Monday Morning: Wake up & Remember What is Real

what is real

It is Monday morning and I walk through weekend trash to get to work. The tourists are either long gone, or still asleep in hotel rooms; the homeless are just waking in doorways and shelters across the city.

As I walk, I think about my friend whose father died last Thursday. The news came late in the day, and as I heard I breathed a sigh of sadness and relief. It has been a long and painful journey for her and the entire family. By contrast, two days later we celebrated a beautiful wedding where Greek Cypriots joined with Bulgarians in a celebration of life and love.

This is our world – sorrow and joy co-mingle; mercy and grace cover both.

I sigh. I am tired and the Divine Liturgy of yesterday seems long ago and much removed from my current reality. And yet, that is my daily challenge: Remembering what is real. Taking that which is good and right and holy and translating it into my current reality. This is where theology meets reality – Good theology doesn’t reject reality; it transforms it.

I remember what I wrote a year ago, and I reread it because I need to remember what is real.


Good theology doesn’t reject reality; it transforms it”Tweet: Good theology doesn’t reject reality; it transforms it

The movie A Beautiful Mind is based on the story of a brilliant mathematician, John Nash. Nash is as arrogant as he is brilliant, but that changes as he goes through an excruciating process of being diagnosed as a schizophrenic. The mind that served him so well betrays him and he is left wondering what is real and what is delusional.

The viewer of the film walks the journey with the character (played by Russel Crowe) and we enter a world of frenetic paranoia and misbelief. We experience the disease and throughout the process we too are left wondering what is real.

There are many moments in the film, but for me one particularly poignant moment sums up the entire story. John Nash is in their bedroom sitting on the bed. He is in deep distress. He is questioning everything. He doesn’t know what is real and what is a hallucination, the result of a disease taking over his mind. In an unforgettable moment, his wife takes her hands and puts them on his face. “You want to know what is real?” she says “This is real.”  She then takes his hands and places them on her face and then her heart.

“This is real.” 

What is real? The question resonates through the ages. Perhaps someone with mental illness has to face it more directly then others, but we all have to ask this question – what is real?

From the time we are young our world is divided into the secular and the sacred; the real and the ‘not real.’ We go away on a weekend of prayer or retreat, and we are told at the end “Tomorrow you will go back to reality. You will leave this mountaintop experience. You can’t live in it forever.” We are told to “remember the mountain top when we get back to reality.” We soberly nod, we will try and remember all this when we are back to real life. After all, we reason, the disciples didn’t live on the Mount of Transfiguration forever.

But what if we have ‘real’ wrong?

I am taken back to the scene in A Beautiful Mind. What is real?

“You want to know what is real? I’ll tell you what is real.”

Real is the Holy Trinity, mystery and awe surrounding the three in one.

Real is the body and the blood, Christ and his church.

Real is forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

What is real? Let me take your hands and show you what is real. 

Real is communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Real is communion with others in this journey. Real is knowing that the eternal is forever and the now is just now. Real is knowing there is a greater reality in this thing called life.

We are tricked and trapped into believing that everything is reality, except the holy.

But perhaps it is in the holy that we find our truest reality. 


Last year when I wrote this, my mom responded with this: “This is such a good reminder to keep our eyes – our attention and our focus – on what we know is real even though everything around us is loudly or subtly proclaiming a different reality. It reminded me of the scene near the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair when the Queen of the Underworld is playing her soft music and there is a warm fire with sweet incense wafting from it. Jill, Eustace and the Prince are slowly succumbing, repeating the Queen’s words that the sun, Narnia, the stars, Aslan, are all just a nice dream. Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, pessimist that he is, will have none of it. He stomps on her fire, burning his feet, and says this:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world.

I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Tweet: I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

And with that, he wakes them up. 

“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

 

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“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

I read the words and my eyes brim with tears. I’m sitting by the window and bright sun radiating off fresh snow bathes the room in cold light.

