Tag Archives: death

Waiting with joy in Advent

They are the social media forums that are the windows to our souls–an article about the lack of services for young adults with disabilities making the transition from school to work and out of the home is bookended by a comment from a mother whose daughter is only two and a half, but she says these are the very challenges that already keep her up at night.  Another post in a Facebook group is from a mother who’s just given birth by emergency c-section but less than 24 hours later she’s writing to ask if there are other parents whose children had similar births.  How were they affected? she asks.  What did their futures hold?

A few weeks later I sit in the pews in the second week in Advent and the pastor up front tells us about a question put to her at the beginning of this school year that she’s still pondering in this season, over four months later, and she asks it of all of us:

“What are you waiting for?”

I am not waiting for my daughter to die, speaks a still, small voice inside of me.

It’s a statement that feels so foreign to my being that I’m altogether startled by it, as if I brushed up against it and now I’m disoriented and dizzied.  No one waits for their child to die, I ponder…and yet we all do, in a way.  In fact, how many of us really live our lives longing for, with an expectation for life, rather than death?

I think back to those message boards and I see people for whom the future is tyranny and agony and for whom waiting is shot through with worrying and fear, one might say even death and despair.  As a parent of a child with a terminal disease I know that I would not be able to live with the tyranny of the future looming like that.  I’m not saying that I do not have moments where I blink back tears, so starkly aware for just a moment that life without my daughter seems altogether bleak or meaningless.  I have also had moments where her suffering seemed to be costing her too much in the land of the living.

And that thought didn’t come from nowhere.  Clearly, I am not immune, as anyone who lives in this world, to the reality of the pain of death.

But I realized relatively early on that while embracing Lucia for who she was would mean embracing death, it would also mean living an extraordinary life quite impossible without her.

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My photo.  Our family at Christmas.

A few weeks ago as I preached that first week of Advent, ruminating on John the Baptist’s birth, a friend of mine pointed out that Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Mary and Joseph, would have their greatest longings for life granted in this child, only to find their greatest heartbreak in his death.  Another friend of mine pointed out recently, and I’d never thought about it this way before, that these parents were living with children who had terminal diagnoses.  Jesus was predestined to die a premature death.

But there’s so much more to the story, as we know.  And Jesus’s story, even as it is often overshadowed by his bloody, violent crucifixion, was all about overcoming death–it was all about radiant, redeeming, everlasting–life.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for??!

The question begins to scream at me.  Because I can plainly see how the story of Jesus’s life, his parents’ lives, all our lives, are not so much about death, but about living life with abandon, with reckless, heartfelt love that bleeds out all over those around us who are suffering here on earth.  What if that kind of all of us-all on love, is what life, not just death, is really about?

As she closed her sermon, the pastor talked about how so much of ministry is about waiting with people.  And suddenly it occurred to me that when people wait with me, they’re often assuming we’re waiting for Lucia’s death–they tiptoe, they want to walk with us gently and patiently toward an inevitable tragedy, an inevitable heartache.  But I just don’t think that’s how God sees Lucia and her life.  And that isn’t how God is with us, how God has waited with us all these years.

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Photo credit.

It strikes me that in this third week in Advent, as we light the candle of joy and we celebrate joy in Jesus’s birth, as well as Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection that the tyranny of the future really threatens to rob us of the joy of the present.  That how we wait is as crucial as what we are waiting for.

So as for my family and I, the tyranny of the future can wait.  We will go on living, looking for signs of life, not just in this season, but in every season.  And we will wait with joy.

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A life of gratitude

Over a year and a half ago now, we lost a wonderful man.  He was a deacon at our church, a playful, yet wise soul, and he happened to be the husband of the pastor I work with at church.  A month or so after he died the family sent out thank you notes with his photo and the caption read, “Just another day in paradise.”

That phrase was Pete’s response more often than not to the casual question, “how are you doing today?” It was maybe 20% conceit and 80% truth–you see, Pete was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis.  He’d needed to ride in a wheelchair, and he had lots of body parts that didn’t work the way they once did after many years of living with the disease.

But if you got Pete talking on the subject of “paradise,” he’d almost always follow that up with something about his life being “an embarrassment of riches,” and that was something I know he meant with his whole heart.  Even from his vantage point in his wheelchair, his body failing, Pete could see that what was important, even lavish was his own very life and the people in it, and they made that life worth living every single day.

Pete
Pete, rolling through life with style.

