Thursday, March 16, 2017

Behind Those Blast Walls

My first day at the emergency field hospital just east of Mosul, Iraq was very much like my last day. Mortar strikes on civilians, children bloody and broken, black bags to hold the dead. The slow, solemn walk, cradling a ten year old in my arms, counting the steps to the morgue. Laying someone's son down on cold gravel, reading his name one last time on the death certificate taped to the body bag.

Time of death 18:17.

Patient #855.

I'll never forget the sounds of his dying. The rattling and the gurgling. I'll never forget the songs we sung over him, the prayers strangled by grief and sorrow. The tear stained cheeks and our righteous anger. I'll never forget the faraway look on his precious face. I'll never forget his face. What was left of it.

Many of us were strangers a week before, two days before. Strangers taking care of other strangers. One set from the west, a land of peace and prosperity, one set from northern Iraq, a region ravaged by terrorism and war. And now here we all were, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, translators, construction workers, administrators, and HR reps.  One and all hearts turned inside out and taking care of the dying while other new friends fight for the living in mobile operating theaters a few hundred feet away.

That last night may have been the worst. The toddler with ribs exposed from mortar wounds. 9 children in one day. But there were other days, other nights when I thought my heart might die. The toddlers with their feet shot off. The whole families targeted by drone strikes. The burnt and blackened restaurant patrons, victims of a suicide bomber. One night in particular I carried five children to the morgue. It leaves you breathless, concussed. The mortar of sorrow, a direct shot to the soul.

I'm processing, I'm free bleeding my heart and thoughts here so I don't explode and because I don't have the luxury of denial. I cannot separate my belief in a good and sovereign God and the suffering of innocence. If there is no reconciling the two than I am lost. We all are. Especially Christians, fools to be pitied of all men.

But what we found there, behind those blast walls, with the ceaseless drums of artillery fire, the strangled song of the whine and wail of one ambulance after another, was that hope is not a thing you wish for, it is the only thing afloat in a raging sea of chaos. It is what you hold on to, what holds on to you so you do not go under the relentless waves of grief. And we found that you hold on to each other. And you pray like gasping for your last breath. And you plead with heaven, even when heaven is silent. And you raise your broken hearts together in a pitiful little petition, more whimpers than words, and you beg, unified in grief, "Jesus please....."

The Bible says that suffering produces hope. A comical, sadist thought when the belly is full and the sun of our futures never sets, always shines on our glorious destinies. But when the night never ends, when the morgue is full, when evil seems to be laughing in every shadow, on those nights you somehow see it. Suffering produces hope in this way: when terrorism and hate and the cancer of evil spreads over all that is good with a blight of darkness, the light still does not go out. There is a flame in the hearts of those who have known the love of God. There is a song of praise that is not stalled on their lips, is not silenced. There is a light in the inner places of those who have heard the Word of Life and believed. This is the flower of hope that grows in the garden of souls by heaven's Holy seed. This is the hope that springs eternal, because it has always existed, always will exist apart from the human stain, in the Holy heart of God.

Suffering produces hope in the same way bomb blasts produce the broken bodies of children. It is the inevitability, the cause and the effect of universal laws. But only one will remain. Hope will swallow grief one day because Love will conquer all. But Hope is inevitable in us only when we trust, against our own instincts, in the goodness of God and allow ourselves to be taken deep into our own human frailty, far past vulnerability to the point of despair. And in that wasteland of our utter uselessness, in that wilderness of our unraveling, God is there, He is faithful, He alone, as He has always been, is holding the universe together and simultaneously holds us in the palm of His hand.

That is the only hope: that God holds His own in the palm of His hands while they yet suffer. And that the insatiable hunger of the mouth of Hell cannot devour the ragtag, broken band of believers called the church.

In the picture above I hold in my hand a 50 caliber bullet taken from the body of a pre-teen boy. An ISIS sniper shot him because their's is an ideology of fear. They target the weak, not just because the weak are a low-hanging fruit, but because most of us are weak. Most of us are trying to live our simple lives in peace. ISIS needs capitulation. They need submission. A sniper bullet in the side of a child reminds us the world is not at peace and things are not simple. It reminds us that suffering isn't a concept, that no abstraction paralyzed this young man. It reminds us that we are fragile and vulnerable. It reminds us that to walk the way of love our hearts will be obliterated by suffering.

