It’s Complicated

It’s a complicated time to be an American. From wearing masks to views of political parties to ideas for restrictions on police, we are a divided nation. So divided it seems, that when someone says something is purple, you are guaranteed a response of “well, maybe it’s not really purple. I mean – you think it’s purple but it’s really not.” Or worse “Let’s crucify them and cancel them on social media because they dared to say it was purple!” Bam. Canceled.

It’s exhausting. It’s defeating. It’s depressing.

As we end July 4th weekend, a weekend normally given to barbecues, fireworks, parades, and large gatherings, we have a skyrocketing number of COVID 19 cases, a huge segment of our society that is feeling the effects of inequality not only through virus deaths but through the injustice in law enforcement, and seemingly irreperable divisions between hardline party members of both sides.

People are angry. People are dissatisfied. People are depressed – and it’s not just about a virus.

Celebrating a nation’s idependence during this time is not easy.

Even before I learned about Juneteenth, I had a complicated relationship with America’s “birthday.” Living between worlds gives one the unique perspective of seeing through a double lens, of being able to both love and criticize across cultures and cultural values. I have loved some of the freedoms afforded in this country even as I am uncomfortable with the high view given to individualism, often at the high cost of community.

Through the eyes of my non-American friends, I have seen the United States as a place that has given many people and entire families great opportunities. The places I’ve lived here have been places of diversity of thought and appearance and many of my friends in Kurdistan, Egypt, and Pakistan dream of a ticket to this country. At the same time, through their eyes I’ve seen many of America’s flaws and weaknesses. I’ve also seen a different America through the eyes of my friends from minority populations in the United States. Through friendship, reading, and film I have seen two countries emerge – the one of opportunity and the one of inequality at best and oppression at worst.

The echoes of “Make America Great Again” ideology are ugly and have allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech feels trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

I have always known that my allegiance is to something far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined not by a country, but by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far better identity than that which is indicated in my passport. The idea that God’s awesome redemptive story is aligned to or limited by a country, a people, or a political party is far from the truth I know and believe.

Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

My faith calls me to pray for countries and the leadership of those countries. It is part of every liturgy and even though I sometimes cringe and think “No! I don’t want to pray for the United States!” I do it. I do it out of obedience, and when I do I feel a sweet relief, not because things are better, but because I have a clearer picture of God as not ruled or defined by any country or place. I know that leaders ultimately answer to God.

This weekend feels like a time of reckoning and sobriety. A time to pray harder for a nation that has tremendous potential but is part of an imperfect world and functions with an imperfect government. The absence of large gatherings and parades, with fireworks cancelled and travel limited feels appropriate, a reminder that perhaps we need to grow into the greatness we celebrate and the potential we have by challenging injustice, caring for the weak, welcoming the outsider, having empathy for the marginalized and feeding the poor.

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Hubert Humphrey- 1977

The Blessing

The Lord Bless You

The Lord bless you, and keep you.

It’s grey outside, a day marked by fog and sadness. It is a holiday weekend in the United States. It feels far from celebratory. But this year it feels right to be lost in a fog.

Make His face shine upon you, be gracious to you.

Maybe you are feeling like I am these days – that life and the world feel weighty. I hear and read bad news and evil on every page and around every turn. From too many deaths in the Black community to second waves of COVID-19 to division about both, our news is flooded with opinion and voices. It all feels like too much. It is too much.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace.

And then I pause for a moment, and I watch “The Blessing” for what feels like the thousandth time. This song (based on several different Bible verses and written co-written by Steven Furtick and Chris Brown and with musical artists Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) began in the UK in early May. Since then, my husband and I have watched renditions from India, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Sweden, Spain, France, Turkey, Cyprus, Qatar…too many to list and too many to count.

May his favor be upon you and a thousand generations.

The words and music fill my soul and I feel my eyesight and my heart healing. There on my screen are people of every beautiful color and hair of every amazing texture, from every country imagineable, singing a blessing. A blessing that is thousands of years old, originally penned by writers of books in the Old Testament.

And your family, and your children, and their children, and their children

And I know that this story, this story God is writing is bigger than our immediate crises, it is holier and more beautiful than any response to injustice that humans are capable of, it is more powerful than any imperfect government or political party.

May His presence go before you And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you, He is with you, He is with you

The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. It is far bigger than superpowers, politics, political parties, and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

In the morning, in the evening, in your coming, in your going, in your weeping and rejoicing, His for you, He is for you.

It is a story that makes us laugh and weep, bow down and rise up. It is a story that sustains and delivers, that breaks the conscience and demands that we act. It is a story that convicts and comforts, that holds us and heals us. Because this God of the universe, who created us, who loves us, who transforms us – he is for us.

He is for you, He is for you, He is for you, He is for youHe is for you, He is for you

And when we believe this in our bones, than we are changed.

Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

So if you are feeling like I’m feeling, stop for a moment. Take a listen. And know that He is for you.

Dry Seasons

Photo credit: Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

The sounds of summer rain and thunder add music to my afternoon. We have had some glorious days of blue sky and perfect temperatures, days that dead poets used to write about, but last night rain came to water our earth. Then today, torrential rain has come while thunder booms in the background. Downtown Boston, visible from our upstairs guest room and my office, is grey with fog and mist.

I am a lover of sunshine and all things bright. I love yellows and golds, white lights and golden glows, sunshine that takes over the shadows. But in this area, rain is critical. The grass has been like straw and dust comes up from the ground as we walk on it.

Since I was a little girl, I have heard the Biblical metaphor of Jesus being the “living water.” I grew up singing a bright, bubbly song “Drinking at the springs of living water, happy now am I, my soul is satisfied…” While the tune was catchy, the song gave a false illusion of happiness – like it was something you conjured up and could keep forever just by drinking at those streams.

The song also neglected to describe what dry feels like. A throat parched, longing for water. Skin dry and flaky. Eyes burning and dehydration drying up all tears. Feet kicking up dust everywhere you walk. I have lived in several deserts around the world and I know dry. I know what my skin and nose feel like. I know that when it rains it floods because the earth is so hard the water cannot sink in. I know how the land looks and how my body feels.

