Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering Haiti

It's Memorial Day, and coincidentally I'm taking the last of my anti-malaria pills, which marks a certain kind of ending to my Haiti adventure last week. Anti-malaria medication, as I understand it, is offered in two types: the kind you take daily, beginning two days before your trip and ending seven days after; and the kind you take weekly, which stretches into a couple months after the end of your trip. I'm not good at remembering stuff, so I opted for the former. It just so happens that my capitulation to my flawed memory culminates on Memorial Day. I like that sort of thing.

In any case, I know that Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering the troops and praying for an end to war, but I find myself reflecting on my time in Haiti. In some ways this trip was characterized by caution and precaution. I was slow to commit to going; I didn't really decide until my friend Kent Annan, whose book Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle provided the impetus for this trip, told me he had to order the plane tickets. I was nervous about joining a trip in which I knew only two people, and only one person well. I was nervous about traveling to a country where I would likely be overwhelmed by the devastation of one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history--Haiti's January 12 earthquake. I was anxious about the possibility of aftershocks and the plausibility of getting stuck in Haiti longer than I expected. I was concerned about my very limited French and my nonexistent Creole. I was worried about taking bucket baths in front of people--including a couple of authors (Kent and my new friend Jamie Arpin-Ricci) whom I'm always concerned with trying to impress.

So yeah, I was a little nervous. And whatever anxieties I failed to generate on my own were in ample supply when I started to follow the protocols of international travel. My passport expired in July 2010, but someone told me they don't allow you to travel on it when it's within six months of expiration. So I had to get a new passport, which the evening news has told me can take as much as four months to process. Then there's the Centers for Disease Control, with a loooong list of truly awful things that could happen to me by venturing beyond Suburbia, U.S.A. And in addition to the aforementioned anti-malaria medication, I had to get shots for tetanus and two kinds of hepatitis. They refer to them as "Hep A" and "Hep B" to make them sound less ominous, but trust me, they're not fooling anybody.

And then I went to Haiti, and now I'm back. I've blogged about the trip elsewhere, but the long and short of it is this: Haiti doesn't have much patience for people like me--the chronically anxious, the pre-emptively sedentary. There's simply too much to be done.

The January 12 earthquake is only the most recent challenge Haiti has been faced with, and while there's plenty of mourning being done there (we witnessed the removal of seven dead bodies from a building we visited; the loss of life is still a present concern), and plenty of people who are navigating unprecedented hardship (some two million people living in tent cities or on the streets), the people of Haiti who we met have set their eyes not on the past but on the future. We were chastened by Andre, religious director of a leveled church and principal of two decimated schools: "Discouragement is not Christian." We were inspired by Enel, who survived the collapse of the building he was in and who has returned to tireless work in education: "We have hope in front of us." Memory is only part of the equation for the people of Haiti; memory plus hope equals a profound resilience and a singular resoluteness, two qualities that I can learn from and aspire to.

I worry on this Memorial Day that my memory of Haiti will not last beyond my final anti-malaria pill--that I'll find myself distracted by everyday suburban challenges and concerns, and I'll lose sight of the lessons and lose track of my responsibilities to the more vulnerable of my brothers and sisters in the world. Thankfully I'm protected, to some extent, from this failure of memory by the precautions I took to begin with: "Hep A" and "Hep B" boosters require multiple injections, so later this summer and then again this fall I'll head back to the doctor to be reminded of my trip. And with any luck, as I rub my sore arms where the needle enters my muscle, I'll be reminded that discouragement is not Christian; that while I have breath I have work from God to do. I'll be reminded that we have hope in front of us, and that hope is manifested in the relationships we find ourselves surrounded with. With any luck I'll act on those reminders--to pray for the people of Haiti, to seek out and act on opportunities to aid in their rebuilding efforts, to champion a more resilient and resolute world, where our relationships trump our national borders, and our hope overwhelms our discouragement--and justice orders our steps.

Thanks to all who helped me get to Haiti, and who prayed for me and over me while I traveled. I'd ask you to transfer that blessed concern now to the people of Haiti, who are accustomed to hardship but are doggedly hopeful. They're good friends to have, believe me.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Back from Haiti

I'm back--touched down in Chicago last night, shortly after 9pm. My trip to Haiti, led by my friends Kent Annan and John Engle with Haiti Partners, was a whirlwind--five days including travel, too short a time to do anything but look and listen. I'll try to post some photos here, at my other blog (Strangely Dim) and on my Facebook page over the next several days, and I'll be processing my experience for much longer than that, I'm sure. But I thought I'd post a quick note now, as a thank-you to those of you who prayed for me and otherwise helped me make this trip, and as an invitation for all of us to pray for Haiti not just now but always, and to keep our eyes open to opportunities to help the people of Haiti recover from this earthquake and raise the next generation of its leaders.

