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Voices and Millstones

It’s almost starting to get routine, these splashy headlines about sex abuse scandals—gymnasts at Michigan State, wrestlers at Ohio State, and now the thousand or more victims of abuse by priests in Pennsylvania. The frequency of these headlines seems to dampen our outrage. It’s hard to maintain that intensity of feeling when these atrocities occur with such regularity. We have become inured to it. And the sheer number of victims is so high that it’s hard to comprehend, much less imagine the horror of their experiences. Especially when the church is involved, we have to wonder, where is God in this? How did God let this happen? Where were the structures and the people who were supposed to stop it, supposed to protect God’s children?

What I know is that God did not allow sexual predators to commit their horrible misdeeds; the offenders chose of their own free will to act out their perversions on the innocents. But at times like this, I try to remember something Jesus said to his disciples once, “It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck than to face the punishment in store for harming one of these little ones.” (Luke 17:2, NLT) While this is never going to be the sentence in a criminal trial for a sex offender, the image satisfies me. God’s justice is not human justice, and we can never know the agonies that await those who would torture children for their own pleasure. And in the meantime, perhaps the more important question is, what can we do?

The answer for me is to be a voice for those who have had their voices taken from them, those who have been silenced. Part of the horror of sexual abuse is the silence that is demanded by the abusers. Victims are sworn to secrecy, sometimes through shaming, sometimes through threats of great harm to the victim or their loved ones. There is a saying that that which is unspoken becomes unspeakable. When a victim feels unable to talk about what is happening to them, the trauma is amplified because there is nowhere to go with it, no outlet for the fear, pain, and shame of their abuse.

So if the investigation in Philadelphia uncovered a thousand reports of abuse, then we can be assured that there are thousands more who have remained silent, whose voices have never been heard. The thing we can do is be their voice. Speak out for greater transparency, the implementation of stricter procedures for protecting children, more severe sentencing guidelines for the offenders, more help and support for those who are desperately in need of healing. Demand that all churches, not just the Catholic Church, take all the precautions necessary to make sure that such horrific headlines become a thing of the past. And listen. If there is someone you know who has been sexually abused, reawaken their voice by listening to their story. It might be a difficult story to hear, but not nearly as difficult as it was to live it.

Few of us are newspaper reporters or church reformers or mental health professionals, but everyone can be a voice crying in the wilderness, calling for justice and safety for “these little ones.” Maybe someday, the millstones will not be necessary.

Step by Step

Two weeks ago I had the chance to hear Barbara Brown Taylor speak at a conference I attended. She was talking about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark which challenges the idea that darkness is a bad thing. She believes that as spiritual beings we need to embrace the darkness and learn that God is present in darkness as well as light. She suggests that our fear of the dark is really a fear of the unknown. I had already read the book and enjoyed it, but listening to her talk, I found myself getting annoyed. She herself acknowledged that she speaks from a place of privilege, which helped me pinpoint my resistance to her message. For victims of sexual abuse, darkness is not unknown. They know full well what happens in the dark, and nothing about it is good. It’s actually the light of hope and healing that is the unknown. They want it and are afraid of it at the same time. They actually need to learn how to embrace the light rather than the darkness. For them, walking in the light takes just as much trust as it would for one who hasn’t experienced abuse to enter into the unknown darkness.

As I was practically sitting on my hands to keep from saying something in this huge ballroom full of about 500 people, a memory came to me from my work with a former client. She was a woman who had suffered profound sexual abuse at the hands of a beloved family member and was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder). She had upwards of twenty different alters, one of whom was a young boy named Timmy. Timmy’s only experiences of life were related to abuse at the hands of a satanic cult. The only world he knew was the box in which he was kept to prevent him from getting away and the work bench he was secured to where the cult members performed their “rituals.” He had no experience of the outside world, which he called “The Big.” The idea of “The Big” was both frightening because it was unknown, and longed for as a place of freedom and light at the same time.

