Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Looking for home


Maya, age 7, loves bananas, cartoons and her pink teddy bear.

She had to leave the teddy bear back in Syria when her family fled to Lebanon to escape the worsening civil war. “It’s probably riddled with bullets now,” Maya says. She’s probably right: Homs, the city they left, is now essentially a pile of rubble.

At least she has a stuffed blue Smurf to keep her company. But she doesn’t have many human friends her age in the “home” she occupies with her parents and her teenage brother, Hammoudeh. For more than 1,000 days, they have lived with other Syrian refugees in the crumbling Gaza Hospital in Beirut. It ceased to be a medical facility during Lebanon’s own civil war decades ago, but has played host to generations of refugees from the region’s conflicts.

It’s more comfortable than the tents, sheds and hovels many Syrian refugees endure in Lebanon. But Maya — a goofy, giggly girl with tons of energy — feels like she’s growing up in a prison.

“I’m a kid! I want to have fun,” Maya complains. “Who am I supposed to play with? I’m surrounded by 10 walls. … When I get bored, I go outside. I don’t find anyone so I come back in. I keep going in, out, in, out. I drive Mum crazy!”

Syria’s civil war bled into a fifth year in March, so Maya has little chance of going home anytime soon. She doesn’t understand the larger forces that are destroying her homeland, or why she and her brother can’t go to school, or why her mother seems sad most of the time. She laughs and dreams and makes the best of an awful situation. But she knows something is wrong with a world that snatches a home and a teddy bear from a little girl. You can see it in her eyes.

Let Maya tell you her own story here. It’s one of five brief, quietly powerful video portraits of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, part of the Al Jazeera series “Life on Hold.” Watch them all if you want a glimpse of what it means to live in exile. You can even post a message to Maya.

You will also meet young Omar, who misses his assistant chef’s job and his sweetheart back in Damascus. He cares for a leg shattered by an exploding shell before he fled Syria, reads the Quran, prays, checks out the latest songs and videos online, and waits. Haifa, a widow who closed the hotel she owned in Damascus to seek safety for her three children, misses home so desperately that she wants to go back — even though conditions are far worse now than when she departed. “At least if I die, I die in Syria,” she says. Hajj, an older man who cares for his sick wife, wonders if his 200 olive trees have withered and died. He has lost 38 family members in the conflict.

Al Furati, an award-winning poet and former government worker, cries for lost friends, co-workers and simple pleasures back home. He worries about his children missing years of school, part of an entire lost generation of young Syrians. He sits in a tent with his wife and children, writing mournful verses late into the night: “Why is my country draped in the black of night? And why are Syria’s hands hennaed with blood? … Your children are now crying and your women are wailing, your precious soil is awash with the blood of your men. I feel your heart is breaking like the valley of lament, I know that your wound is too deep to heal.”

Those words reminded me of the lament of another refugee poet: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1 NASB). Carried away into forced exile 26 centuries ago, the psalmist and his Israelite brothers and sisters could only remember their beloved land and hope one day to return.

I’ve become acquainted with many refugees over the years, whether in dusty camps and border towns or after they resettled in other places such as the city where I live. They include Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Cubans, Afghanis, Iraqis, Kurds, Palestinians, Burmese, Nepalis, Syrians. I’m proud to count some of them as dear friends. Before our own children came along, my wife and I were foster parents to two Vietnamese refugee kids for a time.

I don’t pretend to understand the refugee experience, however, or the trauma, despair, isolation and loss that come with it. It is impossible to fathom unless you have gone through it.

But God understands. He loves. And He gives hope. He commands again and again in His Word that we welcome and shelter the alien, the stranger and the outcast. Jesus Christ, who experienced rejection by His own that we can only imagine, calls us to befriend the wanderers of this world and there are more of them than ever.

Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes since the civil war began. If you want to help them, or any refugees, here are 10 practical ways to do so. And here are a few more: Listen to their stories. Cry with them. Be a friend. Offer the hope only God can give.

Love transcends all borders.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Look for ‘the look'

“The look.” If you’re a parent, a teacher or a mentor, you’ve seen it on young faces.

I’m not talking about the exasperated eye roll or the heavy-lidded look of indifference. I’m talking about that yearning stare into the middle distance — the look of someone in search of direction.

If you’re a disciple maker or mission mobilizer, look for that look.

It’s not that hard to find. Don’t let all the gloom and doom about Millennials leaving the church (or never coming in the first place) get you down. There are plenty of teens, college students and young adults — Christian or not — searching for deeper purpose in their lives and eager for someone to point them in the right direction.

I’ve encountered lots of them. And research about faith, work and “calling” among American adults backs me up. Last year the Barna Group reported that three out of four adults are “looking for ways to live a more meaningful life. Whether such meaning is found in family, career, church, side projects or elsewhere, these are all questions of vocation — that is, the way in which people feel ‘called’ to certain types of work and life choices. … [T]hese questions remain as strong as ever for millions of Americans.” 

Christians have an additional question: “What does God want me to do with my life?”

According to the Barna Group’s report, “only 40 percent of practicing Christians say they have a clear sense of God’s calling on their lives. Christian Millennials are especially sensitive to this divine prompting — nearly half (48 percent) say they believe God is calling them to different work, yet they haven’t yet made such a change.”

What’s stopping them? Fear of stepping out of the safety zone, perhaps. Finances, student debt or conflicting commitments and priorities might be holding them back.
Then there’s the “quarter-life crisis” — that anxious and increasingly extended period between completing school and hitting a stride, professionally and/or relationally, when 20-somethings wander in a bewildering world of countless options and no firm decisions. It’s not a new thing. Bob Dylan captured it perfectly 50 years ago in his classic song, “Like a Rolling Stone”:

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

But maybe all many 20-somethings lack is a nudge, an encouraging word, a coach in their corner. Christians in particular crave “more direction and discipleship when it comes to the theology of calling, especially as it relates to work,” the Barna report found.

Many young Americans are following a multi-career path or working multiple jobs, whether by choice or economic necessity. The traditional 40-hour week for a single employer has changed for millions into a series of temporary jobs, freelance assignments, passion projects and startups. It’s harder to make ends meet, but the new environment affords the flexibility for people to seek something more than just a paycheck.

“A new kind of economy is taking shape, in part because it would seem today’s workforce has decided for itself that making a living is not enough if that living lacks purpose, meaning and impact,” said the Barna report. “[A]dults today are deeply concerned with getting work ‘right’ — nearly six out of 10 say they want to make a difference in the world.”

This represents a huge opportunity for Christians who want to lead a rising generation toward God and His global purposes. The secular façade that covers American culture is just that — a façade. Young adults are just as hungry for God today as ever, whether they realize it yet or not, and they’ll never know peace and purpose until they follow Him. Seek them out. If you can’t find them at church, look for them in the workplace. Join a school mentoring program.

They’re out there, hoping for a guide. Don’t keep them waiting.

(Are you a student or young professional seeking ways to make your life count? Check out http://www.marketplaceadvance.com/)