Monday, June 12, 2017

The Best and Worst of Times

How can it be possible to be living in a place where it is so good to be, even while it is so hard to be there?

Here I feel more than ever that I have a purpose. Everything I do is something that may not be done if this hospital were not here. In the US, the system is such that ultimately I both feel (and am) replaceable. There is always someone else to take my place if I am unavailable. Here, I am unique, and my purpose is clear. And that makes this place one of the best things that has ever occurred in the course of my life.

On the other side of things, there is the boy with shrapnel in his brain who isn't going to live, the traumatized child with bilateral amputated legs, the stories of starvation and cruelty that leak out of Mosul like vitriol and eat into my heart even while I try to separate my knowledge from my emotions, so I can still do my job. It is hard to be here, able only to react and sometimes not even able to stop the pain or save the life in front of me. It is hard to care for the bomb-maker and the leering man who is most certainly Daesh, while the child in the next bed over sobs as he speaks about his dead family members. These are the worst things I have ever seen, the worst stories I have heard (on par with the horrors of the Holocaust).

And then there is the question. The one that I knew he was going to ask even before he spoke and wanted to know whether or not the bad things that happen to people are a result of their turning away from God. And if they are not, then why does God allow such things to happen? Not only in reference to Daesh and Nazis and wartime slaughter of human rights, but in reference to natural disasters. Why do they happen at all? Why does God let people die?

This question is not an easy one. And the answer isn't easy either. In fact, without an understanding of God's character, the answer is impossible to take. To begin, one must understand absolutely that God is good, and that God is perfect and just. He is never one without the other. He is a complete and perfect whole. Therefore, if God allows something to happen, or even causes it as is the case in much of the Old Testament, then it must be right for it to happen. To some this might sound horrifically naive, but I can assure you that this is not a simple Sunday school answer, although it would be if you just stopped there and never thought any deeper about it.

Going deeper, I have to look at the facts. First, if God decided tonight to wipe out everyone on the planet with some natural or supernatural disaster, it would be well within his rights to do so. He is the creator of the universe. He is so holy that even looking at his face would kill me. And I am not. I am a sinner, to my core, only clinging to life and hope because of the blood of Jesus Christ. God owes mankind nothing, and he already gave them everything.

Starting in that frame of mind, and with the premise that God is good and just, then I can look at events and see what possible good or justice might come out of such things. Of course, my view is still terribly limited. I cannot see what will happen in three generations because a famine caused this family to move from one country to another, or because persecution caused these Christians to disperse into the surrounding countries, or because this typhoon opened the door for Christian NGO’s to get into this country. Or because the sudden, horrific violence of one religion made thousands of followers realize it was not the true way. But I can extrapolate from what I have seen of God in the past and say that it will all work for God’s ultimate plan, which is the salvation of humanity.

This is the basis of faith, believing without seeing---hoping for what we are sure will come.

Sometimes, I do believe, it is only through the worst of times that the best things in life can be seen for what they are.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Impressions of Mosul through the Eyes of an Observer

Bombs drop through hazy air
Onto streets already full of rubble
On homes and people
Huddled together inside walls
That fall and shatter and turn to dust
While outside the battle rages
They remain
Prisoners of their own law
Turned sour and rancid
Destroying hope and peace
In one swift move
The bullets fly
Across the water
A girl stumbles to the ground
The air, hot and dry,
Fills with smoke and sand
Thick as the choking lies
That make these men despise each other
Each life
And here is the safe place
Built on the rock
Creating a beachhead 
Untouchable, irrefragable
On the plains of Nineveh
The temporary is shaking to pieces
As the bombs fall
And only the permanent remains

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Begging for Questions

Currently, I am living in a setting where I have known no one for more than a few days. This is an intensely uncomfortable place for me to be, because there is the constant fear of being misunderstood, that my rather dry and sometimes stupid wit will cause offense instead of laughter. The longer I am here the more I am realizing that I have not made it a habit to get to know people outside of my core group of friends.

I am a genius at small talk, but I rarely go any farther than just listening to whatever story they want to tell me. This has been a consistent trend in my life. I am not a person who requires a large group of friend. In fact, I feel the strains of required socialization quite keenly at times.

However, as I do feel I have been called by God to this location to be used as a witness not just for my medical skills, I've attempted to formulate a plan for getting to know people at more than a superficial level. For many, I realize, this may come naturally, and it may be helpful for you to know that some of us struggle, and it isn't because we don't care. If anything I think it is because once I really connect with someone I will never be able to stop caring about them. Love brings pain. They are inextricably connected. You cannot care about someone deeply without feeling what they feel, without being hurt when they are hurt or damaged when they tears themselves away. And this is a pain, or a risk of pain, that I have trained myself to be very good at avoiding.

Onward then to what I mean to do about this unacceptable fear. The question I really want the answer to is this: "What's your story? Who are you?"

