Changing the world

Samuel Johnson – British author and critic in the late 1700’s – once wrote, “Whoever surveys the world must see many things that give him pain.”

This afternoon, when I came home from school, Benson opened the gate for me as he usually does. I stopped on my way in and rolled down the window.
“Benson, weren’t you on duty last night?”
“Yes ma’m.”
“And you’ve been here all day?”
“Yes.”
“You’ve been at work for twenty-four hours!?” “WHY?” I exclaimed, glancing at my dash clock. The little orange light read 4:30 – he came at 6pm yesterday.
He looked down for a moment. “You see our company is having problems with relief guards, so I had to stay. It’s okay.”
“You have been at work for 24 hours – that is very wrong. When are you supposed to sleep?”
“I will sleep tonight.”
“I am so sorry Benson – pole sana bwana.” I shook my head, said “Pole sana” again, and drove the rest of the way to my parking spot.

Kenya is a beautiful country with many lovely people, and yet I think of S. Johnson often. In my brief survey of it, I’ve seen many things that bring me pain. In fact, life here offers a daily dose of pain, and some swallow larger servings than others. Benson is lucky – he has a job. Even though he only gets paid a few hundred dollars a month to sit at a gate 7-days a week and work random 24-hour shifts, he would rather keep that than face unemployment.

I don’t often blog about this side of life here … nor do I usually mix in faith reflections with my posts. I can’t really separate the two on this subject though, so here it goes.

I have realized that Injustice angers me; it enrages me to the core of my being. Sitting right next to Injustice in the company of things that enrage me, is Lawlessness. If I let myself look too long at either, I come undone. Both together make me want to freeze-frame the world and scream at the top of my lungs, “STOP! Don’t you get it?!”

I often find myself incapacitated by feelings of helplessness at what I see around me:

I can’t make Benson’s work hours more equitable;
I can’t give the cleaners at school a better salary nor decent housing;
I can’t give the women who beg at the end of the street a home nor the children who sit with them an education;
I can’t make the bus drivers – instigators of traffic anarchy – abide by road rules;
I can’t stop the carjackers;
I can’t keep the police honest nor the judges fair;

Sometimes I identify with the psalmist and cry out: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” I echo Solomon when he says, “And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment – wickedness was there; in the place of justice – wickedness was there.” Where is God and how can he allow such depths of misery?

I have realized too that in an effort to keep myself from melting into an emotional mess, I have trained my heart to look away – change the subject, don’t think about it, wait very quietly without doing anything until the feelings and/or situations pass. Where does all this usually leave me? When I think about it: angry at God, disappointed with myself, cynical and hard-hearted. When I don’t think about it: blind and deaf to people around me. This can’t be healthy.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the middle-school youth group on Sunday during church. We were looking at the story of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. In that story is the shortest verse of the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Why did he weep? A little backstory: Jesus had heard Lazarus was sick. In fact, he even tells his disciples that Lazarus is going to die but that it won’t end that way. They hang out for a few days and then start on their way to Bethany. When they get there, they find (of course) that Lazarus has died. The mourners are all in place and both of Lazarus’ sisters come out to Jesus, deep in grief. Right here is where Jesus weeps. I was struck for the first time by the strangeness of it: why would he weep if he knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead? He couldn’t have been mourning for Lazarus. He held the key to life in a word, so why would he grieve the man he was about to raise?

The prophet Isaiah wrote of Jesus: “He was a man of sorrows and familiar with grief … surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.” Jesus knew that Life was around the corner, yet he wept with Mary, Martha and the rest. Those who saw it said, “Look how he loved [Lazarus]” – but was it just Lazarus he loved? I think the tears were for the mourners. He grieved their pain, doubt and despair.  Out of love, he wept.

I don’t know yet what all this means for me here in Kenya. I don’t know yet how to grieve the examples of injustice and lawlessness I see around me, nor how to change them. I don’t know how to let anger be the fuel for action; I don’t know how to let go of my anger and accept the things I cannot change. I do know that I am not God. It’s not my job to change the world, but there is a job to be done:

Paul writes: “only three things remain – faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Part of love is to walk with another in grief and in joy. That is what God has done for us. May he give me the grace to do the same for others.

2 thoughts on “Changing the world

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  1. What an insightful essay, and it came at a perfect time. Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughtful reflections onto your blog for the rest of us to profit from.

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  2. I remember very similar emotions when I was in Kenya, and I see much of the same thing here, in what is I am certain one of the most privileged cities in America. My feelings on the subject lately have been that it probably isn't unhealthy for me to feel frustrated or angry with myself, with the world, when I see injustice and inhumanity: it is evidence that I'm still human, and it continuously pushes me to try to make things better.

    One thing that has helped me is to think not in terms of fixing the whole problem–I can't–but rather in terms of making things a little better. I can't make the university pay the janitorial staff better, but I can smile at them and thank them sincerely for their work. I can't give money to all the homeless people in town, but I can sit and talk with them for a few minutes, or buy them lunch once in a while. It's helped me, anyway. Little things can help, I think, while you're searching for a larger solution.

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