Estamos en el Mundial!

September 3, 2010

On October 14, in the wee hours of the Belfast morning, I was watching a soccer game. The US was playing Costa Rica in Washington DC in their final World Cup qualifying match. A win or tie would mean that the US finished first in its qualifying group. Four minutes into stoppage time the score was Costa Rica 2, US 1. Then Jonathan Bornstein got on the end of a corner kick and tied the game up, on what was essentially the last play of the game. I had a bit of a party in my room in Belfast, and probably woke up some of my neighbors. Then about a week later I heard this: (Start listening at 20 seconds, stop at 1:02.)

That was Honduran radio calling the US-Costa Rica game. You see, because Costa Rica didn’t win it meant that Honduras was going to the World Cup. “Estamos en El Mundial.” As an American, I take World Cup qualification for granted. There’d be a meltdown if we DIDN’T qualify. Honduras, though? They hadn’t made the big stage since 1982. This was a big deal. It brought home to me how perspective on an event changes ones perception of that. So that’s what I’m going to talk to you about today. How can changing your perspective allow you to see things that you couldn’t see before? How can changing your perspective let you see God differently?

Sometimes the lessons from a change in perspective aren’t so earthshaking. I learned in Jackson that watermelon is serious business. If someone asks you whether or not you want a rind on it don’t say, “I don’t care.” In Russia, shut the door behind you when you go into your apartment. Fail to do this and the police will show up with their guns drawn. (And another point, if the police show up with their guns drawn, make sure you know where your visa is.) If you’re at Casement Park in Belfast watching Armagh and Monaghan play a Gaelic football match, don’t refer to the Republic of Ireland as “the South.” Your friends will correct you, and then not look at you for a bit.

But it took going to Jackson for race relations to really matter to me. It took going to Russia for the pratfalls of international relations to have faces—faces of friends. It took going to Belfast for me to really believe that religious reconciliation is possible and necessary, even if it is difficult and tear your hair out frustrating.

Travel will mess with you, but you should do it. Leave here, leave where you’re from, and go somewhere else, somewhere alien. You’ll be disoriented at first, and your first instinct might be to double down on what you know. Don’t do that. It’s a crutch, and after a while that crutch will hobble you. So let go of your certainty. It’s an illusion anyway.

If any of you have been involved in SSPs, I’m sure you’ve been told to learn from the people you’re going to serve. This is an even more important posture to adopt when you’re going to be somewhere new for any length of time. When you see something true, make it your own. In Velvet Elvis Rob Bell talks about the effect that a brick wall of certainty can have on a person’s faith. Break one brick, and the whole structure is compromised. Instead Bell suggests thinking about faith as a trampoline. When a spring breaks it can be replaced by a new one, and you can keep jumping.

If this applies to faith, it also applies to the rest of your attitude towards the world. Most faiths aren’t shy about their transformative aims—they want to remake the believer. Christianity is no exception. This is what the writer means when he says, “For you were saved by grace…” and then ends that thought with “to do good works.” Or 1 Corinthians 13, which I’m sure you could all start reciting for me right now if I asked.

You know the verses, but have you internalized them? The Corinthians passage, in particular, is one of those ones that are easy to gloss over. It is used so much in weddings—and I don’t begrudge this—but that amount of usage begins to obscure the intent of the verse. Somehow the words, “If I have not love, I am nothing,” have lost their transformative effect. But this isn’t that uncommon. After a while, MLK has shifted from a revolutionary and a rebel—worthy of FBI Surveillance!—into a safe modern saint. This has even happened to Jesus. When he says, “Love your enemies,” he isn’t talking about just tolerating people you disagree with.

If you put that statement in the context of the rest of that speech in Matthew, Jesus is talking through the complete transformation of humanity. How does Jesus end that segment? “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that?” It isn’t merely ok to affirm things in your head, and with your mouth. Without corresponding action and change—transformation—your words are meaningless. And in a very real way, your faith is meaningless. You’re no different from everyone else, and the life of faith is not compatible with an untransformed life.

