Today I Saw God
We had just finished a delicious dinner of rice, beans, pork and fruit, when Inervis, the leader of the camp crew, asked us to join her and the fellow staff members in the yard. It was our last night in Camp Canan, which is where our group spent the majority of our time during this 10-day mission trip to Cuba. Much of our journey included getting to know the people and culture of the country while sharing resources collected in America with a variety of small village churches. However, this camp served as our home base, and we generated a special bond with the staff.
Our group stood in a circle per Inervis' instructions, and I anticipated another fun evening of singing and fervent Cuban prayer. However, instead, I see our friends grinning at us with the anticipation of a surprise. After an unnecessarily kind speech thanking us for our time, they excitedly presented us with individual gift bags. Each of the twelve Americans in our mission group was given a Cuban souvenir. As I looked at my tiny pink and brown leather purse, I experienced an unexpected reaction. Rather than mere excitement or sadness as we neared the end of our trip, I felt almost frozen with shock and shame at the lavish generosity of our friends.
You see, I had learned quite a bit from my Cuban neighbors during this time. I discovered that the average monthly salary in Cuba is a mere $25. Monthly! ( This includes doctors and professionals. I saw the humble two-room houses that most people shared with too many people, dilapidated buildings and infrastructure that was truly lacking. I strolled along a street with chickens, pigs and dogs that freely roamed the villages. I learned that electricity, hot water, air conditioning and window screens to protect people from mosquitoes were luxuries reserved for the wealthy. I saw the ration books used to provide each family their monthly allotment of rice and beans and discovered that only tourists were allowed to eat their precious beef. I learned that when a headlight in our van broke or we needed more tools or gasoline, it required a multi-day search around the island only to learn that these items simply did not exist in this country.
Resources are scant in Cuba, yet everywhere we went, the people greeted us with open arms, extravagant hospitality and a generosity I have never experienced or seen anywhere else. How could they possibly afford to give me this gift? I felt burdened with the thought of the sacrifices they had made, yet they seemed sohappy.
Once I returned home, I placed my new souvenir on display and began thinking about generosity differently. Often we get it in our head that we'll be more generous when we have more money. However, statistics show that the opposite is true. In 2011, those in the lower 20% give 3.2% of their income; yet people in the top 20% gave an average of 1.3%. If we wait to be generous with our money, we will simply accumulate more "stuff" which would require more money to maintain. Our Cuban friends had so little, yet they gave without hesitation. This inspired me to also give generously.
I thought about happiness differently. Happiness poured out of the Methodist Cubans that we encountered. Each and every person I met spoke of terrible hardships, yet maintained a spirit of joy that is often lacking amongst my American peers whose problems cannot compare. Once again, this goes against our culture, which teaches us that we just need to buy the right "thing" in order to be happy. However, I think the key to happiness is, in fact, living a generous lifestyle like our Cuban friends.
Many studies suggest that generosity has benefits to both physical and emotional health. An article in the Chicago Tribune says, "The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk ofdementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness." (Chicago Tribune, 2017) In The Paradox of Generosity, researchers found that those who described themselves as "very happy" donated 5.8 hours of time a month, yet those who were "unhappy" only donated 0.8 hours. There was also a lower rate of depression reported in the group that donated 10% of their income.
While reading this statistic, the number 10% stood out to me, as this is the biblical rule of tithing. I get the impression that some view tithing as a way religion can suck the joy and money out of us, but perhaps God's intent was to give us true joy. Once again, God has outsmarted us and is trying to show us a roadmap to a healthier and happier life.
Honestly, I don't know why the Cubans' gifts surprised me, as this was our experience in every village. Generosity simply flowed from these beautiful people, and I felt incredibly honored and humbled by the purity of their souls. However, their gift had a significant influence on me. My hope for each of us is that as we enter into this season of gratitude, we can also look at ways to be generous with what we've been given. Yes, we have worked for some of our money and possessions, but truthfully it was pure luck that allowed us to be born into a system in which we can prosper. Perhaps if we give often and intentionally, we might actually have the happy life we all yearn for.
"Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each," writes Paul Goodman in the Nine Kinds of Silence.
"There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy;the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face;the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts;the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, "This this";the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity;the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear;the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and sub-vocal speech but sullen to say it;baffled silence;the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos."
What a beautiful display, like the unfurling of cards in your hand. At first, one, and then one by one, slowly displayed and made available to be played.
Silence, not just one thing but many. Mesmerizing. As in the magical world of The Phantom Tollbooth
"Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully."Norton Juster
Ah, the moment after the door closes when you are all alone in the whole house. Silence is so much more than quiet. It is shush. It is thinking. It is fear. It is failure. It is overpowering. It is overpowered. It is an expectation. It is reciprocation. It is listening. It is distracted. Isn't silence amazing?
Goodman and Juster have inspired me to think about the many kinds of Generosity, for "not giving and giving are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each."
