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.

Information Overload and the Cost of Caring

 

telephone-1822040_1280

 

Confession – as I read or listen to the news I am not feeling much of anything besides tiredness and incompetence. I am embarrasingly disconnected as I watch flooded streets and homes in Texas.

My husband and I were talking about this over the weekend, about our inability to care about everything we hear about; about our ability to self-select newstories and situations that we care about and dismiss the rest. As I filter through news stories I want to care about every tragedy, but it turns out I don’t have the emotional capacity to do that and remain sane.

In the 1950’s a new word made it into our lexicon of trauma related diagnoses. The word was “Compassion Fatigue” and was first seen in nurses. As a nurse, it makes sense to me that we were the people who first displayed a tendency towards these symptoms.  The symptoms included negativity, lessening of compassion, tiredness, and feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and inadequacy for the job at hand. It was the ‘cost of caring’.

The word has evolved over time and is often called ‘Disaster Fatigue’. Used by the media and donor organizations to describe the response to tragedies and world events over time, it gives an accurate picture without having to be explained.  Events that have such massive implications that our brains can’t quite take it in and our responses show a disconnect between what we see and hear and how our hearts and bank accounts respond.

If I list off the events that have happened even in the last month, I know immediately why I have compassion/disaster fatigue. News and events transport us from Syria to Charlottesville to Houston and back again. Every aspect of human need has been affected. The need for shelter, security, food, safety, and the list goes on so that self-actualization seems laughable. The pain and shock of people and nations are felt across oceans and continents creating a sort of secondary trauma zone. How much am I capable of caring about before I move into the disaster fatigue zone? Not very much, it turns out.

Added to this are the things that might not affect the world, but they affect me and my extended family. Family tragedies and crises that make me cry out to God in the night, begging for strength and help for those that I love.

We are overloaded and our minds can’t handle the overload. This in turn leads to apathy, despair, and callous hearts. To compensate, we often update our social media status, just to prove that we really do care, and we expect others to do the same. It’s like wearing a badge of honor; a status symbol of caring.

In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the author Neil Postman describes what he calls the “low information to action ration”. He links this concept back to the invention of the telegraph. Before the telegraph people received information that was relevant to their lives, information over which they had a measure of control. After the telegraph, people received information from miles away, information that they could do nothing about. News of wars and tragedies from across the world began to take central stage, while local news took a back page. “the local and the timeless … lost their central position in newspapers, eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed … Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods—much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping coughs—became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day'” (pp. 66–67). So a “low information to action ratio” refers to the sense of helplessness we have when faced with information that we can do nothing about.

As Tish Warren says in an excellent article We are small people who, for the most part, live quiet lives, but we have access to endless stories of pain and brokenness.” 

I have been learning something about information overload and the cost of caring over these past years. I have found that I have to exit the noise. I cannot sustain the information overload. It renders me useless in every day life.

despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload

When I give myself permission to exit the noise, when I allow myself to move to a place of quiet, I become healthier and more compassionate. In that quiet space I become far more able to see that despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload.  “Think about it, Mom” says my son “prayer is the highest form of empathy, the greatest act of compassion.” He is wise beyond his years.

Prayer leads me to a reliance on a God who “will not grow tired or weary, and whose understanding no one can fathom” and in the comfort of those age-old words, I can lose the guilt and rely on a never-ending resource of compassion and strength, available to all in crisis.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Isaiah 40:28

It’s Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be

IMG_5494

Friends, my youngest cousin tragically lost her husband just a day ago. My heart is breaking for her and her two littles. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. They are a young family and my heart hurts thinking of the grief and loss that they are experiencing. He leaves behind so many who will mourn his death.

One of the ways I can best show love to people is through writing. So today, I dedicate this to Jayna, my beautiful cousin and her sweet girls.

If you are one who prays, can you pray for this family? I have included more information here. 


“It’s not the way it’s supposed to be” – the cry of the mother whose child has been shot in a kindergarten class on a seemingly normal Friday in December, presents already purchased, hidden in a closet in anticipation of a Christmas morning. The “hurry up! we’re going to be late” already a memory of the day. The “make sure you tie your shoe laces, don’t forget your lunch, honey you can’t wear that shirt, it’s dirty” now poignant reminders of a life that was, that is no longer.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The cry of the husband burying his wife and little one – deaths from a complicated childbirth; the cry of the husband who buried his 28-year old wife, dead from a brain tumor; the cry of the young woman who watched her husband die on their honeymoon; the cry of the mother of a soldier – killed during the war on terror; the cry of thousands of mothers in Afghanistan and Syria – all of whom have watched a child die.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

And the cries echo toward the Heavens, in agony, in fear, in anger, in the deepest grief imaginable to man. And the throat catches, and the grief is wordless and boundless and rips the soul, the Whys and the Hows echoing all around. Hearts broken with grief, words of “how can we go one? how will we heal?” whispered through sleepless nights.

And on this day I look up and shout toward Heaven “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” And in the quiet, still of the morning, He whispers in my heart “I know child, I know.”

And so “I lay my ‘whys’ before your cross — In worship kneeling. My mind too numb for thought. My heart beyond all feeling. And worshiping realize that I – in knowing You, don’t need a ‘why’. “*

poem by Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham.

“Just Your Presence”

church-2140714_1280

A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. As she did so, the woman who was dying looked up at her and said this:

“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”*

Through the years, I have thought a lot about a theology of suffering, and the ‘fellowship’ of suffering.

Most of us struggle awkwardly in the face of pain and suffering. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We feel embarassed, don’t want to make the situation worse. And so we avoid suffering; and when we avoid suffering, we avoid those who suffer. Because there are many things that cause suffering, we sometimes end up avoiding the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the displaced.

We subconsciously reason that we can’t do anything anyway. We can’t change the situation, and we don’t want people to feel worse, so we avoid them all together. C.S. Lewis in his classic and beautiful book A Grief Observed talks about becoming an embarassment to his friends.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”

A few years ago, as I was thinking about suffering and a theology of suffering, I wrote the following:

it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.

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

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

The fullness of our presence can offer hope and comfort, and so we must not leave people alone. This is the fellowship of suffering. 

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”**


If you are interested in reading a post that speaks to what not to say to people who are suffering, take a look at Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis. 

*Cancer Brings it Home

**from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College

Evil is Not the Final Word

Note: due to a WordPress error, the post looks like it was published on February 3rd. It was, in fact, published on the morning of March 28th.

On Easter Sunday evening, a suicide bomber targeted a busy park in the city of Lahore, Pakistan. Boasting a water area and a playground, Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park is a popular place.The victims of the bomb blast were primarily women and children, likely out for an Easter celebration in the city before heading back home for the evening. A splinter group of the Taliban claimed responsibility and unapologetically stated that “The target were Christians.”

The cowardice of the act nauseates the stomach; the horror sickens the mind. Along with those that are dead are the wounded, sent to hospitals in resource-poor settings, where good medical care is difficult to get and people who might live, should the resources be available, end up dying.

Istanbul, Brussels, Baghdad, Pakistan – it goes on and on and on. We grow weary and have bomb fatigue, our humanity challenged to remain compassionate, our spirits challenged to pray even as we wonder what good it will do.

“Has not Pakistan suffered enough?” I shout the words inside, knowing that few would understand my reactions. An opinion piece in the New York Times echoes some of my thoughts:

For much of the world, the deaths of Pakistani children are forgettable. They are, after all, the progeny of poor distant others destined to perish in ever more alarming ways. It may not be said, but it is believed that they are complicit in their own deaths, guilty somehow — even at 2 or 4 or 6 years of age — of belonging to a nation that the world has appointed as its own boogeyman, a repository of all its vilest trepidations. In December 2014, Taliban militants gunned down more than 140 people at a school in Peshawar, a vast majority of them students. A former American ambassador, speaking of his government’s lack of desire to help the Pakistani government fight extremists, put it succinctly: “There is great Pakistan fatigue in Washington.” NYTimes OpEd by Rafia Zakaria “The Playgrounds of Pakistan.”

Yet, the Pakistani flag lights up my newsfeed and I am grateful for friends who do understand, who know and love this place that so many of us called home.

Where do we go during times like this, when evil stalks and lurks? Where do we go when the world feels crazy and safety is as illusive as winning the lottery? What do we do? Where do we go? How do we respond?

I have become tired of judging others for reactions that are just as valid as mine. We create a people’s court, judging the hearts of people by the status of their social media pages. As though judging the hearts of others will add comfort to the situation.

Still, the familiar green and white of the Pakistani flag brings me deep comfort, and knowing there are so many of us that love and pray for this country is a balm to my soul.

I have written about evil before, and my words grow stale in the face of more and more tragedies. But I am compelled to continue to write. I am compelled to continue to feel through writing.

“The extreme greatness in Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it” says Simone Weil. 

So I go to the words of Scripture, knowing that they have brought comfort through the ages to men and women who have faced evil, men and women who have gone through suffering and lived to write about it. 

They all have one thing in common, and it’s something that I think about as I write. They all knew that evil wouldn’t win. They all came to an understanding that there was something bigger going on, that suffering and pain were not the end game. They all knew that when you walk through the fire, there is a God who suffers with you, you are not called to suffer or face evil alone.

