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

What if Real Life Begins at the Moment of Compassion

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“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”*

In early spring, we had a group of college and seminary students sitting around our living room after dinner. Our conversation was rich and life-giving, full of thoughtful opinions and ideas. At one point during the evening, we began to talk about abortion. One of our guests quoted his professor at seminary: “Life begins at the moment of compassion.” The teacher is an ethics professor who is affectionately known as “Dr. Tim.”

The quote has stayed with me. On the one hand, I love it. On the surface, compassion is easy for me. I tend to naturally have compassion for people. It’s what led me into becoming a nurse, it’s been honed through the years in developing countries and refugee camps. I have exercised compassion at the beds of dying patients and in the exam rooms of those who have just received a diagnosis of cancer.

But below the surface, it’s a lot more difficult. Because I subconsciously and consciously choose who is worthy of my compassion. If I am honest, I believe that some situations are worthy of compassion, and others are not. Some people are worthy, others are decidedly not worthy. I may sit at the bedside of a cancer patient, and cry with them, extending compassion and love. It’s far harder to sit at the bed of an alcoholic who is dying of esophageal varices brought on by lifestyle choices and extend that same compassion.

We humans are a complex and stubborn people. We rage about one thing, and turn our backs on another something equally disturbing. We pick the things that are most important to us and we guard those ideas and values with all of our energy and words.

Holding fast to our truth claims is critically important. In a world that changes on a whim, it is important to know not only what we believe, but why we believe it. But in all that energy we use to defend our views, we forget to add one of the most important ingredients – compassion.

What if we made sure that even when others disagree with us, they will see that we don’t hold a view to be vindictive or ugly or mean. What if we make sure that others hear compassion in everything we say, see compassion in everything we do?

What if we expended as much energy on compassion as we do on framing our well crafted and articulated beliefs? 

I think about the life of Christ, and his interactions with broken people. His was a ministry of compassion. Scripture tells us that “He saw the crowds and had compassion on them.” We see him stop in the middle of the street and ask “Who touched me?” relentlessly pursuing a woman who had touched him, desperate for healing. Instead of condemning a promiscuous woman at a well, he dug deeper and challenged her that he could offer her something to quench her thirst and fill her soul. His was a blind men see, dead men walk, deaf man hear, dead are raised, good news for the poor ministry. His words, his work, his life were filled with compassion for the human condition.

Perhaps true compassion is a result of a perfect blend of grace and truth. Jesus knew the truth about sin and poor choices, but he saw through the behavior to the expressed need behind the behavior – and in compassion he offered something so much better. 

As I write this, I think about a picture I saw this past week. It was a family picture. My niece and her husband with their children — my brother and sister-in-law on one side of them, her husband’s parents on the other side. Typical family picture – but there was nothing typical about it. There in the center was the baby they have had as a foster child for the past year. They took the picture in celebration of her adoption into the family. My niece and her husband’s life changed when they decided to take seriously the words that grow tiresome when they are not lived out: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” 

In taking those words seriously, a little baby came into their lives. While the goal of fostering children is reunification with the birth parents as much as possible, in this case, it wasn’t possible. And so they adopted her. There she is, all smiley, chubby baby, adopted into a family that chose compassion.

What if life, real life, begins at the moment of compassion?

“So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.'” Luke 7:22

*Matthew 9:36

What Would the Midwives Do?

baby-hands

My husband and I were in a conversation recently about something we are struggling with. As we were walking and talking, reflecting and observing, I suddenly said to him “What would the midwives do?”

We both laughed. I was referring to the show Call the Midwife where real life happens and grace abounds. Where values and beliefs are solid but love trumps all.

It’s really the truth and grace dilemma. The argument that goes on in my mind when I’m faced with that which I can’t agree with, that which I believe to be wrong. One part of me shouts “But it’s wrong. I can’t condone it! I hate this!” The other responds, quietly but insistently “But what about grace? What about love? How should you respond now that it’s a reality?”

In almost every episode of Call the Midwife real life happens. And life in the East End of London in the 1950s is not pretty. There is poverty, squalor, death, conflict, abuse, abortions, incest, domestic violence – all of life in its broken horror. But every show a baby is delivered – “God’s opinion that the world must go on.”* And with that baby comes hope and new life, new chances.

At the end of the day these midwives do all they can to preserve life, to preserve the dignity of human beings, to protect, to build relationships. Truth is never compromised but Grace is always given. That is their mission in this tiny slice of life in the East End. I have friends who are midwives and I was fortunate to have a midwife at the birth of my first child. Whether in Haiti or Pakistan, the Appalachian mountains or Chicago this is how I see them live, how I see them work. They do all they can to preserve life, to preserve the dignity of human beings, made in the image of God, to preserve relationships.

So when I posed the question “What would the midwives do?” to my husband that is what I was asking. What is Truth and Grace in this situation? What preserves life, dignity, and relationships?

It’s “what would Jesus do” with a midwife twist. 

*Quote from Carl Sandburg

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/baby-hands-with-mom-mom-and-baby-251273/

When Truth and Grace Collide

Every week on the show “Call the Midwife” I watch truth and grace collide. And I cry.

For those who know the show, I think you’ll understand. For those who don’t – you’ll have to trust me on this one. The show is based on the memoir of a midwife and takes place in the 1950’s in London’s East End, an impoverished area of the city where babies are birthed and life happens raw. Flats are small and crowded with kids, husbands are dock workers, and wives share walls with other wives, everyone in each other’s business. Into this landscape come a group of nuns and young midwives on bicycles, going into homes to birth babies, check up on mums, and sit with the weeping and rejoicing.

