How My Muslim Neighbors Helped Me Grow Closer to the Heart of Jesus

Cross and Sky

I pressed my forehead against the door of my apartment. After emptying my purse twice in fifteen minutes, it was time to admit that my keys were inside and I was locked out. This happened in 2002. My husband and I had lived in the D.C. metro area for only two months, and we shared a cell phone and a car–both of which were in his possession at that moment.

The closest payphone was about a mile away and walking to it alone in the dark scared me, so I decided to ask someone who lived in the apartment complex for help. I didn’t know any of my neighbors, but a couple who smiled at me a lot lived upstairs and I knew they were home. Nervously, I knocked on their door and the husband, whose name I learned was Hasim, opened it and invited me inside before I said a word.

While I explained what had happened, Hasim’s wife, Aisha brought me a glass of water and offered to serve me dinner. When I politely declined a meal, she asked me to sit on the sofa and then placed a large bowl of fruit on the coffee table in front of me. Hasim smiled as he handed me the phone. After I reached my husband and learned he’d be home in 20 minutes, I thanked my neighbors and told them that I’d wait downstairs.

“Angela, will you please stay with us as our guest until your husband is home?” Aisha asked while sliding the bowl of fruit closer toward me. “You are our neighbor, we don’t want you to sit alone outside.”

Picking up an apple, I awkwardly agreed to stay. Their kindness was genuine and although we struggled to understand the words we spoke to one another, I felt connected to the generous couple.

In less than ten minutes, I learned that Hasim, who drove a taxi in the United States, used to be an engineer in Pakistan. He said money as a cab driver was decent in 1999 and 2000, but after September 11, 2001, his business declined.

“So many people hate us now because of the terrorists,” Hasim explained. “People get close to my car and almost open the door until they see ‘Muslim.’ Then they walk away. They are scared. I understand why … to them, I look like the evil men who killed so many people. That was such a terrible, terrible thing,” he said through wet eyes and a tight throat.

In that moment it became clear that although they weren’t happy that I locked myself out of my apartment, Hasim and Aisha were grateful that I ended up outside their door that night. My mishap presented them with a rare opportunity of friendship with a neighbor.

My husband knocked at the door, was ushered inside cheerfully, handed a glass of water, and directed to the couch. He looked at me as if we had been kidnapped.

“Go with it,” I whispered. “We have new friends.”

Our neighbors asked us if we were Christians and told us how much they respected Jesus, who they knew as a “good man.” Feeling comfortable, I shared more about my faith and how I knew Jesus as my God, savior, and friend. Hasim and Aisha listened closely. They didn’t interrupt or shift with discomfort. They soaked in every syllable. My husband and I stayed put on that gray couch for a few more minutes before leaving with plastic containers filled with traditional Pakistani meals.

The next day, I washed Aisha’s containers, filled them with chocolate chip cookies, and knocked on her door. Again, I was invited inside and we talked for about an hour. She told me about her young daughters and how lonely she felt in her new home.

She also spoke about her family in Pakistan, her mixed feelings regarding the possibility of returning, and how she felt like she didn’t fit in America or her homeland. I told her I understood and that I, for years, felt like an outsider in my hometown and a wanderer wherever we moved next.

“Now we have each other. We are friends,” she said with a question mark while wrapping her hand around my fingers.

“We are friends,” I confirmed, returning her grip. “You will always have a friend in me, Aisha.”

For the next ten months, the gentle Pakistani family and mine strengthened our bond and we never returned a container empty. Sometimes, along with food, I included scripture verses that spoke of Jesus’ love, because above all, I wanted them to know how deeply they were loved despite how despised they were in the eyes of many.

One day I answered Aisha’s knock with fragility and a broken heart.
“I lost my baby,” I whispered half the words and mouthed the others as tears chased my chin.

Aisha hugged me tight and through tears of her own said, “Jesus is holding your baby right now. He loves your baby.”

