Reflections on an election

After two years, after debates and debacles, after so many words and so much money spent and so much fear and so much dislike, disregard, and dissembling, nobody won last night.

Now to be clear — I’m not referring to the outcome of the election, Donald J. Trump is now our President-elect.  This is not a claim of a rigged system or alleging irregularity, nothing to do with our electoral college system vs. popular vote vs. republic vs. democracy.  I mean the election process itself that we’ve just been through: that to choose a new leader required that kind of election, we all lost.

We have been through 2-year barrage of harsh language, insults, spin, politicking, dissembling, outright lies, grotesque revelations, appalling behavior.  Those who have been involved in and surrounding this process have behaved in ways I do not expect from my 5-year-old — and would not allow from anyone even younger than him.  At the end of this grueling process our country split with a (as of this morning) 47.5% / 47.7% vote.   Let me say that again: the final vote split by a 0.2% difference.

We’ve seen journalists and media ignore the truth and the people in front of them and reward the circus of this process.  We’ve seen operatives assume and hold on to their presumptions, no matter the subsequent facts.  We’ve seen politicians use horrific language and make horrible stereotyped pronouncements that is filtering down into our schools, language and behavior that I, for one, do not and will not allow in my home.  We’ve seen people inspired by the worst in us, the worst in them.  We brought forward perhaps the most disappointing electoral slate possible (both candidates among the least-trusted, least-liked, least-respected of any candidate in a long time, if not ever).

No, America, we all lost last night, because of what the election process cost us.  This election season has split us, divided us, and shaped us in ways that we will be discovering for a long time just how unhealthy they are.  We have been through something that has abused us.  This kind of thing — this kind of abuse — leaves a mark.  Maybe not visible, but it is a mark, an effect, a lasting shape that has long, lasting tendrils.  We all lost last night, because the last two years have hurt us.

That’s what this election was.  Here’s what it is: What this election means for us, however we feel about its outcome, is we have hard work to do.  No matter how you feel about the results, no matter whether your candidate “won,” no matter who you are or how or if you voted: We have hard work to do.

For those who are elated: it is time to listen.  It is time to listen to the concerns of those who are not, listen to the dreams that led them to a different decision in the ballot booth.  It is time to reach beyond that 0.2% that divides us and discover what unites us.

For those who are disappointed: it is time to listen.  It is time to listen to what those who chose differently were anticipating, listen to their dreams and what led them to a different conclusion.  It is time to reach beyond the braying of the campaign trail and rediscover those who are with us beyond that 0.2% divide.

For those who opted out and didn’t vote: it is time to listen.  Creating and keeping a healthy democracy in a world so quickly shrinking by travel, communication, media, cultural exchange requires engagement and participation.  Listen to those who did participate, listen for their reason why it matters, and give them a change to listen to you.

For those who are afraid: it is time to listen.  If you are a person of faith, remember that our hope is not, never has been, and never will be in a politician of any stripe, color, persuasion, or perspective.  We must remember this!  2008’s election made me nervous with language that approached “salvation.”  Remember: We do not need a Savior.  We already have one.

For us who now have to learn how to live together after such a divisive experience: it is time to listen.  It is time to hear — the hopes and the fears.  The disagreements and the similarities.  It is time to remember that the continuance of our country has never depended on agreement.  (Actually, we never, ever have!)  What matters is that we are United States of America, and for us to Unite, we need to learn to listen.  Come on, people.  We can do this.  We really can.  I know it seems hard, it seems impossible, but hard is what we do best.  We are Americans, and this is what we do — we come together, United States.  Listening is where that has to start.

And then, once we know how to listen, once we know how to be United States, we need to build something new.  This culture of ours, this whole mishmash of politics-ethics-mythology-values-media-entertainment-individualism-marketing-economics, this whole system is what gave us that gut-wrenching two-year process.  I can’t stomach the thought of going through this same kind of experience in two years.  Something has to change, or we will rinse-wash-repeat.  Something has to change, and it has to begin in us.  We cannot continue divided this way, and we need something with more staying power than a World’s Series game.

