Sunday, December 28, 2014

Comfort, comfort ye my people

Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Today we continue to welcome the arrival of the incarnate King—the Word made flesh. Today we continue to give gifts to our children and to sing of the birth of the Second Adam. Today we again raise our glasses and our voices in celebration of the event that marked the beginning of a new humanity—the beginning of all things made new. Today our spirits rejoice in God our Savior who has visited us in our low estate.

Today is also the Feast of the Holy Innocents—a day that, according to the church calendar, commemorates the massacre of the infants by king Herod following the visit of the magi. Today, many churches around the globe remember that loud lamentation—the voice of Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more.

Today is the collision of two feast days, one of joy and the other of mourning. And today, I feel both the weight of that glory and the weight of that grief.

• • • • • •

Last night, as I lay awake next to the low hum of the humidifier, trying to relieve the pressure from a splitting sinus headache, I received a Facebook notification on my phone—a friend asking for prayer for her son and husband who were lost in the dark and snow on a mountainside in central Idaho with a search and rescue team sent out to find them.

My heart raced. Jayson and I had just spent the afternoon driving slowly home from Spokane and knew how icy and treacherous the highways were. We ourselves had slid on the road and seen cars being towed from snowy ditches, and I could only imagine how much more dangerous the driving conditions must be on a winding mountain road. We prayed for the safe return of these two men and for peace for my friend as she sat up during the long, dark hours waiting for news.

Still unable to sleep, I read another prayer request sent out by yet another friend. This time, my heart fell into the pit of my stomach. Earlier in the day another friend of mine and her husband had left home with their daughter, a former classmate of Jonah’s, to drive her to Montana for a visit with friends. As they drove on those same icy, snow-covered roads, they were involved in a collision that injured my friend, but that killed their daughter instantly.

I spent a good part of the night with an aching head and a breaking heart, praying and praying again for these dear families—and particularly for these mothers. Both of these families have already suffered through tremendous trials, long periods of uncertainty, and pain of body and spirit. And yet both of these families, in the middle of their various struggles, have shown all of us what it looks like to have joy in the midst of trouble. These mothers in particular have been an ongoing example to me of selfless love, steadfast patience and joyful encouragement—women who pour themselves out to bless those around them.

As I prayed, I wondered, not for the first time, at the sudden and severe providences of God.

• • • • • •

I know that at times like this, Reformed Christians like me tend to toss Romans 8:28 around like some kind of magical band-aid: God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, so turn that frown upside down! But trusting in God’s mercy and kindness, believing that He is doing good in the direst circumstances, is not always an instant cure for a broken body or a breaking heart.

Does the reality of pain and death undo the truth of that verse? No. But I also cannot pretend to know exactly how God is working all things for our good. Why must these families, of all people, be given this additional weight to bear? Why this? And why them? I don't know the answer. But I remind myself that God is working for the good not only of those who suffer but also for the good of those who are witnesses to their suffering.

Knowing how these women, these friends of mine, have repeatedly expressed their deep trust in the goodness of God while facing life-altering trials is something that has certainly worked for good in my own life. In many ways, it's through seeing the example of other suffering saints that I found courage to face smaller trials in my own life—and that prepared me for facing some of the hardest days of Jonah's cancer treatment. For that I am grateful. But knowing that God is doing good through these hard moments does not mean that the moments cease to be hard.

How many times have I have bitten my nails in fear or felt tears welling up with sadness during the most harrowing moments of a good story—a story that I already knew would have happy ending? Knowing the end—knowing the good to come—does not take away the tension or the tears. How much more so when the story is the one lived out before our eyes in real time? If even Jesus, who knew that Lazarus would soon step out of his tomb alive, wept at the death of his friend, we might weep as well.

The valley of the shadow of death is a place none of us hope to find ourselves. And yet all of us will walk through it sooner or later. As I lay awake last night, I ached for my friends who were walking there at that very moment. God does promise to be with us in that dark place, but He does not promise to swoop in and remove us from it. He may not take us out of the presence of our enemies. But He does prepare a table before us there—even in the presence of the last enemy.

God is working all things for good. Can it be true? Even this? Even cancer? Even loved ones lost on an icy mountainside at night? Even (I can hardly type the words) the death of a child? All things working together for good? All things?

I still believe it. It is peace and comfort. It is a hope that, in these dark hours, keeps us from despair. But it is not an anesthetic that can be clinically injected into our troubled souls to immediately take away the pain. 

• • • • •

It is Christmas. During this season, we remember with joy that the Light has come into the world. But this day also reminds me that the story does not end there. Light did come, but the world did not comprehend it. The Lord of Glory was born into a dark world that would spill the blood of the innocent—and that would, in the end, spill the innocent blood of the Son of God Himself. The sky would go dark. The earth would shake. And through those hours of deepest darkness, when the Light of the World seemed to be extinguished forever, God would, definitively and perfectly, unexpectedly and gloriously, work all things—yes, all things—for our good.

This morning, I woke to bright sun shining through snowy branches and sat up, hoping for news from my friend whose husband and son were lost. I checked my news feed and read her update with the report of their late-night rescue with such relief that I cried. I was overwhelmed with grateful joy. And as I thanked God I remembered my other friend whose daughter is no more. And I wept again, overwhelmed by the terrible loss. I was still wiping away tears when my youngest son ran into my room and bounced on my bed declaring, “It’s Christmas again!” And so it is. Oh, tidings of comfort—and joy.

The sunrise from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. —Luke 1:78-79

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Here we are, already at the end of another year full of reasons to be grateful. I'd love to have written a nice, newsy Christmas update to include with all the greeting cards we would have sent out to friends and family this month. Maybe the news update will still happen, but having only just gotten my computer back after two and a half weeks in the shop, I now find myself busily catching up on all the computer work I should have gotten done during that time. So the Christmas card mailing is not happening this year. It's honestly a bit of a relief to put off all the printing and labeling and mailing  until next year, but I'm sorry not to send you all something festive to hang on the refrigerator. 

Here, however—in digital form—is this year's card, arriving not in your mailbox but in your news feed. Feel free to print it out, stick it on your fridge, and pretend it came with a stamp!

Many blessings to you and your families this Christmas! 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Taste Not

Nakuru, Kenya. 1991.

The girls from my Form Two class at the international school had collected in the white-walled lunch hall where bright, equatorial sunlight lay in blinding streaks across the heavy wooden tables and the polished concrete floor. The double doors on either side of the room were open to the breeze—a long breath of eucalyptus and red earth and damp grass, fresh and warm after the drenching Kenyan rains.

I was attending the boarding school as a day student—the only non-boarder, the only American, and the only white student in my class—during the five months that my father taught journalism at the nearby university. Having arrived halfway through my eighth grade year, I was only just beginning to understand the manners and customs that shaped life at the school, and no hour of the day presented a steeper learning curve than the lunch hour. I had learned to wait to sit until our teacher sat, to always eat with my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right, and to never call "pudding" dessert as I would at home. I had also learned that food choices here were determined by more than a simple matter of preference.

Mlle. Dubois from Nice, who taught us French, presided over the table that day. She stood alone at our head, beautiful with her sun-freckled cheeks and long brown curls, hardly looking older than us thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls. She bowed her head slightly and led us in a hastily mumbled, "Bless us and these thy gifts, which we receive from thy bountiful goodness." A prayer generic enough to offend few and to please none.

She sat abruptly and stiffly. We sat loudly and awkwardly, all creaking chair legs and gesticulating arms and angular teenaged knees beneath our green uniform skirts.

We poured glasses of iced lemonade from a plastic pitcher, and our conversation trickled lazily around the table, changing accents as it flowed from girl to girl, while we waited for the food to arrive. A hadada ibis landed heavily in the tree outside, bouncing its weight on a thin branch, and began hollering its name, over and over, to the iridescent starlings that pecked for their lunch on the trim lawn below. “Hadada!” he hollered, “Hadada!” As if hungry for acknowledgment from any listener—even the lowliest of birds. As if he were afraid the world might forget his identity. As if he hoped his nervous bravado might be taken for confident laughter. “Hadada!”

