Letter to a sister in Christ

My dear, your long response took me by surprise! It was the longest reply to a Christmas greeting that I ever got. So much so that I couldn’t help but gather my thoughts into a post. And no, I don’t think your feelings are invalid; your predicament is not uncommon to people who grew up inside a church.

You know, my initial reaction to your missive was “Why listen to them? You don’t have to! They’re thousands of miles away.” In a sense, aren’t you thankful that you’ve been blessed to be given that much distance between you and family?

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that your mother-in-law has a point. Oh not that part about holding on to the standards that you were raised with. I’ll say more about that later on. Ultimately – in the long run as others might say – one can’t divorce the external from the internal. Our appearance, our behavior, our words only reflect the convictions of our heart. How we project ourselves to others may depend on what we’re feeling at the moment, yes, but ultimately, our image is shaped by what is in our heart. That applies to an homemaker (and I know many homemakers who are very fashionable despite being saddled with little children – how they do it remains a mystery to me) as well as an abaya-wearing maiden or a sari-clad Indian lady.

Yes, you’re right. To focus only on the external is wrong even though that’s how we are primarily judged. That is why Jesus again and again targeted the heart. It’s just like parenting: if we don’t get ahold of our children’s heart, they will obey externally while rebelling internally. That is why many children wander away from their parents’ faith after leaving the nest. Nobody can truly legislate morality beyond the home – not the school, not the church, not the government – though God knows many continue to try.

In the epistles, Paul speaks of legalism in the context of circumcision and talks about being free in Christ. We talk so much about freedom in Christ yet we’re still chained in our way of thinking. We shouldn’t be. We’ve been set free.

The trouble, I feel, arises when men (some would say “the church”) impose their standards (some would say “their interpretation of Scripture”) on the flock of which they are shepherds. But consider. Isn’t it telling that Jesus never said anything about outward appearances or how to clothe ourselves or how we ought to look? Correct me if I’m wrong but the only verses I can find are Matthew 6:28-30 and they concern the provision, not the use, of clothing. As an aside, isn’t it also telling that the verses we Christians hold on to as biblical standards for dressing were written by men? Why do you think God did not use women writers to record his message?

You know, I wrote about my standards for dressing two posts ago for a secular audience. That piece came about after much reflection on the evolution of my fashion sense through the years and how it reflected my Christian walk. So. Please believe me when I say I totally get your frustration. Your problem is: How do you get the message across that they should not worry so much about the external trappings of religion (in this case Christianity) because you’ve finally found joy in being liberated from oppressive standards that smack of legalism?

The tension between finding freedom in Christ and breaking free from what you’ve been trained to be and do while growing up is real. Believe me. I’ve been through it. Where I come from (and may I just say that I do miss the way you preface every explanation with that phrase), legalism did not come from church – it came from the convent school where I finished high school. Where one had to button up to the neck and you could be penalized for wearing hair down your shoulders (it took a long time but when I did, I wore my hair down all the time without feeling any guilt).

But we’re not talking about me. So let’s get back to your problem. My dear, there’s only one solution: with love. The particulars of which He will instruct you.

You’d love our devotional group. I’ve never found a group permeated with so much honesty. A few weeks ago, I told the girls “There’s a benefit to growing old: one attains the wisdom one lacked in youth. One also dispenses with others’ standards and finally gets comfortable with being accountable to only Him above.” 

You’ll get there, my friend. You’ll get there, eventually,  though the path will require you to make some hard decisions. Finding freedom in Christ, you’ll also find the confidence to be YOU, the unique you God created you to be without feeling apologetic to anyone. And when you do, you’ll be free to decide whether to make a statement or conform to society’s norms. IMHO, it’s more convenient to take into account the cultural context of one’s environment but what do I know? I live in a desert town deep in Arabia where men outnumber women ten to one.

I have to stop here. The sun has now come up and I have to smell my roses.

Lots of love,

Letter to a friend who’s gone for good

Belated Happy Birthday!

Of course this greeting is late. But. Being such an efficient and highly organized person, I know you’ll understand the perfectionism that drives me to edit and re-edit my prose. All day long yesterday, I thought for the longest time whether to open Facebook or not just to greet you (I haven’t opened FB for – well, I forgot to count how many weeks!) but decided against it ultimately because FB depresses me in a way that I’ve yet to grasp. Maybe the selfies of smiling faces there remind me that there’s more to life besides frowning and writing? I sure don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that I miss you. Terribly. So here’s a list of ten things that I miss about you. Btw, you have my permission to share this on FB – just in case you want to remind Ben what a wonderful individual he’s married to, what a smart decision he made in getting married to you, blah, blah, blah …

1   Your snorts through the nose (are my pronouncements like the one-liners from a stand-up comedian?)
2   Your snide remarks about my age and growing old (nobody tells me the truth anymore)
3   Your cinnamon buns (the ones I buy from Cinnabon or Tim Horton’s don’t hold a candle to yours)
4   Your thought-provoking questions (nobody challenges me intellectually anymore)
5   The way you start every explanation with “Where I come from …”
6   Our discussions on what being a Christian and a Catholic means in different cultures
7   The honesty that permeated every dialogue I had with you
8   How you taught me to make tortillas (it’s a testament to my age that I’ve forgotten the recipe)
9   How you bring baked goodies right after I’ve had a cry inside the loo (how do you always know when I’ve had a breakdown?)
10  Your sociable youngest son (are you sure you’re his mother?) … your artistic daughter and your poker-faced middle son

So, here’s to life! And a prayer that your journey will be full of surprises that bring a smile to your (always serious) visage, that your days will have momhood moments that make all your sacrifices worthwhile, that your travels will bring you to places and people where you’ll be a blessing (the same way you were in mine), and that your marriage will grow old like wine (remember, it gets better with age!)

Perhaps someday we’ll have that conversation we never got to have – the one on how Christianity and being a feminist can exist side by side without one bashing the other. Who knows, I might even travel to Mexico and eat tapas, burritos, tortillas, etc,  by the seaside while we watch the dolphins. Till then, I hope you’ll like this poem by a Greek poet:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.                                                                                                 Constantine Cavafy

PS. No offense meant, but just in case you’re having a hard time deciphering the poem, here’s help.