Monday, April 28, 2014

The Sound of a Woman Graduating

It is not something I am able to replicate. Not only am I incapable of producing that high-pitched ululation in my own mouth, I certainly could not convey in any shape or form the thundering elation that I witnessed in that huge white tent on Saturday. The sound of a woman graduating; I suppose it simply has to be experienced.

But I can describe what it felt like for me to sit in an enormous tent, full of my Zambian brothers and sisters, as the names of people I love were read, as friends in caps and gowns glowed luminous with the light of God. I knew many of their stories; the stony roads that they trod to arrive at this place, at this time, to hear the cheers and feel the sun and hold the diploma. 

And I can describe what it felt like for me, to watch this class of 41 students receive their bachelors, and witness the four female students - yes, 4 of 41 - walk forward with their heads held high, as every woman in the audience hooted and beamed their congratulations. Watching the current female students, struggling through the bachelors program now, knowing that they will get there, too. Believing that the numbers will slowly increase, that these women graduating are our pioneering sisters, following their call despite enormous obstacles.

The sound of a woman graduating is the sound of every hope, every triumph, every time we travel the stony road and end up at our destination. It is the sound of courage and faithfulness, the sound of sisterhood and community, the sound of God. God’s power, God’s love, God’s encouragement, God’s presence. It is a sound I will never forget.

It is true, of course, that these women are not done. Far from it. Now that they have received their bachelors in theology, they will be assigned to congregations in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi. They will most likely be the first female pastor in these churches, and they will struggle to prove themselves, as they encounter resistance and double standards. It will not be easy for them; some of the stories of my sisters in ministry are incredibly challenging. But they are doing it. They have done it. They will keep doing it.

I wish you could hear it. But maybe you can. Every time someone stands up and defies oppression. Every time someone follows God’s call into the breach. Every time someone refuses to give up. Every time someone runs the race and arrives, breathless, spent, and exhausted, at the finish line. 

The sound of hope. The sound of strength. The sound of endurance. The sound of faithfulness. This is the sound of a woman graduating. Let’s listen. Let’s celebrate. Let’s believe.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Driving Forward

The hand written note is in my purse. Careful penmanship, broken English, creative spelling, one clear message: "Please, can I borrow money." Now, this is a daily event in our lives, and we have a system for loaning money that works for us, in the Zambian context. But this particular note, from someone we love and trust, asks for a large amount of money. A lot more than we have ever loaned. It has been on my mind all morning. What is the faithful response?

The funds are to be used for driver's training and a driving license; with this certification, Elias can serve as a driver, dramatically increasing his income potential. This will allow him to plan for the future, to create sustainability in his life, to augment his salary and feed his family. It is an investment in Elias, in his potential, and in the lives of his little boy, his young wife, his future children. Ultimately, it is an investment I know that we will make. We believe in Elias, and we believe that God is at work in his life.

Elias is the young man I wrote about in the post "Broken Down" in February. He is the father of little Victor Phiri, who died three months ago, a one and a half year old child. In the months since Victor's death, Elias has mourned and struggled. But he has not given up. And today, receiving the letter from him, the request for a loan, the plans for his future, I know that he is able to take one step forward. He is going to continue to be a father, a husband, a man of faith and hope. He is going to believe in his future.

It is not something I can understand; I don't know how you move forward, having lost a child, having lost a part of yourself. I am not sure I have the faith to endure that kind of pain, and trust in a future that is anything but agony. But Elias has this, and I am honored to have the opportunity to invest in his life, to invest in his family, to invest in his hope.

In small and large ways, we all face loss, pain, challenge. We all come to places where we want to fall down, to stop, to give up. We all have times when we don't want to move forward, where we are stuck, where we are broken down. But Elias is taking driver's training, Elias is working on getting a license, Elias is going to move forward into a future where God is present, where love will win. I hope that we can do that, too. To trust in a future that is infused with the presence of God.

Anne Lamott tells this story in her book, Operating Instructions:

“I have a friend name Anne, this woman I’ve known my entire life, who took her two-year-old up to Tahoe during the summer. They were staying in a rented condominium by the lake. And of course, it’s such a hotbed of gambling that all the rooms are equipped with these curtains and shades that block out every speck of light so you can stay up all night in the casinos and then sleep all morning. One afternoon she put the baby to bed in his playpen in one of these rooms, in the pitch-dark, and went to do some work. A few minutes later she heard her baby knocking on the door from inside the room, and she got up, knowing he’d crawled out of his playpen. She went to put him down again, but when she got to the door, she found he’d locked it. He had somehow managed to push in the little button on the doorknob. So he was calling to her, 'Mommy, Mommy,' and she was saying to him, 'Jiggle the doorknob, darling,' and of course he didn’t speak much English—mostly he seemed to speak Urdu. After a moment, it became clear to him that his mother couldn’t open the door, and the panic set in. He began sobbing. So my friend ran around like crazy trying everything possible...calling the rental agency where she left a message on the machine, calling the manager of the condominium where she left another message, and running back to check in with her son every minute or so. And there he was in the dark, this terrified little child. Finally she did the only thing she could, which was to slide her fingers underneath the door, where there was a one-inch space."

"She kept telling him over and over to bend down and find her fingers. Finally somehow he did. So they stayed like that for a really long time, on the floor, him holding onto her fingers in the dark. He stopped crying. She kept wanting to call the fire department or something, but she felt that contact was the most important thing. She started saying, 'Why don’t you lie down, darling, and take a little nap on the floor?' and he was obviously like, 'Yeah, right, Mom, that’s a great idea, I’m feeling so nice and relaxed.' So she kept saying, 'Open the door now,' and every so often he’d jiggle the knob, and eventually, after maybe half an hour, it popped open."

"I keep thinking of that story, how much it feels like I’m the two-year-old in the dark and God is the mother and I don’t speak the language. She could break down the door if that struck her as being the best way, and ride off with me on her charger. But instead, via my friends and my church and my shabby faith, I can just hold onto her fingers underneath the door. It isn’t enough, and it is.”

I don't understand why Elias lost his son, why it is hard for him to feed his family, why there is so much loss here. But I do feel like God's fingers are slid underneath closed doors, and that somehow, we get the strength to jiggle the knob every once in a while, and sometimes, those doors open, and we step out of the dark, scary room, into the light of love and hope and joy. There are ways forward, there are doors that will one day open, and in the meantime, there is a God, offering us her hand through gaps in the darkness, inviting us to hold on, to trust, to wait upon the Lord.

Elias is going to go to classes and hopefully get his driver's license. He is going to jiggle that doorknob, and move forward, trusting that God will see him through. He has felt that touch underneath the doorway, and he knows that he is not alone. And as he drives forward, in faith and hope, he inspires me to do the same. Whatever the pain, large or small, we can feel that God's hand is touching us in the darkness, and as we keep trying to jiggle that doorknob, we can trust that at some point it will open, and the light and love and peace of God will flood through.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Even More Than I Love Frankie

He blinked rapidly, but not fast enough to stop the large tears, leaking down his reddened cheeks, past his mouth, still waiting for grown-up teeth to fill the gaps. And when he started to hit himself in the face, I gently held his hand, and waited for the words to come. "Oh, little boy," I wanted to say to my son, "whatever it is, please just be gentle with yourself." But I waited, and pretty soon, Frankie started to speak. It turns out that he had lied at school. Some other boys teased him about having a crush on a certain girl, and Frankie told them that he did not. "I lied, Mom." He choked out those words like the confession of a terrible crime and then collapsed on himself again. "I am a bad person." A few days later, the same thing happened. A minor infraction, a small perceived sin, and Frankie was ready to beat himself up, literally and metaphorically. "Oh, sweet, sweet child," I wanted to say to my son, "whatever you do, no matter what, just try to love yourself half as much as I love you."

I look at my oldest son, who won the Impeccable Manners award at his school, who gives away all his money before he can spend it, who is always ready to share any dessert, who protects colonies of ants at school. I admire his generosity, his kindness, his courage, and I want to be more like him when I grow up. And yet, any lapse of behavior on his part, any perceived sin, and he is convinced that he is the worst person in the world. He can't stand his own imperfection; he seems to believe that being perfect is the only way to live faithfully in the world.

I understand how he feels. It is easy to give into guilt living in Zambia, easy to see the ways I don't measure up...The times I choose to eat at an expensive restaurant, knowing that my neighbors are going to bed hungry. The times I give into anger over a towel on the floor, when I should be angry that my friend is struggling with a disease that should have been eradicated a long time ago. The times I am just too tired to visit a struggling colleague, knowing that if I am struggling, fifteen people will come with prayers. The list goes on an on of all the ways I fall short, all the ways I choose what I want, instead of ministering to the very real needs of people who I love. 

Around me, I see Zambian colleagues who have given up so much. My boss was a successful art teacher. He was offered a job at a school in Botswana, and received a decent salary. He was even able to afford a car. But he felt the call to go back to Zambia, to enter ministry, and he took an enormous pay cut to move into a small, leaking parsonage in a remote rural area. He suffered, his family suffered, but he helped move the denomination forward in powerful and world changing ways. I look at him and I listen to him, and again, I see all the ways I fall short.

I think many of us are like that. It is harder to hear that we are loved, that we are cherished, that we are beautiful, as we are, than it is to hear that we have work to do, we are not enough, that we had better just step up. But I think God looks at us the way that I look at Frankie. "Oh, sweet, darling, beautiful child," God says to you and me, "If only you could love yourself half as much as I love you."

All the brokenness inside of us, all the sin and shortcoming, all the pain...none of that is even remotely as big as the power of God's redemptive love. We are redeemed, we are chosen, we are enough. We are called, we are empowered, we are sustained. 

In the liberal church, we often skip prayers of confession in our worship services. We resist conversations around redemption. We hush any whispers about sin. But it still clings to us. It is still there, and we carry the burdens of our imperfections, because we are not told over and over and over again that we are forgiven. And we need to hear it. We need to know it. We need to talk about sin and brokenness, because otherwise, we are like my little boy, sobbing on the floor, hitting our heads, trying to take away the pain ourselves. We forget that God is already there to take away the pain, that God is already there to forgive us, that God is already there to tell us that we are beloved, we are cherished, we are redeemed.

There is a lot to do in Zambia. And while I am there, I will do some ministry that matters, by the grace of God who can work in and through broken vessels. But I will also make mistakes, I will also fall down, I will also spend too much money at a restaurant. And that will be okay. I will be okay. And so will Frankie. And so will you. We keep on moving forward, keep on loving God, keep on caring for our neighbor, keep on trying. And we must know that it is enough. Because redemption is everywhere we look, because God is bigger than our imperfection, because God loves us even more than I love Frankie, and that is so, so, so very much.