It’s been on my mind for awhile now. I’ve had numerous conversations with people about it, and still, I know I’m missing something.
There are dark and horrible realities in our world, and each day we are faced with their presence. We can either look, recoil in horror, and move on, or we can somehow, deep in ourselves, be changed. The pattern of our life and focus of our thoughts can reflect that reality back to us.
I prefer not to live life this way. I mean, theoretically, yes. I want to be changed by the true suffering of those around me. Theoretically, I want to carry my neighbor’s burdens, but isn’t it so much nicer not to? It’s so much nicer to lay flat on my back with the air conditioning on and watch a comedy about a man who thinks he’s an elf. In my mind, I’ve related this experience, of I guess extreme coping, to a hang nail. I occasionally (honestly) bite my nails, and the pain of a hang nail is always so acute and severe that I can’t imagine my finger ever feeling normal. What is it like not to feel my heartbeat in my index finger? But, as I’m sure you’ve all had hang nails, it hurts for a day or two, but soon you forget you even had it, until maybe you hit that finger against something and expect the hang nail to take your breath away. You probably never notice the change.
I have seen some horrible and tragic things in my life. I’ve seen a young woman dying of AIDS. I have seen small children with the bloated stomachs and flies in their eyes. I have seen rats crawling into the home of a young family that lives on the street where I live. I’ve seen the burning hulk of a truck whose driver was murdered by an angry mob. And others. And of what I haven’t seen, I have heard. In these moments of being confronted with suffering, darkness, and pain, I think, “I can never be the same. How can I live in a world where this happens and live as I have?” Then, the car pulls away, the movie ends, or I fly home and everything is the same.
Last night, I watched Blood Diamond for the first time. It was just another moment in a series of brief encounters with darkness, but I have determined not to come away unscathed. I have let myself move on too easily in the past. I have hardened my heart and passed to the other side of the road.
I remember coming back from Nigeria and wondering how I could ever be normal, how I could ever slip back into life knowing what I knew and remembering what I’d seen. But it was too difficult to traverse those waters of living in one world and remembering another. I distinctly remember this deep conviction to honor the memory of the people I’d met through my life back home, but it was too much. Too complicated.
Do you experience this disconnect? We watch these movies like Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener, and others. They are fiction but what they are depicting is true. People are dying in our world. People are starving to death. Children are being sold and raped. I hate to say these things, I know they are harsh and heavy, but isn’t that exactly what they should be? They should be sharp enough to cut us. They are real enough burdens to the people carrying them, so why not to me?
I’m in the middle of reading this article by Tim Keller, and he writes powerfully about our call to bear one another’s burdens. He says, roughly, if we can meet the needs of the people around us with no sacrifice on our part, then how are we bearing our neighbor’s burdens? We bear no burden and feel no weight.
Oh, it is so difficult. I don’t know if this is striking a chord with you. This year abroad, this grand adventure, is something I want to be able to share with you. I raise these questions because I know I’m not the only one asking them. I am so blessed to be here, in this crowded city, with poverty, need and destitution reaching out to me at every corner. I cannot block it out if I tried, and I do. This is the most basic challenge Christ gave us. To love one another. It always seemed so easy, so simple, so black and white. But I think he knew how grey it was.
It really is in the moments when you are down in the mud trying to work this whole idea out in the flesh that you have the chance to be changed. It is worthwhile precisely because it is difficult. It is really a treasure at the source. Loving God and loving his people is work. Not just giving money to charities (although that is a beautiful gift), but in the grocery store, at the restaurant, the homeless person on the side walk. Seeing the deeper need for connection and love and being willing to sacrifice to give it. How completely awkward to stop and try to talk to a person begging on the side walk? For both of us, it’s awkward. Imagine how they feel. But it isn’t about just getting past them or doing the least, but loving. I should be different because of the people I meet, and the only way for that to happen is for me to know them, to get some of their issues and dirt into my heart, to carry it with me. That doesn’t happen if I don’t stop to let it.
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