Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Same River Twice

For the last ten weeks I have been back in Iraq at the same emergency field hospital I worked at earlier this year. The bombs were not so close this time, the acuity rate not so high, but the scars of evil were just as ugly and ever present. 

I am changed forever. We all are. We have seen things that cannot be unseen. Our heart's have been crushed, ground to dust, blown to bits, over and over again. And the thing is, what each of us will confess, is that it was a sacred honor, one we wouldn't trade for all the glittering things. And that for most of us this was the first time in our lives where all of our passions were engaged; personal, professional, and spiritual, in a community of our peers doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. And that's what we all long for isn't it? Isn't that what it means to be fully alive? And maybe that's strange, to feel so alive under the shadow of death. To travel to a war-zone to find family. But maybe what is more strange is we weep when we have to leave, and many of us dread the coming home. 

And so I write this for my field hospital family, I write this for those that love them. They are not who they once were, they are stronger and yet more fragile. The have gone to a place of bombs and terror and seen what those evil forces do to the bodies of children. They have sat countless hours with the dying, held out hope with trembling hands to the living. They have stifled the urge to scream too many times to count. They have fought back tears daily so the floodgates wouldn't open forever. They are not who they were when they left you, they are better than before, but they are more broken. Over them hangs an invisible shroud of grief, they must mourn for what's been lost, for what they've left behind on the war ravaged plains of Nineveh.

So please be careful with them, let them tell you their story in their own time, even if it's a long time. It's a story that costs them in heart-break. The words conjure images that will haunt them forever. Let them have their silence and space, to process, to heal. Be patient with them, small talk may be unbearable after a season so intense, so pregnant with purpose. A trip to the mall or Walmart might be unhinging for them when they've seen those fleeing war in tattered rags and matted filth, gaunt with emaciation. They see with new eyes now, hear with new ears. There has been a deep shift in their sense of justice, a widening of their worldview. You will alienate them quickly if you politicize refugees, or paint Muslims or Middle Easterners with a broad blunt brush. These are no longer abstract terms to them, no longer strangers from news footage. They have done life with these precious people, they've listened to stories of horror so unimaginable that it left them reeling and speechless. The throats of babies slit in mother's arms, whole families mowed down by ISIS snipers as they ran to freedom. Daughters hiding in the piles of the dead, sons surviving on cardboard and blades of grass. Your churches may seem more shallow to them, words like suffering and persecution now have faces and stories, have a new infinitely higher ceiling of meaning. They have seen the cost of faith. But they love you, they still need you, maybe more now than ever. Brokenness isn't a switch that can be flipped on and off, a setting to be dialed down. So be gentle. Please.

And now to my EFH peeps. I love you and miss you. More than words can say. I want to honor you, you crazy ragamuffin crew. You are my family. You are my heroes. I have tasted heaven behind those blast walls in our little community, I have seen the image of God in each of you.

In the OR doctors and nurses who had to amputate the limbs of babies through the tears in their own eyes I have seen the image of God. You put back together bodies without enough pieces to put together.

In my ICU nurses I saw God's heart everyday. I love you so much it hurts. I cannot say your name or conjure your faces without tears. You lovers, you fighters, you wonder workers, you solvers of the riddles of the body. 

To my charge nurses, you bosses, you beasts, you rock solid sisters. You led like lions with the hearts of lambs. I saw the Lion of Judah in you, the Lamb that was slain. 

To my ward nurses, nothing is beneath you. You feet washers and bum washers and all the parts washers. You emptiers of endless bedpans. You radiate the humility of the Light of the world. The One who was equal with God but came to wash our feet. To die for us.

For the keeper of sacred stats, the lighter of candles. For the master of all the moving parts. I love you two, you Sriracha sisters, you dumpster fire choir. I saw the humanity of Christ in you, the toll it took on your hearts.

In the anesthesiologists and CRNAs, you givers of sleep and wakers from slumber, I saw the Breath of Life in you.

In those that came with blow up dinosaurs and bags of toys because laughter heals and a child's playthings shouldn't be bullet casings, you are a flood of joy, I have seen Him in you.

For the Marine making balloon animals and keeping us safe (sometimes from ourselves). For the makers of big decisions who fight the war of head verses heart every single day. I see the Father in you. 

