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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tears Falling

My sister is gone. She stepped out of the car, I handed her the suitcase and backpack, we exchanged a quick hug, and then she was off to catch her plane. I cried the first 20 minutes back, driving in rush-hour Beirut traffic, not caring if anyone saw the tears running down my cheeks. I raged at God. Why? Why did He allow us to live such separate lives? Then I begged and pleaded with Him to keep us all safe for heaven. I know there is no guarantee of safety in this life for the Christian but if only God keeps our hearts true to Him, then we can wait for heaven where the tears will stop flowing.

Saying goodbye to those I love is the hardest thing in the world for me to do. This is why I am cautious in who I allow to get close to me--I can't afford to go through this many times. Each time I say goodbye, there is that panicky feeling, that I won't ever see them again. Logically, I know it likely isn't true, but emotionally I cannot connect the logic to my heart. You see, there were times I said goodbye and it was a true goodbye. My house in Burkina Faso. My Opa before he died. My special place to sit where I could see the night lights on the Mediterranean Sea. My father more than 8 years ago.

To grieve is to open up a part of your heart that you sometimes forget exists. I've become adept at saving emotion for Hallmark movies, a sappy YouTube advertisement, or a particularly touching sermon illustration. At times, I will cry out of nervousness or worry at work. But I don't cry often out of loneliness. That isn't allowed. We had to learn early on that you buttoned up your heart and put a smile on your face, wave goodbye, and leave.

I've started crying at airports now. When I left my mother and brother in chilly February, at the Sacramento airport, I sobbed while I stood in line to show my boarding pass. They were bravely smiling and I was crying. All of a sudden, all they meant to me and that panicky feeling that I might never see them again overwhelmed me and I cried. I didn't know how else to handle the depth of emotion that I was feeling.

I cry in planes, I cry in the car, I cry at airports. I've stopped closing up my heart to feeling and started allowing the grief to wash over me so it can cleanse my soul of the many goodbyes I never was able to grieve. I think the older I become, the more I see how fragile life really is and I worry because I cannot control it in any way. I cannot hold my loved ones physically close beside me always, just as I could not keep my family from splintering 18 years ago or keep my dearest friends in my life. I have had to learn the hardest lesson of all--that love holds with open hands even as the pain of loss grows stronger.

Sometimes, when I'm quiet, I hear my heart asking Why? Why did I allow myself to be vulnerable and love so much when I knew eventually I would have to say goodbye? It is a question I cannot easily answer. I love easily but I feel deeply. This is the other lesson I am still learning. I must keep loving even though it may hurt.

My sister has landed safely at the first of 3 airports she will hop to in the next 24 hours. I can sleep knowing she is busying herself getting connected to friends, working on lesson plans, and getting something to eat as she waits for her ocean crossing. But tomorrow, she will be in Asia and I will be in the Middle East--worlds apart. She will be sitting on a bus headed home while I will be sitting in an office typing a work email. We will exchange virtual messages and carry on with life.

It will still hurt though. I may still cry for a bit. Especially when I see the empty place where her bed was and drink water from the 10-liter jug she lugged up the stairs for me. As I gently put away the beautiful souvenirs and eat the delicious pineapple pastries she brought for me. Now she's become a part of my memories here and it will take time for the beauty to replace the pain of loss and the reminder of loneliness. I will be forever grateful that she came but for tonight I must cry just a little.

I miss my sister.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

In the Dark Times

She was a sweet little thing. White with some patches of colour, she stayed in the background, only running out boldly when he drove up in his black Kia, bringing her consistent meal for the day. I still remember the first day I saw her. He was wandering campus looking for Coconut to no avail. He went back home and a few minutes later I spotted a little white cat. She was quietly waiting in the bushes by the administration stairs, but then the noise of passersby startled her and she crossed the lawn to retreat into the shadows behind the cafeteria. I crept along silently behind her, keeping a good enough distance that she wouldn't worry, while still noting where she was. At the same time I was messaging him so he knew where she was when he came back up to campus. He fed her and she was content.

After that, it became somewhat of a ritual to keep my eye out for Coconut while on my evening walks. She was still getting used to the campus, having been relocated from his home since she was a rather loud cat who kept his parents up at night with her vocal discussions, so she stayed away from people. If I spotted her, I would text him and he'd pass by to give her the usual cat food, or, for a treat, some tinned food which she especially enjoyed. One evening he and I traipsed all over campus looking for her, to no avail. We ended up sitting on a rickety bench overlooking Beirut's night lights as we talked about life and God.

When he went on holiday for 10 days, he entrusted me with feeding Coconut and several other feline friends. The first day I walked the campus 6 times, anxiously searching for her, worried about her missing a meal. He'd told me not to worry, that cats were scavengers and could survive, but I still worried. That's my personality. I timidly called her name and nervously banged the empty tin can he'd given me on the stone wall, the signal that food was there. Finally, that evening, I saw her by the recycling bins and left her some food to enjoy. She didn't want me to get too close though so I gave her a respectable distance and snapped a photo.

One evening I found Coconut by the administration steps and left her a generous serving of food by the edge of the sidewalk. Several minutes later, I passed by again and she had disappeared but another, more assertive cat, had swooped in to eat her food. The next time I found Coconut, I stood guard nearby until she had eaten everything. I wasn't about to let another cat get her food again.

When he returned, I reluctantly handed over the cat food and responsibility. I jokingly said we needed to talk about shared catsudy but there was an element of truth to it. I would miss the morning ritual of banging the tin can and watching the cats run joyfully across the lawn to get their breakfast, as they had done for several mornings now. I would miss searching for Coconut to make sure she got food too.

Then he texted me. He'd had a bad dream, come up to campus to look for Coconut, and found her dead. Someone had run over her. I knew that it was not uncommon for students to accelerate and drive very fast out of the parking lot as it was one of the few spaces in Beirut that wasn't congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It would have been easy for a car to end Coconut's life if it had been one of those reckless drivers. My heart ached. Not Coconut. Why?

I went down to the parking lot and stared down the pebbled road that branched off to the cemetery. I didn't know where he went to bury her but I desperately wanted to find him and tell him I was sorry. But I had a meeting to go to and I was already late so I had to resign myself to feeble text messages. I knew it had really hurt him.

Several weeks ago, when he was searching for Coconut, I began to wonder if perhaps God had the same sense of care and concern about me. My mind tends to always search for the parallels in life, particularly as I try to understand Who God is and how He relates to me. I saw my dear friend searching earnestly for a somewhat helpless animal. He did not give up until he had found her and made she had enough to eat. He took care of her without thought of recompense or reward.

In the same way, my heart yearned to know with certainty that God was pursuing me. I wanted to know that He was looking for me and wouldn't give up until He found me. I needed to realize that His deep concern was that I knew He would take care of me and provide for me.

But what if something tragic happens? Like with Coconut, what if life runs me over and the life is crushed out of me? The church easily says Pick yourself up, pray more, go to the Cross, be saved. I think, though, that God is different. He picks me up, holds my bruised soul in His gentle hands, and cries. Then, because He is God, He breathes life back into me and tends to my wounds.

Unfortunately, on this earth we can't expect that innocent animals like Coconut will have life again. Sin's evil talons have affected those who never deserved to hurt, as Adam and Eve's mistake has fallen heavily on us through the years. Yet in the midst of the darkness and the pain, there still has to be hope. Hope that we can hold on to God and know with certainty that He sees and He will punish the evildoers (Psalm 10). Reassurance that He understands our rage at the senselessness of it all while He comforts us in our pain.

Trust in Him at all times. . .pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge. . .Psalm 62:8