THE MIXTURE OF JOY AND GRIEF
|Sophia with others in preparation|
My oldest child, Sophia is nearing the end of our undergraduate college career at Wheaton College. We’ve been fortunate to be near her in Chicagoland for 3 of the years she has been at Wheaton. During this time Sophia has been part of Arena Theater / Work Out. We’ve so much enjoyed taking in her shows. For the next two weekends (February 19-21st, 25-28th) Sophia is playing Agnes Mundy in Brian Friel’s, “DANCING AT LUGHNASA.” If life goes as we now see it this will be the last time we see Sophia acting at Wheaton.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a 1990 play set in Ireland's County Donegal in August 1936 in the fictional town of Ballybeg. It is a Memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts' cottage when he was seven years old. This summer stands out in his memory for three reasons - the return of his uncle Jack after his service as a missionary in Uganda for 25 years, getting their first radio set, and a visit from Michael's father - Gerry Evans.
As you can probably imagine a play with a Ugandan missionary theme with our daughter Sophia’s playing in her senior college year is one full of many emotions. Grief and joy mix freely.
SO PAINFUL I COULDN’T SPEAK / TOO CLOSE TO HOME
Yet the anticipated celebration was not to be. As the story continued it became horrendously painful. When the play was over I was in so much emotional pain I could not speak. The play was far too close to home and my own experiences.
The brother, Father Jack Mundy came home suffering from an
intense bout of
malaria. His body was weak. His mind appeared cluttered and
confused. He struggled at times to find
English words to express his thoughts.
I’ve been there before. When I’m
at my peak of fitness I weigh between 185 and 195 pounds. During winter in America I sometimes balloon
to 205 to 215 pounds. During my darkest
malaria days in Uganda my weight dropped to 155 pounds. I remember what it is like to lose my
physical strength. Malaria medicine
causes me to have bizarre and frightening hallucinations. There are some words and phrases in African
vernaculars that are my intuitive way to express certain emotions. At times I too cannot remember how to
express certain intimacies of life in English.
I know I must look foolish to those who have not had my privilege to
live in Africa.
|1996 in Uganda before my first spine surgery|
Yet, Father Jack’s return was not one of honor. His supervisors had sent him “home” in disgrace. Upon his return, he was ostracized from the faith communities of his biological birth nation. Father Jack’s faith had become syncretistic. He had so mingled African Traditional Religion with his Christian faith that it no longer represented Christianity. I had not done that.
However, I’ve heard young missionaries resistant to my mentoring rumor monger that I’m “too African.” My former supporters said the same things. Upon our return to the USA two years ago I had expected celebrations similar to Paul and Barnabus’ return to the Antioch church (Acts 14.) I had anticipated celebrating all God had done in 19 years in Africa. I had anticipated raising more resources, recruiting and training new missionaries, and returning to Africa to give the rest of my life to her service. Instead, I was ignored and ostracized.
If Father Jack had been a missionary I was serving with Iwould have gone for long walks with him. I would have shared many cups of tea. I would have sat in meals together. I would have feasted, laughed, and danced with him. I would have also cried and deeply grieved with him. I would have tried to persuade him with an open Bible to reconsider Christian faith with an African flavor. If he had been resistant I would have tried to get him assigned to developmental work where he could serve African people without having a teaching role. Yet, if is presence was just too charismatic if I had been his supervisor I would too have dismissed him. He had taken a leap my understanding of Christian faith could not tolerate. That decision of mine would have woken me from my sleep for years. It would have been one of great pain no matter how it was done.
The play had some other elements that were far too close to home. It took place in one of the last Irish villages to be overcome by the Industrial Revolution. Agnes and Rose Mundy knitted gloves in the traditional cottage industries of Ireland. They sold their gloves to a wholesaler. The wholesaler became a factory. Agnes at 41 years old was too old to be hired by the factory. Rose had a mental handicap and thus also was not hired by the factory. The dignity of their livelihood was stripped away. That has happened to me also. I returned to the USA at the age of 46 being told I was “no longer compatible” with my denomination. I tried to restart in other places where I sensed I theologically could fit. Only church planting organizations would give me a shot for which I am very thankful, but my age made me a misfit for most other Christian churches and organizations. Our family income most months is less than our bills. We live as the urban poor. My sons describe me as “the fittest fat man we know,” and “one who can lift massive amounts of weight and run forever.” Yet, I’ve had 4 surgeries on my spine. While I can lift andrun I must keep my lifts controlled. Awkward twisted lifting will quickly send me into pain. When I try to find work just with my hands the interview questions go to lifting. When it is discovered that I’ve had 4 spine surgeries the interview ends. Few will take a risk upon me due to my age and past health.
