From Plane to Soapbox via Taxi
Sitting in my room in a hotel in Entebbe. I lay in bed this morning and watched the sun rise through a bank of cumulus clouds over Lake Victoria before going back to sleep for another hour.
It’s the end of my gruelling three-week assignment and later today I’ll get on an Emirates flight to Ethiopia, deal with Ethiopian customs and baggage, then check in for a flight to Frankfurt through Khartoum, and after a 6-hour layover in FRA I’ll be heading directly home. I got tired just writing that.
If you’re tired of my usual rants now would be a good time to stop reading and move along. This blog has had quite an arc to it – and it’s a much less amusing read than it was at the beginning. But I’m less amused too, so it evens out. I digress. Still, if you’re here you know I’m writing because if I stopped shouting about this stuff my bones would melt.
It’s been a long trip, but I don’t say that by way of complaint. I’ve met an incredible number of families living in circumstances that are not only difficult to describe but even harder to stomach. It’s one thing to know that there are children who can’t go to school and that this lack at the very beginning of their lives often casts a die from which they’ll never escape. It’s another to meet them, laugh with them, talk to them, and fall in love with them, and then try to process that reality. Children who can’t go to school because they don’t have shoes. Children who stopped going because the teacher tried to rape them or one of their classmates. Children who can’t go because their daily task is to glean in the fields for beans the farmer missed or left behind so they and their siblings don’t go hungry.
I’ve been hearing stories like this, and photographing the children, for three weeks straight. We’ve met and talked frankly with children orphaned by AIDS, children now in charge of their homes at 12 years old, now burdened with the care of their siblings. They live in dark huts, get malaria frequently, subsist on beans or plantains or maize – rarely anything with protein.
And in thirty-some hours I will arrive home and Vancouver, and the rest of the “developed world” with it, will be deep in the throes of celebrating the coming of Jesus of Nazareth – the Man angels proclaimed a savior, the one heralded with promises of Peace on Earth. The One who would go on to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed, the One who would befriend and dignify the poor, the widow, the orphan, the weak, the excluded. And we’ll be celebrating with a bacchanalia that goes on in open defiance of the reality that the majority world lives with, and the reasons for which that Promised One came. We’ll be padding the pockets of the rich as we clamour to buy friends and family gifts they don’t need and for which they will feel the obligation to reciprocate. And we’ll do it in the name of Jesus.
I’m ok with giving meaningful gifts. I think it’s a beautiful tradition, even potentially sacramental. But like all things holy they can be torn apart and reassembled in a grotesque mockery of the very thing of which they are a counterfeit. And I fear coming home to this more than anything else today. Because the one thing worse than the reality of God’s children living in such poverty and indignity is His children living in such flagrant denial of the sufferings of others.
I know I’m not writing this with balance – but I don’t do “balance” well. It almost always comes off looking like compromise and a justifiable way to assuage my guilt or the fact that not doing anything about this poverty is to be complicit in it.
People often ask me if I get culture shock when I travel. I don’t. But when I come home I inevitably suffer from culture disappointment. I’ll come home to the big push to buy crap we don’t need to fill ego-holes that are not capable of being filled by the self-same crap. There will be hints here and there of what this all was once about – but mostly it’s going to push me into a corner where I’ll cry because so many of the ones who claim to follow this Christ are squandering their blessings while in a small hut banged together out of salvaged rusted corrugated steel, a single mother in El Salvador struggles to feed her kids one meal that day – likely rice and beans – and wonders, perhaps, why this Jesus only took His gift to the developped world, and what good did any of it ever do for her.
I know I have the advantage of seeing this stuff first hand and having my heart torn apart by these little children in person. I know some of you will never experience it, so it’s hard to resonate with my rants. I feel like I am beating my head against a brick wall. I also know that so many out there do follow Jesus beyond just words, do celebrate this season with sacred abandon, and do make sacrifices so that the blessings that overflow in their lives also overflow to others. But why does it always seem so amazing to me when I hear of it? Why does it completely gobsmack me when it should be the routine for ones who follow this Jesus who gave it all up for the bankrupt world He loved?
God give us the blessing of his Holy discontent this season – a discontent that comes in the presence of a God who has always been for the poor, the displaced, the alien, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. God give us the blessing of receiving what we need and not what we clamor for. God give us the ears to hear the pleas of the poor and the eyes to see their tears. Most of all, God give us less – all this “blessing” we’ve been hoarding is distracting us and we’ve come to worship the gift over the Giver. Sometimes I wonder if we even remember there’s a Giver there at all.
If you haven’t bought me a gift this year, please consider sponsoring a child. With World Vision or Compassion or whoever – but please consider it. If it takes begging, I’m about at that point.