Category Archives: Doubting Believing

Zimbabwe and South Africa Reflections

As many of you know, I got back from South Africa and Zimbabwe Ash Wednesday Mar 5. I’ve downloaded a few photos for Facebook. Thank you for all your prayers and love. Folks ask how was it? I say, “Amazing–challenging and rewarding and everything in between.”

South Africa seems advanced (one week there in Johannesburg and then Cape Town where I went to Robben Island and saw the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 17 out of his 27 years in prison), arranged by my former Lancaster Seminary student Thulani Ndlazi, who had me lead two retreats.

Zimbabwe’s people are resilient and welcoming in the face of high unemployment and inferior infrastructure (five weeks there). I was stationed at Mhondoro Presbyterian High School (90 miles southwest of Harare on a “road that is no road” as my host Chaplain Staben Maenda would say), without Internet access. I framed my time there as “walking” with students and teachers: I would sit at an outdoor stone table and kids would gather around, ask questions, converse and pray; or I’d sit in the faculty staff room and the same thing would happen. I preached four out of five Sundays and led four Bible Studies for the staff and teachers. Their Gospel singing is something to be experienced! Wow.

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Holy Imagination

“It is at the level of imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered,” says the early twentieth-century poet-theologian Amos Wilder. Visualizing yourself as complete can be a method of focusing and a form of prayer. Imagination also creates a powerful way to pray without words for another: You visualize the person in your mind’s eye as already whole and complete, holding the person in the light—a practice called kything prayer.

Imagination can also transform struggles into gifts. Philip Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and author of the memoir My Dyslexia, tells his story of being placed in the “dummy class” at a separate table in elementary school because of his perceived stupidity for not being able to read.

Then one night, with the moon glowing outside his window as his mother read aloud to him, he decided to imagine himself into being a boy who could read: “I invented a character who could read and write. Starting that night, I’d lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft, and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth. I imagined the words and their sounds being a kind of key with which I would open an invisible door to a world previously denied me.”

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Honest to God Prayer: Grace in the Grit

We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and so moving that it doesn’t seem at the time anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before. —F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reality is bittersweet. On the wall beside me I’m looking at metal sand castings, made by my son in middle school, representing the ancient faces of comedy and tragedy. Life is full of blessings and brokenness, the one often filtered through the other. Our idealistic dreams soon clash with practical and political realities. We have to eke out a livelihood yet still long for meaning and purpose through our work. We cherish intimacy, yet our closest relationships cause the deepest pain.

What the old miners in Colorado, where I live, called “pay dirt” provides an apt metaphor for our experience of the spiritual life: only by paying attention to the dirt will we ever see any flecks of gold. Sometimes all we seem to see is dirt. When we do find gold, it usually surfaces through some combination of the surprise grin of circumstances and the long-term grit of our own and others’ toil and sufferings.

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Religious Language and Postmodern Ears

In Lake Wobegon, says Garrison Keillor, “All the Norwegians were Lutherans, of course, even the atheists—it was a Lutheran God they did not believe in.” The theism a lot of atheists reject describes a God I cannot believe in either.

Many grew up, as I did, with an emotionally or physically absent father, at the same time hearing of God mainly as a male figure, so God seemed distant. Images and language skew our attitude toward the Sacred. Lots of religious words make spirituality seem irrelevant. The word repent is one such example.

Desmond Tutu tells of brutal killers in South Africa who had slowly cooked people alive at one end of a campsite while enjoying a barbecue at the other end. Later in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, these perpetrators would confess without emotion that they were sorry. They might be staring across the room or down at their shoes as they spoke. But if the victim’s family member would say, “Turn to me; now say what you just said.” Then the confessor would be deeply moved, hardly able to gasp the words.

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