As a person of faith and a community leader, I believe the Church has to lead the way — we who entrust our lives to a Savior beyond politics and culture must stand together as witness to the Kingdom in which we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28).  We must learn to insist on and embody the priorities of that Kingdom, in both our personal and our civic lives.  We must learn to follow Jesus across the boundaries we keep trying to erect between us (Luke 15:2), we must reach beyond every division (Gal 3:28), we must learn to listen and love all who are our neighbors (John 13:12).  This election made it very clear: politics, culture, economics, media cannot, do not, and will not unite us.  They have no power, no reach across divisions.  Only the One who stretched his arms out to all on the Cross can do that.  And We are his Body in the world — we, too, can and must stretch out our arms.

We who believe know the deeper truth — this world is not governed by politics.  This world is governed by the One who created, redeemed, and sustains it.  We know the truth of things, and we are the ones who are capable of seeing beyond that 0.2% that divides us — because the One we follow already did.  We are the ones, brothers and sisters, who must lead the way: to listen, to refuse division, to honor disagreement, to bridge our shared brokenness.  Only we, because we are the Body of the One who already has.

We are all in this together.  We have hope.  And we have work to do.  So let’s get on with it.  This is what we do.  It’s time.  Now.

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Reflections on fear

I am disappointed with my city of Valparaiso.  Monday our City Council voted 4-3 against a project to provide 31 supportive housing units in an unused, landlocked lot owned by the city.  I attended the meeting and stood outside in the hall to listen to the public comments, the Council Members’ discussion, and the vote on the rezoning proposal.  I am disappointed.

I’m disappointed that our Council Members did not have the courage to bring $11 million of investment into our city by donating a parcel of land that is unused, and largely unusable.  I’m deeply disappointed they used letters and emails from residents as their cover for doing what is easy or expedient, instead of having the courage to do what is right. I’m disappointed that this was our best opportunity to address a present and pressing need in our community, to follow the vision we as a city have developed and adopted, and that opportunity is now past.

But I’m most disappointed at the nature of the comments I heard in the public hearing portion of the night.  We heard from some who spoke in favor of the proposal, and they urged its passage based on the ValpoNext Vision Plan, on our shared American history of providing opportunity to those who have been less advantaged, and based on their faith and calling as Christians to care “for the least of these.”  (As a positive aside, I’m absolutely thrilled to report that this last bit made people uncomfortable!  Finally, finally the Church is making culture uncomfortable!  Finally, finally our faith is not just a proxy for capitalist-American socioeconomic assumptions!  Finally, finally following Jesus’ teachings, example, and commission is making those around us squirm!  I could not be happier to see that start happening.)

And we heard from person after person who opposed the project.  Many were neighbors of the proposed development, and we heard of their concerns for the view out their back windows, who these neighbors will be, that property values might go down, an assumption that crime rates will automatically go up.  Many spoke of the neighboring Montessori School and seemed to assume that this development would decimate its ability to serve children.  (Only one commentator suggested that the new apartments might be an opportunity to reach out and serve children they otherwise wouldn’t be able to encounter, which seems a missed opportunity.)

Above all, we heard fear.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of something different.  Fear of “those people,” repeated over and over again, “those people” coming into our town (hint: they’re already here!), “those people” filling a homeless shelter in our neighborhood (hint: it’s not a shelter, we heard that average expected tenancy is 6+ years!), “those people” preventing schools from operating (?!), “those people” automatically making our neighborhoods unsafe, undesirable, uninhabitable.  One person said, “I just want to know, when do I need to sell my house by?”

That phrase “those people” made me just so disappointed, and so sad for the people who are saying it.  As someone who chooses not to make decisions based out of fear, I admit it’s challenging for me to empathize with those who do.  This fear of the unknown, especially such a second-order unknown (“we don’t know who or what we won’t know”) just makes me sad because it sure sounds like a narrow window onto the world.  The expectation that all our city must look the same, behave the same, or come from the same economic background — that just sounds so plain to me, so bland, such a limited experience of the beauty of the real world and proud of it.  My heart just breaks for folks so afraid they can’t see through bigger windows than their fear.

