Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lost in the Shuffle

I have come to the conclusion that in Africa, the purpose of an immigration office is to force you to consider how much you really want to be in that particular country. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some immigration offices sincerely hope that if they make things difficult enough for you, you will eventually just give up and go home and save them a lot of paperwork.

Yesterday I had to make a trip to the immigration office in downtown Lusaka, for what should have been a simple thing: picking up our work permits.

As it turned out, that “simple thing” turned into three hours of the most agonizingly painful test of endurance I’ve ever encountered. It was as though I was Lance Armstrong, and the immigration office was the French Alps, except that (thankfully) I wasn’t wearing bike shorts, and the immigration office was only breathtaking in the way that a canister of tear gas is breathtaking.

The problem, was that they couldn’t find my file. After standing in line for an hour, I finally was able to hand the guy my receipt, and he began looking through stack of folders piled behind him. When he couldn’t come up with my file, he put my receipt on the bottom of the stack. This is completely in keeping with standard government operating procedures in Zambia, which states that, “a problem is a problem only so long as you are aware of it being a problem, and you are only required to be aware of it, if you are looking directly at thing which is potentially problematic. Otherwise, it may or may not be a problem at all.”

After watching my receipt get shuffled to the bottom of the stack several times, I finally approached the guy to find out what the problem was. He said my file was not there, and then asked me a very important question.

“Is it in the book?”

You see, before you can pick up your work permit, you have to verify that it is indeed ready, and you do that by checking a log book that is kept near the front door of the office. I had done all of this (or, at least some friends had done it for me) and so I knew that our permits were logged in on August 25. Nevertheless, the immigration official was skeptical and escorted me over to the book to have a look for himself. When we found my name entered, the immigration official looked genuinely surprised, and immediately returned to the stack of files and began searching with a renewed commitment. Within minutes the file had been found, and I was on my way home, work permits in hand.

Looking back, I find it intriguing that nothing I could say to the official would convince him that my work permit must be there. Not until he saw for himself that it was “written in the book,” was he even remotely open to a possibility which he had not really considered before – namely, that it actually was there somewhere!

What amazed me about the whole incident, was the immigration official’s inherent trust in the integrity of the book! If it’s in the book, he clearly believed, then the work permit must be there!

Reflecting on this incident has made me think about my own devotional life, which lately has sort of been on a lull, and about my own views of the Book we Christians hold so dear. It seems I go through seasons regarding my time with the Lord, and some of those seasons are more often characterized, in all honesty, by a sort of going through the motions than by a wholehearted effort to hear and receive from the Lord. At times, I think this happens when my Bible reading has me at places in scripture that are more laborious to read – such as the lists of names in the opening chapters of Chronicles, or when the immediate connection between my life and that which the text is describing is not plainly obvious. But sometimes, I think this happens simply because I begin to lose a sense of the Bible’s inherent authority and ultimate importance. Not that I do this intentionally (or admit to it easily), but if I honestly evaluate the time I spend reading the Bible as compared to the time I spend reading other things, well, my actions speak for themselves.

But if the Bible is anything at all, it is inherently authoritative! And yet, I can only discover that authority if I approach it believing that to be so. The famous theologian Karl Barth once said that the printed pages of the Bible do not constitute the word of God by themselves, but that they become the Word of God when they are preached and believed. And I think what Barth was getting at was that when it comes to the Word of God, it all starts with our approach. Approach it as a collection of ancient writings ordered and arranged by men of antiquity, and you will find it to be little more than a fantastic collection of poetry, history and sagely advice. But approach it as it truly is, as the word of God, and you will be changed, broken, and empowered by it as the Spirit of God from whom those words originated, leads you into all truth. It’s very much like my friend at the immigration office. He would have never searched again through the mountainous stacks of folders, had he not had confidence in the authority of the book!

In fact, this is similar to the point Jesus was making when he was talking to those who refused to listen to him. He said, “And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life,” (John 5:37–40). And, “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God,” (John 8:47).

In this present age (which, is probably not unlike most every other age that preceded it), the truth often seems obscured by political agendas and personal interests. For instance, I am often amazed at how my friends on different sides of the political fence can see a particular current event in such vastly different ways. What is disastrous to one, is glorious to another, (in fact, I’m fairly certain that if all my Facebook friends ever ended up in the same room, WWIII would ensue).

But in this time of wearying banter in which the genuine truth seems lost in the shuffle more often than not, I am reminded of what a wonderful thing it is to have a source for truth that is never flavored by partisanship, or selfish ambitions, but rather flows from the One who himself is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and whose only agenda is my wholeness.

And when my devotional time is at a lull, what I need to be reminded of, is that I sit down, not with a book, but with the Truth, that what I read are not words, but a Way, and that what I receive is not information, but Life!

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