For the set up crew and construction teams. You turned an empty muddy field into a full blown trauma hospital all the while war raged around you. You imaged the Risen One.

For the maintenance men who battle nature and entropy and never sleep too deep. Who fight fires figurative and literal. Who make medical devices from spare parts and hold the whole thing together with zip-ties and duct tape and bailing wire. You look like your Creator to me.

For the Triage nurses who conducted the whole chaos like a symphony. For the trauma nurses who work magic on the hairbreadth edge of a razor. You look like your Abba. 

For staff care who tried to lighten our loads, who sat with the dying, who kept us in chocolate, and led us in communion. I have seen the High Priest in you.

For the ER docs steady, ready, wise and gentle.The pharmacists, phlebotomists, sterilizers, med supply, bio-med and lab techs your skill and ceaseless hard work was never sexy but was the science in saving lives. I saw my Savior in you all.

You are all the broken-hearted healers. You cups for Living Water in the desert. You are the pierced hands and feet. I have such a clearer picture of God because of you, I have such a deeper understanding. There is an old proverb that says, "no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man". You will never be the same, but the fire and the hand of Grace have made you like glowing gold, even when you feel like you'll never shine again. The grief will lessen, the sorrow too, but it will never leave you. That's the price of loving, it always has been, from long before time began when the Lamb was slain.

And finally for my Iraqi, and Kurdish, and Yazidi brothers and sisters. You are so brave. You have lived in the shadow of war and terrorism all your days. Tragedy has been your food and sorrow your drink. And yet you hold onto life in spite of what has been stolen from you. You have opened your hearts as wide as the horizon and embraced a ragamuffin band of westerners with so many misconceptions. You have taught us about love and humanity, honor and sacrifice. You have shared your food and your tears, your stories and laughter. We miss you, we love you. You are in our hearts forever, precious habibis.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Happiness Is (Not) A Warm Gun

A look inside the Emergency Field hospital where patients wounded from the battle to retake Mosul and from ISIS terrorist attacks are treated by brave medical professionals from around the world.

In 6 days I head back to Iraq. Back to the emergency field hospital near Mosul where I was earlier this year. As I've processed working in a trauma hospital so close to an active war zone, having seen so much death, especially the death of children, I realize it will take a long time to unpack all I've experienced. Trauma, like grief, is a sucker punch. It blindsides you, it staggers you, it leaves the mind, the heart, the psyche reeling. It's much like this: the burning fragments of film frames temporarily illuminated by the same fire that is destroying them. Trauma, like grief, changes everything, forever. It clings to our days with a grayness, with nagging sadness, with wondering whether you'll ever be truly whole again.

It is said trauma is "not the thing that happened but the effect left on us by our experiences". Rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and increasingly irresponsible sexual behavior spike among survivors and witnesses to trauma. The suicide rate among trauma survivors is 15X higher than the rest of the population. Isolation, anxiety, depression, loss of appetite for food and fun are all symptoms of a post traumatic experience.* It can feel like a low grade fever of unhappiness, constant and incurable. To be sure, trauma is a toxin, it tires the body, it wearies the blood.

Much of trauma counseling seeks to normalize the effects of trauma, reinforcing the idea that what survivors and witnesses of trauma feel (and do) as a result of trauma are very normal reactions to an abnormal situation. This is a permission to forgive ourselves as much as it is a building block for recovery. It's saying "You are not defective, you've just been broken by your experiences and need help putting the pieces back together". It helps us understand that fatalism born in self-defeat because of a negative response to trauma is a downward spiral. And that coping mechanisms can become a new self-perpetuating prison and actually keep the survivor from starting to heal. Self-loathing and self blame are very real responses to trauma and can be extremely high among first responders. Those that go to help in traumatic situations often feel like we couldn't do enough and wear the guilt and shame of those feelings of failure for years. 

Studies on trauma reveal relationships are the key to coping during and after a crisis. In fact the number one predictor for resiliency after a trauma is existing healthy relationships. Psychologists are also finding that the opposite of addiction is connection. The greatest factor in not becoming an addict and in ultimately beating addiction is healthy relationships. Recently the results of one of the longest, most comprehensive studies on human happiness were released. For 75 years researchers at Harvard tracked the emotional and physical well-being of the studies participants. What they found is no shock, it's been said for years, by many similar studies of smaller scope, the key to a happier and healthier life: good relationships. According to a Harvard researcher, "It's not just the number of friends you have, it's the quality of your close relationships that matters." More specifically it's the amount of vulnerability and depth within those relationships, and how safe we feel sharing with one another. In other words, the extent to which we can breathe deep and be seen for who we truly are, and truly see others the same way. We long for connection, for acceptance, for love. It's the universal human condition. We were made for community, we are programmed to not be alone. 

