Thursday, February 21, 2008

Freedom

I have written a few times about choices and freedom, and I just came across this quote in the book The Last Life by Claire Messud.

"It is a terrible thing to be free. Nations know this; churches know this. People, however, seek to skirt the knowledge. They elevate freedom to a Holy Grail, disregarding the truth that constraints are what define us, in life and in language alike: we yearn to be sentenced. When my mother had thrown up the pieces of her youth, she had wanted them, above all, to land in formation, to provide her with a family and a home and the rituals of living. In unhappiness, she had stayed put, because the meaning of her life was there, in its outlines, and the pleasures, or dismays, were merely incidental squiggles in the pattern. Now, in my turn, I clutched a handful of fragments, for the first time uncertain whether they were even mine to hold. (...Had I a home? Had I a history? And if ... I were to suppress these facts, would they become less true?) I was about to throw all to the wind, to see what might land around me; and perhaps I would find myself with nothing at all, in a landscape bare of grass or trees, a landscape in which I, alone... would stand, and begin again, from nothing, to imagine a life."

Add Jesus to this scenario, and I feel she captured my current existence - all the fragments/pieces thrown up, uncertain even which of the pieces are my own, much less where or what will land. After I read this, I found myself wondering if even one piece might land, then perhaps I might follow that... There is great appeal in making a choice like her mother made - just take what lands for the sake of having a clearly defined place - but something has always kept me from doing that. Probably the faith I have held on to that God cares, and the hope that he will put the pieces in place in good time; in the meantime, I guess he's the one component I count on not to change!

Well, I just thought that was beautifully written, worth remembering, worth pointing out that someone else has written about the painfulness of freedom/choices... and I wanted to share with my blog friends what kept me awake last night!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

an excellent speech worth sharing

At the National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday, the keynote speech was given by Ward Brehm, chairman of the U.S. African Development Foundation. It was one of the best speeches I've ever heard, but I haven't found a transcript online. The best I could do was http://postbulletin.com/newsmanager/templates/localnews_story.asp?z=16&a=327229, but this article skips the ending - to me the most important part - possibly because it's where he brings in some key spiritual values!

So the following is taken from the aforementioned article, followed by the best I can do at summarising the rest:

Brehm... acknowledged he was an unlikely choice to give the keynote speech at the breakfast, whose guests included President Bush, members of Congress and world leaders. He said he expected most people were surprised to see an unknown speaker listed on their program. "Let me tell you, you're not alone. One month ago, I sent in my registration to this breakfast and was just hoping for a good seat," he said to laughter...

Brehm, who also chairs the Brehm Group in Minneapolis, a national insurance consulting firm, recalled how he had been awakened to the African cause about 15 years ago. At the time, Africa wasn't on his radar -- "In fact, the only significant thing on that radar screen was me," he quipped. But he started to give the crisis in Somalia some thought, and just a week later, his pastor asked him to go on a trip with him to Africa. Brehm declined the invitation, and his pastor requested he at least pray about it. "I looked him right in the eye and I said, 'You're the pastor; you pray about it; I'll think about it,'" Brehm said to laughter. "Well, he must have prayed hard, because two months later, I found myself in the Minneapolis airport with a ticket to Ethiopia in my hand." At the airport, he found himself surrounded by "church ladies," who hugged him and then held hands together in prayer. "I uttered my first heartfelt and sincere prayer -- that none of my clients see me," he said to more laughter.

When he landed in Africa, Brehm said, "I had the high privilege of having my heart broken. I saw poverty on an obscene level. Children with flies on their eyes, for lack of a 50-cent medicine, doomed to blindness; the emaciated faces of famine; families shattered by civil war." He also held the hand of a 22-year-old woman as she died of AIDS. "And then I turned to look into the faces of four brand new orphans," he said. "I was an eyewitness."

Brehm, 56, brings a business-oriented approach to the plight of Africa. In 2003, Bush appointed him to the U.S. African Development Foundation, a government agency that makes direct investments in Africa and whose goal is to help the poor through business development and job creation. "The best way to help the poor is to help them not be poor anymore," said Brehm, who has visited Africa 30 times. "The only way I know how to do that is through job creation. The very best form of sustainable development is a steady paycheck."

Brehm suggested that most people, deep down, would love to have their lives changed by God. "Here's the thing: If asked, he will, every time, guaranteed," he said. "And while these changes may initially seem scary, they ultimately lay a foundation for a life lived on purpose rather than by default. I will forever be indebted to Africa. Africa awakened me when I didn't even know I was asleep. I pray that everyone who seeks one will find a similar path. I pray that each of you will find your own Africa."

But Brehm also cautioned to avoid condescension toward poor people. "In our quest to be helpful, we can rob the poor of their dignity," he said. "In order to be of any help to the poor, we need to understand them, we need to know them, we need to love them. The poor is not a group. The poor is not a species. They are identical in their hopes and dreams to you and I. They love their families. They long for a better life. The only difference between them and us is that they're poor."

What he went on to say was a meditation on Matthew 25:39 (of the famous story of the sheep and the goats, where the sheep are welcomed into the King's presence for having fed/welcomed/clothed/visited him when he was in need, and the goats are condemned to eternal punishment for not having done the same): "Truly I tell you, in that you did it for one of the least important of these my brothers, you did it for me."

He pointed out a few interesting things about this verse. First was that many people ignore that it says "ONE OF the least...", instead focusing on grandiose acts of charity and service. But the verse clearly focuses on the individual, on helping that one person who is set in our path. It's not about coming up with the biggest program, but about helping people one by one, as best we can.