And so against all hope we hope, that Love will one day conquer all. But not human love. Only God's selfless love, for with it carries His perfect all-powerful justice and the promise and ability to make all things new. Godspeed that day. Especially for the precious children of Mosul.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Just Like Dave

Sometimes Dave has trouble sleeping. So do I. Dave loves coffee. Yup. Me too. He spends the majority of his waking hours in coffee shoppes. Almost as much time as I do. We met in one. Dave's first love, his first broken heart was a Louisiana girl. Me too, me too. Dave just wants to feel normal, wants to be the master of his own destiny. I think we all can relate. Dave hurts, he grieves, he longs for simpler, happier times. Dave is perfectly human in that respect. 

Dave lives in Hattiesburg, MS twenty miles south of where he was born, where he accepted Jesus, was baptized, went to college, fell in love, and fell apart. He talks about the Easter when he lost himself. He's been looking for himself ever since, mostly through the cloudy haze of medication.

I hadn't seen Dave for almost four months. I'd been in Haiti and he in Hattiesburg. When we finally crossed paths at a Starbucks he had lost 45 pounds. His eyes were sunken in a bit but he was so glad to see me and starved for conversation. After a bit I finally got him to tell me how long it had been since he'd eaten. Way too long. He'd had a couple checks stolen and his account cleared out. It's hard to really say but I think he was more embarrassed than mad. We walked next door to a sub shop and Dave devoured "the best sandwich of my life".

Dave is diagnosed schizophrenic and bi-polar. He is on three medications. These are things Dave has told me. He explains what his pills do. Blue ones to help him sleep. Two blue ones and he can sleep all night. The larger white ones are his anti-psychotics. The new, small white ones help him not get trapped in the past. They keep him looking, going forward. He must not be taking those because for three days now he has talked mostly of his past. He speaks of his parent's deaths. The blue and white dress his mother was buried in. "Blue and white dress, blue and white pills." The conversations, the connections made in Dave's mind sometimes get loud enough to be heard. 

Dave has six toes on each foot. I don't. He likes to paint his twelve toenails and his fingernails too. I've not tried that, yet. Dave has an imaginary son. My River Moses is unbelievable but very real. The more time I spend with Dave the more I realize how much our differences are superficial, how we really are all the same. Different degrees of broken, but all wonderfully and fearfully made in our Father's image. And I realize even more, how desperately I need Jesus to keep my inner gravity holding, keep all my pieces from breaking up, spinning hopelessly, recklessly apart. 

Just like Dave.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Truth In Love

Many years ago there was a young woman. She was deep in love and her soldier was far away. He was stationed in a deeply hostile area and communication was impossible. She hadn't talked to him for months and she was buckling under the weight of it all. 

So very far away her man was aching hard for her. He'd had enough and crept across the dark jungle, crawling through swamps and under razor wire until he finally reached an outpost. And after some begging and bribing, a sympathetic sergeant let him place a call.

Every night she would sleep lightly, hoping to wake at the first ring. Her days were a strange orbit around the phone. When life beckoned from outside her doors she would resist its pull. But days she was drawn away she would make her sister promise to take his message and tell her soldier she would return very quickly. Six dreadful months and no call. She tried to imagine her hero, her lover, brave and bold and selfless. But long nights fear crept in. She wondered if he was even alive.

Six months without her voice and his mind was a worse war. Enemies without faces but names he knew too well. Depression, loneliness, fear, despair. And now the phone was ringing and with one word she would silence all those demon voices.

Ringing and ringing and then a voice. But not hers. A strange electricity and a rush of pain but he pushed the words out. Is she there??? His voice hungry and shaking. 


Just then a mortar exploded a half a mile away and the line was lost for a second. He spoke quickly, forcefully, with six months of longing bleeding out.

"Tell my wife I love her. Tell her I am safe because her love keeps me alive, gives me reason to survive. Tell her she is my very heart. She is my every thought and all my waking dreams. Tell her all of hell could not keep me from coming back to her."