Dry. Bone dry. So dry in fact, that you begin to see mirages of water everywhere – a trick of the mind to give hope to the one dying of thirst.

When you are bone dry, water in any form is a blessed relief.

The land is not the only thing that has been dry. My heart and life have been dry – bone dry and longing for respite. As much as I believe that Jesus is living water, I have also come to believe that there are seasons of dry in our lives; that no matter how much we drink at those springs, we may still feel dry and parched.

There are times when it helps to analyze feelings,  when evaluating what is going on and how I feel is important and necessary. There are other times when no matter how much I evaluate, no matter what I change, I still have the same feelings. So I continue to walk through the dry days and times, pressing ahead, knowing that seasons pass, new seasons come, and the dry will someday change to a cool, refreshing respite.

Rain– sweet, redemptive rain to water the earth and bring relief to dry, parched land. Faith – to believe that even in seasons of drought, Jesus is still here- offering water to thirsty souls.

This is my world and this is my heart today.

Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.”  This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.


[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

A Necessary Burden

Eight years ago my oldest daughter and I watched three movies in three nights. The first was a documentary called Central Park Five. The second was Fruitvale Station, and the third was 12 Years a Slave. Thus began my journey into what I didn’t know and what I still need to learn about race in the United States.

During these eight years of learning, God has also gifted our extended family with different cultures, colors, and ethnicities through marriage and partners, and so this learning has become a necessary, important, and good burden.

I am a slow learner, and even when I am confronted with documented truth, I want to question it if it’s uncomfortable. And for me, this has not been comfortable.

Osheta Moore, a peacemaker invites those of us who want to repent, respond, and reconcile to say and work on these three things:

I’m sorry. I’m listening. I’m learning.

It is in that spirit that I write this.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry it took me so long. I’m sorry that I had so many questions. I’m sorry that too many times it’s about me. I’m sorry I haven’t recognized my part in a system that puts down and wounds.

I’m listening.

I’m listening to important voices like Osheta, Latasha Morrison, Esau McCaulley, and Black Coffee with White Friends. Perhaps more importantly, I’m listening to over 60 community health worker students who represent communities of color, to a colleague who is a gentle guide in the process, and to people who I have the privilege of calling my friends.

I’m learning.

The books in the picture below are my companions in the journey. I have read Just Mercy, Notes from No Man’s Land, The New Jim Crow, and Between the World and Me. I just began The Warmth of Other Sons. These are not easy books. But if they are not easy for me to read about these circumstances and events, imagine the atrocity of living through them? My discomfort is a minor piece of the journey. My discomfort helps me to reckon with a history that needs reckoning. I’ve had the honor of joining the board of Asian Women for Health, an organization that I’ve long worked with. This takes my connection to a new level where I can learn from leaders in the Asian community as well as work alongside them in things that affect them specifically, the most recent being the many attacks against the community since the onset of COVID-19.

In my cultural competency work, I had a foundation to begin this work, but because my focus was on immigrants and refugees, the black experience in America was something I had put in the background. My inner dialogue was “I care about these other things. I don’t have the energy to care about everything. Culturally responsive care is my area of focus.” The problem with that thinking is that immigrants and refugees are entering into a system in the United States that privileges whites. So if they are any shade darker than me, they will enter into an experience that goes beyond cultural incompetency and enters racism. The other problem is that racial inequities are documented and serious in healthcare, and as a nurse I have a mandate to explore what that means and how I can help change it.

Latasha Morrison is a prophetic, compelling guide as she asks us to consider these “don’ts”:

  • Don’t deflect racism
  • Don’t defend racism
  • Don’t deny racism

Latasha invites us to listen in humility to black people who have lived experience of racism and racial inequities. More than that, she invites Christians specifically into a better way, a way of joining the hard work of justice and reconciliation.

Finally….

The movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese.  He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and who is victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.

In the course of the movie, his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, getting to know the teenagers who live next door and becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before (and still makes no pretense of liking) is a beautiful image of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors. Ultimately Kowalski gives up his life for these neighbors. It is a remarkable, unexpected story.

Kowalski didn’t back down. Once he began the journey, he continued it to the end of his life, which was shorter than he may have initially thought it would be. Like Walt Kowalski, to join this journey is to recognize that I can’t back down. I’ll be on this it for the rest of my life. It is a necessary burden.


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Eid Celebrations & Memories

عيد مبارك

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.

Today is Eid al Fitr and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations. I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up.

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand.We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Slow and steady, make it through this pain.I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed and I glance at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. Laboring to bring a baby into the world has changed any outward focus to inward. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I will no longer hear the call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge in what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays when you are far away from family thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and my day is made.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.” The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him“Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

I am 59 and living in the small city of Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I have just learned that we have to leave Kurdistan at the end of June and my heart hurts. I am angry. Angry at the government and angry at the university. I’m also sick with a bad cold and feeling the misery of self-pity. We hear an unexpected knock on the door in the evening. It is our friend Rania and her brother. They have come with beautiful homemade sweets and this hospitality and generosity make me weep. No wonder I don’t want to leave this place I’ve grown to love.

And today? Today I am in Rockport, Massachusetts – in a place I love though far from other places I’ve called home.

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, Kurdistan, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift.

On Cardinals and Bread Making

A female cardinal heads toward our bird feeder, interrupting my thoughts as I stare out the window. She is not the dazzling, deep red of her mate, instead her beauty is more subtle – a beak that the most beautiful lipstick could scarcely imitate, a warm red hue at the edges of her wings, but otherwise a light, lovely brown. Her mate is nowhere to be seen, smartly taking cover on a chilly May morning. It is early morning and her interruption is welcome during this time of solitude, nature reminding me that all will be well.

I am deeply influenced by the weather and I look out the window toward the city of Boston, grateful for sunshine and blue sky. Despite that, I find myself sighing, willing myself to focus on the beautiful distraction of the cardinal and not the unknown of the days ahead.

The spoken and unspoken words within all of us are “When will this end?” And even as we speak the words, we know that many have gone through far more difficult times for much longer periods. The cry “How long, Oh Lord?” daily escaping their lips, seemingly without answer.

