EMMANUEL

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Tonight there are still so many questions, there's still sadness, still emptiness. But one of the reasons I've kept this blog over the years is that it allows me to look back to see where God has brought our family. So much has happened in three years, but I will never forget the night I opened this email. I'll never forget the sequence of events that unfolded shortly thereafter- packing up Jephté's things, driving him to his new foster family, walking away from him as he screamed out behind me. To him it was another abandonment. I'll never forget returning my hotel room key to Alain, the kind owner. Saying goodbye to Carlos and Pablo and the rest of the staff. I'll never forget sitting in the waiting area at the airport and then boarding the plane, barely able to put one foot in front of the other to leave the continent where my son would remain. I'll never forget that salad- fresh from Belgium. All I'd craved for the previous three months was a crunchy vegetable, but I could barely eat. I'll always be grateful to Liz for the sachet of Canadian Kleenex, I'd never cried so much in my life. This past month has been the only real rival to that season of pain. 

I have these little photo holder ornaments on the tree, one for each of the boys for each year. This year, I bought an extra one and planned to slip in an ultrasound picture of John Mark. I never did it, and tonight I noticed the empty ornament tucked away on one of the branches. I'm still confounded. After all we've been through, why this? I think I could've handled another loss at 8 weeks or 10, or even 12. I would've been sad, but understood that maybe there was some chromosomal abnormality or one of the hundred things that go wrong early on. But this? The miscarriage rate for my pregnancy was finally practically zero. I don't even have the words to ask the questions anymore. So I turn back to this, a moment when we were out of words to ask the questions that plagued our souls. And while we still don't have complete answers to that time from Christmas 2013-May 2014, we had God's presence. In a way we didn't know it before. So I'm ending this Christmas with that reality- God showed up before, so I know He can do it again. Just like He did all those years ago in the manger, and just like He will do when He makes everything right again. He is Emmanuel- God with us. 

from Mike, on Christmas 2013 

I don't know what to say to you right now. In less that 24 hours you will be on a plane leaving that ten-by-ten prison that was "home" for the past three months. You will be leaving behind mosquitoes, anti-malarials, "jungle oats," spaghetti, stinking plumbing, potholes, pollution, sweltering heat, lies and broken promises, and your favorite six legged hotel guests. You will also be leaving an oasis in the chaos, afternoon swims, good help that have become like family (whose names we will never forget), adventures to the thieves' market, and the beautiful culture of the Congolese. I'm not sure how you feel about all that, but I'm guessing in the final balance, especially when Sam is thrown into the mix, San Francisco sounds pretty nice (there's not an outdoor pool around, but we also lack sweltering heat, mosquitoes, etc).

Except that final balance leaves out one very weighty matter - our son. Jephté as we have come to know him, again. Here we were thinking we could take the Congo out of him, and now it seems Congo has crept into us. You see, I don't know how to feel about this homecoming - I'm terribly excited, anxious to see you, to finally be able to hold you again. Sam kinda misses you too. Ok, he really, really misses you. I'm certainly no tenable substitute for you as far as that goes. But then I have this pang of deep, to my core, guilt, sorrow, I don't know what to call it. Bittersweet? Someone used that term recently. Sweet? yes, bitter? I don't think bitter captures the emotion - bilious vomit. That's closer. Certainly captures the sick feeling better.

I wish I knew what to tell you about tomorrow (today, actually in Congo - this 9 hour difference thing has got to go). You'd think I'd have something wise to say - I mean, I've now left him twice. Despite the fact that the second time was with the best caregiver on earth and was only supposed to be temporary, it wasn't any easier. Now you have to leave him behind with an uncertain future ahead, leave him behind with a substitute family (ok, they're actually a substitute-substitute since we're the original by-God's-mercy-alone substitutes). I'm fear to even mention aloud the doubts and thoughts that are going through your mind. I think we share them. I think they are tidily summed up with "Why God?"

Why God? Why have you allowed us to go into the heart of darkness, this boy's tragic yet brief history, a deeply broken city, a wretchedly broken system? Why did all of our being "responsible" in counting the costs before embarking account to nothing when everything fell apart? Why have you allowed our family to be torn apart for these past three months, and in the end left a hole with no certainty of being filled? Why can't anyone keep a promise in this hell? Why do so many corrupt and idealistic people, together in the end, seem to practically hate orphans? Why?

I don't have words for the rest of the questions - just a big question mark on my soul. And what's worse is I really don't have answers to the questions. I don't think I will this side of eternity.

