When No One Shares Your Grief

A week ago my mom called with some sad news. Stefanous had died. I was so shocked. He was only 5 years older than I am. His youngest daughter was only just married two weeks ago. A flash flood of memories instantly floored me and I began to cry.

For those of us who grew up in far away parts of Asia and South Asia and I suspect in the great continent of Africa, our families, our households, included extra people. It was impossible to attend to all the work of living on their own in places where conveniences were few and life was hard and so our mothers hired house helpers and sometimes gardeners and cooks and guards or watchmen. These extras were a vital part of the cast of our theatrical lives. They were in the background many times, but they were there, constants in a sometimes-chaotic childhood. In some ways they were family, but those ways are stretched and extended. From this side of the ocean looking back on the strange story that is my childhood it feels awkward and difficult to explain the connection to these beloved extras.

Stefanous came to work part time for my family when he was only 14 or 15 years old. Mom taught him to wash dishes, to clean the house, to help with basic meal prep. Later, as Stefanous grew up, he fancied learning how to cook. He learned how to bake bread. He learned several Western dishes. He could make a few desserts. Mom would demonstrate how to do it. She would tell Stefanous the recipe and he would write it down slowly in a small “copy” (notebook) with his pencil. Our strange and foreign favourites were now captured in Urdu in a Pakistani copy and in the heart of a Punjabi man.

Stefanous lived in a small room behind our house. After he got married he brought his beautiful Parveen back to that simple room. Their babies eventually joined our circle; first Lubana, then Aksah and then the boys: Amoon and Shani. I was a teenager by the time those adorable girls were toddlers. Lubana and Aksah were in and out of our home. They were my playthings. I loved them. Lubana, the precocious beautiful first-born daughter especially stole my affections. Like a real life doll, I dressed her and toted her around all over the courtyard and through out the house.

Two weeks ago one of Stefanous’s sons sent pictures of his sister’s Aksah’s wedding. I stared at each picture and tried to find the little people I had known in the adult faces. I marveled at how Stefanous himself looked remarkably the same. Parveen Bhaji (my big sister) also seemed the same, maybe slightly softer and rounder, but essentially the same.

And now Stefanous is gone. The news is cryptic and insufficient. We suspect it was a heart attack, although we’ll probably never really know the details. What do I do with this strange grief? Where do I go to ‘ofsos’? Where do I go to give my condolences? Stefanous wasn’t family in the traditional sense. How do I post on FaceBook, “my parent’s servant died”? There’s no way to explain it.

I called my Lowell. He responded with comfort and joined me in my sadness. I tried calling Marilyn, even though I knew the chances were slim that she would answer. Still I knew that if I could get a hold of her she would understand. I tried calling another childhood friend, Kiran, whose childhood was just as far away as mine. She missed the call but called me right back. Kiran held my memories with reverence. She let me cry. I told her some of the funny foibles of Stefanous’s work habits. I remembered how he just about drove my dad nuts. He was such a slow worker, especially in those early years. Stefanous was also one of the most honest people I know. He was faithful and loyal and consistent. Stefanous was a good husband and a devoted father. He loved his family well.

When Lowell and I got married and moved to India I missed Stefanous so badly. I wasn’t sure how to live in South Asia without him. He became this larger than life thing in our marriage. What I remembered of him and all he could do grew to mythical proportions as I struggled to set up household routines in a foreign country. When Lowell actually got to meet Stefanous and heard the real stories from my parents he never let me live it down.

I know I’m not just grieving the loss of Stefanous. I’m grieving another deathblow to my childhood. I’m mourning the miles and miles that keep me separated from those memories. I cry because somehow the death of Stefanous serves to remind me of how strange my story seems. My tears tell of a strange sort of weariness. There are days I long for a more normal narrative.

