It’s hard

It’s hard not to look at cancer as a monster. Sometimes, it’s even hard to remember that God is sovereign.

A while back, my niece memorized Psalm 23. It was delightful to hear her cement the words that have challenged and comforted for millennia. “He leadeth me in the paths of risheshness for his name’s sake… Mommy, why’s his name ‘Sake’?… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deaf…” They made a video of memory verses to send to Mommy’s friend who was sick with cancer.

It’s hard to watch someone we love walk through the valley of the shadow of death. “Hard” is simplistic; it doesn’t really touch that helpless gnawing. But she feared no evil, not because it wasn’t hard but because she bravely clung to God’s goodness and mercy. He was with her, comforting her with His rod and His staff.

It’s hard to believe that death hasn’t won after all. But what is death for her except an opportunity to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever?

It’s quiet here

It’s quiet here.
Above, the sun comes and goes
More going than coming
Behind stubborn clouds.
Below is small but grinding
With a today of
Abuse and addiction
Suffering and slavery
In our own town, in our own people.

But it’s quiet here,
Here in my heart:
A mountain reaching up from a dark sea
To that sun swallowed by haze.

In a world gone mad
We long
We laugh
But we live following.
Because behind a cloud
The sun is quiet like the moon,
Searchable, findable.

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

A light has dawned

Merry Christmas, everyone! This year is different than most. A lot of traditions are mandated aside. As much as I love traditions and festivities–they make Christmas magical– celebration of Christmas goes far beyond “how.” It’s “why.”

I’m reading Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ by Timothy Keller. (No, I won’t finish it by Christmas; therefore, I’m delighted that Spanish Christmas lasts until January 6!) Keller says,

“The Christmas message is that ‘on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.’ Notice that it doesn’t say from the world a light has sprung, but upon the world a light has dawned. It has come from the outside. There is light outside of this world, and Jesus has brought that light to save us; indeed, he is the Light (John 8:12).” (p.10)

Miserable mandates or no, that’s a reason to celebrate Christmas. 🙂 

For some of you, this year the loss is more painful than breaking a tradition– during the biggest holiday of the year, you are staring at loneliness and grief and you can’t find the strength to stare either of them down. That hurts.

Another dear friend passed away this week. Right now, it feels like life is going on because it has to, not because we want it to. Could the world just pause as we all gather our bearings and sob our grief? Why does time march on, so unaffected?

But there is light, and it’s not at the end of the tunnel–somewhere beyond 2020 and covid and pain and death. The light is here because Immanuel is the Light. 

Merry Christmas.

Memories, tears, and such

A great man passed away today. It shouldn’t have stunned me; we saw it far off. Yet, facing the world and knowing that he’s not here facing it with us…

I have so many memories tucked away, memories I pull up regularly. Words I use because he used them first. Foods I love because he introduced them to me. 

No one who knew him can pretend they’re not mourning. He created community wherever he went. He gave and gave, not piles of dust-collecting trinkets, but himself. He was hospitality both at home and away from home.

And he’s gone.

I only had an hour before I left to visit a friend and her family. After five months of being apart, she and I had a lot of catching up to do. I even met the family’s feisty Siamese kitten. 

The daughters were trying to get their 20,000 words in for the day and I learned all sorts of things. Oldest daughter said her classmates bought bags of suckers and sawed off the sticks. They could eat them behind their masks during class. “What happens if the teacher asks a question?” I asked. Younger daughter was feasting on my fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies when she announced that she didn’t really like chocolate. In fact, she preferred peas. Next time should I bring cookies with peas in them? She giggled.

The girls begged me to resume English class with them because of their “fatal” English grades this year.

We looked at pictures of my sister’s wedding. “And you? Did you find a husband in your country?” My friend leaned in close, wanting every juicy detail. But just then, her daughters noticed the Christmas tree of lights along the boulevard and called us to the patio door to see.

Slowly I walked home, winding my way up the flights of apartment stairs, smelling the aromas of the various apartments until I entered our quiet space that still smelled like biryani–the lunch I had made shortly before I heard the news and the food that will forever remind me of him. Unmopped floors and overflowing trash cans demanded attention, but I sat down with another round of tears. 

Just this week, someone told me that when we reach eternity, we will look back at the gulf between missing a loved one and joining them. That gulf will be a tiny blip, inconsequential. I agree, but today feels bigger than that blip already.

Oh, God. What were You thinking?

It’s not a fair question, I know. But that’s where I am today: grateful God is big enough to listen to unfair questions.


Photo by Rafael Garcin on Unsplash

Recommended books for you

Merry Christmas everyone! A day late and a euro short, perhaps, but who wanted to sit down and read my blog yesterday anyway?

As 2019 closes, I decided to give you a few recommendations from my 2019 reading list. This is just a list; if you want to know more about a particular book, check out the link provided. 

Spiritual Enrichment

No God But One: Allah or Jesus? by Nabeel Qureshi. I have always appreciated Qureshi’s gentle but uncompromising approach to rift between Islam and Christianity.