Here's what I do know though: the suffering is real, God is real, God is powerful over the real suffering, and God has been with us (I mean right there with us) through the suffering. I know that what we are doing is good, and therefore it's God's will. Because he wills good. Opposition and outcomes cannot be simple metrics to assess concordance with His will. Action that is in line with His character regardless of outcome, that is what brings him joy. 

Jephté has had three months of a loving mother, good nutrition, medicine, field trips, protection from the bugs that bite, he learned how to swim. He learned how to dive! We've met good people in Kinshasa who want to see these children thrive. There is hope. I'm not some perpetually optimistic person as you know. So when I say these things, I'm not looking for a silver lining. I'm not saying these things are why God has allowed this to pan out this way. But I don't want to miss what God is doing either.

So "tomorrow" you leave the land of the eternal "tomorrow." I wish I had something more clever to say right now. Something to prepare you for what is about to transpire. Someway to assure you it's all going to be alright. But Jephté isn't coming home with you. That's going to hurt, a lot. I wish you didn't have to say goodbye alone. Know that you are not alone, and neither is Jephté. He goes with his Father, his true Father. And until we are allowed to bring him into our home, we have to trust in his Father, our Father. Just as Advent is approximately twice as long as Christmas, the night is often longer than the light. But the Light does come eventually, the night does not last forever.

LIGHT

Friday, December 16, 2016

Seven years ago I had a dream. It had never happened before, and it hasn't happened since. I'm not one for dreams worth remembering, but this one felt more real that anything I've ever experienced. 

I was cold and shivering in the dark. Suddenly, a great warmth washed over my body. The air became thick with humidity and a brightness surrounded me. It was blinding. I drew my arms up to shield my face from its piercing light. As quickly as it had come, it subsided. I slowly dropped my hands back down and peered through heavy eyelids with apprehension. 

I was in the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. To describe it here seems pitiful. It was a jungle, but it was safe. A paradise. Through the foliage, that same light glowed, and it captivated me. With a compulsion I could not refuse, my feet carried me toward it. I couldn't run fast enough. Furiously pushing branches and vines aside to forge a path, I struggled until one giant banana leaf stood in my way. I reached out to shove it aside. My fingers brushed the edge of the waxy leaf, opening a tiny pocket where the light flooded through. The force of it knocked me back into consciousness.  

Never in my life have I been so desperate to go back to sleep, but it was futile. I was wide awake with nothing but the memory of this magical place. I wanted desperately to make it past the banana leaf, to enter fully into that wonderful, unimaginable presence. But its been elusive.

Today felt like a dream, but it wasn't. I can't tell you how many mornings I've woken in the past 24 days and instinctively run my hands across my flat belly. I've closed my eyes, begging for this to be the dream. I want to wake up to a reality where John Mark is still safe inside of me. But today was a reckoning day. We lowered the body of our baby into the ground. We sprinkled dirt over the burial vault and laid flowers on the grass in his honor as the sun began to set. Finally alone, I stood still- taking in the weight of finality.

Last night rain clouds enshrouded the sky. This morning I woke to a violent wind. It threw the chairs across the deck and dislodged the branches from the palms high above. It left nothing in the air, clarity and sharpness overtook the day. And by late afternoon, it had made way for the rays of the sun to break through in a way I don't often witness. The little spot of ground that John Mark takes up was completely bathed in the brilliant light. As I stood at the foot of his grave, I was blinded. Though my body shivered in the piercing wind, though my frame was wracked with sobs, the light was still there. That same light from my dream. 





IMPERISHABLE

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The rain hits the roof, its quiet voice filling the silence with a gentle song. In the drought stricken land where I live, I'm not sure nature's concert is entirely coincidental. Not quite a storm, it feels like the skies are weeping with me. This isn't a tempest, mother nature isn't angry. There's no lightning or thunder, there's no torrential downpour. Just a steady stream falling from the heavy clouds. A mournful cry, echoing through the twilight.

I don't feel angry, my fight has been drained. I suppose I just feel resigned to that reality that tomorrow is actually happening. Tomorrow we will bury our baby in the rain soaked ground. The soil softened to receive his tiny casket. The earth to hold him beneath her weight until the day Jesus calls his body up to new life.

There are passages in the Bible that I've read, so many times, but not completely read. "In the twinkling of an eye... the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable..." from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. It sounds somewhat magical, a little mystical. My experience thus far offers no context to frame something so seemingly abstract.

For the past twenty three days, I have known the power of death. I have lived in its shadow, and I suspect, it won't soon leave me alone. To behold a corpse is a powerful reminder that things are not as they should be. This world is broken. But to hold, in your hands, the lifeless form of a child is so far beyond broken, words elude me. The thought of John Mark becoming imperishable stretches beyond the limit of my wildest imagination.

