes and knowing they’ll do nothing but elicit some fleeting public sympathy and exert a featherweight bit of pressure on military and political powers?

In Iraq, I consider this unlikely message: Jesus did not end suffering and injustice, but He will end them. He did not fight the way the world fights, with swords and guns and drones and jingoistic anthems. He did not win an ethno-nationalist victory for the Jews. He did not stop Lazarus from dying, nor did he heal every person or raise every Beloved from the dead.

Christ rejected Pharisees and went to the sinners, even to the Gentiles. He was like a Palestinian going to the Israelis, a Sunni going to the Shia, a Kurd going to an Arab, a Yazidi going to an ISIS fighter. He crossed all the lines.[7] He didn’t form a new club to supersede all the others. He said, being in a club won’t save you. Nothing you do will ever save you. Stop trying to be good. Seek God, repent and ask to be saved.

He washed feet.
Then He died.

There’s a trick of the devil that says, God hates the world because it’s sinful, so prove that you’re righteous and maybe you can be saved. Everyone else will burn.

The Liar whispers poison-thoughts of revenge, fear and self-pity in our heads. They bleed into systems of greed, power and money that rip the world apart. Then he stands at our ear and sneers, “The world is damned and you are damned with it. God hates you. Hate Him back.”

But the Gospel speaks the opposite. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

I read headlines from Kobane, Jerusalem and Darfur, and turn this over in my mind. We are not condemned. The world is burning, but those who believe are not condemned. “The prince of this world stands condemned,” Jesus says in John 16 – then He goes to the cross. He dies, then rises again. The Liar is condemned, Christ said, so don’t despair or bow before him. He is the condemned one, not you, Beloved.

There’s a secret message in Christianity that doesn’t make sense unless you believe in Christ not just as a teacher and moral example, but really as God giving Himself for Man: life comes through death. Everyone thought Christ was losing, but He won through loving sacrifice. His shocking call is this: “Follow me,” not to kill unbelievers, but to die for them.[10]

Lay down your life, Christ said: love those who hate you, pray for those who hurt you, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, and speak Jesus’ name.[12] Follow Him, not toward comfort, privilege or resettlement to suburban America, but to wash feet and tell people that God loves the world. We may be killed in the process. But He is victorious. We are not condemned, darkness is. Nothing can separate us from our Father’s love.[13]

I don’t want to be religious anymore, I prayed in Iraq, recoiling from the vortex of exclusion, revenge and sanctimonious hate. At the same time, I feared the real cost of following Christ. I didn’t want to burn. I didn’t want to see any more of our world’s self-destruction. I’ll vomit, I cried. God, I’ll fall apart.

Religious people are like candles who don’t want to be lit. We’re adorned with gems and carvings, standing high and proud. We think our decorations make us good. Christ says, Forget your self-righteousness. The smallest scrap of paper that blazes from my Presence is more useful than a thousand pieces of regal unlit wax. I’m going to set you on fire and send you into the dark. You’ll melt, Beloved, but do not fear. You’re surrendering to a Light that will never go out.

The Gospel does not ask its followers to form a club and hate everyone else. The Gospel is a feast in a refugee camp, a banqueting table set before our enemies, an engagement party as the world breaks. It says: by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ, come to our Father’s table. Eat, drink and be filled. Don’t kill for the Gospel! Die for the Gospel. As you die, you live. Your Shepherd has loved the hell out of this earth.[14] Follow Him, and invite others to do the same. [15]
[1] Deuteronomy 20.
[2] John 2.
[3] John 11.
[4] John 12.
[5] John 12:12-19.
[6] “They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’” – John 20:13, Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
[7] John 4: Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman.
[9] Romans 3:23, John 3:16-21.
[10] Matthew 10:38-39.
[11] “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” – John 12:24-26.
[12] Matthew 5.
[13] Romans 8.
[14] “He tends his flocks like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” – Isaiah 40:11
[15] John 10.

Advertisements

Christianity, Journalism and Gaza: I do not know it all; I know very little at all.

“When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a good listener… The brash young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.
—-

I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than I did – or, more to the point, more than they did… Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing.”

I loved reading this piece today by Adam Shatz, long-time reporter in the Middle East. Partly because he is an eloquent writer full of insight, and partly because the brash, youthful presumption he describes is so familiar to me. One year ago, I thought I had answers to all the hard questions, from “What’s going on in the Middle East?” to “Whose fault is it?” to the biggest of all, “Who is God?”

