Problems solved or mysteries lived

I never thought I would see Lenny Kravitz cry on stage. But as the show went on, he just seemed to get more and more frustrated. I felt a little bad for the guy, to be honest. I mean, on the one hand, he’s Lenny Kravitz. But on the other, no matter how many times you repeat your song lyrics and ask the crowd to sing along, it’s not gonna change the fact that the crowd of 300,000 people on the Copacabana beach were primarily Portuguese speakers, and don’t understand what you’re saying, and even though they were super excited to be there, weren’t really able to sing along…

Of course, the five english speakers I was tagging along with didn’t really know the lyrics either – we were just there cause…  I mean, c’mon, how often do you get to go see a free Lenny Kravitz concert on the beach in Rio?

I was reminded of this ridiculous scenario the other night as I was driving home from my internship out in the suburbs, listening to a podcast of Walter Brueggeman teaching an Old Testament Survey workshop. As he closed out a portion of his talk, he said:

“For the most part, the wisdom teachers are problem solvers. But they knew that underneath the problems are mysteries to be lived with.

One of the problems with an electronic culture is that everything turns into a problem to be solved.

Creation is a mystery to be lived with, and not a problem to be solved…”

I turned it off to think about his words for a moment in silence, but right then Lenny Kravitz began blaring through the radio, and I was back on that beach in Rio.

As the two threads wove together in my mind, I smiled at the beauty and absurdity of it: Brueggemann and Kravitz combining to remind me of truth, of experience, of lived hope, of a time when I was learning to give up expecting God to solve my problems, or the problems of the people I cared about, and embrace the mystery of faith and trust and dialogue and honesty and anger and questions and relationship with God in all its wonder and complexity.

—–

The time around the concert was tumultuous. I had recently moved into the favelas, and was confronted on an almost daily basis with police brutality, gun-fights around the corner between traffickers and cops, friends dying of drug overdoses or drug-deals gone bad, systemic oppression and hopelessness and despair. I saw lots of problems that needed to be fixed.

But God wasn’t doing it. At least not the ways that I wanted it to happen. The violence continued. Bullets flew. People died. Hope died.

And yet…

Mystery. Beauty. Death was present. But even as death seemed to reign, there were signs of resurrection, of new life, of people transformed and choices made new, forgiveness opening doors and hearts, people risking love even in the darkness. This was the Kingdom at work.

This tension goes back to the disciples. I think of them asking Jesus, “Lord, are you now going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?” They wanted flash. They wanted bang. They wanted power. They wanted solutions. They wanted the Kingdom to come in now – powerful and majestic and impossible to miss. They wanted torture to stop, chemical and nuclear weapons destroyed, the oppressors ousted, the vision of Isaiah brought to earth where every one could sit and eat under their own fig tree, “and no one would make them afraid,” and freedom and liberty and justice for all.

And against that stands the path of Jesus.

“Yes, that will happen, but not in the way you want it to happen.
Yes, I will make all things new, but it will be like a slowly growing tree instead of an avalanche of light.
Yes, there is hope.
Now go.
Forgive.
Serve.
Give.
Love.”

That is the mystery…

And how do we live that?

“Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ‘em like a father and cared for ‘em like a mother…well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like ‘there are two sides to every question’ and ‘we must respect other people’s beliefs.’ You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgiving sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mena, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declaring’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just…is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.”

She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: “Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ‘cos it seems that if you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say ‘oh deary me, we must debate this.’ That my two penn’orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don’t chase faith, ‘cos you’ll never catch it.” She added, almost as an aside, “But, perhaps, you can live faithfully.”

~ Granny Weatherwax, in Carpe Jugulumby Terry Pratchett

May you live today faithfully…

Aftershocks: (August and Remembering, vol. 1)

August approaches.  It’s funny – the month of August is usually my cue for reflection.  I’ll stop, try and take some space to look back into the past, remember where I’ve come from, the people who have touched my life, reevaluate where I’m headed, and generally try to slow down and remember.  I love this habit, but the reason that it happens during August is because of the great (almost seismic?) shifts that have happened in this month over the course of my life.

10 years ago I stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro, a little confused, home-sick, lost, and overwhelmed, as well as excited, full of anticipation and eager expectation that good things would happen.  One of the things that I didn’t expect was Jeferson.  I’ve shared about him before – snippets of his life and death.  [I think it’s important to remember (and sometimes impossible to forget) that this story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending.]  If he were alive today, we’d be getting ready to celebrate his 26th birthday.  He’d probably have kids.  

