Grief and stones (August and Remembering, vol. 3)

A few days or weeks after my mom died, I remember reading a poem.  It was folded up in one of the cards that I (or my family) had received – full of condolences and best wishes, of awkward half-starts and attempts at showing love in the midst of loss and hurt.  This poem talked about how grief was a jagged stone that cut and left scars, and that we carry around with us in our pockets, unable to leave it alone, continually grasping and plucking and fiddling with this thing, cutting ourselves over and over again on the sharp and ragged edges…  and then, one day, in the future, the poem stated that we would pull out the stone and find that the edges had been smoothed off, and while we still carried our grief with us, it would be smooth, and round, and no longer painful.  It would still have weight, and substance – nothing would ever change the fact of the loss, of the trauma, of the grief.  But the promise was that it would one day not hurt so much.

I remember hating that poem.  I thought it was cheesy, misguided, and full of lies.  It hurt in such a deep place, and I couldn’t imagine that hurt ever being soaked up.

Now, 15 years later, while the poem itself still may be cheesy and too sentimental, I am able to see the truth in it.  The stone of grief is present – but there is healing and redemption that has taken place in that time.  The family we have now is not the same family we had then.  And I can be thankful for the good that has come out of this darkness – for Love so strong that it seeks to redeem all things – even a cheesy greeting card poem.

—–

*I was re-reading Lament for a Son recently, as a new friend recently lost her father.  In it, I came across this gem:

What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything else to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected – gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings – never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless, “Fine” or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really…”

~ Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

The Healing Power of Kenny Loggins: (August and Remembering, vol. 2)

That August Sunday morning when my mom went into a coma from which she would never wake up, Seth and Jeremy drove out from Chicago to spend the day with me.  Two teenagers who saw their friend and his family was hurting, so they did something.  Nothing profound happened – I think we went out and watched a movie at the theater and talked and joked and made bad puns in the way adolescents do, grasping for honesty and connection in the midst of insecurity and uncertainty and a world that has seems to have very few shades of gray.  I loved them for coming out, and reminding me that I was not alone.

One year later, I found myself driving down to Arkansas to visit Seth and his family.  His sister Miriam had just given birth to a baby boy, and there were massive complications.  I didn’t really understand what had happened, but she was close to death, and the whole family was gathered there, reeling from the pain of having this joyful moment of hope and new life be transformed into despair, tears, mourning, death.  I didn’t know what to do, but my friend was hurting, and I just wanted to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

A few weeks later, Jeremy, Michael and I found ourselves driving from Chicago down to Charlotte, North Carolina in my little gray Honda Civic for Miriam’s funeral.  Honestly, much of that trip was a blur.  Death had once again struck close to home – this time with someone barely a few years older than we were.  There was a shell-shocked quality to our journey.  I was really starting to dislike the month of August.  We were going to another funeral.  At least we weren’t going there alone.

We drove through the night.  After all, poor college kids (much less missionary kids) wouldn’t stay at a hotel.  We were climbing over the Smokies as dawn approached, Michael and Jer asleep in the back, me at the wheel alone with my thoughts, music playing softly through the scratchy radio stations that would fade in and out, climbing, climbing on winding roads that reminded me vaguely of trips to the Peruvian highlands.  And in that moment of silence, I remember feeling the darkness around us as a tangible thing.  It obscured, threatened to swallow, and though it could be chased away by my little Honda’s headlamps for a few moments, it always lurked just in the corner of vision waiting to pounce.  It was death, and it was out there.  It would not leave me alone.

But…

Just as the darkness threatened to swallow us completely, I realized that this was not the end.  The sky started to lighten, slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly.  It wasn’t light – not yet.  It was just “not-as-dark.”  But that was enough.

I probably prayed.  I probably was silent.  I do remember straining my eyes, trying to catch one more glimpse of the sky as the darkness dissipated and was slowly, every so slowly, replaced with shining, shimmering, resplendent light.  I was in awe.  I was full of joy.  I felt that death had tried once more to snuff out hope, but light and life were not done.  They would have the last word.  Life.

There was this moment of convergence where we reached the high point in the pass and began our descent just as the sun broke over the horizon in pinks and golds and hues that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Thomas Kinkade painting.  The winding road lay out before us, cutting over and through golden valleys drenched with clouds that towered above and below us, parts of the mountainside shimmering in and out of visibility as the clouds refracted the sun into rainbows and scintillating light shows.  It felt like I was flying, piloting my little car through banks of clouds and the oceans of light all around.  I had a hard time keeping my foot from crashing to the floor, coaxing every last bit of speed out of my little Honda – after all, we were trying to arrive in one piece…  But the glorious reminders of beauty and life and not being alone were almost overwhelming.

