“Drowning” doesn’t look like drowning

“Drowning” doesn’t look like drowning

Some things you shouldn’t read at the beach.

This past week, as I’ve been monitoring our four children in the Florida surf, a friend of mine posted this frightening piece that challenges the myth about what a drowning person actually looks like (read here).

In short: drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

Some excerpts:

When someone is drowning there is very little splashing, and no waving or yelling or calling for help of any kind.

In 10 percent of those drownings [involving children], the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface.

So, if a crewmember falls overboard and everything looks okay, don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look as if they’re drowning. They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?”

Drowning does not look like drowning.

BEYOND THE WATER

My main takeaway–strange as this may sound–is that it applies on land too.

Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “American Suicide” (here) just after the death of Anthony Bourdain. I loved Bourdain. But one thing that struck me is that so many of his friends claimed later that they had never seen him so happy. This is not uncommon.

Because drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

Once, while on vacation, we visited a very large church (You don’t know it; it’s located on one of the moons of Saturn). They had just completed a building program. The place was bustling. But the pastor’s sermon gave clear evidence that it had been mostly prepared the night before.

Each illustration was a story from the prior 48 hours. He was a very gifted speaker. Then he mentioned that he had preached the funeral of 20-something young man the day before. As a preacher myself, I recognized the signs of burnout.

When I heard then of the pastor’s DUI arrest, I wasn’t shocked.

Drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

CONCLUSION

I could repeat these “dry-land” examples till the tide comes in.

Anxiety. Addiction. Marital strife. Infertility. Grief.

In so many of these cases, drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

And in some ways, the advice of the article holds true here as well:

“They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, ‘Are you alright?’”

There are some things that you should remember in more places than just the beach.


 

Thanks for reading. Please click the green “Follow” button to see future posts.

Unqualified Condolence

Unqualified Condolence

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened to learn late last week of the sudden death of the popular Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans.

She was only thirty-seven, and she left behind a husband and two young children.

I didn’t know Rachel personally. Still, it was obvious that she was an incredibly gifted writer who gave voice to the nagging questions and concerns of many (former) evangelicals.

She was both kind and controversial—and that rare combination brought forth an unsettling tendency in the outpouring of condolences and sadness.

Let us call it the “qualified condolence.”

As I began to comment on several posts that mourned Rachel’s passing, I noticed a certain worry creep into my head that expressed itself in sentences that began something like this:

“I didn’t always agree with Rachel, but…”

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, still…”

“Despite our differences, …”

In some cases, the “qualified condolence” may be benign. It may merely flag the possibility of having real affection for someone with whom you disagree.

But at least in my own heart, I sensed that these sorts of statements were a sign of something sad, and scared, and broken in me: a need to “signal” to my tribe that my grief did NOT equal a full endorsement of all Rachel’s views.

And that is to my shame.

We should not need to qualify our mourning at the loss of such a vibrant voice.

We need not mingle our condolences with fearful “smoke-signals” to the tribal border police as a way of reassuring others that we are still quite aware of “just how wrong she was” on this or that issue. To do so can betray the tragic reality that, in such polarized times, the only thing more sacred than life itself is our tribal affiliations.

An expression of solidarity and sadness should be enough.

Rest in Peace Rachel; Eshet Chayil.

A tribute to the life Micah Flick: On the nature of “excruciating” sacrifice

A tribute to the life Micah Flick: On the nature of “excruciating” sacrifice

One never expects to see a picture announcing the death of a long-time family friend while casually perusing the national headlines.

Still, that’s what happened last week as I nonchalantly “clicked” on a world-wide news source only to see a picture of Deputy Micah Flick, killed in the line of duty while trying to protect and serve the citizens of Colorado Springs.

MIcah

I hadn’t seen Micah since we were kids.

His parents and mine were dear friends. We were nearly the same age. And if memory serves, not one but two of my sisters lived with the Flicks for a season there in Colorado.

In such ways, his family has been an immense blessing to my own.

Sadly, I never knew Micah as a man. I never met his wife Rachael. And my kids never played with the 7-year-old twins he left behind. Hence, I have no claim to the kind of grief borne by those who really knew him.

Still, as I watched the live-stream of his funeral Saturday, I couldn’t help but find the scene both hopeful and “excruciating.”

His wife talked of his faith and fatherhood. A fellow officer told how Micah sacrificed his life for others. He was serious about the things that mattered, and a self-professed “goofball” about the other stuff.

Excruciating.

EX CRUCIS

It was only later that I realized that this is precisely the right word.

For a story to be “excruciating” is literally for it to be “of” or “like” the Cross (or crucis)—the form of execution Christ experienced.

This was a form of torture.

And that’s how we usually mean the term.

The “excruciating” describes agony and sadness. It describes gut-wrenching grief and unimaginable travail.

A DEEPER MEANING 

Yet it struck me after watching Micah’s funeral that we also need a second—deeper—definition.

            Excruciating (adjective)

  1. Intensely painful, agonizing

  2. More truly “of the cross”– to give one’s life for others.

Because while all tragic deaths are “excruciating” in the first sense, almost none are like the second.

Micah’s was.

In saying that, Micah would be the first to note that his own sacrifice could not hold a candle to the work of Jesus. His death was not salvific in that sense.

Still, the two “excruciating” stories do have this in common: a willingness to lay down everything for others.

And as Christ said: “Greater love hath no man than this.”

That kind of work deserves respect from people like myself.

So while I am not one who automatically sides with the police in every single use of force (I’ve even written on that topic elsewhere), I do have an abiding gratitude for the impossible and important job they do on a daily basis.

A job, it should be said, done on behalf of people like me, who often live in blissful ignorance of the worries and the risks that accompany both they and their loved ones.

To Micah’s friends and family, I am so sorry for your loss.

And I join with you in the hope that he will be like Christ not merely in his death, but in his resurrection.

 


For any interested in donating to Micah’s widow and children, see here for a fund established by the El Paso Co. Sheriff’s Office.

First, say their names: A response to “the response” to Orlando

First, say their names: A response to “the response” to Orlando

“I think it’s important that you hear their names.”

Somehow, that was the line that finally broke me in the wake of the Orlando massacre. While others were discussing ISIS, weapons used, and the political implications, a reporter was slowly reading through a list of nearly fifty names, voice faltering, while adding information about each one.

  • Jean Carlos Mendez Perez (aged 35). He is remembered by his sister as a doting uncle, who loved to buy her children ice cream.
  • Brenda Lee Marquez McCool (aged 49). She loved to go dancing with her son. He survived.
  • Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala (aged 33). He worked at a blood donation center. “He’s alive in the lives that he saved,” said a co-worker.

For some of us,  hearing the names reminded us that this is about real people, not just politics.

A RESPONSE TO THE RESPONSE

So while there have been many responses to the shooting, this is not one of them.

It is not a response to what happened because I have no good response to that. It is a response to the response—and especially that on social media.

As Russell Moore notes (here), we used to be able to grieve together as a nation: Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, and 9/11 were examples. We wept with those who wept (Rom. 12.15). And while there was some of that after Orlando, Moore is also right to say that

“the aftermath quickly turned into an excuse for social media wars.”

And as so often with such missive missiles, the minds of all combatants seemed made up so far in advance that the MEMEs had already been written. Indeed, in some cases, the bodies of the slain formed only minor speed bumps to be driven over on the way to making one’s point.

Whatever the debate, each side seemed clear on what this “proved”:

  • Guns: For some gun-lovers, the real problem was that victims themselves were unarmed. More guns in nightclubs; that’s how you fix mass-shootings. While for others, this showed that America’s firearm fixation is literally killing us.
  • Islam: For the new nationalists, this revealed that Trump was right in trying to ban all Muslim immigrants (never mind that the shooter was born here). While for the new atheists, this proved that religion itself is what “poisons everything.”
  • Homosexuality: For a handful of “Christians” (word used loosely), the problem seemed not so much the lives lost, but the ensuing support for the LGBT community. While for ardent secularists, this showed that all fervent “believers” (whatever the stripe) hate gays.

