On Monasteries, Children, and Loving Our Enemies

Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt

The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick. 


During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited.  The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well. 

Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!”  This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined. 

These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.  


The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:

Father – Forgive Them. 

In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul. 

These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them? 

And yet – still they echo. 

After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:

‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’ 

Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever. 

When You Can’t Settle in the Place You Call Home

It just doesn't go away

A couple of years ago, an anonymous letter came to Communicating Across Boundaries. The letter began like this:

It just doesn’t go away….

The writer goes on to speak of an unsettled weariness and dissatisfaction, a boredom with life in one’s passport country. “I’m afraid I may have a chronic case of ennui. Most of the time the symptoms lie dormant but occasionally—when my routines are disturbed, when life is a little off kilter, when friends are traveling, —they flare up, these “feeling(s) of weariness and dissatisfaction: boredom.” 

The letter appeals to readers at Communicating Across Boundaries, asking for their help and advice. “Can you help me?” says the writer. Can you help me with this “…hard to shake thing that lingers inside me–this grief-adrenaline withdrawal-unsettled-restlessness at work in my soul.”

The answers to the letter were kind and thoughtful. Above all – they were wise. 

I’ve included some of those responses below in case there are others who just can’t shake that feeling of not settling in the places we are supposed to call home.

_____________________

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone (or some place) dear to us, and one should not attempt to do so.

One must simply hold out and endure it.

At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort.

For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the
other person through it.

It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more
leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve – even in pain – the authentic
relationship.

Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the
separation.

But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer as offered by Bettie Addleton.

______________________________

“I can feel this thing she is talking about in my own heart as I read this letter. Sometimes it feels like a heavy, numbing complacency and sometimes like a boiling frustration, or a deep, dark pit of sadness. I call my own by many names: sometimes loss, sometimes darkness, sometimes just an unsettled spirit. I tell myself over and over to “be still”. But usually I accept it as an uncomfortable advantage that I know deep within me that this is not my home and that I long for something more, something so much more fulfilling, so much deeper, so much brighter, so much better, a real and honest home, a place to belong….I think I’ve just come to accept it and allow it to exist. Not let it take over, not let it pull me under (when I can). I just nod at it in the corner, acknowledge that it is there, and then take deep breaths, smile at someone, sometimes let some pressure out with tears, and keep moving forward knowing that one day it will not sit in that corner anymore.Art helps. Beauty helps. Poetry, paintings, sunsets, songs, laughter.” Maia Manchester 

_______________________

To me, this feeling is the result of the accumulation of all the places and people I gave my heart to in my childhood of travel, but which I either can’t see now, or can only visit very occasionally…it is a build-up of losses (even though they were all joys before)–some of which are permanent losses.

Those people have gone or the places have changed, some because of war and destruction. Also there is the simple fact that I cannot be in multiple places at the same time. And so every current happiness has a tinge of sadness. Il y quelque chose qui manque…a little bit of grief that gnaws away at every happiness. I also found it got strongest during the couple of years when I realized I had spent more time now in my “home” country than in any other place, and yet still did not feel at home. I wish I could say it is cured, but it does diminish a bit, as I make more connections here and as I lower my expectations of travel. Finding a friend who has somewhat the same background would be a great help I feel too. And finally, it is one of the reasons I hang onto “the hope of glory” because surely in heaven we will feel completely at home and we’ll be at once with so many loved ones too. – Mauareen

_______________________

The Portuguese word ‘Saudade’ also comes to mind along with ennui. I experience some of those same feelings. There is a longing in me to bring all the pieces of this mobile life tapestry together for a sense of wholeness, NOW, that is actually impossible in our time/space continuum. How often do I feel out of round? Too much for comfort. But the hope that there is more; completeness, integrality, lasting joy beyond the current fabric of our existence is a golden lifeline- an anchor for my soul.

to embrace the story of who I am and where I come from – which may mean digging into it,even in the dark corners and closed boxes

Growing up between US and Kenya and then living in US and Asia, I sometimes think of that dissatisfaction as a curse and sometimes as a gift. The curse is that it sneaks in to the best of times like family reunions with food, stories, laughter, play and unconditional acceptance. That ‘thick sadness’ lurks at the edges that ‘this will not last’ and it will hurt when we go our disparate ways. At other times the curse is to observe situations as a perpetual outsider, finding it difficult just to ‘enter in’. And then there is the sorrow over the losses. Even when the Acceptance target of grief processing has been seemingly been hit, ‘Mission accomplished, sir!’ I find that triggers can throw me back into the grief process. It hurts and saps energy.

The gift for me is knowing that life is full and there is a spectrum of Joy and Pain. No banality exists when I can fully feel. Another is that being discontent can launch me into caring for others. If I can feel it, I can empathize with you. And I am reminded that this world is not my final home- that seems clear as I observe my own brokenness and that of the world around me- if we are broken, there must be something better that we are longing for, else how would we even imagine that?

Some strategies as I look to ‘the best that is to come’ are working towards that better picture to the best of my abilities, to choose love over fear, faith over pride and hope over despair.

For me it is choosing:

  • to be grateful, daily
  • to serve others in their difficulties and challenges
  • to care as well as I can for myself- sleep, exercise, diet, reading, prayer etc. (I think TCK/global nomad types need to take depression seriously!)
  • to get help when I need it – the doctor, counselor, coach, listening friend (I hear my wife saying my theory is better than my practice but I’m improving, I think :)
  • to embrace the story of who I am and where I come from, (which may mean digging into it, even in the dark corners and closed boxes) and to find others who resonate with that story and then feel open to sharing theirs. – Mike Pollock

Readers – what would you add? What helps you? Thank you for sharing!

A Brief Reflection on Airports and Life


I am bleary-eyed at the Orlando airport. There’s a reason why the infamous “they” tell you to get to the airport early – long security lines extended far into the lounge area. We sighed as we inched our way through, a bright green electronic sign informing us that the process would take 35 to 45 minutes. 

Earlier we dropped off a rental car. As I handed the gentleman the keys, he asked me if I was Parisienne. I smiled “no” pause “but is that a compliment?”  “Oh yes!” He replied. My children laugh at me as the glow of an early morning compliment radiates off my 57 year old non-Parisienne skin. 

And then we trudge our sleepy way to security. Unfortunately, the compliment did nothing for a bad hip, so my ego has been kept in check. 

A busy, international airport is an odd way to end a family funeral. You go from familiar to anonymous; from engaged in conversation to people-watching; from significant to one more passenger in an enormous travel machine.

Yet somehow it works. It’s a bridge between worlds, and I am not expected to communicate on this bridge. I simply cross it. 

Death and funerals are a pause in life’s paragraph. A pause before continuing into more sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. They are an important pause, sometimes changing the rest of the story. Many resolutions based on the brevity of life have happened at the death of a loved one. 

