Suffering in Silence

Silence in the face of suffering is unnatural.

While I was getting Bronson some cereal in the kitchen, I sipped some coffee and sighed deeply enjoying the glorious silence that permeated our house. Until a split-second later when I remembered Bronson – my two year old. Silence from a toddler is almost always a warning signal.

I went into the living room to discover him pinching Oliver’s nose. Why? I have no idea, other than Bronson being an older brother. The pinching wasn’t surprising, but Oliver’s reaction was.

Silence.

I put Bronson in timeout, picked Oliver up, looked into his eyes, and told him he needs to cry when he’s in danger or getting hurt or suffering in any way. For some reason, eyes-for-the-back-of-my-head didn’t arrive with his birth. I need him to cry.

Silence in suffering does not serve him well.

In a book I’m reading in a chapter on justice, the author mentions the 3 million (or more) girls sold into the sex slave industry each year. She mentions that most of the 25 million coffee farmers are forced to sell their coffee far below the cost of production, ensuring they’ll never get out of poverty – all so you and I can keep sipping cheaply. Then she tells a story of a woman who lived in a barn with virtually nothing and no real plan for a brighter future. She already had some kids, but when she encountered a little girl eating crumbs on the side of the road because her parents abandoned her, she adopted her.

This morning, Ryan sent me a link to a video about a man running across Mongolia – all 1,500 miles – to raise awareness about the street orphans of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – the coldest city in the world. I can’t imagine being a child abandoned, forced to face the elements alone.

Too often suffering is done in silence. More ears are needed, so more hands can get involved.

I’ve heard the statistics many times. At the very core of my being, I ache to do something, anything, to help people like these. But mostly I don’t.

I think many times I’m like Oliver. I let suffering be snuffed out by silence.

I do it with myself. When I’m sad, exhausted, hopeless, I clam up. I swallow the suffering, believing that crying won’t help, believing that suffering is best served by silence.

But suffering – all suffering – needs a voice.

Perhaps, this is the beginning. Oliver needs to cry when he’s suffering. I want to help him, to rescue him, to comfort him. I can’t unless I know. I can’t know unless I hear. I can’t hear if he’s silent.

I often choose to watch terrible, true movies – ones that portray the awful realities that exist in our world. I’m not a glutton for punishment. But my heart has a propensity towards hardness. I need to hear. Over and over. I need to hear the suffering. Because that’s where the changes start.

So much of the world suffers in silence. I need to do my part in giving them a voice.

And I need to give voice to my own, smaller, sufferings. We all do, recognizing that suffering’s strength is amplified by silence.

Just speaking into darkness makes it a little brighter.

So while I still don’t know what I can truly do for the millions of people experiencing suffering that I can’t even comprehend right this second. I know I can do this. I can speak. I can cry out.

Blessed to Be a Blessing

www.overflowproject.org
Yesterday was Easter. My teeth still hurt from jelly beans, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the dwindling supply stashed at my side as I write. 
For several years, I’ve celebrated Easter with church and gatherings and the 50 Day Challenge.
Until mid-May, I’m giving up eating-out in any form. No coffee on the go, no ice cream, no dinners. It’s not the easiest season in my life to give this up. I’m about to have a newborn. I won’t want to cook, and I will need an IV of caffeine to combat all the sleeplessness.
But I’ll still eat ample food and treats at my house and stock our shelves with coffee grinds. Truly, my sacrifice is small. While the average American spends just under 10% of their income on food, poverty stricken people tend to spend nearly 75% of their income on food.
Photo credit: http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2013/02/24/a-deeper-look-at-the-average-americans-budget/
Until I saw the above graphic, I truly believed I spent less than the average American on nearly everything in my life. But the truth is I’m often average. Yes, my rural life forces me to spend astronomical amounts of money on gas, and yes, I buy healthy food as much as possible which makes my grocery budget larger than average. And sure, I don’t spend as much as the average American on some things. But the average American isn’t my measuring stick. Neither is my neighbor.
In fact, there’s no need for a measuring stick.
I’m obviously blessed.
If that’s my starting point, sacrificing to bless others is no-brainer.
So for 50 days I simplify my life, save the change, and give it away, providing much-needed access to clean water for those living in desperate, impoverished situations.
My husband and I have given up different things each year. We’ve given up coffee and other drinks. We’ve stayed home instead of traveled. We’ve walked to anything within a few miles of our house. We’ve sold-off our excess in a yard sale.
It’s easy to believe there’s nothing I can do, but the truth is we all spend money we don’t need to.

During the 50 Day Challenge, we’ll celebrate two holidays – Easter and Mother’s Day. Last year, the average American spent $145 on Easter, primarily on sweets and new clothes. Together, our country spent just shy of $17 billion. Also in 2012, the average American spent $152 on Mother’s Day, totaling $18.6 billion nationwide. While I’m certainly an advocate for acknowledging and honoring our mothers and celebrating Easter, we must consider what this consumption says about our culture. We must consider what our consumption says about our character.


In the entire world, it’s estimated that an additional $9 billion a year could provide water and sanitation for all, meaning every single human being on the planet. That’s only half our country’s spending on a single holiday.


This means the power to solve the worldwide water crisis lies in simple, collective change.

We have the power to consume for good. We can devour, absorb and obsess – consume – solvable worldwide issues. We can simplify and change lives.

If you haven’t already, join the 50 Day Challenge!

I have clean water whenever I want. I have excess in my life. I am blessed to be a blessing. And so are you.

Blessings in Obedience

To be a parent is to persevere regardless of feelings.

Emotions run high in parenthood – joy, excitement, frustration, anger, exasperation, fear – but being a parent is about action. I don’t feel like sitting at the table for a half hour trying to convince him to eat what’s good for him. I don’t feel like addressing a temper tantrum. I don’t feel like chasing a poopy butt boy. I don’t feel like rising at 3 a.m. when he cries.

But of course, I do all these things because being Bronson’s mom is not about what I feel like doing.

And I expect him to obey regardless of feeling, too. I know he doesn’t feel like getting dressed when I say or holding my hand in a parking lot or leaving his food on his plate (instead of throwing it on the floor), but I’m not too concerned about his feelings on these matters. I want him to learn to do them in obedience.

Lately I’ve been recalling a theory I studied in social psychology. As quoted from Social Psychology by  David Myers:

“Experiments confirm that positive behavior toward someone fosters liking for that person…It is a lesson worth remembering: If you wish to love someone more, act as if you do.”

And later…

“If we want to change ourselves in some important way, it’s best not to wait for insight or inspiration. Sometimes we need to act…” 

As a mom, I naturally do this with my son. I act as if I love him regardless of the situation, and I, of course, really do love him immensely.

But this is not always as easy or natural with other people.

Jesus says I should bless those who curse me. I should love my enemies. And I sense he’s not too concerned about my feelings on these matters.

But nothing seems more unnatural, more impossible to me. I wait for insight and inspiration, and while in waiting, I dwell on what was said or done. I weave a web of ruminations, and I find myself trapped in bitterness.

In some situations I’ve prayed for more than a handful of years for forgiveness – that I would be overwhelmed by forgiveness for the people who have hurt me.

This has not happened.

I’m still trapped in bitterness. I’ve woven more threads of anger and pain over the years. As time goes on, I find there’s more people who hurt me, and I’ve been exasperated by God’s inaction.

But I think he’s been more exasperated by mine.

He doesn’t tell me to feel forgiveness. He tells me to act in forgiveness. To bless, to love, and as I’ve learned in psychology, this will actually change the way I feel.

It’s not that my feelings are arbitrary or even unjustified. People have been cruel. Things happened that should have never happened, but I can’t control other people or change the past.

I can move forward, stepping in obedience into forgiveness, letting my actions untangle my feelings. I can be a blessing. I can be loving. And I can let these actions change me in a very important way.

Excess for Access

Photo borrowed from Living Water International.

With all the bunny ears and colored eggs, chocolate and peeps, sometimes Easter doesn’t feel very resurrectional.

But Easter is the beginning of something completely new: a radical way of life defying logic and selfishness; a complete outpouring of hope and love and generosity. And for the 50 days after Easter, Jesus lived showing us what a completely redeemed life looks like.

For the past few years, I’ve participated in a campaign for simplicity and generosity (launched on Easter). It’s a time to recognize that my life is busy and filled with excess while much of the world is distantly deprived.

The Overflow Project invites us to a 50-Day Challenge: Give up something. Simplify. Do a spring cleaning of your life. Save your savings. Give it away generously.

At the end of 50 days (Pentecost), we pool our savings together, providing funds to grant communities access to clean water. Clean water is key in making a sustainable difference in poverty stricken areas.

We give up our excess. They get access – to something most of us take for granted.

Want to know more and get involved? Check out their website – www.theoverflowproject.org, or find them on facebook.

Chart borrowed from Living Water International.

4 women and a Chair

The table is plain and round. There are five chairs around it, and I take a seat. The rareness of what I’m doing–both in my own life and in the typical life of those around me–isn’t lost on me. It’s me and four women–each one unique and beautiful and homeless.

I’m part of the hospitality ministry at Tabitha, a women’s homeless shelter run by our church. Usually the name of my ministry team is lost on me. I serve by folding clothes and asking for names and finding a pair of pants that will fit; however, sometimes there’s two of us there on the same night. That leaves one of us to go into the main room and be hospitable. Tonight that’s me. I’m always scared and intimidated. I feel rather incompetent to even begin to really love these women. Yet, God nudges me gently and reminds me that I need to stop using service as a means of distance. Their stories need to matter to me. They need to be heard.

The woman to my left immediately reminds me of my grandmother. She’s very old and fragile, but I sense her sweetness and hugability. I ask her what her name is. She tells me. And then she tells me her story. She went bankrupt at 65 and stayed at a different church that took care of her for awhile. Her son and her tried to get back on their feet; and for eleven years, they did. Then the economy collapsed, and many people became desperate. Her and her son were threatened with their very lives until they abandoned the home they were trying to survive in. She’s on the streets at 81. I felt my soul feel sick and choked back tears. Her and her son have become separated. With tears whelming up in her eyes, she told me that she can’t imagine trying to start again at her age. She’s losing her sight and hearing and doesn’t know why.

The woman to my right pipes in to inform me that her life has been horrible. She’s bitter. Very bitter. She’s in her sixties and tells me that people have taken from her until she has nothing left to give. She looks me in the eye and tells me she’s tired of hanging out “with you kids.” I cringe feeling that my naive presence is too much for her. She makes the room feel heavy, but I know she’s expressing things that must be said. I nod and look at her sympathetically as she tells me how angry she is. She tells me to stop patronizing her. I look her in the eye and tell her that I have no desire to patronize her. I know I don’t understand what she’s been through. Part of me wants to be upset, but I’m reminded of the bitterness that exists in my own life.

Rather than being surprised by this women’s bitterness, I feel more surprised that another woman at the tables seems to have none. She wears bright colors. Smiles big. Speaks quietly. She befriended the 81 year old woman and helped her make her bed. She’s been at Tabitha a lot. But a part from the setting we find ourselves in, I would never guess she was homeless.

The other woman at the table quickly reveals to me that she’s probably one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever spoken with. She doesn’t say that, but she looks at me suddenly and asks, “Would you rather be known for how much you’ve suffered or for how happy you’ve been?” Her question startles me. I’m not sure if it’s rhetorical or not, but it becomes clear that she wants an answer. I put the question back to her and she says that people wait to be noticed in their suffering, and they shouldn’t. I listen as three of the women discuss this. Later, this same women tells me about a book she read by a Jewish philosopher. I feel like I’m in a classroom at Gordon. At least 50% of what she’s saying goes over my head, not because it doesn’t makes sense; but because she’s tremendously intelligent. I wonder how she’s arrived here. I ask a personal question, but she tells me she would rather not respond.

Perhaps one of the small gifts of immense suffering is that it strips away the need for frivolous chatter.

I’m exhausted when I leave. I cry all the way home because when I hear their stories, I must ask the question, ‘why them and not me?’ It is only grace that keeps the roles from being reversed. And I’ve done nothing to deserve to be the recipient of that grace; but God responds to me softly,

You’ve been given grace so that you can sit in that chair.