Kate Mundy is a devout Catholic school teacher. She loses her job due to the association with her brother, Father Jack. To this I can also empathize. Educational initiatives were a part of my missionary career. Few professors were as loved as I by their students. Few professors were able to bring out the best in their students as the Lord allowed me to. Few started schools with the timing the Lord allowed me to have. Few saw as many students receive scholarships in the places the Lord allowed me to navigate. A returned missionary with my network, cultural understanding, and academic prowess should have been able to find work. Yet with neither a doctorate nor connections I’m unemployable in American academics. I empathize with Kate Mundy.
Rose Mundy is assaulted in what I perceive to be a rape by an unseen character Danny Bradley. Her sisters try to protect her in their discernment that something is not right with Danny Bradley’s motives. Yet, for a moment they are unable to cover all their bases. Their regret and grief is one with which I can also empathize. For some unique reason my pastoral instincts to protect were quite good. Our churches were close to violence some times, but escaped catastrophic ones. The Lord seemed to give me a sense of when to go for a walk, when to lock doors, who to hire and fire as guards, etc… Yet, several times I let my guard down and extended trust to a missionary who was a predator. My sleep is still troubled by the Africans who were exploited due to my misplaced trust and lack of discernment.
Lastly, the narrator of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” Michael Evans is the child born out of wedlock to Christiana Mundy and Gerry Evans. When Gerry Evans first walked near my seat I wanted to kick the despicable character he represented. Yet as time wore on he became endearing. Eventually, it is disclosed Gerry Evans has another wife and set of children. He cannot marry Christiana and be a true father to Michael. We watch the horrific consequences upon women and children due to the West’s culture of serial polygamy.
As we sorted out missionary moral failings in Africa I came awayconvinced I was never told the truth. Every time I saw a mixed race child in a neighborhood or village where I knew of missionary moral failings I did my math and biology. Was this child a clan mate of mine? What was my responsibility to this child? How do we corporately heal the wounds of our sins? Surely God’s grace can find a way.
The play ends with unsorted pain. There is not a happy ending. It is tragedy. The tragedies all are very close to home and my missionary experience. I could hardly speak. Yet, I’m proud of my daughter. Also, my faith has hope.
WE ARE TO LEARN EMPATHY
I woke Friday, February 20 and turned to 2 Corinthians. I read, "God’sencouragements are adequate for all life’s troubles. Thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he is our Father and the source of all mercy and comfort. For he gives us comfort in our trials so that we in turn may be able to give the same sort of strong sympathy to others in theirs. Indeed, experience shows that the more we share Christ’s suffering the more we are able to give of his encouragement. This means that if we experience trouble we can pass on to you comfort and spiritual help; for if we ourselves have been comforted we know how to encourage you to endure patiently the same sort of troubles that we have ourselves endured. We are quite confident that if you have to suffer troubles as we have done, then, like us, you will find the comfort and encouragement of God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (PHILLIPS.)"
Why should such a painful play be written? Why should we see it? Why should we not walk out when the pain is too much?
Because life is full of pain and as followers of Jesus we are to learn empathy with suffering. As we accept God’s mercy and comfort we learn to extend God’s mercy and comfort to others.
NORTH AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY IS JUST AS SYNCRETISTIC AS AFRICAN
Missionaries extend God’s mercy and comfort to otherlocations. The call to be a missionary is to leave one’s cultural home at the prompting of the Holy Spirit to go to another culture for the purpose of making disciples, developing churches, and ushering in new kingdom possibilities. With such a definition many cultures are in desperate need of missionaries in their midst. I believe North America is going through a season of eternity in which missionaries need to come from Africa to America to bring about revival of Christian faith.
Father Jack obviously had allowed his Christian faith to become syncretistic with African Traditional Religion. I would hope his character would not be the source of ridicule nor false empathy. Instead, I hope Father Jack’s character will cause North American Christians to wrestle deeply with their own forms of syncretism. Missionary mentors coached us to assume it would take us two to three years to understand the basics of a new culture. After two and one half years in America I see that North American Christianity is as syncretistic if not more so than African Christianity.
As individualism mingles with Christianity our focus drifts to “personal salvation” and our “personal relationship with Jesus.” Both are Biblically true. Yet, truth without tension leads to the heresy of the simplistic. “Jesus speaking to me” becomes an idol to manipulate for selfish experiences. The needs of a community can be ignored. The grossest of human sins becomes our place of comfort. The vulnerable in our community are falsely judged, exploited, and discarded. Some examples of the fruit of this syncretism include Christian Non-Profit Organizations who make a living marketing poverty to meet donor emotional needs. Also,corrupt clergy become rich and sexually abuse the vulnerable. More subtly this syncretism allows us to ignore our single mother neighbor’s unshoveled sidewalks.
