It was my first moment of devoted prayer in four months.
The last time I prayed, I conversed earnestly with what I call God, and for the first time in my YAGM experience, I really truly cried.
This time I didn’t.
I struggle with prayer, because it defies the logical framework of my divine understanding in ways that many other spiritual practices don’t. What, I’m supposed to just sit, and dwell in nothing, in the silence//ecnelis? (A word I invert because my mind is more often the roar of a turbine jet engine than a meditative garden.) Please… If the divine was going to speak to me, it’d have done it already.
God would have spoken in the midst of my high-school depression.
God would have spoken as I frantically wrote “Architect/Pastor/Architect/Pastor” ten-fold during a campus evangelical worship.
God would have calmed the storm that so often is my mind.
God would have spoken.
And yet, for some strange reason, today I prayed. And I wish I’d do it tomorrow. Though I can’t tell you now if I will.
The divine is a peculiar, frustratingly complicated thing.
Because the thing with prayer, is that when I look back on my pleas, on my longing, my pain, my lack of understanding. Answers somehow seem to drift forth:
A single piece of paper ornamented with a web of my strengths\\beautiful things, offered by a friend on the darkest of nights.
The fact that I now lay on a bed in a L’Arche home in Buenos Aires, instead of sitting in the desk-chair of a United States architecture firm.
The inner peace brought by written words, as they siphon the conflict within, and pour it from my fingers into these keys.
But were they purely my musing, hopeful mind, or something more?
Today I prayed. And the divine offered no answer. It often doesn’t.
But perhaps tomorrow it will.
My thoughts come to rest on a series of quotes, from a man who, like myself, found himself angry with the being we both call God:
“‘[Father Lantom] told me something, years ago, when [I was struck blind], that I never forgot.
See I was pretty angry at God, and bitter towards his world.
How could a loving God blind me?
Anyway, he told me… God’s plan is like a beautiful tapestry.
And the tragedy of being human is that we only get to see it from the back.
With all the ragged threads and the muddy colors…
And we only get a hint at the true beauty that would be revealed if we could see the whole pattern on the other side…
as God does.'”
Perhaps each prayer is another thread being pulled tight, and we simply must wait till the end to see what we have made. I do not know.
Grace and peace; sometimes prayerful, sometimes not,
In my mind’s eye, I picture a simple Venn Diagram, the left circle inscribed with the word “YAGM”, and the right circle with the words “My Life”. A year in the past, those two circles popped into existence, and over the course of the next few months slowly fell into each other’s orbit, revolving closer and closer to one another. At last, during the placement event last April they touched, and ever so slowly began to overlap each other’s boundaries, that seam of the universe where YAGM and my life began to embrace one another. Those first interactions were electric, pulsing new energy into my life as I prepared for this year in service. And every time those circles sank deeper into one another I’d feel another rush of joy, or excitement, or fear. It’s been over three months since I arrived at my site, a L’Arche home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and during the last few weeks I felt something change. An imperceptible settling. And at first I didn’t realize what it was, but I’ve come to understand that recently, acostumbrar, the circles of YAGM and my life, with one final flex of reality, sank together, and two became one. However, you see, as those two paradigms finally reached their joint resting place, I felt the luster of newness fade to the simple sheen of normalcy, and I felt . . . unsure.
What is your reaction when YAGM becomes your life, and the world-changing becomes your day-to-day? When the strangers, Daniel, Tara, and Maximiliano become uncle, sister, brother, and the beso no longer feels strange and foreign against your cheek? When you decide to live for a year on the other half of the globe, you really can’t imagine where the future might pull you. I look back at myself twelve months ago, after I had clicked that “Apply Now” button on the Young Adults in Global Mission website, and I realize now that within my mind was this fantastic mural of what could be. Now, a year later, I sit at my desk in Boulogne, Buenos Aires, and find myself wondering what on Earth it is that I’ve agreed to, whilst the backdrop of my life here in Argentina settles more clearly into focus. When we seventy-six global volunteers agreed to take up the tarnished mantle of “missionary”, the excitement was tangible in that seminary chapel; the density of a divine spirit was profound in that space, as we laughed, cried, worried, and wondered at the year ahead. As I look down at the circle of black string tied round my wrist, symbolic both of YAGM’s global unity and of the eternal, I find my thoughts settling upon two lonely disciples wandering slowly down a road, away from Jerusalem, silent and, like myself uncertain, of the journey ahead.
