Sunday, November 22, 2020

Living with limits

 He balances himself against a crutch, one leg invisible, selling bananas and newspapers in a hectic intersection.  He waves and watches for the one who will stop and buy.  She sits with a faraway look in her eyes, a teenager hugging the sidewalk with her pillowcase, a sack of her belongings? They play happily in the yard of The Nest, a Salvation Army home for children, frolicking with a soccer ball inside the boundaries of a wired fence.  He hangs out on the curb, watching the busy passersby in vehicles or on foot. His gentle smile and piercing eyes shine through the big, scruffy grey beard.  He walks with his white cane - almost skipping - finding his way among the pedestrians to his destination. He meanders between the stalled traffic with an outstretched cup, looking lost and alone. 

When you take the same daily route to work and walk to the same grocery store in your neighbourhood, you get to see who’s there - living with their limits.  We make no judgements and wonder what their stories are. They aren’t only living with limits, they are also living with dreams, possibilities, and potential.    

Limits can feel restricting and cause us to ruminate on what is problematic. People who live within and beyond their limits inspire me. They accomplish what seems impossible and find courage to face each day. Morris and I recently commented about the number of people we have seen with limb amputations in Kingston.  Then I learned that Jamaica leads the world in the rate of limb amputations due to complications from poorly controlled diabetes or untreated vascular disease. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2025, prevalence rates for diabetes in developing countries will increase by 170 percent from 84 million to 248 million, representing about 70 percent of diabetes worldwide (Jamaica Observer).  Staggering figures in places where health care can be limited.

At our last Cabinet meeting, we talked about another kind of ‘living with limits’ – The Salvation Army’s 2020 Christmas campaign and fund-raising efforts. The effect of the pandemic and its restrictions mean we cannot campaign the same way this year.  Needs are up, and funds are down. The downturn in tourism has adversely affected the economy in many Caribbean locations. Donors who usually support quite generously are now facing their own limits. Volunteer groups are strained; they are now among the vulnerable. In Belize, an annual event to support 600 children called the Needy Children Christmas Lunch had to be cancelled due to the restriction on public gatherings. Mail appeals in the Bahamas are limited due to postal closures. In French Guiana, they are not allowed to raise funds at all during Christmas. So, what do we do? We adapt.

Like people who face their limits every day with newfound courage, we do whatever it takes to adjust. We keep serving and sharing God’s love because our raison d’etre – our purpose for being – is unchanging. We become creative; we modify and revise plans and accept the things we cannot control. Every Divisional and District leader are pivoting their strategies in the face of the current turmoil. While circumstances are confining and restrictive, they are not full of despair. We partner with other community leaders and agencies. We hear how new media campaigns, radio telethons, and direct appeals to the public are providing hope that The Salvation Army will remain a strong force to keep meeting human needs.  By relocating kettles, using vouchers instead of food hampers, increasing our online presence, and extending the number of days to donate, The Army is fine-tuning how to ‘live with our limits’ and overcome what has been hard-hitting for so many.  In Belize, an alternative strategy is already underway to reach the children in the new year.

How did Jesus respond amid limitations? He told his followers to accept what is less than perfect (like a few fish and couple bread loaves to feed a crowd) and offer it to Him, and He would do more with the little than they ever thought possible.  He reframed the value of those living with limits to be the ones most highly favoured and should be at the top of our festivities guest list: “When you host a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13).  He honoured the sacrificial gift of the widow’s coins above offerings from excessive wealth. Limits were not barriers to Jesus.

I never want to diminish the truth that living with limits is not easy. On the compound where we live, there is the Children’s Home for vulnerable orphans (The Nest), the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Francis Ham Seniors Home for the elderly.  People within these groups have limits which are different than the people we see on our way to work – AND unlike limitations others face. It isn’t about putting people in categories, because in truth, we all have limits.  Not all internal and external battles will be resolved this side of heaven. I resist offering platitudes that minimize the raw pain of certain situations with no easily solutions, no available healing balm. I acknowledge the arduous circumstances which go beyond even the chaos of a global pandemic.  I can say this:  I find courage and hope when I see people who live with limits and do not give up. I find stimulus in the example of Jesus. I am challenged with how I respond. And I seek better ways to be part of a corporate answer as a follower of Christ who represents His likeness to the world.