This is a phrase that I always mean to use, and never quite do. Possibly because I'm terrified of what people might tell me, that it won't be something that I can respond to in the right way, or that it will irrevocably bond me to them in a way that maybe I don't want to be bound. 

And yet, without knowing someone's story, there is no real opening for relationship, any friendship is based only on what may be seen as common interests, as flimsy as a paper doll.

I am as guilty of not wanting to answer this question as I am of not asking it. The few times that people have really sat down and asked me to tell them about myself, my first defense is deflection and humor and a desperate hope that they will leave me alone inside my shell because it's pretty comfortable in here. Perhaps, another reason I don't ask is precisely because I don't wish to make anyone else feel that discomfort.

There is, however, a certain type of persistent person, who continues to look at me with questioning eyes after my first few attempts at throwing up a decoy. And it isn't until that moment that I actually start thinking about answering the question. I feel this isn't entirely a fair question either. It doesn't give any hint of what the asker is looking for in a response, and while it may simply be an accurate reflection of their interest in you as a person, it is entirely daunting to be expected to sum up your whole life in a coffee break or lunch. In order to give a little direction to the conversation, it might be easier to start with this question instead:

"What do you love?"

This question I think would be easier to answer as it has more defined limits than the expectation that several decades of experience could be condensed in any kind of articulate way. And it would, therefore, be easier for me to ask. Although, it could do with a decent segue. Again, it isn't often asked in my experience, but if you know what a person loves, it gives you a strong idea of who that person is and what is the best way to communicate with them. Some people love writing, or music, or art, or hiking, sailing, their families, holidays, working with disabled children, tutoring, speaking in front of crowds, or lying in the sun. I may be using the word love a bit too lightly here, but it's stronger than just a sense of 'what do you like to do'. These are things that bring solace to the soul. It might be better phrased as 'what do you think is the best thing in life?'

"What makes you angry/breaks your heart?"

This would be even easier for me to answer than the previous question, and once again, easier to ask. I have answered this questions, at least in part, in many of my other writings, and say nothing more about it, except that it is a question anyone can answer with, hopefully, very little set up.

I don't think this connection thing is a problem I face alone. There is a lack of honest dialogue in the world. And the fact is that it does require work, and you do take a risk in any kind of connection with another person. Culture in America has become one that teaches that discomfort is to be avoided at all costs, that pain is bad, and that simply is not true. As I said before pain is attached to love, to caring for anyone else. It is only through discomfort and uncertainty that we can press on to overcome challenges to create connections, to learn new skills, and ultimately fulfill our purpose as ambassadors of God in this world. If I dare not love the people around me, then what makes me think I might be capable of loving God?

"But Much-Afraid, I have already warned you that Love and pain go together, for a time at least. If you would know Love, you must know pain too." 
-- The Shepherd in Hind's Feet on High Places 
by Hannah Hurnard

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Notes from a War Zone

I've spent the last month in an emergency field hospital (EFH) located near the ongoing battle against Daesh (ISIS) in Mosul, Iraq. And, not surprisingly, it's been a difficult month, both in ways I expected but also in ways I did not.

The gore and trauma, for instance, was a given. Otherwise, what would be the point of a flying thousands of miles to a field hospital? And the gunshots and sounds of mortars and explosions in the distance were also fairly routine.

But there were other things that took my by complete surprise, like the sucker-punch attack of self-doubt in the middle of the first few days that made me certain I had been wasting my life up to that moment because everyone around me was so much more exciting and so much more interesting and definitely prettier (for what that matters). Or the boy who I cared for all shift without trouble until I suddenly realized he was the same age as my youngest brother, and I didn't think he was going to make it through the week.

All of these things combined to make this one of the most difficult experiences of my life. And now that I'm leaving it all behind, I feel almost as if I've taken the easy way out since there is still so much work to be done.

Almost daily since the beginning of this trip, I've had to remind myself that God called me to this place. Me. And I followed his voice. And I am enough. I am enough to do the task he has given me, because he has prepared me for it and because his strength continues to fill me. I am never alone.

The other thing to remember is that God is in control. He's in control when the child is miraculously unharmed by the bullet that went through his neck. And he's in control when an eight-year old loses both legs. And he's still in control when a ten-year old dies from wounds sustained while fleeing Mosul with his family.

These are hard lessons to remember. Hard things to live through. Especially when combined with sleep deprivation and the overload of having to learn fifty new names in a day. But leaving is even more difficult.

Here, in the middle of chaos and the unknown, I have felt more at peace with God than I have for years. The difference I can make here is so evident that it's almost tangible.

Going home I have to remind myself that I am not really leaving the war zone. Although there may not be mortars dropping on my hometown or bunkers and barricades and soldiers surrounding my bedroom, my town is no less a war zone than Mosul. Some of the wounds that people sustain here---that we treat in the EFH---are obvious, easily identified, but they carry inside them the exact same brokenness as every single man, woman and child in the USA who doesn't know Christ.