As the two walked along the stony path, which led to the town of Emmaus, they spoke softly and seriously to one another about everything that had happened over the course of their three years with their teacher, culminating in these strange and terrible past three days. As the hot sun shone on their faces, settling slowly in front of them, they continued their westward walk, contemplating and conversing with one another, when suddenly one of the men, Cleopas, stopped speaking. The two paused, and turned to face for a moment the footsteps which had become audible behind them. Seeing nothing but a lone figure, the two men turned back round, and continued on, but after a few moments the stranger came up alongside them. He wore simple clothes, and held no possessions. After a few minutes of silence, the stranger, I like to think with a polite smile to Cleopas, spoke:
“What have you two been discussing together as you walk along?”
They stopped, and the two mens’ faces fell slightly. Cleopas asked, a note of incredulity in his voice, “Are you the only person visiting Jerusalem who doesn’t know what has happened there over the past few days?”
“What things?” asked the stranger.
“About the man called Jesus of Nazareth,” the other replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and many people. The chief priests and our rulers,” he pointed back towards Jerusalem, “handed him over to the Romans to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.” Then, hesitating for a moment, he continued, “but we had hoped that he was the Messiah, the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
The three began again to walk, and as they started, Cleopas went on saying, “What’s more, it has now been three days since all this happened, and today some of our women amazed us. They went to our teacher’s tomb early this morning, but didn’t find his body.. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive!?” Cleopas’ face twisted slightly with a look of confusion, and he said “Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see any trace of Jesus.” The two men fell silent, and after a moment it was not them, but instead the stranger who spoke.
“How foolish you two are, and how slow are you to believe what the prophets have spoken!” Looks of surprise appeared on the disciples’ faces, but the stranger continued, “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer through these things and then enter into his glory?” Then the stranger began to explain, to the amazement of Cleopas and his friend, many mysteries and meanings within the history of their people, beginning with Moses and the Prophets. With understanding befitting a great expert in the law back at the temple in Jerusalem, the stranger explained to them all the Scriptures said concerning the coming of their Messiah.
After awhile, Emmaus at last came into view, and as their three shadows fell long behind them, the stranger made to continue onward on his own. The two disciples caught him, urging strongly, “Stay with us, for it’s now late; the day is nearly over.” And so, the stranger went with them, and after finally reaching their destination, settled in for the evening meal. When at the table together, the stranger took bread, gave thanks for the food, broke the loaf apart, and began to give it to them.
It was in this moment that Cleopas and his friend, with a mixture of utmost amazement, excitement, and perhaps just a bit of fear, recognized the man holding the bread. It was no longer the stranger who sat before them, but their teacher. And in that moment of understanding, again I imagine with a small smile, Jesus vanished from their sight. Awestruck, jumping up, Cleopas said to his companion, “Weren’t our hearts burning in our chests while he talked with us on the road, and explained the scriptures to us?!” They quickly gathered their things, and at once, though darkness fell around them, started back to Jerusalem. When at last they found the other disciples, they burst into the room to find them talking excitedly, saying “It’s true! The Lord has risen and appeared to Simon!” At hearing this, Cleopas and his friend, explained what they had seen and heard on the road to Emmaus, and how they too had seen their teacher. And though the night was thick around them, that room was full of light. ¹
On that Easter day so long ago, the disciples too were in the midst of a transition. Their circles of faith and life had begun to merge with the strange first-century rabbi called Jesus. As their teacher performed signs and prophesied, their worlds sank into one another, and I can imagine their moments of excitement and joy as they followed this man, and as he changed their worlds forever. However, then at the height of his ministry, when at last the circles sank together into one, their teacher was taken from them, and publicly, brutally killed. Their journey, which had at first been so thrilling and life-changing, seemingly reached its end. And so as their hopes faded, they probably felt like their lives were again only one circle, the dimension that was Christ no longer visible to them. However then on Easter came the realization that no, this was not the end. Christ still lived, though not in the miraculous like before, but instead in the ordinary – in the daily breaking of the bread.