Many would voice sadness over this – the question of why it takes something as permanent as death to make us pause and reflect. I think it is a gift. We are usually far too busy with the ordinary to realize that perhaps change is in order. But then, in the middle of the ordinary, the everyday chores stop so that we can remember a life, and in remembering reflect on our own. 

So in this airport moment between worlds, I stop. I pause. I pray. 

I thank God for the gift of life, and the gift of death – the circle of a broken world on a journey to redemption. 

The moment passes, the flight is ready to board. We are on our way home. 

Broken


Over the weekend, the father-in-law of one of my colleague’s was badly injured in a bike accident. When I inquired as to how he was doing, he simply said “Broken”.  With multiple fractures and bruises, that is the most descriptive word possible. 

Broken. 

Early this morning we received word that my mother-in-law died. Her body was broken and could no longer sustain life. Tears well up as I think of my father-in-law kissing her one last time, saying “I love you,” those words that formed their union so long ago and her slipping away. It only takes a moment to go from life to death. 

Broken. 

In my faith tradition, this week is all about broken. Beatings, betrayal, denial, and a cross. You can’t get much more broken. A mother who has to watch her beloved son die, his body broken and on display; a beloved and trusted friend denying even knowing you; a crowd condemning and wanting blood. 

In truth, I don’t want broken. I don’t want death. I don’t want betrayal. I don’t want denial. I don’t want pain. I want to rush to Sunday and the resurrection.

But life doesn’t work that way. Our world is not as it should be. And though we see beautiful glimpses of redemption that startle and amaze us, we still face all that is part of this broken world. 

This week is not about platitudes, it is not about trying to rush to the Resurrection. It is about praying in the midst of all that is broken. It is about identifying with the suffering Christ. Only then does the Resurrection become real to us; only then can we grasp the significance and glory of a risen Saviour. 

So I sit as one broken – broken by sorrow of death and loss, by pain, by the weight of difficult relationships. And in the silence of the broken I know God is near. 

If you are weary of sorrow and pain, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.*

*from A Broken World Meets an Advent Season

Lenten Journey: Palm Fronds and Hosannas


Palm fronds await us as we enter into our parish. It is Palm Sunday – that joyous day before Holy Week, where all of life makes sense as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, greeted by masses of people proclaiming him king. Unlike those crowds who gathered that day so long ago, we know what is coming. We know the grief and sadness, the immense pain and suffering that filled the following week. 

I think of this as I stand listening to our choir chanting. Two things blot the joy of this day: a bomb has exploded at a church in Alexandria Egypt, killing people as they too worshiped on Palm Sunday. The second is that my mother-in-law is dying. She is surrounded by family and excellent hospice care, but that does not take away the fact that soon she will no longer be on this earth. 

How did Jesus feel as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he already knew the tension between joy and sorrow that would take place the week following? How did he feel knowing the very people who waved palm branches would shout “Crucify him!” This is when I am more interested in the humanity of Christ than the divinity. 

How did he feel knowing the grief and suffering his mother would experience as a sword pierced her heart? 

In the midst of joy, did he feel grief for what was ahead?  And then the reverse – on the cross when he was in anguish, did he also experience the joy of knowing that finally, death would be conquered? 

It will take a lifetime for me to understand the grief/ joy paradox and there is no week where it is more profound then Holy Week. 

I’ve written before about my friend Kate, and her experience during a church bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. But I share it again, because I can’t think of a more profound illustration of the grief/joy paradox. So on this Palm Sunday, as I prepare to go into Holy Week, I give you this story. 

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. The attack felt personal. It was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was Robynn’s father. Another was a friend who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.

In a poignant letter describing the event, she and her husband speak of the indescribable joy she felt in saving her son.

I wanted to save my boy. I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

In the face of terrible violence and possible death, my friend felt indescribable joy at saving her boy.

This is the absurdity and irrationality of my Christian faith; an absurdity and irrationality that I will hold to for all my days. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of sorrow, there can exist indescribable joy.

A bomb in Egypt, a family member’s imminent death, palm fronds and hosannas, death and a resurrection – in the midst of grief and sorrow, indescribable joy. 

This I cling to as I enter into Holy Week, covered with an umbrella of grace. 

Photo credits: Cliff Gardner 

When Your Fear Goes Through the Roof–A Repost

I’ve worked for hours on a piece that isn’t ready yet…. I’m trying to wrangle some of my heart’s response to the past couple of weeks into words. It hasn’t gone smoothly. So until I get it done I give you this piece I wrote in November 2015. The situations have changed. Perhaps the fear hasn’t. 

Many people are sincerely afraid when they think on the events of the last few weeks: the twin attacks in Lebanon, suicide bombing in Afghanistan, the plane crash in Egypt, protests for justice and equal treatment on campuses across the US, the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Terrorism and the threat of violence have paralyzed people. What once only happened far away creeps closer with every news broadcast. Our world seems hazardous and our safety in great jeopardy. Fear has taken root and has quickly converted to a deep paranoia that colours every opinion, every conviction, every decision.

Consequently there is a growing number of American States that have emphatically decided to close their doors to Syrian refugees. Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback, in a recent editorial in the Wichita Eagle wrote with words wreaking of worry, “My first priority as governor is the safety of all Kansans, and in this dangerous environment, we must take prudent and responsible actions to protect our citizens. That is why I signed an executive order directing that no state agency, or organization receiving grant money from the state, will participate in or assist in any way in the relocation of Syrian refugees in Kansas.” (www.kansas.com/opinion)

Fear is universally understood. When I hear fear in another person’s words empathy for them rises up in me. I have felt afraid many times and it’s not a pleasant place to be. Even this past weekend I spent a nearly sleepless night battling my own set of freak-outs. Friday late afternoon, along with thousands of others, I learned of the Paris attacks for the first time. Lowell is scheduled to fly to Paris on November 25th. He along with thousands of delegates and participants is descending on Paris for the COP 21 International Climate Summit. By Saturday night fear had stirred up my soul into an intolerable frenzy. I turned and tossed all night. I’d fall off to sleep only to be awakened by dreams with bad guys and chases and dark corners and Lowell. I lied there and tried to speak reason to my tortured thoughts. But reason was weak when the lights were off. My imaginings wrecked havoc on all rational thought. I was afraid.

When faced with fear we have choices. We can give into it and let it control our behavior—which is what I did Saturday night with less than restful results. We can ignore it, silence it, stuff it down. Or we can bravely name it and bring it to the only place of hope for healing. The antidote for fear is always faith. The only analgesic for anxiety is peace.

Something happened on Sunday. Whereas Saturday night I was convinced that Lowell should cancel his planned travel to Paris, by Sunday afternoon I knew he should go. I had found a place to put my fear. This may seem overly simple. To the unafraid or to the petrified this might sound shallow and silly, perhaps even trivial or trite. But trust me. I have found a safe place to store my fear and you can too.

I’ve written before about the story in the gospels where the four men—hopeless to do anything to solve their lame friend’s problem—load him up on a makeshift stretcher (essentially an old bed) and they bring him to Jesus. Out of complete desperation, and in full awareness of their own weaknesses and limitations, they actually dig a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus is staying. There in plain view of a large crowd, the same crowd that kept them from going through the door, they lowered their friend down on his stretcher right in front of Jesus.

In the past I’ve done that for my friends and family members that have suffered. I’ve done that for whole countries. I’ve lowered all of Pakistan down on a large charpai (rope bed) at the feet of Jesus. I’ve prayed “dragging, lugging, lowering, pleading prayers” for whole regions. And now, maybe because I’ve had so much experience in doing this for others, I’m doing this for myself. I’m taking my fear through the roof–from up where it’s crescendoed down to Jesus where he ministers. My fears, my anxieties, my perpetual little panics, my worries, my what-ifs, my worst-case-scenarios—they are all laid out on a bed with a tear stained pillow case and turmoiled linens…and I’m laying them out at the feet of Jesus.

Yesterday a young friend asked me what that looks like to, “lay our worries at the foot of the cross,” or to “give our fears to Jesus”. Author Tim Keller says the imagination connects what we know to be true in our heads with what we long to experience in our hearts. There is great power in our imaginations. I imagine bundling up all my fears and bringing them to Jesus. I imagine his expression as he sees me approach. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I throw all my worries at him…as if he’s somehow to blame for it all. He just gently catches it. Sometimes I picture myself pitching my panic at him. He doesn’t even flinch. I cast my cares on him knowing full well he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

Playing Whack-a-Mole with our emotions doesn’t work. We cannot bop these things away. We cannot stuff them down forever. Far better is to recognize what’s going on inside us. Allow our fears to surface—acknowledge their presence. Identify them. Name them. Be gentle with your worries. There is no shame in being afraid. And then lead your fears to the bed, to the stretcher. Help them climb on. Look around inside. “Search me, O God, and know my heart? See if there are any other anxious ways within me.” (Psalm 139:21) Trap the little fear foxes and tie them down on your makeshift stretcher.

I understand the fear that drives a person to curl up into the fetal position. I resonate with the temptation to shut down, to self protect, to hold on to those I love closer, tighter, with shorter reigns. But we are called to external living. We are called to step outside, to love others generously, to welcome strangers warmly. We are called to exit the constricting circle of our fears and to enter into the wide space of faith and grace. This will not happen unless we invite our fears out of the shadows and out into the light. When we openly admit we too are afraid, bravely carrying our strapped down fears to Jesus, even that is an act of trust and surrender. This is where the work of resisting the power of paranoia begins. The Spirit of God softens our souls and leads us courageously into the risky place of love.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears (Psalm 34:4).

Giving our fears to Jesus is not magical. Anxieties aren’t immediately silenced. Fear isn’t –poof!—instantly gone. In fact nothing fundamentally changes. And yet, something noticeable does happen. Jesus does not ignore the cries of those who suffer. With his love, he calms your fears, he separates you from them, he releases you from their power. Remarkably he intentionally stays close to your broken heart. He has a special love and affinity for those who call out to him when they’re hurting. With a tangible presence he surrounds you with unfailing love and comforts you in your troubles. It’s of great consolation to me that there is nothing that can separate us from that love—not even our frenzied fears for today nor our worst-case-scenarios for tomorrow, as hellish as they may seem.

(Psalm 9:12, Zeph 3:17, Psalm 34:4 & 18, Psalm 145:18, Psalm 32:10, 2 Cor 1:3-4, Romans 8:38)

A Life Overseas – To the One Who is Left Behind

Hi Readers! I was at A Life Overseas yesterday writing to those who are left behind. You may have already seen a first version of this post a couple of years ago, but if not I would love it if you joined me!

Airport Check-in

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.”
― Frederick Buechner

I watched with a sinking heart as my son walked through security and down the hallway to his gate. He was leaving from Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts for a gap semester in Oxford, England.

This was my youngest, my baby. The entire process of getting him ready and off was an event. I have said goodbye to many before — other family members, dear friends, other children — it was never easy, but this one felt different. It was the end of an era: An era of parenting that was finishing, a new stage beginning.

My husband and I had reversed the roles we had for so long; the roles where we were the ones leaving. Now it was our children and we were the ones left behind.

It’s always the same. I stand at the airport or in the driveway and the word ‘grief’ feels too shallow for what I feel, all the emotions that flow through my heart and mind. I watch as my life changes in slow motion as the people I love drive away or go through airport security.

“You sob like you will never stop. There is no one to hold you. There is no one to offer tangible, concrete comfort. Slowly the sobs swallow you up. You begin to feel such relief, the relief that comes only from a cry so deep you can’t explain it. And somehow you know that God is there.”*

I know with each parting, that life will never be the same and I’m never quite sure I will be able to handle it. I’m never sure whether this time might be the time where I become undone, where I can no longer pick up the pieces and move forward accepting that those I love are gone. But each time I do. Each time I survive, and I smile and laugh again, and though it hurts, somehow it’s okay. 

So this piece is for the one who is left behind.

I don’t know your exact situation, but I surely know this ‘deeper than grief’ feeling, I know what it is to leave, but I also know what it is to be left behind. Here are some thoughts for those who are left behind:

Read the rest at A Life Overseas.

On Death and Living in the Moment

Today’s post is from my daughter-in-law Lauren. She is amazing and I love her words in this piece. You can read more about her work here. Thanks for reading!

023-bikinibaby_1920
“Bikini Baby” Baby Lauren and her dad. 

New Years Eve, four years ago. 

It was 9 days before my dad died, but we didn’t know that then. Cancer doesn’t give you a timeline. It just kind of chooses to detonate in weird increments – it progresses quickly when it wants to and chills when it wants to. All we knew was that the doctors started sending over hospice nurses and we had reached a point where they no longer could help his body, but just give morphine to help while his body drowned.

New Year’s Eve was never a crazy important holiday to us, but it was still a holiday. And something about holidays sort of illuminates the cracks of your life, the good and the bad. I remember reading people’s Facebook statuses of “this year was blah blah blah”. Be it good or bad, I couldn’t read what people were saying without comparing it to my current misfortune. I was angry that good things could continue while he was suffering and I was mad when people talked about how they had a hard year because their car broke down. Get over it. And then I’d feel wildly aware of my selfishness. It was a horrible cycle.

We knew the upcoming year brought death. It brought dread and we knew it. We didn’t know when exactly or what it was going to look like, but we knew it was coming. So to survive, my heart changed its syncopation with time. I switched from the typical “new year” grandiose thoughts and dreams and wishes of the upcoming year to thoughts and dreams and wishes for the next minute. The next hour. Looming death bends time a little bit like that. It makes you despise and cherish purgatory.

My dad was watching TV and I was watching my mom watch him. We both saw the space between his spirit and his body getting bigger and bigger. I was receiving texts from friends and family asking “how are you doing, Lauren?”. Well, I’m watching the coolest dude on earth suffer slowly and I know I’m not very emotionally articulate right now but like, I’m really f&%ing mad. And helpless.