This whole world is a war zone, and the enemy---crafty and clever as he is---uses different tactics on different fronts, but that does not change who he is or his ultimate goal. In Mosul, the enemy uses Daesh to destroy hope and take lives. In America, he is so much more subtle. He uses social media, drugs, pride and even education in an attempt to destroy our ability to believe our only hope of salvation.

I suppose that is why, even when I've seen the children who've been shot by snipers, that I can't feel anger toward Daesh. All I feel for them is sorrow. I truly do not comprehend the kind of brokenness that would lead someone to shoot at women and children. So, please, if you are reading this, take a moment to pray. Pray for Iraq and it's people---the rich and the refugees. Pray for Daesh---that their guns would miss and their souls would be saved. Pray for America and its decadent decay, and pray for those of us who are living in the middle of it all just trying to save a life.

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”

As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” 

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

Psalm 42:7-11

Friday, February 24, 2017

All the Little Things

On December 19th, I wrote this entry in my journal: "I wish I could have some proof that there was purpose in the waiting, that my life still has importance... I want peace. I want rest. I want to be content in being alone. I have waited and struggled, dear God, and I am tired..."

I'm sharing this because, unfortunately, this is a place I have found myself in periodically over the years. I have come to realize it has nothing to do with my actual circumstances, and everything to do with what I am focusing on.

Here I am, two months later, in such an amazing place that the person who wrote those words could never even imagine what God had stored up for me. I'm heading into a situation that contains so many unknowns that I don't even know what I don't know. And I am perfectly at peace with it. I'm eager even to step forward and jump off the ledge. So I would like to give my future self some advice while I am still clear-headed. Maybe it will speak to you, dear reader, as well.

Dear Future Self,

Every single moment is worth something. Every day is a new layer of growth. This is difficult to understand. Especially for someone like me, who measures so much of my self-worth and value by what I do, the actions and forward motion, the big and shining firework events. But not everything can be fireworks, unless you want to burn out at once. And everything in life, especially the little things, add up to prepare me for the next step, the next mission, but that does not mean there is not a calling in the waiting. It means that sometimes I am called to silence---maybe so I can learn how to listen, or maybe so I can learn not to be shaken by it. Sometimes, I am called to be alone, and that does not mean I am worthless. It doesn't mean I'm not important. All it means is that there is some way I am meant to grow, something I am meant to learn or store up for the next stage.

And, yes, it is painful. And, yes, I know I'm still going to make mistakes. I may even panic at times. But I am not lost. I am only put in this place so I might feel my way toward God, knowing that he isn't very far at all. That feeling, that crawling and searching, is what strengthens my faith if I will let it, building muscle and reason because I know my hope is not in vain.

So next time a waiting period comes around, dear silly self, remember this: Love in the moment. Love who is placed in front of you and beside you to the best of your ability without expectation. Live for eternity. Don't focus on the temporal circumstances unless it is with gratitude. And listen in the waiting. The call of God is for everyone, but only those who are listening can hear it and respond, "Here, I am. Send me."

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
"Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"

Then I said,
"Here I am! Send me."

Isaiah 6:8

Friday, January 27, 2017


The world lies. This is not something new. It has been lying almost since its creation. It shimmers with promises of diamonds, freedom, acceptance, and what we actually find is only the glitter of broken glass, chains and guilt.

The problem with the lies the world tells is that they are not always immediately apparent as lies. Some of them are so coated in glitter and shine that they seem almost right. A lie never appears as empty or damaging or painful as it actually is.

And, taken in reverse, the truth never appears as good as it actually is. It appears harsh and unyielding. Although, the truth promises everything, it requires such a large sacrifice on the face of it, that many people turn away because they are not willing to try for a wealth of reasons including the fear of failure. What they don't realize is that the lie requires an even bigger sacrifice, it just doesn't say it outright.

As an example, let's say we have two masters (or presidents,or kings...whichever you like). One requires that all of his servants follow his laws absolutely. And they are very strict laws---laws that are, in fact, impossible to keep. To those who follow his laws, he gives every good and perfect thing that they need, but as I said, no one can truly keep his laws.

The second master also requires that his servants follow his laws, but his laws are much more in line with human natures, and therefore much easier to follow. He promises wealth and fame and comfort, and most importantly, he allows his servants to do whatever they like, to create their own little worlds of truth as it were.

Everyone, whether they like it or not, is a servant to one of these masters, a citizen of one of these countries. And if the story ended here, as I am very much afraid it does in many people's minds, it would be clear which master would be the better to serve.

