things Judah taught me: on with-ing

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 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. 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. 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.

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 person, not just the suffering. Be with.

lent readings, part ii

 As we near the halfway point in the Lenten season, I am learning more and more about the gift of being present in pain. For those of you experiencing long term pain or grief, this claim might make you want to throw a shoe at my face. Before you unlace, hear me out.

Life is not fair. We aren’t in charge and we can’t dictate the way our lives unfold. We can’t protect the people we love, and we can’t make sense of soul-crushing tragedy. Some of us live lives mostly shielded from these truths, while some of us can’t seem to escape the harsh realities of pain and suffering. When we suffer, some of us try to escape, while others simply hope to survive. We might try to shut our eyes, hoping it will go away. We might try to fight, kick, scream and rage, hoping our anger will replace our sorrow. We might try to distract ourselves, staying too busy to feel the hurt. We might try to focus on the good we hope will come out of it, attempting to soften the blows we currently endure by viewing our state from a far off place where we hope one day this will all make sense. Stripped down, these are all coping mechanisms, and while they can be effective, some pain is too big for coping. It is unmanageable. It is inescapable.

This Lent, I am realizing that when it becomes clear that escaping will not work, perhaps the best path forward is to simply face the hurt. Rather than using so much energy on complicated strategies of escape, I can bear witness to the disappointment threatening to consume me. I’m not suggesting it is a way out, but there is a calm that comes in observing my body and soul in suffering (or in joy). To stay in my own skin and be there for whatever comes, rather than trying to plan or produce or pray or project my way out of it.

In my own experience of God, there is a connecting holiness, an embodied solidarity, that comes when I decide to stay present in my pain instead of escaping. The Torah and the Bible speak of a God who is willing to wrestle with us, to cry with us, to listen to our lament. These Lenten readings are teaching me that God is just as present when I cry as God is when I refuse to let the tears come because I have Jedi mind-tricked my spirit into only hoping for good.

Cry. Or don’t. But don’t believe the lie that crying is unfaithful.

The one place I want to be when I am present in my pain is near God. Given the chance to introduce himself, God said, “I am.” That’s my best name. I am the present one. The always here one. The never past or future tense one. The ongoing in the moment one. To be near God is to be awake for this life, for these current moments: joyful and heartbreaking and everything in between.

May these readings be an invitation into presence, with yourself, with others, with the God of ‘I Am."‘

Week 4

To Ponder:

“But how sobering, that I can bring forth out of my thought-world into the external world either that which leads to life, or that which produces death in other men…we must understand that the reality of communion with God, and loving God, must take place in the inward self.”                                             -Francis Shaeffer

 

“Joy is portable. Joy is a habit, and these days, it can be a radical act. Buffy Sainte-Marie said, ‘Keep your nose to the joy trail.’ So for now let’s define joy as a slightly giddy appreciation, an inquisitive stirring, as when you see the first crocuses, the earliest struggling, stunted emergence of color in late winter, cream or gold against the tans and browns.”                                              -Anne Lamott

To Read:
Mar 25
Ps 143:5-10

Mar 26 Ps 25:4-18; 19:7-14

Mar 27 Ps 103; 131

Mar 28 Isaiah 43:1-7

Mar 29 Ps 1:1-3; 23

Mar 30 Habb 3:17-19

Mar 31  Matthew 5:1-12

  Week 5

To Ponder:

“The kind of peace shalom represents is active and engaged…Shalom is communal, holistic and tangible.  There is no private or partial shalom.  The whole community must have shalom or no one has shalom…Shalom is not for the many, while a few suffer; nor is it for the few while many suffer.”         -Randy Woodley

“We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face-to-face and side-by-side with others in work, love and learning.”   -Robert Bellah

To Read:

Apr 1 Ps 106:1-8

Apr 2 Eccles 3:1-8; Ps 13

Apr 3 Ps 101:1-6; 119:9-20

Apr 4 Micah 4:6-7; Luke 6:20-27

Apr 5 Ps 22:1-11; 24-31

Apr 6 Prov 3:1-12

Apr 7 Matthew 5:1-12

Week 6

To Ponder:

“Our call to faith in this present life is that we should live as though dead to all things, that we might be alive to God…God has always intended that Christians should be the evidence, the demonstration, of Christ’s victory on the cross.”   -Francis Shaeffer

“We spend too much time trying to fix the things we don’t like rather than simply reconciling everything to God….But I’ve come to understand that true justice is wrapped up in love…God’s love and justice come together in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and we can’t be about one and not the other. They’re inextricably connected.”                                                                            -John Perkins

To Read:

Apr 8 Song of Sol 8:6-7; Isai 41:3-13

Apr 9 Ps 116:1-9; Ps 127:1-2

Apr 10 Ps 9:7-14; 17:6-11

Apr 11 Ps 3:1-5; 21:3

Apr 12 Micah 7:18-20

Apr 13 Ps 28:1-2; 40:1-11

Apr 14 Matthew 5:1-12

Week 7

To Ponder:

“Jesus is not some impossible horizon in the distance, far removed from the realm of possibility or your everyday life. He is very near. This is the nearness that union with Christ brings; you are in Christ and Christ is in you…Christ now set you free to be your true self: the self you are by grace, not the self you are by nature…Jesus came from heaven in order that the image of God might be restored in you.” -Rankin Wilbourne

“When we walk with God, all things become new.”          -Mary Wineinger

To Read:

Apr 15 Ps 102:1-4

Apr 16 Isaiah 54:1-8

Apr 17 Ps 18:25-36; 20

Apr 18 Isaiah 55:1-12

Apr 19 Ps 32:1-5; 38:1-11, 15-18

Apr 20 Isaiah 61:1-11

Apr 21 Matthew 5:1-12