The following thoughts and ideas were the outline of my sermon that I gave at Metamora Mennonite Church when I got back from Lesotho.
Even though I did not choose the scripture reading today, it seems to go quite well with the fact that I’m here, talking about an experience in a place very, very far away in the small country of Lesotho. People there are just like us, loved and accepted by God and trying to follow Jesus in the best way that they know how. Though their way of life may be different than ours, Jesus is the peace between them and us that brings us together to be the church. I’m sure you who went to Colombia while I was gone saw this also as well as you who were at home, trying to be at peace with those simply in your hometown. Violence is easy; peace is difficult.
Scriptures: Luke 15:11-32
During my time in Lesotho, this passage in Jesus’ teaching was very important to me. It spoke to me most about the grace and love that God extends to us and that we often do not want to extend to other people. I began to see God more like a father than a judge who’s waiting for us to do something wrong or at least to report on it and send us to hell. I hope you see this idea run through as some of the backbone to my response to the difficult spiritual questions I encountered.
Questions to ponder from a year in Lesotho:
Are we willing to rethink and reject the violence that we commit in our own lives? Are we willing to commit to creative ways of dealing with conflict?
– During my time at the school, I became so concerned about the teachers’ use of corporal punishment that I became less concerned about the relationships that I needed to be forming with them. I needed to remember in those moments of frustration that they had been raised in this system and been taught to use this form of punishment throughout their entire lives. It would take much more than a 21-year old white guy to walk in and change it. I also began to think about what we do here at home that is violent toward other people and began asking myself if I am willing to work against those things with the same fervor that I felt for the children and the teachers.
Is economic well-being a sign of God’s blessing?
– This idea was one of the core issues of my time in Lesotho. The organization that oversaw my position was teaching farmers about switching over from conventional agriculture techniques to conservation agriculture techniques. In so doing, they would often phrase the transition as one of repentance from an older, sinful way of doing something to a new way of life that honored God’s creation. This isn’t so bad, except that the thoughts were framed within a certain reading of the Old Testament, in which God did not bless because the Israelites were doing something wrong and were not repenting of it. Often, it sounded like people who were teaching these new farming methods were saying that if you switched over, God would have to bless you for your obedience and that is not always the case in farming because of other extraneous circumstances nor is it necessarily the case that people who are well-off are right in the center of God’s will and blessing.
What saves us? Ourselves? God? His grace? Hard work? A certain set of beliefs that are exactly right?
– In the first couple of months that I was in Lesotho, my host mom and a young man from the community who was probably in his mid- to upper- twenties met together every Sunday for Bible Study. After the first Sunday, I wondered if my host mom really wanted him to come back. I sat and listened that first evening as he told her that because she was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church, she was not really following what God wanted. He claimed that she really needed to be baptized in the river or at least baptized by immersion somewhere. I became very upset in these moments because my host mom began questioning her raising and in some sense, whether her baptism as an infant was enough for God. I encouraged her then to not give in to the young man’s demands, but instead, to stand firm in the faith that she had been raised in. I was convinced that God’s grace was not hingent on her perfect form of baptism. When you think about the salvation of a person, what is God saving them hingent on? Is it hingent on some set of beliefs, some acknowledgement of truth in the world, an acceptance of Jesus into my heart (whatever that means), a commitment to following Jesus, or maybe even a set of rules that people need to be following? What is God’s grace hingent on in your conception of who God is? My final question is that if God’s grace is truly unearned, free, and unmerited, how can it be hingent on anything that we say, think, or do? How can it have anything to do with us at all?
Is God’s grace transformative? If it is, then why do we continue to use violence, manipulation, coercion to get what we want or to get someone to do what we want? Are we willing to love unconditionally?
– During my first three months in the school, I really began thinking about why corporal punishment bothered me so much. In some senses, I was fine with hitting a child because I had learned in my psychology classes in university that if administered with proper restraint and explanation, corporal punishment can be effective. But I was concerned because it seemed only to show who had all the power in the relationship in Lesotho. Sometimes I wanted so bad to use the stick on some students and show them who was the master or leader of the classroom. I saw this also in the disciplinary actions of the teachers. I found that their methods were very inconsistent and seemed to hinge more on how angry the teacher was at the time or if the action seemed to remove power from the teacher. I wondered about how I had disregarded the idea that God is reactionary and waiting to punish us when we messed up. I wondered how I could be someone like that when I didn’t believe God was like that. I believe that God’s grace is transformative, that him giving of himself to empower us is what brings about change in our lives, not the strict and unmerciful laws of the Old Testament. Swift retribution does not seem to be the way of Jesus, yet it is the easiest method for getting across our point in the moment. I soon realized that I needed to start thinking creatively about how grace works in a practical sense in the classroom. How does it look to extend God’s transformative grace to other people? Is it possible to bring about a change of behavior using grace rather than punishment?
Is power a scarce resource that we cannot be willing to give away all the time? Is there a source of power, and if so, will it run out (not talking about electricity)? Power is an abstract idea that we have created in our world. How can we show that it is actually not possible for power to ever run out? Do we try to empower the people around us as Jesus did?
– This idea challenged me as I continued to cope with what felt like powerlessness in the classroom. The students would not listen to me because I did not use the stick. Also I did not know a lot of Sesotho, which made it more difficult for them to ask for help from me when they had a conflict among themselves. Someone on the team of MCC workers in South Africa challenged me to really think about whether or not power is a scarce resource that requires hoarding. How do we hoard power from other people hoping that if we hold onto it, we will never have this scary feeling of powerlessness? Maybe We’ll be able then to control our world if we hoard all of our power.
Quotes from the year:
“The only thing you are entitled to in life is death” (in response to a conversation about the entitlement mentality of people at home as well as people we were experiencing in Lesotho; we all think that we deserve something from other people and from life itself; maybe all we’re rally guaranteed is death in this life)
“In Lesotho, things come to life and things come to death” – I saw certain things come to life in Lesotho like ideas about community, hospitality, family, and so much more. However, I also saw life choices, habits, and events that would lead to death also in Lesotho like violence, drunkenness, and other related things. In addition, this goes back to the death rate of Lesotho in comparison to America in that death is more a part of life there than here where we often push death to the side and try to ignore it.
Where/how/when have I seen God in the last year in Lesotho?
I saw God in the little things like…
– Sitting down every evening almost with my host family to pray, eat, and drink tea.
– The faces of my students who challenged me, mocked me, and inspired me throughout the experience. They challenged me to think about the transformative nature of grace.
– The faces of teachers who are also mothers, cooks, cleaners, walkers, water-fetchers, bill-payers for the family, and so much more.
– The slow pace of life and the tiring nature of life filled with fetching water, eating lots of carbohydrates, and cooking everything from scratch
I saw God in my language teacher who gave me so much grace in learning a language I had never heard before.
I saw God in challenging conversations about development and poverty with local people as well as missionaries who have been involved in development for years.
I saw God in all of the conversations, prayers, misery, and joy of being with my SALT co-worker. Living a year in Lesotho would have been much more difficult without her.
To conclude these remarks, I encourage you to take these questions and ideas home with you. Chew on them for a while, talk to someone about them, reflect on them, and figure out what some of these things could look like in your life. Following Jesus is not a one-time event or prayer; it is a journey with God toward relationships, a way of life, and a planet that are more whole, more real, more life-giving. Thank you.
Comment or challenge any thoughts as you read this. Let me know what you’re thinking.