Monday, January 25, 2010

Breath of Heaven

Happy New Year! Well, it's not new anymore, but as this is my first entry of 2010, can you humor me?

Way back in 2009, when Thanksgiving quickly rolled into the month of December, I began to experience my first ever bout with writer's block - a condition which has plagued me for nearly two months. For weeks now I have written and erased repeatedly, stared at a blank screen, and finally, exasperated, turned off the computer hoping for better days. I wouldn't say I'm prolific again yet, but I do have a few thoughts brewing to share with you. Here goes...

While I realize Christmas past is gone and Christmas future is literally eleven months away, I feel the need to revisit my 2009 Advent season to put the proper perspective on my 2010 blog season.

It was mid-December, less than two weeks before Christmas, and I could hardly contain myself as I approached the Plaza de Armas. To my utter delight, the lamp posts that surround the square were elegantly wrapped in white lights, a giant Christmas tree, tastefully decorated in oversized ornaments, stood majestically, shadowing the life-size nativity scene, which could not have been complete without the tribal jungle natives standing guard on either side of the Baby Jesus (next to the Magi of course), while the glass front of the lobby of the El Dorado Five Star Hotel glowed, looking like a picture from the holiday edition of Southern Living magazine. An enormous smile spread across my face and I squealed with excitement, which made my Peruvian friends laugh. The scene was so simple, yet so beautiful. I felt like a little girl again and Christmas was something special - I cannot remember the last time I felt that way.

As you might imagine, Christmas in Peru is quite different from the way we celebrate in the U.S. While U.S. stores are already stocking their Christmas paraphernalia and malls are decking their halls before the last piece of Halloween candy is eaten by a young trick-or-treater (maybe before the first piece is even purchased), you won't find any evidence of the holidays in Iquitos until after December 1, and then you only catch an occasional glimpse - the real decorating doesn't begin until December 15. (I cannot begin to explain how refreshing it was to not be sick of Christmas before Thanksgiving!) Though from time to time you will see images of the white-bearded guy in the big red suit, the myth of Santa Claus is not perpetuated here. The Peruvians, however, do believe each child should get a new toy for Christmas (notice I said toy - singular), and those who are able buy extras and give them to less fortunate friends and neighbors who cannot afford gifts for their kids. In the 2-3 days prior to Christmas, long lines form in every neighborhood and at many churches as adults ladle out steaming hot chocolate into the cups the children bring with them in events known as "chocolatadas." The markets are lined with various brands of "panetton," the fruit bread that is traditionally eaten with the holiday meal at midnight, when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day (those who can afford it also have another round of hot chocolate). Christmas Eve is a time of reflection, particularly for those who are spiritual; many Christians spend at least part of the day in church. Commerce ceases on Christmas Day and people emerge from their homes to hang out in the streets all day with their neighbors. It is an opportunity to be together; not a time for opening presents or running themselves ragged with a hectic schedule of meals and travel, but a time to really enjoy family and friends.

That's it. If you're like me, you're surprised by the simplicity of it all. The pace is slow (not unlike the rest of the year); there is no holiday rush. Certainly I was anxious to get back to the U.S. to be with my family and friends on Christmas, but I am glad I opted to remain in Iquitos until December 23, to experience Advent in a new, refreshing way.

This year (oops, last year) I found myself listening to one particular song over and over again, haunted by the melody while pondering its words. It is written from the perspective of the Virgin Mary as she contemplates her magnanimous role in God's ultimate plan of salvation. It occurred to me that this is not just Mary's story, but the tale of every one of us who claim to be believers. We, too, carry Jesus inside us; we have an awesome responsibility to take Him into a lost and dying world. It is a daunting task to say the least, and I (like Mary) question God's wisdom, even His sanity, when He chose me to bear witness to Him, knowing how often and how completely I would mess up. In the midst of her fear and loneliness, Mary realizes that her own strength won't get her very far. Consider the words of the song penned by Amy Grant:

I have traveled many moonless nights; cold and weary, with a babe inside.
And I wonder what I've done-
Holy Father, you have come and chosen me now, to carry your son.

I am waiting in a silent prayer; I am frightened by the load I bear.
In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now...
Be with me now…

Breath of heaven, hold me together; be forever near me, breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven, light in my darkness, pour over me your holiness, for you are holy,
Breath of heaven.

Do you wonder, as you watch my face, if a wiser one should have had my place? But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan; help me be strong...
Help me be...
Help me…

Breath of heaven, hold me together; be forever near me, breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven, light in my darkness, pour over me your holiness, for you are holy,
Breath of heaven.

"Be with me now…, help me…, pour over me your holiness…" - simple words; a profound prayer. As the first month of 2010 is already drawing to a close, and as I get back into my Peruvian routine, recovering from a very hectic month of traveling, meetings, and fundraising, I want , no, I desperately need, the breath of heaven.

Recommended Reading

  • The Bible
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Doing Short Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence - David A. Livermore
  • Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility - Duane Elmer
  • Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) - Robert D. Lupton
  • When Helping Hurts-Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Shadow of the Almighty - Elizabeth Elliot
  • Messy Spirituality - Michael Yaconelli
  • The Irresistible Revolution - Shane Claiborne
  • Peace Child - Don Richardson
  • If God Should Choose - Kristen Stagg
  • In the Presence of My Enemies - Gracia Burnham
  • Inside Afghanistan - John Weaver
  • Same Kind of Different as Me - Ron Hall and Denver Moore
  • Through Gates of Splendor - Elizabeth Elliot
  • End of the Spear - Steve Saint