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Two Podcasts and an Essay

I’m pumped to share two podcast episodes with y’all and an essay.

Maybe we need a break from COVID-19 news?

Maybe we need to be thankful for things like podcasts and reading essays – things we can do while in isolation or quarantine to pass the time?

I know what it is like to be in isolation and it can be lonely or boring (though I almost never get bored!) and so maybe these things can help pass the time.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay kind, stay compassionate, stay generous.

Here you go:

Creating Community in Djibouti, with Kristin Schell of The Turquoise Table podcast and book and community. She has such a lovely vision of creating space in our lives and physical areas to build community. I loved talking, she had wonderful questions focused on what it has been like to find and build community while living in a foreign country.

“Rachel’s story takes us on a beautiful journey from a high rise apartment complex in Minneapolis to a school in The Horn of Africa. Rachel’s story of creating community and connection is one of the most inspiring yet. Relationships that started in her own backyard led her family across the globe to Djibouti.

When she was just twenty-two years old and a new mother of twins, Rachel received hospitality from complete strangers, her Somali neighbors. Her immigrant neighbors befriended her — bringing her food and even offering to clean her house while she rested with the twins. Rachel was overwhelmed by their incredible friendship and a curiosity to know more about their home East Africa was born.

What transpires next is remarkable. Rachel and her family move from urban Minneapolis to a rural part of Somalia. Then to Djibouti. Kristin and Rachel talk about what it’s like to be a Christian in a country that is 99% Muslim and the incredible relationships she’s made with her neighbors. Rachel gives us a brief overview of the Muslim religion and piques our curiosity to learn more. After all, loving your Muslim neighbor is the same as loving your non-Muslim neighbor.”

Life at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture, with Amber McCullough at the Grace Enough Podcast. We dug deep into faith and and how I’m learning to love the stranger primarily through being the stranger. Amber was insightful and her questions made me think! Really enjoyed our conversation and I hope you do, too.

Today, Rachel talks about how living as a minority has increased her empathy toward the stranger and has ceased to label someone different as “NON.”

We talk about loving the stranger.

We talk about what she has learned from Muslim practices.

We talk about faith conversations and a deepening faith that is more about being with God and less about right theology and dogma

This conversation is one that will stretch you. It will lead you to ask questions of how and when and where to step into the uncomfortable places and stop assuming.

Pleasure and Pain, in The Smart Set, a magazine of Drexel University. This essay slightly terrifies me. It gets pretty vulnerable and personal. But I’m also kinda proud of it (if writers are allowed to say that). It shows how I’ve changed and grown, things I’ve learned, while living in the Horn of Africa. Specifically, things about the body, embodiment, contentment, strength, and being kind to our bodies. Here’s an excerpt, starting with the easier body parts…

Body: The organized physical substance of an animal or plant either living or dead, fullness and richness of flavor (as of wine), a mass of matter distinct from other masses (a body of water).

Merriam-Webster

I’ve thought a lot about my legs. I pinched the cottage cheesy bulge that oozed out from my shorts on sticky summer evenings when I sat on the pews in my childhood Baptist church sanctuary. I watched my legs swell during pregnancy. I flexed in front of the mirror when I became a runner and double-checked race photos to stare at my muscle definition. I’m slightly knock-kneed and the fourth toe of my right foot is slowly curling beneath my third toe. If I live to 90, they might meld together.

I’ve thought a lot about my nose. It is big and straight with a slight hook on the end. It is my maternal grandfather’s nose. I’ve picked it, pierced it twice, and broken it once. I needed surgery to fix the break and asked the doctor if, while in there, he could give me a cute little upturn at the end or maybe decrease the overall size. He laughed and put me under. I woke with two black eyes and a cast. Yes, a cast on my face. In high school. My friends in Djibouti tell me I have a beautiful, Arab nose, and this is one of my favorite things about being an expatriate. Not the appreciation for what I considered my worst feature, but the way culture offers fresh perspectives. Now that my grandfather has died, I’m thankful the doctor didn’t change my nose. I see my grandfather every time I look in the mirror.

I’ve thought a lot about my hair. Curly and blond. Perfect in the 1980s when I merely had to run a round brush through my bangs and voila, the frizzy poof my sisters spent hours trying to achieve. Not so perfect when I lived in Somalia and my hair was too slippery to hold a headscarf in place. When the scarf slipped, my curls sprang out, unruly and bold. My hair is neither perfect nor imperfect for Djibouti, next door to Somalia and where I live now. I’ve learned how to tie it up and I’ve learned to be comfortable with it flowing down. The trouble with hair in Djibouti is that mine falls out in handfuls, from the salty water in the shower, from the stress, from the extreme temperatures, constant sweat and sun, and from cancer.

