What Liberian Christians taught me, thanks to NPR

I have been captivated these past months by the global response to Ebola — a response that tells us far more about ourselves and each other and what we truly believe than any amount of pontificating and posturing ever could. We see who we really are when confronted with such a dangerous and deadly foe.

I have felt a huge range of emotions — outrage at times, fear and deep grief, anger and hope too. I have swung wildly in my views on how the US ought to be handling our efforts in West Africa as well as our efforts at home. I have recognized the cold grip of racism deep in my bones and prayed earnestly for forgiveness, for the grace to learn true repentance and see as Jesus sees. It is a long road for me, this excising of the sin that thrives below the waterline of my soul, that is at once profoundly individual but also institutional and thus engrained in my very worldview.

So, whenever there is news about Ebola, I tune in, and a few days ago that took me again to NPR on my afternoon drive down to pick my daughter up from school. The story was being told by a Western journalist who had been (actually might still be) in Liberia at one of the Ebola treatment centers. I may not get the details exactly right — I was driving after all and not taking notes, but let me give you the sense of it.

She described how, first thing in the morning, the Liberian care-givers, many of them pastors and other Christian leaders, would arrive already in their scrubs, bleached to bland, barely-there pastel colors, and begin the process of preparing for the day ahead. They would start their morning with prayer, a portion of which NPR recorded and then played for those of us tuning in.

In the recording you hear a Liberian pastor pray for grace for his team, for mercy for his patients. He prays for courage and hope, for compassion and safety. As he prays, the background is not silent like you would find in a typical Western white church. There is singing and chanting as the men and women who are gathered that day affirm his prayers and raise their own voices to God in worship. The journalist then explains that the group prayer is followed by a few moments of silent prayer, where everyone has a moment to soberly consider the reality that today might be the day they contract Ebola and face their own death. The care-givers look the specter of their own death in the eye, pray for protection, and suit up.

By the time I reach the school parking lot, tears are swimming in my eyes. It seems God can use even NPR to speak with me, and I feel a profound joy in that realization, affirming with the poet-king:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Ps. 139:7-12)

I learned in my year in the Psalms that these spontaneous emotions are doorways to the sacred. That may seem obvious to you, but for me, I developed in my teens and 20s the spiritually debilitating habit of suppressing my emotions, swallowing my feelings so I could think more clearly (rationality was a prize far greater than tears in those days).

I’m all for thinking clearly, but if you are seeking the face of God, you have to learn how to loosen your grip a bit, receive rather than control.

So there I sat, waiting for my daughter, trying my best to step in the sacred space opening up, and I was struck in that moment by how simple the Gospel really is and how badly the Western evangelical and mainline churches have together messed it up.

These Liberian healers, men and women scrubbing in to minister to the sick and dying, they embodied the Gospel, the good news of God’s Kingdom inaugurated among us by the person and work of Jesus.

First, they prayed. The sang their songs, and prayed their fears and hopes, together with one voice and silently as individuals sharing a communal space. They cast their cares upon a Good and Sovereign God. And then they put their lives on the line for the sake of another.

They didn’t stop to figure out if the sick and the dying were Christians with correct theology. They didn’t decide to risk their lives only for the patients who contracted the disease innocently and refuse treatment for those who contracted it by way of social or sexual practices they found offensive. They didn’t send out 140 character bromides about the “ebola of unbelief” or use the humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to promote their theology. They prayed for grace, mercy, safety, hope, peace. And they put their lives on the line as if to prove they meant every word of their prayer, as if they believed God was stepping into the quarantine rooms with them. As if they believed they were God’s answer to their very own prayers.

We in the West get this all wrong, and I am chief among the mistaken.

The Evangelicals, among whom I still most of the time count myself, we totally get the “prayer” part. We are great at praying and worshipping, and I mean that genuinely. We really do. We know how to submit to the sovereignty of God, how to pray for healing and repentance, mercy and faith. We know how to raise our voices and testify to the saving work of Jesus and we know how to open our souls to the sacred space of corporate prayer and worship. But when it comes to good works, we Evangelicals of recent history saw them in terms of conversion “missions” where we exported our systematic theologies and went on “exposure” trips to 3rd world countries to see first hand how successfully the natives were implementing our Western worship practices and Biblical interpretations. We sometimes built houses and dug wells, and I don’t mean to say these missions trips were (or are) without merit, but my observation in retrospect is that our attitude was more as teachers and leaders bearing gifts for the less fortunate, rather than as humble, authentic learners cogently aware we were standing amid giants of our shared faith. The idea that Africans, South Americans, Indians or Arabs living in relative squalor had something fundamental to teach us about the Gospel, something inaccessible to us because of our Western affluence, was beyond the scope of imagination.

The Mainliners and Catholics, with whom I have lots of experience but less theological commonality, they totally get the suiting up part. If you have a cause that needs arms and legs, get them involved. For years I watched in utter amazement as nominal Catholics and Protestants of all stripes quite literally went all over the globe to dig wells and vaccinate children and build churches. But they could not speak of Jesus or give testimony to their faith or conversion journey. They squirmed at the idea of either prayer or worship, and felt deep discomfort even uttering the name of Jesus in polite company. Jesus, I came to understand, was for them something of an embarrassment.

This is of course not news, and of course I am generalizing. The point is, we have watched for many years the back-and-forth between the social gospel liberal folks and the prayer-in-schools conservative folks, and neither one of us got it right.

These Liberians, living in the hot zone — they are getting it right. The gospel is both, together: confessing with our voices that Jesus alone is Messiah and King, and demonstrating with our bodies that His Salvation and His Kingdom have come. Prayer and worship followed fast by the sound of boots striking the cold hospital floor. A worship song hummed while gloved hands wash blood from a faltering man’s eyes and ears. Tears and a holy benediction over a body bag in size extra-small.

I do not understand this Gospel but I want to. I understand the words but not the essence of it, not really. My Western affluence makes it difficult to engage the Gospel like this, and doesn’t Jesus himself say this? How do I then live in the “where” and “when” God has called me to for now? The tension this creates for me feels unbearable at times, and perhaps that tension was part of my tears that day listening to NPR. It seems simpler there, in Liberia. More accessible, more present. I am most certainly romanticizing it, my robust imagination creating a version of reality that is certainly false.

Nevertheless …

Nevertheless, my struggle to weave together my humanity, God’s sovereignty, and the world’s great need rages on.

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