This was not a crying trip. We saw things that can break a heart--some two million people living in tent cities or on the street, trucks and workers still uncovering and carting off the dead, people with lost limbs or loved ones. But this was not a crying trip: this trip was oddly joyous.

That caught me off guard. I expected to be despondent, enraged, petrified, but I didn't expect to rejoice. It was probably partly because we were so regularly surrounded by kids--Haiti Partners concentrates its energies on education issues--and those kids like to laugh. A lot. We sang and danced and clapped and played catch and jumped rope and chased one another and made googly eyes at one another, and we laughed and laughed and laughed.

It was likely also because the team that does the work of Haiti Partners--Kent, John, his wife Merleene (I'm guessing on the spelling), trainer and our translator Benajay (again, I apologize for my phonics), and videographer Luke Renner--have wild senses of humor that stop short of the gallows but sit squarely on the earth. They've been running nonstop for five months now, and they laugh as intensely as they work.

It was also likely because of the team that I traveled with, which included a couple of precocious college students (one, Mariana considering missions as a vocation; the other, Travis, my roommate and a musician interested in urban development), an international development think-tank staffer (Jonathan), a journalist with Operation Blessing (Holly), and two of my authors--Kent, whose book Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle is a great showcase of Haiti pre-earthquake and who has directed his royalties toward the work of Haiti Partners, and Jamie Arpin-Ricci, who serves as an urban monastic pastor in Winnipeg, a city that this winter will experience temperatures 180 degrees colder than we experienced over the weekend. For a group of people who had never met one another, we got along famously.

But more than anything, this trip was oddly joyous because the Haitians I met are as resolute as they are resilient. Andre, the principal of two churches and religious director of the utterly devastated (with the exception of the tabernacle which holds the blessed sacrament) Catholic church we joined for worship on Sunday, told us "Discouragement isn't Christian" and encouraged us that "if you're alive, God has work for you to do." Enel, who was on the third floor of a six-story university building on January 12, summed up his work in education reform and revitalization with the phrase "We have hope out in front of us." On and on and on, we met creative, imaginative, dedicated Haitians, in the cities and the country, who are passionate about seeing children empowered, encouraged, and set on a path to shape their country's future. And we met similarly passionate children who hang on tight to the joy of education and who understand clearly that knowledge is not just for the intellect, not even just for the person, but for the greater good.

I respect tears, believe me, but this was not a crying trip. This was a celebration. You should get in on it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Haiti Bound, Part Two

Wednesday night I was on a conference call with some of the people I'll be traveling with to Haiti next week: Kent Annan, codirector of Haiti Partners and author of the book Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle (which I edited); Jonathan Chan, one of the architects of Project Level Aid--a web-accessible database of development and relief programs; and Lindsay Bonilla, founder and artistic director of World of Difference Ltd., which produces interactive theatre pieces to educate people about global cultural issues. Suddenly this trip, which I've been hearing about, thinking about, talking about and praying about for months, is about to happen.

This won't be the first time I've visited a country just months after an earthquake caused widespread devastation. When I was a sophomore in high school I traveled with our marching band to Mexico for spring break, about six months after a magnitude 8.1 earthquake claimed the lives of around 10,000 people and damaged or leveled more than three thousand buildings. I have vague recollections of rubble by the roadside as we drove around in Mexico City. I was a kid; I didn't have a real grasp of what piles of rubble represented: death and disruption, pain and suffering. My more salient memories of that trip are of typical adolescent drama--boys disrespecting girls, upperclassmen terrorizing lowerclassmen, that sort of thing.

This time is different. I'm traveling not with a bandful of hormone-addled teenagers but a half-dozen sober-minded, socially conscious evangelical Christians, looking to help. You can meet them here. We'll be getting to know the country by sitting down with business leaders and representatives of various organizations in the towns of Darbonne and Port-au-Prince, staying with families in outlying areas, and worshiping with a church whose building was destroyed in the quake. We'll have the chance to see the progress of the XO Laptop project, which is making laptops available to underprivileged schoolchildren, improving the quality of their education. My task on this trip is to pay attention, the sort of attention I failed to pay when I visited Mexico City twenty-four years ago.