However, it goes on. The first master, realizing that humans could never live up to his laws, sent his own son, to obey the law completely and remove the weight of it from his servants by his own death. To serve such a master---who would die for his people out of love for them---changes the nature of the service entirely. And that is the not-so-hidden fountain of life at the center of the truth.

The truth fulfills promises beyond what we can even begin to imagine.

The second master also has a hidden truth. Those who serve him will soon find that he has betrayed them. The wealth and power fade. And beneath the sugar-coating is the hook, that twisting damage that settles deep into the hearts of his servants. It is no wonder then, that they are so bitter towards those who are free. A fish writhing at the end of the hook doesn't know how to free itself, and neither do they.

We would all do well to remember this when we are speaking with those who are caught in the hook of lies. It is not a pleasant place to be, no matter how much they insist that they are pleased to stay there. And it may be more painful for them to get off the hook than it was to swallow it in the first place.

While I always advocate the use of critical thinking and reason paired with faith, reason may not be much use at this time. As with an injured animal, pain and fear tend to overwhelm such things. Panic certainly does. That only thing that can be of any use in these times is the calm, consistent use of love. Gentle words. Kind actions. No matter what is going on around us, or what those who are injured and flailing do to us. Those that are caught by lies are not to be hated, or despised, or ridiculed.

We cannot let ourselves fall victim to the lies. Because the truth is that every one of us has our hooks buried deep. Every one of us has believed a sugar-coated lie. Every one of us needs to be saved from our own mistakes.

Yes, they are making bad choices. Yes, they are hurting innocent people. But fighting them in anger will never get them free. It will only make the hook sink deeper. We must be just as concerned for them as we are for the people they are hurting.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Freeing Truth

In a world where so much information is readily to hand, misinformation abounds, and truth, while made more accessible in some ways, is also obscured by an abundance of thinly shrouded lies.

These lies come in a variety of forms, from the fashionable to the radical. In short, there is a lie out there for everyone. One that will perfectly fit what you think you need. And if you later decide that it wasn't right, you can always change it for another perfect fit.

This makes finding the truth not only difficult, but uncomfortable as well. The truth does not change so easily. It doesn't conform. Rather than changing itself, it changes you.

The truth does this in a variety of ways, but the first, I think, is by making you lift your head and look outside yourself. As humans with a limited conscious, our entire world is often in our own mind. Every emotion, regret, hope, dream, even every sense, is entirely our own and can only be expressed with a certain degree of error to anyone else. This makes it easy to retreat into ourselves and find the most convenient and comfortable lie.

However, if we take a moment to look outside ourselves, even to peep through the keyhole, as it were, our entire point of view can change. Once we begin to go farther, to put ourselves in other people's places, to realize their needs, to see their fears and joys and failures as we would see our own, it becomes more difficult to retreat into a lie that only serves to make you comfortable.

Of course, caring for people is not the whole truth, although it is an important part of it. As anyone who has ever cared about another person for a long-time could tell you, people are not easy to love. We are all selfish to a degree, all guarded, and we are very good at expressing hurt by hurting someone else in return.

So the truth must go farther or we only end right back where we started, locked safely inside our own heads.

The question is, how does the truth go about making you look outside yourself to begin? What could possibly entice us out of our selves and our nest of warm and cozy lies into a world of sometimes bitter pain and discomfort?

To say that the truth is love, while completely honest, also sounds a bit of a cliché. So to avoid that, I'll go with another aspect of it and say that the truth is rescue. It is a rescue from the stagnation and bitterness of a life spent lived in such a tiny space as a single mind. It is a rescue, in fact, from yourself. Our selves are fully as needy as other people, and left on to itself a mind is perfectly capable of destroying its owner with anxiety, depression, suspicion and self-pity. All the cares of this life, when mulled upon, create a thick haze that leaves us confused about how to get out again.

The truth is that we have no need to care for ourselves or worry about the future, because we are already being cared for. We do not need to jealously guard our own interests, because they are already safe and sealed in a place no one else can ever cause them harm--assuming we have the good sense to let them alone and not destroy them ourselves. Rather than asking, "What can I get?", "How can I make them like me?", or "How can I make myself happy?", we can begin to ask, "What can I give?" and "How can I make them happy?", which are far better questions to be asking.

When we begin to ask those questions, the truth that caused our salvation starts to leak out in obvious ways and can save other people as well. This does require discomfort at times, a stepping outside our boundaries and certainties, a risk of being hurt--if only temporarily--but remember we have nothing to lose except the prison of our own minds.

There is only one truth that can do all this. Only one truth that does not require further action on your part. Only one truth that imparts grace and mercy, where others offer only endless works and condemnation.

The truth is that Jesus Christ died to take us out of ourselves, to release us from the chains of our sin and worry that held us bound so closely to our own lives and minds. He gave us freedom, and it would be a shame to waste it by closing the doors tight and refusing to budge.

"And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." 
John 8:32 

"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age." 
Titus 2:11-12