I want to thank you for praying for us, especially during my whirlwind trip through the US last month. Traveling through six states, I was able to meet with many organizations, speak in undergraduate and graduate classes, and share at a number of churches. In the 17 years that I have been serving in Romania, I have never taken a trip like this before. As a community, we see that we need to develop some new partnerships in order to continue and expand Christian ministry among the vulnerable. I was really encouraged by people’s response. If you know of others that you think would be interested in connecting with us, please let us know.
I returned to Galati to find our Community Center full of kids. This summer we saw a few of our youth graduate from high school. One was also baptized and is planning to continue with her studies at the university. This was the first group that started with us when they were 6 years old or from the first grade. They successfully made it through 12 grades of school with the support of our community. While we celebrated their hard-fought victories, we also asked ourselves, “What helped them succeed where many others didn’t?” What we saw, for example, was that they had an “alternative” group of friends that they had at the Center, they began coming to the Center at a young age and in the first years of school, they had worked through behavioral, developmental and familial impediments, they had cooperative, if not supportive, parents, and they were involved in a local church at an early age. So, we are trying to build on these lessons learned. We are trying to take new children in when they are in their first years of school. We are structuring them in groups of 10 and receiving them at the same time so that they can form friendships. We focus on behavioral development rather than homework. We are making the monthly parent meeting mandatory. And we are trying to facilitate their integration in a local church, even when they are young. Currently, we have about 50 children participating in the Community Center on a daily basis and 10 at the Day Center – more than ever before in our community’s history. We have more than 30 parents or caregivers participating in the monthly parent meeting – more than ever before. Our prayer is that many kids will have their lives transformed and that the transformation will be lasting and contagious.
As some of you may know, Galati is situated in one of the poorest parts of the country in one of the poorest countries in Europe. We are building relationships with children at risk of under-nutrition, neglected by their parents or legal guardians, at risk of turning to begging and living on the streets, at risk of never enrolling or of dropping out of school. We are also developing friendships with the children’s parents who suffer from a lack of education, generational dependence, alcoholism, racism, unemployment and forced migration. This year we have made the audacious goal of visiting all of the vulnerable families in the neighborhood to build relationships and to assess their level of vulnerability. Up to now, we have made it to 70 families in the neighborhood. Our prayer is that in every relationship we can sow seeds of hope for a different and better future.
Some of you have asked about our practical needs as our activities have expanded. Here are a few:
If you would like to make a year-end donation, please let me know.
david and lenuta
We often think of simplicity in terms of minimizing, down-sizing, and reducing what we consume. One of the precepts that we cite regularly are the words of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: “We live simply so that others may simply live.” But simplicity means much more than this.
Simplicity is a fundamental acceptance of our human condition. It is the acknowledgment of an existence that is, to use a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Simplicity is also a confrontational critique and denunciation of the idolatry of wealth. Jesus lovingly said to the wealthy young ruler: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the moneyto the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:17-27). These words inspired the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the later monastic tradition to leave everything to pursue God. By practicing simplicity we stand in the long tradition of faithful Christians who recognized the demonic potentialities of possessions and refused complicity with their lure and their lies.
Simplicity doesn’t only deconstruct wealth; it is also constructive. Simplicity aims to create beauty. We actually find the beauty of simplicity throughout society. It is the beauty of God’s ordered creation, which resonates in us when we experience health, justice, salvation and life.
While beauty is most obvious in art and literature, where the artist pursues aesthetics in symmetry, tone and coordination, it is also evident in sciences. For example, the 2012 Nobel Prize winners in economics are praised for creating something beautiful, as their work results in better patient care and education. Dorothy Wrinch’s molecular theory is called by our contemporaries a “beautiful vision” because it takes the complexities of data and gives a simple explanation. Likewise, in the domain of physics, scientists call Einstein’s theory of relativity “elegant”.
However, the aesthetic character of simplicity isn’t always easy to see. For example, I have had the opportunity to visit a particular monastery carved out of the hills in Moldova. In the bottom of a cave is a chapel, and at the entrance to the chapel sits an old monk. Most of the time, he sits alone. It is cold. He prays. His austere life looks harsh and unattractive. But it is beautiful for those with eyes to see. The beauty radiates from his wrinkled face in his love, joy and quest for God. Simplicity is seen in the singularity of his desire to seek and love God.
