Every Life Is Beautiful

I was giddy! The last movie I saw in the middle of the day, alas not a kid’s movie, had to have been Ocean’s Eleven… in Amsterdam. That was eons ago. Going yesterday left me feeling a mixture of elation and shame… kind of like Ferris Buehler must have felt on his famous day off. I was going to meet a friend to see October Baby. Thankfully and humorously my friend brought a box of Kleenex along. She knows me well.
The movie is about a 19 year old young lady who is told finally the secret behind her mysterious illnesses… the epilepsy, the asthma, the hip surgeries. She was born at 24 weeks… after a failed abortion attempt. She was a twin and her brother, whose arm had been ripped off during the abortion attempt, died after a four month struggle in the NICU. Hannah, the young lady who survives and is adopted immediately after birth, handles this news with the proper hysterics and heads off on a road trip to find out “who she is.”
Watching the movie, I felt sympathy for Hannah. Certain of her emotions resonated with me. But I felt even more sympathy for the birth mom and for the adoptive dad. John Schneider (think back to the Dukes of Hazard!) plays the dad… a surgeon whose communication skills are reduced to angry orders by his own conflicting emotions. Trapped by his own larger-than-life emotions over the history that led him and his wife to adopt Hannah and her twin brother, the trauma of losing the little boy, and the 19 ensuing years of loving and never wanting to let go of his precious gift, he can’t communicate effectively his love for his daughter. But that love is immense and it ultimately leads him to listen and respond to Hannah in a way that she can hear and accept. And the birth mother. What a secret to harbor for so long. Faced with it suddenly one day, one feels for the rip in her soul as she struggles to decide whether to accept or push aside the past. Hannah leaves her a note that reads, “I forgive you.” It is that note that allows the birth mother to face the past, share it with her husband, and begin to heal. Forgiveness is such a powerful thing.
At the end of the movie, a phrase is flashed across the screen… “every life is beautiful.” I know the purpose of that statement is to primarily remind us that even those lives not yet realized, not yet breathing outside the womb, are beautiful too. But the movie served to remind me of the great beauty of every life. From the priest in the cathedral to the police officer who arrests Hannah for breaking and entering, from the nurse who left nursing because of the guilt she felt at participating in so many abortions to the birth mother, everyone has a story often marked with the ugly and the sinful and the shameful. Everyone. But those lives are beautiful nonetheless, in spite of the ugly. It’s kind of like the message in the Disney animated favorite, Ratatouille… anyone can cook… even a rat.
I spent time with Uncle Lee and Aunt Anne this past weekend doing lots of Compassion Tea things. We spent a lot of time living out Compassion Tea’s mission… “inspiring compassion through sharing tea.” Said another way, we spent a lot of time drinking tea and telling stories. Having never been to Africa myself, I did a lot of listening, as I usually do when I get together with the Compassion Tea team. The stories they have of people in Africa are shocking, overwhelming, eye-opening, and life-changing. Like the story of Lee watching a group of children playing. One little boy wandered off suddenly, obviously disoriented and unwell. Lee asked the nurse what was going on. “Oh,” she replied, “that child is in the last stages of AIDS. He probably won’t last must longer.” Or the story of Waddington which I’ve shared before. I don’t think I realized before that he had gone 3 months before his broken leg was attended too. No wonder it was severely infected and painful. Or poor 3 year old Yohanna who may or may not still be alive after he was treated for malaria at the Tanzania Christian Clinic. We don’t know if he has succumbed to malnutrition or if his grandmother has been able to procure a source of food for him. Or the story of the woman Anne and Chris Faherty (another Compassion Tea founder) saw in the hospital in Sinazongway, Zambia. Hospital is a term Anne used loosely. You see, in Africa, most rural hospitals are staffed only Monday through Friday. The patients are left to fend for themselves over the weekend. Families provide any food they can as the hospitals don’t have cafeterias (let alone clean sheets, sterile environments, or any of the comforts of an American hospital). Anne and Chris visited such a hospital over a weekend and saw a woman there who was extremely bloated, yellow, dehydrated, and suffering greatly. The nurse they were with (from an organization not affiliated with the hospital) was able to help the woman by starting an IV of necessary fluids to help her body purge the toxins inside. Had they not come along, the woman would have died that weekend… in the hospital… untended.
Each of these lives is so beautiful and so precious. You know, here in the States, we get pretty hung up on the rights of people… a woman’s right to abortion or to subsidized contraception, a person’s right to affordable/subsidized health care. We can argue day and night, night and day about whether it is a person’s responsibility to control his or her desires, own up to his or her “mistakes” when another’s life is on the line, or whether we should expect the government to mandate and redistribute and engineer our lives for us. But as Lee said this weekend, the person with the least here in the States still has more than the people in the bush in Africa. We are still waiting for big answers to the problems in Africa, but in the meantime, there are things we can do NOW to bring compassion to those beautiful lives. That’s at the heart of the Compassion Tea mission. We drink tea so that we can support the work of those in Africa who are helping to sustain those beautiful lives. It is little, but a little compassion can go a long way.