Perhaps it is our limits that bind us. 









Monday, October 19, 2020

The pandemic - a personal encounter

When we were preparing to move to the Caribbean, two of the things I prayed for were: 1) to be keenly alert to the people and circumstances of our new environment and 2) to deepen my compassion for those who are hurting and most vulnerable. These prayers continue.

The area where Morris and I live in has the highest number of coronavirus cases in Jamaica.  Like so many others, we have been very diligent in following all the pandemic protocols.  On September 09 Morris developed flu-like symptoms that quickly worsened.  He needed to be tested for Covid-19 and even though I had no similar symptoms at the time, I was tested too.  End result? We were both positive. Quarantined at our house, my symptoms remained fairly mild but his quickly grew into intense body pain, fever, gastric nausea, loss of appetite, and substantial fatigue. Relief was difficult to achieve and he kept getting weaker.  He was eating very little and to even brush his teeth or get a shower took so much energy he had to sit and rest. The journey was scary. We knew how dangerous this virus was. I felt helpless as I did my best to keep Morris comfortable.  We were defenceless in a way we had not been before.  We reached out to a recommended physician, Dr. Gomes, who remained connected with us almost daily.  Morris’ illness kept evolving and when his oxygen levels started to drop, he was hospitalized. The fear was real. The sadness I felt on the day Morris walked into the isolation ward at National Chest Hospital was one I shall never forget.  Our faith in God was firm but leaving him alone was just really hard. Thankfully, our family and friends and colleagues poured out their love and their prayers for us constantly.  I slept some nights with my Bible under my arm, reciting every biblical narrative I could think of where God rescued, healed, or delivered those who called on Him.  Through our own faith and the support of others, we found the courage to remain hopeful in spite of many tears and in three days Morris’ saturation levels stabilized on room air without any need for extra oxygen. Thank God!  He was treated with antibiotics, steroids, and stomach meds. On October 01, Morris was released back home and his recovery progressed. We rejoiced at every sign of healing. Two weeks later he was doing so much better he could return to the office.  While his fatigue is still intermittent, his days are much more normal and most of his routines are restored.

Over these days, both of us have tried to capture a little of what this pilgrimage has meant. Here are some of our reflections.  

1.      Our bodies are fragile. As I searched the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, there it was. We are made of dust. We are not immortal. We are like the flowers of the field that bloom in season and fade in season. We ‘wear out like a garment’ (Psalms 102:26). Only God remains the same. We are not divine. We are all susceptible to disease. No one is immune.

2.      There are so many others who suffer much more than us. Our own sickness causes us to more regularly lay others before God, especially those so vulnerable.

3.      Gratitude encourages our hearts and keeps us grounded. Thankfulness is a daily gift to open. People, provisions, promises – big things and small, like emojis from your granddaughter, chicken soup, and Lysol spray. Or the kindness of a colleague who becomes your taxi and delivers food.

4.      The purpose and power of others praying over you and for you. We are designed for community.  As one good friend told me, “When we reach out to others for prayer, we allow others to be and do what God intended.”

5.      The Bible is so helpful. It’s wisdom so solid.

6.      God is full of compassion and mercy and always worth trusting. (Psalm 121)

7.      Our natural response to pain and sickness is to resist it. Yet there are times when something good comes from pain. The miracle and wonder of a newborn child does not happen without the labour and agony of the baby’s exit through the birth canal. The brilliance of a colourful butterfly flapping its wings in freedom and flight is withheld until it first journeys through the darkness of a cocoon.  The Israelites deliverance from slavery and bondage to the Promised Land came after the torment of plagues and death. In our humanness we resist pain. We pray against its every form. We moan and struggle and yet, sometimes it has a purpose.