A pair of best friends from India, Pooja and Sejal, sat on either side of me and leaned forward to speak in shrill, hurried whispers over me. From time to time they would include me in their banter, but they often interspersed their musical English with Hindi slang that I could not decipher, and now their stifled giggles formed an unseen barrier that I could not cross. Mlle. Dubois raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow their direction but said nothing.

The door to the kitchen squeaked open, and a row of servers walked into the lunch room carrying large beige plastic trays and the smells of fresh bread and oniony gravies. My belly rolled thunder, and I clutched my side, hoping no one had heard. At each table, a member of the kitchen staff in a wrinkled white apron placed a dish of overcooked mixed vegetables. The kitchen door swung open, shut, open shut. Then followed a basin of steamed pudding with a pitcher of warm vanilla custard to pour over it—something sweet to entice us to finish those limp vegetables.

We girls, with all of our varied religions and languages and nationalities and shades of ebony and mahogany and copper and pink, might have formed some kind of heartwarming, we-are-the-world postcard of global peace, gathered as we were around that under-salted bowl of vegetables. Green beans and lemonade. A bloodless communion. We took and ate—Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and we assorted flavors of protestants all serving ourselves from the same dish. Warm bread arrived next in towel-lined bowls, and we ate from the same loaf. Conversation began to build, and chatter about boys and maths and field hockey filled the air: “So, which house is going to win the tournament?” “Ha! You really think he’s cute?” “You got an A? Oh, shut it. That exam killed me!”

Then came the platters of meat.

I looked toward the Form Three table across from ours and made eye contact with my friend Angela Wahome. She smiled warmly. Her teeth had been recently repaired in Nairobi after a collision with a field hockey stick during one of our P.E. matches. They shone against her dark, even skin, and I admired their new, artificial whiteness, even as I wore my own whiteness like an outdated shirt. Not long after I had arrived at this school, Angela had sought me out, in her quiet and unassuming way, and had introduced herself to me. That I was the only white student in my class had made me uncertain of where I might fit in. That my class was an unfamiliar crowd of teenagers claiming a half dozen different religions made my own faith seem less comfortably certain. But Angela was a Christian. I was a Christian. To me that seemed bond enough. We were sisters, and she had become an anchor to my unmoored soul. I smiled back.

One of the kitchen staff rounded the corner and laid a covered dish on the table. He lifted the lid, saying, simply and softly, "Pork,” before moving on to the next table. The well browned roast, sliced thick and smothered in gravy, smelled of Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house. Comfort food. I usually gave little thought to what sort of animal had given its life for my lunch, but here in this room full of girls from every tribe and tongue and nation, the question could not go unanswered. We might break bread, but I could not break beef with the girl to my right or to my left. Every imaginable religious dietary restriction seemed to be represented in that room, and every restriction had to be honored. We were cut off from one another by a carving knife.

I picked up the platter of steaming pork, took a slice, spooned on a little gravy, and passed it to Pooja, a Hindu, who, still giggling, took a couple slices and passed it down the table. Some girls took and some passed it on without allowing so much as a finger to touch the meat. Today it was surprisingly good—tender, well salted, and more peppery than usual. On days like this I thought of the Sikh boy in my class, a vegetarian, and pitied him for what he must not taste, must not handle, must not touch.

Minutes later, the kitchen door swung open again, and a few more servers in aprons carried new platters of meat through the little lunch room, calling, "Beef! Beef!" A dozen or so Muslim hands shot up, and the servers worked their way along the tables, ladling cubed beef onto the plates of those with their hands in the air. Sometimes if the pork looked nasty, I'd opt for the beef along with the Muslims, but most of the time I ate the meat of the day without comment.

