Saturday, August 28, 2010

Night by Elie Wiesel

Like watching Hotel Rwanda, I found Night to be a very difficult book and almost didn’t finish it. I think it is an incredibly important document. Like Hotel Rwanda, Night memorializes one human being’s experiences amidst a genocide. It is a remarkable account for a number of reasons. Mr. Wiesel was only a teenager when he and his family were deported and sent to a Nazi concentration camp along with other Jews from his town. It is amazing that someone so young could process the horror of that experience in such a sophisticated way. The book is beautifully written, though the adverb “beautifully” seems out of place due to the subject matter. Mr. Wiesel’s prose powerfully conveys the experience of concentration camp prisoners because it is not a dry, removed historical narrative. Instead, he reflects profoundly on the experiences he endured, which intensifies the reader’s understanding of the horror he experienced.

There were a number of things that struck me about the book. He begins the book by recounting his relatively carefree youth in a small Hungarian town, and describes his fervent religious faith. He went to synagogue frequently, read the Scriptures and prayed passionately to the God whom he knew and loved. Through out the book, he describes how the horror of the camps led him to lose his faith and curse God. Obviously I am of a different faith that Mr. Wiesel. But Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and Jesus was a devout Jew. So, our religious traditions are interrelated, and similar in many important respects. But even if they were not, it is excruciating for any person of faith to read of the loss of faith of another. Despite theological differences, I don’t think any person of faith can relish the notion that another child of God would become estranged from our Father.

Nonetheless, it is hard for any compassionate human being to fault Mr. Wiesel. What he endured and what he witnessed at such a tender age is incomprehensible and would test the faith of much more mature individuals. Particularly as viewed through the eyes of one so young, it is overwhelming to conceive of the rupture of the family unit when communities were shipped off to the camps. Upon arrival at the first camp, Mr. Wiesel and his father were separated forever from his mother and sister as the women and men were segregated and received differing fates. It is impossible to imagine such brutality and not even getting to say final “good-byes.”

As evident in Mr. Wiesel’s account, people were put in such impossible, dehumanizing conditions, that human survival instincts often led them to betray those whom they loved most. He describes how younger adults and teens often turned on their relatively weaker parents in a desperate effort to save themselves. Indeed, Mr. Wiesel expresses that his own prayer was that he would not fail that test and turn against his father.

As Night progressed, the inhumanity seemed to increase exponentially. The end of the book depicts the forced death march to another concentration camp ahead of the advance of Allied troops, and the slow, agonizing death of the author’s father. Of course, the risk in such graphic depiction of overwhelming brutality is that the reader will become numb to it. There is only so much horror that one can take in before one shuts down emotionally. Indeed, Mr. Wiesel references many times his own numbness and that of his fellow inmates. But the reader must guard against such numbness as best as he or she can. The subject matter is too important.

It is also critical that we who are fortunate to live in relatively prosperous and peaceful countries not fail to see the lessons of genocide in our own communities. One striking aspect of the initial reaction of the Jews in Mr. Wiesel’s town in Hungary was the pervasive disbelief that anything bad would happen to them. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, they didn’t think that they would get around to deporting Jews in the small towns. When the Nazis actually came to their town, they initially rationalized the situation by emphasizing the cordiality of the Nazi officer in charge. When they were put in a ghetto, they didn’t think the situation was that offensive. It was not until they were told of their imminent deportation and they began to be crammed into trains that the horror of their situation was apparent. To me, this human tendency to deny or rationalize bad, even potentially very dangerous situations, continues to take place all the time. If one group of persons is treated differently, there is often an attempt to justify the treatment and deny that it is inferior treatment. That seems to me to be a potentially very dangerous human tendency, one which we need to recognize and guard against.

In reflecting on Mr. Wiesel’s book, I asked myself what ordinary people might learn from the experience of the Holocaust. What came to mind was a particular sermon my pastor gave a while back. Last spring, she did a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. She began the series with a sermon on the commandment to not commit murder. She pointed out that many of us may think that commandment is so simple and has no application to our own lives because we wouldn’t ever even contemplate taking the life of another human being. But the Ten Commandments come from the Old Testament, and my pastor focused us on Jesus’s teachings on murder in Matthew 5:21-22, which gave added insight. In the book of Matthew, Jesus elevates the sin of anger to the sin of murder, and not by accident. Anger towards another is really the root that leads to the evil fruit of murder, and it is important to guard against it in our own hearts.

