Friday, March 28, 2014

In Loving Memory of “Pedrito”

Three days ago I posted a link to my article in the latest issue of the official magazine of Mennonite Church USA called The Mennonite. The article was about Pedro, a man I met during a visit to his church in Mexico City. It was titled “A New Creation.”

The way several friends from the church in Mexico responded to my article, I suspected that something was amiss. Sure enough, when I inquired, my brother in Christ, whom they affectionately called “Pedrito,” had died. They assumed that I had written the article in tribute to him because of his death. 

As a matter of fact, the story took place more that four years ago while I was leading a group of 18 students from Eastern Mennonite University on a semester-long trip through Guatemala and Mexico. I wrote the story about a year ago, and submitted it for publication shortly thereafter. It took that long to be published. 

There is a resurrection theme in the article, so I figured it would appear in the issue of the magazine closest to Easter. That indeed turned out to be the case. The coincidence of my article appearing near the time of Pedro’s death makes the message of the article even more powerful. Pedro’s life as a drug addict was transformed by the power of Christ when all other attempts at rehabilitation had failed. I describe it this way in the final paragraph of the article:

Our final church service together was Easter Sunday. During that service, we circulated around all the members of the church greeting them with the phrase, “Christ is risen,” to which the other responded, “He is risen indeed.” When I came to Pedro and looked him directly in his eyes, an emotion came over me, and I said to him, “Christ is risen, and I see him in your face.” This was the same face that I had rejected just a few days earlier. Without hesitation, he replied, “Yes, I was dead and now I am alive. I have risen from the dead like Christ.” I could not hold back the tears as I hugged him. Pedro was a new creation. So was I.

I hadn’t seen Pedro for over four years. The success rate of people kicking the habit when addicted to the kind of drugs he was is very low—extremely low. My friends confirmed for me that he remained faithful to his commitment to Christ and was free of drugs until he died. Pedrito is now in a place where no one will judge him by who he was, how he looked, or what he did. His short life touched me powerfully—even if we were only together for a few days. 

Thank you, Jesus, for bringing Pedro into my life. He’s probably got English down pat now.

Pedro with his Spanish/English Bible

Pedro in the middle of a bunch of "Gringos"

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Abstinence and Moderation

Emmental Valley, Switzerland, where some of my
Anabaptist forbearers lived. Still the home of
many Anabaptist-related groups today.
We are in the period of Lent in the church calendar. Lent is a time when many sincere Christians give up something to remind themselves that they are often too consumed by habits and practices that take over their lives. Those habits can relate to food and drink, to time playing favorite games, to time watching sports or other things on TV, or to time spent with social media. Some of these practices are more harmful than others when done to excess, but all of them can take over our lives, blocking out room for God. 

So we fast during Lent from one of the habits that dominate our lives. During that time we think and pray more deliberately about our relationship to God, our calling, and our need for discernment. It is part of discipleship; becoming more like Christ.

Anabaptists, the radical reformers of the 16th century, scoffed at the need for special emphases during the church year. Theirs was a daily practice of discipleship. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). Self denial didn’t take place only during Lent, but every day of the year. 

Growing up Mennonite, the inheritors of the Anabaptist legacy, I have some of this iconoclastic debunking of Lent in my DNA. My life needs to be moderated every day, not just for forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. 

Prison tower where Anabaptists were
held in Switzerland.
But there’s the rub. Moderation requires more discipline than the average human being has, at least in my personal experience. Take my diet, for example. At a recent wedding reception, I had a choice between some healthy vegetables and the Swedish meat balls. I took a little of each, but when I went back for seconds, only the meat balls made their way to my plate. When I was on a strict low-fat diet, I would have avoided the meat balls completely. My intentions were to go moderately on the meat balls. Instead I overindulged. I won’t tell you about the dessert options.

Abstinence is easier than moderation. This is why Lent is necessary for most of us. When we give up something, we abstain from it. We just say no. When we say we will control our appetite with moderation, we slip and fall over and over again, each time reinforcing our guilt and rebounding with even a bigger helping of the forbidden fruit the next time. It’s human nature and it can be applied to nearly every area of our lives. Not just meatballs.

I didn’t say I would give up Social media for Lent, but I thought about it. I decided instead to try to moderate my use of it. Many of you will understand the pull that Facebook, Twitter and other forms have on us. Like the meatballs at the wedding reception, I kept breaking my moderate fast to see what was “trending.” I kept wondering what I was missing. 