In one of Morris’ journal entries, he recorded some reflections on the effects of Covid-19 to us. Here is some of what he wrote:  

·       It began before we left Kenya. We couldn’t say a proper goodbye to those we had worked so closely with. We had to leave early. Something was missing.

·       Days of quarantine – (both leaving Kenya and entering Jamaica) - isolation, lockdown, delays in connecting with others.

·       Three COVID tests – two negative …

·       The positive virus in my system, painful physical symptoms and emotional - discouragement bordering depression, weakness, my body fights to recuperate, sleep evades me.

·       This is only my personal journey of discomfort compared to so many. The death toll is so high. Cases keep rising. Feelings of isolation and suffering for thousands worldwide.  Personal and economic impact on a whole new level.  And so Lord I pray:   

"Your provision Lord is my lifeline. My community is my support. I see a way forward and I declare:  This is my Father’s world. I believe a little more deeply. And I lament. “How long O Lord, how long will people suffer and die before you intervene?” I naturally question “Why?” but also add “Why not?” I seek forgiveness when doubt arises and I seek renewal and regeneration by Your Spirit. I am grateful for what I believe about your GRACE! It is never based on my merit. I trust You supremely through a lifetime of faith and hope. There is no ‘arriving’ until I reach heaven. You alone have a clearer view, the big picture, the divine working.  And so I plead:

·       May your grace abound to all who are hurting

·       May peace and quiet reach into the darkest moments of those who suffer most

·       May wisdom prevail on every level and bring an end to this dark time

·       May I continue to know patience and renewal through this journey"

Morris and I register our deepest gratitude to our family, our friends, our colleagues in Canada and here, and our territorial and international leaders for every expression of compassion, support, and prayer.  In spite of being as diligent as possible with regularly wearing masks everywhere, constant hand washing and cleaning, physical distancing as much as possible – we now know firsthand that this virus can penetrate an otherwise healthy body and leave its imprint. 

When I prayed that God would keep me alert to the people and circumstances around me and deepen my compassion, I had no idea how a personal exposure would affect those prayers. Both of us have new and deeper images in our hearts and minds - patients in isolation wards (more real for Morris), people crying over their loved ones, people who can’t afford medical testing, people living on the streets who can’t distance, children and parents struggling in the midst of a complicated school year (school remains closed here), people alone without loving supports, and people with uncertain futures.  The key to showing compassion is understanding the pain of others. We cannot always walk a mile in another person’s moccasins but we can be alert while on the road.

Morris and I have recently read NT Wright’s book “God and the pandemic – a Christian reflection on the coronavirus and its aftermath” – we highly recommend it. The author describes the deeply important nature of God that we must remember. When people suffer, God does too. And it is by aligning our hearts and our actions with that of God, that we can move from asking the ‘why’ question of this pandemic to answering the ‘what now’ question – prayer and compassion.  I end this blog by quoting the book:

This is our vocation: to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain. At those very moments when we find ourselves weeping with grief at the death of a friend or family member, or at the impossibility of having a proper funeral, or at the horror of millions of the world’s poorest being at risk, or simply because being locked down is inherently depressing – at those moments, when any words we try to say come out as sobs or tears, we have to remind ourselves that this is how God the Spirit is present at the heart of the agony of creation.”   Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Crossing cultures

Two coastal communities of Newfoundland were the places of our births. Unknown to each other, the cultural conditioning of two different towns and families shaped our lives from the early sixties, through the seventies, and into the eighties until the day we met in the big city. Our two-year courtship, though laced with the pains of early adulthood, peaked on May 14, 1983, and "our story" began!

