Having an Agenda

“What is your agenda for Ethiopia this time?” a friend asked me. “Or do you have an agenda?”

I laughed. As my dad would have said, boy-howdy, do I have an agenda! Several agendas, in fact. A friend has invited me to think about how to be more strategic and organized in the work in Ethiopia that keeps coming my way. That will be one of my agendas.

In my suitcase, as I fly out of Portland, I’m carrying a bag of dried apples. I’m taking them

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

to Maji to show the agriculturalist, Ato Markos, who coordinates the Maji apple orchard what a dried apple looks and tastes like. The 1000 apple trees he’s planted aren’t yet bearing more than he can sell locally, but they will! I need to talk with his leadership team about their marketing plan. And if the grid does get to Maji, might they start a fruit-drying endeavor? Why truck the water in the apples all the way, 500 miles, to Addis Ababa?

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic.

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic. Photo by Maureen Evans

Another major goal for my time in Maji is to get a solar unit installed on the town’s clinic. This came as a request from church leaders, and took me over a year to organize. The clinic is delivering up to thirty babies a month. Night deliveries take place in the dark—the electric grid hasn’t reached Maji yet—and the midwife and nurse sometimes have to hold flashlights in their teeth to have hands free. A simple solar unit will allow for night lighting and charging cell phones. I’ve found a solar supplier in Addis Ababa and he is sending the unit and an installer with me in the vehicle I’ve rented for the trip.

While in Maji, I will also meet with the

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government.

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government. Photo by Maureen Evans

translation team for the Dizi language, the language of the people of Maji. Dizi has been reduced to written form—that’s the technical term for developing a writing system that covers all the sounds of the language. Now the New Testament translation is almost finished. The translation team is meeting with expert linguists in Addis Ababa several times a year to check for consistency (is the same word in Hebrew, Greek or English translated by the same word in Dizi, for example). They are also holding community checking events, reading passages and listening to discussions to see whether the intended meaning of the translation is what was actually communicated.

Try reading Dizi!

Try reading Dizi! Photo by Maureen Evans

I don’t know the Dizi language, but I’ve been supporting the translation team for several years. I  meet with them and listen (in Amharic) as they talk about their progress, frustrations and concerns. I’ll take a report back to donors, and go over the budget for next year’s work. This trip I’ll start to ask questions about a literacy program. We don’t think about this, having so many centuries of written language of our own—but once there is an alphabet and written materials, the next problem is that no one knows how to read!

And then, speaking of literacy, when I get back to Addis I’ll meet with people who helped Janie and me last January as we began creating stories and art for early-reader books for Ethiopian children. Again, we have such a thriving publishing industry in the US, it’s hard to imagine that almost no books are published in Ethiopia, and there is nothing at all for beginning readers. They drill their 241-letter alphabet, and then start the sink-or-swim process of reading text books.

Children, parents, teachers and librarians in Ethiopia and the US have created the

We'd love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties!

We’d love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties! Photo by Jeri Candor

beginnings of about twenty simple, illustrated stories appropriate to Ethiopian culture. Now we’re looking for help in the translation and design stage. (We haven’t even addressed production yet!) The enthusiasm, the creativity, the goodwill of volunteers is keeping us going in spite of the steep learning curve for this cutting-edge cross-cultural effort.

In Addis Ababa I’ll be following up with young artists and writers to move from the inspiration stage to the revision stage of creating art. I’ll be looking for someone who has design skills and knows Amharic. I’ll meet with some people who have tried their hands at translation—that’s a creative endeavor as well, because our subject-verb sentences trot along using words like building blocks, each in its own place, but Amharic encrusts the verb with not only prefixes and suffixes, but infixes! We wouldn’t know an infix if we heard one!

So that’s my agenda! I’m writing on the plane to Minneapolis, the first of three legs of my journey. I’ve been crazy-busy getting ready for all this. Now wish me well! My jet lag, the possibilities of picking up intestinal bugs, and political unrest in parts of Ethiopia may be greater problems than the inherent challenges of the work. But that’s the way it always is. Our contexts are part of the work.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for creativity, spiritual and relational growth as I do this work that keeps coming to me from God. Thanks to all of you who have contributed encouragement, prayer and resource to be my partners!

At Eighteen Months

Kenya,1999

Kenya,1999

April 30th was the eighteen-month anniversary of Mark’s death—a good day to evaluate where I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. My first reflection is something you might think I’d know at my age, but something that I really didn’t know quite the way I know it now: the future is unknowable.

Until the onset of Mark’s cancer, most of my days had been more like the day before than unlike. Thankfully most of our days are that way; I don’t know if we could weather the shocks and discontinuities of lives that were tossed randomly from one day to another. What grace, that we can wake up most days with a calm confidence that we know how to cope with what it will bring.

What we lose, after a long string of days like that, or even when our days take us gradually from one shaping of our lives into the next, is the deeper truth that the future is not only unknown, but unknowable. That awareness, and the patience to live in it for an extended time, is one of the gifts this time of grief and reorientation has given me.

The great African Rift Valley comes to my mind, thousands of miles long, land that fell below the surface of the earth—it didn’t erode over time, it didn’t explode in fire and lava, it dropped. Like the floor of one of those old fashioned elevators that hasn’t lined up precisely with the level of the floor it’s delivering you to.

On June 9th, Mark and I had future plans: our parents had all lived well into their eighties—his were pushing ninety—and we fully expected to grow old together. In the meantime, we had accepted jobs in South Sudan. Orientation was to start in two weeks. We’d had cleared our calendars and looked over the reading lists. On June 10th I began to understand that the future is unknowable: Mark had a tumor, it was malignant and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Over the next two weeks, our rift valley floor dropped in increments. First, the discovery of cancer in lymph-nodes far from the tumor, making the planned surgery more of a challenge. Then the image of a shadow on his hip bone; there would be no surgery. The four months we had from that moment on were infused with uncertainty. Death or life? That question was answered and other questions took its place: when? how? how painful? how shocking? The specter of a hemorrhage, “bleeding out”, faced me every time I walked into our bathroom and saw the black towels hospice nurse had told me to buy. And there was the question, the first of many Mark couldn’t help me with, that I wailed as I walked by the canal that runs through Bend, Oregon, where we were living: “What will become of me?”

We got answers to all our questions about Mark’s cancer. In the eighteen months since then, I have been given partial answers to my question. I have faced things in myself and in the nature of life on earth that I would never have chosen to face, and they have grown me. I lost much of what I had been able to fall back on, and I learned that I fall much less than I thought I would. That I am resilient. That people are kind.

Those have been comforting truths.The most uncomfortable truth I notice eighteen months after Mark’s death is that I am now stronger and I experience more joy than I ever have in my life. How can this be? What does it mean? I seem to have learned things I could not bear to choose to learn, I had to be forced—how to manage intense feelings and come back to balance, how to listen to myself and honor my own wisdom, how to do things Mark was kind enough and only too glad to do for me. I don’t think I will ever understand why light can come out of a dark time, why joy can come through grief. Maybe the deepest truths of life are like the future: unknowable. I’ve become willing to accept the beauty of paradox, of mystery; to hold them as I lift my head to greet the unknowable future unfolding to me.

Some pieces of that future are now in place:

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1926.

* I’m buying a house. It’s a fixer-upper, as much in need of TLC as any Mark and I remodeled together. Friends and family tried to tell me the time for remodeling passed with Mark. But I always loved the vision casting, the creativity, the transformation, the emergence of lovely living space out of mess.
* I dance—West Coast swing, salsa, bachata—several nights a week. Social dancing uses my whole brain and resets my mood into joy every time, and has given me new single friends who love not only to dance, but to hike, to talk about the deep things of life, and to read.
* My meditation practice, lectio divina (a way of listening for the Holy Spirit to speak through scripture reading) and the encouragement of friends and the pastoral staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church keep me growing spiritually.
* I’m starting to work with a freelance editor on the memoir I had written about growing up and working in eastern Africa.
* I’m confident that Portland is my appropriate new home, as I meet weekly with writing friends, garden with my sister and a neighbor, and have joined four of my siblings in the team caring for my mom as she ages.

Maji Waterfall Scene 2The last days and nights of April were unseasonably clear. The moon rose, grew steadily, and glowed above me as I drove home late from dancing. Its coming to fullness was assured. The steadiness of the moon, an archetype of change and inconstancy, is a comforting paradox. This may be a moon-season for me, but it is silver. And I find myself steady in the inconstancy.

Facing October

Mark took his last fluttery breaths at noon, a year ago October 30th. I’d been up with him all night, because he’d had a seizure at around 8:00 and then started that end-of-life breathing, with its long pauses and deep sighs.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

My daughter and son sat up with me. As we began the journey of losing and grieving the man who had been husband and father, we quietly played a favorite game, Ticket to Ride. We collected train markers and spread them across the map, not noticing at the time the reverberations from all those American love songs, the woman who stands sorrowing on the platform, the man called away by the train’s haunting whistle to adventures unknown.

When the sun came up that morning, Miriam and Jesse decided to go on to work. We’d had so many false alarms that month, none of us trusted any more that we would recognize the end, and we imagined Mark able to go on with his heroic breathing forever. I settled down to sleep a little. I arranged pillows so I could hold Mark’s hand, even though there was no indication he still heard me, felt me, or cared whether I was present. I woke a few hours later—maybe I’d heard a change in his breathing. I told him I’d be right back, and stepped into the bathroom. Crossing back into the bedroom I heard him sigh twice, softly. Then his body fell silent. He was gone.

October this year hit me with unexpected force. Our wedding anniversary on July 29th had been the last important date I’d spent for the first time without Mark this year. What I forgot was how hard October last year had been. Mark had stopped eating, and I hadn’t known how long a strong and relatively young man can live before his heart gives in. He was afraid he would have severe pain at the end, and he couldn’t hold on to the doctors’ and nurses’ reassurances, that when organs are slowly shutting down under the attack of cancer, they release endorphins—pain may ease up, not increase. He got increasingly confused. He thought there’d been a murder and didn’t know what to say to the reporters. He became convinced God would reject him. He thought I was trying to poison him. He woke up from a nap and told me he’d been “dukin’ it out with the Japanese devil”.

He also got increasingly helpless and needed to be turned, needed to be fed the few ice chips per day he was living on, needed to be given Adavan (to relieve his agitation) in a syringe with only the tiniest bit of water so he didn’t choke. The all-important morphine from his pump was going into a port in his arm, a temporary port only designed for a couple of weeks’ use, and it began to deteriorate and leak as the month dragged on. Could he make it over the River before we had to put him through the ordeal of opening a new port? The uncertainty wore on me. I wasn’t sleeping well. Mark was and was no longer my husband. It was confusing. It was agonizing. I wanted it over, but I was as scared as he was about what would come next.

I hadn’t thought of the date of his death as a new anniversary for Mark and my life together, but I learned on the 30th this year, as night fell outside my rain-streaked windows, that I will indeed shy my face aside and brace myself as I enter the next few Octobers. The actual date of Mark’s death will be a tender one for me for the rest of my life, but it is not a wrenching one. It was the date when what had become inevitable came to pass.

I asked my kids early in October if they wanted to do anything special on the 30th, and got no responses. It was a work day—we are in four cities, on two continents. So I groped for what would be meaningful for me. I spent the 29th at a Trappist Abbey outside the small town of Laffayette, along Highway 99W near Salem. I’d felt calm and upbeat approaching the end of October, though, suspiciously, I’d developed three small canker sores in my mouth and a blemish on my chin. I, who am usually so careful and responsible, knocked a wine glass off the shelf at Goodwill and stared, amazed, at the shattered splinters at my feet. I then left my teakettle on the stove so long, boiling so dry, that the nob on the lid melted down the side and into a blob of hard plastic on the stovetop.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God's love.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God’s love.

I also lay awake late into the night before my retreat at the Abbey. After morning mass I nodded off over my prayers and readings until I gave up and crawled under a throw on the couch and slept. At lunch, a Trappist-style silent meal, the Beatles’ most soothing song looped through my head, “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be,” as though to relieve my guilt over sleeping away half of my retreat. On the dining room’s bulletin board, the daily calendar’s wisdom for the 29th was Julian of Norwich’s reassurance: “But all things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

In the afternoon I took a walk, meditated, read, prayed and journaled. In the end, the day was just what I wanted and needed—even the long nap. I did feel a little guilty that I was thinking and praying about my future, not remembering Mark. Those pesky “shoulds,” will I ever be free of them?

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

I woke early the morning of the 30th with the tender pop song line, “My darling, you are wonderful to me,” running through my head. The only idea I’d had for honoring Mark that day was to light a candle, thanking him for “lighting up” my life for almost fifty years (in high school we’d enjoyed a shy, sweet young-love relationship). I took a candle out of my over-stuffed candle drawer and lit it before I even got my breakfast organized. Holding the burning match, I looked around at the candles all over my new, single-woman’s home—on sconces, in carved candle holders from Kenya, on pedestals, in pewter candle holders, in crystal. Why stop with one?

I lit all my  candles (twenty-three of them) and spent the morning surrounded by their flickering light. Light that shines in darkness and isn’t overcome. Light that also represents warmth. Light coming directly from fire. Some anthropologists think it was fire that made us human, fire that made it possible to break down hard-to-digest proteins and expanded our food sources, fire that gave us time off from constant “gazing” and allowed us to take in enough energy to feed our ravenous brains and fuel higher thinking.

As moving into a rich, new life without Mark becomes more and more real, I find myself reacting to the implications of that with ambivalence at the best of times, with positively queasy emotional indigestion at others. I have to hold even tighter to mystery.

Sorrow and struggle do leave us deeper, richer, more complex if we submit to learning what there is to learn—all the sages say so. Places I was emotionally stuck have jiggled loose under the stresses of the last eighteen months. I feel lighter, freer. Grief has washed away some dross and left treasures I didn’t expect. Can I appreciate the growth without seeming glad for the trauma and loss? And if God redeems struggle by enriching me, does that mean I’m being lazy on days I find wider valleys and smoother paths? Can I assume plenty of trouble will find me, I don’t have to look for it? The new feelings of joy that are starting to come to me—can I enjoy them conscience-free?

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya,1999.

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya, 1999.

This overly-serious Calvinist inches forward on the journey, learning as she goes, deeply grateful for her long marriage and willing, just barely willing, to start letting it go.

Beginning at the End

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot--"Shank's pony". Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot–“Shank’s pony”. Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I’m home from my long hike on the Oregon Coast Trail. In my three weeks away, I went from the northern tip of Oregon, near Astoria, to the small town of Yachats, almost halfway down the coast. I took the bus around some bays that would have forced me onto on the narrow shoulder of Highway 101 for miles and miles, and even so, walked about 165 miles.

The perfect ending of my time alone unfolded spontaneously—a mini-family-reunion in Bend, Oregon. I left the coast by bus on Friday and, in the kind of providence that seemed to meet me all along the way, Friday was Customer Appreciation Day and we all rode free! I spent the weekend with my sons, their wives, and the two eighteen month olds, who were so dear, even as they struggled with how to share books, a stuffed monkey and a grandmother.

While in Bend I walked again on the Central Oregon canal that so comforted me as Mark was dying. The Cascades stood bare and gray—did they have so little snow last fall? I only remember them after the snow began in early winter.

The beauty of the Oregon coast is the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

The magic of the Oregon coast is in the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

I have just come back inside from days and days spent out on the beaches or on the forested headlands of the West Coast, not surrounded by what we have created but by what God created: the ocean sloshing restlessly on the edge of land; the deep forested headlands made from volcanic flows from as far away as Idaho; the moon, which started full on the first day of my walk, then went dark, and was making its way back; the sun, that warmed every day and then dropped over the far edge of the sea every evening. 

“God has such a positive personality,” I found myself thinking. Where do our difficulties, our sorrows, our cancers come from? Theologians, philosophers and myth-makers have struggled with the source of evil for millennia and all the definitive answers they develop seem to evaporate just as quickly with the turning of times and cultures.

I don’t understand tragedy. What I do know is that my spiritual practices and the divine presence I’ve experienced have given me strength to go through my grief, and they promise to return me to peace.

Walking five to fifteen miles a day with a thirty-five pound pack on my back, I had lots of time to think. School was starting up back in the Oregon towns and cities, so most of the time I had the beaches and forest trails completely to myself. I countered my tendency to obsess by singing as I walked, or by praying my contemplative prayers of releasing what I can’t control and accepting my situation just as it is, committing to wait patiently for my future to unfold.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here's the link.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here’s the link.

On some of the headland trails, the walking got so tough there was no room in my head todo anything else but tell my feet to keep going. That’s a gift walking has given me throughout this grieving and reshaping year, relief from my constant cerebral activity.

I’m home now. Tremendously grateful for my house in Portland, for the abundance of food and the ease of preparing it, for my comfortable bed, and for my community, the family and friends I can see and those I can’t see but can still communicate with. I do feel a rite of passage has taken place; I am more ready to embrace the new shape of my life. I did also realize that I have one more first-anniversary-without-Mark to face: the anniversary of his death on the 30th of this month. The literature says that these anniversaries will feel less painful as my new-normal becomes familiar. This was my third time to come home from travel to an empty house, and it felt a little easier. I take that as a good sign: peace and joy are on their way back.

Waiting

2012-05-09 03.10.35 Today marks the end of five months since Mark died. The intensity of these months, and their shapelessness, make them seem much longer. But I can see a subtle shift beginning, from the raw shock of losing Mark, to the question I cried out loud as I walked along the irrigation canal in Bend, Oregon at dusk in early fall, when Mark lay dying—what will become of me?

I cried, looking at the magnificent Cascade range: Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson. I cried looking at the moon, and wondering if Mark would still be here the next time it waxed full. I cried watching maple leaves turn scarlet in what people said was the most beautiful fall they could remember.

I wasn’t answered. But I was reassured. No matter how my life was being upended, the mountains stood fast, the moon rose every evening and set twelve hours later, and my heart kept beating even when Mark’s stopped.

I feel that subtle shift now, but I don’t hear the answers yet. Aren’t I too old to start a new life? I haven’t been single for forty-one years, and when Mark and I married I was still reeling from the only other loss that can compare to this one, the loss of Ethiopia. I was still a displaced  third-culture kid, missing family (sisters came to my tiny back-yard wedding, but no parents came), having just ended the alone years of college in the US.

That transition had required me to search for a new identity. It’s what I face again. That transition knocked me down for a decade, at least. No wonder this one terrifies me.

I met a man on my flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi who told me that his mother, at age sixty-six, went on a six month back-packing trip when his father died. “She came back a different woman,” he said. “Don’t look back. This is a time of new beginnings for you.”

I am in a house alone this weekend. That seems an appropriate way to mark the ending of another month without Mark. It is not my house, though—I am in my daughter’s home in Nairobi, and the family is away. Six weeks after his diagnosis, Mark and I sold our farm, ‘my farm,’ I want to say, because Mark shaped it for me. But we both knew I couldn’t manage it alone. We would have been isolated and miserable during his illness. The fields would have grown up and gone to seed, the hay would not have been brought in and bucked into stacks for the winter, the apples would have soured and spoiled on the trees without someone to help me pick them and press them into cider. But I miss my farm terribly. It still grieves me to think that I’ll never again live in a home Mark built to please me.

I am resigning myself that now, part of my new identity will be City Woman. Another part, Alone. I’m praying somehow to find peace in that. I’m praying to find joy. Many parts of many days I spend in joy and peace already. But I’m someone who likes resolution better than process, the arrival better than the road. I’m trying to practice what T.S. Elliot wrote:

t-s-eliot“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”

I hope that the faith and the love are in the waiting, and so I wait on for the healing to be complete.

Confabulation

Confabulation is my new favorite word.  I ran into this word reading about recent brain research. It’s a technical term for how people with brain damage reason, when the two sides of their brains can’t communicate, but it has a broader meaning we all participate in.  We confabulate when we make up reasons for things we can’t explain.  We do it unconsciously.  We don’t admit we’re doing it.  As the wife of a new victim of cancer, I’m a prime candidate for confabulation.

DSC_0528Two weeks ago a doctor looked down Mark’s throat with a scope and saw a bleeding tumor where his esophagus meets his stomach.  The next set of tests showed that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes as far away as his adrenal and pituitary glands.

I read everything I could find on esophageal cancer. Even the very gentle, careful booklet the oncologist gave us says, “Esophageal cancer is hard to contain with present treatments.”  The National Cancer Institute website is more businesslike: “Esophageal cancer is a treatable disease, but it is rarely curable;” and the Society for Surgeons of the Alimentary Tract, blunt:  “Esophageal carcinoma is a relatively uncommon but highly lethal malignancy . . .” The latest tests have shown, to all the doctors’ shock, that Mark’s cancer has already metastasized.

The risk factors for esophageal cancer are obesity, long years of gastric reflux, heavy drinking, smoking.  None of these describe my Calvinist, clean-living husband.  There are two other risk factors. Being male and being over age sixty-five.  Mark is sixty-two.  His only real risk factor is being a man. There has to be some explanation for him to have advanced esophageal cancer, doesn’t there?  I want to shake somebody.  Not him!  Not now!  Then my mind goes to work, concocting explanations for the inexplicable.

The reason people confabulate is that we’re puzzle-solving creatures. What else is science but the drive to observe the physical world and figure out what sense it is making?  We want life to make sense as well—we expect it to make sense—and by confabulating, we force it into some kind of sense-making when it seems not to make sense.

Scientists have a unique opportunity to study this drive for consistency and puzzle solving with people who lose their right and left-brain connection.  They can no longer coordinate input from the two sides their brains, so they’re left with data that seems random.  They’re driven to make that random data fit some kind of pattern.

In one study, people were shown two pictures simultaneously, one to each eye.  chickenThey were asked to choose another picture that best supplemented the first, and each eye was given a set of choices.  For example, when one eye was shown a picture of a chicken, with that hand people chose a chicken claw.  With the other eye they saw a snow scene with a car stuck in a snowdrift, and the corresponding hand chose a snow shovel.

Then they were shown the picture of the chicken and the pictures of the claw and the snow shovel and asked to explain their choices.  snow shovelThey did not “know” that they had been shown two original pictures, because the two sides of their brains could not communicate.  falconheadThey came up with explanations like, “If you had chickens, you would need a shovel like this to clean out the barn with.”

When scientists study confabulation by asking people why they suddenly did what they had been told under hypnosis to do, the same thing happens.  People don’t say, “I felt the oddest compulsion just then.”  Instead they come up with, and convince themselves of some other explanation.  We are driven to make sense.  We are so driven, that we will go to nonsense to feel that we have made sense.

