Involuntarily hosting a goat in her living room, while tremendously inconvenient, turned out to be one of the more benign adventures. Living as a missionary for Baptist Publications, part of the Near East Baptist Mission, during the Lebanese Civil War, Frances Fuller narrowly avoided sniper fire and suicide bombers, shared tears and embraces, worked hard, prayed harder, and above all manifested the wondrous love of Christ. With wisdom, pathos, humility and humor, Frances tells in exquisite detail the stories that make up her life in Lebanon. Absurd, terrifying, and joyful experiences are interwoven through the fabric of day-to-day living, held together by faith in the extraordinary God to whom Frances testifies. “In Borrowed Houses” is more than an autobiography, it is a love story for a war-torn yet resilient nation.
Much of what we write about here at the Raven Foundation can be distilled down to a few simple messages, among them that violence is contagious, but ultimately love is stronger, all-embracing and transformative. While Frances’s vivid reflections upon the war in Lebanon illustrate the former point, her life bears witness to the latter truth. The same love that compels Frances to travel to Lebanon to produce Christian material in Arabic is reflected in the people she meets who help each other survive and comfort one-another in grief through the trials and tragedies of war. All of this love comes from the same Source, the Living Love that shapes Frances even as she submits to being an instrument of it. The peacemaking and reconciliation that flow from this love is illuminated on the pages of her story.
The “goat-in-the-living-room” saga is one of the more amusing anecdotes that evoked sympathy along with giggles from this reader. More than just an anecdote, however, this incident in Frances’s life is also portrayed as a window to some of the wisdom her experience imparted. While furloughed in America, the house that she and her husband Wayne had selected but not yet renovated was overtaken by neighbors who needed a more secure shelter because of the fighting. The experience of having her own house “borrowed” provoked a rather mimetic reflection touching on the ubiquity of injustice and humanity’s tendency to pass it on:
[I]n having my own house seized unjustly, I tasted, only tasted, like merely touching my tongue to it, the bitterness of a host of people – Palestinians who lost both house and country, citizens of Beirut who had aided refugees and then been victimized by them, Lebanese in the grip of a foreign army, the Jews of Europe dragged from their homes to death camps, Christian Armenians massacred by the Turks, the Native Americans who were killed or pushed off their lands, Africans carried away into slavery, old ladies whose small, loved corners were sacrificed for a new freeway, and long lists of people down through history who were victimized by tyrants or invaders of thieves or arsonists.
The antidote to this bitterness and the cycle of injustice it perpetuates is empathy that comes from a learning, listening presence. Frances provides this presence for the people of Lebanon as well as for the Holy Spirit within herself, allowing Love to work miracles. One of the most poignant passages in the book describes how Frances witnessed reconciliation between a Palestinian family and a man from a Lebanese town that had committed a massacre against Palestinian refugees. The man, Jean, had found it in his heart to love a people he had been taught were the enemy, saying, “[A]fter all, the Lord did tell us to love our enemies.” Jean and others from his Maronite village went into the refugee camps with tea and cookies, ears to listen and arms to embrace, sharing the Bible only after asking and receiving permission. He came to Frances asking for Christian materials to share, and later also asking her to provide a listening presence for some of the lonely women refugees. While providing Christian materials for these families, the reconciliation she witnessed between people who might have been destined to be enemies, the compassion she felt between them, the love she herself gave and received, infused her, too, with a reinvigorated understanding of the Gospel. She writes,
In time I realized that, just as the massacre in the camp exposed the raw evil in human beings and threatened to unravel my last scrap of confidence in the people around me, what happened afterwards gave me a glimpse of the amazing possibilities that still existed. I heard Jean say, “I could go and live with the Palestinians,” and I heard Um Na’im say, “Jean is like a son to me.” Twice there seemed to be hope for the human race, and Jesus sounded sane.
Jesus sounded sane. What an amazing statement. We worship him as Lord and Savior, but we are reluctant to follow his teachings that run contrary to our world’s logic of violence. That logic of violence ends in massacres and persecutions, shooting sprees and drone strikes, yet in times of terror we tend to take up arms rather than open them. Following Jesus in loving our enemies is something I like to talk about but have never had the opportunity to actually do in matters of life and death. It seems like an impossible risk. And yet, Frances witnessed this irresistible love, the only thing that can reverse the contagion of violence in its tracks. She saw “natural enemies” embrace and call each other family. Is this not exactly what Jesus calls us to do, what God did in Jesus when He was born into a hostile world to reconcile it to Himself?
This is not to say that all questions of peace and violence were reconciled in Frances’s mind during her time in Lebanon. There have been times when violence has seemed tragically necessary, and Frances has born witness to those who have claimed that violence has saved their lives. Sometimes, violence can protect, but never without cost, and rarely without blowback. In her own words again:
And now I have to admit that intellectually I never untangled all the contradictions of war and morality – all those perceived necessities that make people fight; the discrepancy between the commandment not to kill and the orders quoted in the Old Testament stories; the presumed duties that conflict with humane and civilized impulses, as well as the teachings of the New Testament; the example of the early Christians and the compromises of “just war” philosophies; the selfless courage and the bestiality; parades and flags and blood coagulating in the streets; the fear that drives all of it.
The clarity I had then and the clarity I have now is this: I hate war, and in my Christian gut I know this hatred is right. Living in a world so wicked that it tries to solve its problems by killing people, I recognize my participation and guilt, and I speak up now and then for peace. I pray for peace. I vote for peace.
And with “In Borrowed Houses,” Frances raises her voice for peace to the world. I desperately hope that the world listens. With war raging in the Middle East, in Syria and Iraq and Palestine and beyond, Frances’s words of wisdom are timely, and her witness of compassion is essential.
In mimetic theory, we talk about the need we have as humans for models, how relationship with others is how we learn and form our identities. It is clear that the relationships Frances had with the people and land of Lebanon changed her life; moreover, simply reading her story has changed mine. As I let her witness permeate to my heart, I am moved to take risks for the sake of Christ and all of God’s children, to be more patient, more diligent, more present in the world. Like the Saint with whom she shares a name, Frances is an instrument of God’s peace and a role model for me. I cannot recommend “In Borrowed Houses” highly enough.
I will be interviewing Frances Fuller on “In Borrowed Houses” on Sunday, November 2nd, which is, appropriately, All Saints Sunday. I highly encourage everyone who is able to read her book and send me questions — either on this blog or on Facebook, so that I may ask them in the interview. I will try to ask her as many reader questions as I can. “In Borrowed Houses” is available at WestBow Press, and readers are also highly encouraged to check out Mrs. Fuller’s website for more stories and her perspective on today’s crises in the Middle East.