Those daily chores of eating, taking walks, working from home, video chatting with friends and family, texting and more texting have all achieved heightened importance.

But by far, the most therapeutic, calming act for me has been making bread. I have loved making bread. Not sourdough, with its complicated starter that seems to the uninitiated an organism as needy as a newborn baby. Instead, oatmeal bread – a tried and true recipe that has fed our family through new born babies, tragedies, cold winters, and joy-filled soup suppers. It is therapeutic to create and it is therapy to eat.

I love eating bread, I love making bread. I have written in the past that making bread is better than a counseling session. It is redemptive work, this work of bread making. It grounds me in something solid and sustaining. It is no wonder that throughout history, from France to Egypt to Boston, bread riots have come about when shortages occur or prices rise. Bread is symbolic to life.

Every place I have lived in the world has given me more and more appreciation for bread and the thousands of ways to create it. Each type comes with a unique flavor despite most of them using fairly standard ingredients. Head out to the bazaar at dinner time in Kurdistan or Pakistan and you will hear vendors shouting, luring customers in to buy the fresh naan, fresh bread, hot out of clay ovens.

During this time of worldwide uncertainty and fear, we all long to have something to sustain us. The abundance of recipes and people creating starters for sourdough bread is evidence of how we look to bread to do this for us. In the midst of so much unknown, we want to hold on to the known and the stable, want to grasp things that will take us through uncertainty. No wonder Jesus said “I am the bread of life” to his disciples.

Bread. Beautiful, life-giving, life-sustaining bread – both the physical, tangible bread that I eat and the less tangible spiritual bread of life that I daily seek. Bread that brings order out of chaos, comfort out of despair, and peace out of pandemics, and with it the reminder of words that have lasted thousands of years. “Take. Eat. My body broken for you.”

[Picture Credit: Image by Laura Retyi from Pixabay]

We Aren’t All Okay

You know those signs that appear on pretty suburban lawns? The ones that say “It’s all going to be okay!” or “Everything will be okay!” in cheery colors? Well guess what!?

We aren’t all okay. We are far from okay. I learned today that gun sales in Massachusetts, the hardest state in the nation to buy a gun, have gone up by 85% compared to a year ago. I learned that overdoses and suicides are up. And we all know that unemployment is a rocking 20% in the United States.

And guess what? All the posts on social media moralizing everything we are doing – whether it be wearing or not wearing masks, or opening up the economy – none of that is helping. It’s like watching kids bickering and finally saying “Enough! Go to your rooms RIGHT THIS MINUTE! I don’t want to hear another word from you!”

So don’t tell us we are all going to be okay. We are not in the same boat. If you have a regular pay check, then you may want the country to stay closed. If you don’t have a pay check – you may want it to open so that you can feed your family and pay your rent. If you are a recovering addict, desperately needing your support group, then you may want the country to open. If you have diabetes and other co-morbidities that make you more at risk for COVID-19, then you may want it to stay closed. You may think keeping an economy closed is a moral issue, but the person who just learned that their family member struggling with depression committed suicide, a result of severe depression and loneliness, may think that opening the country is a moral issue. We all have things we’d like to moralize about. GIVE EACH OTHER A BREAK and stop this nonsense.

None of this is easy and we are not okay.

So what? What is my solution?

The only thing I have is to lean into your discomfort. Lean deep into it. Scream. Cry. Rage. Bite your pillow. I promise you it will help.

“Lean into your discomfort” – face the sadness, the madness, the anger, and the hard.

Lean into your discomfort.

But how? How do I lean into my discomfort so that I can come out the other side?

Google the phrase and you get about 7,090,000 results in .45 seconds. This is a phrase that people use a lot. It is the social worker’s mantra – Lean into your discomfort. Don’t deny the pain, the grief, the anger, the frustration.

There are times when leaning into my discomfort is less complicated than others. Today is a perfect example. I just had to do it, I had to navigate the feelings, the tears, the email system that didn’t work, the powerpoint that I had not yet completed, the things that are making me angry – all of it. Other times leaning into my discomfort is so painful I want to anesthetize the process with whatever I can, whether it be sleep, or food, or denial, or putting so much distraction into my life that I don’t have to think about the discomfort.

But ultimately, I have to do it.

“Lean into your discomfort” is a phrase that works for me. It doesn’t deny the process, it doesn’t diminish the pain. Instead it challenges me that in leaning into the pain, the discomfort, the confusion, the grief, we learn to walk. First in baby steps, then in regular steps, finally in giant steps.

The steps are like playing the childhood game of  “Mother May I?”

“Mother may I take three giant steps” says the child. And the one who is ‘Mother’ says “No but you can take three baby steps” or “No but you can take one scissor step”. The goal is to reach ‘mother’ who is at the end of the court. When ‘Mother’ isn’t looking, the child on the court tries to sneak a couple more steps in, wanting to reach the goal faster. Leaning into our discomfort is sometimes like asking for giant steps and getting baby steps; or asking for baby steps and being told we have to take a giant step — only our legs are short and our giant steps feel small.

It is a long process. But the more we lean, the less we try to gloss over and pretend it’s all okay; the less we sit defeated, mourning the life we find ourselves in. The more we face our feelings and circumstances, the quicker we arrive at a place of understanding, at a place that is more comfortable. The more we lean, the taller we stand and the braver we become – and the kinder we can be to each other.

That’s all I have. That’s it. Because it really isn’t all okay right now.

[Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/atlanta-background-brick-city-5065797/]

Crashing Waves; Crashing Idols

We walked along the ocean on Saturday morning. The sun had not yet broken through the clouds and it was grey and misty. The waves were high, crashing and covering the rocks, receding quickly as another one crashed.

I love the ocean. I love it in any weather. I love it for its beauty, its complexity, its strength, and its sound – the sound of my childhood vacations.

Often ocean waves feel safe, but not on Saturday. On Saturday I was glad I could stand on a solid rock above the tide and watch from twenty feet away. The waves felt like they could and would take out anything that was in their path, doing what the wind and current bid them to do.

I thought about the way the pandemic has crashed over the world, much like the waves on the rocks. I thought about how much it has crushed and crashed over our plans. From postponed memorial services to postponed weddings to virtual book launches, because the in person plans are no longer an option, our plans have been crushed. With tears we have fought the hard decision making, finally realizing that whatever it is we are planning must be postponed, canceled, or rethought.

It has also crashed and crushed our idols. Whatever our idols are – be they job security, government protection, economic security, business, the stock market, public speaking, living overseas, the perfect wedding, graduations, traveling, leisure, entertainment, sports, church ministry, academic success – it cares not. All of our idols have crashed, and if you are like me, you are picking up the pieces, wondering why you ever put your trust in something so fragile.

At the beginning of February, I was excited about some incredible opportunities. After the disappointment of the summer and our forced return to the United States, life was beginning to settle down. I had just celebrated my birthday. I was beginning a community health initiative in Kurdistan with my husband and I scheduled to travel there in late March. I had been asked to do a Ted Talk at Boston University. I was doing well at my job. I had written a grant that looked promising for the University of Raparin. I had even been nominated for an “Extraordinary Woman in Healthcare Award” for an organization in Boston. I kid you not. This is all strangely true!

And then came mid February. Death came with the force of a mighty wave, followed by border closures, shelter in place orders, travel restrictions, and cancellation after cancellation. The trip to Kurdistan was canceled. The Ted Talk was canceled. The grant was on hold. The community health initiative would begin, but slowly and in a completely different way. My brother’s memorial service was postponed. And believe me, I did not get any award. Instead, I curled up on my couch in tears most mornings, plans canceled and idols crashing, hands outstretched to God.

The pandemic waves have come with a mighty force, and have washed away any illusions I had about safety, security, and who I was. I am like one of the small snail shells that is taken by the waves, at the mercy of the sea and the tide.

Peter Mommsen in the Plough Quarterly writes this: “Whether or not this plague, like the biblical ones, is a punishment, it certainly is apocalyptic. I don’t mean this in an end-of-the-world way, but rather in the literal sense of apocalypse as an unveiling – a revelation of how things really are. This crisis has ripped the cover off certain truths about our souls and our society. Some of these truths are ugly.”

On the one hand, this could be deeply depressing, and some days I do sink into a sort of abyss. After a cup of strong tea and talk with my husband, who has the gift of both humor and helping things seem not so bad, I usually rise. I am not a phoenix rising from the ashes, but rather like one of those shells on the rocks, waiting patiently for the waves to calm down or the tide to change. I am left with a strange gratitude.

I did not know how dearly and closely I held some of the things I have lost, did not know how difficult it would be to give them up. Since last July and my floundering return to the United States, my questions have continually been “What is the next right thing?” and “With all the noise in my head, how do I figure it out?” I thought some of those things were indeed falling into place, but it turns out – that has not been so.

I don’t have answers either for myself or for you, if you perhaps find yourself in a similar position. I still feel like I could go under the wave any moment, gasping, unable to find my way to the surface.

Beyond answers, what do I do? I have found routine to be a good friend. A job, which I am more than thankful can be done from home, takes up some of the week. I do a lot of baking, a great deal of reading, and some just staring out at our bird feeder and thinking. And I try to walk, to strengthen my body and my mind.

At the beginning of February, I wrote an essay for A Life Overseas that I titled “On Safety and Sanity.” At the time that I wrote it, borders were not closed, shelter in place orders had not been given, but people were beginning to hear the roar of the waves that were to come. In that essay, I talked about “bookending with the Psalms” – starting with the Psalms and ending with the Psalms.

As the waves threaten to overpower me, as my plans and idols crash, it is there that I go, and I am not disappointed.

My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.
*

*Psalm 42: 6-8

Siblings and the Third Culture Kid Journey

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

Recently I was thinking about an event in my childhood. It took place at the time of the Indo-Pak war – the war of independence for East Pakistan, the outcome being East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh.

As I remember, it coincided with a mono epidemic at our boarding school, where many of us were sent home early to recover from what used to be known as the “kissing” disease.

My parents were living in the city of Larkana in Southern Pakistan at the time, and we were the only expat family, the only English speaking family in the area. It created a unique family dynamic, one where we relied heavily on each other without even realizing it.

My brothers decided to build a trench in our front yard, a worthy act that could hardly have saved us from Indian bombs falling but was, nevertheless, a creative outlet. When finished, they proudly invited my parents and me to take a look. We were duly impressed, although secretly I remember thinking it didn’t look like it could survive an air raid. I’m not sure why I wasn’t involved in digging the trench, but knowing the princess that I was and continue to be, it was wise that I was on the sidelines – ever appreciative but not getting my hands dirty.

And so it went, my siblings and me. They were the ones that traveled with me through the same places and situations of our between worlds life. Home leaves, where we went through the painful process of trying to adjust to our passport country and the strangeness of New England for a short year before packing our bags to head back overseas; winters in the dusty, Bougainvillea laden homes in the Sindh region of Pakistan; long Punjabi church services listening to Miss Mall lead singing with her powerful bass voice; boarding school and the ups and downs of being away from home; camping in Kaghan valley with the monsoon season ensuring everything was damp; eating curry by the side of the road during family trips; falling asleep to the sounds of ocean waves hitting the sand during our yearly week at the beach; and so much more that went into our sibling journey.

The situations changed, but the main characters were always the same. Ed. Stan. Tom. Marilyn. Dan.

Until they weren’t. Until the actors, one by one, left the scene and it was finally left to me and my younger brother to continue the play. A few years later I would be the one to leave the stage and my brother would continue on his own. What used to be a chaotic and ever-stimulating conversation among siblings changed to a silent monologue, different for each of us.

If the time and sounds of childhood are marked by our siblings, then perhaps it is even more so for the third culture kid. The daily events, the arguing, the all out fights, but overall the undying loyalty to place and to each other that connects our memories.