Attention is a gift I often fail to give people. I often work through conversations, typing as I talk, reading as I listen, peeking as I pray. I hoard my attention like a miser hoards gold, you might argue, and I would be hard-pressed to defend myself. But this trip is about paying attention--observing and acknowledging the struggles of a country far too often overlooked; noticing and celebrating the movement of God even in the midst of hardship; sensing and responding to the whispers and workings of the Spirit. My mission on this trip is to pay attention and to carry what I see and hear and learn with me in the days ahead.

My thanks to those folks who have contributed money to make my trip possible, who helped me decide and prepare to go, who are praying for me now and will be praying for me while I'm away, and who will help me process and live forward after my trip has ended. You are part of this, and I am in your debt.

Please do visit the Haiti Partners website, and read Kent's book. Among other things, it's a story of paying attention, and the profound things that emerge out of it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Robert Farrar Capon Is a Genius, Part Four

I recently finished reading Robert Farrar Capon's three volume series on the parables of Jesus, compiled into the one-volume Kingdom, Grace, Judgment published by Eerdmans. Loved it. LOVED. IT. Capon first impressed me with his compare-and-contrast discussion of Superman as the template for the American Jesus in his book The Divine Fox (I quoted it in my book Comic Book Character), and he continues to do so in my encounters with him since. I like him because he's feisty, as in his take on death and salvation in the bit that follows--a nice summary of his work on the parables, his theology of grace, and his personality as a writer. If you like this, you should buy everything he's selling:

We spend our lives invoking upon ourselves imagined necessities, creating God in the image of our own fears--and all the while, he is beating us over the head with the baloon of grace and the styrofoam baseball bat of a vindicating judgment. The history of salvation is slapstick all the way, right up to and including the end. It's the Three Stooges working only for laughs. God isn't trying to hurt anyone; he's not even mad at anyone. There are no lengths to which he won't go to prove there are no restrictions on the joy he wants to share with us. If you were never afraid of Curly, Larry, and Moe, you don't need to be afraid of the Trinity either.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Robert Farrar Capon Is a Genius, Part Three

I'm fast approaching the age of tenure--that point slightly past middle age where my station in life is nearly insurmountable but likewise nearly unimpeachable. I will either be or not be among the power elite; I will either be or not be among the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. "I am what I am," Popeye the sailor man said on what I can only imagine to be the occasion of his fortieth birthday, "and that's all that I am."

I know, I know, I'm being fatalistic. But there are benefits to fatalism; "It's no good," Jesus told the apostle Paul, "to kick against the goads"--meaning that attacking others in order to justify oneself is tantamount to courting madness. Jesus offers Paul this insight, Paul tells us in Acts 26, as advice to stop being such a Pharisee about everything, to stop wonkishly banging the fledgling Christian movement over the head with his Torah, and to start noticing the strange warming and pulse-quickening taking place in his heart every time he stumbled over some evidence that Jesus is Lord.

Paul, it turns out, was kicking those Christian goads out of a futile desire to maintain a system that needn't be maintained; this was not his faith-system's enemy but its fulfillment that he was railing against. Jesus wanted him to stop stubbing his toe and start dancing, for Messiah had come and all things were being made new.

Paul, to his credit, stopped kicking and started dancing. Many of us--some of us intermittently and too many of us persistently--prefer to kick. That is Robert Farrar Capon's chief complaint, as I understand it, in his three-volume series on the parables of Jesus, compiled in the Eerdmans book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. I've been loving this book for 515 pages; I blew a lot of ink underlining and starring stuff. I'll be chewing on some of his insights for a long time coming, but one of them isn't so much a chin-stroker as it is, in my mind, a no-brainer.

As a publishing professional in the Christian book industry, I'm awash in a sea of nitpicking. In fact, nitpicking is my particular field: I edit people's books, which contrary to far too many of even my friends' opinion is far more than glorified spell-checking and comma-fascism. No, I nit-pick people's ideas, back-seat-driving the Ford Festivas of their faith. "Turn here," I wheeze; "I wish you had taken the tollway," I sneer; "Just let me off here," I pout, "this car isn't going anywhere." That's how I make my living: kicking other people in the goads.

I justify my vocation by a simple acknowledgment: better to get your goads kicked in private than to have them punted and pelted in public. Editing in this respect is a pre-emptive strike, since the one thing we can count on in Christendom, as in the marketplace of all ideas, is the axiom branded on my friend Dan's blog: "Whatever you do [or, in this case, type], there will be critics."

