Cow Dust Time and Anniversaries of Hard Things

Yesterday evening while driving along the Charles River, we stopped at a traffic light, joining other cars in a long line. It was dusk, those few brief moments where day meets night and melancholy meets mystery. Daffodils dotted the banks of the river, their cheery yellow barely visible in the growing twilight. I gasped at the beauty, longing to capture it even as I knew that this would be impossible.

I love dusk, the whispered end of a day that reaches into the soul. I learned from my brother that Pakistanis call this “cow dust time.” He went on to say “the time around sunset when cooling air makes the dust form a layer a few feet above the ground and little sounds like cowbells or children’s chatter seems to be amplified.” Though I spent my childhood and my late twenties in Pakistan, I had never heard this before. Further reading tells me that in India this was the time when cows were brought home from pasture. Either way, I love this phrase and the description.

Dusk has always been one of my favorite times, particularly in Pakistan or the Middle East, where the call to prayer echoes across sunsets, calling the faithful to leave what they are doing and listen, pay attention, pray.

As sounds are amplified during “cow dust time” so too are the contradictions of a life of faith. The ability to mix joy with sorrow, day with night, contentment with longing. I sighed during the moment, thinking over the past week and all it held, for its biggest holding was the anniversary of a hard time. A time that I don’t want to remember; a time that I honestly wish had never happened; a time that sends reverberations through my body and my heart.

We usually think of anniversaries as happy times. Conventional wisdom brings on images of flowers, candle light, happy conversation, and hearts that could burst from the joy of it all. But most of us know in our bones what it is to face the anniversary of something that is not so happy, something that will forever present as the space between the before and the after. A death, a divorce, a tragedy, a diagnosis, an adult child leaving in anger, the fragile breaking of family bonds, an accident, a job loss – there are many ways in which the world forces us to remember anniversaries that we’d rather forget.

As I thought back to last year I remembered each event as though rewinding a film and replaying it in slow motion. As I did so, a curious thing happened. Details began to emerge that I had previously taken for granted. Details of people walking beside us until the pain and fog gave way to clarity and a spark of hope.

The kindness of my children, each walking beside me in their own unique ways; the kindness and love of our neighbors as shown through a conversation, a meal, a gorgeous, flowering plant, beauty products, more conversation, and absolutely no pressure to share more than I wanted. Then there was the kindness of dear friends as well as those in our parish, poignantly present during the time of Lent, a season of repentance and lament. As I remembered each person and kindness, long forgotten conversations and the generosity of those who sat and walked with me filled my mind. An anniversary of sadness turned into a collage of grateful memories.

Like dusk itself, these times amplify the contradictions in a life of faith. That an anniversary of sadness can hold so many memories of gladness; that joy and sorrow are so infinitely inseparable, that all of it is summed up in the ampersand that is life.

Perhaps from now on I too will call dusk “cow dust time” and it will remind me that just as sounds are amplified during this time, so too is the broken beauty of our lives. Anniversaries of hard things giving birth to memories of extraordinary love and kindness, God’s goodness always and ever present.

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]

God, Help Us With Our Somethings

I last spoke with my friend Betsy in 2017 at my father’s funeral. It was too short of a conversation. She went out of her way to make sure she came to both the visiting hours at the funeral home before the funeral as well as the service itself the next day. She gave me the kind of hug that we most need when we are grieving – a complete hug that left no room for anything but comfort. We caught up as only two friends that know each other well can catch up. 15 minutes that included two years of happenings. The last thing she told me was that her cancer had recurred. Tears welled up in my eyes.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

“It’s okay. You know, I’ve realized that I have this, but everybody has something.”

Everybody has something.

Betsy died a year and two months later. I wish I had known then that I would not see her again. Ten months later we had moved to Kurdistan and I last texted her just before her death. I think about her so much, her generosity of spirit, her incredible gift of hospitality, the way she made everyone feel like they were the only person that mattered when you were with her. Betsy was an extravagant friend.

I also think about the wisdom in what she said to me “Everybody has something.”

I thought about this today as I looked around our parish. We are an immigrant parish from many different countries and backgrounds. Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Lebanon, Romania, the United States and more are all represented ethnically and linguistically. We are of every age, shape and size. We are literally the blind, the deaf, and the lame. And everyone of us has something.

The truth is, I don’t know all the somethings, just like people who attend don’t necessarily know my somethings. But I know enough to know that there are broken relationships and broken hearts, broken minds and broken bodies. I know that there are people who are hanging on by a thread of hope that reaches to the Heavens on a Sunday morning liturgy as they beg God and the Saints to intercede. I know that there are those who have had miscarriages and those with hurting children. I know that there are people who are without jobs, who literally pray that their daily bread and their rent money will come in. I know that there are students with dreams, and elderly with memories.

We all have something. We all have something that hurts, something that takes up our thoughts and interrupts our dreams.

And so I pray – I pray that God will help us with the somethings, from cancer to depression. I pray that God will ease our pain with his presence. I pray that the broken will be mended and the jobless will find jobs. I pray that the depressed will find comfort and the grieving will have permission to mourn. I pray that brains and bodies will be mended and hearts and minds will know the grace that is sufficient. I pray that we who walk this human walk will walk it despite the somethings. That we will chase beauty in the midst of the hard, that we will find light in the darkness. I pray that we will breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathe out “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I pray “God, Help us with our somethings.”

Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis

crisis
  1. God will never give you more than you can handle. While some may believe it is theologically correct, depending on your definitions, it is singularly unhelpful to the person who is neck-deep in a crisis, trying to swim against a Tsunami. A wonderful phrase recently came from Support for Special Needs. They suggest changing this from “God will never give you more than you can handle” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.” This strikes me as even more theologically correct.
  2. It gets better. Yes, yes it does. But right then, it’s not better. And before it gets better, it may get way worse.
  3. When God shuts a door, he opens a window. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe he just shuts a door. Maybe there is no window. There was no window for Job. There was a cosmic battle that raged as he sat in distress. There might not be a window. And if Job’s friends had kept their silence, perhaps God would not have told Job to pray for them at the end of the narrative.
  4. Did you pray about it? Again – theologically correct. “Don’t worry about anything, instead, pray about everything…” but in a crisis, you don’t heap guilt onto pain and suffering. At a time of deep pain in my life, someone said this to me. I looked at him in silence, and then with a shaky voice I said: “We haven’t been able to pray in three months–so no, we haven’t prayed about it.” I was in so much pain– it was like he had slapped me. Pray for the person, but please, please leave the clichés at home.
  5. God is good – all the time. Another one that is technically theologically correct. But is it helpful to say this when someone has just lost a child and is screaming at Heaven? Is it helpful to say this to the person who just had their fifth miscarriage? Is it helpful to say this to the woman going through a divorce, because her marriage could not hold up under the stress of a special needs child? They may say it, and we can nod our heads in agreement. But for us to say this from a place that is calm and safe will probably not be helpful.
  6. But for the grace of God go I. “But why you? Why do you get that grace and not me? Why am I the one in the crisis? Was God’s grace withheld from me?” Those are valid responses to that phrase. I understand the phrase, and I’ve used it myself, but it doesn’t help the person who is in deep pain.
  7. Don’t worry. God’s in Charge. Yeah? Well, he’s not doing a very good job then is he? God is in control, but it brings up some serious theological implications about God’s role in the crisis. Instead of a theology of suffering, we might want to think about a fellowship of suffering. Because a fellowship of suffering leads me to sit with a person and say “It’s too much to bear – may I sit with you and bear it with you?”
  8. Maybe God needed to get your attention. Thank God no one ever said this to me during times of crisis – because I might have to punch them in the face with a knife. That’s all.
  9. Maybe it happened for a reason. Remember what I said about punching someone in the face with a knife? Yeah – that.
  10. Just call me if you need anything. While I want to appreciate this, the fact is that people in crisis usually don’t have the ability to call, so they won’t. Even if you don’t know someone well, you can bring them a meal or drive them somewhere.
  11. I could never go through what you’re going through. Come again my friend?? This does not comfort. A false elevation of the character and ability to cope of the person going through the crisis only serves to further wound and isolate. The one who is going through a crisis longs to be on the other side. They wake up and breathe deeply, only to remember the awful reality of their situation, and wish they didn’t have to go through it.
  12. When I think of your situation, I’m reminded how blessed I am. No. No. No. First off, this is theologically completely incorrect. The beatitudes heap blessing on those that mourn, on those who are meek, on those who are poor in spirit — not on those who are safe, secure, financially stable, and proud. Those in crisis are not an illustration of how blessed everyone else is. In  the counter intuitive, upside down way of the Kingdom of God, blessing looks completely different than what we in the West have made it to mean. There are big problems with our use of the word and concept of blessing.

So what do we do? How do we respond?

I think those are difficult questions, but the best analogy I have for people in acute crisis is looking at them as burn victims. Caring for burn victims is divided into three stages that overlap.

The first is the emergent or resuscitative stage. At this stage priority is given to removing the person from the source of the burn and stopping the burning process. The big things to think about are fluid replacement, nutrition, and pain management. Translated into crisis care, this means we’ll bring meals, coffee money, and pick up children from day care.

The second stage is the acute or wound healing stage. At this stage, the body is trying to reach a state of balance, while remaining free from infection. During this stage, patients can become withdrawn, combative, or agitated. This stage can be a lengthy and unpredictable stage. Burn victims, like people in crisis, often lash out at those closest to them. Translate this into listening, listening, and listening some more.

The final stage is the rehabilitative or restorative stage. The goal at this stage is for a patient to resume a functional role within their family and community. Reconstruction surgery may be needed. Encouragement and reassurance are critical to the person at this stage. This would translate into going on walks with the person, taking them out to a movie or dinner, having them over for coffee or a meal.

Burn care has a lot to teach us about loving and caring for people in crisis. And those who care for burn victims rarely use clichés — they are too busy caring.

In February, I wrote a piece called Toward a Fellowship of Suffering, and I’ll end what could be a cynical post, with words from that piece.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us 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 be with you, I will sit with you.’

Toward a Fellowship of Suffering

For Part Two: Caring for People in Crisis, tune in here and a written sequel is here.   I also wrote a piece a while ago about grief and the Incarnation that may resonate.

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey is available now! 


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From Bench to Bedside – Connecting the Head and the Heart

For a long time, my husband worked with scientists in translational genomics. A well-known saying in genomic research is “From bench to bedside”. Researchers know that if their findings are confined to the laboratory alone, the research will never affect patients and change their lives. People are often desperate for a treatment that will save a life or offer a better quality of life. If the research just sits on slides and under microscopes its use is severely limited. Thus the phrase “bench to bedside” – from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside.The phrase is a reminder of the need to link theory to practice. There is another area,  unrelated to genomic research, that needs a bench to bedside connection – the head and the heart. In times of crisis I have found that there can be a massive disconnect between the two. No one ever wants a crisis. By their very nature, crises are not things you sign up for, plan for, or dream about. But inevitably they do come. Some times of crisis are our own doing, others are not about what we did or didn’t do.  They just happen. The drunk driver who hits an aunt and uncle, sending them into the hospital for weeks; tsunamis and floods; bombs and betrayals can all create a crisis. In my life I have found the problem to be less the crisis and more the head – heart disconnect during a crisis. To be sure a crisis brings about changes of plans, a myriad of details to be taken care of, and sometimes a loss of even the most basic needs. But the reaction to the crisis – there lies the problem and the disconnect. My head knows truth. I know by head some great theological truths that can comfort someone in a crisis. Somewhere in the memory part of my brain are the words:

  • “For I know the plans I have for you”, says the Lord. “Plans to prosper you, not to harm you. To give you hope and a future.”
  • “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of my God, my fortress and my strength. My God in whom I trust.”
  • “For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”

I know by head all these truths, but because of pain that’s where it stops. My memory bank is full, but my heart is empty and surrounded by ice. The words mean nothing and have no way of giving comfort. They are just words. The head and the heart seem to be in different bodies. Added to that is the occasional “Job’s comforter” spouting theology and accusations void of wisdom. There are a couple of things I have noticed about a heart surrounded by ice. First of all – I can’t parent properly. Whether it is a scraped knee from a biking accident or a scraped heart from a prom date, the emotional energy is frozen and can’t be applied where most needed. Second – ice can take a long time to melt. In New England, where we now live, there is evidence every winter of the time it takes to melt ice. Frozen ponds and tree branches, icicles hanging from tall buildings and slick sidewalks are all evidence of the danger of ice and the time it takes to melt. Third, a heart that is frozen assumes that it has a market on pain. No other pain could be so terrible, no other pain so unbearable. Mine is the worst – or so my frozen heart tells me. So what’s the solution to the great head/heart divide? The only way I have found to melt the ice surrounding my heart from the pain that is generated and reconnect the head and the heart is the warmth of the spirit of God. For me to be able to live out the truth that my head knows, my heart has to be melted and rejoined to my head, a grueling and terrible process filled with tears and “whys?” but essential for me to move on. It’s sometimes like surgery with no anesthesia and I want to scream through it. Despite the pain, God is gentle and persistent, coming like a warm wind after a terrible winter, warming everything in its path so that the world can breathe again. The warmth melts the ice and my heart can gradually beat again, seeing life through the lens of hope and faith.

Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again. – Ravi Zecharias