And so to think on this short passage, and to truly believe it? It feels fantastical. Like maybe I'm delusional because I can't accept that death wins so easily? Maybe I'm grasping for straws because everything else around me feels so unsteady? But I don't know, maybe, there's actually this echo resonating inside me? It's atonal, hard to trace, impossible to describe. Sometimes its a beautiful symphony, but other times its like that famous composition, 4'33"- absolute silence and stillness. Just when I'm convinced that all has gone quiet, it calls to me, through the mist. Just enough to perk my ears, to snatch my attention. I long for more of the song, even though I can't quite sing the melody just yet.

We went to the cemetery, as one must do when they have someone to bury. We stood among the graves, I had trouble distinguishing reality from a dream. I looked over the hill to see the sun dipping into the afternoon sky. At the edge of the cliff, the ocean waves crashed into the beach below.

I could see the brave mouse Reepicheep tossing aside his sword and hastily paddling into the waves through to Aslan's country. from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 

I heard the chorus, "When we arrive at eternity's shore, where death is just a memory and tears are no more..." from "You're Beautiful" 

The mountains stood behind me, beckoning to that passage from Psyche-
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing- to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from- my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back." from Till We Have Faces

The trees cast long shadows across the lawn-
"They turned and saw the Lion himself, so bright, and real, and strong that everything began to look pale and shadowy compared to him."

As I stumble through this dream world, there are these glimpses of hope that I can't ignore. A breaking through of something that beckons to a part of my soul untouched by this world. Its a passage from a story, a lyric from a song, a line from a poem, an image from a painting...

Tomorrow, I'm not just going to visit the cemetery. I'm going to lay my son's body to rest there. I'm going to bury a piece of my heart, to surrender all the hopes I've held for him and for our family.

I'll leave less whole. I'll leave with missing pieces and deeper longing. I'll leave so desperate for my son to be changed to the imperishable, that my ear will be just a little more tuned to hear that trumpet's call. The loss of John Mark plays into the symphony, accompanied tonight by little more than the rain. Tonight's movement is the adagio. But this sadness is not all there is. The final movement is coming. Then all the instruments join in a grand finale, full with resolution, led, I'm convinced, by the loudest, more victorious trumpet any ear has ever heard.

ADVENT

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I remember being introduced to the season of Advent about ten years ago. We attended an Anglican church on the east coast and I found myself irritated that we didn't sing Christmas songs until after Christmas. For those four weeks leading up to Christmas day, the music was somber and heavy. I’m pretty sure I sang the words of, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” more times that year than I had in my previous 25 years of life. But then, on Christmas day, everything changed. The music, the decor, the countenance of the church. We suddenly celebrated something so contrary to what had we had been steeped in for the month preceding, I couldn’t help but take pause. I think that was one of the first times I truly understood why I needed Christmas so badly. 

We settled into that routine over the next few years, separating our playlists at home with Advent and Christmas music. We began leaving our tree up longer, reveling in those days following December 25th. We learned to hold the tension between the already and the not yet- mourning and grieving the brokenness we experienced with the hope that Jesus offers. We were getting good at it, and as the years passed, our longing for restoration and hope deepened as we sent our first two children to heaven. But then Sam came, right smack in the middle of Advent. While we had anticipated his coming with so much expectation, everything about his arrival brought a new joy we didn’t know could possibly exist in the world. It was as if God had put some flesh on this hope and sent it straight into our home. 

The following Advent season, I found myself as far from Sam as one can possibly be on this globe. While I was supposed to be celebrating this anniversary of his arrival into our lives, i sat alone with Moses in a tiny hotel room in Africa. With each passing day, it became more and more apparent that I wouldn’t be able to take him home. That I would have to leave him in what is one of the most God forsaken hells that could possible exist on this planet. The internet connection was so bad, I could barely Skype long enough to let Samuel see my face in real time, to hear my voice, the one that I knew was growing faint in his memory after three long months apart. I wept as I scrolled through my photo stream, feeling like I was watching my life through a portal. My husband, family, and friends stepped into the role that should’ve been mine, and while I mourned that loss, I also felt such deep gratitude for their presence. People who loved us so deeply, they considered it an honor to bake his birthday cake and witness his first steps for me. 

