Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grief and Silence

We were not prepared for the tragic news. Because our friends did not know how to tell us over the phone, they waited until our visit last week to share with us their great loss.

The grandmother welcomed us into their home, unable to hold back her tears. We had no idea what was wrong as we followed her to the table and sat down while they poured us tea and set out snacks for us to eat. The mother then explained to us why her mother-in-law was crying. “It’s because our son died in March.” She quickly left the room to prepare more food for us, and the grandmother returned to her bed at the end of the hall. We silently sipped our tea and let this news sink in; our hearts filled with grief.

One of the friends traveling with us encouraged me to go comfort the grandmother whose muffled sobs echoed softly in the hallway.  I reluctantly stood up, thinking “I really don’t know what to say.” But as I slowly walked down the hall, I was reminded of Job’s friends who simply sat with him in his grief to comfort him “because his suffering was too great for words.” (Job ). “God, please help my presence be a comfort to her.” She graciously patted the spot next to her on the bed for me to sit down and I took her hands. We cried together and she told me the story of her grandson’s death.

She pointed to the majestic mountains behind their house and said, “Every day we have to look at these mountains where he died. It was snowing. Five boys climbed the mountain together one Saturday. Only three of them returned. My grandson reached out his hand to save his friend who started to slide. But he was pulled down too, and they both died. They were 13 years old.”

As we were talking, the grandmother’s son (the boy’s father) came home and seemed uncomfortable as he approached and saw us crying. He urged us to stop, by repeating “It’s already passed. It’s already passed.”

Later that evening, I had opportunity to talk with the mother, and was encouraged by the depth of our sharing. But later, I felt concerned that, in my desire to “minister” to her, I may have said too much or the wrong thing. I hope that some of my words will bear fruit in her life. Others may need to be forgotten. I was greatly impacted though by what she shared with me and with what I am beginning to learn about how this culture experiences death and its accompanying grief. Grief seems to be very private and emotions are best suppressed. The mother told me that her tears have had to fall inside because tears would make Allah angry.

How can we enter into the grief of this culture? How can we speak a word of hope?

I love the writings of Henri Nouwen, and I can identify with what he says about ministry in weakness:

“One of the most rewarding experiences of living in a strange land is the experience of being loved not for what we can do, but for who we are. When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak. This is a true healing.”

Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope. This hope is not based on any power to solve the problems of those with whom we live, but on the love of God, which becomes visible when we let go of out fears of being out of control and enter into his presence in a shared confession of weakness.” (circles of love p. 50)

He also says that our compassionate presence can be one of the greatest gifts we can offer those who suffer:

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.” (The Way of the Heart p. 24-25)

As we cannot offer other what we have not experienced ourselves, how important it is for us to first meet with God in silence and solitude and experience healing in our own hearts:

“We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with him and him alone…to keep the eyes of our mind and heart on him who is our divine savior. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God.” (The Way of the Heart p. 20)

Then we are able to invite others to enter into the free space of our hearts to experience God’s healing presence:

“I must create some free space in my innermost self so that I may invite others to enter and be healed. To pray for others means to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen to their needs and pains. Compassion, therefore, calls for a self-scrutiny that can lead to inner gentleness.

If I could have a gentle ‘interiority”—a heart of flesh and not of stone, a room with some spots on which one might walk barefooted—then God and my fellow humans could meet each other there. Then the center of my heart can become the place where God can hear the prayer for my neighbors and embrace them with his love.” (circles of love p. 22)

He says of silence:

“One of our main problems is that in this chatty society, silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow. For them silence is like a gaping abyss which can swallow them up.” (The Way of the Heart p. 52)

But we can learn to see the power of silence and the fruitful words that are born from it and then return to it:

“A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence.” (The Way of the Heart p. 48-49)

“All this is true only when the silence from which the word comes forth is not emptiness and absence, but fullness and presence, not the human silence of embarrassment, shame, or guilt, but the divine silence in which love rests secure.” (The Way of the Heart p. 49)

“…silence is above all a quality of the heart that can stay with us even in our conversation with others. It is a portable cell that we carry with us wherever we go. From it we speak to those in need and to it we return after our words have borne fruit.” (The Way of the Heart p. 60)

These are all lessons that I want to apply to my life, and I am aware of how far I have to go! My natural tendency, with God and with people, is to fill up silence with words. I want to know the fullness and the presence of silence.

