Christina

She came in the subtle lessening darkness of this dawn; the sun’s rays making their daily appearance, peering through the drawn shade and tiptoeing across the floor, heralding a new day. Blinking into the shadows, then, through my mind’s eye, clearly I saw the face of one who changed my life.

It is not unknown to meet someone who, in the barest breath of a moment, alters one’s perspective, adds a dimension of seeing, of knowing that, before that instant, was not only unimaginable, but impossible to perceive. I think all humans have, can have, or know of someone who has had this sort of experience. Again, not unknown, but, at least for me, uncommon.

I met Christina eight years ago nearly to this day whilst on sabbatical. Could it be…dare I think, believe that’s why she appeared to me this morning?

In 2006, Christina Gasa was an 80-year-old Zulu grandmother, who lived in the valley of Shayamoya (“where the breeze blows”) up and over a hill from a small town in the region of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

As this was the rainey season, most days in South Africa were cloud filled as in this one. Most days, the clouds gave way to the sun. (37)Standing on the crest of that hill, looking down, the valley appeared as the most verdant carpet of earth’s richest, most exquisite foliage. It was a beatific vision, however, that, upon closer view, also harbored the most excruciating poverty I’d ever beheld.

Christina lived in a two-room home, the square footage not much larger than my office, that stood on a narrow flat outcropping about a kilometer from the main road, down a long, steep knoll, the final approach reachable only on foot. Three of her four children having preceded her in death, Christina cared for seven grandchildren.

We, members of the local Anglican parish and I, who had come to assess Christina’s needs and to offer help, made our way to her home for what was and remains a life-transforming encounter.

Christina, greeting us at the door, a sheath of heavy fabric draped across the portal, offered a selfless hospitality in her welcome, a gracious humility in accepting whatever aid we offered, which was far short of her monumental need, and, for me, an inconceivable fortitude in keeping her faith and maintaining her sanity.

Christina, in our two-hour visit, taught or re-taught me many things. That physical poverty does not mean one lacks wealth, for she possessed an abundant capacity to give of herself, both to her grandchildren and to us. That an abiding, unassailable faith in God is honorable and must be respected, even revered, perhaps especially by a skeptical, ever-questioning believer like me. That graciousness and hospitality have everything to do with welcoming, accepting, loving “the other”, who, to her, I was and always would be.

Christina Gasa taught me who the Jesus I follow, the embodiment of love and justice, is and what Jesus does. Christina more than fulfilled the meaning of her name, for she, with no mere word from her lips, but more through the witness of her life, transformed the sinews of my idea of Jesus into the flesh and blood of living reality.

the old guy gets schooled

The three of us sat around the table in my office engaged in deep conversation about things that matter. Mallory and Joslyn, soon to wed, literally quivered with the happy vibrancy of incarnate love and the lambent vigor of heartfelt expectation. I felt the palpable sweep of their energy, vicariously carried along with them in the details of their planning, my spirit wheezing as I sought without success to keep up with them…

For her, a transcontinental move.

For him, migration to the United States.

For them, relocation to a city far apart from their vast and supportive circle of family and friends.

For her, settling into a new job.

For him, entering a graduate degree program.

For them, “eventually,” they said with panting excitement, which really meant, “within two years or so”, the coming of children.

For an instant, all was quiet; the three of us catching our collective breath. They peered at me with eyes of wonderment, asking, without words, for my comment. I, with the experience of years of pastoral ministry, particularly engaging, being with couples in contemplative preparation, not only for their wedding day, but for married life, had an immediate thought, really, a caution. I opened my mouth to speak. But not wanting to sound negative, which was not my intention, much less judgmental, which was even far less my aim, I paused, searching for that proverbial “right word.” After several moments, I said, with a thoughtful scratch of my head and a smile, “Well, that’s a lot!” Their bodies sagged. Clearly, I felt, they were expecting something profound, which I knew I hadn’t the slightest ability to offer.

C’mon, Paul,” Mallory enthused, “we know you’re thinking something. So, tell us.” She looked at Joslyn who nodded in vigorous accord.

Slowly I exhaled. “OK. I think your plans are wonderful and if anyone can pull them off, you can. What I wonder…worry about,” I took a deep breath, “is that you’re taking on a good many life’s stressors in a concentrated period. They are positive stressors, but still stressors. Conventional wisdom suggests that we try to spread them out over greater periods of time.”

Together, they pursed their lips. On immediate reflection, I felt they were paying me the honor of considering what I had said. Then Joslyn, rubbing his chin pensively, said softly, “Yes, Paul, we see that. We really do. But, for now, we get to choose.”

Feeling my eyebrows knit together, I cocked my head, yearning for more.

“You see, Paul,” he continued, reaching out to take her readily offered hand, “we intend to be together for life. We know at the end, death will come. And along the way, no doubt, other not so positive stressors, which we won’t want and wouldn’t choose. Here, now, we get to choose.”

A spontaneous tear trailed down my cheek. I sat in the presence of two people, who, embodying the righteousness of love’s courage, in that moment of sacred sharing, became my tutors. “Amen,” I whispered. “Amen.”