Graduating from Princeton, I was confidently groomed to analyze, critique and defend political and religious views. I had the perfect blend of sureness, urgency and occasional condescension. I’d only studied the Middle East for four years, mostly from outside the region, but felt justifiably self-righteous, often indignant, and obliged to jump into punditry and political debate.

That changed this year. It doesn’t matter how hard I studied at Princeton or Oxford, how many books I read on Islamism, Zionism or Orientalism, how well I presented at the State Department or how many drafts I wrote of my thesis. I did not know the sound of church bells and calls to prayer in the mornings of Jerusalem, the scorch of beating sun on your 400th day in a refugee camp, the jostling of bodies as soldiers herd you like cattle through a checkpoint, or the rush of Mediterranean blue along Beirut’s Corniche as you pass old men smoking argileh and toasting kaakeh on its coals.

Journalism is humbling, especially from abroad, because I realize that I do not know it all; I know very little at all. Thankfully, reporting is not about projecting my own opinions but gathering knowledge, walking the streets, drinking tea, making friends, asking questions, and most importantly, listening.

My best friends now are from Syria, Palestine and Sudan. I’ve never felt my heart swell with an entire region’s revolutionary promise, then break as my heroes were killed, arrested or forced to flee. I’ve never fled across a border. I’ve never watched anyone that I love die. I don’t know what it’s like to live through war, occupation or genocide. I barely dare to imagine. But I can ask.

As a journalist in the Middle East, the most foolish thing I can do is to assume I know what’s going on. As a Christian, the same mistake applies. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:9-12:

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

This passage used to confuse me. So am I a child or a man? Surely I’m a ‘man’ by now, I’d think. But the longer I’m a Christian, the clearer it becomes that I am but a child.

This year, God is suddenly very real. I talk to Him, ask questions, seek Him hungrily, because I find that I do not know. My quiet times of repeating religious adages to self have been replaced by what I call “faith like a crazy person.” It includes tumultuous emotion, exuberant bouts of joy, really cheesy moments and a lot of me just sitting on the floor yelling WTF ARE YOU DOING? Who ARE You!?

In journalism as in faith, we must listen humbly and ask hard questions. That includes “What’s going on in the Middle East?” “Why?” “Who is God?” and one more: “What would He have me do about it?”

In Gaza, for example, more than 2,000 people have been injured and 268 people killed from Israeli attacks this week. 70% of them were civilians. 1 in 4 were children. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations have all condemned the strikes as illegal human rights violations, but the killing continues.

Hard questions: Why is this happening? What role are America and Christian church playing in it? Who told me so? Why do I believe them? Could I be wrong?

Harder questions for Christians: What is justice? God, how am I to seek it?

Usual side question from me: Can we just avoid this topic? It’s so sensitive and contentious. Also I hate oppression and it’s easier to just pretend this isn’t happening.

Steady answer from Christ: No.

I bring up Israel specifically and intentionally because it’s a vortex of all the hardest questions of all. But dear friends, we must ask them.

People often ask me how to help refugees in Jordan and the Middle East. Donate to UNHCR and pray, I say, but also ask questions about the region’s current crises. Too often do we feel sad for innocent victims without realizing that our states and institutions are involved in ongoing injustices, ones that depend on constituents’ apathy and ignorance to continue.

Accountability is harder than charity because it demands our effort to seek out truth, and then strength to acknowledge that we might have been wrong. But we needn’t be defensive or afraid of admitting mistake, because God is for us, not against us. He is gracious and ready to show us who He is – as long as we ask genuinely, surrendered, willing to drop our comfort and assumed righteousness.

I ask a lot of questions. I don’t have answers for all of them. Re: Israel and Christian Zionism, for example, I do not know what will happen in the “end times” with the Israelites, the state, the temple, etc. Based on Jesus’ words in the Bible, I don’t think I’m supposed to know. But I do know this:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

– 1 Corinthians 13:13

Faith and hope can be difficult. Last night I stayed up late writing about the refugee crisis in Jordan, thinking about the Syrians begging here in Beirut, scrolling through my Twitter feed to read about the plane shot down in Ukraine, fascist racism in Tel Aviv and children killed on the beach in Gaza. My mom sent me a text at one point: “I wish I can be next to you and hug you right now. Grieve the loss of a child’s innocent dream about the beautiful world.”

I closed my laptop and cried.