But for today I mourn for Stefanous. His widow, Parveen, is a strong woman and she has her two sons to care for her, but it’s too soon to lose Stefanous. I’m so sorry for her loss. I’m grateful Stefanous was able to get both of his precious daughters married off but those daughters will always miss their Abhu Jaan. The sons, Amoon and Shani, still need their father to shepherd them through their journey into adulthood. Death is always difficult. Death so young is impossibly hard. Death so far away seems doubly so.

Stefanous Massey, 51, died suddenly of a suspected heart attack. Stefanous was born to Bharakat and Khurishida Massey in Bees Chuk, District Layyah. The second youngest of eight children, he spent most of his childhood, along with his immediate family, in the home of Norman and Helen Gamble. He was employed by Gary and Joan Allyn from 1980-2000. Since then he has worked in Lahore for the Seven Day Adventist guest house, and for a general in the Pakistani army. Stefanous was a loving husband and a devoted father. He had a great sense of humour and he especially loved playing jokes on people. He loved music and would often listen to it and sing along while he worked. During their years in Layyah he was a member of and faithfully attended the church there. He is survived by and will be sorely missed by his wife Parveen, his daughter Lubana and her husband, one grand daughter, his daughter Aksah and her husband, and his two sons, Amoon and Shani, several siblings, many nieces and nephews and countless cousins.

Rest in peace, Stefanous, rest in peace.

When the Elephant in the Room is Bigger than the Turkey on the Table!

We here at Communicating Across Boundaries know that this might very well be an awkward holiday season for all of us. Families divided must now come back together around the Thanksgiving table. What on earth are we going to talk about? Here are a few suggestions to promote pre-Christmas “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill toward all men.”

*Talk about the weather! Here in Kansas the weather changes frequently. That allows you the opportunity to go back and talk about it again and again throughout the day. If the weather in your part of the world is more stagnant I invite you to talk about the weather in Kansas!

*Talk about sports! I personally don’t know how to talk about sports very well but usually if you insert, “So…how about those Royals?”, into the conversation, something will take off. Every once in a while you can nod and exclaim, “Yeah!” with authority and a suitable degree of incredulity. (Feel free to insert whatever local team you’ve heard batted around in your part of the world).

*Talk about other Thanksgivings. Remember the time 67 wild turkeys crossed the yard on Thanksgiving Day all those years ago? Remember the time my sister in law and I both brought the same cheesy corn casserole but everyone liked hers better? Remember last Thanksgiving–when everyone came from all over the world? That was such a special holiday.

*Talk about T.V. Has anyone seen anything good on TV lately? Try not to reference reality TV shows as someone might accidentally start talking about the conversation we’re all trying to avoid: Politics!

*Talk about TV in the “olden” days. What show did you use to watch when you were a kid? What time of day did it come on? Who did you watch it with?

*Talk about tattoos. I mean it can’t hurt! If you could get any tattoo what would you get?

*Talk about weird or interesting talents. My husband Lowell can play a recorder with his nose. I can pack a mean suitcase. One of our daughters can impersonate Julia Andrews, the other can swing the hula hoop remarkably well. Our son Connor can talk like Goofy—it’s pretty obnoxious-but it an interesting or weird talent.

*If they were going to make a movie of your life who would they get to play you? This always gets people going in pretty harmless ways!

*What’s the strangest or scariest restaurant you’ve ever eaten at? Why did you go there?

*Talk about Bucket Lists (Unless you’ve got family that are close to kicking their bucket—that might be too morbid!) –What do you still have on yours? Have you crossed anything off recently?

*Talk Thanksgiving Trivia. I hate trivia games. My brain wasn’t wired for them but they do take up conversational space and there are some in our family who are actually quite good at remembering useless bits of information!