Simplicity is a spirituality, a way of being in the world, and, as with any healthy lifestyle, it requires discipline and cultivation. Whenever I feel like I’m making some progress in my walk with the Lord, it seems I’m always confronted with something that opens my eyes to new profundity.
This happened on a recent visit to our community in Sierra Leone. I woke up one Sunday morning hurrying to get ready for church. I said a short prayer to ask God for energy for the day and wisdom for the activities before me. Our spirituality is reflected in our prayers.
We arrived at church and began the singing, clapping and swaying. The sister leading worship shouted a prayer: “Thank you that I am not dead.” I was cut to the quick, challenged and convicted by her prayer of boisterous gratitude, her petition for life in the midst of poverty, and her joy in the immediacy of salvation. It wasn’t that my prayer was bad or wrong, but it limped in its motivation. My prayer was an option, a choice, a luxury. My Sierra Leonean sister’s prayer was a necessity. It was a real prayer for daily bread, for the Father to provide life. For if the God of Life didn’t, who would?
The challenge for me is to move from a spirituality of luxury to a spirituality of simplicity. I am invited to embrace my human condition and be grateful in dependence and need for the Father’s life-giving love and provision. Through the practice of simplicity, we unmask the false promises of wealth for power and security. With singularity of purpose, we seek to know and love God. And, in the midst of the difficult and harsh realities of the world, we practice simplicity that is recognized for its beauty. Following her example of a spirituality of simplicity, we take up the charge of Mother Teresa: “Now let’s do something beautiful for God.”
This edition is on our Lifestyle Celebration of Simplicity:
I’m so thankful that I get to know these people:
A couple of weeks back, Lenutsa and I, along with Sarah Lance, Walter Forcatto and Chris and Phileena Heuertz, had the opportunity to take a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy. This little medieval city is the place where two of the church’s great saints, Francis and Claire, lived out their vocation of prayer, poverty and love for God. Although these two remarkable Christians lived 800 years ago, their calling, lifestyles and faithfulness have been inspirational and challenging to the Word Made Flesh community. One of my hopes in making this pilgrimage to Assisi was to connect more with this movement of God, this radical spirituality, and its revitalizing effects in the church and for the world.
As I was preparing for my first steps on this pilgrimage, I came across a fundamental distinction in how we have conceived “space” in history: itineraries and mapping.
Mapping is a relatively recent development in human history. It is a modern idea that followed the rise of the nation-state (see Michel de Certeu’s The Practice of Everyday Life). In pre-modern times principalities did not have clearly defined borders and often had landholdings within other principalities. Nation-states, however, needed to identify their borders and employed the technology of mapping to serve its cause. Maps are static, two-dimensional abstractions of space. Mapping means homogenization and delineation, often arbitrarily, for the sake of identity and control. Mapping is a form of will to power, particularly power over space. Yet, mapping cannot account for the temporality of space. The only thing “temporal” in mapping is its claims to permanence.
In pre-modern times space was not conceived through maps; rather, it was understood through itineraries. Itineraries depict a storied-space (see William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination). They tell of sites, steps and experiences that one takes as they travel and as they make pilgrimage. They prescribe actions, prayers and places to sleep for different points along the journey. Where mapping imposes onto space the dominant story, the story of and for the nation-state, itineraries are purely local and particular. They are stories that emerge from the earth by its different smells and tastes, its rocks and its fruits. These stories are not merely told; they are performed.
(It was interesting to see no billboards in Assisi, which evidently are not allowed so as to keep its medieval appearance. It was even difficult to find an internet connection! The only way that the dominant stories, like McDonald’s, could smuggle their message in was on the sides of taxis that moved in and out of the city – that itself was a sad commentary on the contrast and aloofness of the dominant culture from the Franciscan story. I found the absence of the dominant narratives to be fitting to a place that celebrates Franciscan spirituality. And it is an example of how the soft prophetic voice of Franciscan spirituality continues to speak to our contemporary world.)
Itineraries are stories anchored in steps. Where mapping excludes the temporal, itineraries incorporate it. Space is not measured with metrics but rather with hours or days. Itineraries are written for boots, not jet-engines. At each step we are invited to follow in the footsteps of former fellow travelers, tracing a narrative through space and time. To see the same hills and valleys, to hear the same songs of the birds, and to experience the same gift of place. Itineraries tell of brooks and wells, of hotels and hospitality. Maps identify place, itineraries experience place.
Whereas mapping excludes the strangers and forcibly “settle” the pilgrims in order to define, protect and extend its borders (see Phyllis Tickle’s “Forward” to Phileena Heuertz’s Pilgrimage of a Soul), itineraries are invitations to strangers and to pilgrims to experience the generosity of locals.
Refusing borders and dominating narratives of space, the pilgrim follows the itineraries of pilgrims forgone. But the experience of each pilgrim takes its own shape. The itinerary is prescriptive but not coercive. The itinerary is an invitation. Taking the journey means crossing and even subverting borders and a dominant narrative about space. In this way, the practice of pilgrimage is a practice of resistance. It cultivates a life that resists the illusion of control, the exclusion of the stranger and the domination of people and places. Itineraries mean transforming the places on the map into alternative spaces filled with alternative lives and alternative lifestyles marked and orientated by our pilgrimage to the City of God.
As I made pilgrimage through Assisi, I reflected on the trajectory that Claire and Francis charted. They created a new storied-space, and they invited the likes of me to journey through it. But although their story was new, it too was not original. In the homes, barns and businesses that Francis’ and Claire’s lives transformed into “alternative spaces,” they all link the stories of the saints to the story of Christ. They were misunderstood, rejected, persecuted and poor and yet joyful, loving and generous. Claire and Francis were “saints” inasmuch as they imitated Christ. Their stories were original in that only they could live out their own stories as only I can live out mine. But they draw from the church’s tradition and are told against its background. They chart the itinerary and further enrich the tradition, which now comprises the background for my pilgrimage. O, to follow Claire and Francis, to walk faithfully and to fill each place with stories about our radical love for God!
We have heard the story so many times that we have grown used to it. The story of Jesus’ birth has become cozy legend and plastic myth. To counter the transplanting of the manger of the 1st century cow barn to the 21st century “live nativity,” let us try to hear the story as if for the first time.
Let’s try to imagine the situation.Israelis in exile. They are estranged in what was once their Promised Land. The winds that blow through the dusty streets whisper echoes of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
The signs of exile are all around. The Jews pay taxes to their king, Herod, and he builds a wannabe temple that is void of the “shekinah” glory. There is the House of God, but not God’s presence. The furniture is in place, but no one is home. The building is in business, but the Proprietor doesn’t claim ownership. The priests do their service, but their noisy motions are muted by God’s deafening silence. This is the covenant people of God, but God is strangely absent from their midst.
The greatest sign of exile was the Roman soldiers patrolling the streets and the Roman crosses mocking any hope for change of power. How can the elected people of God be ruled and oppressed by a heathen nation? How can the chosen nation retain identity and hope when the triumph of the pagans meant the defeat of the God of Israel?
We hear of a young Jewish woman and man forced to traverse the country. Because of a strange pre-marital pregnancy, this young couple is at risk of excommunication from their communities and families. Hardly reaching the age of citizenship, they are called for the census. What is the purpose of the census? What is the purpose of the dangerous journey during the delicate period of pregnancy? Taxation. The Jews were being numbered so that they could be exploited. They were being counted for their tribute.Israelis in exile in her own country.
But more agonizing than the mock ruling of Jewish despots and more excruciating than the persecution of a foreign people is the fact that God is not speaking. It would all be bearable if there were purpose. It would all be supportable if God were near. But He wasn’t. It was a situation of violence, fear, confusion and hopelessness.
The status ofIsraelis reflected in the lives of the two young Jews, Joseph and Mary. They are poor, tired, dirty, and cold. As if being forced away from their home as conquered vassals was not degrading and dehumanizing enough, they are also denied tenancy. The vacancy in theTempleis transposed to “no vacancy” inBethlehem, not even a place for an expecting mother. There is no refuge, no place for rest and no one hospitable. They must have felt abandoned with the miracle Child in the womb. They must have felt alone, insecure, and scared. In a soiled barn and amidst malodorous animals, the cold wind whispered: where are you God? From within the silence that amplifies the dirty surroundings of desperation, God speaks His Word.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His “shekinah” glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John1:14).
Not in the temple, but in a cowshed, the glory of God comes. Not from the priestly podiums, but at the edge of the splintery manger, God’s Word addresses Himself to us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). But the Word is not past tense. It speaks ever present and ever new.
This isn’t word as symbol, like letters that symbolize sounds. This is Word as language: God is communicating Himself and is inviting humanity to speak with Him. This is not monolog: God speaks and we listen, or, inversely, we speak and God listens; this is dialog: God wants to interact with Him, speaking His language.
The Word is the language of God. “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (1:18). Jesus is the exegesis of the Father. This language sounds foreign, but familiar. It is foreign in that we don’t understand it. We are unsure that we have heard it. Yet, it is familiar in that it rings true in the depths of our beings, as if it has been speaking to us from the inception of our existence. “All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (1:3).
We come clumsily and inarticulate to the conversation, but we are lead by our “interior teacher” (as Augustine refers to Christ’s indwelling us in the Word). The Word is implanted in our hearts (James1:21).
Let us not let the abstractness remove ourselves from the reality of the story; we must remember that the Word is spoken in the midst of fear, pain, disappointment and insecurity. The Word is spoken in sleepy silence and baby cries. Wrapped in poverty and fragility, God discloses Himself.
Let us resist our tendency to refuse the Word because it is not adult and authoritative. Let us resist affirming that the baby represents Jesus’ humanity, stripped of His godliness. Let us resist affirming that this is Self-condescension, as if God just needed to come down and fulfill a pre-established set of criteria in order to save us. No, this is the Word “who although He existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied Himself…” (Philippians 2:6, 7). The Word is God – the Word spoken through the delicate, dependent baby.
“It has been traditional to see this Self-humbling as God in some way hiding or suspending or adding to or relinquishing his divinity in order to become man. But what if he was in Jesus, actually uncovering his divinity? Does the baby of Bethlehem not reveal God rather than obscure him? Is God’s nature not seen in the powerlessness (to human estimation) of the baby?”
The divinity of God is not hidden in the child; rather the baby is the revelation of God. This is the power of the baby. Isaiah prophesied with astonishing precision: “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.” The Son is not born but begotten. The Son is given; the child is born. In a messianic annunciation, Isaiah describes the coming of the Christ Child.
And the wolf will dwell with the lamb… and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little boy will lead them. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6, 8-9).
The child is the metaphor of hope: hope for new beginnings, for renewal, and for the acceptance of the Reign of God.
This is where the Christ Child touches the street child. Since God was incarnate as a Child, every child has become a metaphor of hope. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me…” (Mark9:37). Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is the spontaneous impression that the image of the Child in the manger awakens in us (Jurgen Moltmann). As a Baby in a barn the Word speaks to us, calls to us, and invites us.
The Word made flesh becomes Good News. “…there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over the flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the shekinah glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12). The Word is announced. The audience is shepherds – not nobles, not learned, not religious, but shepherds – those in solidarity with smelly animals and dirty beds. The Good News is born; the great joy is the Christ Child. The Word is heard and the shepherds entered the dialog of God: “the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen…” (2:20). The sign is a Child, wrapped in a diaper, and lying in a manger. This should baffle us. This should make us speechless. The sign is not the angel, not the proclamation, but the Baby and His poverty.
Let us now return to our 21st century lives. Yet let us find ourselves in the Story. In our estrangement from the world, from our families, from all that offers security; in exile, Diaspora and wilderness; in the oppression, confusion, violence and depression; in the loneliness, rejection, fear and disappointment; in the hopelessness, powerlessness and exploitation; in our dirty, cold corner of the world; in God-forsakenness, we find the precise and necessary conditions for God’s coming. The silence becomes Word; the “no room” becomes presence; the loathsome becomes great joy.
And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond slave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed. He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his decedents forever’ (Luke 1:46-55).
In the Child, in the Word, God invites us to intimate communication, to secret sharing, and to unceasing prayer.