12/24/2012

Celebrating the Gift that keeps on giving



Have you ever met an angel? 
         My grandmother Janina told me a story of an encounter that made me believe in miracles. Now, decades later, stories of old are being turned into my own encounters with good people, many a modern-day angel.
         Grandma’s stories about hospitality were best. Going back in memory, we, as kids, would listen to her vividly describing events that took us back to her own childhood. In her descriptions the small incidents from the “grown-up” world would grow sky-high in the world of children. Sitting at my bedside she would speak about things and happenings that are all too often missing from our fast-paced life of today. With our child-like imagination we could travel into a world where kindness was ever present and it wasn’t difficult to be happy.
         It was wintertime in a small Polish town of Radomsko. Her sister, Maria Stelak*, lived with three children and for them Christmas meant to be celebrated in a traditional Polish fashion: a table full with cuisine typical for the occasion, well festively decorated, and with an abundance of cakes, freshly baked with blue-black poppy seeds, all laced with laughter and wonder.
         On Christmas eve the table was traditionally decorated, with one empty place left for an uninvited guest, a wandering stranger. Year after year Aunt Maria would play being a hostess to someone at this empty table setting ...


         The house was off the beaten tract, right at the edge of a forest. This particular year, instead of guests there was an abundance of snow. The children had their noses glued to frost-covered window glass, waiting for the guests to arrive in the horse-drawn carriages. But, no-one was in sight.
         The evening games were disturbed by a gentle knock on the door. “They are here!” children shouted. When the door opened, the cold weather revealed a stranger. He looked like a beggar.
         Grandma recalled that the stranger was a Jew, his beard white with frost. Under his arm a bundle. His clothes were torn and dirty. A traveler and a stranger, he was least expected on that very night.
         His frozen feet were soon treated to a tin bucket of warm water. Then he ate, like he never saw food before. Soon his face revealed gratitude, which can only adorn a content traveler. He wiped his face and beard off the bread crumps, stood up, bowed, and walked toward the door. In an instant he was gone.
         Hearing the door close, Maria shouted to bid him come back. “We must give him food to take away.”
         “They went outside,” grandma Janina continued. “There was no-one in-sight. Not even footprints in a freshly fallen snow.”
         It all sounded so real. Did she really experience such an awesome encounter?  Later she would tell stories of her other encounters with miracles.
         I keep asking myself, who was the stranger on that Christmas eve in Radomsko? No answer comes, but I am convinced that angels visit good homes.**
         Generosity – a gift that keeps on giving. Christmas is a celebration of the Gift.
         To all my readers - Merry Christmas and a peaceful new year, safe and full of wonder!
        
*Her son, Jerzy Stelak, pseudonym “Kruk,” was a cousin, and a contemporary of my mother, Alina. He was a WWII partisan, often pictured on his horse, and with a group of comrades roaming the central Poland countryside, creating resistance attacks against the German army.

**A Bible text comes to mind: You welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. [Gal 4:14 NIV]


10/10/2012

A no-nonsense phone call


This is my mom, Alina. “I didn’t realize that my son will be teaching me a lesson today. 
Thank you,” she said.

Family conversations are often hidden from a public view. However, some are worth sharing. This one was special as every one is when I call and talk with my mom, Alina.

But first …

         We learn – if we care to admit it – all the time. The positions we once held change. Views that were once local are becoming global, and micro migrates into macro or vice versa. As long as we continue to recognize that nothing stays the same in an evolving world and culture, as progress requires change, by sitting still we will be left at the station, while the train of life speeds ahead.
         For some of us, the issue persists in how we are managing change and whether we recognize that on a personal and professional level. Our egos may be a major handicap in the midst of the life’s journey.
         Nodding in a direction of honesty, I must admit to occasionally having made a few silent or audible demands in order to be listened to, all based on a particular position I held. 
         I know someone who uses a lot of religious words, as if showcasing his deep spirituality, all in order to protect his position of power.
         But times are gone when a demand to be listened to evolved into an argument – it’s the church speaking, you better obey! The Millennial Generation buys stuff like that, right? It doesn’t cut with me either. I learned.