God, please help me to find rest in the silence of your healing presence and to create space in my heart for others to find rest and healing there.

And God, bless this family in their grief; cover them with your comfort and embrace them in your love. Help them to know your hope.

Mary's Grief

As I’ve been reflecting on grief these days, I really appreciate Christine Mallouhi's description of the crucifixion and Mary’s grief in her excellent book, Waging Peace on Islam:

“The victorious and triumphant Christian life does not conjure up pictures of suffering and death and feelings of abandonment. But this was all part of God’s victory in Christ. If this was the path the Master trod why should it be any different for the servants? Jesus cried out ‘why?’ and ’where are you?’ to God when circumstances were crushing him. God is always greater than our understanding of him and there will always be mystery about him that causes us to fall down in awe and worship. This mystery, which we want to tidily categorise, keeps causing struggles in our life. Every time we get God tidied up like a ball of rubber bands, another end bursts out and the struggle begins over again, until we learn to live in faith with untidy ends. If everything is clear then faith is irrelevant. We are not called to solve the mystery, but to enter it.” (p. 52)

“(Mary) left God to work his way and found herself with other Galilean women clinging close to Christ as he carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem under Roman guard. Mary’s grief was far deeper than any others. This was not only her first-born son, but also an embodiment of all God’s promises. The security of her son was shattered by violence and he was treated unjustly and brutally. She saw him imprisoned and tortured and then done to death as a powerless common criminal. She watched her hopes of his future and the nation’s glory bleed into the dirt of Jerusalem’s garbage dump. Mary entered the dark cave of living in the questions between God’s promises and the current reality. Had she reared Jesus through all the difficulties for this terrible end? Had she failed God? Had God failed her? How could God allow this suffering? Why was he silent? Where was God’s promise now in this God-forsaken end and death?

Mary is strangely absent from events after the crucifixion. She is not mentioned among the women who went to the tomb to complete the burial procedures. As Simeon prophesied, her very soul was pierced with a knife. Her whole understanding of God was buried in the beaten body of her son. She lost her son, her God, her theology, her hope for the future. Her God was buried in darkness and the nation was not liberated. Her ‘magnifcant’ of joy and praise ended in despair and ashes. Was it better to have never hoped? We easily see why she was not able to join the other women at the tomb. She was buried deep in her own tomb, her own dark cave. Mary stayed with her son all through the exhausting hours of his suffering in crucifixion. It was a short time in comparison to other types of long drawn out deaths like terminal illness, but crucifixion is one of the most horrific forms of torture. Mary saw and felt every pain and every labored breath. Unable to help him and not bearing to watch, but experiencing in her own body his every muscle spasm, she was unable to leave him. She had to be there giving him support by her presence whatever it cost her.” (p. 54-55)

We note that there is no comment on why Mary is not present with the women to administer the burial oils. We are not told that she is prostrate with grief, or that she is frozen in shock and emotionally exhausted. I suspect she was all these things. I picture her immobilized staring at the wall with pain that was too great to express and thoughts that were too terrible to think. The writers of Scripture allowed Mary the privacy of her pain. They knew Mary had given all she had and they gave her the respect she deserved. If she was out of action, numb with grief, with no feelings of faith, or if she was furiously angry or disappointed—we are not told. She was allowed to have the time she needed. Mary disappearing from the scene did not traumatise God. There is no hint of condemnation for her silence and lack of excitement for what God was doing at that stage in life. Her silence and absence did not mean that she had lost faith. God did not ask Mary to respond to him with another resounding ‘yes’ for the record in these circumstances. God simply blessed her sleep and waited for the moment when she was able to receive him again to refresh her. God’s loving hands are always in the dark and painful silence. They may not be recognized or felt, but they are ever present and embracing his suffering children.

