This was published in the Tulsa World today. A fitting conversation to have on Mother’s Day!
The preacher had just delivered a highly emotional 30-minute sermon on the topic of forgiveness. When he finished he asked how many people were ready to forgive their enemies. About half of the hands went up. Not enough. So he preached for another 15 minutes then asked again how many people were ready to forgive all their enemies. A few more hands went up. Not enough. So he preached on for another 20 minutes. By now people were getting awfully restless and it was getting to be lunchtime so when he asked how many people were willing to forgive their enemies every hand in the place went up – except one. It was old widow Miller in the back of the church. So the pastor asked her to stand up. “Mrs. Miller,” he asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?” She answered, “I don’t have any.” Well now, the preacher was might impressed so he asked her to come to the front of the church. “How old are you Mrs. Miller?” he asked. “I am 91,” she answered. “Well now, Mrs. Miller, can you tell the congregation how it is that you have lived to be 91 years old and don’t have a single enemy?” “Yes,” she replied, “I outlived all of them.”
How about you? Any enemies still living? And when I say “enemies” I’m not implying that there are people you truly want to see harmed or even dead – although if there are those people in your life they certainly qualify. But I’m also talking about those people who make your life more difficult by being in it, the people who are hard to be around, who drive you crazy. I’m also talking about those people in your life who seem to have it out for you. And on a less personal note, I also want to include people and whole groups of people who seem intent on destroying your environment, attacking your life style, or ruining your country – from within or from without. And if you’re still just too nice a person to be willing to think of anybody as an “enemy” then consider the fact that somebody somewhere thinks you are an enemy of theirs.
We are not perfect and we do not live in a perfect world. Hence we join all of humanity in recognizing that people have been making each other miserable for thousands of years. We all drive somebody crazy – even if we have no idea we’re doing it. Of course, we don’t see it that way. We think our behavior is normal or justified or somebody else’s fault.
Frankly, it’s a lot easier to focus on someone else’s actions than our own. Because to admit how our behavior affects others is to identify in our self the very things we condemn in others. In fact it is precisely that which annoys us in other people that really bothers us the most about our self. That’s why it stands out so much to us in the people we don’t like – we’ve attempted to disown that part of us so now we see it reflected in the people who drive us crazy. Dr. Mark Rosen wrote the book Thank You for Being Such a Pain.” In it he writes, “To understand our encounters with difficult people, we eventually need to accept the fact that we are them.”
So if we’re essentially stuck with enemies and difficult people, how are we supposed to do deal with them? According to both Buddha and Jesus we’re supposed to love them.
Love Your Enemy, Avoid the Trap
There are three major problems here. First of all, we can get really messed up thinking that love means allowing ourselves to be mistreated and abused. Each of us deserves to be treated with respect and we will never help anyone be a better or happier person by allowing our own safety or emotional well-being to be compromised. Next, you’re setting yourself up to be more hurt in the long run. Because to base our well-being on someone else’s behavior gives our enemies incredible power over us. Finally, it’s just not a very realistic goal. We have a hard enough time making ourselves be the people we want to be, let alone accomplishing that feat with someone else! In short, if your primary strategy for dealing with a difficult person in your life is getting them to change, I’d suggest that you give it up right now because odds are it will never work.
The complicating factor in the teaching of love is that while we are told to love our enemies, we aren’t given very specific instruction on how to do it. I mean it’s relatively easy to “say” we love our enemies and on a spiritual level I imagine most of us strive to embrace all of humankind as our brothers and sisters – but we can’t manufacture feelings of love just because we’re told it’s the right thing to do and we can’t stop our emotional reactions just because we want to. Love is not a technique. It is more a state of being, cultivated over time and sustained through constant effort. We all seek to find a place in our heart to love someone in a healthy way regardless of what they do.