As YAGM and my life became one, so too the miraculous became ordinary. However I have struggled to see Christ in the daily journey, struggled to see my teacher while walking on the road. As I go throughout my daily routine, beneath the hot Argentine sun, I couldn’t help but feel indignation for, and distance from, the divine. I, like Cleopas and his companion, in fact like many of the eleven, was frustrated that I could not see what this year was doing for me. For me . . . And then a week ago, El Arca Argentina celebrated its fifteen year anniversary. Priests, men, women, children, differently-abled, all came together to celebrate the day fifteen years ago, that a young girl named Sandra came to live with a woman named Maria Luisa. A few years later came Maxi, and then a few years after that Osvy, then Marcos, and finally this June, Dani. And along the way came untold voluntarixs, asistentes, acogidxs, and their stories too became a part of this family. That afternoon we all shared a misa “mass” together and, as a friend of the community, Padre Pepe, began to preach, someone’s voice cut across his. A voice full of joy, with a laugh that we all know so well. Osvy’s small frame stood up animatedly, dentures nearly popping out of his wide smile, and as he gestured to Padre Pepe, we all laughed: he had one hand on his walker, and held out the other in a request for the microphone…
And then, Osvy preached.
But what struck me deepest, as Osvy stood before us all, telling us of his thankfulness and love for El Arca, was one of his signs. He took his left hand, and held it across his body, pausing over the crook of his right elbow, and then squeezed his palm open and closed, a bit like someone pumping to take your blood pressure.
“Copi…” The name was murmured with a chuckle by many throughout the room, and at hearing so many say her name, tears filled my eyes. I bit my thumb to keep from crying. Copi is the name of a nurse who helped care for Osvy after he was abandoned at a hospital. He adores her, and she is deeply intrinsic to his story. I couldn’t believe so many knew her name, one Osvy himself is unable to say. I couldn’t believe that so many knew Osvy’s language for her. That this man, in his twelve years at El Arca had touched the lives of so many, and I nearly cried out because in that moment El Arca showed me what this year was for, and I understood. It isn’t for immense acts of giving, or for witnessing other-worldly miracles. It’s simply to live with people and love them. That’s what it means to accompany, nothing more, and nothing less. El Arca is my family, and I’ve been so humbled to be able to live with them, to be a member of this family. The word El Arca uses to describe the chicxs is acogidxs “those who are taken in”, but in the end, it isn’t the chicxs who are the acogidxs, we are.
When Christ came to Earth, the circle of the divine merged with the circle of the ordinary, and I believe an all powerful god, Dios todopoderoso, took on the mantle of a man. And when that happened, when humankind and God became one, there was no revolution, and comparably fewer miracles than you might expect. But with Christ, one thing existed in abundance: love. Though at times it may seem difficult, in a world where circles are all too often pulled apart, Christ calls us to merge. To live and love in the midst of the ordinary, and the broken. For in that love we impose upon our world an extraordinary aspect of the divine. To be like God, is to merge with your fellow human beings, and to share their circle with yours. Walk with others. Break bread with others. Love others. Accompany.
Peace, grace, and may our circles be opened wide,
¹ Luke 24: 13 – 35
*disclaimer* You might notice I spell certain words in a strange way when I write in Spanish, i.e. acogidxs. The nature of Castellano is to identify words with a gender, and especially tends to place more emphasis on the masculine than the feminine: i.e. if there are 50 acogidas in a room and only one acogido, then the room is described as being full of 51 acogidos. Spelling words with an x, or with an @ are two common ways to be respectful of the gender of others when using the written word, and that is why I’ve chosen to do so in my writing.
You’d be inclined to think, looking at the jerseys, stadiums, or games, that to choose Club Atlético (team) Boca Juniors, or River Plate would be to pick a side in the same sort rivalry you might find in the NFL, NBA, or MLB back in the United States.
You would be wrong.
To make that choice, is a blood oath, an Unbreakable Vow, for in Argentina, the only thing worse than a fútbol rival, is the person who can’t make a choice at all. The team you stand behind becomes part of you, like the country of your ancestors, or the God you worship. You might imagine then, that for an un-athletic, competition-weary soul like myself, the pregunta (question) “Boca o River?” was a terrifying one… But to be Argentinian, even to the most limited extent, is eventually to choose a fútbol Club, and that changes everything.
When we arrived at El Arca, hogarBrochero was split pretty unevenly. Daní, Sandrí, Maxí, and Marcos all support Club River Plate, leaving Osví alone on the Club Boca Juniors side of the trenches. I now admit that, slowly but surely, Osví’s charm and resolve won Tara and myself over to support Boca, and in fact it won over the other asistente, Lisa’s, support as well. However in recent days, the division between Boca and River has reached a fever pitch. A week ago, the stage for Argentina’s Superclásico (the match between River and Boca), was set. However, on the day of the game, as team Boca Juniors arrived at the stadium, their bus was attacked by River fanatics, who threw rocks at the vehicle until, due to security concerns, the match was postponed. Further weariness over un-satisfactory safeguards for players and fans alike meant eventually postponing the event for another two weeks. While many fanatic@s (fans) were disappointed by the continuing hostilities, this isn’t the first time such a series of events has occurred at the , and it shows the fanaticism behind this way of life.
