Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Little Faith


This week we have been reminded on a few occasions how much we take certain things for granted.


A few days ago, I woke up and turned on the shower, only to discover that there was no hot water. The problem, as it turned out, was our water heater, which is a home-made version, fashioned from a fifty gallon oil drum. The element and thermostat had gone bad, as it does about every 4-5 months because parts here are made in China, and apparently China doesn’t put quite as much effort into their elements and thermostats as they do into their Olympics.


And so, the morning had me scurrying around town (and smelling a bit ripe as temps in Lusaka are hovering around the mid 90’s lately), looking for the spare parts. The first place I went to had the element, but not the thermostat. So, they sent me to a place down the road that they assured me would have what I needed. When I arrived at that place, I was told they never carried that type stuff. Never had. Never will.


Then, in a moment of desperation, I contemplated breaking “Jerry’s Golden Rule of Driving in Lusaka,” which states NEVER EVER EVER, Under Any Circumstances, Go Downtown at Lunchtime On a Weekday! But, I was desperate though, and the thought of taking cold showers for the next few days (weeks?) was enough to cause me to seriously contemplate taking these very insane measures.


In a moment of clarity, I changed my mind and headed home to see if there might not be another solution. Luckily, one of our landlord’s workers was able to pilfer what I needed from some old parts in the garage.


The whole incident though made me realize how much I take showers for granted. I mean, most mornings, I wake up, stumble toward the bathroom and turn on the water, and then, while still standing, take a short nap while I wait for the water to reach a nice, even temperature. Most mornings, I don’t even think about being thankful for the ability to take a shower. I just take one, and go on about my day. But when something is just there almost every day of your life, and then suddenly it’s not there, it has a way of making you take notice.


In Zambia, there are often shortages of one thing or another. During droughts, there are shortages of maize and many become malnourished and susceptible to illness. Today, there is a shortage of petrol, and cars are lined up at local filling stations, reminiscent of the 70’s in America.


People who have mused over the recent and phenomenal growth of the church in Africa (in 1990 about 9% of the population in Africa was Christian; today about 45% are Christian!), have pointed to a variety of reasons. Some have said that Africans are inherently religious, and that Christianity provides a framework for relating to the increasing presence of Western influence on the continent. Of course, those who would say that, forget that Christianity was African long before it was Western.


Personally, I think that the reason for the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, is because the nature of life in Africa lends itself to understanding biblical truths, far more so than the nature of life in America. Africa understands that we live in a broken down world.


In America, I think we have a very hard time living out the mandate to “fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” and understanding that “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal,” (2 Cor. 4:18). We think that by trusting in what we can see, feel and touch, that we are demonstrating our superior intellect. We tell ourselves that to do otherwise, is to believe in magic or fairy tales.


And yet, the world around us is constantly reminding us of its temporal tendencies. Tsunamis wipe entire villages off the map in an instant. Automobile accidents claim the lives of those we love without warning. Our trusted homes, in which we invest so much time and care, are easily reduced to ruble by a tornado, hurricane, fire, or two year old. And, we have all recently been made aware that our financial security is far less secure than we would like.


A casual glance at the evening news reminds us that the world is a fragile place. Or, as Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning, as in the pains of childbirth, right up to the present time,” (Rom. 8:22). And so, is it really a demonstration of our superior cognitive abilities that we would trust in what is clearly untrustworthy? Is it really that smart to put stock in things that “moth and rust destroy” rather than storing up for ourselves “treasures in heaven,” (Matt. 6:19-20)?


It seems that we have a hard time grasping that until some unfortunate circumstance forces us to take a cold shower, or wait hours in line for gasoline, something that just a few days we accomplished on our lunch hour, along with forty thousand other things. Until those things that we have taken for granted have suddenly and unexpectedly vanished, we seldom consider their truly fleeting nature. But when our trusted comforts and assumptions suddenly get swept away, we usually become quite willing to go running from place to place, searching for the solution to our problems, and willing to break our golden rules in the process, whatever they might be.


Remember how churches, synagogues, and mosques, were packed on the days immediately following 9/11? And, how as soon as it became clear that the threat had passed, those places of worship returned to their former state of less than overflowing?


Maybe the best thing that can happen to us, is for things to begin to break down every now and then, for the wheels to come off the cart, so that we can be reminded that there are destinations that can’t be reached with cash or credit card, that reality extends beyond the tangible, that the vast majority of the iceberg will always be hidden to those who refuse to venture from the surface.

No, there is nothing foolish about faith. In fact, most of us have more faith than we realize.


We just have it things that don’t merit it.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Listen

Recently, as I was driving to the Bible school where I was teaching, I had to drop Paula off at another Bible school where she was teaching, and we drove past a large, dirt football (soccer) field and a large dumpster that sits next to it. The area around the dumpster was strewn with litter and debris, and almost every day a half dozen children could be seen digging through the waste, looking for, who knows exactly what; possibly the makings of their next toy, or used plastic bags that can be wound together for a football, or maybe nothing at all. Maybe they were just looking because its what they see everyday, and their curiosity got the best of them.


These days, a good five months since the last rain, the ground in Zambia is as hard as concrete, and the winds are blowing up dust to almost blinding degrees.


Being in the shanty compounds of Lusaka always leaves me with an odd mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I can’t help but think how glad I am that I grew up in America, in a neighborhood that had clean sidewalks, and where all the houses had lawns that, if not pristine, were at least fairly well kept and quite usable for a game of tag, or hide–and–seek. Yet, at the same time, as soon as I think that thought, I find myself feeling guilty that things were so easy for us growing up, compared to what life is like here.


I try to imagine what it would be like to have lived in a neighborhood like these shanty compounds, my whole life; and yet, honestly, I find myself unable to do so. I find it hard to really imagine what its like to have always only ever known dusty, dirt roads, never paved ones, to have only ever had makeshift toys, never the store bought variety, to have pushed around old tires, rather than being able to ride bicycles. It seems that I just completely lack any common point of reference. There is no framework within my own experiences for such an existence.


And I’ve come to think that even though we can get in our 4x4’s and go where people are here, we can seldom, by ourselves, really be where they are at. We can drive the same roads they drive, we can walk across the same trash strewn streets, we can go to their churches, and we can teach in their schools, but it takes much more than being where people are, to understand who they are.


That, only happens when we pause long enough to listen.


Listening, has not always been my greatest strength. Maybe it’s ADD. I don’t know. And the thing is, I really do try to listen (most of the time), but somewhere between a person opening their mouth to speak, and those words actually reaching my ears, there are roughly 40,000 other things that are equally vying for my attention.


Now, in all honesty, I don’t think I am entirely to blame for that. Yes, its partly my fault, in that I have an attention span about as long as this sentence. But, that aside, many people seem to think that the point of a conversation is to win, and that one wins by saying the most consecutive words without pausing. Sort of the machine gun approach. What I can’t quite figure out, is why those of us who struggle to pay attention are often put on medication, while our rambling counterparts are left alone. But, that’s getting off the subject.


Truthfully, I think the ability to really listen is genuinely a human malady, something that few of us are really good at. I mean, think about your friends who are good listeners. Those that are, stand out! And the reason that person stands out, is because that quality is so rare!


I mean let’s be honest. The question, “How are you doing?” is most often simply a launching pad for “Let me tell you how I’m doing.”


And yet, listening is a crucial part of the Christian life. Our ability to know God, and to be transformed by him, begins with our ability to listen to Him. And our ability to serve God, is directly related to our ability to listen to others. John’s Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “ It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:45). And one of the first things we see in the life of Jesus, is him, sitting at the feet of others, and listening (Luke 2:46).


The degree to which we have listened to God, will directly determine the degree to which we become like him. Unless the word of God penetrates our hearts, unless we allow ourselves to believe it, not because we like it, or because it sounds nice, but because it flows from Eternal Truth, then we can never participate in a relationship with God. And unless we have begun to know God, then our own listening will always be filtered through our own agenda. We will listen, in order to have a chance to speak. Our objective will be to display our wit, or wisdom, to gun down the other person with our vast amount of knowledge and expertise.


But when we have listened to God, when we have, like Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus because we’ve understood the inherent value in doing so, then we become empowered to truly listen to others. Because then, and only then, are we able to hear, not with our own ears, or even our own heart, but with the heart of God, whose Spirit has come to reside within us (Rom. 8:9).


And even if we can’t fully relate to growing up in a shanty compound, we can hear the cry of those who have grown up there, a cry that longs to be heard, because we ourselves have heard from the One who really has something worthwhile to say.