Spiritual Wisdom from our Cuban Sisters and Brothers
The Wisdom of Sacrifice and Community
“Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else.” –Mitch Albom
Last year when our Cuban sisters and brothers visited with us, on the Sunday before they left to return to Cuba, they presented to us a gift. The gift, you will remember, was the cross that hung in their sanctuary. For those of you who have been to FBC Matanzas you know that there were two symbols of faith hanging in their modest worship space filled otherwise with a spirit of generosity, compassion, grace and sacredness. One of the symbols is a beautiful mural that hangs at the front of the sanctuary depicting the diversity of God’s commonwealth. The colorful mural was designed and painted by members of the congregation. The other symbol was a wooden cross, also handcrafted by a member of the church.
Orestes shared with me the story of the church’s decision to give us the cross as a gift. As they prepared for their trip, Orestes said, someone asked about bringing a gift to give to the Pullen in celebration of our 25 years of partnership. In the weeks leading up to their departure, Orestes shared that the congregation met several times to discuss what gift they might present to Pullen. At one of the meetings, which took place in their church sanctuary, someone asked the question: “What is something precious to us?” Another person looked up and pointed to the cross hanging on the wall. In that moment it was clear, Orestes said. The cross, one of their most precious symbols (and remember they only had two), would be their gift to us.
The gift of the cross is not the only example of how our Cuban sisters and brothers have taught us about what it means to practice sacrificial giving in our lives. Each time Pullen travelers to Cuba sit down at the table to eat a meal in Cuba we understand more fully sacrifice. It is easy to taste the love and generosity with which the sacrifice has been made.
“Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it.” Sacrifice is not a popular word in our American culture. And some would say it is even less popular in the thinking and practice of progressive theologies today. The word carries with it much baggage. It has been used in religious life in ways that have been harmful to already wounded people. I get why we use it sparingly in our religious language. And, I also get the importance of the idea of sacrifice when practiced with compassionate love and generosity. When we can re-imagine this word, as our Cuban friends have inspired us to do, we are a better people, a more whole community—and being community is something else our Cuban sisters and brothers have taught us much about. In sacrificial giving and in being community to one another we experience more fully the love and grace of God. The spiritual wisdom of our Cuban friends.
Spiritual Wisdom from our Zimbabwean Sisters and Brothers
The Gift of Friendship
“Between true friends even water drunk together is sweet enough.” Zimbabwean Proverb
When I think about our partnership in Zimbabwe, I think of our young adults who traveled there in 2006 to build a water cistern for the Baptist Conference Center and seminary that was designed to also benefit the surrounding community. As you know, easy access to clean water in countries like Zimbabwe and Nicaragua is a luxury. In such countries, people often labor for hours in a day to secure enough water just to keep their families alive. To have partners in securing access to clean water is a gift of enormous proportions.
While I have never been to Zimbabwe, I have experienced the sweet friendship that is built around something as simple as sharing a glass of water. On my visit to the Republic of Georgia I visited with a house church about six hours outside the city. The car trip there was long and difficult. As we arrived at the home of the house church some of the members were waiting for us in the front yard. The welcome was overwhelming—hugs, kisses and all kinds of gestures of generosity and kindness. Once things had settled down a bit, Malkhaz said the folks there would like to share a glass of water with us—he briefly explained it was a special kind of water. Two of the men went over to a well in the front yard and pulled up a bucket of water. As Malkhaz handed me a glass he said, “This is what we call sour water.” Not knowing what to expect I took a big gulp. Unable to conceal my displeasure with the taste, I made what I can only imagine was an awful-looking face. All the people sitting in the circle stared at me in one of the most awkward silences you can imagine. Then all at once, every one of them burst into laughter. In that moment, a friendship was born. Nothing else was needed.
As I listened to the stories our young people brought back from Zimbabwe I could sense the friendships made while building that water cistern. I was reminded then, that friendships that are born and grounded in the simple pleasures of time spent together. And that sharing goals of compassion and kindness is enough. It is the gift of such friendships that our Zimbabwean friends have taught us about again and again. Between true friends even water drunk together is sweet enough. This is the wisdom of the gift of friendship.
Spiritual Wisdom from our Georgian Sisters and Brothers
The Wisdom of Tradition
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. …it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” –Jaroslav Pelikan
“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” –W. Somerset Maugham
Tradition, like sacrifice, is another one of those words that we shy away from because of the baggage it carries. The quote I began with is from the writings of Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar of the history of Christianity, Christian theology and medieval intellectual history. When I read the distinction he made between tradition and traditionalism I had one of those ah-ha moments. I immediately thought of Malkhaz and the church of Tbilisi and all the rituals and traditions that they incorporate into their worship and lives of faith. I thought about the centuries old caves with painted walls depicting stories of faith, the ancient icons and other religious artifacts from antiquity that represent the identity and spiritual journey of the Georgian people. I remembered how being there gave me a feeling of connection to a place and a people that I didn’t know. It was the same feeling I got in the cathedrals in Oxford. That ah-ha moment was realizing that it is the tradition of our faith that I love and feel connected to—the tradition that guides me and us into the present and future.
When I thought of what Pelikan calls traditionalism, I thought of so many in this country who are clinging to the past. Traditionalism resists change in the belief that if we do exactly as we have done, (which is never actually possible because we are not who we have been,) then we can cheat time and the inevitability of change and be saved. Tradition is a dynamic and discerning process through which customs and beliefs are passed on from generation to generation. Traditionalism is a trap in which we parrot our past and deny our present.
Every time Malkhaz visits with us he gives us a glimpse of his rich Georgian tradition. In creative and meaningful ways, he draws us into present moment by re-imaging centuries old traditions of his faith through icons, incense, impressive costumes and elaborate communion liturgies. From his people, he passes on this gift of tradition to us. And so we remember, tradition is a guide and not a jailer.
Spiritual Wisdom from our Nicaraguan Sisters and Brothers
The Wisdom of Wholeness
What is the greatest commandment? “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (body) and your neighbor as yourself.”
AMOS, our Nicaraguan partner organization, works to educate and organize rural communities to provide basic health services, clean water, and emergency response. One story has stayed with me as a symbol of the Nicaraguan spirit. About 40% of Nicaragua’s total population live in the rural mountainous regions. I know we are used to hearing the word “rural” around here, and we have some mental images of what that means. That is not the kind of rural I am talking about. I am talking about driving three hours into the mountains over what can only loosely be called roads to get to the village, then walking another hour over hill and high water to get to a house. In these beautiful and awesome remote settings, preventable diseases, pregnancy complications and unsafe water are life threatening. Nicaraguans have historically cared for one another in these communities – it is a requirement of survival. But without access to doctors or hospitals, care has meant presence without much hope of treatment. AMOS has worked to change that by creating systems and leadership within the community to recognize treatable conditions and to mobilize the villagers to respond.
One AMOS story has stayed with me. Pregnancy and childbirth, which are taken for granted in this country, are very dangerous propositions in remote Nicaragua, for both mothers and infants. In one of the villages in which AMOS works, an expectant mother miscarried and hemorrhaged badly. The nearest government hospital was a 90-minute drive from the village, and the village does not own a vehicle. But the local health promoter knew what to do. He found a hill with a cell phone signal, notified the Ministry of Health, and set in motion an emergency plan. The village organized a team of 50 men and women who took turns carrying the woman from her house to the nearest road. They literally carried the woman through field and jungle, in the dark of night, to the road where the ambulance could meet them. When the doctor stepped out of the ambulance, he was met with the 50 men and women who had saved this woman’s life.
This is obviously an extreme story. But it speaks to a commitment and a communion that is not just about self, nor about that one neighbor that I happen to like, but about all our neighbors, about community. Our Nicaraguan brother and sisters have taught us that to be alive is to be in relationship, and to care for our neighbors is to care for ourselves.