Newtown. in remembrance

newtown-memory

I am crushed.

Those are about the only words I could muster in the wake of the unthinkable tragedy that struck Newtown. In my adulthood I have been well acquainted with grief. I have observed it, felt it scratching and digging at the very fibers that string my life together. Still it is a language I could never capture. I suppose I’m not the only one. There are no words that can quite hold such weight of pain, loss, despair.

The news was both shocking yet all too familiar in our nation’s recent history. A man walked into an elementary school and gunned down 26 people, most of whom were children ages 6 and 7. Just like that. Kids who woke up that morning thinking about their next game of handball at recess, or daydreaming about the end of the day so their parents could take them to see all the nicely decorated houses and trees in the neighboring town–gone. Kids whose lives had just begun, their futures now violently robbed. Hughes spoke of dreams deferred; these bullets demolished them.

That same night I had been asked by my pastor to do a reading of my children’s book to the kids at our church staff Christmas party. Could I tell you how it felt to look into those precious souls and consider that it could have been any one of them? In one demonic fit of madness it could have been Grant or Wes or Jaron or Natty. Or all of them. I sat there, going through my words, turning page by page, reading from a book that I had written to build education and inspire life. I had always considered the war to be fought in the battlegrounds of the heart and mind; never did I think we’d have to protect our classrooms from madmen and their bullets. I wonder if I’m in the wrong business. If I’m supposed to explode guns and exorcise men who are battling some serious demons.

Newtown, I observe you, I remember you, but I have no words for your grief. I know your pain is immeasurable beyond that. I can only pray for brighter days, a greater hope, a comfort that transcends understanding. Perhaps my sentiments are best echoed by our president when he says: “Whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide … Newtown, you are not alone.”

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Short Essay on Poverty

A HOMELESS MAN stood on the corner of a busy freeway exit. Leaning on his crutches, with a wheelchair not far behind him, he was holding a flimsy cardboard sign that read “Please help” in black bubble letters. I was stopped long enough to notice him–I was on my way to a dumpling house. As my car inched up the traffic, I was able to see the discoloration of the man’s skin, and more, that he was standing without his left leg.

Moved by the scene, and perhaps by the New Year spirit, people started extending dollar bills from their lowered car windows. The man took the bills from the sedan, then slowly made his way to the blue pick-up truck. As he reached for the money, he extended his arm a little too far and lost his balance. His crutches slid under him and the man came crashing to the ground.  The cars sat there, like motor statues, motionless. While he struggled to get himself off from the ground, the light turned green, but the money was still extended from the window. The pick-up wasn’t going anywhere; no one was heartless enough to honk at the car that was offering money to a man with no leg. I just sat there, taking in the awkward and uncomfortable scene before me, uncertain of what to do. In my head, I was a little child screaming, “Please, just make it go away.”

By the time the man got up–after a very long two minutes–and took the money, the light had turned red again. Only three cars had gone. Now, as the second car in traffic, I was sitting front and center to look at the man who didn’t have enough dignity to look anywhere but down. His eyes were staring at something and nothing. I had already decided to help the man, but I was treating my family that day, so I dug past the twenties for loose ones. Careful to avoid a reenactment of the scene, I got out of the car and walked over to hand the bills to him. “Thank you,” he said sheepishly, avoiding eye contact. I know I helped out, but something didn’t feel right. I got back in, closed the door, and stepped on the gas.

I entered the restaurant and saw my joyous family dining at the center table. I sat down to a table set with bowls of noodles and plates full of fried rice and dumplings. The meal was good–great, really–but all I could think about was that man with one leg who fell down reaching for a couple dollars. He must have felt small. And I didn’t feel like I solved anything; I didn’t feel like I did enough. Worse, I didn’t know if there was anything more I could have done.

It was nothing a few dollars or a meal could fix. His was the great problem of poverty. That scene was the representation, the teacher, of all I ever knew and had known about the issue. And there was not a damned thing I could do about it.

All this while I was sipping my cup of tea, downing my last dumpling. My family was rightfully enjoying themselves. I tried hard to hold it together at the table, and somehow I did.

But there was no solace for a soul that was weeping.

*****

THE PROBLEM ISN’T simply that poverty exists. It’s that we see it all around us and yet care to do nothing about it. Or worse, many of us don’t even know how to properly define it.

