Monday, June 30, 2008

Loving Each Other: a farewell, a hello, and making peace

On a personal note, today was that day I gave Sulmi back to her family for the summer. It was hard to do. She came to live with me last September because her family lives too far away to transport her to school everyday. She's too young to put on public transportation by herself and there is no school bus to her village. So she stayed with me and went home on weekends. This "hosting" situation is common here in Orange Walk when families in the villages can't afford to transport their children to a school outside of the village school.

When church and lunch were over she said, "When are you taking me home?"

I said, "Right now". It was 2:00 PM.

Sulmi said, "Can we go at 8:00 PM?"

"No, we need to go now because at 8:00 it will be dark. Mom and Dad are waiting for you."

"I want to go at 8:00, " she repeated. I hugged her and she jumped in the car. Surprisingly the actual farewell was easier. When we got to her house she exited the van and walked right into the house, smiled at her parents and gave her orange drink to her little sister. I waved goodbye with the "I love you" sign and she just smiled and waved back watching the van drive away on the bumpy, dirt road. It will be a lonely summer for her in a household where no one signs. It's the same for many of the deaf children here. But Sulmi is a survivor and tough. She'll figure it out.

She's grown so much in 9 months. When the social worker and I visited the family last August, she barely signed. We tried to talk to her and she just looked at us with big eyes or looked down at the ground. Now she is a regular giggle-box. She shares information and argues her point of view. She explains events and makes jokes. She keeps us in stitches with her constant chatter.

As I drove the van with all of the other deaf children in it, I was thinking through all of these things and grateful for the chance to be her part-time mom for a short time. I think she will come back to live with me again in September. We'll see what happens.

God coincidences: Sometimes God creates amazing coincidences that work out for his purposes. Shortly after dropping off Sulmi we passed a bus stop and several of the boys in the van were signing to me, "Hey, there's a deaf person at the bus stop."

"Really?" I couldn't imagine who would be at a bus stop in the Yo Creek area.

I did a Belize thing... put the car in reverse and hauled it back to the bus stop. We stopped right there and the person the boys were referring to came out and talked to us. I'd never met her before . She's about 30, cute and smart with a big smile and dimples. I told her I was driving a van that brings deaf people to my house for church every Sunday and asked her if she would want to join us. She signed, "Yes, I see your van go by and I wanted to join you."

She directed us to her house where she lives with her mom. It was nice to talk to her mother who it seems, also knew a little about us. I'm looking forward to getting to know Dora.
I thought I knew all of the deaf people in this part of Belize. Glad that God helped us to include one that we were missing.

Finally I want to share a thought that I have been chewing on this weekend:
I preached from John 15, "I am the vine and you are the branches". Like branches we can do nothing unless we are connected to the true vine. Apart from the vine we die, can't bear fruit, and are tossed into the fire. (Eww scary but, I get that part.)
The hard part is the next paragraph: Jesus says:
"You are my friends if you do what I command."
That's a conditional statement. We want to think of Jesus' love being unconditional. It's grace, unearned, undeserved, given for us while we were yet sinners. Free.

Yet, Jesus says it several times, several ways: "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love."
(John 15:10).

If we want to remain connected to the vine, we need to do what Jesus commands. So what does Jesus command? Love each other.
He says it twice (Jn 15:12, Jn 15:17).

Sarah, from the painful argument these past months, turned away, looked down and signed "Hard. Hard!"

Yep. It is. That's why we need to be branches that cling to the vine. Then the love that flows through our veins is not just our own but comes from the source of Love. We can't do it apart from him. Will it then be easy to love our enemies, people who hurt us, people we just plain don't like? Nope. Still "Hard-Hard", but the peace that passes all understanding is worth it.

Peace, friends. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Monday, June 23, 2008

An Awesome God

It was a small group at church today but the young man and woman from the last several month's worth of drama, were present. I dont want to use their real names, but will call them Mark and Sarah for the purpose of this blog.

What did God do?
They came to church with a bit of an attitude. Sarah was disappointed her best friend was absent so she felt she was without support from her "team". Mark always has an cap worn backwards, pants hanging halfway over his butt, slouching in the chair and hesitant to stand for the songs. They were defiantly NOT speaking to each other.

I preached on forgiveness from Matthew 18. I tried to contemporize it. Peter must have had a gripe against someone. He came to the Lord asking, "How many times do I need to forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times?" I dont think Peter thought through this question. How can you set a limit to forgiveness? What would happen after the 7th time? Do you say, "Hey, sorry! My records show that I have forgiven you 7 times already. You are over your quota. Get lost." Not.

Jesus in his reply is gentler than I am. He just touches on Peter's legalistic question and then addresses the motive for forgiving others. He tells the story of the king's unmerciful servant. We acted out the story. In our Deaf Chuch drama helps many who have limited signing skills to be able to visualize what the story is about. So the king tells the servant that he owes a million dollars. The servant can't possibly pay that amount. The king is ready to send the servant and his family to debtors prison for what would probably be a lifetime when the servant begs for mercy. The surprise in the story is that the King forgives him. He lets the servant go free and completely waives the debt. (No one could believe it. Sarah looked at me and smiled... she alone knew that the King in the story was a metaphor for God.) So what does the servant do next? Have a party? Bow down and worship God? Hug his wife? No. He chases after a fellow servant, a friend, who owes him a dollar. He beats up his friend and then has him thrown in jail for not paying a measly dollar debt. (The Holy Spirit was bringing understanding. Everyone started laughing at the absurdity of the servant's actions. Everyone in the room would have forgiven a dollar debt. They knew the servant should have extended the grace he received from the King.) It was fun to see them all understand the story, but did they understand the metaphor? So we talked it out a bit. Some daydreamed, some watched through glassy eyes. It wasn't hitting home.

