God of Loss

Just Your Faithful God of Loss

It is the time of graduations, moves, end of fiscal year budget crunching, and expatriate turnover. Sometimes moves are expected, and other times they come like a dust storm over the Sahara – with complete surprise leaving grit and dust in their wake. The grit and dust of grief and loss, of unexpected change. It’s the time when the bones of past losses that we thought we had resolved, or at least buried, come together and like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert – they come alive.

Last year at this time, my husband and I were in the middle of an interview to come to Kurdistan. It was completely unexpected but so welcome. On our return to the United States after the interview, we made the decision to leave our home in Cambridge of 10 years. We arrived in Kurdistan at the beginning of September and it has been a year of joys, challenges, trials, unexpected horrors, and equally unexpected delights. It has been a paradox.

When we left the United States we left with the plan that we would be here for two years. While we knew this was not completely in our hands, we assumed that it would be a decision made by both us and the university. It was easy to talk about holding our time here with an open hand when we felt we had control.  Now, unexpectedly, a government decision made at the beginning of May means that I no longer have my job. Additionally, my husband’s job has been reduced to half his salary. It is a decision with broad ramifications that affects some of our Kurdish colleagues and all the foreign staff, not only at our university, but at universities throughout Kurdistan. It looks like our time here will come to an end far sooner than we expected.

I am feeling this deeply. While we still don’t know specifics of when we will leave, it is 90 percent certain that we will leave. For so many years I longed to return to the Middle East. Now, it’s seemingly being taken away and at a great personal cost. I feel the loss of what I left behind to come, and I already feel the loss of the small niche we have been carving for ourselves in the city of Rania.

There are many, many losses in this life. Every relationship we have on this earth will end in loss. Every single one. Either they will die, or we will die before them. Whether you stay rooted to one place your entire life or you traverse the globe, the two things you can count on are loss and change. You might think you can control these only to have them surprise you with their insistent persistence. While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 20 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so was life itself?

I thought of this game today. I feel like I am playing this game. I have arrived at the table with the cards that say either “Job” or “Job Loss” and I have picked the wrong card. The job loss at the university feels unjust and unfair. I love my colleagues and there is so much that we want to do together at the College of Nursing. My beloved Dean, Dr. Sanaa, is not only my boss, but also my dear friend. I have learned so much from her and have grown from her vision. This decision made by an anonymous government has hit me hard. It’s like going through the game we played during freshman year of nursing school, and I am losing.

Loss is peculiar. As if it’s not enough on its own, every time we experience another loss, seemingly buried past losses and griefs are resurrected. Even if I think I’ve healed, I bear those traumas in my soul and they resurface, sometimes as monsters, sometimes as mosquitoes, but always unexpected and always difficult.

So what of this God of Loss? And what is God in all this loss? Is he the author? The creator? The healer? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites.

I come to the conclusion that I came to at a young age, away from all security, alone and crying in the early morning hours as I lay on a bunk bed in a boarding school. I felt loss then. Loss of a mom and dad. Loss of a home. Loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me.

In a song called “God of Loss” by one of my favorite bands, I hear words that tell a life story of loss. It is hauntingly beautiful and I listen to it on repeat all afternoon. The words go through my head and find a home and resting place:

Yes, we will leave here without a trace
Take a new name and an old shape
I’ll be no outlaw, no renegade
Just your faithful god of loss

Darlingside

Faith, Doubt and Ames Street

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Ames Street is a short street that goes from the main road down to the ocean in the Lanesville area of Gloucester. I wouldn’t ever have known about Ames Street if it weren’t for a memory from long ago.

It was a grey August day many years ago. The ocean was stormy, waves rising high and falling hard, their spray reaching far above their peak. The sky was deep grey, only a couple of shades lighter than the rocky coast. The Autumn season was beginning to invade the air and we smelled it, a fact that was strange because we hadn’t lived in a place where there was Autumn in over eleven years.

My husband and I had never been on Ames Street before. We knew the area only as occasional tourists. This time we weren’t tourists, instead we were there looking for a house to rent. We had arrived from Cairo, Egypt with five kids, 26 suitcases, and a cat, and we needed a place to settle all of these. The ad in the paper said that there was a cottage on Ames Street –a seasonal rental that was completely furnished so we wouldn’t have the extra expenses of purchasing beds, dressers, chairs, and tables.

The unpaved driveway was long and bumpy. We reached the main house first; a mansion with many doors and windows. To the right was the cottage, clearly built for the servants of days gone by. We parked our bright red van and slowly walked toward the door. Both of us were lost in our own thoughts. It had been two months since we left Cairo and our lives had been in chaos for those two months. Jobs, housing, schooling – nothing had worked out as we planned. It was all up in the air.

A woman met us at the door and explained the situation. It was a nine month rental, from September through May. The cottage was small and I immediately tensed up, wondering how we could all fit and live cohesively together for the next nine months. Still, it was on the ocean and that would be a gift. But as I looked through the cottage, an acute sense of loss and loneliness filled my heart. I couldn’t believe we were actually in the United States. I couldn’t believe that I would be settling a family of five children into life in the western world. I was scared beyond believability.  We went through the house quickly, asking questions as we walked through the four rooms.

We exchanged phone numbers and then left. As we drove away we were each lost in our thoughts. What had we done? Why had we left Egypt? How was this all going to work out?

We didn’t end up renting the house and I wouldn’t have even remembered this day, except that a couple of months ago we drove past Ames Street.

All these memories emerged from a street sign.

I remembered the deep sense of loss and longing for our old life. I remembered the palpable fear of a new beginning in the United States. I remembered the unknown, the newness of everything, the anxiety about the future. I remember the sense of being on shaky ground; like an earthquake where you don’t remember where to go, and instead stand paralyzed, wondering when the tremors will stop.

Our hopes and plans for the future were all focused on living overseas. We never imagined that this would change, never imagined that our dreams would have to change, that our plans would have to shift. It was a death of expectations. It was the death of our life as we knew it. It was the death of a dream.

If someone had asked us what we had left behind, we would have said “Everything. We left everything behind.”

We left in faith and obedience. We knew that this was right — the right thing to do and the right time to do it. But that didn’t make it easy. Until that time we honestly and naïvely believed that when you do things in obedience, for the right reasons, there are immediate rewards. We thought that everything would quickly fall into place, that we would quickly be settling into, and dare I say enjoying, our new life. All because of obedience. But faith and obedience don’t work that way. The fine print in most Biblical accounts tells a story of faith, in spite of uncertainty; of faith even when the way is cloudy and foggy. I tended to stop reading Hebrews 11 at verse 12, because if I read the next verse, it would take me to a place I’d rather not go: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”

Years ago, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote this about his faith: “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

I used to think that faith and obedience would lead to immediate rewards; but now I think that faith and obedience are a long walk in the dark.

I lived in a furnace of doubt during that time of my life; what I didn’t know was that  my hosanna would be raised strong and loud because of it. And of this I am sure: I would not have the faith I have today, had I not experienced the doubt of yesterday. 

Faith doesn’t grow through predictability; faith doesn’t blossom in the known. Faith grows when you continue walking in the dark, certain of nothing, full of doubt, but walking anyway.

“But clarity and certainty are not the soil in which faith grows, and had Abraham had more advance notice from God, he may never have become the man whose faith was credited to him as righteousness, a faith that was honest enough to admit to God his doubts, yet a faith resilient enough to wait on divine timing. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). We please God, not by gymnastic feats of pious religion: we please him as we begin actively trusting, in the midst of our struggle, that he is good.“*

As we drove past Ames Street, the memory twisted and turned in my mind like the road we were driving on. Ames Street feels like a lifetime ago – a different time, a different place. But with a surety that I didn’t think possible I can declare that God was faithful. God is faithful. Those words are so big, so strong, so hard to say – because sometimes I’d like to believe that he isn’t. Sometimes I’d like to blame him, forget him, or walk away. But I find that would be as impossible as it would be to walk away from the air that I breathe.

Madeleine L’Engle in a Circle of Quiet wrote this “A winter ago I had an after-school seminar for high-school students and in one of the early sessions Una, a brilliant fifteen-year-old, a born writer who came to Harlem from Panama five years ago, and only then discovered the conflict between races, asked me, ‘Mrs. Franklin, do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?’ ‘Oh, Una, I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts.’ But I base my life on this belief.”

Indeed. 

Note- This blog post is linked up with Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts synchroblog: I used to think _____, but now I think ________.  Thank you Elizabeth Trotter, for encouraging me to do this .

*Excerpt from Excerpt from Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith, by Jen Pollock Michel. See more at: http://www.judydouglass.com/2014/05/struggle-surrender-guest-post-jen-pollock-michel/#sthash.N3Sc5ZLT.dpuf

Hope in the Red and Gold

For years while living in Pakistan and Cairo we had no Autumn. No pumpkins. No apple picking. No smells of apple crisp or pie coming from a hot oven. No crisp fall days, where leaves crunch under foot and life is suspended in a golden, Autumn glow.

I have come to cherish Autumn; to cherish the hope that comes with the reds and golds. I am slowly coming from a place of dreading what’s beyond the Autumn to resting in the wonder of the now.

There is hope in the red and the gold – hope in the falling leaves, hope in the crisp air. There is a consistency to this season that I don’t feel in others. Spring is too elusive; summer can come with disappointments of crushed expectation; winter – well winter just is. But Autumn is consistent in its shorter days and golden looks.

Autumn is where I first learned to create traditions in the United States. Autumn is where my friend Karen taught me about pumpkin carving and apple picking. Autumn is where I learned to not fear what was coming ahead, not dread what hadn’t yet come. Autumn is the season where I grew up as a mom, learned how to be a mom in North America.

I learned about soccer and theatre; about field trips and evening concerts with 4th graders who knew only two notes on their recorders; I learned about volunteering and being the only mom in the parent-teacher organization with a nosepin. It was in Autumn that I learned what it was to be so homesick for a place I could hardly move; in Autumn where I learned the hard lesson of moving from community to being unknown. And then it was in falling leaves that crunched that I learned what it was to heal, to know that there was One who understood homesick better than any other. It was Autumn where I failed and succeeded and failed again as a mom. It was in Autumn that my heart broke and repaired. It was in the red and gold glow that my tears fell and my heart was hurt and heard.

So there is, and always will be, hope in the red and gold.

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And Change Will Come…..

Today’s beautiful post comes from my nephew, Tim. I am honored that he penned these words and sent them to me, giving me permission to post them. And I also love that Tim affectionately calls me “Aunt M”. 

20130117-071604.jpgIt is late April, and I look out my window at giant snowflakes, floating down from above. The snow remains deep on the ground, and the air is frigid. The thermometer has not risen above 45 degrees in almost six months. I knew when I moved to Northern Wisconsin that the winters would be long, and the meteorologist on TV assures me that this winter is longer than usual. He says  that spring is just around the corner, with its flowers and tree blossoms and singing birds. But I have trouble believing it. The snow just keeps coming. The cold doesn’t seem to break.

I struggle to trust that change will ever come.

My spirits are also brought low by the events of the last few weeks. Bombs at the Boston Marathon. A doctor in Philadelphia is accused of murdering newborn babies. China is picking up the pieces and burying bodies after a severe earthquake. A fertilizer factory explodes in Texas. Tornadoes. Floods. Poison in the mail. Politicians unable to agree on how to keep weapons of war off of our streets and away from our schools. Nuclear apocalypse could hit East Asia at any moment.

The world I see resembles my local weather. It is gray, cold, and chaotic. It is not how it ought to be. And I see little evidence that change will ever come.

At moments like this I am thankful for wisdom greater than myself. For the meteorologist on television assures me that we will soon experience a change in the weather. There is a great pattern at work involving the movement of our planet and energy from the sun. This pattern all but guarantees a warming of the ground and the atmosphere. The snow will turn to rain, the soil will loosen up, and the trees will begin to feel something stir in their toes. Before I know it these woods that I love will again be green, bright, and fragrant. It is simply the way of things, and though my heart may doubt, it will come to pass. Change will come.

So it is with God. Though I doubt the capacity of this world to change, and though I despair at the suffering and evil that is manifest all around, I cannot doubt the character of my God. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.” (Isaiah 40:28). He is good, and His justice is assured. He will make this world right, as inevitably as winter turns to spring.

In the meantime, He wants us to help Him bring about the change. There are widows and orphans in need of help, trees to plant, and wounds to bind. And for today, there is at least some snow that still needs to be shoveled. But not for long. Not for long.

For Change Will Come. 

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Immigrant Communities – What Works?

I had a fascinating conversation a few weeks ago with a woman whose parents are Sikhs from the Punjab region of India. As a young couple they immigrated to Canada and raised their family in a suburb of Toronto. She grew up in a multicultural neighborhood with native-born Canadians, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Bangladeshis, and more. No one talked about diversity, they lived it.

What made this community work? What is the make-up necessary for an immigrant community to work? What are the policies that support this – or are there any? What is the attitude of those who are native to the community? How does that affect the experience of the immigrant? I’ve asked a lot of questions because there is a complexity to the issue that makes it difficult to dissect.

In September of this year a report came out called “All Immigration is Local: Receiving Communities and Their Role in Successful Immigrant Integration,”. The report challenges the traditional approach that focuses on “immigrant behavior” and the focus on immigrants to assimilate and take on a new role as “Americans” by learning the language and diving into life in America.  How can immigrants take on this role if they are unaccepted by the “receiving” community? And how can the community receiving them welcome immigrants if there is confusion and fear about a neighborhood changing and no dialogue to reassure?

A while ago while working as a visiting nurse in Lynn, Massachusetts I had an experience that illustrated this issue. Lynn is an industrial city located about 20 minutes from Boston to the north along the Atlantic ocean. Lynn has been a depressed community for some time. It’s population and industry peaked in the early 1900’s and has since lost steam. It is known to have a high crime rate and a little rhyme characterizes the city: “Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin, you’ll never go out the way you came in.” I saw patients during the week in Lynn and on Saturdays worked in an office in another city triaging calls from patients.

One Saturday I received a call from a patient. The patient was from Lynn “I’m calling to complain about my nurse” she said. “Oh, I’m so sorry, can you tell me a bit about what’s going on?” “Well, I don’t think she knows what she’s doing. You see, she was raised in Pakistan…..” Great! The patient was calling to complain about me. The humor of the situation struck me and I had to muffle my giggling. I also knew that I had an ethical dilemma: I knew I was me, but she didn’t. I could just take her call and soothe her, or switch the call over to  my supervisor (the right thing to do). I put her on hold and in a stealthy whisper shouted over to my supervisor “Jill! I’ve transferred this patient to you because she’s calling to complain….about me!

But I knew instinctively what the problem was. This elderly white woman, who had never lived elsewhere, was watching a neighborhood change before her eyes. Immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic were becoming an integral part of the city and her neighborhood. Lynn was rapidly becoming what is termed a “majority, minority” city. This woman was terrified. She had no tools to feel secure in the changes and then along comes a white nurse who proudly lets her know “I’m not from here! I was raised in Pakistan“. It was one more symbol to her that the home and community she had known her entire life was changing and she didn’t feel a part of that change.

I tell the story because I think it illustrates well the fear and confusion that can be present in the “receiving” community. I don’t think this woman was inherently prejudiced or mean-spirited, I think she was grieving the loss of a community she had been a part of and had no tools to welcome and engage newcomers.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a big fan of immigrant communities. I live in a largely immigrant community, I interact with newcomers to the United States regularly. But I am also a big fan of wanting to bring others on board in the process and I’ve found that it’s not always easy. This report was written to help communities come on board and face the challenges that come as immigrants arrive and struggle to create a new home and a new life.

So what are some of the solutions to what works? Relationships, addressing misconceptions, and personalizing both parties is key to building  successful communities. In the words of the report:

“A major step in reinforcing a sense of commonality and community between foreign-born and native-born residents is to create opportunities for contact and communication. Evidence shows that having direct contact with immigrants changes people’s perceptions of immigrants and immigration. Immigrants themselves also look to their native-born neighbors for cues on how to fit in and how to behave in American society. Creating spaces for immigrants and native-born to interact, and to recognize their common goals for the community and future, is critical to the success of receiving communities.” from  All Immigration is Local: Receiving Communities and Their Role in Successful Immigrant Integration.

Immigrant communities in the United States are as old as the country itself and no group has been immune from prejudice. Unfortunately that history is not always passed down through the generations as a way to teach others that the hurt of prejudice should not be passed on to others. Someone has to stop the vicious cycle.  I am convinced that a part of breaking this cycle is hearing real people and real stories. It’s hard to hate someone who is sitting right in front of you, telling their story.

So back to the original question: What do you think makes an immigrant community work? Would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comment section!