Because I’m an internal processor (Meyers-Briggs “I” plus a hefty dose of N, F, and P) I usually have a hard time thinking of what I would want to say in a setting like last night; I tend to think of it later, once my thoughts have filtered.   Here’s what I would have said at the hearing if I’d thought of it faster, what I wish I could say to our city that’s so afraid, what I would like to say to those who made so much of the fact that no neighbor to the proposed site was there in support of the project:

I am not the mythical neighbor-next-door to the proposed housing here in support of the proposal, although I wish I was.  I wish I could be its neighbor.  I am thrilled by the idea the residents will be attending my children’s school.  I hope my kids get to meet them.  I hope they become good friends and our families can get to know each other.  I hope my kids ask probing questions about how and where their friends live.  I hope my kids discover that people can come from different backgrounds, different economic experiences, different life experiences.  I wish I lived next door because I would enjoy being their neighbors – I’ll bet they will have some pretty interesting things I could learn from them.

Now the project is dead, without any possibility of relocating elsewhere.  If my City does manage to find another opportunity to do the right thing, I hope they’ll do so in my backyard.  Put the building site where I can see it.  Put it in walking distance of my house.   I’d like to be their neighbor.

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Reflections on an open hearing on a Human Rights ordinance

Tonight I attended the “Special Meeting: Human Rights Ordinance”, a public hearing for community commentary and input regarding a proposed “Ordinance of the Common Council of the City of Valparaiso, IN Prohibiting Certain Discriminatory Conduct Within the City“.  I attended in support of the ordinance; but since my thought processes always take time to crystallize — darn that being an introvert — I only found the right words later, once I’d been home.

As someone who has devoted his life to serving Jesus professionally in the Church, I get nervous about the word “tolerance.”  Not that it’s a bad word, or in any way that I think people using it don’t mean well — it’s just that I don’t think it’s a word that Jesus would use.

“Tolerance” to me always sounds like such a low bar — “I tolerate you breathing the air around me.”  I tolerate your living — you get to exist next to me.  I tolerate your presence — you’re permitted to be in the room with me, just don’t bother me.  Tolerance sounds to me isolating, paternalistic, dismissive, pedantic.

And the real problem is, I can’t think of a time Jesus “tolerated” anyone.  The Pharisees?  Not so much — he engaged, he argued, he told them stories to turn their world inside out.  Zacchaeus?  Not so much — “I’m coming to your house for dinner.”  That’s not tolerance, that’s entering the home of a real jerk of a man, entering the private sanctum of a known public crook.  The woman about to be stoned?  Not so much — he put himself in front of her: “Let the one without sin [spoiler alert: that’s him!] throw the first stone.”  After doodling in the dirt for a bit he looked up and in apparent wonder asked, “So where’d they all go?”

Personally I’ve never seen Jesus “tolerate” anyone.  Instead he had this distressing habit of sitting down to dinner.  Touching lepers.  Welcoming sinners.  Calling tax collectors.  Raising dead guys.  Jesus engaged with people, who and where they are, especially if they were “off-limits” by the human-derived lines that we draw to divide people.  He served them, and he served with them.  And in that engagement he transformed lives, transformed the world, with his Good News.

That, for me, is the religious freedom I have received as a Christian, as an American, as a community leader.  The freedom to engage, to build relationships, to come to know others’ lives and experiences and discover with them another facet of the fascinating, flummoxing, God I serve and love.  In Christ I have been given the freedom to cross boundaries and love people the way Jesus did — which, after all, was his marching orders to me and to us.

For me, the ordinance we talked about tonight provides the opportunity to live out my faith — by joining my neighbors, serving my community, and partnering with God to transform the world.  That’s why, as a Christian, as a faith leader, and a community leader, I stand in support of the ordinance — because my understanding of “religious freedom” is enhanced, not restricted, by allowing my sisters and brothers who are black and brown, women and children, gay and straight, to live as securely in my town as I do as a straight, white, tall, 40-something-year-old man.

Personally, I don’t think I have the right to speak for others’ experiences, not even for members of my own congregation that I serve.  I don’t think I have the right to tell the gay, lesbian, and trans members of my congregation what they feel or have experienced.  When they tell me they feel uneasy or unsafe in Valparaiso, I feel compelled to believe them.  If they tell me this ordinance is needed for them to not feel afraid, I believe them.  When they tell me this is one step toward showing them they’re just as important, just as beloved of God as I am, I believe them.  This is engaging — hearing, entering, listening to others’ experience.

I dream of a day when we won’t need something like this ordinance.  I dream of a day when all of us will follow Jesus alongside others who are not like us.  I dream of a day where my children and the folks I serve with don’t have to be afraid of others, because they’ve come to know and appreciate those with different experiences.  I dream of the day when not one of us is “tolerated,” but we are all engaged in real relationship, true fellowship, in the incredible beauty of the Body of Christ together.  That’s the day I dream of.

