Through a wall of windows in our son’s living room, I gaze at a Michigan woods in its bleak early-spring season. Last year’s leaves coat the ground, wet and brown. The trees reach bare limbs toward a blue March sky.
We arrived a week ago to help with our grandchildren while their mother recovers from her fourth chemotherapy treatment. Chemo has had its inevitable side effects, but her doctor tells her that her body is responding well.
Elise, 5, and Kai, 3, have suddenly been thrust into a world with new routines. This weekend Grandpa and Grandma have provided for them, while their mother slept and rested and recovered.
Kai did not like the change. He wanted his pre-treatment Mommy back. “NO! Mommy do it,” was his standard response to us the first few days. Then, after some multiple sessions fixing puzzles and listening to bedtime stories with Marlo, he decided that Grandpa was OK.
Yesterday, Kai entered the living room, book in hand. He looked around, saw only me, and asked, “Where’s Gwampa?”
I asked, “Do you want someone to read the book for you? I can do that, Kai.”
“No! Gwampa do it!”
Hearing him from the basement, Marlo mounted the steps and obliged. For the rest of the day, Kai consistently asked for Marlo.
Today, Kai enters the living room, with his blue I-pad dangling from one hand, clad only in pull-up pampers. All morning, he has steadfastly refused all suggestions of a shirt or pants. He asks, “Where’s Gwampa?”
This morning Marlo is running errands. “Grandpa went away in the car to get some things for Mommy,” I say. I hold my breath. Today, Kai is sick—last night’s stomach pain has become intestinal flu.
He glowers at me, turns his back, trudges to the nearby half-bathroom, and firmly shuts the door. I hear the tablet clunk to the wooden floor, some body sounds, a flush, and then tap water running and stopping. The door opens.
He trudges to the cupboards, takes out a sealed bag of candy-coated nuts, and hands it to me without a word. I know he wants it opened.
I take a deep breath. “Kai,” I say gently, “These nuts are super-good, I know. But they might make your tummy hurt again.”
I pause and look into his eyes, “It would be good to try crackers first, I think”
He turns his back on me, and I follow him to the cupboard. We view four kinds of crackers.
“Not dose. Dey have seeds,” he says, pointing to the multi-grain box. I am surprised. Does he knows about the fiber content of seeds? No, he probably just doesn’t like them.
“These?” I ask, pointing to the soup crackers.
“No, dese,” he says, pointing to the Ritz box. I am grateful he did not point to the high-fiber graham cracker box.
I carry a bag of Ritz crackers to the table. He opens another cupboard door and pulls out two green, plastic bowls.
He puts one on the table in front of each of us. He points to the crackers. “Twee,” he says. “Twee for you and twee for me. In duh bowls.”
I put three Ritz crackers in each bowl.
I look at his bare torso. “Are you cold, Kai?” I ask. “Would you like to have a blanket around you?”
He nods. I get a fuzzy brown blanket from the nearby couch and wrap it around him.
“I can’t get my ahm to duh cwackuhs,” he says. I drape the blanket to expose one tiny arm.
He reaches for his cracker. I reach for mine.
With his first crunch, he looks into my eyes—the first time of the morning—and treats me to a smile. As I take my first cracker bite, I know, across the centuries, the taste of manna.
Against my tongue, it crumbles into a thousand tiny bits from heaven.
Just beyond my magenta toenails, the pool ripples clear and pure under the Arizona sun. Near the fence a bougainvillea blooms beneath a palm tree. I massage my legs with lotion, pick up my Paper-White Kindle from the table, and return to reading Loung Ung’s book First They Killed My Father, recommended to me by World Renew staff members in Cambodia.
Ung’s memoir transports me to Cambodia in the 1970s. She has been conscripted as a child-soldier by the Khmer Rouge regime, and her camp is under attack:
Then without warning, a mortar explodes near our base, blazing the sky white like lightning. . . . The straw walls and roof burst into flame. Screaming and wailing, the girls try to escape before fire consumes the hut.
