A Prayer of Displacement

Dear God,

I feel decentered when I move into a place of vulnerability. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when I place myself willingly in a position to receive rather than to give. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when I move from my comfortable neighborhood to a foreign land. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when I join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when I choose to build friendships with the unlikeliest of friends. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when I love my enemy. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when I side with the poor and marginalized. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when I am at the mercy of another. Decenter me.

I feel decentered when the marginal voice is the one to whom I choose to listen. Decenter me.

Displace me, so that you can be the center of me.

The House Our Vulnerability Built

There once stood a quiet village where everyone kept to themselves. Their houses were made of stone. High walls stood around their land to keep others far away. Privacy was their deepest prize. Some villagers would have guests over from time to time, but only as it was convenient for their private lives and their quiet quarters. Little was known of the other. And everyone liked it that way! They smiled on the streets and were friendly in stores. And then they would return to their homes behind their high walls and their stone houses.

Till one day, a villager tore down the high walls surrounding her land. She even knocked down the stonewalls of her house and replaced those walls of stone with walls of glass all around. She invited villagers to stop by and visit her home made of glass. She told them to stop by any time they like. And as it would happen, villagers would pass by her house, peer into the home right through those glass walls and see her wave them on in.

Before long, the house was full of guests. Villagers were always coming and going. There was rarely an empty chair in her glass home. And a funny thing began to take place around the quiet village. A few more villagers tore down their high walls and stone houses to be replaced with a home made of glass.

Soon enough, there was always a home made of glass ready to eagerly receive a visitor. There wasn’t a single high wall or stone house in this quiet village by now. Every single house was a home made of glass. Hospitality was their deepest prize. No one would keep to him or herself. They were always visiting, always hosting, always welcoming or being welcomed by someone in the village. The village knew everything about one another. And everyone liked it that way!

One day, a few villagers became disturbed by what they found in another villagers home made of glass. As they walked by this particular home, they noticed how dirty it was inside. They would hesitate to visit this villager. Even when they would stop by, it was met with much disgust and dismay to see the filth inside this home made of glass. How could a villager with a house such a mess be so foolish to show everyone in the village the filth inside his home?

Several villagers became so repulsed by the filth inside this home made of glass that they gathered together one day. Sharing in their mutual disgust, they threw a rock into the villagers home, shattering the walls of this house made of glass. They demanded that he rebuild his home with stone so no one had to see the filth inside. The man conceded, but much to their dismay, he ran over to another villagers home and threw a rock in their way. He shattered the walls of their beautiful home made of glass. Out of shock, fear, and surprise, the neighbors built back the walls of their house with stone.   And they also built back their high wall to be sure to keep people out.

And as it so happened, other villagers began to respond in the same way. They would tear down their home made of glass and rebuild a house made of stone. Just to be safe, they would even rebuild the high walls surrounding their land.

Not too long after, the people returned to a quiet village where everyone kept to themselves.  All the houses were made of stone with high walls around their land to keep others far away. Privacy was given first prize again. Some villagers would have guests over from time to time, but only as it was convenient for their private lives and their quiet quarters. They smiled on the streets and were friendly in stores. But little was known of the other. And everyone returned to liking it that way.

Where Hope is Hidden From Us: In Memory of My Second Niece, Dasah Brielle.

Dasahphoto

When grief struck me once, it shattered me from within.  And no one on the outside could possibly understand what was happening to me internally.  In its first strike, grief took me from dry land and pummeled me into the sea.  I was tossed around by every wave.  Every ocean current had its way with me.  I tried to resist it, suppress it, swim against it, overcome it.  But I couldn't.  Grief is as powerful as the waves of the sea.

When grief struck me a second time, it numbed me.  And it was almost impossible to even recognize what was happening inside my own self.  I was still tossing and turning amidst the ocean's waves, but I didn't notice anymore.  Whereas before, I fought grief and tried to swim ashore, now I simply let grief take me wherever it wanted.  I knew the current was stronger than I was.  Whereas before I was fearful of all the unknowns that come with grief, now I was numb to such acquaintances.  Nothing surprised me.  It just saddened me all the more.

In the first instance, I was constantly looking back to shore, wondering how to get back to that place of comfort, that place of peace, that dry land.  In the second instance, I began constantly looking out to sea, wondering if I would ever see dry land again.  Wondering if my place was permanently out at sea.    

My family and I have been on a two and a half year journey deep in the throes of grief.  Today marks the first year anniversary of losing my second niece, Dasah Brielle Dennis.  She lived a bubbly 12 hours of life on November 13, 2014.  I held her in my arms and was just as grateful to see my second beautiful niece awaken to this world as I was when I held my first niece, Sophia Kyla, for her 10 hours of life on September 1, 2013.  

Our time with Dasah was precious in its own way.  She was blowing bubbles the whole time she was with us.  She was making cute crying noises that warmed all our hearts every time we heard them.  She was born in the morning so we were able to spend the entire waking hours of the day with her.  I got to take a picture holding her with her Mommy and Daddy by my side (see above).  

This day was different from the day Sophie was born.  This time, I knew what was to come and the fear of facing death was not foreign to me.  I had been there before.  I was not fearful of the unknown.  I was really just fearful of what another loss, another wave of grief, would do to me and my family.

What was most devastating to me in the loss of Dasah was one word that, at the time, seemed forever buried in my layers of grief:  hope.  I couldn't see or grasp on to any hope.  It was now a foreign word to me.  Everything in life seemed to turn to gray.  There was no color.  I was afraid that hope was shattered inside me.  That's when I knew I needed to get help.  I started grief therapy because I knew I was swept out to sea and had no fight left in me.

And since that time, I have ever so slowly begun to recognize hope has not been lost.  It has just been hidden.  Dasah's life and story has paradoxically been one of hope.  Even as I write these words, there is a bit of stinging resistance in me that begs to disagree.  But I must press these points, if not solely for my own sake.

Where have I found hope hidden in Dasah's story?

 In her name.  Lindsey and Kevin chose to give their second born daughter the name Dasah Brielle.  It is short for Hadassah which means myrtle tree. Isaiah 55:13 says "Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the briar the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the Lord, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off."  Even in her name, there is a declaration of hope amidst the threat of despair.

In her birth.  When Dasah was born, she cried a lot and blew bubbles as she showed off for her family.  She was very active and entertaining.  This was a special gift to us all as our experience with Sophie was much different.  It was so fun to see the joy she brought to us all in those brief moments.

In the surrounding community.  Once again, I saw friends of our family stand with us, grieve with us, celebrate with us, and simply be present in our pain.  There is nothing that helps the healing process like someone who simply gives the gift of their presence–and also their tears.  It is the smallest and most powerful reminder that you are not alone in your grief.  

In my family.  Grief can shatter families.  Its waves can be so sudden and forceful that loved ones are separated from each other, unable to understand one another, caught up in their own misery.  It has not been the case with our family.  We have all chosen to be there.  To be broken.  To be hurting.  To need help.  Not to put on an act.  Not to deny the reality.  To look death in the face and still love.  To let each other grieve in our own strange ways.  To just let each other be.

In my own heart.  I can only say that I am a different man than I once was two and a half years ago.  As an uncle, watching two nieces pass away in their first hours of life has forever changed me.  I see the world differently.  I don't know how to put words to this part of me, but it is just a new way to look at the world, to look at life, to look at the one who suffers.

Towards those who suffer.  I can now suffer with those who suffer.  My job takes me to places and people who have felt the weight of oppression, who are bruised by constant stripes of injustice, whose voice cries out for justice only to fall on deaf ears,  who carry their message to the masses only to be put back in their place.  I am no longer numb to their cries.  I can connect to their pain.  I see how they suffer.  I hear it in their voice.  I see it in their eyes.  And I know that those who suffer need someone to be with them.  I want to be a man who always errors on the side of standing with those who suffer.  

On this one year birthday of Dasah Brielle, I want to say to my second niece, thank you.  Thank you for your 12 bubbly hours of life.  Thank you for giving us hope amidst despair.  Thank you for being so 'chatty' in your 12 hours of life.  Thank you for your life.  Today, my tears and the waves of grief that wash over me will not lead me to despair.  I will let your message of hope stay in my heart.  I love you.  