One day, I decided to take him outside for his first exposure to The Big. He was hesitant but fascinated as we walked around the building in which my office was located. Eventually, we came to an outdoor staircase, the kind that has no risers, so you can see through the stairs to the walkway below as you climb. Timmy made it up the stairs with no problem, but when we turned to go down, he balked. The height was terrifying to him, and he was determined that he was NOT going to walk down those stairs. At this point, I got a little panicked too, as I had no idea how I was going to get him down and back into my office before my next client arrived. Then the thought came to me, sit down! So we sat on the top step, and we talked about random things to get his mind off of how far away the ground seemed. When he appeared to be calmer, I suggested we slide our butts down to the next step. I showed him how, and he reluctantly followed. We talked some more and scooted to the next step, and the next, and the next, until we reached the ground safely.

As I listened to Barbara Brown Taylor wind up her presentation, it occurred to me that this incident with Timmy was a great metaphor for working with survivors of child sexual abuse. It speaks to the importance of being fully present with them as they seek to make their way into “The Big,” that expansive world of light and freedom and healing. It’s about listening, honoring, and caring. It’s about noticing. It’s about not pushing or trying to convince them of something they’re not ready for. It’s about slowing down, joining them where they are and taking it step by painstaking step. It doesn’t require special training to do this, just a big heart and a willingness to set aside your own agenda and simply be present to their journey from the all too familiar darkness into the unknown world of the light. May it be so.

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That’s Not the God I Know

I had the privilege of presenting at the annual Search for Meaning Festival at Seattle University about my book, Healing the Ravaged Soul, on Saturday. It was a great experience, and my audience was deeply engaged in the subject, one that is often difficult to talk about. At the end of the presentation, there was a fifteen minute Q&A session. I fielded several really great questions, and then came the hardest question from a young man who is studying to become a mental health counselor. “How do I respond to a survivor of sexual abuse who says, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and still be respectful of their beliefs?” That is one of those statements that triggers such a strong negative response in me that I think I probably failed to give that young man the answer he deserved. But it did challenge me to come up with a better response after it was too late. Nonetheless, it’s a response that I want to share with my readers in the event any of you are ever in the situation of hearing those words that make you cringe.

Instead of my usual internal response, which is basically, “That’s BS,” I think I would say, “That’s not the God I know.” And then I would ask where that statement is coming from. Is it something the survivor actually believes, or is it something that others have told them? Because if it’s the first, then we can explore that belief together and how the “everything happens for a reason” statement turns God into a sadistic deity that intentionally makes bad things happen in order to fulfill some mysterious purpose. And it’s pretty difficult for a survivor of sexual abuse to trust in or desire relationship with a God like that. Then we can talk about the God I believe in, that displays love and compassion toward all God’s children, one who sorrows at the horrible things an abuser chooses to inflict on the innocents of this world. He/She is also a God that has the power to heal and transform the worst wounds humans can bear, but that doesn’t mean they were divinely caused.

However, if the statement arises because the survivor has heard it from misguided but well-meaning friends or church-goers, that’s a different conversation. Why do people so often feel compelled to repeat such a harmful platitude? Often, I think their purpose is to minimize their own discomfort at the difficult issue of child sexual abuse. It’s something to say when they don’t know what to say. Then they can pat themselves on the back for offering “comfort” to the survivor and go on their merry way. But then there are those who truly feel compelled to blame the victim, to judge their presumed lack of faith for struggling so much from the aftereffects of abuse. For them, the statement implies, “how can you be depressed or suicidal or self-harming when your abuse was intended to serve God’s purposes?” What they really want is for the survivor to pull themselves up by the boot straps and get over the abuse, so the speaker doesn’t have to be confronted with the reality of sexual abuse or any need on their part to do anything about it.

All of this is what I wish I had said to the young man with the great question. For what it’s worth, hopefully this blog post will reach even more people who will find it useful. What’s my response to “Everything happens for a reason”? “That’s not the God I know.”