The Superclásico, and this year’s G20 summit meeting in Buenos Aires, are only the latest in a long series of tumultuous world-events since my arrival to my site placement more than three months ago, and I have increasingly found myself disheartened by the ways our world seems to be rending itself apart, inter-personally, and with recent events in Alaska (not unlike Indonesia and Japan before it), physically. I admit that for months now I have looked-on with a lack of comprehension, struggled to pray, and tried, without luck, to see new solutions or balms within scripture to make sense of this. Re-reading Christ’s words on “love your neighbor as yourself ¹”, and Paul’s anthem of “but the greatest of these is love ²” left hollow feelings in my soul. After all, to find the reason for division is to dig into the deeper meanings of humanity and sin itself, which is not altogether unsurprisingly difficult to reconcile at age 24, (or 100 for that matter), and while I expect questions and doubts to linger for as long as I walk this earth, yesterday finally a thought came to me.
Now, I cannot explain why our world is broken. (Yeah, sorry about that one…) To understand why our Creator (I believe) gave free will to humankind, is to understand a love and a willingness to trust that I doubt anyone besides Christ will ever know. However, after listening to a podcast by Rob Bell, my mind again settled on the poem of Creation, at the beginning of Genesis.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.’ So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault ‘sky.’ And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day.” ³
You see, at the very beginning, quite before anything else in fact, there was separation and division. First between darkness and light, then between waters above and waters below, followed by land and sea, plants from land, animals from plants, humankind from animals, and finally woman from man. The entirety of creation itself is a continuing act of division, down to mitosis within cells creating new life, and the subatomic particles within the fabric of reality dividing, forming the quiet, rapidly pulsing heartbeat of the universe. In the creation poem, the writer creates and explains the order of space-time, and all that resides within it. Yet the beautiful foundation of all we know, lies in that word, which has as of late been causing me so much fear and consternation: division. Because only through division, can something new, togetherness, be achieved. How could the sky, the land, and the sea create such beautiful vistas were they not first pulled apart? How could humankind come to experience the beauty of love for one another were not the spectra of gender and identity spread wide? The ideas are running a bit wild now in my brain, but even the rainbow, symbol for the story of El Arca (the ark), is itself light, divided into its separate hues.
This metaphor pulls me now back to my site placement, to the rivalry between River and Boca, and one final example of the way togetherness was forged by division. We don’t often watch fútbol here at El Arca, because the chic@s tend to have difficulty controlling their… let’s say passions, for their equipo (team). However the Superclásico is an exception, and so the whole house is now eager to watch the final match; prayers for respective team points come up at oración (oratory prayer) almost nightly. We all can enjoy the game if we stick to a simple rule: our teams are our own, but this is one family. Now despite the fact that nearly every item he owns is adorned with that blue and yellow starred coat-of-arms, Osví is again the one who shows the quintessence of the rule. Because the only time he gets angry over fútbol, is when one of the other chic@s let’s the division come between themselves and another person. He longs to experience the togetherness of an embrace; joyful smiles on both faces, one shirt red and white, the other blue and gold. River Plate and Boca Juniors, yes, but one family, one people, one ark.
I again I find myself challenged with a new truth: The essence of life sustains itself through division, but only to provide a chance at experiencing the beauty that is returning to one-ness.
Peace, grace, and newness through togetherness,
Post-Script :: If any of you are interested, El Arca Argentina made a video a couple of years ago about the two teams’ rivalry in the family; whether you understand Spanish or not, it’s a touching look into this place and its people. You can click here for a link to the video on our Facebook page.
“There were things scattered inside of her that she needed to gather together.”
~ Adichie, Chimamanda N. Americanah. Anchor Books, March 2014.
19 November 2019
The scent of her hit my nose awhile ago, in this Uruguayan library-cafe, five-thousand miles from where she ought to be. This retreat has been strange; not at all the refreshing descanso I expected. My past calls questioningly to me, and I find I do not know how to answer it.
As the last sip of Sauvignon Blanc falls between my lips, I find myself disconcerted with the experiences of this last week; “the tourist”, back again after his two year hiatus – sipping wine and relishing sunny days on foreign beaches. This is not the life I want any longer, and yet I do not know what life it is that I desire, or that the Lord desires.
From my consciousness have emerged pieces; tomorrow I go home to Boulogne and see what form they take when put back together.