Then we played a game. I have to give God credit here. Yesterday while I was thinking through this sermon, I knew I needed something to bring it home... a game... an image...something. God helped me remember a game that we used to play at deaf women's retreat every year. We never tied it to forgiveness. It was just a game, an activity. God's Spirit had a plan.

First the boys/men. I put three pieces of masking tape on each person's arm. I told them that each piece of tape represented one of our mistakes...maybe lying, maybe anger, maybe punching someone, whatever. On "go" they were to take the tape off of themselves and put it on someone else. The goal is to try to end up with no tape at all. For a minute they were grabbing and slapping and some were rolling on the floor. In the end everyone had at least two pieces somewhere on their body. We did it again with the girls. This time I stood in the middle and didnt take off any of the tape any person put on me. I just kept accepting it. When a minute was up, I had about 12 pieces on me. I said. That's what Jesus did. He took all of our sins so we could be clean. (Sarah started crying). How can anyone who has been made clean turn to someone else and say... you have a spot and I'm sick of looking at it? Forgive your brothers and sisters, because Jesus forgave you. (I think I've said that many times since I've been here in Orange Walk. The other times I didnt get much of a response.. maybe someone said, "Ok. Can we have lunch now?")

This time God moved us. I confessed and asked for their forgiveness for something, a young boy confessed something and asked for forgiveness from the group, three girls stood up and said they were sorry to each other, at least two more people asked for forgiveness and then there was silence, for a little bit. I was ready to close worship and Mark stood up. He said, "I want to say I'm sorry to you and to Sarah for hurting you and I was wrong." All the angels in heaven must have been cheering because this boy never says he's sorry or admits he is wrong. Then he hugged me and then everyone started hugging. (Wow! I kept thinking ...Yes, God answers prayer. Our church is on the road to healing. Thank you to everyone who prays for us.)

The rest of the morning went well, everyone was mixing and talking. Someone said to me as we were cleaning up lunch, "This is fun." She didn't mean the cleaning. She meant the love the group was learning to share. As I was driving the van to drop people off after lunch, I saw Sarah and Mark sitting together, talking and smiling. There might have been a kiss.

As I drove I was thinking, God has a plan for Mark. Maybe someday, he will be preaching to our church, telling his testimony about how he used to be attracted to gang behavior, drinking , bad language, sex, and a rough temper, but God forgave him. And the people of the church who will be much younger and not know the old Mark will say, "No, really? You? But you are so gentle.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Extending Grace

June 15, 2008

"God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. "
Ephesians 3:20
(The Message)

God is building his Kingdom among Deaf people here in Orange Walk, Belize. Sometimes it goes a little slowly and I get discouraged. This verse reminds me to hang tight. God's in control. It's his project and it will evolve beyond my wildest dreams, not by my effort, but by his Spirit. It's one of the words of encouragement God has given me this past month while our church has been struggling.

One day last week I was seeking God's direction with how to handle a fight between one young woman (20) and one young man (19). They are in volatile romantic relationship and she is pregnant. Their fight quickly got bigger because the girl sought out other girls to be on her side while the boy did the same thing with the boys. By Sunday it felt like the church was splitting in two. The original problem was fairly complex and was not going to be resolved in one discussion. But more than that it concerned me that others were being dragged into it. I was clearly in over my head. No matter what I said I could not get them to let down the wall of pride and anger. But most of all I was worried about how this would effect our church.

When I need encouragement, God sends someone. If I don't hear it from the first person, God will send a second.

This time he sent John, a friend and a pastor in Maine. John emailed me reminding me that when Paul was shipwrecked he still showed confidence in God because God had given him his destination. He was headed to Rome (Acts 23:11). God would would make it happen. John saw past the "problem" to my worry about our church...would it die because two people can't get along? John reminded me that God has shown me my "destination" many times and many ways. God will make Jesus' Deaf Church in Belize grow roots, flourish, and multiply. I should trust God to make it happen.

You would think that would be enough, a timely email, but I wandered on to my job at school and was still worried and not sure what to say and how to handle the young the couple. This day happened to be staff devotions and the principal led reading from John 14:1 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust in me also."

I had to laugh. I wondered if God would bombard me with Bible verses all day until I surrendered to trusting him.

Today, Sunday, both sets of alienated factions came to church. We prayed, we talked, we prayed some more and God brought the beginnings of forgiveness. We learned that sometimes you have to let go. You can't fight until the other person says, "I was wrong and your were right." They might never do that. You have to forgive. Sometimes in relationships we just have to let go, even when both people think the other person is "wrong". The anger and the hate, the bitterness and the way arguing stirs us up and makes us all nauseous and tired is not worth being "right". So today we all struggled to grab a piece of Peace and say... the issue and the "he said, she said" doesn't matter. Our love and our community, our relationship to each other is too valuable to throw away.

We ended with apologies, a prayer of thanks and commitment to our future.

Grace. Freely giving the grace that Jesus extends to us is unnatural. It's hard. Yet, it's the only way we can survive as a Kingdom community.

I don't know where we will be in a week. Will they walk away from our moment in the presence of God and turn back to anger and resentment? Maybe... but I am trusting God to lead us again if that happens.

Grace and Peace, Nancy