Some of my (subjectively) better pieces

Eleven Days

Eleven days.

I’m sitting here on top of the chapel, back to one of the pylons, looking out over the drillfield. I can barely see this page to write, let alone legibly.

How many times have I wandered around this drillfield, this campus, at night like this? Seen Burruss Hall all lit up like that, those lamps lining the asphalt footpaths that crisscross the grass, that semicircle of 32 lights on 32 memorial stones? I remember walking around here freshman year, almost eight years ago, missing my home, lamenting on the phone or in my own head, wanting nothing more than to be back overseas.

And now I’m eleven days away from that flight I pined for, that flight leaving America behind for a new life elsewhere in the world. I never imagined then that I would be this torn up about it.

I’m really excited that within two weeks I’ll be on a terrace within sight of at least a small patch of the Mediterranean, with a fresh start and opportunities stretching out before me. Most of what I’m feeling this week—and will be for the next week and a half—is overwhelmed and terrified, as I sprint to the finish line of moving out of my apartment and to another continent. But an undercurrent I’ve been feeling for weeks, for months, ever since I started planning to move somewhere almost a year ago, is sadness. I’ve felt it as I’ve done a lot of things for the last time with friends and with my church. I felt it when I gave my cat away on Saturday, and as my apartment has felt a lot emptier without him. And I’m feeling it now, as I look out over this campus that became home after all. I’m glad I took this moment to walk over here and sit for a while.

I’ve left a lot of pieces of my heart in a lot of homes over the years. And now I’m burying yet another piece in this field. And when the plane lifts off the runway in eleven days, and when I’m sitting on that terrace or walking along the Mediterranean, I’m going to miss the piece of my heart that I left in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Fifteen Years

I wrote the first draft of this on Sunday, September 11. Normally I write, edit, and publish in the space of a few hours at most, but I decided to hold off on posting this that day. I wanted to give myself time to reflect, and to let a few others read it and give me their thoughts. I really wanted to make sure I was communicating clearly, and that the message that is most important is the thing that’s getting through. I’ve really questioned whether I should publish it at all, but I—and those I shared it with—think it is an important perspective to share. I hope I am able to effectively communicate the way I see these things.

So you’re probably aware it’s September 11. Fifteen years on, it seems like much of the internet is paying tribute in some way. Honestly, I’m pretty tired this weekend and don’t really feel like writing right now, but as we were praying for the families of the victims both before church as the worship/production team, and again at the end of the service with the entire congregation, I found myself thinking about it and feeling like maybe I should chime in with my perspective, which—as with most things—is a bit different from the average American’s.

As I said, many, many people today have already called that day a tragedy, and prayed for the families of victims, first responders, and others affected. I agree with all of them, but I’m not writing to say what has been said a lot today already. What struck me today is what’s happened in the fifteen years since. How the world has changed. The loss of thousands of lives that day was tragic, but that tragedy has rippled across the years, in many more thousands of lives lost, in the way people think, and in the way people treat those around them. And frankly I think that is just as tragic if not more so.

You may be aware I grew up in the Muslim part of the world, but we happened to be back in the States in September 2001. By the time we went back a year later, air travel and airport security had tightened up like never before. The US had sent troops into Afghanistan, which affected that entire region, including where we lived. And Americans had become far more suspicious and fearful of the rest of the world, particularly Muslims—a trend that has only continued in the decade and a half since.

Since that day my family and I have been torn between two worlds—the country my passport says I’m from and where I’ve found myself living for the past six years now, and the country that at least a part of me still calls home all these years later, even though most Americans seem to think we’re crazy to have lived there. And I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding, distrust, even hatred from both sides towards the other. Many Americans now equate Islam with small, right-wing, militant groups of Muslims, assuming all Muslims are out to kill them. And many Muslims see America as the country that has deployed troops and drone strikes against much of the Muslim world—killing their friends and loved ones, civilians who happen to be near the militants.

But the stark, night and day difference is that the Muslims who we lived among never once directed their anger at America towards us, but instead welcomed us into their homes, fed us, called us guests in their country. How many Americans who claim to follow Jesus have done the same for the Muslims who live among us and feel more isolated and vulnerable than ever right now?