My friend, and fellow A/U YAGM, Oscar asked me on Tuesday, while we waited to board our boat back to Argentina, “if you could live anywhere on Earth, where would you choose?”, and I found for the first time in my life, that I didn’t have an answer. Actually, full disclosure, I did have an answer – a pretentious enigmatic response, as per the usual. However, what I mean to say, is that no city, no place, no country came rushing to mind. I’ve had the incredible privilege to see many different parts of my home country, to see the cloud-crowned skyscrapers of New York City and Chicago, to hear spirited Dixieland Jazz on a New Orleans steamboat, and to climb in the branches of the California Redwoods. I’ve even been so lucky as to live on three different continents, and come to know their rhythm, life, and language (kind of). But you know, the things that have stuck with me are not the meals, or the treasures-brought-home. Neither have they been the journal entries, the books read, or even the painstakingly-drawn sketches.
The things that now remain, scattered throughout memory, are the people.
I remember the Maria, on the streets of Orvieto, who lent me her guitar for a few minutes one night when I was so longing to play an instrument after weeks without.
I remember laughing with joy, and with fright, as Braeden, Isaiah, and I danced around a massive blaze in the fire-ring up on the prairie at Camp Tomah Shinga one June night, hoping it wouldn’t catch the tall grass surrounding us.
I remember my colleague Jacob doing pull-ups on the I-beam in a studio of Regnier Hall at three in the morning, when we were all struck-dumb with fatigue in the final weeks of our thesis designs.
And now I find my mind full of the voices, besos, and abrazos of my community here in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Some of these places have had beautiful landscapes, others have had good food and music, others still gave me great inspiration or helped me understand my place in the world, but what tied me to them, are the moments with others. And the beautiful thing about the world, is that you can find people just about anywhere. The people are what make the journey. When the Netflix and the Spotify, the food and the wine, the money and the possessions are all stripped away; when the pacifiers are pulled from our grasp, what remains?
The answer is not what, it is who.
One of the pieces of myself unearthed during our retreat is an understanding: that human beings are our world’s most undervalued resource. And that on this day, and every day, I am so filled with gratitude and thanks for their presence in my life.
Peace, grace, and thanks to you all simply for being.
Mid last week, I wrote a blog post titled, Re-Focus, but have since renamed it Re-Focus Pt. I // Daily Bread. Today I wrote Pt. II // Discover Weekly, and after this post was done, it felt like the two belonged together, so their titles now reflect that.
Now, on to the writing.
The first strum of an Acoustic guitar pours softly into the late-morning air, and my neck, which has grown increasingly tense over the past two months, softens slightly. Folk music always helps calm the maelstrom spinning through my consciousness. It pulls forth memories of happy, peaceful times; moments spent swinging in sun-washed hammocks, and afternoons with windows open, allowing warm autumn breezes to run their invisible courses through my room. Except it isn’t autumn, it’s spring. My neck tenses slightly once again, and I frown slightly at my computer screen, my cursor still floating over the small white bars, which would pause my “Discover Weekly” playlist.
I click away from Spotify, back to the open tab in Google Chrome, where this incipient blog post lay waiting. I watch my cursor blink once, twice, four times more, and then my brain sparks.
Throughout our service, we YAGM are tasked with something, which at first may seem somewhat plain, but upon further inspection tends to be easier said than done: Explain. The subject has come up a few times recently in conversations with a couple of my dear friends: one with me here at El Arca, and another an ocean away in South Africa. So I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t more YAGM in our world of 76 which might also be struggling to explain the manifold meaning hidden within our current journey. How do we tell the story? For me, this has lately meant a good deal of thought concerning the beauty in the ordinary, because so much of my life here in Argentina is not complicated, Yet within simplicity I have begun to find a certain profundity.
At break of day, I rise just as I would back home. Yet in the same moment, as my feet touch the cold tile of the floor, I am reminded of the ease with which I move. The weight of understanding what a beautiful blessing it is, that my body can do things so many others’ cannot. There is no difference in how I awake here in Argentina, yet in that daily act there is new meaning. Profundity in simplicity.
At mealtimes, communion in community, I eat just as I would back home, fork and spoon beside my full plate. Yet in the same moment, as I struggle to make conversation and empathize with my tired mind, Marcos utters, “Como estas, Eric?” This simple question solves all my conversational concerns. I failed to see the beauty in asking another person this common phrase, “How are you?” Here I was, trying to craft some complex sentence, or to fake interest in a dinnertime conversation, and Marcos brought care and love to the meal with his question in a way which never would have occurred to me. There is no difference in how I eat at the Argentine table, and yet in this daily act there also lives new meaning. Again I have found profundity in simplicity.
On the bus yesterday, as Tara and I journeyed to Villa Ballester for our Sunday activities at El Congregación Santo Sacramento, a thought occurred to me. As my friends and family dive into the spice and sweaters of the autumn season, here spring is breaking out in full floral array. It is not that spring is some strange concept to any of us YAGM serving in the southern hemisphere, many of us have experienced this yearly transformation and renewal of creation each and every year of our lives. However, though this season of life is one we’ve lived twenty to thirty times over, it somehow is different than those that have come before. It is opposite. Springtime in autumn. There is new meaning in an old thing. This is YAGM for me: new meaning in old things.
To Discover Weekly.
And when the playlist is done, to take those discoveries home, and share our new music.
“The community of L’Arche is a community formed around the wounded bodies of handicapped people. Feeding, cleaning, touching, holding–this is what builds the community. Words are secondary.
‘The Word became flesh.’ That is the center of the Christian message. Before the Incarnation, the relationship between the body and word was unclear. Often the body was seen as a hindrance to the full realization of what the word wanted to express. But Jesus confronts us with the word that can be seen, heard, and touched. The body thus becomes the way to know the word and to enter into relationship with the word. The body of Jesus becomes the way to live.
I feel a deep resistance against this way . . . I wonder when and how I will learn to fully live the Incarnation.”
– Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak
I haven’t much felt like writing lately. The well of the written word, which in the first month of YAGM flowed so freely, has begun to slow, to dry, to stagnate in the depths of my mind. And so, I have less and less often been inspired by the daily movements of my life, and my experience here in Buenos Aires. However, a friend of mine recently told me that she forces herself to write weekly, because it gives her reason to look for the divine amongst the ordinary. I was unwillingly encouraged by the Spirit, and admittedly a bit inspired by her, to do the same.
The entire fifteenth chapter of Exodus is a song of praise given unto God for deliverance from the armies of pharaoh, and their safe passage across the Red Sea. “The Song of Moses and Miriam” flows with inspired word and musical phrase. I can only imagine the sound of a whole nation’s voices, the strength and fullness of that chorus, proclaimed over the land.
However, with the wheels of pharaoh’s chariots likely hardly dried into the mud, the joy and praise of chapter fifteen quickly gives way to chapter after chapter of grumbling and complaint. Faced with a long journey, difficult experiences, and new challenges, the Israelites lament their newfound freedom, at one point even declaring to Moses “‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve the entire assembly to death.’” Though we might at times be inclined to critique the laments of the Israelites, I encourage you to imagine what your lips and body might feel like after three days journey with no water to drink.
A quick aside, as I am struck in this moment with a thought of this nation of people, a great multitude, lacking home or safe shelter, moving across the wilderness to a land of plenty. How incredible the undertaking, and how understandable that they might cry out in fear and frustration. And how much more incredible it is, that the current caravan of Central American migrants “despite the hardship . . . say it is better than the poverty and violence they left behind”, even now maintaining hope – walking towards an uncertain future. ¹
In the midst of what likely became a day to day doldrum, a literal wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites’ words of praise and deliverance ran dry alongside their water, and I wonder if there was silence among them, broken only by the constant trudge of feet, the cry of animals, and the wind across the desert sand.
It is easy to see the glory of the divine when walking through the Red Sea, split in two by otherworldly might. It is much more difficult to see the divine in the mundane, in fact the meaning of the word mundane literally implies being “of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one.” However, I have recently found myself challenged to see God’s work in the little things, rather than visions and miracles. Like Henri Nouwen, I struggle to live fully in the way of the Incarnation, and feel it grate against my earthly being to try to live in the midst of Christ. I am struck by the singleness of my God in its Creation, and begin to understand the ardency with which Christ prayed to his Father in heaven, an infinite distance from the sinful creation in which he had been called to save. What are we YAGM called to save? I at first might be inclined to say nothing, after all, to accompany is to understand that our host communities do not need our salvation. No, I am beginning to realize that we are called to save ourselves, or rather open ourselves to salvation and reformation. The Israelites were not transported by God out of Egypt, or carried by God across the wilderness. No, they walked. Step by step. And though in the beginning there were grandiose celebrations, the wilderness has a way of simultaneously stretching far out before you, while closing in behind. Sometimes the presence of God does not watch over you in a pillar of flame, or in the parting of a sea, but instead through smaller things: bitter water turned sweet, or delicate manna, left by morning dew. I’m realizing that sometimes to see the work of God you need to get down, on your hands and knees, and squint at the grass to see the dust that is your spiritual food.
I find that right now, it is difficult to eat it.
However, I work to remain thankful for the beauty in small miracles, for the daily bread, instead of the great feast. I am thankful for the love in my community, for my small brushes against Christ in my day to day life. And I’m thankful for the understanding that, even though I ought to try to refrain from grumbling, to struggle openly is a beautiful thing: to miss a friend dearly, to long for the warm food of home, to feel frustration and anxiety rather than love and patience, to be beautifully, sinfully human.
My many compatriots in Latin America have repeatedly been told, and are now ourselves beginning to say a common phrase: poco a poco. “Little by little.”
The wilderness is not traversed in a day.
Peace and love in the little things,
1). Semple, Kirk. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/
As I begin, I share with you a journal entry, from 11 October 2017:
“My whole life, I’ve thought of schizophrenia as a terrible burden.
Osvaldo is one of the many people who lives with it, and tonight he was especially vocal, energetically conversing with the voices so often present in his mind. I laid on my bed reading, waiting for the telltale honk from the bicycle horn fastened to Osvy’s walker, indicating he was ready for assistance with his bedtime routine. Through the thin wall between our rooms, I listened to him talk and sing, this nightly oration, which is only ever interrupted by occasional bursts of his own laughter. To most of us, the thirty minutes Osvy often takes to change in and out of his clothes might seem tiresome, but for many of the acogidos life moves more slowly.
As 9:45 turned to 10:00, and 10:00 turned to 10:30, Osvy still had not called, and from the increasing volume resounding throughout the house, the train didn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Grinning, happy that he was having such a good time, and honestly a bit torn over whether or not to cut the party short, I finally sat up, and walked out of my room; it was, after all, well past the hour for enthusiastic remarks to be sung in the spring Argentine air, and the other residents in the hogar tend to get a bit huffy if Osvy’s celebrations go on too long.
Glancing back at Tara through her open bedroom door, we shared a quiet laugh, and I shook my head, before turning to the face the wooden sign on the door, which in big blue and yellow letters read, “BOCA”.
*knock knock* “Permiso . . ?” I cooed, and hearing his grunt of approval, I entered the room, while Osvy’s 70 year old, now-dentureless, grin turned to greet me. Normally, I’d head straight into the routine, and get him ready for bed. However, tonight something gave me pause, so instead I walked over, sat down across from him in his now-stationary walker, and let him talk.
He told me story after story; of his childhood, times with his father and their experiences together: walks, working with tools, car rides. I don’t know how long I sat there, but it must have been at least thirty minutes before we finally began his routine, helping him finish getting undressed, and prepared for sleep. I understood very little; by bedtime for the chicos, my mind is usually blurred to regular Castellano, let alone the broken and slurred dialect used by Osvy, supplemented by his unique sign language. However, I understood enough . . . because the thing to know about Osvy is that any conversation with him is founded in joy.
You see, the voices in his head are rarely evil ones. Instead he hears the voices of his father, his innumerable friends, and his family. All day he talks and laughs, dentures nearly popping out of that wide-spread smile, as he lives in the beauty of memories past, and experiences present.
My whole life, I’ve thought of schizophrenia as a terrible burden.
But tonight I find myself wondering . . . what sort of world might we live in, were we all able to share in the love and the joy of Osvy? I can’t say for sure, but I’ve noticed that you feel your worries and your strife abate when looking into that toothless smile.”
It was a week ago now, that the words above blinked onto the screen of my computer, and when I had finished hammering out their form and their rhythm, I sat staring at my screen, reading and re-reading, struggling again in the eternal battle between writer and the work’s final shape. Then, after nearly an hour of typing and erasing, I saved the draft, shook my head, and with a click selected the small red “X” in the upper right corner of the screen. For nearly a week I have not known why I couldn’t finish that post, but today it finally struck me.
The truth which forced my finger onto that “X” last Tuesday, was an unrealized fear. To see the beauty in Osvy’s mind was its own challenge, but to write honestly about mental health meant confronting demons of my own. God was waiting patiently, offering the question:
“You believe that about Osvy, but do you believe it about yourself?”
The answer, which I tearfully realized in the shower today, was no.
In the twenty-fifth Gospel of Matthew lies a teaching, called “The Parable of the Talents”. First, I feel I should explain the word “parable”. A man named Peter Eide once described the word to me like this: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Parables are one of Jesus’ favorite ways to share his teachings throughout scripture; he tells an earthly story, with earthly characters, and an earthly ending, but with a meaning that ties itself into some aspect of the spiritual and the divine.
In this parable, a man goes on a journey, but, before leaving, calls his servants before him. To these servants he imparts his vast wealth for safe-keeping until his return. To one, he bestows five talents of gold, to another two talents, and to yet another one talent. Now, about this antiquated monetary amount, the “talent”: the translation into English is in many ways coincidental, because the important thing to know about a “talent” is that it is an incomprehensibly large amount of money. A massive piece of metal, the talent was so large and so heavy that it was often cast with a handle, so as to increase the ease of moving these giant hunks of gold. Even one talent would be worth many times the life wage of one of these servants, so to be left to care for such a massive treasure would have been terrifying. Now two of these servants take their sums, and over time double them, so that when the master returns, they have made good use of his gift. The third servant takes his single talent, and buries it, so that nothing may happen to it.
After a long time, when the master finally arrives home from his journey, he calls upon his servants to bring with them his fortune. To the first two servants, he offers praise for their work. However the final servant, who buried his talent in the ground, is met with anger and punishment at the hands of his master. He made no use of the man’s gift, and did nothing to increase its value, but instead hid it from the world until the man returned.
The thing about gold, money, and power, are that they have the two-fold ability to support acts of incredible good, and incredible evil. Now I don’t know how exactly each of these men went about doubling their fortunes for their master, but I assume there were good days and bad days. There likely were honest, profitable businesses, as well as shady deals and greedy mistakes. It honestly seems to me, like simply burying the sum in the ground was the safest, most respectable option.
So why then is the master, who you might have realized is God at this point, so angry with the servant who buried his talent. He didn’t increase it, no, but he also didn’t lose anything either.
It seems like the man offered his talents to the servants, in order that they might learn from them. Now as a man who had accumulated such wealth, he of course must have known the power and danger of imparting such a thing onto these servants, but he chose to give them the gold anyway. He must have known the risk, and that the servants would likely make mistakes, but in the end somehow keep from losing themselves, for it says at the beginning of the story that the master gave the servants the gold “each according to his ability”.
He wanted them to try.
Now it’s very Lutheran of me to ignore the anger and punishment part of this parable, and so I want to assure you that I see those words, and wrestle with them too. However the point in my writing about the Parable of the Talents, is that the part of the story which spoke to me this week concerns the bit where God gives us this really terrifyingly large hunk of gold, which can either build or destroy, and we have to try not to bury it.
Since my journal entry about Osvy, I’ve been able to see the other side of his schizophrenia as well, just as I am so often confronted with the darker parts of my own brain. Even with medication, even with proper self-care, there are still mornings where I lie in bed, on a day-off, not needing to do anything, and yet still am paralyzed with anxiety. Showering, making breakfast, writing this blog post, just the possibility of doing feeling like someone has placed on your chest one of those X-Ray vests you get at the dentist: it’s not impossible to get up, but the weight of it makes you want to stay seated. Some days I get out of the chair, and some days I don’t. And I want to be clear that I understand for many people there are days past, present, and future where life is much heavier than an X-Ray vest, days in my past where me[n]tal chains tied me to my bed, and I could do nothing.
But I’m realizing. Slowly. Painfully. With a lot of failure and grace . . .
I’m realizing because of Osvy’s joy the night of that journal entry . . . that the talents God bestows on our minds do not always have to be fearsome piles of gold, which can only be spent hurting others or ourselves. The genetic conditions which make us hear voices, feel uncontrollable anger, and unfathomable emotional spectra can also be used to preach sermons, offer consolation, and even to show joy and share beauty with the scared Kansas boy who has only seen his mental struggles as a burden.
I’m slowly, cautiously, and with great anxiety, digging up my talent.
But if Osvy has taught me anything, it’s that we both urge you not to bury yours.
“Moses was a stutterer, David was a murderer, Jeremiah suicidal, naked in the street.
Paul, he had a problem the specifics left unsaid.
Timothy had stomachaches, and Lazarus was dead.
Samson was a long-haired, arrogant womanizer.
Rahab was a scarlet-corded lady of the street.
John the Baptist eatin’ bugs and honey on his bread.
Gideon a scaredy-cat, and Lazarus was dead.
As is, as is, He chooses us as His.
As His, as His, infuses us as is.
Never ending love transcending all our weaknesses,