Grieving and the Casserole Ladies

Several years ago, a colleague at my work place lost her father to a tragic accident. It was right after Thanksgiving and the family was paralyzed with grief. Tragedies during holidays are a degree more painful as shock mixes with holiday expectation, creating a numb disconnect. A couple of day’s after the tragedy, my colleague’s roommate, a dear friend of mine, called me and said “I don’t know what to do! There are no church ladies. No church ladies means no casserole ladies! How are we going to help this family?”

Initially I responded in stunned silence. It has been years since my friend went to church, so why the church ladies, the casserole ladies? “What do you mean?” I asked. My friend went on to say that growing up she knew that whenever there was something hard or life changing, like funerals or births, there was a guarantee that the family would not have to worry about meals. Whether they knew the family or not made no difference, the casserole church ladies would show up like fairy godmothers with delicious and plentiful food. With everything else that a grieving family or community was going through, at least they wouldn’t have to wonder how to feed people. Like magic, casseroles, brownies, cookies, seven-layer salads, jello salads, rolls, bread, and Robert Redford cake would appear at their doorways. There was no expectation of conversation and no expectation of reciprocity. It was a “We are so sad. We are so sorry. Here! Have a brownie!” It wasn’t to minimize the grief, rather it was tangible support in the form of food.

I knew in that moment exactly what she was talking about. I’ve been a recipient of the goodness of the casserole ladies and have experienced this tangible comfort many times. One time it was an entire Christmas feast, another time a week’s worth of freezable meals. Just one long year ago during a family crisis, my son opened the door to a massive lasagna and huge container of salad, enough food to feed a family of 30. Words would have been ineffective and difficult, but food? Food was perfect.

Yesterday a friend sent me the cooking newsletter that comes out of the New York Times. It was a couple of paragraphs – simple and timely, titled “Grief and Cooking.” There it was – a perfect description of the role that food plays when there is a tragedy or crisis.

Food plays a central role in our reaction to tragedy, to death and grieving. It’s why casseroles appear on the doorsteps and countertops of those experiencing it, why we feel the urge to roast chickens or assemble lasagnas when the news is grim. Food is comfort of a sort, and fuel as well, for anger and sorrow alike. We cook to provide for those we love and for ourselves. In the activity itself we strive to find relief, strength, resolve.

Sam Sifton from NYTimes newsletter: Grief and Cooking

Right now, more than anything I wish I could make a casserole for the grieving families of Uvalde, Texas. where I imagine sleepless nights barely ending as nightmare days begin, an entire community forever changed. I wish I could make them a roast chicken and stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce and finish it off with my specialty apple cake. Or maybe a delicious lasagna with fresh garlic bread, because when you are grieving, carbs are necessary. Like many of you who are miles away, unconnected to the tragedy other than the human capacity of empathy and grief recognition, I still long for concrete ways to enter into their suffering.

I can’t make a casserole and a loaf of bread for the grieving families of Uvalde. But I can make a casserole and a loaf of bread for a neighbor who is hurting. I can take the heart and warmth of my kitchen and cook it into food. I can translate love, care, and prayers for courage into bread dough, delivering a loaf packed full of empathic goodness to someone in my world who is desperate for comfort.

And as I measure and whisk, I will pour my prayers for Uvalde into the mix, praying that somehow, as impossible as it seems, comfort will come.

[Image by RitaE from Pixabay]

Safety Was Never Part of the Promise

If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love, and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no.

Madeleine L’Engle in And It Was Good

The first conversation in the United States about safety that I remember came after 9/11. Suddenly “the enemy” had come to our soil and we were no longer safe. Money, big houses, security systems, fat retirement accounts, and good jobs were not enough. Most of those killed in 9/11 had those and more but it did not save them.

The solution was war. No matter what lawmakers and politicians say now, the general consensus made by the powerful of the land in the United States was that war was warranted, war was justified. And so we went to war.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

“The enemy” moved closer. The enemy was now at our borders. Those who would take our jobs and bring in drugs must be stopped. Those who would bring their ideology to disrupt our “way of life” had to be kept out. So we proposed walls and fences, bans and limited entry.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

ISIS emerged, a real threat to people living in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, but arguably not so much to those watching the nightly news on their plush, comfortable couches. There was more fear. The world was a scary, scary place. A formation of a broad international coalition was designed to defeat the Islamic State and ISIS went undercover to emerge only randomly.