Uncle Luke 

"…hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts…"

 

The Pope Doesn’t Need My Commentary; Neither does Jesus.

This week, I've been trying to simplify things when it comes to faith.  

There is a lot of commentary that comes with following Jesus.  A lot of books, articles, and posts that seem to feel the need to elaborate on what Jesus says.  As if Jesus needs some help explaining himself.  As if I somehow understand him better than others.  As if someone has a better handle on Jesus.  

I've seen it so clearly this week with the arrival of the Pope to America.  As Pope Francis interacts with the American people, there are endless commentaries trying to help us all understand what he is doing or what he means by what he says.  What many are doing is simply co-opting his message–or misunderstanding him altogether!  I'd rather silence the commentary and just listen and watch and see who he is drawn towards.  How he loves.  Who he cares for.  

There is also something powerful and moving about letting Jesus' words and teachings stand alone.  Jesus said, "Remain in me."  Paul described the mysterious reality of "Christ in you."  When Jesus is the center, the conversation changes.  But when the commentary around Jesus is the center, I've found it to be true that the center is not really Jesus.  We co-opt his message with our own interpretations and elaborations.  

Jesus often drew from the metaphor of nature.  "I am the vine, you are the branches."  I've heard others use a wheel to describe Jesus as our hub.  Whatever metaphor makes sense to you, our rootedness, our hub, our center is Jesus.  The person.  Nothing else.  Paul said it is Jesus that lives in me.  Not the commentary around Jesus, but Jesus himself.  The person.

My day starts to make more sense when I start from this center.  His stories and teachings start to instruct me.  His greatest commandment (to Love God and love others as I love myself) comes more simply and clearly.  With him at the center, it begins to make sense that all three aspects of God, others, and self must be cared for in their own way.  They are not independent of one another.  And none are prioritized over the other.  With Jesus at the center, his greatest commandment becomes possible.   

The Pope doesn't need my commentary about what he is doing here in America.  Jesus also doesn't need me to add to his words.  When I read the Gospels, I find it sufficient to watch, listen, and see towards whom he is drawn, how he loves, and who he cares for.  

That is challenging enough for me.

New Encounters

As we dive into another year of taking students into communities around the world to listen, learn, and discover, I am reminded of how disorienting this experience of displacement and encounter is.  But also how critical it is to growing towards a better understanding of oneself, others, and even God.

This year, we have students living in Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington DC during their first learning module focused on urban America.  I always love hearing students first impressions of moving into new neighborhoods so different from where they came.  One student will say, "This is a pretty sketchy place to settle into."  By that, he simply means he isn't used to seeing a homeless person on the street corner near his new home.  Another student might say, "I now live in the slums or the ghetto."  By this she might mean to say, this place and space is foreign to me.  There are lots of people with a different skin color than mine.  I am uncomfortable here.  

Discomfort is so important.  Stepping outside of our comfort zone is an absolute necessity in order for us to grow towards understanding and loving both ourselves and our neighbor.  We must learn to look at life from their lens.  To hear their story.  To let their life experiences be welcomed into our new framing of the world around us.  The greatest surprise in this process is that it also involves an encounter with God.

I love this quote by Jean Vanier.  "I have discovered the presence of God in my presence to the other."

I read a story of Jesus this morning that caught me off guard with its rich simplicity.  Jesus was introduced for the first time to a young man named Simon to which the story says, "Jesus looked at him and said, 'You are Simon son of John.  You will be called Cephas' (which, when translated, is Peter)."  In Jesus' encounter with this young man, he saw something no one else could see.  Jesus looked at him.  He made eye contact.  He exchanged humanity.  And in this moment, he saw Simon for who he really would become.  

My hope for each gap year student in their first few weeks is that they might, in their encounters with others, extend dignity and humanity.  That they might even see in the 'others' eyes who they are really becoming.  But that they would also allow others to do the same for them.  And when this mutual exchange is welcomed, they will find God in the middle of it all.

You can follow their stories/struggles/surprises as they reflect on their own blog sites.  Just click here.