At that moment, I realized that I had only turned down the radio – it wasn’t completely off.  Faintly, almost too quiet to be heard, there was an epic guitar riff building…  So I did what any child of the 80’s would do when confronted with Kenny Loggins’ masterpiece “Highway to the Danger Zone.”  I cried out (waking up Jer and Michael) “I feel the NEED, the NEED for SPEED!”, turned it up to 11, and let the music carry us home.

I carried that moment for a long time as a talisman.  When things got too dark, too heavy, too hard, I could remember that beauty, that joy, that life that flowed through me and creation and Kenny Loggins, and be thankful to be alive, and be thankful that even in the midst of the dark and winding roads, nothing is beyond redemption…  Even Kenny Loggins and the “Danger Zone.”

Thanks Kenny.

Aftershocks: (August and Remembering, vol. 1)

August approaches.  It’s funny – the month of August is usually my cue for reflection.  I’ll stop, try and take some space to look back into the past, remember where I’ve come from, the people who have touched my life, reevaluate where I’m headed, and generally try to slow down and remember.  I love this habit, but the reason that it happens during August is because of the great (almost seismic?) shifts that have happened in this month over the course of my life.

10 years ago I stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro, a little confused, home-sick, lost, and overwhelmed, as well as excited, full of anticipation and eager expectation that good things would happen.  One of the things that I didn’t expect was Jeferson.  I’ve shared about him before – snippets of his life and death.  [I think it’s important to remember (and sometimes impossible to forget) that this story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending.]  If he were alive today, we’d be getting ready to celebrate his 26th birthday.  He’d probably have kids.  

(It’s the might-have-beens that will eat away at your soul…)

Some of you don’t know about Jeferson.  I’m sorry.  He was one of my first friends in Brazil.  A small word-picture of him:  picture a 14-year old kid from one of the rougher favelas with a smile and laugh that drew you in and made you feel as if you were sharing a joke that was on the whole world, a zest for life, a deep curiosity about other ways of life, a sense of humor that loved the absurd and was always looking for something to laugh about (or at), a softness and compassion that years on the street hadn’t managed to deaden, and so much potential for leadership that it made your teeth hurt.  He was by no means unreal – he had a bit of a temper, and made too many poor decisions, and would all too often be high out of his mind – whether out of boredom, or addiction, or just a way to deal with the immense amounts of pain and brokenness and heaviness that was his life day in and day out, or some combination of the three.  But he was deeply, authentically alive, and he was my friend, and he was someone whom God loved, and I loved, and who loved us in return.

There was his voice yelling across the praça when we would arrive, yelling out our names and running to meet us – echoes of the Father running to greet the prodigal son.  He would sing loud and hard, loved to eat spaghetti and pizza, and spent a couple of weeks living with us as we attempted to provide a safe place for him get his life together and off the streets.  He began to teach me what it meant to parent a child – the mix of love and anxiety, the desire to control and force them to make good decisions balancing out the necessity for freedom, autonomy, and the reality that those you love will make their own decisions for good or for ill, leavened with a healthy dollop of hope and apprehension.

That time didn’t stick – he left our home and was back on the streets shortly thereafter.  And the time after that when he went home to live with an older sister who was in over her head in the drug trade didn’t stick either.  And then he was in prison for theft, was gone for a few months, and came back a little wiser, a little more guarded, a little harder…  Yet in the midst of this, flashes of hope would glimmer.  A request for prayer – a tear and a whispered confession and a sincere effort to change and make good decisions – caring for younger kids on the cold wet sidewalks of Rio – a sense of hope – murmured prayers in the dark on the sidewalks and under streetlights.

This went on for two years – two years of shared meals, of spontaneous encounters on the streets and in the slums, on the beaches and in the churches, sandwiches and hot chocolate while huddled under an overhang from the winter rains, singing songs of hope and life and joy and a reality that must have seemed unimaginable at times.  Two years of growth, of failure, of prayers, of heartache, of dancing and beauty and life, of pouring myself into him, and being poured into in return.  Two years of slow movement, of incremental changes, of three steps forward and two steps back.