We hear nothing about Mary until after the resurrection, when her name appears among those believers gathered in the upper room. After passing through desperate dark days, Mary is gain one of the faithful followers of God. We don’t know how God ministered to her. Maybe nothing happened for some days until Jesus met her after being raised. But we do know that just as Mary was raised up, so God will come to us and bring us out of the cave into a new beginning. Once again we see Mary praying and praising and waiting expectantly for God’s next promised act, still saying ‘yes’. For although Mary’s soul was pierced she never withdrew her original ‘yes’ to God. She encourages us to trust through every dark circumstance of death, doubt, and despair. Sometimes circumstances are so overwhelming that we cannot respond in faith to God—we feel lost. However, we are not lost. The Father who helplessly suffered watching his son Jesus Christ die a victim’s death knows what pain can do. He knows how much we can take and he allows the body and mind to withdraw and take the time it needs to heal a wound. Faith takes similar journeys and can sometimes diminish to nothing but a painful question. God waits until we are able to respond again and then we will hear his voice. This is the wonderful message of the resurrection: there is a resurrection of new faith and new strength promised for us in every tomorrow, so hope always comes anew with every sunrise.” (p. 55-56)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Leaving Behind

Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:11-12)

This passage in Ruth has special significance in Charly’s and my relationship. Twenty years ago, God brought our paths together at the University of Missouri, and a three hour conversation in my dormitory lobby one winter evening (when he delivered some booklets on “Finding God’s Will” for me from a mutual friend) was the beginning of a deep friendship. Looking back on that life-changing conversation, Charly would say, “Those booklets on God’s will made it clear that God was doing something in your life, so I just asked what God was doing.” What impressed me the most about Charly, apart from his insightful questions and his listening to my heart, was that he concluded the time by saying, “Why don’t we pray together about some of these things?” I was pretty sure then that he was the one for me, but it was not clear to him yet…

Charly then took a 40 day exploratory trip to China during the summer of 1991, traveling with two guys to visit eight different cities. In addition to his identifying with the story of Caleb and Joshua spying out the land in Numbers 13 (which is why our two boys later ended up with those names), God also brought his attention to the above passage in Ruth in regard to our relationship. It was clear to him during that trip that God would be leading him back to China after he graduated from college the following year. If I was the right one for him, I needed to be willing to leave my family and homeland in order to live with a people I did not know before. And my reason for leaving should not be because I was following Charly, but because I was finding refuge under God’s wings.

I was involved with a college ministry that summer in St. Louis, and I was wrestling with God over His plans for my future. I really desired to do whatever He wanted me to do and to go wherever He asked me to go. But I realized that the most difficult part for me in living overseas would be leaving my family. I was blessed to grow up in a very close family, and it was hard to imagine living far away from them. But by the end of the summer, I told God that I was willing to leave my family, even though I knew it would not be easy. The second challenge that God gave me was whether my full trust was in Him. If I went overseas, I needed to be following Him, not a person. If I was simply following Charly and things got hard (which they were sure to do) it would be easy to put the blame on Charly. If I was following God, He would keep me there through difficult times with the strength that He would provide. I asked God to help me keep Him at the center of my life, so that my refuge would always be under His wings.

When Charly returned from China and we shared with each other what God had been teaching us, Charly had confidence that because God had been revealing the same truths to us and bringing us to the same convictions, we could begin a dating relationship. That was August 8, 1991. (We were engaged two years later on August 8, 1993 in Hong Kong after Charly had finished his first year of Chinese language study and I came to China for a visit.)

Last month when I flew back to the US for a conference, Charly encouraged me to extend my visit another week to be able to see my parents in Denver. I invited my sister to fly out to spend the week with us, and it was a special and relaxing time of reconnecting and being “at home” with each other. God has been faithful to keep our family ties strong while we have been separated by an enormous ocean these past 16 years, and we treasure the times we have together. I know that there has been a cost, not just for us, but for them to have us living on the other side of the world.

“Leaving behind” is different from “being left behind.” I realized this in a new way last week when our kids left to travel alone across China to attend a 10 day camp. As fears began to crowd my mind and grip my heart, I realized that I needed to trust them into God’s hands. He would protect them and take care of them when they were out of my sight (and in unknown situations). Their venturing out on their own enables them to seek refuge under God’s wings for themselves. He is growing their faith as mine is being stretched!

Throughout these past twenty years, God has continued to speak gently to my heart, Trust me (for yourself, for your family in the US, for your husband, for your children, for all of the many unknowns and for what is out of your control…) Trust me.

For God is trustworthy: Worthy of my full trust.


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