Around the time our daughter Lucia was diagnosed with a terminal, genetic, progressive disease of the brain, my husband heard a radio broadcast about other kids with a similar rare disease, to which parents mentioned two lifestyle options–you can either fight like hell seeking a cure, they encouraged, or you can sit in a corner and mourn this terrible disease.

But if you’re any reader of this blog, you know that my husband and I have tried to make way for at least a third option, one that kind of reminds me of how Pete lived his life.  Because, although to some extent everyday is a struggle with and for our daughter Lucia, everyday it also somehow just as it should be.  Pete’s perspective on an “embarrassment of riches” truly resonates now that we’ve had four years with a daughter we were never guaranteed.  And that perspective, on the days where she’s struggling to keep any food down or inexplicably crying in pain, makes all the difference.

Cinderella
Lucia, also rolls through life with style.                                                                                                   Pictured here in her Cinderella Halloween costume that her nana made for her.

I guess the lifestyle philosophy I’ve learned from Pete, my life, my daughter and others around me goes something like this–you either wake up convinced that the world is not as it should be, or you trust that there’s some wisdom, some perspective, some peace to be found in acceptance of this precious life you’ve been given, and you go about living it not with resignation, but with gratitude.  And gratitude, somehow, makes everything whole.

That’s what I saw and learned when I interacted with Pete, that he wasn’t papering over the difficulties and playing Pollyanna, but that in his wrestling, he’d found his way to sincere gratitude and that gratitude permeated every corner of his life.  Someone noted the other day that even when I tell them about the difficult times with Lucia, I’m usually smiling.  How can that be true? they wondered.

Because life with Lucia is a gift, plain and simple.  And life with Pete was a gift, too.  

Even on the roughest days, I can’t help but see life lived with Lucia as “another day in paradise,” “an embarrassment of riches.”  It’s not trite, just true.  And just as Pete taught me, I try to share that life of gratitude with others.

You can find my colleague, Beth Scibienski’s book, Who is God When We Hurt? that chronicles her life with Pete, her caregiving, her faith, and her grief by clicking here.

Lament for a gun-spangled America

On Sunday morning, I preached a sermon on 2 Corinthians 4, in which I struggled to find a modern metaphor for clay jars, Paul’s metaphor for the wild inappropriateness of our weak, fragile broken bodies as vessels for the gospel.  

On Monday, July 4, 2016, America celebrated its independence day.

On Tuesday, two police officers fatally shot Alton B. Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

On Wednesday evening, a police officer fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

Last night, five police officers were killed by snipers during an otherwise peaceful protest held in downtown Dallas.

This morning, practically paralyzed by the events of this week, grief stricken and broken hearted, I wrote this lament to our gun-spangled America.

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Photo Credit.

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I woke up this morning, and like so many wondered naively, will things be different?  Will things be different on a morning where birds chirp, where it seems possible to be hopeful, the heavy, oppressive heat yet to descend upon us?

Who are you, this shadowy America, and what have you done with the free and the brave?

How heavy your burden of history and violence and oppression, how heavy the present fear and death you inflict upon black men and black women, America.

How heavy that fear descends upon law enforcement, for even their guns will not free them from this madness!

And it seems we have no choice–to put down our guns is surrender, but to leave them raised is death.  We have all become perpetrators.  We have all become victims.

And so I scoffed bitterly, I want no part in your gun-spangled America, in the weapons you wave that display not freedom or strength but cowardice and fear!

These guns, these guns are illusions, nay, allusions to protect, to intimidate the very fight out of war, yet with each gunshot we’ve slowly come to the realization that America is at war with itself.  That what seems unfathomable because of our modernity, our civilization, has come not in spite but because of it.  We fail to accept our common mortality, our common humanity, and so we wage war upon our brothers and sisters in a paradoxical desire to protect our own.

But we live with death at work within us (2 Cor 4:12), so painfully and palpably now, we are bearers of not only the body of the death of Jesus martyred by the state (2 Cor 4:10), but 566 people killed by the U.S. police in 201653 American officers killed in the line of duty in 2016, and now overall 7088 gun related deaths in the U.S. in 2016.  

Scripture tells us that we carry that death so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11), but with death among us and America’s shadows, I worry that the resurrection is only for another world.  We find hope in resurrection because it’s a respite from our self-inflicted madness; our world crowds out light and peace and resurrection–our gun-spangled America–and I want no part in that.

And yet, I must wake to this world, because my own blood-stained hands have helped form it.