Two years…

—–

I remember sitting in my apartment doing something stupid and pointless on the internet when I heard someone knocking on my door.  It was Rich, and he had bad news.  “Jeferson’s dead.”  And things came crumbling down…

Details were fuzzy, yet as they slowly crystallized became more and more horrific – betrayal, ambush, humiliation, torture, murder…  par for the course in our broken world, so full of death, yet real to me in a new and powerful way.  It’s a story that has taken place too many times.  It’s a story that happens daily, sometimes on a much bigger scale – Syria, Egypt, DRC, Colombia, Haiti, Brazil…  It’s a story that continue to play itself out here in Chicago today in my very own backyard.  It’s a reality that I find all too easy to forget.

—–

I don’t want to forget.  I can’t really.  I can pretend, I can distract myself with shiny toys and fun games, but YouTube videos and books won’t bring resolution and a sense of closure.  There is work to be done.  Reconciliation.  Justice.  Forgiveness.  Hope.  Safety.  All things new…

I think of friends who are still involved – still kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight – in Kolkata, Katmandu, El Alto, Bangkok, LA, Jacksonville, Antakya, Jerusalem, Port-au-Prince, Chicago – and I am thankful.  For their life.  For their example.  For their courage.

—–

My only response that can hope to make sense of this is trust.  Not a trust that pretends there is no doubt.  Trust in the midst of doubt.  Not a faith that is blind to uncertainty.  Faith working through uncertainty.  Asking questions, pushing, not settling for the status quo, but in the midst of that holding on to the vision of all things new that gives us hope.  I recognize that this is a choice, but it is a choice that I choose to make.  And maybe that’s where grace comes in – that I choose to hope, that I choose to look for God, that I choose to try and find beauty, that I choose to act and not despair, that I choose to love and not wall myself off from others, from life, from the pain and the joy.

—–

This spring I finished reading Aftershock by Kent Annan – a slim book written shortly after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, processing what it means to hold honestly to faith while engaging the reality of our world in a clear-eyed & hope-filled way.

In it, I came across this:

An Annotated Wish List
For Changes In/By God

(Kent Annan – AfterShock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken)

  1. Rather than a God of occasional disaster-rescue miracles, I want a God whose miracles prevent the disasters in the first place.
  2. Rather than a God who needed to retreat in order to leave room for human freedom and love, I want a God who finds a
    less painful way to make freedom and love work.
  3. Rather than a system set up so that those who suffer most are also the most vulnerable (usually those who are poor), I want the wealthy to be the most vulnerable.  An increase in money beyond one’s necessity could inhibit the body’s production of antibodies.
  4. Rather than children being at the mercy of nature and of other people, I want no one to die or be physically or emotionally traumatized before turning twelve years old.  Nobody.  And the only ones who die between thirteen and eighteen should be those whose decisions represent a clear and present danger to others.
  5. For every unethical action, there should be an equal and opposite reaction – immediately.  If you inflict suffering, you should immediately suffer accordingly.
  6. I want a small indicator button, like a low-battery light, on the prominent C7 vertebrae that protrudes slightly on the cervical spine at the base of the neck between the shoulders.  A gentle red light would glow forty-eight hours before death is irreversible, when the downward spiral toward unconsciousness or pain has won.  It would indicate time for final goodbyes with loved ones and that a final welcome from God is imminent: “You’re released from this life.  Welcome into the next one.”

Kent Annan works in Haiti.  He is the author of a couple of books.  They are all highly recommended.  As is the way he continues to kick at the darkness…

 

Keep kicking at the darkness friends…  until it bleeds daylight…

It's time…

tree

Like the evening summer sun,
my bronzed hands and forearms
gently fade and pale.

We both sense it, the sun and I.
It’s fine. It’s time.
We could rage against the dying,
as some are prone to do,
but why?

Old John Donne believed it’s always autumn in heaven,
no buds or flowers, only fruit fully ripe.
I believe that’s crazy.
A seasoned Elysium holds my hope,
not some never ending summer.

The Good Book speaks of all things new,
not all new things.
Donne’s mercy-filled Fall will be covered
by Winters whiter than snow.
Then Spring will thrust up blackred roses
e.e. cumming’s mother couldn’t dream of.
As for Summer, we’ll saunter along
streets of gold with bronzed hands and forearms
until we sense it’s time.
Then we’ll roll down our sleeves once more
to harvest the mercies of God.

~ John Blaze, via Burnside Writer’s Collective

Ryan

My friend Ryan is dying.

If you want to get technical about it, we’re all dying, slowly, one day at a time – moving closer towards the day we eventually, inevitably, some day die.

But he is much closer to death than I.

He has cancer, and it’s been aggressive, and virulent, and over the past year it has been slowly killing him.

He’s done chemo. He’s received treatments. He’s tried it all.

