As I reflect on Zimbabwe I share much of what Frank and Andy have offered. I too am dreaming of Zimbabwe each night since my return–the singing, the kind faces, the generous spirit, the will and determination by pastors and community leaders to become a source of healing and truth in the midst of so much pain and danger. To see my own life, my own country in the light of Zimbabwe is to face three hard truths:
- Much of what occupies my life and the life of so many in my country is often trivial. In Zimbabwe we met people struggling with real problems (hunger, illness, poverty, justice). It is no surprise to me that because they struggle with real problems they also have a great capacity for real joy, real faith, real hope. In my life, and the lives of so many of the economically privileged, we worry our lives away. We spend hours upon hours anxious about our appearance, our possessions, our status and achievements. Because we don’t address the real pain and struggles of this life we also short circuit our capacity for real courage, real imagination, real relationship (with ourselves and others), and real joy.
- The people of the United States are deeply afraid to face their own pain, grief, and wrongdoing. The U.S. has been engaged in two wars for the past seven years. Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered violence, dispossession, psychological trauma, and death because of our actions. And yet, as a country, we are afraid to publicly face the consequences of our actions. Publicly and privately North Americans suffer from un-grieved grief. We too are in need of healing and reconciliation–in some instances between Americans (i.e. victims of Katrina, military families, the poor and dispossessed), in many cases among those in other countries (the thousands of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries who have suffered because of the United States military intervention). The Zimbabwe pastors are trying to find a way to heal their communities, to bring restorative justice to victims and perpetrators, to find a way to prevent further outbreaks of violence in their country. I was struck how much of the suffering that has taken place in Zimbabwe is familiar to our own country–we too have engaged in torture, disappearances, and indiscriminate violence. The response in Zimbabwe is a national movement toward reconciliation and healing led by Christian pastors. Now that I’m at home, I realize that our country is also in need of a similar movement.
- There is spiritual poverty within the United States. For most people in Zimbabwe the only institution that seeks to address the needs of the people is the Church. It is the Church that runs most of the orphanages, the Church that seeks to provide schools and medical facilities, the Church that reaches out to those suffering from hunger and poverty, the Church that seeks justice for victims of violence, and it is the Church that seeks to nurture hope and encouragement among the disheartened. There are problems within the Zimbabwe Church and yet during this conference we saw a willingness by pastors to confess the Church’s failings, and a renewed commitment to meeting the needs of people. I have worked within the North American church at a national level for most of my adult life. There are many good Christian people doing work that no one else does in our society, but too often much of the time, energy, and resources within North American Christianity is bound up by what might be referred to as, busy-ness, self-protection, and window dressing. We need missionaries from Zimbabwe to come to the U.S. and remind us how to sing, pray, care for the sick, seek justice, and nurture compassion. We need Zimbabweans to remind us of the “good news.”
A final image:
As the conference ended and we prepared to depart, a middle-aged man who had suffered numerous beatings, a man who founded a church among the poorest of the poor in Zimbabwe, a man who lives in a shanty-town, a man who cannot afford treatment for his teenage son who has suffered a debilitating injury and is losing sight in one eye, a man who has been a frequent target of violence by government officials, a man who stood up at the conference and said, “In the Bible we learn that there were Kings and there were prophets to challenge these kings. Today, in Zimbabwe, we have kings but no prophets. It is now a time for prophets. This is our calling.” This very man walked over to me and shook my hand, and as he shook my hand he smiled with a warm and genuine smile, and he said to me, “I am asking God to bless you for your time here. I am going to pray that God brings you energy, and love, and new life. I am praying that God blesses you and blesses your family.” He paused, and then as if recalling something terribly funny, he began to laugh. He reached forward, picked up my hand a second time and began to shake it in a kind of congratulat0ry manor and then he said, “It’s already happening! You see? It’s already taking place! And I am so glad! God is blessing you! It’s happening!” He laughed and stood back and looked at me in wonder. I tried to laugh along, not sure what it was he was perceiving, but he just shook his finger playfully and said, “It is happening. Don’t worry. I will continue to pray for you and for your family and the new life that God is bringing you.”
He walked away shaking his head, giggling to himself at the sight of this blessing, a blessing that I could not see, a blessing I felt I had not deserved, a prayer and a blessing from a man who was much more worthy–and much more in need, so I felt–of a blessing than I was.
How do you receive God’s laughter from a man who knows such pain? How do you keep from being eaten alive with bitterness, anger, self-pity, and sorrow? How do you receive a blessing like this, from a man such as this one? The truth is I don’t know, but I’m going to try.