Two burly retirees step into the pool, and chest-deep in the water, compare the merits of two Phoenix golf courses, and how to obtain discount green fees. Traffic from Highway 60 buzzes in the distance behind me.
Fire spreads everywhere. “Don’t leave me! I’m hit! Help me!” a voice screams out shrilly. . . I wish to help her, but I am much smaller than she. . . Panicked I turn my back on her and jump out of the hut. When the roof collapses, the girl continues to scream long anguished cries as the flames engulf the hut.”
A carefully coiffed blonde enters, seats herself on a lounge chair to my left, removes the straps of her black suit gently from her shoulders, reclines, and closes her eyes.
Though my feet and body crave to rest, through half-open eyes, I lean on Kim and totter on. . . The small red gravel roads are swarmed body to body with people in their black shirts and pants. . . . Those who cannot move any farther sit at the side of the road, some curl up in a fetal position and sleep. Others leave the traffic to scavenge for fruits and berries. . . . My stomach begins to growl.
My husband calls from beyond the fence, his golf game done. I unlock the gate for him. We cool our feet in the water and discuss joining tonight’s potluck dinner for residents in the condominium association. I vote against it: We are renting a space here for a week from condo owners. The entire crowd will be strangers.
As we return to our condo, I don’t return to my reading. But, Ung’s memories have triggered mine—of last October’s visit to Cambodia, a visit four decades after the Khmer Rouge genocide in which more than one-fourth of the country’s population perished.
Cambodian people still feel the aftershocks of that regime: Because of landmines left from the 1970s, Cambodia has 40,000 amputees—one of the highest amputee rates on the globe. And among its people, trust in others and in institutions remains a scarce commodity. Even Cambodians like Sovann Neth, born after the Khmer Rouge, have nightmares about its horrors.
With courage and assistance from NGOs such as World Renew, Sovann and other Cambodians are mending both their countryside and their culture. My small part in that mending is helping Sovann improve his English skills—crucial for his communication in NGO circles. Tomorrow morning, from opposite sides of the globe we will have another weekly session via Skype.
I am peering into the refrigerator, debating about snacking on the take-home box of fajitas left from last night’s feast at Valle Luna Restaurant, when my cell phone rings. It is Tom Post, supervisor of World Renew’s work in Southeast Asia.
I close the refrigerator and carry my Smartphone out to the balcony. Yes, I remember speaking with Tom a year ago. Yes, I recently visited Cambodia. Yes, Sovann is a superb student of English.
Then Tom asks me to expand my ESL teaching to include Marrion, who speaks five languages, and, like Sovann, could use a little help with English for her communication donors and supervisors. A native of Kenya, Marrion has been working in Laos for a year, and is also learning its language.
Neighbor to Cambodia.
Recovering from similar wounds, some of them caused—or at least exacerbated—by the US.
From the condo balcony, I survey the pool and the palms. I glance at my damp sandals and gleaming toenails.
(Audio Version of “Yin-Yang at the Movies” is above.)
In my childhood, movies were forbidden. My parents, especially my mother, told me they were tools of Satan. She believed, along with some of her fellow Dutch Calvinists, that movies were “worldly amusements” from which we should refrain. I was a dutiful eldest child, adopting her assessment as my own.
When I was twelve, Mother got pregnant with my brother, my sixth sibling. She had told me she was “expecting” just a month before his birth. “We are having another baby,” she said. “Maybe you already suspected.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised.
“I thought maybe you had seen me. . .uh. . . changing shape,” she said, glancing down at her protruding midsection, modestly hidden under voluminous blue cotton.
“No,” I said, my voice trailing off. I was embarrassed by what my glance at her belly had revealed.
“The baby will be here in about four weeks,” she said. She told me that she and Dad had decided I was old enough to stay at home, along with my oldest brother, when she went to the hospital. The youngest four would stay with relatives.
