Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mary's Boy Child

Christmas is a time for remembering. While driving to a family Christmas party today I heard one of my favorite Christmas songs on the radio - "Mary's Boy Child." Whenever I hear this song it brings me back to my childhood - I am 9 years old again, and at boarding school. As Methodist missionaries' kids in Liberia, West Africa, our best option for a good education was a Lutheran boarding school about an hour away from my home at the Ganta mission station, and my parents made the difficult decision to send my brother and me there at a young age. There were about 30 kids at the "hostel", as we called it, between the ages of 7 and 14, mostly missionaries' kids from around Liberia. We were cared for by our house parents, Uncle Ron and Aunt Elaine, and were bused to a school on a nearby college campus. Every night before bed we would all meet in the common area, a large living room between the girls hall and the boys hall, and have devotions. Sometimes a local teacher would come and tell us stories, and we would hang on her every word, eagerly waiting each night for the next installment of her story. Sometimes we would have music - I remember one night before Christmas vacation a young Peace Corps man came with his guitar and shared his music with us. "Long time ago in Bethlehem so the Holy Bible Say, Mary's boy child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas Day..." I had never heard this song before and I sat transfixed, soaking in the beautiful words and melody. "And man will live forevermore because of Christmas day." Such powerful words, and as young as I was I really felt the power of them that night. Thirty boys and girls, sitting in a circle in their pajamas on a warm African night, with the tropical sounds of frogs and fruit bats outside, quietly listening to a young man share the Christmas story. I will always remember the peace and purity of that moment and each Christmas when I hear "Mary's Boy Child" I am a little girl again, realizing for the first time the true meaning of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Promised Land

"I believe man was made for joy, Some men must find it in pain, some rivers flow in caves beneath the ground, sometimes there's sun in the rain." I recently rediscovered a favorite music group from my childhood - no, it's not a 70's heart throb group (the Partridge Family, anyone?) or a music icon like Michael Jackson or Bruce Springstein - my inspiration comes from a little known group called the Medical Mission Sisters. Yes, they are nuns, okay! Growing up on the mission field exposed me to many out of the ordinary experiences - I don't know what the typical American kid was listening to, but in my house the Medical Mission Sisters were often on the record player and I absorbed Bible stories and trust in God from their folksy, faith-filled music. Recent life changes have made stressful adjustments necessary, and when I needed something to lift my spirits their music came to mind. Listening to it again has been a joyful experience!

Joy is a hard concept for me to grasp. When everything in life is good it's easy to be joyful - it comes naturally - but when the hard times come (and they always do) joy can seem out of reach. It should be easier for me because I have had the best teachers on living a joyful life through serious adversity. Mom and Dad have struggled with the ravages of Dad's Parkinson's disease for over 20 years and they have often been frustrated and discouraged, if not despairing, but through all of their ups and downs (more downs than ups) they have never lost the joy that their faith in God has given them. Their friends and family feel terrible that Dad has been afflicted with this terrible disease, but I don't think anyone has lost sight of Mom in the background as wife, mother, caregiver, advocate, comforter, chauffeur, nurse, secretary, financial planner, personal shopper, family liaison, counselor, you name it, if Dad needs it she does it. What a toll it has taken on her! Her health, energy level, lifestyle, and moods have been drastically effected in spite of all of the positive steps she takes to care for herself. She begins each day with devotions, carefully plans nutritious meals, tries to exercise regularly, visits her doctors and counselor as needed, visits friends and family, participates in church activities, and keeps in touch with her support groups which include her Bible study group and her family. What more can anyone do?

A few weeks ago I reread the story in the Bible of when Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. The priests carried the Arc of the Covenant to the edge of the river and as they stepped in, the waters parted, leaving a huge wall of water on one side and a river flowing away on the other. The priests stood in the middle of the river while all of the Israelites (thousands? hundreds of thousands?) crossed safely to the other side. Of course the priests weren't holding the water back - God was doing that - but he used them to accomplish it and to give the Israelites the confidence to cross. This is a very compelling visual if you think about it, and when I think about it I see Mom. There she is, standing in the middle of the river of her and Dad's life while the waters of disease, stress, and fear pile up on one side of her and life flows away on the other. Meanwhile Dad slowly, laboriously crosses the river towards the promised land - and when he sees the overwhelmingly high wall of water he knows that Mom is there to stand between him and the fear and despair that threaten to engulf him. Mom is not holding the waters back, God is, but he chose her for the difficult job of helping Dad with his daily struggles. It's a life of sacrifice and anguish but she has also filled it with love and joy. People often say I look like my mother and that is a compliment, but it is more important to me to BE like her - to have her dedication and quiet, patient strength. And to somehow find the inner joy that shows through her life. Of course the answer is faith, and trust in God's ultimate plan for us.

To quote the Medical Mission Sisters: "Is there a song to ease our sorrow, to lead us along into tomorrow, to show us how to live in our now, Father thy will be done, Father thy will be done."