One of the biggest reasons I am OK is because of a wife and friends that have shared similar experiences with me. They push back against the inertia of isolation that would be my natural tendency. It doesn't mean we effortlessly talk about our darkest days but we do understand each other's silence. We know what the far away look in the eyes means. And we also share a common faith. We know that the most important part of our relationships is the community, the family that we are as believers in Jesus. 

Happiness does come from relationships, and everlasting, perfect happiness, what the bible calls joy, comes from relationship with the One that will never leave us or forsake us. In Jesus alone can we have limitless vulnerability and bottomless depth. In Him alone can we be known completely, He did in fact create us. So it follows then, perfect healing, the truest resiliency, the best inoculation against the prison of our desires can only come from knowing we are accepted with all of our faults, and that we are loved unreservedly and endlessly by the One who proved it by dying for us. And the path forward for any of us is to accept Him, on His terms, and remain in relationship with Him for all our days. 

There are gifts of clarity that can come with trauma, albeit with a heavy cost, like a magnifying glass brings such focus, such illumination, right before it burns a hole in the leaf. I fear death less, I cherish life more. We're so fragile, all of us humans. I also hate evil more, and realize that fear is its most powerful weapon. And I know that being good is more than just behavior, more than just abstaining from wrong. Good's gotta be brave, and it's gotta fight back. And that sometimes the most powerful weapon in that fight is forgiveness. And I learned, by watching people transformed by love, that loving your enemy is not just a suggestion, its a command. And it's evil's greatest fear.

Looking back, sometimes it's as if I am looking at these memories through that magnifying glass again, other times it's a microscope. One can make everything too bright, too volatile, the other too close and clinical. I have found the only way I can look back and consistently see clearly is through the lens of scripture. And though scripture doesn't always give us the answers to the questions we ask, it does however give us the answer in the person of Jesus. Knowing my Savior has experienced the full horror of hell means he understands all I am going through, means He has felt it too. And the Spirit that was in Him through the entire ordeal lives in me. The Spirit of all hope, all peace, all comfort, and all joy. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and will one day raise me to be with Him forever, to the eternal hope that all these things will pass, and that the destiny for the beloved is beautiful, and painless, and never ending bliss. 

One more thing, when I write about my time in Iraq, a wave of guilt tends to wash over me as I remember the mothers and fathers of the children who were torn apart by ISIS, as I recall the many stories of my Iraqi co-workers who have lived under the dark shadow of terrorism and war most of their lives. I would never, will never place my experiences on the same plane as theirs. These words are for the others like me, who have had similar experiences. Who have suffered trauma or seen it. For those medical professionals and relief workers who go to help. These words are to honor them. They are my heroes, mostly because they don't see themselves that way. For my EFH people. I love you. If you ever need to talk you know how to find me. We're all in this together. 

We have been broken by our experiences, He is putting us back together. xoxo

*Other symptoms of post traumatic experiences can include aggressive, erratic or self-destructive behavior, disassociation or memory blanks, numbness and the lack of ability to concentrate. Many people experience sleeplessness and irrational fears.You can read more about the symptoms here. If these symptoms persist for more than 30 days they can be PTSD. Please see a counselor.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

They Were Like Birds

Tuesday Syrian President Assad's coalition forces used a chemical agent on civilians living in the Idlib Province. Official counts of the dead now exceed 80. Including 22 members of Abdel Hameed Alyousef's family. A picture of him holding his two dead babies is all over my social media and news feeds. The world is weeping at such grotesque tragedy, weeping for Abdel, weeping for the 28 other children and 20 women who were killed in the attack. Most died foaming at the mouth, choking, suffocating from the sarin gas. These are war crimes. These are crimes against humanity. 

