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]

On Choosing Good

Every morning I get a news brief from the Council of Foreign Relations. The news brief is a short summary of what’s going on in the world. I strategically read it with a frothy homemade latte. The irony of that is not lost on me. I sit in comfort reading what is usually difficult news from around the world.

I read about the United Nations preparing for mass displacement from conflict in Ethiopia, how hundreds have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. I read about how the insecurity of the entire continent of Africa is at stake with this crisis. I read about how Egypt’s human rights leader has been arrested, a government crushing dissent. And then there is pandemic news from every part of the globe.

The fact that I’m safe, drinking a great and frothy cup of coffee only serves to make me feel more depressed, more helpless.

And that’s the thing – in the face of all this, we are helpless. There is little most of us can do to make any of these situations better. It would not help for us or anyone involved to get on a plane to go to the heart of the conflict in Ethiopia.. When my oldest brother was in Pakistan helping in earthquake relief he told me of a group that sent hundreds of people to Pakistan. He said there were around 250 people wandering around the hillside with no language skills, no knowledge of Pakistan, and no knowledge of humanitarian aid. It was a disaster, but they all went home with good pictures of the tragedy.

It’s the book of Kings where I find comfort today. For those not familiar, these are books in the Old Testament. They are full of blood shed and violence, full of stories of tragedies, full of the sordid tales of leaders and others doing evil things.

These books tell the narrative of the different Kings of Israel and Judah. The books begin with David’s death and sweep us through history looking at every King. I’ve no idea what scholars say about the books of Kings but it strikes me that the theme is simple; really simple.

Either they did what was good, or they did what was evil. There is no ambiguity. We are told their names and immediately after their names we have an assessment of their lives. They either chose to do right or they chose to do wrong.

Could it be that simple? Could it be that I complicate my life far more than I need when it’s really about choosing God and good? About recognizing that there can be a thin line between evil and good, and if I am in the habit of choosing good, then the thin line becomes a lot thicker?

Could it be that in the middle of these worldwide tragedies that are so far away in distance, and yet so close to all of us in terms of news reports, that what I am called to is to choose good?

Is it that simple? 

I can’t help in any of these parts of the globe but I can commit to good in my small corner of Boston. I can commit to integrity today. I can commit to not comparing myself to strangers on the internet, to not getting lost in envy today. I can commit to reaching out via technology to someone in my world who I know is not doing well. I can be faithful in the immediate, which I’ve found will lead to being faithful later. I can’t do a lot, but I can choose good.

The moments of choosing good add up. In God’s strategic economics the equation seems simple, but like Einstein’s E = mc2 it has lasting impact.

It really is that simple.


“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

CS Lewis

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.

A Fog of Tragedy

There is a fog over the Charles River. While the sun is trying to burn through the mist, the fog is heavy and solid.

I wonder if this is what it is like for those families affected by another school shooting. The fog of disbelief and anger so heavy; the gut-deep sadness and nausea overwhelming. Everything a blur of loss and tragedy.

Where is the sun in that fog?

While most of the country was focusing on chocolate, roses, and chalk hearts with stupid sayings, a community was facing a nightmare of violence.

This is America’s true brand of terrorism, but we clothe it in politics instead of common sense and being on the same side – the side of life, the side of protection, the side of making hard choices.

I am more and more convinced that the “individual rights” that are so highly valued in our culture are dangerous. Both my intuition and my experience tells me what is really important is community and caring for others; what is really important is giving up my rights and my right to be right for the sake of others.

But no matter what I think, there are people who are hurting and planning funerals. Young life is extinguished and parents and friends are hurting. They are broken in their grief, and even though I don’t know them, I must stand with them.

I stand with them as one who mourns a broken world and longs for redemption. I stand with them as one who cries for the moms who will no longer hold their children; the moms and dads who would beg for just one more hug, one more ‘I love you.’ I stand with them as one who prays that the sun’s light will penetrate the fog, a glimpse of God in the midst of a fog of tragedy.

Our world is not as it should be. And though we see beautiful glimpses of redemption that startle and amaze us, we still face all that is part of this broken world.

So I stand as one broken – broken by sorrow of death and loss, by pain, by the weight of difficult relationships. And in the silence of the broken I know God is near.

If you are weary of sorrow and pain, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.*

In the Fourth Watch of the Night


Recent Headlines:

Saturday, December 3 – 10-alarm fire in Cambridge, MA displaces 166 people.

Saturday, December 10 – Explosions outside football (soccer) stadium in Istanbul kills many. Turkey declares Sunday a national day of mourning for the country.

Sunday, December 11 – Terrorist attack in Coptic Church kills over 25 people with many more wounded. Most of the victims are women and children.

Sunday, December 11 – At least 160 dead when church in Nigeria collapses.

*****

The book of Matthew, first gospel in a set of four, says that Jesus came to the disciples on the fourth watch. His disciples, fishermen by trade, had gone fishing and a storm came suddenly in the middle of what had been a calm sea. 

After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary.And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The Romans divided the night into four three-hour segments and the Jews had adopted these divisions. The fourth watch was the last part of the night between three and six in the morning. This was the last watch, the end of the night.