A common calling to serve God and share His love was why we met and remains the cord that ties us tightly. Our sojourn has taken us from the 'rocky isle in the ocean' to the shores of the Maritimes (equally rugged and beautiful) to the majestic Great Lakes of Ontario, the place our children and grandchildren now call home. The people and places of our homeland, varied by cultures and context, taught us to remain true to what is most important no matter where we are. A myriad of social, educational, and spiritual learnings stretched us often and nurtured our personal development as our relationship with God and with people inhabited our mission. It still does! Self-awareness frequently keeps us humble, realizing often how interdependent with our community of people we really are.  

The day we knew our story would take us beyond our country borders was a day we had no idea what lay before us. So much was now unknown. How will we integrate into a place so different from what had always been familiar? How will we understand and embrace the contrasting nuances, behaviours, and values so customary and commonplace for the locals yet unfamiliar for us?  In retrospect now, living in Kenya would be a journey of vast adjustments, a roller coaster of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual mountains and valleys. Only upon much reflection of our first 'out of Canada' experience have we processed what it meant to serve in another land. It was a privilege and a stretch, forming our hearts and minds to become better people for whatever is yet to come. Isn't that what every experience of life should do? For if we have not learned from the good and the gruelling, we have missed the invitation to be polished on a Potter's wheel, a process necessary to remain a vessel fit for service, one filled with humility and growth.  

In crossing cultures from west to east, the learning curve was steep. Routines, climate, economics, community, relationships, support systems, values, language, human behaviours, and traditions were novel and we quickly discovered that many aspects of our cultural conditioning were affected. Despite modern globalization, it is still human nature for all peoples to lean toward ethnocentric impulses, a phrase I have recently understood to mean the tendency for people to think their culture is the right culture. This easily and naturally becomes the lens through which both the expat and the locals view what is happening in everyday interactions. Some would say it takes much personal effort to manoeuvre through this. We agree and we would also say it ultimately takes the transforming message and application of the Christian gospel applied daily to change this inclination and its effect. Only by remembering in the eyes of God there is no ‘east and west’ can we reframe our mindset toward inclusivity. While our prevailing culture may be our default (its nature and nurture), it is Christ’s culture we must follow - a work that is forever forming and never fully complete.  

Today Morris and I find ourselves living in our second 'home away from home' - Kingston, Jamaica. After 3 1/2 years in the rural part of western Kenya, we are emerging into the eastern part of this beautiful Caribbean island! For some of our friends and family, you have sojourned before us as tourists (probably in Montego Bay or Negril). We have come for a different reason - to stay engaged in the calling which has been ours since our story began.  Through our most recent Salvation Army appointment, we are here to learn and understand another culture and adapt to this locale for such a time as this!  Our experience will take us beyond the shores of Jamaica with its reggae music, super-fast athletes, and local challenges and connect us with colleagues in 15 other Caribbean countries.  The pandemic may limit our onsite visits but we will soon link and partner with the people in this ocean through modern means of communication. Being islanders ourselves, we relish getting to know others.

Our current transition of crossing cultures happens during unparalleled days as the world grapples with the coronavirus outbreak. During our 14 day quarantine (ending today!), we have begun to know its impact around the islands. Soon we will walk with those here who are finding their way through this tunnel of uncertainty. Our prayer is that together the mission of hope and support will be expended to those who need it most.

In our new setting, we will serve alongside Commissioners Devon and Verona Haughton who are native Jamaicans along with the other staff and officers at THQ and those steering the Army’s work in eleven divisions and districts. Fellow Newfoundlanders and old friends, Clarence and Karen Ingram, divisional leaders in the Bahamas, have been serving in the Caribbean for nine years. They, along with many others, will have lots to teach us! 

For those of you who pray for us, we invite you to join us in bringing our inmost desires before God - to be filled with deep compassion, continuous purity of heart, and clarity of mind for the wisdom required to lead with truth and grace for the good of the Kingdom. We turn to Jesus as we remember that we “have not come to be served but to serve.”

Stay tuned for the next part of our story...