Saturday, January 18, 2014

One year later......

One year ago today I was waking up for the first time in Bahrain; we had arrived at midnight therefore I didn't know what to expect when the sun came up the next day.  I was shocked by the beauty of the ocean right in front of my window!  I couldn't wait to go outside and walk Bella on the beach and I remember thinking, "How on earth did I end up here???"  Today I woke up to a beautiful, cloudy, rainy day and after a whole year of being here, I am still in awe every time I come down the stairs and see the beauty of the water in front of me.  I still love going outside with Bella to feel the morning breeze and I still, honestly and wholeheartedly think, "How is it that we're so blessed to be here???"

I would like to think that I've always been this gracious in my journey but the truth is that I've had my moments.  As much of a blessing as this life is, it has been clouded only by my own inability to fully accept this gift and because of my own expectations.  I realize now that this is why I've neglected to blog for over six months, even though so many kind friends kept asking me to do so.  If I can be brutally honest, it's because when I left, I left with what felt like great expectations from everyone, including myself!  Because of my many years in ministry and service to God, and because of the blessings I had received through them, I truly felt that God would NOT remove me from that life if He didn't plan on using me for the same here.  In other words, there must be something He needed me to do here!  As I was leaving, I kept hearing, "God is going to use you there; God really must need you to do His work there; maybe you'll start the first CSS class in a Muslim country!"  They were are all very well-intended comments but I remember starting to feel the pressure; pressure because in the back of my mind (and in my heart) I was beginning to think, "But what if God is pulling me out of here and placing me all the way over there because He feels the need to work on ME! What if I'm not being sent to do great things for Him over there?!"    I guess this is where I need to say that I was right; and unfortunately that is why, after countless of times of trying to sit down and write, I couldn't do it, if only because I was afraid to disappoint.  I myself felt disappointed; I felt lost; I was not in my element; I wasn't really doing anything that I considered "great" or of value and I was not used to NOT DOING; I felt like I had nothing "substantial" to say.

Today, I'm not sure it's substantial, but God has revealed so much to me in these last few weeks; I have been gently corrected in my understanding and my hope is that in sharing some of it with you, we can all be reminded to thank God for the "here and now"; to look at the present, not what was or what we hope will be, but simply look at each day as an abundant gift from God and peacefully accept and trust in God's plan for our lives.   *Highlighted because I will come back to this at the end.

So, "what do you do?"  A question you usually ask when you meet someone; a question I have come to hate because I never really know what to say; especially now!  Society places so much importance in what we do instead of who we are, and it always feels like the answer is supposed to impress; as if to say that what I do will define my importance in this world.  That's why I think when I got here, after a few months of loving my solitude; loving my time spent in deep prayer and contemplation, I began to feel that I really needed to go and DO something!  After all, I'm used to doing; I live to serve God and that means I need to be doing something to that end.  I kept looking and looking, but thankfully my heart knew that I needed to wait on the Lord until He revealed it.  Crickets..... other words, nothing was being revealed.  I started to think that it was because I would be going home and traveling for most of the summer so maybe God didn't want me to start something only to interrupt it.  He's so wise like that!!  So He was probably waiting until I got back to put me to work.  And true to form, I came back with the resolve to get to work and I thought that the yearning in my heart for the Word of God and Scripture was His prompting me to go back to what I know and love; what I know how to DO - and that was to lead a bible study!!  Yes!  I could finally report back that I had indeed started the first CSS bible study in Bahrain!  Oh, how easily we can talk ourselves into believing that our desires are His desires for us.

All I will say is that instead of bringing me the joy I anticipated, I was met with indifference and apathy.  At first I was sad; then frustrated and even a little angry.  Why didn't these people want this great gift I wanted to share with them???  The class that we were able to start was a very small group and the dynamics would not lend themselves to the style or method of teaching I had used before; the one I felt I was "good" at.  This was a whole new different ball game and I quickly began to think that perhaps I had made a mistake.  I could see that maybe my need to DO something had led me back to what was safe; in the absence of hearing clear direction from God, I just went back to what I knew how to do.  But I also know that when we're not in God's will, even when we're doing something "good", the joy and the peace we long for will elude us and I started to feel in my heart that this was the problem.  How could I have been so wrong??