But the truth is, we’re not there.  Things like this ordinance are needed, and necessary, because we’re not there.  This is needed now to create the kind of community we dream of, the kind of community our hearts are telling us they are longing to see.

But more than that, I need this.  As a Christian, as a religious leader, as a community leader, as an American, I need this.  I need to be reminded that I am not the end-all be-all of God’s creation, and that God is not somehow limited to loving only people who think like me or act like me or are made like me — scrawny, 6’3″, sloped shoulders, gray hair.  I need for my own sense of who God is to be surrounded and reminded that he is a God of endless creativity who makes people endlessly different and loves them, endlessly and differently just as they are, who revels in the diversity we see in his Creation — why else would he have made things so varied?  I need to be reminded and surrounded by who God loves, and in order to create the community who matches what I experience of God’s heart, I need things like this ordinance that will help us create what I think God dreams of and what I see God having done.

That’s why I stand in support of this kind of ordinance — because I, and we, need it as people of faith.

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Small things

I had a dinner conversation the other day with some insightful, delightful people who asked about the trip to South Africa, what its highlights and challenges were, and what it's meant to me. It's always an interesting question, when someone asks how the trip was — to say “good” seems insufficient, and in some ways I'm still figuring out what it means and how that is evolving, even as I'm becoming more aware that it is changing somehow. That became especially clear when one of the hosts said to me, “I read the blog of your trip. Are you still angry?

This was one of those God-moments that casts your gaze inward, when in the considering you learn about yourself and what the Lord has been up to. I won't be able to recreate exactly what I answered, but it was (I think!) something like, “It's certainly changing, and in process. I'm not feeling the same way, because those posts were pretty raw. It seems to be turning into something more like a compulsion to ask important questions.”

As faithful followers of Jesus, there are times when anger is the only appropriate response to the presence and effect of evil. Jesus showed it himself in the Temple, tossing tables and brandishing a crude whip. His anger, though, is systemic — he despised what the sacrificial system had become, and most especially what it did to the poor and powerless in the Temple's hierarchy.

We ought to have that kind of anger as his followers, anger at how people can be unheralded and unnoticed by our culture and our society. That kind of systemic anger, anger at the broken system that surrounds us and how it resists change, I think is appropriate and faithful. I think of our elderly treasures, sometimes sitting ignored by family, and how we've lost the reverence for the wisdom of family stories. I think of our preteens and teenagers, already bombarded with sexualized expectations for beauty and build (have you seen those magazine covers for teenagers lately??). I think of our children, who are being targeted by advertisers as young as 4 and 5 years old. The system in which we live is failing them, and you and me, too.

What I experienced in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu was a stark reminder that our world is not the kingdom of heaven. The brokenness of our world isn't abstract, it has the face of beautiful children, lonely teens, desperate women. And that same brokenness traps me, too, just not in the same ways. You reading this blog are trapped, because broken systems trap us all, even those who seemingly benefit from them.

But the real question for us as followers of Jesus is, once we've noticed brokenness, once our heart's been moved with the Lord's compassion, now what? You who have been reading this blog with me have asked that, and I've asked myself, too — what do we, what can we, what ought we, do?

I think we might begin together at two different levels. First, our hearts should go around the world, because that's what God loves. And there are places in this world where need and suffering is more acute than you and I can hardly imagine. Find an outlet for your compassion that makes a difference. For Amy and myself, besides our tithe we've been supporting an organization called “2,000 Wishes” for a number of years, together with my parents and aunt and uncle and several others in my family. 2,000 Wishes sets up and supplies feeding stations for orphan children in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Amy and I periodically turn to each other and say, “Let's feed some more orphans.” We've also just committed ourselves to supporting a child through Compassion International, because that's where our heart and our passions led us. Find a way that sharing your blessings can make a difference — tithe to your church, give away more. Sharing blessings makes a difference.

And second, let's do something together right here at home. While the slums of Rio or Khayelitsha present poverty at its most potent, we also have the poor right here in South Bend, in Valparaiso, in Chicago and Indianapolis and yes, even Baroda, MI. There are hungry children in our own neighborhoods, elderly men and women despairing in loneliness right next door, desperate teenagers right around the corner. We know that, but we probably don't know them. Perhaps that's a place to start? What if each of us, you and me, made an effort this holiday season to get to know someone outside our comfort zone? To meet them with an expectation of learning from them, and praying to see them through God's eyes? What would that be like as a first step?

