Tu donne et tu reprends, tu donne et tu reprends. 

You give and take away, you give and take away.

We sang those words in church yesterday at our annual combined service with the French church that meets before we do (we are an English-speaking congregation). We sang songs in French and English, including the classic “Blessed Be Your Name” translated into French “Béni Soit Ton Nom.” I first heard and sang this song during chapel at university in my third year, March 2004; it was our International Week. There were flags on the stage representing the home countries of the students, and the band stood in front of them, a guy who grew up in Uganda was leading the song. My guess is I’ve sung this song at least once a month in a congregational setting for the past eight years, but yesterday was the first time I sang it in a language other than English. When I saw the words in French, I started singing along.

Béni soit Ton nom
Sur cette terre de plénitude
Où Tes bienfaits se répandent
Béni soit Ton nom
Et béni soit Ton nom
Quand mon existence est un désert
Quand je parcoure des chemins inconnus
Béni soit Ton nom
 

It didn’t take long before the tears formed in my eyes, my jaw quivered and my emotions and my spirit went into full-on response mode. I had to stop singing to keep from bursting into tears. This happens to me every Sunday I’m in Germany, singing songs in German. I’m fairly certain I know why singing in a language that is not my own does something to my heart.

It reminds me that I am not the center of the universe, that my way of doing things, my way of seeing things is not right, there are different ways of communication, different ways of talking to God, there are people all over the world who communicate with him in different ways than I do, and this is good. This is right. And my heart is well in these moments because it is reminded of the truth – my way is not the only way. 

Something happens to us when we live in a monocultural, monolingual environment. We start to think that our way of living is the only way of living, our way of thinking is the only way of thinking, our human way is the best way. This is a lie – our way of living, however good it may be, is not the only way of living. Our way of thinking, however rational or educated we may be, is not the only way of thinking. Our human way, however well thought out or well prayed out it may be, is not the only way.

This lie does something to us – it turns us against other people who live and believe differently, and it causes a swell of judgment and bitterness to rise up within us. This is what heals inside of me when I sing in a different language, this is what heals when I believe that I am not the centre of the universe, me with my “right”  way of doing things, “right” way of thinking, “right” way living. 

I have been thinking and continue to think long and hard about the 2012 campaign season and elections. I have read many articles. I have seen many a Facebook status update. I have had a few conversations. And I have my own soul and mind and my own thoughts about all of these things. This week is my attempt to wrestle some of these thoughts out on this “page” and an effort to talk to you instead of Husband who can only listen to so much ranting at 5 in the morning. Seriously. Five in the morning. Chances are you’re more than tired of hearing about the U.S. elections, and in my own small way, I am sorry for adding to the noise. Well, I hope this week won’t be noise but thoughts for everyone, United States of American and people who are not. I have had a few seasons of writing about politics; I have not always been gracious or gentle. I am trying this week to write to deeper things, not things on the surface, and I am trying to see how these thoughts will work out in my own life as well.

Here are my thoughts for today, and they are aimed primarily toward people who are Christians.

It’s no secret that most of us like to be around people who remind us of ourselves. I find myself in the bizarre situation of being a non-white person to the naked eye (I’m more than brown as a Sri Lankan for anyone who is interested), yet I know my mind is fairly “western,” more specifically “whitely western,” so yes I have no problem saying that if you ask me whom I feel most comfortable around other than my family, it is probably going to be western people, specifically western white people from the U.S. I just want to make this clear, in case it is not obvious, that this does not mean people of other nationalities, ethnicities or races make me uncomfortable. My closest friends have been from five continents, they all have different colours and speak different languages. I am just saying that, when I enter a room for the first time, the people I tend to be connect with the easiest  are people who are white from the U.S.

All of us have these preferences, but what we do about our natural preferences determine how we will live and what we will think.

I’m wondering today about my life and your life, whoever you are who is reading this. Who are my friends? Who are your friends? Do they look like us? Do they sound like us? Have the same lives that we lead? Are they from the same kind of economic background? Do they have the same faith, values and lifestyle? Are they educated in the same way that you are?

If you consider yourself a Christian, are you ever in places of worship that include people who speak a different language? Is everyone or are a majority of the same colour and economic background? Do you actively seek out people of different cultures as friends for you and for your children?