But it did not take away the fear.

As my husband and I periodically went to the Middle East to work with humanitarian aid groups on the ground the number one question people would ask us is “Is it safe?”

I never knew how to respond. In the essay “The Proper Weight of Fear,” my friend Rachel Pieh Jones writes what is a fitting response to that question:

Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.“

Rachel Pieh Jones in The Proper Weight of Fear

And then came 2020. Suddenly “the enemy” was no longer over there, far away from our homes and our television screens. The enemy couldn’t be kept out through a wall or closed borders. Instead, the enemy was everywhere. It was a virus, a virus that could be anywhere at anytime, floating through the air, ready to randomly attack. But it was more than a virus. The enemy was our neighbor. It was anyone who was not wearing a mask. It was the spring break revelers and covid partiers. It was the people who didn’t take the virus seriously. It was the person passing us who coughed. The enemy was the person who shopped at our grocery store and chose to go the wrong direction, defying loud orange arrows. Danger was everywhere and our fear was out of control.

But even when we wore masks and did all the right things, people were still afraid. Afraid and deeply angry at those who did not do the right things.

It turned out that no one was safe. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts, random strangers…they were all potential carriers of this virus that rocked the world.

We learned that no place and no one was safe. As much as we wanted to carve out our little utopias where everyone was safe, where the enemy was far away, and fear was nowhere to be found, it was not possible. Instead, everywhere we looked there was danger. It didn’t matter how big our houses were or how much we scrubbed our groceries, we were not safe. We couldn’t build walls to keep people out. We couldn’t create wars to send a message. Our own families became our enemies. We were victims of a virus much smarter than us.

So we created vaccines. The vaccines would solve the crisis were the words from the leaders. We would all be safe. We could begin living.

Vaccines were created – But they did not take away our fear.

Some chose not to get vaccinated and they became the enemy. And then “the Omicron” came. And even if we were vaccinated, even if we were boosted, Omicron invaded our households and took hold of our news sources. An insidious enemy, you didn’t know where it was and you didn’t know how to avoid it. Locking doors didn’t help. Cleaning didn’t help. Isolating didn’t help. Even the vaccine couldn’t keep us safe from the virus. We needed boosters. And more boosters. And still more.

The saviour vaccine had failed us and it did not take away our fear.

Could it be that we have safety all wrong, that we will never be truly safe as long as we live on this earth? Could it be that safety was never promised, that the nature of being human is one of risk, one that will ultimately lead to death on this earth for everyone?

What do we do in a dangerous world when we crave and long for safety? What do we do in a world that demands risk-taking just by existing?

We keep on going. We keep getting up, even when it’s difficult, oh so difficult, and we dread the day. We keep on loving, even when it hurts so much. We keep on taking risks, because life itself is a risk and trying to live risk free is a terrible and impossible life to live. We keep on going from strength to strength, because really – the only truly safe option is recognizing that we are not safe.

If we strive to be safe, we will never, ever win. That’s the reality of life. We were never promised safety, we were never promised a life without difficulty. We were promised God’s presence.

And in his presence today, I slowly learn to rest.

[Photo by Bill Nino on Unsplash]

For Your Aching Heart – On Blessing & Beauty

It’s been a week. I heard of the death of Dr. Paul Farmer at the beginning of the week and the news of the invasion of Ukraine at the end. This did not include my own struggles and sorrows, made seemingly more difficult in the winter season. A conflict with a hospital, a work struggle, and feeling dismissed at multiple levels had me talking through tears in the presence of a gifted counselor.

I know what most of us are seeing. We are scrolling through news and social media where yellow and blue colors light up our feed. Many of us are oceans and continents away from conflict, yet we feel the heavy weight of invading injustice.