Sanctuary

My husband and I just returned from a trip to the British Isles, particularly Scotland and Ireland. We had the opportunity to see lots of castles and battlefields and ruined abbeys. The history of this beautiful place is inescapable—reminders of invasions, wars, and bloodshed everywhere. I was most touched by the abbeys—their walls, windows, and arches still standing, but their roofs long gone. There was something profound about being in a chapel that was open to the skies. I could imagine the people who had prayed there, people who had suffered unspeakable horrors in the name of power, land, or God and sometimes all of the above. Their pain echoed through the landscape; whispers of suffering filled my ears. The absence of a roof seemed right. It allowed those prayers to rise up to God without church doctrine and pettiness getting in the way.

Historically, churches literally provided sanctuary to the victims of war, pillaging, poverty, rape. No matter who you were, where you were from or what religion you professed, they took you in, no questions asked, and provided you with food, a bed, and meaningful work to do. Nowadays, the church seems to have forgotten how to do that. Their roofs and their rules seem to keep out the ones who need sanctuary the most. Many survivors of child sexual abuse have difficulty with organized religion. They are sometimes rejected by the church, not because of the abuse, but because of its aftermath—things like drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and other hard-to-shake coping mechanisms. It’s not easy to attend church when you feel that everyone is judging you. And it’s hard not to equate God with the church, but they are not the same. God is God, whatever you conceive the Divine to be, and church is a deeply flawed human institution that keeps on trying to be godly, and fails just as often as it gets it right. Maybe they would do better to take the roof off, allow the prayers of human suffering to rise, no longer held within the walls, but received by the vastness of the heavens and the One who listens and offers sanctuary even when no one else will.

Law of the Heart

“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” Perhaps those of you old enough to have taken a typing class in high school will remember this sentence, as we had to type it repeatedly during drills and timed tests. I always thought it was a quote by someone famous during a particular time in our nation’s history. Turns out I was wrong. It was coined by Charles Weller, a typing instructor, for use as a typing drill. However, the sentiment is apt for the times we are facing as Americans. Perhaps it would be better stated as “Now is the time for all good citizens to come to the aid of their country.” I don’t think anyone would argue that we are in a time of crisis, a crucible for responsible citizenship. In Japanese, the symbol for the word “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” It is often helpful to explore what opportunities a crisis is presenting to us, and I think this is crucial to navigating the next four years, no matter which side of the political divide we are on.

One of the biggest opportunities is to stop taking a back seat and letting our elected officials drive the bus. We must get involved! The number of registered voters who chose not to vote is a shameful commentary on how many United States citizens have abdicated their responsibility to this nation that was founded on a democracy, of, by and for the people. The truth is that in order for the democracy to stand, we cannot sit back and let our legislators do the hard work of governing. We cannot rely on them to create a nation that upholds our values for inclusion, generosity, peace and justice. Because mostly what Congress is good at is maintaining the status quo. So it is incumbent on us to bring about the conditions we desire, a government that values every citizen, no matter what color, race, religion, sexual identity, income or social class.

In order to do this, one of the things we must conquer is our fear of the other. The divisions between us must be bridged. We have become so accustomed to the pendulum swing of government, the regular shifts of ruling party, that we have failed to recognize that the pendulum is now swinging farther and farther to the edges of partisan politics. And the wider that swing becomes, the less we feel like talking to each other. We settle into our comfortable encampments and only venture out when we absolutely have to. There’s no need to build a wall on the border, we’ve already built one, an invisible line between ideologies that keeps us from ever having to venture out of our comfort zones. And from within the walls of our fortress, we label everyone outside or different from us as “other.”

As it turns out, this “us versus them” mentality has been around for a really long time. As in, since the beginning of humankind. Think back to what you learned in school about prehistoric times. There were constantly warring tribes that threatened the territory and lives of the “other.” In order for a people to survive, they had to be wary and distrustful of strangers. Strangers could belong to a tribe that wanted nothing less than to slaughter your families and communities and take your land, your food, and your tools. Civilizations have been lost by such events. Cortez demolished the Aztec empire in his zeal to claim Mexico for the rulers of Spain. The early settlers of America soon set their sights on taking all the land “from sea to shining sea” in a vision of manifest destiny that denied the native Americans any right to the land they had inhabited for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

Through these kinds of experiences, humans learned to be distrustful. The suspicious ones survived when others did not. In a sense, through survival of the fittest, fear of the other became hardwired into our DNA. The most primitive part of our brain, home of the fight or flight response, which drives our need for safety, is also the part of the brain that is not connected to the parts that developed the capacity for emotion and logical thought. It is an instinctive and automatic response to those who are different.

