May 08, 2016
For the past two summers I was fortunate to go on the vacation of a lifetime. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I plan to go back again this summer for a third visit. So, you’re wondering, where is this great vacation spot? Well, I will tell you – there are no white sandy beaches or fancy swimming pools with waterslides. In fact, sometimes there was not even running water at all. There are no luxurious hotel lobbies with shiny marble floors and fancy decor. Actually, some of the places I visited had only dirt floors. There were no extravagant musical productions with flashy Las Vegas-style costumes. But, there were precious young children who could entertain you for hours with their laughter and games. This fantastic vacation spot is what I like to call “my happy place….” otherwise known as the central American country of Guatemala. The scenery boasts breathtakingly beautiful mountain tops and volcanoes. The culture proudly holds on to centuries of Mayan traditions and vibrant markets filled with rainbow textiles and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. But, deep within these gorgeous mountains, poverty reigns in many of the small rural villages. Some of which is heart-breaking, largely due to over 30 years of civil war. More than 75% of the Mayan population lives below the poverty line. Children, as young as 7 years old, work on farms or in mining jobs rather than attending school or birthday parties as young children their age should. And sadly, the people of these small villages do not have access to any healthcare, which is how I became involved with this wonderful country.
It was through the encouragement and leadership of a Youth Minister at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, Reverend Jay Clark, that I signed up to go on my first Guatemala medical mission trip sponsored by Pulaski Heights United Methodist church in partnership with the non-profit group, Project Salud y paz: an international ministry of health services and education to the people of Guatemala. I had the privilege to meet amazing doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, interpreters and other volunteers, as I watched these selfless people, who were taking time out of their busy lives, offer their talents to change the lives of others.
Each day during the mission trip, my group traveled several miles outside of our base, city, Chichicastenango, to different rural villages to set up a clinic which offered
free medical services from vaccinations to cataract surgery to heartburn. I don’t really remember an “ah-ha” moment where I realized this place and what I was doing would become something very special to me, because it seems that every moment from my Guatemala trips will be cherished forever. When I first arrived, I felt so insignificant…I knew I couldn’t operate on anyone to save their vision, extract infected teeth, vaccinate young children, prescribe medicine to cure their illnesses or inspire the group each evening in bible study and prayer. But, I quickly learned, you don’t have to necessarily be a brain surgeon to make an impact on another person’s life. The job given to my group of youth volunteers was to distribute donated shoes, toys, and dental kits to the patients after their clinic visits. I vividly remember the first woman I helped, as she was beaming with excitement to get her new pair of shoes. Since the people of Guatemala are relatively small as compared to our physique, this woman-who was probably in her late 60’s-selected a child’s size to fit her small foot. It was a pair of brilliant light-up, Disney Princess shoes. I offered her another pair, maybe more appropriate for her age, but nothing was going to stop her from walking out of that clinic with her sparkling Disney Princess shoes. Together, we picked out a toy for her granddaughter, and a big blue hat to match her ____, the traditional blouse for a Guatemalan woman. I’ve never been much of a “hugging person,” but she grabbed me so tight, touched my face, and starred into my eyes-her way of thanking me because we didn’t speak the same language. And, just like the woman with the Princess shoes, everyone we helped with either new shoes, a toy they never had or learning how to brush your teeth- revealed that same gratefulness that touched my heart. Even towards the end of the day as we ran out of shoes and toys and all we could give was a pair of socks, their smiles and hugs still prevailed.
Where I found the most joy was with the Guatemalan children. Families would line up at our clinics and wait for hours to receive the medical care. The youth volunteers were armed with soccer balls, bubbles, and arts and crafts to entertain the children while the families waited. I learned a lot while playing with those children. I definitely learned to never challenge a Guatemalan when it comes to soccer, because there is probably nothing they take more seriously. The toddlers, teenagers, and grandparents all got a kick out of watching this “tall gringa” poorly attempt to keep up with the speedy Guatemalans. I had no clue what they were saying, but through the snickers and giggles, I knew I was putting on a show for them. I couldn’t have felt happier to be completely embarrassed.
I also learned ways to communicate without spoken language. My limited high school Spanish didn’t help me much on these trips, as most of the rural villagers had different Mayan dialects rather than Spanish. Coming from two very different worlds with different languages, culture, and privileges, I quickly forgot about all of those differences when playing with the kids. I forgot I was in another country far from home and all I could feel was the happiness radiating from the kids through their laughter and smiles. They exploded with joy with the simple gift of a soccer ball, like nothing I had ever seen before, and it was contagious. You couldn’t help but feel what they were feeling. Our group talked about this and we agreed, it was one of God’s mysterious way of showing himself to us. My takeaway from all of this was a totally new meaning for true happiness: one not judged by materials and possessions, but just a strong feeling of gratitude for being alive.
Our team would gather each evening to share our unique connections with God through the work we were doing. That’s when our Guatemalan team coordinator with Salud Y Paz, Jose, shared his story. His words will stick with me forever. He thanked us over and over again for the team’s hard work and then asked us to pray with him. We prayed for his family, especially his two young daughters: one who had been diagnosed with eye cancer and the other recovering from another surgery, both younger than I. He held back tears as he explained the financial obstacles in moving his family to the capitol city where they would receive better medical care. He told us and truly believed that God would be with him and he kept repeating he had faith, faith that God would get his little girls through it all.
I had a difficult time leaving that evening behind. I could see Jose’s faith was so much stronger than mine. For me, it was a wake-up call to see this person, who experienced so much hardship in his life, still maintain such a strong faith in God – a faith, that someone like me who grew up so privileged, takes for granite all too often. I had an even harder time leaving the country. Through the mission trip, I discovered how I could make a difference in a person’s
life and suddenly my small teenage life back home seemed so insignificant. It was a challenge to accept the horrible circumstances and living conditions many of the Guatemalan people endured. How could I have so much and they so little? How can we share the same God but not share the same blessings?
In our Gospel reading today from the Book of JOHN, Jesus prays for all believers that they be united:“Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father are in me and I am in you…”
Despite the hardships and the vast differences between my life and the people of Guatemala, we share the unity of Christianity: that we are all one. In my very small way of making a difference, my joy was found in showing love for these people and the desire to help them towards better lives. And, all this was made possible through our mutual unity with God.
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.