March 28: Richer Than We Thought the Word Could Mean
Tomorrow night I will meet Peter Fretheim, Larry Fullerton's invitation. Peter works in Jos, Nigeria on the Jos Plateau, home to Boko Haram and a greater amount of misery and suffering than most places I can think of. It's one thing to live in absolute poverty. I lived surrounded by it in Jaipur for 43 days, breathed the air of open sewered slums where up to ten people, as in the case of Humera Kahn's family in Garidharipura, live crowded into one bedroom houses, no running water, all sleeping on one large bed that was a mat stretched out over a knee-high metal frame, mother, father, eight daughters. Cholera steams from the slow moving rivers of waste you have to step over to enter the houses. There I photographed and played with children who had no future, none that anyone could imagine, except for the tireless hearts of my hosts Rakesh and Sonali and their team of volunteers. Rag pickers, beggars selling trinkets and balloons by the side of the road, gypsies, day laborers, the elderly and infirmed, everyone scraping by on less than a dollar a day, and these were the fortunate ones. The poverty I encountered in India is the foggy blanket that never lifts, like cooking smoke that no desert breeze chases away, sticking in your throat and eyes, and more so in your heart and dreams before you go to sleep at night. The call to prayer from the dozens of shabby mosques that rise, needling above the roof tops, becoming a taunting reminder of God not present. "Pray," the recorded messages bounce off the mud and tin walls of these slums, "but don't expect an answer anytime soon." In the slums of Jaipur, hopelessness is inherited, passed down, generational, pressed into the cradle at birth like a dirty gift.
And on the Jos Plateau they have all of this, in duplicate. Except for the languages, skin colors, the look of the land, different trees, bigger hills, dried up riverbeds, that kind of thing, it could be a strangely familiar neighborhood state to Rajasthan. But it's not and there's that other thing no one wants to talk about or accept, the presence of Boko Haram, the ever constant threat of violence, the reality of three hundred kidnapped girls. Jos knows what absolute poverty is, but it also knows about fear that can catch your breath and make every sound or passing stranger turn your blood cold. I think of Peter being called to leave Greenwhich, of all places, pack up his books and clothes and his children's toys to go there. What's it like, I wonder, to point at a map of the world and say, "Look, this is where God has called me, not to visit, but to plant roots, to stay, tomorrow and the week, month, and year after that?" How do you do that and not waver? How does a person choose to live in that kind of world and remaining reckless enough to proclaim a personalized God who loves and offers hope? I will always be debtor to this kind of faith, to people I encounter like Peter Fretheim. I'm not sure I could do it or ever could have. And yet, when I was in Rajasthan at the end of 2016 and through January of the New Year, I did feel alive in a different way. There seemed to be a capacity to be grateful and to love more, and to not need things that don't make you happy for having them. In Garidharipura or the tent villages of the Banjara gypsies, in the hostel with the hostel kids, the stables converted so efficiently to a clean, white-washed home, around the dung cake fires at night, something forgotten amidst the comforts of home was present - a homeless Jesus walking into those moments, tangible and real. "You have not because you ask not," Jesus said. But what if he meant us to ask for less, that we be stripped of our selfishness; for the gift of being emptied as the only way to abundance? I think that's what keeps Peter there on the Jos Plateau, he and his family. From here, it looks impossible and harrowing. But there, as he visits the families and helps rescued girls and ministers to the broken and broken hearted, the concept of abundant life is made real, not validated with dollars and not with sense, but by a spirit that makes us richer than we thought the word could mean.Note: I posted something about Peter's work earlier this week on another site. I'll add to it after tomorrow's meeting and post some of it here in the coming days. Peace.
March 30: What Comes Will Be Incredible Too (after meeting Peter Fretheim)
Pastor Fullerton was there to greet me and pointed out Peter Fretheim among the crowd that filled the Black Rock foyer. I recognized him immediately from the one or two photographs seen online. Peter’s smile and generous spirit made our introduction almost unnecessary, as if we’d already met. As we waited in the buffet line, our conversation began.
“Some years ago I began the Experiencing God study in earnest,” Peter said, referring to Henry Blackaby’s intense 13 week course. “I would sit in my chair in my office in Jos (Nigeria) for many hours every day, listening, not presenting all of the petitions and projects I thought God needed to know about, not asking Him to bless my stuff, but waiting to learn from God the things He was already doing and how I could be involved.”
When Peter said this, I remembered something W. H. Auden had written in his introduction to Loren Eiseley’s, The Star Thrower. Surprisingly, Auden brought up prayer. He described Eiseley as someone serious about his prayer life, and the workings of the Holy Spirit. Excited to show my dad this discovery, I dashed into his study with the book open to Auden’s words. Dad was an admirer of Eiseley, less so of Auden. But here was one of the greatest modern poets writing about an equally great anthropologist-philosopher – Publisher Weekly called Eiseley “the modern Thoreau” - choosing to showcase his being “a man unusually trained in the habit of prayer.”
Auden goes on, “…by which I mean listening. The petitionary aspect of prayer is at its most trivial because it is involuntary. We cannot help asking that our wishes (i.e.: plans, projects, programs) may be granted, although too many of them are like wishing that two and two make five, and cannot and should not be granted. But the serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit – (not the voice of the Super-Ego). The Voice I am talking about always tells us something new and unpredictable, obedience to which involves a change of self.” (The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley; introduction by W. H. Auden, Times Books c. 1978)
Peter talked about this same truth over our simple meal. Some of it he had written in an email. “I spend more time with God, less time on committees and such, and then so much is happening. Those things that God is allowing us to be part of are literally supernatural and incredible.”
I came away from our time together renewed. It’s a testament to Peter’s calling that even as we talked about places, travels, experiences, he was ministering, making room for the Holy Spirit, present and teaching.
I long to be more associated with that way of being, to be teachable, readily setting aside Lee plans and thinking. Shouldn’t I have come to this earlier? I’ve traveled a lot in my 62 years, but my way of doing things never took me anyplace special, unless you count rehab. Experiencing God is something I need to get better at, the “being still” and then “knowing,” not the other way around. The Holy Spirit is talking. As my friend H. Kracht says, “Now you just have to take your fingers out of your ears and use them to cover your mouth!”
By grace then, to progress towards what Auden wrote of, or what Peter is experiencing in Jos; to listen and discover that good things happen as a result, both supernatural and in accordance to the nature of God’s promises and laws, the true “change of self” that is possible when we begin experiencing “not my ways, but Your way” life.
What comes will be incredible, too.