take this fainted heart, take these tainted hands, wash me in Your love, come like grace again : even when my strength is lost, i’ll praise You. even when i have no sun, i’ll praise You. even when it’s hard to find the words –
i will always sing Your praise.
Even When It Hurts, Hillsong United
Philadelphia, Mississippi, January 2008
Her fray, wrinkly body, capped by thick, black hair with a slight gray hue, stood at the forefront of the altar, gazing to the scattered rows of pews in front of her. We filled those pews – or at least 4 rows of them – in the back. Other congregants had come and gathered to hear this old, but mighty old woman speak. Like honey glazed with just enough sugar, her voice was quiet, sweet, but clear.
In this rural, strongly Southern chapel, at a mere 19 years of age, I heard a story that changed my life.
This woman – her name has since escaped me (though, I am confident it’s inscribed in one of many journals I keep) told her story from the 1960’s. I’m sure she shared about her upbringing too, but it was her experience during a KKK attack on her church that sticks with me – even today. “Mississippi Burning” with Gene Hackman is a film that is loosely based on the event; essentially, three civil rights activists were mobilizing African-Americans in the South to be come enfranchised so they could vote during ‘Freedom Summer’ in 1964. At Mt. Zion – this particular church – the activists had spoken and inspired members of the church. When the KKK caught wind of this kind of activity, the church was set on fire, burned, and destroyed.
I remember two things from her shaky yet poignant words; the intensity of the fire, and the even stronger intensity in her love of God. God – not policies, not preferences, not politics – drove her to forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately, love. She forgave the KKK, the people who burned her church, the very system that desegregated, humiliated, and dehumanized her. Testimony is powerful, and I don’t remember ever hearing something quite so moving.
Kayonza, Rwanda, July 2012
I cooked 20 helpings of bananas, beans, and macaroni on one particular sleepy Sunday. I knew visitors would be coming – and thought I only expected around 8 people, something deeper kept tugging at me. Cook more. So I did. On that dinky charcoal stove, I cooked for at least three hours. Sweaty, smoky, and smelly, I shared with neighbors who had said they would be dropping by. We fellowshipped, shared food, and sipped coffee on my low-lying coffee table ad my beloved mat. We ate over my school-turned-home furniture and all in all, it was rather quaint. As the day drew further into the late sunny afternoon, I heard incessant knocking on my front tin gate. As I creaked it open, I glimpsed and saw two middle-aged women in pink, yellow, and blue African fabrics, holding 20 lbs. worth of stuff on their head. They spoke French. I did not. Naturally, I invited them inside.
My colleague, who just happened to be visiting at the right time, could communicate in the Francophone language and so while I poured warm drinks and gathered plates for food, he filled me in on the smaller albeit important details. Refugees for 8 years with no home to speak of, they were searching for resources outside the camp. Somehow, they had stumbled in from the outer-laying valleys and into the hills of Ruramira. How they found my house? I’ll never quite know. But, I did know that I had cooked enough food and when I passed their portions, they mumbled a small “God Bless You” and nibbled slowly but with gusto.
My heart broke that day. Overwhelmed, I couldn’t possibly understand how in a foreign land I had managed to find a home and yet these women could not. It seemed unfair. I knew I could only handle what was in front of me, and my concern was to maintain an open door, a heart full of love, and the food – as long as it was made available.
I never had to reconcile my hesitations or questions that came with allowing strangers in my home. Not once. In fact, it was second nature in the moment; it kind of, sort of, well, just happened. It was an important lesson about reconciliation.
My short time in Philadelphia, Mississippi taught me that reconciliation is unexpected. In Rwanda, I learned it was a life style. A choice, even. Even more, a gift that we either choose to embrace or hastily cast aside.
These are two stories. They are two – of so, so many. I’ve been fortunate to see the intricate weaving of God’s love in and out of my life in the course of 26 (almost 27) years. It’s no accident; God has demonstrated time and time again (and still again) that His love is of the radical kind; it doesn’t make sense, it transcends boundaries, and it’s the only thing I can trust. I have witnessed it in my family; I have lived within it while engaging in Rwandan village life; I have found it’s riches in my own brokenness; and I have been soulfully drawn to it as I’ve grown closer to God. His love is unexpected, surprising, un-ending, boundary-less, and unpredictable.
Yet, I’m alarmed. We (this world) have entered a state of emergency and I haven’t known how to say what I want to say or share what I want to share. I was content to say nothing until the two stories grazed my heart while on a run through the city recently and I felt compelled to scream at the top of my lungs that, yes, GOD WINS. Scream, because a quick glance into the rants, complaints, and proclamations on facebook and the media show me a world guided by fear and hate. Fear and hate.
We have terrorism besieging Paris; criminals ruling Beirut; signs of Genocide in Burundi; and people, (ahem, largely Christians!) are standing firm in their own self-effacing ideologies and shouting, “No! We can’t accept you!” It makes me sad. What kind of gospel is that? If God has reigned victorious in our lives then we ought to know the depths of grace and the weight of mercy. And for people crying out, in need, and truly burdened, how can we possibly close the door in their face?
My question is quite simple:
What, exactly, are we so afraid of?
Even if ISIS, or evil itself came knocking, don’t we trust enough in the power, sovereignty, and love of God to protect us? Have we really given Him everything? Because before I am anything, I am with Him. I am a child of God. That is my identity. I refuse to embrace anything else. That’s why I am speaking about God at all in all of this madness; for me, this is not political, it’s not ideological, and it’s not about taking sides. It’s about loving when it really hurts. When it’s hard. When maybe, we just don’t want to.
Why does that matter?
It matters because before being Republican or Democrat, man or woman, young or old, educated or illiterate, or American citizen or not, I am with God. My loyalties are with God, above all else, and no matter how many times I flip the Bible in, out, and around, one thing above all else is clear – Love God, Love Others, and DO NOT FEAR.
It matters because in a lot of ways, we are all refugees. We are all searching for home, belonging, and identity. When you find it, you realize how precious that treasure is. God’s love is kind of like that. It matters, because there are people in the world seeking love, seeking peace, and seeking solace. They are hungry, beaten, suffering, and in need. Why wouldn’t we be moved so much by our hearts (and by the gospel) that we knew that something should be done?
And granted, we are messier, sloppier, and human. So, we’re going to mess it up. It’s easy to talk about love, but hell, it’s a lot harder to do. I struggle with this a lot. Sometimes, crazy enough, it’s hardest of all to love the people we know we should love. But that’s just it; the life of Jesus demonstrated what love without boundaries was like. He is our precedent, and I see no other way but to follow.
I don’t know how to respond to everything in all these really uncomfortable, uncertain, and painful times. But I knew that today I needed to declare my allegiance to God; mindfully aware that my theology, research, studies, opinions, and formulations will amount to nothing but a grain of sand to what God is offering to the world. He brings His heart – and as far as I am concerned, that’s the only the thing that matters.
Begin to see how God radically loved you, and in turn, you might see how we can radically love others. That is what our world needs more than anything else right now.
May this be a time of opening – not closing – a time to reconsider our misconceptions, a time to look deeper into our hearts, challenging ourselves to probe the deeper side of love. May we draw near truth, and express a desire to be united – not broken – by the evil that knocks, threatens, steals, kills, and destroys.
God wins. So does love.
“Gospel change is the Spirit of God using the story of God to make the beauty of God come alive in our hearts…Religion, then, can tell you what to do—namely, to “love God with all your heart, soul and mind” and “to love your neighbor as yourself”; but the gospel alone gives you the power to do it.”
― J.D. Greear,
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
1 John 4:7