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Where Do You Sit?

I’m pretty sure I was in college when I heard for the first time that a woman reaches the apex of her growth and development around age 18. From there, it’s all downhill. It took me 18 years to reach my full growth potential. I’ve spent another 20 + years slipping down the ladder. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, I know that I’m light years ahead of where I was at 18.
For one thing, at age 18, I had a fairly distinct impression of how my life would go. Plans, dreams, goals… they were ahead of me waiting to be conquered. My life since 18 has been fluid at best, flowing in directions and taking me down streams and rapids and still waters most of which I had never envisioned. If I look back at the things I had my heart set on at 18, I discover that I’ve accomplished very few of them. But that doesn’t mean that I would change a thing about them… except for maybe a few choices I’ve made, especially those times I’ve let anger get the better of me.
There are things in my past that I’ve spent lots of time asking God about… lots of whys and when will this make sense and reallys? In a way, I’m eager for that day when I can go running to God’s lap, climb up in His mighty arms, cry on His shoulder, if in fact I’ll feel like crying because the Bible tells us for believers there will be no more tears in Heaven. I am so excited for that day. There are times I even yearn for it. But God hasn’t called me home yet so there must be still more work here on earth. And in a way, I do run to God’s lap. That is how I start my most heart-wrenching prayers, running to His lap in my mind. He is sitting in a large rocking chair throne; I don’t see His face, but His arms are so comforting. At 18, I had little idea how badly I needed that lap. At pushing 40, I’ve discovered I’m never too big to crawl into Abba Father’s lap.
As a parent, there are moments when your child needs to crawl into your lap for a good sob. And there are moments, when you the parent must dry that child’s tears, give him a pat on the back, a Kleenex for a good blow, and a swift kick back into the fray. There are times to say no because what the child is asking for is truly dangerous and there are times to sit back and watch the outcome… try not to let the “I told you so” slip out too fast and furious.
I get a kick out of watching parents of new-toddlers; the way they shadow every move, anticipate every danger, survey every situation and person with apprehension and angst amuses me. I suppose that’s a sick amusement. There are parents who are worse than others; there are those who rearrange whole rooms upon entering them in order to adapt the environment to their child. Looking at it from this side of parenting, having past that stage years ago and having gone through it twice myself, I can roll my eyes in amusement. What cracks me up is the sheer joy with which the child throttles through life, desperate to explore no matter what barriers, parent-made or otherwise, pop up. Try as they might, parents of toddlers eventually learn that they can’t stop the indomitable spirit of their child. And as the months pass and the walking gets better and the child communicates better and the parent begins to feel a little more sure, the parent begins to relax.
My kids are still kids so I can’t completely speak to parenting adult children. But as the parent of an 8, almost 9 year old, there are moments when I have to step back and let her go. She may get hurt and she may not. If I continue to shelter her, I will instill in her a fear of trying, a fear of living. I can try to shape her decisions, talk them through with her, and be there afterwards when the glass is shattered, the knee is scraped, the precious toy marred, but she has to decide for herself. After all, a good parent doesn’t make all of the decisions for his/her child. That would make the relationship a dictatorship.
I’m learning that’s the way God handles us too. From the beginning, He let us make decisions… all the way back in the garden. It’s hard to have a relationship with an echo. But a decision-making being is infinitely more interesting and ultimately in need of more relationship and even more saving. So, we have pain because we make poor decisions; we have consequences for our decisions. Sometimes, we still need to be sent to our rooms… or as in the case of the Biblical Jonah, into the belly of the whale. We learn obedience that way. What do we gain from obedience? More independence, more responsibility… and dare I say an even greater sense of needing parenting.
This is not to say that all pain comes from sin. There are those who like to ask someone in pain what sin they are paying for this time. WRONG! We don’t live in the garden any more. We live in gravity and friction and time. Like machines without the proper oil, we rub, we grind, we chaff and break. Pain is part of existence. Heart break is part of existence. When I read the stories coming out of Africa about the drought in Zambia, about medicines being stolen, about malnutrition and despots who refuse aid to their people out of an inflated sense of pride, about warlords who abduct children, and about rampant disease and despair, I often feel this is more than I can stand, more than God should allow. Shouldn’t He be the parent of the toddler, sweep in and rearrange the world, clean up our environments so that we don’t stumble, get hurt, or have to ever shed a tear? Shouldn’t He get rid of all the bad guys just like the super hero my little boy is so enamored with would? He could, you know. And one day, He will.
But He’s waiting because there are still children, ahem… adults, out there who haven’t decided yet whether to run to Him or to stay back. He won’t force them to come home. They have to decide for themselves. I’ve been talking a lot in my blogs lately about Rick Warren’s definition of compassion – “feeling so deeply for another’s pain that you will do anything to help them.” That’s how God feels about all those fence sitters. He will do anything… did do the ultimate… except demand.
The principal of my daughter’s school ends every morning announcement segment with the following: “Make it a great day, or not. The choice is yours.” I usually chuckle when I hear that, but there is some real wisdom in there. For me, making it a great day is looking beyond myself at how I can help a friend or even a person I’ve never met. It’s thinking about how my actions reverberate not only around my sphere of influence but through time and space through my children, my family, my friends, and through the incidental brushings with the larger world. And when it gets too much, I run to my Abba Father who is waiting on the porch for me. But the choice is yours. Are you running to Him?