I waited until Christmas day, mustering every ounce of strength I could to hold on to the promise of Christmas. That though the darkness of Advent, light would come for Moses and me, just as it had on that day so many years ago in Bethlehem. But it came and went. I grasped for the only light I could, the hope that God was still with us in the brokenness. On December 26th, I placed Moses into another woman’s arms and walked away. He screamed after me, terror and betrayal in his cries. I knew that it wasn’t our time and I had to leave. I knew that I would take care of him as long as I lived, even if that only meant paying for his food and education and covering him in my prayers. I couldn’t possibly communicate to him that I would keep fighting for him with every fiber of my being, all he could understand was the tearing apart of his world. The abandonment of the only love he had ever come to trust. 

From thousands of miles away, I fought for him. It was a fight I can’t quite describe in words. It was a fight of strength, blasting gangster rap and channeling my anger through kickboxing in my living room. It was a fight of the soul, pleading with the Lord for His justice, morning and night. It was a fight of the will, learning the legalities of the system and pursuing every last rabbit trail that might land us together. It was a fight of love, my heart broken every moment we were apart. Moses didn’t know all that, he couldn’t possibly see, let alone comprehend, what I was working for his good. It took five long months, but eventually I was able to bring him home. 

This is a new fight. There isn’t that chance of hope at the end, the same way there was for Moses. In this journey with John Mark, there is no possible happy ending this side of heaven. There is no chance of redemption. There is only silence and absence. There is nothing to do but hold fast to the promise that God is who He says He is, who He proven himself to be over the years. There is nothing but a glimmer of hope that one day, I will hold my baby's hand again. Though I imagine it won’t be the tiny one that wrapped around my thumb last week. I think it will be the big strong hand of a man with a new body, a man who has spent every one of his days in the presence of our God. I don’t know how theologically sound my thought is, but somehow, I sense that an embrace from those arms on the day we meet again will overwhelm all this grief and pain. 

I am weary of being in this story, my story. I feel like each climax can’t possibly be eclipsed. But I also understand that I wouldn’t know God the way I do today if I lived in any other story. I am angry, but after saying goodbye to six children, I’ve found He is angry alongside me- this is not how he created his world to function. I am confused, but I’ve come to learn that He is big enough to hold all my questions and not dismiss them. I am full of sorrow, but so is He, he knows the pain of searing loss. I don’t say any of this lessen the significance of our pain, I’ve never felt anything so acutely as our son’s departure. But, I don’t know, I have to trust that He's working for my good, despite this tragedy, on the side I can't see. So my prayer is that together we will know our God more because we knew John Mark. After all, I suppose that's the greatest gift any human could ever give us. 

TO SAY GOODBYE

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Scalding water runs down my back, the steam rises around me. I look down at my arm, the outline of the tape used to hold my iv in place remains. Grabbing the soap, I begin to rub it away. Hot tears spill over and I stop. As long as I can still see the residue stuck to my skin, I remember that you're real. That the last 20 weeks actually happened, it all wasn't just my imagination.

After surviving an entire trimester of all damn day sickness, while tent camping nonetheless, I began to hope that maybe this time would be different. After making it through all the ultrasounds, hearing your strong heartbeat, and learning the rhythm of your kicking and squirming about, I began to imagine my life with you. After being told, only the day before, that I wasn't high risk and that you looked perfect, I bought you a Christmas present and added it to the pile to wrap. You were re-defining my normal, one that had been waiting for you for so long. I allowed myself to imagine the moment when you would enter the world, the joy that would spread across your papa's face, that magic when your screams would break the tension in the air.

So much tension. Woven like a heavy textile, through so much loss. The ones we never named. Then Thomas, Karis, and Hope. But finally, you were different, John Mark. Your existence threatened to break apart those threads of sadness and grief.

But in a moment, everything was shattered. A dark hospital room, quiet voices, busy nurses, my world came crashing in. You were perfect, I could feel you, nestled deep inside me, kicking every so often to remind me you were still there. You were ready for your role as the littlest brother, not willing to be ignored. But they said there was nothing they could do. It was too late. You would be born soon, it didn't matter that you weren't ready for the world. For the rest of the day, we waited for you. To say goodbye.

When you labor to birth a child, there's this strength that rises up, one you never knew you had. It tempers your breathing, it fills you with resolve. You are a force, anything is possible. But when your baby has no chance of survival? Each crushing contraction threatens to stop your heart. Each breath is a battle, one you're not even sure you care to win. Each push is a nightmare, every instinct tells you to hold on to the life inside. But eventually nature wins, the brokenness is unleashed. 

Though I felt you kicking only an hour before, by the time we met, the breath was gone from your tiny form. Perfect, in every possible way. Tiny fingers and toes, fully formed with nails. A pouty bottom lip, just like your big brother. The ears that took in our voices, nestled exactly where they belonged. Faint eyelashes and pink skin. I needed two hands to hold you, to support your head, just like a newborn. You were curled up, hands and ankles crossed, the same way Sam and I find comfort as we drift off to sleep. Truly, you were knitted together with such care and precision. I am still reeling with the knowledge that your home is no longer with me. There is no explanation. 

For all the turmoil within my soul, I want you to know that you and I lived well together, my son. We scaled volcanoes and roasted marshmallows under starry skies. We traversed ancient forest floors and climbed sand dunes. We collected driftwood and seashells. We watched sunsets and rainstorms. We played with your big brothers and sat in the company of good friends. If only for a few months, we lived well, John Mark. And I want you to know how profoundly grateful I am for the time we spent together.

But, oh! All the things we'll never get to do together. They plague me and tease me. They mock me and torture me. And tonight they leave me staring at the outline of the tape on my arm. 

THAT NIGHT

Sunday, October 16, 2016

That night began just like every other night in Kinshasa for me. The lamps bathed the compound in an orange glow, a calm settled in as the hotel guests retreated into their rooms and the staff headed home. I placed a small glass of wine accompanied by a tiny square of chocolate next to my jumbo sized bottle of mosquito repellent. Wrapping myself in a light jacket, I curled up on the plastic chair to take in the night. The sounds of the city- horns honking, music blaring, thunder clouds rolling. Those nights were a kind of magic, a luxury. The time of the day I knew my phone wouldn't ring, the hours reminding me that tomorrow was a new day, full of hope and possibility.

A horn honked twice and I heard the night guard roll the gate open. The gravel crunched as heavy tires pulled up the drive. I recognized the white SUV, the man was a frequent guest at the hotel- he worked for an NGO. He was gruff, seldom friendly. Once, when I was walking with my son around the hotel grounds, he mumbled to me that the garden outside his room wasn't a kindergarten. We went on our way, but I still smiled when I saw him. That's what you do when you live in a hotel for three months.

He swung into a parking spot and opened the door. I expected to see him quietly trudge off to his room in the back corner of the compound like he did every other night. Instead, I heard the voices and laughter of three young women. Very, very young women. They clung to his arms as he stumbled across the courtyard to the suite across from my room. The magic of my evening was shattered as I attempted to take in what my eyes had just witnessed.

The next morning the white SUV was gone. The man's stint in Kinshasa had come to an end and he was being transferred to a new location. The housekeepers went in to clean his room and found the three girls enjoying the luxury of tile floors and soft beds. After a heated exchange, the girls tumbled outside and the staff dragged several Louis Vuitton knock off suitcases out to the curb. Apparently the bags had been part of the consolation prize for his last night in town. They didn't want to leave. It was quiet inside the gate, peaceful. It was green and beautiful. After several hours, the staff finally dragged their bags out to the gate and demanded they get into a waiting taxi.

I'm not sure I've ever felt so helpless- part of me wanted to call the officials and report a human abuse. But that was laughable- this was just part of life here. When your home is on the street and you have no source of income, you body too easily becomes the commodity. The valuation of currency takes on a whole new meaning when one party knows luxury and the other knows hunger. When one party drives his own car and the other has tiny mouths to feed. When one party eats three meals a day and the other wonders where she'll lay her head at night.

I wanted to run over and tell each girl that she was beautiful and valuable, that she was loved by a God who sees her and cares for her. But I didn't. Instead, I stood outside my door taking the scene in as silent tears slipped down my cheeks. It wasn't just that I didn't know how to say those words in French or Lingala, it was that the meaning of the words I wanted to share was so much deeper than mere language.

And so it was that life returned to normal inside my safe little compound. Well, kind of normal. The sweet smelling ylang-ylang trees still swayed in the breeze. The hibiscus still brightened the day with its beautiful blooms. The housekeepers still cleaned my already-clean bathroom and re-made my already-made bed. But every time I looked across the courtyard, their faces haunted me. I knew that lots of kids in the orphanage were the product of an exchange like the one I witnessed the night before. But I had never had to see her face or watch her walk of shame. I had never felt the bile rise in my throat like it did the night he exploited their humanity for his pleasure. My normal was shadowed by a profound sadness. It was something I couldn't un-see, I couldn't not remember.

Three years later, I still feel sick with that memory. But a tiny piece of it has also been redeemed. When we started our partnership with the One Thread Program, we hoped and prayed that a few young women would be able to escape and avoid that kind of lifestyle for one of dignity and respect. That they would be able to learn the skill of tailoring to start their own small business, earn decent wages, feed their children, and even send them to school. We are beginning to see those prayers answered, and we are beginning to see that this sort of program is something that young women want. That they crave. That they need desperately. Girls are knocking on the door of the school begging for scholarships. They are coming to work as apprentices for a month to prove their commitment and desire to learn before being accepted into the program.

This is the thing that tempers the devastation of what I witnessed on that dark night. It gives me hope that I don't just have to live with that memory, but that maybe there was a purpose to me sitting out in my plastic chair bearing witness to what was done in secret. If it wrecked me, maybe my story would touch the hearts of people who have $10 to throw into a scholarship fund to potentially change the entire trajectory of a young girl’s life. That maybe our prayers will bridge that gap language can’t cross. That maybe God can use us to show young women the peace and beauty that can be found in the light.

This week, the One Thread Team is hosting a very special event in Lincoln, Nebraska. If you are local, please join us! If you are unable to attend, please visit our website to see how you can still help make a difference for these young women!

TONIGHT

Thursday, September 22, 2016

When you read the books, it is clear. Create a routine. Follow the routine, establish the expectations for safety and trust. The child needs to learn that your love is unconditional, saying the words mean little. Follow through means everything.


That first night, we began the task of creating our routine, carving out our space in the world. I gave him a baby wipe bath, stroking away the dust, wishing he had known my touch before his fifteenth month of life. Bathed in the soft glow from the foreign electric light above, his eyes opened wide as I erased the lines from his tear stained cheeks. He took me in as I spoke softly, smiled gently, and moved slowly. He flinched when I smeared a dab of shea butter onto his leg, then relaxed as I began the routine of massaging the oils down into his dark chocolate skin. From his tiny toes back to the heel that protruded behind his ankle joint. Up his shins to his knobby knees, scarred from his adventures in learning to walk. My hands moved slowly as took in what I already knew was true.
Maybe it was because I never saw it in the pictures, he was covered in onesie pajamas or long pants. But as my thumb and forefinger wrapped easily around the thickest part of his thigh, I was crushed. It was a kind of skinny words don’t capture. A sense of fragility that only your skin can feel. The fear crept in as I wondered if his bowed legs would ever straighten. Wondered if muscle would fill out under his taut skin. Wondered how fast he would run or how high he would jump. And it wrecked me. I wanted to hold him, to promise that it would be ok. That he would always have enough food with me and would never feel the pangs of hunger again. But I couldn’t promise him those things, or anything else. Though my mama heart would give anything for him, I couldn’t control the world swirling in chaos around us. I couldn’t control the immigration official who had capriciously decided to forbid his departure. I didn’t know what tomorrow would hold, and so I sat in the moment with a heavy heart, trusting for one of those moments when the Spirit interceded for you because you don’t know how to pray.
Tonight, almost three years later, we repeated our routine. No longer afraid of the water, I sent him under a deluge of bath water, washing his cheeks marked by tears of laughter. I wrapped him up in a towel and carried him like a baby to his room, staggering under his weight and lanky limbs. I grabbed the shea butter lotion and smothered him from head to toe, wondering at the transformation from our routine that began so solemnly not too long ago. Tonight there was jumping and squealing, laughing and tumbling, comfort and familiarity. His feet are enormous, his legs are straight. The muscles in his calves bulge as he jumps across the floor. His thighs are squishy and plump, I can’t feel the bones anymore. I rub my hands up and down his back, coaxing the butter into his velvety skin. He spins around as I tickle his tummy and attempt one last pass up and down his arms before he slips out of my grasp to choose his jammies. Our moment is over. But tonight I’m left with that same heavy heart. That heart is broken and quiet, begging for the Spirit to step in with words I don’t have.
Tonight my son is healthy and strong. He doesn’t need my promises of food and provision the way he did that first night. His tiny self wouldn’t have understood my explanations back then anyhow. All he needed was for me to fight for him, to provide for him in whatever way I could manage. If I told him why my heart was broken tonight, he wouldn’t understand me either. And I hope and pray that somehow he’ll never be aware of this burden either, just like he has no recollection of his malnourished infancy. That somehow, in this decade, we’ll figure out how to value black lives in the same way we value white lives. That he’ll never experience the pangs of inequality and injustice. That he’ll never be treated differently than his white brother who is admittedly much more mischievous than he is. That he won’t have to ask me why a black man was shot while his hands were in the air. That he won’t have to ask me why people are so angry. That he won’t have to ask me why there is hate instead of compassion.