I must be one to put down my gun–not just a literal gun–but my very real fears and prejudices and selfishness and insults and division that I had once thought might keep me safe.  I must be one to carry death inside, but to also live with defiance when life itself has been marred.  I must be one to show my face, to preach the kingdom of God in this inconvenient moment and in this wounded nation.  I must be one to cry out for the fragility and the brokenness of our human condition, but also the deep meaning in lives lost, to cleave to something beyond the madness–so that gun-spangled madness won’t be what life in America is all about.

Who are we, shadowy America, and what have we done with the free and the brave?

Who are we, both perpetrators and victims of madness?

Who are we, children of God?

 

 

Each other’s miracles

No matter who we are, no matter where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done, there are times in this life where we are reminded that we are but fragile humans, vulnerable to the myriad of threats to life on this planet.

Lashihai Lake, Yunnan, China.
Lashihai Lake, Yunnan, China.

And at times like these, we ask very important, very human questions about whether a good and mighty God causes or allows things like disaster, disease, or illness.

We asked some of these questions last Sunday as part of a summer series our pastor is engaging on questions from the congregation.  As she invited members of the congregation to share, it became apparent that we’re all struggling somehow–that these threats to life touch us all very deeply, because none of us, no matter how proficient at this thing called life, is immune to disease, disaster, or especially, death.

A mosque in Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ben Robinson.

And as our wise pastor shared her own thoughts on this difficult topic, looking out at many tear-stained faces in the congregation, she pointed us from God’s Old Testament miracles to Jesus’s healings, to his death on a cross, and finally, his resurrection and the Holy Spirit he left behind.  She reminded us, as she often does, that we are the body of Christ, and so we’re the ones that are charged with ministering to one another, with being Christ to one another in these moments where the questions seem to weighty to bear.

So I’ve been pondering, all week, the depth and simplicity of that theology, daring to wonder what life would be like if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?

They would know we are Christians not by our love, but by our empathy, by our grace, and our mercy.  Because love is oft contaminated by the things of this world, sometimes most of all by we Christians and our misguided, self-righteous and judgmental  interpretations of truth.

Foster families in Qinzhou, Guangxi.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
Foster families in Qinzhou, Guangxi. Photo by Jason Fouts.

I’m led this week and this weekend to contemplate an economy of grace in which we can be a little more aware of how much we’re all hurting and a little less judgmental and a lot more humble about how healing happens.

What if instead of contemplating the origins of disease, asking how the bus driver got lung cancer, or quibbling with the details of disaster, wondering why people bother to live in Oklahoma which is so prone to tornados, we contemplated the length that Christ went for us on the cross, the underservedness of our own grace, and the abundance of grace in a world that’s often so graceless?  And then what if we committed to being not the one who speaks, but the one who prays, not the one who solves or fixes or even heals, but the one who recognizes, beholds, and reveres deep need?  What if we found a way to acknowledge great hurt, but live with great hope?

What if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?

Young monks in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
Young monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Oh Lord, come quickly.

Amen.

Wow.

It’s just a few days prior to his death, and he knows it’s coming along with betrayal by those closest to him, mockery, and agony.  And yet he ties a towel around his waist, fills a basin with water, and stoops close to the ground and the filth and the earth to wash the disciples’ feet.

If that doesn’t fill you with awe, I don’t know what will.

In her latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott writes, “Even though I remember my pastor saying that God always makes a way out of no way, periodically something awful happens, and I think that God has met Her match–a child dies or a young father is paralyzed.  Nothing can possibly make things okay again.  People and grace surround the critically injured person or the family.  Time passes.  It’s beyond bad.  It’s actually a nightmare.  But people don’t bolt, and at some point the first shoot of grass breaks through the sidewalk.”

Lamott could easily have been writing a prayer of the help or thanks genre, but she’s actually describing the wow.  The wow is not that bad things don’t happen, because they do.  The wow is that “people don’t bolt” during the “beyond bad.”

My Chinese teacher translating for Chen Guangcheng at Princeton University yesterday afternoon.
My Chinese teacher translating for Chen Guangcheng at Princeton University yesterday afternoon.

Last night my husband and I went to hear blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, speak on the Princeton University campus.  He told his story of working for justice in China, his famous escape to the U.S. embassy, the lesser told tale of his family’s continued persecution, and the gory details of his nephew’s beating and imprisonment following his asylum in the United States.  While the reality of human rights abuses in China is rife with suffering, fear, and pain, Mr. Chen’s family, other activists in China, and many around the world haven’t given up.

