Tuesday, December 6, 2011

“to give them a garland instead of ashes” Isaiah 61:3

I am not surprised that this Sunday’s lectionary text, Isaiah 61, with its echoes of the jubilee year, coincided with Task Force Viper’s very first community outreach project. Bringing good news to the poor and the oppressed and binding up the brokenhearted, these are God’s promises to a people trying to rebuild after many years of devastation and exile. For many in Afghanistan, promises of restoration and fullness offer hope for the years ahead. Today’s trip to the Egyptian Hospital was an opportunity for us, both the members of Task Force Viper as well as all those who contributed to knitting projects, from Chestertown, MD to Pensacola, FL and even a few bears from San Antonio, to sew seeds of God’s kingdom, here and now. After all, healing, liberty, release, and comfort are God’s desire for every one of us.

The overwhelming poverty of this place was glaring, at least at first, as we gathered the children and their mothers and grandmothers and attempted to control the unruly crowd before it dissolved into riot. The people waiting for knitted sweaters, hats, scarves, and bears, as well as a few pairs of shoes that had been donated, know a desperation that is beyond what many of our soldier volunteers had ever encountered. The need explained the persistence by which these children fought for their place in the line. Even mothers pinched their babies, hoping that their tears would get them in a better position to receive warm winter clothes. It was hard for us to understand this kind of fight for survival and keep in perspective, why children and adults alike would grab and nearly brawl over a kitted cap and booties.

Yet, for as many children we had who scrubbed off their black sharpie “X,” which was our only way to keep track of who had been given a knitted garment and a coloring book or tub of play dough, other children responded in kind to our generosity. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as a little girl, not even ten years old, gingerly hold up a pair of gold studded earrings, offering them to one of our soldiers. On the bus ride home I heard about another little girl who took the ring off her finger and slipped it onto one of our interrogator’s hands, before she could refuse. Throughout the morning, children took at least an extra moment to pause and look intently into my eyes. It was a way of saying thank you, which overcame the barriers of language that we all faced.

Hearing soldiers talk about the experience of giving and how it inspired them to reconsider their own practices of generosity, I realized we had all received a gift of mutual blessing. We had come to give and to share and we had been given to and shared with in return. And, this blessing has only encouraged all of us here to envision new ways to share with our Afghan neighbors. Now, it is the soldiers, many of whom had no previous interaction with these neighbors, who are formulating plans for our next visit to the hospital.

Where there is oppression, violence, and hunger, it is a fair question to ask, “What is God doing today, right here, to make a difference in the lives of these people and offer hope in the darkness?” This Advent and every Advent, we wait together with expectation for our world to be restored. Yet, we also celebrate Christ’s coming. When we practice generosity, when we do our part to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, giving garlands instead of ashes, we witness that no darkness can overcome the light of Christ. And, this is God’s Good News. Not just for us who gather in pews or around lit wreaths and Nativity scenes this December, but also for the whole world. May it be so.

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