Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Who Am I and What Is My Mission?

We are so forgetful, aren't we? It's easy to forget who we are and what our mission is.

As other teachers know, there are days when students just get under your skin. I was having just such a day with my Form II students. The first class of the day had been rude, rowdy, rambunctious, any of a number of r-words. And they were the “good” class of the two! I walked into the next class with a grey cloud over my head. The first student who crosses me, I thought, is going to get it. It didn't take long, and I stormed over to his seat, and put him in my crosshairs. Nose to nose, I suddenly thought, what am I doing? I am a missionary! I am here in Cameroon ostensibly because of my love of Christ and my desire to spread the Gospel by word and witness! What a horrible witness to the Love of the Father I am now giving, flying off the handle with no patience at all. I am sure my students were surprised when the next words out of my mouth were not harsh, were not punishment, but were rather, “Jesus loves you.” I added a small note about the need to behave, blah blah blah, but the moment had passed, the situation defused, and I was back to remembering who I was and what my mission is.

As Christians, our mission is the same as the Church's, given by Christ at the end of the Gospel of Matthew:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

As individuals, our personal sins damage our ability to carry out our mission, and in turn cripple the mission of the Church. We take ourselves further and further out of the game with every lie and lust, and the evil one sits back and enjoys the show. We forget our baptism, and we succumb to temptation. It's amazing how a little temptation can, with our necessary assent, transform into a debilitating sin.

God, in his wisdom and providence, is able to use all of us clowns to bring about something good. All it takes is for us to remember just what it is we are through our baptism and the dignity that entails: Members of one body, whose head is Christ.

I've never really had much luck with shrugging off temptation. It is always there, always beckoning. I want it, I am attracted to its glamour. Even in the mission field, sin and temptation are present and promising. It looks like fun! And really, it IS kind of fun, at least in the moment. I see people sinning and I want to sin, too. I covet sin!

We can't just quit sinning, not without God's grace and not without some reason to convince our fallen intellect to override our appetite. We covet sin, and how do we covet? We begin by coveting what we see every day. The solution is not to try to quit sin cold turkey, to will ourselves to cease sinning and resist temptation. Rather, the solution is to begin to desire, or “covet,” so to speak, something else. When we see something else, something that is better than sin for both the person and society, we will begin to want that something else. When I read the lives of the saints, I am inspired to be like them. When I read Scripture, I am floored by the beauty and wisdom and truth within. When I am with holy and virtuous friends, I want to be holy and virtuous, too. When I see the innocent generosity of children, I want to be generous, too. There is an inner light, a joy that the living saints have, and I want it!

Obviously we can't retreat entirely from the world and all that is messed up inside of it. But we can add some peace to the chaos, some contemplative silence to the noise, and try to fill our lives with truth, beauty, and virtue.

We covet what we see. To fulfill our baptismal promises and turn away from sin, let's look to Christ and the saints, especially Mary, and “covet” their holy living!


Monday, May 18, 2015

The thing for which I am thankful #34,751: Reliable Refrigeration

It's a small thing, seemingly, but it really helps save time and money. We have what is basically a dorm fridge in our kitchen here, and it's nice to have a place to keep meat and leftovers and chill drinks. We make-do. It's not large enough for all of our produce, so we're left keeping a constant stream of fresh produce at room temperature. Besides it's a fritzy fridge, and will freeze everything without warning. If the power goes out for more than a day, we're left with a bunch of defrosted meat that needs to be cooked and eaten.

It's doable, but it requires more frequent trips to the market. And sometimes, a regretful trip to the woods to toss the rancid meat when the power goes out and we don't cook it.

Recently, our neighbor came to ask if she could keep some meat in our fridge, hers had stopped working properly. One whiff, and I knew the meat was bad. I almost vomited. I told her it had already turned and would make her sick. For her, she said, it wasn't a problem and wouldn't affect her health. I suggested, maybe you should cook it today? No, that wouldn't do because she had just cooked some meat; this meat she would cook and eat in two weeks’ time. She just needed the meat to get cold again, and it would be ok. 

We eventually came to an agreement that I would keep the meat in our fridge for a day or so until she had time to take it to her sister's house. I really didn't want to keep that gross, smelly, rotting meat... but when your neighbor asks... what can you do? She was so sad and disappointed when I wouldn't help her.

This woman is poor, and meat is pretty expensive, so she didn't want to toss the bad meat. I'm sure she has an immune system better equipped to handle this environment and climate and lifestyle than mine, but I'm also sure that eating that spoiled meat is a poor choice, health-wise. How do you tell that to someone who just spent 5-10% of her take-home pay for the month on meat that then went bad? In the moment, it seemed to me that her refusal to throw it out was only due in part to a belief that the meat was still ok, and that in her gut she just could not accept the loss.

Now, my neighbor is lucky! She has a refrigerator! Granted, one that doesn't work, but most of the world can't afford that, or can't afford the electric bill that goes with it. When offered coffee, a man here refused it, because he didn't want to start an addiction he couldn't afford. A wise choice! A sad choice, because coffee grows here.

There are so many things I took for granted in America: the ability to chill my food, the ability to brew a morning cup of joe without strain on my household budget, running water in my house. Now, I realize what gifts those are, and I am grateful.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015


We spend much of our time in our garden. Sometimes we go out just to walk around and see how things are growing. It is an exciting time of the year. The rains are falling, seeds are germinating, and seedlings are shooting up. Since we have over two weeks off between the Second and the Third term of the school year, we have the time to do our soil improvements and our planting and our weeding. Last year we sought help from others, but this year we're trying to do most of the work ourselves. As I did last year, I find myself thinking about Jesus' agricultural metaphors as I work.
Growing plants from seeds, you learn that different types of seed need different things to germinate, and then the resulting plants also need different things in order to thrive. Some plants need more water, some plants need less water, some plants have deep roots and some have shallow roots, etc. Some are delicate and prissy and fussy and wilt and die with no warning, like our cucumbers. Today we went out and a weeks-old plant that appeared perfectly healthy the day before had fallen prey to some strange ant-but-not-an-ant insect and was totally dead. Then, there are the kinds of plants, usually weeds, that are so hardy you almost can never get rid of them no matter how much you try. Mint is like this, fortunately, so we are able to enjoy mojitos no matter how much damage the rabbits or the chickens do to the mint we planted in our courtyard.

In a way, each person is like a different kind of plant. We have our own conditions and needs in order for the seed of the Gospel to germinate inside us, and then we each need different conditions in order to grow and thrive. For plants there are climate concerns, but for people there are cultural concerns. It's all very confusing, and often you have to learn from trial and error. I mean, it's really hard to find gardening advice for equatorial gardening at altitude... And the advice local people give can even be contradictory.

Evangelization through both example and words (see Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi), in a new and strange culture is also a work of trial and error. While we feel more and more at home and part of the community, there are still interactions that leave us frustrated, or where we totally goof-up and insult people, or we don't hear them, or we realize after the fact (days or weeks or months, even) that we didn't communicate at all.

We are growing corn and beans on several largish plots. Before the corn germinates, the black and white “tuxedo” crows, as we call them, swoop down and treat themselves to lunch. You end up with a place where corn should be growing but isn't. So, James and I recently went through our new corn rows and sowed again where it didn't come up. In my ministry in the United States, whenever I have read the parable of the sower, I saw it as my job to help the soil of the hearts of the youth of our parish to become the fertile ground in which the Kingdom of God could grow and thrive. A homily I heard here in Cameroon showed me that, luckily, God is a generous sower. He sows even on the rocky ground, where the birds eat it, etc., and so part of our job in evangelizing the World is to keep sowing the seed, everywhere and abundantly.

[General garden update: Radishes are wonderful because they are ready to harvest in about a month. Arugula is a nice addition to our cuisine. Everyone asks us about our chickpeas, they are an alien crop here. Our pumpkins and squashes and melons seem to be picking up well. We'll have fresh green beans soon. We have a few rows of carrots and cabbages and tomatoes and lettuces, and more. There's always something to plant or pick, or a new bed to prepare. The corn and beans are growing well, and we like to think it is because of our work to amend the soil. I have a farmer's tan, and am proud to say I come by it honestly!]