06 March 2015

Night at the Cathedral

Lent is a rebirth I always seem to need.

You don’t have to be a religious type to find the idea appealing. Redemption, new life. Pretty compelling stuff.

I’m not giving anything up this year. Self denial is not one of my strengths.

What Lent feels like, especially these days, is like a visit I made a few months ago to a cathedral in France. The cathedral, in the city of Chartres, is known for its stained glass—it has 176 stained glass windows, most of which date back to the 12th and 13th century, including three rose windows, those very large, lovely circular windows you often see in Gothic cathedrals. They are beautiful works of art, something worth traveling long distances to see.

But the drive from the south of France took longer than expected, and by the time we got to Chartres, it was getting dark. We dropped the car at the hotel and rushed up the dimly lit road in the chilly November cold to the cathedral. Stepped inside. The last bit of tourists were shuffling through in their coats and woolen caps, pointing at this and that. A children’s choir was singing in the nave. 

It felt still, despite the end-of-day bustle, or maybe it was just that I felt still inside, in from the cold, all that space, the warm glow of candles flickering in a corner, some solitary person with her head bowed, praying. 

Daylight was receding, almost gone. Some disappointment that we wouldn’t be able to see the stained glass in all its glory. But when I looked up, way, up, I could still see it -- the jewel glow of deep blues, ruby reds. We’d have to wait through the night for daylight to come again to really see, but even in the dark, the light was there.

I don’t know how rebirth works. I know I want it but I don’t know how it works.

The other day, I read Frederick Buechner’s telling of the story of Jairus and his daughter. Just like us at the cathedral, Jairus got there too late—he got to Jesus too late. His daughter was already dead, passerbys said.

One can only imagine how that must have felt, how time must have stopped, there, on the road, dust blowing at their feet, the sun high above them, drops of sweat on Jairus's forehead.

Jesus told Jairus to not be afraid. Don’t fear, he said. Just believe.

And then he went with Jairus, to his house, where he said that the little girl wasn’t dead, she was just sleeping. And he told her – little girl, get up. And she got up.

Had she been sleeping? Had she been sick and Jesus healed her? Was she dead and now alive? Hard to say. But her parents had her back. She had herself back.

If beginning again is possible, it’s an idea that could change the world, or at least my world.

I got to the cathedral too late, was dark outside, hard to see. I'm still there in many ways. But I’m holding out for grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins on the cross. And I hope I don’t have to depend on my religiosity. I hope I don’t even have to depend on my faith. 

I’m holding out for whatever Jesus did in that room with Jairus and his daughter. New life.

05 January 2015


This is the first of several posts telling some of my story of belief and doubt, about whether change is possible -- in my own life, and in the global poverty business, which is built around the idea that it's possible to help change other peoples' lives. 

Dar es Salaam | January 2010

You wake up very tired. Eyelids are heavy, feel plastered shut. For a minute, you can’t remember where you are. But then: outline of the hard, twin mattress, and the gauzy white mosquito net pocked with holes so that you had to wrap the bed sheet around your face and endure hot, sweaty suffocation or else lie exposed. Oh yes, I remember.

You remember how hard it was to go to sleep alone in this second story apartment, hearing every noise of the teaming city outside. You remember how as the night got darker and you lay in the hot stillness waiting for sleep to come, you thought you heard the old metal gate of the compound open, wondered if the guard had fallen asleep, if a thief was entering. You’d fixed your eyes on the outline of the bedroom door, peered so hard that the black became green, then red, then a blacker shade of black.

Who knows how long you stared into the dark. Maybe an hour. At least an hour.

Now, in the bright light of the morning you feel safe again, the ghosts are gone, blown away.

Pull back the sheet, throw the net over the wooden frame of the bed, and look out the window.  A crow is perched on the corrugated iron roof of the shop below where Tanzanian men build cheap furniture for the wazungu. Someone is playing music, the same as always—bongo flava—those dance party tunes that go round and round like a disco ball, so popular in this town. That goddamn music.

But I wanted to be here.

One night, feels like ages ago, before I moved to Dar es Salaam, I had dinner in Washington, DC with a friend who was visiting from Lusaka, where he worked for an American aid NGO. Seated at an outdoor café, a bottle of red wine between us, we’d teased each other:

—Still trying to fight poverty by thinking about it in Washington, he’d asked?
—Still traipsing around Africa pretending you’re Jesus, I’d shot back?

When he talked about his work in Zambia, he was like a spring morning: full of optimism and hope. But as the evening wore on, and the conversation turned personal, to talk of our families, and our pasts, his mood darkened. I watched while he stared into his plate, moving bits of fried calamari around with his fork.

—I think I’ve figured out how we can change our lives, I finally said.

His eyes lit up like a struck match: Do you think our lives can change?

I didn’t hesitate.

—Yes. Tomorrow can be different from today.

But that was a long time ago.