I won't go into the psychology behind the pervasive impulse to tear down other people's constructs. Suffice to say that people predictably attack one another's ideas, and only a precious few recognize their capacity to do so and make efforts to constrain themselves. But one big dividing line between those who critique and those who suffer their critique is the line of entrenched institutionalism. And "suffer" is the right word for the impact when the critique comes from those with tenure: well-intended thinkers and doers are marginalized and even demonized for daring to meander away from the status quo or the orthodox opinion; they're excommunicated or worse for tipping sacred cows, or even for pointing out their spilt milk or--if I may be permitted to take an analogy slightly too far--the stench of their manure.

Capon addresses this power-driven impulse toward character assassination in a passing comment; he doesn't dwell on it, so I'm doing so on his behalf:

Powers that be are always expert sniffers of the wind and testers of the waters. They can spot a threat to their system a mile off: all they need is half a sentence from a professor or the odd gesture from a political figure and their heresy alarm goes off. (p. 349)

I confess I have a few people in mind as I read, type and post this. Capon wrote this two decades ago; for all I know, he may be on the side of the wind-sniffers and water-testers in the controversies I'm thinking of. But what such prescience on his part tells me is that

*No age is safe from those who protect power by kicking those who operate outside of it.

*None of us is immune to the impulse to protect our own power by any means necessary.

Given that Capon sees Jesus as working through leastness, lostness, littleness and lifelessness, and given our predilection to acquire and protect power, it's possible that our only hope for keeping in step with Christ as Lord is to actively and perpetually marginalize and excommunicate ourselves, and only then to raise concerns about the orthodoxy of others. Maybe--just maybe--anything else is of the devil.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Robert Farrar Capon Is a Genius, Part Two

I don't recall why--maybe I needed to pad my word count, or maybe my editor told me "You need more Bible in this book," or maybe I was simply in a mood--but on a whim one morning while working on Deliver Us from Me-Ville I started doodling about Jesus' encounter with the Rich Young Ruler, a story recounted in three of the four Gospels. And then I crammed it into the book--somewhat arbitrarily, I can now admit--and it became one of my favorite parts. I've gone on to have it excerpted in a magazine for college students and delivered it in verbal form to a variety of audiences. I actually look for opportunities to bring it up; how pathetic is that?

I think I warmed to it so thoroughly because I found myself identifying with this kid, who has the sheer moxie to approach Jesus with a dismissive wave of the hand toward everyone else around them. "Forget the riff raff," he seems to suggest; "tell me the secret. Trust me, I can take it." So, as the story goes, Jesus gives it to him. But there's more to this story: it's bookended by two other encounters. The outline goes like this: (A) Against the impulses of his followers, Jesus welcomes little children and offers them a special blessing; (2) seeing this, an impulsive up and comer comes up to Jesus and gets his come-uppance from him; (III) observing this, Jesus' impulsive disciple Peter distances himself from the brash upstart and proceeds to sound almost exactly like him in his whiny appeal for special blessing. I could go on and on (if you don't believe me, ask someone who's heard me speak), but you get the picture. I love this story.

So imagine my delight when I turned the page in the third section of the great Robert Farrar Capon's Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, in which he interprets the parables of judgment, to find him giving space to this very interchange. Identifying the young man as a "yuppie," he imagines the inner monologue that drives his request of Jesus:

"Oh yes," he sighs, "I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced stastitical methods into the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel. . . . But the world is no better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to its founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whispers of my secretaries . . . deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of dishevelled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want."

I think this guy was an editor. You can taste the contempt with which he holds everyone else. Jesus once looked at his ragtag following, sighed and muttered, "How long must I abide with you?" This Rich Young Ruler (let's call him Dave) seems to have adopted that attitude as his imitation of Christ. Capon sums it up: "This fellow is a winner who will not give up trying to win." Which, as he quickly reminds us, completely misses Jesus' point:

In spite of this acted parable of the Rich Young Man--in spite of Jesus' clear insistence that no winner will ever do anything but lose--you and I go right on blithely trying to win. If it is not financial success that keeps us from the saving emptiness of Jesus on the cross, it is moral success intellectual success, emotional success, or spiritual success. We simply will not lose; and without losing, we will never, ever win.

As I'm now closing in on the big 4-0, I'm coming to terms with a cosmic truth: everything ages, and at the end of our aging lies our inevitable death--the end of our life, which can only be understood as a loss. But, as Capon repeatedly reminds us, Jesus loves losers, and Jesus uses loss to usher in a celebration of life that won't end. Jesus begs the Rich Young Ruler to give up being rich, young and a ruler; he begs the same of us, because until we let go of our preoccupations and surrender our self-assertion--until we die to such silliness--we will never enter his rest or enjoy his feast.