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. 

Dear Dorothy – A Letter to my Mother-in-Law

Tomorrow I will board a plane and travel to Florida for my mother-in-law’s funeral. Since we found out last week, I have been thinking about death – how final it is, how permanent it seems, and how unreal it is until you are actually back in a place where the person lived.

I read these words in an article on grief:

“Dying is not a technical glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature. It’s the only prediction we can make at birth that we can bank on. Everyone will die, and it’s very likely somebody we love will die before we do.”*

They are true words in an otherwise mediocre article.

Memories have resurfaced – some that make me laugh out loud. My mother-in-law was a force of nature. It’s impossible to compress a life into a blog post, and I won’t try, but I want to share some memories of this force who was Dorothy. Thank you for reading.

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Dear Dorothy,

On a hot July Saturday in 1983, I received my first phone call from you. I had begun dating your son in February, but he headed off to the Middle East on a study trip in May. It would be a long summer for me; an exciting one for him.

So on that July day, your phone call was welcome. You introduced yourself to me as “Clifford’s mom” and I remember voicing surprise at your southern accent.

“Well, what did you expect” you retorted! “That I would talk like a Yankee.” And that was my introduction to your quick wit and comebacks, something you passed on in no small way to your sons.

In late summer, after Cliff returned from the Middle East, we took a trip to Florida to meet the family. We arrived on a gorgeous day and went straight to dinner at a restaurant.

I was nervous until you looked at me and said:

“The service has been terrible at this restaurant the last 12 times we’ve come.”

“Then why do you keep coming back?” I said. It was the perfect opener to help me relax.

Later that week, as I came into the kitchen ready to head out for a trip to Disney World, your eyes took in my outfit from head to toe, and you said “Well Cliff’s safe with you. No truck driver is ever going to pick you up in those pants!” Cliff looked at me and confirmed your opinion. No one had ever told me how bad I looked in them. Thank God I found out sooner rather than later.

Through the years, you amazed me with your artistic and creative ability. Whether it was China painting or sewing, you knew how to do it. My children wore sweatsuits with embossed designs, drank tea out of tiny china cups that you had exquisitely painted, even admired china cremation urns that you were making for a funeral home.

There are two memories that still come to mind after all these years. The first was a time when your youngest son, Greg, and your husband, Richard were sitting in the family room discussing the weight of football players. I could hear them from the kitchen.

“Did you see the weight on that guy? Wow! 240 pounds! How about that other player? He’s 300 pounds!” And on went the discussion by two men who didn’t have one extra pound on their bodies.

Suddenly I heard you come up behind me. You were laughing so hard you could barely speak. You finally stopped long enough to whisper in my ear “Did you hear them talking about weight? Thank God they don’t know what I weigh!”  I joined you in laughing. Both of us had a struggle with weight that wasn’t easily managed, and having two thin men discuss body weight just added insult to what was already difficult. But laughter was something you did well, even when it was at your own expense.

The second memory makes me smile hard. Again, I was in the kitchen and Cliff and the kids were resting somewhere in the house. It was early afternoon, and you had gone out to do some errands. I heard the living room door open, and then heard a “Psst.” You repeated it. I went to the opening between the kitchen and living room area, and there you were with two beautiful boxes.  You slowly opened them. In each box was the most delectable fruit tart that I have ever seen. The perfectly fluted crust was piled high with cream, then fruit, then more cream. They were magnificent.

As I surveyed them with shining eyes, I realized that there were only two of them.

“Shall I call Cliff?” I asked, thinking that you had bought one for him.

“NO!” you retorted! “This is for you and me! I didn’t even buy one for my son!”

We sat at the kitchen table, like two naughty little girls, savoring a stolen treat. We laughed and whispered, eating every single mouthful and then wiping the cream off of our upper lips. It was heaven.

Something about that moment has stayed with me all these years. Any mother and daughter-in-law combination has its challenges, and ours was no exception. There were times when I fought hard and you fought back. But the shared treat of that moment was a communion of understanding — understanding that sometimes moms need to forget the needs of the rest of the family and eat rich and creamy fruit pastries.  Perhaps also, understanding that sometimes the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship needs those occasional moments away from the rest of the family to forge a bond.

Your life was not all easy, and there were times when I saw glimpses of that.  By the time you were in your early twenties, you had four active boys and were raising them all over the country followed by the world. You knew what it was to pack up and move multiple times, say a million goodbyes, and leave places you would never see again. Yet you made sure that those kids were able to see every sight possible during those four years in Europe. I imagine these last few years with increasing health problems, a husband who is struggling with his own health, and a scattered family were some of the hardest. But every day, you got up, and sometimes that’s all any of us can do.

And now you’re gone. It’s not real to me yet – it won’t be until I see Richard alone at the funeral. Your quick answers won’t be a part of this weekend’s gathering. You won’t be chiming in with opinions and laughter. But you will be there, because we will be celebrating you and your life. We will be celebrating the creativity, laughter, quick quips, tenacity, and personality that were uniquely yours.

I hope I will get to eat a creamy, fruit tart and as I do, lift my eyes to Heaven and thank you.  I love you and I look forward to the day when I see you again in another time and another place. Perhaps you are already saving a fruit tart for me.

*Time Magazine, 4.24.17

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

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!

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“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.

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”

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)

A Death Anniversary

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A Death Anniversary by Robynn

On April 12, 2014, our youngest daughter, Bronwynn, went bowling with her Sunday School teachers. The previous week she and I had been to a special Butterfly Pavilion at the mall. There she had purchased three tiny caterpillars in a precarious cardboard box with her own money. She had watched the caterpillars with anticipation. And she was not disappointed. They had been transformed right in front of her eyes. The cat had apparently also been watching from a distance. When Bronwynn was away from the house bowling, the cat seized his opportunity.  He must have noticed a rustling and ruffling noise coming from the small cardboard box. Ever curious, he attacked the box and by the time Bronzi came home, there was only one rather traumatized monarch left in the box, quivering on a small broken stick.

