Saturday, May 29, 2010

Submission, or Death to the Ego!

Submission is a word that no one likes to talk about. But I'm reading the book, “How to Inherit the Earth: Submitting Ourselves to a Servant Savior” by Scott Bessenecker – and this book is talking about it. The book was a gift to my from my friend, Dave, who is also the editor of the book and who came with me on the trip to Haiti. How could he have known that this is just the book I needed! God is Good!

Submission is difficult for me. I imagine it's difficult for everyone. But it can be especially difficult for actors. I mean, come on, you don't become an actor because you like anonymity and serving others. That's for stage managers, the people who hang the lights, pull the curtain, you get the point. You become an actor, in part, because you like being in the spotlight in front of lots of people (believe me there are other noble reasons for it too!). As a Christian, I'm having to figure out how to walk this tight-rope. I'm thankful that my work involves children and I seek to make them the center of my shows – but that doesn't mean it's not easy at times to ride an ego wave when a show goes well or receives lots of accolades. It's also difficult since doing the work I love to do requires earning a reputation as a performer – ie; getting noticed – so that people will invite me to perform. Achieving balance in this – so that it's not about me but about my belief in the work -- can be challenging. And in our self-aggrandizing culture, where the ego is lifted up and exalted, it becomes difficult to embrace a way of submissive servanthood – the way that Jesus has called us to.

I'm ashamed to say that much of last year I was pretty dissatisfied with life. I was staying at home, doing a lot of writing and a little performing, but it seemed like it wasn't going anywhere. Despite the fact that I was doing the work I loved, I wasn't happy. Why? I guess because no one was taking notice. This year, it's the exact opposite. I've got three books accepted to be published. More shows than I can keep track of. And am very satisfied with life. But I've realized the danger in this – my contentment or satisfaction has been based on whether or not others deem what I do as valuable. But there is something inherently wrong in this. As a follower of Jesus, my job is not to please man but to please God. So how can my satisfaction be wrapped up in my reputation, worldly success, recognition, the enlarging of my ego, etc? It can't! Or at least it shouldn't. I said to my husband that I wished I would've had a copy of this book about submission that I'm reading now last year when I was struggling with a lot of negative feelings related to my need to be noticed. He said that it's probably better that I didn't. Experiencing those feelings for the length of time that I did and now being able to look back and recognize them for what they are is probably a good thing – a growing thing. I'm just praying the next time I'm in that place, I'm able to take what I've learned and apply it. Easier said than done.

At any rate, it's been awhile since I've read the book “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis, but I seem to remember an unforgettable part that is fitting to this discussion of the ego and submission. In this book there is a Lizard who represents the ego. Some people say he represents lust, but I think lust, or getting what we want when we want it without regard for how it affects God or others, is the driving force behind the ego anyway – so for the purposes of this discussion, I'm counting them as the same. At any rate, the Lizard sits on the shoulder of one of the protagonists – a Ghost – and an Angel tells the Ghost that the Lizard must be killed.

The Ghost is hesitant. He protests, saying: “How can I tell you to kill it? You'd kill me if you did.” The Angel insists that it isn't so. The Ghost wants to wait, to come back tomorrow and do it, but the Angel says, “This moment contains all moments,” (ie; It's now or never! Make a choice! Will you let the ego live or will you let me kill it?” Then the Angel says, “I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?” The Angel moves forward as if to grab the Lizard around the throat and right at that moment the Lizard begins to plead his case to the Ghost who has the power to give him up to the Angel or let him live. He says: “He can kill me. . . Then you'll be without me for ever and ever. How could you live? You'd be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now.” (Of course the irony here is that the protagonist is a ghost, not a real man, however he doesn't see himself that way.)

This moment in the book is so compelling. At the moment that we consider the possibility of killing our own ego, we can be assured that he will strike back with vengeance. He will have every possible argument to tell us why we shouldn't. He tries to convince the protagonist that without him he is nothing – and the world tells us the same. It says that without the fame, recognition, and accolades of others, we are nothing. That if we aren't ever climbing the corporate or social ladder or any other ladder that takes us higher than our fellow man, we are nothing. This is so easy to believe, and yet it is the greatest of lies. It is the ego that keeps us always hungry, ever lusting after more, never content with what we have, ever comparing ourselves to others, unable to be happy for someone else's successes if we feel as though they have surpassed our own, completely absorbed in self.

We know that the ego needs killed, but it's so hard. At the moment where we are ready to give a decisive yes, the ego pleads, saying, “I'll be good. I admit I've sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won't do it again.” Of course these are more lies, bent on getting us to believe that just a little bit of ego can be a good thing. That we can hold on to both love of self and love of God simultaneously – but it doesn't work. You either pick up your cross or you don't. You either lose your life for the sake of the kingdom or you don't. There's no in between, although the modern day church has done a good job of making us believe otherwise.

In the end, the protagonist gives in, albeit somewhat reluctantly, (I think he's just tired of coming up with excuses for the Angel since he knows deep down that the Angel is in the right) and allows the Angel to kill the Lizard. And this is the image I remember more than anything else from the book. As the Angel twists the Lizard's body, he bites and writhes and screams. The protagonist screams and is reeling from this as well. Then the Angel flings the Lizard, broken-backed, onto the ground. The whole thing is quite painful and agonizing for both the Lizard and the Ghost. And so it is for us... killing our ego will take everything we've got. And as we watch it writhe and beg for mercy and as we feel the pain and hurt that its death brings (not getting your way does hurt!), we will want to give in, releasing our death hold and allowing our ego to go on living. But if we do, it will be to our own detriment and we will miss out on becoming what we were meant to be. Because the story isn't over.

After the back-breaking of the Lizard, something happens. It turns out that the Lizard is not actually dead. All this time he's been moving and writhing and growing larger, but taking on a different form. He becomes a silvery stallion. And the protagonist who was once a Ghost has become a real man. That which was once an apparition of a thing has become the real thing. And so it is with us.. . When we kill our ego, we don't lose ourselves. Instead, we become who we were truly meant to be.

I wish I could say that the Lizard on my shoulder were dead, but if I did, that would be a lie. At times, he is super convincing and plies me with all of the reasons why he should stay there and why I should let him go on living, and to be honest, sometimes I like the sound of his voice. He is my ego after all. But I know he is a liar. And so daily I'm working on submission – saying, “Yes God, you have my permission, take him and kill him.” And I think that's what it is – a daily choice. No matter how badly we bruise him today, that Lizard is tenacious and he will find a way to climb back onto our shoulder by tomorrow.

But the way of the ego is empty. In the end, it may leave you with a lot of accomplishments and attention, but you are still a ghost of a thing. And ghosts are dead. Ghosts are creatures who inhabit the world of the dead, but would do anything to get in on the world of the living, even for just a second.

The world of the living isn't what happens when we try to get bigger and better than everyone else. The world of the living is what happens when we wash each other's feet, when we sit around the table together and everyone has enough to eat, when we say 'thank you' and mean it, when I'm just as happy to see you succeed as I am to see myself succeed. It is a world void of jealousy and lust. Many of our poorer neighbors know something about it. And you don't need a college degree to understand it – in fact, maybe if you have one you are at a disadvantage.

Think about it – I spent 2 and half days with a family in Haiti. They never told me about their careers, their successes, or any of the rest of what our culture would deem as giving a person worth. Instead, they shared their food with me, their laughter, their friendship. They washed my feet. They practiced a kind of submission that is almost completely foreign in my culture, and I will never forget them because of it.

There's something special about the way that God does things. He doesn't allow anything to die without redeeming it and turning it into something newer and more full of promise than it was before. I'm going to try to remember that the next time I see my Lizard asking for mercy.

Reflections from Haiti

(Written May 25, 2010) I got home yesterday afternoon, and as I continue trying to process all of my experiences in Haiti, I find it rather disorienting. First of all, it's kind of hard to explain this trip. I've been on lots of missions trips in the past to many wonderful and exciting places – and when I got home I could say: “I helped build a playground or paint a wall” or “ Our team led worship services and did a Vacation Bible School.” But this trip was very different. It's not so easy to put into words. I don't take with me so much a sense that I did anything so much as that I experienced everything.

