Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Facets of Perfection

There is a gap between our idea of perfection, and what we call perfection in other people, or even in ourselves. Consider, for instance, whether or not you would like to work for a person who as perfect. I don’t mean that he or she would be the perfect boss, because that is not quite the same thing as being a perfect person. If you are in any way like me, you might find yourself vaguely uncomfortable with the idea.

At first, I couldn’t understand why this might be. It is a high Christian ideal that we all strive to attain perfection. Why then should I not want to find it in another person? The answer, I think, is probably not a very generous one. Because I think the answer is this: what we call ‘perfect’ in other people, is usually a very tongue-in-cheek description of someone who thinks they're perfect.

Apart from that, the world does not give us a very flattering image of people who are morally perfect. Most movies and book portray such people as very flat, only concerned with doing what is right. It is so much more interesting to idolize people who are handsome, reckless and daring rather than perfect… or is it? The thing to remember is that people who are always concerned about doing what is right aren’t perfect either. It is a diversion tactic. And as we should all know by know, we ought not let the world define anything for us as it always gives an answer that is incorrect.

We must be extremely cautious with this label as even what we might think we rightly define as perfection in any one area in a human being inevitably means there is a glaring flaw somewhere else. And this, by definition, cannot be perfection.

The person who appears to have the highest ideals is often hiding the dirtiest secret. The one who literally and figuratively knows everything is severely lacking in interpersonal skills. The person who is big-hearted and lovable is often times so impractical as to cause inadvertent pain to other people.

To be perfect would be to be completely flawless in any area. Every facet must be polished and flawless, every word spoken must be full of compassion and truth at the same time. And this, as we well know, is quite impossible for a human being.

But I fear that our knowledge of this impossibility in ourselves has led to a slightly jaded view at least on the part of outsiders if not within the church as well, of our perfectly flawless God, complete and without fault.

"Since therefore God is the first effective cause of things, the perfections of all things must pre-exist in God in a more eminent way. Dionysius implies the same line of argument by saying of God (Div. Nom. v): 'It is not that He is this and not that, but that He is all, as the cause of all.’” 
Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologica, Part I (Prima Pars) From the Complete American Edition (Kindle Locations 685-687).

All this to say that I think I understand just what it was that drew the apostles to Jesus Christ. I’d like to think I would have been drawn to him as well, to the perfection that was God in man, to the heart and the mind that spoke truth and compassion and saw through lies without hesitation.

“You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:48

Monday, August 14, 2017

Loose Lips and Sinking Ships

In the middle of chaos, the swirling fires of political arguments and fierce battles online between combatants that feel comfortable using insults they would never actually use face to face, I think it’s time we remember that we as Christians have a hope that it is impossible for anyone else in the world to understand.

Make no mistake about this, the world and the culture it has built is a sinking ship, and I believe that everyone on that ship instinctively knows that they are going down. This explains their desperation to hold onto anything and everything that might save them, even if that only happens to be the nearest handrail of the doomed vessel.

Those of us who have chosen to step into the life rafts can find it ridiculous, I know, that those still on the ship don’t just step off and join us in safety. But the handrails have become their only source of strength, as far as they are concerned, we are heading out into empty waters in a storm, and if they come with us they will be drowned. They don’t see where we are going. It is impossible that they should.

Now, we could crawl onto the sinking ship and try to pry their death grip from the handrail, but that isn’t advisable for many reasons, the first of which being that once we leave the safety of the lifeboat, we risk being sucked into the same terror and chaos that is swallowing every other soul on board. We are, after all, only human. The second reason is that those who know they are drowning are notorious for fighting desperately to survive, so desperately that they will take anyone near them down with them.

If we refuse the enter the fray, then what? Do we simply watch as the ship goes down and say good riddance? That is an option that some have chosen, but there are better options than either joining in the chaos or watching it without intervening.

First, we pray. Yes, simple, I know. There is only one person who can convince someone to release their death grip on the world, and—surprise—it isn’t me or you or any other human being. So it might be wise of us to enlist God’s help first and foremost.

Second, we take a deep breath…and then another, until that clenching of your jaw and that burning in your soul doesn’t make you want to strangle someone. And we must remind ourselves that no matter how brilliant our apologetics, we can’t argue someone into letting go of the world. Never, ever, ever. As Alexander MacLaren put it, “You cannot argue a man into loving God, any more than you can hammer a rosebud open.” So put aside all your weighty words and superior reasoning skills and start praying again.

Third, after grounding yourself in prayer and God, start thinking about throwing out some life preservers. While you can’t make anyone let go of the handrail, you can be sure that there is a life preserver in their vicinity if they ever do choose to let go on their own. What do life preservers look like, you ask? They look something like being the person at work who genuinely cares about their colleagues. Rather than getting ready to start an argument with anyone who disagrees with your beliefs, it looks like being the one who chooses their words with patience and wisdom…and knows when just to keep their mouth shut. It looks like being the one who notices when someone is hurting or in trouble. It looks like speaking words of beauty and life when everyone else is devolving into criticism and anger. And it looks like courtesy, respect and fighting for justice for the vulnerable and broken rather than trampling them underfoot in a righteous agenda. In short, sending out a life preserver looks like a lot of prayer through every aspect of your day, because you realize if you let go, you’ll be sinking yourself.

As a side note, this doesn’t mean we never fight. It doesn’t mean that we ignore injustice or allow abuse to continue. It just means we don’t fight about it with people at work. We don’t joi in destructive riots to “make a point” about whatever it is we want to make a point about. We just do it. If we don’t believe something is right, we don’t talk about it. We move to change it and support others who are doing the same.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Best and Worst of Times: From the Other Side

It really isn't that strange that I felt more peace there, than I ever have at home.

Sitting in that plastic tent every morning, surrounded by gravel and concrete walls and desert and warfare, as the temperatures mounted higher and higher, I was aware, if only in the back of my mind of a presence, a breath of life. 

A light.

"I will fear no evil, because you are with me."
Psalm 23:4

The only being that could ever come into a place so very temporal and physical, and sanctify it--turn that dusty, gravel field into holy ground--was right there in the middle of trauma and exhaustion and death, making the tents and bunkers into a sacred temple, filling the dark with light and saying, "You are mine. I have called you here, and this place is mine, too." 

And the shadows fled.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
John 1:5

The darkness never stood a chance. Not where the light is, where the presence of God fills men and women and works through their hands and hearts to pour out their lives into the people working beside them and the patients lying in front of them.

To return from that place to this one, from a place of scarcity to a place of overwhelming abundance is more than difficult. It is soul-wrenching and heart-breaking and mind-numbing. It is terrifying for so many reasons--because I know I did not do as well as I should have done, and there is still so much left behind to do--but the primary loss is one of connection, that oneness of purpose and understanding, that closeness to the light that shines so very bright in contrast to the surrounding evil.

It has been three weeks since I left that place. For two of these uneasy weeks, I was an outsider in my own skin. I wrote and wrote, and nothing ever made it to this page, because I could not find the words to express what had gripped me without it dissolving into a stream of conscious cry of pain and disappointment.

"The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he delivers those who are discouraged (the crushed in spirit)."
Psalm 34:18

This week the flood has begun to subside, and I've come to realize how much it hurt, even as the ache begins to fade.

I am able to remind myself that no matter where I stand, whether in the war-stricken desert or in the land of the undeserving free, the presence of the Creator of the universe is still with me. He has still called me to be where I am. He is still ready to work through my hands, to prepare me for the next step in my own remaking.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Phil. 4:6-7

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