Monday, February 18, 2008

Where Does My Help Come From?

This morning’s second scripture reading is Psalm 121, and can be found in your pew Bibles on page 440.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
I lift up my eyes to the hills – Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
The Lord will not let your foot slip – the One who watches over you will not slumber; indeed the one who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm – the Lord will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
The hills of Haiti are a sight I’ll never forget. As we flew over them in a tiny air plane during a medical and construction mission trip this past December I remember thinking that in their desolation they represent their country. The hills of Haiti appear naked without trees, clear cut, and worn down. They once sheltered the native inhabitants, providing them with all that they needed, were then home to escaped slaves, offering them a place to hide from their captors, but today all they offer the Haitian people is a cruel reminder that help seems no where to be found.
Our first clinic was held in a school house. There nurses on our team diagnosed illnesses and Jane dispensed medicine to all ages of people. Some old, women with leathery skin, braided gray hair, and the kind of eyes that made me think they could see things that I could not; others young, eyes bright with newness; and the old would coo those small children to bring out a smile that would break the sadness of that place. With a smile, Jane handed out prenatal vitamins, pills for pain, worms, and infection. It was my job to limit the number of people who the medical team cared for, calling up groups of 2 to 5 from the ever growing crowd of people. As we left after a long day, having helped more than 80 people, but still thinking of the many that still needed help, I saw the words “Children of God” painted on the wall. I thought to myself, how will anyone in this place know that they are God’s children? In numbing poverty, marked by malnutrition, a population where the vast majority of people are unemployed, where the average family lives on less than $500 a year, where health care is virtually non-existent – and yet they are the children of God. However, those words are written in English in a country where the people speak a mixture of French and West African, and where there are no public schools leaving the majority illiterate, even in their native tongue, I wondered how any of them would be able to read those words and understand the truth that they hold, especially when the truth that they hold so contrasts all the evidence that surrounds them.
For the entire week I watched the children, and wondered how they would know that they are the children of God. Muddied and poor, finding themselves worth more on the street than in the school room, how will they know their true identity in a place like Haiti?
I was thinking about this paradox in a field beside a wall that was under construction. Ron and I were toting cinder blocks that were stacked and mortared to protect an area to be used as an orphanage. Standing there beside a polluted stream, with mud on my legs that smelled like oil as it dried, I looked to the hills.
Though I’ve been to Honduras, a country that shares a common history of hardship with Haiti, in Haiti the poverty was all encompassing and deep, and I needed to escape from it.
Standing by that cinderblock wall, thinking about the desperation of Haiti, the staggering unemployment, the economic inheritance that benefited countries like my own, rarely offering help, but more often seeking to take advantage of an already depraved people, who having descended from slaves who fought for their freedom, found poverty and disease at the hands of their selfish leaders and a harsh global economy.
I dreamed of the day God would return to this place – return to the children of Haiti, bringing justice. I looked to the Hills of Haiti, and wondered when that help would come.
But interrupting my thoughts, a young Haitian boy handed me three fried plantain strips that Ron Moore sent to me from the other side of the field. I looked at those three plantain strips, thinking about how hungry I was even though I had eaten my lunch already, and then I looked at the skinny bodies of the men I was working with, thinking of their empty stomachs, knowing they had not had any lunch, and I broke off a piece for each before eating my own piece. As I ate, sharing something that wouldn’t make too much of a difference to anybody, I heard the words of institution in my ears saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”
I had been looking to the hills for hope – looking towards some future of a world without today’s greed that drives us to amass more and more while the Haitians have less and less. Looking to the hills – to a future when God would be present. Looking to the Hills, only to realize that God was present to me right there in the people who surrounded me.
I was looking for God in some place far away, thinking God was present in the past, and would be present again in the future, but had abandoned the children of God in the present. But in confining God to some distant place or time, I was forgetting who Jesus really is.
Our God did not rest on a hill watching the people suffer; our God came to earth, born poor and simple to a teenage, unwed mother. God walked this earth as a man and during Jesus’ time in the wilderness, truly knew what it means to be hungry and tempted as I assume most Haitians feel everyday. And before his death, Jesus told his disciples that the best way to remember him would be to break bread and share wine, that in these common, simple, real things, we would feel God’s presence with us again and again.
I forgot what kind of God it is that we believe in, maybe because it’s hard to believe that God would be in such a place as Haiti.
Maybe because I have sanitized God to the point that God seemed too bleach-y clean to walk the Haitian streets – forgetting our God is not the resident of some mansion of the sky, but is the embodiment of victory in the face of the powers of death and despair. Not denying the realities of human struggle, but bearing them on his body, but not being defeated.
In Haiti I saw this God’s face. I saw God’s face in the ancient faces of women waiting to see a nurse, but whom despite pain from illness, and frustration in the face of so many obstacles, could coo a baby and smile in defiance of a situation I thought was hopeless.
And then I saw God in the face of a man in a wheelbarrow.
Jane knew this man would be there, and with him in mind she had a wheel chair donated. Smuggling this wheel chair into Haiti proved complicated. Rather than pay the extra money to check the wheel chair, Jane and Ron convinced me to fake a hurt ankle, and they took turns wheeling me and my luggage around as we all flirted with the Patriot act in a way that still makes me a little uncomfortable.
But when I saw that man in this wheel chair, a man who had depended on his son to put him in a wheel barrow to move him from his house to the field where the clinic was held, I knew I had been a part of something that really mattered, that I had been a part of something holy. And as I knelt down, looking into this old man’s eyes, tears filled my own, because I knew that God does not live in the hills, that my help and his help does not lie in a place I must lift up my eyes to see, but right there in each other.
I felt God, and saw God in this man’s face. Not in a cathedral, not in a Haitian past filled with hope, freedom, and possibility, not only in a possible Haitian future where the world’s economy and the leaders of this small country would somehow smarten up, but right there before me and inside of me.
I realized in that moment, that if our eyes are on the hills, looking for God, remembering a God present somewhere in the past, or hoping for a God who will be present in the future should we all start acting right, we may be missing the true God right here among us today.
I was looking for God in the hills, knowing that God was present to the Haitian people as they fought for independence from slavery and oppression, knowing that God was present as they looked on a future full of hope, but feeling as though the fathers and sons who looked to the hills for warmth, burning tree after tree had caused hope to dwindled down like their cooking fires, allowing the shadow of today to overcome.
Today, in this church, I feel God’s presence again and again. It is not solely in this room, but also around a breakfast table on Thursday mornings with a group of men, on Wednesday nights over dinner and during Building Believers, a time where I am surrounded and sometimes overwhelmed by young kids, as well as many other places, all where people are joined not by common ideology, age, or station, but only by a common faith in God, and a common desire to know God better. In this church we share more than meals or space in a Sunday morning church service, we share a part of each other’s lives.
It is in this community that our help lies. Not because we know all the right answers, not because we are any better than anyone else, but in this place we all share something with each other, reaching out to one another, showing each other that sharing meals, sharing dreams, sharing pain, sharing joy, are what make us all more than a group of individuals, for in serving each other, we are serving God.
We all want to be a part of something holy, but all that is required is realizing that you are a part of something holy now, that God is present in each others eyes.