As materialism mingles with Christianity we assumeprosperity is a fruit of the Spirit. The health and wealth gospel is one of the grossest forms of idolatry this syncretism takes. However, we dare not forget that though we have much teaching in the Bible about wise living and money we have no Bible book dedicated to the acquisition of middle class prosperity. The prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New Testament did not think the acquisition of things was worthy of either an entire sermon or written letter. Syncretism with materialism produces an entire genre of literature and ministry industries in our Christian bookstores. When we become part of the syncretistic industry we no longer have the courage of prophets to see poverty is created by unjust systems. The Jubilee calls us to use the strength of our institutions to forgive unjust debt and then build policy frameworks noted for the Biblical paradoxes of justice and mercy.
As consumerism mingles with Christianity it becomes almost impossible for the uninformed to differentiate our assemblies from a concert, theater, or sports event. Our itchy ears move about seeking to find comfort with little commitment. We elevate leaders to demi-god like status and use words the Bible most frequently uses to describe God to describe the leaders of humanity. Our pastors become not wise neighbors and friends, but distant celebrities. We hunger for the latest fads in Christian music, art, literature, and technique. The old and historic is forgotten.
Our North American faith is just another form of syncretism and generations who follow us will offer strong judgment if we do not repent. Maybe, the missionaries in our midst will whisper answers prompted by the Holy Spirit?
AFRICA HAS GRACIOUS ANSWERS TO OUR CORPORATE SIN
As Father Jack understands his sister, Christiana wrestles with the loss and loneliness of a single mother and his nephew, Michael wrestles with the disappointment of an almost abandoned child he offers African reflections. Life is not this way in a polygamous home. Each wife has a hut. Each child has a place. Together they labor and laugh.
I remember the first time a mixed race child told me, “I have three moms.” I remember another time when I went home with a friend to visit her three moms. I remember gathering around the bedside of a friend’s father as all the children and wives prepared to grieve his transition to another world. Polygamy as Africa practices it is more gracious to women and children than the serial polygamy of the West.
Yet, polygamy is still a disaster filled with jealousy, intrigue, and frequently systematic and enduring poverty.
Yet, the African missionary in our American midst whispers, “Let’sopen the Bible. Let’s listen to God. Let’s forgive one another sins. Let’s resolve to change. Let’s creatively find the best solutions to the mess of our corporate sin. We can’t get it perfect in this world. Yet, another day is coming.”
“Our God is sovereign. He creates and orders the world. He guides History, but never forces His will upon us. We make choices that bring consequences that are both good and bad. He forgives and restores.”
Though “Dancing at Lughnasa” offers little justice as the play ends this is Though some may not see justice in this life because we are made in God’s image we hunger for justice. Our souls are stirred as we hear, “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24. King James Version.)”
Thus “Dancing at Lughnasa” reminds us of these ancient words, ”And what other examples shall I give? There is simply not time to continue by telling the stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jeptha; of David, Samuel and the prophets. Through their faith these men conquered kingdoms, ruled in justice and proved the truth of God’s promises. They shut the mouths of lions, they quenched the furious blaze of fire, and they escaped from death itself. From being weaklings they became strong men and mighty warriors; they routed whole armies of foreigners. Some returned to their womenfolk from certain death, while others were tortured and refused to be ransomed, because they wanted to deserve a more honorable resurrection in the world to come. Others were exposed to the test of public mockery and flogging, and to the torture of being left bound in prison. They were killed by stoning, by being sawn in two; they were tempted by specious promises of release and then were killed with the sword. Many became refugees with nothing but sheepskins or goatskins to cover them. They lost everything and yet were spurned and ill-treated by a world that was too evil to see their worth. They lived as vagrants in the desert, on the mountains, or in caves or holes in the ground.
All these won a glowing testimony to their faith, but they did not then and there receive the fulfilment of the promise. God had something better planned for our day, and it was not his plan that they should reach perfection without us (Hebrews 11:32-38. J.B. Phillips New Testament.)”
Please go see Wheaton College’s Arena Theater’s production of “Dancing at Lughnasa.” If you are one of our family friends it’s one of your last chances to see Sophia in Work Out. If you just a curious seeker bring some tissue, read some in 2 Corinthians and Hebrews 11 before you come, drink it in deeply, and prepare to have your missionary resolve strengthened.