There was something heartbreaking for me listening to the spin in the days after the elections. Democrats turned out the Hispanic, African American and female vote, hooray says the Democrats! Republicans need to do some soul searching about immigration reform and how they “talk” about women’s issues. Pundits bemoaning their lives in an America that “is not your grandfather’s America.” Christians who feel lost in a country that no longer shares their values.

But when it comes to the subject of people, language, culture, colour and countries, it doesn’t matter if the president is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and it doesn’t matter if the House and Senate is controlled by Republicans or Democrats because the people who live in your towns and cities are the people who live in your towns and cities, and your choice, everyone’s choice is this: How will we treat our neighbors? How will we think about and treat our fellow citizens? 

The illusion an election provides in democratic societies is the illusion of control – we think we put someone in office who will do what we want. They will most likely not. Yes, Barack Obama is probably going to make more Democrats than Republicans happy in the next four years. But he will not even make all Democrats happy in every way he could. He will disappoint them; he might even infuriate them. Elected officials may be accountable to the citizens who elected them, but they are ultimately people who make human decisions. You and I do not control public policy, voting may direct public policy, but it in no way controls it. It is easy, very, very easy to see people in terms of the political abstractions of welfare, abortion and immigration reform. Let us not be so easily deceived. People are people, they are not policies or laws or entitlement reforms. When was the last time you befriended someone on welfare? Not to be their charitable savior, but to befriend them, to get to know them as they are? We may not have control over public policy, but we have complete control over how we treat other people, and we have complete control over the culture we create in our homes and in our communities. 

These are questions I am thinking about for myself because I am realizing that the more deeply entrenched I become in my “way” of doing things, I will be disconnecting myself and my family from relationships that have the power to transform us. My relationships in Geneva are with people of a variety of cultures and beliefs, but they are mostly with highly educated, highly skilled and highly resourced people. This needs to change. I have no idea how, but it needs to change.

What are the cultural stereotypes that hold us back from other races, other colours, other languages? Yes, there are people on all extremes who fit stereotypes, but the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle, in a place that doesn’t fit a caricature, and it doesn’t matter if we are white, black, brown, blue, red or yellow, we want to be known and accepted for who were are as people. How are you inviting people who are different from you into your life? In what ways are you inviting yourself into theirs? 

Husband and I talked about this, and for us we think it might mean every so often going to a church of a different culture from ours – a Spanish congregation, a Filipino one, etc. If you are a Christian and still reading this, can I make a humble suggestion? Go to an African American congregation and engage. Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. Go to a Hispanic American congregation. Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. Go to a white church. Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. (And there are so many others, Chinese, Korean, Ethiopian, Russian, Arab, Jewish, find any one of them).

Don’t sit there and judge. Engage. Worship. Sing. Enjoy. And thank God that he made us different, that he understands and hears all languages, that he has no favourites and preferences, and that he loves it when we are together. 

It’s a small gesture, leaving our blinds cracked instead of fully closed. Our bed faces the sunrise, and every morning in the winter I like to watch the yellow rays piercing the darkness of the room, the darkness of the cold. And I am warmer looking at it. Enjoying the sun for what it is.

Our small kitchen table, bought in Sri Lanka, rocks and its days are numbered because it’s a safety hazard for Small One, but for now the three of us congregate there most mornings for breakfast. The day’s surprise is whether or not there is snow on the Jura, the mountain we can see out of our balcony doors as we face west. On a clear day, the snow is rosy from the pink sky of the sun rising in the east. It is beautiful.

My sister went to Afghanistan in 2010, and she told me that there are no trees in Kabul. The Taliban cut them down, she said. Why? I asked her. There was no reason. They wanted to remove any sign of beauty, any sign of life, from the landscape.

Beauty is powerful, and no I’m not talking about the way a human being’s physical beauty can hold another human being in an emotional vice grip. I’m talking about beauty in the broadest sense, the quality that cannot be fully described by human words but you know it when you encounter it, in nature, in another person, in yourself, in stillness, in the bustle, in the city, in the country. You know it because you want to be part of this beauty because it is changing you, making you whole, and it is healing the wounds that ugliness leaves on our insides. I think encountering beauty reminds us somewhere deep inside that there is something more than all of this.

This could be whatever problem facing us today and making our life difficult, this is the discipline required to do what we don’t want to do, this is an annoying person, this is the current state of politics, this is our bank account, this is life’s mess.

But there is something more for all of us than all of this. 

I make room for beauty by leaving my days open, so I have time to notice the sunlight shining through our red, Moroccan curtains.

I find beauty when I open the Bible and make room for its words to live inside of me.