I continue reading: “And what, if anything, can be made of the prayers we’ve whispered in the middle of nights, restless with fear and the threat of loss, prayers that have had no apparent answer, no just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue?” *

I read the question again “How do we say that God is good when life is not?” When you bury a child or a parent too early, and Job’s comforters tell you they are in a “better place”. When you watch your body succumb to cancer, and you know that you will not live to see your daughter’s fifth birthday; when your husband of less than a year dies in a tragic accident – how, then, do you say that God is good?

At the end of a life, every single human being has a reason to believe God is not good. But the opposite is also true. At the end of every life, there is evidence of God’s goodness in every breath we’ve been given.

It is tempting to want clean answers, to be able to point to healings and miracles. But clean answers have never helped the one who is suffering.

How do we say that God is good when life is not?

There are no easy answers. We limp our way through this question, sometimes full of faith and confidence that the character of God is ultimately good; sometimes shaking our heads saying “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Theologians call this ‘theodicy’ – a noun that literally means “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” Vindication of divine goodness – God on trial, his very character being questioned.

As I think about this question, I realize that this is some of the thread through Passages Through Pakistan. Yes, Passages is about Pakistan, and being a third culture kid/missionary kid, and living between worlds. But ultimately, Passages is my testament of faith. In Passages I work through what it is to believe God loves, God cares, and God is good when life is not. The tapestry of God’s redemptive plan is not without pain or suffering, but ultimately I have deep confidence that God is good, even when life is not.

This I knew, and I knew it well: when you’re six and you wake up at five in the morning, away from home and unconditional love in a dormitory of seven other little girls, just as young and equally homesick and insecure, there is no one to comfort you. When you are twelve, and your backside aches for a week because of the beating of a house parent, there is no person to comfort you. When you question why dads and babies die in the middle of the night, there is no person to answer you. When you are sixteen, and you feel misunderstood by all those around you, unable to articulate your heart, there is no person to comfort you. When you are eighteen, and your heart is breaking at the thought of leaving all you know and all you love, there is no person to comfort you.

My faith was more than theology – it was a living, breathing entity. It wrapped me with a profound sense of comfort and love, and I knew beyond any previous doubts that God was real. I knew in the marrow of my bones, and the depths of my soul, that there was something greater than boarding school loss, stronger than the grief of goodbyes, deeper than the pain of misunderstanding. I knew that redemption was not just a theological idea, but that somehow it was more real than anything on this earth. Faith was the story written on my life, and my life was witness to a greater reality.**

*Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel

**Passages Through Pakistan pages 165-166

Readers – Rachel Pieh Jones has published a review of Passages Through Pakistan. You can read it here. 

 

Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis

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

So what do we do? How do we respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Also take a look at this fantastic piece! http://modernloss.com/could-everybody-stop-trying-to-pretty-up-death-its-not-working/

My passion is working with refugees. Click here to give toward Syrian and Iraqi refugees! There is basically no overhead and the money goes directly toward food distribution, health care, and education.

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

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The Dilemma Knocking on My Door

Grace and Truth knocked on my door last night. Ironically both were frantic and adamant. They have come to the door hundreds of times, but it still surprises me. This dilemma brings on a sick nervous feeling and a worry.

Grace accused me of being legalistic and literal, mean and hard. Claims that if I really knew people who were hurting, people who believed differently, I would change my mind. Grace seems to be willing to reveal herself to everyone but Truth.

Truth accuses me of being soft – wishy-washy and without conviction, changing my mind with the wind. Truth is so hard and unyielding sometimes.

As if the silent battle is not enough, voices from the outside join in through blogs and articles, conversations and sermons. My world and mind are noisy with opinion.

Truth talks loudly; Grace talks emphatically; they both talk insistently. And I scream inside about how much I love them both and that they are intimately connected, this Grace and Truth. For I cannot give Grace without knowing Truth and I cannot know Truth apart from Grace.

I close my eyes and the two of them suddenly collide, velvet and steel – unlikely bedfellows. Maybe the dilemma is a gift. If they hadn’t come knocking they wouldn’t have collided and the collision is the best possible scenario.

