Sweet Despair

Jesus gave me a very powerful, negative, painful, freeing emotional experience recently, and it is changing my life.

I was at a conference in Philly, and my friend Josue was leading worship. We were singing ‘Savior, you can move the mountains’ or some such and he paused and asked us to articulate out loud the mountains faced by the people we serve. Before I could think of it, I found in my chest a total hopelessness that nothing was ever going to change, and a paralyzing despair that nothing we do will ultimately matter. And I knew that was it. That was what I had seen written on the faces of every one of my Narnyan friends. That was what conditioned the work ethic of men that stood in metro stations offering to weigh you for 20 cents, thinking that that was their meaningful work. There is no meaningful work when nothing you do matters. That was what was behind the answers to my questions when my friends would stop half way through explanations of why things are the way they are. “It’s Narnya,” they would say.

But I didn’t think all of that. I felt it. I knew it the way I sometimes know the will of the Lord or the next strategy step. Gnosis. And it started to smash me. I put my hands on the table in front of me in an effort to hold up under the weight of it. But it was still too much, so I fled the room and went outside into the sun. I sat on a curb because standing was too tiring, and weeping I prayed. I prayed the feeling back at Jesus, because my words wouldn’t come. I wanted to lie on the ground, not in worship, but because the weight was so much.

I don’t have experiences like this often. I read the mystics. I’m not one. But Jesus has been getting me beyond words, or maybe beneath them. Praying images instead of phrases, sensing instead of always articulating. Sometimes, here, we’re just too tired to do the work of making sentences, and we find ourselves praying a little deeper than vocabulary and syntax will go.

While I was praying, Jesus made it clear again that I, if I’m honest, had been feeling the same thing about my work that my Narnyan friends feel about their lives. I had been fighting off the creeping worry that nothing here is really going to change, and that we’ll spend 20yrs here and nothing we do is really going to matter. For me it was a fear – for them it is the warp and woof of their lives. Jesus helped me see that part of what I had been feeling was mine, but part of it was what I had been intuitively absorbing from my ambient environment. I am a poor feeler. I’m a strategist. But, finally, I was feeling with my neighbors what my neighbors feel. I wasn’t putting on flesh like clothes. I was becoming flesh and dwelling with them, in the experience they dwell in. Jesus was in all points tempted like we are, and now I was finally able to know what it is like to be them, because through my own feelings, Jesus was able to download their feelings into me.

Something like this has happened to me before. But in that case, Jesus used my pain over the sexual abuse victims I had counseled to give me some of his pain over the world, and at that time specifically Africa. It had really messed me up.

This time it’s not his feelings coming through the door my own emotions created. Now, its their feelings coming through that door. And it hurts. And it’s welcome. And it’s setting me free.

Without the Holy Spirit, I don’t know how they get out of bed in the morning. Their theology is fatalistic. “If God wills it” it happens, and everything is qismet – fated. The powerful are really, really powerful (the President’s 11yr old son just bought a multi-million dollar summer home in Dubai), and 90% of the population will never hold any real control over their lives at all. You buy your job here. Or your relative does. Humanitarian workers buy tools for orphanage workers, and the workers just sell them. Why not? If nothing you do is really going to help the kids, if nothing is ever really going to change, the very best – perhaps the moral – thing you can do is sell the stuff so your own family can have better food. If you can’t change things – if you can’t help the kids – at least you can help your family.

It is crippling. It makes my stomach hurt. And I’m okay with that, because it has defeated the anger that had been growing inside me, and it’s making me capable of compassion. We’ve turned a corner. I’m not angry at them anymore. I can’t be. How could I be? I’ve felt what they feel – a more concentrated and sudden dose, maybe, but still the flavor that’s always in their mouth, coloring how they taste everything else. I understand at a much more visceral level now some of why they do much of what they do. And it’s hard to fault them. That’s one immediate result of this. Anger falls. Compassion rises. This darkness is precious to me.

Another immediate result is that I don’t have to fight back the despair anymore. That’s exhausting. I don’t have to fight at all. I can just receive it, let it wash through me like a wave, well up in me like a grief, and turn it into prayer. I can learn here, over again, within me, what it means to receive now the Kingdom, and to see with new eyes. And I can let the light shine in my heart anew, without trying to combat the hopelessness or manufacture the joy. I can own their despair and pray with them for the light to shine on us who live in darkness and in the shadow of death. And that is good.

While I’m not ready to say that I’ve got the good news for Narnyan hearts, I do suspect that this will inform across the long-term how I come to articulate the gospel here. The gospel must address this despair – it must include Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom has come, and that change is in the air. He is making all things new, and they can join him in that.

And I’m finally ready to call them my people. I had been resisting that. But I’m not anymore. In the parking lot in Philly that’s where I arrived. I agreed with Jesus, and I prayed for my Narnyan friends, and I asked him to set my people free. Then I realized that I had called them my people. And it was enough.

I’ve tried to articulate some of this to a few people at different times. A few understood in theory, a few understood from experience. Some didn’t understand at all, but they tried. But that’s ok. My sense is that this is for me to understand my neighbor, and to help my team understand some of what they have been feeling – to give context and shape meaning for their own struggles. And that, too, is enough.

 

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proskuneo

So much of this grabs my heart, my brother. I was told in Philly that sometimes intercession is more of a position than a petition. Jesus was “numbered with the transgressors.” I read your words “my people” and tears came to my eyes quickly and unrestrained. I am amazed that Jesus would walk into the mess of this world and identify himself with it. That he would call the Jews oppressed by the Romans His people. and that He would call us His people. The other thing that really resonates with me about what you shared is the “too deep… Read more »