Another mortar explosion. Closer. The line crackled and cut again for a moment. He spoke quicker and with desperate urgency. Trying to unravel six months of thoughts and say only the most important things.

"Tell her I miss her all the stars and moons and every world. Tell her all the books in all those worlds cannot contain all my heart has to say. The sum of all their languages does not have the words to express my desire for her. Tell her everything I said. Every word. Tell her when I see her I have so much more to say!" 

Then the line went. He stared at the receiver. Relief flooded him and a strange peace of release. He snuck back across enemy lines to his post ever more resolved to live, to find a way back home to the women he was in love with.

She burst through the front door. Before she set the groceries down she yelled to her sister. "Did he call?" Expecting the "no" she always got, the "yes" hit her in her chest, a mortar of stronger sort. Breathless and trembling she asked, "What did he say?" The words hung like ghost speech in the air. Thin and gray. She felt everything. Aware of every atom.

She dared not breathe. She stared at her sister as her lips parted in slow motion to speak.

"He said when he got back there were things he needed to talk to you about."


There is a way to tell the truth, to say exactly what has been said, and yet betray the very heart of that truth. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul reminds the believers there to speak the truth in love. Paul knew all too well that the heart of the gospel could be divorced from the truth of it. He had experienced the depths and heights of a loveless religion, he had murdered for truth's sake because he did not have love.

When those who call themselves Christians, be they preachers or laymen, speak the truth without love they are like the sister of the bride who breaks her heart with the very words her lover has spoken. And though it was all true, it murdered the heart of what he had said.

Jesus has said much to His bride. And every single word of it was blood-drenched in love. And whenever the emotion of those words is twisted by the "the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming" it is the worst of what religion does. When the words of God are manipulated to control or punish or leverage Christ's bride I think He takes notice. I think His anger flares up and I think He will have His heart heard at all cost. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Centuries of loveless religion and controlling through fear led Him down the loneliest most brutal road. Where He went to war, gave His life freely, was crucified ruthlessly, crossed enemy lines and then came back to say to His bride....

"Your pain, your isolation, your fear cannot keep me from you. Your doubts I will never return cannot keep me from you. Even death can cannot keep me from you!" "I will come for you!" He yells over the war of the world. "I will come for you" He sings over His bride. "I will come for you my love," he whispers by His Spirit in us. "And soon!"

So to everyone who would dare to speak for God. Would dare to comment on the meanings, the motives behind His holy words...please, please, speak the truth, but only in love... 

Or don't speak at all. Jesus is a jealous lover. His bride is His life. He will take care of His girl. That's a promise. His promise.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 28: Character Sketches

Later today I will take a train to New Orleans and fly early tomorrow to Miami and then on to Haiti, but for now I am sitting in this coffee shoppe watching people. Listening to their conversations. Learning, painting little character sketches, trying to understand what it is that makes people in a story believable. The way they interact with strangers, the cadence of their speech, their tics and superfluous movements. The way the boy in plaid stops moving his lips but doesn't lower his voice when he wants to tell his girlfriend a secret. As if lip-readers alone will use this private knowledge against him. Why would he do this? And why does the college guy sitting behind him hunch over his meal like he has done hard time in jail? Protecting his plate with one arm and keeping his face real low, real close to the plate so he can shovel the food in with his spoon. And the man with the rectangular glasses. He has nodded his head in agreement with every conversation at his table and yet not spoken up once. Is he this much of a people pleaser or is he plotting silently the whole time to financially defraud them all? His shirt would suggest as much. That shade of purple. 

But then there are the ones, enigmatic or odd, that capture my attention most.

For instance that man there. He barks when he laughs, like a dog with a cough, like a dog with a deep, rattling smoker's cough. And everything seems to make him laugh. The barista dropping a spoon. His tablemate mispronouncing a former soviet bloc country's name. Always barking his lung hacking laughter. I imagine he does it at the most inappropriate times. The priest with a lisp at his father's funeral, the sloshed champagne of solemn wedding toast. And always, always into a vacuum of silence, he alone finding hilarity in the most mundane of things.

