Vocabulary for Real Life: Another Story from ESL Class

 “Guess – chures, guess – chures.”

“No, remember how we pronounced it: JEST-chures.”

“Ah, yes…”

Helping my level four students acquire a facility with new vocabulary is part of my work, and one of the words we had a couple of weeks ago was gestures, which we defined as “hand movements that have meaning.”

Most days, as we’re learning a new grammar skill or learning to write a paragraph, I let my students break into groups and help each other with their work. One day a couple of weeks ago, as I had my students writing sentences to practice a new grammar skill, I watched as two Ethiopian men who sit near the front of the room interacted as I answered a question for them.  I don’t remember what they had asked but I do remember what happened as I tried to clear up their confusion. As I helped them, one of the men, a younger guy close to my age who I’ll call Addisu, began to explain to the other, an older man in his late 60’s who I’ll call Temesgen, what I had said.  As Addisu spoke, I noticed his right arm extend across his chest and over to Temesgen’s paper (he was sitting close to the elder man’s right side) where he began to erase one of the mistakes Temesgen had made in one of his sentences. As I continued to explain what Temesgen’s mistake was, Addisu then noticed that the elder man had made the same mistake in each of his sentences.  Arm still extended across his chest as though he were about to embrace him, Addisu proceeded to erase each of the mistakes in Temesgen’s other sentences as well. All this time, the elder gentleman sat listening to the younger man, letting him use his eraser on his paper.  There was no shame or embarrassment (even for a proud man like Temesgen), either in having someone help him or in having someone else so close and in his space.

This easy-to-pass-over moment in what was an otherwise normal morning of teaching stopped me where I was. As I watched Addisu help a man who was probably old enough to be his dad learn his grammar, I caught sight of something profound: a gesture–a younger man helping an older man understand a grammar concept that he wasn’t getting, going out of his way to make sure an elder had what he needed before he tended to his own work.

We live in what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture,” where the insatiable appetite of consumerism, which we are all subject to, influences us to always be looking for the next thing, or the new and more interesting thing.  That which is no longer interesting or new is simply replaced and we move on, leaving the old and outdated behind.

What interests me most in working with people from places like Ethiopia, the Congo, and Iraq–all countries that are still largely uninfluenced by our consumeristic ways–is how I can learn from these cultures–and even how many of their cultural norms are more in line with what I believe as a Christian than what I see here in my own country.  In these communities, I see people devoted to neighborliness, graciousness, and hope. In their cultures, community is still prioritized: the good of the other is my good too.  It’s not a zero sum game.  And in most cases, what is new or more interesting is not more important than helping my neighbor.

And so there I was. That one small gesture by Addisu stopped me that day long enough to humble me into remembering that I have a lot to learn from my students.  They may come to me because they want to speak and read English, but I need them in my life to help crack open the hardened shell of individualism that has formed a protective layer around me from years of trying to get ahead and make a name for myself.  I’m thankful that I get to do this everyday and be a witness to their grace and generosity.

The Ministry of Accompaniment

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890 by Van Gogh.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air–especially after the darkness of last week and the week before.  As Americans, we’re used to a high level of predictability in our lives, such as leaving for work each day assuming that we’re safe and will return home without harm.  This is a good thing and one whose value I do not seek to diminish but when certain high profile people call for a ban on Muslim immigration,  we need to take a step back–and by we, I mean Christians–take some deep breaths and remember where our hope lies: not with political parties or agendas, not with the state and its political and military power and not even with security and predictability (even though, again, both of those are good things).

Our hope, especially as we remember it during this Advent season, is with “God with Us,” Emmanuel.  He came to accompany us in our uncertainty and in our fear and suffering.  The problem is that, at least in my life, I have not had a lot of deep fears and suffering.  Sure, I’ve had my fair share of struggles but for the most part my life has been pretty uneventful and so have the times in which I live (except for a few major events, 9/11 being the foremost).  But the dark shadow of terrorism continues to lengthen over us (at home and abroad) and as Christians we must really work to develop the right frame of mind in order to participate in God’s mission in the world.  We’re not used to the uncertainty that terrorism brings with it and the unpredictability it can force upon us.  As a society, we’ve exerted a significant amount of control over our future for a number of generations now, shaping our imaginations and hearts in such deep ways that even being a Christian doesn’t make one immune from such an influence.  But when we’re seeking to be a part of God’s mission in the world, so much of our work is about learning how not to be in control.