We’ve prayed. We’ve fasted. We’ve wept.

And the cancer is still winning.

We got an email from his mother a few nights ago, telling us that he’s not doing well – in pain, on hospice care, and fading fast.

And my heart breaks. It breaks for Ryan, who is dying so young. It breaks for his family – for his mother and father who are watching their son fade away, for his siblings who are losing their brother, for his “family” here in Chicago that has come to love him and walk alongside him and meld their lives with his, and will miss him more than we know.

I’m tired of death.

I’m just so tired of it.

A few of us are driving up to visit him tomorrow – to move some of his things home – to show him again that he is loved – to spend time praying and pleading once more for his life, for healing, for restoration and resurrection, knowing full well that it is possible, and hoping against hope that the answer is “YES!”

But, in case the answer is “no,” we go up to say good-bye.

Good-bye…

And we mourn. We weep.

…but not without hope…

 

Hope

 

Hope for the day when all things are made new.

 

“The City becomes the Bride adorned for her husband and comes in fine linen to the marriage supper of the Lamb.

…The Signs and the Promises detonate each other, and the freight of imagery, accumulated over a thousand years, bursts out in one blinding flash: For the Temple has become Jerusalem, and Jerusalem has become the Bride, and the Bride has become the Mystical Body, and the Lamb and his Wife are one. And everything is Christ, and everything is the Bride, and everything is the City where there is no temple, sun or moon, but only the Lamb who is its light. And the River flows back from the dawn of creation, and the Tree of Life returns from Eden, and the Gates of Jerusalem are not shut at all by day, and there is no night there. The tears, the sorrow, the crying and the pain are gone. It is all gardens, gallant walks and silver sounds:

There they live in such delight,
Such pleasure and such play,
As that to them a thousand years
Doth seem as yesterday.

By the drawing of the Mystery, the world has passed from its lostness and found him whom her soul loves. The Beloved comes leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills. The time of the singing perpetually begins.”

~ Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox

And so we will mourn, but believing, hoping, trusting that Ryan will know peace, rest, delight, embrace, and perpetual song.

This is not the end…

 

IMG_0243

 

For those of you who pray, pray with us…

Thank you.

Anticipation and celebration


On Sunday afternoon, my younger sister married a lucky, lucky man. Four months after their engagement, a year since they had started dating, almost two years after they first met, their friends and family gathered from all over the world. People came from Germany, Korea, Australia, Hawaii, North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Nevada, Washington, New York, Arizona, and all parts of California (among others) to celebrate their love – their commitment – their choosing of each other for the rest of their lives – and to do so in a way that pointed others to God, to life, and to deeper love.

The rehearsal on Saturday afternoon was a celebratory reunion, full of laughter and excitement as we practiced and watched the bride-to-be walk through the grassy field, surrounded by flowers and nature and green growing things. The rehearsal dinner that afternoon was again celebratory and full of anticipation – as we were served by Kait and Adam, were filled with good things, tables crowded with laughter and movement, with stories remembered and adventures relived, and people tried to capture the essence of the two who we’d gathered to celebrate. That night everyone – wedding party, family, friends, out of town guests – gathered at a nearby bowling alley for a night of play, laughter, music, dancing, a little friendly competition, visiting, and connecting, all covered in a deep blanket of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Sunday morning was full – family and friends running to the reception site to decorate, set tables, place the manzanita trees, hang candles, prepare the dance floor, arranging the room in a way that invited people to celebrate and rejoice while drawing their eyes to the joy Adam and Kait were feeling. So many people pitched in to help – so many gave of their time and energy out of love for the bride and groom.

At the gardens the chairs were arranged close together, inviting the guests to step in close and be a part of the ceremony. The wedding itself was gorgeous and simple – cello, oboe, and violin, communion on bended knee, worship, laughter, and the little touches that were so in keeping with who they are and what they want their shared life together to be about. And they said their vows, reaffirmed their choice, and stood joyful and radiant, together.

From a certain point of view, the reception was fairly normal.  It had all the right ingredients: food and wine, cake and champagne, toasts and speeches, pictures and well-wishing, dancing and laughter. But this was different – special – more – because it was THEIRS. The way the ingredients came together and the love and joy of the people who had gathered there to celebrate with the couple left me speechless at times – the only response was to move, to laugh, to dance. The love and joy were almost palpable. It was enchanting to watch people throw themselves into the celebration, to embrace looking ridiculous and throw propriety to the wind, faces glowing with laughter (or in some cases, the glow-sticks that had been liberally distributed to the dancers). People didn’t want to leave, but the night had to end as all things must.