In the fifteen years since 9/11, I’ve seen the world rally around not only New York, but Paris, Haiti, Japan, and other places where tragedy has struck in the form of either violence or natural disasters. And yet when disasters or extremists strike the Muslim world,[1] the rest of the world either (a) doesn’t notice, or (b) shrugs and says “They’re all terrorists anyways.”

Or worse, expresses the sentiment that this is somehow God’s judgment on the unbelievers.

I can’t really think of anything that makes me more angry than reading that. (Though maybe it was my fault for being in the YouTube comments.)

When we say that, how are we any better than the fundamentalists we fear, yelling “God is great; death to the infidel”?

And now, to top it all off, we have running for president a man who is not only praised for his blatant racism, but has built a platform that takes this fear of the outsider to its natural conclusion—throwing out foreigners, building a wall, separating ourselves from the rest of the scary, scary world, and punishing people for things they had nothing to do with, things done by others who claim to follow the same beliefs. What’s shocking is not that such a person exists. What’s frightening and disturbing is that enough of the country agrees with him that he is one of two people with a shot at the White House in two months. I hope to God this country is not so hateful and fearful as to let him get there. I hope we all realize the danger of electing such a person and vote for someone else.

I’m realizing now this has become way more politically charged than I first intended when I sat down to write what was meant to be a tribute—not just to the violence of fifteen years ago, but to the war-torn and distrustful world that has resulted from that in the years since. I meant this to be more wholesome, more contemplative. But I guess as I got writing, a lot has come out that I’ve felt the need to say for a long time now. I hope what I’ve said isn’t too distasteful on this day, though it almost certainly will offend or even anger some people.

But for those of you still reading, join me in praying—yes, for those affected by the attack of fifteen years ago, and for the people who continue to be misled to think these things are right, but also for those who face persecution simply because they are Muslim or appear to be. And ultimately, for peace, for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done. For love and reconciliation to win out over fear and hatred.

Come, Lord Jesus.

  1. I feel the need to point out that terrorists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims worldwide. At the same time, most mass shootings within the US—all of which are acts of terror—have been at the hands of non-immigrant Americans. Though the media seems to reserve the label of terrorism for violence committed by Muslims. ↩︎

Where Is Your Sting?

You may have heard of the explosion that rocked Lahore, Pakistan, yesterday. Having grown up in that part of the world, it hits pretty close to home for me.

The sad thing is that it isn’t even an unusual occurrence. The sad thing is how—well, mundane—these blasts have become in the region. How often I feel a buzz and look down at my wrist to see yet another news alert with yet another body count. And I have to wonder at just how detached I’ve become. I look down and all I see are numbers. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. If every one took an emotional toll it’d be too much. But then once in a while, something makes me take a step back and feel that emotional reaction to the evil and tragedy of it all. And it breaks my heart.

And yesterday it hit harder than it has in a while. Because yesterday those buzzes on my wrist came literally as we were singing that Christ has risen, that he is victorious over death. That he brings light to the darkness. While out there in the world it’s as dark as ever, and death is still very, very real.

I feel like there should be some takeaway or something, but I got nothing. The thing is, this is where we are right now. On the one hand we proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and victory over the evil one and death itself, and on the other we’re still waiting for the final, utter vanquishing of evil, and for the restoration of creation to be completed. And until then we live in a world where a bomb will kill dozens even as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

So as I stood in that auditorium yesterday, as the alerts came in with the climbing death toll, I sang through the tears that were welling up, “You give life, you are love, you bring light to the darkness.” And I sang it praying that his light would pierce through the darkness hanging over Lahore right now.

Because as dark as it seems right now, the darkest day in history was that Saturday two thousand years ago. But when all hope seemed lost, Jesus came back. And the very thing that seemed to have beaten him is what clinched his victory. So we celebrate that victory, we proclaim it and live in it, even in the face of unspeakable evil. God’s light is breaking through the darkness, and we are carrying it, knowing victory is ours.

Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?

1 Corinthians 15:54-55