            Who was president when Thanksgiving became an annual holiday? (Abraham Lincoln)

            In what year did the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade become a thing? (1924)

            (Skip this one if it’s too close to a political theme!) Which President was the first to give the Thanksgiving turkey an official pardon? (Ronald Reagan)

            What are Turkey chicks called? (Pults or Turkeylings)

            In what year did the green bean casserole first appear on the scene? (1955)

            During Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving / harvest festival, they traditionally eat a stuffed food but it isn’t a turkey. What food do Koreans stuff and eat during Chuseok? (Rice pastry dumplings)

            Where is the only place in Australia where Thanksgiving is celebrated? (Norfolk Island)

            Who do children in Japan give drawings to on Labor Thanksgiving Day? (Police Stations)

*Talk about Thanksgiving! Talk out loud about the things you are thankful for. Acknowledge one another with gratitude. Tell each other about the tiny and the tall blessings you’ve been given. Practice being thankful!

 

We here at Communicating Across Boundaries wish you a Thanksgiving marked by sincere gratitude and deep hope.

 

 

*If you’re still struggling to think what to talk about there are countless websites with conversation starters. Who knew?

http://conversationstartersworld.com/250-conversation-starters/

http://www.popsugar.com/smart-living/Easy-Conversation-Starters-34313495

http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/tag/ages-14-100

**Photo credit goes to Bronzi!

The Simple Pin

Since November 8th, the day that shall live on in infamy, people have started wearing little safety pins. I was unaware of this until my friend Jill explained their significance and gave me one to wear.

To wear a safety pin is to make a statement. Where this began is a little uncertain. There are stories from World War II of Dutch resistance members wearing the safety pin in loyalty to Queen Wilhelmina. More recently, after the Brexit vote in the UK, there was reportedly a woman, who used the twitter handle @cheeahs, who wanted to demonstrate publicly that she stood in solidarity with the immigrant community. Immigrants were treated with suspicion in the UK. The Brexit vote seemed to open up a door for hatred, threat, and violence. Hatred had a voice. What about a voice for safety? So this woman wanted members of the immigrant community to know she was a safe person. She wanted to stand with them. Here in the US people are wearing the safety pin to similarly align themselves with people of color, women, members of the LGBT community, and immigrants.

On Thursday, following the election, our youngest daughter came home and reported a story about her Muslim friend. His mom was nervous to go out of the house wearing her hijab. The world now felt like an unsafe place for her. I know of another young woman, this one white, who is a victim of sexual abuse. Fear and a renewed sense of her vulnerability left her paralyzed for several days after the election. I wish with all my heart that these two women would know that I and so many many others are safe spaces in this new atmosphere.

While the safety pin has been a meaningful symbol to many it’s also been met with eye rolls and it’s share of sighs and “Oh brother!”s. The Internet is full of sarcastic posts and tweets and articles that disclaim it. Perhaps it’s another meaningless attempt by white people to band aid up a fatal wound.

I’m not naïve enough to think that wearing a safety pin is all that we have to do. But surely we have to do something even to communicate hope to those suddenly a feared? Maybe the safety pin is a good place to start.

Perhaps the pin serves as more of a statement to myself. I will do something. I will respond. Maybe it emboldens me to reach across community divide, to smile at a stranger who looks differently than I do, to make conversation with someone I don’t know at the grocery store, on the bus, at the library. Maybe it reminds me that there is always something I can do—something small, something a little bigger, something bold.

My friend Jill is a perfect example. Jill is a gregarious extrovert. She loves people without restraint. This election cycle has been hard for her too. She sees the ostracized further marginalized and it’s hurt her. She hears the racial slurs, the negative stereotyping and she sees what it’s doing to her country, her community, her family.

A week ago, Jill donned a silver safety pin. She wore it to the airport, through security, to the departure gate. In the departure lounge she looked around to see who might need someone to connect with. She approached a black man across the way and commented casually about his t-shirt. He was wearing the team mascot from the same high school where her freshman son attends. They struck up a conversation about teenage sons and sports.

Fully aware of the pin on her lapel, she crossed the lounge again and sat next to an elderly black woman. Jill struck up a conversation. Before long the two women discovered they had Albuquerque in common, and interesting family systems and a love of cookies. After they boarded the plane and were en route to Dallas, Jill escaped her seatbelt and sought out her new friend. She handed her a card with her phone number and address on it. She told Ms. Johnson she would be bringing her cookies. “No you won’t!” Ms. Johnson responded in disbelief. “Oh yes I will,” Jill laughed!