Wow.

Over the last few days the internet has been flooded by photos of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention facility.  The new pope’s far from perfect, and his actions might not change the world, but the images move us because they speak of what it means to regard the humanity of one another in situations that are “beyond bad.”

Pope Francis kissing inmates' feet.
Pope Francis kissing inmates’ feet.

Wow.

When you really think about it Holy Week, so artfully named, was “beyond bad.”  There was really nothing good about good Friday, and there is nothing more nightmarish than the death of God.

But even in death God hasn’t met Her match.  Sometimes we forget, though, that it came to that–that death was gory for Jesus, that it was pain, and the earth plunged into darkness–that simply put, we can’t have the resurrection, the wow, the shoots of grass, without the “beyond bad,” the nightmare of the crucifixion that delivers us from sin and death.

And with all that was yet to come, he went willingly to his death.  Yet, before doing so he took their feet in his holy hands and scrubbed them like a servant.  That’s what our savior did with some of his last moments on this earth.

Sunrise in New Jersey.
Sunrise in New Jersey.

Wow.

Some Easter thoughts from China

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.  –Mark 16:1-8

Easter is generally quite quiet and unassuming in China.  I’ll be up on Easter morning, right around sunrise, getting into a taxi to head to the airport to travel to several provinces and visit foster care projects.  Often the rhythm of my life here in China couldn’t be more different from my previous experiences helping to pastor during the bustle of Holy Week, and I’m left to wonder what Easter means in a foreign land.

But then again, that early morning was no doubt a strange, foreign experience for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as they ventured out in the early sunlight to anoint their messiah.  For some reason as my friend and I read through this scripture the other morning, my mind was drawn to their preoccupations over, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  I think about how they must have felt, powerless and hopeless as they walked to the tomb, knowing not even how to move the stone when they arrived.

A week or so ago when we traveled into the countryside to visit foster families, a friend of mine and I got to talking about what we do in America versus what they do in China when someone dies.  It was difficult to explain to her the sterilized world of funeral parlors, embalming, and even cremation.

“I was the one who helped prepare and clean my grandmother’s body before she was buried,” she stammered.  Chinese people are particularly fearful of the dead and of evil spirits, but it perplexed my friend that anyone other than the family would attend to such an intimate practice as preparing a loved one for life in the spirit world.  “I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t even cry,” she remarked proudly.

I think about how the women, despite their own fears and misgivings, not even knowing how to move the stone, went to the tomb anyway.  And I think of how when they arrived the angel told them plainly that their Jesus has been raised, and was going before them to Galilee.

And I think of how difficult it really is to trust that God is going ahead of us.

A woman honors her ancestors during the tomb sweeping festival in China. Photo from The Telegraph.

Another one of my friends talked through her tears earlier this week about tomb sweeping traditions in China where one prays to the ancestors and conflicts between these and her Christian faith.  Many extreme voices from the Christian foreign and local communities, not unlike those centuries before them, stress that believers today need to take a stand against these traditions and their families, and refuse to participate.

But my friend, in her deep faith and wisdom, knows there must be another way.  So she will make the trip home today to her family, to sweep the graves and honor her ancestors and her very much living family, and carry the promise of the resurrection in her heart.  And rather than risking that the promise of grace become confused with rejection, anger, and bitterness, she will wait and pray, and when the time is right, she will share the way in which her faith makes her life full and complete and meaningful with her loved ones.

I pray that she will trust that God is indeed going before her this weekend.  It seems to me that not just my friend or Chinese Christians or the women who brought spices, but all of us wonder and worry who will roll the stone away from the tomb for us.  We all struggle to trust that God has truly gone ahead of us and died for us and been raised, and that no mistake on our part, not even the terror or the muteness that supposedly plagued the women that fateful morning can change that.  The promise has been–and is fulfilled, in the resurrection of our Lord.

That is why we proclaim, Jesus is risen, He is risen indeed, from wherever we find ourselves this Sunday, from the tombs of the Chinese countryside to the sanctuaries of the United States.  And we give thanks that God has done what God promised, and that we, the weak, afraid, mute, and hopeless, are the recipients of such grace that flowed out from that empty tomb on a quiet morning in another land years ago.

P.s.  If you’re looking for more Easter reflection, Rachel Held Evans is doing a wonderful series on Women of the Passion on her blog.