The rain has been falling steadily since I woke on this grey Monday morning. The worries of the day fall steadily beside the rain. Neither lets up. The sound of the rain outside echoes the sound of worries in my head.
My weather app says that heavy rain will fall for another 51 minutes, then – only a drizzle. Maybe my worries will echo this. Heavy right now, but gradually fading to drips and drops.
I press pause willing both to stop. But they both continue, persistent and drenching.
I’m in Rockport, my place of healing and rest, where the rocks and the sea meet with crashes of foam – nature’s majesty reflecting our creator.
I close my eyes.
I breathe, exhaling fears and worries, inhaling words of truth. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. With each inhale I breathe in the gift of life. And so I thank God for the rain (though my cellar may be flooding, and my spirit drowning). They say that gratitude precedes the miracle, so I give thanks and I wait for a miracle on this Monday morning, and as I wait, I pray.
On this Monday morning the rain falls, my worries with it.
Yet you are the God who urges me not to worry, who says "Don't be anxious!"
May I rest as a lily of the field today, May I see the rain as your gift.
May I exhale worry and fear and inhale your peace.
May I walk as one who is beloved, resting in grace.
May I accept what comes this day.
May I know your joy.May I know your presence, your wisdom, your peace.
May the words of the Psalmist fill my soul "May your unfailing love be with us Lord, even as we put our hope in you."* In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
*Psalm 33, verse 22
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I love my post liturgical coffee. Some love their post liturgical naps (PLNs) but I love my coffee. It’s always the same. We stop at the coffee shop on the way home and I order a hazelnut latte, sipping it contentedly. It’s the same routine in the cold of winter where my breath fogs up the windshield, or in the heat of summer, where the steering wheel burns my hands and the car interior feels suffocating, where text messages from the City of Boston interrupt my thoughts to tell me just how hot it is going to be.
There is something deeply comforting about this coffee routine. It’s the treat of not making it myself combined with the peace of my post liturgical thoughts. Somehow it feels like one of God’s good gifts to me.
I arrived back home today, coffee in hand, and placed it on the kitchen counter. I’m not sure what happened but at one point I was multitasking and the next thing I knew, that beautiful hazelnut latte was all over my kitchen floor. It splattered everywhere, from the front of the cabinets clear over to the garbage can and everywhere in between. It even got on my sandals. Something inside of me broke and I began to sob. All of the pain in the world was in that cup of coffee. All the stress, sadness, and hurt that I have experienced in the last five months combined with creamy, frothy coffee to create a sticky mess. I was undone.
God’s good gift spread across the floor, no longer a comfort but a representation of all that hurts and brings pain.
A week ago I read a beautiful essay by a 30 year old woman who has had cancer three times. Her words were sharp and true and challenging. I am schooled well by younger people who know pain. In this essay she talked about being God’s downstairs neighbor, the one that bangs on his ceiling, trying to get attention, the one that shows up at his door everyday. The words resonated powerfully with me. I am the same. I may shout, I may scream. I may whisper. But I show up. It’s the only thing I know to do. She writes this, and in the reading I weep:
Tears have become the only prayer I know, Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.
I remember this today as I soak up spilled coffee with paper towels, get rid of the whole sticky mess. And as unlikely as it is, I feel the mercy of God. The mercy of God in spilled coffee and spilled tears. The mercy of God in taking my exhausted spirit, and giving me an outlet to cry. The mercy of God in the post tears exhaustion where I have no fight left. Just the words “not my will, but thine be done.” Coffee will come and go, the mercy of God is never ending. Tears will be my prayers some days and laughter my prayers on others, but the God who made me and loves me takes all of it, wrapping me in the folds of an invisible embrace, whispering “You are loved” and I know the mercy in those whispered words.
So I’ll keep on choosing to believe in the mercy of God. I’ll continue to whisper a barely audible ‘thank you’ through tears that blind my eyes, and as I whisper, I may begin to mean it.
In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood is closing its doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.
An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.
Last night with my younger daughter and husband I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend Paul. I got to experience the thick fog of Jhika Gali, and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.
I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class will graduate. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.
My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”
The closer the closing ceremony comes, the more I feel an urgent sadness that needs to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that this day would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:
Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.
To be sure, we live in a different era. The school has dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.
What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had. Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.
As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.
The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.
What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?
My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.
I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.
At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.
Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule
Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School
Fellow MCSers, what are your stones of remembrance?
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Every year I sit down a couple of ours before our Pascha celebration and I write reflections. The house is generally quiet and I’m ready. Holy Week has ended and our Great and Holy Saturday service ushers us into the harrowing of Hell and the glory of resurrection.
We will enter the church in quiet anticipation. Candles will be lit and low lights will be on. Someone will be chanting the Psalms. Just 12 minutes before midnight, the church bells will begin to ring – one for every minute until finally – the room is completely dark and all are quiet. In the altar, the priests who have been readying for this for days, will begin singing “Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.” Then all of us join in joyous song as one of the priests comes out and calls out in joyful command:
“Come! Receive the Light!”
As one, we move forward, our candles held out, desperate to receive the light, desperate for Resurrection Hope. (you have never seen Orthodox move so quickly except to the Paschal feast afterwards where cheese, meat, and cream beckon us from our six week vegan fast.)
This year I am deeply in need of hope. My husband has been sick for some time and the hospital has become my daily phone call or visit. I join the community of the desperate and broken hearted as I make my way into the visitor’s line daily. We make small talk through the nervousness of shared worry and fear for those we love. Occasionally we see a new mom and dad make their way out of the hospital, and we breathe with grateful hope. It’s not all bad, There is good. Didn’t someone once say that a baby is God’s way of saying the world must go on?* We hold out our phones with our Covid passes, indicating that we are safe to enter. We are masked and only our eyes tell the stories in our hearts and lives. We slowly pass through a revolving door and journey on to the floor where our loved one lies. None of us are in control. We tentatively put our trust in a medical system that fails us far too often and can only do so much for us, tentatively put our faith in doctors and nurses who are sometimes wonderful and sometimes not.
A hospital is a place for the sick and the broken – sometimes it brings hope and other times despair. I didn’t always believe this, but I have found that a church is also for the sick and the broken. The difference is it brings a hope that a hospital, no matter how world renowned, can never give, can never promise. A church brings in the sick and says “You are welcome! You belong here! Come – let us walk beside you in your journey to repentance, restoration, and resurrection hope!”
So tonight I go as one who is sick and one who longs for restoration. I will hold out my candle and receive the light. I will hold out for resurrection hope.
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“I have waited for a book like Pillars all my adult life, a personal book that discovers similarities and honors differences between Christianity and Islam, a book that . . . shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
Marilyn R. Gardner, author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging
I think it was in 2012 when I first “met” Rachel Pieh Jones. We connected online over a mutual love and struggle over lives lived between worlds, over writing, and over a shared connection to Muslim majority countries. Meeting Rachel has been a gift that keeps on giving. Through the years we have shared our hearts and our stories and I have learned much through my friendship with this extraordinary woman.
Today, Rachel’s second book Pillars is released and I cannot tell you how excited I am about this book! I had the honor of reading an advanced copy and feel like I have been waiting for it my entire adult life.
Below is an interview from the press release for Pillars developed by Plough Publishing.
When Rachel Pieh Jones moved from Minnesota to rural Somalia with her husband and twin toddlers eighteen years ago, she was secure in a faith that defined who was right and who was wrong, who was saved and who needed saving. She had been taught that Islam was evil, full of lies and darkness, and that the world would be better without it.
Luckily, locals show compassion for this blundering outsider who can’t keep her headscarf on or her toddlers from tripping over AK47s. After the murder of several foreigners forces them to evacuate, the Joneses resettle in nearby Djibouti.
Is there anything you find daunting about putting your story out like this for the world? Absolutely. Spirituality is deeply personal. Sharing such a personal story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I hope to honor my Christian tradition, even as my ideas of what it means to be a Christian have been transformed and I’m not sure how people will respond to some of my conclusions. I also aim to honor Islam as I experience it in the Horn of Africa and it is daunting to present another faith tradition as an outsider. I hope to have done so respectfully.
Why do you choose to do it in spite of those apprehensions? I’m a peace-builder at heart and have learned that peace does not come through avoiding hard conversations, and that peace does not mean homogeneity or agreement. Peace is built right in the middle of complexity as we learn to honor another’s perspective. This is something our communities desperately need. Peace is built through shared experiences of joy, grief, fear, and celebration, through choosing to love people without needing to change them, and through realizing that we are the ones being loved too. That conviction compels me to share this story as one example of what peace-building can look like.
How do you imagine your story will be received by North American evangelical Christians? By the Muslim community? I don’t expect all readers, whether Christian or Muslim, will agree with all the conclusions I come to in Pillars. I even anticipate some pushback because Christians and Muslims have a complicated history that can make it hard to see positive aspects in the other. I hope even in the places that feel uncomfortable, readers will find intriguing possibilities for conversation andfurther exploration. At the same time, I know many Christians and Muslims who have developed meaningful relationships. I hope these readers will feel less alone in their quest to find common ground.
Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation “This is a beautiful story, beautifully told. It’s much more than the memoirs of a Christian American living in Africa and exploring Islam with devoted Muslims; it’s about learning how to be a good neighbor to the people around you, wherever you might be in the world. This is the kind of book we need right now.”
Amy Peterson, author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World “Filled with hard-won insights of a mature faith lived in long community with Muslim neighbors, Pillars refuses sentimental calls for the kind of peace that glosses over differences. Instead, Jones finds her faith unraveled and rewoven, stronger for what she’s learned in the Horn of Africa and from her Muslim friends. Anyone whose faith has been challenged by life experiences will find a helpful model for spiritual growth here.”
At the end of my full review I said this, and I leave you with it now:
“Read and savor this book, which shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.
“While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.“
She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*
Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.
Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.
Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.
I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.
There are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*
Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.
There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.
Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.
Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.
Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.
Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.
Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.
Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.
Lastly,God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.
Note: This post was originally published in A Life Overseas