As we gathered to send them off, bubbles filling the air, they high-fived their way down the receiving line, stopping for hugs and kisses and thanks and heartfelt congratulations and “one-more-things…” And then they were gone.

I think about this weekend, and I think about heaven – “the wedding supper of the Lamb.” I love the imagery associated with this – seeing heaven as a wedding and a feast, a beautiful meaningful ceremony followed by rich food and wine, deep connection, laughter ringing through the halls of heaven, dancing and music and stories flowing through eternity, the gathering of those we love and those we will come to love. I remember the anticipation Kait and Adam felt as they looked forward to the day they could be with each other, and could be united in a new and deeper way. And just as their anticipation melted into celebration, so our anticipation of eternity will flower into riotous, joyful, roof-shaking shouts of joy.

A number of friends who were at this wedding are feeling that anticipation deeply now, as they mourn the deaths of a mother, a wife, a husband, a father, a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter, a grandma, a grandpa… At times, I’m sure they were acutely aware of all those who couldn’t be at THIS wedding celebrating… But I am so thankful, and hopeful, and anticipating with great joy the wedding celebration at which we will ALL be in attendance, from the greatest to the least, where every tear will be wiped away, and death itself will be swallowed up forever. And even as we celebrate Kait and Adam, and their love for and committment to each other, we celebrate the God who gave them to each other, the God who is making all things new, the God who is constantly foreshadowing the good gifts that he has in store here and now, and the God who is preparing the party that will leave us breathless. We wait with hope, and as we wait, we celebrate.  We celebrate because we are all invited.  We celebrate because the table always has room for one more.  We celebrate because the arms of the Father are open wide.  Come on in. The music has started, and it’s time to start dancing…

Surprise…

So many people have said it so much better than I can. But, that doesn’t stop me from wanting to jump in and say it all again – less eloquently perhaps, but no less heartfelt.

He’s alive!  The stunning reversal of Friday’s death and darkness.  On Friday I talked about entering into the pathos of Jesus’ death. Sunday is supposed to be a day of joy, of surprise, of newness, of openness, of awe. He is ALIVE! Jesus, the man who was dead, is dead no more. He lives. He breathes. The heart that grew still and cold beats once more. The blood that thickened in his veins now runs warm and fast. His toes crinkle. He sneezes. His chest rises and falls. He begins to sweat and itch and hunger and thirst.  John Updike speaks of the cells’ dissolution reversing, the molecules reknitting, the amino acids rekindling…  Down to the cellular level, Life has returned.

It’s too much for me to take in.

Why is that? I think that in my heart of hearts, it’s because I want it to be true so badly. But I am so afraid of getting hurt. I am afraid of fully committing to this belief because I fear what it will draw out of me, and what it will require of me.  I equivocate, hem and haw, and commit to it 95 percent, always keeping that bit in reserve so I can try and keep my heart safe. I want Jesus’ resurrection to be true. I believe it is. But I can’t comprehend what it looks like…

I can’t picture Jeferson standing up, laughing his laugh and smiling his smile and singing with his voice, and being stubborn and a brat and angry and hurt and tired and cold and happy and joyful and just so fully himself. I want to. But that hope seems so far away. I can’t wrap my mind around what it would be like to see my mom walk into the room again – to hear her laugh with her entire body, to see the love in her eyes, to have her put her arms around me and feel like a little child again – to grin when she gets frustrated again, and be sad when I’ve disappointed her and to have her be her old self, before she got sick – to hear her scream when Dad would throw her in the water or watch her glow with righteous indignation and action when the poor, abandoned, and weak were left without an advocate, and were abused and exploited and taken advantage of… Oh, to see them again…

But here, in this life, all we were left with is memories. Only their absence is present. Until that day two thousand years ago when something new happened.  Something unexpected and surprising and mysterious and confusing and earth-shattering – Jesus came back to life, defeating death. Two thousand years ago, something changed. The disciples, who cowered in numb broken fear, received the scare of their lives. Their hope had been dead. But in the blink of an eye, everything changed… He’s alive. He’s alive!

We hear the disciples whisper:

“What’s happened?”

“Have you heard?”

“I don’t believe it…”

“Do you really think…”

“No.”

“But…”

“What if?”

“What if?”