I’ve thought about my breasts. I tried to hide them, tried to accentuate them, used them to feed children, wondered if they will eventually develop cancer and kill me. I was wrong about my breasts. It was my thyroid that got the cancer. It hasn’t killed me, yet.

The body as I saw it, called into question the premise I was raised to believe; that God saw what he had created and called it very good.

The body is weak, prone to breakdown and damage. It is vulnerable. It smells weird and makes awkward noises and doesn’t always look the way I want it to in skinny jeans, or any jeans. The body is infinitely varied among humans and all of us have hair and moles, sometimes hairy moles. We have crooked teeth and lopsided earlobes and butts that sag, jiggle, or form shelves behind us. Is this breakable vessel truly something sacred? Can this thing, capable of murder, theft, lying, abuse, lust, greed, pride, and cruelty be good?

There are other body parts I never gave much thought to until I lived in the Horn of Africa. Parts I earned, ignored, damaged, lost, and neglected. Parts I couldn’t imagine having a role in the deep, creative, beautiful goodness of being human.

But life here, in community with Muslim friends, in the steamy desert, in a world upside down from the world of my childhood, changed the way I look at and think about my body parts. It changed the way I thought about goodness, about the intricate handiwork implicit in the way we live and move and have our being…

The essay goes on to cover everything from hemorrhoids to uvulas, thyroids to skin, and even more personal parts, all of them good. Enjoy!

Rethinking the Nativity

I am tired of the Christmas story.

Clarification: I’m tired of the way I keep hearing it and seeing it and reading it. Let’s think about the Christmas story, as seen in thousands of movies, children’s pageants, poems, novels, kid’s books every year:

Joseph is kind of a chump. He gets pushed around by some angels and then makes the totally irresponsible decision to drag a pregnant woman in her late third trimester to a town miles and miles away, on foot or maybe on a donkey. He plans this trip so poorly that they barely make it to Bethlehem on time and while Mary is (silently and peacefully) enduring labor pains, he is knocking on the doors of the local Sheraton and Holiday Inns. Apparently though Joseph is from this town, he no longer has any connections or relationship with people there so not only is he irresponsible, he must have been quite the jerk.

The streets are empty, no one sees this pregnant woman and harried man, no one cares until the hapless innkeeper reluctantly allows the couple to use his filthy, though warm and well-supplied with soft, cuddly hay, stable out back.

Mary gives birth, alone, the umbilical cord is magically cut, the placenta just disappears, though Joseph would have had no idea what to do with it and Mary would have been in no state to direct him. The baby has this funny glowing circle over his head, doesn’t cry at all, is wrapped in a dirty, torn blanket, and perhaps licked by the barn animals.

Some shepherds come and see the baby and the parents living in the filth and stink of an animal barn and leave rejoicing.

This makes for beautiful paintings, poetry, songs, and children’s plays. But does it fit the cultural norms? More importantly, is it what the Bible teaches?

nativity

****************

How about this instead? (for more on this, read This Advent Season, A Look at the Real Setting)

Joseph, a man of courage and faith, realizes that his fiancee is in serious trouble. She could be stoned any day by the villagers because she is pregnant and not married. He is not required to bring Mary along to be counted in the census because she is a woman but he decides to tie his name to hers, tie his reputation to hers, and saves her life by taking her out of the village until the baby is born and emotions can simmer down. Who knows if they walked or rode donkeys but there is a distinct possibility that they rode in a cart. In any case, they arrived in Bethlehem before the day of Jesus’ birth. The Bible says: While they were there the time came for Mary to give birth. The Bible does not say: the moment they arrived they frantically pounded on doors.

He is wise, planned ahead, and is a hero. Not merely a background character, indistinguishable from shepherds in most nativity scenes.

It is hard to imagine that a working man of integrity and faith would have been rejected by relatives, no matter how extended. Not in this culture. In Djibouti people impose on extended relatives all the time, for long periods of time, cramped into small living spaces shared with livestock. No one would turn away a pregnant relative. No, he had family in Bethlehem and he went to the home of relatives where he and Mary rested from their journey and prepared for the birth of the baby.

The word ‘inn’ doesn’t refer to a Holiday Inn or Sheraton style building where a bed and meal can be purchased. It more likely refers to an upper room in a family home. Quite possibly Joseph’s relatives had other distant family in town for the census so the upper room was occupied. This meant the couple had to sleep downstairs in the open living space where animals were kept at night for safety and where they ate from troughs dug into the earth at one end of the room. They maybe slept on mats or piles of blankets, just as they would have upstairs. The room was warm and sheltered, probably filled with other traveling relatives.

