Thursday, January 28, 2010

Justification by Faithlessness

One of the most significant contrasts with my previous experience that the city of Edinburgh has presented to me is the presence of beggars. Let me hasten to qualify what I mean. I am no stranger to the sight of men and women who stand on the street corner in the U.S. and hold up signs that say, “Need food, God bless”, or something like that, though I must say that I have never personally aided someone in that particular situation. I like many Christians have bought into the notion these people aren't really as desperate as they claim, that they are professionals who prey on the sympathies of good people, etc. I've only once picked up someone on the side of the road to help them because in the the back of my mind I hear the voice, panicked without experience, that says that hitchhikers have guns and are going to kill me and steal my car. It would probably do us middle-class, white Christians some good to be forced to hitchhike for a little bit.

Nevertheless, I have at times bought food or gasoline for, or even given money to, people who approached me on the street or in a parking lot and asked me for it. Lara and I helped a man buy a train ticket our first weekend here. We witnessed to him, prayed with him (he was in tears; no one's going to convince me that he was faking, either), and gave him most of the money he needed, which wasn't really that much. I honestly feel that helping people I don't know is an essential part of what it means, at least for me, to be a true follower of Christ. It doesn't matter if some or all of these people took advantage of me. It is my responsibility to be vulnerable, to not look out for number one, to let God be my vindicator. So I say, but my implementation of this principle has been very selective.

Up until now, however, I have justified this selectivity in two ways. First, I have tacitly believed that the Spirit of God would alert me when I came across someone who really needed my help, and this I still believe. I think we have to be sensitive to the possible direction of God that would counter our normal pattern of living. On the other hand, in situations where I did not help someone, my conscience was generally let off the hook before I turned around and helped someone because my mind works surprisingly quickly to fabricate a justification for acting out of fear. Or laziness. Traveling at 45 to 70 mph aids the justification process, because the more quickly out of sight, the more quickly out of mind, but being on foot in Edinburgh has put a face to the cultural phenomenon of begging.

That there were regular beggars who staked out particular places on the streets was something Lara and I noticed our first weekend in Edinburgh. The regularity of these people struck me as odd. I had not personally encountered someone sitting on the street with a cup, asking for change, apparently sleeping in sleeping bag in that very spot, even on the coldest of nights. My first reaction to it was to dismiss them. These were professionals, I said. There are too many government programs (another wretched justification for Christian inactivity in the U.S.; if conservatives are going to truly not be hypocrites, we cannot use government for stinginess at the same time we vote for the elimination of those programs which support our stinginess) for these people to really need to be begging. They were choosing to beg.

The first beggars were easy to forget because we didn't stay in that area for very long. But after we moved to Buccleuch Place, I have come to be able to recognize the local beggars by sight. There is one lady in particular, overweight, mildly hooked nose, looks to be somewhere between 35 and 45, who stakes out several places on Clerk Street. A particular man, slight of build with ordinary features is often located right next to the entrance to the Tesco we shop at. They are not aggressive, hardly even vocal unless you look at them. I've tried to appease my conscience by smiling at them and greeting them, but they always replied by asking for money. I stopped looking at them.

Not giving was also easier for me to justify at this stage in our lives because, frankly, we don't have an income. God has provided in miraculous ways, but I don't have a dependable income, and I feel a slight (perhaps manufactured) twinge of guilt at the idea of using gifts or loans to give money to beggars. I have not really been able to contribute to our local church except by contributing some time (and not much at that). We are in the process of fixing that problem.

But today, as I was walking to Tesco from the Elephant House, where I had purchased a latte for £1.62, and was thinking about playing soccer tonight (which involves a bus fare of £1.20 and £5 to help with renting the field), I was caught off guard when I saw the beggar at the entrance, not the usual fellow, but a girl, probably in her twenties. She could be pretty, but she looks beaten down and was not attractive. My heart went out to her. She didn't hardly look up as I whisked around the corner into the store. My decision was made at that point to give her some change when I left the store.

After a shopping trip where I bought everything I needed for several days' worth of lunches and breakfasts for less that £13 (and this was one of my more expensive shopping trips; grocery shopping over here is actually rather inexpensive compared to my experiences in the U.S.), I fished out a £2 coin and put it in the girl's cup as I left the store. She looked up, appearing to be mildly surprised and said, “thank you,” in such a way that I was certain she really meant it. I smiled back and left. It is customary for me to reflect on events like that and evaluate them afterward, trying to understand how they fit into a larger and more comprehensive approach to Christian ethics. I felt good. I felt like I had heard the voice of God and done something pleasing to Him, and I still think this is the case. But as I approached the crosswalk I would take to return to my flat, I spotted the overweight beggar woman with the hooked nose down the road just a bit at the bus stop Lara and I use to go to the hospital. It was then that I realized that the reason I had been open to helping the girl was because she was younger and prettier. That was it. I am disgusted with myself right now as I write this. I do not mean that I was sexually attracted to her. That was not at all a part of the situation. The only masculine motivation to my actions was general protection and aiding. But the fact that she was a young, prettyish female made it possible for her to break past the wall of faithless justifications I had built around the insignificant change in my pocket. I had judged her less likely to be a professional con artist and more worthy of my donation than the overweight woman simply based on the way the two women looked. I had been selectively vulnerable to the world around based on the meanest of foundations for judgementalism. I don't know what any of these people have been through. I don't know if they are mentally disabled, if they are forsaken by their families, if they are asking God for some sign of his love for them. I can't know what they've been through until I know each individual. How shallow have I been that I have profiled people on the street based upon what other middle-class, white Americans have said.

This creates a dilemma for me. I can no longer act and think the way I have till now. Something must change. Either I must live fully by the principle of vulnerability, which I believe to be the very heart of the gospel, or I must harden my heart against every beggar equally. I choose life. Will God hold it against me if the money I give people is used to buy alcohol? I can't possibly know that it will or will not be used that way, so where does my culpability end? I believe it ends when the money leaves my hand. You buy gasoline from companies who exploit third-world countries. The crude oil form of that gasoline is just as likely to have come from Saudi Arabia as anywhere else, and let's not fool ourselves by saying that there is not significant funding of terrorism going on with oil money. Does that mean that driving your car is immoral? No. This is the problem of corporate sin, a concept with which we in the West are not intuitively familiar, a problem which is dealt with by the cross of Christ. I believe in spending your money in a moral fashion, like supporting fair trade agriculture, but who else is being taken advantage of in the chain of commerce that links me to the fair trade coffee bean? God forgive me, for the evil my money supports, and for the evil in me which uses that as a justification for stinginess, for greed. No, I will not be deceived into thinking that I am culpable for the money I give in obedience to Christ being used for the perpetuation of sin. I choose to be willfully vulnerable in totality, not in part. Jesus deserves that much. I don't know, yet, what this will mean in its entirety, but I do know that now, whenever I go over to Clerk Street, there will be just a little insignificant change in my pocket. I can skip the latte.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Watching the Grass Grow

I haven't written in a while because while a tremendous amount has happened in the last month, it is difficult to organize those events or the feelings surrounding them into a short, coherent blog entry. Also, I just haven't felt the energy necessary to write one of these. It takes a surprising amount of energy for me to write one of these, because I really try to pour myself into it. The purpose of this blog to begin with was to chronicle our experiences & feelings and God's faithfulness so that it would be a lasting testimony and a future encouragement to others. Therefore, I feel it incumbent upon me to bare myself while writing. Don't worry - I always put my clothes back on afterwards.

I have a son.

It's a very short sentence, and it seems pretty straightforward in its meaning, but it's not really. Within those four words are packed an immense amount of emotion, history, and future. I don't even fully know what it means. At a very basic level, I know that there is a new human being who emerged a month and a half ago from Lara, and who shares with me 50% of his DNA. I know that my sense of well-being is now very much wrapped up in this new human being. I know that he is very small, but that his personality is very big. At times I am overwhelmed by emotion when I even think of him, and at other times I feel completely numb when I am sitting right next to him. I know who he is as well or better than anyone else in the world, except perhaps for Lara, but I don't feel I really know him, yet. He is like me, but he is also not like me. He will surprise me countless times in the future as he shows me how much is like me and unlike me.

I feel so attached to him, but it's difficult to feel the full depth of the emotion, because so far physical interaction with him has been very limited. More recently, we both have had the opportunity to hold him, and we can reach into the incubator pretty much whenever we want. We've been able to change his diapers and feed him regularly. Still, I can't wait until he doesn't need the incubator and CPAP anymore when we can hold him without a time limit. Then, I think, I'll start to feel like I can begin to express to him what he means to me. As it is, most of my affection is expressed through staring at him.

I have to be honest, though. I get bored watching Peter sleep for five hours. I love him more than anything, and I am thrilled everytime he moves or opens his eyes. Just last week I heard his first actual newborn “wah, wah, wah.” He was irritated that the nurse had put him on his stomach, which is where he has preferred to be up until he threw this particular fit. He settled down once he was on his back again. These little things are amazing and wonderful. But watching him sleep is boring.

So I bring a book and sit there next to him for a couple of hours reading. But then I think to myself, “Why am I here, if I am just reading and not looking at him?” I can read just as well, better even, somewhere else. Many days, when Lara and I come to the hospital together, I spend about an hour with Lara and Peter, then I go downstairs to the hospital restaurant where I can concentrate (which is where I am as I write this) and read or write or whatever I need to do to feel like I am going somewhere. I'm there until a little less than an hour before we go home. Then I head back up to the neo-natal unit, watch him for 45 minutes or so, then leave. I've started wondering why I come even on days like this.

But if I take too much time away from Peter, I begin to feel guilty, like I should feel like I'm missing something. I came in today after having taken two days to stay home and work on research to find Peter having clearly gained weight since Monday. I can't really say that I feel bad, though. I just feel like I should feel bad. I actually feel that I have begun to discover a balance in my time spent here at the hospital. Two to three times a week max is sufficient for me to feel like I'm getting stuff done and seeing Peter enough. I don't feel guilty about that at all, but I feel guilty for not feeling guilty. I think I would feel guilty otherwise.

I'm not really as conflicted as it sometimes sounds. I think our current existence, while difficult, is actually rather fun. I mean, when is life ever ideal? It hasn't ever been for me, except for scattered five minute spurts when I can focus on only the good and ignore the hard. I want to cherish this time for itself, because how many people get to experience the amazing joy and relief of having an extremely premature baby who survives and thrives? I love having unique experiences. They are what define my life as opposed to anyone else's. If that sounds existential, it's because it is. Who is Kerry Lee other than the choices he makes and the things he experiences? The only appropriate ideal against which to compare this is the hypothetical plan of God, but how do we know even that outside of experiencing life as it comes to us? We've been on an adventure with God for a long time. I don't want to start being a party pooper now, especially now that I have a new partner in crime.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Neonatal Unit and More About Peter

I get most of my subject matter for these posts from questions that I receive. I also get the source of my questions for Peter's doctors from questions I receive. Since Peter has been born I have had cotton in my brain and have not been able to think of these things to ask myself. So continue asking me stuff, so that I can ask and feel more informed.

Well, the neonatal unit has become somewhat familiar to me in the past month. I have found that it has three areas: the intensive care area, the high dependency area, and the special care area. Peter has been in the intensive care area since he was born. This area has about ten beds split into two rooms. One nurse is assigned to each baby and only the very sick, very small, or very premature are in this area. Once Peter is almost or all the way off the CPAP and is needing little intervention, he will be moved to the high dependency area. This area has room for nine babies and one nurse is assigned to two babies. Finally, when Peter is pretty much only on the feeding tube or on nothing at all, he will be moved to the special care area. This area is like a typical hospital nursery with open cots and more freedom for the parents to handle their babies. Often babies go here for a little bit of light for jaundice, or minor care that can't be done at home or in the maternity ward. Most babies are kept with the parents in the maternity ward when born, so this area is a little more specialize than a typical nursery. Peter will be move here to be watched and get bigger before going home. Because he was so premature, he will have to be completely free of any assistance before he can go home. Other babies may go home while still needing a feeding tube or a little oxygen or a heating pad, but there are too many factors and risks to do that with Peter.

Since the last time I posted, Peter has continued to make progress. We were told by the doctors that they would wait a while before trying to take Peter off the ventilator again so that he could grow and get stronger. Peter had other ideas. On Christmas morning, as the doctors were making their rounds, Peter pulled on his ventilator tube and dislodged it. Instead of replacing the tube, the doctor decided to put Peter on the CPAP to see if he could stay on it for a few days. That was over twelve days ago and Peter is still on the CPAP. The CPAP is a little mask that goes over his nose and gives him oxygen. The ventilator was a tube that went down his throat and helped inflate his lungs while giving him oxygen. This is a huge step forward.

Also, at this time, Peter does not have any lines in him (like an IV or such). He still has an oxygen monitor strapped to his foot, a body temperature monitor that he lays on, and heart monitor stickers on his chest (which fall off pretty often when he wiggles, but he hasn't had any heart problems anyways). He also has the feeding tube still. He will continue to have the feeding tube until he reaches what would have been 34 weeks gestation because until that point he will not have the ability to suck, swallow, and breathe at the same time.

Peter's eyes have also opened finally and he is actively looking around even though he can't see much yet. At six weeks old, an eye doctor will come and look into his eyes to see if they are developing properly. In extremely premature babies there is the tendency to develop to many blood vessels in the back of the eyes which impair vision kind of like a cataract. They can fix this pretty well with laser surgery.

The main focus is for Peter to continue to gain weight and mature. This will help him to regulate his body temperature well enough to get out of the incubator and onto a heated cot. They had to switch Peter to half breast milk and half formula so that he could get enough calories to gain weight. As of this post, he is eating 7ml of milk/formula every hour and weighs 2 lb 7oz.

You may wonder what I do all day at the hospital. When I first get there, Peter's nurse updates me on how he did last night, what the doctor's plans are for him, and if there was an increase in his food or oxygen, etc. Then I will sit by his incubator and talk to him or just watch him or read until something comes up. Every hour, I get to feed him with a syringe on the end of his feeding tube. Once every six hours, more or less, his nappy/diaper is changed and I am allowed to do it when I am there. I can also rub his skin with coconut oil when it looks dry or give him a pacifier/dummy. Usually about twice while I am there I will go to the “humanlactor room” to express milk. I sometimes get to see various tests that they run on him or get to talk to his doctor. Many times I will get into a conversation with his nurse and find out more information, though sometimes the information alters slightly depending on the nurse. Recently Kerry and I have been able to hold him. If he continues to be stable on the CPAP, the opportunities to hold him should increase. Of course, I also take pictures any time some thing new happens.

So there you go folks. Feel free to post any questions because it gives me things to ask about.

Christmas and New Year

I thought I would take a short break from the Peter updates to talk about how Christmas and New Years differs in Scotland than in the US. Kerry and I were able to celebrate both holidays with friends who are from here and so we learned a few things.

Christmas day does not seem to be dominated by the gift giving frenzy so common in the US. Gifts are still a major element in Christmas here, but there is a lot of focus on the Christmas dinner as well. The Christmas dinner is traditionally a turkey centered feast much like our Thanksgiving dinner. Cranberry sauce has even been imported for this purpose. It seems, once asking around, that goose may have been traditional in years past, but the American turkey has become king. Along with this meal's varied sides , it is required traditionally to serve brussle sprouts, Christmas pudding (which is a fruit bread), Christmas cake (similar to fruit cake but with frosting), minced pies (which does not have meat, but a dessert pie with dried fruits), mulled wine, and chocolate truffles.

During the dinner, those around the table will open the “crackers” at the same time. These tootsie roll shaped little packages are held by two people sitting next to each other while crossing their arms and holding the package on the other side of them to make a circle around the table in which everyone's arms are crossed and each person has the end of two packages, one on each side of them. Everyone then pulls the packages apart at the same time. These packages make a pop sound as they open and reveal a small trinket, a joke, and a paper crown that everyone wears. Also on Christmas day, the Queen give a little speech on TV that most people watch.

That pretty much describes the differences. From Christmas trees to Christmas cards, the rest is very similar. I have have to say that the lack of materialism in the holiday here was refreshing. Decoration did not ooze from every corner and annoying blow up statues are not in the yards (wherever there was a yard), but the potential for that option was still present.

Oh, and unlike the US, Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) is a national holiday. That day is still celebrated much like American's by spending the day shopping.

Now New Years Eve and Day is a much bigger holiday in Scotland than in the US. In fact, the holidays are seen to be almost equal in importance. On New Years Eve in Edinburgh, a section of the city around Princes Street in closed off for a huge street party. Ticket paying partiers come from around the world and dare to cold for a night of fun (which I am not sure what all that includes). Then at midnight, the cannons from the castle shoots and fireworks are lit from five hills around the city for a spectacular show. Then people are supposed to go visit friends' and relatives' homes bearing a gift for the first house they enter. On New Years Day there is a another great dinner. Traditionally, this dinner is steak pie.

Well, that is a summary of the holidays as I saw them. My friends from the UK can feel free to post comments correcting any misunderstandings or omissions that may have occurred. I hope I did both countries justice. Happy holidays!