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