Matthew 5:21-22 (New International Reader’s Version)

"You have heard what was said to people who lived long ago. They were told, 'Do not commit murder.—(Exodus 20:13) Anyone who murders will be judged for it.' But here is what I tell you. Do not be angry with your brother. Anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged.”

Matthew 5:21-22 (The Message)

"You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.' I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

I saw Hotel Rwanda several years ago. This film was extremely powerful, but it was so disturbing that I had trouble watching the whole thing and doubt I could ever sit through it a second time. The film tells the true story of a Hutu man married to a Tutsi woman in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, in which almost a million men, women and children were killed in about 90 days. The film garnered a lot of positive critical attention, and was nominated for several Oscars.

Much of the power of the film is the personalization of the human tragedy that took place in 1994. We have all read news accounts of a generalized nature, and have some generalized understanding of what took place. Such generalized accounts are disturbing enough. My understanding is that no other genocide in history has been as efficient—killing so many in so little time. The statistics are absolutely staggering. But the power of Hotel Rwanda is that it tells the real life plight of one man, his family and co-workers during those terrifying days. We are shown at least briefly and to some degree what he went through, what he witnessed and how he survived. What he witnessed was absolutely astonishing and horrific.

Some modern Christ followers—perhaps especially those of us in relatively peaceful and prosperous Western nations—sometimes tend to doubt the existence of the devil. Indeed, in my observation, some who are well-educated particularly tend to scoff at the concept as being simplistic and out-dated. Indeed, I have witnessed that such Christians sometimes look down upon their brothers and sisters who fervently believe in a literal personified concept of Satan, who is actively interfering in the affairs of man and fighting the will of God. Such well-educated Christians seem to sometimes view such beliefs as provincial and unsophisticated.

Such skepticism may be understandable when one has been raised and has always lived in a relatively comfortable and benign world, and one has never been exposed to people that are all that corrupt. But I think that when one learns in more detail about the horrific evil of which humans are capable, such skepticism does tend to dissipate.

I am decidedly not a theologian. I have spoken to my pastor about the topic, but it is just not clear to me if the biblical representation of the devil is intended to be a literal personification or if it is intended to be a figurative representation of evil. Personally, I’m not sure it really matters. I do believe in evil. I do believe it can and does consume human beings. I remember watching Hotel Rwanda and reflecting on that point. I got chills at the superfluous references to Tutsis as “cockroaches,” the brutality of the agonizing machete killings, the mercilessness of massacring young orphans in the care of nuns, and the overwhelming body count. In my opinion, that inhumanity and evil has a very real source.

Mark 4:15 (Today's New International Version)

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.

Luke 22:3 (Wycliffe New Testament)

And Satan entered into Judas, that was called Iscariot, one of the twelve.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Children in Pakistan

My heart has been very heavy this week with the news coming from Pakistan. The extent of the flooding and the resulting human crisis is truly overwhelming. I heard in one report that an area the size of England is underwater. Reports are indicating that the death toll is incalculable in part because it is so high and in part because the infrastructure to reach the areas impacted is wiped out.

This week on the Diane Rehm Show there was a program that focused on the details of the dangers facing Pakistanis impacted by the floods. A number of life endangering diseases threaten the frantic evacuees as they try to escape the flood waters. There are mindboggling logistical issues trying to get to the people who need help. The program also provided several recommended charities, to which donations can be made to help the victims. You can listen to the program and see the list of recommended charities at the link below.

One news report focused particularly on the impact of the flooding to the children. A man with the charity Save the Children pointed out that in any disaster children (especially if they are poor) tend to be the most vulnerable. The interviewee described how children are particularly susceptible to diseases like cholera and dysentery, which become dire problems when clean water sources are compromised. The report—which has the mind-boggling title “Pakistan's Floods Puts 3 Million Children At Risk”-- is available below.

The other night I came home and saw a few minutes of a BBC report on the flooding. The most heart-wrenching part of the report took place in a hospital. A father and mother were at the bedside of their young son who was hooked up to tubes to treat him for cholera. The little boy looked weak and tired. The parents looked so sad. Through an interpreter, the father explained that they had just lost their older son to cholera a few days prior and the loss was unbearable. The parents couldn’t bear the thought of potentially losing another child. It was just heart-breaking. As a parent myself, I can’t fathom what that family has endured this week.

In the media, some of the commentators talk about the need for humanitarian aid in general terms to help stop human death and suffering. Other commentators take a different perspective and argue that we should increase the amount of aid in an effort to win hearts and minds away from Taliban and similar types of extremists. In the face of such human misery, I find that type of opportunism to be disgusting. Exploiting the misery of desperate human beings for political gain? Is that who we have become as a nation?