I rejoiced. With the last baby, five years before, I had to stay with an aunt and uncle—a childless couple who had married in their forties. My enormous aunt had huge upper arms, and I had watched, in horror, as the flabs of her upper arms drooped and wobbled when she poured milk for me. My skinny uncle with a huge chin and no lips had loudly slurped from his cereal bowl and then belched at every breakfast. Returning home after that birth, I had pronounced judgment on these defects and more.
Mother gave birth on schedule, and when Dad returned from the hospital, he announced, smiling broadly, “You have a new baby brother! His name is Dale Evan.”
I don’t think I smiled back. And, if Dad said anything about Dale’s weight, length, or hair color, I don’t think I heard him. My brain stalled at my new brother’s name. Dale Evan–how could they? In May, Gene’s parents had used the identical name. Gene—my classmate with a giant mono-brow and a forehead that sloped backwards bottom-to-top like an ape-man’s. Gene—whose grades were consistently Ds and Fs. Gene—one of the few classmates I saw as below me in the class pecking order. Sharing baby brothers’ names with Gene was intolerable, unthinkable, horrible. . .
I ran outside and clambered one of the silver birch trees that lined our gravel driveway. Usually it was my tree of peace; today it was a tree of pain. I sat, I mourned, I raged—and then I plotted. How can I change my brother’s name? If I explain about Gene’s brother, Mother will scold me for my unchristian attitude. Dale Evan, Dale Evan. . . Why does that name sound so familiar?
From the mists of memory came the name “Dale Evans.” I had never watched the Roy Rogers Show—we had no television—but I had heard his wife’s name somewhere, and I realized Dale Evans was exactly the lever I needed.
When Dad took me to the hospital room the next day, I was primed. As we waited for the nurse to enter with my new brother, the right moment opened, and I poured forth the words in a glib stream.
“Mom,” I asked, in a very concerned tone, “Do you know that Dale Evan is the name of a MOVIE STAR?” I omitted the “s” to make the names identical.
As I had hoped, Mother’s eyes widened. She gulped, and was about to respond when the nurse entered. She turned the nurse, “Is Dale Evan the name of a movie star?”
The nurse nodded.
“Oh, no! We have already signed the birth certificate.” Mother said. “Can we still change it?”
“I think so,” the nurse said, her white cap bobbing with her puzzled affirmation.
She handed my bundled brother to my mother and said gently, “But, Mary, Dale Evans is a good Christian woman.”
I stopped breathing, but the nurse’s words had fallen deaf ears. Mother wanted that birth certificate back ASAP. No son of hers would share names with a movie star. By the next morning, the birth certificate had been rewritten with a new middle name in honor of our father—Dale Henry.
But in the nurses’ words, I had glimpsed another viewpoint. She had used the words “good Christian woman” to describe a movie star.
Over the next four years, I developed a different brand of Calvinism from the one I’d learned, and concluded that art, including movies, was part of God’s good creation.
When I was sixteen, a high school friend invited me to see The Sound of Music when visiting her house overnight. Certain that my parents were dead wrong in their disapproval, I said yes. My hometown had no theater, so we rode 20 miles to a theater in LeMars, which had no Dutch Calvinists.
As I stepped gingerly onto garish, geometric carpeting of the theater lobby, I felt an urge to run back to the car. Then the luscious smell of buttered popcorn calmed me. I inhaled the scent slowly and walked through the lobby into the eerie darkness of sloped theater. Instead of wooden benches, it had padded, velveteen seats. I flipped down a seat and sat down, spine-straight.
The urge to bolt returned, stronger. What if Jesus chooses to return on the clouds this very instant? What would he say? Would he approve?And worse still—what would my parents say? After all, His judgment will be for the whole world to see.
The curtain opened, I was transported to a meadow in the Swiss Alps. After a few majestic orchestra chords, Julie Andrews soaring soprano began, “The hills are alive. . .”
I sat, transfixed, for the next two hours.
I was entranced.
And I was terrified.