This cocktail of emotions would start small as a pit in my stomach and then it would slowly overwhelm my entire body until I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t be in the room for another second. I wasn’t okay with it.

So. I forced my husband (God bless him) to make up a “New Year’s Eve show” with me to perform for my dad. Just like I had done when I was young, except with more alcohol this time. We slaved over this performance (honestly, “performance” is giving us way too much credit, but we really tried). My mom would come out and ask what was happening and I’d tell her to go back because she was ruining the surprise and I’d catch her making “I’m so sorry” looks to my husband. When we went in for the “performance”, I was legit nervous. I wanted to make my dad laugh and I wanted to take the weight off of the night and off of his chest. We stumbled through it. It was bad and we started over so many times but my parents watched like they had always watched for my entire life. God bless them, too. That’s A LOT of questionable performances they had to endure. At the end, my dad turned to my mom and earnestly asked her “Did I miss something? Was that it?” The four of us erupted in laughter. What I wouldn’t give, to be back there in that small Arizona room, cackling with the three of them.

And then the ball dropped and my dad reached over and kissed my mom at midnight. I remember wondering if he didn’t move all day so that he could reserve enough energy so that when it came time, he could kiss his wife at midnight. I remember the sheer gratefulness that he made it to midnight. That my mom didn’t have to be alone for it.

I’m trying to focus on that feeling. I know a lot of people are scared for the upcoming year. There’s a lot of dread and fear surrounding general humanity, not to mention political changes happening. I get it and I feel it. And we can’t ignore it. That’s ignorant and irresponsible. 

But I also think we can incorporate other feelings that come with choosing to live in the moment and being open to the small gifts of the moment. And we have to love each other and have sympathy for all pain, however big or small the world tells us it is. Selfishly choosing insecurity of how to handle and acknowledge our neighbors’ pain, over empathy, is barbaric. 

Anyways, happy 2017 – I hope that we are able to find the silver linings in the dark and gratitude in the now.

Depression and the Third Culture Kid

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Six years ago I entered the office of my primary care doctor and burst into tears. I sobbed until I could not sob anymore. I sobbed until all that was left was a broken soul and no more tears. When I left the office that day, I left with red eyes, a red nose, and the exhaustion that comes with absolute honesty. I also left with a prescription for an antidepressant.

It was my friend Carol who finally insisted that I go. Carol knows what it is to be sad. She also knows what it is when the sadness goes one step farther than it should; when no matter how good life is and how sunny the day is, you still cry. She saw all the signs in me that told her I was not okay.

I had moved two years before from a beautiful home in Phoenix, Arizona to a crowded apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The move was one of the hardest I have ever gone through. Not as difficult as moving from Cairo to a small town in Massachusetts, but almost. I moved less than a week before Christmas and that Christmas saw all seven of us huddled around a tree, with me trying to push aside my feelings of loss and  isolation. I had done moves before, of course this one would end up being fine – at least that’s what I kept telling myself.

But there was something about moving back to a place that held such pain in the past that burrowed into my psyche. I wasn’t okay, only it would take me a long time to figure it out.

It wasn’t that Phoenix was perfect, it was just that there was something about the visceral response I experienced to the hot weather and the desert landscape. Even on my difficult days, my body felt at home. While I missed extended family in the Northeast, I felt more at home in the Southwest than I had ever felt in other parts of the United States. I don’t know why, it just happened. In Arizona, I no longer felt the pressure to succeed, to “pull up my bootstraps, and make it.” Instead, I was able to relax and somehow “become.” For the first time, I felt that I might be able to adjust to life in the United States.

All that changed as we headed back to Massachusetts. Suddenly, I was a little third culture kid again, a kid who was insecure and didn’t know how to live and make her way in her passport country.

I have never spoken openly about my depression. In fact, this piece is the first piece I’ve ever written about the dark feelings that threatened to consume me. But I can’t help believing that there is an intersection between being an adult third culture kid and the sadness that led me to seek help. I think other things played into it as well — the accumulation of all the moves that I had navigated; the slow release of my children into the world as adults; the sense of inadequacy as a parent who could no longer kiss away tears, who instead spent sleepless nights of prayer that her children would be okay. But along with that was the ever-present “Where do I really fit? Who am I? How long will it take before I actually function well in this country?”

No matter what else was going on, those last three questions were floating around, never really answered.

I was not aware at the time of the complex grief, the convergence of multiple losses, that is a part of the TCK experience. I was not aware of the frozen sadness of ambiguous loss that was a part of me. I would dismiss my feelings, angrily casting them aside as unimportant. After all, I reasoned, I know hundreds of people in far worse circumstances than me and they are coping, they are living well despite those circumstances.

This was singularly unhelpful. All it did was add guilt to my feelings, making them even more complex.

When I walked out of the doctor’s office that day six years ago, I felt a sense of relief. I was finally willing to admit that I couldn’t do this alone, that there was a chemical imbalance that threatened to undo me.

Three weeks after beginning treatment I felt like a new person. It was still winter, it was still cold, and the reasons for my sadness were still present. But I had a new found ability to cope and work through some of my grief. A few months later, I began writing and found yet another way to express and face past grief. I began seeing some of the beauty that surrounded me, began experiencing life in the cities of Cambridge and Boston with joy and thankfulness.

Slowly, I began to heal. There is some pain in our bodies that takes a long time to heal. Burns take a long time. Surgery takes a long time. Bad wounds take a long time. Physical wound healing is a dynamic process. It’s a process that involves a series of  stages or phases – and it’s not necessarily straight forward. We don’t take great strides toward healing, we inch toward it.

This is what I have found in the emotional and spiritual healing that I have needed as a third culture kid. As much as I would like to have pain erased and memories not ache my soul, this does not happen quickly. I did not take leaps and bounds toward healing, I inched my way forward until one day I realized, I was in a better place.

Why did it take me so long? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that I had a misguided theology and view of pain. If I admitted the pain, I reasoned, than I would no longer be the advertisement that I erroneously thought I needed to be as a well-adjusted adult third culture kid. I would no longer be able to sneer at the naysayers, telling them I didn’t know what they were talking about: My life was fine, thank you very much.

What I have realized is this: My honesty is a greater gift to the third culture kid community than my false illusion of wellness. My ability to write truth, grateful for the good, struggling with the hard, but being so glad for the experiences I’ve had and the places I have lived, is a much better connector then my false advertising ever will be.

I don’t know who you are, or what drew you to read this today, but what I do know is this: Help comes in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a person with whom you can share your soul; sometimes it’s a counselor with whom you can work through the hard; sometimes it’s a parent who can guide you and hold you; sometimes it’s a priest or pastor who can direct you to spiritual truth. And sometimes, it’s a small purple pill that a brilliant medical researcher discovered that helps you achieve chemical balance in your mind.

And for all these, I am grateful.

Resources: 

In the Fourth Watch of the Night


Recent Headlines:

Saturday, December 3 – 10-alarm fire in Cambridge, MA displaces 166 people.