There is the selfish generosity which withholds because it doesn't notice need; the generosity of scarcity which hoards and stores, fearing scant days ahead; the glad generosity which gains by opening generosity's door; the generosity of the perfect gift which smiles in anticipation; the generosity of giving without expecting anything in return; the generosity of listening which, by its attention, strengthens and grows; the shrinking generosity of payment due, extracting joy; the gift declined; and yet, yet, the generosity of spirit, unbidden, uncompelled, offered wholly back to God and to those whom God loves.
Giving and not giving are both human ways of being in the world. Only one remains.It is not the gift God loves, it's the giver.
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.Each one must give as he has decided in his heart,not reluctantly or under compulsion, forGod loves a cheerful giver. ~2 Corinthians 9:6-7
As I write this, I am sitting in a salon chair with pink dye drizzling down my neck. Once a year, my typically blonde hair is transformed to a new hue of bubble gum, and it tends to lead to raised eyebrows. Because of this, I thought it might be helpful to explain myself.
It started six years ago. A meeting ended and a fellow teacher turned to me and said, "By the way, I have cancer." Some might balk at the bluntness of this delivery, particularly considering the fact that she and I are such close friends that she was in my wedding. However, this is keeping in par with both of our personalities, as we each have a particularly dry and often dark sense of humor. In no way was this funny, but the directness seemed the only way for her to bring a little levity to the situation.
In the weeks that followed, we found that the news was much worse than we could have ever imagined. The hopeful, pink vision we typically have of this disease was quickly darkened as we were informed that it was stage-four cancer, which had spread to her liver, and she had only a few months to live. To say that we were devastated is an understatement. The school I taught in was a very tight-knit community of teachers who spent just as much time together outside of school as we did inside those concrete walls. Shannon was in her early thirties at the time and had been working at the school for more than ten years.
During those initial weeks, she began chemotherapy and the rest of us huddled together in classrooms to brainstorm ways we could help. Often when friends and family members face a life-threatening illness feelings of hopelessness set in as you realize you have literally no control over the cells that are mutating and taking away someone that you love so much. To combat this hopelessness, we began doing anything we could think of to help. We put together care packages for her in the hospital, made meals (that she really didn't need or want), shopped for wigs, made inappropriate cancer jokes and researched different treatments so that we might be able to understand the words that had now become a part of her daily life. Eventually someone had a new idea let's go together as a group to get pink hair extensions.
We made an evening of it with Shannon. First dinner, then we each took turns having a pink extension clipped into our hair. Local salons offer to do this in October, and in turn part of the proceeds are donated to cancer research. Were we saving lives that night? No. But it gave us a moment to simply enjoy one another and feel as though we were a part of something together.
Throughout the next few months we were amazed as Shannon continued teaching, only missing one day a week for chemo. Then more time passed and we realized that the treament was actually working. This gave us a bit more drive and determination to start getting to work. We organized a fundraiser to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. A local restaurant donated their space, my band offered their services and t-shirts were ordered. You will never see an event come together as quickly and efficiently as you will when you have a group of type-A teachers working together for a cause. Before we knew it, there were hundreds of people spilling out the doors and we had raised more than $10,000, all of which went directly to an organization with an A+ charity rating.
Amazingly, the next year Shannon was still responding to treatment, so we loaded in the car and put in another pink extension. We began plans for a second fundraiser and raised an additional $5,000. We watched Shannon as she attacked every day like a boss. Her hair began to grow back, and she continued to serve children in the classroom through every step of this process. It was beautiful.
Six years later, Shannon is still rocking life. In fact, we celebrated her birthday just last week. We witnessed a true miracle at the hands of her doctors at Georgetown University Hospital. However, even though those days seem far behind us, I still continue with the pink hair.
Sadly I learned the hard way that cancer is not always pretty in pink. My first real experience with death came when I was eight years old, when Pam, a beloved family member, passed away from breast cancer at a tragically young age. Pam had a young son and often cared for my sister and me while my parents were at work. She was a tenderhearted soul who cared deeply for her family. It was heartbreaking.
Again in my twenties I was forced to learn that often lives are taken from us too soon by this awful disease. My dear Joanie, a woman who had been like a second mom to me for years, also passed away due to breast cancer. I felt as if a hole had opened up inside of me as this vibrant and passionate women went home to be with God after years of remission.
It might seem odd that I feel as though pink hair honors them. However, what I've found over the years is that when I suddenly change my hair color, it opens the door for a lot of conversations. Children, congregation members, colleagues, people on the elevator, and strangers in a grocery store – it gives me a chance to share the stories of love and loss, of triumph and heartbreak. I can tell others how warm and loving Pam was or that she had the coolest Christmas lights ever. It allows for memories of butterscotch pie, vacations, holidays, and cool iced tea on the back porch with Joan to resurface. I can speak with strangers of the awe I feel every time I think about the grace and dignity I have witnessed from my friend who received a diagnosis much too early. And it helps me remember that you can honor God both in the way you live and the way you die.
Could this money I spend on dying my hair be spent towards more research? Probably. Please be assured, I also see the value of donating to these worthy organizations. However, I also feel as though honoring their stories is important. I have spent my life surrounded by steadfast, strong women, and it is an honor to be able to share their lives with others. This is why my hair is pink.
When my girls were small, they thought I had magical healing powers. I could kiss a scrape or bandage a cut and presto! It would be "all better." They would smile and go back to playing. Today, these girls are young women, and I no longer have that power. They spend their days working hard in places far from home, and when they hurt they're on their own. They're old enough to know that kisses do not work long distance, only in person.
I'm grateful that my girls know that Christ can be such a person, thanks to Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, mentors and pastors. Thank goodness, because the world my kids navigate is very different from the one I grew up in. It's different, even, than the one they knew as children. Today, it seems, there is more shouting and posturing, more blatant hatred and prejudice, and more evident disrespect for persons and planet on a global scale. Nearly everywhere there is rubble, covered in dust.
This is the world my children have inherited from me, and the world I receive today in news, navigation and neighborhood. So many dusty images flood my mind, of collapse and heartbreak, earthquake and explosion, fire and flood, with medics and rescue personnel searching desperately for survivors.
In Mexico City recently, the collapse of buildings brought rescue efforts to the scene of a school. Oh children, especially children the weakest, youngest and most promising among us bid us to pause hoping, waiting, listening, praying.
How in the midst of all of our commotion can we hear a tiny cry, barely a breath? But when together we pause and a hush falls, we do hear it. Then suddenly there is furious digging, hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder, cobbling through earth and stone and rubble to reach the tiny one before it's too late.
Shovelfuls of earth yield to hands which brush away dirt and debris as the small, still form is lifted to safety. Silence doesn't dare hope. But suddenly, there are shouts: "The child is alive!" Oh, such cheering and joy must reach through tear-stained cheeks to the very ears of God. Out of the dust there is life.
Hope is there when brother acknowledges brother, father welcomes son, and foe becomes friend. When we all gather with one cause, one intention, and one mission, our hopes are realized. We do this for our children, for all children.
"Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." (Isaiah 58:12)
The business of rebuilding the ancient foundations falls to us. We will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings. Dwellings where our children can raise their children, with loving care tendered to kiss scraped knees, and all children can play together.
Lord, thank you for the resilience and tenacity of children. Help us to love them well by providing sturdy support and a firm foundation on which they can build.
I am alone the majority of my time and yet I struggle to find silence.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate if I said I struggle toallowsilence.
When I say silence, I am not referring to the complete absence of sound. My house is quiet most of the day, often eerily so. I am defining silence in this case as a refuge from the onslaught of words, images, input from the outside world. I am constantly connected, a slave to the next ping or vibration indicating someone, somewhere has something to say to me.
To be completely honest, I am addicted to my phone.
I don't use the word addiction lightly. I grew up with an addicted parent. Our home was blown apart by the hold alcohol had on my father's life. Addiction is a devil, a slave master, an insidious seducer. But if you define addiction as a "compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences," then my relationship with my phone could be characterized by the word addiction.
In the interest of full disclosure, I get antsy and nervous when I am away from my phone or I haven't checked it lately. I think about wanting to check it when I am in the midst of something else. I reach for it compulsively at stop lights, in the grocery store line, or when my dinner companion steps away from the table at a restaurant. I move it from room to room with me throughout my day, afraid to miss something important.
The greatest consequence of my relationship with my phone is my inability to sit with silence, to rest with my thoughts, to daydream and imagine, to listen for the voice of God. My constant connection to my phone and all the lovely bells and whistles it provides gets in the way of my ability to tune in to my best self, the part of me connected to the Holy Spirit. My constant connection to my phone gets in the way of my ability to hear the voice of God.
On my coaching journey, both my work with my own coach and the time I spend with my clients, I am learning to ask two good questions repeatedly:
- Who do I want to be?
- What will I do differently?
I want to BE a person who is connected to the Holy Spirit, who recognizes the quiet whispers of God, who is in tune with my creativity, imagination and inspiration. I want to be a person who is constantly learning new things, reading good books and connecting with the people I love. I want to be fully present in each moment, neither tethered to the past or worried about the future.
A couple of weeks ago in church, Pastor Tom delivered a beautiful sermon about listening to God. He talked about the value of pursuing silence as a practice and highlighted the Christian traditions of centering prayer as a way to connect with God. He challenged us to spend 20 minutes in silence seeking God and see what happened. After church that Sunday, I took a walk in the woods and put my phone on Do Not Disturb and turned off my music. I resisted the urge to chatter at God, deciding instead to just listen and enjoy the beautiful day. It was alternately difficult and wonderful, but God was gracious with me while I settled down. Since that day, I have been playing with this practice and have become increasingly curious about the gifts to be found in intentionally choosing to pursue silence on a regular basis.
In order to be the person I want to be, I sometimes need to do some things differently. Now the question is this: what am I willing to do to be a person who listens to God?
Can anyone relate? Does anyone else have a less than healthy relationship with their phone, tablet or computer? Is anyone else struggling to find a balance as we enjoy the miracles of twenty-first century communication?
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com