The Fragility of Goodness

I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” lately – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.

As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.

As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.

A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.

The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.

The author goes on to say this:

“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”

Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.

I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.

In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.

There are two areas where I am deeply challenged in all of this. How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty in my daily life? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? Secondly, Like many of you, I’ve increasingly felt disillusioned and discontent with social media. In its best form it serves as a connector, a friendship builder, a way to challenge, build bridges and encourage. In its other forms, it is none of that. It builds anger, doubt, mistrust, discouragement, discontent, and convinces us that we will never have what others have. Where is goodness in our online selves? Why do we usually head for the lowest denominator, convincing ourselves that it really doesn’t matter.

How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.

In all this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.


Note: all quotes are from The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

On Blackwater Massacres and Christmas Eve

I rarely get political on this blog. While the theme of communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture doesn’t exclude politics, it would limit me too much. But I don’t think of this post as political. Rather, I see it as fitting for connecting the dots to a God who cared enough to walk among us

Last night the news came through that President Trump had pardoned several people. For me, the most disturbing pardon was given to four government contractors, who in 2007 massacred 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 17 others. Witnesses described the attack as a completely unprovoked ambush of innocent people. In Iraq, the tragedy is called “Nisour Square Massacre.” The group who were sentenced, now pardoned, worked for a private military contractor called Blackwater.

Among those killed was a 9-year old boy, shot in the head as he sat in the back of his father’s car.

The trial and subsequent guilty verdict was applauded by human rights leaders around the world. It showed the world, but especially Iraqi citizens, that military contractors would be held accountable for their actions.

I remember living in Phoenix at the time when news of the attack was broadcast. I remember being horrified but in an impersonal way. This was before I had visited Iraq; before I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and had the privilege of working under a boss who was from Baghdad; before I had worshiped in churches with Iraqi Christians. This was before all of that. I felt it, but not the same way.

I hear this news, news of justice rolled back, with a heavy heart. It contributes to what my friend calls a year of “incomprehensible sadness.” And this, just a day before Christmas is celebrated by a majority of the Western world.

The questions go through my mind – who paid for this pardon? Whose connections reversed justice? And though I know I can connect the theological dots, as it were, to what any of us deserve versus what Christ has done for us in his mercy and grace, I’m not going there.

Rather, I think about who is so far removed from this event that they make a decision with so little thought to the agony of the victims’ families? Who would dismiss the importance and significance of what a guilty verdict meant in the case?

A quote by John le Carré says that ‘a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.’ This decision was surely made from a view behind a large desk.

As usual, when I encounter something like this and try to make sense of it, I turn to reflective writing. Where is the ‘But God’ in this? Where, on Christmas Eve, can I find some measure of hope in what has proven time and time again to be an unjust world?

So I go back to the desk quote by John le Carré and there is where I find my hope. When Jesus entered our world as a small helpless baby, he moved away from the desk and entered the place of action where all of life happens. He encountered deep pain, anger at injustice, joy at weddings, dining and drinking with sinners, the beauty of a sunrise, the sadness of a woman cast out. He got out from behind the desk and got into the thick of it. We are told he “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.”

That God, in his love for us, entered gladly through the person of Christ to live out the joys and struggles of life locked within the limitations of the human body, ultimately conquering sin, suffering, and death is the ultimate moving away from the desk scenario. This is the incomprehensible story of the incarnation.

He loves us enough to get away from the desk. And on this Christmas Eve of 2020, a year where I have grieved and mourned personal and collective death and loss, injustice and wrong, I find my only hope is to rest in the promise that some day evil will be conquered and it won’t be from behind a desk.

So I pause, close my eyes, and hear the beautiful words sung on Christmas Eve “a thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and gloriously morn.”

May Christmas Eve 2020 bring a measure of hope to your world.

And So We Wait…

Today, those of us who are Christians enter into a season of waiting – the season of Advent.

Advent comes at the end of November and into the dimming light of December. In the Northern hemisphere, days are shorter and grayer and shadows linger. For those of us who love light, it is tempting to push aside the darker days, brightening them with as much light as possible. Waiting in the dark is long and hard.

Yet I know many right now who are doing just that. They are waiting in the dark.

They are waiting for jobs that never seem to come, interviews that are few and far between with the dreaded “Although you are well qualified, we have decided to move forward with another candidate,” that comes every time. Unemployment is their long journey in the dark. Others are waiting for a body scan to show cancer in remission instead of the continual need for chemotherapy. Still others wait for a child to return home, or at least return their texts. There is the waiting for death, which they’ve been told is not far off – and yet, they hurt with the pain of a body that used to serve them well and now fails them at every step. They are waiting for visas and for borders to open. They are waiting for ceasefires – for bombings to stop and a semblance of peace to be restored.

Added to this is the world’s waiting for a vaccine, for a pandemic that has taken over people’s lives, friendships, and emotions to end.

