Saturday, February 25, 2012

Living on multiple levels: Santa Cruz version

Right now Hal and I are in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.  As I got up in the darkness just before dawn this morning, the sounds of roosters and tropical birds greeted me. I remembered the rain on the roof sometime in the middle of the night. As the day slowly grew lighter, traffic sounds added their own tones, reminding me that in spite of all the rural atmosphere, this is a city. Taxis and buses, roosters and the parrots flying over the red tile roofs give a decidedly sensuous start to the day.  A new day in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
 The view from our balcony

This is one of the realities, one of the multiple levels, I am living now: the level of cultural diversity, the sights and smells and sounds of a specific place that both challenges and delights us.  This is part of the richness of life we are so privileged to enjoy.

Speaking of sounds is good way to begin because we are basically here in Bolivia to listen.  It’s been two years since we’ve been in this place where we’ve spent more than 25 years. Our task right now is to listen and learn. What is God doing among Friends in Bolivia? What are the challenges and hopes people carry today?  We are spending time with church leaders and pastors, with people in the Bolivian Evangelical University, and especially with students, friends and fellow disciples of Jesus who have become part of our lives. And this opens us up to levels of reality on both the community and personal levels.  And this is the heart of why we’re here.
 Visiting with, Emiliano, one of the pillars of the Friends movement in Santa Cruz
 Helping Sergio put the finishing touches on his masters thesis in mission

As international/intercultural travelers, we are also very aware of living our adventures on the physical level.  This does not get easier with age and experience.  Quite the opposite, our bodies don’t seem to be quite as adaptable to sudden changes of climate and diet.  Although I don’t intend to go into detail about this, it is certainly a reality and one of the multiples levels we experience.  (There are, unfortunately, moments when this is the primary reality!)

Another very real and simultaneous level of reality I’m experiencing has to do with what I’ve been reading. I loaded up my Kindle with great material for this trip, and for the last week I’ve been deeply into Eric Mataxas’ biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is certainly among that “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) cheering us on, and I’m learning much from his life and witness, comparing the challenges he faced in German church of the 1930s and -40s with those of the church in Latin American today.  I finished the book last night, and this morning Hal looked at me in surprise and said, “Nancy, you’re crying.”  I hadn’t realized it, but I had been in the middle of an imaginary conversation with Bonhoeffer, trying to process his story by entering into it.

Another level of current experience is family. Our kids and grandkids are never far from our thought and prayers. Thanks to modern technology, we can keep up to date, not only with big decisions, but with the funny things the grandkids say.  Like three-year-old Peter correcting his mother when she told him to “Chew your food up good before you swallow.”  “No, mom,” he responded, “it’s ‘chew my food well’.”  He’s right, of course, but how did he know that?  And why is it important that I know that he knows that?  I’m not sure, but it’s part of my experience today, making me smile each time I think of it.

If I’m beginning to sound a bit schizophrenic, let me say that there is a center that holds all this together.  The good Quaker testimony of Jesus in the midst of his people applies in several senses.  I find that Jesus is also the center that holds all my levels of experience together, the hub that orchestrates all these levels of reality, creating beauty.  I’ve been reading and re-reading the book of Colossians this month, meditating everyday on a verse or phrase. It’s a spiritual discipline that helps me center on Jesus and reminds me that I’m here to listen.  The verse that Hal and I chose for pray for this trip is Col. 3:15, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful.”

That’s a good note to close on.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lugubrious times five

I just finished one of my airport-waiting-room novels for this trip: Isabel Allende´s Island Beneath the Sea (2010). Historical fiction, the story takes place in colonial Saint-Domingue, which later became Haiti.  Following the life of a slave woman who faces great challenges with courage and creativity, it gives an insider´s view of slavery in Haiti, as well as in Louisiana.  As usual, Allende tells a compelling story.  The English version is a translation from the original Spanish.

But a funny fact poked me in my literary ribs, something probably no one else would notice. Believe it or not, Allende uses the word lugubrious five times in this one novel.  Five times!

So what, you say? Well, you need to know that lugubrious is not the most popular word in the English—or the Spanish—language.  In fact, its use is so rare that it leaps out at me every time I run across it.

I remember the first time. About twenty years ago Hal and I were reading aloud Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson’s award winning novel for young people about growing up on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay.  It was Hal’s turn, and as he read, he came across the sentence, “This piano is lugubriously out of tune.”  That stopped us, and he read it again. We rarely pause to look up new words when we read together, especially if the context hints at the meaning. But the sound of this word captured and delighted us.  It’s one of those words that you don’t just say; you chew it out loud.  So we looked it up and again were delighted to discover that lugubrious refers to something exceedingly gloomy or morose.  What a good word to have available if you ever need to say something exceedingly gloomy or morose.  No harm in being prepared. (My delight led me to write a poem in honor of the word lugubrious, which I’ll add to the end of this reflection.)

But it’s true that one doesn’t come across it much in contemporary literature.  So Allende took me by surprise.  Even with a great word, once is probably enough; twice is permissible.  But five times?

Granted, the author wrote in Spanish, and while l├║gubre is not common in that language either, it’s used more frequently than its English counterpart.  Even so…..

I would still recommend Island Beneath the Sea. It provides a rich literary banquet. But beware.  The heavy use of words like lugubrious is like adding too many hot peppers to your lunch.  Even with a skillful word chef behind the creation of the dish, you’re apt to burn your mouth.

Mine is still tingling.


needs a poem of its own.
Consider the slime and the slink of it,
the slightly sinister wink of its eye
as it peeks from behind potted plants at wakes,
lingers at the altars of Protestant revivals,
or sobs with soap opera heroines.
An irreverent Uriah Heapish word,
a marbles-in-the-mouth sound,
it offers no apologies
for its lumpish singularity.

Some suggestions for everyday use:
--"This piano is lugubriously out of tune."
--"He shed a lugubrious tear
            as she passed him the marmalade."
--"This morning at exactly 5:37,
            a lugubrious lummox was sighted
            at the corner of 11th and Lucerne
            in downtown LA.  We have investigators
            on the scene and will interrupt our broadcast
            to bring up-to-date coverage
            on this fast-breaking story."
--"Not tonight, dear.  I'm feeling lugubrious."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Three brave women

At this writing, Hal and I are in Lima, Peru for two weeks of intensive seminars with our PRODOLA doctoral students. As usual, the highlight for us is getting to know these men and women. In the new 2012 cohort group, we have twelve men and two women. These join seven students from previous cohorts. In the week we’ve already been together, the group has melded into a community of scholars and friends. We’ve become family.

Although in the minority, the women among us make a major contribution in both the class dynamics and in their own research projects. Let me introduce you to three of them.
 Nancy, Eva, Irma and Margarita

As a child, Margarita F. emigrated with her siblings from Mexico to Los Angeles, and she now has US citizenship. Margarita is the first Roman Catholic to become part of PRODOLA. She is strongly drawn to work toward communication and cooperation between all branches of the Christian church, and her perspective adds an important piece to the conversation.

Margarita currently holds the position of Parrish Life Director in the Sacred Heart Church of Los Angeles, basically a pastoral role. She is also active as a life skills coach and advocate for Hispanic immigrants in the greater LA area. As if that were not enough, Margarita is the mother of six. Behind her dynamic personality, as well as her obvious leadership gifts, one senses a kind, compassionate heart. Her ready smile warms and invites others to enter her world. 

Irma E. from Peru has been a missionary among the Candoshi tribal peoples of her own country. She lived among the people for 18 years, speaks their language, and offers a low-key holistic service of presence, teaching, and advocacy. She currently works in support of a Latin American organization, Red Transamazonica, that represents indigenous Amazonian peoples of nine countries. Irma has a special concern to see indigenous Christians doing theological reflection from their own cultural perspectives. Simplicity, compassion, and a great sense of humor combine to make Irma a person other people love to be around, myself included.

Several years ago Hal and I gathered around the dining room table with Eva M. and her husband, Juan.  They were wondering if they should apply to become PRODOLA students. This took place in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where Juan and Eva serve in Paz y Esperanza, a Christian NGO that works with local churches in marginal barrios, seeking to help the church find concrete ways to minister to the many needs of people around them. Along with other groups, they are currently working with a Friends church.

Juan and Eva entered the PRODOLA program in 2010, and they are here these two weeks to work on their dissertation proposals. I have the privilege of being Eva’s research mentor, so we will be working closely together these next few years. Related to her ministry, Eva wants to do research on women in Santa Cruz who have suffered domestic violence.  She hopes to discover the images of God these woman have, as a key to understanding them more deeply and ministering to their needs.  It’s a fairly complex theme, but with Eva’s background in psychology and theology, she should make a significant contribution toward addressing a wide-spread problem throughout Latin America.

Juan and Eva are fun to be around. They have a four-year-old son, Felipe, whom they’ve left at home with Grandma these two weeks.  In the middle of the intensity of this seminar experience, they still find time to worry about Felipe, hoping he’s not missing them too much (and maybe afraid that he isn’t).

Margarita, Irma and Eva are three valiant women, and I am blessed to call them friends.

They are three of the more than 90 students working on their doctoral degrees in theology, all of them motivated by the needs of people in Latin America. We take PRODOLA’s theme seriously: “More preparation for better service.” May it be so.  What a privilege to be a small part of this movement.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The ability to fail

Last week my good friend Judy came over and we had a wonderful talk.  Judy works in Russia, and we enjoy swapping cross-cultural experiences, among other things. She told me about a book she was reading, a sort of survival guide for people who serve cross-culturally.  The authors listed the three main characteristics needed for people with this calling. They are as follows: 1) that the person have a sense of humor, 2) that the person not be task-oriented, and 3) that the person have an ability to fail.

This non-typical list is both surprising and profound.

1) A sense of humor. Of course. Indispensable. The only way to make it through the day, this includes laughter at the cultural differences and inevitable misunderstandings (albeit, not always open laughter) and, most importantly, laughter at yourself. It means not taking yourself too seriously.

2) Not being task-oriented. This is closely related to not being time- or goal-oriented. It runs counter-cultural to being North American, and for most of us, this involves a slow process of learning and transformation. Positive ways of naming this characteristic is that of being person- or event-oriented.  Being and relating become more important that getting stuff done on schedule.

A positive observation: I must be making progress because anymore talk of measurable goals gives me a stomach ache.

A negative observation:  I’m clearly not there yet. I’m just coming off a three week bout of some kind of bronchial virus where my greatest symptom has been tiredness.  I have not gotten much done and this has been a huge frustration as we are getting ready for a six week trip to Latin America, and I need those items checked off my list. I’ve actually grudged taking time to rest and heal. My mind has fought it all the way.

I have strong tendencies toward task-orientation (this is my active, productive self) and also toward being-orientation (this is my contemplative, poetic, relational self). They don’t always get along. I strongly suspect that neither self will disappear. Mary and Martha need to become friends.

3) An ability to fail. I have this. But I think the point may be the ability to fail gracefully, also related to not taking yourself too seriously.  It also relates to the unpredictability of life in another culture, especially a place where stability and peace are not norms.

We travel tomorrow morning. It’s been a helpful exercise to think about these strange characteristics.  I expect surprises, and I must remember to laugh when they come.  I have my set of goals for the trip (I can’t help it!). While I take them seriously, I will also hold them lightly.  And I’ll thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the people that cross my path—old friends and strangers.

Lord, hear my prayer.