There’s a guy I met in Belfast named Pete Rollins. His specialty is telling stories, with a particular emphasis on parables. One of the stories he’s started using recently in his talks is particularly applicable here:

There was a guy who had a terribly debilitating delusion. He was convinced he was not in fact a man, but seed, and he was terrified to go outside, lest he be eaten by birds. After years of therapy he had a breakthrough with his psychologist, and realized that, “Whoa! I’m not seed, I am a man.” He went home, and his therapist felt satisfied. But around a week later the man was back. He was disheveled, sickly, looked like he hadn’t slept or bathed in days. “Doc! You gotta help me! It’s my neighbor; he’s got chickens!” The therapist was exasperated. “Look, we’ve been over this countless times. You. Are. Not. Seed.” The man replied, “Sure, I know that, but do the chickens?”

The man’s breakthrough meant nothing if he was unable to internalize it and use it to transform his existence. By acting as though the chickens believe he is seed, in a very real way the man shows that he still believes he is seed. If your faith doesn’t transform you, then in a very real way you don’t believe what you say you believe. A little bit later in Matthew, Jesus relates the parable of the weeds in the wheat, and after that he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” The kingdom is transformative.

But where is the Kingdom? I would argue that if you believe in the God of Jacob, the kingdom is everywhere. In Genesis after Jacob has his ladder dream he wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know!” The really killer part of this story comes right at the beginning, when the story tells you where Jacob was. “He came to the place and stayed there that night.” That’s it. The place. Nothing special about it, and yet God was there. This is a hyper-present God, whose existence so saturates creation that sometimes we forget about it. Like blood, it is only obvious when there’s a rupture or when it is absent.

Later, in Exodus, when Moses asks to see God, we are told that Moses was not allowed to see God, but rather the place that God just was. Mightn’t we look at this as God saying, “You cannot see me, because I am so in all things as to be invisible”? Or in Kings when we’re told that, “God was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” At my friends’ house in town here there’s one of those seventies era pictures of a giant Jesus standing next to the UN building in New York preparing to knock. The suggestion is that Jesus is not in the UN, and needs someone to invite him in. But that flies in the face of what we’re told. That isn’t the God whose kingdom is like yeast. That isn’t the God who shows up in random places in the desert of the Holy Lands.

Travelling will reveal this to you. God is in crazy places. God is in quiet places. God is in conflict, and God is in peace. But to get this, you have to actually do the work of orienting yourself to be receptive, and it takes practice. If you listen to the show Radiolab on NPR you may have come across their episode on sleep. In that episode they tackle the question of why it is that after practicing hard on something—be it studying, or working on a piece of music—and then sleeping on it that people seem to be able to pick things up better when they wake up. I’ll save you a bunch of science speech, and summarize. Basically, scientists think that sleep acts as a volume knob for your brain. Over the course of the day a lot of things take up space in your head, competing for your attention. Overnight sleep turns the mix down, and the loudest, most important elements come to the fore. This is not unlike the Dark Night of the Soul that St. John of the Cross describes.

In the silence that is the Dark Night the believer is able to recognize the call of God and respond. And if God is in everything, then it stands to reason that God is wherever it is you are. The silence required to get that can reveal the opportunity for great growth. The lesson—to put it crudely—could be staring you in the face, but you’ll miss it if you aren’t receptive to the messenger. In Belfast there’s a space called Ikon. Every month a group of people get together in a bar/theater and they attempt to illuminate just this point. Ikon is about breaking you down and making you quiet in order to transform you. A while back one of their bits of “transformance art,” as they call it, involved a woman reciting a sermon. As people listened to the sermon they found themselves nodding in agreement. Ever so slowly over the course of the sermon, the sound guy mixed in another voice, the voice of the person who originally gave the sermon. Ian Paisley, emblematic in Belfast of the Unionist side of the Troubles. Here, Ikon meant to throw into their participants’ faces the fact that truth can come from the least expected places. The Psalmists understood this, I think. “Oh God, you are my God. Earnestly I seek you… I seek you in the sanctuary… on my bed I remember you.” Or “For you have been my hope, o sovereign Lord… Your righteousness reaches to the skies.”

It is in the spirit of the Psalmists that I would like to offer up a song for you to ponder before we go.