The Problem of ‘Othering’

At Kivu, we talk a lot about learning to love the ‘other’. It comes from the core teachings of Jesus who spoke of the two greatest commandments of the faith: to love God and love neighbor.

Sadly, for many this is much more SAID than actually ever DONE.

In reality, using the word ‘other’ is problematic in and of itself. It means we do not know someone. It means we have some sort of distancing between us. It may also mean that we think the ‘others’ difference is wrong. It can mean we find their ‘otherness’ to be distasteful or disgusting. In its most horrific form, it is a label we use to dehumanize, oppress, and dominate ‘others’. The truth is that when you meet your ‘other’, they typically carry stories of having felt and experienced this ‘othering’ from you (either directly or indirectly) in its most horrific form. But Jesus did not practice ‘othering’. He was not ethnocentric like us. He did not distance himself from those who were different from him. He practiced ‘neighboring’. He modeled ‘befriending’. He was ‘loving’.

To ask the question “Who is my ‘other’?” may be the equivalent of what a religious expert asked Jesus after hearing him share what he believed to be the two greatest commandments: to love God and love neighbor. The expert asked “Who is my neighbor?”. In the context of the classic and ever popularized Good Samaritan story, Jesus answered the question by effectively saying, “HUMAN BEINGS (especially the ones you hate) are your neighbor. They are your ‘other’.”

Learning to love human beings is a pro-active step away from ‘othering’. It is an act of humanization. It restores human interaction to a life giving place of mutual exchange. It is ‘anti-othering’. But to ACTUALLY do this, one must begin a process of neighboring and befriending. In short, one must spend time together, get to know each other, share meals together, and do life with one another.

So what are our Kivu Gap Year students doing in the Middle East right now? It’s actually quite simple. We are putting into practice the two greatest commandments. We are loving God and loving neighbor. It’s not much more complicated than that. We are DOING what Jesus SAID to do.

It is a clear action of ‘anti-othering’.

The One Who Weeps

There is one shared experience of the entire human race that should unite us but deeply divides us all.  It is a socio-emotional factor.  It is the common experience of pain.  Pain can be an invitation to embrace others but it is more commonly used as a way of distancing.

It wasn’t until I visited an orphanage in Guatemala, that I began to wrestle with the invitation to care for orphans in their distress.

It wasn’t until I visited Rwanda and built friendships with those who carried deep wounds from the past genocide, that I began to feel their pain and learn from their grief.

It wasn’t until I shadowed the work of dedicated field staff in poor villages of the Philippines, that I began to associate with the psychological and social wounds of those who live in desperate poverty.

It wasn’t until I sat with Palestinians in Amman, Jordan and in Bethlehem, that I began to feel the weight of their oppression.  It wasn’t until I met Israeli Jews in their settlements and in Jerusalem, that I began to wrestle with their historical pain and perpetual fear of ethnic cleansing.

It wasn’t until I lived in the city and began to listen to the stories of the panhandlers on the streets, that I began to empathize with many of their present circumstances.

It wasn’t until I entered a black church and listened to countless stories of racial profiling and police brutality, that I felt the depth of their pain and suffering.

It wasn’t until I watched my own sister and brother-in-law walk through two terminal pregnancies in the last 20 months, that I have felt the anguish of pain, suffering, and death.  I have held my only two nieces in my arms for only a few minutes each.  I have only held them both two times.  Once when they were full of life.  Once when they had passed on to death. 

In this grief of my own, I have become deeply sensitized to the grief of others.  All pain and suffering is different for each human.  We cannot really know what the other is experiencing.  But our pain feels the same.  Our grief rips us both apart inside.  Our tears are the same. 

Nothing is more painful for a grieving heart than to experience it alone.  And nothing is more painful for a grieving heart than to see others distance themselves from your pain.  What pain needs is very simple:  presence.  And that presence does not need any words.  It just needs to share in the pain.