Into this waiting comes the season of Advent. Advent is another waiting in the dark. The difference is that unlike these other situations, Advent is like a tunnel where we see the light at the end. Not only do we see the light, we know and long for this light.

But we are at the beginning of the tunnel and it will take time to reach the end. And so we wait.

And as we wait, we walk toward the light. We walk with expectation and anticipation toward the coming – the coming of hope, the coming of light, the coming of God, birthed in the flesh.

God did not throw us alone into an empty universe. He did not place us on a tiny planet where he afterward forgot all about us. No! He entered into our life, our history. He himself came to us, not merely to save us, but to clothe us with His grace, to transform us according to his likeness.

Father Maximos on November 29 at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church

In this next month, I will be writing each Sunday of waiting, of expectation, of Advent. I would love for you to join me! For companions in my journey I have chosen these two books: Shadow & Light by Tsh Oxenreider and Let all Creation Rejoice by Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis.

Babies and the Sovereignty of God

Sometimes we come to points in our lives where we seriously question the sovereignty and wisdom of God. While I know this is ill-mannered and audacious, I still do it.

I had one such moment 25 years ago when I found out that I was pregnant with our fifth child. Did God not know that I was seriously under qualified to raise 5 children? Did he not know that we were struggling with other things in our lives that made the idea of another child impossible? Did God not realize that I had two friends begging Him for children and they were being ignored, while my womb was like that of a teenager who merely had to stand downwind from a teenage boy to get pregnant? There I was, fertility personified, and to use Biblical language poised to become heavy with child.

We were living in Cairo and had just moved from one part of the city to another 1/2 hour away. The day I went to the doctor, we were expecting a group of 20 students to arrive from the United States for a study abroad program that my husband directed. It was a chaotic time and there was little chance to be alone and process the pregnancy, never mind the bigger issue of the sovereignty of God. I hid my growing stomach under Bill Cosby sweaters, all the rage at the time, and managed to go four months before having to let people around me know. At that point I was slowly becoming used to the idea and so could come up with clever quips to snap back at the insensitive words of not so well-meaning friends and acquaintances.

The reality was that my other four children were over the moon. They couldn’t have been happier and wise friends of mine reminded me that I would far rather have 5 children than just one or two, but I thought I had told God that four was perfect.

I gave birth two weeks ahead of schedule in a hospital on the banks of the Nile River to Jonathan Brown Gardner. The moment I looked at him my questions to God dissolved in his soft baby skin. He was perfect in every way. Never had I been more aware of the glory and wonder of 10 fingers and 10 toes, a suck reflex, and eyes with perfect vision that slowly took in the world around them after first fixating on the face of a mother, and that mother was me.

At 22 inches long and 6 lbs 12 ounces, he was put into my arms and in an instant I was overwhelmed with love for this child and the wisdom of God. I knew a love for this child that was infinitely bigger and stronger than my circumstances – he was perfect.

Today that baby turns 25. He is a wise 25-year old with an old soul. Fluent in Greek, he is getting his masters degree at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I am just one of a number of women who through the years has had babies and pregnancy give them life lessons on the sovereignty and deep love of God. I join the ranks of Sarah, wife of Abraham who had the opposite problem and tried to take things into her own hands; Hannah, who begged for a child with agony too deep for words; Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah who in her old age conceived, much to the surprise and gossip of those around her. And Mary, the blessed Theotokos, who said the words “How can this be?” to an angel who told her she would have a child, only to come to know her beloved son as the author of salvation.

As the months go by what confuses and confounds ultimately allows us to bear witness to God’s sovereignty in the form of a baby. Happy Birthday to Jonathan Brown Gardner. You are an extraordinary gift from God and I can’t imagine life in our family without you!

Dry Seasons

Photo credit: Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

The sounds of summer rain and thunder add music to my afternoon. We have had some glorious days of blue sky and perfect temperatures, days that dead poets used to write about, but last night rain came to water our earth. Then today, torrential rain has come while thunder booms in the background. Downtown Boston, visible from our upstairs guest room and my office, is grey with fog and mist.

I am a lover of sunshine and all things bright. I love yellows and golds, white lights and golden glows, sunshine that takes over the shadows. But in this area, rain is critical. The grass has been like straw and dust comes up from the ground as we walk on it.

Since I was a little girl, I have heard the Biblical metaphor of Jesus being the “living water.” I grew up singing a bright, bubbly song “Drinking at the springs of living water, happy now am I, my soul is satisfied…” While the tune was catchy, the song gave a false illusion of happiness – like it was something you conjured up and could keep forever just by drinking at those streams.

The song also neglected to describe what dry feels like. A throat parched, longing for water. Skin dry and flaky. Eyes burning and dehydration drying up all tears. Feet kicking up dust everywhere you walk. I have lived in several deserts around the world and I know dry. I know what my skin and nose feel like. I know that when it rains it floods because the earth is so hard the water cannot sink in. I know how the land looks and how my body feels.

