Sunday, December 19, 2010

'O Holy Night': Christmas remembered

The mythic Christmas is a white one, but one of my greatest Christmas memories involves weather that was easily fifty degrees above freezing.

It was December 1993. I was teaching middle school English at Cradle of Life Christian School midway between Port-au-Prince and Petionville. I was more than two thousand miles from home, and couldn't help but feel a little yearning for the days when I used to wake up early and rush for the presents under the tree. And I couldn't help feeling a little wistful when I thought about the Christmas Eve services my brothers and I had attended as children.

On this particular evening, those teachers who felt so inclined had gathered for a school Christmas party. It was a hot night, and although there were Christmas decorations and there was a general effort afoot to get into the Christmas spirit, I don't recall much success.

At one point, the power failed, this being Haiti, and our hosts produced kerosene lanterns. It was shortly after this that Jim Muchmore produced a guitar and started leading us in Christmas carols. We sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Tammy Lynn Johnston joining me on the tags at the end of each line; and we sang a Christmas song Jim had written about the economic embargo then in effect; and then we sang "O Holy Night."

It was a new song for me, one I knew the existence of but one that I had never actually heard at church as a boy. As we went on, I felt the awe and wonder of the song steal over me. By the time we had finished, the Christmas spirit had arrived, and this hymn had become my favorite Christmas carol.

Like many Christmas carols, "O Holy Night" is a song that is rarely sung in full, and that is a tremendous loss to us all. While carols like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Adeste Fideles" beautifully express deep and timeless doctrine about Christ, "O Holy Night" expresses a deep truth about the nature of Christ and the gospel he brings:
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise his holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise his name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Written in the 19th century, the song was translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, who gave it a strong abolitionist message at a time when many in the South were still defending slavery as their God-given right. Not surprisingly, while the song became very popular in the North, it took a while for it to find an audience in the southern states.

While the first verse recounts the wonder of the Incarnation, and the second verse (not shown above) recounts the Christmas narrative of the magi coming to Bethlehem, the third verse recounts nothing. Neither warm nor fuzzy, it instead challenges us to consider the stark contrast between the way we do business and the way Christ does it.

In recent months there has been some fear among some churches about the resurgence of the "social gospel." Some people feel that it neglects the spiritual tones of Jesus' message, and others fear what a faith-driven political liberalism could change.

People are right to be afraid. The gospel is one of the most subversive messages ever proclaimed. Socialism, which has become a byword in America the last two years, is merely an economic system. In the end, socialism wouldn't uproot even a fraction of the American way of life that would be undone if we took Jesus as seriously as we claim we do. The ridiculous salaries and bonuses of Wall Street and corporate CEOs wouldn't just be indefensible, they would be unthinkable. Our entire health care industry would be overturned. Our welfare and immigration rules would be undone, and our foreign policy would be torn to shreds. And that would be just the beginning.

Since I first discovered the song in Haiti, "O Holy Night" has stuck with me in a way no other Christmas carol has. The tune is too beautiful for words, and the words are a challenge to the comfortable life I live. Christ has come, and he has made the slave my brother. Every time I benefit from the debasement or exploitation of another, through the clothes I wear, the food I eat, or by any other means, I am out of step with the call Christ has placed on all our lives.

At this time of year, it is common for Christians in some churches to pray, "You came into the darkness and made a difference. Come into the darkness again." We must always remember that Christ has come, not just into the darkness, but into us as well, and it is up to us now, his people, his body, his partners, to see that the difference is made.


Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Talking the talk

I confess, I have a little difficulty understanding people who fill their speech with spiritual jargon.

Sometimes it's because their spiritual talk just makes no sense, like when someone says, "We're out of milk, praise God" or (true example) when a woman talking to children about being on-guard against sexual abuse says, "You should let a parent know if someone tries to touch you there, bless Jesus."

Sometimes religious people feel that a life of faith means being upbeat and cheerful, even if there is nothing to be cheerful or upbeat about. These are the people who find out you have cancer and urge you to overcome it through the power of your faith, or who comfort you after you've been fired from a job by saying, "Remember, 'All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.'" (Thanks, Shirley. I don't think I ever said how much that meant to me.)

Then there are the religious people who can't wait to let you know that you're going to hell because you do something they don't like, whether it's having premarital sex, which could lead to dancing; or reading comic books (Psalm 107:18 warns of comic book artists, saying "They drew near the gates of death"); or most dangerously of all, having your own opinions (Proverbs 26:12). I have no time for these people at all.

More entertaining are the people of faith from one religious tradition or another, whom we all have met. who trot out passages from their holy texts at every possible occasion. These are people who say things like, "The church had a barbecue last night, in accordance with Leviticus 3:16"; or "I met my boyfriend by following the principles God laid out in Proverbs 7:10-21"; or "I'd like an iced coffee. Is it not written, 'Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth'?"