Then, across the room, is this study in mismatched aztec prints who sits perched on her chair like a nervous little cat. The dog-cough laughter keeps making her jump. I imagine she is startled by shadows and sneezes on the subway. That she is always fumbling her keys in locks. "Sticky-tricky locks" she would say, half growl half whisper, never amused that so many doorknobs in so many diverse locations would for so long continue to conspire against her. 

Now they are in line, coffee refills we'll say. And she is fumbling again, through her wallet. She is apologetic, she is out of cash (a conspiracy!) and there is a five dollar minimum on credit transactions. He offers to pay but she declines. He insists and out of deference for the long line forming behind them she mumbles yes. He pays and she smiles gratefully. He smiles sheepishly. She blushes, but this full body sunburn blush and he smiles again, more confident, very warmly and it seems, to me anyway, their eyes hold a second too long. 

So I imagine their life together. 

They are married on a Friday, because Friday is a payday and Monday a holiday. Their house will be affordable. No other consideration will be made before its purchase. They'll move the left-over, left behind furniture from his first marriage and the emotionally neutral furniture from her last bad break-up into the two bedroom one bath fixer-upper. His western trade paperbacks will be placed next to her Faulkner and Hemingway and she will try her best to forgive him but it will keep her up nights. He will always, as if for sport, ask her grand hypotheticals, none that she can answer truthfully without betraying his fragile sense of loyalty. He will ask, "If you had one day left to live, who would you want to spend it with?" To which she will feel she must say, "You, honey."  But being a bad liar she might try and put him off with some non-answer, or some gentle bite back. She will of course spend it reading. He can be there too if he prefers. Instead she will say, "I love you". And they will both know she doesn't mean it, but for the first time, in a really, really long time, she'll wish she did. 
Yep. This is what I am doing when I am awkwardly staring at you in a coffee shoppe. I am living out your other possible lives for you. I just write it down, see what the characters might do, what they might say. And when there is someone or something deeply authentic or universally true in some new way, well I'll hold on to those things for some story sometime. Or it's all rubbish and I'll erase it but I will hopefully have learned a little more about human nature. And every once in a while I'll fall madly in love with someone's imaginary self, and then I'll send them away to some far off locale, and when they get back, if there are still sparks, well then I'll write whatever they say. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

This In-Between Month, (Later On) Day 25: Heals As It Cuts

I got up earlier than I wanted to go to the DMV as my driver's license will expire while I am in Haiti. The line was wrapped around the back of the building when I arrived and I braced myself for a long morning of waiting. Waiting without coffee. But the entire process is now automated. It took me 3 minutes. I got back to my rental car before my coffee cooled. Winning!

But yet, for whatever reason, I was one of two people to use the automated machine. The waiting room was to overflowing capacity with disgruntled drivers, faces contorted in disgust. One man ranted how all this technology was some conspiracy of paper conservation at taxpayer expense. He said this, holding ticket number one million forty-five out of about a billion and was still mumbling under his breath as I danced joyfully out the door. Well, I felt like dancing.

Now at a coffee shoppe I am lost in the words of Flannery O'Connor. If I have never mentioned her to you before I am sorry. I would quote her here but everything she said or wrote should be quoted. Get thee to a bookstore, a computer, or the library and read her. The Habit of Being is a collection of her letters. That's a good place to start. And Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose is great too. Her fiction is the best of American Southern gothic. Full of freaks and Jesus and deep mystery and eternal truth. She has the kind of razor wit and effortless grace that heals as it cuts. I seriously want to just quote her for an hour. I cannot find one phrase that rises above the rest when they all fly so high. For every writer out there, please, please read what she has to say about writing. She is a master and her wisdom is invaluable to your craft. To the Christian and the truth seeker she speaks with a clarity and a poetry that seers into the soul. To the reader and lover of fiction she captures in both narrative and dialogue that which is elementally human having been twisted by misery, wrung through the ringer of life and having resisted all their days Grace. She shows us the grotesque we will become without Christ. Wow. 

My driver's license will be mailed to my parents in 14 days. I will have been in Haiti for a week and a half by then. Some of the people in line with me this morning may still be sitting in the purgatory of the DMV waiting room. God help them.

Anyway, I finally found some quotes by the irrepressible Miss O'Connor that I'd like to share. Quotes about writing. Enjoy!