But even more repulsive to me are those who have opined that the Pakistanis don’t deserve our help. I heard one caller to the Diane Rehm Show suggest that we ought to offer aid only as a quid pro quo for the government of Pakistan to give up its nuclear program. Others expressed that the Pakistani government is untrustworthy, and therefore we ought to do nothing to help the people devastated by the floods. Some suggested that we ought not do much because it is more the responsibility of rich nations geographically closer to Pakistan to do the heavy lifting.

Comments like these are beyond my comprehension and frankly leave me at the point of despair about the state of our human family. When three million children alone are at risk (and we don't even add into the equation their parents and extended family), who can be so heartless to suggest we blackmail their government before rendering aid or refuse to help because we think someone else ought to do it? Each of those Pakistani children means the world to their families, their friends, and God.

If we are a “Christian nation” as some currently insist, how could we have learned nothing from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of Christ’s most important teachings? In Christ’s telling, the Samaritan never asked what was in it for him. He risked his own well-being to help his neighbor in need. He was the Good Samaritan precisely because he didn’t do as the priest and Levite before him. Instead of leaving the robbed and beaten man for someone else to tend, the Samaritan took action to minister to the man’s injuries and vulnerability.

James 1:27 (New King James Version)

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Miracle at Moreaux (1986)

I don’t think I am going out on a limb here to say that these days most Christians understand that Jesus’s teachings are incompatible with racism. That hasn’t always been the case of course, but in my observation that is the current state of affairs. And I think it is clearly a correct understanding of Jesus’s ministry. On many occasions Jesus violated social norms to associate with folks whom his own culture thought were unclean, outcasts and/or unworthy. He hung out with all sorts of apparently despicable folks: women, Samaritans, children and tax collectors. His approach was revolutionary in that sense. And Paul makes pretty clear in the New Testament that divisions of race or ethnicity are simply irrelevant in Christ. As a result, I have never understood how Christianity could be used to justify bigotry.

Perhaps particularly baffling to me, I have never understood the perspective of Christians who are anti-Semitic. After all, as Christians, our savior was Jewish! How could we hate Jewish-ness when that was such an important part of who Jesus was? How could we hate Jewish people when his family was Jewish? Moreover, all of our early Christian heroes were Jewish. Jesus’s family and friends were all Jewish, as were most of the first generation of Christians. Even today, Christians and Jews share scripture. Much about the Christian faith is rooted in Judaism. As a result of these facts, Christianity and anti-Semitism are just fundamentally incompatible belief systems. (Indeed, though the Passion of the Christ was well-received by many American Christians several years ago, I have yet to hear any Christians express anything but disappointment and dismay at Mel Gibson’s subsequent anti-Semitic and racist rants.)

My husband and I do our best to instill in our children our Christian faith. An important part of that is to teach them about Jesus’s command to love our neighbors, as well as his expansive understanding of the concept of a “neighbor.” We encourage our children to be friends with people of different backgrounds, and to love them regardless of their religious or political beliefs. We explain to our children that that is what God wants us to do because he loves everyone in the whole world very, very much.

Recently, as we have been teaching our children about our duty to love all our neighbors, we’ve been trying to raise their awareness of racism and other forms of bigotry. Our family is biracial, and we have had friends of many backgrounds, so this is an odd concept to our children. They understand moral judgments based on behavior. Like any of us, they instinctively tend to get on their moral high horse when someone else does something naughty (e.g., so-and-so told a lie but I would never do that, that person was a bully so he is bad). But to our kids, it is not intuitive that people would prejudge others simply based on their race, ethnicity or religion. To help illustrate the existence and dangers of such bigotry, we’ve talked at sort of a high level about slavery and the Holocaust. Obviously, we haven’t gotten into all the horrifying details; our kids are too young. But they are starting to understand the grave consequences of bigotry and why we need to guard against it in our own hearts and minds.

To that end, our family recently watched a made-for-TV film from the 1980s. Miracle at Moreaux has a rather simple plot and was a low budget film. Loretta Swit played the lead, but I had not heard of the other actors. The setting is occupied France in the early 1940s. The story revolves around a nun running a small Catholic boarding school in the countryside, and three Jewish children fleeing for their lives from Germany. The nun becomes aware of the Jewish children’s plight and makes a split-second decision to hide them at her boarding school from the local Nazi patrol. The decision is terrifying because the Nazis are searching for these three Jewish children, and remind the nun that harboring Jews is a capital offense. The nun risks her own life, as well as that of the Catholic children in her care, to try to protect the three Jewish children. In the film, she is often shown on her knees praying to God. The situation is anguishing, but she sees no other moral solution but to violate the law to try to protect the three Jewish children.

The Catholic children at the school have been raised in a religious environment and their faith is omnipresent. Most of the children are very conscious of their Christian obligation to love their neighbor, and immediately try to make the three Jewish children feel comfortable by bringing them extra blankets and making sure they are comfortable in their room. One older Catholic child initially spews ugly falsities about Jewish people that her parents had taught her. But even that child eventually comes around after she gets to know the three Jewish children personally and she hears about their horrific experiences in being separated from their parents. The nun and the Catholic children eventually hatch a risky plan to help the three Jewish children escape to Spain.

There was a pivotal scene where a Nazi officer interrupts the school’s rehearsal of its Christmas pageant to interrogate the youngest of the Catholic children. The Nazi coaxes the young, impressionable child, “Do you know where the Jews are?” The child nods earnestly, and the nun looks horror-stricken. The little boy then points to two of his Catholic classmates and himself, “He is a Jew and she is a Jew and I am a Jew.” The nun smiles in relief and explains to the Nazi that the little boy has just identified the children playing Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the Christmas pageant. She points out to the Nazi officer that the Holy Family was Jewish, but he is not receptive to this fact.

The story was a little scary, but very compelling to my kids. The story line was perhaps far-fetched, but it was challenging nonetheless. We are each obliged to help our brothers and sisters in need. When the Good Samaritan stopped to help the man who had been robbed and left for dead, the Good Samaritan was not just being a nice guy doing a little easy charity work. As I understand, he was risking his own life and limb. There was a very real possibility that the same fate could befall him. The road was full of robbers and other outlaws. Moreover, a guest pastor to our church recently taught on the parable of the Good Samaritan and explained that there was another very real danger. The Good Samaritan was traveling in a land where his people were reviled. He risked his own safety by even showing up at a Jewish inn with a Jewish man who had been beaten savagely. In that cultural context, it was not clear the Good Samaritan would be welcomed or even tolerated.

Each of us likes to think we would be a Good Samaritan, but we all fall short of that even when the risks to us are not that great. I am unsure if I would have the courage to make the same choice as the nun in Miracle at Moreaux. I certainly hope I would. But it is always easier to make bold moral proclamations from a position of relative safety and security.

John 13:37-38 (New King James Version)

Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.”
Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The “Christian Heroes: Then & Now” Collection

For decades, many have criticized the teaching of history in schools as being selective in emphasizing certain events and individuals, but overlooking many other important contributions to our society. When I was a grade school student, our study of history was typically limited to wars and presidents. I’ve mentioned before in this blog that when I took an African American history course to satisfy my undergraduate American history requirement, the knowledge I gained in that course was transformational. It opened my eyes in ways they had never been opened before. I learned so much about my own country’s history, to which I had never been exposed previously. I had a similar experience several years ago when I began to study Asian American history on my own. Again, as an adult, I was learning about fascinating parts of my own country’s history for the very first time. Such knowledge gave me a richer understanding of our country’s past, as well as its current debates and challenges.

Perhaps similar to the concerns of African Americans, Asian Americans, and many other groups in our society, some Christians feel that the secular teaching of history in the public schools has overlooked the important, positive contributions of their forbearers. The concern is often expressed that in an attempt to take a neutral stance towards religion, the schools gloss over the fact that religious faith was core to certain very positive aspects of history. Frequently cited are abolitionist efforts to eradicate slavery (e.g., William Wilberforce, Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison) and women’s efforts to gain suffrage rights (e.g., Antoinette Brown, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton).

I can appreciate these concerns. In my public school education, it seemed like the positive aspects of Christian history were ignored or downplayed. My biggest recollections of Christianity popping up in the curriculum were the following: the colonizing Spaniards who seemed to have little actual regard for the indigenous people of the Americas but wanted to convert them (at least nominally) to Christianity, the (overly) pious Puritans leaving Europe for religious freedom, the tragic hysteria of the Salem witch trials, the excesses of the Catholic Church that led Martin Luther to break from Rome, and then those crazy temperance movement ladies with the hatchets.

In my secular education of history, I do also remember some passing mentions of Christian abolitionists, but even they were not portrayed in the best light as I recall. I don't remember any exploration of the impact of their religion on their views on slavery; their religion was downplayed. Per the history books, they also seemed like dishonest zealots. I remember an emphasis that Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as a piece of abolitionist propaganda by someone who had never even been below the Mason-Dixon line.

As a result of all this, my general impression from my secular education of history (of course filtered through my own teenage atheism) was that Christianity did not really add much to our country’s history, its existence was merely a parenthetical fact. I also came away with the impression that throughout history the Christians were pretty wacko folks. They often did insensitive, misguided, and even violent things in the name of their religion.

It seems my experience was not completely atypical. As a result, Christian publishers have begun to publish books in recent years to enlighten people about the positive contributions of Christians. They are sold at Christian book stores, homeschooling conventions and various internet websites. Because this is a part of contemporary Christian culture that is unknown to many, I thought it would be helpful to flag its existence.

In that vein, I recently became aware of the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” series, which is published by a company called YWAM. Following up on the prior blog, because of our family’s interests in medical missions and different cultures, I recently bought several children’s books about Western missionaries. My kids and I are currently reading a biography about David Livingstone, which is pretty engaging. My older daughter loves science and African cultures, so she is particularly enjoying this book. I also bought my kids a biography of Corrie ten Boom, a really fascinating Dutch woman whom I mentioned in a recent post.

When I was browsing the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection, I have to say I was a little taken aback. There was a similar series in a separate stack nearby called “Heroes of History.” The series had biographies on George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, and Clara Barton. However, they also had biographies of several of our founding fathers, whom scholars insist had deist beliefs and/or attended church services for social--not spiritual--reasons. I also was absolutely horrified to see a biography of Ronald Reagan in this collection--Ronald Reagan: Destiny at his Side. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area at the tail end of the Cold War during a period when the rate of homelessness increased dramatically. My memories of Ronald Reagan’s presidency are much less favorable than the book seems to portray.

As I was browsing these books, I was primarily drawn to the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection, and did not buy any of the “Heroes of History” series. It is not entirely clear to me from the book titles and the individuals chosen for inclusion in the series whether “Heroes of History” is attempting to portray individuals like Benjamin Franklin and Ronald Reagan as Christian historical figures. (In that throughout his adult life Ronald Reagan consistently chose to not attend church on a regular basis, and his beloved second wife was passionate about astrology, our fortieth president would not have made my short list of notable Christians.)

Because the biographies of such individuals are not included in the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection, my hope is that the publishers weren’t trying to re-write history through an inaccurate Christian lens. However, I’m unsure because the publisher, YWAM, describes itself as a “resource for high-quality Christian books” that tries to “encourage Christians to make a difference in a needy world.”

The first link below provides some information about the YWAM publishing company. The second link provides information about the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection.

Matthew 10:1

Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.

1 Timothy 1:12

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Medical Workers Afghanistan

I had a bit of a shock recently when I was reading the news on-line. The headlines mentioned medical workers had been killed in Afghanistan, and the story ran an image of a young woman who looked very much like my children’s first pediatrician in Texas. That pediatrician was a young woman who had already spent several long stints in remote areas of developing countries to provide medical treatment to children in underserved areas. She was a remarkable doctor, and I knew she had a child of her own. My heart sank to think this wonderful pediatrician had been killed.

But I read the story and it turned out the pediatrician we knew was not one of the medical workers killed. That was a relief, but my heart also broke to read about these strangers who traveled in rugged terrain and sacrificed so much to provide people with much needed medical care. The doctors had traveled to a remote part of Afghanistan under the auspices of a Christian relief group, but they deliberately did not proselytize. They did not share God’s love expressly by telling patients with words about him, but they did God’s work by being his hands and feet to his people in need.

Personally, I find that type of sacrifice to be beautiful. When I lived in France as an au pair, the aunt of my French mother was a nun who had spent nearly her entire career in Afghanistan despite great dangers. I remember listening in awe to my French family’s description of her dedication and love for the people of Afghanistan. She did not wear a traditional nun’s habit, but adopted local norms of dress to be more effective in her work. Like the medical workers killed in Afghanistan, she did not proselytize but simply lived with God’s people to minister to their needs as a nurse.

My first teaching job was at a Catholic school where my principal (also a nun) had just come from years of serving a rural community in Liberia. At the time, the leaders of her religious order had just evacuated all of the sisters because of the intensification of civil war violence. Despite the dangers, these strong-willed nuns had resisted the evacuated until the end and tried in vain to convince the leaders of their order it was not necessary. While in Liberia, these nuns did not proselytize but instead ministered to the needs of their neighbors to provide fresh water wells and education.

My husband and I aspire to do similar types of work once he finishes his education and our kids are a little older. As a nurse, he will have valuable skills in such a setting, though there will likely be little call for my amazing talent for statutory construction. I joke that he can give the inoculations and listen to people’s lungs while I can tag along and try to find something useful to do like holding his stethoscope, disposing of the syringes and/or doing paperwork.

We really admire the self-sacrifice of these medical workers. The accounts I’ve read of these murdered medical workers in Afghanistan indicate over and over again that they knew the risks, but they had a passion for the kind of work they were doing. What a beautiful testimony to God’s love.

The links below contain news reports about the murders, and tributes to the medical workers.

Romans 12:1

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Monday, August 9, 2010

More Reflections On the Good Samaritan

Throughout the existence of this blog, people have been kind enough to share with me that various posts have been helpful to them in different ways. That is certainly very gratifying to hear. It is great to know that you have made some small positive difference in others’ lives. But in actuality, sometimes the posts really help me, too. I guess it is helpful to remind oneself of basic aspects of one’s beliefs. In that vein, the tail end of the prior post on Anne Rice reminded me of points that I recently had great need to remember.

This past weekend, our family went to a party with a lot of kids. We knew only a small handful of the families there. We are still somewhat new to this particular group. The kids were doing activities in different groups and one parent was incredibly inhospitable to our younger child. This parent actually went to pretty extreme lengths to get our younger child to play elsewhere to leave a budding clique intact. The other kids were oblivious, but this parent seemed to want a certain group of kids together without anyone else intruding. It later became apparent that this parent’s primary motivation was her desire to get some good photos with kids her child knew best. My husband was with our younger child when this parent was trying to exclude her, and he did his best to distract our child and shelter her from what was actually going on so that she wouldn’t get her feelings hurt. It is never easy being the new person in a group, and one is vulnerable when trying to make new friends. Obviously, it can really hurt a child’s feelings and damage their budding self-confidence to be rejected in that way. Heck, it can hurt an adult to go through that.

Perhaps it is our Texas upbringing, but neither my husband nor I said anything to this woman. Though our first instinct might have been to curse her out or kick her in the shins, we were gracious and polite. Nonetheless, we were horrified that an adult would behave so rudely for no good reason. Moreover, we just could not fathom an adult behaving so heartlessly to a little child. We were astonished that a grown woman would behave in such a petty manner that could well have crushed the feelings and self-confidence of a five-year old. In our minds, it is pretty inexcusable and unforgiveable.

But to Christians, of course, nothing should be unforgiveable. One of the foundational concepts in Christianity is that Christ died to forgive us of all our sins. The biggies, the little ones, everything in between. All of that is forgiven. And we are to love our neighbor—not just when they are being civil, but also when they act like jerks.

So, this little experience at the party got my husband and I talking about the Good Samaritan. The common understanding of the parable is that the Samaritan doesn’t know the man robbed and left for dead on the road. After all they are from different social groups, and the gist of the parable seems to be that the concept of “neighbor” is so broad that it also extends to strangers. We’re all brothers and sisters even if we don’t (yet) know one another. But on the way home from the party, my husband and I tried to imagine that the Samaritan did actually know the man left for dead on the road, and the latter man had been a real jerk to the former. In some ways it is easier to be merciful to a stranger with whom you have no past history. It is a much bigger challenge to be merciful to someone who has annoyed or offended you. But that is part of what Christ asks.

My example from the party is an admittedly petty one. (Though to parents, any offense to their child feels like a near capital offense!) But I remember a much starker example when I was reading about Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian woman whose family was sent to concentration camps in the 1940s for the crime of hiding Jews from the authorities. Somehow Ms. Ten Boom survived the ordeal of the concentration camp and after the war was an evangelist sharing God’s love with others. After a lecture she gave one night in Munich, a man came up to her to share how moved he was by her talk of God’s forgiveness and how tortured he had been by his past deeds. The man was a sadistic guard who had made Ms. Ten Boom’s life in the camp particularly hellish; he did not recognize her from the camp. The human instinct was to react to this man by lashing out in hatred. But Ms. Ten Boom however was true to her beliefs. She prayed and chose to forgive this man. She later explained, “I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Luke 17:4-5 (Contemporary English Version)

Even if one of them mistreats you seven times in one day and says, "I am sorry," you should still forgive that person. The apostles said to the Lord, "Make our faith stronger!"

