We walked the six blocks to Saint James on Good Friday, the sun shining, a spring breeze chasing us along the sidewalks. I pushed the double-stroller – occupants varying in combination between Poppy, Leo, Sam, and Abra – and sometimes Maile would come up beside me, quietly, nestling her hand in under my arm. We walked long stretches without saying anything. She sometimes looked up at me with tears in her eyes.
The knowledge of my upcoming trip to Iraq came to us during Lent, just before Holy Week. Everything about Easter week felt heavier to me after my trip details were finalized. Everything felt pregnant with undelivered meaning.
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Two-year-old Leo did remarkably well during the Good Friday service, but towards the end, he got antsy, and I took him out into the courtyard. He played in the fountain, carefully picking up tiny pieces of gravel and making small piles, or squatting over the meandering movement of an ant, or eyeing the flowers blooming off to the side.
But he wanted to walk, he wanted to run, and around the corner of the church he fled. I followed him through the arches, past the climbing tree (as our middle son Sam calls it), and back, back, back into the church yard. The cemetery.
Two days later, two days after Leo and I wandered among the stones, our church would hold its annual egg hunt there, and children would scramble over the graves, trampling the grass and hugging the trees and walking over all those bones. They would laugh and call out to each other, their new voices filtered by standing reminders of death.
So, Leo and I walked through the stones. He climbed on the graves’ edges, balancing like a man on a cliff. He jumped into the green grass. Would that we all saw death as our playground! We made our way to the far, back corner. There is a memorial stone there, and large granite slabs. While there are no more free spaces in the church’s cemetery, this is where our saints are now remembered. Flowers reached up around the edges.
I saw my friend’s name there on one of the slabs: Nelson Keener. He died one year ago. I sat with my back against the hard stone and watched Leo, now swinging a stick. This is life. This is death. And so it goes.
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Planning a trip to Iraq during Holy Week is a wonderful way to come face to face with your mortality. I know the odds are in my favor of returning, perhaps not unscathed emotionally, but at least in one piece physically. It’s the unknown, I suppose. I will be there for a little over a week. If I spent that time here, at home, that week would probably pass by like most other weeks I have come to know. But now, thousands of miles away, in a place decimated by war and conflict, in a place so full of hurting people, that week will be different. Life will be different, measured as happening either before or after my trip to Iraq. This is only a sense that I have. Time will tell.
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Can I take a moment and tell you all you need to know about our wonderful priest, Father David? Stay with me. This will all come together in the end.
Imagine this: Easter morning. The church is packed. The choir has made their way to the front, and Father David stands at the front beside Father Rob. The church is ringing with the sound of saints singing, the sound of a trumpet peeling against the beautiful morning light streaming through stained-glass windows. And suddenly, Father David is walking towards me where our family sits in the front row. We are not normally front row people, but on Easter morning the church was full, and we were two minutes late, so there we were.
Anyway, Father David walks down the stairs, comes over to me, and leans in close.
“I think your wife is looking for you,” he whispers, smiling before he turns and walks back to his place. I look around, locate and make eye contact with Mai, and wave her to the front. But it struck me, the fact that my priest would, in the middle of the service, take the time to come down to where I sat and let me know my wife couldn’t find where I was sitting.
This may seem like a small thing to you. I have never seen a pastor do such a thing before, not during such an important service. This is not a small thing.
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Father David spoke on Easter morning about those four powerful words the angel uttered to the women at the grave, when they came to see Jesus.
“He is not here.”
Father David went on to say that, basically, it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? I look around at this world I live in, and it’s easy to wonder if God is here or not. And it’s easy to conclude, when you see Syrian children being gassed or pulled out from under the rubble, when you see Iraqi children dying in the wilderness, when you hear of aid workers being killed by ISIS sniper fire, when you hear a woman across your very own street screaming at, and hitting, her child, when you lose yet another friend to cancer…and on and on.
“He is not here.”
And yet. The angel goes on to say, “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him.”
He is going ahead of you.
There, you will see him.
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The unasked question I see in many friends’ and relatives’ eyes when I tell them I am going to Iraq is not difficult to recognize. They have, every one, remained verbally positive, but eyes ask questions mouths will not utter.
“You have a family and you’re risking your life on a trip to the Middle East? For what?”
My only answer is that I was asked to do something that fits entirely within the realm of our family’s mission and way of life. But as I think more about it, I realize there is another answer, a truer answer. The true answer to why I am going to Iraq is that God is not here. He is there. He has gone ahead of me.
There, I will see him.
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I think we all have an Iraq to go to. God is not here anymore. Do you realize that? He has gone ahead of you. Go! There, you will see him.
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If you want to read about someone who is going, who is following the call to wherever there might be, someone who inspires me to stay open to where the spirit might lead, check out my friend Tsh Oxenreider’s beautiful new book, At Home in the World, releasing today! It’s the story of her family of five’s journey around the world. Yes, around the world. Tsh is insightful, funny, adventurous, and you will love this book. I promise.
I’ve never met Tsh or her husband, Kyle, but we’ve become online friends. If you’re intrigued by people who do not allow themselves to be tied down by conventional commitments, people who want to live fresh, meaningful lives, Tsh and Kyle are your kind of people. Here’s a snippet about her newest book:
What would you say if your spouse suggested selling the house, putting the furniture in storage, and taking your three kids under age ten on a nine-month trip around the world? Tsh Oxenreider said, “Thank you for bringing it up first.”
At Home in the World follows their journey from China to New Zealand, Ethiopia to England, and more. They traverse bumpy roads, stand in awe before a waterfall that feels like the edge of the earth, and chase each other through three-foot-wide passageways in Venice. And all the while Tsh grapples with the concept of home, as she learns what it means to be lost—yet at home—in the world.
Check it out HERE or wherever books are sold. Buy it. Trust me.