Monday, December 10, 2012

What do you want me to do for you?

Mark 10:46 - 52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."  So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.  Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again."  Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

I was reflecting on this encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus, and the thing that struck me was Jesus' first question to the man who was crying out for mercy.  What do you want me to do for you?

What we think other people might want... is not always what they do want.  I am quite committed to the idea that people generally know what they need in a given situation -- or if they don't know, they have what they need to figure it out.

I believe in this rather deeply.  That we should respect people enough to give them what they want to be given.  So, maybe asking what that is would be a good idea... and I don't think we always do that.
Sometimes, how we try to help has more to do with us than with the people we would like to help.  This can happen in close interpersonal relationships, or in well-intentioned donations to people we've never met.

I remember overhearing a Nicaraguan friend talk about their surprise when someone who worked for an international aid organization told them "we go into rural communities and find out what they want and work to get it for them."  My friend thought "Surely you mean you give them what they need?"  He inquired a little more and was assured that this person in fact meant what they said -- that they ask communities what they want.  For the friend, the example that convinced him was the employee saying "no, if what they want is a satellite dish, we help them get it."

Now, a lot of times, we don't totally understand (or maybe we just don't think about) the needs that TV can fill.

But we would do well, when friends or strangers in need are crying out for mercy, to emulate Jesus and ask: What do you want me to do for you?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Healing, Prayer, and Community

I came across the verse James 5:16 in a devotional today:

"Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective."

(Now, it is perhaps a bit ironic that I am posting this reflection today, when just a couple days ago I was fiercely insisting to Tim that an undergraduate thesis can under no circumstances use a single Bible verse as its theological support.  But, lucky for you, this is not a thesis.)

When I read this verse, I focused on that first sentence: confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  

My first question was: who is the *you* that is healed?  It's not really a question of grammar, even when you go look at the Greek (which, being me, I did).  It's you in the plural, and these are somewhat general instructions begin given to a community.  

But who will be healed? The people who confess their sins?  The people who are sick and then prayed for?  Or is it the community as a whole?

Most of the church members and leaders I work with here in Nicaragua take very seriously the practice of praying for the sick.  Many have testimonies of miraculous healings, that they have experienced personally or witnessed.  I know this text is one of many that supports that practice, and I certainly pray often for people who are sick, if not quite in the same style as my Pentecostal sisters and brother.

What caught my attention this time, however, was the idea that maybe it's not only the prayer that leads to healing.  The letter of James is chock-full of imperatives, orders to these Christians on how they should conduct themselves.  This verse is no different; it starts with two imperatives: confess and pray.  Both confession and prayer will lead to healing.

What if this is about the healing of more than just the people who present as sick, and confess their specific sins?  Maybe this tells us something about how we are to live together.  Maybe confession is good, not just for the soul, but also for the community.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

La Purísima

Today is not just any day in Advent, it's also the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

A conversation I had today reminded me that I should inform any of our faithful readers who are not yet aware that the Immaculate Conception does not refer to the conception of Jesus, but of Mary.  This day celebrates the conception of Mary, free from the stain of original sin (a Catholic doctrine that is set to many different lovely tunes that were sung by Nicaraguans last night and today).  La Purísima (the Most Pure, an adjective describing Mary) is particularly important in Nicaragua -- it's the aspect of Mary that Nicaragua (this has become "Nicaraguan Catholics," as the non-Catholic population has grown considerably in recent decades) celebrates in a special way.

In the ecumenical spirit, I offer you this awesome video made by a Methodist youth group, "Call Me Mary":

I might like this even better than the Cookie Monster version!

Friday, December 7, 2012

La Griteria (the Third)

Tomorrow will be our third Purísima in Nicaragua, which means we are currently surrounded by the sounds of fireworks and people walking by in the street, celebrating La Gritería, the big celebration the night before.  I blogged about it our first year here, and last year we also mostly observed, walking a lap around the block and taking pictures.

The shrines to Mary in the houses are often quite pretty, and we saw people bringing in fresh branches of flowers and palms this afternoon to set up their altars.  This year we decided to take Quinn and Maya out into the fray.  They did miss Halloween this year, after all.

We went with Quinn's best friend Oscar, also 5, who lives two doors down,  his mother and a group of her friends.  A few of them had booklets, which very helpfully contain the lyrics to all the songs that people sing celebrating Mary, so we were able to follow along pretty well most of the time.  I think we even got a little better as we went to more houses and sang some of the same songs several times.

It's a very festive time, with everyone out in the streets with friends and/or family carrying bags full of goodies.  The houses that have shrines up give out things to the carolers that visits, ranging from toys to fruit to candies to plastic cups and bowls, many of which have a picture of Mary and the call/ response that marks this holiday:

¿Quién causa tanta alegría?
¡La concepción de María!

(Who causes such joy? / The conception of Mary!)

We didn't stay out too long.  We went out just as it was getting started, and headed home at the first house where there was a significant line (they form, as the evening wears on, especially at houses that are giving out really good stuff), because both girls were already tired.  Even in about an hour, we brought home a pretty good haul.

The girls have been asleep for hours (sleeping through fireworks is something they've gotten very good at living in Nicaragua), and there are still people out and about.  There will be a big volley of fireworks at midnight.

Since I actually got to understand some of the lyrics, I was struck by a lovely couplet in one of the songs, calling Mary "Madre de Dios Hijo/ Hija de Dios Padre."  It's particularly poetic in Spanish, and it means "Mother of God the Son, Daughter of God the Father."  I like the way it highlights both Mary's specialness and commonality with the rest of us.

It was great to get to experience this extremely Nicaraguan holiday with some of our Nicaraguan friends.  Another call/ response that people shout at the altars is "¡Maria de Nicaragua!/ ¡Nicaragua de María!"  (Nicaragua's Mary!/ Mary's Nicaragua!)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is Waiting the Right Thing?

"Waiting" can mean a lot of different things in life and common usage.  It can be very good, very bad, and everything in between.

I was trying to think a little bit about how we are "supposed to" wait during Advent.  I confess to often being a bit of a liturgical crank, and whining on occasion about the world celebrating Christmas already when we're supposed to be waiting for it.

I like what John Slattery had to say about how sometimes, celebrating Christmas during Advent is okay.
Christmas–with all its commercial ridiculousness–has become a celebration of the potential goodness within every person.  People often give terrible gifts, they often give too many gifts, they often use Christmas gifts as a replacement for actual love and charity, but, God help them, at least they try.
But it was when I searched for the phrase I recall from my childhood in Catholic masses, "we wait in joyful hope," that I found this gem at the National Catholic Reporter from Chase Nordengren.  I loved his reflection on the writings of Oscar Romero and how they capture the idea of waiting impatiently, for  justice to be done.
Here, Romero speaks directly to a people in poverty, pain and despair about the fruitfulness of waiting while simultaneously demonstrating a kind of impatience with injustice and violence.
"Advent should admonish us to discover," Romero proclaims, "in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us." 
"Humans long for peace, for justice, for a reign of divine law, for something holy, for what is far from earth's realities." We have the hope that creates this longing, Romero argues, precisely because we can see Christ here, because we can imagine something about the reign of God from the love and grace of our human brethren.
..."We wait in joyful hope," the liturgy paradoxically proclaims, "for the coming of our savior." Advent is all about living in that paradoxical waiting.
The penitence of the season, then, comes from the reminder that the pain and the saving are inextricably tied.
"God keeps on saving in history," Romero says. "By the light of these Bible readings, we must continue all the history that God has in his eternal mind, even to the concrete events of our abductions, of our tortures, of our own sad history. That is where we are to find our God." 
 So yes, we wait.  We wait impatiently, in joyful hope.  For God to be born among us, in the middle of this world's sad history of abductions, of torture, of racism, of war of so many places and situations where peace and justice are lacking.

May it be so.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Nativities and Other Traditions (This is as Decorated as We Get)

Neither Tim nor Quinn was particularly excited about decorating for Christmas this year.  Quinn's thinking is that since we will be at her grandparents' (Nana and Papa's) house for Christmas itself, _that_ is where "the tree" and all the accoutrements belong.  And the truth is, we're going to California early enough that it's possibly before the time when we would normally even get our decorations up.

One limiting factor here is that in Nicaragua, there's still another big holiday before Christmas.  La Purissima is the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception.  The night before is La Griteria, which Tim and I like to call the Nicaraguan Super Holiday.  So, most people who have lights up at this point have them up as part of a shrine to Mary.  And, we don't want to mislead the singing hordes into thinking we have a statue to sing to or treats to offer...

And somehow, we don't really have a good spot for our little tree, certainly not one that I'm confident Maya can't reach.  So, we're minimal on the decorations this year.  Since I was the only one who seemed excited about it, I decided what "minimal level decorating" would be for me.  It turns out that it is this: put out the two non-breakable nativities and the (extremely plain) Advent Wreath on the table.  Since I still haven't gotten candles for this wreath, I'll try to get a picture for a later post.

I may have inherited from my mother a love of nativity scenes that is considered excessive by certain family members.  (Little do they know how restrained I have been... we only really have three, well, kind of four, but three here in Nicaragua.  And one is tiny and just has the Holy Family.)  

The one in this photo is actually Quinn's very own nativity scene, and you can see that it has already been well-loved.  I am hoping that Maya will enjoy it this year nearly as much as Quinn has in the past. Only time will tell if she, too, will feel the need to potty train the baby Jesus.  

Monday, December 3, 2012


I have a small parenting confession to make.  For a long time, I never understood the way I heard many parents talking about their children's bedtimes.  As if it were something sacred, fixed (and usually, very early).

Our older daughter went through some phases in which bedtime was difficult, and gave up naps before I was ready for her to, but has been a pretty good sleeper overall.  But bedtime, as in the timing of it, has often been haphazard.  For most of the first year of her life, she slept in our bedroom, and her bedtime tended to be quite close to ours.  Once we moved to a place where she had her own room, getting her to bed earlier was much easier, and so was getting her to sleep all night.  But if anyone asked me "What's her bedtime?"  I would say, "Well, it depends on the day..."

Almost four years later, enter kid two.  Of course newborns care nothing for what hour of the day or night it is -- they have their own internal rhythms.  But it didn't really take the baby *that* long to sleep many hours in a row at night.  She kind of spoiled us at first, actually, because she slept so well so soon, but then woke up more during the night as she got a little older.  

Somehow, when the baby was not quite a year old, just a few months ago, we found ourselves with sleep pattern we didn't much like.  The big girl would go to bed, and then the baby would play with us for a couple hours, and we would try so hard to get her to fall asleep so that we could fall asleep.  Then she would wake up a few short hours later, and need to be soothed back to sleep (almost always by nursing).   We were tired and our lives felt crazy.  Something had to change.

So, being the people we are, we read a book. :)  A book that promised us "Five Nights to a Perfect Night's Sleep."  It was short and rather dictatorial in tone.  We decided to try it, and ... it worked!  The baby got much much better at falling asleep on her own, and falling back asleep when she wakes up at night.  (We backslid on a few aspects: "Never pick up your crying child."  "Do not under any circumstances let the baby nurse to sleep.")

The book suggested a holistic approach -- make sure your baby gets lots of food to eat (we were at this stage trying to convince the baby that big-person food is good, too) throughout the day, give lots of snuggles and cuddles, have a "transition object."  And, it suggested a bedtime of around 6:30 PM.

Well, this has given us a lovely structure for ending our days with the girls.  We put the baby to bed, then have "cuddle time" (usually reading, these days Harry Potter) with the big girl before her quite brief bedtime routine.  Reading the book also toughened our resolve in terms of being less responsive to post-bedtime requests for food, water, or "Mama!"  And then we still have time to fritter away on the internet, watch TV, or even have a little adult conversation before going to bed.  I still often stay up too late, but that is only because the internet has so many shiny things (and I do silly things like resolve to blog daily during Advent).  Our girls wake up every morning, earlier than we would choose on weekends, but happy and rested and ready to go.

Bedtime is amazing!  Because the girls know the routine, one or the other of us can do it by ourselves when we have an evening meeting or class.

So, Tim and I have been feeling like our older daughter has been emotionally fragile the last few days, today she came home from school exhausted, and gets really upset really fast.  Tim pointed out this evening that it's the 4th in a row that we've taken the girls out in the evening (which we sometimes do, if there's something worth doing).  Oh, right... so she's having trouble behaving because she's exhausted.  Go figure.  

Bring back bedtime!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Marking Time (Advent Blogging)

Happy Advent, everybody!  Let the waiting begin.  I'm going to once again try my hand at blogging for Advent.

I expect this to:

... motivate me to convert some lingering blog drafts into actual posts.

... help me focus on more than presents as I get ready for Christmas.

... provide some continuity between the first half of Advent, which we'll spend in Nicaragua, and the second half, when we'll be in California visiting family.

... get me back in the habit of blogging more regularly.  I kind of gave myself a free pass on this and some other things while I had an infant.  But the baby is 14.5 months old now, so I feel like it's time to figure out how to do the things that are important in our (not that) new life with two kids.

... provide diversion and enlightenment for our faithful readers.

Photo Credit- adamentmeat of Creative Commons

Today begins Year C in the lectionary cycle, the traditional readings that many churches throughout the world follow.  So today is the first day of a new church year.  Most of us live within a variety of ways of marking years.  We have the calendar year (there are, of course, other calendars, many of which use lunar months).  Anyone who teaches, goes to school or has a family member who does will also find their life follows the cycle of the school year as well.  Many organizations and their workers and/ or members are often attentive to the rhythms of a fiscal year that is not aligned with the calendar year.  And, I really feel like there's a new year that starts for each person with their birthday... not sure what the term would be.

As an aside, one of the interesting differences about life here in Nicaragua is that the school year is more aligned with the calendar year.  Classes here typically start around the beginning of February, and finish for the year at the end of November.  (Quinn's school, like a handful of others, and I think most bilingual schools, is an exception, following the North American, August-through-June calendar.)

So, this church calendar, that starts today, is yet another cycle.  I like the fact that there are new beginnings staggered throughout each year, offering us the opportunity to start again... and again... and again.  We probably need all those chances to make a new beginning, most of the time, whether because of disappointment, a sense of our own failure, or just frustration and a feeling of being stuck in a rut.

This beginning the new year in Advent is yet one more thing around Christmas that heightens the sense in which the church is out of sync with the dominant culture.  Sometimes, the church being out of step with the culture frustrates me (and many others), but in this sense I see it as positive, an invitation towards living differently in the world.  A different way of marking time, that maybe helps us, just a little, live out of a different set of values, and live into a different vision.

The way we calculate the dates of Thanksgiving (4th Thursday of November), Christmas (fixed date, December 25th), and Advent (4 Sundays before Christmas), means that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which seems to have become the culturally acceptable "Christmas shopping season," and Advent overlap to a great degree, but either one can start first.  This year, Thanksgiving fell on its earliest possible date, because November 1st was a Thursday.  The first Sunday of Advent this year falls on the second latest possible date, because December 25th is a Tuesday.  So, long shopping season, short Advent.

Happy New (Church) Year!