When the plane reached Dallas and Jill was deboarding, the flight attendant made eye contact with Jill’s safety pin and then with Jill. Tears filled her eyes and she reached out and hugged Jill.

Jill sent me this text message: I think the safety pin has meant more to me as a reminder to be bold and seek out others. I was not afraid to look for those who might need a smile. Honestly I have not worn my cross necklaces lately-even before election. It just has too many negatives. But the safety pin felt right-be an ally, just be there, show that you care and are not judging. 

White people wear your safety pins! Don’t pretend to think that this enough…but understand fully that this is a beginning. You’re making a statement even to yourself. We have work to do…. We are going to need all the courage we can get and if a pin can poke our consciences and wakes us up to do something it’s worth it!

I just got another text message from Jill. “I just took my new friend, Ms. Johnson, cookies! It was very special.” Wow! Maybe the safety pin can also serve the same function as strings tied around our fingers, reminders to actually act on our best intentions.

 

You can read more about the pin:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-poignant-reason-people-are-wearing-safety-pins-after-brexit_us_5773da43e4b0352fed3e8368

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/11/11/safety-pins-brexit-donald-trump-election/93639074/

https://www.bustle.com/articles/195044-wearing-a-safety-pin-isnt-enough-here-are-8-concrete-ways-to-be-an-ally

 

The (Political) Work of Forgiveness

Here at Communicating Across Boundaries we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the massive elephant (and the donkey) in the room. Both Marilyn and I, although this was not planned or discussed, have largely avoided politics in our writing this election season. I’m not sure what Marilyn’s reasons are but mine have been deep and wide: I don’t think either candidate needs any more free press, I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to formulate an objective sentence, I’m too angry to write coherently. And quite frankly, I’m sick of it!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband Lowell, in his blog, The Liberator Today, quoted conservative commentator Erick Erickson who wrote “A Clinton administration may see the church besieged from the outside, but a Trump administration will see the church poisoned from within.”   Erickson went on to say, “I think Hillary Clinton will do lasting damage to the country. I cannot vote for her.  Having fully weighed my opposition to Trump, I think Donald Trump will do lasting damage to the witness of the Church in America and I therefore cannot vote for him. I am without a candidate. I will not harm my witness nor risk Trump’s soul to serve my political desires.”

You may or may not agree with Erickson’s opinion on Clinton or Trump—I’m not sure I completely do– but surely one thing we can all agree on is that this presidential race has been more ugly and more divisive than most. Trump and Clinton have joined up to divide more families, more groups of friends, more religious communities than anyone would have thought possible. Things have been said, opinions have been discussed, names have been called. Together, Clinton and Trump have successfully arrived at a new type of bipartisanship — both parties are divided and realigned, they’ve been shuffled and dealt out in surprising ways.

An American president will be voted for on November 8th,. One candidate will be chosen by the people. The other candidate will have to join the rest of us in coming to grips with the outcomes. Once the president is elected the real work will begin–and I don’t actually mean the work of the presidency. Each of us will have to get to work. We have some serious forgiving to do.

It’s folly to trivialize or minimize how difficult forgiveness can be. When we’re hurt there are a hundred physical and physiological mechanisms responding in us. Biologically we are wired with a fight or flight reaction to pain: our blood pressure rises, our heart rate accelerates, pupils dilate, our muscles tense up. These reactions were given to us to defend our bodies. There’s a reason we call them “defense mechanisms.” That response transfers into how we respond to emotional pain too. We clam up, shut down, freeze over, self-protect or we scream out in anger, rage or protest. Reacting is hardwired into us at our creation.

Forgiveness works against how we’re naturally determined to be. Part of the work of forgiveness is working against our natural selves. Up hill, up stream, against the current. We cannot will or make forgiveness happen. Poet Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” It is virtually impossible to do the work of forgiveness without a measure of supernatural grace.

