Standing Firm – Nteka’s Story

1 Corinthians 16:13 (NIV): Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Do everything in love.

My family went to Botswana to live in 1966, the year the country became independent. At the time it was the 3rd poorest country in the world. My mother was a doctor at the hospital in Serowe, and my dad worked at the secondary school. Although Serowe seemed like a small dusty village, it was actually the tribal headquarters of the Bamangwato tribe, ancestral home of Botswana’s first president, Seretse Khama. It had to be an important village to have a secondary school and a hospital!

Although Botswana was poor, and life on the edge of the Kalahari desert was marginal, this new country sought to provide free education for everyone and free healthcare for all.

One day a young girl was brought to the hospital where my mother worked. This was Nteka. She was eleven, and she and her family had never had the money to send her to school. Yes, school was free, but families still had to provide a school uniform and a few basic supplies. Nteka’s family didn’t have the money to pay.

Nteka was determined to go to school, and she went on a hunger strike. She refused to eat until she could go to school. When her body began to fail, she was brought to the hospital, and my mother was one of her doctors.

My mother was so impressed by Nteka’s determination that she committed to standing firm with her and ensure that Nteka could go to school. It wasn’t as simple as buying the uniform and supplies. The local school in Thabala, Nteka’s village, didn’t have the resources to start an eleven-year old in Standard 1.

My mother, knowing that Nteka’s life was on the line, went looking elsewhere. The secondary school my father taught at was somewhat experimental, and its local primary school was staffed by Peace Corps volunteers, many of them Quakers and Mennonites. A few of the teachers were idealistic and enthusiastic and intrigued by the idea of teaching a child whose desire to learn was that strong. But this school in Serowe was a long way from Nteka’s home village.

My parents decided that we would offer to be a foster family for Nteka during the school year, but they wanted to be careful not to replace her parents or complicate her home family dynamics. When school was not in session, Nteka would be back with her family in Thabala.

After my parents had worked out this proposal, they went to Nteka’s parents, who said, “Thank you, but no.” They explained that Nteka was too old, and besides, she was a girl. “If you are willing to help one of our children go to school, it must be the younger boy, Keletso, who was only seven.”

* * * * *

As my parents told me this story over the years, they explained this as plain sexism. I imagine that was something my mother had experienced as a woman and a doctor in the 1960s.

As I think about this story today, I think it’s probably a little more complicated for this economically deprived family.

The economic reality of Botswana in those days was that a retirement plan consisted of having a son to provide for them in their old age. A woman couldn’t be a provider in the 60s, so it would make more sense to educate their son.

Secondly, unmarried women were a financial asset to their families. Unlike in some countries in South East Asia where families must pay a dowry in order for their daughters to marry, Sub Saharan Africa tended to have the payment go the other way. In Botswana, a groom must pay lobola, or a bride price to the brides’ parents. So Nteka constituted a financial asset to her parents, whom they couldn’t easily afford to send away.

And finally, Nteka would only be an asset as an unmarried and childless daughter. They must have had their concerns about sending an eleven year old girl to live in the home of this white man and woman, about whom they knew nothing. Would she really be safe and respected?

* * * * *

There they were, Nteka’s parents and mine. I don’t know exactly what was said with words or silently, but ultimately my parents looked at each other and said, “If we’re taking in one child, we may as well take two…” And Nteka’s parents agreed that if Keletso also came along, Nteka could come and live with us while she went to school.

Nteka and Keletso came to live with us when I was one, and they were my big sister and big brother.

I want to be sure you know that this isn’t a story of a white family parachuting in to save a young black girl. This is a story about Nteka standing firm to learn to read and write, and she got an education, enough to be independent and have an income. Her persistence changed the trajectory of her life and Keletso’s. Keletso died very young, sadly, and Nteka ended up being the one to provide for her parents in their old age. My sister Nteka changed my life. She was a remarkable woman.

When Is The Exodus Complete?

This week’s common lectionary gospel text is Luke 9:28-36, known as The Transfiguration. In this passage, Jesus climbs a mountain with some of his disciples. Jesus goes alone up to the top of the mountain, and this is what Luke tells us happens next:

“While [Jesus] was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white. At once two men were there talking with him. They turned out to be Moses and Elijah—and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.”

Now, the common Bible translations don’t use the concept of “complete the exodus” in Jerusalem. Instead, their language is “accomplish his departure”. Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message interpretation, is known for trying to communicate the meaning of the text rather than aiming for word-for-word accuracy, so I decided to check for myself. The Greek words are, indeed, exodon (exodus) and pleroun (full or complete).

So Jesus really did go to Jerusalem to fulfill the exodus. It’s obvious why the more common translations don’t want to use the word “fulfill”. The history of Christians claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish covenants is pretty ugly (see supersession), so we do well to exercise caution. Thankfully, I think there is a way to engage the spiritual dimension of this without suggesting that Jewish convenants are “unfulfilled”, and while being clear that God did not transfer the promises or status as “chosen people” to Christians. All we need to do is set aside any intent to see The Truth about covenants, the relationship between Jews and Christians, and the true nature of Jesus. Instead, we can ask God to speak to us through the text and invite God to teach us about God’s relationship with Jesus and Jesus’ path to freedom. We can ask God to reveal truth about our own personal covenant with God, and show us our own spiritual bondage and path to freedom.  

