Monday, June 14, 2010

Casualties of War

We've gotten - my dad has gotten - a reprieve from what could have been a very long summer of recuperating from major surgery.   No surgery for now, a re-check in six months and we'll go from there.  That's good, relieving news because it means no new cancer or returned cancer evident.  Much thankfulness for that.  And then there's the other news he's gotten, news he would never have known if he hadn't been going through all these follow-ups from his original bout with cancer 5 years ago.

I know, now, that when he returned from southeast Asia in the early 1970s, along with many others, he came back carrying Hepatitis B.  He got checked, etc, and it lay dormant for decades.  But it's now reared its ugly head, as the specialist said today, and he's pretty sick.  Sick, and also asymptomatic.  Meaning, if he hadn't had all these tests trying to figure out whether cancer was present again, he still wouldn't know he was sick.  He lives 45 minutes from one of the best specialists in the country, so much to be thankful for there as well.   Sobering to think that something so significant could have gone undetected...

Dad was talking to my mom's brother about it, who also spent time in Vietnam.  My uncle, he's a cancer survivor as well - survived serious stomach cancer that most people don't, a cancer directly related to his exposure to Agent Orange, a dangerous pesticide used to defoliate the jungle so they could have some kind of fighting chance in the guerrilla warfare they were thrown into.  They're survivors, my dad and my uncle.  And my uncle said to my dad recently - "We just can't ever get away from it, can we?"

My uncle, laughing with Abby her first Christmas

They are survivors.  And they are casualties of war.  War that will never leave them, just as it never leaves the thousands of other veterans who came back to United States soil.  These are two men I know, and love, and who have managed to hold down steady jobs, own homes, care for others.  And so they make me think of the many others I now know who also were in the jungles of southeast Asia or in Korea or the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Baghdad.  These others I know now, these men and women, their whole lives seem to be a casualty of war.  They sleep under overpasses, tents in the woods, abandoned buildings.  Their wounds are so deep they physically shake with the weight they carry.  Or they try and bury the pain with alcohol, or have been wounded in such a way that they can no longer carry on a coherent conversation.

These are the stories that need to be told when we speak of the costs of war, when we watch billions of dollars poured into creating more casualties like my dad, my uncle, the men and women who do not show up for a parade because they cannot tolerate the noise of the crowds and the gun salutes.  All of these, they, too, gave up their lives in a way that too many of us cannot begin to understand.  How many generations will do so before our guns are made into tractors, and our bombs into hoes and shovels to plant life, not take it away?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

An Uncomfortable Welcome

A reflection on Luke 7:36-50, written to share with some UMC folks tomorrow here in Asheville:

I love to cook – to try out new recipes, make up my own, tinker with spices and marinades and fresh vegetables. It’s long been a kind of therapy for me, really: my time in the kitchen, maybe a little music on in the background, a chance to step away from the events of the day and into space that is just mine, even if only for a short while. The routine of this has changed dramatically since the birth of our daughter 21 months ago. Life is not so quiet at home anymore, but it’s still something that brings me great peace, and joy, to prepare a good meal for my family.
We love, too, having friends and family over for dinner, the time around the table together to share our laughter, and our lives. There’s no china or special napkins or crystal glasses in our house, but we do try and make the place look presentable and even a little cleaner than what we live with day-to-day caused by our toddler tornado. I continue to be baffled at how such a small person can cause such significant destruction in what used to be at least a semi-orderly house.
We both work full-time, and so we cherish the moments when our little family of 3 is at home together, in those short hours between getting home and bedtime for Abby. The center of that time is the meal together, and now we’re all involved in getting both the food and ourselves ready to eat. Those few hours are my favorite time of the day. There’s somewhat of a rhythm to most days, playtime outside now that it’s warmer – a walk with the dog or swinging on the playset in the backyard or simply running around the yard to find the dandelions. And then after cooking a simple meal and getting the table ready for dinner, we all sit down together every night we can to hold hands and thank God for the meal, for the day and for each other. It’s an ordinary kind of life, but it does have some order in its chaos and I have gotten accustomed to the embrace of the rhythm we’ve created as a family.
But the last few weeks there’s been some disruption to that late afternoon order, to the rhythm I’ve realized I love so much. A young girl lives in the rental property next door to us, she's 8 or 9 years old going on 40. I suspect she's taken care of herself most of her life. I do not know the technical details, but it appears she may be a foster kid, being cared for by adults who do not have much of an idea how to take care of themselves. It's abundantly clear that she's been wanting her whole life - wanting for attention, for support, for love. The adults in the household behave much like the adults I see all day long in my work life. There's too much drinking, not enough conversation; too much yelling, not enough laughing. And so this young girl does what anyone would do who doesn't get what she needs where she is - she looks elsewhere for the attention she craves, for the love she needs.
She comes to my house, this young girl, just about everyday. Sometimes she’ll bring Abby small gifts, like hair bows or stuffed animals she must have had in her bedroom that’s a few short steps away. Often, she’s running or skipping or occasionally riding one of those silver scooters so popular right now. Always, she is loud: loud in her approach, her calling to Abby, her barrage of questions about our life and our garden and our dog and our house…you’ve probably known a nine-year-old or two yourself, and know about the questions. This young neighbor of ours has crashed into my comfortable, lovely afternoons with my little family and I have not welcomed her presence.

This story of Jesus we heard a few minutes ago has something to do with welcome, something to say about how we see God in our lives, it has more than a little wisdom to give about just what happens when Jesus shows up. Unlike some other stories we have of Jesus, he’s invited to this dinner party by the host himself – an influential and important religious guy named Simon. It’s very possible Simon asks Jesus as a joke more than as an honored guest. Some say that Simon would have seen Jesus as an uneducated country rabbi, really – a colorful character for entertainment and not someone who actually could teach Simon anything. Simon, you see, didn’t get to be an important religious guy by just sitting around. He has studied every book available, goes to services every time the doors open, keeps his kitchen and his table ordered just as the book says to do, and prays all the right prayers at just the right times. Some rabbi from the country sure doesn’t hold a candle to what he already knows.
So let’s picture the scene for a minute: I’m thinking Simon’s house does have china and fancy napkins and crystal glasses laid out for all the guests. Maybe even those little name cards often used at wedding receptions sitting by each place setting. Lots of important folks are there, the mayor, maybe, a more well-to-do rabbi, Simon knows all the best-looking and most presentable people in town. For a dinner party, they’re all invited. Everyone has a drink of highest quality in hand, making small talk, name-dropping, telling stories that reflect lives of order and tranquility and following the rules.
And then some uninvited woman walks in crying. If that’s not enough, this public display of emotion, she walks right to Jesus and washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then she actually kisses his feet and anoints them with oil. This was not the kind of entertainment Simon was expecting when he invited Jesus. He might have been thinking about tripping him up with a hard theological puzzle – but this? To save face, Simon immediately distances himself from Jesus by calling the woman a sinner and declaring that to be evidence that Jesus cannot be any kind of prophet. If he was, he’d have known this woman was not to be touched, and certainly not allowed at the table to touch anyone else.
So Jesus tells Simon, and presumably everyone else who could hear, a story about canceling debts, a story of forgiveness. And then asks Simon if he really sees the woman kneeling there, and proceeds to detail Simon’s complete lack of welcome to Jesus in contrast to the crazy, crying woman who crashed the dinner party with her extravagance. Forgive just a little, Jesus says, and you’ll get just a little love. Forgive extravagantly, and you’ll know and give great love. Jesus then starts another scandal by telling the woman her sins are forgiven, her faith has saved her and that she can now go on her way in peace.
It’s not quite the evening Simon had planned, I don’t think. The text does not give us his response but I’m guessing he’s more than a little mad, maybe embarrassed and incredibly uncomfortable in front of all these folks he’d invited to dinner. And, he’s probably wishing he’d left Jesus off the guest list. And the woman? We don’t know what happens to her, either, but I’m betting she never regretted crashing that party. Somewhere along the way, prior to this party at Simon’s, she’d seen Jesus and recognized the grace and mercy of God in him. She knew there wasn’t any amount of good deeds she could do to earn that grace, that peace. There weren’t any rules that would give her the mercy she had discovered she needed. But she had seen it in Jesus, and couldn’t contain her gratitude for it. This unnamed woman, with no fancy clothes or invited place at the table, she’s the one who understood forgiveness and love in a way that Simon could not fathom.
Simon saw a sinner. Jesus saw a woman. There’s a big difference, isn’t there, in the way the two men see in this story? I have no doubt that Jesus knew the woman had made some mistakes, wrong decisions, maybe even horrible ones. He also knew there was more to her than those sins. Just as there was more to Simon than the face he put on for the dinner party. I think it’s also important to note that nowhere in the text does it say that this woman was a prostitute, as is so often assumed. She may have been, but we do not know that. Truth is, it doesn’t matter whether she was or not. She could have committed any number of deeds seen as unclean or evil and Jesus would have still seen her as a woman, first. A child of God, first. Jesus would have welcomed her, regardless of her missteps, bad judgments or even harm she had done to others.
It is a most uncomfortable welcome that Jesus asks us to give to the world we live in, to the people we meet, to the neighbors who crash into our comfortable late afternoon routines. Realizing Jesus is how we see God most clearly is one thing, putting it all into practice and trying to walk in those steps is a huge leap of faith to take, every day. A walk of faith that will spin us around, turn comfortable routines into unrecognizable patterns, and maybe, just maybe move the world a little closer to the wholeness God intends for all of us.

I am fortunate to spend my days in a job working with co-workers I genuinely love, and truly blessed to be able to see Jesus among the most vulnerable and needy in our community. He’s there, I promise you, walking in and among the addicts, the mentally ill, those who live on the streets and in shelters, who sleep under overpasses and in abandoned buildings. We work daily to provide hope and help to the over 800 homeless men and women in the Asheville-Buncombe area. There are many who work with us, it’s no small job to work to end homelessness as I am sure you can imagine. The Salvation Army, ABCCM, the Western North Carolina Rescue Ministries, Pisgah Legal Services, the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, the Veterans Administration, the more than 30 faith communities that assist with the Room in the Inn shelter for women – these are a few of our many partners in this work. It’s work that Jesus calls me to, and I am grateful for the support of my family and co-workers that allows me to get up every morning and do it again.
I tell people that I get to hang out with Jesus at work. It’s true, and I’m grateful. What I’ve realized, though, over these last few weeks through the voice and presence of our young neighbor is that God expects more of me than that. God expects me to welcome Jesus at home, too. And it’s often no more easy to do that on a late afternoon when all I want is quiet time with my family than it is when confronted with a severely mentally ill crack addict who hasn’t taken a shower in weeks.
Our young daughter is helping me learn, though. She sees more clearly than I do, sees more like Jesus does, to be honest. Abby, in the true wisdom of a child, simply sees someone who wants to play with her. She doesn’t see all the baggage that comes with that – the outwardly dysfunctional family that this neighbor girl lives in, the inappropriate loudness and language, the awkward social behavior. My spouse is much the same, thankfully, so they’re both gently pushing me to extend the welcome to our neighbor that Jesus extends to us all.
The truth is, we’re all sinners. Not one of us more worthy of God’s welcome than another. Some of us wear our shortcomings right out in the open, for everyone to see. Others of us hide them deep inside, certain that if we do not admit to a mistake then somehow we’re better people. Most of us are somewhere in between: we make mistakes that everyone sees, and, at the same time, we squirrel away our deepest pain where no one can get to it. The truth is, Jesus sees it all. Just as Jesus saw Simon, who hid his faults behind all his rule-following and perfect dinner parties. Just as Jesus saw the woman who crashed the party, whose tears of pain and gratitude flowed openly for all to see.
“Do you see this woman,” Jesus asks Simon. We do not know Simon’s answer. But the absence of Simon’s answer gives us the chance to answer Jesus’ question for ourselves. For our church, for our neighborhood and our neighbors. Do you see? Do you really see me, Jesus asks?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Worn Bedposts

I slept last night in a bed I have slept in - off and on - for most of my life. It's a twin bed, made of wood whose original finish has long been rubbed and worn down to a well-loved and well-used shine. Covering its mattress is a quilt, made by my mother's mother (Nanny to the grandkids) for me, out of quilt squares my mom stitched when she was 12. There's a matching bed at the other end of the room, with another quilt made of mom's quilt squares, this one made for my sister. Years ago, these twin beds were in a room in Nanny's house, and we slept in them there, under windows looking toward the Pigeon River and the rolling tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Abby slept in a portable crib in the room next to mine, underneath a quilt that was made for me when I was born. Throughout this house, there are all kinds of things with deep history, deeper than I know, I'm sure. My parents - well, mostly my mother - have lots and lots of stuff. Most of it, to me, is really just stuff that I hope they'll clean out themselves so I don't have to. Last night, though, sleeping in that old twin bed mattered.

Facing the mortality of my parents doesn't come easy for me. I want them to be around when Abby graduates from diapers and from college. The diaper graduation, we've got a great chance at making. College is another question (and, yes, it's okay with me if she chooses not to go to college). Spring and early summer 2010 haven't brought great news for them. And so I worry. I worry about their house here in central NC with long flights of stairs, I wonder if they're asking all the doctors and specialists the right questions. And I feel frustrated, and helpless, and sad.

Being with them helps. Seeing Abby with them heals. Abby following them around and wanting them to play with her helps them forget for awhile about all the tests, and the waiting, and the unknown future. And the worn bedposts comfort me, remind me of the depth of family at its best, and most life-giving.