“Remember that time in Greece when we ate cherries at the outdoor cafe?” “Remember that time in Japan when I fell into the fish pond outside the hotel?” “Remember the time in Murree when we were on the mountain during that storm and thought we would get struck by lightning?” “Remember picnics by the canal?” “Remember leaving for the beach in the wee hours of the morning, landrover packed tight with stuff?” “Remember baby turtles and Hawkes Bay?”

Remember? Remember? Remember?

We were named and claimed as members of a family, marked by faith and place. In life’s journey, we knew that siblings mattered; sometimes they were all we had.

In losing one of our siblings, we have lost not just a person, but a piece of place, a voice of our memories logged deep in our souls. We have lost a place at the sibling table as represented by Stan.

A friend recently captured this well in a comment written to me about a photograph:

I see in the photo and hear in the words that loss of places in a person too…the sibling. One of the precious few who embody all those places and things collected from those times, and in so doing, they are our truth-sayers about that unique snapshot of those two years here and three years there.

Jody Tangredi

Siblings – those ones who represent the places we lived and the events that went with them. The ones who we will always have with us until they are no longer here.

A friend of mine wrote this article for Thrive Global. “Covid-19: The Third Side of the Coin – Hope, grief, and complexity in times of the Coronavirus“. It is an excellent, nuanced article that I found to be hopeful and encouraging during this time.

The Oxygen of Faith – Pre-Paschal Reflections

Every year before our Paschal celebration I write a reflection. I usually write it after a busy day of services and preparation, a quiet moment before heading to the church for the midnight liturgy. This year, like the world around us, has been completely different.

Last year we traveled eight thousand miles and spent an entire month’s salary to get to our home parish for Pascha. That’s how precious it is to us. This year, though we live 20 minutes away from the church we are under a shelter in place and like Christians around the world, are live-streaming the service.

But I still find myself reflecting on this life-giving faith during a quiet moment. A few years ago, I was finishing up a film project with a friend of my son’s. We decided to go out for lunch before he headed back to New York City. We began talking about faith in general and the conversation then veered toward my faith in particular. He began asking questions. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember with absolute clarity saying to him “My faith is my oxygen.”

Every time we breathe we take in the life giving gas of oxygen. It enters into our respiratory system from outside our bodies and goes into our lungs. It crosses into the alveolar membranes and capillary endothelium, arriving in our blood stream and settling in our red blood cells, ready for a complex transfer system to every cell in our body. Anyone who has read about COVID-19 has a better appreciation for oxygen, the lungs, and the entire respiratory process.

My faith is like oxygen, my soul the lungs. I need it to breathe, to function, to get up each morning. I doubt, I scream, and I cry out to God for the pain and unfairness in life. I have sleepless nights, I have occasionally been in the intensive care unit needing life support for my failing faith, and I am too often a pitiful representative of my Christian faith. But ultimately I still choose it. To give it up would be like losing my ability to breathe.

In all my faults and flaws, I know deep within my soul that I am woven into the tapestry of his redemptive plan, and that somehow that matters.

And this is what I reflect on this evening. At 12 minutes before midnight, we will tune into our service. The entire room will be dark. A bell will chime once each minute until midnight. Then we will see the priest light one candle. We will hear him sing “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify you in purity of heart.” He will come out and say “Come, receive the light.” Though we are all over the Greater Boston area, we will move forward as one as we light our candles at home.

And so it will begin. for three hours we will celebrate the resurrection, periodically shouting Christ is Risen in every language we can think of. Our faith will be reaffirmed and I will breathe in its life-giving oxygen. In this, and this alone I rest.

Christ is Risen! In Truth He is Risen!

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.

Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway. 

My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane. 

A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon. 

Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive.

We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages. 

In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges. 

I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?

And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.

We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.

So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.

It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.

The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

Author’s Note: in my faith tradition, we are going into Holy Week with Palm Sunday this Sunday. Because I write for A Life Overseas which is a largely Protestant group, I have posted this today.

The Rhythm of Grace

I woke up to a cold house. Shivering despite being in a warm robe, I knew something was wrong. The temperature gauge showed a cold 58 and lowering. No heat came from the vents. The furnace was clearly not functioning.

“Could one more thing go wrong?” I thought. Which, of course, is a foolish thought. Yes. Absolutely. A lot more could go wrong. We could have another death. We could have another tragedy. That’s the thing about life – the horrid and tragic things that could happen are limitless. If it were not for grace, why would any of us want to get up in the morning?

And yet – there it is – the last best word one writer called it – Grace.

There is grace. There is hope. There is incredible beauty. There is laughter. There is resurrection. And there always has been.

It’s only been in the past 75 years that life became easy for so many. It wasn’t until the 1940s that wide-spread use of antibiotics became possible, helping people who would have previously died fight infection. It’s been in the last 100 years that we have seen massive advances in infant mortality and morbidity rates, changing the landscape of maternal child health. It was only 102 years ago that the last world-wide flu pandemic killed millions. But even then, there was grace. Even then people lived and loved, laughed and hoped, longed for restoration and resurrection.

Growing up in Pakistan I was introduced at an early age to food rations, no running hot water, no flush toilets, diseases like malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, malnutrition, blackouts, curfews, war, tragedy, and death. While Pakistan was far more than these things, living there meant I was not isolated from many of the things that my peers in the west never experienced. I am not a stranger to the uncomfortable, irritating, and sometimes tragic things of life.

And yet, when I met with a cold house and malfunctioning furnace, I still asked “Why?” I still questioned what else could go wrong.

And then the tears came. First hesitantly and then, when they realized they met with no resistance, they rushed to the surface.

Like so many in today’s world, I don’t know what I’m doing. All that I held dear, all that I planned, all that I worked for earlier feels as though it is no longer a reality. I cried and cried and cried. I didn’t hold back worrying that someone would see or hear these tears. That’s the thing about grieving alone – you don’t will yourself to stop for fear you will be misunderstood, you don’t try to compose yourself. You let the waves of grief move over you, like waves over the sand.

