When Siblings Rescue

During my junior year of high school I took Physics. Knowing that I wanted to be a nurse, I poured through the catalog of the school that I wanted to attend after high school and looked at the courses that were recommended. Chemistry was required; Physics just recommended. Intent on making sure I was accepted to the program, I decided I would take Physics and Chemistry. I’m normally not an overachiever, but call it delusions of grandeur or healthy self esteem, at the time I secretly fancied myself a brilliant scientist or, if not a scientist, than definitely a brilliant nurse.

Our school building was an old British church that had been repurposed as a school with a huge auditorium in the center and classrooms along the sides and upstairs. Physics class was held in the science lab, located at the back of the auditorium, up steep stairs, in the highest spot in the building. We sat on stools around large, rectangular tables surrounded by science in the form of long tables, beakers, formulas, posters and pictures. A sign saying “A Physics student took a drink, but he shall drink no more. For what he thought was H2O was H2SO4” served as a warning to all of us of the violent death we would undergo if we did not pay attention. Bunsen burners, beakers, pipets, droppers, and funnels became familiar equipment and goggles were a necessity.

Like most classes in Murree, the class size was small. There were perhaps 12 of us and a mixture of juniors and seniors. Importantly, I was the only girl in the class.

The year started out okay, but as summer turned into Autumn, I began to despise Physics class. From what I wore to what I weighed, I was fair game for intolerable teasing from every single guy, egged on by the teacher. I laughed right along with all of them until one spring day when I didn’t laugh anymore. I left class sobbing like my heart had broken in a million fractals. It was my brother Stan who saw me leave the school building sobbing. Though he had graduated a couple of years before, he was back for a short time working at the school. He heard my cry, hugged away my tears, and marched up to that Physics Lab in a full-blown rage.

I don’t know what Stan said, but I know his righteous anger burst forth like a canon. Physics class got better for me. Though I still could not wait for it to end, at least a certain measure of respect developed. Never again did I leave Physics class in tears. Stan had done what I could never have done. He had marched in there, and in righteous love had demanded that the bad behavior stop. It was an early lesson in advocacy, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.

A few months later, my brilliant brother Tom arrived from the United States. Patiently he sat with me each evening, teaching me what the teacher could not because I was so wounded by the class. He coached me to the Physics finish line and I ended up the class with a B+. This was a miracle. It was an early lesson of sibling patience, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.

That’s the thing with siblings. They just are. While others have to earn a place, siblings have it and you don’t really pay attention to them. Except when you think back on a childhood and the role they played, the times they teased you mercilessly always trumped by the times they stood up for you with rage or coached you with patience. You may be able to count the deep talks you had with siblings on one hand, but that’s okay. Because beyond the deep talks is the deeper understanding of what it is to grow up in the same places, to experience the same household with its strengths and weaknesses, to face life’s challenges together.

It’s been a year to the day since my brother Stan died. A year to the day since we received those awful text messages through the large family Whatsapp. A year to the day when the wretching sobs made me throw up and scream in a silent house. A year to the day that marked my waking up thinking daily about my sister-in-law, my niece, and my nephew. Anyone who has siblings will go through this at some point. Last February was our turn. It came too quick. It was too tragic. It shouldn’t have happened are all places I can’t go yet I go there anyway.

The week following his death was filled with some of the most remarkable love I have ever experienced in my lifetime, as a handful of us gathered in Thailand. We cried, talked, laughed, and comforted each other in that sacred space of grief. We drank mango smoothies and ate Thai curries, walked in gardens and basked in warmth while the Northeast I had left froze over. We did not know that a few weeks later a pandemic would upend the world and our grief would be eclipsed and upstaged by a worldwide crisis.

But it was, and so our grief was put on hold to make room for an angry public that enjoyed outrage so much that they were of no use to the truly grieving.

And now it has been a year. I do not have more words, but I do have more understanding of grief, more understanding of grace, more compassion, and more need for God. And I know, that Christ, who redeems all, is in every moment of this day.

O Christ, redeem this day.
I do not ask that these lingerings
of grief be erased, but that
the fingers of your grace
would work this memory as a baker
kneads a dough, till the leaven
of rising hope transforms it
from within,

into a form holding now in
that same sorrow the surety
of your presence, so that
when I look again at that loss,
I see you in the deepest gloom
of it, weeping with me,
even as I hear you whispering
that this is not the end, but only the still
grey of the dawn before the world begins.

And if that is so, then let that which
broke me upon this day in
a past year, now be seen
as the beginning of my remaking
into a Christ-follower more sympathetic,

more compassionate, and more conscious
of my frailty and of my daily
dependence upon you….”*

*Excerpt from Liturgy for the Anniversary of a Loss © 2017 Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey

Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life

A Boy and a Bunny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Just Your Presence

[Image by Milchdrink from Pixabay]

Prayer for a Sunday Afternoon

It is on Sunday afternoons when my longing feels the strongest, when I feel exiled from all around me, when my heart cries out for its eternal home.

It is on Sunday afternoon when the cries and sadness of the week settle into tears that the world is not as it should be.

It is on Sunday afternoons when darkness comes quicker, and I scurry to light candles and turn on lamps eager to chase the darkness away.

It is on Sunday afternoons when my soul settles in to one long cry of longing and exile.

It is on Sunday afternoons when the Divine Liturgy, only hours past feels far, and I have to cling to the ‘heaven meets earth in Divine Liturgy’ truth of my faith.

God be with us on Sunday afternoons.

Be with us in our deep longing for earthly family and eternal home.

