Monday, 13 January 2014

When I get where I'm going...

This beautiful sunshiny morning, Emily is napping, the dishes are done and the laundry's drying outside (Have you ever tried to wring out a sleep sack? Oy.). I appreciate the quiet mid-morning time here in Kapsowar and today I am reflecting on two things.

1. Africa Inland Church (AIC) has a clinic in the village of Lodengo, that serves the Pokot people in the Kerio valley. Doctors from Kapsowar Hospital run clinics there on an ongoing basis and there are nurse practitioners living on site. It's remote, difficult to staff, and  the only medical access for people there. This past week, the pastor in Lodengo died suddenly. That's sad enough, but he left behind a widow with four children, one of whom is two weeks old. At the funeral on Saturday, the man's brother (an MP), promised to look after the education of the children, a fairly common promise, whether or not it will be fulfilled. So, I am thinking about Miriam with her newborn and other kids today, with no fall back plan, no life insurance, no plan B (just a hope in a politician's promise), seemingly alone in her husband's remote community.

2. January 13th is my brother Nathaniel's birthday. He would be 29 years old today. Even though he passed away on February 7, 1996, I am most acutely aware of his absence on his birthday, one day after my dad's birthday, and the day my Grandpa Armstrong passed away (how's that for a fun week?). About a month ago, my sister said to me, "Do you ever think about how Nathaniel would have fit in with everyone and what it would be like if he were here too?" Our husbands and my brother Tim are close friends and she could imagine him fitting in, enjoying their company as a man, a brother, and a friend. Wondering what he would have chosen as a career, who he would have chosen as a partner, what life would have looked like for him. It was a reminder to me that, as a family, we all still feel Nathaniel's absence, in different ways, at different times, but always.

We are all faced with death and grief, even if we deal with them differently.

Some of us shut grief in, holding tightly to memories in a little box deep inside. Some of us share a lot about the person that died, keeping their memory alive in a public way. In this age of social media, it's not uncommon to see a Facebook page in memory of a person, a way for family and friends to express their memories, feelings, and photos of that person, a way to keep them with us. No matter how we respond, we are all (or will be) affected by death.

Here's Anne Lamott's take on loss:
  You will lose someone you can't live without and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through. It's like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly-- that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp. 

In North America, collectively, we seem to fear death. After an intensive care rotation, Nathan was disturbed by the measures some families employed to keep loved ones alive, long after any hope for recovery and despite incredible pain. Several South African doctors commented to him about the lack of acceptance of death in Canada. Here in rural Kenya, death is not unexpected. It's not glossed over with euphemisms and it's not hidden in a closed casket in a perfumed funeral home. I don't believe Kenyans like to "deal with" death any more than Canadians and ALL people feel loss as deeply, but there is an acceptance of death as a natural part of life here.

Maternal death rates in Kenya are still among the highest in the world (13th out of the 181 worst countries in 2010) and one in four women have lost children in childbirth or early infancy, not counting miscarriages. As one of the OB/GYNs put it, if you asked any of the women able to deliver safely in the hospital here if she would like a water birth, or how she feels about natural child birth versus c-sections or epidurals, or if she would like to keep her placenta for later, she would likely wonder what sort of mental condition you have.

But still, there is something about sudden death, the death of someone young or in the prime of life, like my brother Nathaniel or Miriam's husband, that jars us. That scares us. That reminds us, even in Canada, that of all the things we have control over, we cannot control when we die and we cannot make sense of tragic loss.

What purpose is there in my brother dying?
What sense is there in Miriam struggling to raise four kids alone?
Suffering is everywhere, globally and individually, and we can't make sense of it.

The big question remains. Why?

I can't answer that question.

Maybe you've lost somebody, or had some irrevocable news, and someone has spouted off verses like "We know that for those who love God all things work together for good!" or said "God will never give you more than you can bear, so you must be a really strong person!" or something really helpful like, "You really need to read 'The Secret", or maybe, "I've heard that people who have cancer say it's the best gift they've ever received." Kudos to you for not punching them in the face... If you punched them in the face, it was probably a life lesson for them and think how strong a person they must be to have been able to take that, so don't sweat it too much...

I don't know why, but I know that we were created with a need to know why.  We have a desire for justice, to make sense of life and suffering, and for our experiences to matter and nothing brings us closer to wondering why than dealing with death. 

If you believe in God (or if you don't... I think that covers just about everybody), you've probably struggled with this why.  C.S. Lewis begins his book, The Problem of Pain, by acknowledging that if we "try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, you find that you have to exclude life itself." 

If you are wondering how there could be a God who allows suffering, I would recommend this book (or his book Mere Christianity). I find his honesty and conclusions that brought him from atheist to Christian a compelling read, regardless of your beliefs.

I'm not C.S. Lewis and I don't have all the answers but I can tell you what I have experienced. I can tell you that God is good, that He is faithful and that He is available to us in suffering. He sent His son to earth to suffer for us and to take on the responsibility for the suffering that we cause that we can't fix on our own. 

I can't tell you that this makes grief easy or understandable. When Nathaniel died, despite prayers for his healing and recovery, I didn't get an answer to my why but I had (and have) an unexplainable peace about Nathaniel's death and a hope for the future. This ISN'T all there is and I can say (not in a flippant way), that my brother is with Christ, which is far better.  Thanks to Jesus' work on the cross, we don't have to fear death. Even though we live with sorrow and grief, we also have a hope... not some weird Disney "if you wish upon a star" hope, but a true confidence and an assurance for the future. 

Last night, I was trying to change Emily's diaper and get her into her jammies and she was overtired and shrieking, eyes screwed shut, wailing and flailing. She wanted to roam around nakedly and the process of getting ready for bed was terrible for everybody (including our next door neighbours), even though ten minutes later she was warm and cozy and fast asleep. Doing the right thing for Emily when she doesn't understand it and is extremely upset reminds me that God, as our Heavenly Father, looks after us, through the REAL hard parts of life (even when it feels the most miserable), which from an eternal perspective, probably seem about as long as that ten minutes. I have to remind myself that we aren't seeing the whole picture.

So today, as I pray for Miriam, I am reminded that God knows the future HE has for her and her children (even if it looks so bleak to me and I can't FIX it) and as I remember and miss my brother, I look forward --not just back-- and hope that you can too.

"For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come." Hebrews 13:14

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