I cried that my brother left us all behind. I cried for my sister-in-law. I cried for my niece and nephew. I cried for my mom, grieving the loss of a child. I cried for all of us who knew and loved this remarkable man. I cried for the suffering around the world – Italy, India, Spain, Pakistan, the United States. I cried for all the people who have become statistics on a sophisticated, computer-programmed map. I cried for morgues that are too full and hospital staff that are too stressed. I cried for the refugees and those who are displaced. I cried for the world.

I don’t know how long I cried. It really didn’t matter. After a while, my sobs subsided, my breathing slowed and I sat still, taking it all in. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.

And then I got up and did what had to be done. Shower. Emails. Meetings. Curriculum development. More meetings.

The rhythm of life in the midst of quarantine. The rhythm of grace.

This is not the end  This is not the end of this  We will open our eyes wide, wider This is not our last  This is not our last breath  We will open our mouths wide, wider And you know you’ll be alright  Oh and you know you’ll be alright This is not the end  This is not the end of us  We will shine like the stars bright, brighter

Gungor

On Viruses

“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Arundhati Roy

I opened my email this morning to find a message from a friend who I’ve known and worked with for over ten years. The message was asking me to weigh in on a public service announcement (PSA). The subject of the email said just this:

“Anti-racism campaign PSA ideas – need your feedback by the end of today.”

In the body of the email were three scenarios. My job was to read them and comment on which one I thought would be most effective in reaching the public. She had asked for a quick turn around time so before I did anything else, I responded.

It was after I responded that the weight of the email hit me. My friend is from Taiwan. She has lived here for years and is an amazing community member and activist for Asian women’s health. We’ve worked on some extraordinary projects together through the years, projects that don’t make the news but have a powerful effect on the community.

In the midst of a pandemic crisis, my friend is having to worry about and work on an anti-racism campaign. She holds the dual burden of protecting her family and community’s health along with the weighty burden of protecting their safety

I know the excuses. I know the fear that is gripping people. I know what I do when I fear, when I’m insecure, when I want to blame – and I’m quite sure that what I feel is symptomatic of the rest of us. But it is so wrong.

I appeal to all of us, but especially those of us who are white and may have friends that are crafting and spreading memes and messages that spread laughter and racism. We must open our mouths, our keyboards, and whatever other ways we communicate to speak up and out against this racism.

The focus on anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment comes from the myth that the corona virus is a Chinese virus.

Here are the facts: This corona virus was unknown until an outbreak in Wuhan, China in late 2019. “Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide. The resulting genomic sequence data has shown that Chinese authorities rapidly detected the epidemic and that the number of COVID-19 cases have been increasing because of human to human transmission after a single introduction into the human population.” [Source: Scripps Research Institute]

Rather than blaming China, we need to begin thanking them for identifying the virus and going to massive lengths to quarantine a huge population. Yes, their government had missteps (just as most governments did and are daily facing the consequences of those missteps.) This piece is not about government action or inaction. It’s about the wrongs that are being committed against a group of people under the guise of a virus.

Here are some truths about racism: It is a virus. It has to find a host. It cannot be spread without people -it lacks the ability to thrive and reproduce outside of a host body. Racism can mutate. It takes root in a willing host, then it mutates and changes, depending on the particular issue or people group. The racism virus is also like other viruses in that it is unsophisticated. It lacks the ability to live independently. It can be invisible, but it manifests itself in outward, visible symptoms.

The outward symptoms we are seeing of this virus are many. Spitting on people, physical violence, racial slurs, yelling ‘there’s a corona’ as they pass by someone who appears to be Asian, memes that attack a specific group, hate mail, invisible blame that comes out in subtle ways are a few of this disease.

And here’s the thing – Corona virus will eventually go away. But the virus of racism? That’s a lot harder. It takes root and stays in its host a long, long time. It can’t be treated with traditional cures and medicine. Instead, it needs to be rooted out with repentance and healed in relationship.

So here is my plea to all of us: May we not be willing hosts to this virus. May we see it before it takes root and run far away. May we examine our hearts and souls. May we refuse to pass on memes and cartoons that can damage others. May we learn the facts about the illness. May we call or email our friends who are from Chinese or other Asian families and check up on them because let’s face it – the American public are not good at distinguishing where people are from – right now, if you even look remotely Asian, you can be a target. May we always be ready to speak up and speak out in support of someone who is facing racism in a store, on a street, or in a public place.

Most of all, may our inner examination of heart and soul continue – where does racism find a willing host and what am I going to do about it?


“We’ve all been exposed. Not necessarily to the virus (maybe…who even knows). We’ve all been exposed BY the virus. Corona is exposing us. Exposing our weak sides. Exposing our dark sides. Exposing what normally lays far beneath the surface of our souls, hidden by the invisible masks we wear. Now exposed by the paper masks we can’t hide far enough behind. Corona is exposing our addiction to comfort. Our obsession with control. Our compulsion to hoard. Our protection of self. Corona is peeling back our layers. Tearing down our walls. Revealing our illusions. Leveling our best-laid plans. Corona is exposing the gods we worship: Our health Our hurry Our sense of security. Our favorite lies. Our secret lusts. Our misplaced trust. Corona is calling everything into question: What is the church without a building? What is my worth without an income? How do we plan without certainty? How do we love despite risk? Corona is exposing me. My mindless numbing. My endless scrolling. My careless words. My fragile nerves. We’ve all been exposed. Our junk laid bare. Our fears made known. The band-aid torn. The masquerade done. So what now? What’s left? “

Clean hands Clear eyes Tender hearts. What Corona reveals, God can heal. Come Lord Jesus. Have mercy on us. As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.


*I do not know the author of what I have printed. If any of you do, please contact me and I will give credit where credit is due.

A Salute to All of Us

Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

Here’s to the moms, homeschooling when they always said “I’ll homeschool when it snows in Djibouti… or Miami … or Chiang Mai.” In other words “Never” and never has suddenly become now.

Here’s to the restaurant worker, who is suddenly furloughed from an eighty hour work week.

Here’s to the teachers turning their carefully thought out lesson plans into online classes.

Here’s to the young woman who just got a job at Target excited for her first paycheck only to find out there will be no more.

Here’s to the nurse, carefully isolating herself from her family to keep them safe.

