Saturday, April 04, 2015

Retrieve Lament: Paul Van Allen (Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.)

"Once, ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night, when all is silent.  
Where can we find such customs now? So many have long since disappeared or been disowned.  
That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve the lament that we omitted." 

             -- Ranier Maria Rilke, from Requiem For A Friend

Each year during Holy Week I ask friends to share a "mourning story" from their own life as a way to help us see Christ in the midst of suffering. Each story reflects on one phrase of Jesus' dying words. We have only just begun to know the Van Allen family.  I'm so glad that we entered each other's lives in time to wait for Henri together.  May his brave life remind us all that in the "wild uncontrollable adventure of being born", what have any of us to but to commit ourselves into the hands of often hard to see -- but never distant -- Father.

Waiting for Henri

I find Jesus very easy to follow in theory.  Its when he wants to go somewhere specific that I start having problems.

December 2nd, 5am: I’m inexplicably unable to sleep and find myself reading The Road to Daybreak by Henri Nouwen.  He talks of God’s call on him to leave the intellectually stimulating environment as a professor at Harvard Divinity School to go and live in a community of disabled people.  He describes himself as going “kicking and screaming.”  The coffee and the unusual silence of our house help the words slow down a little.
December 2nd, 4pm:  We receive a phone call from the birthing center saying that the genetic test results for our expectant baby boy just came in and we needed to “come in immediately” to talk about the results.  We knew immediately that this means Downs Syndrome.
We have two beautiful daughters Ava (7) and Layla (6).  Layla came into the world without any observable trauma and yet an MRI when she was three showed damage on both sides of her brain.  She is considered intellectually disabled and speech impaired.  Her disability meant the end of our life in China, our home for the previous 11 years.  The cost and the blessing of Layla frame the news we receive.
In the movie The Green Berets John Wayne is a seasoned Colonel leading missions in the Vietnam war.  In a scene boarding an airplane preparing for a parachute mission John Wayne comments “Colonel Kai you haven’t said a word all night.”  “You know why?” interjects a third officer.  “He’s never jumped before.”   “Oh, first one’s easy” John Wayne responds.   “Its the second one that’s hard to get ‘em to make.”
This is our second jump.  Our minds are a rush of resetting expectations.  The amount of diapers we will need to buy probably just tripled.  The decimal point on medical bills moves to the right.  I see a fork stuck in the hope that we will ever return to our globe trotting international life.
December 2nd, 8pm  we have tickets to Handel’s Messiah.  We keep our babysitting and our plans to go.  The tenor sings “Comfort ye my people…prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  This is getting a little too real.    I feel my soul kicking and screaming.   I sense that this is one of those points where my expectations that Jesus follow me are exposed and He puts the original offer back on the table.  “Follow me,” I hear Him say.

March 31, 15 days before Henri's arrival
Waves of apprehension and anticipation are swelling each day closer to your arrival (scheduled for April 15th!).  As I take time in the early mornings to consider your coming I can’t help but wonder if I’m ready to welcome you with grace.  C.S. Lewis talked about the stresses in our lives that turn the lights on in our basements and expose the rats of sin…our grossest moments.  I’m looking forward to meeting you Henri but wondering if I’m ready to meet myself in the context of your needs and a deprivation of sleep.
I wonder too what you are getting yourself into.  In God’s mysterious and inexplicable ways he has taken mine and your mother’s broken DNA and woven in an extra copy of the 23rd chromosome into you.  The grief that that news brought us has been gradually replaced with expectation of blessing.  The stories that surround different boys, girls, men, and women with Down Syndrome that have come our way since your diagnosis have been consistently stories of childlike and irreplaceable joy.  Life has its costs and its benefits and the thing about believing in God is that we look with faith for surpassing blessing.  Life is not a zero sum game for those who love God.
Our life before kids and for a few years after your sisters came was marked by adventure and global travel.  That phase of life seems to have come to a screeching halt, and yet as I wait for you I sense an adventure coming much greater than the mountain roads of the Karakoram or island hopping in Indonesia.  G.K. Chesterton called out the shallow sentiment of the adventurer who elevated tiger hunting in India which was a chosen and somewhat controlled adventure to the wild uncontrollable adventure of being born:
“There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.”
Henri, I can’t wait for you to be born and to share life with you.  I hope you will learn to like baseball and Chinese food.  I’d warn you about your crazy sisters and the love they are getting ready to smother you with but you’ll figure it all out in time.  When we pass the peace in church my favorite part is reaching down to your mother’s tummy and saying “Peace of Christ” to you.   You are most welcome to our family be it fairy-tale or misadventure. There is a Storyteller at work who is hard to see but who does not stand at a distance.  
Peace of Christ to you, Henri.


Paul Van Allen and his wife Lisa live in an uncool neighborhood in Austin, Texas where they are waiting for Henri along with Ava (7) and Layla (6). They moved home from Asia in 2012 after their younger daughter was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. Paul studied theology, speaks Mandarin, loves Texas skies, Austin cuisine, and his local Anglican church. he is tinkering with a new blog at


Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories of lament we share here this Holy Week.

I count it a high privilege to know -- at least in small part -- the mourning stories of the dear ones who will share here for seven days.  Their lives walk the path between celebration, yes, but also suffering -- illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, death of loved ones, death of dearly-held dreams.  Their stories have helped form me in my understanding of suffering and I believe they could also encourage you too.  

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