A taptap (shared taxi) in central Port-au-Prince.

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Recently I traveled to Haiti and when I returned I left the following Sunday for North Carolina, returned home for a few days only to then travel to Annual Conference in Grand Rapids. Over the past month or so I have been processing my experiences. The purpose of the trip to Haiti was to celebrate Brethren Disaster Ministry’s 100th home built. It was also to tour the areas that have been devastated by the earthquake and the hurricanes which preceded it. We additionally had opportunity to meet with several of the congregations and church leaders from the Eglise des Freres Haitiens (Church of the Brethren in Haiti). Two years ago I traveled to Haiti to teach at the Theological Training Seminar. This trip was different. The friends I had made are different. How could a person not be different after experiencing such tragedy? I was shocked to witness the tent cities that still exist throughout Port au Prince. I sensed an undercurrent of anger, despair and hopelessness in the city. As I stood witnessing the disturbing images, I thought to myself, “no wonder people are angry and desperate. It seems like the world has forgotten them, or worse is exploiting them.”

Yet in the midst of this city of rubble, there are people who are fervently seeking to follow Jesus. Two years ago there were only a handful of Church of the Brethren congregations. In little over 18 months the church has doubled. I had the privilege to worship with and preach for a congregation of vibrant young people who love Jesus. In the midst of a world that is lashing out angrily (with good reason), these folks were praising our God and giving thanks for the blessings they have received. This worship service transcended my ability to process their gratitude to God.

I’m not sure about you, but I live in a world that measures blessings according to quantitative standards. Each week as we pray in church giving thanks for the blessings God has provided, I wonder what is going through the minds of the people around me. What are God’s blessings? What are God’s blessings to a people who have so little and struggle so much, especially when contrasted to a people who have so much and struggle with far different issues? Above all I witnessed and experienced their love for God and how it was coupled with a sincere sacrificial hospitality.

When I returned from Haiti, three days later I traveled to the mountains of North Carolina. There in Linville is Camp Carmel, a Church of the Brethren camp. I was there during their senior high camp.  A good friend and brother offered to provide me with a place to research and write as I try to finish my dissertation. What I experienced there, in the midst of a seeming paradise, was an equally sincere hospitality and love of Jesus as was evident among my brothers and sisters in Haiti. The staff, in their own words, “loved on these kids.” It was a refreshing and renewing experience. God’s Spirit was present and evident.

A little over a week later I traveled to Grand Rapids and (perhaps even guiltily) enjoyed the plush and lavish accommodations. Yet in the week that followed my experience was quite different from the previous two. What I had hoped would be a vibrant time of discussion, discernment and worship turned out to be a shallow veneer. Perhaps it’s only me, but I could not help but imagine with warranted suspicion that most people came to conference with special agendas. What I perceived occurred was more political maneuvering than real spiritual discernment.

Process has always been penultimate for Church of the Brethren discernment. From a theological perspective the process (is supposed to anyway) provides parameters in which the discernment is to take place. One might say that it is the space in which the spiritual (and hermeneutical) community is to gather prayerfully to discern the will of God. However, I cannot help but question the theological and spiritual implications of a process that allows political maneuvering to manipulate this process. The recognition of this activity is not to offer condemnation but to stir a deeper theological reflection especially as it pertains to our ethics.

I’m sure that the various factions believe that they were and are acting for the best of the wider fellowship. But I wonder to what extent we trust the Spirit to guide us in the process? When we act in ways that pushes our agenda over and against another, we necessarily cease being “we” and “us” thus becoming “they” and “them.” In order to spiritually discern as a community, one would suppose it would require the relinquishment of one’s own agenda and the creation of openness within one’s own mind and heart to make room for the Spirit to speak as the community prayerfully gathers. The Spirit’s word may or may not come from a singular voice. The Spirit may or may not speak through a minority or marginal group within the larger fellowship. The Spirit may or may not speak through the majority voice. The question I am posing is whether we have relinquished adequately to actually discern the voice of the Spirit. Perhaps we need a deeper and fuller conversation regarding what it means to be “human” in relationship to God and within the vision God has cast for creation.

I had three very different and contrasting experiences this summer. The lesson I learned most clearly was the efficacy of loving hospitality and spiritual vitality in the midst of great hardship. Both of these most obviously found their roots in a full relinquishing love of God (heart, mind, soul, strength). Henri Nouwen in his little book, The Living Reminder, once wrote:

(God) “asks for a single-minded commitment to God and God alone. God wants all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul. It is this unconditional and unreserved love for God that leads to the care for our neighbor, not as an activity which distracts us from God or competes with our attention to God, but as an expression of our love for God who reveals himself to us as the God of all people. It is in God that we find our neighbors and discover our responsibility to them. We might even say that only in God does our neighbor become neighbor rather than an infringement upon our autonomy, and that only in and through God does service become possible.”[1]

I wonder what conference would have been like if everyone attending came together with their desires and love directed fully toward God? What would it have looked like if instead of political maneuvering we had come having fully relinquished ourselves to God through love. Perhaps we would not only discover our neighbors but our brothers and sisters too.

[1][1][1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), 31-32.

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