I didn’t understand this until I traveled to the Middle East last January for my very first trip to Jerusalem.  Two men that I deeply respect traveled with me from Amman into Bethlehem.  For what reason I cannot recall, the story of Jesus and Lazarus came into our conversation.  We were talking about why Jesus wept when he entered the town and saw Mary.  We talked about how Jesus knows pain, has felt it deeply himself, and that he too weeps with us–just as he did with Mary.  While still in the middle of much pain and grief from my first nieces’ death, I began to picture a new way of looking at God and suffering.   I realized that he too has wept with me over the loss of my first niece—and continues to share in my grief today.

While in Bethlehem, we spent an afternoon over in Jerusalem at my request to see the Old City for the very first time.  It was a very non-conventional way of visiting the city as we were without a tour guide, without any real agenda, and without a heavy time constraint.  As we entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, stopping for fresh squeezed pomegranate juice along the way.  We meandered through the crowds of pilgrims and took in the scene of thousands of people from around the world standing at the place where Jesus was said to have been crucified and buried.  Then, we made our way outside the church and around the corner to come upon the Church of the Redeemer which had a narrow and tall bell tower.  We paid our way to climb this 177 step ascent in order to look over all the city.  As we came to the top, we saw a beautiful view open up before us.  To my left was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  To my right the Jaffa Gate and David’s Tower.  Straight ahead, I could see the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and just beyond that, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. 

One of my friends gazed out toward the Garden of Gethsemane and began to talk about Jesus.  His eyes began to well up with tears as he spoke of how lonely a place it must have been for Jesus in that garden.  “The moment he needed his disciples the most, they were asleep.  Deep in his own anguish, there was no one there to cry with him.  He was alone.  No one cried with Jesus.”  And a few tears began to roll down his face.  He was standing in that bell tower, gazing across the city, looking into the Garden of Gethsemane, and weeping with Jesus.  In that moment, I, too, felt the pain of Jesus. 

From the tower, we eventually made our way to the Garden only to reflect more upon the weeping Christ.  I began to see that not only does Jesus weep with me, but he invites me to weep with him.  Nothing could have been more powerful for me, than to see my friend weep with Jesus as he gazed from that tower into the garden.

Why am I sharing this story?  Because it keeps coming back to my mind.  I am still deep in grief.  Only 4 weeks ago did I watch my second niece pass away.  And now the pain of loss feels as though it has multiplied itself with the loss of two precious babies less than 15 months apart. 

But, as I said before, I have become deeply sensitized to the grief and pain of others.  I may not know what they are going through, but I feel the very same sting.  Our pain is our commonality.  And I know that nothing is more painful than to cry out and not be heard.  To suffer and not feel one’s presence.  To weep and be left alone just as Jesus was left alone in that garden while his disciples, those nearest to him, slept.

I have now learned that when I hear pain, I choose to listen.  When I hear suffering, I want to be present.  When I observe grief, I want to partake.  Because that is what I have needed in my life during this season.  I don't want to sleep through someone else's suffering.  I want to be there with them.  Fully present.  Weeping as well.

Pain is a shared human experience.  It is common to all humanity.  Yet it is often the very emotion we attempt to avoid or the very emotion we use to distance ourselves from others.

Jesus weeps with us in our pain as he did with Mary.  He invites us to weep with Him.  And as we weep with Him, we realize we are weeping also with those who are in pain.  Those who suffer.  Those in grief.  To follow Jesus is to enter suffering.  It is to be present in pain.  It is to stand in solidarity with the one who weeps.  To 'weep with those who weep' is to weep with Jesus himself.

I am still in this season of grief.  But because I am now learning to weep with others, I am starting to understand their pain a bit more.  I can empathize a bit more with their oppression.  I can stand with them in their suffering.

Perhaps it is this Christ like action that can expose to use all the 'god-complexes' we carry.  If we would recognize our shared suffering and try to come together, united in the pain as common humanity, how would that begin a process of change for us all?  It would at least give us a common ground from which to struggle together to break the chains of injustice before us.

I wonder if we can only find unity in our humanity if we are willing to weep together.  To enter one another's pain.  I think my country and our world needs this more than ever now.  Do we have the courage and vulnerability to enter the pain of others (even if we don't understand it), grieve together, and allow that pain to be transformed into something new—for both of us?