Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When God pins us down and dribbles drool in our face.

A few months ago I found myself teaching nearly 30 pastors and leaders in Michura Kenya about church leadership. All through a translator, mind you, because my Luo is only a couple dozen words thick. We were packed in a small, windowless building of about twenty by thirty feet and constructed out of wood, mud and dung. I started to make a joke just now about how going to a crappy church is not always a bad thing, but I'll resist.

We covered numerous topics. Theological. Sociological. Anywhere they wanted to go, we went, for two half-days in a row. It's only the second time I've ever gotten to do something like that, but I can say I already know I love it.

One topic of conversation that came up was particularly striking. One of the pastors stood and asked about a difficult issue that they apparently get together and wrestle with often. It's a phenomenon where the people in their congregations begin to mistreat or neglect their leaders when their leaders fall ill. He said that no matter who the leader is, if the pastor or others in leadership get sick, the people go cold and even accusatory. Rather than finding care during sickness, they find a spirit of disdain.

He went on to say that the understanding is when someone gets sick, they aren't right with God. So, the people in their congregations see the illness of the leaders as evidence of divine disappointment over some hidden sin in their life, and so the pastor is only getting his or her just desserts. And the negativity is compounded by the fact that they are in leadership, not just lay-members of the church, ostensibly living in hypocrisy as they tell others how to live as a matter of vocation, while simultaneously sinning in their own private life.

"Can you help us with this?" he concluded with pain on his face.

I addressed it two ways. One, I told them that this belief is top down. As humbling as it was and is for leaders to admit this, if people are constantly told that God punishes people for their missteps, then when calamity strikes, they are only being faithful to the message that has been told them when they assume God has, for reasons unknown, gotten out the paddle. When bad news strikes, God must be punishing some sin. "If the congregations believe this," I suggested, "they were taught this." Our little dung hut full of leaders was suddenly quiet.

My second point was this. I asked if they had a flu-season in West Kenya. They all responded together; "May and June!" You could tell there was a communal dread about this particular time of year. I asked if that was when pastors mostly got sick. Without hesitation, they concurred. I asked then if people in the congregations got sick more during that time of year. Another resounding yes. It was at this point the two older men started laughing spontaneously. They looked at each other, and even though they said it in Luo, I could tell that they were saying that they knew where I was taking this train of thought. I asked then if they perceived people to be more sinful in May and June than the other ten months of the year. After a reflective pause, they all wrinkled their brows and said no. "Equally sinful all year," responded one with a smile.

So then I asked if they believed, based on what they had just told me, if getting sick is a result of God punishing sin, or if it's a case of disease being suffered rhythmically- even predictably- apart from the goodness or badness of the person.

No kidding, they stood up and clapped and cheered. They just needed a little help seeing things from an outsiders perspective I guess. The translator yelled over the din that I had, in just minutes, solved a years old problem. It was a good crappy-church moment.

Fast-forward two months. I was down in the creek adjacent to my neighborhood garden, getting water for my peppers and 'maters. The neighbor boy, Sean, was doing the same for his family's crop. He said he had a hard time walking down the rocks in the creek bed to get water, and wondered how I seemed to have such an easy time. I explained that you simply look and step on the flattest rocks with the widest bases and keep moving. Carrying my bucket over to one of the deeper swirling pools, I began to jog down the rocks to demonstrate what I'd said. Being Irish, this could justifiably be called a river dance. But I was moving far faster than necessary in order to give a good show. I misjudged one rock, which teetered and tripped me up. Unprotected in flip-flops, my feet were gouged and scraped on jagged stones and my toenails were immediately painted red. My face got hot but I protected my cool-quotient by only thinking in high-pitched screams. My foot was on fire, and no one knew but the river dancer.

There were two immediate, simultaneous thoughts underneath the intense sting of pain as I stood in that creek:

1. Did Sean see that? (He didn't, which I was grateful for and disappointed by. He didn't even have the attention span to watch? Kids...)

2. God is punishing my cockiness. Shaming me for showing off.

It came to me so fast I was unable to believe anything other than it being true.
In an instant, I proved that I have the exact same work cut out for me as my brothers and sisters in Michura. The guy they applauded for his illuminating their minds also still believes that God is a bully. A mean-spirited older brother that will de-pant me at my own party if I enjoy it too much. A conniving troll that lurks beneath the surface of an otherwise good life, showing us who really owns the bridge whenever he sees fit. I call him Love. But I, on instinct, and perhaps even out of a self-protective, be-careful-letting-your-guard-down-or-it-will-cost-you, still hold on to the idea that God is more like me than he is like Christ.

I probably have more to say on this, but this morning I've been thinking this mantra-like phrase and so I'll close for now by sharing it with you;

If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.

When things fall apart, you get sick, you go broke or you cut your foot in a creek because you wanted a grade-schooler to think you're a ninja... even if you lose a foot or your grade-schooler dies.... We must believe that God, who is not a galactic ego with an angry axe to grind, is not punishing or picking on you to make a point. Crap happens. Crap is part of life. Crap is even part of the construction of the church. Crap just happens, whether we're good boy and girls, or not. But God is not mean. Because...

If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.

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