But in the meantime, when someone is causing us pain, love is usually not our first impulse. Ignoring them, getting even or cutting them out of our life may come to mind as possible options. But none of them are particularly loving. So if we can’t get rid of them and we can’t change them, who can we change? It turns out the one and only person we really have any hope of changing is our self. Not that this is an easy task either – but it is the one in which we actually have direct control.
What Can We Change?
So what can we change about ourselves? Our reactions are a good place to start. Thinking about how to react instead of simply reacting is something we will have lots of opportunities to practice. I used to endure horrible tirades by my ex-husband on the telephone. I was an anxious nervous wreck every time he called. Until I began trying to stop my automatic reaction and remain calm and detached. It took a long time to learn to stop that natural impulse, but on the way I got to the point where when the phone rang I thought “oh good – another chance to practice being non-reactive.” The difficult people in our life usually give us more than one shot at learning new responses and behaviors so we can be grateful for the opportunity they provide to practice!
Another change we might aspire to is not just to control our reactions, but to work with our emotions as well. But again, that’s a pretty hard thing to accomplish. Even if we can get our reactions under control, we may still experience incredible feelings of frustration, anger and hurt. The first real task for us then is to begin to get in touch with those feelings. What is the precise emotion being stirred up within us? If we can experience our feelings for what they are and not try to deny them we have already gained a tool for responding more appropriately to our real nemesis. Meditation is a great practice to help us cultivate patience and inner peace so that we can begin thinking about how we will respond to others and what feelings we will allow others to pull up in us. Eventually we may even find ourselves able to let go of the negative emotions even as they arise.
Perhaps the most important thing for us to change is our perspective. This is huge because it means being able to see through another person’s eyes – to genuinely walk a mile or two in their shoes.
It sounds pretty simple, but it can really have profound and powerful results. I’ll give you an example pulled from my interactions with my ex. In one of our rounds I had become extremely frustrated by the way in which he was pushing our son Jackson in karate. I was helping Jackson out by not making him participate in karate during the weekends that he was home with me. So I start by thinking about what a crummy father I think he’s being. Then I start a dialogue with him in my mind. When he replies to my accusations, I realize that our son doesn’t talk to him about how pressured he feels. So I can hear my ex responding by talking about the ways in which he believes he is supporting his son and his confusion that I am not. From HIS perspective that makes perfect sense. From his vantage point I’m the one that looks like I’m not supporting our son – no wonder he is so frustrated with me!
Another way to shift our perspective is to get to know whom it is we are struggling with. You might accomplish this by actually talking to someone over lunch. Or you might need to do a little more investigative work. I had a broken relationship with my father. I moved out of the house when I graduated and quickly cut him out of my life. In later years as an adult I came to the point where I knew I needed to do my self work. How do we do that? By dealing with the issues from our family of origin. I decided I needed to better understand who this man was that I knew as my father. So I started calling and meeting with his siblings, his mother, others who could help me fill in the spaces in the puzzle beyond my limited interactions with him.
A few years ago, I was at a funeral of a person who caused a lot of pain in a lot of people’s lives – and everyone knew it. I wondered if the priest would tell us how wonderful this man was while everyone suppressed sarcastic rejoinders. But Father Jim skipped the meaningless platitudes and instead said simply, “Not one of us can know all of the pain and hardship this man experienced in his life.”
Suffering and Ignorance
Eventually, if we are sincere in our attempts to understand others, we will be led to feel compassion for the suffering and ignorance that is at the root of all difficult behavior. Not only that, but we will realize that our own suffering and ignorance add to the problem. That the friend and the foe both reside within our own self. In fact, we will come ultimately to realize that there really is no difference between me and you, that the idea of us and them is purely a human construct and an artificial barrier to healing and wholeness.
To take that to its extreme, while on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest to renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”
We are a people who value the dignity and worth of every human being. We use the word “Namaste” a lot. That means that we see the Light, the Divine, the Transcendent, the Good and the Pure in each other and in everyone. Prayer and meditation are much easier spiritual pursuits than seeing the Light in those we label difficult and wrong and enemy. But one of the marks of spiritual growth is the extent to which it develops in us the attributes of tolerance, self-control, kindness, compassion, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, patience, generosity, and the desire to serve. Perhaps in the end we aren’t told to love our enemies because our love will transform them. Perhaps we are told to love because in doing so, we are the ones who are transformed.