To see more of my light-hearted posts, click “On the Lighter Side” below:
I am checking out at Walmart with my newish charge card—the one that’s supposed to be more secure. I need to insert it into the bottom slot instead of swiping along the side of the credit card reader. So far, I have been embarrassed every time I use it.
The first time I had to ask how to insert it.
The second time I didn’t insert it far enough and had to try again.
The third time I forgot to take it out. I was pushing my cart away when it beeped at me with a nasal foghorn “blaat, blaat, blaat” before I could get back to the pad to extract it.
The fourth time, with my back to it, I was loading groceries in my cart and it triple-blaated at me twice.
Today, I was ready to do it perfectly—before it blaated. As the clerk totaled my order, I stood, hand poised two inches from my card. The instant the screen said “REMOVE CARD,” I pounced and pulled. But the dratted machine sneered, “Blaat, blaat, blaat.” I wilted, defeated by a three-blaat scolding.
Just once, I want to be more perfect than the technology I confront. I want to add a column of numbers on my computer calculator, without having to enter the column a second time to ensure an accurate total and then learn I’ll have to do it a third time because the totals disagree. I want to keystroke a complete blog or even a short Facebook post—without a single typo.
It’s not just technology that defeats me. Just once I would like to vacuum the carpet without leaving irregular patterns in the carpet nap and to then walk on it without leaving those ugly footprints. Just once, I would like to wash my sun porch windows and not see a single streak when the sun comes up the next morning.
Just once, I would like to cook a perfect meal for guests without a single food being too hot or too cold, too sweet or too sour, too spicy or too bland, overcooked or undercooked. I would like to find a menu that would thrill each of my guests—the vegetarian, the carnivore, the low-carb eater, and the gluten-free advocate.
Just once, I would like to be an ideal member of a Bible study group—able to quote a multitude of appropriate verses, including chapter and verse, and yet maintain a humble servant attitude. I would like to know just the right question to ask when meeting strangers—the topic that instantly brings a light to their faces and sparks animated conversation.
I do remember achieving such a goal—just once. It was my first year at Western Christian High School and for the first nine weeks I achieved a perfect report card.
Inflated with success, I instantly set a new goal: Straight As for the entire first semester. That second nine weeks, I responded to every “A” with an even wider smile and a more powerful adrenaline rush. Then, as we neared the end of the second term, an important test hit my desk, face down. I turned it over and gasped. It was a B+. I scrunched my lids shut to moisten my eyes a little and clear my vision. I reopened them. It was still a B+.
I did the mental math and my chin drooped toward my chest. I was facing a report card with an A-. And worse still, it was in Bible class.
As test papers rustled onto neighboring desks, I recalculated on paper, using the back of test. The result held steady.
I could think of only one option: extra credit. I had seen Mr. Vander Ark, a kind-hearted soul nearing retirement, offer that to students with failing grades.
When the bell rang, I approached his metal desk. “Is there something I can do for extra credit?”
He peered at his grade book, and he asked, puzzled, “Why?”
“I REALLY don’t want an A-,“ I said, my voice cracking.
“You don’t?” His eyes widened. He glanced at the test in my quivering fingers.
“It’s really important to you, isn’t it?”
He thought a moment and said slowly, “Well, I guess you could memorize Acts 7. . .”
I resisted the urge to hug him. Then he chuckled and cautioned—as if he had required me walk upside down on the classroom ceiling: “Carol . . . it is the very longest chapter in the Bible, and the semester ends in three days.”
During my next study hall, I opened my Bible to Acts 7. Yup! It was long—60 verses, 1,489 words. It was Stephen’s speech to the Jewish court before he was stoned. I wondered as I skimmed it if perhaps he was so long-winded in order to delay his execution.
Nevertheless, there was a light, however dim, at the end of my dark tunnel. I started right in. I memorized during study hall. I memorized on the bus ride home. I memorized while drying dishes, with the Bible on the kitchen counter in front of me. I memorized the next morning with the Bible next to my bowl of cornflakes, careful not to splash on its pages. When I couldn’t study an open Bible, I recited to myself. I recited silently walking from class to class and during family meals, where the presence of books had been forbidden. I recited while brushing my teeth and combing my hair. When I got stuck, I stopped brushing or combing and looked up the exact wording of the next verse.