I am not given answers. I’m given something better than answers: I’m given a glimpse into God’s heart as seen through people who never gave up their faith. Evil does not get the final word. Suffering will somehow, in a way that I cannot possibly understand, be redeemed.

Somehow that is enough for me. It must be enough, for I have nothing else.

It is now the evening of Western Easter, and I know only one thing: that He who endured the cross and  continues to redeem the world has not left us to suffer alone. He is with the men, women, and children of Pakistan. And I defy anyone who would say differently.

“The Resurrection is not a peacetime truth for occasional, feel-good, religious nostalgia. The Resurrection is a wartime truth for everyday, tear-smeared, blood-stained allegiance to Jesus.” quote from Duke Kwon 

___________

A friend who also grew up in Pakistan reminded me of this Psalm today:

The LORD is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.

Blessed be the name of the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
the name of the LORD is to be praised!

Psalm 113

 

A Little Break

Hey everyone! Sometimes you just need to admit it – and so we will: Robynn and I are really tired. We have both had major life events happen (her first graduated from high school, my fourth graduated from college – and yes I was a child bride. Just kidding.) We are both in the midst of busy seasons at work and home, and we aren’t going to do our best by you if we don’t take a short break. So we will offer up some old pieces that perhaps you haven’t read and ask for grace. Neither of us want to write things that will be a waste of your time, and so we step back for a short time.

Please know how much we value your time, the fact that you read is a gift! Please know that we love, love it when you connect either in this public forum or through email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please know that your affirmation of this space means so much!

Here are a few pieces you may like:

Parenting Series by Robynn. This is a wise and wonderful series!

Series on Suffering by Robynn. An amazing, powerful series that will make you want to highlight, copy, and re-read.

Posts on Rest:

My Weary Wheels Need a Rest

In Praise of Idle Moments

Breathe

Posts on Transition and Goodbye

Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye

Transition: Building a Raft

I’m from….

A Stretch-marked Soul

To the One who is Left Behind

How to Give Yourself Grace: Advice to Someone Returning from a Long Journey

To Challenge You

Challenging Assumptions

Churches too Empty, Mosques too Far

Sometimes You Can’t Keep Silent

You Can’t Empower Those You Pity

I pray rest for all of you! Thank you for being a part of this blog.

Travel Quote:

Between the pages of a passport

Toward a Fellowship of Suffering

When my children were small and they got hurt they would come running to me, tears streaming down their faces. And I would pick them up and hold them close. I rarely said “Shh, shh – don’t cry. Everything will be okay.” Instead I would  say “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then I would just hold them. Even now, I’m not sure why I didn’t tell them it would be okay.

*********

At one time I was an expert at labor. I have a body that takes to pregnancy like the proverbial duck to water. My body glows during pregnancy. My hips, inherited from both sides of the family, are made for delivering babies. In five pregnancies I only had morning sickness a couple of times, and that was because I made the mistake of taking prenatal vitamins with their mega doses of iron on an empty stomach. I’m not saying any of this in pride – it’s fact. I could have probably had 10 babies and been fine in terms of the pregnancy. (I’m glad I didn’t by the way – just in case you were thinking of asking. Post pregnancy, child raising is a completely different journey.)

I also went through the labor and deliveries of five children with no hitches, no complications, just the hard, hard work of labor. But no matter how “easy” the labor, no mom ever forgets that period that they call ”transition.” Transition is when you look at your husband and you want to say things like “I could kill you right now with my bare hands for putting me in this position.” Transition is where you think you can’t bear one more contraction, one more pain. During transition, you need the presence of people who will sit with you, with no condemnation, no judgment and walk you through the process. You need people who will not chide you for telling your husband he has bad breath, or to shut up and get out. There is no other way but through. You have to get to the end of yourself. During transition you don’t want an explanation, you just want someone there with you. You want someone to lean on, someone to rely on, someone who knows that you can make it through to the other side; the side of the tears and that baby that is so precious that it hurts your heart.

I think sitting with women through labor is a bit like sitting with people through suffering.

**********

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

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

And so we must not leave people alone. 

Coming beside them, will I pick them up and say the words “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then will I hold them? Will I work toward a fellowship of suffering?

fellowship of suffering

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”(from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College)

“Out of the darkness of the cross, the world transfigures into new life.

And there is no other way.

It is dark suffering’s umbilical cord that alone can untether new life.

It is suffering that has the realest possibility to bear down and deliver grace.

And grace that chooses to bear the cross of suffering overcomes that suffering.

My pain, my dark—all the world’s pain, all the world’s dark—it might actually taste sweet to the tongue, be the genesis of new life.

And emptiness itself can birth the fullness of grace because in the emptiness we have the opportunity to turn to God, the only begetter of grace.

And there find all the fullness of joy.”

ANN VOSKAMP