And then the appearance of Jesus in their midst. The one who was dead and now lives forever. The one they watched crucified. The one they had loved. The one they had abandoned. The one they had buried. The one they had mourned. This one was in their midst, and he laughed with them, and reassured them and said, “Do not be afraid… Mmm, that fish smells good. I think I’ll have some…”

He was alive. He defeated sin, and hell, and death. Sin could not conquer him. Hell could not hold him. Death could not contain him. He was back – and he was himself – gloriously, surprisingly, unbelievably present and alive!

He is alive!  And those who saw him, accepted him, believed in him – they were never the same.

What does it mean for us?  That because of his resurrection, we know that death has been defeated. There is hope, not only for the life to come, but for this life now! His eternal, Kingdom life spills back and forward through time, transforming us into something beautiful – flawed and broken, yet being renewed – helping us become who we were born to be… Because of the events of Easter, we have hope. Because of who Jesus is – his beauty, his promises, his life, his death, his resurrection – we have hope. Because of him, everything has changed. And there’s no going back to the way things used to be…

 

Good Friday?

A couple of years ago I spent part of Good Friday visiting my mom’s grave.  It was one of those spring days that are so ridiculously over the top that you feel like someone is playing tricks on you: fresh cut grass, brilliant sun shining, breeze wafting through the tombstones…  It always seems strange to remember someone who was so alive, in such a place full of life and beauty, while being aware that she is dead.  I hadn’t been back in years – but that morning, I sat by her grave and remembered.  I relived stories, laughter, hopes and dreams.  I remembered the things that made her happy, that made her angry, that made her cry…  And in the remembering, I felt more aware than ever of her absence because even though her body is buried there, all that made her who she was is no longer there.  She is gone.  She is dead.

—–

I remember lying on my couch in my apartment in the favela one blazing hot afternoon.  I was on the internet doing something meaningless when Rich started pounding on my door.  Something was wrong.  “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Jeferson is dead.  He’s been killed.  Murdered.”  There’s really no easy way to tell someone.  And my response – disbelief, shock, amazement, anger, grief – a heady cocktail that deadened my world and shut down my senses and closed possibilities.  It was anti-hope.  Laughing, smiling, dancing, singing Jeferson was no longer there.  He is gone.  He is dead.

—–

I think of the disciples – Jesus’ closest friends and companions who had bet everything on Jesus, and who loved him deeply.  They had traveled with him, walked with him through heat and cold, laughed at stories around campfires, worshipped in the synagogue together, and shared joys and hardships with him for over 3 years.  I think of Jesus’ mother – she who bore this baby, and raised him, trained him, saw him learn to walk and talk, to share and play with others, learn compassion and love…  And on today, Good Friday, they saw him killed.

It seems difficult, if not impossible, to look back thousands of years, and imagine what that first “Good Friday” must have been – must have felt like – to the friends and family of the murdered man. I read the stories about the betrayal and death of Jesus from the perspective of the Resurrection. I look at Friday through the lens of Easter. And in doing so, I miss much of the pathos and the reality of what happened. In my mind, Jesus’ death does not have the power that my mom’s death had, or the deaths of my friends on the street. That’s because, in my mind, my mom and Miriam and Jeferson and Tiago and Everton’s deaths were all REAL. The effects are lasting. They are gone. I will never see them on the beach of Rio, laughing in the cordilleras of Peru, or sharing a meal in my home.  I still miss them. Somehow, when seen only through Sunday’s events, Jesus’ death is transformed into something fake – a pretend death. But nothing could be further from the truth. Only when we enter into the brokenness and the anguish of that first Friday can we begin to understand the joy and hope of that Sunday.

On Friday, Jesus was dead. He was tortured. He was mocked. He was killed. He was dead. He stopped breathing. The blood coagulated in pools.  Rigor mortis set in.  Bacteria began the work of decomposing his body.  His body grew cold. He was GONE. His loved ones watched, helpless. His mother and friends wept. They wept because they had lost their son, their friend, their brother, their hope. They believed, but their belief had betrayed them, left them hung out to dry.

Belief – faith – love…  All these things leave us open to disappointment – to betrayal – to rejection – to the failure of our dreams to come true, and having to come to terms with the reality that what we had hoped for just isn’t going to happen.  I think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus as they spoke (unknowingly) with the risen Jesus, saying “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel…”  We had hoped… but now we know better.  We had hoped… but now we are disappointed, and trying to go back to our own lives.  We had hoped…  and all our hopes have turned to dust.

Jesus’ lifeless body was taken from the cross. His stiffening corpse was carried to the tomb, prepared for burial, and then placed inside. Those few who hadn’t run away in fear bent over and kissed his cold forehead with their warm lips as tears slid down their faces. When the tomb was shut, there was all the finality of the earth being thrown on my mother’s coffin, or the casket lid being tightened over Jeferson’s stillness. He was gone.