Here’s to the student, lonely and feeling trapped.

Here’s to the graduate who will not be able to walk.

Here’s to the bride, who tearfully postponed her wedding Unsure of when it can be rescheduled.

Here’s to the women and men setting up home offices and new systems, trying to continue their jobs.

Here’s to the grocery store employee, wiping down carts and checkout counters with bleach.

Here’s to the healthcare workers, on the frontlines of care.

Here’s to the priest and the pastor, the imam and the rabbi, praying for congregations in crisis.

Here’s to the homeless, fighting one more difficult day, one more crisis in a long list.

Here’s to the families trapped on three sides of the globe, to the third culture kid trying to get home, to the parents and siblings, brothers and sisters separated.

Here’s to the family grieving with no funeral, the community rallying with no physical contact, the church seeking to function while apart.

Here’s to the poor and the refugee – those whose reality has changed little, but whose hope looks even bleaker.

Here’s to the helpers, the doers, the prayers, the seekers, the scholars, the researchers, the neighbors, the givers, the comforters, the organizers, the activists, the optimists, the pessimists, the realists, the pragmatists, the lonely, the sad, the fearful, and the angry.

Here’s to our collective humanity and image bearing. May we reach across what divides us and open our hearts wide to the God who loves us. May we be willing to give of our abundance and receive from our need. May we have patience and resilience, may our eyes be open wide to the world and our small part in that world.

And may God be with us and comfort us.


Advice from a friend in Shanghai:

Since we got a head start with the COVID-19 over here in China, some friends have asked me for advice in navigating this time. Take only what’s helpful for you!

  1. Stay at home. Yes, I totally understand the urge to resist this, but the sooner you can accept it and stay home, the better it will be for everyone, including you.
  2. Assume that you could be the carrier. I haven’t been too worried about contracting the virus myself, but I became much more careful when I started thinking how I could potentially spread it to others.
  3. Don’t bring germs into your house. Wash your hands as soon as you come home. In Asia, we take off our shoes at the door, and this might be a good practice for everyone right now. Consider changing your outer clothes or showering if you’ve been out in a public place. Don’t forget to clean your phone and your keys!
  4. Focus on what you can control (yourself). There are too many things that are outside of your control right now. Instead, find ways you can boost your immune system and/or prevent your exposure. For many Asians, that means wearing face masks and opening the windows. I personally use essential oils to support to our immune systems and buy fruit for my family like a mad woman. Whatever strategies can strengthen you, whether it’s making grandma’s chicken soup or deep cleaning your house, I say go for it!
  5. Take care of your own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The stronger you are, the better you can survive and even thrive during this time. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise daily. Pray like crazy. Turn off the news. Watch something funny. Call a friend. Do a conference call with a group of friends. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Get e-therapy. Learn something new. Go for a walk or a drive. If you have a balcony or a yard, sit outside in the fresh air and sun.
  6. If you have faith, put it into action. Trust in God. Meditate on His promises. Listen to worship music. God is greater than our circumstances, and He provides for us even in times of uncertainty. Be a light during this dark time. Don’t give in to fear or settle for mere self-preservation; your neighbor needs the hope and the love that you give, albeit in creative ways. Look out for those who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to domestic violence.
  7. Be generous. Give a gift card to someone who is not able to work during this time. Support your church even though the services have been cancelled. Pay your employees. Order take-out. Support small businesses. Donate blood. Give a phone call to someone who is vulnerable. Send a card to someone in a nursing home. Offer to shop for someone else. Donate to a food bank. Sew cloth masks. There are endless possibilities to sow seeds of generosity during this time. [From my friend Ruth and used with permission.]

Tears in a Bottle

I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned.

Bettie Addleton

I wake to bright sunshine, a stark contrast to a couple of days ago when it rained as if it would never stop. This is our life – one day is wet and gray, drops of rain falling down like tears on the face of a mother who has lost her child. Overnight the sky changes and I wake to sunshine and glorious colors. One day is so full of grief that one’s heart feels it can no longer beat; the next day you wake up to a heart that still beats and the laughter of children.  One day there’s a party and the next day there’s a funeral. Grief and joy, coexisting under the umbrella of grace.

Our world feels full of tears. In a news article I read of an Italian family in New Jersey who has lost three members to the coronavirus in the past week – the mother died not knowing that her son and daughter died just days before her. The death toll in Italy rises, so high that it feels like numbers instead of people.

Years ago during the SARS epidemic, my sister-in-law and I were talking and she mentioned that SARS was changing the way people were able to grieve. Isolated, unable to bring family and friends together, their grieving and mourning was trapped by physical and social distancing.

This virus is causing the same difficulty, grief trapped outside an isolated hospital room, where a loved one is being cared for by capable strangers. Trapped during that intimate and difficult moment of death, unable to reach out and touch, grieving instead through heavy glass barriers as hospital staff with masks and gowns care for the person you love as they take their last breath. A heart monitor flatlines while a family watches through a window. Death is never easy, never convenient but orders for isolation, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place make it even more difficult.

Our own family is experiencing the difficulty of grieving during the time of coronavirus as last week we had to postpone my brother’s memorial service. It was the right thing to do, but I cried deep tears of mourning. Our time in Thailand was precious as we grieved as a small group, the love, tears, and laughter evident in all our interactions. But there are more family members and friends who need to grieve this man who lived well and died too soon.

Sunshine sometimes feels incongruent to the world news, as though rain better represents life during these days. Rain collecting on city streets creates a sloppy soup of cigarette butts, paper leaflets, and garbage – a broken mess of life. Rain hides the tears falling down my cheeks, gives me grace to weep tears that I don’t want seen in public, but that I can’t hold back until I am in private. But just as I think I have cried all the tears possible, that the grief will never stop, I wake up to sunshine.

A few years ago I wrote about tears and my friend Bettie responded:

Sadness, grief, pain, disappointment, pleasure, joy, happiness, and other emotions turn on the tears. We cry at weddings and we cry at funerals. Like torrents of rain or an uncontrollable flood, and even slow and haltingly, they flow, bringing cleansing and as you say redemption. I have chronic dry eyes, a condition when the eye is unable to produce tears. It is not healthy. My vision is affected. For good eyesight, the production of tears is necessary. I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned. Bring on the tears for they have redemptive quality.