We tend to judge poverty based on the material. The man on the street doesn’t have food or clothes or money, so he must be poor. In one sense, that is true. However, the man who lends him a dollar or buys him a meal might come from a superior material standing but could be equally poor, if not more so, as the man whom he is serving–in the emotional or spiritual sense. As Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert outline in their book When Helping Hurts, poverty is not merely a material thing:

Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings [. . .] Every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship.

This insight reveals the deeper roots of poverty that seem to reach further than material assets. In essence, poverty includes external riches but is also largely a state of mind or being. Until we understand that poverty is an extension beyond mere dollars and cents, we will only address the symptoms rather than the root and possibly cause more harm than good.

In my case, I had no problem giving the man a couple dollars. But what I could not give him was his dignity, his feeling and sense of self-worth. I couldn’t articulate it then, but my experience was confirmed as I read further in the book:

Research from around the world has found that shame–a ‘poverty of being’–is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others.

Even if I had enough money to sponsor him–food, housing and all–for the rest of his life, as long as he is “receiving” from me, he will always feel like charity. He will be struggling with an inferiority complex, feeling like a second-rate citizen because he does not have a means of supporting and providing for himself. (More than income is lost in unemployment.) I thought I had helped the man, and in a way I did, but I also internalized the very shame my help had elicited.

One of the solutions to be inferred is that any assistance to the material poor needs to help address their relational/societal brokenness as well as their economic woes. To use the old adage, by teaching the poor how to fish instead of fishing for them, you will effectively have given them both a new identity (relational) and their own means of sustenance (material).  This concept is nothing new–organizations like Kiva have been doing this for awhile now with their own microfinancing strategy.

The key difference–however, and what I didn’t understand before–lies in the person who lends help. It begins with our understanding of our own spiritual poverty. We have our own issues, our own brokenness that connects us to the rest of humanity–no better, no worse. Our only hope comes from a proper relational restoration with God and others. Until then, we will always be lacking in some sense.

When we acknowledge our own spiritual or emotional poverty–and how easily our own material fortunes can change–we can identify with our communities much better. Thus, when we give money (which is still important, by the way) or help first-hand in another country, we are no longer serving with a god-complex. We are not coming with an attitude of subtle condescension to the poor. We are giving, but as we do we are also proclaiming that we are beggars in desperate need of grace.

*****

OCCUPY WALL STREET has done much to popularize the slogan “We are the 99 percent”. Men and women, young and old, people from all spheres of life are posting stories about their situations. Certainly, there are some serious issues that have been brought to light. Some of it is due to political corruption, some also because of our own financial negligence. This is a problem that is quite entangled with various others (e.g., outsourcing, overpopulation and lack of political structures to keep and expand domestic work opportunities, for starters) and I’m not sure where to start.

But my mind is fixed mainly on the other 3 billion or so people on this planet who are are living on less than $2 a day. People who are worried about things like clean running water and how to provide for their next meal. By God’s grace I have never had to worry about sanitary conditions and where to get my next meal. I’m looking at my room right now and it’s filled with more hats, shoes, and button-up shirts than are necessary. I am the one percent, and if you are reading this in the United States of America, then most likely you are too.

The idea isn’t to make any of us feel guilty or ashamed to be materially rich. Rather, it’s to open our eyes to our own condition–both the many blessings as well as areas of want–and to the condition of those around us in our neighborhoods, cities and beyond. Frankly, I’m not sure the problem of poverty will ever end. After all, Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. But that never stopped him from feeding the hungry, healing the sick, defending the orphans and widows. And neither should it stop us.

Letter of Hope

From my friend:

So after having a talk with one of my friends, I wrote this. It was late at night and I couldn’t sleep. The conversation was intense and I just had to get it out. It was hard to hear about a person so close to me thinking something like that. It struck me hard. You can post it on your blog or whatever. I’m hoping it will help encourage people.

*****

Dear Best Friend,

I’m glad you’re still here. You told me about your childhood and all the crazy things that had happened. You told me how you had no hope. You told me how you tried to take your own life. I have to say that this is the one time I’m happy to hear you failed.

Best Friend, you have been a huge part of my life. If you had succeeded, you would have killed a part of me back then, too. I thank God for you and all He is doing through you. I wish you could have seen yourself now, back then. Maybe you would have realized sooner just how meaningful you are. Best Friend, I’ve never been great with words, but I really want to say I’m glad you’re still here.

Sincerely,

Anonymous

Nick V: More Than A Conqueror

I complained I had no shoes until I met a man who had no limbs.

