I’m a Christian, but…

“You’re a Christian?” he asked me. “Are you an evangelical?” Although the dimly lit bar buzzed around us with late-night conversation, I was certain that no other discussion resembled ours.

“I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian,” I replied quickly, hoping to claim my ground before any stereotypes did. He looked relieved, but I felt weird.  

During the weeks that followed, my response lurked in the corners of my mind. When I differentiated between myself and “that kind,” my words created a hierarchy that inherently positioned myself at the top–as better–and I’m not.

I know I’m not the only one who has responded to this question, “I’m a Christian, but…” I’ve talked with friends about this issue. There is so much to be said, but we don’t know how to say it. To offer an understanding of how complicated this question is, let’s look at my own story.

When I was younger, I loved Jesus, but my love was convenient. I only asked Christ to change me for my own gain; I didn’t ask God to challenge my social framework. Because of this, my faith lacked important insight about social justice. I thought that people were poor because they didn’t work hard enough. Working with vulnerable and marginalized patients taught me how wrong I was. Laziness isn’t the problem. Unjust and oppressive social structures and policies are the problem. To understand this, I needed proximity to the poor to change my mindset.

When I returned to the States from Mercy Ships (Benin) 18 months ago, I was shocked at the palpable turbulence and division among Christians. Although there were people on the ship who had vastly different perspectives about the Bible, we set them aside in order to prioritize healing and justice. When I returned to my motherland, the air felt different, tense.

Over the past six months, as my understanding of oppressive policies and systems deepened, I felt my attitude towards Christianity gravitate towards bitterness. I browsed the news in the morning, absorbing stories about Christians who made decisions that perpetuated injustice. In the afternoon, I attended “secular” classes and was filled with passion for change. Focusing only on the negative stories I read in the media, I felt embittered toward Christians in general. Eventually, I stopped reading the Bible. I still identified as a Christian but I needed to maintain a distinction from those I read about in the news, so I added, “I’m a Christian, but….”

In November, a single conversation with a new acquaintance (who I met on a dating app, of all places!) challenged me. Basically, I was called out on my bitterness. I realized that if I truly loved Jesus (like I say I do) then I also need to choose the church, my brothers and sisters. Following Jesus’ example of love for me, I have to love others–even those I would rather not love. I must check myself for my own prejudice towards, well…everyone. And, most importantly, I have to read the Bible again.

Receiving this criticism wasn’t easy for me. Attending Urbana (a Christian conference) at the end of December helped me navigate the process. The opening session blew me away. The leadership team reflected the demographics of the students attending the conference: different colors, sexes, and cultures. Prior to the conference, Intervarsity (the organizing body) had met with the local Native American/First Nations tribe leader. The Osage tribe used to live in the area that later became St. Louis. In the 1800s, after living in the region for over a thousand years, the tribe was forced to surrender their lands to the American government. Recognizing the injustice that prevailed against this group of people, the staff approached the tribe’s leader and asked for his blessing. In front of 13,000 students, the leader offered a blessing over the conference in his native tongue.

I was moved to tears.

From seminars to plenary speakers, the theme of justice prevailed. Speakers discussed mass incarceration, the misuse and abuse of the environment, racism, and oppressive systems. We had the opportunity to reflect and repent from the “Babylon that lives in our hearts,” which refers to the mainstream American culture of excess, comfort, and image. Each day felt heavy, but simultaneously filled with hope. Specifically, living among a generation of Jesus followers who are committed to fighting for justice gives me hope.

When I consider my own struggle, I see myself in two ends of a spectrum. I want to share them because I think they could be helpful for others.

The first pattern I’ve noticed is marked by denial. Sometimes, in our depths, we fear that acknowledging our role in oppression will undermine our past or present way of life. Instead of promoting empathy and advocacy for marginalized groups, we believe that society’s most vulnerable and weak are our greatest threats. I think that people who succumb to denial ultimately fear two things: change and blame. We put up defenses to protect ourselves.

