Sunday, November 30, 2014

Living on the Edge

We were preparing to go as a family to Ethiopia and were speaking at a church hoping to find a few more individuals who would be excited to join our support team.  After our presentation, while we were chatting with friends before moving on to the service, a very  nicely dressed woman came to me and asked the question that was probably on many minds that morning.  ‘How in good conscience can you take your girls and raise them there in Ethiopia?’  Our girls were 10 and 8 at the time, and her question was asked in such a way as to make it quite clear that she considered ‘there’ to be a highly undesirable place to take children, much less have them stay there.  I’m not normally quick on my feet, but somehow I responded, ‘How in good conscience can you take your kids and raise them here in the US?’  I later noticed she wasn’t among our supporters.

Firstborn on the edge in Ethiopia

I have observed that we in the US who are privileged to be of a certain economic status possess an astonishing illusion of security.  We accumulate insurance policies for every possible disaster. We no longer worry about Dad getting us lost again, GPS will guide us to our desired haven.  Debit cards, credit cards, charge cards facilitate the disbursement of our treasure.  We have checking accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts.  We spend our adult lives pulling down our small barns and building larger ones.  We leap on the latest technology like hyenas on a fresh kill.  We abandon our early adulthood grotty apartments in the cheaper parts of town for increasingly spacious homes amongst the better sort.  If more stuff is a sign of the kingdom of heaven, then we of all people have surely arrived.

Secondborn on the edge in Ethiopia

And yet for all the security we have amassed, all the resources we can access, all the learning opportunities and educational experiences we provide for ourselves and our children, all the media with which we can distract ourselves, I can’t tell that it has reduced the number of families that fail, or the number of men and women who struggle with depression.  Alcoholism continues to destroy lives, as does addiction to narcotics of all kinds.  We are in denial over the scope and damage of child sexual abuse, as well as the devastating impact divorce and ongoing dysfunctional marriages has on the lives of many of the children who are involved.  It’s not enough for our kids to run around outside with make believe guns playing army.  Images of horrific violence are omnipresent on the screens in front of not only our grown-ups but our boys and girls, too.  And kids who have smart phones and tablets and computers are kids who not only can access pornography but most likely do.  And if these things weren’t distressing enough, despite our vaunted health care system and all those medicines that are touted when I am trying to watch the evening news (Don’t you just want to run out and try Cialis?), the death rate remains dismayingly high at about 100%.  However much we fork over for security and peace of mind, sooner or later reality will overtake us – there is no safe place.  Why would anyone want to raise children in a world like this?  Ethiopia was an island of sanity in comparison.

Driving on the edge in Addis Ababa

It turns out that all of us are living on the edge.  There is no safe place in this world.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim is in fact Everyman (and Everywoman).  All of us are fleeing the City of Destruction.  We find ourselves at various points mired in the Slough of Despond, or drawn like moths to the flame of Vanity Fair, or engaged in mortal combat with Apollyon himself.  This is for real.  Some of us won’t make it.

Ok, maybe not on the edge, but certainly on the equator.  Literally.

I’ve seen it again and again.  Maybe at some time we were ‘on fire for the Lord.’  We were active in a student fellowship.  Went to prayer meetings.  Went to Bible studies.  Went to church.  But when we left the hot house, we got a job.  Maybe we got married.  Maybe we had kids.  And those kids grew up and were involved in sports or music.  Maybe we started going to church with them.  Maybe we did our turn teaching Sunday school or keeping the nursery.  We sat in our regular spot on Sunday mornings and went about our very busy life the rest of the week.  And if someone would have asked, of course we are Christians.  We go to such and such church. We say grace before we eat supper.  We do no more and no less than everybody else we know.  It’s like that big dresser or bureau in the bedroom, with drawers for my running kit in the bottom, shirts in the middle and socks and underwear on top.  In the dresser of our life we have a drawer for our finances, a drawer for our family, a drawer for our professional life, a drawer for fun, and a drawer for our spiritual life.  It is the classic, ordinary American Christian life.

Me really on the edge in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia

This may work beautifully from a pragmatic American perspective.  But it is not a Christian life.  There are no ordinary Christians, who add ‘Christianity’ to an already overbusy life as if it were an elective one signs up for at school.  There are only men and women who have chosen to deny themselves and to take up their cross and follow Jesus.  The Lord knows no other category of follower other than disciple.  Being a Christian, in the New Testament sense, is not about adding yet another layer of illusory security, or some further spit and shine on an already successful burnished life.  Rather, Jesus more likely will deal with us as he dealt with the money changers in the temple.  Our carefully arranged tables of priorities get seriously overturned in this process.  Turns out ‘My Father’s House’ is about something different than me making money, or me being successful, or me achieving security, or even Me.

Yours truly playing with fire so far in the very south west of Ethiopia that it might be South Sudan.  Or Kenya.

So the American Christianity with which we are so comfortable, which is filled with ordinary Christians like us as well as with a few [choose your adjective:] really committed, holy, godly, sanctified, Spirit-filled [now choose your noun:] pastors, priests, monks, nuns, missionaries, hierarchs is in fact a mutant form of Christianity.  It’s just become so pervasive that we think it’s normal.  It isn’t.

Lots of edges to fall off of in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia

God doesn’t call the special people to go do special things and then leave the rest of us alone to lead our ordinary lives.  God calls each one of us.  Let me say this again:  God’s call comes to each one of us.  Every single one of us has a calling from God.  We are called by Jesus to be His disciple.  We are called to love God with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength.  We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We are called to engage the world around us, the world of contexts and relationships God placed us uniquely in, with the gospel.  And to paraphrase St. Francis, in doing so we may find it necessary from time to time to use words.  And the world we are living in has a very deceptive appearance.  It may seem to be a well-to-do suburban neighborhood with nice cars and lawns just so.  Or a busy college campus where everyone is above average.  Or a church full of people beautifully dressed and coiffed who probably couldn’t even spell the word ‘sin’ if challenged to do so.  But this world in which you and I find ourselves is terribly broken.  People are fallen.  Alcoholics shuffling down the blighted urban street are not the only ones medicating their pain.  The executive pushing others out of the way as he climbs up to what he thinks he needs and wants discovers that more money and more status cannot fill the black hole of his heart.  That woman’s husband batters her with his words and fists, but she is terrified to let anybody know because she is afraid that she will lose what’s left of the only life she knows.  That boy carries a secret too terrible to let anyone know – he is being abused by a relative.

Kermit the Frog on the edge in Kenya.

It is into this dark world that we followers of Jesus are called to carry His light and life and hope and peace.  Or, in other words, I may be called to be a missionary to engage in theological education in Kenya, but you are called, too.  You are surrounded by a crowd of people who don’t have the slightest idea what love looks like.  I may find myself living on the edge as I work to be Christ’s man in this time and place.  But you, too, are living on the edge.  It is what it means to be human, what it means to be working our salvation out with fear and trembling, what it means to love.  We are not ordinary people, and we meet no one merely mundane.

No ordinary people.

This of course is not a new idea.  C.S. Lewis says it as well as anyone else I have read or heard.  It is worth concluding by hearing this professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at length.  In The Weight of Glory he writes:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people. 

You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.  We must play.  But our merriment must be of that kind (and, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.  And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Harper One, 2001; posthumously published as The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1980), 45-46.