Mary didn’t give birth alone. No place in the Bible is this written or implied. More likely she was surrounded by women. A midwife, Joseph’s relatives, neighbors. Shepherds came and found the child and his mother and left rejoicing because not only had they seen Grace and Mercy in the flesh, but they had seen a woman and child well-cared for and surrounded by caring women. Otherwise, they more likely would have praised God for that Grace and Mercy and then said: What are you doing here alone and cold?! Come with us, our women will care for you! No way would they have left a young mother and infant in that state and left rejoicing.

I don’t want to be too harsh, but maybe in the West, the first version, the version we are so used to, is acceptable because we can relate. A man unable to plan well for his pregnant fiancee. A woman in labor turned away, the needy ignored in the streets. Maybe we feel comfortable imagining that in ‘those’ places people only had dirty torn clothes to wrap around their babies, that in ‘those’ places mothers allow cows to lick their newborns. Maybe this, in some way, frees us from responsibility to act. If our Lord was born this way, it is not lowly or demeaning for other babies to be born alone, into a cold and unwelcoming world.

But in the East, in the culture and time in which Jesus was born, no way. Family, hospitality, food, community, these things are highly valued, no less in Jesus’ lifetime. A pregnant woman was not left in the street, especially when relatives were in town and even if she was pregnant out of wedlock. I could list off names and names of women I know in eastern cultures who have been pregnant outside of marriage and who have been neither stoned nor rejected from their families, but lovingly welcomed and cared for.

We want to make the birth of Jesus as hard as possible, as cold and lonely and desperate and painful as possible. Why? Is it because we can’t grasp the infinite coldness, loneliness, desperation, and pain of what the incarnation truly meant? We wrap it up in dirty clothes and stinking animals, in physical loneliness and fear. Is our feeble attempt at re-imagining the Christmas story our way of trying to understand, to put images and emotions to something so powerfully and deeply beyond our comprehension? To bring the miracle of God-made-flesh into our realm of understanding?

No matter what other pictures we paint to describe his birth nothing can make it harder than it was. Nothing can make it more loving than it was. Nothing can make it more miraculous than it was.

Jesus left heaven and was born a human baby, destined to die a human death.

Saying that Jesus was born into the hands of a skilled midwife or into a house filled with light and laughter and community takes nothing away from the glory of that night. It simply makes it more authentic.

*these thoughts stem from the incredible book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey and I highly recommend this book. Highly.

*image credit

John MacArthur Wasn’t Just Demeaning to Women. Part 2

I wrote an essay called What Happened When Jesus Told a Woman to Go Home in my newsletter: Stories from the Horn, last week. If you want to read that essay, sign up here.

Following up on that, here is part 2 of my response to John MacArthur’s video comments from a few weeks ago.


Many people couldn’t watch past the “narcissist” comments and the laughter. But had we continued to watch, we would have heard words that call into question the valid (and necessary and good and beautiful) contribution and basic humanity of Christians of color and marginalized communities.

In an article for the Religion News Service, Rozella Haydée White address this. She writes, “Later in the recording, MacArthur criticizes a suggestion that Latinos, African Americans and women should henceforth be necessary members of Southern Baptist Bible translation committees. He also objects to a resolution agreed to at the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2019 national meeting that deems intersectionality — the theory, developed by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, that describes how overlapping social identities create interconnected systems of oppression — as a useful tool for biblical interpretation.”

The problem with MacArthur’s words weren’t just his treatment of Beth Moore or Paula White, but his dismissive attitude toward people of color and other marginalized communities.

Later on in the video, he seems to claim that people (read marginalized people and minorities) who believe their voices matter and should be part of dialogue, are only after power. And that because they (in his opinion) are after power (apparently for power’s sake), on that basis alone, they should be excluded from the conversation.

I don’t see how wanting to be heard, especially wanting an underrepresented voice to be heard, necessarily means one wants power, or at least not a negative form of power. And anyway, if wanting to be heard is equated with wanting power, the men on that stage wanting to be heard wanted power and by MacArthur’s own logic, thereby should not have power. (watch the video here)

I am not a theologian. I’m not an expert on race theory or gender theory or intersectionality or anything, really. I’m a person in the world who reads or listens to stuff and thinks stuff.

I don’t understand how intersectionality doesn’t matter in the world. When I look at what I experience as a straight white Christian American woman, it seems that all these parts of me, and all the other parts of me, too, have an impact on my life and experiences, many of them overlapping impacts. When I look at how others view and engage in the world, it seems the same for them. When I read the Bible, it seems these intersecting realities of who humans are matters.