If I weren’t Christian, I would be scoffing at all the soft-hearted fools who believe in humanity and kindness and people’s rights. Obviously they haven’t read history or even current affairs. Obviously they don’t know that people just hate each other. In Darfur the paler Arabs hate the darker Africans, just like in Israel the Jews hate the Arabs, just like in Germany the Nazis hated the Jews, just like in America the whites hated the blacks, and so on. I’d be a skeptic and a realist, attributing everything to power and interests and safely removed from the foolishness of belief in compassion.

But I am a Christian, which means by the Holy Spirit and God’s grace I have this lunatic faith and hope that God is just, He is sovereign, He is for us, not against us, and He wins.

Meanwhile, I ask questions. I listen humbly. I pray for Christ-like love, which means to consider others above myself, resist violence and to seek the good of people that hurt me.

It means to keep my Twitter feed open, to look, read, listen and think long and hard, crying and feeling for children who play in the sand and dream of a beautiful world that suddenly stops.

It means ignoring the cynic that cries, “Fool!” in my head, insisting until the day I die that every human being is a human, Holy and Beloved, regardless of their color, race or religion.

We do not have all the answers. But we can and must ask the questions. In the meantime, we know enough to love.

Seeing

Sometimes I am afraid of faith.

Sometimes I like my doubts, cup them close to my chest, build them one atop the other like blocks of safe cold plastic, a buffer between myself and the howling fire of Spirit and heart that I have come to know as God.

The scariest, biggest change in my Christianity since graduation is that God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Gospel Worldview have spun wildly out of my control. At Princeton, it was nice to think about the Gospel. I sorted things out in neat creation-fall-redemption-glory narratives, applying them to foreign policy issues and my own struggles with thesis and sabbath and relationships.

Most of the time, I had the worldview in my hands. I tinkered with a pair of lenses, zooming in and out, polishing the filters, thinking “Ah, let me upgrade a bit with this theological tidbit, decorate with this song, fine-tune with a verse or two or three…” I delighted in the way things worked out, made sense, fit so well with my Sunday school years of knowing who Christ was and what He wanted.

I liked the Gospel Worldview, but never asked what the Gospel Worldview was really for.
That is, I held a pair of glasses without putting them on.
I got the worldview, but didn’t look deeply at the world.

A little over a year ago, I prayed to see God’s face. A friend of mine had surprised me with a crazy story about seeing Jesus, and I was like, OK man you’re really charismatic, cool. Yet his story caught me off guard. It challenged me, first because my immediate inclination was to scoff, Uh okay SURE you saw Jesus… Sure….  and second to think, Wait, why not? Isn’t Jesus real and risen and alive? Why couldn’t he have seen Him? Why couldn’t I see Him? Why don’t I ask to see Him? Do I really want to? Do I believe enough to even ask?

A huge hunger started to rise in me. If my friend could see Jesus, then to hell with skepticism, I wanted to see Him too. I started praying hard, saying God if You are real, SHOW ME. God if Your Kingdom exists, open my eyes. I want to see it, alive and real, personal and touchable and flowing and afire. SHOW ME.

I used to think, living by the Gospel Worldview means that I will come to the Middle East and be a journalist and tell stories about truth and redeem bigoted American narratives that end up harming our country more than keeping it safe. I will tell people that other people are also people, and in that the broken will be restored. God will be glorified, things become the way they should be and we will all have peace and praise the Lord.

I came here asking God to show me what He saw, thinking it would be simple, that I’d just implement everything in my formula of faith!

Then He answered my prayer.

Do I know that I am seeing as God sees? That’s crazy talk. I really don’t know at all. But I am seeing the world differently from how I ever saw it before, and I think it started around the same time as my prayers. I see myself as smaller and weaker and more incapable than I ever realized. I see darkness and suffering all around. I try to put up familiar defenses, go on Facebook, go shopping, eat something, drink, go out with friends, read a book, go to bed, turn it off,
but I can’t.

I go to fancy Abdoun, the expensive part of Amman where expats drink Starbucks and buy designer makeup. I get a pedicure and start talking to a Filipino woman who quickly becomes my friend. She’s telling me about her family back home and the years since she’s been back. She’s quiet and gentle, light brown freckles on her furrowed-brow face, and paces her words slowly. “I was live-in maid for two years, ma’am,” She tells me. “My madam she was not good. I had no food,” she says. How could you have no food? What do you mean? I mean you lived! Two years! “Just bread, ma’am.” Bread and nothing else, her income withheld, her family on the other side of the world, shut inside a Jordanian house confused and alone,
she scrubs my feet and tells me.

