on resisting: being with

I wrote the following on a very bad day full of very bad news. I wrote it as an act of resistance, because I realized that bad news has a way of becoming the center. The consuming, expanding center of everything. I felt the devouring begin to happen and I refused to allow the monster of bad news to erase the person for whom the news was bad. I wanted to resist the erasure, to remind myself that while bad news can be loud, I could learn to drown it out by singing the song of a remarkable child who belongs to a family who loves him. Today more bad news threatens to take all our attention, and I find myself resisting again. I won’t let the hard things take my eye off the good lives I know. Every instant we commit to loving those who hurt creates a moment of beautiful resistance. As perfect love casts out fear, stubborn belonging dispels the power of evil.

From July:

Today I found out my sister’s son will likely die within a year. He has a brain tumor, and it used to be a gentle tumor stuck in a bad place. This summer it turned into a ferocious tumor that respects no boundaries. His name is Judah, and I have to remember that he is the one, the star of his life, not the damn tumor. The tumor seems to be calling the shots, but Judah’s life is much more than a tumor bearer. He is an image bearer. He was put together by a creative and loving God who knows his name. Who knows his every thought. Who sees each tear that falls, and hears him when he calls.

It is easy to forget this in the midst of hospitals and ERs and pain meds and appointments and tests and labs and waiting rooms and waiting in general. But Judah himself is a gift to us. He is clever. Super smart and observant and notices stuff that others don’t. He loses himself in imaginings. He laughs at funny faces. He latches on to clever turns of phrase. He loves to be the one who knows, who understands, who gets it, and so he builds connections with the adults he trusts. He’ll pick up on a phrase and then, hours later, look at the adult who first said it, and repeat it with a knowing glance, “Oh, here we go again…we’ve been here before.” Endearing, this ability of his to connect. To remember. To create a thing we share. He has made me feel worth observing.

In the face of bad news, it is all too easy to turn away, to shut down, to pretend we don’t care because we can’t imagine how to fix it, to try to minimize the pain by averting our gaze. But when you love someone, these methods don’t work. You can’t turn away, because the grief is in every corner. The only thing to do is to lament. To acknowledge what has been done and to confess what you have done.

To cry out for all the sadness, to witness the pain, to sit in the grief, to behold the breaking heart.

Apathy and indifference feel viable until they aren’t. Distraction works until it doesn’t. Therapists tell us we cannot heal until we talk about our pain. There is power in bearing witness. In being present for the awful.

Sometimes this life can feel like a fight to win. Or an effort to be upwardly mobile. Or a platform to find followers. Or a canvas on which to leave a mark. Or a warehouse in which to horde wealth. Or a story to write that makes you the exceptional hero.

What if it is none of those things? What if life is really about the chance to show up and be present with others? What if life is a block of time in which we get to lend a hand to others, be a companion on a fearful fretful journey, and bear witness in all the possible ways? Bear witness to the truth you have experienced, to the ways of God as you understand them, and also to witness other humans being human? To watch, observe, listen and stand next to? What if life is about being with?

When God gave a vision to Isaiah, his Prophet, about the coming Messiah, the One who would redeem and save the people God created, he called him “Emmanuel.” God with us. I have come to believe that bearing witness to Emmanuel is the best we can do. By this I mean that perhaps the best we can do is to show up in someone’s life and offer to be “with” them. If we hope to emulate God then we must be people who are with other people, as Christ was. We must strive for the “with.”

 In the weeks and months ahead, my sister and her husband will be “with” their hurting son and his siblings. They will be companions. They will observe and listen and lean in. In this way, they will elevate Judah the child of God, not Judah the kid with cancer. Judah is Subject of this story, not the object of a disease. Judah is worth witnessing. Judah is worth being with.

 When we see so much pain around us, from counselor offices to Senate hearings to adolescent angst to refugees fleeing home, let’s work to remember that the people enduring the pain are the ones we want to stand beside. Don’t look to the problem before we see the people suffering underneath the problem. It is so easy to focus on the trouble, to give attention to the pain. The better path though, is to hold on to the uniquely fabulous person underneath all that trouble. Good energy is spent telling the story of a person’s self, refusing to allow them to be eclipsed by the pain they endure or the problem they survive.

Bear witness to the lives of the people around you. Show up. Make time. Pay attention. Remember. These are ways to resist the darkness: Give people a place to belong when the path ahead is dim. Remind them that they are seen and loved, not lost in all the pain. Find the story of them, not just the suffering. Be with.

han solo, on faith and hope

I recently watched A New Hope, the film that introduced my generation to Star Wars. Our family gathered to view it for my nephew’s 10th birthday, projected on a big expansive wall, with bags of popcorn and candy in abundance. It was such a beautiful night, not just because that movie is nearly perfect in the way it threads early friendship, captures the angst of longing to outgrow one’s childhood, describes good and evil, explains the sacrifice necessary for resistance, and demonstrates the way we mechanize the serving class, reducing them to machines even as we delight in their simple mindedness (It really is a fabulous film).

It was also a beautiful night because my nephew has a brain tumor, and we don’t know if he will have another birthday. The pain of carrying this knowledge is excruciating. The weight overwhelms when added to any simple task. It is always present, and always terrible.

 It is especially awful in the way it disorients us in relation to time. When a young person you love might not live long, you feel regret and longing for the time before, when you did not know. You feel the present in your bones: the frantic, fleeting, precious present, and you want to grab all of it. The future looms, though. You fear it, hating what it brings. It is easy to forget that you are at war with the future on a hard day though, and you might accidentally long for it to end. Then you’ve betrayed yourself, because you vowed to avoid the future, to never ask it to come. Part of the weight of grief is the way it makes you betray yourself.

 Judah Finn, my nephew, has been in Memphis since July, when his mom and dad arrived with their family for a 2-day appointment. They haven’t driven east since, but are suspended, like time, on the western edge of the state. Judah is being treated at St. Jude, a magical place that celebrates the dance of past, present and future in remarkable ways.

When you enter St. Jude, you are accosted by pictures of bald children. These aren’t fat little babies, but kids of various ages, kids whose hair should be pulled back in a ponytail so a cartwheel can be perfected. Kids who should be experimenting with hair gel and the wondrous spikes it can create. The shock of their sunken eyes and round heads exposed by chemotherapy makes you want to look away. But then you realize each of these faces is a portrait being held by even bigger pictures of adults. The kids smile in the midst of pain, but the adults are beaming. They smile the smile of gratitude. They are survivors, holding pictures of themselves from their pasts. The images of the adults, with long lives behind them, are juxtaposed with the kids they once were, living through a nightmare. Their futures came, with wonder, so their pasts could be gladly left behind, rather than gripped with longing. Suddenly you realize that these pictures don’t mean to accost; they invite you to believe.

The thing about faith is that it is elusive. It can be hard to find, hard to trust, hard to know. I used to hear people describe how they walked through hard places, carried by their strong faith. Now I am more likely to hear people say the Universe feels really dark right now. People say this not to explore some vague sense of spirituality; they are simply people whose life experiences leave them wondering if they can trust the world as they previously thought it to be. When life is devastating, when it feels as if all the things we once trusted are no longer safe, where do we turn?

As a person of faith, I turn to God, to a Messiah who moved toward hurting people in time and space to redeem them, to bind up their broken hearts and to comfort those who mourned. Still, this turning to God thing can feel foolish, or perhaps insufficient, when the life I experience is wrong. It is wrong for my sister and her husband to cling to the life of their son as a tumor tries to take him away. It is wrong for their family to be suspended in Memphis, for their sense of time to be disorienting. It is wrong for them to want the future to come so Judah’s siblings will remember him. It is wrong for a God who heals and comforts to see God’s people broken and grieving.

And yet, I turn to God and find comfort there, even when I’m angry and not sure I want to believe anymore.

In a remarkable story told by one of his close friends, Jesus tells a man whose child is ill that he must believe, for believing leads to hope and hope leads to love and love sustains us. The broken man, responding, says to the Giver of all life, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” This is a story I cherish, for it captures well my dance with faith. It is everything to me, and it is fickle, not to be trusted.