Friday, August 6, 2010

Anne Rice Quits the Church

Anne Rice made the news this week. On my way home, I heard her interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I don’t do social networking, but apparently on Facebook she announced:

"For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a
Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being
'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to
'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous
group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience
will allow nothing else."

She also stated, “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

She added, "My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become."

For those who are unfamiliar, Anne Rice is one of the best selling novelists of all time. She has written books on vampires and witches, which are full of graphic sex and violence. Under a pseudonym, she apparently has also written “erotica.” (But personally I cannot imagine how those books differ from the ones about vampires and witches; the latter were pretty raunchy.)

Ms. Rice is from New Orleans, but also lived in Denton, Texas as a teenager. She was raised a Roman Catholic, but left the church at age 18. For a period she described herself as an atheist, but in 1998 she returned to the Catholic Church with a renewed faith in God. She publically declared that this conversion experience would affect her writing as she intended to use her writing talents to glorify God. In the 2000s, she published several books with religious themes.

As an adult, she lived most of her life in New Orleans. However, prior to Katrina, in an effort to simplify her life, Ms. Rice moved from New Orleans to California to be near her adult son.

My own family lived for many years in Houston, which is in Southeast Texas. Due to the geographical proximity, I have had a certain familiarity with Louisiana. I’ve discussed in this blog my particular love for and fascination with the culture and people of New Orleans. Anne Rice apparently went to the same college as my mom, though not at the same time. I have also explained in this blog that most of my Christian walk I was a Catholic, but our family is now happily established in an Episcopalian parish. At least at first blush, Anne Rice and I may appear to have certain things in common, and one might assume I admire her.

However, before discussing her decision to leave the Church, I should admit that I’m not exactly a fan of Anne Rice. I’ve tried to read some of her books, but have finished just one or two. Years ago, I did see the film adaptation of Interview with a Vampire. But I just never understood the whole obsession with vampires and witches. It is not interesting to me in the slightest. Quite honestly, I find the subject matter gross, creepy and terribly overrated. My apologies to any readers who might fall into this category, but I’ve always found fans of Ms. Rice’s work to be very odd and unappealing. I have also never liked Ms. Rice’s goth style. She used to dress in a very dramatic, bizarre fashion. I’m all for freedom of expression, but at least her pre-Christian fashion sense used to spook me.

Despite all this, I can relate in some ways to Ms. Rice’s decision to leave the Church, and I mourn for her. This was obviously a difficult decision for her. She explains that it has caused her pain, but in good conscience she felt she had no other choice. In her interview with “All Things Considered,” Ms. Rice seemed to have been particularly disappointed with the Catholic Church’s political activism on the issue of same sex marriage. She was frustrated that the Church decided to “donate money to defeat the civil rights of homosexuals in the secular society.” I certainly empathize with and share Ms. Rice’s concerns on this point. I believe that that recent type of secular politicization of the church has alienated many Christ followers, and has repelled many who might otherwise be attracted to the Gospel message.

I was also moved by a part of the interview where Ms. Rice explained her decision to leave the Church: "... I am a person who grew up with the saying that all that is needed for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing, and I believe that statement." I definitely agree with this point. History has shown this to be true repeatedly. Good people failed to speak up in sufficient numbers in Germany in the 1930s; millions of people lost their lives as a result. Good people failed to speak up in sufficient numbers in our own country when African Americans were routinely terrorized and lynched in violation of our secular laws (and our nation’s supposed Judeo-Christian values); even people who worked in law enforcement typically failed to intervene. We who are Christ followers--and who value all parts of the Body of Christ and God’s creation--have a duty to speak up in defense of the vulnerable and disenfranchised in this world.

Although I can understand Ms. Rice’s motivations in leaving the Church, I cannot say I share them. I have not written about the motivations behind my own family’s decision to leave the Catholic Church because they aren’t relevant to the focus of this blog. Denominational squabbles sadden me greatly; the fracturing of the Body of Christ is a tragedy. In this blog, I don’t want to devote time to discussing the relative wisdom of one denomination over another. This is not a blog about theology.

Nonetheless, it may be helpful to clarify that my family’s decision to leave the Catholic Church was not due to theological or political disagreements. This is not to say that my husband and I agreed with every single teaching and decision of the Catholic Church. However, we did not have a theological or political falling out. Though I may share Ms. Rice’s disappointment with the secular politicization of the church, that disappointment has never provoked in me a desire to leave. I may have moved from one room to another, but I have not left the house. I believe you can speak up and be a force for positive change within the church if you stay.

More fundamentally, I deeply believe that being involved in a church community is an important part of living our Christian faith. Jesus taught that we should love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor. Personally, I don’t think you can just love your neighbors from afar. We have to get to know our neighbors and spend time with them to truly love them. Jesus always did that. His ministry involved spending time and building relationships with all kinds of folks. Indeed, some of them seemed pretty repulsive per the cultural norms in which Jesus was raised and educated.

Loving our neighbors is not always easy. Frankly, it can be pretty messy at times. We don’t always agree or even get along. But I think God wants us to work through all that messiness to truly understand what love is, and to be able to see the reflection of God in each of our brothers and sisters. One thing that has been a challenge to me in my walk—and is likely a challenge to many other Christians—is the realization that not only does God love me profoundly and infinitely, but he also loves (just as much) the folks I think are jerks. The wacko who cuts me off on the highway, people who say unkind things about me, the xenophobic activist trying to blame our country’s problems on desperate people who risk their lives to come to this country to feed their families. God loves each and every one of them as much as he loves me. He doesn’t play favorites. One of my challenges as a Christ follower is to evolve and mature to grow to see such folks the way God does. I cannot do that if I cut myself off and refuse to associate with them.

Anne Rice’s NPR interview is available at the link below:

Matthew 18:19-20 (New Living Translation)

“I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”

Mark 2:15-16 (New Living Translation)

Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Place Called Simplicity

My husband is not a big computer guy. He is not into video games, he doesn’t spend time on the ESPN website, and he isn’t into social networking. I guess as parents of young children we have too many other things on our plate in this season of our life.

The one exception is a blog called “A Place Called Simplicity.” (A link is below.) My husband is rather fascinated by the blog. I rarely read it myself, but he is always telling me about new postings. As a result, I feel like I’m a vicarious follower of the blog.

The blog’s author is a woman in Colorado named Linn. Her husband was a lawyer, who had a successful practice, and later became a pastor. I believe Linn has been a professional counselor of some sort. In the blog, she has shared her story of battling infertility and then being moved to adopt children—a lot of children! I believe they have ten. Some are adults, some are young kids, and there are some at various stages in between. The children are of various races—Caucasian, Asian and African. They were adopted from several different countries.

The blog features pictures of the children, and describes various joys and challenges in their lives. The family has endured all kinds of horrible tragedies that have been memorialized in the blog—illness, house fire, a stalker. Yet their faith in God never seems to waiver. And indeed, their faith is repeatedly validated as minor miracles occur. Even in their times of struggle, God always seems to find a way. My husband is fascinated by their experiences, and enjoys tuning in to read the latest posts.

Though I rarely visit the blog myself, I find it fascinating as well. It you read some of the older posts on adoption, you hear about this woman’s passion to do God’s will in caring for orphans. Clearly, this is her calling in life. Her passion for her children, and her openness to bring new children into their family are awe-inspiring. I hear about all she has done for children in need, and feel like our family has really dropped the ball.

Linn’s narrative obviously strikes a chord with many. Visitors to her blog make mine pale by comparison. She has over a thousand followers, and has had over a million hits to the blog since its inception. Amazing!

Recently, my husband and I have been concerned for this family we don’t even know. Linn has shared on her blog that a double whammy has hit. She has battled a number of serious health issues over the years, but in the past she has been healed or otherwise been able to persevere. Recently, she has had some troubling symptoms and had to have a biopsy of her thyroid. The results were inconclusive, but something seems to be very wrong. They are doing more tests and consulting with other doctors. However, the second half of the double whammy is that they just lost their health insurance.

I’ve known people who faced life-threatening illness and did not have health insurance. It is not a good situation. So, my heart breaks for anyone going through that. It is bad enough to be facing serious health issues, but even worse if you are not sure you will be able to get access to treatment to save your life. The situation is even more heart-breaking when young children are involved.

My husband and I have been touched by Linn’s response to her current situation. She says she is going through a variety of emotions, but is very buoyed by the prayers of her readers. Linn reports in the blog that she is hugging her children a lot and making memories. My heart breaks for her children.

I realize that not everyone who reads my blog is a person of faith. But if you are, I would encourage you to lift Linn and her family up in prayer.

John 14:18 (New International Version)

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

James 1:27 (New International Version)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.