At the close of our final session, one of my colleagues on the trip to South Africa talked about “doing the next right thing, with courage.” Small things, blessed by the Spirit, make a difference — that's what our shared history with God shows us over and over.

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A story from Gugulethu

I’ve told this story in a couple sermons now, so it’s time to share it with a wider audience:

As we visited with Pastor Swipo Xapile of J.L. Zwane Memorial Church in Gugulethu, one of the townships outside Cape Town, he told us the story of an intern who had come to work with the church. And the intern came to him one day troubled, and they sat down to chat.

It seems he’d taken Communion to one of the widows of the congregation, an elderly woman, and met in her livingroom with her and her little grandson hovering nearby, watching everything with big eyes. And during Communion, when it was time to break the bread and give her a piece, she took it, but didn’t eat it. And didn’t eat it. And he didn’t quite know what to do, so eventually he carefully turned his gaze away, all the while watching out of the corner of his eye. He watched as she took that bit of bread and gave it to her grandson hovering there by her chair.

Afterward they talked about it, and she said, “We haven’t eaten in two days. I couldn’t stand to eat that bread in front of him when we haven’t eaten in two days.”

Pastor Xapile said to us, “I’ve come to understand Communion as the equal distribution of bread — you take a little, I take a little, we all have the same.”  And again: “When my people pray the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ that’s just what they’re praying for:  Daily.  Bread.”

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Reentry

As it turns out, reentry is hard.

Not because of sleep deprivation, although changing Daylight Saving Time so soon after traveling 6 timezones wasn't particularly helpful. Not because I wasn't welcomed home, or that people don't genuinely want to hear about the trip, or because my life is uncomfortable in some way – indeed, life as a middle-income, white American is very, maybe even too, comfortable.

Actually, reentry is hard because of that – because it's so very easy to slip back into well-established patterns that fit so comfortably into middle-American lifestyle. It's very easy to slide back into the boxes I've constructed for myself in how I spend my time. It's simple to keep serving and pastoring exactly how I know how to do and be and, not only that, be welcomed and encouraged and applauded in doing so.

And yet I still feel this hand in Khayelitsha Township.

I see these orphan eyes from Guguletu.

I'm still moved by the incredible witness and humility of this man, Bishop Kevin Dowling of the Diocese of Rustenburg, where something like 40% of his people have AIDS, and tonight there will be young women engaged in “survival sex,” and young people are so despondent, so hope-less, they don't care if they get infected or not. He has begun an AIDS clinic among the shacks, and a hospice to give dignity to those dying from a disease that most often leaves them ostracized and abandoned.
 

What's hard about reentry is that I have been changed, and I need to ask different questions. Here in South Bend there are children sleeping on the street tonight. Here in South Bend and across Indiana there are orphans, far too many of them older and thus less adoptable. Here in South Bend there are men and women (and children, too) with HIV and AIDS, and they live with that stigma and shunning that is as much attached to it here as it is in Africa.

And those are the obvious ones — we also ought to be asking, with Archbishop Makgobo, what it means theologically to seek profit above all else and the accumulation of wealth as our greatest good. We also ought to be asking, with Archbishop Brislin, whether the Church's proper role is guide dog or watch dog for politics. We ought to be asking, with Rev. Peter Storey, what it means to be faithful in a world where people, right here in South Bend, are shunned and feared for the color of their skin and I serve in a church that is entirely white and homogenous. And we ought to be asking, with all the people of faith, why we allow fear to so control us, as the recent election showed on every side of every single elected office.

Yet, it is my observation that these are not our questions. And most likely, were we to ask them, in my congregation at least many, if not most, would shake their heads and say “What an interesting question” and continue worrying about how long we can limp along with a congregational budget deficit. Or would once again get angry that I am encouraging action out of faith instead of preaching “me and Jesus” as our only business as a church.

