Monthly Archives: December 2011

Around the Table

“But I could never forget what Jesus did for me,” she said. As usual on Sunday afternoon, we were gathered around the table of a Roma family, talking about God over a carp stew. As I painstakingly fished the small bones out of my mouth with each bite, I reflected on the issue of spiritual growth among these Roma that we visit weekly.  E., healed by Jesus after four years of sickness, cannot read, and her husband struggles with only a rudimentary reading level (Click Here to read that story).

“I read something and put the Bible down and forget it a few minutes later,” he says, trying to explain his dilemma.  This is a family whose lives have been changed by this miracle, and yet the lack of education makes the how of spiritual growth an interesting question.  How do you learn more about Jesus when you cannot read? I wondered about passing out the Bible on CD, but I was told by my friends  that this, also, has not been an effective tool without someone to help explain the Biblical stories.  Studying the Bible for myself, reading other books, and discussing my learning  with others  has been essential for my own spiritual formation—yet this means of spiritual formation cannot be duplicated in this context.  So what does it mean to be a growing disciple of Jesus in this Roma village?

My friend, Đ., an evangelist who is himself Roma, begins in Matthew with the story of Jesus’ birth, and every week, reads a few more verses, explaining the story over and over.  “It is so hard to understand, “ one man said as he described his attempts to read a few verses himself.

“This is not a book of philosophy,” Đ.says pointing at the Bible.  “God’s words are for everyone, the educated and the non-educated.”  Jesus himself told us that unless “you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”(Matthew 18:3,4, NRSV).

This is a sobering concept, and my time with these Roma families are reminding me how to approach God.  I have two masters degrees, and sometimes degrees can delude us into thinking that we are more important and have more to offer at God’s table.  However, since my communication skills are still at kindergarten level, I am freed from such misconceptions, forced to come to the table as a child. Oftentimes, I do not say anything at all in a given house, and other times, I feel compelled to say a simple sentence about the Bible story— a nerve-wracking, intimidating attempt to express spiritual concepts in my limited Croatian.  One thing is for sure, my forced simplicity does not permit any false pretensions. There is no allowance for a savior mentality,  for a sense of superiority because frankly, most of the time I am like a bump on a log.   “What am I actually doing here?” I think to myself.  I know I am trying to learn and understand the culture, but it is humbling to feel that you are not contributing much of perceived  significance.

Đ. encourages the families to pray together.  “You are just speaking to God honestly from your heart, “ he says.  “You don’t need to use big words or any formulas.”  Last night, I garnered enough courage to try my first prayer in Croatian.  We held hands, each person taking a turn to pray around the table.  I could feel my palms growing sweaty and  heart beating faster as my turn approached.  Did I myself believe what Đ  had said?  Or did I think I was better than this Roma family and my prayer had to be impressive?  “Thank you God,” I prayed, “for your love and joy. Amen.”

As the Roma struggle to learn what faith in Jesus means for their daily lives, I am sifting through what is really important to know and understand and what is not.   Entering into their world reminds me that it is not about me, that I must be authentic when I approach God and others.  Around the Lord’s table, there is no distinction of education or success, race or ethnicity, rich or poor; rather, Jesus has made us one.

The God who Sees

She cradled his small, crooked frame in her arms, an easy embrace suggesting that this was a familiar posture for the two of them.  Nine year old A. is severely physically and mentally handicapped,  unable to communicate except for  nondescript sounds.  “But he knows our touch and voices,” V. said, smiling.

“The doctors kept pressuring me to abort him, and but thankfully there was one doctor who supported my decision to have him—that made going to the hospital for check-ups a little easier.”  V. told her story with no trace of self-pity; indeed, there was the familiar hint of humor I have begun to recognize as part of a Bosnian’s cloak of resilience—a gritty toughness needed to persevere through  daily difficulties.

A.’s birth was a difficult one, born with part of his brain exposed, a cleft palate, and other physical deformities.  The doctors encouraged V. not to see A. for forty days because they were convinced he would shortly die and she was very weak from the birth.  M., her husband, phoned in daily updates of A.’s condition. “He’s still alive!” he would report to her.

After twenty days, V. had recovered sufficiently to demand to see her son, keeping vigil in a plastic chair beside his bed.  A. did not die, and M. and V. finally took him home. Admitting they had no idea how to care for a severely disabled child, they determined their best course of action was to rely on V.’s maternal instincts.

When A. was six months old, water began collecting in his brain, so the doctors put in a shunt. This resulted in continuous seizures—sometimes 50-100 a day.  Now, A. takes a medication that helps control his seizures, and as it is the last option available for his condition, they hope it will remain effective.  A. has difficulty sleeping; often, in order to help calm his anxiousness,  either V. or M.  will sit up with him during the night.  As soon as he is held, he grows peaceful.  “At first I felt angry with God because of how hard everything was, but now I feel His strength everyday, ” V. said.

I kept looking at A.’s shriveled body as I listened to their story—his pupils were in a constant state of motion, his eyes rolling up to the sky. There was no shortage of love in the room—I could see it in the way V. cradled her son, softly caressing his face, or the way his father came home and kissed the top of his head.  I felt an overpowering wave of sadness and compassion surge up in me, and a momentary desire to flee the room possessed me so that I  could privately vent my sudden grief over the state of this little boy.

Nine years after A.’s birth, the only easier thing about their situation is the familiarity with the hardness. There are few services or resources for the disabled in Bosnia, and therefore this family, like many other families, are pretty much on their own. Because of this, sometimes one or occasionally even both parents will abandon a disabled child.  M., who pastors a small church, is attempting to creatively combat the constant financial struggle Bosnian pastors face by opening up his own coffee shop.  In light of his never-ending workload—caring for his family, his church, and opening a new business—I find his irrepressible humor and graciousness toward me hard to comprehend.

Later, I was left by myself in the room with A.  He started to get restless, so I went over and sat next to him, and began rubbing his back, feeling his bent spine under my fingers.  His little broken body testifies that things are not as they should be.  But his parents’ loving care of him, despite their lack of resources, speaks of hope—a hope that demonstrates God’s tenacious mercy for this broken world.  This same tenacious mercy grabbed Lot and his dithering family by the hands and pulled them out of a doomed Sodom, and is now exhibited in these faithful Christians in Bosnia.  Despite what their eyes see, their lives point toward their lived belief that someday God’s realized kingdom will banish the grief and sickness of our present world.  As an outsider entering into these difficult stories, I believe that this tenacious mercy will continue to daily sustain them, that it will not abandon them to despair or hopelessness, because God is the God who sees.