The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken. This book is full of stories of God at work in the hardest places on earth. I also recommend The Insanity of Obedience

Every Bitter Thing is Sweet by Sara Hagerty is a true journey woven with story and reflection. This book helped me on my journey, realizing that God, in His love and sovereignty, wants to make the bitter times sweet times as we cling to Him.

Memoir / Non-Fiction

Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby. A peek into one woman’s life as she struggles to maintain her faith in Christ in the midst of conservative Islam. The author’s honesty about her struggles makes this book a gem, especially if you’ve worked in a similar setting.

My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody. Mahtob’s version of what happened in Not Without My Daughter. This fascinating book begins with a child’s perspective as she grapples with love, fear, anger, and forgiveness. 

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield is a woman’s journey to faith in Jesus.  Interesting and challenging. Although I didn’t read it this year, I also recommend her book on hospitality, The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber is a fantastic memoir. I don’t think I can explain why exactly. Although the author and I don’t have similar stories, this memoir hit many warm and familiar spots for me. Check it out for yourself.

Fiction

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. A story of a Muslim immigrant family in America. Although the work is fiction, the story is real. Today, many immigrant families deal with the shifting worldview between generations of immigrants, Islam mingling with the forbidden, honor and shame, etc. A teammate bought me this book and I’m glad she did!

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. This is a free Kindle book that is worth much more than you’ll pay for it. It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s fiction. If you like it, note that the sequel, Dear Enemy, is also worth downloading. 

That’s all until next year! Lord willing, tomorrow at this time, I should be suspended somewhere between Madrid and Chicago. I can’t wait. You probably won’t be hearing from me for a few weeks. 🙂 

Go ahead and hurt

Not acknowledging your own pain in light of someone else’s worse pain does not cultivate a heart of gratitude.

Last fall, I was hurting, but I noticed that there was always someone hurting more than I was. So I began to bury my pain inside, believing that my struggle was not valid compared to what others were going through.

I did a lot of people a disservice. Had I acknowledged that pain to the Lord and sought healing, I could have been part of the healing process of others. Instead, my own hurts handicapped me because I sunk them deeper and deeper into myself. On the surface, my pain gave way to resentment. It made it almost impossible to respond to others in need.

I stopped seeking out a place to share my pain because it wasn’t supposed to be real anyway. And I reminded myself over and over that I had so much to be grateful for. 

What was I doing? I was comparing myself to others and saw them as more needy and thus more worthy of care and attention. And my hurts…what hurts? I don’t have any hurts!

When we compare ourselves to others, it can cultivate faux gratitude. “This relationship may be broken but at least I have a solid roof over my head, unlike those war torn refugees.”

Real gratitude comes after we acknowledge our pain and still find God bigger. And still find Him good.

Have you ever read the Psalms? The psalmists don’t pretend that everything is okay. Instead, they often pour out their hearts in startling honesty. But then they rest in God’s goodness, His faithfulness, and His love. They see their pain in light of God’s bigness and they are grateful.

I’m not sharing this piece of my journey with you because it’s pretty (it’s not) or because it’s eloquent (it is only notes jotted down on my phone); I’m sharing this because maybe you are here at this point with me where you feel like your pain isn’t worth God’s time of day, or anyone else’s, for that matter.

We can keep believing that if we would like, but life is so much richer when we seek  healing. What does healing look like? I’m not an expert yet, but I know that sometimes it looks like confession, sometimes like forgiveness, and sometimes, it’s just acknowledging that the pain is real.

None of those options mean we magically stop feeling the hurt, but that we relinquish control of it and its control on us. And without the “at-least-I-don’t” comparisons that tell us we should be grateful, we find that we have tasted God’s goodness and we are truly grateful.

“He’s dying,” she says

"He's dying," she says,
As life seeps away
In voiceless submission
Of what it was taught,
Where death is unknown
And forever beckons
The judgment throne
Of a whimsical god.

The family huddles
To weep and recite
Then sit back and sigh,
"Alhamdulillah."

In the still kitchen
My face in my hands,
I plead for mercy
And hope big enough.

In the stillness is
Just the ticking clock:
Tock. Tock. Tock.

Lose your life for my sake: Remembering Grandpa

What does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake?

I was sitting on a park bench, feeling the warm sun just under the gentle breeze of a perfect day.

Florence, Italy. My sister, my friend, and I had been planning this trip for months. Flights, buses, trains, shuttles, airbnbs, tourist sites.

But there in the park, I was thinking about losing life. Because while we were still in Madrid, Grandpa had passed from this world to the next.

“Dad, should we cancel our trip?” I would not have been able to travel back for the funeral anyway, but being on a belated 30th birthday trip while my family mourned…

“Absolutely do not cancel your trip!”

So here I sat in Florence, pondering Matthew 10 on the day of Grandpa’s visitation. Have I found life by losing it? This familiar passage wasn’t making sense anymore.

The late cappuccino (we had defied the culture by sipping our cappuccino after 11 a.m.) was still taking effect. Just over the mesh-lined fence, tennis players swung rackets at a yellow ball. I could barely see them, but I heard them. Grunt. Thwack. Grunt. Thwack. “Out!”