I finally concluded that what I believed in my heart from the beginning was truly God's voice speaking to me. I was not necessarily brought here to DO, but to BE.  To be still in the presence of God.  I know that I am not beyond needing work; I, like everyone else, am a work in progress and God is not ever finished with us until the day He takes us home and can then call us "Saints".  I was reminded of Abraham and Moses and so many of the prophets who had been pulled away from their homes; their families, their comfort zones, into the desert for many, many years while God worked in them, strengthened them, taught them, in order to prepare them for the next phase of their lives.  I have been incredibly blessed and privileged to serve God in so many ways and for so many years, but I truly feel that at this point in my life, God is longing to have me all to Himself to continue a good work in me.  And how blessed am I that He would want to spend quality, intimate time with me??  How blessed are WE to know that He desires the same from each and every one of us??  

God is so loving that many times He lets us have what we think we have to have - what we think we need, and when it doesn't turn out quite right, He can still work with our mistakes for His good; I believe that is what He is doing with me and the bible study class.  It is small and it's different, but I see now that this allows for some very intimate, personal discussions and growing in faith.  It allows for a more personal encounter with these people who truly have a desire to grow closer to God.  I am re-energized simply by being in the Word again and by being able to share what  God has revealed to me about Himself; and still learning; learning to rely completely on His power to teach and engage in a whole new way.  Last night, I came home feeling so blessed because I could clearly see the love and grace that is being poured out on our little class.

When I left home, I brought a plaque that was given to me as a gift with one of my favorite scripture verses on it; "Be still and know that I am God".  Favorite because it's the one I've always known I need to remember the most!!  Today I am very happy to tell you that that is exactly what I do here in Bahrain.  I started the New Year with a resolve to truly embrace just being still; I am trying very hard not to feel guilty for spending an entire morning, or even an entire day just reading, praying, thinking, journaling about God and all that He is revealing to me.  And I am grateful and humbled, that He loves me enough to work on the places I need working on; to know that even if I need 40 years to correct and strengthen me, it is worth it because I will be that much better equipped to love and serve Him, which is truly my greatest desire!

God desires intimate time with each one of us - of that I am absolutely sure!  So after spending my morning looking out my window, watching the rain fall softly on the water and feeling the tears of gratitude run down my face, I knew I was finally ready to share with you once again.  As I sat down at my computer, I saw a Facebook post from a very special friend and it said this: Offer a spontaneous prayer for the insight to view the "here and now" as an abundant gift from God and to peacefully accept the path in life that you have created thus far.    We have the free-will to choose the path in life we want to take; my prayer is that we will all choose to walk in His path for our lives and to embrace our "here and now" as our own personal gift from God so that we can enjoy the peace that only He can give.

As always, I send you many blessings from Bahrain!!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Eid Mubarak!

I kept waiting for my six months here to be completed; thinking perhaps I would be in a very different place emotionally since I arrived.  It's funny, but in looking back, I don't feel that much different.  I still feel like I'm on vacation!  A long one of course, but I don't feel "settled".   I don't feel at "home" and perhaps that is a good thing!  It has not become ordinary and I continue to look at each day with excitement and anticipation of a new experience; a new insight, a new revelation at life.

This past month has been especially extraordinary as we experienced Ramadan - the holy month of fasting for Muslims.  I had heard the horror stories; it's awful; you can't eat or drink in public, you have to cover your elbows and your knees, you can't eat out, etc... etc....  I however, was not so concerened with what I couldn't do; I wanted to see what they did!  I kept thinking that it would be like our Lent - 40 days of fasting, praying, and almsgiving and I was right!  Although, I have to admit that they are a little more fervent in their practices.  They fast from sun up to sun down from everything including water and they are supposed to actually attend the Mosque each day for evening prayers (normally you can pray in your own home).  They are also supposed to perform acts of charity and help their less fortunate elders.  All of this is to help them draw closer to God by praying more fervently, by practicing self-control and to be more congnizant of reaching out to the poor.  Those basically are the three pillars of Lent for the Catholic Christain - Fasting; Prayer; Almsgiving. 

The difference?  Well for one, I kept thinking how amazing it would be if our entire COUNTRY was united in our observance of Lent.  Where we took it seriously enough to close down our businesses so as to encourage and allow everyone to commit more time to prayer and to God.  Here, every restaurant was closed until sun down.  No one is allowed to drink or eat in public; not even in your car, so as not to tempt one who is fasting.  To do so is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and the police will stop you and issue you the citation!!  It was a bit daunting to see the streets that are lined with restaurants and usually full of people, completely empty.  Traffic was very light during the day and there are many theories as to why, which I will comment on in a minute, but I have to admit, that part was great!!  And when I did happen to be passing by a Mosque in the evening, I was touched by the number of cars parked outside and how many men were going to attend evening prayers.  It reminded me of how daily Mass attendance usually rises during Lent.