– – – – –

Nick Vujicic was born into a loving and pious Serbian family in Australia. As with any newborn life, there was much fanfare surrounding his birth. But unlike other normal births, it was fanfare for the wrong reasons: he was born without arms and legs. Neither the doctors nor the parents saw it coming, and there was no explanation for it; he was in otherwise healthy shape.

That day would mark the beginning of a childhood full of struggle, of more questions than were answers, of despair and bitter strife. But it would also mark the beginning of a destiny, a day that would one day lead to redemption and promise.

Nick is "head n' shoulders" above the rest

Nick is "head n' shoulders" above the rest

This destined path led Nick to a pit stop in Anaheim, where he was invited to speak at a conference called Pure Passion ’09. A number of teens and youth leaders had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Nick in person. We were bubbling with excitement but we surely didn’t know what to expect.

When you first take a look at Nick, you are captivated for the obvious reasons. The man has no arms and legs! I’ve seen this man before on numerous video clips, and I had a hard time just getting over that very fact. But it is a different matter entirely when you actually witness him planted on a special platform on stage. It was surreal to see the man without arms and legs standing, walking—jumping!—right before your very eyes. But after you get over the initial shock, you realize there is something bigger, something more captivating about this man that extends well beyond his physical presence.

Nick has a way of seizing the audience with his presence and speech. He is very humorous, down-to-earth, and just plain likable. He has a BIG heart and HUGE soul. He is somehow able to make you feel so comfortable before him, as though his “disability” was merely an afterthought.

When Nick spoke, you were sure to hang on his every word. He was every bit the eloquent, engaging, and dynamic speaker that you would see on TV. He began with several jokes and little personal facts to warm us up. After he broke us in, Nick began to open up about his personal journey.

At the tender age of eight, he was ready to take his own life. He recalls sitting there one day in his bathtub, contemplating turning over and drowning into the next life. But thoughts of his parents’ deep devotion and love—and intense sadness, if he were gone—kept him from suicide.

But what if he had gone through with it? He intimated what it would have been like to come before God the very second after he were to breathe his last:

I imagined myself before God, the moment right after I passed through this life, and I would have asked Him, ‘What, God, do you think was my biggest mistake?’ And I could have imagined God responding, ‘Nick, your mistake wasn’t wanting to have arms and legs, and the opportunity to be loved and live a normal life. Surely, I love you dearly, and I would have given you those things… But what if I had granted your wish, and you still didn’t care for me? Your biggest mistake, Nick, was that you wanted arms and legs more than you wanted Me.

My body shivered with goosebumps when I heard those lines. It was then that I thought to myself, I have never met another man in my entire life who was stronger or more courageous. As he neared the end of his message, the whole room was in tears. Perspectives were altered. Hearts were changed. Lives were surrendered.

(I still think back to this night—that, perhaps, might explain why I’m blogging about it almost a month later.)

It would almost cheapen his suffering and experience to say that I envy this man, for his emotional pains and physical struggles go beyond my deepest imagination, but may I declare that Nick is in many ways, shape, and form what I’ve always wanted to be and do with my life?

Nick has spoken to millions throughout the world, visited numerous schools, organizations, businesses, companies, churches, villages, and orphanages, as well as helping to found some of those on his own. Not to mention that he is highly successful in the business realm, dealing with funds and investments—“using money to make money.” And when he’s not out conquering the world, he tacks on hobbies that include swimming, surfing, AND golfing!

Whereas you and I and other “normals” would have termed his birth and life a tragedy, Nick has resoundingly turned his life into a megaphone of triumph. He has planted seeds of hope where there was once despair, and motivated people regardless of status or stature to raise themselves to a level where they would never have previously thought possible. His motto, after all, is: “No arms. No legs. No worries!”

If he can show such gratitude for his life, how much more so should we? We seem to focus so much on the little that we don’t have instead of being appreciative for the many things that we’ve been given. We spend our lives chasing after things that are supposed to cover up this hole when we can only be filled by emptying ourselves for a greater purpose. We were made to be dispensers of love; we were made to reach higher.

So this is it. I got one life to live—a gut shot 90 or 100, at best—and I don’t want to waste it. I want my life to be like his—I want to make my life count for something great! The biggest mistake of my life would be to chase after the things that will not last when there is only one thing that will remain after it’s all said and done.

Nick’s life is a miracle upon miracle. And he keeps a pair of shoes in his closet, just in case he is granted another one.

– – – – –

For more info on Nick Vujicic, please visit his personal website. Also, if you can spare a few minutes, check out one of his lectures here (part one of three).