The second pattern I’ve noticed is marked by bitterness. I think that some of us have distanced ourselves from our faith because we don’t know what else to do with bitterness we have towards the church. We have reason to be critical of the church, but fear of association prevents us from spiritual reconciliation and growth. I think that people stuck in this trap are often on the offensive, and quick to blame others without humility or grace.

My participation in both extremes has taught me that remaining too far on one side of the spectrum inhibits the church from its primary role: to be an extension of Jesus. They perpetuate false stereotypes, ignore ignorance, and shunt blame–all of which slow down healing that could otherwise occur.

I want to be a person who is both passionate about social justice and committed to redeeming the church. I will not walk away; instead, I will pray, “God, break my heart for what breaks yours, even if that includes me–when my unkindness and fear and criticism break your heart, open my eyes and help me change.”

Since we understand the “church” to be comprised of imperfect, broken people and not merely buildings, it makes sense that fear, blame, prejudice, and bitterness would be rampant. We all think and say dumb things, some more than others. But that doesn’t mean we should divide ourselves, like I attempted to do. We should identify where we are on the spectrum and move away from the extremes. By God’s grace, I believe that we all can change–not once, but continuously. Even today, at this moment, God is working to restore all things through Christ.

 

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Harvard love @ Urbana
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I’m so thankful for these people.
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Happy New Year from me and Veronique!

Playing God

“We have been waiting here since Monday. We came from Nigeria.”

Our eyes meet. I glance at the four-year-old twins next to him, both struggling to balance on extremely bowed legs. I try to hide my expression from their father, fearing my transparency will only make the situation worse.

“Please. You can help us?” His words feel like fire.

I apologize again. The response doesn’t feel natural at all, but thick and poisonous. My explanation regarding a full orthopedic program cannot dissipate his tangible sadness. Or his continued questions.

“But they have pain. Can you fix it?”

My mind knows the answer is still “no” but my heart cannot support it. I need back up.

“Nate?” I beckon my supervisor. “These twins…they’ve been waiting outside the gate for five days. I know we can’t…but I need your confirmation.”

Nate’s gaze falls on the young girls. “Technically, we can’t,” he says softly.

I turn back to three pairs of desperate eyes. Feigning confidence, I repeat that the program is full.

The father is staring at me. Finally, with a quick nod he motions his family off the cement slab and toward the exit gate. I watch the man shuffle through shifty sand, trying to support his twin daughters. My heart breaks. I feel like a liar.

Our orthopedic program isn’t full.

As a screening team we had decided to allocate the sixty one orthopedic surgery slots. We divided the slots among three weeks, which is how long the screening center is open. The alternative was to take all sixty one patients as they come. First come, first serve. If we had chosen this option our slots would have filled in about three days’ time.

Some team members thought it would be fair to offer surgical opportunities to patients who will journey to Cotonou over the next two weeks. We agreed that we would attempt this approach. This meant that we would take only ten more orthopedic patients this week. We had already found those ten.

 I had thought we made a sound decision. After all, I had turned countless patients away this week. This is difficult; however, “no” is more straightforward and undemanding when the patient doesn’t meet surgical critera. I feel okay when I can shunt the control elsewhere because the disappointment is not my fault. You’re too young to have the surgery. Mercy Ships only offers this to women who are past child-bearing age. Or I’m sorry, but Mercy Ships does not do this kind of surgery. Or unfortunately, surgery could make the problem worse. These conversations are certainly sad, but they’re doable.

This “no” felt completely different. Gone were the external factors. I had no organizational chart to fall back on, no exclusion critera to support my verdict. These Nigerian twins met the requirements for surgery, but there is an overwhelming demand so we had to pick and choose. Our selection system seemed ungrounded and unstable. I don’t even want to make life-changing decisions for myself. How can I make them for other people?

When the decision is mine (or ours, as a team) the responsibility feels sovereign. The power is dreadful and condemning.

I feel like I am playing God.

Speaking of God, I am not sure what Jesus would do in this situation. He faced desperate eyes and crippling ailments. I am willing to bet that he felt overwhelmed. Even though his divine nature had no healing limitations or surgical quotas, I am convinced that as a man he felt aching disappointment and deep discouragement in every breath he took.