Instead of asking these questions, we're worried as Christians about losing the “culture war,” as though this world of God's is nothing more than a battleground, instead of the arena for the revelation and working out of his grace and mercy. Instead we debate, still in our ELCA, the “authority of scripture” without including “authority of interpretation,” when what's often really happening is a cover for whether we have to have gay and lesbian sisters and brothers in our communities. Instead of realizing we are the richest society that has ever lived in history and yet are one of the most divided economically, we worry about whether making $250,000 makes us middle class or not. Or who should have taxes raised in a society so quickly going bankrupt. Or whether a black man belongs in the Whitehouse.

But I held the hand of a little boy whose family, odds are, is living on less than $1 per day. He grabbed my hand and walked with me and I loved his smile. And I saw the shacks in which he lives stretching out to the horizon. And I know that right here in South Bend, right here in my own city, there are too many whose life and circumstance are far more like his than like mine. And that means there are questions that I have to ask.

No, reentry is hard. It's hard because whatever God is doing to me doesn't seem to be done yet. And with my colleague Brent, I recognize that asking these questions is really asking for a change of heart among God's people, to bring them more in line with God's own heart. Changes of heart are kinda the business God has called me into. And that's not an easy business, and it's not very often welcome, and it's not very popular. But it is faithful. It is Godly. And that's all I can hope for.

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Coming Home

I began this trip with the expectation that by getting to know another culture, and some of its history, it would give me a new lens, a new viewpoint, into our own. I expected to come back with new insights into the challenges that face us as a Church, as faithful people, as a city, a state, a nation. I was wrong.

What this trip has done for me and, more to the point to me, is something altogether more profound and more challenging and a whole lot more painful. That's not to say I didn't gain a new vantage, or a new viewpoint — but I suspect that will develop over time. I suspect I need to be back into our own culture again for that to develop or to be realized, although there are tantalizing hints.

For example, the most striking thing about South Africa's past is apartheid's absolute obsession with race — to quantify it, categorize it, and ultimately use it to control and dominate and subjugate an entire people. Those obsessions, I found, still linger, as South Africans time and time again described themselves according to the categories of the Race Classification Board: Black, Indian, Coloured, White. And since class lines fall almost exactly along race lines, those classifications still have painful meaning.

As we encountered these, in our group's conversations, we recognized that in truth the United States lives with just about the same — and equally defining — categorization. We have never defined them officially, or with the same rigor, but they're still there. We still know there are neighborhoods that are Black — don't we? And when we see someone on the street we immediately place them in a category — don't we? Thanks be to God that class lines are not necessarily — but far too often are — falling along those same racial lines, but we have a long, long way to go before we stop the evil practice of trying to put each other into boxes.

Or, for example, take the suffering and evil of economic inequality. Now I know we're in an election cycle, and it wasn't too long ago that this became a politicized catch-word. The fact is, South Africa has the highest economic inequality of any nation on the planet (or comes in second, depending on whose list is used). The measure of that is called the “Gini Index,” used by the World Bank and the CIA and others as a way of understanding, at a glance, a general measure of comparison for a society. We bore witness to the evils of this inequality time and time again in South Africa — every time I held the hand of a child in Khayelitsha Township, or shook a hand in Gugulethu, or was approached by someone asking for money — and they were nearly always black — I saw it in action. In South Africa, there are far too many who suffer — suffer in ways you and I can't even imagine — because the top 10% have unimaginable wealth, but the bottom who have nothing — less than a dollar a day — are far too many. Is that how you imagine God dreams of life on earth being?

On that same index — which again simply shows comparisons — the United States comes in 42nd. Which sounds better, until we look closer and realize that's out of 136 nations ranked — meaning the 31st percentile. And that the only 1st-world nation that comes in worse than us (remember that a lower number means worse inequality) is China, and I'm not sure China actually is considered a 1st-world country (I'm on a plane and can't look it up). All the others that we're doing “better than” are developing or 3rd-world countries or with dictators or a military regime or Communist. Every single one. No matter your political inclination, that is a fact. Whether to do something about that, or what to do, is where we differ. But the fact is: we are a divided, unfair, inequal society, and there is suffering from that fact all around us that most of us don't see and don't know and, frankly, don't want to know.

I expect that these and so many other things will continue to percolate inside me — observations and recognizations around race, economics, AIDS, young people, despair, suffering. Those will take time, and I suspect that will be a long process for and within me.