(It’s the might-have-beens that will eat away at your soul…)

Some of you don’t know about Jeferson.  I’m sorry.  He was one of my first friends in Brazil.  A small word-picture of him:  picture a 14-year old kid from one of the rougher favelas with a smile and laugh that drew you in and made you feel as if you were sharing a joke that was on the whole world, a zest for life, a deep curiosity about other ways of life, a sense of humor that loved the absurd and was always looking for something to laugh about (or at), a softness and compassion that years on the street hadn’t managed to deaden, and so much potential for leadership that it made your teeth hurt.  He was by no means unreal – he had a bit of a temper, and made too many poor decisions, and would all too often be high out of his mind – whether out of boredom, or addiction, or just a way to deal with the immense amounts of pain and brokenness and heaviness that was his life day in and day out, or some combination of the three.  But he was deeply, authentically alive, and he was my friend, and he was someone whom God loved, and I loved, and who loved us in return.

There was his voice yelling across the praça when we would arrive, yelling out our names and running to meet us – echoes of the Father running to greet the prodigal son.  He would sing loud and hard, loved to eat spaghetti and pizza, and spent a couple of weeks living with us as we attempted to provide a safe place for him get his life together and off the streets.  He began to teach me what it meant to parent a child – the mix of love and anxiety, the desire to control and force them to make good decisions balancing out the necessity for freedom, autonomy, and the reality that those you love will make their own decisions for good or for ill, leavened with a healthy dollop of hope and apprehension.

That time didn’t stick – he left our home and was back on the streets shortly thereafter.  And the time after that when he went home to live with an older sister who was in over her head in the drug trade didn’t stick either.  And then he was in prison for theft, was gone for a few months, and came back a little wiser, a little more guarded, a little harder…  Yet in the midst of this, flashes of hope would glimmer.  A request for prayer – a tear and a whispered confession and a sincere effort to change and make good decisions – caring for younger kids on the cold wet sidewalks of Rio – a sense of hope – murmured prayers in the dark on the sidewalks and under streetlights.

This went on for two years – two years of shared meals, of spontaneous encounters on the streets and in the slums, on the beaches and in the churches, sandwiches and hot chocolate while huddled under an overhang from the winter rains, singing songs of hope and life and joy and a reality that must have seemed unimaginable at times.  Two years of growth, of failure, of prayers, of heartache, of dancing and beauty and life, of pouring myself into him, and being poured into in return.  Two years of slow movement, of incremental changes, of three steps forward and two steps back.

Two years…

—–

I remember sitting in my apartment doing something stupid and pointless on the internet when I heard someone knocking on my door.  It was Rich, and he had bad news.  “Jeferson’s dead.”  And things came crumbling down…

Details were fuzzy, yet as they slowly crystallized became more and more horrific – betrayal, ambush, humiliation, torture, murder…  par for the course in our broken world, so full of death, yet real to me in a new and powerful way.  It’s a story that has taken place too many times.  It’s a story that happens daily, sometimes on a much bigger scale – Syria, Egypt, DRC, Colombia, Haiti, Brazil…  It’s a story that continue to play itself out here in Chicago today in my very own backyard.  It’s a reality that I find all too easy to forget.

—–

I don’t want to forget.  I can’t really.  I can pretend, I can distract myself with shiny toys and fun games, but YouTube videos and books won’t bring resolution and a sense of closure.  There is work to be done.  Reconciliation.  Justice.  Forgiveness.  Hope.  Safety.  All things new…

I think of friends who are still involved – still kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight – in Kolkata, Katmandu, El Alto, Bangkok, LA, Jacksonville, Antakya, Jerusalem, Port-au-Prince, Chicago – and I am thankful.  For their life.  For their example.  For their courage.

—–

My only response that can hope to make sense of this is trust.  Not a trust that pretends there is no doubt.  Trust in the midst of doubt.  Not a faith that is blind to uncertainty.  Faith working through uncertainty.  Asking questions, pushing, not settling for the status quo, but in the midst of that holding on to the vision of all things new that gives us hope.  I recognize that this is a choice, but it is a choice that I choose to make.  And maybe that’s where grace comes in – that I choose to hope, that I choose to look for God, that I choose to try and find beauty, that I choose to act and not despair, that I choose to love and not wall myself off from others, from life, from the pain and the joy.

—–

This spring I finished reading Aftershock by Kent Annan – a slim book written shortly after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, processing what it means to hold honestly to faith while engaging the reality of our world in a clear-eyed & hope-filled way.

In it, I came across this:

An Annotated Wish List
For Changes In/By God

(Kent Annan – AfterShock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken)

  1. Rather than a God of occasional disaster-rescue miracles, I want a God whose miracles prevent the disasters in the first place.
  2. Rather than a God who needed to retreat in order to leave room for human freedom and love, I want a God who finds a
    less painful way to make freedom and love work.
  3. Rather than a system set up so that those who suffer most are also the most vulnerable (usually those who are poor), I want the wealthy to be the most vulnerable.  An increase in money beyond one’s necessity could inhibit the body’s production of antibodies.
  4. Rather than children being at the mercy of nature and of other people, I want no one to die or be physically or emotionally traumatized before turning twelve years old.  Nobody.  And the only ones who die between thirteen and eighteen should be those whose decisions represent a clear and present danger to others.
  5. For every unethical action, there should be an equal and opposite reaction – immediately.  If you inflict suffering, you should immediately suffer accordingly.
  6. I want a small indicator button, like a low-battery light, on the prominent C7 vertebrae that protrudes slightly on the cervical spine at the base of the neck between the shoulders.  A gentle red light would glow forty-eight hours before death is irreversible, when the downward spiral toward unconsciousness or pain has won.  It would indicate time for final goodbyes with loved ones and that a final welcome from God is imminent: “You’re released from this life.  Welcome into the next one.”

Kent Annan works in Haiti.  He is the author of a couple of books.  They are all highly recommended.  As is the way he continues to kick at the darkness…

 

Keep kicking at the darkness friends…  until it bleeds daylight…

A prayer for the coming year

 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

~ Thomas Merton – Thoughts in Solitude

 

Doubt

“The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt…”

~ Rollo May (The Courage to Create)

Flying or falling?

Almost two years ago, my friend Seth came and spent a week with me in Rio.  It was only a few months before I was planning on leaving Rio and moving back to the US.  I took advantage of Seth’s presence to have a few of the adventures I’d been meaning to accomplish, but kept putting off for a better time.  One of those adventures was hang-gliding.  Hang gliding in Rio is pretty different from the other few places I’d seen hang-gliding done.  Instead of relying on thermals to give you a long flight, the hang-gliders of Rio rely on the wind.

The morning I went, we spent some time getting a basic flight lesson down on the beach.  We then drove fifteen minutes up the mountainside of the Tijuca National Forest until we reached the launch platform, which rested 1,700 feet plus above sea-level.  As I put on my harness and helmet, the instructor gave me a few pieces of advice as we went over the procedure for our flight.

“First of all,” he said, “See that ramp over there that ends abruptly over a 500 foot drop?  That’s our take-off point.  We will strap in to the glider, and run off the edge as fast as we can.”

“As fast as we can?”

“As fast as we can,” he reiterated.  “If we don’t run fast enough, we won’t have enough speed, and we’ll fall.”

That was pretty good incentive for me.  After a few practice runs on solid earth, he deemed me ready for flight.  We strapped ourselves in, waited our turn in line, and I tried to still the butterflies that jostled and howled to be released from the confines of my stomach.

“Oh, and one more thing,” the instructor casually stated as we were next in line.  “Whatever you do, DON’T jump!”

“What?”

“When we run off the ramp,” he explained, “You’re going to have the temptation to jump off the edge.  It’s only natural when faced with a 500 foot vertical drop.  But I’m going to need you to NOT jump.  Just run as fast as you can, and when you reach the edge of the ramp, keep running and allow your weight to pull you forward.  It’ll be ok.  Trust me.  But you need to remember not to jump, even when every instinct in you tells you that you have to.”

This isn’t what you want to hear moments before you fling yourself off a cliff, no matter what you’re strapped to.

And suddenly, it was our turn.  Adrenaline raced, my legs got jittery, and my mouth was dry as I enjoyed that delicious balance of nervousness, fear, and anticipation of doing something incredibly fun: feeling 100% alive.  I glanced over at the instructor, grinned up at him, nodded once, and then focused my eyes straight ahead of me.  All I could see was the 20 feet of wooden platform built out over what felt like a bottomless abyss, even though I could clearly see the crisp ocean, creamy beaches, the high rises, the jungle, and the jagged rocks far below.  I breathed deeply, and listened for my cue.