I watch the twins approach the exit gate. I want to scream, Come back next week! We have more slots! But what if they are too late? What if they can’t make it through the gate? What if they are the ninth and tenth orthopedic patients in line, and are denied again because we accept the first seven?

I turn back to the weaving line of people, some of them soon-to-be patients. The queue seems more like a maze of fraught individuals eager to come out at the right end. I signal the next man to approach me.

Now I understand what Jesus would do. He would keep meeting with those who are suffering. He would come back to this cement slab every day. He would remain open and continue to offer his heart to the wounded, broken, and downtrodden.

Just because you can’t help everyone does not mean that you don’t try to help anyone.

 

0700 at the screening center. outside the gate nearly a thousand people gather every day .

Disclaimer: This is a personal and private page about my experience aboard. This is not an official Mercy Ships page. The reviews and statements presented here may not reflect the beliefs of the organization.

Warm Beer and Grimy Chacos

I’m seated inside the Toamasina port drinking a lukewarm beer that cost less than $1, staring at striped fish in transparent waters beneath my feet. The quiet moment invites contemplation; thoughts swarm my mind, tugging about, and I continue to stare.

My gaze focuses on my sandals–Chacos, to be exact. They’re great, aren’t they? If you’re from the United States, you’re probably nodding your head. If you’re from Michigan, it’s likely that the word “Chacos” itself causes you to salivate.

Most Chaco owners invested in the sandals because they are particularly nifty for walking, traveling, hiking, and water activities. They are sturdy and dry easily. I don’t typically wear mine to work or to run errands (clarification: they’re so comfortable that I want to wear them everywhere. Sometimes I do wear them to the grocery store). But more often than not, if I don my Chacos I’m probably headed for something slightly out of the ordinary. These sandals are, inevitably, tied to fond memories. And weird tanlines.

Right now I am especially grateful for footwear that has accompanied me around the globe, across and through nine countries and many more to come. I am astounded that slabs of brilliantly-shaped rubber could last for many years and graze a variety of terrains.

If I didn’t clean my Chacos they would smell like bus floors, rotten soil, stale sweat, and animal shit. The cleansing and refitting of these sandals, my favorite job, is 100% necessary in order to keep using them.

But you know what? I swear that as soon as I clean them, they dirty again.

Alas, my fondness for the footwear urges me to scrub again and again. I’m happy to do it because they are worth investing in. If I take care of them they can endure many years (that’s what my parents always taught me about owning quality items. I didn’t actually start listening to this advice until I turned 24).

I take another sip of beer, glance at my feet, and pause.

I’m basically a dirty Chaco sandal.

Come again?

I think God treats me like a Chaco sandal.

That seems a bit odd, but the analogy holds truth. God leads me on journeys I would never tread if I were alone. When he (or she?) cleanses me, a lazy scratch at the surface doesn’t suffice. A deep clean, often with some sort of uncomfortable, wiry brush, is necessary to release and rid the grime.

Because I am human, I also will “dirty” again, but the best thing about love is that it never ceases. God’s love for me is unending and given generously. He will never give up on me even though I mess up repeatedly. In fact, I will probably screw up before I finish writing this. I’ll probably drink way too much beer (just kidding, it’s too warm for that. I also don’t think God would be upset with me–he probably has far more to worry about than my beer consumption in Madagascar). Regardless, it won’t be long before I do something stupid or hurt someone.

The whole point of Jesus’ teachings, I think, is to never give up and always persevere. God didn’t give up on me and if I claim to follow Christ, I also cannot give up on God’s promises. He promises in the Bible to fight for me, redeem me, give me hope and a life that never ends.

Damn.

So don’t give up! Even if a person or situation feels dirty, hopeless, or useless. Refuse to give up on your marriage, your children, each other, or yourself.

If you do, come to Madagascar, sit by the Indian waters and drink a lukewarm beer. I promise that you will gain the strength to continue. I might even feel inspired to buy you your own Chacos*, if that’s what it would take to prove my point.

Cheers!

*let’s discuss this offer after I start earning an income again

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