The Gospel Worldview is making my head reel, my heart spin, my spirit gasp for breath.
I want to paint my nails and pay for gloss and walk away fine and free.
The Gospel Worldview is making me look at my sister holding my heel in her hand. It’s raising my heart rate and twisting my guts, a voice pounding in my head: Beloved, don’t be alone. Beloved – I see her in a corner room in the dark, nibbling a piece of bread, afraid – Beloved, you are my daughter.
I see you. 
I know you.
Do not fear.

Christianity has become really scary this year because I often think I’m a psycho. I walk around wanting to ignore the world around me but my limbs and ears and eyes and mouth and hands and feet do the opposite. I want to curl up in my bed or get on a plane to fly away, pretending none of this exists. Instead I go into a refugee camp and sit on a piece of Styrofoam on the floor. I meet little girls and gangly boys who ran across the Syrian border and are thirsty for water and life. They are trapped in a camp in the middle of a desert, and they tell me to tell their stories. “I need baby formula for my daughter,” a twenty-year-old mother tells me. She touches my arm and I nod, grabbing my pen, writing things down. There are sharp rocks beneath the plastic tarp on the ground; there is trash surrounding the water spout outside; the sun is hot and sand is blowing into my eyes; there is not a single piece of green and the air smells like sad and still surrender.

I want to close my eyes, but in Christ, who I asked to change me, I can’t.
At nights I teach English to friends and brothers and uncles from Darfur. They tell me they’re sick, they went to the hospital, it costs 3000 JD for an operation, what to do? I have no answer. I’ll pray?
In Zarqa another woman, slender and laughing and dear, asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here, why I am sitting and taking photographs in a Syrian refugee home. “I want stories,” I tell her. “I’m a journalist. I came here because I like stories. Jordan is not great, there are many problems, but everyone has a story.”

She is quiet, then looks up. “Do you really want to hear?”
She tells me about how it feels to huddle in a basement, rocks tumbling over your head as bombs destroy your world above.
How it feels to come up and find that your husband no longer exists – no, that he does, but is lying before you with head and arms separated from body, blood spilling out, staining and clouding your eyes
How it feels to be afraid with no end
To have soldiers come and cut people up, using a knife to saw apart pieces of their bodies, and not letting you cover your children’s eyes
How it feels to then listen to your baby daughter scream
in fear, in terror, night after night

How it feels to come here alone
How it feels to be unwanted and unprotected, because any man could come and take and hurt and rape and force you any day or any night, and no one would do anything, they are too busy, there are too many of you, everyone is in need, everyone is crying, everyone is desperate, we just don’t have enough

How it feels to be so afraid, but to go on, step by step by day by week by month by year,
How it feels.

The Gospel is freaking me out because I cannot stop listening, cannot rip myself away, my eyes are about to bleed yet I sit, I nod, I take notes, I touch her hair, I pat her arm, I kiss her cheek goodbye saying Allah ma3ki, God be with you. God be with you, sister, sister after sister after sister after sister,

I go home and pray.

It’s hard to write about Jordan because half the time I am toppling over with feeling and the other half I am trying to be numb. The numb thing doesn’t work, usually just builds up until I find myself sitting in my room, folding laundry, defiantly calm, and a familiar voice nudges me. Beloved, what are you doing?
I am living, Lord, I am fine, leave me alone, I am fine, I am fine OK just leave me alone.
Beloved, don’t harden your heart
I am not! I am OK! I am folding my laundry and I went to Princeton and I know what I’m doing, I’m writing stories to fix the world and I have a solid Gospel Worldview to keep my good perspective, please do not bother me –
Beloved, open your heart
GO AWAY, LEAVE ME ALONE WITH MY FREAKING HEART OF STONE I LIKE IT THAT WAY I SWEAR
Beloved, who am I?

Then something grips my heart and I am on my floor in tears. My vision is blurred but there is a gasping clarity as face after face after face passes before me, the mothers and sisters and fathers and brothers and friends that I swear I just want to forget but I cannot forget. Their stories and names are blazing in my heart, I try to sleep but cannot because I’m thinking how dark it must be in the camp, how cold it is in the Sudanese homes, how deep and clutching are Loneliness and Fear, yet a voice speaks at once quiet and thundering in my chest,
Beloved, I have not forgotten you.
Beloved, I am for you, not against you.
Beloved, you are Beloved 
Beloved, do not fear, I see you, I hear you, I save you, you are not alone.

