Water – a reflection

 

With it, ancient civilizations such as Rome flourished, using it to water fields, animals, people, and tend to the basic sanitation needs of the populace. It is a religious symbol that points to the depths of God, to newness, to life and refreshment for the weary and burdened of heart. All I know is that I really need to pee right now, but I can’t.

 

When you’re in a water crisis, you watch your stockpiles of water with a thirsty eye. We’ve been in one now for the last 5 days, as the municipality here in Harare, where my mom’s house is, shut the water off as they do every so often. Thankfully, we keep the bathtub and a motley assortment of plastic containers of many shapes, sizes and provenance filled with water for just such a time. My mom has a system that she clearly understands, but my spoiled, just-returned-from-overseas self does not. Over there are the bottles with borehole water. That is for drinking, but only for the adults – the distilled water for the children is in the pantry yonder. Over here is the section with municipal water we take from the tap – that is not safe for drinking, but you can use it for bathing and for the loo. And so on. With the water running from the tap, the system is simpler – the cistern refills itself, so you can flush the toilet without having to fill it using buckets, and the kitchen sink can be filled and emptied as needed directly from the faucet.

 

Now, though, the water has been shut off, and we’ve started drawing water from the bathtub and the various stashes dotted in and outside the house. Each time I must wash my hands, vegetables and fruit, my body or my clothes, the fact of the dropping water level in the bathtub and the fast-emptying water containers hits me like a personal affront. A visit to the loo is never relaxed now, and till then you hold it in for as long as possible until it’s necessary because you know that it’s going to deprive everyone else of a few more precious litres of water. If you know me, you know that I’m one of those people that take their time and let nature take its course while I dig into one of the many books I am reading at any one time. For the past few days, the loo has stopped being my happy place. The nastiness of it all, which many have to endure on a daily basis, came home to me by force.

 

When it comes down to it, though water has a lofty symbolism and we can wax lyrical about it, it allows us to simply live as the embodied creatures that we are. We drink because we thirst. We bathe because we get dirty and produce dirt that needs to be removed to stave off disease. And every so often our bodily waste just needs a place to go. Running water allows us to do the little, but necessary, things of life as embodied souls/ensouled bodies. I for one, just really need to pee right now.

 

Minority Report (Part 1)

 

The thing about being part of an ethnic minority is that you’re pretty much damned either way. As a black African living in America, this is something I came to feel quite keenly.

 

On the one hand, you must navigate a majority culture that is not your own, at times setting aside your distinctives and adapting so that you fit in more easily. Don’t get me wrong – I found my sojourn thoroughly enriching, and I met amazing people that challenged me to not simply fit in but to find, use and amplify my voice. I honestly would not trade in what I learned and the friends I made for anything else. But this advice was being given because of an awareness of how the majority culture can so easily ‘other’ others,  especially black others. Being the ‘other’ in such spaces might mean feeling isolated, different, stepping way out of your comfort zone and at times being unheard and unappreciated for all you are and have to offer. You enter and participate in the majority culture and seek to flourish there. Often, your presence in the majority culture is not a voluntary immersion into another culture, but a matter of necessity in light of limited resources and access within your own spaces. As such, you learn another language, its text and subtext, redefining for yourself what is meant by phrases such as ‘good taste’, ‘manners’ and ‘common sense’. This leads to what W.E.B. DuBois said about black people in America being double-souled – you have your own way of doing things, but because your survival depends upon learning and working in a world other than your own, you adapt and take on another self, a self that speaks and thinks in a manner foreign to the first self. And yet these two selves are the same person. That divided self, like Jekyll and Hyde, wars against itself. DuBois goes on to say that ‘this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand [black] people – has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed to make them ashamed of themselves’. Like I said; damned.

 

On the other hand, if room is created for you at the ‘table’ of that majority culture, the insidious thought that you are at that table purely because you’re different can also haunt you. Are you there by merit, or are you there merely to add some ‘flavour’ and bump up the diversity quotient in the room? How can you tell? As schools, office and other spaces open up for people of colour in a move towards increased diversity, the question of being a legitimate presence in those spaces reverberates loudly for a minority person. As a grad student at a mostly-White Christian liberal arts school in the American Midwest, for example, I was invited to be on a panel of speakers for a Q-Union event in 2017. Because I was extremely busy at the time, plus I didn’t know what it was about, I barely read the email and I didn’t do it – but when I thought about it later, I couldn’t escape the thought that I had been tapped for it primarily because I added “diversity” to the event.  I probably wasn’t chosen for that reason, but the thought did more than cross my mind. Like I said, either way, you’re pretty much damned. At least, that’s how I felt for a very long time.

