I’d have written something a long time ago if I was sure how to go about it. I’m still not sure how to go about it, but this will have to do.
Well, that’s not true. I actually write a lot of stuff, I just don’t write it publicly. For the things that I have learned really matter, I’m not ready to put billboards in my yard. For the things that make me laugh or angry, the banalities of life or the sanctimony you encounter on Facebook from the undiscovered geniuses of our day – it just hasn’t felt right. But I’ve kept writing for me. It’s one of the only ways I stay sane, or try to. For someone that wants to dive headlong into discussions, it hasn’t been easy. Those streams of idiocy and sanctimony seem to be running especially strong. It also seems that each day brings another big event that offers a glimpse at the truly big issues of our age. I have a lot of stuff to say about all of that, stuff that is likely wrong as often as it is right. I have a lot of things to ask about all that, not that I think that anyone else has answers but because I’m sure I don’t have a clue. I guess I am still trying to figure out how to do some of the things I have always done and yet honor the fact that nothing about this place seems the same as it always was. It’s something that the people who understand will understand completely, and everyone else will think they understand but won’t. I pray it is a long time before they do.
That’s about all I have today.
That’s not true either, because this might end up being the longest post in the blog’s short history – but I’m cheating. Below is the original version of a post that I wrote back last summer that I decided to send in to our denominational magazine “Messenger” instead. The folks at the Magazine had to make a few changes for space in the article that appeared in this month’s version; however, I am not so constrained. For some, it will be too much ‘church-talk’ by half, and that’s ok. No offense taken. In that case, I hope you can see the bigger theme about belief and hope in general if you decide to read any further.
Hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas and happy holiday season. Hug them tight.
In June, I looked up through the dusty van side window and wondered just what I was doing. We were bumping along the road from Imperial to La Florida, pausing sporadically to navigate the Peruvian government’s efforts to channel irrigation ditches under the road. In the plain from the base of the Andes over to the Pacific, there seems to be a general rule: If it’s not irrigated, it’s dead.
A group of twenty-two people from the Frederick Church of the Brethren had set out on a trip to Peru to build houses for the Fuller Center for Housing, and I’d been able to sign up because of a member’s last-minute scheduling conflict. At the time I signed up, it seemed like a good idea. To be entirely honest, at that time, a month after I lost my wife and best friend Monica, getting away anywhere for whatever reason seemed like a good idea. By June, though, I’d long since learned that wherever you go you end up carrying your own bags – for the stuff that doesn’t have handles, the joy, pain, laughter and tears, there are no skycaps or storage lockers. That’s what I was thinking about as I looked through the window at the headless chickens hanging in the market stall; that I wished I could’ve left myself at home.
I’d like to be able to say that the thought passed and didn’t return, but that’s not the way it works. The people who know what I’m talking about know exactly what I’m talking about. Some thoughts don’t pass, they just take breaks before they swing back around strong than ever. As the van moved through the market, thoughts gradually shifted to gratitude for the amazing opportunity to do meaningful work with a great group of people. I also wondered what lessons the trip had in store.
Travel teaches. Whether going to the next town over or a town a half a world away, there are lessons to be learned. In my experience, international travel teaches best. Our culture is so dominant and pervasive that it takes quite a jolt to wake us up to lessons we should be learning daily. Going somewhere completely different provides that jolt for me. Others might think they can simply be intentional at home and pick up those lessons. I think they are wrong.
For me, each trip has a few lessons that linger. The lingerers are the one you find yourself thinking about weeks later, the kind that dominate long drives and quiet walks. One of the lingering lessons from Peru came early, building on things I’d seen on other trips.
It’s always funny how you can go to one place and see traces of another – not unlike seeing family resemblances. An analogous experience happens to me all of the time when listening to music. If I’m listening to folk and Bluegrass, I’m hearing pubs in Ireland. If I’m in a club in New Orleans or in front of a women’s choir in Nigeria I get a feeling that I’m only a step and a steel drum removed from the Caribbean. Anthropologists will chalk that up to migration patterns, but I think there are other threads at work too, threads that cause those Celtic-infused tunes to share DNA with the roots music coming up from Jamaica – threads of common experience and shared struggle.
Well, that connected-ness is what I saw when driving through Imperial. Whether in the rudimentary form of a new home going up or a finished house or business, all had rebar shooting out of the tops of their walls and columns (for the uninitiated, rebar – short for ‘reinforcing bar’ – is the steel used to reinforce concrete when building).
There is a perfectly practical reason for leaving rebar exposed. When building additional stories or levels, it is imperative that columns be ‘tied’ together, that the reinforcing steel from the lower level be tied into the upper level so as to make a continuous reinforced column the entire height of a structure. Building any other way would end up with individual levels stacked on top of each other instead of joined together, a recipe for the shortest game of Jenga ever.
The practical didn’t grab my attention. The sight wasn’t unique. I’ve seen rebar sticking out of concrete columns everywhere. From Ecuador to the Dominican Republic to Jamaica to Nigeria to Peru. What grabbed my attention was the fact that in the midst of great struggle people are building for today with one eye fixed on tomorrow. In so many places where people have no idea how they are going to complete the first story of their houses (places where most can’t imagine having a ‘house’ of their own) or how they will afford building materials, where they are often living under grass thatch roofs next to their building site, they are still making preparations for the second and third story.
Our group in Peru would occasionally hold our nightly devotions on the roof of our Imperial Hotel. But it wasn’t a roof, it was the floor of the hotel’s eventual third story. Our Innkeeper lived in a grass shack there amid partially completed brick walls, piles of gravel and sand, and columns sprouting rebar like a steel garden. It was on one of the first nights at the hotel that I stood on that ‘roof’ as the Southern Cross sparkled down on the neighboring buildings and thought of one word that seemed to sum up those rebar groves – anticipatory.
It is an anticipatory culture that makes preparations for tomorrow in the uncertainty of today. It is a culture not only of anticipation but of expectation that can see a second and third story without having a completion date set for the ground floor.
Something in those anticipatory columns made me think of the words of the writer of Hebrews.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11: 13-16 (NIV)
It is an amazing passage. The role call of faith – the cast of characters and deeds for the greatest acts of the Old Testament split in half by a four verse aside. The movie stops mid-scene to answer folks who might be thinking ‘of course those people were faithful, they were chosen, they’d been ‘blessed’.’ The writer wants to quell that notion before going further. Don’t miss the lesson the writer says, those heroes of the faith did the things they did and lived the lives they did without receiving all of the things promised, they were faithful because they saw those promises in the future. That anticipation and expectation fueled those great acts of faith.
I think the message the writer wanted to convey is that anticipation and expectation fuel faith as much as recognition and appreciation. While recognition of and appreciation for the way God has worked are essential to faith, anticipating and expecting promises seen in the distance is the fuel of faith. Not anticipating or expecting a certain time or place or event, but anticipating and expecting that there is a loving Creator that is working to bring about second stories that we aren’t able to see.
That notion of only seeing things from a distance is disquieting. It’s far easier to skim past verses like those in Hebrews or Philippians 3:12, where Paul states that he had not “already obtained all this, or [had] already arrived at [his] goal [and yet pressed on] to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [him].” At least it seems that in large part the church has skimmed past those passages. We tend to speak those words without much conviction. Too often we are a very much ‘here and now’ church, we want the i’s dotted and t’s crossed before we step out. We want the financing secure before we hire the architects, we want half of the money raised before we begin the capital campaign.
And here the lesson gains nuance, because other verses discuss counting costs and making preparations. Here is also the point at which we must remember that for people of faith the Bible is a book, not a collection of bullet points. Verses exhorting us to be a people of anticipation and expectation must be read in context lest they be used to justify inaction and a disregard of this life in lieu of contemplation of jeweled crowns and golden streets. Verses exhorting counting costs read outside of the anticipation and expectation of promises in the distance are easily relied on to justify a faith that isn’t Faith at all but merely a reliance on ourselves and those things we can clearly envision wearing ‘holy’ clothes.
When anticipation and expectation are removed from the faith equation, everything unravels. Actually, anticipation and expectation are not just removed, and that is even worse. What too often happens is that we keep the notions of anticipating and expecting, but we switch out the object of our anticipation. Instead of seeing the promises of a supernatural Creator in the distance, we turn inward and if anticipating or expecting anything at all, anticipate and expect those ‘promises’ we think we can realistically bring about. That continues the march towards a secular Christianity centered on ourselves. Instead of anticipating and seeing the distant promises of a living God and being comfortable with the awesome uncertainty that faith in a creative force completely outside of ourselves necessitates, we use the language of faith and expectation while meaning something less. We then shorten our strides to match our reduced vision.
In that world of substituted promises, future church growth is constrained by experienced growth or lack thereof, future giving is constrained by experienced trends, future life is limited by experienced stagnation. When anticipation is limited to us instead of a wondrous God, it also becomes inextricably linked to the world we live in. Perhaps a better way of illustrating that point is to simply look again at the verses in Hebrews. The heroes of the faith looked towards promises in the distance. They were headed towards a land whose builder and architect is God. The writer makes clear that the land they headed to was not merely a place or a place they had been before, because they could have physically traveled anywhere they desired for better land and water and food, even backwards. No, this land they were expecting and the promises they saw in the distance were not of this world, they were of God’s making. I don’t think, however, that the author is making the point that it is the ‘place’ that you focus on, heaven if you will, I think what the author is trying to highlight is the fact that whether it is a life beyond this life, a world beyond this world, or blessings in store here tomorrow, those heroes of faith were trusting in, anticipating, and expecting the workings of an external God.
But what does that mean for us? Thinking back to those columns in Peru, how do we make sure we are – or go back to being – a people that build for today while anticipating tomorrow? How do we go from seeing exposed steel at the top of our columns as signs of our lack of completion to signs of wonders in store. How do we rejoice in our ‘unfinished-ness’?
I think spending time pondering scripture, like those verses in Hebrews, is a start; but at some point you have to ask yourself the real question that lies at the heart of this anticipation issue. Do you believe in a Creator that is not you? Regardless of the words used to answer that question, how does your life answer it? Often pastors will ask churches what their spending habits say about the importance of the church in their lives. I think a far more pressing question to ask is what your hope and your anticipation say about your faith. Do your ‘building habits’ show that you’re expecting more? Even while surrounded by the broken and too few building materials of your ground floor, are there indications that you’re anticipating a second story?
In your life, as you look around and see very little standing, surrounded by terrible loss or broken relationships or financial hardship, do you believe that you are in the hands of a loving God that has something in store for you? Where you are anticipating – is it anticipation of something specific you have envisioned, or is it anticipation of the working of a God that has plans you are not yet in on?
As unfinished Peruvian buildings flashed past outside the dusty van window I wished that I had tidy answers to all of those questions. I didn’t and don’t. I have, however, grown more comfortable with the idea that exposed steel doesn’t necessarily mean we have failed to complete a project — it might mean some projects are not ours to complete.