Change the World

I was 24 years old, and I’d spent the past 7 years of my life studying religion, the Bible, and spirituality, and I graduated for the third time in my life and I had no idea what was going to become of me. I had recently, finally begun the process of becoming a pastor but later than usual, so now I had to wait. I started looking for a job and could not find one.  I mean, I contacted Starbucks and they didn’t call me back — (thanks, guys, like I don’t give you business).

Through a professor I ended up hearing about a position in a church that seemed to match some of my passions.  I applied for it, and by the grace of God and some folks who saw potential in me, I got the job.  My first ‘professional’ job.  It was a director/missions position and I moved in to a place that I quickly realized resembled a book I was reading at the time —  ‘The Help.’  I seem to have traveled back in time into pre-Civil Rights.  This community is the only predominantly African-American county in Florida and at the same time segregated (by schools and funeral homes, etc), either really rich or underresourced and poverty stricken… A less than 50% graduation rate, poor literacy, and so on…

So, I moved by myself to the ‘ghtetto’, got a big dog like they told me, an alarm system, etc.  My Mom’s prayer life increased exponentially, and I was genuinely excited to work on these ministries that had begun there — A neat after school program, English classes for non-English speakers, and the opportunity to get to know some beautiful people.

The couple years I was there God taught me many things.  I learned things about how the world works, about suffering, isolation, community, and justice.  I learned things about myself, but more than anything, I think God was showing me things about God-self.  God is in the places where people avoid.  God is to be found where there is seemingly little light.

In the cycles of poverty and violence and oppression that I witnessed I began to ask where hope was?  Where justice was?  Where the kingdom that we Christians hear about was?  And as a minister, what I possibly could say that really meant something — not just nice words or just talk about heaven — but that actually changed someone’s life.

That brought me to the Gospel of Luke.  All the gospels have their own ‘flavor’ so to speak — they are written for certain audiences for certain purposes and thus sometimes address different things.  I resonate with Luke as a champion for the outsider.  One of my favorite scripture passages is Luke 4:16-21:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Prior to the part to this passage, Jesus is born in a meager situation – one that allowed for shepherds to visit.  He begins to grow and finds himself studying in the temple.  He is baptized and then spends some time of preparation in the wilderness.

Jesus then went home to Nazareth.  As his family’s habit he went to the synagogue to worship.  There they repeated the Shema (found in Deut and Numbers), the central verse of Judaism, pledging allegiance to one God.  Then they prayed, heard a passage read from the Torah, then a passage from the prophets, a sermon, and a final priestly blessing.  Jesus was given the honor of rearing the scroll and then preaching.  He read two verses from Isaiah 61.

The words Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth when he announced the beginning of his ministry are incredibly meaningful and reflective of his mission. He identified himself as the “Servant of the Lord,” prophesied by Isaiah, who would “bring justice” to the world (Isaiah 42:1-7). “Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace [and he did!]. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world” (Tim Keller, ‘Generous Justice’).  How much more radical can you get than mentioning the year of the Lord, jubilee, in your opening statements!

Now, I will confess that I still have moments where I feel hopeless.  Where I indulge in pity parties.  Where I wonder what this ‘fulfilled in your hearing’ business means.  I still see injustice, suffering, and oppression — I can think that the powers have won, and feel despair.  But I find that this is why we are a people of hope… and a people of action.

The ‘fulfilled’ tense is one that is currently happening and continues to happen.  I worked on my Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork while living in this community, and one of the questions was related to the kingdom of God.  While reflecting on where the kingdom of God is breaking through I discovered it was often in the little things.  In the midst of what seemed like a hopeless environment in seeing the big smiles of children.  In telling kids who rarely if ever hear words of love in their homes, “I love you, no matter what.” In making chili; in giving out candy; in living in the midst of it all.

I read the Bible and I’m overwhelmed with the amount of Biblical material that expresses concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.  Jesus didn’t come in power and using all the glory and authority of God,  he came lowly and without a place to rest his head.  He didn’t show off his knowledge and stick to the synagogue alone, and built up his spiritual life for himself.  He was continuously with people.  He healed the sick.  He liberated those who were oppressed by spirits.  He was criticized for hanging out with the wrong crowds.  In the same way we who go to church, and have Bibles (and maybe even read them), who know about a life of prayer and can talk about spirituality and grow in that way — but unless we use all of those things that build us up as individuals to build up the church and to love the unlovable, to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to change our lives, we are not really following Jesus and walking where he is… we are posing.

“We must move beyond an anemic view of our faith as something only personal and private, with no public dimension, and instead see it as the source of power that can change the world. ”
-Richard Stearns, ‘the Hole in Our Gospel’

How do we as the church follow Jesus this way?  How do we as individuals do this?  God does not ask us to give things we do not have or cannot give, but God can’t use what we don’t offer to be used.