Second, he points out that while many Christians have focused on a belief system or forgiveness of sins as the source of salvation, the focus of this particular passage is clearly in actions. The ONLY thing, Brehm said, that makes the difference between spending eternity in God's presence and in punishment, is whether people did kindnesses - at the rate of one person at a time, each act toward each person somehow signifying an act toward God.

And finally, he ended with a poignant statement. He said that God's plan for saving the world, for making lives more livable, for defeating poverty and pandemics, for developing livelihoods and healthy communities, is us. That is what he has asked us to do. And, he said, what is especially striking is that God did not set out any plan B.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Jesus and Relationships

Two years ago Bono was the key speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. I'd heard of the event before, but I think many of my peers first actually paid attention when Bono showed up. My impression of the Breakfast was that it was a big political event, where the U.S. president speaks and lots of important people gather together. And if I ever really wanted to go, I probably could, if I could fork out enough cash. But I did somehow think it was ironic - or inspiring, not sure which - that the political event of the year was called a "prayer breakfast."

Well, when I arrived in D.C. in mid-January, one of the first people I was to meet was a family friend from England. I knew she had some connection with the prayer breakfast, but I was just hoping she'd have ideas about how to connect me with people who work in international development and women's empowerment (I'm still looking for those contacts, so feel free to send any ideas my way!). Well, she turned out to be amazingly generous with her time and with her relationships: she apologised that it was too late for me to get into the breakfast itself (of course I can't go, I thought!), but she had some other ideas about how I could be involved! So one thing led to another, and eventually I found myself a full-time volunteer hosting the Middle East group all week. And the Middle East people, it turns out, are a great combination of generous and ornery... so in the end I did get to go to some of the fancy dinners, and to the breakfast itself! (Well, the simulcast room, not the main ballroom, but close enough for me: I still had to stand up when the President stood up.)

Anyway, it turns out that it was not just this one friend who is generous with her relationships. That's kind of the whole point. So now I know that money would not have been enough to get me in if I'd wanted to go. There's no website you can go to where you simply punch in a credit card number and sign up. What I would have needed is a personal relationship, an invitation from someone who was part of the larger prayer breakfast network. So it seemed a bit cliquish to me, like a popularity contest: if you can get someone you know to invite you, you're in! And the Prayer Breakfast is a prestigious enough event that the invitation would come as an honour indeed!

But the thing is that I met this group of people two weeks ago, and was invited to everything! They weren't looking for credentials, reputation, or affiliations. They simply thought I was an ok person, so invited me along for the ride. But "they" were also spending the week with members of Congress, ambassadors, wealthy businesspeople, and leaders of international organisations. I sat down to a meal to discover the woman across from me was president of a UN-affiliated institution and the man next to me was part-owner of half a dozen of the biggest companies in the region.

Living in the Middle East, where prestige is everything, I have learned to embrace the fact that being a single young woman without a title (though hopefully the title will be worked out soon enough) means I'm pretty much nothing - but I've learned to take advantage of that low status to get things done. When I did an internship in D.C., I found that things were worse there, not better. When there were meetings in our office, I was allowed to attend only if the visitors were unimportant enough, I often had to sit in chairs far from the main table, and when there was food I and the other interns could only eat once the "important" people had had their fill (and some of those "important" people had physiques that showed off their hearty appetites!!).

So I was completely taken aback by the humility of the Middle East group at a big D.C. semi-political gathering! They knew the rules for reputation and prestige, but were, well, nice anyway! On an aside, apparently the non-D.C. Americans still felt there were slights and image-consciousness and the rest going on, so I guess this depends where you're coming from.

Now, what made this cozy and kind atmosphere possible? Well, the word "Prayer" in the title of the event isn't a coincidence. This whole thing is born out of a tradition from the early years of this century when Congressmen and Senators have gathered together weekly for prayer. And it still happens now. Apparently, one day a week, all ambassadors (and, separately, their wives) are invited to breakfast or lunch to pray. Another day a week it's congressmen. And yet another day a week it's senators. Then once a year, the president joins them. (And now several thousand other people as well.)

This group is totally low-key, since the idea is they just support relationships with these powerful people, so they don't self-advertise at all. But the idea is that they are a fellowship that is seeking to live out the teachings of Jesus. Plain and simple: it's all about Jesus. So the entire week of Prayer Breakfast activities, is a network of friends, who are together learning to live out the teachings of Jesus. No worries if you're not a Christian, they say, because Jesus is for everyone. Some non-Christians totally buy into it - I met one Muslim who explained to us how the Qur'an actually is clearer and stronger in its claims about Jesus than the Gospels are. Other non-Christians are more sceptical - I spoke with a Hindu who felt he was being proselytised. But that's ok, they say. We just want to be friends, and we just love Jesus. As for the Christians, some love it, and others feel it's watering down the message.

You can't keep everyone happy, but by being uncompromising on something very simple - Jesus and relationships - they've done a surprisingly impressive job of keeping lots of people happy. I have to admit, I'm a bit sceptical about a lot of what I saw: the need for a personal invitation to everything, the focus on Jesus but denial of religion as an issue, etc. But as sceptical as I was, the thing is that, well, it works! Which makes me think maybe there's something to it. Something to Jesus, and something to relationships, and something to ignoring the rest.

Right before the first Middle East dinner, I asked two of the women involved in the planning if they had any goals for the evening or for the week as a whole. They both had the same answer: just see what God does. We create the atmosphere, they said, and we bring people together through our relationships, and then just watch God work. Planning, strategising, objective-writing, goal-orientation... all the things American Christians do so well... all thrown out the window. And it worked.