Saturday, December 10 – Explosions outside football (soccer) stadium in Istanbul kills many. Turkey declares Sunday a national day of mourning for the country.

Sunday, December 11 – Terrorist attack in Coptic Church kills over 25 people with many more wounded. Most of the victims are women and children.

Sunday, December 11 – At least 160 dead when church in Nigeria collapses.

*****

The book of Matthew, first gospel in a set of four, says that Jesus came to the disciples on the fourth watch. His disciples, fishermen by trade, had gone fishing and a storm came suddenly in the middle of what had been a calm sea. 

After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary.And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The Romans divided the night into four three-hour segments and the Jews had adopted these divisions. The fourth watch was the last part of the night between three and six in the morning. This was the last watch, the end of the night.

The fourth watch is that point where you wake up and it is so dark, you look at the clock beside your bed, and you sigh deeply – you can still sleep for another 2 hours. Or it’s the time when you have to be at the airport for the early morning flight, that flight that leaves at 6 am, passengers sporting only sleep-blurred eyes and coffee breath.

Or it’s the “darkest before dawn” part of the night.

It meant this storm on the sea of Galilee had raged all night long. It meant that the disciples were exhausted and defeated, that they had battled a critical weather event with every ounce of their human strength – but it was not enough. The storm was going to defeat them.

Until Jesus came and spoke words that calmed the sea.

The fourth watch. My mind fills with questions: Why did Jesus wait so long? Why did this miracle worker not intervene sooner? Why, when it was at their last bit of strength, did he suddenly appear – a ghost-like figure walking on the stormy seas?

My questions will never be answered and even as I write them I know these questions reflect my heart – a heart that finds faith hard, that sometimes thinks God waits too long to intervene. Too long to move hearts and souls, too long to change circumstances. I want him to come on the first watch, not the fourth.

Explosions, bombs, faulty construction, fires, a never-ending war in Syria, refugees by the million, continued persecution of Christians in the Middle East; people fleeing homes only to drown at sea — all of it feels like the fourth watch. It’s gone on too long. When will peace come? When will the Prince of Peace reign? When will evil be conquered? When will God intervene?

I texted an Egyptian friend yesterday when I heard about the bomb at the cathedral. She had invited me to the cathedral during our recent trip to Egypt and because of timing, we couldn’t go. “What can we do?” I typed out. Her immediate response “Pray. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the grieving. Pray for us.”

My heart is grieving for Egypt and Turkey. It is also heavy for my own stuff – my own grief and sadness. Perhaps yours is as well.

The world is waiting for the fourth watch. I am waiting for the fourth watch.

Many years ago there was a group of people who were waiting. There had been four hundred years of silence; four hundred years where there were no prophets, no mouth pieces of God. Four hundred years of history and oppression and finally, occupation by Rome. It was surely the fourth watch when Jesus came as a little baby, insignificant, another male child at the time of a census. The significant marks of his birth were seen later — a virgin birth, a star in the East, and an angel’s song to shepherds. Perhaps people like you and me were saying the same things that we say during these days of grief and loss.

It’s gone on too long.

When will peace come?

When will evil be conquered?

When will God intervene?

I’m reminded of this on this Monday morning.  We are weary. We are waiting for the fourth watch. We are waiting for the words: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 

May it be so. 

*The story relayed is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 14: 23-47.

[Note: this post was adapted from a previously written piece.]

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.

Conversation and Laughter at a Funeral Home

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The New Comer Funeral Home is in a primarily residential area in Rochester, New York. It is a one story, unassuming building and the only indication that its business is death is the word “funeral.”

We arrived at the funeral home on a bleak and rainy Friday afternoon for an appointment at 1pm. No one had died. There was no funeral on the calendar and there were no frantic, tearful phone calls explaining to relatives far away what had happened. Instead, it was a preplanned appointment to talk about a funeral, to talk about death.

Years ago, a friend of mine made the observation that everyone feels free to talk about sex, but when you bring up the subject of death, for some reason, it isn’t proper. Our family has never been one to live up to the cultural standards of any society we have lived in. Most of us have always lived counter culture, so making an appointment to talk about death not only seemed reasonable, but also wise. My mom and dad are 88 and 90 years old, respectively. For their ages, they are healthy and happy. This is largely due to my mom’s bran muffins, and the care she gives to eating healthy. I also believe it’s due to their general attitude toward life and their belief that life is not really life at all if God is absent. An autopsy would never show that as a factor, but I believe it none the less.

But Mom and Dad will die someday. And the someday will come sooner rather than later. As they have talked and planned with each other, they brought their children into the conversation. This appointment was strategically made to include my brother Tom, who they live with, as well as me while I was visiting them.

As we walked through the door, my dad said “Should we set a date?” “Then we could send out ‘save the date’ cards!” I enthusiastically replied. This casual response to a fate that awaits all of us set the tone for the entire visit.

The conversation ranged from the price of coffins to what the funeral home could provide for the family to how to pay for the funeral. We found out that a one paragraph obituary would cost 300 dollars. We all saw the absurdity of that. “I’m a blogger” I said. “I’ll let people know.” We talked about style of coffins. “Do you have a cheap, steel coffin that looks like wood?” asked my father. The answer was yes – but the cheap price didn’t seem quite so cheap to us.

The man we spoke to was down to earth and frank. “No matter what kind of coffin you get, Mother Nature always wins.” A coffin will not prevent decay – earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust – our bodies are our earth clothes, not our eternal garments.

He said they take all kinds of payment – at which I grabbed my brother Tom’s arm and said “Which of the brothers shall we give?” We joked, told stories, and talked seriously. My parents talked about some of the deaths and funerals that they had been a part of in Pakistan, and I told the story about how the first flowers I ever received from my husband were from a colleague whose aunt had died. Turns out, the aunt had been my patient at a hospital 45 minutes away. The difficult conversation was made easier because we made it so.

A movement has begun in the western world called “Let’s have dinner and talk about death.” It is based on a book of the same name. The movement began because this is one of the most important conversations that people in the West never have. We spend so much time and energy on trying to look younger and live longer that we forget the importance of addressing the inevitable. The idea is to engage families in the conversation and provide them with the tools to have a good conversation about end of life care.

I believe that talking about death while we are still alive and well is an unselfish and important conversation. As it says on the web site for “Let’s have dinner and talk about death,” difficult conversations can sometimes be the most liberating.

We left the funeral home in peace with no small amount of laughter. My parents have lived well – and now they plan to die well.

The day will come when we will grieve and cry deep tears over the ones that we love; when the conversation at the funeral home will no longer be theory, but reality. Talking about these things before they happen helps us to know that we can face that day with the certain truth of these words:

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:
in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again for us. To him be glory for ever. Amen”

A Short Correspondence on the Issue of Feeling Trapped

Dear Robynn,

I enjoyed your “Friday’s with Robynn” post (A Hidden Pearl. January 29,2016). It really resonated with me, so thank you for posting it. It was very thought provoking for me.