NOT YET SUNDAY

Friday, March 25, 2016

Its not Easter, not yet. Even though the sun is shining and the birds are chirping in the trees outside my window, today marks the darkest event in human history. Within a few short hours, the One who was supposed to fix everything seemingly failed. He was destroyed by the powers his friends and followers had expected him to conquer. Within days, he went from a hero to a corpse. Hope faded back into the utter despair everyone already knew.

Two thousand years after the fact, I know that isn't the end of the story. I get to keep reading past John 19 and into chapter 20. I often read anxiously, only slowing down when I get to the part of the story that unfolds on Sunday morning. The scene where I can imagine myself following Mary through the garden and peering into the empty tomb. The moment when Jesus meets her face to face and calls out her name. The part where I can hear Him beckoning to me, too. Death is defeated and I am invited to join in His victory.

Since I know the end of the story, I seek to frame my experiences around that resurrection narrative-  one day all things will be redeemed and made right. But I'm learning to leave space for the hard parts of the story, too. I think I have to for my faith to remain authentic and alive, otherwise it becomes a façade. There's a thread of pain and heartache I can't shake. It weaves this tension where I'm fighting to reconcile what I know to be true about God with how, I don't know, distant he sometimes feels?

I don't think pain and suffering are real things in and of themselves. What I mean is that they don't exist independently, or maybe I don't believe that God created them in the way he created joy and peace from nothing. Rather, they are an absence of good things. When we experience pain and suffering, maybe we are just acutely aware that things are not as they should be, that things are broken. So I don't just have to cast off losing five babies as the spontaneous dissolution of a clump of cells. Instead, I get to remember them as children made in God's image, each one valuable and precious. So to feel the pain of their absence is actually the best possible response. I don't wonder if my heartache is a series of chemical reactions simply caused by hormones because I know that the Father knows the pain of separation, too, and a scale far more grand than I could ever comprehend. To feel that loss is actually entirely appropriate.

Today, I feel strangely grateful for the space Good Friday lends to be sad and broken. I know that Sunday is coming, and when it does I will celebrate. But today I need to sit in those dark hours that haunted Friday afternoon. To feel the weight of that Saturday when confusion and questions replaced the companionship Jesus had once offered to his friends. Not to mourn as one without hope, but to acknowledge that this world is very broken. To remember that the darkness was so heavy that God, himself, descended into death to lift its curse. One day its all going to be ok, but that day isn't here. Not yet.

ON BEING COLD

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I remember the first time I realized what it meant to be cold. Not southern California cold, but actually cold. It was after lunch, my students had just filed into my classroom from playing on the yard. (By that I mean standing on the broken pavement outside the lunchroom, there wasn't anything more than a parking lot and broken basketball hoop.) In most schools, you would expect the students to shed their winter gear for the warmth of the indoors. But we didn't have that luxury, not in this corner of the nation's capital. I moaned as they flooded into my room. It meant I had to pull myself away from the corner where I had been huddled up by the space heater I bought with my own money. As my students liked to say, our school was "raggedy." The windows didn't shut all the way, more than a few of the panes were broken out completely. I had done my best to trouble shoot the issue of vagrant pigeons by taping pieces of cardboard over the gaps. There was no insulation to speak of and the heating system was even more fickle than the weather. 

My seventh graders found their desks as I pulled my fingerless mittens back on, buttoned up my coat, and psyched myself up to walk to the front of the class. I looked around the room, noticing that something was different today. See, my classroom was rarely quiet. There was always a hum and a conversation happening somewhere. I liked to think it was about what I was teaching, but sometimes it was just Billy telling Marco that his mama needed to lose some mass to reduce the amount of friction she was creating. I spent about two months fighting that, until I realized that Billy actually understood what mass was. And its relationship with friction. The thing about this moment, though, was that it was actually quiet. 


All around the room students were gently tugging off their beanies, smoothing their hands over their hair, and rifling through their backpacks for mirrors or brushes. If there was one thing my students had been taught, it was that you never wore a hat inside. "Guys, c'mon!" I said, "Bellwork? Let's get started please." And for the first time all year, all I heard was silence. Pretty soon the boys with the shortest hair picked up their pencils and started writing, then the girls with braids joined in. But the boys who were maybe a week overdue for a trim? Or the girls who were just giving their hair a rest for a day or two before it went back into a style? It took a while for them to join the activity. 
Before that day, I had never thought about hats. If it was cold, I wore one, if it wasn't I didn't. I didn't give a second thought to the fact that beanies are knitted from cotton or wool. When I take mine off, my hair might hold a little static electricity for a few minutes, but then all is well. With their hair, the fibers sucked the moisture right out of their curls. The friction broke their strands and made it look frizzy, even though they had spent hours conditioning and moisturizing earlier that week. Like a magnetic force, the fuzz balls from the cotton held fast against their scalps. And it was embarrassing to look unkempt. It was tacky to walk around with fuzz balls in your hair. It was mortifying to look like you didn't care, when in fact, you cared very much. 
The things I know now are the things I didn't know when I started that job. In a school where 99% of the students were African American and only two of us on staff were white, I had no idea that the hat thing was even a thing. Sure, you can chalk some of it up to growing up in temperate California. But there's a part of it that can't be blamed on anything. The part that I now know there are actually silk-lined beanies for those with deeper pockets. The part where there are schools with adequate restroom facilities for students to care for their appearance. The part where students are actually unable to learn until certain physical needs are met. 
Since caring for a son whose hair is different than my own, I've begun to realize what a big deal my ignorance was. It was so much less about appearance and so much more about acknowledging that something was important to my students on a level that I didn't understand. I think that's what has begun to strike me lately, over these past months where the thread of racial tension is being wound tighter and tighter. I don't pretend to know the answers to these problems. I know they're much deeper than my experience allows me to understand. But I am convinced, as white American Christians, that we need to learn how to listen, without judgement or excuses. To acknowledge that maybe the frustration is something so far outside the scope of our understanding, that we can't identify. We will never fully grasp why people are so upset or angry or hurt, but we can learn to empathize. We can learn to sit in that uncomfortable spot of saying, "I don't know, I don't have an answer, but I'm not going to negate your experience or your feelings or your voice just because it doesn't resonate with me." Instead of keeping an icy distance and cold indifference, maybe its time to initiate a thaw. 





SOUNDTRACK

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Today we played legos. We sorted and snapped the pieces into makeshift tanker trucks and cement mixers. We zoomed them around the floor and barked orders about where to fill up or unload. Moses decided he needed a guy to drive his truck, so he scurried off to sort through the mess of tiny pieces strewn about. He started humming while he searched. I guess it was a pretty typical afternoon, as far as three year old boys are concerned.

The part that wasn't so typical was the squeaky little voice that broke through the humming. "Pwaise da Lawd, O my soullllll."  Time stood still. I closed my eyes, the memories came.

Easter 2010. "Praise the Lord, O my soul." Sitting on my bed for the fortieth morning in a row, meditating on Psalm 103. Realizing that God had met me in the darkness of those 5am meetings, those quiet times I threw at Him as an ultimatum to show me that He was real. He transformed the heart I had hardened and made it soft again.

August 2011. "Praise the Lord, O my soul. And forget not all his benefits." Burying the tiny form of our child and the hope that he held. Trusting that those benefits were enough to sustain our broken hearts.

January 2013. "You're rich in love." Soaking up the mornings in Samuel's nursery as the sunlight fought its way through the dense fog, casting a soft glow through the big bay windows. Marveling that this tiny human was given to me, the most unexpected of gifts.

October 2013. "Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes." Morning and evening, walking the perimeter of the hotel compound in Kinshasa carrying the tiny frame of my son. Singing into his ear the words that became our anthem. Dreaming that each morning would be our day to go home together and crying out each evening as hope set with the sun.

January 2014. "When my strength is failing... Still my soul will sing your praise unending." The weekend I arrived back from Congo, without Moses. Standing in the auditorium of Everret Middle school in San Francisco, the voices of my friends singing for me. Sobs wracked my body, tears streamed down my face. Their hands reached out, offering comfort and courage.

June 2014. "The sun comes up, its a new day dawning." The weekend I arrived back from Congo, with Moses. The weekend we dedicated our boys back to the One who entrusted them to our care. That same group of friends reaching out their arms in love and support to greet the boy they had prayed so hard and so long for. The applause that arose, not for us, but for a God that meets us in the impossible.

A thousand other dates. A thousand other memories. Greetings and farewells. New beginnings and devastating endings. Life, death, and everything in between. Phrases of this passage and song floating around our little piece of the atmosphere.

I doubt Moses remembers the hundreds of times I sang that song to him in Congo.  But I'd like to believe my small act of faith imprinted on him. That is became as much a part of his song as my own. That when he heard it sung at preschool, a familiarity struck him. That through the chaos, he took away, "Praise the Lord, O my soul! Ooooooh my soul!" Loud and clear. Unhindered. Uncomplicated. On repeat. Our soundtrack.



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