The nuns have their complines after their evening meals and their standards. They love God and they love people. They disagree with abortion, infidelity, abuse and neglect. But when those things come their way, which they do in every episode, they meet the issue with grace and common sense.

The viewer never feels like these nuns are giving up their standards; never feels like they are not living true to their values. Instead, you feel buoyed by their strong faith, enabling them to walk into the worst of situations and with a silent prayer do what they need to do. If it’s finding a home for a baby whose father finds out he’s not the real father, they do it. If it’s helping a young woman who has tried a self-induced abortion and is dying from bleeding, they help to ensure her safety. If it’s protecting someone from an abusive husband, they protect. If they lived in the 1990’s they could, without hypocrisy wear the WWJD bracelet….only they wouldn’t because if you’re living it, you don’t need to wear it.

In “Call the Midwife” – Truth and Grace collide and the result is astonishing. People are changed, healed, comforted, but above all loved.

Truth and Grace

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Waiting it Out….

I woke to brilliant sunshine reflecting off piles of snow. It’s hard to believe that 24 hours ago we were in the middle of a blizzard, snow coming down at two inches an hour.

But that’s how storms are. When you’re in the middle of them, you think they’ll never end.

The snow was slow in coming. At first light Friday I looked out my window and there was nothing but a hush and the ominous grey look of a storm yet to come. The morning was well underway when it picked up; medium size flakes, whirling around, slowly sticking to the cold ground.

Since Wednesday afternoon I had heard about what could be the “storm of the century”. With an already full refrigerator, matches, candles, Boggle, Bananagrams, and several one thousand piece puzzles, we had little to prepare — we were ready to wait it out.

And wait we did. I baked bread. Then I baked cookies. Then we did a puzzle. Then we played games. Then we watched movies. Then we played more games. And all the while we would periodically look out the window and comment on the storm.

But restlessness sinks in. Realization of the aftermath begins to accumulate. The ‘What ifs’ start pounding on the door. We begin to fray at the edges.

So we baked, read, watched movies, played games again. And again.

With storms there’s a lot of waiting.

How do you wait out a storm? How do you fill the empty space and empty time so the restlessness does not overpower?

Storms of the mind and soul are more difficult than storms of the weather. There are empty spaces, empty time, churning thoughts. And it’s during empty space that my mind can twist truth, empty time that my soul can turn sour.

While the tools of a weather storm are food, candles, matches, flashlights, full tank of gas, water, easily prepared foods – how can one prepare for storms of the soul? Walk through the storm without the mind going crazy with worry and fear?

What are the tools of soul storms?

Tears, Truth, and Time. Tears – those housekeepers of the soul that help us release fear and anxiety; truth – sharp piercing messages from the word of God that both sting and comfort; time – waiting it out, baking, reading, living through it even when you’re fraying at the edges – all those things that you do during a weather storm.

And one day we wake to brilliant sunshine, clarity, peace — the soul storm is over and it’s hard to believe that 24 hours before the soul was dark, swirling with turmoil.

Because that’s how soul storms are. When you’re in the middle of them, you think they’ll never end.

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During the Storm

Blizzard 2013, Boston
After the Storm

When the Tree Lights Go Out

English: Closeup of a string of decorative Chr...

It happens every year. After Christmas and New Year celebrations end, a melancholy comes upon me and I struggle to make sense of life.

I’d like to blame it on the cold, but weather has little to do with it, for the melancholy has come in desert sun and in northeast snow. It isn’t about depression, or seasonal affective disorder, or disillusionment.

It’s about living out the reality of Christmas once the lights on the tree have gone out.

When my winter world sparkles with white light and presents I can believe that God is here and he is Good. I can believe that all I do matters, that I can make a difference, that the world can be redeemed.

And then the lights go out and the world feels dark. And I understand how my toddler felt when I used to turn the lights off and leave him alone in the dark with Jesus.

It’s now when I need the verses I have committed to memory; it’s at this point when my theology faces off with my reality; it’s in this place that I need Truth to feed my soul and calm my spirit. It’s today that my Faith needs to walk.

How about you? As the lights of the tree fade into your memory and photo book, how do you live the reality of Christmas?

When Our Hearts are Heard

Bird - Blue Jay

I sit and drink tea on her balcony and she hears my heart. The leaves and trees are dust-covered — evidence of life in the desert. Birds noisily converse, talking about the day’s worms.

And she hears my heart. She asks the right questions, the ones that get underneath my words and sentence structure. At first it’s my mouth talking but soon after my heart begins to talk.

That’s what happens when our hearts are heard. 

There is comforting encouragement and gentle rebuke. There is quiet challenge and  sober reminder. There is humor and laughter, a call to not take myself too seriously. And the birds continue talking about the worms.

When our hearts are heard we can move forward, not in a defensive posture but in humility and service.

I get up early before the day break. I watch night turn to morning from my space on the couch. The leaves and trees are dying — evidence of life in winter. There are no birds, no chirping about worms – they’ve gone to a warmer place. I am alone. My cry is heard by God alone, human companionship is gone.

And He hears my heart. The sharp truth of His word gets into my brain. At first it’s just reading, but soon after a bridge connects that deep chasm between head and heart and I am changed.

There are times like the balcony – when God gives me that person who can keep step with me and help me make sense of my life, of my heart. There are other times like the couch when friends are absent, silent – but Truth keeps beckoning and my heart is heard.

The result is the same. I leave with my heart full — full of grace and hope, laughter and tears. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed – that’s what happens when our hearts are heard.

And those birds just keep on chirping about worms.

Today may your heart be heard!