Now, a phone call

         I love my mother. Alina is 85. Over the last two-three decades our contact has been mostly by phone. An occasional visit gave both of us more terrain to cover in a direct conversation, to spar on a topic or two, and doing it one-on-one. From time to time I would get my mother’s black-and-white convictions, served on a platter of “here I stand and shall not move.” Obviously, I often reciprocated.
         So, a few days ago we talked over the phone. Referring to an issue that arose between her and someone who didn’t quite do what she wanted done nor agree with her, she remarked that she wished people listened to her more.
         “I tell them that I am older. I am a senior and I should be listened to.”
         As I said, she is 85. Hearing her argument I ventured out with a comment I could not refuse to express. “Mom, what sort of argument is this? Just because you are older does not mean that people will accept what you are insisting on if you are talking nonsense,” I said. "And believe me, you do just that at times."
         “Give me a better argument," I continued. "Give me something more than will relate to the issue. Most people already know that you have your years, and I guess they will respect you a priori for the worth of your eight plus decades of knowledge, experience and wisdom.”
         Then, I added that there must be something more substantial for your interlocutor to chew on, a new argument perhaps, rather than something they already see or know. “It doesn’t move them,” I said.
         A few seconds of silence ensued. Then, in an up-beat tone, she responded, “You know what, you are right. I talk nonsense every so often, don’t I? Your dad tells me that I talk to much, anyway.”
         “I didn’t realize that my son will be teaching me a lesson today. Thank you,” she added.
         What followed were the appreciated expressions that only a loving mom could bestow. "I wish you could talk with me more often," she concluded.

We learn, don’t we?

         It was teaching moment for both of us. This time an honest expression of frankness, shared in a loving way hit the target. It was a conversation that actually ignited a reflection of my own. By admitting her flawed reasoning, she was teaching me that age means little for lessons are to be learned.
         I have a son. And I am 64.
         As when he was 12 and blurted out that my shouting at him did not bring about respect in his eyes, there will be more lessons to learn from him. Actually, I am already receiving a few every so often. Even though I may not readily admit to it.   
         Besides, I could talk less, and listen more.

8/15/2012

Absent, aloof or engaged? After watching "Seventh-Gay Adventists"



In a tsunami of details and generalities, one has a tendency of setting a few thoughts aside for a moment when we can take a serious pause for reflection. Such was an experience from a few weeks ago.
         Together with Grazyna, we watched a must-see documentary film about the crossroads between faith and sexual identity. Frankly, I didn’t go to see Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film About Faith on the Margins (SGA) because I was seeking answers, nor because I craved a confirmation of something I already knew. Having a first hand knowledge where my church stands on this “topic of the day,” I went to see it to be a part of a conversation, and naturally, to hear stories.
         I also went to see Seventh-Gay Adventists to engage with the story that lies beyond the cinema.
         Aren’t the best films those that tell stories, especially when they are shot well, directed masterly, and acted convincingly? In SGA you don’t need actors. You are invited into the lives of real people, sharing their experiences about who they are, as they love and believe. You watch ordinary people who have ups and downs like you and me, except that they are living ostracized, left outside the church’s predictable activities.
         In the film you also meet some family members, church goers, respected church leaders and pastors, many going through a transformative journey in how they relate, embrace, and opt for the side of grace. The film’s witness is that Christian belief needn’t to be compromised when you hug your loved one who is gay, perhaps a daughter, a son, a sibling, a grandchild, or close friend.
         The film provides three stories. In effect, what you experience is several more stories, with the main one being a story of our church. The film is important because it deals with the reality of a community that is, like it or not, a part and reflection of society at large. One can give it a church-driven significance and how life is impacted by contemporary culture, but also one recognizes they are people who live in our neighborhoods, and see them as brothers and sisters and not simply being a topic of the day.
         In Seventh-Gay Adventists we meet three couples. Their life experiences unfold in a world many Christians are aware of, yet all too often conscientiously avoid meaningful, civil discourse about it, understand it, or engage with it. A typical conservative Christian approach I was born into taught me to avoid that which was seemingly not a part of my own milieu – whether based on doctrinal beliefs, on one’s cultural or educational background, or shrouded in one’s tradition and family mesh.
         Thoughts abound. How to deal with difficult issues that represent ever-present diversity? Should they be avoided or left for someone else to deal with it?
         The film provides an unfolding experience of believers who, as Prof. Fritz Guy put it, “have to deal with two incurable conditions—you’re Adventist, and you’re gay. And it’s awfully hard to stop being either one of those things.” It also provides a snapshot of what is so often covered by silence.
         The film’s producers, Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer, offered a spotlight on grace, and did so in a generous, open and reflective manner. They opted for staying away from advocacy. What they offered was a candid probe into a reality of my faith community that cannot be dismissed. What they were challenging – no matter on what side of the debate you are – is to do more listening rather than offering shotgun lectures.
         Partly because of such attitudes, many gay people choose to be left alone. Someone I know well said, “I’m a private person because I treat my sexuality matter-of-factly.” The only time he feels uncomfortable about his sexual orientation, he told me, is when he goes hiking into the mountains “where there are people with no teeth and shotguns.”
         The film was made for everyone. While the answers and change of attitudes are still to come, we do best to seek and find them together, reserving to God what we cannot comprehend this side of heaven. Thus, the film is an invitation to grow in understanding and drawn closer to each other; to live-out a life of grace, compassion, and acceptance - yes, acceptance - no matter what your own position regarding homosexuality may be, and doing it in a mature and transparent way.
         Being silent about the reality of gay orientation is not a solution. Being selective in what we say about contemporary topics in society is what heartburn is made of. Our gay brothers and sisters will not disappear if we remain mum or choose to offer righteous comments about their predicament. We must not forget that we are dealing with people, not concepts, or Bible proof texts. What is apparent here is a reminder of treating all people with respect and with deserved dignity.
         A private screening of the documentary attracted a full house of more than 200, among whom one could recognize a number of top world church leaders and colleagues. A short exchange with pastors from my Sligo Church congregation in Takoma Park, Maryland, offered a poignant moment. They turned up for the showing nearly in full force. In jest, I remarked that it’s OK to attend the showing since our spiritual leaders are also present. One of them replied, that this time it was the pastors who followed the members.
         The showing at the Landmark Bethesda Row Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, included a bonus of meeting one of the film’s protagonists, Sherri Babcock, and her parents, for a post-showing Q & A section.
         George Babcock, whose name is well etched in the world of Adventist education, shared his experience with Sherri’s coming out. His and Sherri’s mother’s initial reaction to the newly discovered reality was not much different from other such discoveries. What still resonates in my memory is part of his story from a couple of decades ago when two prominent church leaders, upon learning that Babcock’s daughter is a lesbian, asked him to disown her. Through sharing, he took us into a world of anguish and confusion as to whether the same God is being worshipped.
         The film itself does not lobby on behalf of Adventist civil disobedience. It leaves it up to the viewer to reflect on his or her own attitude toward believers who are looking for a place in the church.
         They may not call themselves Seventh-Gay Adventists, but they live among us. They also wish to experience their fellow believers as purveyors of graceful Christianity and messengers of respect.



6/27/2012

Kick it, man! Kick it! My first encounter With Blind Campers


"When you kick, you kick, indeed." Chester from Atlanta does it at the Indian Creek Camp for the Blind. 

This was my first direct encounter with a camp for the blind. And what an experience it has become!
            I braced myself with expectations that it might rain, that there would be plenty of walking and a variety of sport activities, and that being in a Christian environment, I would find new friends and encouragement for the battles of life. 
            My new experience came with meeting 53 people, with a spread from teens to individuals in their 50s, all totally or legally blind. Most of the campers came from Tennessee and near-by states, with a few traveling from as far as California.
            This year’s season of summer camps for the blind kicked off at the venue with the longest continuous run in the 45 years of camps organized by Christian Record.        National Camps for the Blind® and National Camps for Blind Children® are perhaps the most widely known program of Christian Record Services. The initiative began in 1967 with a single camp at Kulaqua in High Springs, Florida. As a star attraction, this year 14 summer and winter camps span the United States and Canada. Over 50,000 blind campers have attended these specialized camps.
            The Indian Creek camp location, near Nashville, was once a home base for the Cherokee Indians.  It’s at the edge of Center Hill Lake, with its 700 miles of shoreline.
            I was glad to meet someone for whom the camp for the blind was also his first, though he has had considerable experience working with youth. Ken Wetmore, the newly appointed camp director, is the youth director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in much of Kentucky and Tennessee.