Am I insane? I pray more than ever before but in a way I never wanted to, desperate and crying, my voice blending into His, praying things only a lunatic would believe. Things like, The world will spin back into Goodness. Our God is strong and alive and real. Jesus is our Shepherd who hears His children’s cries. My dear ones who are so alone, He hears you! He knows you! Do not be afraid.
Part of me laughs – what the hell are you doing, why are you on the floor, seriously will tears do anything?
Most of me just can’t stop.

I pray until my breath is gone.
I pray, and then ludicrously, ridiculously, I believe.

Christianity terrifies me this year because it’s making me see the world in striking glaring clarity. I see Wrong that weighs me to the ground. I pray without dignity, face on the floor, gross and desperate and blubbery. I want to be steel-hearted, strong and fearless – instead my heart is like baby food, mush soft, feeling in a million directions for every stranger crouching alone on the street. I find myself crouching next to them, asking for stories, inviting another stab into my self. Mouna tells me that her husband beats her. Nabiha says she cannot find even 3 JD for the ointment needed for her right eye. It rolls upwards, glazed over, deformed and glassy, and the Gospel pushes me to ask: What is this? What happened? More stories flood out, alcohol and beating and fear,
I am tired, listening.
But I still see.

I don’t know if this is the right Gospel Worldview or not. It’s nothing like what I expected. It is 0% orderly. It is the opposite of the control and self-assurance I once had in my understanding of the world and God and redemption, salvation, glory,  etc.

But it’s the Gospel I am finding, the Gospel that I cannot refuse: I see dark in the world, yet I see Christ as well. I see Him bright and strong and lovely in those my former self would have disdained. I see Him in the faces and stories of the lonely and fearful walking numb through life in every direction. I see life as short and terrible and fearful, but then lit ablaze by the beauty of men and women who are so clearly made in His image, who it is so wrong to ignore. I prayed to see God’s face and I think I am seeing it in the people all around me, each one afire with dignity, holy in their reflection of Him. I am believing against all odds that He will beat darkness away from us, that He shepherds those who surrender to Him, that He is great, mighty, real, alive, that He saves.

In that I place all my hope and strength. I rest on my knees, hands empty, eyes open, speechless.

I Don’t Know How to Tell this Story

Which is ironic, since I’m supposedly the journalist in the Middle East, intrepid and articulate, spinning narrative for a living.

OK.
Hi.
My name is Alice and I live in Amman, Jordan. I graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School in June 2013 with a certificate in Near Eastern Studies. I’d written a thesis on Sino-U.S. soft power competition in Egypt, aka an excuse to indulge in Chinese/Arabic and get funding to traipse around Beijing, Cairo and D.C. My adviser was a former U.S. Ambassador, and I harbored vaguely fancy dreams of working at the intersection of journalism and diplomacy, bringing the public back into public diplomacy by helping Chinese, Arab and Western media spheres to talk to, not at, one another (so I wrote on my Rhodes application, ha).

I spent two months after graduation in Oman, studying intensive Arabic on a scholarship from the State Department. Then I moved here to intern unpaid at a Jordanian news network, translating reports and helping with a program that trains Syrian and Palestinian refugees to be citizen journalists. I had $10,000 of personal savings that I’d decided I could spend if Jesus wanted me to come to Jordan, and I hoped to find some kind of part-time job on the side. That would be enough to stay a year, insha’allah, which was fine! Even though I didn’t really like the Middle East and remembered losing 7 pounds from food poisoning and being harassed on the streets every day when I was in Morocco two years earlier, I was going to come, based mostly on the intense heart-gripping “I MUST COME HERE I MUST GO” feelings I had whenever I seriously prayed about it.

I moved to Jordan like a psycho because I thought God wanted me to – and because I was interested in refugee policy, journalism and Arabic, and this unpaid project had dropped from the sky with all my interests rolled into one (another story for later). I started volunteering with a Jesuit group, teaching English literacy on weeknights to some 40 adult refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. I sent out journalism pitches too, cold emailing story ideas to editors without expecting any reply.