Earlier this year I experienced a very similar feeling to the one you had having returned from Thailand. My friends and I arrived back from India on January 5th. But my first day of work felt so meaningless. I sat behind my desk and stared at my computer thinking, “who care’s about organizing this stuff….!?!” It felt so pointless and so mundane. And it took me a long time to get back into the swing of things and be motivated again.

It brings back fears I have of being trapped and not being able to move and travel or something. But at the same time I wonder what is it that I hope to find overseas that I cannot find here? Being in India this Christmas was fantastic, but it showed me that even if I was to move back it would not be the same as all the memories I cherish and the experiences I wish to recreate there. As a TCK am I cursed to always be discontent where I am living? Am I always going to be trying to re-establish what I lost? It scares me.

I found that book you lent me very challenging; The Wisdom of Stability, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I love the idea of building that strong community with the people around me and knowing a place and its people intimately, but putting down roots and making that decision that this is where I will live and work and help to build the Lord’s kingdom is terrifying.

Thinking of the Pearl of Great Price is comforting in the midst of all this going on in my head and in my heart. Jesus is here in America just as much as He is in India and Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter. I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment. I need to move away from this idea that I will find peace in any country of this world and move toward knowing I will find peace in the One who created this world.

I think its high time I started to search for this Pearl! And like you said, that hunt for Him will never disappoint!

Dear Young Third Culture Adult,

Thank you again for reading what I write! And thanks for so honestly interacting with it too. I love your heart.

I can so relate to the fears you’ve articulated. I still fear being stuck more than anything. Sometimes when I think about the decision we made to stay here in Kansas I feel a sense of panic begin to creep up from my toes. The idea that we are trapped here, in this house, in this city, in this country freaks me out. I have to constantly present my heart to Jesus asking for daily grace and new mercies.

I think I probably told you this story already…but when my husband Lowell and I decided to buy the little blue house on Colorado Street I resisted. I was anxious to move out of the trailer court only because I really wanted a basement here in Tornado Town. But the idea of BUYING felt so permanent and so forever and so stocks and barrels like. I felt claustrophobic. It stirred up anxiety in me. After we had put our signature on hundreds of papers, initialed countless more and signed our souls over to the bank Lowell and I went out for lunch. Most couples, I imagine, celebrate the purchase of their first home. For me it was a bittersweet time. I cried, wet, salty tears. I’ll never forget Lowell’s response. He put his hand across the table and gently took up my shaky hand. He looked me in the eyes and said what I longed to hear. This doesn’t mean anything. We are not stuck here. If Jesus calls us to Mongolia tomorrow we’ll sell the house. This is not a big deal. There was such reassurance in those words. I felt such relief.

You are not trapped. You are not stuck. I think the enemy of our souls piggybacks on this issue for the Adult TCK. He wants you to think you are stuck. He wants you to feel that a life in your passport country is a purposeless life. Whatever he can do to undermine your sense of worth and calling and purpose He will do. He comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus comes to give us life abundant—“a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)

Returning from Thailand in January was difficult at first. But then out of the blue I started reading a book about prayer. It struck me that our purpose is sure in Christ. We are here for the Kingdom of God. We are here for His Glory. We are here to make Jesus famous. Those things have not changed—no matter where we live. But our enemy likes to erode our sense of who we are. He likes to confuse. He steals our purpose. He makes us feel like we have nothing to offer, that we are meant to live somewhere else. It’s the same argument he used in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The enemy tries to tell us that God is cheating us, that God knows we thrive somewhere else but he’s stuck us here forever to rot away.

It’s changed the way I’m praying. I’m now asking God to protect my sense of purpose. I’m asking him to give me a divine satisfaction with the space he has for me. I’m asking for contentment and joy. And then I’m asking for protection over that satisfaction, over that contentment, over that sense of purpose. Understanding my sense of purpose as something the enemy is opposed to is a new thought for me but I’m trying this out and seeing Jesus victorious in it. To be honest, and this is surprising me even as I write it, I haven’t thought much about my purpose for the last couple of months since I started to pray that way. I think Jesus really is protecting that….declaring it off limits to the enemy of my soul who has tortured me there for so very many years.

Resist the guilt my friend. You wrote, “I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment.”  What might feel like guilt is really an invitation. Jesus is inviting you into deeper places of stability and affection and contentment. He longs for you to find those things in him…

We are so in this together. I wish I could tell you that these things go away. I’m afraid this is your opportunity to find Jesus faithful for many years to come. This is your place of need. This is your thorn in the flesh. But I can also say with great rigor that Jesus WILL BE faithful at every turn. I’ve battled these things over and over again. I can see how Jesus has used this in my story to push me deeper into Who He Is! My faith has grown. I’ve learned that in this suffering He has been kind to me.

 

The Healing Word

It is Monday morning and already the work week has assaulted me. My ‘to do’ list seemed to procreate over the weekend and I opened my email to many demands.

It was a weekend full of family and life, which made the news of the Orlando shooting in a nightclub even more poignant. Having been off grid, I didn’t receive the news until yesterday afternoon. I then purposely stayed off grid, fearing that people would once again use tragedy to justify political messages. Such are the times that we live in.

“Senseless violence” we call it, even as we try desperately to make sense of it. Sons, daughters, friends, co-workers were all killed in a premeditated rage. Pundits pund, talkers talk, politicians politicize – but none of that really helps.

It’s into this chaos that the Psalms of David speak. They speak with authority and grace. They are written with full knowledge of the human condition; with full understanding of how fragile we are; with deep belief in God’s love and comfort. These Psalms talk of grief and rage, of depression and sorrow.

It is into sorrow and tragedy that the Psalms speak most beautifully, most poignantly. And so I go to them, and they do not disappoint.

The healing Word speaks. And if we stop and bend an ear, we will hear. Softly, lyrically, with grace and great love the Word continues through generations.

Do you hear it? 


*******

The video below is a beautiful conversation on the Psalms between the singer, Bono, and Eugene Peterson, a thoughtful author of many books.. If you have the time, take a look. You will not be disappointed.

“Why do we need art? Why do we need the lyric poetry of the Psalms? Because the only way we can approach God is, if we’re honest, through metaphor, through symbol. So art becomes essential, not decorative.”

The Frozen Sadness of Ambiguous Loss

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When my parents first went to Pakistan, they traveled by boat. They would embark on the journey at New York Harbor, heading to the balcony of the ship so that they could see those they loved, family members and friends, for as long as possible. They would wave goodbye for as long as they could, until finally, land and their loved ones disappeared. I think about this and my throat catches, an ache rising to the surface. Mom and Dad were a young couple and family was critically important to them. They left that family and it cost them.

I would grow up to wave goodbye to Mom and Dad, not from a ship, but from a busy airport gate. I would turn around and wave, finally realizing that leaving was inevitable and I had to keep going. And I in turn have had some of these same experiences with my children. Travel and living between worlds is in our blood, woven through our DNA. But there are losses along the way.