Beauty comes to my soul when I walk with Small One in the park without a schedule, so we can look at the leaves and watch the way the wind blows the yellow, orange and red from the trees.

Ruby red pomegranate seeds. Books on a bookshelf. A simple smile. Smelling an orange peel. Freshly chopped herbs. A pot of tortilla soup. Laughing with Small One. Hide-and-go-chase. The sound of the elevator door opening when Husband comes home.

There is a much-needed soul restoration that takes place daily when I make room for beauty in my life as I remind myself that there is more than this

Photo by Robb Duncan of Pixxil Photography

Small One woke up at 6:10am today, Husband got up next, played with him, fed him, I think. I don’t know because I was asleep most of that time until almost 8am when I got out of bed. Even two weeks ago, we could not have done this without me lying there, racked with guilt that I was being a bad wife. Husband works hard, he has a job that places high demands on his intellect, his management and his skills, and he excels in all departments. Before we started our married life together, I thought he would come home to a clean apartment and wake up to a warm breakfast because I was going to be awake before dawn.

It didn’t happen. It is not happening. Instead for the past two months and what looks like the foreseeable future, Husband wakes up with Small One and cares for him while I get some extra sleep. Many days we have breakfast together as a family, but on a few days like today, I sleep until Small One’s morning nap at 8am, which means yes, I wake up and then have two more hours to myself. And yes, Husband goes to work where he has not time for himself until 6:30pm when he leaves to come home so he can spend a few minutes with his son before putting him to bed.

Making room for love in my heart and in my life has not been an easy journey. People talk about falling in love or being in love or just loving another person in ways that make it sound like a natural process human beings go through. Maybe it is for some, or maybe I’m a little abnormal in this way, but I didn’t just love people, and when it comes to the topic of romantic love for a man, I didn’t want to go there.

There’s no need to go into the complex reasons, the simple ones are obvious enough: Trust is hard. Relationships take work. Work is hard. Life on my own was easy, enjoyable even. “‘Til death do us part” is a long time. My commitments tend to have a four-year time limit. And the list goes on.

I can’t remember why I made room in my life for love; it wasn’t a conscious decision but one that evolved over time before I met Husband. Perhaps it’s the reason I didn’t run screaming when we stood at the bookshelf during our second meeting. I didn’t stay long, just five minutes. But it was enough for significant memory to form, an impression of him was made in that moment and a real connection ignited.

I think about this when I watch single people, men and women, and observe the choices they make. I read about university hookup culture and delayed marriage, and I think, What would happen if we opened our hearts to real love? Isn’t pining after a cheap version of it a sign that we’re afraid of the real thing? 

I think about it when I think about my own life and marriage because making room for love isn’t a one-time decision, it’s a path I am forging, and it means daily decisions that cuts a bit of the brush out of the way, taking one step forward tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and so on. Love is costly, when Husband leaves in the morning for work, he has been awake for several hours with our son, meeting needs only to turn around and face a long day of thinking, working, acting. All of this costs him something but he pays the cost because he loves me. There is room in his life for me, for his son. And I make room in my heart for him by receiving the ways he wants to love me and serve our family.  

Making room for love is one of the costliest decisions I have ever made, and from watching Husband’s life, I would say it is one of the costliest for him as well. We navigate our marriage daily through the joys before us, the traps laid by our enemies and the follies of our own selves, and there have been many conversations, tears, an ocean of grace, forgiveness upon forgiveness upon forgiveness, laughter, peace, agreement, humility and passion. But in paying the price, I have discovered this basic truth: Love’s expense makes it worthwhile. We treasure the people and relationships that cost us everything. 

He began as a small seed, bedding down in the lining of a wall, flooding my body with hormones within days of the beginning of his life. It happens quickly, the way a baby takes up space, filling the uterus, pushing its walls out and above the pelvic rim, into the abdominal cavity, shoving organs out of the way, legs and arms beating the drum of his coming arrival. Before I ever had to make room for a baby in my life, I had to make room for him in my body, and I was given no choice in that matter. He just took over.

I wish I listened to what my body was doing for those nine months because it would have better prepared me for the first few months of Small One’s life. Children take up space, real physical and emotional space, and I can happily throw my heart, time and plans open and submit to this takeover or fight it the whole way. 

For the first few months, I kept trying to have the same life I had before Small One existed. Frequent trips out, complicated cooking, lots of time online until I discovered that I was just trying to escape facing the deepest truth about motherhood – loving my child means sacrifice for me. It means my life has to change.