Back at the Church with an Extra E, we had a fellow named Sean who fell into that latter group. Like most people of that bent, Sean was a big teddy bear. He called everyone brother or sister, quoted Scripture with authority whether it was needed or not, and couldn't understand why nobody else in the church used "Holy Ghost" as an adjective. It is a testimony to how wide the grace of God is that we could worship at the same church. We were not cut from the same cloth.

"Hey, Brother Dave, how about a Holy Ghost hug?" he asked me once, warmly.

"Hey Sean, how about a Holy Ghost restraining order?" I asked with a smile.

I don't really get people who lace their speech with spiritual jargon. But I'm fairly certain they have an equally hard time getting me.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Sandwich Generation

I got the e-mail Wednesday morning, just after I had taken Oldest Daughter to school: My father was in the hospital after suffering chest pains.

The diagnosis came swiftly, and treatment even more swiftly. My dad's heart was schematic, meaning it wasn't getting enough oxygen. His arteries were obstructed, and some form of angioplasty would be needed to correct the difficulty. My dad elected to get stents, and the procedure, which took place Friday afternoon, was done in half the time that had been expected, with no complications.

"You realize," my mother told me tonight, some twelve hours after my father's discharge from the hospital, "this is just the beginning."

Alas, I do realize it. I am in the sandwich generation. My brothers and I have arrived at that age where our own identities have been subsumed into our children's. I am "Evangeline's Dad," not David; my sister-in-law is "Morgan's mom," not Tammy. Our own dreams, goals, and wants increasingly are subordinated to what our children need. Sure, I could use a new pair of shoes, but if Rachel needs a pair too, I know who's going to wear old shoes a little while longer. Herb might have plans for the weekend, but they take a back seat immediately to his son's schedule and activities.

And now, while we bear the onus of raising our children so that they are multilingial, socially well-adjusted, academically gifted and physically fit boys and girls ready for the challenges of the emerging global economy in the 21st centiry, we are becoming more aware of the needs of our own parents.

This is what it's like to be a part of the sandwich generation, supporting our children on the one hand and our parents on the other. The one was our lot from the moment they were born; the second, from the moment we were born. In both cases, it feels rather like the load was dropped into our laps without much time to prepare.

My folks have always been good parents. We've had our moments of difference, and our points of dissonance, but I suppose the truth is that, like every other person who has walked the earth before me, I've always held my parents in some measure of regard and even awe. The moments of my greatest frustration with them have been when they remind me of how prone they are to the same human weaknesses that bedevil me, those daily niggling reminders that for all their vaunted authority and wisdom in the years of my childhood, they are made of the same sullied flesh as I, and if they inspire me to believe that I can rise to the same heights that they have, still they perplex and confound me by falling to the same depths that I do.

And worst of all, like me, they are mortal.

It's been my privilege to walk the same earth as my mother and my father for 40 years so far, and by God's grace, I hope to walk it with them for many more. But they are not as young as they once were, and they are reaching an age where even eating right, getting good exercise and having enough sleep will not be sufficient to ward off the progress of time and the slow humiliation of the flesh.

We're all getting older. I looked at my brothers today, and saw less hair and more of it gray than was once there. The lines are clearer on our faces than they once were, and while we're all feeling the pull on our lives from our children, we also all felt the first pull from our parents. We're in the middle of the sandwich.

God grant us grace in the years to come.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Road trip

The road from Nova Bastille to Saunders Station is a long one -- too long, if I am honest.

It's a six-hour drive, begun in darkness and continued straight into the darkness, interrupted only by the light of oncoming cars in the other lanes of traffic, and even if you are well rested, the journey is rewarded only at the destination. Behind you is the better part of yourself; ahead of you are aging parents and a hospital; and with you is the knowledge that while things are good, they are not as good as they were and probably are better than they will be. The journey is boredom and frustration, but it is inescapable. Once you have begun it, you cannot stop. It must be completed.


Enter Rachel, an 8-year-old girl on whom the sun rises and sets every day, even when she's in a bad mood and doesn't know what the sun is doing. Get her in the back seat, load yourself in the front seat, and you don't even notice as the miles melt away beneath the rolling wheels of the car.

Rachel and I set sail from Nova Bastille for Saunders Station on Friday evening. Night had fallen and the road was dark ahead, but she was bright and cheerful, and as I drove, she chattered away in the back seat of the car, about I don't know what and probably neither does she.

Sometimes we talked, and sometimes we sang, but mostly she just talked, and I luxuriated in the sound of her life. For a while, zombie trucks chased us and threatened us in the sanctuary of our car, but she used her super powers, and kept them at bay. When it was later, and her sister stirred back home in Nova Bastille, we joined our voices in song, and calmly lullabied her back into a restful sleep.

Many times Rachel estimated how long we had been traveling (15 minutes) and how much further we had to go (we're halfway!), and almost always she was wide of the mark. But when we stopped midway to buy gas and get some caffeine, we saw the clock. Time had stolen hours away from us on the road,

"Ten o'clock!" I wondered. "That's when the monsters come out."

We ran around the car two or three times as we rushed to escape, then climbed in and drove off. The monsters safely evaded, Rachel declared she was going to sleep, and asked me to sing her some lullabies just as we had done to her absent sister.