A few months later, my husband and I moved into another apartment complex about fifteen minutes away. Hasim, Aisha and their girls were among the first to visit us. They even brought a toaster oven as a housewarming present (and we still have it today). They visited again after our daughter was born. Sadly, that was the last time we saw or even heard from our precious neighbors. They were returning to Pakistan and asked that we pray for their safety.

I think of our neighbors often. I remember our deep conversations, our food exchanges, and how much we needed one another. Different backgrounds, different faiths, different languages even, but the same basic needs to be seen, understood, and accepted. Most of all, I remember how Aisha and Hasim helped me grow closer to the heart of Jesus through their generous hospitality. They didn’t know Jesus like I do (although I still pray that they will), but they knew how to love like Jesus asked us to love others. And sometimes, they did it far better than I did.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love is from God. Everyone who loves has been been born of God and knows God.” – I John 4:7.

Because This Worn-Out World is Not Your Home

my heart longs

My daughter first asked me about heaven a few weeks after her fourth birthday.

“Mommy, I’m scared of Heaven. I don’t want to be dead and live anywhere without you and Daddy.  ”

Quietly exhaling, I sat still with her on my lap. I wasn’t sure where to start, so I kissed her worried, wrinkled, forehead and said, “Oh darling, Heaven is the most wonderful place.”

We had discussed Heaven and death a few times already that week after we discovered her fish Sprinkles floating lifelessly in his little tank. However, each question I answered seemed to have left her more unsettled. My four-year-old wanted answers that meshed with her immediate reality. She could not clearly fathom the time differences between “next month” and “next year.” She could not imagine life without her family. She only knew what it was like to be a toddler and that was her yardstick for measuring the future.

“But what kind of skin will I have when I get there?”

Oh boy, she goes straight for the unknowns, I thought. Why couldn’t she ask me about the streets?

“Well, I am not sure. God will give you a new and wonderful body.”

Her frown deepened.

“I don’t want a new body. I want to keep this body that God already made me in. I love it. It is so beautiful.”

Smiling at her precious innocence and admiration for God’s artistry, I kissed her again, and as I did, I noticed a bandage on her foot.

“Well, your new body will be even more beautiful and it won’t get any boo boos on it ever.

The corner of her mouth rose slightly.

“That is a very good thing. But I’m still not sure I want to go there. Will you go with me?”

“No one knows when they are going to go to Heaven, but I promise you that I will be there someday.”

“I just really like living here in this beautiful world,” she continued.

“We do live in a beautiful world. God made it so. But people made it messy in some ways by doing some ugly things. Heaven, will be perfect. There won’t be any mean people in Heaven. No monsters. No scary spiders or snakes. In fact, when you get to Heaven, I bet Jesus will let you pet a real lion. And the lion won’t even bite you because only gentle, friendly lions live in Heaven.”

The face of my animal-loving girl gleamed.

“Wow! That will be really wonderful. Can I run with the Cheetahs too? Cheetahs are my favorite”

“I think you will. And if so, can I run with you?”

“Yes, Mommy!”

“Do you know what else is great about Heaven? You’ll be able to meet people that lived on Earth before you were born, like my grandmothers and Jesus’ mommy.”

Suddenly, my marathon talker was silent, her smile radiant.

“And do you want to know the very best part about Heaven? It’s that you get to hug Jesus.”

“Ohhhh! That is going to be so wonderful!”

Then her smile wavered. I bit my lip and thought, I cannot possibly top hugging Jesus. What on earth is bothering her now?

“I don’t have to die and go to Heaven now….right Mommy? It will be a long time when I go to be with Jesus right?”

“I think so sweetie.” Oh Lord, let it be so, please let it be so, I prayed.

“But whenever you get there, I promise you that you will not feel sad for one second. You will be very safe. All you will feel is love.”

I hugged her tight and traced my index finger around her tiny freckle and I kissed her again. And then I felt a tender sensation in my soul. I cannot imagine Heaven being more beautiful than a moment like the one I just described between my daughter and I. But it will be.

Seven years have passed since that conversation, but I remember every detail and I think about it often. When this world becomes too much, I rush to the memory of holding my girl close to my chest and talking about a very real place where lions won’t bite. And while no one knows exactly how heaven will look or feel–because nothing on earth can compare–my heart longs for my forever home.