The steel cabinet of Truth open, displaying shelves full of velvet and lace, products of Grace. The velvet and lace of Grace finding a resting place on shelves of steel. My dilemma can rest for a time, gazing at the open cabinet and seeking the One in whom Grace and Truth collide, the One who is full of Grace and Truth.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

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Poetry is Necessary – Bumper Sticker Philosophy

Bumper sticker car parked in Santa Cruz, Calif...

Two years ago our trusty 7-passenger white van was totaled by a snow plow, and with its demise an era ended.

When I found out I was pregnant with our 5th child, one of the first things we said to each other was “We’ll never fit in a ‘normal’ car again!”. And it was true. But after the van totaled we realized that we were down to a family of four, soon to be three. Our three oldest had flown the nest and another was heading that way, her graduation imminent. While we were car shopping we discovered three little words that had a big meaning – No.More.Van.

We transitioned in size fairly well, adjusting to a five-passenger PT Cruiser, but to this day there is something about that white van that we miss:the bumper sticker.

Let me explain that we are not bumper sticker people; we prefer to express our theology and philosophy of life verbally rather than through anonymous bumper stickers that declare to the world strong sentiments without the softening that is the human connection. But this bumper sticker was an exception. This bumper sticker was different. In simple black letters this bumper sticker shouted to the world: Poetry is Necessary”. 

My husband came upon it at a Slam Poetry event one evening in Phoenix and, despite his resistance to bumper stickers, bought it on the spot.

Three little words that verbalize to the world something of the importance of art, not in a way that is defensive or confrontational, but in a way that people can understand – and smile.

Poetry is Necessary – such an excellent way to live, always recognizing the artist among us. Recognizing in three simple words the unsung poet; the need to take the difficult in life and portray it in lilting words; the need to speak the language of poetry to sometimes make life bearable.  Poetry is Necessary.

Bumper stickers as a rule are not necessarily kind. They tend to anonymously proclaim to the world disdain for other ideologies and beliefs. Consider the following:

  • “Spay and Neuter Republicans”
  • “Christians: Ya Can’t Live With ‘Em, Ya Can’t Feed ‘Em to the Lions Anymore
  • “I was an Atheist until I Realized I was God”
  • “Jesus Loves You But I’m His Favorite”

And then by stark contrast in black letters on a white background are the words “Poetry is Necessary”.  Now those are words and a philosophy to live by!

What bumper stickers do you have or have you seen that make you smile instead of cringe? Lend your voice to the comment section.

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The God Who is Pro

As I look back at the journey of my soul I know that there have been times when I believed I could out-sin God’s mercy, out-frustrate his patience, and take advantage of his love. That somehow despite all the words of truth that contradict this distorted theology, I would be the person that finally caused God to say “That’s it – no more chances”. Audacious? To be sure. Distorted? Definitely. But real thoughts and feelings? Yes. Thoughts and feelings that had to be purged and purified, sifted through the truth sieve like flour is sifted to take out any tiny rocks or impurities before being used for baking.

Often friends with a clear picture of truth were those who helped me with the sifting. Today I am thankful to Robynn Bliss, a sifter, for her thoughtful comment on the post “Sometimes You Can’t Keep Silent”. May her words of truth wrap around you like a blanket of protection. Today may we know more of the God who is “pro”.

“I am pro-woman. I believe in supporting women, towers of strength in their communities and families, to fully engage the lives they’ve been given. I’ve prayed with women making decisions that will impact their souls. I’ve agonized with women coming to grips with decisions they’ve made. I believe God is pro-woman. He created her and declared that she was good too. He further invited her into the creative process by endowing her with the privilege of housing infants before they are birthed. She gives birth. It’s her’s to give. God gives life. And it’s very good. He’s pro-life. He longs that his created would truly live. His definition of life is so much deeper and richer than ours. His capacity to encourage life goes beyond political confines. He is pro-LIFE.

The difficulty is that God is also pro-choice. He allows his created to choose, to make choices. He longs for us to choose life but he doesn’t stipulate that we must. He waits and whispers in the core of who we are that there is so much more to living and to life.

He cheers loudly in his still small voice for us to choose him…but he’s patient and his love is unending. And God is pro-forgiveness and pro-second chances, He’s pro-mercy and pro-new beginnings.