Last week, as I was looking up something for work, I came upon a phrase that is new to me. The phrase is “frozen sadness” or “frozen grief.” The phrase comes from what is described as a “newly identified type of loss.” The researcher, Pauline Boss, introduced the concept in 1999.

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, but its cause is not always a weak psyche. 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.”*

I read that ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed to mourn, you are expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Boss and others identify some of the characteristics of ambiguous loss as these:

*Ambiguous loss is unclear loss.
* Ambiguous loss is traumatic loss.
* Ambiguous loss is a relational disorder.
* Ambiguous loss is externally caused (e.g., illness, war), not by individual pathology.
* Ambiguous loss is an uncanny loss—confusing and incomprehensible.

I move on and find out there are two types of ambiguous loss: One is that the person/place/family is physically absent, but psychologically present, in that they may reappear. This can be loss from divorce, moving, boarding school, migration. The other is that the person is physically present, but the core of who they are is absent. Examples of this are people with dementia or alzheimers.

Culturally, the Western World places high value on closure, high value on solutions to problems. Traditional grief counseling would encourage closure and resolution of grief. This is where ambiguous loss differs, there is no closure. Instead, the goal is to become comfortable with paradox.

At this point, it comes to me: this is it! This is the grief of the adult third culture kid. This is what we are talking about. At one point, we longed to express our grief, but felt foolish. What was there to grieve? We loved the unique experiences that defined our childhood. Plus, our experiences were years ago. We have a different life, we have moved forward. But in more honest moments, we realized there was grief, but it was hidden. We realized that being able to see the people and places we loved, even if it was just one more time, would be a gift. But we also realized that sometimes that is not possible. We can’t go back to what was. Perhaps we then recognized that closure would be impossible.  Instead, we would learn to be okay with ambiguity, be at peace with paradox.

And somehow along the way, being at peace with paradox happens. We rediscover who we are, we become confident within that paradox, and we grow to love living between.

“Any third culture kid who lives effectively in her passport country has a moment of truth when she realizes it’s okay to live here; it’s okay to adjust; it’s okay, even if she never feels fully at home, to feel a level of comfort in who she is in her passport country. To adapt doesn’t mean settling for second best. To adapt is to use the gifts she developed through her childhood in order to transcend cultures and to find her niche in both worlds.” Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

*Pauline Boss on ambiguous loss

The Four C’s of Crisis Care

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[Photo Credit – Godfuel.org]

With many thanks to Melissa Dalton-Bradford 

When you first meet Melissa Dalton-Bradford, one of your first thoughts is “She is the sort of beautiful that makes me feel beautiful.”  Your second thought is life is not fair because she is incredibly smart, speaks at least three languages, and is a talented performer.

But when she begins to talk and you learn her life story, you are convinced life is not fair. Melissa buried her 18-year old son a few days after he began college. She laid a son who had been full of life and joy and talent into a coffin. The tragedy belongs in the album of the unexplainable and my throat catches when I think about this, about the loss of this boy to the family, to his church, to his community.

As I listen to Melissa, I don’t stay in that album for long, because she compassionately moves the listener to a different album – an album of hope.

I had the privilege of meeting Melissa in Amsterdam this past weekend. She was the last speaker in what was a conference full of excellent breakout and main stage sessions. I walked away with thoughts on grief and comfort whirling in my mind. It will take a long time to process.

Today however, I want to share the four C’s of crisis care: Compassion. Community. Comfort. Commitment.  These thoughts primarily come from Melissa and are just the briefest summary of all she has to say. I would urge those who want to dig deeper to like the Facebook page On Loss and Moving Forward as well as take a look at Melissa’s second book On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them. 

Compassion

“When others help us heal, they too suffer in some way. Suffering is the modest price of real friendship.” Wayne E. Brickey in Making Sense of Suffering.

I’ve spoken about compassion before in several pieces, but here was another reminder that we begin and we end with compassion.  We don’t “patch grief with proverbs”[Melissa Dalton-Bradford] We sit with them. The root of the word ‘compassion’ means “to suffer with.”  Melissa quoted a line “To comfort me you have to come close. Come sit with me on my mourning bench” from a piece called Lament for a Son. * So we come close, we sit, and we wait.

Commune

To commune means to ‘show up.’ If you talk to people who are grieving about what helped the most, they will tell stories with tears running down their cheeks about how people showed up. They came to appointments and to drop off dinners and desserts; they came to funerals and they made phone calls or just dropped by. We can’t do grief without communing and community. And we must bring community to the grieving. 

Comfort

Melissa reminded us that we each bring a strength to the grieving process and to those who grieve. Your strength may not be casseroles. Mine certainly isn’t. But we all have something to bring. She gave the illustration of two artists who painted pictures of her son that captured his life through their art. They gave what they could. Are you an artist, a blogger, an accountant, an organizer, a driver? Come and bring your strength to the one who is grieving.

 

Commitment

“All grief will outlast conventional comfort”

“Grief is its own country, its own land mass.”

Melissa Dalton-Bradford

Whoever created a ‘time line’ for grief should be scolded and spanked. 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer of the conscious dying movement, lived to regret having described the common features of the grief journey as stages. She came to see that everyone grieves differently and that science collapses in the face of the mysteries of the heart. There is no map for the landscape of loss, no established itinerary, no cosmic checklist, where each item ticked off gets you closer to success. You cannot succeed in mourning your loved ones. You cannot fail. Nor is grief a malady, like the flu. You will not get over it. You will only come to integrate your loss, like the girl who learned to surf again after her arm was bitten off by a shark. The death of a beloved is an amputation. You find a new center of gravity, but the limb does not grow back.

When someone you love very much dies, the sky falls. And so you walk around under a fallen sky.**

Grief knows no timeline. Three months from now, your friend will still be grieving over her failed marriage. Two years from now, even as she moves on, there will still be times of grief.  Ten months from now, your other friend will still dream that her child is coming back, well and whole.  Fifteen years from now, a wife will still go to the grave side of the man she pledged her life to and who she thought would be there on her 15th anniversary. Ten years from now the third culture kid or refugee will still feel the weight of grief when they read the news and see “their” countries on the front page. Compassion, community, and comfort need to continue for the long haul.

I wish all of you could have heard this talk on grief and the hope that emerged from the ashes of Melissa’s healing. If she is speaking in your area – GO! But in the meantime, her books hold her story and her story brings comfort. 

As I was thinking about Melissa’s talk, reflecting and writing this piece, I saw a picture of the fine art of Kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi is the art of repairing a broken pot with gold:

“When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” *

When we are willing to sit with people in their grieving, we are part of this restoration. We help to fill the cracks with gold instead of sawdust, and the damaged, grieving one heals and becomes stronger and more beautiful.

*Barbara Bloom | Photo of Kintsukuroi

*http://www.iskandar.com/waleed911/griefwalterstorff.html

**Excerpt from CARAVAN OF NO DESPAIR forthcoming from Sounds True (November 1, 2015)

In the Arena

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.”*

I’m sitting before the Christmas tree, covered in blankets and lost in thought.