I’m not sure where these ideas came from . I suppose on one side there are people who say that we can’t lose our identity to our children, we can’t let them sideline our careers and plans. But I can’t say that the Christian subculture I came from gave me a better set of ideas – don’t be a child-centered family, I could take my children anywhere, she told me, they were so well behaved, children need to know that they aren’t the most important thing in your life, your marriage is more important of course.

So here I am, almost one-and-a-half years later and finding myself somewhere in this middle ground of making room for him, my son who comes alive with joy when I play hide and seek or run after him or growl at him during meal times. 

I made room for him physically through breastfeeding, even when it was inconvenient for me, even though it took an emotional and physical toll that at times were too much to bear, but I made room for him in my body. I make room for him physically now through generous cuddles, rough and tumble play, and carrying him even though he’s getting older and heavier.

I make room for him in our home by letting him open drawers and take out things (that eventually he has to return), by having few places and things that are “no no nos,” by giving him a space of his own for creation, reading and play.

I make room for him in my schedule by playing to his strengths – not many trips out to shops and meetings, lots of time in the park, time out of the stroller, walking while holding my hand, meandering wherever he wants in the park, picking up leaves. I keep my days as simple as possible so that when he is awake, we spend our time together. I have one chore per day (laundry on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, admin on Wednesday, and so on) plus our daily meals and trips to the grocery store for produce. I have days for the computer and days off, I blog, I check email, we Skype with family, I read and that is basically it.

I have tried to simplify my life as much as possible because it gives me freedom to enjoy my days with my son. He’s involved in most of my home life. He washes the dishes with me, sweeps the floor with me, unloads the washer and loads the dryer. All of these tasks happen more slowly than it would if I did not have my little helper, but I make room in my day, in my schedule for it because this is the best way to teach my son the good nature of work and to include him in my life.

I have not trained Small One to be good in public, to sit quietly while I chat with a friend and drink a coffee, to “behave” in church. When I want to go out, I time it so that Husband is home or I get a babysitter. Small One and I do go out and sit in cafes, sometimes with friends, but these outings happen twice a month or so. It is not our norm. Why? Because in my inching daily toward knowing and understanding him better, I do not believe that these are the things that he loves, and so I make room in my life, I make allowance for that, not because I want my life to rotate around my son’s but because I love him and desire to create an atmosphere for him where he can thrive.

Am I losing some things because I have chosen to spend this season of my life this way? Obviously, the answer is yes, and I don’t need to write a list because most of you can guess what those things are. But here is my bottom line. These years with Small One are few and precious, and I will not miss a moment of it because I need to have a cleaner apartment, more loads of laundry finished and have “my life” on “my schedule” in “my time.” No. I have made the decision to radically slow my life down to make room for him, and it gives me the daily freedom to enjoy him, to enjoy being a mother and to enjoy this season of life.

It started in the summer when I read Organized Simplicity by Tsh Oxenreider and thought to myself, We have too much stuff, I need to clear everything out. It continued in the early fall as cleaning out our apartment – or trying to, anyway – helped me to see the clutter in my soul and schedule, so I did an internal clearing. The momentum picked up when I read Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and saw how simplicity in my inside and outside can impact my son’s life. And I suspect that November will be no different, being thankful for all things keeps me focused on the simple, the small, and now I’m re-reading the Little House on the Prairie books and yearning for a simpler world.

I’m trying to think through these things this week, to “make room” in my life for more intentionality, less stuff, more deep investments, less shallow, more time, less plans.

So here’s the thing. I love stuff. Clothes, memorabilia, books, decorations that look good, photobooks, kitchenware, dishes. Oh dishes. I have to stay away from those aisles with beautiful plates, cups and serving bowls because they bring my little heart so much joy. I love buying books for Small One and toys that he will enjoy. I love a variety of music. I love making plans. I love knowing a week in advance what I will do during the weekend, what will happen this time next year, what will we eat for Christmas dinner. I like knowing with whom I’m catching up, where, when, how.

But all of these things that I love take up space, very literal space but also space in my mind and in my heart. You know where I’m going, I think. If it needs room to exist in my life, it is taking that space away from something else. 

Silence. God. Time. Blank walls. Husband. Thinking. Quiet. Small One. Peace. Joy.

When my life is crowded with things, people and plans, there is no space for the deeper things of value to thrive.