My husband, Lowell broke the news to her on the way home from the bowling alley. Her grief was in full swing when they reached the house. She was so angry at that cat! She searched the house, thinking, hoping, praying the missing monarchs were still somewhere. Her denial quickly gave way to greater waves of rage and sorrow. She sobbed. She cried. She told the cat, in no uncertain terms, how she felt. We took the remaining butterfly outside and she released it to the spring trees, to the camaraderie of other butterflies, to the joy of freedom.

Unbeknownst to us, that was the prequel to our grief.

Later in the day we went to a dinner party with friends from church. While we were there our son Connor called. The car had died. He was just about to leave his girlfriend’s house but the car wouldn’t start. Lowell excused himself from the circle and went to get Connor.

Another sympathetic element perhaps?

An hour or so after he had left, Lowell called my cell phone. I saw his name come up and I started to laugh. I just knew that he was calling to see where I was, when I was coming home! I took the phone into the entryway and answered it. I’ll never forget Lowell’s words, “Robynn, there’s no good way to say this but…… Dad is dead!”

The air that escaped my body was loud enough to silence the room. Every one gathered near or around me. They waited with me while I waited to hear Lowell’s voice quickly, quietly, tell me what he knew, which wasn’t very much. There had been an accident involving a tractor. His brother Bryan was out there. Lowell was on his way. He hadn’t told the kids. Could I come home and be with them?

Who knew that one tractor, one load of firewood, and one too-steep hill could have so much power to change the stories of our entire family? It still makes my chest tighten all funny to think of Lowell’s mom waiting in the house for dad to come back in the dying day’s fading light. I can imagine her agonies over when to make that phone call to Bryan to please come look for dad. There was another phone call from Bryan to Lowell asking him to come help and to please bring flashlights and batteries. And then that one sudden discovery midway through that particular phone conversation: dad, covered in saw dust and cedar tree needles and the earth’s dirt, laying there in the dark, pinned under a tractor tire.

Everything changed that day and in some ways we continue to live into those changes. We’re still settling into them. We moved to a house appropriate for three generations to share. Mom moved off the farm and in with us. Bryan’s family moved out to the farm. Eventually Bryan’s house sold and they bought the farm. Although it felt at times, that the melody was silenced, we shifted around like a game of musical chairs.

Last year Larry’s death happened a week before Easter; this year the anniversary of his death is a week after Easter Sunday;. We were a week into funeral arrangements and death details when we pushed pause in order to remember Good Friday and to celebrate Easter Sunday. Larry’s death was all entangled and entwined with our observances and our celebrations. His death was all mixed together with the Resurrection.

Today is, In Western Christian tradition, Good Friday. It’s a death anniversary of a more significant sort. The execution of Jesus, although no accident, changed the stories of masses of people that day. Who knew that one crude cross and another too-steep hill, one confusing trial, one chaotic crowd and one innocent man could have such eternal consequence? It makes my chest do that uncomfortable tightening again to think of another mother waiting at the foot of the cross for the Father to do something to end the Son’s agonies. She too had to wait while the day died and along with it her dreams, her expectations, her plans, her baby.

I suppose, from now on, my experience with Good Friday and Easter will always be a little entwined with my memories of butterflies and stubborn cars and Larry’s death. Death happened. Larry suddenly, shockingly, surprisingly stopped breathing. It makes complete sense that his death be all wrapped up in the bigger story of the Resurrection. Because that’s the way it really is. All of our deaths are now forever consumed in that Wholly Momentous Resurrection! Death is now wrapped in hope. It’s lost it’s power to paralyze. The cocoons are ripped open and we are transformed in the blink of an eye, released to life and the joy of true freedom. Larry’s death serves to remind me of these sweet realities.

Today, on Good Friday, I choose to sit in my grief. I remember Larry—alive, hospitable, generous—and now gone. I remember Jesus—alive, full of grace and mercy, a friend of sinners—put to death. Larry ‘s death brings me to tears. Jesus’ death, sorrowful and somber, is also cause for deep sacred grief.

The death of Jesus is also deeply holy and redemptive. The story isn’t over on Good Friday. We wait for the fullness of time. We wait for the plan that is bigger and higher and broader than ours. We wait with anticipation for Life! We wait expectantly for Sunday and the Resurrection.

If you…believe that the Lord Jesus Christ Is the Eternal (One), and that He died for all your sins, then for you, Good Friday is the most sorrowful, the most solemn, and yet, one of the holiest days of the entire year. (WikiHow)

“But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die,this Scripture will be fulfilled:

Death is swallowed up in victory.O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?

(1Cor 15:51-55)

Series on Suffering #2 – “A Container for an Ocean of a God”

Suffering an ocean of a God

Suffering : A container for an Ocean of a God! by Robynn. Find all Robynn’s posts here. Find a quiet spot with a cup of tea or coffee to read this one. You’ll be glad you took the time….

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When I was 9 and she was 8, in the quiet of a boarding room, while helping each other make a bed, I asked Amy Jo Inniger if she’d be my best friend. She said no. I was heartbroken but I accepted the rejection bravely. A year later she asked me if I remembered the question I had asked her a year before. Of course I did. “The answer,” she said, “is now yes!”