"My first time here." Ken Wetmore, Indian Creek Camp director. 
            “This is going to be exciting,” he told me the day the camp started.
            “How challenging is this going to be for you?” I asked.
            “Actually, the blind campers are not that different from other campers. If there are special needs that surface, we have counselors or counselors-in-training to assist. My staff is well trained and focused,” he added.
            This year’s camp had a list of those who wanted to come and volunteer, Wetmore explained. Those who were chosen to be counselors and assist in a variety of camp activities were first shortlisted. Running consecutively with the blind camp was a camp for 51 children ages 7-9.  The combined groups had 58 staffers, joined by a group of 20 counselors in training (CITs).
            The Indian Creek camp offered many options for the older blind campers but also it was attractive for kids, with their differing attention spans and interests.  About half of the 53 blind campers, totally or legally blind, were below the age of 30.
            An important feature of the experience was to observe and participate in the camp’s inspirational moments. Matt Evens, the camp pastor, told campers at the first evening’s campfire event that his role was to help the campers find God. His words were greeted with applause and amens.

This food was good, they concluded. Linda from Lexington, KY, right, is all smiles as she picks her own dinner, her councelor, Jephthae Campbell, looks on.
            For Linda, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, the camp was “almost new” as she returned many years after attending one when she was 12. She came back to see what has changed over the years – and what hadn’t. Now in her 30s and a professional in her own right, the attractiveness of the camp continues to be its Christian atmosphere.
            “Sure, there is a difference between then and now,” she commented. “We have changed, and those who run the camp changed, too.” She obviously enjoyed herself, displaying a smile as she was kayaking with gusto.
            The positive, caring atmosphere of the camps run by NCBC is appreciated by the blind campers. “We are treated with respect and care,” was repeated again and again. Good planning and careful attention to detail was the work of Tim Arner, Southern Region field director of CRSB, and Bob Clayton, a Christian Record representative for the region and camp coordinator.
            Having fun and being involved with an assortment of activities that led the blind campers to exercise and strive for new heights offered a rich menu for an observer like me. Much of what was going on was aimed at helping the campers grow in self-confidence, and to develop an appreciation for God’s love and care.
            It wasn’t difficult to encounter Michael Mooney from Billings, Montana, who was back at the camp again, as his independence and physical vigor stood out. It was Michael who cheered others in a Beep Kickball game to keep on going. For him, it seemed, his blindness did not destroy his determination to help himself by helping others.


Michael Mooney, a Chief Encourager, was starts the Beep Kickball. He knew how to do it, too
(nearly off the picture, top). 
            “Kick it, man! Kick it!” Michael shouted from the pitch. When Chester shot the ball in the air, and a “hurray’s” cut the air, Michael shouted, “You did it!” How did he see that, I wondered. Simply, it was not about seeing, but being a part of the game. Another lesson.
            Kudos to Judy Byrd an effervescent Beep Kickball game specialist and volunteer who’s experience with our camps was also her first. An amazing woman with a commitment to engage blind people in sports activities, something many are missing. She later said, that “they got a taste of playing a sport outdoors, getting a little exercise and hopefully, being impressed with their athletic abilities, however slight. I could tell many had not had an opportunity to run often, if ever.” I heard that in the future, many a camper will be offered an experience with Judy’s “exercise” menu.
            Though totally blind, Michael was eager to ride a BMX bike, an activity at which he excelled before an accident left him blind. He got his wish realized. Laying out a safe route for him, counselors equipped his helmet with a camera. A film of his experience received a standing ovation by all campers and staff – blind and sighted alike -- at the concluding campfire on Saturday night.
            Almost immediately, as the week-long Indian Creek Camp ended on June 17, Michael planned to take part in another camp, the NCBC Blind Biker’s camp which will take the group of tandem bike riders over the course of three days between Nashville, Tennessee, and Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 20-24. The ride will culminate at Ivy Green, the famed Helen Keller’s childhood home-museum.

Narlon de Oliveira, archery coach tells the campers like it is. They like it that way.
            Observing archery coach Narlon de Oliveira’s would-be-archers made me realize that so often I may be oblivious of the gifts I have and leave them unused. In Narlon’s words, who encourages the blind archers to keep on trying, and teaches them to angle where they would shoot an arrow, “We often complain about things. They could too. But they cheer each other on. If one of their friends hits a balloon, they rejoice.”
            I came to the camp to observe, and learn about a world of blindness. But it was what Narlon said about his experience with blind young people that made me think about my own attitudes. Simply, the campers taught me much about myself.

Waiting for his archery turn, Joseph from Nashville, TN, blowing up a balloon which he will later attempt to hit.