It was not so long ago when our world posted the same messages for Afghanistan; when feeds filled with the Afghan flag and images of fleeing Afghans. And yet, and I think it’s important to remember this, soon the crisis died for most.

It is good to be aware of world events. It is good to be willing to take on prayer for nations and leaders. Yet, there’s a real danger to this kind of emotion derailing us and taking us away from what is in our midst, for giving us license to ignore those things that we do have some control over. Might I suggest that it’s easier for us to post passionate prayers for a country far away than it is for us to love our neighbor with different political views? It was certainly easier for me to bemoan the evil of a world leader than confess the darkness in my own heart that led to yelling at both a nurse and a doctor. And yet, truly respecting their work and loving them is a small but significant step toward peace-building.

In the midst of a broken world’s chaos and turmoil, I continue to believe that one of the best antidotes is seeking blessing and beauty.

A volume of John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us sits on the bedside stand in our guest room. I looked at the book this morning in an effort to clear my mind and seek poetic words of beauty. In a passage on page 215, there is a section called “Blessing our World Now.”

“Sometimes when we look out, the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger, and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events. The usual answer is: nothing….yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behavior….When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.”

As I read and reflected on this I began to think of images of healing and transformation, of blessing and beauty.

The image of Ukrainians gathered on their knees on the snow covered ground, in prayer for safety and peace; a gifted physician taking the time to hear my anger and walk me into greater understanding and resolution; a cardinal in a snow covered tree; facilitating a retreat with staff who work all day with those at the farthest margins of our city; talking through what helps give us perspective with a colleague; laughing with a friend; and facing my own weakness with an eye toward the One who is strong. All of these are compelling pieces of blessing and beauty.

I don’t know what chaos holds your heart today, but I do know that living in the chaos of despair never adds to world peace. I know, because I’ve tried it. Just as blood, tired from traveling through our bodies arrives back into the heart to be replenished with oxygen and go back again, so do our heart’s emotions need to be replenished with hope, beauty, and blessing. When our hearts are heavy with grief it is difficult to see beyond the grief. It takes courage to step out of despair and connect with the life around us, the life we’ve been given, willing to be filled with the oxygen of beauty and blessing.

If your heart and soul are weary and in despair, I offer you the antidotes of blessing and beauty.

Prayer for Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance, May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough, To hear in the depths the laughter of God.

Verses from The Space Between Us

Prayer for Ukraine and our world from Psalm 46 and words from my nephew:

“Offering prayer in the midst of chaos can seem trivial and unhelpful. I get sick of calls for thoughts and prayers when what’s needed is action. Yet today I woke up to this image…Ukrainians gathering outdoors in February (!) to pray, even as the shells begin to fly. I’m reminded of the solidarity that prayer gives us, both with one another, as well as with the One who put the stars in the sky, yet knows us by name. I’m reminded that prayer is far from trivial. I will pray for the people of Ukraine, as well as for those around the world whose actions may be helpful toward ending this. May they know courage, and may we find the courage to support them.”

“He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow  and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.” -Psalm 46

Today, may your heart be strengthened through blessing and beauty.

The Fragility of Goodness – Part 2

From my window seat, I look out on bright red geraniums and a bird feeder that brings different types of birds from all over the neighborhood into my yard. A red headed finch, blue jay, male and female cardinals, swallows, chickadees – all colors and types jabbering over this food source like it is manna come from Heaven. Perhaps, in a bird-like way, it has. Today I sighed as I looked out. The scene that greets me is so far from the reality of the tragedies on the world stage that I cringe. The question I ask is asked by many: How can I live in so much safety and peace when those around the globe are struggling so much?

From explosions in Lebanon, to an earthquake killing thousands in Haiti, to frantic news of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, we are assaulted on all sides. It is not only information overload, it is also tragedy overload. I think many of us are feeling this, feeling the unfairness of life, and the helplessness in the face of all of these global events.

In the midst of this are our own trials, whether large or small. Some are facing seemingly insurmountable personal tragedies that leave no room for paying attention to larger, global tragedies. What is world shaking to the individual or family unit is often hidden from the wider world and cataloguing and comparing degrees of grief and loss is unhelpful. Though my bird feeder/geranium view is beautiful, I have my own deep pain and struggles during this season.