Queries for prayerful consideration:

If Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are “the completion of his exodus”, when did his exodus begin?
In what other ways is the ministry of Jesus similar to Moses leading the the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity?
In what ways has Jesus led you out of bondage?
What still holds you in bondage?
How will Jesus free you from captivity?

Questions re American Exceptionalism

These questions arose for me after reading the God’s Politics story recently about white evangelicals believing in American exceptionalism.

To my evangelical friends, I’m hoping you can teach me a little more about a couple of things.

Firstly, growing up as I did in Norway, the idea that the USA is favored in some special way is new to me. What is the basis for that belief?

Secondly, in Norway, I almost failed my Christendom exam in high school for failing to make the distinction between the Israelites of the Bible and the modern state of Israel. It seems that the distinction between Israelites and Israel is not as strong here?

And finally, perhaps because of #2 above, we were taught that the story of the Israelites is our own personal faith story or every nation’s story. The gist of which is “when you are weak and vulnerable, God helps and protects” and “when you are in power, it is your job as God’s servant to care for the weak and vulnerable”.
So I’d love to learn more from evangelicals who believe in American exceptionalism, or from non-evangelicals who can explain it sympathetically?

A Milestone Interfaith Event

On Tuesday, October 26th we held a dedication of the Reflection Room at Swedish/Edmonds, where I work as hospital chaplain. It has been a two-year process to get the room built, decorated and dedicated as “A place to worship, reflect, meditate, pray, seek, or just be.” I could write page after page about everything that’s in the room and why that particular item is there – a driftwood sculpture, a wall fountain, worship supplies, a memorial book,and a book for prayer requests – but I’d rather have you come and visit the room to see it for yourself.

Right now I want to share with you the impact the event had on me. As I start to get a little perspective, I realize this will be a milestone event for me. During this time of political, social, and religious polarization, I was privileged that an imam, a rabbi, a Christian minister, a Humanist celebrant, and priests from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions were willing to come together for this ceremony. I would like to say something profound, but don’t have the words.

Instead, try to imagine the 6 celebrants, each of them offering from their own tradition: the Tekbir (Allahu Akbar, call to prayer); Vedic chanting at an altar set up with flowers before Lord Ganesha (with the elephant head); intercessory prayer according to the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions; reminders to live compassionately from the Buddhist and Humanist traditions. 

Afterwards, I invited everyone present to give a symbol of their compassion. Each person was given a polished river rock to take into the Reflection Room. The rock was to symbolize something they thought that future users of the room might need, for instance strength, faith, love, celebration, peace, comfort, laughter, consoling tears. I love looking at the collection of rocks, thinking of the compassion that has been offered.

Another purpose of the celebration was to dedicate it to the memory of a kind and popular physician, Peter Kruger, who died very young in 1983. Peter Kruger’s widow and daughter honored us with their presence and and they were able to have conversations with hospital staff who had worked with Peter back in the 70s and 80s. I pray that was meaningful to them.

Generosity – that is the word that arises as I think of the event. The generosity of spirit of the celebrants from all the faith groups, the financial generosity of those who donated money to create the Reflection Room, and the generosity of love as we steeped the Reflection Room in compassion.

I am deeply grateful for the generosity I witnessed, and I rededicate myself to the belief that we are given life for the purpose of developing our capacity for compassion and love.

Query for prayerful reflection:

How will generosity of spirit be made manifest in your life?

How will you foster a spirit of generosity among those you know who may not be in agreement with each other?

Reflection Room Art

A New Way of Living

Hah, and I thought May and June were busy…..

I was promoted in mid June, and my new responsibilities mean I do more administration – lots more – and have fewer patient visits and do less spiritual direction. I discovered a funny thing: management and administrative tasks don’t lend themselves as well to blog-worthy reflections. There are fewer human interactions, and of course it’s those human stories that touch me. My computer just isn’t as stimulating!

Hmmm. Let me rephrase that. Managing and administrating are plenty stimulating activities, they jusy don’t lend themselves as well to public blogging. More of my thoughts and reflections need to be kept to myself. My employment situation is a matter of public record, so there is no way of telling the story while keeping the institution anonymous. 

Are there any bloggers out there who have found ways to blog about their reflections on institutional life?

And yet there are many in the area of spirituality who believe in a corporate “soul” and believe that its soul is more than the institution’s culture and more than the sum of the individual employees’ souls. 

To be continued….

A Theology of Busy-ness

The last month has been one of the busiest in my life, with new or higher expectations of me as a citizen, mother, Quaker, friend, chaplain, spiritual director – and even a few outright crises. The question that arises for me is where God is in this: What is my theology of busy-ness?

As a general rule, I don’t think God calls us to be in a state of perpetual motion. I usually interpret busy-ness to mean that a person has taken on responsibilities to which s/he was not called. I usually think of busy-ness as a failure of discernment – it means we said “yes” to doing something that we really weren’t called to take on. If there isn’t room for Sabbath, for some regular down-time, it is a sign to me that we have not been faithful.

This latest round of busy-ness in my life has me wondering if that understanding was a bit rigid. I experienced God’s presence pretty strongly throughout, and I didn’t have any indicators of being out in front of my spiritual guide. I never did feel cold and disconnected, nor was I prone to irritability – which are common signs for me if I’m out on my own. Instead, it was as if God was inviting me to engage in each of those areas. Prayer came easily to me in the midst of my activities, and so did a number of other healthy responses, such as an absolute and unusual craving for exercise, so strong that I had to give in, and exercise helped me stay balanced and grounded.

So my “felt experience” was of being called into this busy-ness, which led me to re-think my theology: Perhaps there are shorter time periods when we are called into extreme busy-ness, similar to when I was caring for a newborn? Obviously God doesn’t want any of us to be in a state of perpetual sleep-deprivation, exhaustion, and neglect of one’s own needs. But there is that shortish period in a parent’s life when that is what is required. So might God lovingly call a person into a short burst of extreme busy-ness? I think my answer now would be “yes”.  And what might God’s loving care for a busy person look like?

Part of the answer lies in my felt experience: prayer came easily and naturally, I was readily in touch with  God’s loving presence, and I felt a craving for things that are helpful, such as exercise, and I did a better than usual job of asking for help when I did get stretched too thin. In addition, it seems that my husband and daughters seemed more than usually sensitive to my needs, and I got more than my usual dose of hugs and snuggles, and I cooked fewer dinners than I usually do. There was a lot of affirmation from a number of sources. There were times in the midst of a frantic day when I – to my surprise – felt able to put everything down and take a nap or read a novel. This all felt like God’s care to me.

I also had the awareness all along that things would not be maintained at that level of activity, that this busy-ness was just for a short time. It would be wrong to ask for that level of support and understanding from my friends and family as an ongoing thing. Faithfulness entails looking for ways to slow things down and to put Sabbath rest back into the picture just as soon as possible.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What is my theology of busy-ness? How does God care for me if I am called into intense busy-ness?

Spirituality and Discernment

Newly returned from the 1st annual Leadership Institute on Group Discernment, I am filled once again with the awareness of how hard it is to do discernment right if we aren’t grounded in God when we begin. Discernment is defined as “separating apart” – distinguishing between God’s movement within us and movements that aren’t of God. In my own mind, I have come to equate discernment with decision-making. My belief that every decision I make has an effect in the world – it furthers God’s love of it works against God’s love. This, I think, is what is meant by the concept of the Lamb’s War – we see every action in this world as affecting the spiritual state of the world.

For the purposes of group discernment, it is clearer to me after the conference that we can and should hone our skills and learn techniques for guiding a group towards unity on an issue. It is even clearer to me that achieving unity is crucial to Godly decision-making, simply because voting or any other way of making group decisions sets up a situation where one group gets what it wants at another’s expense. Since God loves us equally, I find it hard to believe that God would favor one group over another. Also, I believe that God has ONE plan for a group (God isn’t giving different and opposing ideas to different groups of people) and I believe that God does tell us what that plan is and that we can learn to hear God’s invitations towards the right thing.

Occasionally God does speak to us through burning bushes and pillars of fire – in ways that allow for no contradiction or confusion. More often, however, I think God speaks more softly and gives us choices. Those who want to know God’s mind can hear it, and those who don’t can ignore it.

In my own experience, ultimately, it does boil down to how much we want to know God’s mind and how much we are willing and able to hear the Godly things through the clamor of cultural expectations. It never ceases to amaze me just how often God does something unexpected and suprising – in fact that is often a sign to me of God’s handiwork. But if our expectations are too rigid, our “prec-conditions” on how we think God works may limit our ability to hear. Here are some of the pre-conditions I sometimes notice:

If we expect “the right way forward” to be expressed through the voices of resourceful, educated, or “hardworking” people, we are likely to miss God’s voice speaking through or on behalf of those who have less strong a voice in society, be they children, minorities, people who suffer with mental illness, uneducated, unemployed, etc.

If we expect God to require us to pick up our cross daily and for it to be a hard thing to do, we are unlikely to hear God whispering to us that we are his beloved with whom God is well pleased, and any joyful and fulfilling calls God offers.

If we haven’t learned how God speaks to us – and God does speak in different ways to each one of us – or we believe that we have flaws that keep us from hearing God, we may miss God’s tugs and nudges.

So an important part of decision-making is to continually strip away our own notions of how God does and doesn’t act in the world, and let God speak for God-self.  

Query for prayerful consideration:

What are beliefs I hold that may get in the way when I seek to know God’s way?