On the way home, our flight from Johannesburg to Amsterdam left just before midnight and took all night and morning to cross Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe. I woke up in time to watch the entire sunrise, from the thin line of color appearing at the black horizon to the sky slowly shifting from black to blue as the orange glow slowly expanded, making way for the sun.
It was truly magnificent–yet another highlight of a trip overflowing with moments of profound beauty and deep sorrow. As I look back over the whole trip, I’m reminded of a term that my mentor, Peter Storey, used for trips like this: pilgrimage of pain and hope. That is absolutely what this trip has been–seeking God’s presence in the midst of real suffering and injustice as well as in the midst of stunning natural and human beauty. One of our speakers said that South Africa is both a third world country and a first world country layered on top of each other, the best the developed world has to offer and poverty that ranks among the worst in the world just a few miles down the road. It’s also a place of amazing beauty: stunning natural landscapes, incredible wildlife, richly diverse people, and the best of African culture–warm, joyful people, exuberant music, art with roots that stretch back as far as human civilization does.
A pilgrimage of pain and hope is about following the incarnate God to the heart of the suffering in any context and experiencing both the suffering and the beauty in those places and people. When Jesus walked the earth as the king of all kings, he showed us who God is by how he lived and who he loved most directly. Who did he seek out? Who did he touch? Who did he make room for in his circle? Rev. Storey always said to us: “If you’re looking for Jesus, it’s no mystery where to find him. He’s among his friends.” And scripture makes it clear who his friends are: the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the lepers, the children, the friendless, the unpopular, those who have nothing to offer in return for my friendship other than their own love. And a pilgrimage of pain and hope is about stepping far enough out of my own insulated bubble to be reminded that God is present in a significant, powerful, real way among those who suffer at the margins.
We hear people acknowledge this truth when they return from ‘mission trips’ and say that they received more than they gave. Experiences that open our eyes in that way are pilgrimages, and the closer we get to the poor, the more they become pilgrimages of pain and hope.
It was tremendously painful to come face-to-face with those on the bottom of the modern hierarchy created by our global economic system, as I’ve tried to express in earlier postings. And it was painful to see the face of one of the consequences of the system that has made my life so comfortable and rich (in lots of ways). And it should be painful. Heartbreak is the cost of holy awareness, of taking a step closer to the heart and mind of Christ. Through experiences like this, I’m reminded that Christ’s redemptive suffering with humanity on the cross was also suffering at the hands of humanity. The Creator God is a child with no shoes and a parent with no hope of a decent life in the inhumane squalor of Khayelitsha township. God Incarnate is a pregnant woman with HIV who is alone in this world, having been rejected by her family, and without prospects for any way to sustain herself. Emmanuel is a person of color who continues to experience the dehumanization of suspicion and limitation simply because of the color of her skin.
As I enjoy the privilege of watching the sunrise as the world slides by 7 miles below (as so few human beings in history ever have), I realize one of the Words from God for me on this trip is the call to ongoing pilgrimage of pain and hope. This pilgrimage of pain and hope has been a beginning of a way of life. I live in a bubble of comfort and self-preoccupation; that’s the life handed to me according to my station. I did not choose the bubble or its costly effects on my spiritual life. But if I want to follow Jesus, I can’t remain in it once my eyes are open to it–God loves me too much to let my spirit rot in the bubble. Contentment with the apartheid of economics is not an option.
So I confess publicly that I hear a call to cross the barrier between rich and poor in my own city for my own sake. I hear the call to lead my people across that boundary for their own sake. Jesus is among our brothers and sisters in ‘those’ parts of town that our wealth allows us to avoid, and he’s inviting us to get to know him better. And in the process, I trust I can be useful to God in doing something about the injustice that causes suffering of all sorts.
The painful and hopeful key to this call I’m sensing: this isn’t about ‘mission trips’, it’s about relationship. The introvert in me is intimidated by this; the voice inside says, You already have more relationships than you can manage! There’s no room for more! I’m not sure how this will play itself out–is this a matter of prioritization, where some friendships atrophy as I make new ones, or is it an example of the loaves-and-fishes abundance of God, where I’ll be surprised at my own capacity? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that when I follow God’s lead, abundance beyond imagination is what I discover, however it happens.
As I tremble in the face of God’s call to growth in my own life and the life of my congregation, I am ever more grateful to God for the holy moments of everyday events like sunrise and the inexpressible sense of divine serenity that they create in me. Thanks be to God.