 

In my attempt to find a solution to this conundrum, it took me a while between writing the paragraph above and the next part of this post to realize one very key thing. As such, the shift in tone is not an overnight thing – it took time and tears to get there. For the longest time, being ‘other’ meant negative things, and I internalized that negativity. I had to learn to see being different through eyes healed by God, to see that as we take our place in the world, we must be ourselves, and not another.

 

 

The trouble with Christianity

I’m not one of those people that read instructions carefully. I browse. I skim read. I don’t see small print and even if I did I wouldn’t take the time to even pretend perusing it. All this doesn’t strike me as particularly odd; it ought to, especially seeing that I’m trained in the legal and theological fields – fields where attention to detail is paramount and frequently a matter of life and death. One thing I’m relatively sure of is that there are many people who, like me, don’t bother reading the pamphlet inside the new batch of pills they’ve just bought. We just look out for the part that talks about dosages, and that’s about it.  I wonder just how much of life goes like this. I’ve been drawn in particular by the message of Jesus, and the bold print that accompanies certain parts of it, but that we often ‘don’t see’ [ignore] as it touches on one or another thing that’s close to our hearts.

Lately, the idea of forgiveness has been pressing in on my brain with excessive force. Personal circumstances may be the trigger. Uncle C.S. Lewis says that forgiveness may be the most offensive of the Christian virtues. This is the case because of what it requires of us – giving up the joy, right and delight of holding something over and against someone else. Much like the painful satisfaction that comes from sucking on a sore tooth. Or giving up the desire to be sullen when we are wounded (I sulk a lot, and I discovered this fact after being married), and that white-hot part of us that seeks redress on our own terms. For the sake of justice, we dare not let X get away with what they have done.  But here God challenges us – we probably have very little idea of what true justice is, and when we forgive others this is not the same thing as excusing them.  This has been the hardest bit of Bible I’ve had to swallow: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. Also, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 6.14-15; 18.21-35).

What exactly is happening when I ask God to forgive me my sins? If I don’t get this, I won’t understand what I’m being asked to do in forgiving others as God forgives me.  C.S. Lewis has helped me see this clearer than I did a while ago. Am I asking God to forgive or to excuse my sin? Lewis wrote, “Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology, I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it, you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive.” The difficulty is in knowing the difference between the two, and actually believing that God will really take us to Himself again though there is no case that can be made for us. We think we need to parade before God all the reason s why we were reasonable in doing this or that before He says ‘I forgive you’. But if we really were reasonable, then there’s nothing to forgive, is there?”

He carries on, saying, “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness; and that we can always have from God if we ask for it…To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”. This is the bold stamp lining Christianity, and we ignore it to our own peril, seeing that we pray this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  It is unmistakably hard, and goes against the fiber of our being – but is true Christianity anything less? The trouble with Christianity is that is won’t let us be; our comfort is not its end, at least not for now.

To the unknown heart

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The human heart has more to it than one might think. I’ve found that it has many recesses, hidden doors, passageways, false rooms, winding stairs, motives, reasons, movements, deliberations and strong rooms. I think that’s why Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” I have heard a lot of ‘wisdom’ in my short lifetime. But I think little is as ‘deep’ as when I’ve heard people advise each other to ‘follow their hearts on this one’. This statement, often made with a certain knowing authority behind it, makes it seem altogether certain that if you take it on board, you’ll find yourself in a world of clarity, understanding, joy and true freedom. At least that’s how the story is spun, time after time.

Listening to people, you would think this ‘heart’ thing is an infallible instrument in determining the right and wise course to take. And yet Scripture teaches us to be careful of our hearts- we cannot and should not trust in them. I recall Peter on the night Jesus was arrested- he proclaimed with gusto that he would never, ever, ever betray Jesus, and that he would die before that happened. A few hours later, 3 times he vehemently protested to a servant girl that he never knew Jesus. And how many times, have you made promises to yourself in the middle of the night, and all that was within you agreed and gave assent, and yet you are the first to admit two days later that you were lying to yourself- you could never do that…You are back in a ‘right frame’ of mind, and that was all wishful thinking. Which means either you were lying to yourself then, or now. Still trust your heart?

Instead, we are enjoined to ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight’. Now why does God say this? ‘For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean”’. We also read that ‘can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water’. Can we therefore expect that the same heart which is the source of wickedness is at the same time the source of holiness and wisdom? I submit that we cannot.

True religion – stimulant of the people

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“So heavenly-minded that you’re of no earthly good”. I love that phrase, even though I’m not sure exactly what it means. I guess there are some people that focus so much on the finish line that they don’t watch their feet in the process. It’s been said that religion is the opiate of the masses- by numbing them through the agent of future hope, you distract people from the present injustices they suffer, and they don’t feel inclined to do anything about their present lot. They become physical sluggards while their hopes and dreams are active, alive and well. They dwell in shacks in the body, while in spirit mansions and utopia are their haunts. For every thousand lashes you lay on my bare back now, my reward in the life to come increases at compound interest. So the story goes.
I would query this on various levels. This ‘religion’ that works as an opiate of the people- is it true religion? Does true religion divorce the body from the soul, or is this a lie? Second, I wonder if it’s possible to wage a revolution with integrity without resort to some kind of future hope. On a fundamental level, every struggle against the status quo is based on the a priori thought that things can be different, and indeed ought to be different. It is the struggle of ‘is’ versus ‘ought’. Slavery existed, and in some parts of the world still does. How do you even begin a movement to abolish slavery without a sense that what is, the enslavement of certain people, is wrong or inappropriate and should not be? You look beyond what is, what is before your eyes, to a vision which transcends that and encompasses what you think things should be like. This vision of the new status quo is a hope. So in my mind every revolution is fuelled by a hope, by the ought struggling against the is. It means that ‘revolutionaries’ who think religion is bunk because it looks to some future hope for fuel are shooting themselves in the foot- they are using the same kind of stimulant for action. There are such things as false hopes, of course. Third, does looking to the world to come mean I necessarily become disinterested in the present, in present misery and suffering? I think it can be said that far from doing that, it is actually the only way we can truly make strides towards changing things, as we have the ultimate OUGHT before us as a template to work against. A child learns to write by having its father take its hand in his and showing it how to write out the letters. I’ll explain this last one more fully.
‘True religion’ that pleases God and that he accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1.27). The message we get loud and clear throughout the bible is that the body matters. God made it. He made it good. Even after the fall of man the body has value and that’s why it matters what you do with it- keep yourself from being polluted by the world, in all its manifestations. It also matters what you do with bodies of others- feeding them, taking care of them or abusing them. Matter matters. Justice matters and so both Testaments speak about doing righteousness toward others. The resurrection of Jesus was a resurrection of his body. He wasn’t some disembodied spirit; he ate fish, let his disciples touch him, and broke bread and such. We speak about this in our creeds- “I believe in the resurrection of the body”. When the new world comes, we shall be like him… Our bodies shall be transformed (1 Cor 15). New heavens and the new earth. The physical is not intrinsically evil. God will redeem what He’s made and this includes our bodies. Creation is groaning, waiting to be liberated from it’s bondage to decay. True religion does not divorce the body from the soul.
The vision most revolutionaries have is, in my mind, not as drastic as the overhaul God has in mind for this world. The world we all want and long for is the world that God has promised to bring about- no tears, no more death, no more hunger, sickness or oppression- ever again. There won’t be some diabolical dictator who will usurp the fruits of our labour and betray our ideals in years to come. This is a day that won’t see the setting of the sun. It was in looking into this far country that the ancient Christians were able to do much for this present world. The apostles who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the early Christians whose blood was the seed of the church and many others all left their mark on earth ‘precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this’. With a true understanding of the world to come, our labours in this life are all the more revitalized, not stifled. After speaking about the resurrection and the world to come, Paul reaches an interesting conclusion: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain”. This is not a summons to rest easy because the new world coming, but a clarion call to action.Because it is coming, work!!! He then goes on immediately to spur them on to take a collection for believers that were struggling financially. True religion is not an opiate, but the one true stimulant that can sustain us as we labour in the Lord in the present world, awaiting the one to come.

The Church and ‘social morality’

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According to C.S. Lewis, “Christianity hasn’t got, and doesn’t profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying, ‘Do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment. It couldn’t have, of course. It is meant for all men at all times and the particular programme which suited one place or time wouldn’t suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it doesn’t give you lessons on cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it doesn’t give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.

People say, ‘The Church ought to give us a lead.’ That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if they mean it in the wrong way. By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practising Christians. And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians- those who happen to have the right talents- should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting “Do as you would be done by” into action. If that happened, and if we others were really ready to take it, then we should find the Christian solution for our own social problems pretty quickly. But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean that they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to Trades Unionism or education, must come from Christian Trade Unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists- not from the bench of Bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time”…

I’d have to say, on the basis of what St. Paul says, that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are meant ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up’, that I agree wholeheartedly. The clergy cannot put on as many hats as there are different professions represented in any one particular congregation- this would be impossible, and as C.S. says, ‘silly’. They aren’t meant to do all of the works of service, but to prepare the people to do them. Otherwise, what would be the use of the body of believers? So, what works of service are laying in store for you?

What is normal?

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I’ve been catching up on some old Star Trek movies lately. I’m happy to report that I’ve now seen all of them. It’s shocking, actually, seeing that I would have called myself a fan. In any case, I had a good time, and there are some very interesting lines in there. Wrath of Khan is particularly good that way. There was one line from another movie, Generations which piqued my interest though. It’s a conversation between a Dr. Soran, who has kidnapped one of our protagonists, and Geordi La Forge (ship’s engineer), the aforementioned victim. Geordi has a birth defect which affected his sight – he’s never had the use of his eyes, and he relies on a visor to aid his visual perception. The good doctor asks him, “Have you ever considered a prosthesis that would make you look more, how shall I say, normal?” Geordi, with a slightly pained looked in his face replies, “What’s normal?” To which the doctor chuckles, responding, “Well, that’s a good question. Normal is what everyone else is, and you are not.”

What’s normal in your world? Are you an average Joe? One of the things I’ve found is that the things people in my circles consider normal, they actually aren’t all that normal when I look beyond us. The wider majority of people out there aren’t really serious and committed Christians. Most of the people out there don’t have real homes. A lot of folks don’t have running water, or electricity. Vacation – what’s that? You have clothes on your back? Got food on the table more than once a day? Do you have an education that allows you to read a book to yourself and your kids? Can you access and read this blog? That’s not really normal. Almost everyone else in this world lives a life that varies widely from this ‘norm’. The strange thing though, is that I don’t feel abnormal. In fact, in my mind, I feel too normal, too average, too boring. Why is this? How have I come to a place where my cushy existence is what passes for normal, or average? How have I been insulated from the reality and led to believe that everyone ‘out there’ is like me? Does this impact my faith in any way?

One thing that really comes to mind with force is that fact that the bible has to apply differently to me than what I thought it did. Whenever I read things like ‘blessed are the poor’, I think I always fancied myself in that category. When I look reality in the face, though, poor ‘is what everyone else is and I am not’. Sure, we like to compare ourselves with others within the same social strata (believe me, even missionaries compare themselves to other missionaries), and in some cases we come off better than others, at times worse. Or we look at the super rich, and think to ourselves that we are just hanging on. Francis Chan gave a sermon on this, called “Lukewarm and lovin’ it”. The reality is this – I am rich. Compared to the rest of the world, with what is ‘normal’ according to the numbers and not my experience, I’m one of the rich. So I should rather read the bible with this pointing at me, “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry…” (Luke 6.24, 25) and so on. My approach to God has been as one of the poor, while I’m actually one of the rich. I’ve acted as though I have nothing to relinquish whereas I have much to give up. I’ve acted as though I have no interest in this world when the reality is I’m invested in this world, in the status quo, and I have resources that I wouldn’t want to part with. I’ve acted as though I was the widow with the two mites when in actual fact I am the rich man who puts his gifts into the basket indifferently.

Something within me and my fellow middle-class (ers) balks at what I’m saying. All our lives we’ve probably been told, taught and thought that we’re just average. We’re not excessive. We’re not like ‘them’ over there that splurge on unnecesarries. We just try to get by, and yes, we do have a few comforts but they are earned. Without taking anything away from that, I think the failure of this view is that it’s too insulated. It looks sideways and upwards, but doesn’t spend enough time looking downward (if I can put it that way). We look at our peers (social) and we look at our ‘betters’. We have some inclination of the lives they lead because we roll in the same circles. You’ve been invited to a rich friend’s party at some point. You’ve seen his house, how he lives and all that. You have the magazines, the television shows that let you into that world. But it’s not the same with the poor. Aside from the news reports (which are not that pleasant to watch), and perhaps a relative here or there, we never really go into the world of the poor. There are no glossy magazines that are a gateway into their lives. Our society is structured in such a way that you’d have to make a deliberate effort to see how the poor live. And this is precisely what I do not do. And so I maintain my illusion of normalcy, I complain about crime, I hold onto what I have as tightly as possible, I tell myself I’m one of the little people, and I console myself that Jesus will come through for ‘us’ the down and out, when in fact I have no clue what I’m actually talking about. I look forward to His justice, to the time when he fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, without giving a thought to the point that I am one of the rich, and possibly one of the unjust rich. It’s a strange place to be in. If normal is what everyone else is and I am (we are) not, it feels rather like I’m a Martian living amongst Terrans.