For Your Aching Heart – On Blessing & Beauty

It’s been a week. I heard of the death of Dr. Paul Farmer at the beginning of the week and the news of the invasion of Ukraine at the end. This did not include my own struggles and sorrows, made seemingly more difficult in the winter season. A conflict with a hospital, a work struggle, and feeling dismissed at multiple levels had me talking through tears in the presence of a gifted counselor.

I know what most of us are seeing. We are scrolling through news and social media where yellow and blue colors light up our feed. Many of us are oceans and continents away from conflict, yet we feel the heavy weight of invading injustice.

It was not so long ago when our world posted the same messages for Afghanistan; when feeds filled with the Afghan flag and images of fleeing Afghans. And yet, and I think it’s important to remember this, soon the crisis died for most.

It is good to be aware of world events. It is good to be willing to take on prayer for nations and leaders. Yet, there’s a real danger to this kind of emotion derailing us and taking us away from what is in our midst, for giving us license to ignore those things that we do have some control over. Might I suggest that it’s easier for us to post passionate prayers for a country far away than it is for us to love our neighbor with different political views? It was certainly easier for me to bemoan the evil of a world leader than confess the darkness in my own heart that led to yelling at both a nurse and a doctor. And yet, truly respecting their work and loving them is a small but significant step toward peace-building.

In the midst of a broken world’s chaos and turmoil, I continue to believe that one of the best antidotes is seeking blessing and beauty.

A volume of John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us sits on the bedside stand in our guest room. I looked at the book this morning in an effort to clear my mind and seek poetic words of beauty. In a passage on page 215, there is a section called “Blessing our World Now.”

“Sometimes when we look out, the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger, and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events. The usual answer is: nothing….yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behavior….When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.”

As I read and reflected on this I began to think of images of healing and transformation, of blessing and beauty.

The image of Ukrainians gathered on their knees on the snow covered ground, in prayer for safety and peace; a gifted physician taking the time to hear my anger and walk me into greater understanding and resolution; a cardinal in a snow covered tree; facilitating a retreat with staff who work all day with those at the farthest margins of our city; talking through what helps give us perspective with a colleague; laughing with a friend; and facing my own weakness with an eye toward the One who is strong. All of these are compelling pieces of blessing and beauty.

I don’t know what chaos holds your heart today, but I do know that living in the chaos of despair never adds to world peace. I know, because I’ve tried it. Just as blood, tired from traveling through our bodies arrives back into the heart to be replenished with oxygen and go back again, so do our heart’s emotions need to be replenished with hope, beauty, and blessing. When our hearts are heavy with grief it is difficult to see beyond the grief. It takes courage to step out of despair and connect with the life around us, the life we’ve been given, willing to be filled with the oxygen of beauty and blessing.

If your heart and soul are weary and in despair, I offer you the antidotes of blessing and beauty.

Prayer for Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance, May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough, To hear in the depths the laughter of God.

Verses from The Space Between Us

Prayer for Ukraine and our world from Psalm 46 and words from my nephew:

“Offering prayer in the midst of chaos can seem trivial and unhelpful. I get sick of calls for thoughts and prayers when what’s needed is action. Yet today I woke up to this image…Ukrainians gathering outdoors in February (!) to pray, even as the shells begin to fly. I’m reminded of the solidarity that prayer gives us, both with one another, as well as with the One who put the stars in the sky, yet knows us by name. I’m reminded that prayer is far from trivial. I will pray for the people of Ukraine, as well as for those around the world whose actions may be helpful toward ending this. May they know courage, and may we find the courage to support them.”

“He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow  and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.” -Psalm 46

Today, may your heart be strengthened through blessing and beauty.

Disturbing Stories and Bearing Witness

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.

Eli Weisel

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, when we are willing to listen.

Bearing witness means that we are showing that something exists; that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love and belief is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost.” To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Sometimes we are unable to bear witness in person. Sometimes the situation is far away and a writer or journalist brings it to our attention. This was the case for me recently when I read the horrific stories of abuse and torture that are taking place among the minority Uighur populations in China. The BBC is bringing light to these atrocities so that we might bear witness. So that we may not be silent. The headline reads “Women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, according to detailed new accounts obtained by the BBC.” followed by a note that the reader may find the account disturbing.

More than a million men and women have been detained in what is described as a “vast and secretive system of internment camps” in China’s Xinjiang region. The camps are set up for the “re-education” of the Uighur people and other minorities in China. All freedoms have been taken away and these groups face detention, surveillance, forced “re-education”, and forced sterilization. Documents state that China’s president has given and edict to respond to Uighurs with “No mercy.”

