Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A place where I belong

Early in Passion Week, Jesus said to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

Last week we moved Jon, Kristin and kids into their new house. “Helped move” I should say, as many people from their church gave a needed hand.

One of the positive aspects of this move is more space—both outside and inside. And each child has their own room.

A room of one’s own. I remember how important that was to me growing up.

The rooms in the new house seem custom-designed for each child. Paige’s room is a sunny yellow, with a view of trees and flowers. As the only child with normal vision, she appreciates this. Reilly’s room is painted in different shades of blue and looks like the universe. He’s fanatic about space—and this puts him in the middle of outer space. The yard light shines through his window better than any little night light could do. He likes that.

But Peter’s room—that’s the wonder of this house. Apparently it had belonged to a teenage girl with an outgoing personality and a wacky sense of style. Painted in vivid primary colors, one wall is red, one green, one blue and one yellow. The ceiling has glow-in-the-dark stars, with footprints walking between them.

Two-year-old Peter loved it from the first. His bright multicolored rug on the hard-wood floor ties the colors together. He marches around the perimeter of the rug repeating, “Peter room. Peter room. Peter room.” And he loves to go to bed now, enchanted by the starry sky on his ceiling. He lies on his back, cuddles his silky star blanket, and points up, saying, “Star. Star. Star.”

Legally blind, Peter may never be able to behold a real starry sky, but at least for now, he has his own private universe to exclaim over. And a room of his own.

This is Passion Week and I’m reading through the appropriate passages in Scripture. My mind is on death. The culmination of the week is Jesus’ death. But I’m thinking more of the deaths of so many friends recently: Jan Gathright, Jolene Griffith, Mary Hadley. And on my mind more than anything else is my friend Anita and her apparently losing battle with cancer. We’ve been praying and believing for healing for a year-and-a-half now. These days it’s hard to know how to pray. Her husband Don continues to encourage us to pray for healing, but our level of hope is dimming.

So I pray in the Spirit, trusting that the Jesus who walked this same dark path will perfect my prayers.

“I go to prepare a place for you.” What kind of place is Jesus preparing for Anita? Surely it will be a place that’s green and natural…
• With trees, flowers, a singing brook, birds…
• A place of books and ideas and stories…
• A place of delicious food and fellowship…
• A place to share with Don, her kids, little Grace and, I hope, me.

As there is no mortal time in heaven (according to my limited understanding of this mystery), I suppose Anita will not experience separation from us. But we will experience separation from her. And experience it deeply.

Thank you, Jesus, that you prepare places of belonging for all your children. Thank you for Peter’s room. Thank you for the place of beauty and joy I know you’re preparing for Anita even now. And thank you for your promise to never leave or abandon me. To walk beside me now, on this pilgrim path. To bring me, at last, to the place you’re preparing for me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"My candle burns..."

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends.
It will not last the night.
But, ah my foes, and oh, my friends,
It gives a lovely light.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Children of Fate"—from Chile to the United States of America

One of my ministry tasks that I especially enjoy is that of writing book reviews for the journal, Missiology. Every few months the editor sends me a list of new books, and I mark off the two or three I’d be interested in reviewing. Within a few weeks, a book arrives in the mail. This not only enables me to read interesting, significant research in areas that stretch me, it’s a good way to get free books.

Yesterday I finished writing a review of Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850-1930 (2009, Duke University Press) by Nara B. Milanich, associate professor of history at Barnard University. It proved to be a fascinating and well documented investigation on how civil law in Chile handled the problem of poor, marginalized, illegitimate children during an 80 year period of modern history.

The book begins by documenting how the Chilean Civil Code of 1855 transformed both law and culture in the ways society cared for—or did not care for—abandoned and illegitimate children. This was the post-independence period of history in Latin America, when liberal politics replaced colonialism. This liberalism was based partly on the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, with an emphasis on the rights of the individual and the value of personal privacy. But instead of insuring the equal rights of all, this very civil code actually denigrated the rights of the most vulnerable members of society, the illegitimate children of the poor.

The difference between legitimate and illegitimate children has always been marked in Latin America. But in colonial times, an illegitimate son or daughter had recourse to the law; proof of paternity gave access to resources for the children involved. But the new Civil Code declared investigations of paternity to be illegal on the grounds that these violated the right to privacy, basically the honor, of the men under investigation. Interestingly, the rights of the unclaimed children were not considered.