A year ago I was in Greece. Working in the north near the border with FYROM at the refugee camp called Idomeni. There I met hundreds of Syrians running from Assad's 4 year assault on his own people, running from ISIS, running from a war with too many factions and not enough heroes. The drawing above was given to me by Razan, an 11 year old from Damascus.

One very cold morning I got to the camp early to find protesters all along the rail tracks that used to provide unfettered train access to FYROM for trade and passengers alike. 

The presence of protesters wasn't anything new, a daily occurrence for a beleaguered population of 13,000 whose lives were stuck in limbo while politicians pulled their strings from warm boardrooms thousands of miles away. But this morning the signs were different, this morning the mood was especially somber. Protesters seemed hopeless, far away in their stares. They were looking homeward, but through a thick fog of grief. Aleppo had fallen after almost four years of fighting. By the end of 2016 the battle for Aleppo would have become one of the longest sieges in modern warfare, 31,000+ people dead and 36,000+ buildings completely destroyed. 

Picture from Business Insider

Sitting in the tents of Syrian refugees, listening to their stories, the string of tragedies that had become their story, I found myself sharing chai and tears with total strangers. I will never forget their words. The Syrian boy below was shot in the leg by a sniper. His mother suffered from PTSD, her husband had been murdered by ISIS. Wet-eyed and weary she recounted both incidents, showed me the pictures on her phone. Showed me the decapitated child that was her daughter's best friend. Her little body left in the street as a warning to submit or be killed. This trembling mother had left before her children shared their father's fate, or before they became another lifeless example, lying in the road.

Above, the photos of Rostem, a young man shot in the head as he walked home from work in Damascus. His mother Amina wept as she told me about him, how she didn't know if it was Assad or IS that had killed him. She'd fled Syria with her daughter, to get her to safety anywhere. And then she teared up again, apologizing that she had no food to offer me, and then with great pride said if you were in my country, at my home, I would feed you the biggest meal. Her husband Omar smiled for the first time, but only for a moment as he told me of Amina's brain tumor. His words were slow and anxious. He he couldn't lose her too.

Now another year has passed. There are thousands of other stories to add to these. Refugees still pour out of Syria and other war torn countries. Still make treacherous journeys with their young, the infirmed and elderly, for the hope of safety. Thousands have died, drowned in cold seas off the coast of Turkey, Greece, and Libya. Thousands more will drown. Stories like that of the chemical attack Tuesday reveal what these people are running from, what's at stake.

I'm angry, I'm heartbroken. I hear the politicking, the rhetoric. I hear the hard-hearted diatribes against refugees, read the ramblings of those that have never tasted terror. I understand the complex nature of this issue. I understand the scrutiny and vetting of refugees, of governments being safe and responsible. But what I cannot understand, what I cannot stomach are the accusations levied at these families fleeing from terror. Accusations, some of which are made by people calling themselves Christians. Accusations of people they've never met, whose stories they've never heard, whose lives they've never had to live. Accusations like:

"They should stay and fight." "The men are cowards for leaving." "This is opportunistic migration." 

Stay and fight? While their families are being picked off by snipers, mowed down by air attacks, gassed with chemicals? Stay and fight and send their families along the treacherous journey to safety? Where many women are raped, many children exploited, many never make it at all. Stay and fight for who? With who? In a war with no rules, no boundaries. Where is the hope for defeating so many enemies on so many fronts? 

Cowards? These people have lived in these conditions for years, bravely, defiantly. Where is the cowardice, the opportunism in wanting to get your family out of harm's way? Get them to a life without war. What kind of coward, what sort of opportunist braves human traffickers, frigid waters, and years mired in refugee camps for freedom? I'd say that people like that have incredible internal fortitude, anything but cowardice.

To be sure, this is not the face of cowardice. This is shock. This is a father who has lost his 9 month old twins, Aya and Ahmed, and 20 other members of his family to a chemical attack from his own government. This is what staying gets you. A mass grave with 22 members of your family.*

Are there opportunists? Yes. Are there terrorists lurking in the ranks of this great throng of the dispossessed? Sure, probably. Will we stand before God and give account for the selfishness and self-protection that kept us from helping the hurting huddled masses? You know in your heart we will. 

Let us remember carefully the words of our Savior. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (Matthew 25:25-36)

We don't have to be anti-American to be pro refugee. We don't have to work against the security of the state to obey the mandate of Scripture. We don't even have to demand our government do anything but we have to. As a Christian our personal safety is not paramount, as a disciple it's not really even an option. What is paramount is our expressing the love and mercy of God is. Our obedience to His Holy word is. Our citizenship is in heaven. Our allegiance is to Christ. Our job is to build His kingdom not our own earthly one. And this is how we begin:

Get on our knees. Let us repent of failing to weep for the children of Syria, of Iraq. Let us repent of choosing self-preservation over fighting for the sanctity of these lives. Let us ask God to show each of us what to do. How we can be a light in this darkness? How we can welcome the refugee into our homes, or go and meet their needs where they are? This is our solemn duty and sacred trust. And it's the right thing to do. These are image bearers of their Creator. Let's not live in fear of hostile takeover, or religious subversion. We have not been given a Spirit of fear but of love and power and of a sound mind. We have been given the same power that defeated hell, death and the grave. We should be the bravest, most selfless and loving people on the planet. We have the perfect example. We, of all humanity, have the precious gift of Jesus. Love like He did. Even if it costs us our lives.


*Another member of the family, Aya Fadl, recalled running from her house with her 20-month-old son in her arms, thinking she could find safety from the toxic gas in the street. Instead, the 25-year-old English teacher was confronted face-to-face with the horror of it: a pick-up truck piled with the bodies of the dead, including many of her own relatives and students. “Ammar, Aya, Mohammed, Ahmad, I love you my birds. Really they were like birds. Aunt Sana, Uncle Yasser, Abdul-Kareem, please hear me,” Ms Fadl said, choking back tears as she recalled how she said farewell to her relatives in the pile. (from an Independent UK article)

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Million Miles From Shore

Sunday we went to church. It was the first time to be with a group of believers worshiping since we got back from Iraq. I could be generous, I could put the best construction on the story, but I won't, it was bland and felt well-rehearsed. In fact, had it not been for a friend wanting a ride we'd never have gone. And even then I chose that particular church because I knew I could wear a t-shirt and flip-flops and nurse my coffee buzz from the shadows in the back of the auditorium. 

The worship band was white and tight and theologically light. The production was perfect and the performance bright and bubbly, their toothy grins sparkled even from where we were near the back. The first couple songs could be described as ice-breakers, overly positive, rally the troops sorta filler. Sincere I'm sure but shallow feeling nonetheless. I started to zone out, the lights, the production blurred, my mind wandered. Then they slowed it down, put on their solemn faces, dimmed the lights to match the mood and deftly segue into communion. And they sang this song:

You were the Word at the beginning
One With God the Lord Most High
Your hidden glory in creation
Now revealed in You our Christ

What a beautiful Name it is
What a beautiful Name it is
The Name of Jesus Christ my King

You didn't want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now

What a wonderful Name it is
What a wonderful Name it is
The Name of Jesus Christ my King

How sweet is your name, Lord, how good You are
Love to sing in the name of the Lord, love to sing for you all?
Death could not hold You, the veil tore before You
You silenced the boast, of sin and grave
The heavens are roaring, the praise of Your glory
For You are raised to life again

You have no rival, You have no equal
Now and forever, Our God reigns
Yours is the Kingdom, Yours is the glory
Yours is the Name, above all names

What a powerful Name it is
What a powerful Name it is

The Name of Jesus Christ my King

I'd never heard the song before a couple months ago. We were still in Iraq and one hard morning this song was sung so emotionally raw. I was undone. And here again, this past Sunday, so far from the Middle East, tears stung my cheeks and it was all I could to not weep deeply, sorrow and joy and hope and heartbreak, and disintegrate into a sloppy puddle of snot and tears.

One of the hardest things for aid workers is to come home again, back to normal, back to the status quo. It's nobody's fault it's just that everything has changed. And one place where these differences, these changes are most conspicuous, is church. In Iraq our morning devotions were punctuated with grieving over the lost limbs of toddlers, the explosions of war in the distance, and mostly the desperate need for the scriptures to be true and for God to be near. Living and worshiping behind blast walls not 25 miles from an active war-zone keeps everything in sharp focus. Prayer is pleading, scripture study is like reading the engine manual while the boat is stranded, listing strangely, and taking on water a million miles from shore. And worship, worship is free bleeding. Its the painful sort of vulnerability that comes from being exposed as weak and impotent and incapable of saving your self. And there you are, among seventy-five others, all slowly coming apart at the seams. 