Isaiah 11:6-9 The Message

The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.

How do your envision heaven?

A version of this post titled “Where Lions Won’t Bite” originally appeared on (in)courage on November 15, 2010.

When You’re Angry with Yourself Because You Can’t Pull it Together

windowrain

I have been pregnant three times. I have given birth twice.

Fragmented memories remain of the day I lost my first baby–the child whose heart thumped in my womb for only eight short weeks. I remember the horror I felt when I discovered the first scarlet spots alerting me that my baby was gone. I remember the weight of my husband’s hand resting heavy on my shoulder when my doctor confirmed our fears and tried to comfort us with statistics. I remember the coldness that swept through my chest when the nurse assisting with the examination gave me a stern warning as I shakily made my way toward the exit.

“Now I know you’ve heard some unsettling news, but you need to pull it together,” she cautioned as I brushed tears off my cheeks and neck. “You’re young. You’ll get pregnant again in no time. There are women in that waiting room who are pregnant now and they don’t need to be upset. So just get a hold of your emotions before you go out there.”

Then, with a pat on my back, she scurried away … leaving me embarrassed by my grief.

My legs trembled as if I was walking a tight rope without a safety net. Through blurred vision, I forced a stoic expression, entwined my trembling fingers with those belonging to my husband, and walked out of the building. With each step, one thought bounced around my mind.

Pull it together. I need to pull it together. Pull it together.

I’ve heard those words numerous times throughout my life in various situations. Sometimes they were spoken by well-meaning individuals. Other times, I whispered the phrase to myself.

A graveside vigil. Pull it together.

Job loss. Pull it together.

A loved one’s betrayal. Pull it together.

Saying goodbye to dear friends. Pull it together.

Overwhelmed by an infant’s colicky cries or a toddler’s 40-minute tantrum. Pull it together.

I’m sure that everyone who reads this post can add to the list above.

Truth be told, I think the expectation of “pulling it together” during times of emotional agony is often misguided. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel is a beautiful example from scripture of a woman who mourned honestly before the Lord. Hannah didn’t “pull it together.” You can read her story in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, but here is an excerpt from 1 Samuel 1:10-16:

“In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’ As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, ‘How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.’ ‘Not so, my lord,’ Hannah replied, ‘I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.’”

At that wall, Hannah unraveled the twisted knots of her grieving heart before God and it was messy. Passersby probably shook their heads. Eli mistook her agony for drunkenness. Hannah’s core was shaken. Her heart was broken. Her hope was nearly threadbare. She wasn’t able to “pull it together,”… not on her own … but she knew where to turn as her emotions were shred to bits.

The fiery pain of a personal loss is immeasurable. And each person’s threshold for heartache is different. There are times when we cannot pull it together.

God doesn’t command us to pull it together.

In the moments when torment throbs deep, God doesn’t bark “stiffen that upper lip, girl.” He instead whispers “come to me dear one, come to me.” He invites us to crumple into the comforting arms of Christ … to pray … to scream … to beg with abandon … to heal.

“For He has not despised or detested the torment of the afflicted. He did not hide His face from him, but listened when he cried to Him for help.” Psalm 22:24

Why I’m the Worst Mom You’ll Meet at the Playground

Motherhood

If we ever meet at a playground, beware.

According to an article I read that identified nine types of moms who are “the worst you’ll meet at the playground,” I am the lowest of the low. In fact, during my eleven years as a mother I have behaved like every. single. mom on the author’s list.

I hovered.
When my baby girl straddled the seat of a harness swing at a park for the first time, my pushes contained all the strength of a weak whisper. She barely moved and the chains never escaped my grip. Also, I kissed her head. A lot. I couldn’t stop myself. I melted into her giggles and coos. My heart danced to the rhythm of her squirmy, happy legs.  When she could walk, I held her hand as she climbed the stairs to the top of the slide. I coaxed her down because my encouragement–along with my promise of being right there–made her brave. She was new and she was mine and I was in love with her and scared of her all at once so I stayed close. I hovered.

I was clueless.
When my husband called and told me he lost his job, I lost track of my kids. I knew they were somewhere on the play scape, but I couldn’t tell you if they were climbing, sliding, swinging, or stealing a swig from another kid’s juice box. Tears blurred my vision and fear tripped my resolve. I sat on a bench focused on the person on the other end of the phone and trusted that another parent would rescue my child if needed because at that moment I couldn’t move. I was clueless.

I judged. I talked loudly.
It happened the same day I hovered. A sweet and seemingly frazzled mom brought her two kids to the playground. Her preschooler sat at the picnic table eating Cheetos and playing on his LeapFrog while her barefooted toddler climbed up the slide. I lifted my baby girl from the swing and asked her if she wanted a healthy snack. She gummed down a few cold peas and blueberries while I asked her if she wanted to slide. I’m not sure if the other mom picked up on my passive-aggressive-know-it-all demeanor, but she probably did. And I’m ashamed. I wish I could take back that moment. I wish I would had offered friendship instead of condemnation. I wish I hadn’t allowed my insecurities to overtake my mercy. The truth is I was so terrified that I was messing up the whole mommy schtick that I gave myself an imaginary gold star for every little thing I thought I got right that another mom may have missed. I judged. I talked loudly … and I’m so sorry I did those things.

I ignored the rules.
Once I sat on a bench breastfeeding my infant son while watching my three-year-old daughter monopolize the wheel of a wooden pirate ship. She demonstrated bad manners at the moment, but sleep deprivation and temper tantrums owned me. I knew the battles that faced me later and adding one more to my slate wasn’t going to happen. Spent. Defeated. Done. Those adjectives described me perfectly the day I let my toddler win. It wasn’t fair to the other kids who wanted a turn playing captain, but that boat afforded my weary spirit a much-needed respite. I ignored the rules.

I brought junk food.
We celebrated the last day of pre-K with a trip to Sonic and the playground. The hovering mama who fed her baby girl cold peas as a snack wasn’t around the day I brought milkshakes, burgers, french fries and brownies to the park. We gobbled up the grub and played hard. I didn’t realize that it was such a bad thing to do until I read the article about the worst moms. I brought junk food. Lots of it … and I’m not sorry.

I came empty handed.
More than once I committed the cardinal sin of motherhood: I accidentally left my diaper bag at home. And let me tell you something … coming to a playground without as much as a wet wipe is frightening … but scarier than telling a toddler that “oops, we can’t play now”? Nope. So while I tried to keep those trips short, they happened. And to all the moms out there who handed me an extra diaper, a handful of wipes, or a band-aide, thank you. I came empty handed … your grace kept me together.

I pretended to be the perfect Queen Bee.
When my kids were younger, we moved at least once every two years. Saying goodbye and starting over hurt every time. Making new friends quickly eased the agony. So oftentimes I’d hit a new playground with the intent of cultivating friendships. Wanting to make a good impression, I didn’t come empty-handed those days. I made sure I packed enough snacks and water bottles to share with five families. I also selected my outfit with great care … not too dressy … not too casual. I wasn’t trying to show off, I was lonely and just wanted someone to like me. So I pretended to be the perfect Queen Bee until I felt safe enough to be me.

I share these stories because although parenting styles and stages vary, most of us are just trying to be the best we can be for our children. Motherhood is messy and frenzied and littered with the beautiful unexpected.Our kids challenge us and change us and wear us out.

We clean dirty floors and soiled bottoms. We kiss bruises and bandage scrapes. We teach and we play and we love with every morsel of energy we can muster. We celebrate milestones with the enthusiasm of an Olympic champion and we grip grace and choke out soul cries when we make mistakes that hurt tender hearts.

No one should accept the myth of “worst type of mom,” because that type of thinking wounds the community of motherhood. Labels pit mom against mom and kid against kid. Comparison divides, conquers, and builds barricades that leave us all insecure and empty.

Instead of singling out the “worst moms,” let’s look for the best in each mom. Because it’s there and if you find it in someone else, chances are you’ll also give yourself the same grace.