This in turn created and maintained a sub-class of “kinless” people who, without a birth certificate, had no legal rights, could not even legally get married, were barred from certain professions, were denied resources available to documented citizens, and the list goes on. At one point, illegitimate births were 40% of total births, so this situation affected a large portion of the population.

The rest of the book is dedicated to what the author calls “child-circulation,” exploring what happened to poor children brought under the care of people outside of their birth family from the upper, middle or even lower classes. This section details how informal kinship arrangements did what the civil law would not do—care for the children; it also shows the shadow side of children “given” to higher class families as servants.

At various points in the book, the author notes that even though this is a Chilean case study, the same situations prevailed throughout Latin America. While movements for reform of the Civil Code began in the early part of the 20th century, it wasn’t until 1998 that the New Filiation Law eliminated the legal distinction between illegitimate and legitimate children and fully enabled paternity investigation in Chile.

This is fascinating to me as a carefully documented study of the state’s complicity in a gross injustice, and it makes me think of other examples closer home. It causes me to ask how the church, God’s missionary people, should respond in situations when the laws of the land seem to run contrary to the values of the Kingdom of God.

(The book does not mention any response from the evangelical church in Chile; and in all fairness, this was not the topic. But I can’t help but wonder, as the early 20th century was also a time of spiritual Pentecostal awakening, resulting in conversions and church growth, especially among the lower social classes. How did this affect the plight of marginalized children?)

I think of Quakers and the underground railroad, defying the law in reaching out to runaway slaves. And I think of the contemporary plight of undocumented immigrants in our own country, caused in part by laws and procedures that clash with Kingdom values of justice and mercy. This situation has much in common with that of the undocumented children in Chile’s past. Again How are we, as the church, to respond?

This coming Sunday, March 21, Christians in favor of immigration law reform are organizing a march in Washington, DC . I wish I could participate. Perhaps the rest of us could devote part of that day to prayer for our nation’s leaders, for the many immigrants in our nation (originally founded as a nation of immigrants), and for ourselves, that we find healthy and effective ways to respond.

May Christ have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

i thank You God for most this amazing day

by e. e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Beware of your belongings!

We were in the Juan Santamaría International Airport, at the ticket counter, getting the boarding passes that would ferry us from Costa Rica to Guatemala. The sign was one of those typical airport warnings, disclaiming responsibility for theft. I barely glanced at it. The Spanish wording, “Esté pendiente de sus pertenencias,” was followed by a very literal English translation, but instead of “Be aware of your belongings,” my cursory reading registered another message: “Beware of your belongings!”

“Strange message,” I thought. “As if my suitcase could attack me.” A quick re-reading corrected my mistake. I chuckled, but the original message has been buzzing in my brain ever since. Beware of your belongings!

Some critiques of US middle class culture focus on our consumerism, on our tendency to define our worth by what we own. It’s a temptation I resist, sometimes more easily than at other times. My roots in Quaker simplicity draw me to live another way. But it’s not without struggle.

But, beware!? That’s strong language. “Are you trying to tell me something, Lord,” I wondered. I admit I am attached to certain possessions, like the paintings and artifacts that represent our cross-cultural life style. And my library, of course. My precious books. (“Gollum. Gollum.”) All this stuff I mentally give back to God, and Hal and I practice an open-hands policy of lending—even giving away—stuff as we are led. All this helps, but even so, I know I need that warning: Beware of your stuff!

I was put to the test during our time in Guatemala. Hal had given me a gift from Bolivia, an exquisite hand-carved wooden box, like none I’d ever seen before. We both loved it. But at the end of our ten days of classes and meetings in Guatemala, we discovered we had run out of the small gifts I had packed to give to our hosts and friends. The couple who had taken care of us during this time had gone out of their way to welcome us, feed us, and befriend us in so many ways.

To our credit, I will admit that we did not struggle too much in deciding to give our friends the beautiful box. I knew the wife would especially value it. And by this time, the repeated message—beware of your belongings, Nancy—had left me without resistance.

We’re home now, comfortable in our own apartment, sleeping in our own bed (yes!), surrounded by all our familiar beloved stuff. True, we’re bereft of the box. But I smile when I imagine my friends admiring it, maybe remembering the joy we found in each other’s company.

I’ll take that memory above the box any day.