Sunday, September 25, 2016

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

The Rule of Life: Dorothy Day's Rule of Life: See the face of Christ in the poor. And: journal every day. 

The Rule of Life: Once there was a river. And down that river came bodies  many of them. Bodies upon bodies, stacking up in the cool shallows. On the banks of the river, people panicked. They waded into the water and started grabbing all the bodies they could. Once on shore, these good-hearted people stopped everything and tried to resuscitate the cold, nearly lifeless bodies piling up. Everywhere you looked there were people, eyes searching the water, wading back in to pull out yet another lost one. Until, eventually, one of the people on the shore decided to look up. Where are all of these d**ned bodies coming from? he wondered. So he left his post on the edge of the river and started to hike upstream. He left behind the urgent work to find the source of the problem.
My friend once explained this parable to me. The people on the shore are the merciful, the ones performing triage in a world where the bodies are piling up faster than we can count them. And then there are the others. Those who look a bit higher. The justice-oriented, my friend says. They look at the systemic roots. They see the big picture. And for a while, they might need to leave their on-the-ground spot in order to get to the roots of the problems.
My friend gently suggested that I might be a justice person living in a place that is thick with the nearly drowned. I heard her, and the tears came to my eyes. As much as I would like to think of myself in that way, I knew better. All I wanted to do was forget about the river. But I had seen Christ there, floating in the shallows. There was no way I could leave. ... 
If I were a person of mercy, I would treat each person like a prophet, reverent and grateful. I would not be so hopeless; I would not write this all out. I would hide the beautiful flame that flares up and then hovers, nearly extinguished. It would not feel like the world is an endless river, that all I can do is sit on the shore and touch the bodies as they float on past. + pgs. 147-150

The Life-Changing Magic of Couch-Sitting: The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became. Or at least, this is how it seemed to me. I started off so confident, so sure of my words and actions. Over time, I became immersed in their problems, falling headfirst into a crash course on how hard it is to make it on the margins of the Empire, and I ended up becoming overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly bitter. I went from feeling like an expert to a saint to finally nursing the belief that I was a complete and utter fraud and failure, and this was the best thing that every happened to me. It's the only way I could ever start to learn to be a listener. + pg. 161

The Life-Changing Magic of Couch-Sitting: I asked him why there isn't really a word or phrase in the Somali language to say thank you, at least one that is used in everyday life. My teacher, my friend, did not need even a moment to pause. Somali people, he said, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being. If someone asks you for a cup of cold water, you will give it to them, no questions asked. You don't need to be told thank you, because when you give the cup of water you are acknowledging that this person is a human, deserving of life, deserving of this cup of cold water. Why would you need to be told thank you? If you were thirsty, the other person would do the same for you.
His words hung in there in the air, making more sense to me than I could express.
Jesus said, whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done so unto me. A cup of cold water, a jacket around the shoulders. A visit to the prison or the hospital, a knock on a long-forgotten apartment door. A steaming cup of chai, made with scalded milk and too much sugar, drunk with gratitude. And no need to say thank you, that was delicious. Just accepting it for what it is, a gift given with no expectations, a testament to how we are all made in the image of God. + pg. 162

The Life-Changing Magic of Couch-Sitting: It turns out that I am terrible at converting people the old-fashioned way, with logic and reasoning and concise tracts and fluid, poignant sermons. Instead, I have the much less interesting spiritual gift of showing up and sitting on couches, of doggedly arriving, gamely prepared to help in whatever crisis of the day, and eventually fading into a background player in a story that was turning out to be much bigger than me. Long after the enthrallment wore off, I found my heart had signed a commitment that led me to become deeply and irrevocably invested in the welfare of my friends, the poor in America. After several years, my friends and neighbors realized they were never going to get rid of me. The doors would be open a bit wider when I came around, I would be privileged to see both smiles and frowns, the reality of life that was so messy and moody and chaotic, instead of the nice and tidy one I wanted to see. + pgs. 165-166

The Life-Changing Magic of Couch-Sitting: I have a friend who has been living a much simpler, quieter, and ultimately more difficult life than I. One day I was complaining about an injustice I had received –  how I had baked somebody some cookies, and they had refused to open the door to me. She looked at me, smiled for a split second, and then told me I should be grateful. "Grateful?" I said, not just the teensiest bit disgruntled. "Grateful for what?"
"That people feel the freedom to say no to you," she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Be grateful they don't feel beholden to you in some way, be grateful they are able to be authentic and to close a door in your face. Be grateful that you get to experience reality, instead of false politeness that can come from hierarchical relationships."
"Oh," my friend continued, "and you should be careful of your expectations. You expecting someone to open the door and accept your cookies is just another form of oppression. Just another person that wants something from them, is putting something on them, is expecting a certain reaction from them. Don't do that to them," my friend told me, no longer smiling. "They have had quite enough of that."
After my friend went home, I sat down and cried. Because all I ever wanted was for someone to say thanks. All I ever wanted was to hear "Well done, good and faithful servant." All I ever wanted was to be persecuted for righteousness' sake, to be a martyr for Jesus, to stoically endure doors slammed in my face, to persevere until the end.
But all I really ever wanted was to love on my terms, in a way that elevated me above my neighbor, distinguished me as good and holy, receiving accolades in a most humble way. All I ever wanted to do was oppress people, in the kindest way possible. + pgs. 166-167

I grew up thinking that I could study my missionary heroes, saints, and role models, like Mother Teresa, enough to one day become them. I didn't realize that their theologies were a part of their bodies, the very lines in their faces, and that no book or teacher other than the very Spirit of God could give people the grace to do what they did. ... 

I was like a plaster cast of a saint, painted perfectly white and blue on the outside, for all the world to see. But on the inside, it was a gray and hollow as a tomb. It wasn't until I read the Bible with people who never had that I finally understood what "inspired Word of God" really meant. It wasn't until my three-year-old scraped her chin and asked me to pray for it to be healed, eyes screwed shut in anticipation of all pain being taken away, that I started to believe that "all things are possible with God." It wasn't until I was in a modest-looking living room full of somewhat damaged people singing awkwardly and off-key about the love of God that the phrase "the body of Christ" started to mean anything to me. Just like Nicodemus in the Bible, the church leader who came to talk to Jesus in the dead of night for fear of anyone seeing him, asked: "How can any of this possibly be?" How can God use broken, sick people to expand his vision for the world? ...

When I was seventeen, in India for the first time, closer to death, disease, and persecution than I had ever been, I saw a bit of this kingdom. And I went home on an airplane feeling confused at the wells of gratitude and generosity I had found. The imprint of God, the world over, stunning me with the realization that the poor are blessed to see in ways I never would. While I live my life hoarding all that I have been given  privilege, opportunity, right beliefs and doctrine  there are people all around the world offering up their last meal. Take it, they say, although they have no knowledge of what the next day will bring.

And that's exactly where the kingdom of God flourishes like a marigold in a dry stream, a flash of gold in the dirt of our world. + pgs. 174-177

Life List: The list of my life lay untouched for a year or two, until my small family and I sold all of our possessions and moved across the country, joining a mission organization that works and lives among the urban poor. We wanted to learn from people who were better than us at loving their neighbors in the margins of America. It sounds all super-sexy and like you may live out the nice, missionary version of The Wire until you find yourself alone and friendless in your hovel of an apartment, cooped up by the mountains of snow and the screaming of your neighbors, listening to your two-year-old get called a racist on a daily basis, constantly wondering if you are supposed to call the cops or invite someone over for dinner, and completely overwhelmed by your inability to do anything of lasting relational importance. When I was asked to make a life list to share with my teammates in my mission organization, five months into our first year, I was having the I-Am-Special s**t kicked out of me on a daily basis. And it made for a better list. ... 
There are some people who go out and do Big Things for God, and I knew in my heart that I just happened to be one of them. And it was unspoken, of course, but the flip side of this belief was an ugly little hierarchy, a drive to be out on the top that came more from desperation than idealism: I am special because I have to be. Because God loves the special more.
I didn't start to notice this real and powerful lie, this dark animal clawing up my mind, until it almost undid me. I didn't see how I placed myself at the top and was eager for others to do the same. I didn't see that meant that my neighbors and refugee friends became my stepping stones in attaining the love of God; I didn't see how it meant that I was using everyone around me in real and devastating ways. 
But in the strange way that freedom comes, the worse my life started to look on paper, the more I started to find the God I had been looking for all my life. The more I failed and the more overwhelmed I was by the world, the more I started to inch toward a place of accepting radical grace for myself. Far away from inspirational conferences, getting my gentrifier, do-gooder a** handed to me on a daily basis, I was finally in a place to look at my life in a more honest way. And it was becoming increasingly clear that there wasn't even a bit of specialness to be found in me, and that God loved me anyway. + pgs. 180-182

Idols: How could I have missed it in the Old Testament, the psalms, the laments, the prophets, the very narrative of the Israelites, the gospels, the letters of Paul, the culmination of Revelation? Oppressed peoples are a theme, those downtrodden by life, circumstances, the wicked, and the unjust. And the promise, always the promise, of God delivering justice. Sometimes it was a strange, terrible kingdom doing the oppressing: the exotic Assyrians, the people choked with gold and false gods with a hunger for land and for bodies. Sometimes it was the Lord's own people acting in wicked ways, taxing the poor, crushing them, getting fat and wealthy while others in their own community withered away. This is when the wrath and sorrow of God seemed most mixed together, mingling like the blood and water would centuries later, when God put on flesh, inaugurated his kingdom. ...

Yes, there is still talk about golden calves and statues of Baal, temples built and offerings burned, but these visuals all are starting to take a backseat to other issues: the hearts of the people of God – their greed, lust for power or people, their condescension, their preoccupation with themselves. Like me and everyone I know, they are obsessed with staying safe and securing a good life for themselves, protecting their borders and procuring a retirement account. Sometimes they believe that obeying God will lead to this good life; sometimes they are right. Sometimes they believe that copying other countries, adopting their ways, will bring about material blessing. This works, sometimes, for short periods of time. But the scriptures show us time and time again what these ways of living spell out, what the first signs of sin and idolatry are: the poor are forgotten, they are downtrodden and oppressed. ...

We have waved away our own sins – materialism, gluttony, greed – as merely obnoxious distractions, a fly in our relatively holy faces. ... 

I have been going back and rereading the stories, the narratives, the prophets, and the songs. And the things that caused the wrath and tears of God are the same today: injustice.

The God of my youth, who when people spoke of him sometimes seemed more like an oppressor, someone who doled out punitive punishments like candy, who was always waiting for the next terrible thing to happen, has changed in my eyes. I see now a sorrowful, hopeful God. One who, no doubt, was exasperated by all the idolatry and murmurings and wanderings and complaining, but whose wrath was directly stoked by oppression. I see how he was the tireless advocate of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. How he saw, time and time again, that these were the first to be forgotten, a sign that the hearts of the people were far from him, even if they weren't quite yet bowing down to Baal. As we see again and again in scripture, righteousness is not simply a clean heart or hands scrubbed of blood. It is a people acting out justice in their everyday lives; they are tied together, everywhere in scripture. The oppressed are written in every book, nearly on every page of the prophets and psalms. How could I have missed it for so many years? + pgs. 185-187

The Ministry of Cake: When the prodigal returns home, the father throws a big party (just like God would; I am beginning to learn in slow and small ways how much God loves good food and celebration, when I thought he just loved work). The older brother is affronted and refuses to go into the party. "It's not fair," he shouts, listing off all the ways he has been a good son. "Why isn't there a party for me?" He echoes the same sentiment that I have found myself often wondering: Why don't I get to experience any of the good things? Where are my converts? My miracles? My blessings, my anxiety-free days, my table full of food and friends and a Father God who is cutting the cake for me? I don't see it anywhere. I am stuck in the far-off fields, toiling away for a Father who has seemingly forgotten about me. ... 
Being near the Father is a constant party-in-progress, a constant chance to experience the benefits of being in community. But we can choose to opt out of it, to work tirelessly for an idea of what our Father wants, instead of spending time with him.
Those words, ones I must have heard from childhood but had long since forgotten, will never leave me again. All that I have, says the God of the world, is available to you. And it always has been.
You just need to sit down and enjoy the party.

The Ministry of Cake: Some of the most unrecognized ministries are my favorite kind. Like the ministry of playing video games with awkward adolescent boys. The ministry of bringing takeout food to people whose baby is very sick in the hospital. The ministry of picking up empty chip wrappers at the park. The ministry of sending postcards. The ministry of sitting in silence with someone in the psych ward. The ministry of sending hilarious and inspirational text messages. The ministry of washing dishes without being asked. The ministry of flower gardening. The ministry of not laughing at teenagers when they talk about their relationship crises. The ministry of making an excellent cup of coffee. The ministry of drinking a terrible cup of coffee with a bright smile. The ministry of noticing beauty everywhere   in fabrics, in people, in art, and in the wilderness.

The older I get, the more I realize that the ministries I once thought so trivial I now think are the most radical. I have spent the past few years being stripped of anything that would make me feel lovely to God, and I came out a different person. As it turns out, I never did magically turn into one of my missionary heroes. Instead, I'm just somebody who likes to bake cakes. ... 

... more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life. To live with eyes wide open on the edges of our world, the margins of our society. To taste the diaspora, the longing, the suffering, the joy. To plant myself in a place where I am forced to confront the fact that my reality is not the reality of my neighbors. And to realize that nothing is how it should be, the ultimate true reality of what God's dream for the world is.

Being a witness is harder than anything I have ever done. And he is asking all of us to do this task, to simultaneously see the realities of our broken world and testify to the truth that all is not well. To be a witness to the tragedy, to be a witness to the beauty. Jesus, the ultimate witness of the love of the Father, heart of God, shows us the way. He put himself in situations where he was constantly confronted with brokenness: death, disease, sickness, greed, pride. And Jesus ran toward those people, so confident was he in a God who sees.

I am starting to believe in this love, with Jesus as my example. He sought out the stateless wanderers, the exiles, the people with stories so sad and unfair, the ones who were the most receptive to his message that another world was possible. He has asked me to be a witness to those same kinds of people, and in return I have experienced a faith in God that could never be taught.

I see it all, the God of the scriptures says over and over again. I see it all, and my heart is torn in two. And he is asking people like me, the very nonspecial, the bakers and the questioners and the fretful sleepers, to allow ourselves to see it all too. The prodigals and older brothers, the lost sheep and the sheep who were too scared to ever leave the pen. There is a place for us all here, the call for all of us to be present and be a witness to the realities of the world. To live in a place where neighbors will move away, again and again and again, to keep showing up on couches and sitting wide-eyed, to sit and say "I'm sorry."

He is asking us to drop everything and run, run in the direction of the world's brokenness. And he is asking us to bring cake. + pgs. 199-201

The Ministry of Cake: To be the one in need. It confirms that this is quite possibly the only posture that Christians in this day and age can take, to be in a place where we freely admit our shortcomings, where we desperately need our neighbors. A place where we throw off the voices telling us to insulate ourselves from both the great brokenness of the world and the burning fire that is the love of God. ...
The great lie of our time is that the kingdom of God is not at hand and that it isn't ever coming. That inequality, sadness, destruction, and death are inevitable. That we must either despair or escape in the relief of busy and separate lives, succumb to fear or to apathy.
But I've seen it with my own eyes, touched it with my hands. I've moved in next door to it and traveled to the suburbs to experience it. Everything Jesus ever said is true, not just the parts I want to believe. ... 
He is love  that's all he ever was and all he ever will be. His heart is aflame, and he will wound you and heal you at the same time.
The world is so much worse than we would like to believe, and God is much wilder than we are being taught. We can study the kingdom of God, but we can never contain or subdue it. Reading about it will never equal the experience of it. That we must discover for ourselves, and we will find it where God always said it would be: on the margins, in the upside-down kingdom. We aren't being asked to assimilate, but we are called to make our home here more like the kingdom we have always dreamed about but were too scared to believe was possible. Because God's dream for the world is coming, looming brighter and brighter on the horizon.
It's time to enter the party. + pgs. 201-203


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