I wanted to scold Stephen across the centuries for covering the entire history of Israel’s patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and then going on to King David. Mercifully, Stephen stopped his speech at David’s son Solomon.
I soldiered on beyond Solomon into the subsequent narrative: Stephen’s accusations of his judges, his stoning, and his vision of heaven opening. I mastered all 60 verses so that I could rattle them off reliably—the first half more speedily than the second.
On the third day, I stopped at Mr. Vander Ark’s desk, grinned, and said, “I have it memorized! When would you like me to recite it for you?”
His pause today was much longer than the one three days before. He swallowed, looked me in the eye, and said, “Carol, you don’t have to recite it for me. If you say you memorized it, I believe you.”
For three days I had slaved away like the Moses and the Israelites with those Egyptian bricks. While I slaved I pictured of the glory of amazing Mr. Vander Ark. When I concluded with the final verse, it would be like the heavens opening to Stephen.
Disappointed, I thought: Aw, Mr. Vander Ark, please—I really want to recite it for you after all that hard work.
But doubt argued: What if I blank out and forget a transition? I might lose the A!
I didn’t beg. I chose to sacrifice the glory for an A. And when I opened my report card a week later, it was perfect.
There had been no glorious recitation, and its absence deflated me. The next semester, I allowed an A- into my standards for an acceptable grade.
I didn’t learn until years later that at parent-teacher conferences Mr. Vander Ark shared a concern about my perfectionism.
I can no longer recite the 1489 words of Acts 7. Even if I could, there would be no occasion to recite them—not even at Bible study.
Over the decades, I have conquered some other perfectionist monsters.
Sometimes, when the sun comes out after I have washed windows, I either leave the room or close my eyes. After a few days, the new dust and flyspecks empower me to ignore the streak.
Sometimes I succeed in seeing the carpet footprints and vacuum patterns as creative designs.
Sometimes I enter each number into my calculator slowly, watching the screen and saying the number aloud—and then I choose not to double check it.
Now if I could just keep that Acts 7 episode in mind and make friends with the Walmart blaat, blaat, blaat . . .
Below is a painting by Fra Angelico of Mary and Martha praying while the disciples sleep. It was featured in a blog by Jennifer Holberg. I liked the painting so much, I am using it as my computer wallpaper. You are welcome to use it too.
Browsing the Internet after Carrie Fischer’s death, I read that when Star Wars creator George Lucas first saw Carrie in her Princess Leia costume, he told to ditch her bra.
When she asked why, he immediately answered, “Because there is no underwear in space.”
I stop reading and the computer screen disappears. I am transported to two underwear episodes from my childhood.
I see myself at twelve, making an after-school snack on our kitchen table. Mother comes in from hanging laundry outdoors—probably underwear. She puts down her plastic basket and sits on a chrome-and-vinyl chair directly across from me. Elbows on the table, she looks me in the eye, and says, “I really need to talk to you about something.”
I stop spreading my graham cracker with peanut butter and drop my gaze to the grey Formica expanse between us.
Mother starts with a story about her first year of high school. She says. “High school in town was too far away to walk, like I did to country school. So I boarded in town at my friend Wilma’s house. As a farm kid plopped middle of all those town kids, I was scared stiff.
“After a few weeks, I was dressing for school one morning when Wilma came over to my bed. She sat down and said,(here Mother’s face fills with horror) “I hate to do this, but I really need to talk with you about something.’”
Mother leans forward, lowers her volume, and says in a hushed voice, “Wilma told me that I needed to change my underwear more often. I had an odor. . .”
She pauses, chokes up for a moment, and then is able to explain, “On the farm, there were eleven kids. We changed our underwear only once a week—when we took a bath. On the farm it was normal.”
