I slumped onto the pew kneeler at one of my favorite “sanctuaries”, old Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano. With my heart heavy from family issues, disappointment that swine flu caused me to cancel a trip this week to Palestine, and gnawing memories from a recent trip to Tijuana, I gazed above me at the giant dark painting of Christ on the cross, Mary at his side, the figurative sword literally piercing her heart as she too gazes at him, her dreams shattered.
My mind jumped to the scene in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” where an exhausted Jesus, pinned yet again under the fallen cross on the Via Dolorosa, turns to his mother and, with utter pathos, through blood-stained teeth exclaims, “Look, Mother. I make all things new!” It is truly a pathetic scene.
I pondered the old painting: What is it about this Jesus hanging on a cross, completely humiliated and defeated, that evokes any sense of victory or hope? Why is it this act of total capitulation still stirs me?
My mind turned finally to my own reason for being there: to seek through some spiritual work an understanding of the angst inside me from my Tijuana experience. Why was it so haunting to me, so paralyzing? Objectively speaking, I would have to consider it a fabulous trip, one of my best ever to see World Vision’s work among the poorest communities there. We met hard-working, inspiring people, fighting their way to a better life despite the odds stacked against them. Frankly, I should have been delighted! And in the past, I would have been.
But the morning after the visit, a Saturday, I awoke and leisurely laid in bed, and my mind quickly remembered dear Lourdes. Lourdes is about my age; she’s a single grandmother who owns a convenience store in a shabby squatter area. And Lourdes has diabetes, though thanks to her business, she is able to pay for her treatments and monthly check-ups. I first met her a year ago, and now Lourdes looks decidedly better than she did then. Though her eyes still look tired, she has an infectious smile.
Not only has she made these gains, in the intervening year Lourdes had also built a sturdy new house, made of cinderblock, right on top of her store! Last year, we walked through her then-home constructed of recycled American garage doors, with large, inexpensive but treasured paintings of Jesus and Mary hanging from the crossframes. Her new house sits like a beacon, a visible declaration of the progress her business is bringing, not only to her extended family, but to herself.
Despite her diabetes, Lourdes works seven days a week. So do her daughters, who sell her tamales to the workers in the maquiladora factories which also operate seven days a week. Truly, Lourdes is an inspiration.
I was remembering my fellow grandparent Lourdes and her reality as I lay lingering in my bed that Saturday, knowing that I’d catch up on emails and do some related work that day. But I’d do it when I felt like it—if I felt like it, and I knew I had two days ahead of me which were pretty much “my own”. I have time enough to go to church on Sundays.
Living comfortably a mere 90 miles from Lourdes’ house, I have health insurance. When I’m sick, the doctors and medicines are covered but for my modest co-pay. And I have sick days available, so that I still get paid even when I’m ill.
All the realities of the unequal opportunities which life has presented to me and to my border neighbor Lourdes came cascading into my mind, and they flooded out my normal feelings of joy and inspiration which I should have experienced at what she has managed to do in life despite those inequalities. Worse yet, I began to wonder secretly if what I do for people like her through World Vision is merely like wallpapering a moldy wall: the room looks fresh and cheerful, but the underlying structures are scandalously unsound.
So today, I decided to go through a spiritual exercise to “find the invitation” hidden inside my uncomfortable feelings. As I allowed the feelings to come and didn’t deny them, I sensed not only disappointment but also shame—shame for being a part of our world’s unequal opportunities and personally benefiting from that inequality. And shame if I’ve been detached and disaffected, like the gentlemen solicitors in “A Christmas Carol” who try to pry an insignificant donation from old Ebenezer Scrooge, all dressed in their proper finery. “Tis usual this time of year to make more than a little provision for the poor. For what shall we put you down, Mr. Scrooge?” Privilege speaking thus to privilege about the under-privileged does not seem in keeping with Jesus’ example of identification with the poor. Am I but a Dickens caricature?
Yet, moving now to the mission quad garden, surrounded by its beauty and the warmth of the afternoon sun, I felt the comfort of the Lord telling me, “I am the God who sees everything, Cory, forgiving much and correcting but a little. Why do you fear that I stand over you to correct you? I said a cup of cold water in my name will not go unrewarded. Don’t you believe me? You fear you will look over your shoulder and see me scowling, shaking a finger. Yet you will see me full of compassion, slow to anger. I know how limited your mind is, your view, your understanding. You don’t see a fraction of what I see in your actions and inactions and their impact. But I am the God who looks for good, for obedience, who will not break a bruised reed. This is the God you will see. Turn around! See me! Feel my warm touch on your shoulder, my beauty caressing you through the sun and flowers and birds and water around you.”
Somehow, this was the breakthrough word I needed, a sense that God is inviting me to look deeper, but not in order to find fault. Instead, he gave me a renewed paradigm, one that gains energy from those who beat the odds stacked against them and thereby becomes motivated to do more to change the uneven playing field as a result, not be paralyzed by it. New eyes that can see everything and then say, “Lourdes, you inspire me. You make me want to work harder for a more just world. Why? Because you are not waiting for life to be fair. You are working as hard as you can. You are not complaining; you don’t have the time. But your hard work for your family makes me want to pitch in with you, and help you throw off the yoke of injustice. To create a world where your grandchildren have the same advantages as my grandchildren. Where you have the same access to healthcare and insurance that I have. That you can have vacation days like I have. Don’t stop! Progress is slow and uneven, but it happens. My grandfather had a life not unlike yours. May your grandchildren have a life not unlike mine. And, one day, the lion will lie down with the lamb. The hummingbirds will land in your garden, a place of beauty, a place of peace, and joy.”
I see it as I sit here in the old mission grounds: new beauty sprouts and blooms even from the ruins. Make that my work, Lord, as it is your work.
“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4:16) And this is the invitation and the grace I’ve received today: an invitation to see and to bless signs of a coming Kingdom, an invitation to hope, of again embracing optimism at progress… of having eyes of faith in a God who is making all things new.
October 15, 2009