I myself admire their devotion; I cannot see into their hearts and therefore I will not judge their actions.  Unfortunately, that is what I found most disturbing; the cynicism of those who do not understand or subscribe to their religion.  They criticize them for holding a feast each night after breaking their fast.  They usually break their fast at sundown with evening prayers followed by an Iftar.  It consists of feasting on dates and water, followed by a delicious dinner.  I found it touching to learn that people will take dates and water to the Mosques each day and leave them there for those who are coming straight from work.   They also donate food which are then put into baskets for the needy to take.  Most restaurants have great Iftar Buffets and everyone benefits from the low prices meant to bring in business that may have been lost during the day.  We attended one and it was delicious!!  But for the most part, they cook delicious meals at home for the Iftar and invite family and friends.  After the Iftar, the continue with another buffet of food and music and fellowship that can last way into the early morning of the following day.  Again, many restaurants hold "all you can eat" buffets that run past midnight in beautiful outdoor tents.  Because of this celebration that can continue so late, many will say that that is why traffic is light; that they will then sleep all day and accomodate their work schedules  so as not to have to endure being awake during the fast of the day.  So where is the "sacrifice" in that??? 

I would say that that kind of practice is only possible for certain people; the wealthy, the self-employed, and not the common person.  A friend told me that she didn't look forward to Ramadan because her Muslim co-workers came in to work without brushing their teeth since they couldn't drink water, were grumpy from not eating, and then would drive like maniacs once they were off in order to go and get something to eat!  That doesn't sound like someone who is up partying all night and sleeping through the day.  And besides; even for those that might accomodate their schedules; we don't know what other changes or small sacrifices it might take; or whether despite their ability to do that, are not spending devout time in prayer or donating money or food to help those less fortunate.  Those sacrifices that are done in the private of their hearts and out of the public eye are the ones that mean the most to God!  So again, I don't attempt to judge; but I love meaning and the intent of what this time is meant to be about and I respect their efforts, for God knows my intent is not always carried out during Lent; my sacrifices are not always what they should be, but I do believe that God honors our efforts.

At the end of Ramadan, everyone is giddy with excitement; the stores are filled with beautiful fruit and candy baskets for gifts; and people are out shopping for new clothes to wear on the day after Ramadan is over - Eid.  As the sun goes down and the moon is spotted, the cannons go off and there is great celebration!  The next day is what I compare to our Easter Sunday - they all dress up and go to the Mosque for prayer; they cook big meals and families all gather and exchange gifts.  They give gifts to their neighbors - I received fresh dates from my friend, who had received them as a gift from her Muslim neighbors, and all the locals gets 5-12 days off to go and vacation and celebrate!  I can only imagine they feel the same type of joy we feel when we awake on Easter Sunday and can enjoy and celebrate with the deeper love for Christ we have hopefully cultivated during our 40 days of Lent.

Yes, maybe for some it's just a religious or cultural obligation; and yes, some will find ways around the sacrificial aspects prescribed.  For some, it is just a time for parties and a reason to buy a new outfit.  Am I talking about Ramadan or am I talking about Easter???  Funny isn't it, that I could be talking about either one. 

The fact is that our devotion to God is personal.  There are ways that are prescribed; traditions, obligations, suggestions at how we can enter more fully into God's presence so as to receive spiritual nourishment and strengthening for the journey, but it still all depends on us.  On the interior of our hearts; the place that only God can truly see. 

What a blessing for me to get to experience it first hand.  I am hoping that by next year I will have made some Muslim friends that would allow me to experience it a little more personally with them; but for now, I can honestly say that I not only survived my first Ramadan...I truly enjoyed it!

P.S. The Grand Mosque hosts an Open House a few times a year where visitors can tour the Mosque and visit different stations that explain different aspects of the Muslim faith.  They have food for you to sample; they have someone chanting parts of the daily prayer, the explain their cleansing rituals, etc...  It was very enlightening and I've posted pictures in my Facebook Album under this link: