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Generosity in the midst of poverty – a reflection on Nicholas

I will call him Nicholas – an English variant of his Romanian name. Nicholas has a toothy grin that he often flashes, revealing the deep joy of childhood. He is the youngest of four brothers and an uncle to a two-year-old nephew. He lives in social housing at the top of a hill in the city’s flood plain.

On my first visit to Nicholas’ home, I was greeted by pigeons fluttering overhead and chicks and ducks filing along the narrow path that led up the hill. In the cleft of the clay, Nicholas’ family has built a roost for their various poultry. Nicholas had told me about his flock of pigeons that he faithfully cared for, but I didn’t know about the ducks and chickens. I thought that they must be a good source of food for the family, only to learn from his mother that they are too attached to them to slaughter them. The family cares for the birds out of the pure joy of having them. (They do have a pig, fattened on kitchen scraps that they will butcher at Christmas).

Christmas – this year will be a difficult holiday for Nicholas’ family. In the center of their small yard, they have dug an outdoor toilet.  On the other side of the yard is their small, two-room house, built out of a wood frame and thatch. Although they have no running water, they have a little kitchen in the entry way, where they cook on a small gas-powered stove. The cracked and corroding floor is insulated with rugs, and couches covered with wet laundry line the wall. When the family finds wood scraps or when they receive firewood from a benefactor, their terracotta stove heats up the main room in which there is a large bed and a television that is always turned on. On the bed lies Nicholas’ father. He body is emaciated, the skin hanging loosely from his protruding bones.

Last year the family learned that their father has cancer. Although he wasn’t employed with proper working papers, he did work and he did bring home money and food. Nicholas has watched his father change from the strong bread-winner to one who is weak and dependent. As his father has grown weaker and weaker, so Nicholas’ attendance at school has been less and less frequent, his tantrums and fights with schoolmates have become more recurrent, and his joyful smile is shown more and more seldom.

It is a strange world in which cancer is “good” news for a family. Because Nicholas’ mother has to carry her husband without wheelchair to the outhouse or to the hospital and has to cook and clean for him, she is given a monthly “care-giver” salary. Without this source of income, the family would be even more desperate.

Last week Nicholas and I worked off some of his surplus energy by digging in the garden. As we plowed up the soil, I asked him about his grandmother and cousins who live on the other side of the tracks in a squatter community. Although his extended family is living in an even more impoverished environment, Nicholas smiled widely as he told of his grandmother and of all his little cousins. When I asked them what they would do for Christmas, Nicholas just shrugged. Then I asked him if he would like give his cousins presents for Christmas. I explained that he would have to work a few hours in order to get the gifts. Nicholas smiled again, and then he started to dig faster.

Although we are witnessing the inner and outer turmoil in Nicholas and his family, his joy and his generosity remind me of Nicholas’ namesake, a saint famous for his gift-giving and his prayers for healing. In the English-speaking world, we have blended Saint Nicholas with Father Christmas, but in other parts of Europe, Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th. Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop, credited for bringing healing to the sick through his intercessory prayer. He is also famous for his secret gift-giving. After visiting the Saint, children often found coins in their shoes. That led to the tradition, still practiced in Romania, in which children leave their shoes at the door in order to find them in the morning, filled with gifts.

Unlike Saint Nicholas, our Nicholas doesn’t benefit from a stable church community, the luxury of a good education, or the wealth of the episcopate. Yet, our Nicholas opens a window through which we see surprising sources for joy and giving. Although he has little, Nicholas is a miraculously full of generosity. Although his family is needy, they are full of compassion, even for dozens of pet birds. Although Nicholas is presently experiencing deep pain, his smile cannot be restrained.

We pray that Nicholas will be graced with the other charisma of his namesake: healing. With Nicholas and his family, we pray that God would touch and heal his father. We pray that God would be especially present to them this Christmas. And, as Nicholas gives the presents that he worked for to his little nephew and cousins, we pray that the joy and generosity evident in Nicholas’ life will touch others.

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The pain of waiting

The promise of the coming Messiah had been pronounced. The promise provoked anticipation. There was the prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36). Over 700 years earlier, her tribe had been exiled from Israel and largely assimilated amongst other ethnicities. As one of the few representatives of her tribe, she awaited their return from exile and the restoration of Israel (2:38).

Anna was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four (2:36). She had suffered the loss of her husband, bread-winner and family-head. She endured as a female prophet. If women in today’s world have a tough time sharing God’s word, imagine the difficulties Anna confronted in the patriarchal culture of her day. She waited and waited. She was 84.

Anna never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day (2:37). Her waiting was active, cultivated by days and nights, weeks and years of worship, prayer and fasting. When will the Messiah come?

We live on the other side of the Messiah’s coming, but we await his return. We have received the promise that Jesus will come again to resurrect the dead, to judge and to renew creation. In our waiting we witness injustice, oppression, evil and death. Knowing that the Messiah will come again makes the sickness, subjugation and wickedness all the more intolerable. We cry out with the martyrs at heaven’s altar, “How long until you come?” (Revelation 6:10).

Like Anna we participate in the long wait of all ethnicities for the day when the kingdoms of the earth become the kingdoms of our Lord. Like Anna we bear loneliness and social exclusion, honing in on God’s words that serve as daily nourishment for the wait. Our waiting takes the form of prayer and fasting, knowing that God is mysteriously waiting with us. We ask for signs of salvation, signs of healing, signs of deliverance. But where it seems that oppression and sin win the day, our waiting is painful. It means enduring. And we keep waiting, aging and anticipating, knowing that death will not have the last word. We believe the Messiah will come.

Eunuchs, Muslims and Population Competitions

Over the past few years, I’ve repeatedly come across Christians who are sounding the alarm on Muslim expansion. (For example, see the Christianity Today.) They point out that the growth rate of Muslims is surpassing the growth rate of Christians and that this is largely due to Muslim birth rates. Because Muslims are birthing more children than Christians, the alarmists claim that they will surpass Christians. You can see an example of this perspective here:

There are many problems with this analysis. It assumes that the countries in which Muslims are immigrating are Christian. It carries undertones of racism in its opposition to higher birth rates in ethnic groups that are dominantly Muslim. When Christian families are told that they need to have more children, the burden for increasing birth rates is largely shouldered by women.

This anti-Muslim analysis also fails to account for the effects of migration on Muslim families. Muslim immigrants are more likely to educate their daughters, and the education of women results in lower birth rates. Where poverty is diminished, birth rates decrease. And when families migrate to cities, the birth rates decrease.

More importantly, advocating higher birth rates is not a biblical strategy for expanding the people of God. In fact, Scripture indicates that God’s people grow precisely in the face of low birth rates.

This is seen at the inception of God’s entering into covenant with the patriarch and matriarch of Israel. God promises to Abraham and Sarah that they will birth a son even though they are old (Genesis 17). In fact, it is precisely in Sarah’s condition of barrenness that God promises, creates and births this particular people set aside for God’s purposes.

Later in Israel’s history, after they have been conquered and taken into exile, the Babylonians castrate the male leaders in order to cut off their progeny and to secure the “purity” of their own ethnic elite (2 Kings 20:18). In the midst of the threat of assimilation and in the face of what seems to be the end of their people, God promises through the prophet Isaiah that the eunuchs who are faithful to God’s covenant will receive an everlasting name that will not be cut off. This, God says, is even better than having sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5). God asserts that it is through faithfulness and not through procreation that the people of God expand. In 56:3 and 6, the prophet says that through faithfulness, the foreigners (those outside the people of God) join themselves to the Lord.

Those who promote increasing birth rates in Christian families must also explain how they square their proposal with the life of Jesus. Jesus was not married and had no children. While Jesus does not assert celibacy as a model for all Christians, he does say: ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’ (Matthew 19:11-12).

Some also affirm that Jesus’ models renunciation of sex in order to unmask and disarm the idols of sex and fertility. Others assert celibacy as a pragmatic approach to mission, pointing to the Apostle Paul’s words to be unmarried “as I myself am” for “the unmarried are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, but the married are anxious about the affairs of the world… (1 Corinthians 7: 25-31, 36-40). Most probably, Jesus’ life of celibacy is indicative indicative of his priestly ministry for atonement (echoing back to Leviticus 16). Again, this atonement is coming from God, through God’s promise and through God’s act of reconciling humanity to God’s Self, not through our own initiatives of pro-creation. Would it be our prayer and expectation that the God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” birth new life in our barren lands?

A Peace Testimony

This is a Peace Testimony that I wrote for the George Fox Center for Peace and Justice:

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peace-makers.” Sadly, my first reaction to conflict, division and injustice is not usually peace but anger. Thankfully, my community helps me allay my anger and to cultivate actions rooted in love.

My wife Lenutsa and I participate in an organization called Word Made Flesh. Although peace, justice, and reconciliation are part of our ethos, they are not explicitly named as elements of our core values. What we do name as one of our defining marks is “community,” which implies peace, justice, and reconciliation.

In Galati, an industrial city in eastern Romania, our community is postured as a sign of peace in the midst of Orthodox Christian and Neo-Protestant tensions, Romanian and Roma violence, and wealthy and poor divisions. We are situated in a historically impoverished neighborhood in which we have made friendships across religious, ethnic, and economic lines. Here we attempt to respond on a daily basis to the wounds of broken and disenfranchised children and families. By addressing violence and injustices and by building healthy relationships, we pray that the seeds of peace are sown and nourished.

But when faced with conflict, my anger often gets the better of me. I am angry at the mutual exclusion of the different Christian traditions. I am angry at the entrenched racism and the self-victimization. I am angry at the patterns of abuse, neglect, and disempowerment. Of course, I can justify my anger as being “righteous,” but if I am honest, I realize that the anger feels good and gives me an illusion of control.

While anger seems like a knee-jerk reflex to conflict around me, the spiritual practices of my community prepare me and enable me to respond in love. Each morning we sit together in worship, prayer, silence, and Scripture reading. By focusing on the God who is love and who makes peace without violence, my vision, attitude, and actions are disciplined and directed towards love and peace. Although the cultivation of peace in my life is a long and continuous process and fraught with many failings, I have seen how our commitment to cultivate a community that is rooted in God’s life and presence leads to gestures of peace-making. Let me offer one example.

A few years back on a cool October day, I was watching the sun go down on our soccer game as I returned from the open market with two sacks full of groceries. I heard screaming and saw commotion, but I did not know what was causing the upheaval. I set the dinner food down and ran to the crowd of children who live on the streets. I found Ionuts cornered to the fence by a gang of teenagers who were beating him up. The reason for their aggression was simply that Ionuts was a “street child”, someone they considered lesser than themselves and easy prey for what they thought was a good time. The rest of the children from the streets and the volunteer workers did not know how to intervene except by shouting their protest. Without thinking, I walked into the middle of the gang and shielded Ionuts with my body. With my back to the belligerent teens, I looked Ionuts in the eye and tried to calm him as he screamed worthless threats at his attackers. Fortunately, the boys departed as quickly as they had jumped him. Unfortunately, Ionuts was bleeding through his cut eye, mouth and nose. He grabbed his glue bag and cried justice through the soothing intoxication.

While I was overwhelmed by my powerlessness to help Ionuts’ immediate pain, I was presently surprised that I didn’t respond to aggression with aggression. Certainly this small act of peace-making spoke love to Ionuts as well as to his attackers and the bystanders. Although violence seems to evoke my own violence from within, at least in this instance I could see how our community’s spiritual practices shape and enable actions that are non-violent in the face of violence. And as we see God work in us and change us, our daily prayer is not only to become signs of peace; we also pray that victims of violence like Ionuts experience God’s healing, justice, and reconciliation.

Communion, Community and Mission

My friend and co-laborer Rachel Simons recently posted this:

My team and I recently watched a message by the late Henri Nouwen entitled “Becoming the Beloved”. Drawn from the passage in Luke 6 where Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and then calls his disciples, Nouwen speaks of communion, community and mission as three essential elements of life in Christ.

Often, he says, we take things in reverse order when we respond first through ministry and programs (ministry), we gather others around us when we find we can’t make it on our own (community), and finally pray for God to bless our efforts (communion).  Christ models the exact opposite for us: communion with the Father is first, followed by movement toward community, then ministry to the needs of the people around us.

With the school year in full swing it seems I’ve been thrown into a whirlwind of activity. After morning devotions some of us tutor children one-on-one for an hour and then prepare three hours of activities for about thirty children each afternoon. Some days have included hospital visits, trips to the park, a neighborhood clean-up initiative and various field trips.

In October we prepared an autumn festival and soon we’ll begin Christmas pageant preparations. We have more field trips to organize and have begun a recent initiative of bringing children into our homes on the weekends to distance them from the institutional environment for a brief time. We’ve written a grant to fund the school newsletter we started last year, and asked for support from the local government as we seek a more permanent location for our activites. We continue our comittment to train and disciple high school and college volunteers as they gain first-hand experience reaching out to vulnerable children.

The list of activities could continue, but I pause to ask that you pray for us and especially for me. I feel swept up by the wave of activity and momentum of so many adults and children involved in something wonderful and beautiful. Guests have observed and commented that the children clearly trust us and feel loved and safe in our presence. We watch some young ones take steps toward healing, while others love to pray and are unashamed to share of their faith in God.

The needs around us are great, but I sense our need for Christ is even greater at this time. Pray that we will be reminded often of this fact and listen attentively to God’s prompting in all we do and in the directions we choose to take. We so deeply need His clear guidance and direction in all our choices.

Peace in Christ,
Rahela

Programs of Happiness

A friend of mine, Liz Ivkovich (who is in my blogroll), wrote this excellent reflection on programs of happiness:

I have always believed that God shows up in our daily lives, not just through Scripture or attending church, and that God uses our daily experiences to help us grow as Christians and as people. However, in college I remember having an experience and then thinking “Oh, someone did not see that situation the way that I saw it. Maybe the way that I saw it (gasp) wasn’t the whole story.” My perspective, filters, beliefs, & feelings limited what I was able to understand from that experience even though I wasn’t aware that anything was affecting me. This moment was the beginning of a very slow awakening to the fact that I have a whole inner landscape which is affecting me all of the time and I really don’t have any idea what that landscape looks like. If I don’t know what that inner landscape looks like, how can I find out what God wants to teach me through my experiences?

In The Human Condition; Contemplation and Transformation Fr. Thomas Keating describes three programs for happiness which are part of our inner landscape. These programs relate to what Paul calls “the old man,” also called “the false self” or the “non-essential self.” The programs are:

  • the need for security and survival
  • the need for affection and esteem
  • the need for power and control

These programs for happiness are unconscious and hidden so deep in our make up that we often don’t see how they drive our actions. Sometimes the better our actions seem to be – helping people, being involved in church or in peace and justice work, working at Word Made Flesh – the more one of these three programs may be secretly running the show. Fr. Richard Rohr said that many times good deeds just become “a more heroic disguise” for our false self. Paul says “Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us…” (Romans 12:2 NLT) In living out this command to have an honest evaluation of self, we have to look at everything, not just our actions but our internal motivations as well. The question becomes not just “What good things have I done?” but “When am I being run by one of my programs instead of by the fruits of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, et. al?”

I believe that God wants us to be free to love and serve each other from the Holy Spirit which lives inside of us instead of acting out of our programs. But, how do we know when one of these programs is involved in what we are doing? One way we can see our programs in action is when one of these programs is frustrated. Usually that means someone or something threatens our power & control, doesn’t offer us affection or esteem, or in some way makes us feel unsafe and insecure. When this happens we experience so-called ‘negative’ emotions such as shame, anger, humiliation, grief, sorrow, discouragement, fear.These emotions are a signal that something has frustrated our program for happiness. Our habitual response is to send that negative emotion outward- “She did this to me!” or maybe we internalize it “I’m a bad person.” or possibly we avoid it “I’m not upset, I’m just trying to GET THINGS DONE around here.” It seems like we have many creative ways to avoid recognizing the emotions connected to our programs, I know I sure do!

One practice I learned this summer to recognize my programs for happiness and let go of them before acting out of those programs has been really helpful for me. When I feel an emotional trigger (for me this generally looks like some kind of intense rush of energy directed at fixing something), I try to find time at some point during the day to be alone and work through the experience. Then I more or less follow the process below; which has been named different things by different people. I’ve heard it called “The Welcoming Prayer” or “Going in and down” or just “Inner Awareness Practice.”

  1. Get centered. Take a few deep breaths and relax the tension in my body.
  2. Welcome the emotion. I allow the situation to resurface and begin to notice what I feel in my mind, my heart, and my body when I think of the situation. I don’t try to judge or control any ‘bad’ feelings like anger, embarrassment, I just let those come and welcome them. I am kind to myself and my feelings.
  3. Drop the other, focus on myself. – I let whatever happened drop, either by explaining it to Jesus, or just by focusing on what I’m feeling and experiencing. I stop trying to come up with solutions and strategies or blame for the situation, instead observing what is going on for me and learning from that.
  4. Release the program. – I pray to release the program. Keating recommends saying “I now release my need for power and control, I now release my need for affection and esteem, I now release my need for security and survival.”
  5. Practice gratitude. Ultimately, whether at this point, or at a later time, I’m usually able to say thank you to God and be thankful to the situation which caused me discomfort because the experience gave me greater awareness and freedom.

The practice of recognizing and letting go of my programs for happiness has brought so much freedom into my life. I hope that by sharing with you in this letter you may also know greater self-awareness and freedom to love and serve others.

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