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn't write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. ” 

― Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored."  

― Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

This In-Between Month, Day 25: Our Own Shadows

Sometimes I can be my own worst enemy. I am certainly my hardest, most unrelenting critic. If I took the tone with you that my inner voice takes with me, well you would not be my friend. Blame personality type or order of birth but I hold myself to an impossible standard. And when I fail, as I always do, as I always will in light of unattainable perfection, I have a hard time forgiving myself. 

Don't get me wrong, there are many things I fail at that are your garden variety failures. Ones so common and ordinary as to be too pathetically boring to admit here, but even those things, maybe especially those things, raise my inner voice's ire and I take a good tongue lashing.

And what I have found, wherever I go, is that most of us, in one way or another, are the same way. And what is worse is that we put our critical voice into God's mouth. And many times in my experience, people don't even realize it.

As I lay in bed last night, sleepless, restless, melancholy to the point of morose, a little bird of thought flew headlong into the little window of my soul. "When we face the sunlight we cannot see our own shadows." And in the darkness of that room, with darker thoughts, that little flash of light fluttering, that little thud and shudder and chirp of a truth reminded me this:

I must stare into the face of Jesus whose beautiful radiance will devour my shadows. And the more I am consumed by His loveliness and His light the less I will think of me, my darkness, my ugliness. And the more I bathe in the glow of His perfection the more I realize I need not even try to be something I am not and cannot ever be. What I can be, is a vessel, or maybe a cup, or probably more likely a shot glass to carry His light and His love and His utter perfection to the world. Anything else will leave me mired in self-loathing and failure. So I give up (again) on being perfect. And though I may be found muttering "shut up" to myself, or even screaming it now and then, well, I refuse to listen to that voice of condemnation any longer, for in Christ there is no more of that nastiness. I choose to believe what scripture says about me, namely that I am unconditionally loved and that His grace is made perfect in my weakness, not in my mock perfection.

Yup. Amen.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day Twenty-Something: Time's a Revelator

Today River and I rode through the mountains. We turned Gillian Welch way up and drove real slow, winding in and out of endless curves cut from sheer rock faces. She sang "Time's a revelator" and as she did it seemed time slowed, our surroundings coming into such sharp focus. The trees, except for a few evergreens, were bare and covered the old round hills in great gray bristles. There were tall slender symmetrical ones that looked like flightless feathers (for what are trees if not the earth's feathers, and forests her many wings). And there were huge white writhing ones too that looked like the skeletons of great lumbering beasts. And the ground, the trees and it seemed every stone was covered in a thick green fur.

After a week of rain the sun gilded the surface of streams and glowed rocks until they burned like coals. The endless bare branches, the sun cutting through with no canopy of leaves to obscure its light meant shadows criss crossing at every odd angle and making a maze on the forest floor. No photo could capture the stillness and the magic of those few moments any more than you can be warmed by a sketch of the sun. We just kept saying "wow, wow, wooooow". Our words, our breath, our movements slowed too. We stopped and stood on a giant rock in a river bend and my son, my own wild River broke the spell by quoting Coleridge which only served to put us back under the spell deeper still:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Now, in our hotel room, River strums his guitar and I am thinking about time, this short interval of eternity scaled for human reference. Time is a revelator and I suppose we agree, "only time will tell" goes our prediction. We comfort ourselves and promise one another that "time is a healer". The ancient greeks in all their wisdom defer to time as the "wisest counselor of all". But we only have so much of it, and like Dave Perkins sings, "we lean against time with heels dug in". How many on their deathbed beg and barter with time? All my possessions for just a few more days. 

Not much else to say I guess. I hope these scriptures about the time we have now and the time we have left will encourage you, and especially me to trust God more, drink down each day with great breathless gulps, and to get busy about kingdom business, mainly loving on widows and orphans and the lonely and the crushed in spirit. 

“But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand.” – Psalm 31:14-15, ESV

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1, KJV

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” -Psalm 90:12, ESV

“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered – how fleeting my life is.” – Psalm 39:4, NLT

“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:8-9, ESV

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” – Psalm 9:9, ESV

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” – James 4:13-15, ESV

And the one that seems to stay in my mind these last few weeks...

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11