 Still, even in all the pain, faith and hope are what I long for. They are elusive and difficult, but they are also the marrow, the lifeblood that help us survive. St. Jude knows this. This is why they display photos of beaming adult survivors holding pictures of themselves on their worst day. Because sometimes the worst day is the worst…but sometimes it isn’t.

 In A New Hope, Han Solo is arrogant: a self-starting egomaniac who depends on no one but himself and his furry, moaning companion, Chewbacca. Although he chooses to save himself and abandon his friends (temporarily, of course), Solo wants to comfort Luke, to say something that will help him when he faces a crisis. Like many of us, his strategies for avoiding risk and protecting himself fall away when he realizes the people he loves are in danger. He wants to believe. As Luke turns to board his X-wing fighter, Solo calls his name, and then says, with something more like wondering than conviction, “The Force be with you…?” You hear it, right? He says it like a question, as if he is uttering for the first time, Could this thing be real? Could it help? Do you believe?

I’ve never noticed it before, but earlier this month, as my nephew turned 10 and the whole world felt sad and beautiful and ugly as we battled to live only in the exact moment we embodied, Han Solo seemed to speak for all of us. I looked over at my brother, with whom I share a soul and every important instinct, and saw the tears in his eyes through my own. Our eyes wondered, together, “The Force be with you…?”

I think Solo knows what faith is like…it can be a statement, but sometimes it is a longed-for question, and it is no less powerful for being so. Only a few things remain, but faith, hope and love are among them.

laboring for joy: the work of grief

This weekend my family got together to create and seek and accept joy in the midst of terrible pain. It was, as I now often say, excruciatingly beautiful. When the injustice and intimacy of pain makes the ground shake, it tends to become THE story. It is the lens through which everything else is seen, shading it all in an indistinguishable gray. Pain sometimes deadens the senses, so that you cannot notice, let alone experience, joy and all the relief it brings. This weekend though, with great effort, we made room in the pain for joy. 

It was hard. When grief tries to swallow you up, it takes all the effort you have to keep from drowning. The lift is enormous. After doing the heavy lifting, with others, to create the space and environment that could invite joy to enter, I learned a few things:

1) It was hard. It drew from the bone marrow, and took all we had. It was hard to plan, hard to show up, hard to smile. Grief makes everything hard. It is a type of labor, and it is worth saying out loud that this is true. 

2) It was also easy, though. When the space was created, the plan set in motion, and the people started gathering, the joy that comes out of community took us all in. Joy is a slippery term, but I'm using it to capture those moments when gratitude wells up, when a shared resonance with another human surprises you, when the connection between the right now and the eternity we were made for seems less ridiculous. Joy is the experience that reminds you that hope outlasts despair. To quote Bono, you have found joy when your soul believes, for a fleeting moment, that "love is bigger than anything in its way." Joy is able to make room in the midst of pain for comfort and gratitude. This weekend, joy came in and reminded us we aren't alone, that our community is witnessing this awful thing communally, and together we bear each other up as we bear the weight of sadness. The fun and laughter came easily, and we all got swept up in the incredible gift of this one moment. Pain, yes. But joy as well. Weepy smiles. The pain was still there, but it was a guest, rather than the host. Grief is not more manageable when managed. Being with others who know a bit about your hurt, even when you have no desire to be with anyone, somehow makes joy possible. 

This Labor Day, I see a new side of labor. I am an advocate of working with our hands, of creating beauty and order with our bodies. Of the privilege and dignity of labor in a world that only values capital. This Labor Day though, I wanted to pause and say that creating joy in the midst of pain is very hard work. It is labor. And yet, joy and grief can coexist when we walk through life with others (The scriptures say it is not good for us to be alone, and maybe this is why). Joy is a stubborn ass, and she will show up every single time, even if it takes a great deal of labor to create space for her. Just because it is hard does not mean it is is not possible. Do the work to help hurting people in your life survive their pain. Do the work to belong to a community that pays attention to the people in it. Labor is hard! Spend yourself thoroughly in creating space for joy, and then rest, knowing your sacrifice, your presence, might provide a merciful gift to a person in pain.