And that's not to say you have to fly a few thousand miles into the heart of darkness to find desperation. Suffering is everywhere. Cancer kills kids and addiction takes fathers and car accidents devour whole families in one great gulp. It's just that sometimes we do our best here in the west to insulate, even theologically inoculate ourselves from suffering and that's a luxury of a society that isn't completely broken by poverty or being obliterated by war. I'm just as guilty, I often just want to be able to breathe deep, spend the day at the beach in mindless, painless pleasure. And sometimes I do.

But there are other days, when I am broken. When I feel like I am falling, I mean free falling into some great pit of despair and I need Him. I need Jesus, this defeater of death, this buyer back of men with the currency of His blood. I need him more than my next breath, more than gravity. On those days I'm reluctantly thankful for those 6 weeks in a war-zone, they exposed me for who I am, worthless and weak. But oh how beautifully they revealed Him for who He is. 

If you need Him as desperately as I do today I'll leave you with this...

And for those couple hundred believers this past Sunday, I'm sorry. It's not you, it's me. Please forgive my pride. I love you. Thank you for knocking me off my high horse once again. xoxo

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lost In The Garden

There were two suicide bombings, almost simultaneously. One at a security checkpoint and another at a restaurant called Sayidati al-Jamila, or "My Fair Lady" in English. Within 30 minutes, our field hospital just East of Mosul, maybe 20km from the explosions, began receiving casualties from both ISIS attacks. 

The first wave was from the restaurant, all young men, mid twenties, some burnt black and hair singed gasping for air, others riddled with shrapnel. Within minutes the second wave, security forces bloody and bodies full of pieces from the vehicle born bomb. 

Within an hour we were overrun. Trauma and ER beds full, an OR that would be inundated through the night and into the next day. An ICU that would be stretched to it's limits doing extensive burn care. I've never heard the total injured from the twin blasts but the death toll is officially at 14. 

Whenever casualties came to us they were immediately tagged one of four colors. Green, yellow, red, black. This system, of a small ribbon tied around the wrist, let all hospital staff know the critical or non-critical nature of the patient's wounds. Green meant stable, superficial and non life threatening wounds. Yellow, wounds that needed medical attention soon but not immediately. Red, immediate need for medical care without which patient would succumb to their injuries. And black: beyond the scope of medical intervention, injuries too severe, death inevitable. 

The ribbon above is from the son of a General in the Iraqi army. He was a casualty of the Sayidati al-Jamila restaurant blast. After he died, after we brought him to the morgue, I cleaned the cot where he lay. I could, I can, still smell the explosive and the burnt hair. For some reason, and I didn't even remember until yesterday, I stuck his black ribbon in my pocket. I don't remember his name, only his father, in full uniform, crying, asking over and over and over "why...why...why...?" And that his brother, and his brother-in law, who both fought for their lives a few feet away in the ICU, later would join their brother in the morgue. 

Every morning at the field hospital we would assemble for a short time of singing and prayer and sharing of the hope followers of Christ have in Him. Most mornings I would read a Psalm before we began. That next morning, looking out at our team, I saw a weary and heart-heavy group. I saw wet eyes and sorrow-filled souls bleeding the question of the night before, "why...why...why...?" I was looking in a mirror. I read Psalm 91, a passage that had been read on several other mornings, a passage we were holding on to for life, so near a war zone. The Psalm begins so beautifully, God's beloved safe in his shadow, gathered under the refuge of His wings and it ends this way:

"Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation."

One of the rubs of any religion, or any philosophy for that matter, secular or sacred, is that things don't always play out as promised. The facts seem to undermine the faith. Every apologist, every theologian and philosopher, every single honest believer has run their ship aground here, often blindly, because their own experiences are in disagreement with the beliefs they espouse. Even this Psalm, filled with promises for protection, is daily contradicted by the deaths of those that love God, those He says He loves. For us, a rag-tag bunch of aid workers and medical staff at a field trauma hospital who had seen the innocent victims of terrorism, who'd seen too many children die, if we were honest with ourselves, we knew that God's protection sometimes seemed to be a lottery of birth, or arbitrary at best.