Feel the hopelessness. Savor the despair. Soak up the fear, the hurt, the betrayal, the numbness. For everything has changed. Where hope existed, now lies doubt. Last night, joy and love and laughter and life filled this upper room.  Last night, bread and wine and words of love gave light, and sparked hope once more.

But tonight, it is only ashes and dust, tears and mourning. He is dead.  His absence is everywhere. There is no escape. The vine has been ripped from the ground, and the branches are withered and dying. The shepherd has been killed and the sheep are scattered and helpless. The center could not hold.

This is the bitter cup of death. Jesus drank his own death down to the dregs.  He absorbed the pain and the evil of the world, and offered forgiveness.  “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing…”  And then he died.

His friends, his disciples, drank that cup of death and fear. For each one it was different, yet for each the agony and heartache and fear is the same. No one understood. All they knew was they missed him, and he was gone. Everything had changed.

What now?


(modified from an older post I wrote back in 2006…)

Beyond the Blue

Yesterday afternoon my car died.  (Actually, let’s be honest here – I’m driving my sister’s car cause mine is giving me transmission issues, and I hate cars…)  Thankfully it was rush hour on the highway, and so I was only driving about 5 miles an hour when the car stalled.  I threw it in neutral, and tried to restart it as I coasted.  No dice.  I almost had a seamless transition as I flashed on the hazard lights, unbuckled my seatbelt, opened the door, and swung my feet out to push the car off the left lane into the shoulder.

It was dead.  And as frustrated as I felt as I rode in the tow truck to the auto repair place, I was reminded of all I do have to be thankful for:  I have food, shelter, a warm bed, friends and family that love me, abundant provision, a fascinating job, classes that challenge and develop me, a church community that envelops me, a body that is healthy…  And even with a dead car, resurrection life is here and now and I swim in it every day, if only I have eyes to see it.

—–

This afternoon as I ran along the lakeshore I prayed…  A friend with cancer.  A child that is slowly fading away.  Broken relationships.  Hopes that have died.  There is so much brokenness and the broken shards of this world can’t seem to work themselves free from my heart.  Instead, with every beat of my heart, they work themselves deeper and remind me that the price you pay when you love someone is that you suffer with them.

But even with the shards burning, I felt myself being whispered to by a voice from beyond the blue – beyond the blue of the lake, and the sky, and my heart, whispering words of life, of hope, of faith.  It whispered to me from the blazing sun, through the chill air that burned my lungs and made my ears numb and my nose run, through the wind that whipped the waves to a frenzy, through the crashing of spray and froth, and the words of a song that I played on repeat for the last half hour of my run…

“Yellow and gold as the new day dawns
Like a virgin unveiled who waited so long
To dance and rejoice and sing her song
And rest in the arms of a love so strong
No one comes unless they’re drawn
By the voice of desire that leads em’ along
To the redemption of what went wrong
By the blood that coveres the innocent one…

So lift your voice just one more time
If there’s any hope may it be a sign
That everything was made to shine
Despite what you can see
So take this bread and drink this wine
And hide your spirit within the vine
Where all things will work by a good design
For those who will believe…

And let go of all we cannot hold onto
For the hope beyond the blue…”

~ Josh Garrels

—–

I biked to church tonight as the sun burned it’s way down in firey oranges and burnt golds.  We had a Maundy Thursday service, remembering the night that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and abandoned by all the rest.  And as I sat in the quiet of the cathedral, I was drawn in.  The juxtaposition of life and death, of beauty and darkness, of hope and despair can leave me shaken and breathless.  I was drawn into the story of Jesus, the tragedy and the pathos that it must have seemed at the time.  For those watching, with no benefit of hindsight, it was the crumbling of all their dreams, the death of all their hopes, the disintegration of their deepest desires.  In an instant, it all turned to ashes.

From the intimacy of the Last Supper (shared wine and bread, the washing of feet, the prayers of Jesus for these men and women who had given up everything to be with him) to the clash of swords and cries of a mob and the kiss of a traitor.  And the flavors of wine and bread turn to ash in their mouths…

—–

12 years ago we were studying abroad in Jerusalem.  I remember going to a Maundy Thursday service at a small church right inside the Zion Gate.  After the service, a few of my friends went to a prayer vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane.  For some reason, a couple of us went back to JUC.  In one of the basement classrooms, Danny and I broke out guitars and djembes and began to play.  It wasn’t rehearsed, but it flowed.  Classmates and friends trickled in to the darkened room, lit only by candles.  A basin of water and a towel sat in the center.  As people felt moved, they would step into the center, cradle the basin and towel, and kneel before a friend, a brother, a sister, an enemy…  They would untie shoes, slip off sandals, peel back socks…  Dirty and calloused feet were gently lifted, placed in the warm water, washed and dried with the towel.  As we played, reconciliation happened.  As we washed each other’s feet, the weak were encouraged, the tired were energized, the hurting were soothed.  And as we followed in Jesus’ footsteps, we felt his presence.

