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.