This past summer, as a way to help myself prepare for the work I would be doing with refugees, I wanted to continue to explore what it means to develop the imagination needed to work with those who live on the margins of society.  I had once read in Rowan Williams’ wonderful book, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment, about the “intelligence of the victim,” which is what we develop when we learn to look “at the world from the point of view of those excluded from its systems of power.”  The victim, as Williams points out, is an “abiding challenge” to any system that claims to be the one complete solution to the needs and problems of mankind, and when we stand with and advocate for the victim, we presume a “questioning stance towards such claims” (46). I wanted to explore that world more–of what it means to stand with the victim, or those on the margins, who have little to no voice in society.

One thing that I have been reminded of so far in working with refugees these past few months is that you can’t always “fix” their problems. When we lived in Ethiopia, this was an abundantly clear fact.  The poverty ran too deep, the corruption was too wide spread, and the system often seemed rigged so as to keep those with power in power.  At times, it was easy to be cynical about doing any good for anyone in the face of such overwhelming complexity.  And so often, all my ministry consisted of was being present to those who needed help.  In Ethiopia, that was children.  Now, it’s adult refugees and immigrants.

The only difference with my work now is that I’m doing it in the U.S. and so often, I feel I have a lot more control over what I can do for my Iraqi or Burmese or Eritrean friends. And this is true…most of the time.  Or maybe better put, this is true when it comes to practical matters: filling out paperwork, helping them register their kids for school, or referring them to a lawyer for legal help.

But what proves to be much more challenging–actually, impossible–is to make them feel at home.  When you begin to scratch beneath the surface a little, when you sit with a refugee long enough to really hear them (and often ask the right kinds of questions), you will hear the sorrow in their voices–the ache of having to leave their homes.  I never had to gather my family and run for our lives, but I do know what it feels like to live in a foreign land where I really don’t “get” how things work.  In fact, I know what it’s like to live in another country and know just enough about the place to realize that I don’t really understand the people and they don’t really understand me.  That’s what missionaries and international aid and development workers reckon with all the time (if they’re honest) when living overseas.  My wife, Jana, and I certainly dealt with it living in Ethiopia.

While the loss of one’s home can’t be taken away, what someone working with marginalized people can do is practice what Jean Vanier called “accompaniment,” or what I’ve heard others call the ministry of presence.  I can’t give my students their homes back.  I can’t make the wars in their countries stop.  I can’t remove the trauma that now resides in their bodies.  But I can give them my presence: I can help them bear the weight of loss and grief and the disorientation of living in a foreign land that, while relatively safe, can be very difficult to navigate, and I can do this without having to “fix” those problems (since I can’t really “fix” them anyway).  In doing so, I can help them feel, even though they are not at home, a sense of belonging. And in doing so, I know I follow in the footsteps of the God who, while not giving us answers for our why we suffer, decides instead to suffer with us and bear our grief and sorrow of our brokenness.

The problem for us as Americans, though, is that we like to fix things and it can be very difficult to provide a container, if you will, to hold the difficult experiences and feelings of those on the margins.  We’re too busy trying to find a solution. We want to do good: it’s in our blood.  We’re a nation of problem solvers, organizers, and efficiency experts.  To live out the ministry of accompaniment means we have to submit to doing “nothing” and when that happens, our Protestant-work-ethic-American-“we can do it”-guilt kicks in and Mammon, the god who always demands more of us while giving us fewer resources to make more happen, takes his seat on the throne of our hearts.

But it’s when we allow ourselves to do “nothing,” to be “disarmed” as Christine Pohl and Chris Heurtz call it, that we can allow the Spirit to work.  Pohl and Heurtz’s book, Friendship on the Margins, was one of the resources I turned to this past summer when I wanted to develop further “the intelligence of the victim,”or how to go about better embodying the ministry of presence with those on the margins. In that book, Pohl and Heurtz write:

When we allow ourselves to become disarmed, we become both vulnerable and strong.  The only weapons then at our disposal are those of the Spirit.  We choose the way of Jesus, laying aside all earthly resources that give us power–in order to be present to those we love….

In other words, when we give our presence to those we serve, rather than seeing them only for the problems they present to us for us to fix, we follow the “way of Jesus,” which is the way, as mentioned earlier, of God With Us, Emmanuel.  It is the way of the one who did not provide us with a theodicy, an explanation of how a good God can allow evil, but instead laid aside his power to feel what we feel when we suffer under the weight of brokenness and death.