I see Hagar, an abused sex slave from Egypt, probably black, a woman. I can’t imagine how her gender and her status and her race don’t intersect. I see Esther, from a despised religious minority and possibly ethnic minority as well, a vulnerable young woman, trafficked into the king’s bedroom and I can’t imagine how her gender, religion, and ethnicity don’t intersect. I see laws about how to treat slaves or laws about how and when to sell off one’s daughters and about whom one is allowed to marry and they all have overlapping spheres of identity. It seems like gender, race, national origin, age, and more have a lot to do with power and life experience.

The problem here wasn’t just about how women are treated and spoken about but about how minorities and marginalized communities are treated and spoken about.

Please, people from these communities, don’t go home. I need your voice, we need your voice. How can we grow and change and sharpen ourselves if we are only surrounded by or hearing from people just like us?

After 17 years in the Horn of Africa, I am beyond grateful for how I’ve grown through being immersed in a community that forces me to be intentional and thoughtful about what I believe and how I behave.

It is not okay to shut out the voices and opinions of people who disagree with us or who challenge us or who are not like us. I’m not saying we need to agree, but we do need to be kind and humane and respectful. We need to exhibit the fruits of the spirit, both those in positions of power and those not in those positions. Cruelty and laughter and disparaging comments are not the way to accomplish this.

#notgoinghome

 

Stronger than Death Book Trailer

Annalena Tonelli spent 34 years living and working in the Horn of Africa. Somalis loved her, and still talk about her with great affection, still carry on her legacy, still continue her work.

But someone killed her. Why?

Why did she stay so long as a foreigner, in the face of massacres, famine, tuberculosis, terror, and war? How did she build a strong local community across religious and racial boundaries, boundaries that today often divide communities?

This is not the story of a white savior, or is it? It isn’t the story of a saint either, or is it? Annalena was far from perfect but her example challenges us all to be a little braver. A little more loving. A little more willing to reach out to someone with empathy, faith, and action.

       

Available from Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and Amazon.

Thanks to Matt Erickson for providing video clips and photographs and to the Plough Publishing video team!

Stronger than Death Endorsements

Here is what some early readers are saying about Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.

I am blown away by the generosity and kindness of these people who agreed to endorse the book. They are people I respect, admire, am inspired by, and have learned so much from.


Rachel Pieh Jones has given us the unforgettable story of a servant of the sick and poor who demonstrated, to an almost incomprehensible degree, what it means to love the least of these. Few of us will ever come close to Annalena Tonelli’s devotion and bravery. But thanks to this remarkable book, we can be acquainted with one of history’s great and unheralded exemplars, and inspired to give more of ourselves to those without. Tom Krattenmaker, USA Today columnist, author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower

A fascinating, powerful and extremely moving true story that needs to be shared with the rest of the world.–Jordan Wylie, author of Citadel and Running For My Life

My life has been shaped by the examples of faith heroes: Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. In this book, Rachel Pieh Jones introduces me to one more – Annalena Tonelli. Her example of immersive, selfless service combined with learning from different traditions should inspire us all.–Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith, founder and president, Interfaith Youth Core

A stunning meditation on love and service, this book has given me a new hero: Annalena Tonelli, a woman of faith who crashed through boundaries and dodged bullets in her mission to heal the sick. Author Rachel Pieh Jones has done justice to an extraordinary person, crafting a story every bit as vivid, relentless, and surprising as her subject. Jason Fagone, national best-selling author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes

A meticulously detailed and empathetic work on a woman whose life should not be forgotten.–Mary Harper, BBC World Service, author Getting Somalia Wrong?

As well as telling a compelling story with great skill, this absorbing and clear-eyed examination of the work of one of East Africa’s greatest humanitarians, based on her letters and interviews with her closest associates, also highlights the cultural challenges faced by even the most dedicated worker. Rachel Pieh Jones raises questions about motive and consequence, as well as perception and jealousy, that resonate well beyond the fascinating life she describes.–Richard Barrett, director of the Global Strategy Network and former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6

Annalena Tonelli’s story challenges readers to believe in themselves and reminds us that we can choose acts of kindness and love even during difficult circumstances. Her courage inspires us to challenge evil: everyone can make a difference.–Mariam Mohamed, former First Lady of Somalia

“Jones explores the life of Italian aid worker Annalena Tonelli in this gripping biography... …Tonelli’s example of humility, asceticism, and loving with abandon will be a revelation…” –Publisher’s Weekly 

 

You can preorder your own copy here. Publication date is October 1, less than one month away!

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