A first hand account from a woman who was interviewed for the BBC special report revealed this:

“Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, said women were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.”

Sometime after midnight, they came to the cells to select the women they wanted and took them down the corridor to a “black room”, where there were no surveillance cameras.

Several nights, Ziawudun said, they took her.

“Perhaps this is the most unforgettable scar on me forever,” she said.*

We should be disturbed and awakened by this. When we lose our ability to be distressed and disturbed we lose our humanity. That we as humans can perpetrate this kind of cruelty shows our desperate need for repentance and healing. That we can allow this cruelty shows the same.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering, and in our entering offering hope and healing. The account in BBC is not a story I want to enter, but it’s a story I must enter. I may be helpless to do something physically, but I am not helpless to pray all of God’s mercy on the women who have been so deeply hurt.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Or perhaps to a news story far away, that you may never enter in person, but you can enter through prayer with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on the Suffering. Have Mercy on the Hurting. Have Mercy on Your Creation.”

“But witnesses incur responsibilities, as anyone who has ever seen a traffic accident and had to go to court to testify, knows. In the new world of globally televised war crimes, the defence of ‘not knowing,’ or neutrality, will dissolve for everyone. To be a witness or bystander is not a value-free choice but, inadvertently, a moral position; and in this sense the ‘guilt’ of people who live with the memory of crimes committed by members of their families, or communities, has been unwittingly extended to everyone who watches appalling pictures on the news.” Erna Paris in Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History


[*Source: BBC News Special Report on Uighur Detention in China – © copyright 2021 BBC]

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]

Persecution of Christians: Real and Stable


I speak up for refugees, immigrants, and Muslims on this blog. It’s right that I do so. I see, read, and hear fear about all of these groups from a variety of people. 

But today, I am speaking up for those from my own faith tradition who face persecution: Christians

An organization called Open Doors releases an annual list that examines religious freedoms for Christians worldwide in five areas. The five areas are private, family, community, national and church. 

Open Doors has been monitoring persecution for 25 years and claim that this past year, 2016, was the worst year yet for Christians. Indeed Islamic extremism, often a primary cause of persecution now has a rival: Ethnic nationalism. 

“Persecution” is defined as hostility experienced as a result of identifying with Christ.

Here is the list of the top ten countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: 

  1. North Korea
  2. Somalia
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Pakistan
  5. Sudan
  6. Syria
  7. Iraq
  8. Iran
  9. Yemen
  10. Eritrea

It is critical to remember that this list is not about people being made fun of for their beliefs, or people feeling like they are not allowed to express political leanings. Many in the west erroneously believe that social media attacks on newsfeeds are “persecution.” Reading the report on persecution is both important and sobering. It also reveals those newsfeed attacks to be exactly what they are: petty, childish demonstrations of anger and dislike of opinions, NOT persecution. 

The persecution that these Christians face is real and it has been going on for many years. In fact, it shows no signs of stopping and is concerningly stable. I have highlighted a few significant findings. 

  1. A total of 27 Christian leaders in Mexico and Colombia (23 in Mexico and four in Colombia) were killed for speaking out against drug lords. 
  2. Pakistan rose to number four on the list, with great concern over the increase in violence. 
  3. Ethnic nationalism is deeply concerning as a growing cause of persecution 
  4. The most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian is North Korea. For 14 years, this country has topped the list. 

There are many more important findings and you can access the full list here. 

But all is not lost! The end of the article gives a beautiful picture of Middle Eastern Christians reclaiming their place. 

1. Christians looking forward to going back to historic homes in northern Iraq 

The days of an Islamic State-run caliphate in Northern Iraq and Syria are numbered. Since an August 2016 offensive, the Islamic militants have been pushed back by a coalition of Iraqi and foreign-backed forces. Some of the towns and villages, such as Qaraqosh – which were once completely Christian – have been liberated. Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul – will soon be in the hands of Iraqi forces. Over 80,000 Christians fled their homes in 2014 and have been refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan since. “We can’t wait to go back,” said one, in Erbil. “But we will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended.”
2. ‘Exodus’ of Middle East Christians slows 

Most Christians in the Middle East may have crossed a border within the region, but the majority have not yet left the region as a whole. The number of Christians exiting the region has slowed. Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in the Middle East and Turkey at currently 16.5 million, including migrant and expatriate Christians in the Gulf States.*

I will be honest. I am writing this while in complete comfort. I am at home in my living room and I’m slowly drinking a cup of coffee. I am far removed from the persecution and stress of so many who share my faith.  How do I reconcile my reality with what I’ve read, what I’ve heard, and what I’ve occasionally seen?