Just this morning, one of our friends, a sweet lady from Mosul, Iraq, because of a passage of Scripture that had been read during our break time, began telling me about how ISIS killed all the Christians in her hometown or sent them into exile.  As she spoke, she began to weep quietly while saying, “I will never forget what they did. As long as I live.”

What can one do in a moment like that?  Promise that allied forces will soon destroy ISIS and return Mosul back to those to whom it belongs?  Such an answer would feel better–would feel like I’m “doing” something–but could very well be an empty hope given that we’re not called to trust in the power of the chariot or the horse (Psalm 20.7), nor in princes (Psalm 146.3).

We’re called to something different as Christians.  We’re called to suffer with the other–called to the “inaction,” if you will, of accompaniment. Such inaction feels like nothing and makes us feel powerless.  But when we’re in that place of powerlessness, then we can be sure we’re following the way of Jesus, who made himself nothing and, as we remember in this Advent season, came as a defenseless, powerless infant, born in a cattle stall.  When we accept such powerless, we follow in the way of Jesus and make way for the Spirit to work.  Dare we let go and watch what he does?

When it Comes to Dealing With Sexual Abuse, Will Evangelicals Take the Path of the Hero or the Saint?

St. Francis preaching to the birds. What a fool! What a waste!

Since my last post inspired by Brian Zahnd’s blog, I’ll admit I’ve been revisiting his site quite a bit.  His post from earlier this past week  brought to mind something in regards to the whole Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal (if you’re not familiar with it, then you can catch up on it here.  If you’re an Evangelical, you need to know about it).  First, let me quote something I found in Zahnd’s most recent post and then I’ll link it to the SGM scandal.

Zahnd quotes Francis Ambrosio, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown, regarding the difference between heroes and saints:

“For the hero the meaning of life is honor. For the saint the meaning of life is love. For the hero the goal of living is self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it. For the saint, life does not so much have a goal, as a purpose, for which each human being is responsible, and that purpose is love, and the bonds of concern and care that responsibility for one’s fellow human beings carry with it. These two paradigms, the hero and the saint, and the way of life that descends from each, are really two fundamentally distinct and genuinely different visions of human society as a whole, and even of what it means to be a human being. They are two distinct and different ways of asking the question of the meaning of life.”

My wife and I both have been reading about the sexual abuse lawsuit that has been filed against a number of former and current leaders at SGM. I think Ambrosio’s words might just strike at the heart of the question as to why C.J. Mahaney’s friends have chosen, until recently, to remain silent about Mahaney’s alleged involvement in the conspiracy: is it possible that Evangelicalism as a culture is overly concerned with producing leaders who are “heroes” rather than “saints”? As Zahnd points out…

In the Western world we are deeply conditioned to choose the heroic over the saintly. We love our heroes best of all. Heroes are goal-oriented people of great capabilities who know how to make things happen. We admire their ability to get things done and shape the world according to their will. Saints on the other hand — especially to the American mind — seem quaint and marginal, occupying religious spheres on the periphery of the action.

Together for the Gospel (L to R): Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever

Could it be that as Evangelicals, in our desire to reach the masses–to be, well, evangelical–we have unwittingly embraced practices that actually work against the Gospel and work against the central mission of the church, which is love–especially love for the vulnerable?

In ancient Greek literature, heroes pursued glory, fame, and honor, and even with the influence of Christianity on Western culture, in our collective psyche, that image of the hero is still with us: the one who accomplishes great feats of strength and racks up acknowledgements and awards.  We still honor, as Ambrosio says, the hero who seeks “self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it” (and with good reason: there’s nothing wrong with honoring someone for excelling at, let’s say, a sport, or more significantly, for achieving some discovery that yields life-saving results). But as Zahnd points out, Jesus comes along and carves out another way: the way of the saint, who doesn’t live by our goal-setting and goal-achieving ways, but instead reveals that love is the highest good in life–that responsibility to others, especially to the vulnerable (Matt. 25), is more important than reaching goals or achieving fame.  I like the language Ambrosio uses: the saint is called not to a goal but to a purpose.  The saint’s life is not centered around statistics or numbers–the number of conversions or the number of members on the roll, the number of people you reach via satellite or the internet–but the hero’s life is.  The hero’s life, according to Ambrosio’s two paradigms, is centered on product, accomplishment, and recognition.  The saint’s?  The saint’s life is focused on the opposite–the quiet, little way of acts of compassion, self-giving, and self-forgetfulness.  Why?  Because the saint is focused on the one, not the many.  The saint’s “accomplishments,” in fact, may seem rather useless and ineffectual in the end, according to his critics (see the late Christopher Hitchens’ criticism of Mother Teresa, if you’re not familiar with it).

I wonder if this is what’s really at the heart of C.J. Mahaney’s friends’ muted response to the SGM lawsuit. Is this the reason Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and Ligon Duncan–with whom Mahaney started Together for the Gospel–initially broke their silence about the sexual abuse lawsuit against SGM and Mahaney with a defensive open letter to the public–one that remained un-nuanced in its defense of Mahaney (the revised version is not much different)?

Defensive and lacking nuance: two unfortunate qualities that Evangelicals have possessed in their history when faced with criticism.  Could it be that this defensive posture has been the the go-to mode for Evangelicals because, despite their calling to be self-emptying servants in the City of Man, they have been actually more concerned with position and accomplishment in the eyes of “secular” society–that their desires have been more shaped by “secular” images of the good life–than they are willing to admit?

Ultimately, I know this defensiveness has nothing to do with being Evangelical.  We all know similar sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups have occurred in the Catholic Church and at non-religious institutions like Penn State.  Both of those institutions have exhibited their own defensiveness and committed the sin of silence out of the desire to maintain position or reputation.  Though it should be different with religious institutions, it’s in our nature–regardless of whether you’re a mega-church pastor or Catholic priest (or a Division 1 college football coach, for that matter)–to cling to power, position, and prestige.  And since Evangelicals have had skin in the culture wars for some time, it’s understandable if they feel they must remain vigilant–must remain in combat mode–against the “enemy.”

But Evangelicals are called to “downward mobility” (as described by Henri Nouwen in my previous post), and I think Evangelicals can learn to see the beauty of this other way, the way of the saint–indeed, the way of Jesus–if they can catch a vision of the paradoxical beauty of victory in defeat.  I think they can catch this vision and learn to value those things considered foolish by society–such as exposing darkness even when that darkness is in their own midst–even if exposing that darkness will provide the “enemy” with more arms in their arsenal to attack them in the ongoing culture war.  I think they can learn to see that this embracing of defeat is actually the path of victory (we do follow a “failed” Messiah, after all, whose kingdom was not of this world).

Despite being in combat mode for so long, I think Evangelicals can learn the way of the saint–can learn do something as “useless” and “foolish” as St. Francis once did when, as it’s told, when he preached to the birds.  What did such preaching produce for Francis?  What could Francis show for his preaching to these unproductive members of creation?  Nothing.  But it was an act of beauty, an act of praise (which is, by nature, a “useless” act, as in it serves no utilitarian purpose).  Can Evangelicals do something just as “wasteful” and “useless”–just as non-product oriented–as Francis once did by preaching to the birds?  Under the current circumstances, could they do something, which in the end, may appear self-defeating (talk about unproductive!)–may appear foolish if viewed from the vantage point of the culture warrior–something like siding with the vulnerable, siding with those who for so long have had no voice–even if it makes them “look bad”?  Can they “lose” in the eyes of their “enemies” and let their own glory dim so that the glory of Jesus’ humble way may shine more brightly?  Can they shed the desire for accomplishments and goals for the calling to a purpose, a calling to love?  I think so if they embrace the downward path of Jesus, of the saint, and forsake the hero’s desire for power and position.

Just this week, my denomination (and Ligon Duncan’s), the Presbyterian Church in America, pared down a resolution on child sexual abuse to exclude a part, among other things, that would require churches in the PCA to notify law enforcement about allegations of sexual abuse in their congregations (you can read the original draft here and the revised here to see the difference between the two).  The good news that came out of the revision process was that the PCA, instead of adopting the revised (and watered down, according to some) draft of the resolution, has decided take the next year to investigate the matter more thoroughly and work with survivors and experts so that they can come up with a more informed resolution.

If the PCA’s example is any indication that Evangelicals are willing to take a stand against the darkness–even when that darkness may exist within their own borders–then they’re on the right path toward being a witness to the power of the downward way–indeed, the power of the saint.