Of course, I am not suggesting that we are incapable of change, just that it takes a lot of work to overcome our most basic human instinct. We have to be courageous enough to reach out, to learn about the other, to dare to be vulnerable in the name of finding common ground. We have to believe in the basic goodness of the other, at least enough to start a conversation. We have to challenge the voices that tell us that the person on the other side of the political fence is a horrible person. The thing is, both sides do it. And yet, I know many people who voted differently than I did who are good, caring people, people who believe in equality and who feed the hungry, support the poor, and practice radical hospitality. You might be surprised at their capacity for compassion. No political party has cornered the market on compassion. In fact, compassion is not something that can be legislated. Compassion is shown by those who follow a law of the heart rather than strictly abiding by the laws of government. Our country will become a better place, not when the “right” political party is in power, but when all of its citizens act with compassion where they are. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all work together toward that day? Administrations come and go, but the heart of a compassionate people never wavers. May it be so.

Nativity Mass

Darkness doesn’t fall

so much as it engulfs,

snuffing light from every furtive corner,

hiding places of shame and pain

and desperate

futility.

The detritus of addiction

litters gritty streets,

invisible remnants of the insatiable

desire to numb, to forget.

No glimmer escapes the cloaking,

oppressive night.

Souls bleed from unseen wounds,

deep red ooze merging

into blackness.

 

Suffering continues

years without end,

and humanity cries out

silently,

yet the clamor pierces eardrums

with its agonizing scream.

Eyes long emptied of a million tears

strain in the dark,

looking, looking

for the faintest hint of dawn.

 

How long?

How long until some One

lights a candle

in the mean streets of Bethlehem,

until a faint glow

begins to spread

and hope long dead

flares,

a tiny flicker in the dark.

Will it be now,

in this infant god,

whose flesh makes all flesh holy,

whose entrance on earth’s dark  stage

sanctifies human experience

and whose wounds heal our own?

Will it be here

that one small flame begins

to dispel the deepest gloom,

that one small flame of love

begins to warm

this long, cold night?

Here and now,

dawn begins to reveal the horizon.

Kinship

“When will we let go of the idea that we’re separate?” These were the opening words of an address by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, at a conference I recently attended. Living and working in the ganglands of Los Angeles, these words are particularly pertinent. Rival gangs fight to the death over their “turf” on a daily basis. But while the territory may be different and the issues multi-faceted, it seems that we are all fighting over turf in one way or another. Our gangs are not so much Crips vs. Bloods, as they are black vs. white, gay vs. straight, poor vs. rich, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim—it’s all the same. We all operate by the principle that there are people like us, and then there are the “others.” The most recent election cycle and its sharply defined divisions are proof of that. It seems that Mother Teresa was right when she said, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

It appears that we have lost our common humanity. We wall ourselves off in enclaves of sameness, where we can reassure ourselves that ours is the only perspective that matters. When our ideas do get challenged by the “other,” we can rush off to our fortress, where our friends will confirm for us that we are right, and everyone else is so very wrong—deluded, misinformed, perhaps even subhuman. The more isolated we become, the more different and dangerous the “other” seems, and the less desire to find common ground.

I recently read a comment by Bill Nye that reminds us that there is no such thing as race. Researchers have proven that humans are all one people. The variations in skin color, shape of features, build and musculature are all evolutionary adaptations to environment, climate, and the skills and abilities that were needed to survive in a particular place. “Each of us is much more alike than different,” he says. “We’re all made of the same star dust.”

What does it take for us to recognize this? The best way I know is through connection. When we allow the “other” in, when we get to know them in a deeper way, we discover the depths of heart that exist in all of us. We all laugh, cry, grieve, dream. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the character of Shylock is a Jewish lender who has suffered endless mockery and discrimination at the hands of an elitist and privileged merchant named Antonio. Ultimately, their rivalry ends up in court, where Shylock makes this plea: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” This moving passage speaks to the common humanity we need to discover if we are to be loving citizens of our one common world.