The fourth watch is that point where you wake up and it is so dark, you look at the clock beside your bed, and you sigh deeply – you can still sleep for another 2 hours. Or it’s the time when you have to be at the airport for the early morning flight, that flight that leaves at 6 am, passengers sporting only sleep-blurred eyes and coffee breath.

Or it’s the “darkest before dawn” part of the night.

It meant this storm on the sea of Galilee had raged all night long. It meant that the disciples were exhausted and defeated, that they had battled a critical weather event with every ounce of their human strength – but it was not enough. The storm was going to defeat them.

Until Jesus came and spoke words that calmed the sea.

The fourth watch. My mind fills with questions: Why did Jesus wait so long? Why did this miracle worker not intervene sooner? Why, when it was at their last bit of strength, did he suddenly appear – a ghost-like figure walking on the stormy seas?

My questions will never be answered and even as I write them I know these questions reflect my heart – a heart that finds faith hard, that sometimes thinks God waits too long to intervene. Too long to move hearts and souls, too long to change circumstances. I want him to come on the first watch, not the fourth.

Explosions, bombs, faulty construction, fires, a never-ending war in Syria, refugees by the million, continued persecution of Christians in the Middle East; people fleeing homes only to drown at sea — all of it feels like the fourth watch. It’s gone on too long. When will peace come? When will the Prince of Peace reign? When will evil be conquered? When will God intervene?

I texted an Egyptian friend yesterday when I heard about the bomb at the cathedral. She had invited me to the cathedral during our recent trip to Egypt and because of timing, we couldn’t go. “What can we do?” I typed out. Her immediate response “Pray. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the grieving. Pray for us.”

My heart is grieving for Egypt and Turkey. It is also heavy for my own stuff – my own grief and sadness. Perhaps yours is as well.

The world is waiting for the fourth watch. I am waiting for the fourth watch.

Many years ago there was a group of people who were waiting. There had been four hundred years of silence; four hundred years where there were no prophets, no mouth pieces of God. Four hundred years of history and oppression and finally, occupation by Rome. It was surely the fourth watch when Jesus came as a little baby, insignificant, another male child at the time of a census. The significant marks of his birth were seen later — a virgin birth, a star in the East, and an angel’s song to shepherds. Perhaps people like you and me were saying the same things that we say during these days of grief and loss.

It’s gone on too long.

When will peace come?

When will evil be conquered?

When will God intervene?

I’m reminded of this on this Monday morning.  We are weary. We are waiting for the fourth watch. We are waiting for the words: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 

May it be so. 

*The story relayed is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 14: 23-47.

[Note: this post was adapted from a previously written piece.]

The Healing Word

It is Monday morning and already the work week has assaulted me. My ‘to do’ list seemed to procreate over the weekend and I opened my email to many demands.

It was a weekend full of family and life, which made the news of the Orlando shooting in a nightclub even more poignant. Having been off grid, I didn’t receive the news until yesterday afternoon. I then purposely stayed off grid, fearing that people would once again use tragedy to justify political messages. Such are the times that we live in.

“Senseless violence” we call it, even as we try desperately to make sense of it. Sons, daughters, friends, co-workers were all killed in a premeditated rage. Pundits pund, talkers talk, politicians politicize – but none of that really helps.

It’s into this chaos that the Psalms of David speak. They speak with authority and grace. They are written with full knowledge of the human condition; with full understanding of how fragile we are; with deep belief in God’s love and comfort. These Psalms talk of grief and rage, of depression and sorrow.

It is into sorrow and tragedy that the Psalms speak most beautifully, most poignantly. And so I go to them, and they do not disappoint.

The healing Word speaks. And if we stop and bend an ear, we will hear. Softly, lyrically, with grace and great love the Word continues through generations.

Do you hear it? 


*******

The video below is a beautiful conversation on the Psalms between the singer, Bono, and Eugene Peterson, a thoughtful author of many books.. If you have the time, take a look. You will not be disappointed.

“Why do we need art? Why do we need the lyric poetry of the Psalms? Because the only way we can approach God is, if we’re honest, through metaphor, through symbol. So art becomes essential, not decorative.”

A Life Overseas – For You in the Trenches

IMG_2127

Readers, I’m at A Life Overseas today talking to those of you who are in the trenches, where world events happen all around you. I hope you join me in that space. 

All weekend I have thought about what to write this morning. I think about world events and how they have filled up our newsfeeds, yet I also know that you live in your own world events. You live in places where bombs go off, where corruption runs rampant, where trash builds up because of anger at governments, where babies die too soon and young women and men lose their innocence to the evil of others.

So what do I say to you who live in the trenches; you who sigh as you hear the news, because you know how awful it is, you know how broken it is. You don’t need a bomb to tell you the world is broken. You heard God’s call to a broken world, a world he loves, and you try to live out that call every single day. You have given up what Rachel Pieh Jones calls the Western illusion of safety, instead you walk in the safety of God.

You have chosen a currency beyond fear. Because when fear is our currency, we cannot live effectively. Whether this be around parenting, around work, or around where we are called to live, this is truth.When fear is our currency, we forget that safety is not about where we live, or work, or play.

Safety is about knowing where our security lies, what we’re called to do, and who we’re called to be.

What are we called to when we face a broken world?

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas.