Friday, July 15, 2011

Regarding the Pain of Others

We have been back from Rwanda for over a month and that marker is tugging at me to think about what I have been saying or not saying about the trip to those around me. For the most part, I have avoided talking about Rwanda. The depth of what we experienced does not make for quick conversation and I think it is inevitably unfair to expect the people in my circle to stop what they are doing so that I can bumble my way through one or more of the stories I carefully folded and slipped into my heart while we were there.

I am realizing too, that there are some things that we saw or heard about that I will probably never share. To do so could only be sensationalist. There is no real way for any of us to make sense of violence, especially violence unleashed on children. And so it seems there are stones in my heart that are there to stay, little obstacles that fresh blood will have to move around. The few time I have tried to share with others some of the hardest images or stories shared with us, I feel like a peddler of other people's pain - and it feels wrong. And the passers-by on whom I have foisted these sample-sized horrors have been caught off guard. And as I have walked away, unsatisfied and unsettlingly lonely, I have thought back to the many times I have filled the uncomfortable space between myself and another's confession of pain with hallow words that easily sour.

The yawning space between life here and life there feels cavernous and eerie.

Proverbs cautions against throwing pearls before swine. If we allow the context to be personal, this verse offends, but it nonetheless describes the voracious consumerism that typifies mainstream America. If a pretty necklace is so easily devoured, how much more costly and inappropriate the laying of old bones and fresh wounds on a busy sidewalk. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, posits the idea that "there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it – say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken – or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be."

I think I am beginning to understand what she means. And our friend Theo was clear that we were not to carry away Rwanda’s sorrow, but only her joys. I feel a deep sense of obligation to honor our friend.

But I also know that my friends and I here at home are numbed to what happens on other continents by the distance of miles and the interference of noise that buzzes continuously around our sheltered lives. And what happened in Rwanda, and what continues to happen in places like Rwanda need not happen. Sontag asks another good question: “What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?” And which exactly do I mean to do? What is my small part? Am I only to acknowledge? Does not that acknowledgement carry with it some responsibility to act?

Bearing in mind that none of these stories are really mine to tell, an image that holds for me the richness of a thousand stories is the photo above that I took on our last day. We visited the Rwanda Partners office in Kigali and I got a picture of some of the men who are working for this amazing organization. Theo is on the left. Pascal is third from the left. Gilbert, next to Pascal with the wide smile, as a child used to bring crafts to sell to visitors at the compound where we were staying. He is now a husband and father or two girls. One day, Gilbert traveled with us to the weaver cooperatives, which he oversees. He danced. Answered questions. And at dusk, as we made it back to the city, Gilbert hopped out of the van to attend night school.

Each of these men represent households that are earning professional wages. And all of these men are old enough to have lived through the genocide. I don’t know all of their stories, but as they stood smiling and joking with each other in the bright sun on this particular day, the miracle of their lives, friendship and employment nearly buckled my knees.

I think if you steered away from the memorials, you could visit Rwanda without running into the genocide. You could get lost in the dust and buzz of markets

And commerce

And Moto-taxis

And maybe that is okay. But then again, maybe it isn’t.

Either way, for my part, I find myself a bit paralyzed somewhere between the pitfalls of frenzied and ultimately unhelpful “do-goodiness” and the sin of silence. And for the moment, as our friend Pastor Larry says, I think I will just hold that.

Peace In This House

A friend of mind has been updating me on medical news that their family is collecting and of which they are trying to make sense. They are meeting with doctors and collecting lab panels to discuss a legitimate biological phenomenon. But I am not a doctor, so when my friend and I talk, we talk about the equally real environmental stressors that manifest themselves in blood work and brain chemistry. Talking with this smart and able mama about seeking a particular kind of peace in the home has me thinking and praying and asking God for snapshots of what a house of peace looks like.

Soon after we began our discussion, I heard this song.

I love it. It fills my heart and squeezes tiny tears from the corners every time I hear it. I do want peace in my house. Real. Raw. Blindingly pure. Peace.

Peace, I am learning, is not the same as quiet. I want my babies to grow up into loving and sensitive adults who can live in community. And to that end, I do not see anyway around going toe-to-toe with them on the things that matter and offering gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) reminders about what it is our family is about. But I also know, in the zeal of a first-born trying to parent, I start tug-of-wars with my little people that could have been avoided. Ephesians 6:4 reminds that parents ought not exasperate. But sometimes I do. Mostly when I am tired. Or distracted. And especially on the days I choose to eat worries for breakfast instead of manna.

But, like I learned at the Akagera Game Park, it is always, always better to remain calm. And when baboons (or babies) want what it is in your hand, you might as well give it.

Psalm 34:14 says, “ . . . seek peace and pursue it.” And so, today I attempt to honor that word by making myself a list of a few of the harbingers of peace in this household. They come to me quietly like the shadows of doves and I trace them here, like chalk on the sidewalk.

There are, of course, the tangibles:
Full tummies
Music, sometimes loud and best enjoyed in a tutu or monkey suit

The Bathtub
Clip-on earrings

A small patch of grass
Time outside

Chocolate milk

Bottom-bunk forts
Fresh flowers
Fresh kisses
A carton of Matchbox cars in the basement

And then there are those bids for peace that are harder to pin-point, replicate, remember:

Saying no to play dates
Saying yes to messes

Little seed-words, planted in whispers
Funny faces

The tipping up of chins

Standing in doorways, thresholds and gaps,

Holding still
Holding on
Holding hands
Looking up

But peace, like our friend Theo reminded my husband, is our responsibility. And there is one thing I can always do. I can be a Mama who smiles.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I think I am supposed to be learning something about time. On Wednesday, I met a friend at the trailhead at sunrise for six miles before parenting. As a matter of habit, I tried to start the chronologic feature on my watch to keep track of our time. “No, no, no,” she said. So I stopped pushing buttons and raised my head to the road. It was nice running with a friend instead of a clock. Back at our cars, we stretched and chatted and I tried to look at my watch. But it said it was 1:00 AM on January 1st. Somehow I had I reset everything.

I came home to a household in full motion akin to sidewalk double-dutch. I tried to catch the rhythm and jump in, high stepping so as not to disrupt. Coffee. Breakfast for everyone. Underpants for everyone. A picnic lunch, sunhats and a blanket in the van. We headed to the river where we played with friends during a lazy midday. I kept looking at my watch despite the fact that there was not anything pressing me towards home. First it was 3:15 on January 1st. Then 5:45. Then 9:30. I kept looking, the habit unbroken by the digital nonsense on my wrist.

When I finally stopped to reset my watch after the children were in bed, I thought to myself, “I probably should learn something from this.” Then I turned out the light and closed my eyes. But not before craning my neck to look at the alarm clock so I could know whether or not I was going to feel rested when I woke.

Friday found me reading Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, aloud to my husband in the van on the way to a family reunion. As we had left the house, my watch had gone blank – off duty without the requisite battery power. There was no time to stop and get a new battery so off we sped. In chapter eleven of the text, Nolan suggests that much confusion and misunderstanding surrounding Jesus’ teaching about the “kingdom” is an “artificial problem created by the attempt to understand Jesus’ words in term of our modern Western concept of time”.

The Hebrews, Nolan suggests, thought of time as qualitative. This quality of time is poetically represented in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 where we find times ordained for birth, death, planting, tearing out, killing, healing, destruction, building, tears, laughter, mourning, dancing, loving, hating, war, and blessed peace. The passage says nothing about a time for digital wristwatches. Nolan continues, referring to the time of Christ: “The nature of the present time was felt to be determined either by the saving acts of God in the past (e.g. the Exodus) or by the saving acts of God in the future”. Time, for Jesus and his contemporaries, was understood as events or seasons, bracketed by God-markers.

I was at the reunion with my family for four days, watch-less and seventeen miles from Internet and cell service. I don’t know what time I went to sleep or what time I was woken by sweet, sleepy toddler kisses. I don’t know what time the baby napped or how long she was asleep. I don’t know how long it took us to hike the four-mile canyon where we walked behind waterfalls that misted our shirts. Neither do I know for how many of those hours my sweet son held my hand. The only events that required punctuality were meals and there was a loud bell on the deck that rang to let me know my supper was ready.

It was a sweet time of intergenerational communion. My children ran dizzying circles around glassy-eyed great-grandparents, leaning in to hear one another reconstruct the crumbling edges of cherished memories. My children, covered in dust and watermelon, chased second cousins they had not met before through patches of sunlight filtered through tall, strong, ancient trees. It was a beautiful time.

I am a slow learner. On the last night of the reunion Mister wanted to play the harmonica he had procured days before from a bag of hand-me-down treasures. He proudly walked to the front of the room and a helpful aunt bent the microphone down to his shiny instrument. He played carefully, accompanying some song in his mind that only he knows. I smiled. And smiled. Then asked my brother-in-law if I should start clapping to end it. “Let him finish,” he said. I nodded, shamed again by my slavish attention to minutes. He did finish the song in his own time and was met with the sweet sound of collective, vociferous applause. He threw his shoulders back and gave a few high-fives. It turns a well-used knot in my stomach to know I almost stole that.

Qualitative time changes everything. Minutes don’t hold their power – they don’t hurt quite so much. And maybe we don’t fear their passing with such tightly clenched fists. Jennifer Knapp sings, “There's a place in the darkness I used to cling to. That presses harsh hope against time”. I think she may have found something. Hopes, pressed against time, do feel harsh, jagged, severe – even cruel and hopeless. But hopes, fed on remembrances of previous acts of God with eyes watching the horizon, can breathe and wait. Hopes, growing between miracles past and miracles future, do not keep time as I have known it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The 5th of July

The 4th of July was awesome. We drove a few hours to visit some friends and enjoy the hospitality of their wonderful parents. There were kiddie pools, hot dogs, Big Wheels, a horse, a barn with a hayloft, and lots of hungry cows. Mister took up his farm muscles and dutifully moved hay by pitchfork to the eating trough in flip-flops and a swim trunks. He was in little boy heaven all day. So was his baby sister, who climbed up and over the fence and starting running barefoot across the pasture towards a bull. Her dad had to make quick to fetch her from an untimely end.

The general bliss of the day was made extra sweet by the really nice friends of our friends. Kids kept piling out of minivans and SUVs until there were thirteen total little people running in, and out of, and around the house. Thirteen little people, all of whom were really, really kind and who had considerately spaced their births so as to compliment to ages of our children. I did a lot of staring and taking notes. They had those special mamas who always seem at ease and speak sweetly to their children. The mamas would say things like, “Choose grace children.” And the children would say things like, “Would you like half?” and “Come on over, we can make room.” I was so taken aback by all that good behavior that I thought about starting today with a New Year’s resolution, then realized I had confused my staying-up-way-too-late holidays. So there was no resolution, but I have tried a few deep breaths and extra smiles today. I won’t give a report for fear of a jinx.

The 4th of July was amazing. And every 4th of July deserves a 5th of July where overly sugared children run amok in the basement semi-supervised while Mama rides the stationary bike. That is what we did this morning. The 5th of July began with three children in the basement but semi-supervision turned those children into Ninja Cats (one with copious amounts of hand soap in her hair).

The 4th of July was perfect - downright magical. The 5th of July ain’t bad either.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Mister noticed the shiny vessels of communion in the sanctuary this morning before I did. Our church uses polished, stacking trays for the tiny wafers and miniature cups of grape juice. And since it is the first Sunday of the month, the four gleaming towers were arranged at the front of the sanctuary this morning like tall and tempting hats.

“What is that?” Mister asked.

“That is communion,” I answered. “In those trays are the crackers and juice we use to remember that Jesus died for us.”

“I want some.” He turned his face towards mine so he could register my response.

“I think the kids will be dismissed before they get passed out, Buddy. Sorry.”

“Well, you can just save me some.”

I mumbled something to fill the space where a good answer would have gone. I was not really entertaining the idea of keeping extra elements in my pocket for after-church snack. But I did not want to try to explain why Jesus had to be remembered so tastily only during the time allotted.

But the kids were not dismissed. And Mister whispered loudly in my ear when he realized his good fortune. “Look, they are getting the snack out. I get to have some!” I know Mister has a clear understanding of the miraculous series of events surrounding the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, because he shared them with us a few summers ago when Grandma was visiting. She had been quizzing him about what he learned in Sunday school over lunch in the backyard.

“Well . . . well . . . but, did you know Grandma that . . . well . . . Jesus had to go to that bad place.”

“That is right, Mister.” She answered affirmingly. “But he will never have to go there again, will he?”

“Nope. Because he took his shooter gun and he killed all those guys.” He answered, nodding and looking her in the eye.

I looked at my shoes and bit hard on the corner of a smile.

So, the elements came around and Mister patiently pressed his wafer into his palm, waiting for the pastor’s word. At the proper time he popped it in his mouth, turned to show me where it had landed on his tongue before closing his mouth. “Ummm. That’s good,” he said loudly.

The juice was eventually passed, and everyone around us held their breath, as Sis handed it off to the woman next to her with the white and pink blouse. Mister stared into his cup with statue-like focus. Sis absent-mindedly sloshed hers around as each of the muscles in her torso took turns twitching. When it was time to partake, there was much slurping. In my periphery I saw Sis twisting the thimble-cup around and around with a pink tongue smashed inside, getting the last good drops of Jesus.

It was absolutely the most fun I have had during communion in all my life. There have been other Sundays where I have been struck with embarrassing fits of giggles, or the one earlier this year, when the baby snatched a handful of wafers from the passing tray, which – once confiscated – turned into a warm glue in my palm. But today was fun. And it was also beautiful. As the Psalmist suggests, these babes tasted and found that the Lord was good. They participated.

I do not know what prayer Mister prayed with his head bowed, one eye closed and other inspecting the little remembrance of God in his palm. Neither do I know the thoughts of his sister who held her wafer balanced between open palms. I think she was aiming for reverence with a touch of piety as evidenced by a faint smurk. She was all business. Those span of minutes were both sacred and funny, like the time Sis and I, after walking the Stations of the Cross while reading a gospel account of the Easter (her idea), stopped and arranged a statue of St. Gertrude on top of her head. I think God smiled. So did Sis.

Later in this morning’s service I got a second gift. As I opened the doors to return to my seat I saw a sweet little boy (who often sits on the floor with his dad at the back during the sermon) sitting at attention in the center isle. He was backlit, so his perfect little body was silhouetted against the cross at the front. He was waving eagerly with both hands – either at the Cross of Christ, or its appointed messenger standing with a Bible and a microphone. I smiled deeply.

Faith like a child.
Faith like a mustard seed.
Little eager bits of earnest hope and expectation.
This God loves.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Whatever I Am

Last Wednesday evening, with children tucked in (if not sleeping) I snuck out the door and over to a friend’s house for the first week of a second-annual summer bible study. Last summer there had been three of us. We linked arms, did the daily lessons and found ourselves quickly in the deep end of the pool. It was a big summer. Big hopes. Big hurts. Big surprises. I was so grateful to have those women and the solidarity of our little band.

So, it was with great anticipation of soul-quenching refreshment that I opened up the study book to day one this week. And I was not disappointed. Sometimes the questions seem goofy or disjointed. Sometimes the study leader, who we watch by video, becomes for me a giant, bobbing hairdo, flanked by well-manicured nails and sparkly rings. But, despite my distractibility, God still finds me when I open the bible. For this I am very, very grateful.

The line of questioning in this week’s study caught me off guard, and had me squirming just a little. The writer asked: “What do you say about yourself?” I was supposed to write down my thoughts, seal them in an envelope and save it for the end of the study. I don’t think I will get to that. In fact, I am not sure I am even comfortable answering the question.

There are a few things I wouldn't mind being.

I wouldn't mind being a pineapple plant. It lives someplace warm and despite its sharp points and prickly skin, it makes something sweet and tasty once a year.

Or maybe a sunflower. It is bright and follows the arc of the sun.

Or something simple and nutritious.

Or a warm and well-woven nest.

The Bible does say that we are but travelers here, and so I guess that makes me, among other things, a tourist.

The study looked at the life of John the Baptist, concluding that he was strong and focused with a clear message because he understood and embraced his value in relationship to the life of Christ. Since his life was tied to and drawn from that of Jesus, he could do and say big things with genuine humility and unabashed power. The idea, of course, it that the same can be true of my life; defining myself through my relationship with Jesus gives me the freedom to be honest with myself about who I am and who I am not. Maybe even use big words. Or take big leaps. Or tiny steps.

When Jesus was calling some of the fishermen-turned-disciples in Mark 1 he promised to make them into something new. “Come. Follow me and I will make you . . .” So, what has he made me? I find the question really hard to answer. But I find it very easy to say this (in fact, I wrote it down in the margins of the study book five times):
Whatever I am, He has made me.
Whatever I am, He has made me.
Whatever I am, He has made me.
Whatever I am, He has made me.
Whatever I am, He has made me.

When I was in junior high school my parents sent me on a two-week mountaineering trip, of which one of the requirements was a 36-hour “solo” where each kid kept water, a sleeping bag, a notebook and their bible. No food. No shelter. No one to talk to for a day and a half. It was amazing. I sat on the sloping angle of a giant rock with my feet dangling in an icy mountain stream and talked to God. I told him that if he was real he could have my whole life. I also remember thinking I was clever, because if he was not real, no harm done – if nothing else I would have a nice memory of the day I enjoyed a warm sun and spent the afternoon talking to myself in an alpine meadow. But two decades later, that afternoon seems as real as ever and I can see the fingerprints of God in all the places where I have turned and dusted my tracks.

Sis took a picture of me a few month ago that I like.

I like it even better underexposed with a lower temperature. The shadowy darkness transforms baggy eyelids into dark and mysterious make-up. The melancholy blue makes me seem all-around more interesting and smarter-looking.

But I think I like the photo best overexposed with higher contrast and artificial saturation. Sleepy lines and wrinkles fade. Eyes brighten. I seem colorful, fun, and sharp. Wouldn’t that be nice.

When I was a kid, I went with my dad to an art lecture where the speakers did extensive color demonstrations. It really was amazing to see how different blue looked against a backdrop of yellow versus red. Textures and shapes and colors had drastically different messages depending on how they were layered and what they were framed by.

I know what I want to be. I want to be Rumi’s dance partner: “Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I’ll dance there with you – cheek to cheek.”

I found that bit of Rumi in Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle. That is also where I met Jack Gilbert who says, “The pregnant heart is driven to hopes that are the wrong size for the world.” Amen, Mr. Gilbert. A heart, pregnant with the things of God, is indeed driven to hopes that are the wrong size for this little world. And wrong-sized hopes hurt our hearts when we stretch and push from the inside.

Who am I? Anyone’s guess, really. I am not even going to try to answer. But I hope – really, really hope – that whatever I am sings a little song about Jesus and gives him credit for the bits that are right and good.