Tears in a bottle, tears redeemed. Permission to mourn. Tears that renew my vision and enable me to see the marks and manifestation of God-breathed redemption.

Social Distancing and Beth March

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

Anyone who knows and loves the book Little Women knows the story of Beth. Beth is the third sister, quiet and shy, not quick to pour herself into social occasions like her younger sister, Amy. And though Beth is timid around a lot of people, she is quick to notice those who need help. Above all, Beth is kind.

The story begins at Christmas time. Beloved Marmee has gone to visit a poor neighbor family, huddled in one room with sick children. Later on in the story, when Marmee has to leave to go be with her wounded husband she charges her daughters to not forget this family. The only one of the sisters who remembers and is willing to go see them and care for them is Beth.

Beth ends up with scarlet fever, a disease that she caught directly from the family she had been assisting. It was an illness that we know now is untreated strep infection and includes a sore throat, high fever, and a bright, red rash that covers the body. For her kindness, she ends up teetering between life and death. The family desperate to see her well again, and she does recover from this initial illness. But scarlet fever can carry with it some residual damage, and she later dies from complications of the disease.

Does Beth’s kindness kill her?

History is full of people who die helping others. The “Chernobyl Three” who stepped into a radioactive area to drain a pool, and in doing so averted another explosion; Annalena Tonneli, who fought TB in the Horn of Africa and ended up killed by terrorists; Corrie Ten Boom whose family helped Jews escape by hiding them in their home – there are far too many to count.

We are in an unprecedented time in this century. A global pandemic has been announced and “social distancing” has been strongly advised. As a public health nurse, I agree with this approach. It slows down the spread of the virus, giving hospitals and health care workers opportunity to catch up and be able to treat those who are the sickest. But those health care workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, community health workers, physicians assistants, nursing assistants – they don’t have a choice. They work to keep the rest of us safe. They don’t have the luxury of “social distancing.” Some of them, inevitably, will get the virus. It’s the price they will pay for helping. My prayer is that they will not die, but will instead be cared for by people who are as kind and dedicated as they are.

Social distancing is something of a privilege – a privilege reserved for those who live in single family dwellings, a privilege for those who have the resources to stock up on many months worth of supplies. Millions around the world don’t necessarily have this privilege. Maybe we also need to rethink the phrase “social distancing” a public health term used to apply to actions that a health department deems necessary to slow the spread of disease. Could we change that phrase to physical distancing instead? Social distancing gives us room to ignore the other, caring only for ourselves, all in the name of containing a virus.

A culture, like the United States, that prides itself on individuality could happily distance themselves physically and socially, but maybe some of us need a little prodding to go help others. There may be a neighbor who is really suffering, and you may be the one to help them. There may be someone who needs a ride from the airport, and you need to go pick them up. There may be families that need you to not socially or physically distance yourself so that you can bring them food and supplies.

This social distancing may be the right thing for the majority of the population, but there may be some of us who will be called upon to give up that distancing and help others.

It will be easy, if that happens, to opt for fear, to use social distancing as an excuse. I’ve said it before in this space – fear is not good currency. Fear is more viral than the virus itself. There is, and will always be, something to fear.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve watched some of my family members and friends come together to help another part of our family who have been rerouted from their home in Thailand. They are tirelessly gathering clothes, food, a car, and other resources that this family needs. Any one of them could have said “No. We have our own families to care for, to feed, to stock up for.” None of them have done that – they have stepped up and they have stepped in. I am beyond grateful for this coming together, moving in to help instead of moving away.

Please hear me – I don’t advocate being foolish. I don’t advocate walking in to harm’s way just to be noble. But I do think there are times when we need to put others above ourselves, and in this country, we have a lot to learn about what that looks like.

Social distancing may be the kindest thing for some people; for others, we may have to step up and move in. May we recognize the humanity of the other more than ever. May we have wisdom on what is needed, and above all – may we fight fear and be kind.

And these thoughts from C.S. Lewis are apt, though written long ago:

It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

CS Lewis

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. CS Lewis on the atomic bomb

Muted Colors – Lenten Journey

There is nothing ambiguous about Lent in the Orthodox tradition. No one contemplates what to give up, or how to spend more time in prayer and repentance. Everyone pretty much knows that you’re going vegan for the next seven plus weeks. Orthodox countries pull out their “Fasting” menus and we, sometimes reluctantly, get rid of all the cheese in the house.

Church services are more frequent and we don’t need thigh masters because our thighs get such a good workout from prostrations.

Coming from a background where Lent was mentioned, but it was more about giving up chocolate or, god forbid, coffee, and sometimes signing up for a daily meditation that would arrive in my inbox reminding me of the importance of this season, it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the intentionality of this faith tradition. I have come into it slowly, but I am embracing it fully.

This year, grief is the background of Lent. It colors everything with muted shades. The sky is not as blue, the brick houses are not as brown, our house is not as red, instead all of life feels muted. I know this will not be forever – instead it is a season. I remember hearing a speaker once talk about grief. “Our churches are full of hurting people,” she said “that don’t take a season to heal.” When we don’t take a season to heal, our grief comes out in other ways. When grief is frozen in time, it can take years to thaw.

Somehow, since it is Lent, and a season of repentance and preparation, I’m feeling the relief that comes with the freedom to cry, to mourn a broken world even as I experience the incredible grace that falls down on the broken and wounded. Lent gives me that time. It invites me into self-reflection in the midst of community, lest I become too inward focused.

And even as I repent and grieve, I’m also invited into a time of preparation that ultimately leads to the Resurrection and glory of Pascha. It is a time of repentance to be sure, but it’s also a time to experience fully the joy of forgiveness and delight in the mercy of God, given so freely to all. It is a time to remember that what I see is only part of the picture.

The muted shades of my life at this moment will one day be replaced with the glorious colors of a world beyond grief, where Lent will be no more, and every color will be richer and more glorious than we’ve ever seen.