Looking Beyond the Fence
I’m flying home from an encouraging, albeit hectic, trip to Malawi to see World Vision water projects there. We ended the trip in a lovely setting for some decompression and debriefing along the coastline of Lake Malawi, a ribbon of water that snakes along most of the length of that small nation. My grandson Sam came along, and he and I had another 24 hours there after the other travelers left.
Unlike some carefully insulated resorts in developing nations, walks along this hotel’s beachfront ended rather abruptly at a thin, spare wooden fence. Peeking through it, we could observe community members from the neighboring fishing village. Small children were getting their morning bucket bath from moms who were also washing clothing and watching a boatful of husbands work hard to dig their oars against a stiff wind, slowly traveling past “our” shoreline to bring in their fishing nets and the morning catch.
Later I discovered that from the raised landing of our tidy veranda, I could simply glance to the right and be quickly transported from our gated cloister to an existence far more similar to that of the impoverished villagers we’d just been visiting a hundred miles away than the one we were now experiencing on our flowered and manicured side of that rickety fence.
This is not a new experience for me on these trips, and I more easily work through the mental dissonance of these moments than I did in years past.
But I’m reading now an email from another supporter who was recently with me in Uganda, in which she writes and writhes about her own dissonance with returning home, and the anxious reaction of women in her Bible study group who had asked about her trip. She comments, “One lady said that she really needs to hear the positive of how WV is helping, because she couldn’t get her head around and dwell on the negativity and difficulties of these people’s lives, because she doesn’t understand ‘how God could allow this’?”
How could God allow this? In some sense, it’s a critical question we must all confront. It also needs to eventually call into question the askers’ comfortable understanding of God. The velocity and ferocity of the facts on the ground about poverty and inhumanity can peel the plaster right off our tidy first-world understanding of God, leaving it exposed and ashamed, as flimsy and gaping as that beachside barrier between us.
Our theology is often just one more gated community that shuts out anything unpleasant that we wish to not deal with, and my friend’s heart-wrenching trip report forced her study partner to confront reality that wouldn’t fit inside her well-constructed view of God.
As those who choose to believe in a loving God, this is a question we must all confront, because otherwise as modern Bible translator J.B. Phillips titled a book, “Your God Is Too Small.” If we are unable to look squarely at the inconvenient truths beyond the fence yet still have an answer to this question, our “god” is either powerless, uncaring, or cruel… a simpleton tribal deity who simply keeps ‘us and ours’ comfortable inside the friendly confines of our midweek Bible studies and amplified praise music.
Many have given up trying… I’ve just finished watching the in-flight movie “The Imitation Game” about the British mathematician who broke the Nazi Enigma code that helped win the war. He says in one of the closing scenes, “But God didn’t win the war. We did.”
Though the words took me aback a bit, there’s some ring of authenticity in it for me. It puts the onus upon us: to act, to put our own gifts and skills into active service for humankind and causes beyond ourselves. And as the hot-and-bothered writer of James’ epistle points out so emphatically, there is no such thing as “faith” without action.
Which brings us back to the frightening question, “How could God allow this?” and turns it on its head. Because the only meaningful response for me is another question: How could we allow this? And more importantly: What are we going to do about it?
Maybe the Bible doesn’t promise that “God helps those that helps themselves” [sic], but it certainly purports that God helps those who help others.
The donors I took to Malawi had doubled their giving through a wonderful matching gift. But I’m still holding out for the 30-, 60-, 100-fold ROI that Jesus talks about, and I am content to come home and once more put my hand to that plow.