Saturday, October 24, 2009

a view from 35000 ft

a friend requested that i post this letter. okay, larry, here you go.

the end of October, 2009.
Peru, Nepal, my mom’s severely declining health, computer theft …sigh. As we go through life there are times when it seems that lots of life goes through us instead, and at an alarming rate…five months in the blink of an eye. As I write this, I feel as though I am treading water in a turbulent sea of organizational chaos, whipped into a frenzy by all the above…sort of my own personal “hurricane Rick”. I’m looking for the eye in the storm.

The view out of an airplane window gives you perspective you will never have while on the ground: you can see the OTHER side of the clouds, for example, and you can apprehend vast expanses of earth at a glance. And from that vantage point you can also see major landmarks and the relationships between them in a particularly clear way without getting sidetracked by the million and one details that grab your eye while earthbound. I’ve had lots of opportunities to look out of airplane windows in the past 5 months and it’s left me reflecting on life from the 35000-ft-view rather than from the 5’9” perspective normally afforded me. The temptation here is to fill pages with details, but that, as interesting as it may be, could also easily obscure the much more significant big picture.

Peru: Melanie and I worked there for 26 years, raising a family and joining together with the Wanca Quechuas to produce all kinds of literature in their language and ultimately the New Testament, a historical first. With experience comes responsibility, and since that time we’ve made ourselves available to consult, teach and train those who are already, or hope to be someday, involved in Bible translation, be they here at Biola University or elsewhere. It’s made us both mobile and global. So over the summer we returned to Peru for 4 weeks and then spent 2 more in Nepal trying to tweak translators’ perspectives on how to compile dictionaries, and draft the book of Philemon, and understand the relationship between communication and translation. I will forever be impressed with those I met, some of whom have suffered for their faith in ways I will likely never know, and all without having scripture in their language. Amazing. And humbling.

But we had no sooner landed in Nepal than we got an urgent message telling me to call my brother in Dallas. You never want to get messages like that, and especially when you’re 12 time zones away. Seems my 90 year-old mom had suffered congestive heart failure and had been admitted to the hospital. She was now stable and in good care, and, thanks to Skype, we could talk to her every day. But our stay in Nepal had this as its backdrop. We got back to California after 44 hours of takeoffs and landings, and after teaching the first two days of the new school year here at the University, I hopped on yet another plane to Dallas to see mom – now in a nursing home – and to support my brother and his family in this situation in whatever way I could. It was on the way back from Dallas to Los Angeles that my laptop was stolen…not misplaced, not picked up by accident…stolen. The details of how it happened are peripheral.

There is something deeply chilling when you realize that your entire professional Bible translation and linguistic life for the past quarter century has just been taken from you, along with financial records, passwords to online financial accounts, correspondence, address lists, pictures of trips you will never repeat, intensely personal reflections, books, the IPod, the thumb drive, and, oh yes, even the backup hard drive…all conveniently present in the same back pack. First panic, then a mad dash for baggage claim in the dim hope you’ll see the person who has it; hope fades. Then frustration, anger and helplessness, as neither the airline nor the airport police seem capable, or even willing to do much about it. Then driving home amidst wracking sobs, paralyzed by the fear of certain identity theft…and loss…the incalculable, irretrievable loss…sigh…and sigh. “How in the midst of this can there be any good, but if there is, O God, show it to me.” And a long, restless night full of “Why did I…?” “...if I only hadn’t…” and “What if they …?” and punctuated by getting up to cancel more accounts and change more passwords.

And then I saw myself all too clearly, naked in a desert before God, with nothing; accomplishments, gone; dictionary work, gone; all the consulting and teaching I’d just done in Peru and Nepal, gone; lesson plans for tomorrow, gone, every means through which I might accrue some value for myself, gone. Then came the good I’d asked for: the single, poignant, defining moment…the pristine re-recognition that I am not my work, that my value is not in what I do, in what I offer to God in terms of talents, or as a linguist/translator/consultant with years of experience, or as a teacher with well-crafted lesson plans…but that my value is now and always has been only that I am an intentional target of God’s grace, and nothing more; and that apart from that, I am no different from the guy who took my laptop; and that because of that I can say with all honesty, “Have mercy on him as you have had mercy on me.”

And in the midst of all this, I realized that this was very likely the back-door answer to some glibly uttered prayer somewhere in the past: “Help me know you better” or “Get my attention”. When you pray for God’s work in your life, you are really praying for an end-result, not the path that takes you there. So if the result I ask for is consonant with God’s purposes in me, then he is justified in molding me and pressing me into it regardless of the means. It was an encouragement, albeit a severe one, to realize that God had not abandoned me and was still answering my prayers for my good.

I am not the only one to suffer loss; there are some that suffer losses much greater, like those who were affected by the wildfires I watched from the window on that flight, where all their treasures literally went up in smoke; and I, like they, still pick through the rubble and chaos, retrieving whatever is salvageable. And almost daily for the last 6 weeks, the realization of yet of another missing piece. I’m sure some of the wildfire victims suffer alone…very alone. But I do not, for I have walked through this accompanied by the people of God, who have loved me and encouraged me, and even supplied me with equipment to replace what I lost. This shows me that they – and you – are my true treasure. The computer was just a box and the stuff in it were ultimately just tools. And however painful it may be to lose them, the work of God was not in that box; rather, the real work of God is the extent to which I foster the image of Christ in those around me; and that, no one can steal.

Forgive the accutely personal and solemn tenor of these lines. I realize this has not been our typical communiqué, laced with home-improvement challenges or the stuff our kids are up to. Rest assured, we are still home-improvement-challenged and our kids are up to plenty. Melanie will probably want to write the next one. But I felt that this time a view from the other side of the clouds would more accurately reflect the present landscape of our lives. Who knows? It might also provide some food for thought and prayer as you seek to know Him better. It might also encourage you to back up your computer…off site…in a place far, far away.
Pummeled by the grace of God. Rick