Dry. Bone dry. So dry in fact, that you begin to see mirages of water everywhere – a trick of the mind to give hope to the one dying of thirst.

When you are bone dry, water in any form is a blessed relief.

The land is not the only thing that has been dry. My heart and life have been dry – bone dry and longing for respite. As much as I believe that Jesus is living water, I have also come to believe that there are seasons of dry in our lives; that no matter how much we drink at those springs, we may still feel dry and parched.

There are times when it helps to analyze feelings,  when evaluating what is going on and how I feel is important and necessary. There are other times when no matter how much I evaluate, no matter what I change, I still have the same feelings. So I continue to walk through the dry days and times, pressing ahead, knowing that seasons pass, new seasons come, and the dry will someday change to a cool, refreshing respite.

Rain– sweet, redemptive rain to water the earth and bring relief to dry, parched land. Faith – to believe that even in seasons of drought, Jesus is still here- offering water to thirsty souls.

This is my world and this is my heart today.

Longing for Isaiah’s Light

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.

The Prophet Isaiah

Snow is falling outside my window. In the abstract and theoretical, it is beautiful. The flakes are big – the stuff of fluffy snow, easy to shovel, brilliant for play. A couple of inches have already accumulated. I see it on the ground and the top of our bird feeder. Birds are wisely taking cover – not willing to venture out and gathering in a nearby hedge.

Outside my window, downtown Boston – usually easily seen at this hour, is hidden by the clouds and fog of this winter storm. Inside the contrast is palpable as white lights cast a welcome glow on this grey morning. The dark and fog are kept at bay, not allowed in infringe on the light in our home.

I am lost in thought, wordless longing in my heart. It’s an other-earthly longing – a longing for wholeness, for wrong to be made right, for the broken to be fixed, for the hurt to be healed, for my own soul to rest instead of restlessly wander.

How weary we all grow from tragedies – the only thing that seems to connect us in this disconnected world. And even tragedies bring on the cynics and the tragedy police, willing all of us to grieve more than we are able when the crisis happened half a world away.

How I long for Isaiah’s light. How I long for the light to dawn. Like a sleepless night where I just can’t wait until the clock tells me it’s time to get up, like an endless trip where I can’t wait to land, like a boring talk or class that I think will never end – no, none of those do justice to the deep longing for a world to be made right and the light to dawn. It’s a longing all its own.

I look over at the white lights, noting how their glow creates warmth and hope on this grey day. This is what light does. It illuminates, it radiates, it brings hope. This is why we long for Isaiah’s light.

This longing for Isaiah’s light takes me into the New Year, urges me on to a faith that is based not on an ideology, a mantra, or a dogma, but on a person. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

Isaiah’s light, a light that shines in the darkness – a light worth staking my life on. The day is still grey, but the light shines on.

A Friday Prayer

The peach looked beautiful. It had the feel of a peach that was ripe but not too ripe and it smelled perfect. Inside it was rotten to the core. I discovered this as I was cutting it into slices.

So beautiful on the outside, so rotten on the inside.

How like the United States, with its rhetoric of greatness and it’s perfect exterior. Well trimmed lawns, good highways, fancy buildings, plenty of goods for consumers, coffee shops by the thousands, grocery stores by the million, parades and protection are all a part of the eye candy that is the U.S. Yet it takes but a moment of digging to uncover the rotten interior. From rates of abortion to treatment of foreigners we live in a society consumed by self and misguided protection. We daily watch men and women with little soul and even less integrity mismanage a nation in crisis.

Bullet holes in black boys haunt our collective psyche as we try to dismiss of racism. We hear the cries of children ripped from moms in wombs and at borders, breastfed babies panting for milk from mothers who are nowhere to be found. Pride and corruption are rampant and the innocent struggle for justice.

Cries of “I can’t breathe!” fall on our ears. Coffins fill with black bodies and we try to justify this by focusing on rioting and violence, claiming they are not the way to handle this. How dare we. How dare I. We listen to the voices of white theologians and dismiss the voices of prophetic black theologians, because they might make us uncomfortable. How dare we! How dare I!*

Like the Old Testament prophets we cry “How long O Lord? How long?

Tears dry on faces that look up to the Son for justice.

We plead the cause of the orphan, the immigrant, the falsely accused, the unborn who were never given a chance, the dead who can no longer speak.

We plead and we pray.

May we allow the surgery of confession and repentance to root out the rotten core. May we fall on our knees in humility and repentance. May we see with eyes of justice and love with hearts of compassion. May we act with hands of mercy and speak with lips of wisdom. May we pray for our leaders and for ourselves.

May we, like the prophet Micah, do justly, love mercy, and Walk humbly with our God.

Amen and Amen

*This paragraph was added 5/29/2020.