I sang the miles away on my own then, more slowly and more gently than before. All the while my greatest treasure drifted away on the back seat of the car. I sang about why the stars shine, and why ivy twines; I sang the ancient riddles, of how there can be a cherry without a stone, or how a story can have no end; and I sang gentle songs about where the flowers had gone, and what we must do for them to return; and soon I was alone on a long ribbon of darkness, wrapped in the love of the girl in the back seat.

I drove on into the night, and love became a hymn that I sang to heaven, and the hymn became a prayer that I poured out before those watchful eyes, for the treasure in the back seat, and for the other greatest parts of me left behind, and for those other parts on the road ahead of me. I sang, I prayed, and the miles melted away until we were at the other home, and Rachel completed her journey to bed.

I asked her today if she was enjoying the chance to see her grandparents and her uncles, and she allowed that she was. And then I asked her what she was enjoying the most.

"My favorite part," she said, "is getting to be with my daddy all by myself."

The miles between Saunders Station and home are long, but oh, I am afraid they are not long enough.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Broken for You

This morning at church I joined an estimated two billion Christians at the Communion table.

Communion is a tradition established by Jesus himself, one where he took two common elements of the Passover seder and reinterpreted them around himself. The gospels recount that during the Last Supper, Jesus lifted a piece of matzoh, broke it, and passed it among his disciples, telling them "This bread is my body, which is broken for you." And in the same manner, after they had eaten, he took the cup of redemption, and shared it with them, saying, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for you," and then he laid a commandment on his disciples that the church has practiced for nearly two thousand years: When we eat the bread or drink the wine, we should do it in remembrance of him.

For years, I associated Communion with the Crucifixion. A properly reverent attitude during Communion was measured by a sense of contrition for sin, or a sense of the sacrifice Christ had made or had become when he was executed. Communion became a regular rehearsal of the mystery play of the forgiveness that comes from the Cross.

There's nothing wrong with that sort of meditation; it is a theme rich in potential for contemplation, from the earthly and physical suffering of Christ to the spiritual agonies endured in being separated from God.

Aside from those mystical contemplations, there are legal ones, as we consider Jesus as the fulfillment of the Torah presented to Moses, a final sacrifice to complete the sacrificial code, to supersede the distinction between clean and unclean, as the scapegoat who became our sin so that we are pure and spotless before God.

And beyond that are the priestly views, of Jesus as a high priest greater than Aaron, whose priesthood does not end with death, and who is able to represent all the human race and not just the covenant-state of Israel.

I suspect a believer could meditate on Christ's sacrifice every time she takes Communion, and never run out of new insights.

The Communion table, after all, is a place where liars and crooks are welcomed, where the degenerate and the desperate are never turned away, where those who have broken faith are restored, and where everyone, no matter what shame makes them blush, is welcome to come, join in the feast, to find forgiveness and release from whatever they have done that has been holding them down.

But a few months ago, I had an epiphany that faded from view almost as fast as I grasped it, and that came back to me today with greater force. As Christians, we often warrant a reputation for judgmentalism, because we so often are harping on the sins, real and imagined, of others. And while the grace of Christ extends forgiveness and respite to those who are broken over their own sin, it also offers hope and renewal to those who are broken over the broken-ness of the world.

The lesbian who quietly suffers inside a closet because her family will disown her if they discover the truth about her, has a place at the Communion table. Jesus himself was an outcast from his family; his own mother publicly disowned him as she told people he was out of his mind. The illegal immigrant who risked crossing the Sonora Desert in an attempt to find a job to make money to send to his family, has a place at the Communion table. Jesus also knew what it was like to be hungry, and to wander without a home, dependent upon the kindness of others.

The black, the Filipino, the Mexican American, all who fall under the shadow of racial profiling have a place at the Communion table. In his own country, Jesus was presumed guilty and executed. The list is lengthy: It includes transfolk whose churches have turned against them, women trapped in abusive marriages, those who are illegally detained without benefit of trial and tortured in the name of national security, people who have aspired to make the world a better place only to have their names dragged through by the mud by their opponents, those who work two full-time jobs in order to pay their bills and still find themselves falling behind, and many others.

The Communion table is wide, because it has to be. Jesus didn't come for the respectable and well-off, but for the ragged and lonely, the bitter and rejected, the despairing and the desperate. Anyone who has been chewed up by this world and the people in it has a place at the Communion table because Jesus came for them, and because in their humiliation and alienation, in their brokenness over what the world has done to them, they have an understanding of Jesus that the rest of us can only guess at.

When we presume to take Communion with them, we acknowledge that they have much to teach us, and we have much to learn. When we do that, when we acknowledge that we are rightly their servants, as Christ was, then and only then do we properly become his partners in the work of redemption -- and that is when we discover what Communion is really all about.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, June 04, 2010

God helps those without hope

A lot of people say things like "The Lord helps those who help themselves" or "I know God won't give me more than I can handle, I just wish he didn't trust me so much."

They're great little bits of pop spirituality, but they're sadly deficient in actual value. What's the message that we take away from these things? That we have to earn God's help, and that he expects us to be self-sufficient. Not for me, thanks; I'll pass.

I like instead the message that comes from a christocentric faith, to wit: "The Lord helps those who can't help themselves." Jesus never came for the well-off and the respectable. He came instead to people whom life had pushed to the very brink, and who had reached moments of desperation so deep that they were willing to risk everything on these wild stories about an itinerant preacher who people said could do impossible things.

When did he say to the blind man, "You're not trying hard enough to see; come back later when you really have faith"; or to the leper, "Well, have you tried to stop having your fingers fall off?" And when on earth did he ever say to the prostitute, "Sorry, sister, but you have to clean your act up and stop sinning before I'll ever hang out with you"?

As to the other, I think it's clear that God regularly gives us more than we can handle. That's why people are so willing and eager to check out for a few hours on a drug or other addiction, or once and for all at the tip of a gun, the end of a rope, or the bottom of a bottle of pills.

Do people wreck their careers, destroy their reputations, and smash their lives to bits with a prostitute or male escort because their lives are all under control? When's the last time someone said "Looks like I've got it all under control, I think I'll go do something really dangerous so I can feel alive again?"

God's whole point in letting us be overwhelmed is to remind us that we're not self-sufficient. When the river overflows its banks, we're supposed to climb up onto a higher Rock; when we're sinking deep in the miry depths, we're supposed to shout out for a lifeline.

It's not that God trusts us not to screw it up; it's that he knows we already have, and whether we're overwhelmed with pain, or with a miracle, chances are good that what's overwhelming us is God on his megaphone shouting, "Hel-lo! I got your help right here!"

Of course, it'd be so lovely if God were the cowboy in the movies who rides in at the end of the movie and rescues the Indians from the savagery of the settlers, but he's usually more subtle than that. His message, as always, is pretty straightforward: "Yes, you are your brother's keeper. If you see someone is being overwhelmed, then you're the one I've appointed for this hour, for this purpose. Now go!"

And in doing that, we rediscover the wonder of God as we reconnect with the broad scope of humanity: the Indians who have been terrorized and driven from their homes, the settlers who acted out of fear and ignorance, the single mother trying to make it in a world that she's not meant to face alone, the bedridden divorcee who feels abandoned by church and friends alike, and the child alone in a world that has no time for her individuality. When we awaken to the world around us, we awaken to the wonders of God, and we invite others to awake with us.

And all it takes is a willingness to admit that we need someone else.



Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Friday, April 02, 2010

A Doctrine of Evolution

I think I've finally figured out a way to fit evolution in with Easter.

This hasn't been the most pressing question of faith to occupy my mind these many years, but it has been one I've never entirely satisfied with. Easter, you see, is the beginning of the Resurrection. To the Christian, it's the evidence that God is committed to restoring all of creation to what he intended it to be; that, on the last day of history, the dead themselves will rise and all the suffering of this world will end. Tears will be dried, bitter soul-aches will mend, hunger will be satisfied, and justice will be established. And, as John Donne immortally put it, death itself shall die.

In the Christian faith, this is the restoration of the Golden Age found in the mythic Garden of Eden, but of course, if Eden is a myth and not a bit of actual history, we have a problem. Genesis 2-3, where the Eden myth is related, tells us that God didn't intend for Adam and Eve to die, but that death was the consequence of Adam's sin in eating the forbidden fruit. Evolution, on the other hand, tells us that death has always been a part of the process. From the first monocellular organisms up to the earliest hominids, creatures have been living and dying, sometimes individually and sometimes in mass-extinction events, but either way, there's nothing unnatural about it.

This is why some people, like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, view evolution as an attack on the very foundations of the Christian faith, and insist that a literal interpretation of Scripture is the only responsible one.

Of course, there's more to responsibility than just that. Responsible reading of any text, especially a sacred one, means understanding the context the story was written in, and grasping authorial intent when possible. The story of Noah, in Genesis 6-9, which creationists often use to explain the fossil record, is an adaptation of the older story of Utnapishtim from "The Epic of Gilgamesh," one where the Deluge is due to humanity's wickedness, rather than to the caprices of a god who can't take a nap because of the noise of all the people. Similarly, the loss of immortality in the account of the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 is due to a moral failing of Adam, rather than to a chance encounter with a snake that happens to eat magical flowers.

And there's that pesky problem, that a lot of Darwin's observations just make sense. Natural selection does occur, and species do change over time. A quick survey of dogs and how they have changed after several thousand years of domestication should establish that beyond dispute; but if that is not enough, consider how much woolier sheep are than just 4,000 years ago, consider that bacteria have adapted remarkably well in just 100 years to antibiotics.

Interpreting the Genesis account literally is a popular thing. According to a report by CBS in 2005, no fewer than 51 percent of Americans believe that God created humanity in our present form. Three in ten believe in theistically guided evolution, and only 15 percent believe that humanity evolved to our current state with no guidance or assistance from a higher power.

One site I read claims that about 40 percent of all Americans believe that the planet itself is fairly young, about 10,000 years old, as compared to the 4.5 billion years asserted by the scientific community.

I'm with the three in 10 who believe that God has guided humanity's evolution.

The reconciliation I see is this: As N.T. Wright points out in his book "Surprised by Hope," death in the Hebrew Scriptures often is used to refer to exile. Ezekiel described the Babylonian captivity as a form of death, with Israel becoming as a valley of dry bones that would be recalled to life when God pleased to bring the captives home. And in Genesis 2, when Adam is warned not to eat the forbidden fruit, he is told he will die; when he does, he is exiled from God's presence, and leaves Eden.

If death was a part of God's creative process, which it would have to be, with evolution on the table, the question becomes one of how death changed, once people had removed themselves from the presence of God. Now it's a work of fiction, but bear with me here for the sake of illustration. In the appendices to "The Lord of the Rings," when the time comes for Aragorn to die, death is something that holds no terror for him. He simply goes to the tomb where he is to be buried, stretches himself out upon his deathbed, and allows himself to die. He is completely at peace with it.

J.R.R. Tolkien imagined Middle Earth as a world that was as yet free of original sin, and I think that in doing so, he may have given us a view of how death should look. It is not an event marked by terror, but by calm acceptance.

How does that fit in with the Resurrection? I mean, it's great if Christ can make us so that we feel no terror when we shuffle off this mortal coil, but if all he does is to restore us to a point where death doesn't terrify us, what's the point? The Apostle Paul even argues that "If the dead do not rise, then we are to be pitied above all men." (And he wasn't referring to spiritual or disembodied resurrection where our souls flit around the afterlife strumming on harps. The Christian faith, like the Jewish faith it grew out of, historically has believed in a physical resurrection of our physical bodies on the last day of history. And of course it's a ridiculous idea to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, since people just don't do that. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that anyone in the first century could have told you that, including his disciples.)

One of the more intriguing ideas I've come across in the last few years is that even if there were no Fall of Man caused by Adam's sin, the Incarnation still would have happened. Forgiveness of sin was only one part of the Incarnation, after all; the main intent was always for us to know God better. So then, in a world without sin, Christ still would have come. He still would have lived. And he still would have died, though not, I should think, from crucifixion. And he still would rise -- and everyone would know that one day they would be raised too, and the revelation of God would become that much clearer to everyone.

Speculation? Of course. A new creation myth? Undoubtedly. But I think I'm on solid ground here, theologically, and I can get here without doing violence to the Genesis text by insisting that it be a literal record that it was never intended to be, or without engaging in the hubris that dismisses every scientist who believes in evolution as foolish, ignorant of scientific principles, or engaged in a great coverup to suppress the truth about God.

And in the end, I think I'm OK with that.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Moun se moun

My best friend says I have the spiritual gift of martyrdom.

I'm not sure if that's meant to be a compliment, but the truth is, I'm not very good at not rocking the boat when something irritates me. I try to avoid unnecessary discussions where I know there will be a conflict, but if the issue aggravates me enough, I'll make my feelings known, sometimes subtly and sometimes not.

Now there were one or two exceptions, but most of the medical clinics we worked with while I was in Haiti after the earthquake provided lunch for us: a nice fresh plate of rice and beans for us, and for the interpreters working with us. It's hard to imagine that lunch would be a racially tinged subject, but it was. And true to form, I had go against the grain.

First time was at Bojeux Parc, where the lunch crew prepared lunch in two different sorts of containers. The American and Colombian medical teams got their food on plates. Haitian workers received theirs in boxes. It was the same food, but the snub was obvious; to our interpreters, it was as though they had been told they had to drink from the other water fountain, by their own countrymen.

The sting was still sore the next day, when I tagged along with the team. I heard the interpreters muttering about it, and when lunchtime came, I committed a breach of protocol. I took a box like they had, sat with them, and spoke only Kreyol, even when they addressed me in English.

The second time came about a week later, at L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne. I had got into the chow line with the Haitian workers, and when they discovered that I could speak Kreyol, they had a field day. They delighted in speaking too fast for me to follow and in making jokes at my expense, particularly when I stuttered. While this was going on, members of a team from the States were scooping up plates full of rice and beans and carrying them off  elsewhere.

"You don't need to wait in line with us," one of the Haitians told me, to a chorus of assent from others in the line. "You're white; you can just take a plate."

I knew at once that I could to rationalize taking the food. After all, I had come to the country, and to this hospital, to help. I had been interpreting for a physical therapist all morning, explaining to patients the exercises they would need to practice in order to regain full use of their limbs. The food had been made available as a way of saying thank you for the work we were doing, for the sacrifices we had made in coming to Haiti in the first place. I was entitled.

I bristled, and dug my feet in.

"Non," I said. "Moun se moun. A person's a person; if you can't take the food like that, then I can't either."

Somebody up front handed me a plate, skipping seven people in front of me. I offered it to the person in front of me, and when he wouldn't take it, I handed it back. My entire life I have enjoyed benefits so subtle that I'm usually not even aware that I'm receiving them. I assume instead that they're entirely the fruit of my own efforts, when they're benefits I would have had to work harder to achieve if I weren't an American, if my parents weren't college-educated, if I'd had more melanin in my skin. To a large extent this sort of deference to social rank is unavoidable, but I will not accept it, especially not in a place like Haiti at a time like this. The people waiting in line with me had been working just as hard as I had, perhaps harder; their country had been shaken to pieces, and I cannot in good conscience accept preference for food just because an ancestor of mine several thousand years ago moved to northern Europe, where lighter skin was an asset and not a liability.

Moun se moun.
I heard the phrase passing up and down the line. The merciless torment over my stutter came to a halt, and one man who had been edging me out of the line suddenly stepped back from his place and told me I could stand in front of him. Perhaps the Americans manning the food pot sensed a shift in the mood, because suddenly they started handing out plates of rice and beans to everyone in line. Only after the men in front of me received their food would I accept a plate, the only white person in the entire hospital to wait in the line with everyone else. (A few of the other medical people skipped the meal entirely, because of their medical duties; and at least one had brought a power bar with her to eat.)

Moun se moun.
Somebody else repeated it as he walked past the spot in the hall where I was inhaling the food faster than is healthy. Later that afternoon, I would have a long talk with that man, in Kreyol. During that conversation, he would not speak as fast as he possibly could in an attempt to confuse me. Actually, he would go on to teach me a few new words, and "correct" my pronunciation where it wasn't French enough. He would also pay me the supreme compliment of saying that the only problem with my Kreyol is the limits of my vocabulary. Another two months in the country, and I'd be a Haitian through and through. ("Mèsi," I told him at this point. "Se bèl manti ou ban mwen. Thank you. That's a beautiful lie.")

I don't share this anecdote because I think I'm a glorious person for taking a stand against racist attitudes; quite the opposite, actually. I think I'm generally as clueless about day-to-day prejudice as the next white collar white male. I noticed at Bojeux Parc only because I heard the interpreters muttering about it. I only noticed at the hospital because I happened to see the chow line and got into it. If I'd been handed a plate of food ten minutes earlier, I wouldn't have thought twice about taking it, and it never would have occurred to me that I inadvertantly had jumped in front of the national workers.

And yet, here in the United States, my European American heritage has opened doors, granted privileges, and created opportunities for me that would not have come as easily if I had been born black, or Indian, or Asian. When I started college, no one assumed that I had got to college on an athletic scholarship, like they did for my black roommate; the police have never pulled me over for walking or driving through the "wrong neighborhood"; and I'm pretty sure that if I were to run for public office, rumors that I was secretly a radical Muslim would never gain any traction at all.

That this has not been the experience of all my neighbors should concern us all. Preferential treatment is something that may be inescapable in a human society, and therefore at some level perhaps we need to tolerate it, but it is something we should never accept.

Moun se moun. Anything else is an insult to us all.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Passion of Joshua

A relief worker found Joshua some time after the quake, lying under a cardboard box, badly dehydrated and apparently abandoned.

About ten years old, Joshua is a bright child with cerebral palsy and club feet. In any country, disabilities like those can create a hardship. In Haiti, where serious disabilities can make you a pariah and a burden, some might say Joshua would have been luckier if he had never been born.

You wouldn't know that by hanging out with him, though. Joshua may be one of the happiest children I've ever met. It is impossible to feel down after only five minutes with him.

I met Joshua on Friday morning when Beth Milbourne, a nurse from Greenville Memorial Hospital in South Carolina, introduced me to him at the Centre Hospitaliere du Sacré Coeur.

Joshua greeted Beth with a loud cry of delight and played with her a moment until she gave him a hug and said she had to return to work. Joshua can't speak at all, but there was no question that he understood what was happening. As she stood up to leave, his face fell and the laughter faded from his eyes.

I stayed and played with Joshua for another ten minutes, getting him into an easy rhythm of frape men, getting him to smack one hand and then another. Sometimes I tried to catch his hand with my own when he smacked it, and sometimes I moved my hand out of the way just in time so that he would miss.

Whenever I would do this, he would laugh, and then try again. And when I moved my hand out of the way enough times in a row, he understood that the rules of the game had changed, and he would sometimes pretend he was about to swing his hand, in order to make me move my hand when I didn't need to.

It was a fun time, and when I told him that I needed to go, I didn't need to look at his face to know that he was sad.

He has a good memory, too. When I returned to the same clinic on Sunday, he not only gave an inarticulate cheer of excitement when he saw me, he remembered the games we had played two days earlier, and started to play them again as soon as I sat down next to him.

Like many of the children and adults now coming to the medical clinics, Joshua seems to have been physically unaffected by the January earthquake. There are places on his hands and arms where it looks like his skin was badly abraded, but those scrapes are healing now, and it looks like the only long-term disabilities he will have to contend with are his cerebral palsy and his clubfeet.

When Beth, the nurse from South Carolina, told me Joshua's story, she also told me this: His mother wants him back, reportedly so that she can use him to beg more effectively. There is surely more to it than that, since Joshua's mother has cared for him and kept him all these years when he would have been easy to abandon or to leave at one of Haiti's many orphanages; but a lifetime of begging for handouts is sure to be more than merely bleak. In a land where even winter temperatures can top 90 degrees, and where spring rains are pounding monsoons, in all probability, his life will also be very short.

To the Haitian authorities, though, that is irrelevant. Joshua has a living parent who wants him, and so to his living parent he must return.

News of Joshua's situation has hit more than a few people hard. On Thursday afternoon I sat talking with one of them in the hospital's break room, where she lamented that it seems like a cruel joke to take Joshua from a situation where he has been cared for and played with, only to put him out on the street to beg.

"It would have been better if he'd never come here than to come here and have it taken away," she said. "Now he'll be even more miserable."

"No," I said. "He won't."

All his life, Joshua has known there is something wrong with his body. He lacks the coordination to remove a wrapper from a piece of candy, to write with a pen or pencil, or even to hold something in his hand. He can hear other people talk, and he can watch them move, and he knows that his body does not perform the way it is intended to.

In the same way, he knows, as we all do, that the world is not as it should be. He was born with this knowledge, and all his life he has at some level understood that there is a better world, one where his body works as it should, and one where everybody is cherished according to the inherent worth of the Imago Dei in which they were made.

In Christianity, we understand that the fulfillment of this reality came in the person of Jesus, who at Capernaum declared "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19). And now it is we, his church, acting in his place, who represent the further fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

Far from making Joshua's life worse, I told this other team member, people like Beth have confirmed for him what he has always hoped and understood to be true: There really is a better, deeper world than this one. At moments when we allow ourselves to love as Jesus loved, this world finds moments of redemption and the Dream of God shines through.

Even if fears about his mother are borne out, and even if the church fails him, Joshua will never be abandoned again.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Letter to myself, age 22

Dear 22-year-old self,

In a sense, this may be one of the most pointless things I have ever written, since it comes seventeen years and some months too late to make a difference in the trip you are about to take to Haiti, but foolish or not, I am writing it. I know that you're still upstairs, somewhere, wearing clothes that haven't fit me in years and that were never exactly fashionable in the first place, so I write this in the hope that it will do some good, somehow. Often the value is not in the hearing, but in the saying.

Right now, you're pretty excited about the trip you'll be taking in two days. This is something you've been looking forward to since January 1991. You remember that, right? That was when you took a short-term missions trip to LaGonave with STEM Ministries, while everyone else in the college fellowship headed to Urbana, Ill., for the big missions conference. You didn't say much at the time to the others on your team, but the experience was one that you found to be deeply meaningful. There was that moment in LaSource where you realized that Pentecostalism wasn't what you had thought it was; and then there was that boy, Samuel, whose stomach was distended, whose hair was going red from malnutrition, and who you learned hadn't eaten a decent meal in weeks.

So, as I say, you're keen to be headed back to Haiti, to work with STEM. You're an idealist at heart, and since the Peace Corps called to say they were ready to assign you in Africa, and then called back fifteen minutes later to say, "Never mind, we just realized you're an evangelical Christian," you've been looking forward to the door that it appears God has opened for you. No Fortune 500 job for you, you are going to make a difference!

Oh, Dave, you're such an idiot. You really have no idea what's going to happen, do you? Over the next two years, everything is going to hit the fan. Everything.

For starters, you're going to see need - real need. Not like the men at the homeless shelter you volunteered at one night your freshman year, who had a place to stay and food to eat because the United States has the wealth to feed its indigents when we want to. No, we're talking the sort of need that comes when you have 8 million people in a nation where $3 is a decent day's wages and most people are unemployed. It's the sort of need where children sleep on the concrete driveway of the Jamaican restaurant on Route de Delmas, where 14-year-olds are so underfed that they look like they might be 8. It's a need that will slap you in the face every time you step out the door and interact with the people. The beggars in particular will overwhelm you. Some will be adults and some will be children; some will be sincere and some will merely be con men preying on you. There will be no escaping that need. It will greet you when you wake up in the morning, it will haunt you when you get something to eat, and it will steal its way into your dreams. No matter how many times you discuss it with others, no matter how often you pray about it, and no matter how you try to rationalize your way around it, you will never make peace with it. Never.

One by one, your illusions are going to fail. Right now you have some pretty naive ideas about Christians, about Christianity, and about missionaries. You understand Christianity as forgiveness of sins, Christians as American-style conservatives, and missionaries as bastions of indomitable faith in God. Over the next two years, you're going to realize the inadequacy of evangelicalism to deal with the problem of suffering and need; you're going to begin appreciating just how radically liberal Jesus was in his social attitudes, and you're going to discover that missionaries are just as human as the people in your church back home. Many missionaries whom you meet will disappoint you, just as you will disappoint them.

Incidentally, God is going to die while you're in Haiti. It'll be a combination of things that will finally do the old bugger in, but one day the light will fail and you will start crawling around on all fours in the dark to find the body. Eventually you will, and you'll wonder how you ever thought such a sad and miserable thing was worthy of worship.

Which is not to say it'll be all bad in Haiti, because it won't be. It'll be two of the hardest years of your life, but even though it sets you on a path that ultimately destroys the evangelical brand of faith that took you there, you will treasure your time in Haiti for the rest of your life. You're going to meet some tremendous people and have some tremendous experiences that will still shape you years later. There'll be the Haitian church services you attend, particularly the ones with Herve; there will be the time you realize that while it hurts to turn away 200 hungry children, at least you were able to help feed 300 others; and there will be friendships with people like Erzsébet, Brian VanWyhe and Dan Kramer; with Tammy Lynn Johnston; with Rick Root; and with the Murphys and the Herseys.

(There is a funny story about how you meet the Murphys. I wonder sometimes if Lonnie remembers it, or what her kindergartners called you.)

The reception you get when you return Stateside will be underwhelming. I hate to say this, but your own pastor is going to dismiss what you did as "not missions work." and from time to time, the lack of interest other people have in your experiences there will lead you to question whether you really accomplished anything. Sometimes the loudest voice there will be the one in your head. Ignore the gainsayers. The difference you make to the people you meet will be real and lasting, especially when you become a teacher. A Jewish tradition holds that to teach a child is to be as a parent to her. In less than a year of teaching, you will have 40 children who will never forget you, nor the lessons you teach them.

It's going to come to an end far too soon for you, and when it does, it won't end nicely. I haven't liked that ending for fifteen years now, and frankly, I think it's time for the curtain to rise on a second act.

Now 39,

Dave Learn

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Zipporah at the Inn

Evangeline and I are working our way through the Hebrew Scriptures at night again. At the moment, we're reading the book of Exodus, that breathtaking account of how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and led them out to the land that he had promised four hundred years earlier to Abraham and his descendants.

It's a fantastic story, and not just because "The Prince of Egypt" gave it such a tremendous soundtrack. No, it's tremendous because it shows the reckless compassion that God has for his people, the disdain he has for the mighty and the powerful, and the high regard he holds the weak and helpless in. It ranks up there with the stories of Joseph and Esther as one of my favorite stories in the Tanakh.

Which is not to say the book is without sections that befuddle the heck out of me. Like Zipporah at the Inn. At the time, Moses and his wife are journeying to Egypt from the land of Midian, where he has been living since fleeing Egypt, when all of a sudden this weird stuff starts to happen:

At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it.

"Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," she said. So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)


I didn't even get to Zipporah's name before Evangeline had a question. "Why is God trying to kill Moses?" she asked. "That doesn't make any sense. He just told him to go to Egypt, and now he wants to kill him?"

I looked at her in amusement. She's growing older, and she's understanding this stuff more and more all the time. The last time we read this passage, I don't think she even blinked at it. Many adults probably don't even know this passage is here.

"I have no idea," I said. "It strikes me as weird too." And I started to read again.

"But why would God do that?" She is nothing if not persistent.

I put the Bible down, and we talked about it. The Bible, I explained, comes to us from another part of the world, from a different period in history, and from a different language. Most of it is fairly clear, although people will disagree on the significance of one passage or another, and how to interpret it. Then there are passages like this, where no is really certain what was going on.

"The people who first wrote the Bible probably had other stories that they told that helped them make sense of passages like this," I said. "Sometimes that extra information found its way into the Bible, sometimes it was written down somewhere else. and sometimes it was just lost, and no one knows what to make of what we have."

We returned to the Scripture and read the rest of the chapter. Evangeline returned to the bizarre story of God trying to kill Moses, and being appeased only when Zipporah circumcised her son. Turn it about as she could, she just couldn't get the story to make sense to her.

I hope she never does, to be honest. I've met many armchair apologists, and too often have been one myself, who have tamed the Bible. We make it safe to read by stripping out the passages we don't like, or creating perverse ways to reinterpret them so that the Bible teaches what we think it should say, rather than what it does.

I've heard Christians insist that when the Bible says the witch of Endor summoned Samuel's spirit, what it really means is that she summoned a demon pretending to be Samuel; I've heard the Golden Rule twisted and bent in an attempt to justify invading another country; and I've witnessed the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats turned into a happy story of being redeemed by grace rather than an unnerving story about the importance of a gospel that stresses social justice. Right now there's even a project under way to eradicate a supposed liberal bias in the Bible.

We all like to twist the Bible to something we feel comfortable with: whether it's more liberal, more conservative, more spiritual, more worldly, or even more irrelevant.

Zipporah at the Inn doesn't let us do that. It reminds us that the Bible isn't something we can put on a leash and walk about. Sometimes it just plain defies our understanding, no matter how hard we look at it -- and that in turn can move us to reconsider other parts that we think we know.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.