My Pakistani friend Shabnum sat across the table from me and was eating and talking in her animated way with another girl, gesturing with her fork as she spoke between bites. When the server neared our table and again called, "Beef!" Shabnum froze. She pulled her hands back from the table and dropped her fork and knife with such a sudden recoiling, as if they had transformed into a pair of serpents. She stared at her plate. She turned and stared at the server. She looked back to her plate again with wide-eyed horror. “What— What—“ She struggled for speech. “What is this? What are we eating?” Her dark eyes moved from face to face along our table, searching for reassurance.

“It’s pork,” Mlle. Dubois said bluntly.

In the bustle of the noisy lunchroom and in the excitement of sharing gossip, Shabnum had not heard the word "pork" when the server had placed the platter on the table. The meat was dark like beef, and none of the girls around her were used to paying attention to food concerns other than their own. Nobody had noticed Shabnum's mistake.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. Ohmygodohmygod. Oh my GOD!” Shabnum’s chest rose in quick, shallow breaths. “Oh no. Oh hell. Hell! Oh God,” she continued in a hoarse whisper, pushing her chair from the table with a screech against the smooth floor. She held her hand to her heart and ran out the open door and down the slope toward the hockey fields, whispering panicked curses as she went.

Mlle. Dubois set down her fork without a sound. The room had gone nearly silent, and she looked down the table at our bewildered faces. I could hear the sound of my own chewing, and the noise of my teeth working seemed strangely offensive. I stopped and held the wad of half-chewed pork inside my cheek. We had several Muslim boys in my class, but Shabnum was the only Muslim girl. None of us knew what to do. Or to say. Or even to think. We looked to our teacher whose face showed that she was clearly as uncertain as we were. At last she said softly, “Pooja. Hannah. Sejal. Go after her and see if you can cheer her up.”

We glanced at each other nervously but stood. Cheer her up? How? Here we were, an American Presbyterian and a pair of Hindu girl friends, sent to bring good cheer to a young woman suffering from some kind of unspeakable turmoil of soul over a piece of pot roast. What were we supposed to do? Tell jokes? Sooo, two Hindus and a Presbyterian walk into a bar…?

We stepped carefully down the damp grass and whispered to each other. “Did you see what happened? Was it just the pork?” “Yeah, she ate it on accident.” “She thought it was beef.” “That was kinda scary.” “Completely. You think she’s OK?” “I don’t know. What do Muslims believe about sinning on accident?” “I have no idea.” “Where did she go?”

We wandered across the lawn until we turned the corner of the pool house, where we found her in the shadows, pressing her back against the cool cinder block wall and staring at the fast-moving clouds overhead. She did not look toward us, but we could see wet streaks marking both cheeks. Her arms were folded tightly around her tall, thin body. “Shabnum?” Pooja said. No answer. “Um, I’m really sorry. Um. Are you OK?”

Shabnum uncrossed her arms and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. “No,” she said.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Sejal said brightly. Shabnum did not uncover her eyes. Sejal looked at me and shrugged with a forced smile still on her face.

“Yeah,” I added. “It was an accident, right? God will forgive you, right?” I felt a shudder go through me. Do Muslims believe that Allah forgives? What about understandable mistakes? I wondered. I didn't know what I was saying.

“No!” Shabnum flung her arms down. She turned her red, watering eyes toward me, and I felt my own begin to burn. “You don’t understand!”

Pooja and Sejal both stepped toward her to put a hand on her shoulder. I stayed back, uncomfortable in both my skin and in my soul. The air was growing warm, and the humidity felt like weight. Shabnum shrank away from their reach, but Pooja tried again, “Shabum, I’m sure there are millions of people who do stuff like this—who eat the wrong thing or do the wrong thing on accident. It’s totally understandable.”

“I mean, it was a complete accident, yeah?” Sejal said, “'Cause you thought it was beef. Allah knows that, yeah? He knows you thought it was beef, so it wasn’t, um, a sin or whatever.” Sejal looked back at me and shrugged again. We were foolish girls wading into waters blacker and deeper than we could tread. My neck itched, and the air grew heavier.