Water

On Friday, I walked back from Trader Joe’s with two full grocery bags of food.  It was a mere 0.9 miles to get back to our house, but it’s part of what Ryan and I are doing this spring in conjunction with the Spilling Hope project at our church.

Last year on Easter, our church was presented with the challenge of living simply in order to give generously for 50 days. On pentecost, an offering was taken to build wells in Uganda. The idea was that if everyone in our church saved just a dollar a day for 50 days, we would provide 10 communities in Uganda with a well. 13 are being built on the $130,000 that was donated.

Admittedly last year I wrote a check and that was it. It didn’t really affect Ryan and I financially at all. I don’t think we really lived any more simply; and in all reality, besides our trips, we do live fairly simply in our day to day lives. But no where near what kind of simple the rest of the world lives in. The kind of simple where walking back and forth to water sources (not even clean water sources) literally consumes their lives.

Two people have struck me throughout this project. One woman who attended our church for the first time on Easter last year was from Uganda. She, as a small girl, carried the water back and forth. Through a video clip, she described how much clean water would mean to a community like the one she grew up in. She thanked us for caring. Last week we were able to watch a video of a celebration as one community received a well. The pastor in the community was trying to describe what difference the well would make to them, and he said this (paraphrased by my memory):

You’ve given us water, and water is… life. You’ve given us life.

The water I let trickle in the sink without much thought. The water we let run so it gets sufficiently cold or hot. The perfectly clean water that I use not only to drink but also to wash dishes, clothes and myself. I’m not sure I realize how much water is life in my my day to day living.

This year, we’ve given up buying coffee and tea. We’re trying to reduce our grocery budget, and we’re walking whenever possible to save in gas.

So I was walking home carrying grocery bags instead of driving over, and I began to imagine that I was a girl or woman in one of these communities carrying water multiple times a day. I would have little time to play or dream or hope. I would not have received an education because water trumps all else. And on top of it all, for all the trouble, the water would not even have been safe.

Nepalese beggar

This fall it will be six years since I went to Nepal, but the vividness of my experience there preserves my memory with the freshness of an hour ago. I’ve been thinking about my trip there a lot lately mostly because I really want to return but also because my experience dramatically shaped the way I think about poverty, travel and needs.

I still remember getting off the plane after over 50 hours of travel. The air felt fresh compared to the stuffy insides of the airports, but it wasn’t long before I discovered that not all the air is fresh in Nepal. The sun was shining. I was carrying eye glasses from half way around the globe. I sat by the window on the bus. We drove on every side of the road in every direction. We drove by what looked like sewage where a woman was washing her clothes. The smell made me want to throw up; and in an instant, I began to see the world through a different light.

We were going to do a medical camp at a small village called Dumre. I was to be the optometrist’s assistant. Before we made the slightly unstable, day-long trek to the village, we spent one night in Katmandu. That night as I walked at dusk on dirt streets of Katmandu, a man grabbed my arm and began begging me for money. It scared me and confused me. I’d never had an encounter with a beggar. I remember wanting to give him everything I had. He seemed so desperate. The people I was with began to force him to let go of me and told me I couldn’t give him money because I didn’t know what he would do with it. They told me I’d run out of money quickly if I gave it all away. That day, I become a judge of intentions to a man who I couldn’t understand or communicate with. Every time a beggar asks me for money, I think about this man. I wonder where he is, if he really needed the money, if his wife or child was dying of illness or starving, or if he really was buying opium or some other illicit drug with the money he got from begging. Regardless, every time I think of him I wish I had given him something. I wish I would have given him value. He haunts me like a mirror into my own selfish, uncaring nature and my ability to be convinced of something that I don’t think is right.

It was in Nepal that every person became human to me. I couldn’t communicate with most people I met, but I imagined their goodness, hardships and determination. I find myself believing that I need to be a person of generosity even if it requires me to have faith and hope for people I’m not sure about. Perhaps, if someone asks me for some money, I should give them my coat as well.