I think the first thing I need to do is be honest about my own circumstances and have a clear view of what persecution is, honoring those who struggle and not seeing persecution when it’s not there. The second thing I need to do is not shy away from the difficult. If it’s a story that is difficult for me to read, how much more difficult must it be for those who go through it? 

Next, I need to identify with those who are suffering through prayer and giving when and where I can. If that means giving of time and finances, then I need to move forward and give in those areas. 

But lastly, perhaps the biggest thing I can do is seek to love God and my neighbor, to remain faithful where God has placed me, to seek to be worthy of identifying with those who lose all that this world offers, deciding that their faith was worth it all. Amen and Amen.  

[Source:https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/news/4812440/4812457/4837468%5D

A Broken World Meets an Advent Season

wondeful-counselor-v2

A Pakistan International Airlines flight headed to Islamabad from a remote mountain area crashed on a mountain slope today. Before the plane hit the ground it burst into flames. There are no survivors.

A 6.5 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia has caused damage and killed over one hundred people. Rescue efforts are underway to search for survivors.

Underneath and surrounding the bright lights of Christmas is the reality that we live in a broken world. Somehow the holidays make it seem worse. We have an expectation that because it’s a holiday, life will work. We will have a short respite from tragedy and heart break. But our expectations are quickly shattered as we face the death of a loved one, the break-up of a marriage, the tragedy of an earthquake or a plane crash.

Tragedy and loss, broken cars and broken kids, hurting and homeless ones do not bend to the will of holiday cheer. A broken world doesn’t stop being broken just because we dress it up in twinkling lights and brilliant red and gold baubles. Broken is still broken.

Into this broken comes Advent. Advent doesn’t present us with false expectations or promises; Advent gives us room to long for all to be made right, to long for peace, to long for broken to be made whole. But Advent does something else – Advent shows us that the broken one is welcomed into the arms of God.

Advent….it’s the longing for the world to be as it was created to be. It’s a spiritual longing for all to be made right, for a broken world to find redemption and with redemption be made whole and complete.  To see a homeless woman with neuropathy and long for her to be made whole and find a home; to hear of earthquakes and long for rescue; to hear of atrocities and long for justice; to hear of plane crashes and long for comfort, to see the world as it was intended, not as it is.

But Advent does something else – Advent shows us that the broken world and the broken one are welcomed into the arms of God.

If you are weary this Advent season, 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. 

International Women’s Day 2016 – Bringing All Voices to the Table

“What, Sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce.”

Mark Twain

Every year I write about International Women’s Day. This is the one day a year when the focus is solely on women and the issues that are most important to them.

In some ways I struggle with this day,  not because I don’t support women, but because I feel the focus is always too much on Western, white women. I don’t believe it is purposefully exclusive, but I believe that too often the deciding voices are those who are at a general advantage racially, economically, and socially. The voices speaking for women are privileged. Those voices do not include women of color, the poor, the refugee, or the disabled. 

Perhaps the best theme for International Women’s Day would be “Bringing ALL voices to the table.”  Because until we have all these voices, we have a false narrative.

The women that I meet in my work and in my traveling rarely know about International Women’s Day. They don’t necessarily worry about the themes of this day. They worry about their finances and kids. They often work two jobs to support their families. Many of them have grown old before their time, wearing the battle scars of daily life on their skin. These women are still worrying about food, security, and safety. Gender parity does not figure into the conversaton. Most of these women are marginalized by society because of the color of their skin or their life circumstances. But they know how to laugh and face each day.These women are examples of resilience and strength. They are women of worth, made in the image of God.

These women are true champions and they need a seat at the table. 

That’s what I think about today on this day set aside for women. I think about these women and I honor them. And with apologies to the planners of International Women’s Day, I’ll keep my own theme this year: “Bringing All Voices to the Table.” 

After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.

Mark Twain

The Darkness is Not Winning – A Life Overseas

Cairo, Light

I’m at A Life Overseas today where I quote my brother and sister-in-law!

I read these words from their newsletter yesterday morning and immediately asked permission to use them. These are words that reflect a future and a hope.

“The darkness is not winning!

“The truth is that wherever the news on television has been particularly bad this year, the Light is there shining and overcoming the Darkness. Refugees in the Middle East are being taken in by Christians, hatred is overcome by love. The hungry are being fed and the wounded healed in Jesus name. Discouraged and dislocated people are hearing about Jesus and receiving him and finding life and community and safety. Slaves in South East Asia are being set free from sex and labor imprisonment and the Light is even shining into the places where these slaves are working while they are still in slavery.” Stan & Tami Brown

Will you join me at A Life Overseas today?