To be clear, I do not think that every point being made was invalid.

I even agree with several proposals on how to begin preventing the kind of shootings that happen in no other civilized country with this kind of stupid frequency.

But that is not what I want to talk about here.

WHAT WE’VE LOST

My observation is this: We seem to have lost the national ability to mourn PEOPLE, before making POLITICAL POINTS. And while some points matter, it is the people who are priceless.

In this case, bodies were still being pulled out Pulse nightclub when the pixeled pronouncements started flying. Donald Trump, for one, “mourned” as he does all things—by Tweeting—“I called it!” he crowed: “Appreciate the congrats for being right.”

You know, just like F.D.R. after Pearl Harbor.

Others were more thoughtful (which isn’t hard). Still, in many cases, as I went online last week, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something wrong with the insta-battles that broke out even before family members had been notified.

It was not always like this. Social media has changed things. And in this regard, for the worse.

FIRST, SAY THEIR NAMES

What then is my suggestion?

Hear this: I am not saying that those passionate about solutions should just stay silent. Not at all.

But I do think that before we venture into polemics, we should first do what a few thoughtful mourners did, and say their names. Weep with those who weep. Reach out to gay friends and family. Grieve with the grieving. Many people did this, and God bless them. (I especially appreciated this from the new Wesleyan General Superintendent Wayne Schmidt [here]; in fact, it was not a statement at all, but a prayer.)

To recount the names and faces of the fallen reminds us that they were real people, with real dreams, parents, siblings, friends, and children. They are not mere dead weight to be leveraged in the catapults that launch our online arguments.

Biblically speaking, the call to love and serve and grieve is not dependent (even one iota!) on whether the victims were gay or straight, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist.

The imago Dei is the lone prerequisite.

So while we must seek solutions to such reckless acts of hatred, let’s not forget to weep with those who weep.

First, hear their names.  And perhaps that empathy may, in the end, lead us to work together to prevent such acts in the future.

Requiescat in pace.


Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodovar III, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, Luis S. Vielma, Kimberly Morris, Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, Darryl Roman Burt II, Deonka Deidra Drayton, Alejandro Barrios Martinez, Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, Amanda Alvear, Martin Benitez Torres, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, Mercedez Marisol Flores, Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, Oscar A Aracena-Montero, Enrique L. Rios, Jr., Miguel Angel Honorato, Javier Jorge-Reyes, Joel Rayon Paniagua, Jason Benjamin Josaphat, Cory James Connell, Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, Luis Daniel Conde, Shane Evan Tomlinson, Juan Chevez-Martinez, Jerald Arthur Wright, Leroy Valentin Fernandez, Tevin Eugene Crosby, Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, Brenda Lee Marquez McCoo, Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, Angel L. Candelario-Padro, Frank Hernandez, Paul Terrell Henry, Antonio Davon Brown, Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, and Akyra Monet Murray.

The house of mourning: a post for those who grieve, in memory of Daniel Berg

The house of mourning: a post for those who grieve, in memory of Daniel Berg

One year ago, I stood next to the bed of my brother-in-law, and watched him die.

Daniel was only thirty: funny, young, and handsome. He was a loving husband to my youngest sister, who is perhaps the kindest and strongest person I know. They were still newlyweds.

Livi and Daniel

This death, and the terrible decline that preceded it, are the worst things I have ever witnessed. ALS is insidious. And despite endless ice buckets dumped on countless heads, no cure exists.

Daniel in couch

Watching Daniel die changed me. While I have no claim to the kind of grief borne by my sister and by his more immediate family, Daniel’s passing stole some measure of my innocence.

In movies, death is valorized and sanitized, but there is one thing the films get wrong: death’s color. On screen, the deceased look like they are merely sleeping. But Daniel did not look like that. While he died painlessly, I could not join others in kissing his face, holding his hands, or stroking his hair.

I just wanted to get out of there—to flee the room, avert my gaze, cover up his body—anything to escape the pallor that had replaced his former complexion. The image scarred me. I still see it.