We were kindred spirit friends of the Anne Shirley and Diana Barry variety. She was the wind beneath my wings. When I graduated from high school a year ahead of her she loyally wrote me each week. When she ended up at Wheaton College and I was in the middle of the desolate Canadian prairies we made a way to see each other. She took the train up. I drove down (twenty-four hours straight with a brother and another friend!). She was in our wedding. I was in hers. She and her husband followed us to India and stayed in our town for nearly six months. Amy Jo was in the delivery room when Connor was born. She sang over him his first lullaby. She crocheted his first blanket and matching hat. Eventually her and her beloved husband found themselves in the slums of New Delhi living and working among the poor. Her house was the size of some king size beds. She cooked as the poor did, over a one burner stove. She washed clothes as they did, under the tap. Every Thursday they’d escape to a nicer part of town and stay one night in their “team center”. Every Thursday she’d call me on the phone.

A prayer letter we wrote in January 2000 tells what happened:

                When I was 29 and Amy Jo was 28, I stood by her hospital bed and watched her enraptured face as she saw her baby daughter for the first time. It was 11 pm, 6 hours after her surgery. The hospital was asleep and quiet. Amy had awakened and asked to see her baby. A nurse and I wheeled baby Kiran Hope’s cot down three floors to the Neuro ICU. When Amy focused on my face she smiled in recognition. When she saw the baby she beamed. “Oh Kiran, you’re so pretty.” She listened with pride as I told her about her new daughter, how healthy she was, how she had scored a 10 on the Apgar test. “Kiran, I’m so sorry that I can’t be with you these first few days,” she apologized, “but I’ll have the rest of my life to make it up to you.”

                Those were some of the last words Amy Jo ever spoke. She slipped into a coma at four the next morning and died four days later.

                The symptoms were sudden and simple: an intense migraine that started on November 11th. After pregnancy related causes were ruled out she was referred to a neurologist. The first MRI was done on November 27th and was inconclusive. Further tests, done on the 28th and the 29th revealed she had a large malignant brain tumor. On November 30th at 1:30pm they began two operations, first a C-section and then brain surgery. Kiran Hope was born at 1:45pm. Amy Jo came out of the OR at 5:10 pm. I had the blessing and privilege of introducing her to the little girl she had longed for years later that night.

                Amy Jo was a loyal kindred-spirit friend. She loved Jesus and wanted to be like Him. All she ever really wanted was that He be glorified. She was convinced that it was more important to Be than to Do. She was frugal and enjoyed simplicity. Little things were Big treats for her. She loved beauty and colour and texture and saw it all around her, in vegetable carts, bright saris and children’s faces. She was a well read, intelligent woman with opinions that would have shocked some! She was extremely uncompetitive and couldn’t hold her own at Scrabble for the world! She was generous and wanted those around her to be happy.

                I loved her. And the missing ache is still quite sore.

Amy Jo died. Even now as I type those words, it’s still so hard to believe.

Understandably, those were hard days. It didn’t make any sense. God had every opportunity to answer the prayers of hundreds, maybe even thousands who prayed. We asked Him to heal Amy Jo, to restore her to life, to give Kiran the mother she deserved. But God didn’t come through. For months afterwards my faith was shaken. I couldn’t understand it all. We had prayed. Emails went pouring out soliciting prayer from literally around the world. Mega churches in South Korea prayed in unison, smaller groups of more reserved people prayed together in the UK. They prayed in Pakistan, they prayed in Canada and the US, they prayed in Germany. And we prayed in India, fervently, sincerely, desperately. But still God did not heal. And Amy Jo died.

Months later Lowell preached a sermon that I hated. He entitled it Who Forgot to Pray for James? The text was from the book detailing the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had James killed with a sword. When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. Then he imprisoned him…. while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him”. Most of us know the story: the prayers of the church swayed God and He arranged for Peter’s miraculous deliverance! But was not the church also praying for James? Is there any reason to think they weren’t? Of course they were. Believers are being persecuted, the faithful rise up with prayer and power to beseech the Great God of the Universe to put an end to it. It’s what the church does! There is every reason to believe that the believers also prayed for James and others who were equally brutally treated, and yet God allowed James to be murdered and Peter to walk free. It doesn’t make any sense. Who can know how God figures these things out?

During that sermon Lowell used an illustration that communicated powerfully to my battered faith. He explained correctly why I don’t like swimming in the ocean: there are living things lurking beneath the surface, the waves are unpredictable and splash my face, it’s cold and deep, there are undertows and pulls that frighten, it’s salty and sandy and alive.  I do not like swimming in the ocean. I much prefer a swimming pool, a heated pool at that. The temperature is controlled. You can enter at your pleasure either the deep end or the shallow end. You can go in as far as you like and then climb back out. Blow up a floating device and float on the top if you choose! The bottom is level and smooth. There are no surprises. Nothing lives in a swimming pool.

And that’s the kind of God I prefer as well: one that is controlled and moderate; a God who I can measure and understand. I can enter His depths but only as far as I am comfortable. However that’s not the kind of God we have. Our God is an ocean of a God. He is alive and dangerous. There are forces at work below His surface. He alone controls the depths, the sprays, the splashes of His personhood. He woos us to the bottom and the water may appear murky and mysterious. Our God is wild and untamable. He is expansive and unpredictable. When we say he is Holy, we mean he is strange and weird and we do well to take our shoes off. The ground is Holy and the Water is deep.

After his horrid sermon Lowell asked that we sing a particular song. The words to that song, now old and rarely sung, still alarm me, “It’s all about you Jesus. And all this is for you, for your glory and your fame. It’s not about me, as if you should do things my way. You alone are God and I surrender to your ways.”

Suffering gives us a container to somehow hold this unholdable God.  Suffering reminds us that he alone is God. There is a humility that shakes our knees, we are overwhelmed by our smallness, our fragility, our mortality in the face of it all. And although we are wiping the Wild Salty Wonder out of our eyes, in some ways it’s never been clearer, we’ve never seen things as poignantly as we do now. It’s all about Jesus, his glory, his fame. Who are we to think that He would do things our way? He alone is God and so we do, we surrender to Him and to His Holy, Weird, Strange, Wild ocean-like ways! Suffering does this for us: it allows us a glimpse at how strange and weird he really is, it lets us see his holiness up close.

Much of this post was adapted from Chapter 9 of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission written by Robynn Bliss & Sue Eenigenburg

Remembering Aunt Jean

In December, when all is sparkly snow, and Mariah Carey belts out “Joy to the World” in earth shattering vibrato, I got word early one morning that my aunt had died. She died around midnight the night before, at home with the one she loved best, my Uncle Jim. The death was swift and certain. in fact the family barely had time to digest the news that she was sick. My cousin Judi, her oldest daughter was in Moscow, and unable to come, using Skype to say her final goodbyes to her mom. The rest of the family rallied as they could and came together in a cold December.

Dying with family you love is the best possible way to exit the temporary and enter the eternal, but you leave behind grieving hearts. 

My Aunt Jean is my mom’s youngest sister. Aunt Jean was the one who shared a room and a bed with my mom growing up. Aunt Jean was the one who looked at my mom in horror when she was 16 and my mom was 20 saying “If I’m not married by the time I’m your age I don’t know what I’ll do!” Aunt Jean was the one who cared for my older brother Ed when the decision was made that he would stay in the United States for his senior year of high school, not returning to Pakistan with the rest of our family.

Aunt Jean has always been in my life, whether as far away as Pakistan or Egypt, or as close as neighbors on Hyde Park Street in a small town in Massachusetts. As my mom’s younger sister, our families were intertwined when we came on furloughs where the Cotes opened their home to this nomadic family, inviting us in, feeding us, introducing us to new friends and churches. How well I remember sitting at her dining room table, she, nine months pregnant with her 6th child, telling Uncle Jim that maybe they “needed to go on a bumpy ride so that labor would begin.” Not soon after the family a tiny curly-haired beauty named Jayna was added to their family.

When asked one time in a small group setting to tell about a marriage you admired and why, I picked my Aunt Jean and Uncle Jim. I could have easily picked my parents, for theirs is certainly one to admire and love. But I picked Aunt Jean’s because I have seen such love and commitment to marriage through the years, through car accidents that left them hospitalized for months on end with their youngest child; through ups and downs of owning their own business; through the struggles of loving children through their tough years.

The funeral was back in December but today I go to a memorial service for her in her hometown of Winchendon, Massachusetts – a town known historically for its toy-making and a large wooden horse in the center of town named Clyde.

The memorial service is an act of love of her immediate family for those of us who were unable to attend the funeral and I am grateful. They have been grieving, but we who were away haven’t yet processed the finality of her life on this earth. We haven’t seen Uncle Jim without his beloved wife, haven’t hugged cousins and scuzzins (second cousins) and told them we love them, told them we’re sorry they lost a mom and a grandma; haven’t taken specific time to remember and say goodbye.

So today I get to remember this remarkable woman with the infectious laugh and smile, with the fun sense of humor and kitchen that was always open to everyone, with the heart for people and family.

And I get to thank God that she was in my life.

Goodbye for now Aunt Jean — I love you. I wish I could have told you in person. 

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Between WorldsCheck out the book Between Worlds:Essays on Culture and Belonging – Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Barnes & Noble!

Grief Quotes During Holy Week

Grief Quotes by Robynn – 

Grief quotes: Even when grieving someone has to do the laundry… Hard to get it dry when the tears keep coming.

Grief quotes: I’m a pretty smart person. .. how come i can’t figure out death?

My father in law died suddenly in a freak farm accident early Saturday evening.

He was out cutting fire wood and then hauling it in. The tractor lost traction, flipped and landed on dad. From what we can tell, Dad died peacefully and instantly. He was doing what he loved.

For Christians around the world this week is Holy Week. I am finding that experiencing a death in the family during holy week is oddly spiritual. I find myself thinking about Jesus’ death in different ways. Dad’s death was such a shock. We weren’t expecting it. Jesus’ death was also a great shock to his friends and family. That wasn’t the plan they had. The women that came to the burial to properly prepare his body…you know they tucked that in the midst of a lengthy to-do list. They had mourners to cook for too I suspect. They had shopping and laundry and out-of-town guests to accommodate. There were children to soothe late at night. There were visitors who stopped by to console and grieve. Those women were real. Their tears were wet and salty. Just like mine.

Of course there is a great difference. Jesus doubly shocked them when he rose from the dead! To-do lists were suddenly obsolete. The funeral was turned upside down into a Resurrection Celebration!

Or maybe there isn’t that much difference. Dad knew God. I firmly believe he now enjoys his own resurrection. I don’t have a clue how these things work. But I know that Jesus welcomed Dad home. While we are having a funeral, they’ll be turning it upside down into a resurrection celebration! He’s home. Safely Risen.

Christ has risen! He has risen indeed

And so has my father in law!

Grief quotes: We had plans. God had other plans. It is good.

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Note from Marilyn: 

I read somewhere that grief sets its own agenda, it cannot be controlled. You don’t know when it will flood over you and whether the manifestation will be tears, nausea or distraction. Hope seems so false when grief is so real. Words are ineffective and empty, Bible verses can bring more pain.

But one thing does seem to bring comfort. The presence of a person.  Being available, not with words but with our presence. Not a false hope that says “Is there anything I can do for you?” when there are no words to express what may be needed. Not a phone call that is lost every time we are out of range of a cell phone tower. But the fullness of our presence. In the midst of grief, the presence of one who loves can offer hope and comfort.  And that is a picture and glory of the Incarnation. That in the midst of our grief, God became present among us. If you live around Robynn, words might not be the right thing to offer – but a meal would, or your presence just sitting with the Bliss family, or picking up her kids from somewhere. Thank you readers for being present today in this grief.