The tree has the look of a faded Hollywood beauty. A beauty that once turned heads but now gets barely a nod, her time passed, replaced by another. Cookies are stale, their formerly bright frosting dull and grainy. The New Year has come, the old year is tired and gone. 

Two weeks ago I sat before a tree that was fresh and vibrant, sparkling with Christmas beauty. In front of this same tree I was invited into the extraordinary pain of another. I sat and I cried, almost undone. It is an awful and wonderful privilege to be invited into the pain of another. And yet, there is a cost. Sharing and bearing the pain of another does not come without a price tag.

My tears have dried like the branches of the tree. Now comes the hard work of healing. Pain is not healed overnight. Our emotions don’t magically disappear, replaced by false happiness.

My theology should fare well under pain, I think to myself. Is not Christ my example? Christ, the Suffering Servant? Christ – the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities?

In the second century, a slave  named Felicity was imprisoned for being a Christian. She was a slave of Perpetua, a wealthy woman who was also a Christian and had discipled Felicity. Both were young women and on their imprisonment they lost everything. Perpetua was put into a part of the prison reserved for the wealthy, the only ones who had relatives wealthy enough to bribe the guards, ensuring better treatment of their loved ones. Felicity remained in the worst part of the prison, that part reserved for slaves.

Perpetua had a baby and Felicity was pregnant.

Both were sentenced to die in the arena, sentenced to die a martyr’s death unless they renounced their faith.  Before the time came for them to be put in the arena, Felicity gave birth. On seeing how much pain she was in during labor and childbirth, the guards mocked her-how would she stand the arena, they wondered, when something like childbirth caused her so much pain.

“Now I am the one who is suffering,” Felicity said “but in the arena, Another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.”

Felicity knew that in the arena God would not leave her, that he would be fully present bearing her pain.

You and I are unlikely to die the death of a martyr, but we do battle daily in the spiritual arena.  Daily we face wild beasts and lions, often disguised as benign pets. These arenas can cause extraordinary spiritual pain. And we are sometimes called into the arena of another. Called to love, called to fight for them, called to walk with them, called to help them bear the pain. Called to be reminders of the presence of God. In the words of my dear friend Lois, we are “given the calling of ministering grace in painful and profound ways.”

In the Arena, another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.” The words of Felicity, spoken so long ago, are a profound challenge to which I prayerfully respond: May it be so, Lord Jesus. May it be so. 

*Frederick Buechner

An Album for the Unexplainable

On the afternoon of July 6th I was sitting on the 47 Bus coming home from work when I got a phone call from my daughter, Stef. She was crying so hard that I couldn’t understand her. When I finally realized what she was saying, I too began to cry.  Her best friend Brit had lost her husband to a tragic accident. At that point the details were sketchy “Joshua died. Brit’s Joshua died. It was a car accident.” Brit is a soul-friend from Stef’s gap year in Italy. Stef had been in her wedding, she had received pictures of Brit and Joshua’s newborn baby practically as soon as she was born, and now she was hearing over the incomplete communication system of a cell phone that the love of Brit’s life had died.

Until that phone call it had been a picture perfect summer day with seemingly few cares. 

I first met Brit in 2011. We had just returned from Christmas in Egypt when she arrived on our doorstep via an international flight from Calgary. Not only was she one of Stef’s best friends, she also fit in with our family in every way – her sense of humor, her love of deep talks, and her love for the Middle East.

I saw her again a week ago. It was another international flight that had brought her – this time from Toronto.

A lot has happened to Brit during the four years since I’ve seen her. A marriage, a birth, and a death.

I think about Joshua’s death and I can’t categorize it with the regular things of life. It goes into the album that I call the Album of the Unexplainable. I’ve put several things into that album through the years. The death of Dr. Peter Hover, a beloved doctor and father of four who died in Pakistan. The death of my friend’s husband, who died in her arms while on their honeymoon in France. The death of Amy Jo – who woke to see her newborn baby, and then died never to see her again. The older I get, the fuller the album becomes. And now the death of Joshua – young, talented, new father, beloved husband and son, a man who was studying to become an Anglican priest.

If I think too hard about it, I know I will go crazy. Because it is unexplainable. It makes no sense that Joshua should die. And don’t tell me that only the good die young, or that Heaven has another angel, or that everything happens for a reason, because frankly – when it comes to the album of the unexplainable, those sayings are nonsense.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think all of us have an album of the unexplainable. Because there are things in life too difficult to understand, there are things in life that must remain a mystery. We see but a cloudy vision of what is to come, and we are given fractions of understanding, but never the whole. 

I watch Brit and I’m amazed. She is so beautiful and she grieves with such grace. “How do you grieve with such grace?” I want to shout. But the answer to that also lies in the album of the unexplainable. I watch her carry her daughter Eve on her hip, laughing, talking, caring for a baby that needs her for every single thing. We laugh together watching 50 First Dates, quoting the more zany lines the next morning. We drink tea and go to a cafe; we talk and for a moment it seems life is normal – but it’s not.

Connected to the album of the unexplainable are the people left behind. Some of them have left the faith, others continue to believe in a God of love and compassion. Brit walks in faith of the day when she will see her Saviour and her beloved Josh.

She carries on, with a missing limb. She grieves every day, but she goes on living.

On Joshua’s Facebook wall I see this:

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer of the conscious dying movement, lived to regret having described the common features of the grief journey as stages. She came to see that everyone grieves differently and that science collapses in the face of the mysteries of the heart. There is no map for the landscape of loss, no established itinerary, no cosmic checklist, where each item ticked off gets you closer to success. You cannot succeed in mourning your loved ones. You cannot fail. Nor is grief a malady, like the flu. You will not get over it. You will only come to integrate your loss, like the girl who learned to surf again after her arm was bitten off by a shark. The death of a beloved is an amputation. You find a new center of gravity, but the limb does not grow back.

When someone you love very much dies, the sky falls. And so you walk around under a fallen sky.*

I read these words and I think about Brit, an amputee walking around under a fallen sky. She is walking under a fallen sky, but she does so with grace. She is walking under a fallen sky, but her head is held high. She continues to love greatly and give constantly.

And I realize that even as she walks through these valleys and shadows, she emerges every day as one who walks in the light. Brit and baby Eve help me make sense of the unexplainable. Even through death, they radiate life.

As I’m thinking all of these thoughts, I pen these words, desperate to remember:

Today may we be reminded once again that we know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We worship a God of miracle babies and ladders to Heaven; a God who wrestles and marks for life; a God of laughter and mercy. A God who will turn despair and confusion into hope and clarity. A God where one day at his feet we will bow in awe and the unexplainable will be no more..  

Thank you Brit – for grieving with grace and for navigating the unexplainable. You will never know the witness you and Baby Eve are to the God you love.

Excerpt from CARAVAN OF NO DESPAIR
forthcoming from Sounds True (November 1, 2015)