I suppose I could sell all the books, speak at every sold out stadium to an adoring throng if I could reconcile these things here. If I could justify God's goodness in light of suffering, make every thorny why into a prick-less and perfect bouquet of because. I cannot. Not for you, or me, or the hundreds of Christian martyrs that die every year trusting God for deliverance. Not even for the tens of thousands of children killed every year, whose only crime is being born into a geographic locale prone to terrorism, or natural disaster, or plague, or famine.

The truth is it seems we are all born with an invisible ribbon on our wrists. Our chances of survival, our likelihood for success, the sum of all of our breaths tied to the color invisible there. It would seem there is a lottery of birth, the more western or white or well to do you are the more chances you're a green. If you're a woman in Afghanistan you're yellow, a Yazidi in Iraq you're red. If you're poor anywhere you're never a green. History shows us, at the very least, that catastrophe and war have their favored playgrounds. 

Christianity would proffer that all suffering began with sin. That the rebellion of the original earth-dwellers, their choice of the knowledge of good and evil over innocence brought with it the downward spiral of entropy, the advent of decay. That those first bites of forbidden fruit rotted the whole earth to the core. But that doesn't give us much comfort, doesn't reconcile God's promises of safe haven written 3000 years after the garden with the fact we don't often get that protection. 

While in Iraq I read extensively in the book of Job. Looking for comfort and understanding in the oldest book of the bible. It deals with the question of suffering more than any other biblical text. In fact Job's questions, are the same questions we are asking. Why do the innocent suffer? Why doesn't God intervene? 

The following are some of my takeaways. Some seeing through a dark glass all the while processing. They are not a tidy wrap up of all the horrors I saw. There is no mopping up the blood spilled, no amount of understanding un-explodes bombs.

If you've read the story you might remember several things. One, there is a reason for Job's suffering, a reason he is never privy to, a reason, in Job's case, that was not his sin. Two, Job's closest friends presume to know the reason for his suffering and argue at great lengths that Job is a sinner, that his hidden sins have found him out, and that God in His righteous justice is punishing Job with a penalty befitting his transgression. And finally, Job maintains his innocence the whole time, begging God for answers. You may also remember Job does get his audience with God and the Creator of all things never answers Job's questions, nor for that matter, ours. So what then can we learn from Job? About the reality of suffering and the nature of God. Maybe at least these things:

1. God doesn't owe us answers, though He allows, even encourages his tiny creation to ask. He is perfect, never mistaken, and doesn't have to explain himself or His reasons. This is hard but brings me comfort if nothing else in this: God is not arbitrary, He does not change. I may not always understand Him but He is not chaos wrapped in randomness. 

2. There will always be other voices, sane, even deeply empathetic voices, that will try to get us to trade faith for fatalism, honesty for self-delusion. That will try and make us make excuses for God, or at the very least put words in His mouth. I do not need to placate God by confessing to sins I didn't commit, by groveling, by leveraging Him with promises of future obedience. He already knows. On the contrary I need not make excuses for His behavior either.

3. God is always seeking to restore what was lost in the garden. He is always offering innocence back in exchange for our ceasing to respond to Him with the knowledge of good and evil. He is always offering Himself to us, in all His holiness, as lover, Lord and friend.  

When God finally does speak to Job in chapter 38 it is not with tender words of consolation, it is with thundering boasts. He hurls His own questions at Job, utterly unanswerable assaults on Job's finite humanity. This continues unabated for another full chapter until at the start of chapter 40 God re-phrases all of His previous questions into one eviscerating rhetorical, more taunt than query: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

Job, as you might imagine is undone. He whimpers that he has no response and puts his hand over his mouth. Again there is no tender placation from God, only a second barrage of thunderous questions, this time with a new caveat, Job will have to answer His Creator.

Finally after two more chapters of God roaring out rhetoric as a raging storm, Job must answer Him. Job begins clumsily, humiliated and overwhelmed.

“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know."

But then Job reveals the true gift he'd been given, maybe not the reason for His suffering but at the very least the revelation his tragedy unfolded:

"My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.