You can follow Robynn on Twitter @RobynnBliss

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Experiencing the Gray: a Daughter’s Grief

Today’s post is written by someone I deeply love — my daughter-in-law Lauren. Less than 2 years after I watched her walk down the aisle on the strong arm of her father and watched the father-daughter dance on a night bathed in joy, I was at his funeral. No one expected it. It was too quick. It was too early. It wasn’t right. Lauren was too young, too newly married. But it happened and so today’s post is a tribute to her dad, Jim Robertson who died on January 8, 2013. Lauren writes this post as one who grieves to you who grieve, who are living in the gray. The post is an essay on grief, and because grief is complicated, there is no word count.

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Robertson Family

On this day, one year ago, my father died. I called our hospice nurse over early that morning. My mom and I had been up all night holding his hand. I remember singing to him. Every now and again, through such labored breathing, he’d open his eyes and struggle to ask, “Why are you guys sad? Do you know something I don’t know? Will you sing to me?” I wanted to tell him how much I loved him and how thankful I was for him. I also didn’t want to make it any harder on him, so I’d sing to him and massage his forearms – the only part of his body that looked remotely like it did before cancer.

When I would hear about cancer and death, I’d have this image in my head of someone being hooked up to all these machines and the person saying one last thing to their loved ones, then closing their eyes and drifting off peacefully. That is not what happened. We were at home, because my dad wanted it that way, and we had a female hospice nurse that would come in and check up on him. Listen, my mother is a powerhouse. I always knew it. Watching her administer morphine and all the other drugs, all while dealing with the emotional and physical stress of tending over her dying husband – I am still in awe. I am not sure exactly what happens or how the body breaks down, but I believe that since the cancer was in his lungs (and several other places) his breathing got harder and harder.  A few days before, he started taking anti-anxiety pills. I wish I had known that this was the last time he’d be coherent. I would’ve tried to have just one more conversation with him – maybe about how he wouldn’t be able to meet his grandkids and how sorry I was for that. But after he started taking the anti-anxiety medicine, he started to see things and communicating became more difficult. There were a few times he saw men in the room. He smiled at them and called them “gentlemen”, like they were from the 1940s. I hope that among those gentlemen was his father, ready to take him into the next stage.

In those last hours, occasionally he’d stop breathing. Everything would stop. I’d stare at his chest waiting for it to rise, thinking how mad I’ll be that he didn’t hear me say bye. And then with force, his chest would rise. This is not something you want to see your father do. It’s not something I’ve ever seen in the movies or heard about. And the whole time I’m worrying and wondering, “is this normal”? And there is no one to tell you yes or no. In all of life, when I am hurt or when someone else is physically hurt, I search for the solution: what can I do to make this better – to fix this? But with my father, it was an awful reality to accept. He wasn’t getting better. He was moving towards death.

It was terrifying up until the last 10 minutes. The last 10 minutes, I knew exactly what needed to happen and what was happening. Not because somebody told me, but because of some intuition a daughter has with her father.  He was struggling so much – we didn’t want him to be in more pain. So my mother and I removed his oxygen mask – something that seemed so wrong. And we put on his favorite album of “Yes” and the hospice nurse read a psalm from the Bible. And as soon as we made that transition, he stopped struggling. I asked, “is he gone?”; the nurse listened to his heart and said, “no, he’s still here.” And he relaxed. I held one hand, my mom held the other. He was facing her and his eyes were half-open. He tried to speak but he couldn’t, tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t. My mother recalled all the beautiful places they had traveled together and would travel together in Heaven. In his last breath, he managed to smile at her. And I was so happy for him to not be in pain anymore. I felt the energy between his body and the heavens. I felt my mom, my dad, and I as one. And I felt his peace.

Last new years eve, I wrote the following in my journal:

“Well, my parents were able to give each other a new years kiss and my heart is melted to puddin’. So f*** you cancer. If I were to share this, I’d probably take out the f-word and say something like ‘cancer: 0, parents: 1’. But I think I like it better in my journal. Because nothing – no words – can touch the sweetness, sadness, and joy that happened when my mom leaned over onto my father’s death bed and kissed a spark – a second of life into him – and him to her – and then he pulled her back in for more kisses. Something that took all the energy he could muster up. I wonder if he stayed still the whole day so that when the time came, he would have reserved enough energy to reel his wife back in for more kisses.”

Dad and I Wedding

When my father died, I wasn’t ready for the little stings like shutting off his phone and not hearing his voice on his voicemail. I also wasn’t prepared to lose other people in my life, to become resentful towards people, and to grieve in isolation. Grieving for me was – and still is – so odd. Most of the time, I’m wishing to feel something one hundred percent whether it’s intense joy or intense sadness. Instead, I stay in gray confusion. I can see now that this is grief for me. But that is my grief – and I can’t speak for anyone else.

After my dad died, I found a therapist in Los Angeles right away. I told him, “I want to grieve properly.” He asked me what that meant — I still don’t know what my answer is. My main struggle was feeling inadequate. I’m a very empathetic person – and I’m very in tune with others. So when I encountered people’s inability to address my grief, I felt I wasn’t supposed to be grieving. Los Angeles is a hard place to be gray. Everyone wants you to pick up your feet and move on, or go home. People would forget and ask me why I was weird. And so I began to dislike myself, something I’ve never really experienced. I thought something was inherently wrong with me, that I was failing in every way. Why wasn’t I able to remember things I used to remember? Why was it hard for me to be around big groups of people? Why couldn’t I just stay in bed in cry or get up and live a productive life?

I’m reading a play right now where a young woman has just lost her father. At his funeral, she says, “I’m so tired of people saying ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’”: I am envious of this character. I don’t remember ever hearing those words. Was it because I looked strong? Or were family and friends just too uncomfortable to bring it up? Everyone kept asking how my mom was or commenting on how strong she was, and I understand that. She was, and is, grieving her husband. I can’t even imagine. But why didn’t anyone ask me how I was doing? That pattern continued for the year. I’d get texts from people asking how my mom was and telling me to take care of her, that I needed to stay strong for her. I guess I began to believe subconsciously that her pain was far greater and more legitimate than mine; and in the process, I forgot about me.

If you are in the gray right now, I want to speak to you. You are still you. Your pain is not made invalid through others’ lack of acknowledgment. Your confusion and grayness is right. What people and books tell you about how you should be feeling – don’t let it be your compass for normal. My hope for you is to embrace your gray and let go of the struggle to achieve feeling and clarity. C.S. Lewis once said, “You are not a body who has a soul. You are a soul who has a body.” You are a soul who is learning how to cope with your new surroundings. But you are still you.

An author who I relate to most during all of this is Elizabeth Lesser. Here is an excerpt from her book Broken Open that I found to be powerful in my grief:

“When I noticed someone teetering near the edge I would pray for her to walk around the abyss. Now I pray for something different. I pray that each one of us stays awake as we fall. That we choose to go into the abyss willingly and that our fall is cushioned by faith – faith that at the bottom, we will be caught and taught and turned toward the light. I pray that we don’t waste precious energy feeling ashamed of our mistakes or embarrassed by our flaws. After years of teaching, I know only a few things for sure. One is this: we are chunks of dense matter that need to be cracked open. Our errors and feelings are chinks in the heart’s armor through which our true colors can shine.”

On the day of the funeral – we had 17 family members staying in our house. And as everyone was getting ready and laughing and eating I remember thinking, “how can life possibly be continuing without my dad.” I went into my parents’ room and for the first time since everyone arrived, I let myself cry. My cousin Adrienne laid beside me and just let me cry on her sweater. I can’t tell you how meaningful that was. For those of you who have a family member or friend who is experiencing loss, and you are unsure about how to help – my advice to you is to just sit and listen. So many times, I just wanted someone to acknowledge my pain. To just sit with me in my sadness. Thank you to those who did that with me. And thank you to my husband who was so patient with me, who would do crazy things in public to make me laugh and who would not question me when I shut down.

My father was a unique and beloved man. He always brought the fun. At my wedding, his speech was him singing, “I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night” and he got all the guests out of their chairs clapping and singing. You can tell a lot about someone’s character by the way they handle death. He was strong and calm throughout it all. He said he had so many “’take me now’ moments” during his life that he was ready for what was next. During his brief stage of chemotherapy, I texted him once to ask how he was doing; he texted back, “Getting chemo. Wishing I was on top of a mountain.” And on this day – even though I’d much rather have him here next to me – I can smile and think he probably got his wish.

mananddogmountain

About the Author: Lauren Robertson Gardner is an actor living in Los Angeles with her husband, Micah Gardner and arguably the cutest dog in the world — Wilbur. She is in two regularly featured shows at iO West – LA’s Best Improv Comedy and has been featured in several short films including Running Buddies, Role Play, and Santa is Real.

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We Have Work to Do! State of the World’s Mothers – #SOWM

During my flood relief trip in Pakistan a couple of years ago I witnessed severe malnutrition among babies and toddlers. Break your heart malnutrition and hunger. Shout for joy Plumpy’nut solution in some cases. Moms and babies have my heart – probably because I am one and I had five. Getting a good start in life changes a generation and with catastrophes like floods and earthquakes, the chances of having that good start decrease.

For the past 14 years Save the Children has published an annual report on the state of the world’s mothers. The report is long and detailed, providing key findings as well as giving recommendations. The data includes information from 176 countries on the health of children, health of mothers, and economic well-being. Finland came in first and Congo came in last.

This year’s report was released yesterday. Here are just a few of the findings:

The birth day is the most dangerous day for babies world-wide.

More than a million babies die on the first day of life, usually from preventable causes. While great progress has been made around maternal/child mortality, newborns continue to be the most vulnerable of all with little progress made around their health and survival.

Three primary causes of death were identified.

These include complications during birth, prematurity and infections. For all three of these there are interventions that work, that are effective, that can change these statistics. The number of newborn deaths could be reduced by 75% if these preventive measures were put into place. That’s a staggering success rate!

The interventions cost pennies to put into place – from 13 cents a day to $6 a day.*

  • steroid injections for women in preterm labor (to reduce deaths due to premature babies’ breathing problems);
  • resuscitation devices (to save babies who do not breathe at birth);
  • chlorhexidine cord cleansing (to prevent umbilical cord infections); and
  • injectable antibiotics (to treat newborn sepsis and pneumonia).

This is a big deal. Give a baby a healthy start and you change a generation, one baby at a time. Where it stands now is a public health crisis. 

So what do we do? How can we help? If you’re pregnant you help by taking care of yourself, of your baby; by eating right and getting prenatal care. Others of us can pass this information on – if we live in countries that fall at the bottom of the list find out what we can do in both big and small ways. If we live in the United Kingdom or the United States – take a look! The United States falls 30th despite spending approximately 18% of its GDP on health care. This is just sad.

  • 1 of 2,400 women in the United States will die from a maternal cause. This statistic is the same as Iran.
  • In the United States 60% of newborn deaths occur on that critical first day of life.
  • The United Kingdom fares better but not great at number 22 on the list. 

Take a look at the report linked below and the Save the Children website. Learning about this is the first step in making a difference! I’ve also included a link to a Huffington Post article that has a great infographic you can share. Huffington Post infographic.

What do you think of the statistics and the low cost interventions? Have you had maternal child health experience where you have seen these interventions work? Would love to hear from you in the comments! 

One Grace at a Time

Grace,

We are just back from Phoenix, trading sunshine and seventy degrees for two inches of snow and freezing. The trip was not for pleasure, rather we went to grieve with my daughter-in-law. Lauren lost her father to cancer. He was too young to die, and she is too young to lose her dad. 

But it happened.

Finding words to comfort is not easy – and so I rest in the Great Comforter. In a perfectly timed email, a friend of mine re-posted a tribute to her father who died 11 years ago. Her description of grieving and grace is a beautiful offering, not only to her earthly father, but also to God the Father. For those who grieve today, may you rest in one grace at a time. 

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The call you dread and fear and never expect comes. 

It’s mom.  “Joann, your father died this morning.  Please come home as soon as you can.  I need you.”  Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones.  One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone.  The words keep shouting in your soul.  “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern.  You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.

But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again.  “Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.”  “Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.”  With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time.  He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.

Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost.  Lost in sadness.  Lost in pain.

I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us. 

How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey?  One hour at a time, one grace at a time.  “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase.  To added affliction, He addeth more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.”

Then it hits me.  Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace.  Sustaining grace– Read more here.

A Perfect Tree

20121219-074608.jpgIt was a perfect tree. Unlike some, where the tree goes from thin at the top to ballooning at the bottom like a pear-shaped woman; or others, that were too round or too tall or too thin, this one was perfect. They placed it in the bay window of the Victorian style house, covered with little multi-colored and white lights. It was perfect. Everyone thought so.

But then December and the ‘holiday’ season became anything but magical, anything but excited anticipation.

Anything but perfect.

The collective grief and pain that was happening to them and around them was mind-numbing in its scope, eye-popping in its magnitude. There was death, betrayal, sickness, dysfunction, hurt, sadness, anger everywhere.

Suddenly the tree was not so perfect. In fact, every time they passed the tree they felt sick, nauseated. They wanted to purge themselves of all that they saw, heard, all that they felt and knew.

The sorrow alternated with the rage. The rage alternated with the nausea. The nausea circled round to sorrow until they realized that all of it could be captured in two words. Profound grief in the brokenness of their world.

The tree, normally a glowing symbol of a season they loved; a season that included tantalizing smells and tastes, gifts and giving, and a small baby, born to redeem, born to set “his people free” became instead a picture of grief and pain. They could hardly wait to remove it, and along with it the dead needles that were accumulating on the ground, evidence of a world that brought brokenness, death and decay.

But there were children. Children to care for and protect. Children that were too young to understand, too old to be immune.

And it was children who helped them to sit before the tree, that perfect horrible tree, and think about another tree that symbolized pain and grief. A tree that was used for death. And yet death was not victorious. Death and darkness gave way to life and light, life and light gave way to more life and more light.

The anguish and grief began to be covered with the redemption of that other tree. Could it possibly be that all of this grief and sadness could give way to light and life?

Around the tree their children snuggled close, enveloping them with warmth, 20121216-084620.jpgflannel pajamas, and sweet child smell. “Come thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, from our sins and fears release us, Let us find our rest in thee.” the song played, slightly tinny, on a cheap CD player. The tears couldn’t be stopped. And then one of those oh so precious children, too young to understand but too old to be immune, looked up and said “Why are you sad? It’s a perfect tree”

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Blogger’s note: I recommend this excellent piece from the NY Times by Russ Douthat called Loss of the Innocents. Here is an excerpt:

In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.

That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.”

End of Life Care and Cultural Competency

I just finished speaking to a group of medical and nursing students on end of life care and cultural competency.

It’s a big topic.

In health care the two areas where cultural beliefs are profoundly obvious are during birth and during death. In other areas the belief systems are more subtle, the differences not always obvious.

But birth and death? These moments of coming into and going out of the world are rich with tradition, ritual, meaning, and emotion.

The first thing I ask people to do is to think back to their first memory of death in their family or community. Who was it? What were the circumstances of the death? What is their most vivid memory? What rituals and behaviors were observed by the family and/or community?

The answers are fascinating, particularly if it’s a diverse group. There are people who remember all the church bells in the town ringing — they knew someone had died because the bells were ringing at a time when they were usually silent. Others remember wailing waking them during the night. Still others will talk about death being a celebration, a party of sorts.

The important piece is that they talk. Most have never thought about this, let alone processed it in a group. And talking about their experience puts us in the best possible place to continue the discussion.

Because telling their stories helps them realize how significant those moments are, and how critical it is for them to hear the stories of their patients, to be fully present with their patients during the end of their lives.

We move forward into the discussion on the western view of the body as a machine, on how culture affects views of illness, expectations of care, and views of the process of death. We look at possible points of cultural collision – patient autonomy, organ donation, body preparation, the differences in both meaning and expression of pain and so much more.

I usually end the time with a short video telling the true story of a gentleman from Afghanistan named Mohammad Kochi. Mr. Kochi immigrated to the United States with his family and settled in California. At the time of the film he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The film details some of his care and the disconnect and misunderstandings that occurred, resulting in his refusal of chemotherapy through a pump into his body — ultimately his death because of lack of treatment.

It is sobering and hard to watch. We sit somewhat stunned at the end and there is no gap in conversation.

How could this happen?

So preventable!

Such a misunderstanding!

But these types of cultural misunderstandings occur far too often despite the best of intentions.

There are so many things that come up in conversation, and so much to learn from each other. But we end talking about three areas where we can develop skills.

The first is in self-reflection – How do I react to cultural differences? How do I manage my own reactions? How do I negotiate with patients and families in the face of cultural differences?

The second is active listening Listening to and with the body, listening in with self reflection, listening out by learning from others; listening with the mind by hearing facts and stories; listening with the heart by being willing to hear emotions and feelings.

The third is bearing witnessbeing fully present with the person, letting them know they’re not alone, listening to their stories and their symptoms. 