What I'm coming home with is something much more challenging and difficult: I come home with a whole new expectation and vision for what it means to be a person of faith in our world today. We met with such extraordinary leaders, men and women who brought a groundedness in the Word, a deep sense of grace, a peace and blessing that could not be ignored. And each of them shared with us how they had wrestled, deeply with tears and groaning, with loss and sacrifice, with what it means to be faithful in one of the most inhumane, most brutally evil and oppressive situations I've ever, ever heard of, and never imagined.

What they brought to us was themselves, and the reflections that led them to take faithful action. Each of them had to wrestle, individually, with what that action was and meant, and each of them came to a different conclusion, a different path. That is as it should be — when God calls us, it is always to be our own selves, fully and faithfully his, with all our talents and gifts he gave us brought to bear with what he is up to. And each of us, with the grace and gifts he has given, is invited to pitch in with him and be his heart in the world and, he hopes, his hands.

Peter Storey put it maybe best in his succinct way: “The Church is only the Church beyond the Church.” Our place, brothers and sisters, is not in any building, not in any community, not anywhere that is familiar or comfortable. Oh, we certainly need all those things — because the ebb and flow of faith, the breathing in and breathing out of the Body of Christ, means we need to inhale, we need to gather and worship and learn and grow deeper roots. We need each other, and we cannot, cannot be faithful without each other.

But faithful living doesn't stop there. It is our calling, our privilege, to be God's heart in the world — to find and hold suffering, and to let God's love meet it in us. That is what it means to be faithful — to love the people God loves, to go and find them (because God is out there with them already), to see them as God sees them. And our God is the God who provides, who serves, who gives, who nurtures, who sustains, who binds, who blesses, who gives himself for the whole world. Not for the Church — God didn't send his Son for the Church. For the World, out there, those broken people that God loves so much.

For the extraordinary men and women I met on this trip, that faithfulness has meant standing with linked hands in front of men with guns. It has meant defying an evil regime. It has meant holding the hands of children dying with AIDS. It has meant bathing filthy, matted old men in the townships. It has meant seeking and loving and standing and holding and singing and praying and weeping and having their hearts break, over and over again. It has meant giving their hearts to God so his love can work through them. And the result, over time and by God's grace and help, has meant the overthrow of an evil system. And a lot more love still to be perpetrated on unsuspecting, undeserving, beautifully beloved people that God is so crazy about.

What about you? What in your heart burns as you read the newspaper? What is it that makes you weep? What is it that makes your heart convulse every time you see it? What is it in our world that doesn't look like heaven, where is the suffering that God is asking you to enter and hold alongside of and let his love work through you? Are you tired of a passive faith? Are you tired of “Me and Jesus” when you know, whether through these simple writings or the newspaper or your grandchildren that the world is so broken, so hurtful, so horribly filled with evil and despair that even if it hasn't hit you and yours yet, it will?

God has a bigger dream, brothers and sisters. I don't know what it is. I don't know what it looks like. But it's time for people of faith to be faithful — time to be God's people, God's heart, out in the world where the suffering is. I don't know how, and I don't know where, but there's something I — and you — can do. There's some small thing we can do, one hand to hold that doesn't look like ours. I need to find it. I hope you'll join me.

After Khayelitsha, as I wept in my room, I wrote this prayer in my journal. These are the words that burned in my heart, and maybe they will echo in yours:

I find tonight that I'm angry about the Township. I'm not angry we went — I'm profoundly grateful we did. I'm not angry at the tour, or the people. I'm not even angry at the government, or the city for not doing enough. I'm angry at all of us, for being complicit in allowing places like this. I'm angry that we allow them to remain. I'm angry that I'd heard about slums and never cared. I'm angry that we don't know what to do, and don't know that we would if we did. I'm angry at us, because I'm heartbroken — heartbroken over parents raising children in Khayelitsha, heartbroken at teenagers finding their way without hope, heartbroken over those children who don't have much of a future of opportunities, heartbroken at men coming back to a shack, women without recourse, heartbroken at the poverty and suffering I can't even imnagine, that I never imagined and now it's piercing my heart and I just need to weep and weep, tears for each of them I saw and for me who will go back home in just a few days. Oh God, why? Why do places like that exist? Why do we let them? Why didn't my heart break before now? Why do you let us create places like this and allow them to remain? Why don't you strike us down and wipe clean and start over?

And above all, O God — now that you've broken my heart for those children, now that you've opened me up a little more to what's real in this world, now, O God — what shall we do about it together?

 

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