The knife clatters from my hand onto the Formica table, then sticks to a smear of peanut butter. I picture that line of laundry outside, blowing fresh and clean in the Monday breeze. Dangling from the wooden clothespins (gasp) is only one set OF MY UNDERWEAR.
I have enough sets to change each day from one Monday to the next, but—with our family of nine and our limited income—much of it is tattered. I sometimes wear the same best pair over and over.
An odor? I STINK?
Suddenly, the smeared peanut butter on the table looks like poop.
I already know that I am Charlie Brown—the class loser, the last one chosen for the recess softball team. But I have never suspected I am also Linus—clumping between the rows of desks, surrounded by a stinking cloud. I never suspected.I NEVER KNEW!
After Mother heads to the basement with her basket, a tsunami of nausea attacks my innards. I know that Mother must be right. I toss my graham cracker in the wastebasket, and run upstairs to change out of my school dress—and my underwear.
The next morning before school, I change again. I consider sneaking some of Dad’s aftershave from the medicine cabinet and patting it on my thighs, but I hear the bus tooting at the end of the driveway, and run to catch it. The screen door slams behind me as I run, without cologne, but at least with stink-free underwear.
It’s the morning of the eighth grade class trip to Des Moines. I hear my mother as I climb toward my bedroom after finishing a bowl of cornflakes. “Carol!”
I turn and see her at the bottom of the worn, wood stairs, hands on her hips. ““Be sure to put on good underwear!”
Surprised, I turn to look at her. I think: Why? It’s not an overnight trip. Nobody will see my underwear! I choose silence, put on a puzzled face, and wait.
Mother explains in her urgent-topics voice, “The bus might have an accident, and you could end up in theEMERGENCY ROOM!”
As I climb the remaining steps, the coming bus crash unfolds before me: the emergency room, the blood, the stripping of my clothes, and then the gasp of horror from the nurses and the gales of laughter from the doctor, as my ancient undergarment is exposed to all.
In my bedroom, I slip off my dingy cotton brief with thin fabric on its backside and elastic torn loose from its waistband and right leg. I flip through my stack for the best and brightest.
I exit my room, head high. I may lose a leg or die on this trip, but there will be no emergency room staff gasping or laughing about the state of my undies. They will be able to focus on saving my life. And when—or if—I regain consciousness, unashamed I will be able to look them straight in the eye.
In adulthood I can afford good underwear. Even so, a half century removed from childhood, whenever I step into pristine undies after a morning shower, I can feel my horror across that Formica table. And when I toss out a tattered undergarment instead of wearing it, I feel an urge to slap aftershave on my thighs.
Returning from childhood to my computer screen, I read more of the article about Carrie Fischer. After Star Wars, she became a stand-up comedian. She quoted the George Lucas line about no underwear in space for laughs from audiences. Reading on, I see that Carrie also used painful moments from her life as material for her comedy: her addiction, her mental illness.
Asked about using these personal demons for comedy material, she answered, “What else is there to do? Give them a room in my house? Make peace with them?
“I make fun of them.
“That’s different. And in that way, I get power over them.”
As I read, I muse: I like that idea, Carrie.I want to do the same.
To see more of my light-hearted posts, click “On the Lighter Side” below:
“‘Inch-by-inch’—I don’t understand those words,” says Sovann Neth. In the previous week, he has visited my blog He is asking about its title as we begin his weekly English lesson with me via Skype. He is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and I am in Pella, Iowa. We meet so that he can improve his written English, because much of his written communication in his work for World Renew is in English.
Sovann is an intelligent and educated Cambodian. He is fluent in Khmer (the language of Cambodia), Russian, and English. His Canadian-born supervisor has told me that he and his fellow Cambodian staff members are “the best of the best” among Cambodian people.
I decide that spending a few minutes looking at my blog may be useful for his written English skills. Besides, I want to help him understand what I wrote. Together we go to the blog URL. We look at the header with its inch-worm clip art and its “Inch-by-Inch” title. I explain the title. “It means moving slowly, one inch at a time, like the worm. I think of that clipart worm as an inch-worm.”