My husband Lowell went on to write:

We each bring our hearts to God with the humble prayer of examen, and ask him to reveal what each of us brought (or failed to bring) to our current state of affairs. God is generous …  Surely, he will examine our hearts with gentleness and woo us to the Cross. If we have said a harsh word to another person in the heat of 2016, did not speak the truth in love, or knowingly perpetrated a lie for argumentative advantage, then we should seek out that person or persons and ask for forgiveness. … Reform will also lead us to forgiving others, and I do believe God will not nurture reform without it involving forgiveness one to another.**

Collectively we’ve been through a rather traumatic election cycle. We’ll need to be kind to ourselves and to each other. It’s going to take time to recover. Foundations that we have presumed to be firm have suddenly revealed their fragility. Indisputables have been disputed. Unquestionables have been questioned. Presumptions have been poked and prodded. We’ve felt fear and dread. We’ve been incredulous and angry. Panic has poked through our patriotism. The spirit of the Trump campaign has given us permission to be rude and unkind, to not censor our commentary on those that are different than we are. The demons of our demagogues have been dark and destructive. Democracy is not the safe space we thought it was.

In a spirit of reconciliation we need to roll up our sleeves and engage our broken communities with acceptance and hope and work towards healing. We need to grieve our losses, own our despairs and our disappointments. Now is the time to begin the work of forgiveness. It won’t be easy. Forgiveness never is. But it’s important work for the sake of our souls. For the past two years we’ve bitched about political polarization. Unity can only be realized on the holy ground of forgiveness. It’s the start line, a place for both sides to meet, in the ongoing political race. Forgiveness alone provides the freedom to move forward for the forgiven and for the forgiver. It gives us a vision for hope. Slowly our focus shifts away from the ugliness of the past to a glimmer of hope for the future.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book, Sacred Fire, writes, “As we age, we can begin to trim down our spiritual vocabulary, and eventually we can get it down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive! To die with a forgiving heart is the ultimate moral and religious imperative. We should not delude ourselves on this. All the dogmatic and moral purity in the world does little for us if our hearts are bitter and incapable of forgiveness.” (p256)

**(http://www.theliberator.today/blog/2016/10/12/naamans-voters-guide-for-2016-4how-quickly)

*Photo credit: johnlund.com

 

Oh Canada

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Today I’m boarding a plane and going home. While the Canada Goose is turning her beak to the south, I’m turning mine to the north. I’m off to Canada!

Canada is where my story started. There’s a warm and weird nostalgia that comes over me when I think about Canada and all things Canadian: Coffee Crisp chocolate bars, Shreddies cereal, Swedish fish, Tim Hortons coffee and donuts, Canadian Tire, London Drugs, Cheez Whiz, Nanaimo bars, Nuts and Bolts, Aero chocolate, homo milk, Beaver Tails, poutine, ordering French fries with a side of gravy, Kraft Dinner, the loonie and the twoonie, the Canadian flag, klicks.

I suppose my attachment to the Great White North is a little suspect. I’ve really only lived 15 of my 46 years there. But Canada served as a pivot place for my childhood. Although we left when I was 8 years old, Canada was where we always went back to. Canada housed my grandparents, most of our aunts and uncles, our cousins. Canada was the place of my parent’s childhoods, their stories, their romance and marriage.

Later, when mom and dad were back from Pakistan, Lowell and I would marry in a tiny church in a small town on the vast Canadian prairies. We honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies between Banff and Lake Louise. Come to think of it, those months leading up to our wedding was really the last time I lived in Canada. We’ve been married 22 years ago. That’s a very long time ago.

Although I self-identify as Canadian, and have a Canadian passport to prove it, I’m quite likely the most unCanadian Canadian you’ll ever meet. My connections are weak at best, based largely on sentiment and maple syrup. I know very little about Canadian history or folklore. Canadian politics still perplex me on occasion. I’m hardly fluent in the Canadian vernacular. My vowels are now too relaxed, my consonants too indistinct, my syllables too lazy. When I talk no one suspects that I’m from north of the 49th parallel.