As the theologian John Zizioulas writes:

“There is no greater contradiction than a dying being” (Being as Communion).

Death is an affront, or as Paul writes, an “enemy” (1 Cor. 15.26). It is an intruder in God’s good creation.

A GRADUATION FALSEHOOD

That is why I wriggled uncomfortably in my chair last month as I heard a graduation speaker (and pastor) affirm the words of the late Steve Jobs:

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

This may sound nice at first, but when applied to actual people–a son or daughter, a spouse or friend–it is insulting and absurd.

Skubalon,” as Paul would say (Php. 3.8). Excrement.

It is wrong because it treats human beings like excess inventory at a used car lot: Act now! – older models must go! 

Skubalon.

Death is not Life’s best creation, and while Jobs said it, he did not actually believe it. If he had, he would not have fought so furiously (and valiantly) to fend off this great “invention.”

For those who mourn—and there are many—such platitudes don’t wash against the image of a departed loved one.

The bony hand of death cannot be manicured, bejeweled, and made pretty. It is always ugly, always cold, always an offense. True, we are often glad to know that a loved one is no longer suffering, and that they are “with Jesus.” But it is not death we celebrate; it is the cessation of pain, and their presence with God.

Death remains an enemy combatant.

A DOUBLE CRUELTY 

And then there are those left behind. For the bereaved, a double cruelty of death is that the wider world simply continues on as if nothing much has changed. A continent has been wiped off the map, and the cartographers have scarcely noticed.

“It’s as if they are erasing him,” my sister said once to me, amid the flood of paperwork to change her marital status, her mortgage listing, her tax information. But the people sending medical bills remembered.

This “double cruelty” is poignantly depicted in Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light we Cannot See. In a scene set in World War II, a young French girl stands in the empty room of a departed loved one:

[It] smells of peppermint, candle wax, six decades of loyalty. […] German sailors sing a drunken song in the street, and a house spider over the stove spins a new web every night, and to [her] this is a double cruelty: that everything else keeps living, that the spinning earth does not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun.

Here, to quote a further line, God can seem like

“only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon, poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, blinking, as [one] is gradually pounded into dust.”

Despair lurks.

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN

The question then is this: Is there an alternative to these two dead ends? First, the delusional attempt to say that death is “life’s best invention.” And second, the lonely despair that finds no comfort.

Perhaps one alternative is a certain kind of grief.

As Paul said, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4.13). But we do grieve. And that is for the best.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff states in a tribute to a son who died:

“Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides” (Lament for a Son).

Or as Tennyson writes:

            “Let love clasp Grief lest both be drowned” (In Memoriam A.H.H.).

Such words ring truer than false attempts to whitewash death as “Life’s best invention.”

DEATH BE NOT PROUD

Yet more is required to fend off despair.

We need not merely to grieve honestly, we need hope that death is not the end—that the “brief candle,” as Shakespeare called it, shall reignite and “run like sparks through the stubble” (Wis. 3.7).

Death is cocky after years of sway. Understandably.

Yet in the empty tomb of Jesus, there is a hint that “the blood-dimmed tide” (Yeats) has already turned, almost imperceptibly.

“Death, be not proud,” as Dunne wrote, “though some have called thee.”

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

THE EMPTY TOMB

In the months after Daniel’s death, I had a chance to visit Israel with my sister (his widow) and my father. Daniel had always wanted to go. We stood together in the empty garden tomb at Gordon’s Calvary, and cried, and smiled.

emptytomb

Inside, a simple wooden sign reads: “He is not here – he is risen.”

And behind those words, I heard those of Francis Spufford:

“More can be mended than you know.”

For those who mourn as Christians, that hope provides a balance to the bitterness of death. Some sweet wine mixed with the gall. It does not take away the sting of death, but it allows us to walk on, limping. And that limp, like Jacob’s (Gen. 32), is evidence that we have been touched by someone real, someone good, someone eternal.

So if you grieve today, hear these final words of Kate Braestrup:

“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning; for grief is just Love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, Love is up to the challenge.”

Not here

~In loving memory of Daniel Berg.