BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:
“The Face of God.”
Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.
The Bible even tells us so.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27
When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.
Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.
That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.
Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.
Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)
Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.
Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.
That was the challenge posed by Larry Smith and Tim Barkow, founders of SMITH magazine, back in 2006. They took their cue from a literary legend about Ernest Hemingway who is said to have, as the answer to a bet, written a six-word short story: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
A few weeks ago, the folks at the ONE campaign — the international non-profit grassroots organization, co-founded by Bono of U2, that aims to mobilize supporters to work against extreme poverty and global disease — asked me to write a six-word story about motherhood.
As part of its new campaign to empower women worldwide (70 percent of the 1.8 billion people living in extreme poverty are women), Women ONE2ONE, ONE commissioned a few prominent women — actors, artists, advocates, politicians, business leaders, philanthropists and the odd ink-stained wretch — to write a six-word story, a la SMITH magazine, about mothers.
Yikes, I thought. I’m a novice at this whole mommy-hood thing. I’m not sure if I’m fully qualified.
I’ve been a mother for just a year now. In fact, it was on Mother’s Day 2009 when my son, Vasco, then a terribly sick, not-yet-10-year-old African orphan we had helped bring to the States for life-saving open-heart surgery, climbed onto my lap, for the first time, in the middle of a church service and fell asleep.
Vasco chose me, even though I didn’t realize it in those emotional moments, mid-sermon, tears pouring down my face. Only in hindsight did I understand that it was precisely then that I became a mother for the first time.
Surprised by motherhood, you might say. I’m still surprised, reeling and indescribably honored by the 180-degree turn the trajectory of my life took last year.
My own mother, thankfully, is still with me and, in her late 70s, fiercer than ever. In crafting my six-word story, I thought about her and the other women who have mothered me throughout my life. And then I examined my own, wobbly-kneed foray into motherhood and all that I’ve learned about being someone’s Mom.
Here’s what I came up with:
“Agape dispenser, grace holder, fiercest advocate.”
Motherhood and grace are inextricably intertwined in my mind. A wonderfully wise man told me, while we were discussing grace a few years back, that many of us first experience God’s grace—that unearnable gift of unlimited, unmerited love, compassion and mercy—through our mothers.
We see grace first in our mother’s loving gaze. Agape is the Greek word for unconditional love and although mothers aren’t the creators of grace, we are, in a very tangible sense, its dispensers. Grace moves through us.
Not long ago, I asked another wise soul, the author and mother Annie Lamott, if she thought we could be grace for another person. She thought for a moment and answered, “I think we can hold space for one another.”
In that sense, I believe I held space in my heart for the child that would become my son until he arrived. I hold space for him still —grace space—for untold lessons learned, challenges met, and hurdles soared over—until he’s ready to move into them. It’s what mothers have done throughout human history; part of the job description.
Fierceness is the first quality that comes to mind when I think of mothers. I was blessed with a mother who is unfailingly fierce in her love for my brother and me and, now, her grandson. She is like Esther, the wily and faithful queen from Hebrew scripture. Daring. Brave. Wise. Strong. Dangerous, in the best sense of that word. And she, like Esther, is an advocate for her tribe and beyond, giving a booming, unwavering voice to the voiceless.
ONE has invited mothers and children around the globe to write their own six-word stories about motherhood at http://www.one.org/women/sixwords. By Wednesday morning, nearly 6,000 stories had been posted on the site.
This Mother’s Day, take a few minutes to craft your own story and lend your voice to a creative effort to empower, embolden and elevate women worldwide.
In the words of another ONE six-word author, Pam Cope, co-founder of the Touch A Life Foundation for exploited children:
“End poverty? Empower moms globally. Solved.”
HAM OF GOD:
ANNIE LAMOTT AND HER P-POPPERY IN OAK PARK
This is a clip from when Annie was in my village (Oak Park) a few months back to read from her latest, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. I missed her when she was here as I was out of town flogging my own book (which you can still buy everywhere, including AMAZON — and please do, because every copy I sell is one step closer to the kids at Chisomo in Malawi getting more dough from me, which, frankly, apart from the generous people who have written to tell me how they’ve been touched by something someone said in The God Factor, has been the best part of this whole book-writing experience.)
Also, the “Annie Is My Pastor: Just Jesusy” t-shirts (the small percentage of the proceeds from the sale of which I receive go straight to Chisomo) are still available HERE
But anywhoo, back to Annie:
Oh, this woman. She has a gift. And I’d still like to be her when I grow up — some dayyyyyyyy.
In the meantime, I read and reread, listen and watch when I can, and give thanks.
Happy Sunday, kids.
For me, at least.
It’s almost always an appropriately cloudy, brooding day, as if the weather is setting the mood for what is, for many Christians, the most somber of days.
It’s the one day a year I know, with absolute certainty, that I am a complete and utter asshat.
The day to recall all the horrendous things I’ve done and do on a regular basis. Terrible, toe-curlingly uncharitable thoughts and deeds. Callous antipathy, more often than not, for the rest of the human race.
The lowlights of my life.
It’s the day I’m sure it’s all my fault. That I am a failure. That I’ve sinned and fallen short of the glory, if you will. That I must repent my evil ways.
Other religions have similar days or times set apart for serious reflection on the condition of our souls. For the Jewish people, it is Yom Kippur, a day of atonement for the sins committed in the previous year. For Muslims, it is Ramadan, 40 days of fasting, abstinence and prayer observed each year to commemorate the time their holy book, the Quran, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
In the Christian tradition, there’s Lent, culminating in Good Friday, the day the Bible says Jesus atoned for the sins of the world by dying on the cross. (See the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John for more details, or “The Passion of the Christ” for a synopsis.)
In theory, all of Lent is supposed to lend itself to deep spiritual reflection. But Good Friday is the day my audit report arrives from the Eternal Revenue Service.
And it’s not pretty.
Most distressing is the realization of just how unforgiving I can be, how ungracious and unloving. Toward the people I love, and especially toward a few folks I don’t. (That “love your enemies” bit trips me up every time.)
As far as I can tell, I’m not alone in this annual exercise of lamenting the human condition in general, and my own in particular.
There are liturgies and, some might say, even entire religious traditions built around it. Books and music have been written about it, and art made to reflect its anguish.
A lot of people ask me what I turn to for guidance and inspiration this time of the year. (I’m no spiritual savante, so perhaps they ask me because I go to churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc. for a living. Who knows?)
I tell them that since 1999, when it was first published, I’ve read and reread Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith just about every Lent. In ways big and small, her thoughts on faith transformed the way I see myself, my spirit, the world. And God.
Over the years, I’ve bought at least a half-dozen copies of Traveling Mercies, but they always seem to walk off in someone else’s hands. It’s that kind of book.
If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. Lamott, a recovering everything, is inspiring with her stunning feats of boundless humanity and reckless leaps of faith. She’s my hero.
Last week, Lamott, who described herself as “a big ole lefty and a big ole Christian,” was in town for a reading and lecture at Chicago’s North Park University, a Christian college associated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, where Traveling Mercies is required reading for every student as part of the core curriculum.
At the college, Lamott spoke, variously, about faith, forgiveness, parenting, hiking regime change, Jesus and George Bush.
Everybody has those somebodies in their life that just make it difficult to do the right thing and nearly impossible to do the loving thing. The Difficult Ones.
For Lamott, it’s George W. Bush and his administration.
She has a hard time loving the president, she said, especially because Bush and many of his cronies are Christians. Just like her.
“I’m doing whatever I can that I think would not horrify Jesus,” she told the North Park crowd, referring to her opposition of all things Bush. “I just want to be one of the people who’s not a right-wing fundamentalist who totally loves Jesus.
“I think that there’s nothing that can separate us from God’s love and there’s nothing that is so awful and heinous and barbaric and evil that would have Jesus just go, ‘Oh, forget it,’ and stomp off,” she said.
Not even right-wing conservative Christians who have “stolen the Bible” or the architects of a war based on a lie that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, she said.
Earlier this week, as I picked up Traveling Mercies again, I had a conversation with Lamott (via e-mail because we’re both better with a computer keyboard than with a phone) about what was on her mind as she stared down Good Friday.
“On Good Friday, I have to think doubly hard about the resurrection, because if it is not true, then we are all going tourist class, and it is all truly hopeless,” Lamott was telling me.
“I do believe in the resurrection, and I have had my own resurrection story, and know many, many people who have, too — the end of the light, the end of all sanity and good ideas, and hope. And then grace steps in — and for some of us, this came as Jesus, and for other people, it came in other direct experiences of Divine Love — and salvation and redemption are jiggled out of the dark, brutal, hungry world.
“I thank God that Jesus seems to have such low standards that people like me are welcomed into the kingdom, and entrusted with his love, to share with others, as others have so freely shared with us.
“I try to keep things really shallow; I understand about as much as is in the songs we sing with our kids on Sunday: Jesus died, and rose from the dead, for me, and for Donald Rumsfeld and Karen Hughes. Go figure.”
She and Bush and everyone else in the world are suffering from the same “sickness in us that is fatal and progressive and disgusting,” Lamott said. Humanness.
“Inside, I’m just as capable of any madness or egotism that Bush has displayed,” she said, explaining that she feels sorry for him and empathizes to a certain extent. “But mostly I hate George Bush.”
“I am a bad Christian,” Lamott continued, echoing my own thoughts. “And Jesus is so sweet and kind. I think he watches me, and knows the inside of my heart and loves me anyway, and I guess — urrrr — he feels the same way about Bush and Cheney.”
So it seems.
Maybe on this bad day called Good, we’ll both find the courage to love The Difficult Ones in time for Easter, and pick up some traveling mercies for the coming year.