I believe there is a world of the spirit, one we can’t see, touch or study with scientific instruments. Secularists call faith nothing but confabulation for the inexplicable randomness of impersonal fate, of nature, of good and evil.  How can I be sure that what I have is faith, not confabulation? I can’t, really.  That problem must be why the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews embraced the paradox.  He defined faith as, “The assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

A random tragedy has hit my life.  Grief is on its way.  For my faith to persist in the face it, I need to resist the pull of confabulation.  If I insist that Mark’s cancer “make sense,” I may fall into bitterness.  I will be tempted to take it out of the category of mystery and call it an act of God.  My faith that God is present, that God is Love, that the world is intended as a good place for humans to live, will fail.  I will make up reasons for Mark’s cancer, and they will lead me to places that will not bring me peace.

Instead I am choosing to pray—not only for the disappearance of Mark’s tumor and all its seeds, flung to far parts of his body.  I also pray for this event to further our spiritual transformation.  For peace in the middle of this storm.  For sweetness between us to prevail in the presence of pain and grief and opiates—the sweetness that has always been between us, somewhere there, even when we were angry and disappointed with each other.  For faith to hold, even in the face of things I cannot understand.  For the ability to say with the Psalmist: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.”  For the courage to resist confabulation and ride the wave of faith into shore.

 

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God

african-american-face-of-jesus-clipart

African-American Face of Jesus

For Lent, I decided to add, not subtract.  I’m reading the four gospels in a whirlwind trip through Galilee to Jerusalem.  I don’t have time to stop and meditate over every event, command, or statement in Jesus’ ministry, but there are some  benefits to traveling fast.  I see the big picture.  I hear the themes that crop up again and again.  I get a sense of the startling–even shocking–presence of this man who kept turning everyone, even his own followers, on their heads.

I have a lot of sympathy for those followers.  In Luke, Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s house for a meal and spends several pages blasting him and his friends.  I sure would have winced.

When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon Jesus said, “How long do I have to put up with you?”  Ouch.

And then, after all the other strange, mysterious things he taught them (the first shall be last, die so you can live, love those who hate you–even Samaritans), who among us  wouldn’t have thought he had something other than the literal meaning in mind when he told them he would die and rise again after three days!

But what stuck with me this trip through, especially in Mark and Luke, was all the talk about the Kingdom of God.  When I was young, that was translated as the Kingdom of Heaven, and I was taught what to do to get into heaven.  But what did Jesus mean–what

Jesus the teacher

Jesus the teacher

did John the Baptist mean–the Kingdom of God is near you?  That doesn’t seem to be about heaven.

I started wondering in Mark, two weeks ago.  What is the Kingdom of God?  Last week, in Luke, the question got more insistent.  Then Sunday I hit John–in the New Living Translation, poetry of John 1 is a little easier to understand: “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone . . . So the Word became human and made his home among us.  He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.”

Light?  Word?  The Kingdom of God?  Is near?  Is like a pearl, a mustard seed, yeast, a field with both grain and weeds?  Walking around last week, thinking about the Kingdom of God, I remembered a line from the Messiah.  It comes right in the middle of the Hallelujah Chorus, after dozens of hallelujahs that twist up and in and around each other, the choir suddenly sings in four part harmony, “The kingdom of this world . . . (can you hear the pause, those two grand chords, and the altos coming in alone, a beat ahead of the rest) . . . is become . . . (another pause, dramatic effect) the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ!”

Two thousand years later we wonder, why are we still here, in a “kingdom of this world” that doesn’t look much different (ethically, morally, spiritually speaking) from the world Jesus was born into?  Where is this Kingdom of God we read about and sing about?

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God

I’m working on a theory about the Kingdom of God.  I’m thinking about Swiss cheese.  Or–yes, yeast.  (I forgot the baking powder in a batch of muffins last month, and they were the consistency of hockey pucks.)  What if in the same world (the same cheese, the same dough) the Kingdom of God is permeating, wherever . . . I’m thrown back to the line about the Word living among us, “full of unfailing love and faithfulness . . .” wherever the energy released by God’s mysterious presence brings air and light into the heaviness?  Wherever we who want to follow Jesus figure out–or are inspired, literally–to enact some little bit of unfailing love and faithfulness?

African face of Jesus

African Face of Jesus

Or another simile:  maybe I’m an underground  force, like the anti-Nazi fighters in Germany and France, who helped refugees and undermined the Nazis wherever they could.  Maybe, as a follower of Jesus my job is also to live as though the Kingdom of God, the space where God is in control, is near.  To bring air and light to the embattled . . . totally inadequate to the task.  Unsure how to proceed. Trying to keep radio contact with Command Central.

I’m working on getting this mysterious Kingdom of God thing worked out so I can wake up every morning and get there.  Here-but-there.

 

I Want Something to Spill Over

Dr. Charles Kraft

Recently I heard Charles Kraft, an ex-missionary and a Fuller Seminary professor, say that Jesus didn’t heal or cast out demons or raise people from the dead with his own power, but with God’s power flowing through him. Jesus himself said that–he had power only by abiding in God and doing what God told him to do.  I thought again of his analogy of a vine and its branches bearing fruit because they’re connected (John 15).

What a mystery it is–for fleshly, in-the-world people like me to abide in Jesus.  No wonder the monks and holy mothers went into the desert to concentrate!  But I am reading a journal Henri Nowen wrote when he spent seven months in a monastery, and he found that even in a monastery it isn’t easy to abide in God.

Father Henri Nouwen

He found himself wounded when friends didn’t answer his letters.  He worried that his adoring public had forgotten him.  He felt upset when a particularly warm fellow monk was just as friendly to everyone–was he not special? But instead of stewing on these feelings, Nouwen used his time in the monastery to notice his internal life.  Was his anger hotter, his disappointment deeper, his discouragement heavier than the event required?  Then he took his reactions to God for healing.  That is more than spiritual discipline–it’s spiritual bench-pressing!

My own small discipline of contemplative prayer started around this time two years ago and  opened a connection to God that I had only longed for in my first sixty years.  Sometimes I wonder: why would God wait so long?  I don’t know why, I only pray that God will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.  Through the prophet Joel, that’s what God promised Israel, “I will give you back what you lost to the swarming locusts . . . and you will praise the Lord your God . . . then you will know that I am among my people . . . that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other.”  It’s what I want, too.

Another story to share with you–a friend, working in Indonesia, learned of a ministry of prayer that was hugely effective with the Muslim women there.  She went to her colleague and asked, “Will you teach me how to pray with people like you do?”  The other woman said no.  “You can’t pass on what you don’t have.”

This has haunted me ever since I heard the story.  What do I have to pass on?  Then she went on:  “I’ll pray with you, and what God does for you will spill over into whatever ministry you have.”

This is what changed Peter and John–what Jesus taught and showed them transformed their lives and spilled over.  When they, ex-fishermen, spoke to the Jewish Council in Acts 4, the learned men were amazed, “for they could see that they were ordinary men,” (the word for ordinary men in Greek is the root for our word idiot).  They recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus.

Girls sing in a rural church in Ethiopia

This is how the church in remote parts of Ethiopia has grown–people set free from curses and taboos share their liberation with their neighbors.  People are healed, and everyone takes notice.  Demonic activity is banished, and the whole community is blessed.  Surely this same God is here with us in the United States in the 21st century, ready to transform us and spill over.  Maybe the ministries will look different–we don’t see evil spirits working in our lives these days.  But we  just as much need to be set free from greed, anxiety, addictions.  We need to be healed of abuse, disappointment, depression.  We are as much in need of God’s shalom as Jesus’ contemporaries, and as our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.

I believe that if I can abide in Jesus even a fraction of the way he abided (abode??) in God, something new will happen in my life and I will have more to pass on.  That’s my journey.

Join me?  Here’s a link to Father Keating introducing centering prayer.  It’s where I started.