The power of this connection is best exemplified by one of the stories Father Boyle shares in his book, Tattoos on the Heart. He tells of two homeboys from rival gangs who came to find work at Homeboy Industries. When they were first introduced to each other, they refused to speak or shake hands. They glared at each other, and it was clear that this could be a touchy situation. Nonetheless, Father Boyle decided to put them next to each other on an assembly line. He says that men might not talk much, but working side by side creates a bond that can break down barriers. Ultimately, Miguel and Chico became the closest of friends. Then, as happens too often in the barrio, Chico walked into the wrong bodega one night and was gunned down, his life taken in the split second it takes for a bullet to travel from a rival’s gun into Chico’s chest. When Father Boyle called Miguel to tell him what had happened, he heard Miguel’s anguished wail: “But he was my brother!”

You see, Miguel and Chico had discovered the truth that we belong to each other, not just as a concept, but as a lived reality. They learned that our differences need not divide us. Just like in a choir, it takes more than one note to create a harmony. We are all brothers and sisters in the human family, connected not by blood, but by the star dust from which we all came. Once we find that common bond, there is no longer an “us” versus “them,” only one people, one humanity, riding the same blue planet on our voyage through the galaxy. May it be so.

One More Time

Child sexual abuse is a silent and insidious cancer that eats away at the lives of its victims. It is conducted in silence and perpetuated in silence. Victims are often admonished never to speak about what is happening to them, and these warnings are often accompanied by threats of violence against the victim, their families, or their pets if they ever dare to tell someone about the abuse. Unfortunately, this silence comes at a cost. It is said that what is unspoken becomes unspeakable. In other words, the enormity of what a victim has suffered and the impact of the abuse on their lives grows and thrives in silence and secrecy. When abuse is not spoken about, healing is not possible.

A pastor acquaintance of mine recently told me a touching story of healing that speaks to this issue of silence. Years ago, Claire[1] was conducting a movie theology group in her congregation. During one gathering, a film that portrayed an abusive marital relationship was being viewed by the group. Gradually, Claire began to notice that the behavior of one of the young woman in attendance was becoming more and more agitated. Her discomfort was evident. During a break, the pastor drew the young woman, Debra, aside and asked her if she was okay. After much hesitation, Debra finally shared that she had been raped by her grandfather when she was a young girl. Claire listened and validated her discomfort with the movie, then invited her to come by the church office the next day to talk more about this traumatic event.

Debra did come to Claire’s office as she had been asked and told her story for the first of many times. She shared with Claire that she was the first person to hear her narrative of abuse. Debra had kept this secret for many years until the impact of a movie’s portrayal of abuse unleashed her own painful story. This began a ritual that went on for several years. Debra would stop by Claire’s office and ask her if she had time to hear the story again. Claire would always respond with, “One more time.” Ultimately, it took forty times before Debra had purged herself of the cancer of abuse and received the gift of listening that led to healing. She eventually got married and had children and was able to live a normal and happy life.

Unfortunately, there are many, many stories about child sexual abuse that do not have happy endings. Statistics report that somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual abuse as children. Sixty percent of men and women in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities likewise report episodes of childhood sexual abuse. This is corroborated by the seventy to eighty percent of adult survivors who acknowledge excessive use of drugs and alcohol as a means to cope with the aftermath of their abuse. In addition, a full seventy-five percent of prostitutes were victims of child sexual abuse. I have to wonder what would have been different for these hundreds of thousands of survivors had they had someone like Claire to tell their story to, someone who would listen without judgment and be a compassionate and loving presence in their lives.

