Yesterday a woman brought her 15-year-old daughter to be seen by the American doctors. The girl had suffered a brain hemorrhage at the age of 3 that had rendered her wheel-chair bound and unable to speak. At first I thought she had cerebral palsy. When I approached her and spoke she swung her head in my direction and gave me an unfocused but unmistakably broad smile, her one good arm waving around crazily. She was all-of-a-sudden stunningly beautiful! Her mother said she doesn’t get out much (which being interpreted means, her mother doesn’t take her out much.) She was thrilling to the sounds and sights, the emotions flowing around her, and the fact that so many people were paying attention to her. I would like to think that a lot more was going on behind that face than what was reflected in the body. Maybe the memory of this day will give her a private smile for many months to come.
A girl of about 6 came in with her grandmother. We know this one well. Angelita suffered spinal meningitis when she was 7 months old and she was deaf. Many in our team have contributed for her to attend a school for the deaf, and when I gave her the sign for “Hi,” she shyly returned it. We needed medical records for some research we’re doing to see if we can get her to the U.S. for further attention, so I followed the grandmother a mile up the mountain to a little house built literally on a cut into the hill and fill out front of the cut. A wizened old man sat in a chair fixing a flashlight. He almost didn’t speak to me, but when I made myself obnoxiously present he answered my question, “How long have you lived here?” “40 years.” His face was as wrinkled as the mountain, his voice just as taciturn and enigmatic.
Today an older man came to the clinic. Another man brought him to our attention. He waved his hands, moved them symbolically up and down across his knee, and uttered unintelligible sounds. “He’s mute,” they said. The round nose, the earnest eyes, the serious line to the lips, all etched on a face weathered by at least 70 years stuck in my mind. What mystery of life has he led, so different from mine?
Then the proud young father came in with Cecia and Melba, two little 4-year-old girls. They were like mirrors of one another, like one child in two places at once. What unity of spirit might lie unseen and unappreciated except by these two budding lives?
A world lives in each face that ever faced the world.
Friday, July 18:
I just spent three hours with the most amazing group of people. About 10 individuals interested in starting a stone tile factory as a microfinance project gathered to discuss just what this was all about. Our goal was to end the morning with a short, catchy phrase that communicated why people were involved in it—a classic vision statement. This was their product:
“The tile factory will transform my world and the world, bringing us closer to the kingdom of God.”
What they mean is that this small effort has the potential to change their world from desperate to possible, from hopeless to hopeful, from degrading to honoring, from hate to love. They also recognize that this is part of a world-wide effort by people of faith to work this kind of transformation, and that the ripples of this effort can reach a whole lot further than their small world. At the end we role-played having them share their excitement with a friend, using their own words.
Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The original meaning may very well have been the oracles of spiritual ecstasy, but the effect is the same. Without a vision there is no hope, without hope there is no future, with no future there is no life, and where there is no life there is only death. Violence, extortion and greed are death-dealing. Hope, solidarity and mutuality work love, and love is of the very heart of the divine.
Three trucks, about 15 people, a pile of medicines and good will trailed through about 15 miles of back-country roads cut out of the volcanic tuff to the village of Chagüite Oriente. We set up shop in the local Episcopal Church there, a simple affair of cinderblock walls and tile roof. This little village is one of our regular visits. People can be there in great quantities, making for a long day and a long drive home, but today was not one of those. By 3 or so we had seen everyone who had signed up to see the “doctores Americanos,” and been sent on their way with bags of medicines, personal hygiene items, and our love.
A young girl of about 7 hung around the clinic all day long. I am no expert on this like my wife, but she looked like she belonged in my wife’s class for special education. She walked with an obvious hitch, and measured her words carefully as if formulating them was a bit of a challenge. Mostly she just walked around smiling sweetly, and accepting the loving attention she got from the “doctores” and all the rest of us. The rest of the children ran around, teased one another, played games and harangued their parents for one thing or another. Little Doris was different.
She was an amazingly peaceful person in the midst of the hubbub. Her quiet smile and gentle ways put a gentle smile on my heart. It made you want to pick her up and hug her—which she would have quickly accepted—and she would have hugged you in return, simply and sincerely.
Perhaps it is we who were the challenged ones, so caught up in the business of doing God’s work that we could have missed her gentle presence. In her Jesus held out his hands over the waves and wind and said, “Peace, be still.”
Gaps are everywhere. Getting on the airplane today in Houston to fly to Honduras there was a 2-inch gap between the edge of the jetway and the sill of the airplane door. It was one small step for a man, but it might as well have been 2 miles wide, for it was a step from earth into the great expanse of heaven. Across that threshold one leaves behind the known, the comfortable and the predictable and launches into the vicissitudes of wind and weather, to come down again in another land, perhaps unknown, uncomfortable and unpredictable.