“GO GO GO!!!” he yelled, and I began to run.  I sprinted – ran as fast as I could – hit the edge with my right foot, my left foot flailed and spun for a fraction of a second, and then we dropped.  I felt my gut begin to yell at me, screaming “You said we would be flying.  But we’re not.  We’re FALLING!!!”  10, 20, 30 feet down, speed increasing, and me wondering why we aren’t zooming around like the birds do.  I would like to say we dropped like a stone, but in reality, we were a little more aerodynamic than a stone.  After dropping about 30 feet, the wings filled with wind, the instructor leaned into the wind, and we began to climb.

Just like that, the fear was gone, replaced with pure exhilaration as we banked, soared, climbed and dipped over the cityscape.  A dive or two, a couple spins, and above all the quiet and peace that enveloped me as we floated high above the world.  For 15 minutes we laughed and played and my heart danced.  We finally pulled in for a landing on the beach, and as we gently touched down (pretty near perfectly, I might add), I realized that the grin that was plastered to my face had left me with a sore face.  It was incredible, and I was addicted.  We spent the rest of the afternoon watching friends and strangers fly above us, come in for landings, commenting, laughing, and soaking up the joy of being alive.

However, it was easy to look back and forget that one little part – those few seconds at the beginning, when adrenaline and fear and terror tried to overwhelm me and stop me from jumping.  And even when I gathered my heart and jumped, those first few seconds sure did not feel like flying.  They felt like I was falling.

And as I think about it now, I wonder…  Maybe now, when I feel like I am in a state of free-fall, plummeting through the atmosphere, arms and legs thrashing in the wind like a rag doll, that is not the end of the story?  Maybe now, when I feel unmoored and uncertain, when I see the ground rushing up before my eyes, when my plans aren’t making quite as much sense as I’d hoped, it’s just because I’m still a child, and to me, falling and flying still seem very much alike?

Praying we all can find the courage to continue to jump with abandon into the arms of the One who has called us to fly, and who has promised to give us wings…

Uncertainty

I have chased after certainty my whole life.  There’s something in me that desires to understand the world, categorize, figure out which box you fit into, and then move on.  There’s something in me that longs not just to have a firm place to stand, but everything fixed and concrete – able to be known and understood.  There’s something in me that wants to avoid ambiguity and shades of grey.

I want to know who is out and who is in.  I want to know who is right and who is wrong.  I want to know what is acceptable and what is not.  I want to understand, and by understanding be able to change those things that are wrong – prevent tragedy, stand in the way of pain, smooth out the rocks in the road and pave over all my doubts.  I am tired of taking things on faith – which, in too much of my life has simply meant “because that’s what I tell you it means…”

I want to know truth – about God, life, suffering, beauty, community, love, redemption, and justice.  And I assume that that truth is static and unchanging.  I assume that it is knowable.  And it is…  but only in part.

“Faith is never in a state of equilibrium but is always developing, sometimes accepting divine initiatives, sometimes questioning, and occasionally straining to understand what that might be.”

– Desmond Alexander

I’d like to add to that that sometimes faith is arguing, yelling, swearing and weeping.  Sometimes faith is listening, accepting, receiving.  Sometimes faith is resignation – “to whom else shall I go?”

I’m only now beginning to be OK with ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt.  I’m only now deciding to dive into the messiness of life and stop expecting to control everything, understand everything.  I”m only now beginning to live.

And in time, eventually, hopefully, someday, that developing faith will lead us to the one firm place on which we can stand…

“Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.”

– Archimedes

Black Friday and Advent

So I’m sitting on the couch in my sister’s apartment in Grand Rapids, oh so content and thankful.  After a long day of cooking, laughter, a few messes, lots of food, games and pictures and stories and enjoying my first Thanksgiving with family in several years, I am humbled by how richly I have been blessed his past year.  My dad and step-mom are watching a Christmas movie (the new “Miracle on 34th Street”), and every few minutes a commercial comes on touting the amazing sales that will be coming early tomorrow morning.  “Stores open at 3AM!!!” the advertisements scream.  “Don’t miss out!!!”

On the other side of the spectrum we have organizations such as AdBusters who promote the day after Thanksgiving as “Buy Nothing Day,” as a way of protesting the rampant consumerism in our society.  I remember reading this story last year, about the worker at a Wal-Mart in New York who was killed – trampled to death – in a mad rush as shoppers tried to get the best prices on televisions and toys and clothes…  A pregnant woman was hospitalized, several others injured…  this is one aspect of Black Friday.

In the midst of these two competing visions, I am reminded of this video that my friend Andrew posted a few weeks ago:

Advent begins this Sunday, November 29th.  Let’s be thinking about creative ways to live and give this season of Advent – of waiting, of preparation…  Let’s try to do things a little differently this year.