Comfort our hearts with the knowledge that just as we urgently long for something nameless, you urgently long for us who are named.

When we feel the deep sadness of those who are not with us, soothe our souls with the balm of your presence.

May our bodies relax in you, the one who has created us for your glory.

Give rest to our minds so we do not overthink our restless longing.

Allow us to accept our feelings without shame, instead with a knowledge that you have gifted us with them.

May your ever present voice of love birth in us holy desire in the lonely places of a Sunday afternoon.

In our longing, give us rest and peace.

This we pray on a Sunday afternoon in November.


May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

John O’Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us

Lonely Tears and Sunflower Hope

I wake up lonely. This does not happen often, but when it does I know tears are just below the surface and I feel the heavy weight of distance between me and the world.

It is not surprising, but it is unwelcome. Just last week I was surrounded by family and life, by water and activity in Istanbul. My husband and I had a 3-country trip planned to celebrate both of us turning 60 this year. Besides the state-side celebrations, our plan was to go to Egypt, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

All of those plans were laid in the large, globe sized pandemic grave of missed opportunities and revised plans and expectations. We felt glad to be alive and have food in our cupboards. Forget any grand plans.

But as the summer wore on and curves flattened, borders opening their doors just a tiny bit, we decided to push them open wider. My brother and sister-in-law and niece and her family were all in Istanbul, a place open to Americans with no quarantine needed. We may not get to Egypt and Kurdistan, but we could certainly take the nine plus hour flight to Istanbul.

And so we did. We left on a Friday night, arriving on the other side of the world on a Saturday afternoon. We took in the beautiful breezes on the Bosphorous as we went on ferry rides to the Black Sea and over to the European side of Istanbul. We took a cable car up to Pierre Lotti’s house overlooking the entire city, and we ticked a stay at the famed Pera Palace off of our bucket list. We ate delicious food, drank hot glasses of steaming tea, and laughed until our bellies ached.

Better still, our son who lives in Greece decided to surprise us, showing up at dinner time on our second day in Istanbul. The tears and joy filled my heart.

The entire trip was a gift. A gift of beauty and family, of hope and longing fulfilled.

And then – we returned. We returned to more strife than we left. We returned to a nation that is fighting, fearful, and jaundiced. We returned to mask shaming and covid deniers. We returned to a nation full of people who assume the worst of their fellow human beings, who spit on the Imago Dei to win an online argument. And me? I’m the worst offender of all.

For the first few days I braced myself. “I’m okay” I kept on saying. “I can do this.”

But today? Today I woke up and the loneliness that had hovered just around my heart closed in, squeezing it to a full physical ache. I began to cry. I cried and cried and cried. You know the kind of tears that are so healing and good for the soul? Those kind. They weren’t tears of self pity. They were tears of loneliness, brokenness, and pain for our world.

I felt lost in pandemic exile, trapped in lonely isolation. I sensed the cold weather that will inevitably come, and like the runaway bunny, my thoughts run unchecked and too far into a cold, lonesome future.

I know where to take this ache, but it feels heavy and I’m not sure I can carry it and drop it at those feet, those dust-covered, blistered, scarred feet of Jesus

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

It is now several hours later. My eyes hurt from the crying, my soul is exhausted, but somehow I know it will all be okay. This God who has heard me since I was a little girl when the tears flowed in boarding school still hears me, still comforts me with his invisible presence. Hope blooms out of lonely tears, like the sunflowers that unexpectedly bloomed in our garden, welcoming us on return.

May the loneliness I feel be the catalyst for reaching out harder, praying longer, and knowing even more fully that sometimes only God alone can be the comfort we all so desperately need.

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

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

Muted Colors – Lenten Journey

There is nothing ambiguous about Lent in the Orthodox tradition. No one contemplates what to give up, or how to spend more time in prayer and repentance. Everyone pretty much knows that you’re going vegan for the next seven plus weeks. Orthodox countries pull out their “Fasting” menus and we, sometimes reluctantly, get rid of all the cheese in the house.

Church services are more frequent and we don’t need thigh masters because our thighs get such a good workout from prostrations.

Coming from a background where Lent was mentioned, but it was more about giving up chocolate or, god forbid, coffee, and sometimes signing up for a daily meditation that would arrive in my inbox reminding me of the importance of this season, it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the intentionality of this faith tradition. I have come into it slowly, but I am embracing it fully.

This year, grief is the background of Lent. It colors everything with muted shades. The sky is not as blue, the brick houses are not as brown, our house is not as red, instead all of life feels muted. I know this will not be forever – instead it is a season. I remember hearing a speaker once talk about grief. “Our churches are full of hurting people,” she said “that don’t take a season to heal.” When we don’t take a season to heal, our grief comes out in other ways. When grief is frozen in time, it can take years to thaw.

Somehow, since it is Lent, and a season of repentance and preparation, I’m feeling the relief that comes with the freedom to cry, to mourn a broken world even as I experience the incredible grace that falls down on the broken and wounded. Lent gives me that time. It invites me into self-reflection in the midst of community, lest I become too inward focused.

And even as I repent and grieve, I’m also invited into a time of preparation that ultimately leads to the Resurrection and glory of Pascha. It is a time of repentance to be sure, but it’s also a time to experience fully the joy of forgiveness and delight in the mercy of God, given so freely to all. It is a time to remember that what I see is only part of the picture.

The muted shades of my life at this moment will one day be replaced with the glorious colors of a world beyond grief, where Lent will be no more, and every color will be richer and more glorious than we’ve ever seen.