Where is goodness and grace in the midst of personal and gloabl tragedy? Or more personally – how can I contribute to goodness and grace in the midst of all that is going on?

A few months ago I wrote a piece called The Fragility of Goodness. In it I referenced a story from World War 2 that took place in Bulgaria, a story about small acts of courage that made a stunning difference for Bulgarian Jews. While some of the people who stood up for the Jews were leaders, others were ordinary people, people who would not be considered influencers in today’s social media economy. They were people who decided to do the right thing, even if it seemed small. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews – people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, their community members – was a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity.The author of the account I read said “None of this would have happened without what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.” Todorov contrasts this goodness with evil, saying that once evil is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile.

Perhaps from a philosopher’s perspective, he sees this as true, but I disagree. Despite all the evil and sadness present in our world, there is goodness and it is not as fragile as he would have us believe. The mystery is that were are invited to be a part of that goodness, no matter how small. Goodness will never make the kind of headlines that evil makes, it will never create a show, instead goodness is content being a silent but persistent force. While evil is focused only on itself, goodness focuses on others. Goodness happens quietly, while evil is loud.

We dismiss small acts of goodness and kindness, opting instead to despair over our inability to do something big. We forget that any noble acts of goodness and courage started as acts that were seemingly insignificant. Tish Harrison Warren says in her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, that peace on earth begins with forgiving and living at peace with people in your household, your parish or church, and your neighborhood. I would extend that to say goodness begins with at home, it extends to my neighbors – knowing some of their struggles and joys, offering cookies or help with taking out the garbage – and then moves on to my wider world. I might long to offer relief and goodness in Haiti, Lebanon, or Afghanistan but that is not where I am. I’m in Boston and it won’t help any of those countries for me to get on a plane and fly in as a naive do-gooder.

What can we do when we feel helpless? When we want to do more? I don’t think it is a stretch to say that a decision to be kind to the check out person who is always mean to you matters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that frail prayers and faith like a mustard seed are large in the Kingdom of God. I don’t think it’s off base to say that a donation, no matter how small, matters.

Goodness is not as fragile as we think. It’s a strong thread in what becomes the tapestry of “the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.”

Just a bit ago I read the following from an email from Christianity Today, and I offer it here as both challenge and encouragement:

Your calling may not be to humanitarian work, disaster relief, or medical care. But whatever your profession may be, you can take a moment to remember the God of compassion, consider the needs of a hurting world, and give your prayers, time, resources, or expertise to alleviate suffering…however large or small, public or private your act of compassion, you are joining with the body of Christ to display God’s love in the world…

CT Women – August 18, 2021

“Go forth and do good” are the words I hear. I don’t yet know what that means today, but in the intricate, delicate chain of goodness that is part of God’s vast and mysterious economy, it matters.

Disturbing Stories and Bearing Witness

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.

Eli Weisel

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, when we are willing to listen.

Bearing witness means that we are showing that something exists; that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love and belief is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost.” To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Sometimes we are unable to bear witness in person. Sometimes the situation is far away and a writer or journalist brings it to our attention. This was the case for me recently when I read the horrific stories of abuse and torture that are taking place among the minority Uighur populations in China. The BBC is bringing light to these atrocities so that we might bear witness. So that we may not be silent. The headline reads “Women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, according to detailed new accounts obtained by the BBC.” followed by a note that the reader may find the account disturbing.

More than a million men and women have been detained in what is described as a “vast and secretive system of internment camps” in China’s Xinjiang region. The camps are set up for the “re-education” of the Uighur people and other minorities in China. All freedoms have been taken away and these groups face detention, surveillance, forced “re-education”, and forced sterilization. Documents state that China’s president has given and edict to respond to Uighurs with “No mercy.”

A first hand account from a woman who was interviewed for the BBC special report revealed this:

“Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, said women were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.”

Sometime after midnight, they came to the cells to select the women they wanted and took them down the corridor to a “black room”, where there were no surveillance cameras.

