People of the Mess

People of the Mess March 27, 2018

The first time we evacuated from North Africa, the town we lived in was bombed ten minutes after our plane left the airstrip. In the following months, as we realized that never being able to go back to that place was increasingly likely, I remember thinking, but I was so sure that was where God wanted us. Did we just misunderstand what he was asking of us?

But then a year later we were settling into the refugee camps where tens of thousands of refugees had fled and we jumped into the same ministry in a different context. I started thinking okay, I see it now. This is where God really wanted us all along. He knew what was coming and had this up his sleeve the whole time.

And then we evacuated a couple more times, each one chipping away at my confidence in ever having a clear-cut picture of what this was all going to look like. We lost dearly loved teammates because of their daughter’s health crisis (God, how could they possibly leave? They made life in this crazy context livable!) and a family then moved into our teammates old house and we grew into intimate community with them more than anyone we had ever known before (Ah-ha! Got it. You had this family in mind for us all along too. These were meant to be our people.)

And then finally there was the one big evacuation and firefight and looting and separation from the neighbors and ministry we loved and I stepped back from it all and said something to God along the lines of “Where the junk is that plan you say you know you have for me? I have trusted you and sure as heck not leaned on my own understanding, but my paths are anything but straight!”

I spent a long time trying to decipher what I thought was a pretty specific blueprint for my life lived out for Jesus. At first I thought it was going to 20 years in a village in rural North Africa. When that didn’t work out I thought it was going to decades in a refugee camp. Now I’m sitting in urban East Africa wondering what twist in the story is coming up next. Every time I have been forced to adjust course I have wondered if I have misunderstood God’s direction in my life. Or, if perhaps God just hasn’t clued us into all the stuff he has going on behind the scenes.

Because, (side note), God very often has stuff going on behind the scenes, doesn’t he? We’ve all experienced it at some point, that thing that ultimately was bigger and better than we dreamed, but that involved a lot of waiting and misunderstanding in the meantime.

But I am convinced that not every dip in the road is a result of God working in mysterious ways. It’s not just that we temporarily lose sight of what God is really doing in the world. Sometimes the situation is screwed up, plain and simple. Sometimes, God is not so much saying “Wait for my perfect timing in this…” as much as he is saying, “Yeah, I agree. It really sucks and I wish it wouldn’t have happened like that either.”

My experience of war has made me feel this way. It smells nothing like God. Yes, he certainly can use it, just as he can use anything. He redeems and creatively reifies for his Kingdom purposes. But would His work in the world be better without war? Absolutely.

Other people’s experience may have more to do with negotiating who gets the kids for Christmas, wondering why the adoption fell through at the last minute, hearing the words, “I’m sorry, there is nothing more we can do,” wondering why the drunk guy was driving down the road at that moment, why there was an extra chromosome.

Sometimes God has a hand in those things in ways that I do not understand.

But sometimes, I think he is grieving with us the bitter disappointments that, for whatever reason, he allowed to play out. It’s not that he is leading us on a hurtful scavenger hunt to his surprise perfect plan. God caused this to happen because it means something. Because it’s a part of his plan somehow.

Because sometimes there is no silver lining, no clearly evident way that God is working all things for good. Sometimes there is just loss.

But by grieving the brokenness of the world and then engaging it anyway we are perhaps doing the most God-like thing we can possibly do.

Here in the city we often worship with a big church of North African refugees. Several hundred people gather in a long hallway from noon until three each Sunday, a microphoned choir leading us in rollicking call and response hymns with East African flavor as we all sway and sweat in our rows of plastic chairs. But at some point most Sundays a small group of three or four people will go to the front and lead a very different kind of worship song. It is usually in a higher form of Arabic and with a very different rhythm and feel. It is haunting and complex, with unexpected harmonies and repeating segments that I can’t always predict.

It’s a song from the far North, the place where these people grew up abused and reviled for the color of their skin, for their languages, and for their religion. Glancing around the room I know a few stories represented by people here – arrests, torture, death of loved ones. I can only imagine how many stories I don’t even know that invisibly cloud this space around us.

And yet when these songs are sung, something changes. The room becomes electric, almost tangibly pulsing with rich emotion. People raise their hands in rhythmic snapping, women trill loudly, people slowly dance to the front and encircle the singers. Some of us cry.

Because it is a song from home. With all the bittersweet memories and hopes tied to a place now far away, as refugees and bearers of incredible losses, they are singing to Jesus of home.

And though those songs are not connections to my literal home, they somehow still give me goosebumps every time I hear them. They remind me that I am in a community of people in the throes of mess, but people who have not disengaged their faith or their heritage, even as they pick up the pieces of their lives.

God is not afraid to get his heart broken. He is God of the mess. And he asks us to be people of the mess too. To mourn what should not have been, but was, and then keep wrestling it all out anyway.

To keep translating just one more verse of scripture even from a country away. To keep extending one more invitation even when you have been brushed off so many times before. To keep biting your tongue or to keep saying you’re sorry. To keep being generous and hospitable to those who need it, even when you wonder if you are just being taken advantage of. To keep trusting your neighbor. To keep forgiving and loving and fighting in whatever ways God has asked you to.

We sing songs of heartache and loss, but we sing them together. We sing them to stay engaged in all the things that are worth hurting for in this life, things that we love and mourn and celebrate and hang onto for dear life. And we trust the God of the mess who is working to breathe new life into all our broken places, and who is singing in harmony with us.

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