Finally, after God rebukes Job's friends and exonerates Job by having him pray for them, God restores all of Job's riches and family. And God gives him higher honor than he ever had before. Not exactly a Hallmark ending, Job still certainly grieved the children he lost, certainly still had unanswered questions. But now he knew his God was bigger, more powerful than he'd ever imagined. That the gap between Job's righteousness and God's holiness was as wide as Job's ability to speak creation into existence from nothing and God's. This somehow comforted Job greatly, his God was so much greater than he'd believed and yet still came close to Job, not with wrath but glory. Glory that left Job in breathless if not trembling awe.

The story of Job might easily be estranged from Christianity if not for the first prophesy of Jesus in the book of Job. In his exasperation Job wishes for "a mediator between us; he would lay his hand on both of us, remove his rod from me, so his fury wouldn’t frighten me. Then I would speak unafraid." I take great comfort knowing that Jesus suffered all things, that He is at the right hand of the Father speaking on my behalf, silencing the voice of the accuser.

We will not this side of heaven understand everything, maybe not even the things most important to us. But He loves you and I. We will see him in the midst of our suffering, we will know him deeper if we take from Him the new eyes, the new heart He offers when we're born again in Christ.

I am still heartbroken. There are still memories I don't call to mind. But I am more sure of the power and the nature of God than before my time in Iraq. More sure the suffering of innocence will be avenged or absolved one day- through God's justice or His forgiveness. And I trust that He alone, through Jesus, is the arbiter of both.

Jesus. In His Own Words.

The internet is teeming with memes such as this:

And this:

And those images are shared ad nauseum across all social media platforms, especially during political seasons.

I'm guilty. I found this particular image Instagram worthy because it fit in nicely with my take on the words of Jesus.

When we quote someone, be that MLK, the President, or Jesus, the responsible thing to do is make sure the context of that quote is represented accurately. We must also make sure it isn't half of the meaning intended. We all know this, as evidenced by how angry we get when someone twists our words or puts words in our mouths. 

Now, if I am going to quote Jesus because of His authority on an issue, then I am recognizing His authority. Likewise, if I am quoting Jesus to expose the hypocrisy of someone across the political or religious aisle from me, I must remember, while they may yet be hypocrites, the judgement I give will be equal to that which I receive. Jesus did say that, in so many words...

So this man we quote, this moral teacher, this poet and prophet. This hippy, this iconoclast. This itinerant Jewish rabbi. This social justice warrior who didn't suffer the rich or the self-righteous gladly. This egalitarian, this raging temple cleanser. This radical revolutionary. This non-violent, non-white, homeless, healer of the sick, raiser of the dead. This refugee, this middle-eastern man. This Jesus, who is all of those things and more. 

He claimed to be the forgiver of sins. Luke 7:48-49 "Then Jesus said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven'." And Luke 5:20-21, Mark 2:10. And by forgiving sins he reiterated to the masses the need for forgiveness, reiterated that sin separated them from God.

He claimed to pre-exist with God. John 17:5 "And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began." 

He claimed He would return again. Matthew 24:27-30 "So as the lightening comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man... At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory." And Matthew 25:31-32, Mark 14:61-62.

He claimed to be the only way to eternal life. He didn't just tell people how they could find everlasting life, or deepen their own life experience. He actually claimed to give eternal life himself. John 11:25 "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die...'" And also: John 6:40, John 6:47, John 10:28-30

He claimed to be Savior, John 3:14-16. And the Messiah, John 4:26.

He claimed to be the Son of God, Matt 26:63-63. One with the Father, John 10:30. He even claimed to be God himself, John 8:58.

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."

We will never all agree on every nuances of all the teachings of Jesus. But if we are to quote Him, if we are to claim the authority of His words, we must re-examine all He said, and who he claimed to be and then decide what the weight of those words reveal, what action we might be required to take. 

Jesus loves us but He is not a puppet whose lips we flap subject to our whims and will. He is not a child to be silenced and sent to the corner, a dog to be muzzled and chained. He came to be servant of all but He is still King (Luke 23:1-3, John 18:36-37) and Lord (Luke 2:11). He is not a mouthpiece for our religious or political platform. Jesus stands alone as the Truth, the only truth. He, himself, claimed that, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He goes on to say in that same audacious, and if true, universe-shaking statement, "No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:16. 

Jesus is the social justice revolutionary we all want, and He is the door to heaven, the way home, the redeemer and saver of our souls we so desperately need. If we would only believe.

Jesus. In His own words. 

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.