Our family is moving from Jordan this week after three and a half years of living here. A day ago, the packers finished boxing up our possessions, and now the rooms of our apartment, almost fully denuded of our presence, echo with emptiness. I have spent much of the past month reflecting on our time here, often as I pause to look out to the small neighborhood field by our apartment building, just down a street where a gleaming Mercedes can be stopped by a huge flock of sheep, flowing like water up the road to the next patch of stubby, browning grass. A crossroads of East and West, ancient and modern, Jordan has been a good place for us to live, even in the midst of many turbulent changes in the region. It will be hard to say goodbye.
In the hub-bub of packing, I made sure to toss Esther de Waal’s Seeking God into my luggage to take with me on the plane, because I need it now very much. In this jewel of a book that Kathleen Norris called “an answered prayer,” de Waal explores the Benedictine Rule for lay life. While it has become more popular to pair themes from everyday life to monasticism, de Waal’s exploration of Benedict’s Rule remains a time-tested treasure of spiritual direction. I find her careful, thoughtful reflections a vital source of clarity in times of transition. She helps me to see better.
When I’ve had moments to read de Waal in the last week, my book has persistently fallen open to her chapter on stability – the vow of staying put. Being rooted and committed to a particular place and a particular community of people is one of the foundational Benedictine vows. It is the vow that teaches that “God is not elsewhere,” but right in the place where one is, with all its monotony, ordinariness, and sometimes stultifying predictability. The vow of stability challenges the religious novice – or the intrepid layperson – to find God right where he has placed you, or suffer not finding him anywhere at all. I have tried to make sense of how to live out that a vow of stability when our family moves around so routinely for my husband’s work.
For a good number of years, we have been privileged to live in parts of a region of the world for which, very often, the highest praise it can obtain is when it can be called “stable.” The Middle East is very often not stable, and it has been growing less so again with each spin of the news cycle. To be sure, stability is not always a reliable indicator of social or political health, but it still is a critical part of what makes for human flourishing. A life of perpetual revolution and war is Hobbesian hell, which is what our Syrian neighbors to the north are living in right now.
When the events of the Arab Spring started about a year into our time in Jordan, few predicted the social and moral earthquakes would shake as long or as hard as they did. We watched Al-Jazeera and BBC coverage each night for news from places like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. The scenes from Cairo’s Tahrir Square were equally exhilarating and tense, but there were real signs of hope, like when the Tahrir protestors organized to clean up the accumulated garbage in the square. Knowing how debasing that menial task is within an honor-based culture, I saw that as a real sign that this thing – this spring – was something new. It was evidence that these protestors had the moral courage both to protest a regime that enforced an oppressive stability and also to embrace the communal responsibilities, like trash collection, that mark a free citizenry.
It was also thrilling to watch people who had been accustomed to governance by fear disobey those fears. We cheered the nonviolent protestors who marched in Syria and Libya, the men, women, and children who demonstrated for greater political freedoms and basic human rights. We grieved as the movement in Syria was brutally crushed and has now devolved into an awful, bewildering war. I wrote poems in their honor, trying to make sense of the changes, trying to see.
In all these places, the early winds of the Arab Spring were oxygenated with hope, and the cultural artifacts produced during these years were extraordinary. While protestors marched in dignity and courage, the artists, the visionaries, and the poets leaned hard into their vocations on behalf of their neighbors. (Who knew that mere poems, black-and-white hand-drawn cartoons, or simple finger puppets could so thoroughly scare and convulse the powers?) These artists conveyed the ideas that helped their neighbors to face the harsh realities of life and death without letting go of the hope of what could be. They helped them to see clearly and anew. They fired the moral imaginations of a people who had suffocated under the idolatries of fear and stability.
Now, in the places where stability has been given over to relentless violence, the poets, artists, and even cartoonists are more necessary than ever, and their tasks just as dangerous. It has grown hard to see a hopeful future when so many have suffered trauma, dislocation, and death. It is hard to see now what the future holds but more suffering and grief.
Ibsen once said that the task of the poet is “to see, but mark well,” and with that in mind, it is not surprising that so much of biblical prophecy is poetry – both bracingly realistic about life and its hard elements, and stunningly truthful about God’s holy presence among us and our individual and collective unrighteousness. The prophets listened to God, wrote what God allowed them to see, and pointed to him, urging God’s people to see along with them. They beseeched the people to see the world and their participation in it with God’s eyes. These tasks continue to be those of a poet and a prophet: to see God’s word at work in the world and invite others to see too. TWI’s own Kate Harris said it well: “The poet is one who toils and works and feels and sorts through all manner of things seen and unseen and then welcomes others in, beckons them, calls to them, ‘Come and see what I can see!’ … The poet is one who gives us new eyes to see, who helps us make sense of what we experience, and who invites others to see more deeply into what it is that their experiences mean.” Her essay invites all to engage in that kind of poetic seeing, to recognize it as a common human task that we do both for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for our nations.
The first and prior work, though, to all human seeing and meaning-making is God’s own seeing, his sight of us, and his knowledge of our human situation. An Egyptian slave woman is the biblical character who makes this point so capably. An early poet of the faith, Hagar calls God El Roi, the God who sees me (Gen. 16:13), and God welcomes this creative and truthful honorific. This abandoned woman could see, in the midst of her own personal earthquakes of rejection and brutal domestic violence, that God could see her, which gave her life and hope. This precious name of God reminds us that we too are seen by God if we have the eyes to see him where we are, to see him seeing us. We often need help with that. We need prophets and poets to point him out and to point out the possibilities.
God is not elsewhere. He is in the midst of both the stability and the change. He is not far from or blind to the widows, the orphans, or the refugees. He sees them before they have the eyes to see him. And he asks me to see them too, through his eyes. Just now out my window, refugees from Syria line up to register at the UNHCR office up the block. The adults sit in the field while their children play, where flocks of sheep can stop a gleaming Mercedes in its tracks as they march up the road from this field to the other. While they are hidden from many, they are not hidden from him.
As we leave, I know I must maintain my view of God’s prior sighting of me. Hence, de Waal in my bag for the plane; I want to keep her words close at hand. My prayer for the people of this region is that they will know that God sees them; and that those who belong and remain here will be faithful to seeing God seeing them and their compatriots, faithful to the vocations God has given them in this historic time, and that their faith will drive them more deeply into lively vocational participation in the culture.
There are many people here keeping their vision sharp, such as Elie Haddad of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, who reflects on the tasks of the church in this meditation on the Arab Spring: “I believe that the Church should take on advocacy (lobbying), not for our own rights and comfort and self-preservation, but for the needs of the others around us, including our perceived enemies. Essentially, I believe that this is a great day for the Church in the Arab world. It’s a new day that calls for a new response. I believe that there is Good News embedded in the midst of this complex Arab spring.”
For God is not elsewhere. He is also here.