“Oh God!” Shabnum shouted at the grass. “You don’t understand!” We three would-be comforters looked at each other in confusion. “Oh hell!” Shabnum shouted again. “ I might be going to hell!” The last word cracked in her throat. She slid her back down the rough wall, sat on the damp earth, clutched her knees, leaned her head back, and sobbed.

A bell rang. Students from the lunch room began to fan out across the lawn toward the various classroom buildings. Several girls looked down the hill toward us with curiosity. Angela stopped walking and looked at me with concerned, questioning eyes. I stuck out my lower lip and shook my head. She grimaced and walked on. 

“Oh God!” Shabnum wailed again, seemingly unaware of how her voice carried across the school grounds.

“Allah won’t send you to hell for eating pork by mistake!” Pooja said with a kind of vehement certainty that surprised me. “He wouldn’t do that!” She sounded almost offended.

Shabnum's tears fell on her white blouse and formed an uneven pattern of translucent dots where they landed. “You don’t understand.” Shabnum repeated. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand.” And I didn't.

How could I understand? I could not understand what it was to feel the crippling fear of damnation. I could not understand how anyone could find hope of relief from a god who, it seemed, might send a repentant teenaged girl to hell for a cafeteria mix up.

I wanted to tell her something about guilt and forgiveness, about freedom from shame, but I found no words. In my remaining months at the school with Shabnum, we would never again speak of this incident. We would proceed as if nothing had happened. Shabnum would laugh, and I would laugh with her, and we would pass the plates of meat around the table as we had done before. But the memory of those moments would trouble me for many weeks and months. Even now, decades later, when I push my grocery cart through the checkout and see the headlines on women's magazines that say "Eat without Guilt!" I sometimes picture Shabnum's thin form shuddering with guilt and fear next to the pool house. And I wonder what more I might have said.

Mlle. Dubois appeared at the top of the hill. “Time for class,” she called to us. “Are you ready?” We looked at each other, unsure of what further good we could possibly do, and unsure of whether to leave Shabnum alone in her misery. Mlle. Dubois sighed. “No? O.K. Ten more minutes. Then come to class.”

We nodded and turned back toward Shabnum’s crumpled figure. She was biting the side of her hand as she wept, and the three of us stood in silence and listened to her muffled sobs. We watched her shaking shoulders and felt the humid air rustle our polyester skirts. “Hadada!” hollered the bird in the tree. “Hadada!” another laughed in return. “Hadada! Hadada! Hadada!” The joke seemed mutual now. The starlings pecking the grass did not look up.

“Shabnum?” I said quietly when her weeping had calmed to sniffs and sighs.

“Please go,” she whispered. “Please go away. You don’t understand.”

“Hadada!” In the branches overhead, an ibis continued to laugh.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Jonah's Wish Trip to Oahu

After nearly two years of battling leukemia, Jonah was granted his wish to swim with dolphins in Hawaii. Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the whole family flew to Oahu and stayed for six days, in a beautiful suite overlooking the Pacific (complete with wild sea turtles!), at the Sheraton Waikiki.

During Jonah's trip, we visited Pearl Harbor, met Kaleo the dolphin at Sea Life Park, enjoyed local food and entertainment at a luau, tried surfing for the first time, went snorkeling, swam, swam, swam, built sand castles, soaked up the tropical sunshine, toured the Dole Pineapple Plantation, checked out the food trucks and shave ice on the North Shore, spotted wild dolphins during a sailing excursion on a catamaran, enjoyed beautiful scenery–including daily rainbows, saw some old friends, and met several other Make-A-Wish families. We were treated like royalty, and will carry happy memories from this trip for the rest of our lives. THANK YOU, MAKE-A-WISH, for giving Jonah the vacation of a lifetime!

Here's a video slideshow of our trip. Or, if you prefer, click here for an online gallery where you can see the photos individually.

Jonah's Make-A-Wish Trip to Hawaii from Hannah G on Vimeo.

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