Am I worthy of Christ? Do I love Him more than family? Have I taken up my cross?

In Italy—in a world so different from the one I grew up in—it was hard to understand that Grandpa was gone. But I let my mind drift through memories.

Hours and hours of reading “Burn-stin Bear” books and “Dead-Eye Dick.” Patiently teaching us grandchildren (his “coochtie boochties”) to play 42. “Honda” rides. Issuing drivers’ licenses for the golf cart. Constantly wanting to tape record his little grandchildren singing songs. Sketching maps that directed us past where this or that “used to be” as if we had been born in his generation. Chanting “Cumbine coorn and cumbine be-eans,” as we pulled ourselves up to sit with him in the combine. Giving us “bubble gums” from the door pocket of his F-150, the one that had the automatic window buttons in little blue and red bubbles that I would run my fingers over while I waited for my gum.

Letting Grandpa serve you something from the shop was always exciting because it was fascinating to watch him prepare something from his stash of snacks. (Did you know you can make hot chocolate from microwaving chocolate milk? Or a “roastin’ ear” by microwaving an ear of sweet corn wrapped in a wet paper towel?) Sunday night at Grandpa and Grandma’s typically included helping Grandpa get the ice cream out of the “shed” and hiding a pickle or an olive under the heaping scoops in Dad’s ice cream bowl.

And then Grandpa began to get older and frail. Some of his stories came out confused. His tall body began to shrink. His blue eyes got watery. But those watery eyes always brightened when he talked about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When I told him goodbye last summer, I wondered if he would remember that I was going back to Spain.

Grandpa had dozed off while Grandma and I were chatting. “Touch his shoulder,” Grandma said.

I touched his shoulder and his blue eyes opened. Instead of watery, his eyes were clear as they stared up at me wordlessly.

“I’m going to go Grandpa. And I wanted to tell you goodbye.”

The clear, blue eyes continued to stare for several long moments. Had he heard me?

And then, “Kiss on the cheek!” So he remembered that my goodbye was longer than a “see you later.” I leaned over to hug him, kiss his cheek, and let him kiss mine.

My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you here again, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

He smiled. I cried. He was silent as I hugged him again.

That goodbye felt like a closed chapter in my life. It was one that I mourned, not only that day but also when Grandma passed away in November. And now again while sitting on that park bench, trying to register the reality of Grandpa’s death.

Death is real. It’s ugly. It hurts.

But what does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake? My mingling thoughts that late Florence morning brought me here: It isn’t until you die that the greatest potential for life is set before you.

Grandma

Grandma imagined a pump of cold, running water in heaven. She told me so as we sat side by side on the couch just before I left for Spain.

“What do you imagine?” she asked.

Heavenly mansions were on our minds, not the frailty of human life.

When I said goodbye, I hugged Grandma and then Grandpa. My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you again here, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

They both smiled.

But I couldn’t control that rush of grief. The memories, joys, sorrows, and love just landed in a heavy heap on my heart. I started to cry.

Like I am now.

Today is Grandma’s funeral and I’m an ocean away.

Grandma spent her whole life quietly serving others. She inspired almost subconscious admiration and love; she was the rock that we all leaned on but sometimes forgot was there. She always had time for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (and even our pets too!).

And yet, she loved to be alone, content to be still while the world marched by. She enjoyed life without needing to partake of all its luxuries, and contentment made her life richer. Her faith in God, her love for others, and her hobbies—collecting, organizing, couponing, gardening, reading— strengthened her for the hard things life threw at her.

On Friday, the hard thing was emergency surgery with very little chance of success. The family was stunned. We knew she was ready to meet her Maker, but we weren’t ready for her to meet her Maker.

And then she was gone. Before most of us had the chance to say goodbye.

It’s as if the book of some of my best memories has closed. No more melting plastic game chips on the threadbare carpet. No more sleepovers on crinkly pillow covers. No more poring over stacks of Berenstain Bear books. No more Keebler cookie snacks. No more tiptoeing around in the forbidden basement with cousins. No more strict “with soap!” hand washings. No more maneuvering the golf cart between the fragile fir trees at the risk of Grandma spotting us from the living room window. No more Grandma stories from when Dad was a little boy. No more of her French silk pie or other outstanding desserts and dishes. No more talks on the couch. No more phone calls or quirky, Grandma-style emails.

Her last email came the middle of October:

“Think I swept my time under the rug and now need to reverse that. All kind of things collect there under that cover up. That’s why some people insist on hardwood floors. Do you have hardwood floors or rugs with secrets?”

Her emails always put a smile on my face, no matter what kind of day I was having. Especially when they ended like this one:

“We don’t sweep love under the rug so you’re safe! Grandpa and Grandma”

On Saturday, I sat on the lonely beach, staring at the sea and trying to swallow the suddenness of her death. There’s just no easy way to say goodbye. No easy way to hurt. Friends from here and there and everywhere have decided to hurt with me and my family. Thank you.

Today we are grieving the loss of a beloved grandmother. And we’re also celebrating Grandma’s gain as she welcomes eternity.

I hope there’s a pump of cold, running water.