—–

Presence.  May we feel his presence as we enter into the darkness of Good Friday…  And may we have eyes to see that beyond death lies so much more.

“All the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup…” ~ Buechner

Birthdaes and life

I was 20 when I saw American History X.  We watched it and spent the next few hours processing what we had just seen – a story of hope and tragedy – but what I didn’t tell anyone was the premonition that came over me as we watched the film.  And from the moment, I knew – KNEW – that I was going to die (probably violently) before I turned 30.  I didn’t really know what to do with that feeling, and I felt a little weird telling others about it, so I just put it on a shelf to come back to at a later date.  Over the next 10 years or so, the memory of that feeling would haunt me every now and then.  My mind knew there was nothing to it – but my heart wasn’t really sure.

Fast forward 11 years later – I am turning 31 today, and I am still here – and oh so thankful for the gift of life.

A friend posted 32 near-death experiences for his 32nd birthday…  Sadly, I don’t have that many – but the ones I do have remind me once again what a gift it is to be alive, and how I cannot take it for granted.

The first time I almost died I wasn’t even two years old.  My parents were travelling cross-country, and as they stopped on the median to check a map, I was pulled out of my car seat to spend some time on my mom’s lap.  Minutes after they placed me back in my car seat, as they prepared to get back on the road, they were rear-ended by a pick-up truck.  Their car was totalled.  My mom’s glasses, which were resting on her lap (the exact same place I had been minutes before), were ejected from the car and never found.  I didn’t even realize it.

Fast forward a few months later – Peru, a hotel, a room on the 8th floor.  My parents leave me in the custody of a the daughter of another missionary couple.  When they come back, they find me playing on the balcony, head between the bars, seeing if I can fit through.  I can, but they get to me in time to stop me from trying to climb down.

When I was about 9, we lived in a red zone (declared a no-go area by the US embassy) because of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement.  The judge down the street had a car bomb explode outside his home.  Every week bombings would take out electrical towers and power plants.  We got to be able to distinguish between the big fireworks and the bombs by sound alone.  Probably the most frightening thing were the extortion letters my parents got, threatening to kidnap and kill their children if they didn’t pay a ransom.

16 year old me was riding to the movies in a taxi in Lima with some friends of mine when a car swerved in front of us, slammed on the brakes, and out got 2 men with machine guns and two others holding pistols.  This was in the heydey of the MRTA (a different guerrilla movement that, just a few months before, had succeeded in storming the Japanese embassy, taking hundreds of people hostage, and holding them for months).  As they walked toward our car, we were sure we were going to die, but the armed men (we later found out they were police – not necessarily a good thing when the government killed as many people as the terrorists) pulled the driver out of the car next to us and waved us on.

There was the night we spent sleeping on the streets of Rome (a bad idea – even though the steps of the Pantheon will provide a dry place to sleep during a rain storm).

There were countless run-ins with the police, drug-dealers, gang members, boys and girls who lived on the street and could get high and violent.  There were the fights we broke up before they could really escalate – the times standing up to corrupt cops who were looking for ways to abuse their power.  There were the times of running from tear gas and the armored cars, ducking into cover with the neighbors as shots rang out, and deciding that maybe today wasn’t the best day to go to the beach.  There were multiple times being searched at gunpoint.  There was the time I was stuck outside the community I lived in, and my neighbors and I waited for a lull in the shooting so we could get home quickly before they started fighting again.  We made it.  All part and parcel of living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Even in February, I had my accident where I flipped my car, rolled it across the median, slid through three lanes of oncoming traffic, and came to a rest on the far median without a bruise or a scratch on me or anyone else.

And I know I am not unique.  Each person has 5, 10, 20 stories like this.  We have stories of how our lives could have ended, how fragile they are, and what a gift life truly is.  So today, on my birthdae, I’m going to rejoice.  I’m going to go sit outside on the porch, open up my Magnum ice cream bar, watch the moon float overhead, and celebrate life, for as long as I draw breath.  It’s worth celebrating.