Then I remember that six years ago, my first-ever blog post explained the title, and I direct him there. Reading aloud through that blog post may be helpful for both his written English and his pronunciation. It may also offer a small lesson in theology.
I ask Sovann to read the post aloud and to stop whenever he has a question. He reads only its title “A Calvinist Meets Contemplation” before he stops.
Working for World Renew, he has heard of Calvin College, he says, but what is Calvinism?
I tell him about Protestant theologian John Calvin, and a crucial Calvinist belief in the “sovereignty of God”—that he rules everything he created. Calvinists are followers of Calvin’s theology.
“And Contemplation?” he asks.
I tell him, it is a form of private devotion that includes—among other practices—silence, listening, and awareness of the presence of God. He asks a follow-up question. I answer, and he begins to read the blog:
In the late the 1960s, I resonated with Abraham Kuyper’s famous line: There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!”
He stops. He understands “This is mine. . .” as similar to Calvin’s theology. But who is Abraham Kuyper? I explain that he is a later Calvinist theologian from the Netherlands, and that the sentences I quoted are his most famous. Sovann reads just one more sentence before stopping again:
It was the age of activism, and the words rang so triumphantly.
He asks about “age of activism.” I explain the atmosphere of the late sixties when I attended college: the student demonstrations, the Kent State shootings, and my conviction that my fellow Dordt College students and I would change the country in a decade or less. He reads more:
But over the next four decades, I experienced so few grand triumphs.
Late in 2010, I find myself a Kuyperian Calvinist being born again as a Catholic mystic.
He asks me to explain “Kuyperian,” “Catholic mystics,” and “being born again”—and I do. He then continues to read:
Late in 2010, I resonate with the Oscar Romero’s statement.
He asks about “resonate” and “Oscar Romero.” I explain that I am in harmony with, I agree with, Oscar Romero—a Catholic priest who was killed during mass in 1980 because of his work on behalf of the poor people around him in El Salvador, Central America.
He then reads Romero’s entire statement aloud without asking a single question:
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.1
He then continues with my words, which follow Romero’s:
Late in 2010, life feels more like what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.”
He pauses after just a single sentence. I tell him that Eugene Peterson is one of my favorite pastor-writers and that the quotation is the title of one of his books. I explain that Peterson’s sentence describes my life—moving inch-by-inch in the direction in which I hear God call.
Sovann finishes reading aloud:
Late in 2010, I launch a blog, and name it “Inch-by-Inch.
I no longer feel triumphant.
But. . .
if I stop,
maybe, just maybe,
I can glimpse a little glory as I inch along.
He doesn’t understand the ending: “glimpse a little glory as I inch along.” I explain that it means seeing, for just a few moments at a time, the ruling and sovereignty of God in the world surrounding me.
As we finish reading together, I suspect Sovann has indeed learned a little theology, met a few Western theologians and writers, and mastered some new vocabulary. We have also worked on his pronunciation of a few words. We decide to postpone our work on his writing skills until next session.
As I close Skype, I muse that it has taken an hour for a bright Cambodian who is fluent in English to understand what I thought was a simple blog post.
Granted, he was not the audience I had in mind when I wrote, but I would like reach a broader audience than just people whose background is identical to mine. I resolve to write more simply—like Oscar Romero.
This hour has not been writing training for Sovann. But has been writing training for me.
PS: Before posting it, I read the above post to my writing group. One member suggests I research and footnote the long Oscar Romero quotation. When I do, I discover that, although these words are frequently attributed to him, they are not Romero’s. They were written by Bishop Ken Unener in November 1979 for a celebration of departed priests—five months before Romero’s assassination. Although the words reflect Bishop Romero’s beliefs, they were never written or spoken by him.
And so, my writing training goes on, and on, and . . . .
To see more of my cross-cultural writing, click “Around the Globe” below: