Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Remembering what is of Ultimate Worth

October 19, 2011

At All Saints’ we talk about worship as ‘remembering and turning toward what is of Ultimate Worth, such that our lives are transformed in to the image of Christ as we live more freely, more graciously and more generously tan we did before. In a way, a pilgrimage or transformational journey can be a prolonged act of worship.

The morning of the recent departure of our small team to visit the Diocese of Western Tanganyika (DWT) I was discussing a slightly dated article by John Snow, formerly of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. I was with a class of students from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University who are engaging in and reflecting on their contextual education in congregations. The article is called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” and is from Snow’s book The Impossible Vocation (Cowley, 1988). Snow introduces the concepts from psychology of transference and counter-transference by looking at the kinds of encounter we have with people in need of financial assistance. His point is that in such interactions various aspects of our own personal histories are somehow ‘hooked’ or ’triggered’ and become part of the interaction. One student worked as a security guard for a church in his undergraduate years. He told us that the church had a clear policy about people who came begging for financial help but that every one of the six clergy with whom he worked treated the policy, and so the street people differently from each other. Even as our class conversation became slightly heated, it became explicitly clear that our personal histories were shaping our interactions.

So that night I began the two day journey to DWT. While there I’m not certain I had more than a handful of interactions that did not include either a covert or overt request for money or other expensive support. “Some of our clergy receive less than $20 per month and some months do not get paid at all.” “Please greet our visitors who have paid their own ways from America where they belong to one of the largest churches there.” “How can I get a scholarship for study in America?” “A senior priest will never really be able to function as he needs to until we can get him a diocesan vehicle that is suitable for our roads.” And so it was day after day during our visit. Intellectually I know that we were merely being introduced to the needs and challenges of proclaiming the gospel in a part of the world where 90% or more of the people exist by subsistence farming. The diocese borders Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo in some places and is home to refuge camps from natives of all three. WE did not go into any of the camps on this trip but in the past I have been struck that life in the amps is not noticeable different from life outside.

I found myself getting quite angry and feeling as though I and we were looked at as human ATMs. I felt as though our hosts would rather we had stayed home and simply sent the money that we spent on our tickets. But one night, as I lay awake, it came to me that I was being silly. I had woken up from an anxiety dream about how tings were at home, about my personal finances, about my feelings about my friends in Tanzania and probably much else besides. But in the small hours of that night I remembered that we were there because we wanted to be in relationship with people who are the recipients of money we set aside for the Millennium Development Goals, that real gifts flow from relationship and that we were hoping to achieve a ‘memorandum of understanding’ that would guide our relationship with DWT going forward. I realized that I was getting ‘hooked’ by a functional (i.e. neither rational, nor intellectually chosen) theology that assumed it is my job to fix problems. How foolish is that? Of course that is not something I can do. There is no way that All Saints’ can begin to meet the needs of DWT. What we can to is learn to recognize, understand and appreciate differences between us of culture and theology. We can remember that we can love even in the most intractable of circumstance in Tanzania or Atlanta. We can remember that the job of ‘saviour’ has already been filled and get on with the work of furthering our relationship through honest conversation, even as we also remember that we are made one in Christ.

This remembering what really matters in life in the dark of the night, miles from home and from anything familiar, was a gift of divine origin, and one that is still with me today. The consequence of that renewed gift will still have to become clear because the ‘transformation’ that comes from a transformational journey is rarely fully apparent on the journey itself.

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