Unless….

I’ll never forget the day Dr. Hobbs brought in the movie The Lorax and showed it to us. I was flabbergasted… Dr. Seuss had a book I’d never heard of? There was an accompanying movie? And in the course of 30 minutes I fell head over heels in love with that furry little creature with the largest handlebar mustache the planet has ever seen. And as the Lorax lifted himself away from the decimated land the Onceler had destroyed with his Thneed factory, his departure and the sad backward glance he gave the Onceler left me a blubbery, sloppy mess trying to hide the fact that my heart was bleeding as openly as my eyes were shedding tears. It’s a little embarrassing to start crying in the middle of college freshman biology, you know.
Through the years, I’ve read the Dr. Seuss book to my kids over and over again. I read it with a conflict in my heart. On the one hand, I side with the Oncler… he does have his rights and yes “business is business! And business must grow….” I live in and daily reap the benefits of a capitalist society. I rather like the notion of limited government and the “survival of the fittest” mentality that allows creativity and expansion. Where in the world would we be without people living out big dreams, without enterprise, without something better toward which to strive? Would Steve Jobs have had as large an influence on the world of technology if, say, he lived in communist China or even socialist Europe?*
On the other hand, the sad plight of the Brown Bar-ba-loots and the Humming-Fish and the Swomee-Swans as their habitats are systematically destroyed breaks my heart. I get the message of responsible stewardship of land, air, and water. And I can see how some would take Dr. Seuss’ message as completely anti-big-business. There are those who stop at nothing to widen the profit margin at the expense of people and places. They ruin it for the rest of us.
When I read this book with the kids, I hope they take away the responsible stewardship message more than the anti-big-business message. And I think they do. In fact, the Lorax leaves a message, the one I think Dr. Seuss really intended for us to take away from the book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Yet, when I saw that Hollywood was making a new movie version of the story, I was skeptical. The kids were so excited to see it, and I was apprehensive. What kind of political spin will the creators take? How bad are they going to make business? Will my kids walk out of the movie spewing a loathing for business that came from a subconscious-level indoctrination? Like a word written in a cloud (Aladdin) or a ”ghost” hiding behind a curtain (3 Men and a Baby), what values would the movie subconsciously instill? Am I the only person out there that has these thoughts?
WELL. We went to see the movie. And it was fabulously fun. Brightly colored, engaging, with an appropriate amount of suspense and comedy, and toward the end I nearly jumped out of my seat in excitement. The Onceler is getting ready to hand the Truffula tree seed to Ted and he says, “It may seem small and insignificant. It’s not about what it is. It’s about what it can become.” Perfect! That’s a message I want my kids to take away. Even the smallest act of goodness and kindness can become so much larger.
Have you seen the Joseph Kony youtube video made by Invisible Children? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc&feature=share) Their message is similar… the power of one small, seemingly insignificant video that may just lead to the arrest of the world’s worst, the man responsible for the abduction of 1000s of children across Uganda, for turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers. Will this video create enough global focus to lead to the arrest of Joseph Kony? At the time of publishing this blog, over 76 million people have viewed the video. Will that force, will that knowledge lead to the outcome for which Invisible Children is striving? It seems small now but what does it have the potential to become? And how will this social justice movement shape and influence other like movements?
Where will a cup of Compassion Tea lead? One order of Compassion Tea, one cup of tea, may seem small and insignificant. But what can it become? A pill to stop a parasite, a medicine to relieve malaria, a pair of eyeglasses for someone who can’t see, or a shot of novocaine to make the necessary dental work more doable, maybe a pile of bandages to stop the bleeding feet or the raw, open wound on the back of the neck, antibiotics for pneumonia, a nurse’s kind touch, a psychologist visiting, a doctor finally explaining what is wrong… in short, that cup of tea becomes hope. And hope is a very powerful thing. We don’t completely know the end of the story. But won’t it be fun to watch!

*My views are not necessarily those of the rest of the Compassion Tea team regarding politics.

You’ve Got Mail!

“Is there anything in the mail for me?” This has become the daily refrain. Most days, the answer is a defeating, “No. Nothing but bills and ads.” But occasionally, the kids receive a card from a diligent family member or friend who remembers every major and minor holiday or something that I bought off those daily discount websites. The best days are the days around holidays when a care package from a grandparent arrives. The kids are like raccoons… prying and clawing their way into the box, rooting through its contents, tossing what belongs to the other aside, all in a flurry of tissue paper, packing peanuts, and bubble wrap. It’s over before it even began. Long before I can get the camera ready.

Imagine receiving a box with that same childlike excitement! Imagine tearing into it expectantly only to discover that the contents had been ransacked. The items you were anticipating breathlessly had been stolen out of the box. I don’t think my kids would survive the trauma.

It turns out that this is common in the African mail systems. Last year, CareNow Foundation sent a shipment of 200 kilos worth of pharmaceuticals to Mission Medic Air in Zambia. However, Zambian customs officials opened the boxes, removed about half of the medicines, closed up the boxes, and sent them on as if nothing was missing or awry. These medicines were to treat malaria, parasites and worms, burns, and infections… common ailments in rural Africa. This year, when Ed and Wendy Bjurstrom, of CareNow Foundation and Compassion Tea, traveled to Africa in November, they took seven suitcases full of medicines and medical supplies with them to distribute to the clinics CareNow Foundation supports, including those supplied by Mission Medic Air. While visiting with members of Mission Medic Air, the Bjurstroms saw that certain medicines were almost out. When they returned to the States, they organized a shipment of supplies that was sent out in January. Thankfully, this shipment arrived unscathed within the last weeks!

However, because they were unable to visit Dawn Faith Leppan at the 1000 Hills Clinic in South Africa during their November trip, the Bjurstroms organized a shipment of medical supplies to Ms. Leppan and her clinic. Following on the tails of the happy news out of Zambia, came a separate email. The supplies CareNow Foundation sent to 1000 Hills Clinic in South Africa did not arrive. Someone along the way ransacked the boxes of supplies, pillaged them, and left only the complimentary pouches of Compassion Tea accompanying the supplies. How disappointing on so many levels! And frustrating and irritating and, well, frankly, it just makes the blood boil. It’s the way things work in Africa. I’ve heard Ed say that while this kind of injustice makes working in Africa so much harder, it is also all the more reason to keep trying.

To her disturbing email, Ms. Leppan attached a couple of pictures of recent cases that had come into the clinic for medical care. One picture showed a woman whose breast had ruptured and was spilling out of her chest cavity. The other showed a man with a 2 -3 inch swath of raw, open wound across the back of his neck. The man was diabetic and had been turned away from another hospital, one that hadn’t been able to treat him. These two individuals were in obvious need of medical care. Dawn and her staff did what they could. But wouldn’t it have been nice if they had had those medical supplies to help them help others?
The other day, our doorbell rang. It was a young lady claiming to live just up the road from us. She gave a long story about how her father is a Marine and she wants to go to aeronautical engineering school and she needs help raising the funds to do so. As she wove her tale, it became more and more evident that there was little reality to what she had to say. And yet, I listened. Somewhere in the back of my head a little thought came forcing its way out, “Jesus calls us to be generous.” I ended up supporting her cause. Shortly thereafter, my neighbor began texting me about this gal. He was obviously upset that she had been to his door. Upset at her lies, upset at her solicitation, upset to be bothered… who knows exactly… but upset. And in my usual way, I began to feel guilty and gullible. What a schmuck I must be to give money to a liar/ door-to-door solicitor. But I did, and as I mulled this over, I threw up this prayer: “Father God, I pray that you help that child. I don’t know what has driven her to create such a wild story and to go door-to-door selling magazines. But it obviously isn’t good. Lord, use that money to help her reach out of her situation, to find you and to know you better. Amen.” The Bible tells us repeatedly that God can take the bad and make it beautiful.

So, will you pray with me that God will take those stolen medicines and medical supplies and turn their theft into something good? I also pray that the next box Dawn Faith Leppan anxiously tears open will hold untold joy… that she will be able to raccoon her way through the contents in obvious delight at the different ways she will be able to help the “least served” in her neck of Africa.