I have several friends who do not have Facebook accounts. They just say no. They are not tempted to see what is going on in the world of their friends. They do not have the urge to see what is trending and to control their use of the medium. Abstinence is easier than moderation. (I have heard that some of them sneak a peak at their spouse’s accounts once in a while).

I try hard to be a faithful disciple like my Anabaptist forbearers  and “deny myself and take up my cross daily and follow Jesus.” But I find it difficult to do so. I need Lent to force me abstain from some of the things that dominate my life and crowd out God. I’m a failure at moderation. 

Now let me have a few more meatballs. I’m abstaining from the vegetable tray.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Who Are the Poor?

Juan lives with his family in a rural village in Mexico. He farms a small plot of land which provides enough food to give him a fairly-well balanced diet. He does not have a lot of extra cash on hand. His home is very basic with little furniture; just the basics. There is no running water in the village or indoor plumbing. Water needs to be carried from the river which is about a quarter of a mile away.

Most of us from the north would consider this man living in poverty. But he is surrounded by family and friends who help him out when he has a special need; like when his daughter got sick and he didn’t have any money to pay the small fee charged by the government-supplemented clinic. His brother’s family paid the fee, not expecting anything in return. It’s the way things are done in this rural village. Some day Juan’s brother may need the same assistance and perhaps Juan will be in better financial shape and return the favor. Or pass the favor on to someone else who is in need.

Juan lives in tune with the rhythm of nature. He gets up at sunrise, goes to sleep at sundown since there are no artificial lights to keep him awake. He knows how to read the signs of the seasons and how to hear the sounds of the flora and fauna around him.

Recently Juan has had to give up farming his small plot of land. Since the NAFTA neo-liberal economic trade agreement that his country made with the USA and Canada, corn that is subsidized by the US government is flooding the market in Mexico. It is cheaper to buy US corn than the corn that Juan raised on his small plot without subsidy. Without any source of income, Juan emigrated with his family to the nearest City to try to find work. 

Unfortunately, because of NAFTA, hundreds of other Juans are doing the same thing, competing with each other for the few available jobs in nearby cities. Juan lives in a hovel with his modest belongings. He has better access to health services and schools for his children, but he can’t afford them. He sends his children to the streets to sell whatever they can to help supplement the family income. His wife had to find a job as a maid with a rich family because Juan couldn’t find a steady job. 

Unlike when he lived in the village, he worries every day where his family’s next meal will come from. His support system has been severed; in the marginal community where he lives, most of his neighbors have their own problems, few are willing to help each other out. It’s a dog eat dog world. He also is estranged from nature. Because he has no job, he has too much free time on his hands. He spends his time worrying about the future, or devising plans to earn money for his family; both legitimate and illegitimate. He is lonely.

When Juan walked around his village he held his head high. He greeted everyone and they greeted him in return. He now walks with his head down, recognizing few people, and caring less for them. 

Juan is a caricature of two poor men that I have met over the years in Latin America. I always thought that the man in the village was poorer than the man in the city. After all, the Juan of the city has all sorts of services available to him that didn’t exist in the country. Economically speaking, however, and by the standards of people in the north, they were both dirt poor. They both are in need of some charity. 

There is one huge difference between the two men, however. The Juan of the village had his dignity. The Juan of the city did not. The Juan of the city had his spirit crushed. The one of the country did not. The Juan of the city is much more susceptible to alcoholism, drug abuse and exploitation. The Juan of the country is not as susceptible to these plagues. 

The lifestyle of most people of the north is more like the Juan of the city than the Juan of the village. Although we have lots of money and live in relative comfort in comparison, like the Juan of the city, we are generally cut off from support systems of family and community. We are cut off from and alienated from nature. We have too much time on our hands and worry incessantly about the future; especially if we will have enough money for retirement. We are lonely. We have lost our dignity and try to find it through over-consumption of food, sex, drugs or material goods. We are poor. 

In order to recover our dignity, we need to identify the God image and likeness within us. This will help us proclaim that we are beloved of God. Our belovedness reaches out to the belovedness of others and we form a community of the beloved. To really recover our dignity, we need to get in touch with nature. Respect it rather than exploit it. Restore right relationships (what righteousness means) with God, our fellow human beings, and nature. 

Juan of the village is rich in dignity. It has nothing to do with money or possessions, but rather with right relationships. May we recognize our poverty and our need for dignity through right relationships.