To my surprise, they took my ideas. Better yet, they paid! I wrote a story for the Atlantic about a Chinese product fair, then one for Columbia Journalism Review on Syrian journalists, then another for Al-Monitor on Islamist dissent. I went to Palestine for a WIRED profile on this guy who’d hacked Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. One day, the Guardian called me asking for coverage of a terrorist trial. By Christmas, I’d published 12-13 stories on refugees, nuclear programs and protests. I’d made more than enough to cover my rent and food. I never had to dip into my $10,000, and people were asking me for pitching advice.

But listen. Friends. I’m not some path blazer who went out and “made it” as a freelancer. I am no change maker writing stories that stir hearts and inspire action. I am just here. I try to be all here. Mostly, I feel very small.

The scary yet good thing about being in the Middle East is that Death stares me in the face. I spend much of my time with refugees. Many of my friends are from Darfur, Iraq or Syria. They tell me about their brothers being tortured in jail, knives twisting into their guts. They say, my husband was kidnapped by extremists, or I don’t know if my mother is alive, or I watched my baby burn. I see our world and it’s splattered with blood. I want to look away but I can’t. Sometimes I want to get a flight and just leave, peace out, go back to my comfort bubble and pretend I never came to Jordan or had to deal with the reality of everything here.

Or I grit my teeth and think, I’ll write a story about this! If I just write a really good story, things will change. Maybe a few stories. A book! A book, and I will save the world. My Princeton self is prone to the delusion that life is basically under control. If I try hard enough at anything, I can make it happen. When things are beyond me, that just means I haven’t tried hard enough. I drive harder. Push more.

Eventually I had to stop. Girl. Who are you kidding? You think your book will end war in Sudan? And Syria? And Iraq? And everywhere in the world once and for all?

Many people think journalism is a magical tool that can humanize foreign policy, bring faces and voices back into our understanding of faraway wars, show the world that we are all ONE brotherhood and that it is foolish, ridiculous, dark and dirty and wrong to hate and kill one another. Many people think we can use journalism to make a difference.

The question Jesus asked me this year, quietly, gently, was:
What if it doesn’t?

One morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and cried for 3 hours. I was gasping from a nightmare, head and heart swirling from too many stories too many people had told me of too much hunger and pain. That’s when I realized it was silly to pretend that I’m not sad. I am sad, I prayed. Jesus, damn it, I am sad.

Suddenly honesty was howling from my veins. GOD. YOUR CHILDREN ARE DROWNING. GOD! I cried like a lunatic. I prayed without words. I felt like the very bottom of my heart had dropped out, turned into a cavern, flooding and splitting with a cry, GOD. Save us. We are crumbling, twisted, poisoned, struck – Jesus! Lord, SAVE.

Two things happened when I prayed that morning:
a) I stopped being in denial about the world.
b) I stopped trying to save it – and found hope in doing so. When I stopped trying so hard, I was suddenly, freakishly, unnaturally able to hope.

Journalism has taught me that in the Gospel, effort doesn’t save.

More importantly, it’s taught me that I don’t save.

Let me share this video with you. It’s from an amazing thing that happened when I wrote a story about my Sudanese friends: kind-hearted Americans across the world read my article, started a fundraising campaign and sent more than $5000 to help them. I went out with the Sudanese community leader and bought heaters for ~900 members of the refugee community here.

It’s beautiful, right? I was so moved when this happened. I cried. It was incredible, the kind of impact journalism I’d always dreamed of.

But I’m under no delusion. War goes on. My friends remain refugees, mistreated and forgotten, the system rigged against them for no particular reason at all. A heater is great,  but it’s a fist-sized sponge trying to sop up an ocean of need. My results-oriented self cringes, annoyed at its insufficiency, and looks for a way to leave.

My LORD says, Hush. Beloved. Stay.

I am terrified to love people when I feel like I can’t take them out of their suffering. Yet Jesus is teaching me this, to love without saving. I’m learning to accompany, to just be a friend and sister, to say I have no solutions for your problems, but I’ll stick with you anyway. I’m learning to love even when I can’t make pain stop. I’m learning, I think, to just carry pain alongside my brothers.

The tearful-lunatic-prayer thing has only grown, not stopped – but it always ends in praise. It always ends in hope, inexplicable but firm. I feel like I know God more because of it, like I know the Gospel better as a message not that pain has gone from the world, but that God loved us enough to come and bear pain alongside us. Maybe all He wants us to do is love each other enough to do likewise. Instead of straining to stop suffering, we step into it, offer a shoulder, we say, Dear friend, I can’t save you, but
I’m here,
I care,
I’m listening.

Tell me your story.

You are not alone.