The gap is the symbol of the onset of a spiritual experience, the gift of sight into truth, given freely by the One who is Truth. It requires of us the surrender of our ego-driven need to be in control, to let ourselves be taken across the space between confidence and openness, magic and wonder.
Conceivably you could break an ankle in the 2-inch gap I stepped over this morning. If when confronted by the gap between our kingdoms and the kingdom of God we try to effect a coup we run the risk of breaking our souls.
As the signs say on the London “Tube,” Mind the Gap!
The adventure has begun. 9 of us from New Mexico are camped at the Comfort Suites Hotel outside the Houston airport. Tomorrow we will join a bunch of others, pull ourselves into our team T-shirts, smoosh our way into an airplane and squirt out at the other end of the flight in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. We will wrangle our way through immigration and customs, pile ourselves into busses and rented trucks, and thread our way like a long metallic caterpillar through mountains and clouds, dogs and chickens to the Catholic Retreat center where we will be staying. The smiling sisters will welcome us, hiding excellently their sense of being overwhelmed.
Already there have been changes to the plans. The agent told us one thing, United Airlines told us another. The number of bags we had to check was more than what we expected, and my church credit card paid for all but one of our rooms! We’re in that in-between state that makes flexibility either easier or tons harder, depending on our inner disposition.
Which means, of course, that this event is really just like all other events in our lives when our context changes. Though the place will be exotic and new to some, welcoming and familiar to others, the effect of the event will be to hold up a mirror to ourselves and show us what is inside. The world outside and the world within are sides of the same coin. The word in Spanish is “cara,” face—two faces of the same little piece of value. The outer reflects the inner and also forms it. The inner reflects the outer and also forms it. The inner-outer dialog makes the location strategic, pregnant with transforming power. We could be on the cusp of greatness!
Such is our medical mission to Honduras. To step into the looking glass and take a peek one often has to step out of one’s pre-constructed little home of assumptions and be willing to be surprised.
Everyone hates the word except for evaluators and legislators. Getting a fix on where things really are often entails measuring things. It’s easy to measure things. We count them, stretch measuring tapes on them, weigh them, and beat on them until they break to see what it takes. Measuring people is a bit more complicated.
The state of New Mexico has just rolled out evaluation standards for teachers. Poor evaluations may mean that advancement up the three-tier ladder of promotions and pay increases may be jeopardized. If a teacher fails to move up in five years their contract will not be renewed. The program has caught heat since it was rolled out in May. Teachers cry foul, administrators feel caught between a rock and a hard place. Legislators are looking at budgets and wondering why there is such a fuss.
People are complicated, that’s why there is such a fuss. Education is complicated because it’s not about a hard product, but a human one. There are multiple variables that always come into play in every teaching situation from the real reason for the superintendent’s third cup of coffee to the parents’ “animated discussion” the night before. An anomaly in any one of these variables necessarily discredits the validity of the evaluation process—unless provisions are made for exceptions and variances. So invariably you get a mish-mash of complicated evaluative rules that in the end cease to give you important information. No wonder teachers are up in arms about the link to compensation!
I think the whole thing is upside down. Teachers need the freedom to teach because it is a calling, not merely a job. Teachers who teach from their vocation do so with joy, energy and creativity. Students, even those from conflicted homes, often respond to that sort of teaching in surprising ways. Administrations that foster the sense of call should have the freedom to pay vocation adequately. Legislators should be ready to herald the successes, especially the unexpected ones, and salute the vocation of teaching.
How to do it? Maybe students should have a voice in Santa Fe, administrators should be paid according to the innovative creativity of the teachers, and teachers should encourage one another in mutual support groups (that meet on campus during paid hours) and parents should join a faith community that is supportive and spiritually challenging. Jesus said, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
The Rev. Canon Dagoberto Chacón from Honduras was our guest preacher on Sunday. He spoke to us about the experience of the immigrant from Central America, what the expectations are vs. the reality, why they come and what they want. He talked about learning to lose your life to gain it—and the way that so many literally lose their lives on the journey and do NOT gain it in any way. The key, said my friend, is to lose it for the sake of the Kingdom, and not for personal gain. Afterwards he said to me, “If I had preached this sermon in Honduras I would have added a piece. I would have said that, though the Americans are generous and helpful and trying to mount campaigns to take care of the thousands of women and children who have descended on the Texas border in the last week (and continue to do so) the real solution is not campaigns on this side of the Rio Bravo. The real solutions are in their countries of origin. Unless Honduras is transformed they will continue to come.
I told him I wished he had told my congregation what he had omitted. This is one of the reasons why I go to Honduras every year, why I plug what Honduras Good Works does (www.hondurasgoodworks.org.) What we are doing is trying to make an answer to the injustice and the misery in their own home, with their own people, and without the dangers and uncertainty of two weeks perched on the top of a train to land at a river whose crossing is too often literally life or death. We are trying to put the “coyotes” out of business by drying up their clientele. I’m sorry, but I am also depriving my own politicians the opportunity to garner fat government contracts with their own constituency and feathers in their caps to crow about when they want to get re-elected. So be it. Lose your life for the kingdom…
If the Psalmist is right who declares, “The earth is the Lord’s,” then Honduras is my own back yard, these are my sisters and children, and the solution that best serves THEIR needs is what should be forthcoming.
This last Sunday a dear friend of mine, the Rev. Canon Dagoberto Chacón, was our guest preacher. I first met “Dago” in his native Honduras as a lay person in the early 1990′s. We work together every year on our annual mission trip, and we had the opportunity to have him visit us here. It was magnificent. His sermon was stirring and inspiring (he got an ovation afterwards.) It was my job to take his inspiration and render it in English for the congregation. The process is really simple. He would pause after every phrase and I would say in as idiomatic English as I could muster the meanings he meant to convey.
But still waters run deep, and that which appears simple is often anything but simple beneath the surface. What I was called upon to do draws on long history in two cultural and linguistic contexts lodged deep within the soul. As if I stood spanning an ocean, with a foot in two very different worlds, Dago’s words would enter the soul of one foot, travel through the bowels, merge with parallel meanings from the other foot and flow out of the mouth. The process is so visceral that at one point he said a word in English and it was all I could do not to repeat it in Spanish!
What does it mean in terms of being a full and mature human being to have a foot so solidly anchored in two different world traditions? One option would be schizophrenia, but that is hardly full or mature. The other option is to play the cards one is dealt and to become a bridge between peoples. If the Christian concept of God posits an incarnation, where the divine bridged the gap between a lost creation and the divine heart, maybe it is in some way deeply holy to stand in the gap and bring peoples together.
My gifts in that area are obvious—you, my reader, also have them. Our mobile world gives us all multiple experiences in multiple worlds. I am of the mind that each of the cultural expressions in this world shines light on a unique facet of the divine diamond. If we are to believe in only one such gem and not a thousand stones warring with one another, the edges between the facets are vitally important to us. As each of us learns to live across an edge we make it easier for the world to see the ultimate unity of the One behind it all.
Cobre Independent School District is set to discuss a pilot project called Grade Court. In it troubled students met with a district court once a week to discuss life, grades, relationships and the law. They were given incentives for good behavior, like gift cards, and of course if the kids messed up the judge was there to take care of it. Margaret Flores-Begay, the Adult Drug Court Program manager who is also watching this program noted that the students want to impress the judges. Hmm…
The single best predictor of good grades and good behavior in schools is the direct, interested involvement by an adult the student respects. This transcends socio-economics of the home, race, maternal tongue, everything. Sharing a life that is bigger than theirs, towards which theirs is headed, being “in the kids’ world,” but not becoming a kid, holding the kid in esteem, believing in them yet being honest about their real condition, all these things are hugely motivating. (Hell, they’re motivating to me!)
Maybe that’s why in my Christian tradition I believe that God became one of us. It shows us how much God cares, it shares with us a life bigger than ours toward which ours is moving, it shows us a life that is in our broken and messed up world and yet transcends it somehow, it shows that God is honest about our brokenness and yet holds us as precious. Maybe we can change the name from Grade Court to Incarnational Caring.
We just got back last week from a road trip to northern Indiana. Having grown up in a time and place where much travel was on foot or mount, the ease with which we covered 1600 miles always gives me pause. The freeway zips around rather than through the towns, relieving us of the necessity of stopping for stoplights, ice cream or an interesting shop. Efficiency is the backbone of our roadway network on whose black back the commerce of the world strives to keep pace with cyberspace.
As a result, small towns across our nation are dying, bleeding their economic lifeblood into larger urban centers now easily accessible by road and speed. Programs like Mainstreet USA pour money into small downtown districts, with limited success. We ate at a little eatery in Vinita, OK, that advertised continuous service for several decades. But if people don’t get off the racing freeways they’ll never eat there.
Efficiency increases the bottom line of businesses, and more efficient businesses gain an edge over less efficient ones, who soon buy their smaller competitors out. It’s the way of capitalism, and it has produced some of the largest, richest and most powerful economic super-powers the planet has ever known, like IBM, Microsoft, and Exxon. But efficiency is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is ultimately a binary system. A system is either more efficient or less so. Less efficiency is de facto less desirable and is discarded for the more. Either or, no other choice to make, black-and-white. Color is not efficient. It presents multiple possible answers, surprises and multidimensional experiences. It complicates and implicates—and gives life! God is the God of color.