As is usually the case, I leave contemplative, thinking about life in its entirety, life from birth to death. And I also leave with a renewed resolve to continue developing skills in the areas of self-reflection, active listening, and bearing witness.

Skills not only important in end of life but through all of life. 

Guest Post: “Longing for the Other Place”

Today’s post came by way of a comment on the post Saudade. It resonated deeply with me and I asked permission to share as a blog post. It is written by Anne Alexander, a fellow TCK. You can take a look at the end for a short bio.

I hope you enjoy this post and may your Sunday be a welcome rest from the chaos and busyness of life. 

Yesterday I went to a funeral for a dear friend. It was a true celebration (the most joyful, Christ-honoring I’ve ever attended), but that couldn’t stop the tears, even in worship.

As funerals and farewells often do, this one brought up the pain of losing my brothers in childhood, and all the related pain of leaving relatives and friends on both sides of the ocean time after time after time. It brought up the longing for the ‘other place’, whichever one I wasn’t in, and the people I love around the world.

TCK lives are filled and colored with losses of all kinds.

Some of us stuff feelings really well for a long time (for me, until middle age), but some of us are blessed, unable to do so.

In the long run, the ‘expressers’ are less likely to develop physical or mental aberrations because ‘the truth must out’, and our pain is truth to us.

The angst the world feels because of the God-shaped, Heaven-shaped longings implanted when we were created for Him hums in their experience like an irritatingly loud refrigerator– sometimes softer, sometimes louder, but ultimately ignorable until the margins of our lives are used up.

As TCKs we live with less margin most of our lives, continually pushed into areas of growth, change and challenge. We may disguise the irritation and angst of being  between homes and Home, but we can’t hide it any more than a person with 3 arms can hide it under a 2-armed shirt.

Growing up, we’ve sampled more fulfillment and full-use of our potential, more of and varied pleasures and experiences, more pain and loss, than many of our passport-country friends do in an entire lifetime.

We are accustomed to adrenaline in traffic and true life-threatening experiences, to fox-hole friendships with those we work and worship with, to ‘relatives’ closer in spirit, purpose and faith than any blood relatives we could find in our passport country.

We have lived life without the bubble wrap, warfare without boxing gloves, and the exhilaration of seeing God come through when it really matters.  And we know it’s more than just making the next traffic light green so we can get to work on time.

Is it any wonder that we grieve the distancing from LIFE that sometimes seems to accompany return to our passport country? Is it any wonder that we long for friends and ‘relatives’ like those with whom we grew up, or worked with in our country of adoption?

Thank God for a word like ‘saudade’ that helps us express the inexpressible longing for that remembered world of discovery, friendship, growth and possibilities. We are not alone. And there will at last be a place where all potentials will be realized as they were meant to be.

But until then, my heart will go on singing (even if sometimes the minor key spirituals of hope);
But until then, with joy I’ll carry on (knowing that even if no one else understands, my Creator, Companion and Burden-bearer does)–
Until the day my eyes behold the city,
Until the day God calls me Home. (Until Then chorus by Ray Price)

And in the meantime, that third arm comes in handy for all kinds of tasks, like wiping the tears I sometimes can’t hide, or helping a friend in need.

Kindergarten in Mandarin was TCK Anne Alexander’s introduction to Taiwan, and for 44 years she has called Taiwan home. At present she’s teaching and researching Bible storytelling in Mandarin for a doctorate from Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies. 

Baby, Josephine and Amos – Wandering through Cemeteries

“Do you think wandering through cemeteries is a particularly western activity?” I said to my husband. We were at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the loveliest cemetery I think I’ve yet seen on either side of the ocean. We had just passed by a triple gravestone – a memorial to Baby, Josephine and Amos. They were babies who died too soon, none of them older than three years at death.  Was it typhoid fever? Influenza? No matter, the poignancy of these deaths, deaths of children we knew only as “Baby, Josephine and Amos” from so long ago, had us both contemplating life and, quite naturally, death. Indeed “Baby” had not even lived long enough to be named.

My husband paused before answering and when he did didn’t speak directly to the cultural aspect “I think so. For me I think it’s about hope”.

We had come upon the cemetery on a beautiful spring afternoon. Driving through enormous, old, wrought-iron gates we were greeted by acres and acres of green grass, flowering trees and bushes. Benches for resting were set between huge statues and smaller grave stones.  In our city world of tiny yards and limited green space, this resting place for the dead was a haven for the living.

And it did indeed feel hopeful. Contemplative and sad at points, but also hopeful. We come from a faith tradition that values life but recognizes life as we know it as finite and temporary. Our faith gives us strong evidence that there is more to this world than we can see and that cemeteries are far more about the living than the dead. That is the tension of this life of faith.

And everyday we live with that tension – that life here matters, but eternity matters more; that life here is broken, that eternity is whole; that life here, as clear and permanent as it sometimes feels, is but a blurry reflection of what will be.

So there we were, fully alive, reading about the dead and wandering through tombstones, living out history as we went through the years. But curiously this tension that I feel on a regular basis was absent – maybe it was because I was wandering among stones and knew with surety that there is hope beyond the grave and life beyond death.

Back to my original question – I don’t know if this is more of an activity that is done by those in the west, but I suspect it is. I do think we have a desire to know some of what came before us, we want that history and as we have lost the traditions of story-telling we have to find that history somewhere. I also know that death is a closer companion in the developing world. With lifespans sometimes in the late forties to early fifties and infant mortality rates that are too high, death comes early and often. Were that my world, I can’t imagine I would want to do much wandering through cemeteries and contemplating death, rather my energy would be rightly spent on making sure those who were alive stayed alive.

As we headed toward the entrance to make sure we were well outside before the gates were locked we thought again of  the hope we felt in the midst of Baby, Josephine and Amos – babies who died too soon.

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