The fact that it took Debra forty times of breaking the silence before she was done strikes me as a vital part of her healing. The number forty figures prominently in biblical narratives. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, and Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days and nights before beginning his earthly ministry. Certainly, the wilderness experience is an apt metaphor for the bleak and barren aftedesertrmath of child sexual abuse. It takes a lot of wandering to find your way after the trauma of abuse. It takes time. The experience may feel like fasting, where there is no sustenance or nourishment for body or soul. And the desert is a lonely place, often with no signposts to tell you where you are or where you’re headed. You can take a lot of wrong turns in the wilderness. And often, something that looks like it might be an oasis turns out to be a mirage. This makes it hard for survivors to trust anything that looks like hope. They might turn away from people who offer help, fearing that it will just be more of the same disappointment or abandonment they’ve suffered in the past. But Debra’s experience with Claire offers hope for something new, something that opens the floodgates of suppressed emotions that hold one back from healing and restoration. And in the sharing of the story, the breaking of the silence, healing can happen.

So, if you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, find someone to tell your story to. Tell it again and again, until you don’t need to tell it any more. Let their caring and nurturing spirit help you heal. And if you are someone whose vocation leads you to walk with those who have painful stories to tell, listen! Listen with compassion. Hold their story gently, offering no advice or platitudes, only your deep sorrow over their suffering and the assurance that they didn’t deserve what happened to them. Be patient, for it might indeed take forty times. And remember that sometimes, when you think you can’t listen any more, you’ll find, with the help of God, that you can do it one more time.

[1] Names changed.

Everything Happens for a Reason?

I got your attention, didn’t I? There are few statements that stir up as many emotions as, “everything happens for a reason.” In fact, there are few statements more designed to make the recipient of such “sage” advice want to smack the speaker in the head! And yet, it is so prevalent. It’s everywhere (especially on Facebook)! And it is the cause of so much anger and hurt in those of you who have been through the worst that life can dish out and whose distress is compounded by thoughtless others whose idea of comfort is to offer these condescending words. Why are people so enamored of using this platitude, and why do the recipients get so upset by it? I think the answer to the second question is that the underlying message seems to be, “I can’t handle your feelings.” It is a highly invalidating statement. Despite the fact that whatever you are going through is extremely painful and worthy of copious tears, blazing anger, screaming, moaning and otherwise being a huge emotional mess, this other person doesn’t want to hear it. It’s too uncomfortable or overwhelming for them to deal with. They want to say something, placating though it may be, that allows them to walk away from the emotional cesspool and tell themselves that they tried to help you but you just weren’t listening. They want you to stop suffering so they don’t have to look at it, acknowledge it, or harbor the thought, even for a moment, that this same thing that happened to you, could happen to them! They cannot entertain that possibility, lest it open up such a deep chasm of fear that they would be swallowed up by it.

Another underlying message in this statement is that the “reason” is about God. (I think they’re wrong, which I will address in the next paragraph.) Unfortunately, one of the harmful effects of this mindset is that, if God is in control of everything, even our suffering, then why bother trying to change anything for the better? It gives people permission to be utterly passive in the face of injustice and evil. It allows them to be indifferent to unfair practices and antiquated laws that allow people to be victimized and ignored. Not only do the words allow the speaker to walk away from the person who is hurting, it prevents them from considering the broader context and the conditions that exist that may have contributed to the situation at hand. And even when the situation is completely random and unconnected to any social ills, there are still things that could be done to ease the suffering of those who are impacted by it. As people of faith, we are called to be forerunners of the kingdom of God, working to minister to a broken world and right the wrongs that we see around us. When our philosophy is “Everything happens for a reason,” it seems to excuse us from responding to John Lewis’s call to arms: “If not us, then who? If not now, when?”012

But let’s get back to the main issue. Does everything happen for a reason? The answer to that question is yes, but they’re not good reasons, and I don’t think God has anything to do with it! The implication with the “everything happens for a reason” gambit is that God caused this to happen for God’s own mysterious purposes, and you had better just be grateful, because something good is going to come out of it, if you wait long enough and quit your whining in the meantime! That’s just bad theology. God does not cause our suffering. God does not willfully put us in harm’s way or devise situations that will cause us unimaginable pain for the benefit of the “greater good.” I just don’t believe that’s how God works. But while I don’t believe God is involved in the “before” of an event, I absolutely believe God is present in the “after”— comforting, strengthening, and surrounding you with people who can understand and accompany you on your difficult journey. And certainly, God is involved in your healing and in the transformation that can sometimes happen in the aftermath of tragedy.

So what are the reasons for suffering? Here are just a few:

…because someone decided to get hopped up on drugs or alcohol and drive into a crowd of people on a sidewalk.

…because a sick and twisted individual decided to act out their sickness by violating an innocent child.

…because a virus ran rampant through a community that had no access to clean water or quality health care.

…because a mutation in one of your genes caused you to be infertile or to bear a child with severe abnormalities and disabilities.

…because a train operator fell asleep at the wheel or a religious fanatic high-jacked a plane or a troubled kid took his father’s gun to school.

The list goes on and on. Everything does happen for a reason, and sometimes the only reason we can come up with is that we live in a random universe where s— happens. But the reason is not God. God is not the cause of tragedy; God is the agent of healing from tragedy.

Homecoming

My dad died two years ago, but last week I got to bring him home—not due to a miraculous resurrection but by taking his ashes to the place of my childhood. When I was a mere infant, my parents bought a lake resort, previously owned by my mother’s Aunt Etta, on a beautiful lake in northeastern Washington. The resort, which still bears our family name, was the perfect place for my dad, a rugged outdoorsman and gregarious host. There was nothing he didn’t love about this place, but after eleven hard seasons, my mother had had enough of the life—the isolation, the long days, the unending work, and the inability to ever take a vacation in the summer—so they sold the resort and moved on.

This wasn’t my first trip back, but my return was different this time. Part of the difference was the fact that my father had died in the interim, making each vista filled with bittersweet memories, and on this trip, my husband and I had brought along our nine-year-old grandson. I was intensely aware of the passage of time as I took in my surroundings on the day of our arrival. Much had changed, but it was still the old familiar stomping grounds—the same black walnut tree which my siblings and I had climbed a thousand times was still a massive and sturdy presence in the yard of our former home; the little store still held shelves of food, Band-aids, fishing lures, and candy. I remembered the anticipation with which we would greet the weekly candy delivery when we would be allowed to enter the truck and choose a sweet treat from the vast array displayed on its shelves. Necco Wafers or Sugar Babies? A Black Cow or Pixie Sticks? The walls of the office and store were still papered with photos of fisher-folk and their big catch or hunters posed with their kill. Back in a corner hung a framed photo of my family standing on the front porch when I was only four or five.

Tiffany's Resort 2015 (56)That first evening, I wandered down to the swimming hole and sat at the end of the dock, dangling my feet in the cool waters of the lake. The water and surrounding hills formed a cradle, and the skies overhead a starry dome. I felt held in this sacred sphere, not separate from creation, but a part of it. The sense of recognition was overwhelming, and tears came easily. Simply, I felt at home. I think we all have a sense of place, an attachment to somewhere we feel at home, where our spirit wants to linger. There are places that have worked themselves into the fiber of our being, that are so embedded in who we are that we can barely define ourselves without them. These places aren’t necessarily where we were born or grew up, but they are always places that speak to something deep inside us, that fulfill some spiritual longing that we may not even be aware of. For my husband, it was his grandparents’ ranch where he spent his summers; for my mom, it was an ocean beach—any ocean beach; and for my dad, it was this place that offered him a fullness of life that no other place before or since had.

As I sat on the dock that night, I understood many things for the first time. I understood why he loved the resort so much and why he was so bitter toward my mother for making him give it up. I understood the loss of the place and the pride of ownership that would ultimately never be replaced by any of his future endeavors. But I had come to bring him home, to mingle his ashes with the earth and the waters, to make him one with the lake and the land that he loved. Over the next few days, I would be swirling his remains in deep green waters and scattering them on sandy beaches and under soaring pine trees. As the water and trees had been a part of his marrow, now his marrow would become a part of theirs and of the God who created them all. This thought gave me a sense of completeness, and I pondered the day when my time on earth would be done, when I would find my way home to the Ground of Being and my eternal resting place. At that moment, I will truly be complete. Until then, I am satisfied to sit and swirl my feet in the waters that birthed me.