I wasn't there to do; I was there to listen and learn – to be fully present and take in whatever I could. And so it becomes problematic at times to find the right words to share with others in a way that they will understand and find meaningful. And yet, we live in a culture that is so focused on doing that oftentimes we never stop and take the time to listen and learn first. Our idea of missions has been one intent on doing, one intent on having something to show for our efforts, something that will look like progress to others. And so maybe this trip and my difficulty to explain it reveals something deeper to me. My need to do and to quantify my productivity is exactly that – it's my need. It's not God's need. God needs me to listen and and learn from Him – and then after listening and learning, perhaps, I'll know what it is that I should do. He says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still, even when it doesn't make sense to everyone else what you are doing, even when you can't explain it satisfactorily, even when it would be easier to do something and feel better about yourself – be still because it's not about all of that anyway.

I take with me from this trip no simple statements about what I did or accomplished. Instead, I take with me a plethora of images and vignettes, feelings and experiences, which despite being a writer, I find hard to put into words. (Kudos to Kent here, because he did it so well in his book that I am still reeling by it! If you haven't read it yet, I think you would be blessed by reading his book: "Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle." It's published by Intervarsity Press and it's a fantastic and fascinating read in which the author, Kent Annan, is so honest and thoughtful that you will be amazed someone would be so transparent. There are gripping moments of sadness as you explore the realities of life in Haiti, but other moments that are just laugh out loud funny! I can't recommend it highly enough! I am going to start reading it again.. especially since the family he lived with and describes in the book is the one that I got to stay with and I can now put faces to all of the names!)

Anyway, back to what I take with me from this trip!

I take with me the deep imprint of the servant hospitality that comes from those who will wash your feet or sacrifice to buy ice for your drink (ice you can't even drink for fear of getting sick from the water). I take with me the lived ideal of community that makes loving your neighbor – not loving the idea of your neighbor – possible. In a culture like ours where we can so easily protect ourselves from our neighbors, holding them at a distance and only allowing them to see of us what we want them to see, I feel almost jealous, even desirous, of some Haitian cultural aspects which refuse to make escape from those we are supposed to love an option. Whether it be pumping water at the well for one another because we all depend on the same source or, as it strange as it may sound, not being afraid to wave and say “bon jou” to your neighbor who is standing there taking his or her bath, lathered up in soap, right before your eyes – I am encouraged by the idea of living with and loving neighbors whom you have seen and known – warts and all – and whose vulnerabilities are not hidden from you.

I take the laughter and courage of a people who have suffered deeply but who hang on because they believe in the goodness of life; because they understand that if they are still alive it means that there is work for them to do, people for them to care for, and joy and suffering to be found in it all.

On our first night in Haiti, we sang a song that was taught to us by Alex and Merline, John's brother -in-law and wife. The lyrics said: “Mwen se Ayiti.” It means, “ I am Haiti.” At one point there was a break in the song where we began to hum. Then we went around the circle, and one at at a time, everyone said: “Mwen se Ayiti tou,” or “I am Haiti too.” It seemed kind of funny to say it that first night, and some of us kind of giggled or wanted to, but for some reason, it doesn't feel funny any more. In fact, after what I have experienced, it feels completely natural.

And so, I say with confidence this time . . . Mwen se Ayiti tou. Amen.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Haiti (Miami) Trip Day 1 -- A Wild Beginning

Dear Friends,

Well, my trip to Haiti is off to a wild start! Let's just say it's a good thing I left a day early to get to Miami. This morning, my first flight was delayed 30 minutes out of Akron Canton Airport. Knowing that I only had an hour in between flights as it was, the lady at the counter was kind enough to confirm me on the next flight out of Miami in case I missed my first one. We arrived in Atlanta and I had 30 minutes to make my connection. By the time they got my bag to me (which they'd taken when I boarded the plane), I had closer to 15-20 minutes. I was in concourse C and needed to be in concourse A, so I took off running in hopes of still making the first flight. First sign of bad news: the tram was out of service. Second sign: people backed up at the entrance to concourse A -- no one is moving! I learn that supposedly there was some kind of electrical fire and no one is being allowed into concourse A. I figure I've missed the first flight, I'll wait for #2.

I go upstairs to concourse B to find out what gate my next flight leaves out of -- unfortunately, it is also out of concourse A. So there is nothing to do but wait. At this point, there is a line in concourse B waiting to take the escalator down to concourse A and most people have no clue what is going on. An airport worker says that she has no idea when it will be open again. A man standing next to me asks if I speak Spanish, I tell him I do and he asks me to explain the situation. It turns out he is from Colombia -- but not only that, he's from Manizales -- my husband's hometown! Small world, huh? As I talk to him, I feel like I am talking to my brother-in-law because he has the same accent! Then he starts using some words that are "paisano" -- or from that part of Colombia, and it reminds me of Estith! :) We decide since we have to wait we will have something to eat. He says he is glad to have found someone who could explain what was going on because everyone was so busy that no one would stop to talk to him. He ends up buying me lunch -- which was very kind of him. The terminal opens again and I have to leave in the middle of the meal because I only have about 30-40 minutes before my next flight leaves.

I wait in line at the escalator. Tons of people. i get downstairs -- worse. People are backed up and we are only inching forward. Finally I make it to the escalator up to concourse A -- as we are moving, the escalator comes to a lurching stop. It doesn't stop again -- I carry my extra-large carry on bag up the escalator, just hoping that I don't miss the second flight, because since this is the airport's fault and not the airlines, I'm not really sure how this is going to be handled -- and it seems to affect everybody!! I get to the top of the escalator thinking it will be easy going from there. . WRONG! It is chaos! There is barely room to get off of the escalator. People are crowded around from all sides. Some are trying to go down the escalator next to mine. Others are trying to cross the terminal to the right and left, others are trying to go forward to the baggage claim, and wherever you turn you are sandwiched in like sardines and the people around you are moving in the opposite direction! I have NEVER seen anything like this in an airport before!! Finally, I get into the clear and run towards the nearest gate, realizing I don't know which gate I'm supposed to go out of. I am told my flight, which now leaves in 5 minutes, departs from A18. That is back the opposite way from which I just came -- through a huge bottle-neck of people!! I make another run for it, only to hit the crowd and be at slow goings again. . all of this while trying to keep my bag from hitting, bumping and/or running over people's toes as we are smashed together. We are told by an airport worker that the planes are being held -- but I've been told that before when it wasn't the case, so don't know if their word is trustworthy or if they're just trying to avoid a bunch of angry, disgruntled passengers who might riot at any moment because they can't get where they're headed! The people on the side of the terminal where I'm headed are trying to leave the terminal, but they can't because of the bottleneck! So basically, there is no room for those of us who are trying to get into the terminal! Luckily, my gate is the first one, and I manage to slide along the side until I can get there and am able to board, because indeed they did hold the plane! Phew!

I arrived in Miami at 5:30pm instead of 3:30pm, but I am just glad to be here! It is rainy and overcast, so I haven't missed any sun. . and so much for my plan to hit the pool before tomorrow's trip! :) Again, I feel blessed that I was able to leave a day early, because if my Haiti connection would have been today, I would have missed it for sure. It was wild in that airport -- there was no order, no one really making order and everyone trying to go their own way. I guess I would have thought the Atlanta airport would've been better prepared to handle such a thing, but I was wrong. I know this was minor in comparison, but as I stood there amongst the throngs of people it made me think about what it must have been like when the earthquake hit Haiti. In the aftermath of that, the stakes were much higher than people needing to get to their connecting flight. It was survival, food, medical attention -- and oftentimes, from the reports I've seen on TV -- there were so many people clamoring, trying to get help. I can't imagine how chaotic it must have been.

I'm not sure how much time I'll have to write while I'm in Haiti, but if I get a chance I will definitely post an update that I've arrived. Thanks to everyone for your prayers and support. God is good all the time! And tomorrow, the adventure continues!