Monday, March 26, 2007

Be With Me

Years ago, my family was rocked by the sudden death of my dad’s younger brother. This gifted physician, Christian leader in the community, larger-than-life personality, and centerpiece of our family was lifted out of our lives three weeks after he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

A memory of mine that stands out from events surrounding my uncle’s death is from the dinner at my aunt’s house following the funeral. Women from the church had prepared and were serving the meal. I remember, as they quietly moved around the table, that their eyes sometimes welled up with tears. I drew comfort from those tears back then, and the memory still touches me deeply today.

When I was a kid, a common Bible trivia question had to do with which verse in the Bible was the shortest. “Jesus wept” may have gotten a lot of attention for brevity, but it really deserves to be noticed more because it contains great wisdom in how to minister to the grieving. Instead of offering words of comfort to the distraught Mary who was grieving the death of her brother Lazarus (and Jesus surely knew the right thing to say), Jesus affirmed her grief and was with her in it. Jesus wept.

Surrounded by concerned friends after the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis, felt the need for something, but that something wasn’t words. “There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me,” he wrote. “I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

Several years ago, a friend of mine lost her baby in a terrible drowning accident. It is one of my deepest regrets that I didn’t go to her right away. I held back because I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t have answers. I couldn’t explain the whys to her or think of words to lift her out of her despondency. What I know now is that my friend didn’t need me to talk. She needed me to be her friend—to be with her in her grief—to hold her and to weep.

Last week, Frank spent time with another man who lost a loved one in a climbing accident a few years ago. Afterwards, Frank told me it just helped to be in the same room with him.

Grieving, I am learning, isn’t an event. It is a process. Right now I have no idea how long that process lasts. For some, I can imagine, it lasts a lifetime. But perhaps by following Jesus’ example we can find ways to allow the grieving to grieve and to be with them in their sorrow.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Things People Say

Sooner or later, when grief is under discussion, the subject of the things people say to the grieving is bound to come up. Bringing it up here feels a bit like opening a can of worms—not just because of what other people (often well-meaning people, I might add) have said about the three climbers, but because, even as I write, insensitive comments I have made flash through my mind. At one time or another, probably all of us have said something with the best intentions that had precisely the opposite effect from what we intended.

I'm also mindful of family members and don't want to invite a discussion that might cause them any more distress. Still this is an important part of grieving that needs to be raised so we can all learn better ways of caring for those among us who are hurting.

One of the comments we've heard most frequently both during and after the tragedy on Mt. Hood is the fact that the three climbers chose to take serious risks, and so “Aren't they responsible for their own trouble?” Everything from Rosie O'Donnell and Bill O'Reilly harshly criticizing the fact that taxpayers were footing the bill for rescuing climbers (an unfounded charge according to SAR volunteers) to close friends wondering out loud whether, along with processing bewilderment over God's mysterious ways, we should also be contemplating the kinds of choices people make that result in tragedies like this.

While I admit these comments make me wince, there’s no denying that Kelly, Brian, and Nikko (experienced and meticulous as they were) were involved by choice in a dangerous and potentially deadly sport. Every member of their families feared the terrible phone call that finally came in December telling us they were in trouble on a mountain. So yes, our guys knowingly took risks and loved what they were doing. And despite our fears, we were proud of their achievements. Yet, although I certainly wouldn't encourage anyone to take unnecessary risks, at the same time, I wonder what life would be like on this planet if none of us ever took risks or pressed the limits of our physical abilities.

But to be honest, knowing the risks they took doesn’t help me make sense of what happened to them. Especially since, even at lower levels, the rest of us are taking risks and sometimes making disastrous choices. The simple fact is that whether we realize it or not we’re all counting on God’s mercy and grace to see us safely through the day. Yet even for those of us who remain sensibly at the foot of the mountain, tragedies still happen.

I’m in the middle of a book manuscript based on the Old Testament Book of Ruth—a story that opens with a sequence of tragic events. Some Bible interpreters have backtracked Naomi’s story to point out the places where her family strayed from the right path and onto the path that led to tragedy. Surprisingly neither the narrator nor Naomi assume that point of view. Questions raised in the narrative and openly voiced by Naomi, don’t center around her behavior, her husband’s or their sons'. They center on God.

Even in Jesus’ day, when a tower fell and killed eighteen people, Jesus carefully explained that those who perished were no more deserving of such a fate than anyone else and redirected His followers' attention away from evaluating those who perished to focus on the God who holds us all in His hands.

No matter what happens, we can't confine God to a formula. His ways are far more complex than that. Sometimes the roof caves in on people like Job who are doing all the right things. Sometimes blessings rain down on a rogue. And sometimes there’s a strong relationship between human actions and the eventual outcome. There’s no telling which way things will go. Which casts us all back on God’s mercy and leaves us to live in the realm of faith, not formulas.

Besides, when your loved one is in trouble—no matter how they got there—your only hope is that God will have mercy, and you pray desperately for a rescue. Sometimes He rescues, as He did for three climbers lost on Mt. Hood a week ago. They walked off the mountain in good shape. Sometimes He doesn’t, as with Kelly, Brian, and Nikko.

And when He doesn’t, you tend to set aside the history that led up to the outcome. You simply end up wrestling with God. Which seems to be what He intends all along.


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Piecing the Clues Together

[NOTE: I've updated this post to include the address of Tim Neville's intriguing article, "Search on Mount Hood: After the Storm," where he explains his theory about what may have happened to the climbers. You can read the article online at:]

Ever since Kelly, Brian and Nikko lost their lives on Mt. Hood this past December, climbing experts have been sorting through the clues and trying to figure out what may have happened.

In the March issue of National Geographic's Adventure Magazine, expert mountaineer Tim Neville (who reported on the search for Kelly, Brian, and Nikko for National Geographic & National Public Radio) weighs in on the discussion in his article, "Search on Mount Hood: After the Storm." The article, while painful to read at points, also makes a lot of sense and at least gives family and friends something credible to fill in the gaps of this story.

The same issue also includes a very informative interview with SAR veteran Steve Rollins of Portland Mount Rescue which answers some of the big questions non-climbers have been asking about major issues raised by the tragedy.

You can view photos of the search, the interview with Steve Rollins (I actually found two interviews with Steve), and several of Tim's reports during the crisis at: