Thursday, October 18, 2012

Exploring a Theology of Gratitude in the Land of Entitlement

[Transcription of public reflections made on Sunday 14th October at Ringwood Uniting Church after a week at Hosana Church in Dili, East Timor. It is also posted on matters of life, my writing blog.] 
I'd like to share two stories from my time in Timor-Leste that have made an indelible impression - not so much because I have learnt something new, but because they highlight a personal inadequacy that I have been reflecting on since.

Firstly let me say thankyou to those people who were able to donate the nine recorders for our trip. In Australia it’s true to say the recorder is a much-maligned instrument, and there were many jokes flying around about whether it was fair to burden the East Timorese with the instrument that drives so many parents to distraction. When we left for Dili we did not know whether anyone would be interested in them, and so by way of introducing the instrument, decided to include recorder in our presentation at the Saturday night concert on our first evening in Dili.

The following day we were told there were some young women who were interested in the ‘flute’ I had played, and I said I happened to have some instruments with me and would be happy to give some lessons while we were in Dili. The following evening, the first of three consecutive nights, seven young women who I guess were aged between 16 and 20 arrived for the first lesson, and with the two Tims building a fan-base amongst the young men next door with their guitar prowess, I began teaching the girls to play the recorder.  I have to say I have never had such polite, quiet, determined, disciplined students – but I also felt they were unconvinced of their capacity to learn a musical instrument.  

I have no idea how long that first lesson went, but it was much longer than the planned hour. We worked together overcoming the language barriers via translations by two of the young women who understood English, and by lots of sign language, nodding and smiling, and physical demonstration. Several times I thought the lesson was coming to an end, but the girls urged me on.

At the end of the lesson, as I was packing up, the girls got into a kind of huddle, and then a representative said, We are wondering if we would be able to borrow the recorders overnight to practice? It is hard to adequately describe their reaction to you when I told them they could keep the recorders – they were a gift from this congregation. If I were Enid Blyton, perhaps I might describe their eyes being like saucers and their voices squealing and pealing with glee as they jumped up and down hanging onto one another. Mostly plastic, second-hand recorders that I imagine had been forgotten at the bottom of wardrobes, toy boxes and under beds in Australia, were now prized possessions. I will never, ever, be able to forget their response as long as I draw breath.

What happened next was also very revealing. Some girls ran outside where the guitar lads were emerging and literally waved the recorders in their faces - Now we have our own musical instruments too. We can play music just like you, so there.

The boys were as gobsmacked as boys can be, and two of them immediately came to me and asked if I had any more, so I gave them the remaining two. I learned later some of the young men had expressed doubts that the girls were really up to the challenge. My feminist sensibilities were, you might say, ignited! 

As we arrived over the coming days at Hosana Church’s training centre to take respective recorder and guitar lessons, we could all hear the recorders playing, practicing somewhere, in the distance around the grounds. One girl reported practicing all day and while this was encouraging I’d have to say I’m eternally grateful she wasn’t living in close quarters with me.

Two of these wonderful young women have decided to continue the recorder group, and I have promised to send music to them once they have exhausted the supplies.

So to the second story: On one other day we travelled up to Manluana, north of Dili. We are talking poor here people, houses with dirt floors made with whatever the people can come by. At the church we met Francesco. He is a songwriter. Francesco’s father was a farmer who died when he was a young boy. His mother brought him up in the Catholic church out in the country, but he decided to leave her and travel to Dili, leave the Catholic church and get involved at Hosana. Many years have passed and Francesco is now nineteen. He did not go to school because he had no one to pay for it. He has no work. He lives from house to house wherever he can find a bed amongst friends.  Francesco’s story is one like many others, but the thing that struck us all about him is the sentiments in the songs – they centre around a loving God who is a great Father who has been gracious and generous to him. It’s hard to reconcile Francesco’s story with his heightened faith of gratitude.

These are not merely nice stories about a bunch of young women learning recorder, and an orphaned boy who writes great songs. Though that alone would have been enough for me. This encounter has heightened in me an awareness of how weak my theology of gratitude is. Of course I am thankful for what I have, the opportunities I have, education, and all that stuff. I am. But in terms of faith I’m not sure I truly demonstrate a grateful heart – you know for all those things God has done for me. I’m much more likely to reflect on how lucky I am.

I reckon the lucky country has now become the land of entitlement. In Australia we believe we are entitled to an education, to shelter, to work – or else unemployment benefits, to a pay rise, access to power 24/7, to clean drinking water, to healthcare, vaccinations, early childhood care, legal advice. When we buy stuff, most of us don’t consider getting second-hand. When it breaks, we chuck it out. We expect our workplaces to be safe, and if we incur and injury at work or as a result of our work activity we look for someone to blame. If we get sick we expect on-the-day care, and we expect to recover. If we are overweight, or unfit, or tired, or broke, it is often the case that self-denial rules the roost. If someone is poor, as a society we often look for reasons why it is their fault, and why we shouldn’t help. If we are fined for speeding, we look for loopholes rather than accepting responsibility. When travelling on roads there is a veritable uproar over a pothole, and yet people regularly speed in 40km zones past schools.

Timor-Leste is the poorest country in Asia. While I knew something of Timorese struggle for independence (I even attended a few protest rallies in my student days) I had no conception of the extent of the suffering endured by the Timorese during the period of occupation. We are talking about genocide people – concentration camps, and period in which it is believed the population of Dili was almost halved. So in that context, how is it that there is such an overwhelming sense of gratitude?

I’m not sure I will ever have a really grateful faith, because I’m unconvinced God intervenes or acts for some people over others. What I do hope for is courage and openness to explore gratefulness further. 

Can I close by saying how great it was to share this experience with Stan and ‘The Tims”. I reckon we have different and complimentary skills, and the evening de-brief was always revealing and delightful. I'd also like to thank this congregational for trusting us with this particular segment of the ongoing journey. It has been an adventure and a privilege none of us will ever be able to forget.


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