I know it makes no sense but I suppose this is the crux of the TCK tale. There’s no accounting for how and when the heart feels momentarily at home. The math doesn’t make sense. Only 1/3 of my life has been lived in the True North strong and free. On the other hand I’ve lived 22 years in Pakistan and India. Only nine years have been spent here among the sunflowers in Kansas.

And yet Canada still represents something to my soul that really defies logic. For reasons I can’t explain there’s a part of me that still sighs with relief when I enter her borders. I exhale and relax just a little bit more when I arrive. This time tomorrow morning I’ll be sipping tea at my parent’s dining room table. I’ll take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ll set down my foreignness for a bit. I’ll be among my people and somehow that brings me a measure of consolation.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.

Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.

How dear to us thy broad domain,

From East to Western sea.

Thou land of hope for all who toil!

Thou True North, strong and free!

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies

May stalwart sons, and gentle maidens rise,

To keep thee steadfast through the years

From East to Western sea.

Our own beloved native land!

Our True North, strong and free!

 

Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer,

Hold our Dominion in thy loving care;

Help us to find, O God, in thee

A lasting, rich reward,

As waiting for the better Day,

We ever stand on guard.

The Welcome Prayer

I have to admit I’m really struggling this week. I’m angry at some recent news from an organization close to my heart. I’m disgusted by the political situation in the country where I live. I’m horrified by the people that excuse sexual indecency and the language of predatory sexual assault. I’m embarrassed by those Christians in leadership that refuse to remove their blinders and truly see what’s happening.

Meanwhile racial imbalance continues to effect communities across this country. More Syrians fleeing their ravaged homeland have died this week in trying to escape. Much of Haiti’s infrastructure has been erased by fierce winds and waters. Over 800 people died in the wreckage. Thailand’s beloved King has died leaving thousands mourning and in uncertain transition. Yemen is still reeling from the double bomb attack at a funeral last week which left 140 people dead and over 500 injured. The situation in Kashmir is heated and precarious. The Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, once again on trail for blasphemy, has had her case adjourned for the time being with the threat of false accusation still hanging over her.

It’s too much. Never before have I been so tempted to cancel everything, stay in my pajamas, and curl up in my bed for a few days. I’m heart sick and worn out from it all. I want to make friends with denial and ignorance. I’m done.

I was awake early this morning working on a different blog post. It was an angry rant full of passion and fury. As I was madly pounding at my keyboard I realized that the piece had taken on a life of it’s own. The words were nearly typing themselves. Anger was colouring in ugly shades outside the lines of reason and wisdom. I pushed my chair away from my desk, poured myself another cup of coffee and paused.

Leanna Tankersley tucks into her very insightful book, Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding, a chapter entitled, Welcoming It All. In it she includes the Welcome Prayer as written by Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk:

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions. I let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself. I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

Tankersley goes on to say, “I love these lines, this concept, this practice. The Welcoming Prayer takes us out of our heads and into a space where we stop, even for a very few minutes, our analyzing and figuring. We relinquish our strategies and allow God to work within us, in the place where we are far more malleable than our mind. We are opening ourselves up to a divine encounter which is never a bad idea.” (Leanna Tankersley, Brazen, 2016. pg 200).

Admittedly it’s a hard prayer to pray today. I don’t want to “let go of my desire for power or control.” I don’t want to “let go of my desire to change any situation.” I’m rattling at my chain for change and decency and solutions and justice. But, if I’m honest, the rattling isn’t doing my soul any good. I’m worked up and out of shape. I’m a mess. I’d love to escape and avoid and hide.

Even as I sip my now lukewarm coffee, I think there might be a meaningful way to separate myself from the mess of it all. It strikes me that there’s a profound difference between burying my head in the sand and lifting my eyes up to see above the muck. Both refuse to focus on the crud and horror of what’s happening. But one gives me permission to welcome what God is doing. Looking up allows me to make eye contact with a broader perspective and with Hope itself! If I look up I see above the landscape, I see the horizon, wide and eternal, stretching beyond what I now know, making way for what’s to come.

Perhaps today is a day to breath deeply: in and out. I need to remember what is true. I need to be faithful to what I cannot see. I need to call to mind the presence of Christ and the Living Hope that dwells in me. I need to make space inside to choose to welcome what God wants to do in me.

My husband Lowell often quotes from the novel, Brothers K, by David James Duncan. There’s a scene in the novel where an old baseball coach is advising a young batter, “He said there are two ways for a hitter to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is not to want any pitch in particular. But the best way, he said—which sounds almost the same, but is really very different—is to want the very pitch you’re gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also the one that’s going to strike you out looking. And even the one that’s maybe gonna bounce off your head.”

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today—even the pitch that’s going to strike me out, even the one that’s going to hit me in the head and knock me out— because I know weirdly enough it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions—including trying to sort out the world’s wounds. It’s not easy but I’m going to try to let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself and the anger and angst I feel when I can’t. Oh God please help me open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

 

Widening Our Embrace

Ronald Rohlheiser, in his book, Sacred Fire, addressed especially to older pursuers of the faith has a short section entitled, “Be Wide in Your Embrace.”

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269)

However there is a side benefit of this widening embrace that I had never thought of before until a couple of weeks ago. Rohlheiser goes on to suggest an interesting correlation:

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things.

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

 

Some of you know I’ve been working for ages on a book I’m calling, God is Weird. (And when I say “working” what I really mean is I’ve tossed the idea around, opened a file by that name on my computer and generated a very rough outline and a couple of chapters.) The notion of God’s weirdness struck home 17 years ago when a dear friend from childhood died too young. She left a four-day-old infant daughter, a desolated husband, grief stricken siblings and devastated parents. I was floored by God’s response to our prayers for healing. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t come barging in and restore health and order and a mother to the tiny child. I was beside myself with anguish and I was very angry. The only thing that made any sense in that moment was how obvious it was that God himself made no sense whatsoever. He was, in my mind, completely strange. He was weird.

And he is. He’s strange. He’s completely foreign to us. He does things differently than we do. Often we shake our heads, completely befuddled. We grieve, we stomp our feet—angry, our worlds upset. We cry out confused to the core.

It’s not like he didn’t warn us. Scripture is full of references to the Otherness of God. God is Holy and the word Hebrew word “qodesh”, holy means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness”. It also means, “otherness, transcendent and totally other” (patheos.com).

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
   For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8 NLT)

If we close off our hearts to anything or anyone that’s different than our souls will suffer. The unintended consequence is we risk closing our hearts off from God. We think we’re protecting ourselves—protecting our children—we build walls, put up fences, grow shrubbery to block out our neighbors. We keep our eyes averted. We look away. We cross the street. We pick up the pace.

Admittedly the temptation exists to protect ourselves from God himself too. I understand that. He seems so unpredictable in his strangeness it often feels super scary to continue to open our hearts to Him. We fear what he might do. We panic at the prospects of where he might push us. He might mess with our personal status quo. It’s too terrifying to think about.

But what kind of life do we want? It’s a dark death-life if we seal our souls off from living. It’s impossible to close off only the things that make us uncomfortable. When we shut down we shut out all of it: the good, the bad, the joy, the sadness, the exhilaration, the risk. We shut out the familiar and the Stranger.

In the moment we chose to accept strangers—those previously considered “strange” to us—we’re choosing to open ourselves to God’s wide mercy and to his wild ride. He meets us in those moments of choice. He sees our fear and he steps in with courage. When we deliberately incline ourselves to the other, we find not only a potential space for friendship and human kindness, we might also find God.

 

‘Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:40)

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Heb 13:2)