Several nights, Ziawudun said, they took her.

“Perhaps this is the most unforgettable scar on me forever,” she said.*

We should be disturbed and awakened by this. When we lose our ability to be distressed and disturbed we lose our humanity. That we as humans can perpetrate this kind of cruelty shows our desperate need for repentance and healing. That we can allow this cruelty shows the same.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering, and in our entering offering hope and healing. The account in BBC is not a story I want to enter, but it’s a story I must enter. I may be helpless to do something physically, but I am not helpless to pray all of God’s mercy on the women who have been so deeply hurt.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Or perhaps to a news story far away, that you may never enter in person, but you can enter through prayer with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on the Suffering. Have Mercy on the Hurting. Have Mercy on Your Creation.”

“But witnesses incur responsibilities, as anyone who has ever seen a traffic accident and had to go to court to testify, knows. In the new world of globally televised war crimes, the defence of ‘not knowing,’ or neutrality, will dissolve for everyone. To be a witness or bystander is not a value-free choice but, inadvertently, a moral position; and in this sense the ‘guilt’ of people who live with the memory of crimes committed by members of their families, or communities, has been unwittingly extended to everyone who watches appalling pictures on the news.” Erna Paris in Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History


[*Source: BBC News Special Report on Uighur Detention in China – © copyright 2021 BBC]

A Boy and a Bunny

When my brother Stan was in high school, he rescued one of our baby bunnies who had been rejected by its mother. The bunny was so young that it had not yet grown fur. He set up an incubator type space for the bunny in a box with a lamp and a soft cloth, feeding it with an eye dropper every few hours and watching over it constantly. Despite his efforts, the bunny died. I remember all of us feeling the sting of loss and death. It was deeply sad. It might have been only a bunny, but it was a bunny that had a devoted caregiver determined for it to live.

We cried the sobs of the young who encounter early experiences with death only to discover that it is not something we have power over. Instead, it would come and it would bring sorrow and pain throughout our lives.

Growing up in the developing world, I understood early on that sickness and death were part of our world. We were not shielded. I have found that this was not necessarily the case for those who grew up in the western world. Yet, if there is anything that this year has shown to all of us, it is that we don’t have nearly as much control over our lives, over sickness, over death as we may have thought we do.

I can fight this, but it doesn’t change reality. Sickness and death seem to be excellent teachers. When faced with these, I don’t know what the next minute will hold, let alone the next week.

I’ve always known in my head that I have no control over death, but I think in my heart I somehow felt I might be able to stall it, to negotiate it for better times. Like making a doctor’s appointment: “I’m sorry, that time won’t work for us. Could you make it for Tuesday at ten? Thank you so much!”

It doesn’t work like that. The death of the bunny was only the beginning. And it was a small prick of pain compared to pain that would come later.

One of my biggest honors in writing is hearing from people around the world. I get emails and messages that tell me of hurts and struggles, of family members near death and of struggles in life. This Monday morning I have received messages that have made me weep, made me realize the fragility of life. One reader tells me of an early morning trip to a hospital for his child, another tells me of their daughter facing such deep loneliness during this pandemic isolation that she has been hospitalized, another tells me of his family member who is dying. Each story has so much more to it than the few lines that have been shared. Each story involves multiple hurting people and families.

It is a Monday morning and the world feels deeply broken and hurt, deeply wounded. Like the bunny in the homemade incubator, our world feels to be hanging on to life by a thread.

I have no words of comfort other than this: If a teenage boy can care so much about a baby bunny that he sets up an incubator and watches over it, feeding it with an eyedropper, then surely the God whose image that teenage boy bears can care about the deep pain present in all these situations.

So today, if you are in pain, if you are grieving and hurt, if you are watching someone you love die by degrees, may you know that God – a God who cares about teenage boys and bunnies, a God who whispers in the quiet nights of our pain, a God who not only bears witness to a suffering, fragile world, but also entered it – may you know that God cares infinitely about you. May you have people to walk with you through your pain.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to be present through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

from Just Your Presence

[Image by Milchdrink from Pixabay]

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

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