Prayer:  God, thank you for the incarnation – for being a God who comes down and lives with us and doesn’t simply ask of us things from on high.  Thank you for being with us still, through your Spirit — you never leave us alone.  Thank you for continuing to call us deeper — beyond ourselves.  Fill us with your love.  Fill us with your compassion and with passion.  Change our worlds again, and help us be agents of change, for the growing of your kingdom.  Amen.

a going away gift from the after school program

a going away gift from the after school program that hangs on my wall

Advertisements

Lessons from nausea, dirty feet, and latrines

I have this theory about being uncomfortable – I believe that we can’t grow spiritually without periodically experiencing it.  I’ve written about this before, but last week I found myself on a very uncomfortable four-hour boat ride with people vomiting around me, and I thought to myself:  Why do I do these things?!

4 hour boat ride on wooden boat from the mainland of Haiti to the island of La Gonave

Miserable on the right with a hat.  En route to  La Gonave, June 2014.

This is not the first time I’ve been on this boat ride.  This was my third trip to Haiti, and when I go to Haiti I go to the island of La Gonave where we visit the village of Picmy/Picmi/Pikmy.  I’ll let you in on a secret, I do not like all that traveling to Picmy entails.  I love Picmy, I love its people, I love the people I go to Picmy with, and I absolutely love going on mission trips.  I do not  remotely enjoy the 2-3 hour ride from the Port Au Prince airport, navigating with a group of people with tons of luggage through immigration, pushy Hatians who try to take your luggage so you pay them, and a hot, bumpy bus ride to the coast.  Then comes the boat.  The trip as a whole is challenigng on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

bus market

Truly, there were more challenges on this trip than I care to share or have the time to — from no AC, running water or plumbing, to cultural and community barriers and discord.  However, half way through the long week, as I was walking back to our house in this dusty, perpetually hot existence, my feet filthy, no matter how much I cleaned them; my body sweaty and tired, thinking of all that I had to do the rest of the day to simply get ready for bed, and all that was left to do in the week, when again I thought to myself:  Why do I do these things?! Why am I here?  Then John 1 popped into my head:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
-John 1:1-5, 14

village

I do this because Jesus- it’s called incarnational ministry – ministry in the flesh. God made God-self uncomfortable in the incarnation.  I do this because in these places I find Jesus more clearly.  Jesus is found where it’s hot and dusty and unpleasant:  in deserts between borders, on islands where missionaries don’t return to, and in conversations with people who believe and live differently than we do.

I do this because it makes me uncomfortable.  When we’re uncomfortable we’re stretched.  We go beyond ourselves, our preconceptions, our preferences, and are able to allow God to blow up or expand our world.  And again, when we’re uncomfortable, it’s more likely that we’re following Jesus on the dirty, incarnational path of discipleship.  The coolest, most rewarding things that have happened to me in my life have all been a result of first being uncomfortable — sometimes for a while.

The awesome that happened–

Lest I make it sound like the week was completely horrible, I should let you know about some of the awesome things that happened (as usual, God working despite me and my inner grumbling).  We successfully held VBS, a medical clinic, and began construction of a permanent clinic (the only one on that side of the island!).  Around 20 people accepted Jesus as their God and Lord – many turning away from voodoo.  Two of these folks were voodoo priests — one of them was baptized during our time there, the other one’s voodoo rag was burned.  A beautiful baby girl was born at our clinic, and on our final night, our worship night, 14 people turned to Jesus and were prayed for individually.

final night - worship night

final night – worship night

Speaking as someone who dislikes being uncomfortable (I’m a recovering germ-a-phobe, for crying out loud), I’m aware that our culture, and unfortunately our church, is prone to thinking about what we want to do or be, and not much about the sacrifices and difficulties that result when truly following Jesus on the way to the cross.

So how can we apply these uncomfortable truths to ourselves as individuals?  Do I only participate in things that I’m comfortable doing?  When was the last time I was uncomfortable in my walk with God?  How can we apply these principals to ourselves as a church/denomination?  How/who do we serve?  How/who do we welcome?  Where do we visit?  How do we spend money (or not spend money)?  How are we intentionally making ourselves uncomfortable so that we may grow?

For the record, I still hate that boat ride.  May God make us uncomfortable where we need to be uncomfortable… and may there be Dramamine.boat ride 2014 from far

Let’s pray:

Truth-telling, wind-blowing, life-giving spirit—
we present ourselves now
for our instruction and guidance;
breathe your truth among us,
breathe your truth of deep Friday loss,
your truth of awesome Sunday joy.

Breathe your story of death and life
that our story may be submitted to your will for life.
We pray in the name of Jesus risen to new life—
and him crucified.

-from Walter Brueggemann’s, Prayers for a Privileged People

 

(Thank you, Katie Dahlem and Allan Griner, for the photos!)