It is Wednesday morning and my last chance to sit on the roof of the Lutheran Center and reflect on our trip. In two hours we drive to the airport and spend the day traveling home through Atlanta.
Yesterday we woke up in Paradise. Antigua, Guatemala is an enchanted place. The layers of cultures and stories, triumph and pain echo through the cobblestone streets. I spent the morning soaking up my last opportunity to connect with this City through painting. I queried the group on what I should paint and Jeremy suggested that I be sure to get the big volcano in the background. We all decided that I should walk to the other side of Katerina’s arch and try to capture the iconic image of the pale yellow arch framed in the ancient, towering bosom of the volcano.
The irony of my experience is that the perfect spot from which to paint planted me next to a street artist. This man sits on the curbside each day painting ink and watercolor pictures of Antigua to sell to passers by. He came up to me right away and said a long string of words in Spanish. I don’t know if he was welcoming me as a fellow artist or telling me to get off his part of the sidewalk. He seemed pleasant and he said bonito as he looked at the first rough pencil sketch on my paper. I stood there feeling like the ignorant, self-absorbed, American tourist, completely lost as to how I can connect. The language gap seemed miles wide as all I could do was shrug and say, “No comprendo, No Hablo Español.” He walked away and resumed his own painting as I drifted into my last sketch of the trip.
That exchange evoked many feelings in me and summarizes much of my experience on this trip. First, it makes me incredibly grateful for Jeremy and Julia. These two young people are recent college graduates, as white Eagan suburban as they come, who are fluent in Spanish and have a HUGE heart for people. Without their translation skills our trip would have been only a fraction of the relationally connective experience that it was.
Second, it made me long to learn Spanish. I said this the last time I came to Guatemala, and I did absolutely nothing with it. Language is so fascinating to me, and God has given me a natural aptitude for it. Why have I not done it yet? I actually sat down with someone at our hotel and had her show me the information about an immersion program in Antigua. They have online courses and the chance to come to Antigua for as long as you like—one day, one week, one month—however long, and be completely immersed in the language and culture with a one-on-one tutor. I am going to pray about this possibility as a way to further invest in our partnership with ILAG.
Third, it made me sad. A few of us from the team had a lovely breakfast conversation early in the morning that revolved around StrengthsFinder and personality types. They were surprised to discover that I have strong Eyeore tendencies. I am a melancholic. Sadness is often my first response to intense situations. I am a FOUR on the Enneagram and an empath. When I look into the eyes of an artist on the sidewalk who is trying to communicate with me, or into the eyes of the woman with no legs laying on the sidewalk across from Central Park, or the girls of Maya Itza who might be sold in marriage to an old man, or the thousands of people we passed on the roads who will only ever make a pittance a day for their hard labor, and think about the hundreds of thousands of people I have encountered in my own lifetime, and the billions of people who suffer injustice at the hands of selfish and powerful people…I become emotionally overwhelmed. And Sad. I want everyone to be able to connect and live in peace, but we don’t.
I brood for a while.
Then something else happens.
There is a theological coprocessor that God has graciously implanted in my soul. A corollary benefit of being a FOUR, an INFJ, and an Eyeore, is that we plunge the depths of human emotion and search deeply and study hard for ways to make sense out of the sadness and injustice. I have read hundreds of theology books, listened to countless hours of theological lectures, engaged in scores of intense theological conversations, studied scripture my whole life, and recently have learned contemplative practices. Down in the dark depths of sadness there is a glowing seed of hope.
This is one of the many reasons Jesus had to die. Our greatest fear is death. There in the tomb Jesus teaches us something. Even there, in the dark stillness of death, GOD IS WITH US, and GOD IS FOR US.
Here is an important truth. God does not offer us an escape hatch from human suffering. Our pain and suffering is the result of two things. First, evolution (the continual change toward something better) is a painful growing process. Pain comes with growth. Second, evil is the result of humanity’s free will and our propensity to turn toward fear, self-protection, self-promotion and violence. Most of human suffering is the natural consequences of really short-sighted human choices.
God does not offer us an escape from pain and evil. God offers us a promise. There is only one way out of the darkness, it is to walk through it. God’s promise is TO BE WITH US as we walk through it.
This is where hope begins to grow in my sadness. Our team did not come here to change the world. No one person or one team could ever do that. We came here to make one more positive connection in God’s conspiracy of hope. We came to pour water and fertilizer on that seed in the soil of our individual hearts and in the relationship between Easter and our partner congregations and between the SPAS and ILAG.
I see hope when I look into the eyes of Pastora Karen, her son Diego, and her family. I see hope when I see young people like Pablo, David, Consuela, Jeremy, and Julia. I see hope when Robert can pass on a practical construction skill to Mario. I see hope when a retired pastor couple—Jerry and Sue—can model for young couples what an egalitarian, mutually loving and mutually supportive couple looks like. I see hope when a man who was set to go to the rural community accepts a sickness that redirects his plans and comes out glowing as he uses his gifts. I see hope when a woman is reenergized to return home and campaign for a deeper relationship with ILAG. I see hope when two families come to Guatemala and experience inter-generational transformation. I see hope when a man becomes vulnerable and shares his struggles and his dependence on God and community with men who need to know that it is OK to show reliance on others.
There is hope in the world. The powerful people, the national leaders, the wealthy, the media moguls, love to spew negative rhetoric in order to raise campaign funds. The Spiritual Forces of Power and Evil feed on fear and hype and conflict. Yet, the Spirit of God quietly stirs in the hearts of those who are willing to stop and look into the eyes of a child, an immigrant, an outcast.
This weekend I have been given the task to preach on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. What a fitting way to end our trip. Again and again Jesus teaches one simple truth. The only thing that truly reflects the Kingdom of God, the heart and energy of God, is how we treat “the least of these,” because “they” are “us.” We are all connected. We all need each other.
I give thanks to God for this trip and this team. May the seed grow.