Saturday, September 24, 2016

City Notes 26: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith Part 2 of 3

City Notes 26: Books in 30 minutes or less

City Notes are more than a book review. They are meant to provide you with direct quotes from some books I've read in the last year, so you can get a taste of the overall theme of the book and then begin to chew on what your life might look like if you applied what you read.

Here are links to the previous City Notes books:

City Notes 26: Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary by D.L. Mayfield Part 2 of 3

The Do-Gooder: I have some friends who have been living the most incredibly quiet, miraculous lives you ever did see. They live in the midst of the most diverse neighborhood in all of America. They have lived here for decades; they hang out with the people that Jesus hung out with in the Bible, people that seem extremely exotic to someone like me: prostitutes, pawn collectors, people somewhere in the process of recovery, the chronically unemployed. They have seen miracles happen, to be sure, in the people they have hung out with. They have testimonies that I would have longed to claim for my own when when I was younger  Jesus saving people from drugs and promiscuity and family problems. But they have also stuck around long enough for the stories to get shiny with age, to crack at the seams. They have watched as people's testimonies went up and down the scales, as addictions and families and lies turned the static conversions into actual lives. They have seen stories as they really are: long-term and full of miracles and crushing disappointments, a constant tale of being saved and relapsing backing into ourselves.

But nobody wants to be this couple. Nobody wants to hang out in the bad neighborhoods for decades. The problems seem to get more overwhelming, the longer you stay. The easy paint jobs got taken, the kids already ate your snacks and heard the stories you had prepared for them, your friend never followed up on the job interview you arranged for him. The cosmetic fixes have all been applied, and people still go home to abuse and neglect, with empty bellies and numbed hearts. If you stay long enough you will learn just enough about the brokenness of the world that you will feel completely powerless, mired in your own brokenness and doubting God more often than you care to admit.

It is easier to leave right after the prayers are prayed, right after somebody meets Jesus, while the tears are still fresh and the hope is solid enough to cut with a knife. While everyone is doing okay, taking pictures that we can take home and cling to, framing the ones where everyone is smiling. We, the do-gooders, stay for a short while, because we crave the knowledge that we have done something of value in the world. And we leave before we have a chance to see how poor in relationships we really are.

I've done this do-gooder work for years now, what I thought were valiant, honorable efforts, but what was more often than not just a roundabout way of trying to come to terms with the inequalities in our world. And I've learned how dipping our toes in the pool of humanity  going and helping and doing  actually impoverishes and deceives us. For a few days, weeks, and months, we allow ourselves to see the other side. We swing from the ends of helplessness to arrogance, back and forth. We become zealots, lovers, missionaries, and activists. We read articles, pause and let the words sink in, stare at the pictures until they are burned into our brains. And then we forget. We always forget  that comforting, calming, after-effect of our world. No one can live in that tension forever, and soon enough you will be able to forget. + pgs. 86-87

The Do-Gooder: When I first started hanging out with my refugee friends, I could see how they had changed me. They had revealed to me the darker truths behind the myth of the American dream. I was mesmerized by the poverty I saw and astounded by the resilience and relational strengths contained therein. I assumed other people would love these sorts of surprising friendships, so I tried to get others to come with me. I wanted to see them converted in front of my eyes as well.
But eventually, my enthusiasm to see others join in the work was replaced with a gradual sense of protecting my friends that we were working with. My husband and I hung around long enough to see what it does to communities when they are targeted, time and time again, for short-term, feel-good projects. We hung around long enough to feel the pain of abandonment, the shame of being a project, the vulnerability it feels to have someone come, smile, call you their best friend, snap a picture, and leave. So eventually, we stopped inviting people to come and volunteer at all. The cost, it turns out, was too great. The desire to do good was not enough, and we were starting to see how it could actually do more harm in the long term. ... 
When we become the bit part, the background player in a much larger saga, we find our true role, which is this: to swallow our own impulse to save and to focus on the long game. To be a friend, the truest form of advocacy there is. To listen to them talk about their boyfriends or how much they love Chris Brown or plan their weddings. This is the new reality, and I have to work with it. Love God, love your neighbor, Jesus said, a perfect sound bit for the ages. But did Christ know how complicated my neighbors were? How hard they were to love sometimes? How much easier it is to surround myself with people who look and think and act like me, to love only myself? Yes, yes, yes, he does, but he is polite and firm in his response. A messy, present, incarnational love is the simplest and hardest call of all, the call that all of us were created to follow. + pgs. 88-89, 91

The Woes: I am not the poor. I drink lattes during droughts, eat hamburgers during famines. I profit off the world I was born into, an economic system that crushes and oppresses. The problem was that I was born at the top, and so all of those troubles at the bottom used to seem so hazy to me. This is the real problem of being rich and happy and healthy and popular: it becomes easy, oh so easy, to forget about the rest.

At first, these harsh words of Jesus – woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are well fed now – they used to unnerve me; they were a mirror I did not have the stomach to look into. Look away, hurry on to the other scriptures, get to the redemption, the mission you are chosen to do, try your hardest to be good, and earn the love of Jesus in the end.

But now I am drawn like a moth to the flame of hurt dripping from nearly every page of the Bible, the great sadness that shocks me out of the stupor. I am swallowed whole. I see how the anger of the Lord burns, in those days and these, hot and quick and clean. I am glad God is angry about the things that really matter: injustice, inequality, any human on this earth being treated as less than what they are, which is a child of the most bountiful God. I am glad he is angry because it shows me how much he loves.

I am poor, in that I do not know how to love people just as they are. I am poor, in that I do not know how to love myself if I am not actively giving something. I am poor, in that I do not know if I have the strength to see the kingdom of God as it was meant to be played out. I have a poverty of relationships, in that the more I try to forget about the evils of our age and my own responsibility to them, the more my heart is revealed for what it is. In reality, I am impoverished. I am starving. I am weeping. I am oppressed by a world that runs in opposition to the dreams of God.

And only when I recognize how poor I really am do I start to understand that I am right where I need to be. + pgs. 115-116  

Consider the Turtles: We are the ultimate vessels of sorrow. We are breaking God's heart all the time. And like a glutton for punishment, he never stops calling for us. He never stops bringing his children into the world. + pg. 127 

Oh, to Be of Use: In our new apartment, our new neighborhood, we were thrilled as only white people can be, gentrifiers in every sense of the word, experiencing, the benefits of diverse culture and cheap rent while having no knowledge or experience in the systemic injustices that governed the lives of many of our new neighbors. While we had lived in low-income housing before, we still managed to view it all as a bit of a lark, an "experiment" in downward mobility.

But things change when you start to allow the experience of your neighbors to shape you, instead of the other way around. We started to see how things that were easy for us were fraught with complications for many of our neighbors: obtaining fair housing, experiencing limited interactions with the police (who were always respectful to us), having easy access to fair-wage jobs, and enjoying a much lower propensity to be caught (and charged) for minor civil infractions. For a while, we were unable to comprehend what we were seeing and experiencing as bystanders in a divided America. Eventually, the weight of the truth started to settle on our shoulders, calling a grief that we never knew was in us, a form of lament that threatened to overwhelm us if we let it.

And one day, it did.

The day our neighbor came over and watched my husband and I pour our spirits out was a day that forever changed me. Grieved and imprisoned by our own wounds, the persistent lies we were fed and nurtured, the histories that we swallowed whole, the sins as old as time, we pleaded with him to help us understand. There was a black boy who died, and the person who killed him was let go. Our neighbor stayed for coffee and let us talk, and then he said: "You have the luxury of being surprised. Nobody else around here is." In his astounding kindness, my neighbor stayed and talked with us, patient and sorrowful, his weariness more harrowing in my soul than I could begin to understand. That one sentence  You have the luxury of being surprised  will stay with me the rest of my life, a testament to a privilege I no longer want.

Oh, to Be of Use: At one point in my life, desperate for some solidarity, I e-mailed at much-admired revolutionary author, one who had inspired me with his stories of redemption and reconciliation. "Help," I wrote. "I moved in somewhere to love my neighbors, and one of them is spiraling back into an addiction and taking several other people down with him. He is loud, violent, and I am afraid. What do I do?" The author gently advised me to invite this man over to my house for dinner, that soup and conversation could change the world. I read his e-mail, so full of hope and grace, and I closed my computer, despondent at my own lack of saintliness. I did not invite my neighbor over for dinner. I was chained by my own fear, ignorance, and a genuine lack of experience with situations so far outside of my norm. I, like everyone else on my floor, remained inside the day the police came to take my spiraling neighbor away, guns drawn. "Failure, failure, failure," the song started singing inside of me. Why can't my life be one big potluck, full of tattooed and dreadlocked kind Christian hippies and the grateful sober? Why is the reality so much more dark and small and full of uncertainty, every little thing I do a mistake of some kind, some gesture of privilege or of a savior complex or gentrification?
"Living life with intentionality," we blithely said, but what we meant was that we were excited to be slumming it for Jesus, and we assumed we would make everything better based on our presence alone. But it didn't take long for us to come to a point where we didn't know which way was up, where the blessings that Jesus talked about started to feel more like a curse, and where our neighbors became a dull knife scraping at all of our sins of pride and selfishness and fear. + pgs. 133-134

Oh, to Be of Use: Robert Coles was a genius of a man, a psychologist and writer and lover of great literature. He was also a Christian, and he was intensely interested in hearing and amplifying the unheard voices of his time. Coles was the one tasked with interviewing and counseling Ruby Bridges, the first little black girl to integrate in New Orleans in 1960. Coles went on to interview many, many more children, most of them from marginalized communities; he would ask them to color pictures and talk to him about whatever they wanted. The insights he received, as well as the resilience that he witnessed, were astounding. Once, a little black girl from Mississippi drew a picture of herself. She explained to Coles, "That's me, and the Lord made me. When I grow up my momma says I may not like how He made me, but I must always remember that He did it, and it's His idea. So when I draw the Lord, He'll be a real big man. He has to be, to explain the way things are."

I am on the other side of that picture: I come from the places of power and privilege, but I still need the Lord to explain some things to me. My choice of neighborhoods is just the start of me trying to scale the large mountains of alienation that are inside of me. I feel like I see the wounds of Christ bright red in front of me, but I am still not able to feel them.

That people prefer themselves and all others like them is no surprise to any of us, but I am consistently taken aback at how often we refuse to acknowledge that our systems might have the same kind of problem. Being the minority where I work and live and play has opened my eyes to the way the systems (political and religious) are intrinsically for me. This never bothered me until I realized what the converse of that equation is: those systems are actively against others.

That realization alone is enough to stop me. The words "sin" and "repentance" and "judgment" are infused with new meaning. True repentance, I was always taught, involves turning away from myself and turning toward God. Now, it has meant turning toward the ones who are being shut out.

It is this: moving in, listening, reading books. Putting myself in a position to be wrong, to be silent, to be chastised, to be extended forgiveness, to withhold judgment, to invite understanding. I thought the cost would be steep, but it has turned out to be the opposite. You have the luxury of being surprised. And surprised I have been  how I have seen and heard and felt the Spirit convict me, how I am starting to understand how unwell I have been all this time. And the flip side is this: as it turns out, I am exactly the kind of person Jesus came for. He can only heal us once we figure out that we can't be of any use at all. He can do it, because he's a real big man. He has to be, just to explain the way things are. + pgs. 134-136

Next post: City Notes 26: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith Part 3 of 3


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