What is your strategy for dealing with difficult people?
For those of you who don’t know it yet, I have a unique family. Leif is my life partner. He works as a supervisor for Ottawa County Parks and is on beach patrol every weekend during the summer. Yeah, hard assignment, right? I also have a significant daughter Brigid. Brigid is Leif’s niece but he is really her surrogate dad. Her own father took off after she was born and Leif stepped in and took over a lot of her care. Leif and I have Brigid every night. So the three of us are a pretty unconventional family. And when I’m lucky one of my boys will join us. Alex is 19 and Jackson is 22 and they also live here in Grand Haven.
So last year Brigid got two miniature frogs for her birthday from our neighbor Marylou. They were living in an enclosed Plexiglas container into which you drop four pellets of food twice a week. Well, unlike this summer, last summer had days that were actually hot. On one of those days Leif was worried that the frogs would get to hot and start to cook, so he put them in the refrigerator.
Really. The next day – when he remembered that he had put the frogs in the refrigerator – he discovered that they weren’t moving. He felt pretty bad about this but it was clearly too late to do anything differently so he dumped the frogs into the toilet. He hit the flusher and just as the water started to swirl, the frogs started trying to swim – and continued to try as they were swept cleanly away. Leif made a mistake.
What about an example a little more close to home? I used to work at Fruitport Dry Cleaners while I was going to college. It was a great job because there was very little activity. I would bring in my homework and then have to deal with the occasional annoyance of customers. One Saturday when noon came around, I closed the shop and went home. A few hours later the owner called me up wondering what in the world the problem was – since the shop was supposed to be open until 6pm. To this day I don’t remember what made me believe it was time to go home. But I do remember how mortified I felt. I was embarrassed and humiliated and certain I would never be forgiven by my employer. I wanted nothing more than to die right then and there and never have to face anyone again for the rest of my life. To my young, hyper-responsible self, this was as close to the end of the world as I had ever experienced. I made a mistake.
Sadly, mistakes are hereditary. Have any of you have ever put liquid dish soap in the dishwasher? Exactly ten years ago, my son Jackson called me from the house where he was babysitting to say, “I have a problem. I wanted to do a really good job and clean the dishes…” I knew what was coming next. To make matters worse the only thing he could find in the house to clean up was a swifter – what ever happened to the good old fashioned mop?
So I brought him a mop – and a wet vac – and listened to him ask over and over again, “How was I supposed to know?” Well, he wasn’t supposed to know. He did what he thought he was supposed to do. He did not get the results he expected. He will do it differently next time – and he’s got a great story he can laugh about for the rest of his life. He made a mistake.
If there’s one thing that unites us in common humanity, it has to be the fact that we all make mistakes. No one is immune. Even the historical Buddha had a period when he made the mistake of over-compensating for his luxurious upbringing by becoming an ascetic and starving himself. He literally tortured himself in the name of spirituality. That’s a pretty big mistake. But it was only because he made this mistake that he was able to find the middle way between the extremes of luxury and austerity. Mistakes are not a bad thing; they are the food for our spiritual journey.
We all make mistakes. Big ones, small ones. In fact mistakes make the best stories don’t they? And they make for the best learning experiences. Mistakes are part of being human. Al Franken said, “Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it’s a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from.” So not only are mistakes not something to be ashamed of, they are something to be embraced!
When was the last time you sat and reflected with joy upon the mistakes you have made in your life? The run of the mill mistakes and the great big whoppers? Were they exciting? Were they fun? Did you laugh at yourself? Or did you hang your head in shame? How do you view your mistakes? Are they learning opportunities …or proof of your imperfection? Do you recognize the value of mistakes… or feel instead the need to blame somebody – yourself or someone else – when they happen?
If you’re still playing the blame game, then maybe you haven’t quite figured out yet what a mistake is. You see, you can’t help making mistakes – if you’re doing anything at all. We don’t do mistakes on purpose – that’s the whole point. They’re only mistakes in retrospect.
Each of us faces countless times during the day when decisions that require some kind of assessment and response have to be made. Big decisions, little decisions. We make them based on what we think will result. If the thing happened that we expected to happen, we don’t give it another thought. But if something else happens, then we realize – oops! I made a mistake.
And the good news is that’s perfectly okay! Here’s the thing. We always need to be aware that we MAKE mistakes – we are not mistakes ourselves.
We are NOT Mistakes
I was a spunky kid! I hated my kindergarten teacher Miss Peters. But my first grade teacher Mrs. McKenzie was like Mrs. Butterworth and Captain Kangaroo all rolled up in one. She loved me and I would have done anything to try to impress her. One day we were joining the kindergarten class to watch a movie. I must have been feeling pretty full of myself because I decided to have a comic moment. When Miss Peters asked if we were ready, I jovially said, “No.”
But Miss Peters didn’t think I was funny at all. She scanned the room with her dark heart and her evil eyes and asked who said it. And my classmates – ratted me out! Then she sent me to my room to wait, horrified, for Mrs. McKenzie to come in and discover what mayhem I had almost wrought upon the entire class. The problem was that I didn’t have my grown up perspective and I didn’t know it wasn’t a big deal. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t feel like I had made a mistake – I felt like I WAS a mistake.
It took me a long time to accept my own imperfection and to come to terms with my faults and my flaws. I used to carry around a lot of shame that made me believe I was a mistake. I ended up in abusive relationships that reinforced the idea that I was a mistake. The mistakes I made that led me into those relationships were just further evidence that I was a mistake. There is nothing more debilitating and unproductive in the whole world than believing you are a mistake.
Because if you are a mistake, you can’t do anything to make things better. If, on the other hand, we make mistakes, we can always take the next step in creating a better outcome. When we realize that we only made a mistake, we become empowered to change our life for the better. And if we can change our own life, we can change the world.
I made a mistake thinking I was a mistake. It turns out I am more precious than even I can comprehend. And so are you. So here’s mantra I want you to learn and use: I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them.
Now can you learn to relax in that knowledge and receive the grace that is yours to give yourself? Because when it comes to recognizing our common humanity, to recognizing the inherent dignity of every human being, we absolutely have to start with our self. Self-compassion comes from the recognition that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When we are aware of our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal. When we can claim our own worth, we can deeply value and appreciate others, recognizing that pain and disappointment are part of the shared human experience. Compassion toward our own mistakes leads us to extending compassion to others who also make mistakes.
Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds
Jesus told a parable about the Farmer who planted a field and was standing in it when he noticed weeds. The workers wanted to pull up the weeds but the Farmer made the absolutely crazy decision not to, adding that the weeds would be burned at harvest time. In this story, Jesus points us to a truth found in all wisdom traditions – that we have the seeds of both wheat and weeds within us.
I have learned, rather painfully, that I can do good and I can do bad – and what’s more – I can’t always tell the difference. Sometimes I have the best of intents, and I still manage to hurt someone I love. Sometimes I go out of my way to do a good deed, and only end up causing more of a mess than there was before I got involved. But then again, things that didn’t go the way I thought they would way back when have led in strange and amazing ways to many of the wonderful outcomes I’m experiencing today.
Like the mistakes we wish we had never made, each of us carries within us parts of our self that we view as weeds. We wish we could just yank out that part of our being and throw it into the furnace. But the parable cautions us not to. It says we have to learn to be patient with our self, to see our self as a field in which all of our life is in balance and to remove even a part of us that is ill is to pull with it a part that is healthy.
Each one of us does the best we can at any particular moment not knowing what the outcome will be.
A mistake is only declared when I stand in judgment over some past action. And I am not equipped to make such a judgment – not about the actions you have taken and not about the actions I have taken. My time frame is too short, my perspective too limited, my disposition too impatient to see the fullness in the growth of the field. To appreciate the harvest yet to come.
You see, you can’t set out to make a mistake. A mistake is only a mistake in retrospect – through a lens different than the one you use right now. And that lens will change over time. So who are you and who am I to say anything is a mistake or not? Well, putting dish soap in a dishwasher does seem to be a bona fide mistake, but you get my drift.
Now, a precautionary word. Embracing our mistakes does not give us license to do anything we please. Sometimes we make a conscious choice to act out of anger or envy or greed, knowing even as we choose our action that someone will be hurt. Now we might want to claim later that we made a mistake – but that kind of action is not a mistake at all. Mistakes require a good intent – a desire to do what is right. And so we are invited to act with courage the best we can today – knowing that even with the best of intentions we will make mistakes.
So what do we do? If we are to be whole we must live with the knowledge that we are both good and bad. And then we do our best. We decide intentionally that we will not live in judgment of others or our self. Instead, we choose to live. And if we are going to live, we will inevitably make mistakes. Jim Carrey delivered the graduation speech at the Maharishi University of Management this year. He said that he learned many great lessons from his father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
The trouble is that we tend to amplify the mistakes and forget the successes, which creates such a heavy burden of guilt for so many of us. And just when we thought we let go of that last mistake and forgave our self, something happens that triggers those old scripts and we find we’re beating ourselves up all over again. So instead of replaying our mistakes in our heads over and over again, I suggest we all make a list of our successes – and start playing them over and over in our head – when things are going well and especially when they’re not.
So instead of always having a list of mistakes we can turn to in blame, we have an automatic treasure trove of reminders of all the good things we have done in our life. Redirecting our thoughts to what is positive and life giving is a very Buddhist practice. When we claim our true Self or the Buddha nature within us, it grows. If we focus on the mistakes and the errors, our sense of failure and incompetence grows. If we dwell on any thought, that thought grows and grows. So we can consciously turn our hearts around and dwell upon the positive in ourselves, the purity, the goodness, the source of that unconditional love that seeks to serve others. And when we can forgive our own faults and focus on our own goodness and kindness, we can do the same with other people. We can dwell upon their goodness and watch it grow.
This is what Buddhists call kamma – an intentional action. The way we think about life, the way we speak about life, what we do with life. And it really is up to us what we do with our life. It is not up to some supernatural being somewhere who says whether we will be happy or not. Our happiness is completely in our hands, in our power. This is what Buddhists mean by kamma.
So what if we decided to live in happiness instead of fear? How different would our lives be if we celebrated the fact that we all make mistakes and stopped playing it safe? The willingness to risk making a mistake comes when we finally let go of fear and embrace the possible. Mistakes prove that we are creative enough to do something besides what we have always done before. They mean that we are living a life rich in creativity and courage that we have the audacity to believe in ourselves and in the people around us.
In the book Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers there is this pertinent quote: “If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t doing anything worth a damn.”
Eudaimonia is a Greek word. Eu means “good” and daimon means “spirit.” It is commonly translated as happiness or welfare, but a more accurate definition is “human flourishing.” Eudaimonia is a central concept in Aristotelian ethics and philosophy. To experience eudaimonia was to live the good life.
So what is a good life?
Around 400 BC, the popular belief was that the good life and a life of ethical virtues were very different. A good life was one in which you experience happiness. And a life of virtue could really interfere with happiness. For instance, if cheating someone would result in you having more money then it would make sense to cheat. This is essentially the argument for hedonism.
Then along came Socrates. He took a very different view of the good life. For him the good life was a life of questioning popular opinion and tradition. It meant cultivating the practice of critical thought and self- awareness. It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The good life, he believed, was a life that questions and thinks about things. It is a life of contemplation, self-examination and open-minded wondering. The good life is an inner life – the life of open inquiry and an ever-expanding mind.
Socrates student Plato also believed in self-examination, but felt the goal was to enter into the realm of the divine. According to Plato, our psyche had three main parts: the intellectual or rational system, a spirited or emotive system, and a basic system of physical appetites. He felt the “highest” part of us is our reason and that this was a divine fragment of God. This is what he felt made us different from other animals. He believed we need to cultivate this divine part of us and use it to control our emotions and physical instincts. In doing so, he felt that we would accomplish eudaimonia or the state of human flourishing.
For Plato this meant examining our values, seeing if they make sense, and trying to ascend to better and better definitions of truth until we get closer to the perfect, absolute and eternal forms of the Good, the True, and the Just, and so on. Plato believed that, just as there exists a realm of pure math where two plus two always equals four, so there must exist an eternal realm of moral values, which philosophers can ascend to. When we have become masters in practical and theoretical philosophy, then we will finally become ‘masters of our selves’. And because he saw humans as vessels for the divine, he believed that ultimately we could reach a state in which our individual ego is lost in ecstatic union with God.
Sound familiar? This idea of the ‘ascent of the soul’ was very influential on the mystic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In fact, eudaimonia is a concept found in all mystic traditions. Buddhists call in “waking up.” Buddhism teaches that humans are endowed with reason; we can use this reason to condition ourselves to eliminate all conflicting and harming state of minds and cultivate positive ones. In a reading I recently heard Reverend Hung Su share, “as soon as you wake up unbiased a being becomes a Buddha.”
The Academy that Plato founded had one primary underlying premise: that man is a soul using a body as an instrument. Its goal was the conversion of the soul to Truth, and use of that knowledge in the service of humanity. The Academy attracted the best and the brightest from all over Greece and its early graduates included many important lawmakers and mathematicians.
One of the students at the Academy was Aristotle. Aristotle believed that the nature of man included both a rational and an irrational system in his psyche. (I recognize that I am using male pronouns but remember these enlightened men hadn’t figured out yet how much women had to teach them.) Aristotle believed that man has a natural drive for knowledge, happiness and God. The Good life, as he defined it, was a life that fulfills these natural drives, and directs them to their highest end. Philosophy was the bridge between human nature in its raw and undeveloped form and human nature at its highest form. This is what Aristotle called eudaimonia, or flourishing.
Socrates believed that virtue alone was all you needed to have a good and happy life. Aristotle thought you needed virtue for a good life, but you also needed a bit of luck.
Living a Good Life
When George C. Boldt emigrated to the US from Prussia in 1864 he was nearly penniless. He got a job as a dishwasher then went to Texas to find other work. He was unsuccessful and returned to New York with even less money to take another dishwashing job. But his attention to service paid off and he was promoted to cashier and then to manager.
On a day near the turn of the century, a couple was making their way to New York. They had traveled all day and they were tired and ready to sleep when they arrived at the hotel and asked for a room, but George, the manager, explained that they had a convention in town and there was no room available. George asked if they wanted him to check on other rooms. They were so tired and weary and they told him they would very much appreciate his checking. But the closest place George could find with an open room was 2 hours away. They thanked him for his efforts and then started walking disheartened and without a plan to the door. George, who was busy trying to think of a solution, called for them to wait. He told them that they could stay in his room and that he and his family would stay in the lobby. The older gentleman refused at first, but George insisted that it was no trouble at all and that they should stay. They agreed.
The next day after a very restful night, the old man told George that one day he would manage the best hotel in the country. Two years later, the old man returned to the hotel and told George that he never properly thanked him. He then took him to lunch in New York. Afterward, he told George that they had an appointment to make and they walked a couple of blocks to a hotel. He said your staff is waiting to meet their new manager. My name is William Waldorf Astor and this is my hotel.
Socrates would point to the George’s values as evidence of a good life. Aristotle would also celebrate his values, but would include his position as the manager of the Waldorf-Astoria in concluding the George was living the good life.
For Aristotle, a good life had it all – all the virtues of justice, courage, a good sense of humor and the ability to drink wine without getting too obnoxious (really!), but it also required all the good fortune of wealth and power and community status plus all the wisdom to appreciate it. The one virtue neither Plato nor Aristotle seemed to embrace was humility! Both held philosophers in the highest regard and apparently themselves as well. We would all do well to remember Socrates warning that, “Thinking one knows what one does not know is the most reprehensible form of ignorance.” For Socrates there was always the need for self-examination.
Which is, of course, what open inquiry is all about. It is not about critiquing and criticizing other points of view. It is about clarifying our own.
To be intentional about self-reflection and growing self-awareness is to listen to others who may not feel or think or believe exactly the way we do. As we ask questions about our identity, we seek a grounding center in which the distinctions we draw between our convictions and those of others become less and less something to divide and separate us and more and more something to raise up and celebrate!
All of us have some kind of history, a lineage of some sort. We are Christian, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu and more. Embracing the good life means we don’t waste our time trying to figure out who the enemy is so we can bond together in a false sense of intimacy. It means that we use information from every source to try to understand more rationally the shadows and cultural pitfalls that all religion and all world views are subject to so that we have a more realistic view of our common work in always reclaiming and reevaluating our own good life and the good life of community.So my friends, welcome to the good life! A life where we will question ourselves more than others. A life where instead of needing others to think the way we do, we will work to see the lens through which we see our own version of the world. A life in which we will seek lessons from everyone we meet and find the answers inside of ourselves. A life in which we will drink wine and we will not be obnoxious!
Elder of the Kithuri clan,
the Meru of Kenya
May people be well,
may they be well,
Male, female, male, female,
Goats, cattle, boys and girls;
May they multiply themselves.
Bad luck go away from us…Amen.
Picture this: You are an African in the 19th century. You’re life has not been easy since your homeland was invaded by Europeans greedy for land and control. Although colonization has taken a great toll on you and your family, you work hard to maintain your own cultural identity. You have a number of wives. This helps to ensure that you will have children who will live to adulthood. It also helps to ensure that all of the needs of a demanding life can be shared and met by a larger family. This is also the way of your elders whom you believe are the highest authority on such matters.
White missionaries arrive and tell you about Jesus who promises a new life where the oppressed are made free and peace and justice prevail. This message of liberation is exciting to you and you and your family are baptized. But then the missionaries tell you that God is unhappy with you. They say you can only have one wife or this God will desert you. But that doesn’t make any sense. You are amazed and confused by this strange requirement. Does this God really want you to destroy your family?
Then you hear from the Bible. Someone reads it to you or teaches you to read. This is strange. Why, look at all these people who had more than one wife! Look at this Abraham, this Solomon, this David. These are the heroes of the Bible? What can this mean?
The number of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million in 2000. In the 1990s the number of Christians leaving Christianity each year was 338,000 greater than those accepting Christianity.
Where are the Missionaries?
You would probably guess right that the United States sends more Christian missionaries into the world than any other country. You might be surprised to know that the United States is also the country in the world that receives the largest number of Christian missionaries from other country. Many of the missionaries sent her are coming from places like Africa.
How did this happen? Well not like you might expect. Here’s one example… In 1918 an African from the Congo (now known as Zaire) named Simon Kimbangu had a vision after being converted to Christianity and baptized by British Baptist missionaries. In this vision, he received a call from God to be a prophet and a healer. Like any good pastor, he initially ran away from his call and from his village. But in 1921 he returned and began to preach and to heal the sick. In just 6 months his following had grown to 10,000.
One day he stood on a hill near his village and prophesied that a large church would be built on it and that one day leaders from all over the world would come to worship there. But as his followers increased, the Belgian colonial government and the Roman Catholic Church felt increasingly threatened.
Because of Kimbangu’s and other movements, it became illegal for any minister or member of a religious movement “not under European control” to “address meetings or assemblies of natives.” Kimbangu was arrested, tried before a mock military tribunal, flogged and condemned to death. The Belgian king commuted his sentence to life imprisonment and he was deported to the other side of the country where he never saw his wife or children again and where he died in 1951.
But his work wasn’t done. His followers went underground and his wife continued in his place. When the government was finally overthrown, Kimbangu’s church emerged from hiding with millions of members. In 1969 the church applied for membership and was admitted to the Word Council of Churches. On the hill where he had once prophesied now stands a large church. In November 1981 church leaders from all over the world came to worship with the Kimbanguists, fulfilling the vision of 60 years before.
The Kimbanguist Church now numbers over five million members. It is the largest of what are called African Independent Churches, which have sprung up throughout the continent. These churches now claim a total of over twenty million followers and are probably growing faster than any other churches in Africa. The African Independent Church movement is one of the most remarkable phenomena of church growth in the twentieth and twenty first century.
African Independent Church Movement
So what exactly is an African Independent Church and where did they come from? These churches combine elements of Christianity with native religion in a way that celebrates the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ while embracing the rich spiritual heritage of people who understand a different worldview.
They were birthed out of a reaction to the racial paternalism and the European values (like monogamy) that early foreign missions attached to their message. Local people could embrace Christ, but they wanted to keep their own taboos and purification rites – not toss them out in favor of those dictated to them by Westerners.
The Christ of the African Independent Churches is not a European Christ with European values. It is a Christ who comes to them in their own tradition, speaking through their own culture, respected them and their history. And it is a Christ who calls them to transformation, allowing them to struggle with their own issues in their own time.
The African Independent Churches remind us that being Christian does not require one to be Western. In fact, African Christians often refer to Jesus as universal mudzimu. As Mudzimu Mukuru (the great ancestral spirit). He becomes incarnated within African culture and in that way people understand his role in all aspects of their life, and not just when they gather to worship or consider spiritual things.
This Christ is big enough to embrace all people – even when we as Western Christians are not. Want proof? How many of you knew anything at all about this movement of over 20 million people before you began reading this blog? Our fear continues to marginalize these Christians even after nearly 100 years.
You see, they are different. They don’t follow the pattern of the old European denominations. Doctrines and creeds are just not all that important to them. Many of them reject Western science. They just don’t believe it’s true. These are a people who don’t live their faith in their head, but in their bodies, in their hearts and in their souls. They present a rich blend of spirituality that many of us Westerners get really uncomfortable with. Rather than worrying about right thinking, they believe adamantly in the gifts of the Holy Spirit – and their gatherings are marked by dancing, healing, prophecy and the casting out of demons. The prophets and healers of the African Independent Church have taken the place of the old tribal witch doctors and medicine men. And still, Christ stands at their center.
And through their witness they also point us toward Christ. The African ideal of Ubuntu means humanity and is captured in the statement that “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It is a theology that Archbishop Desmond Tutu embraced when the white Christian church was teaching in South Africa during apartheid. The church’s claim was that one’s skin color indicated their value as a human being. Tutu pointed to the person of Jesus and his claim that all people are valuable in God’s sight.
For Tutu, the practice of Ubuntu grows out of God’s relationship with us in Christ Jesus, who sets us free from sin, making it possible to know each other. Our true human identity, he says, comes only through absolute dependence on God and neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy or a stranger.
It promotes cooperation between individuals, cultures and nations. In other words, if your brother or sister is down pick them up. If they are hungry feed them. If they are strangers accommodate them. Ubuntu is about a transformed humanity that thinks of others before self and empowers people to reach their full potential in unity with all that surrounds them.
Ubuntu is caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation. And it is a prophetic glimpse of an evolving progressive identity we can claim as we answer the call to become part of a global religious community. It is the promise of the coming of the Cosmic Christ, who transcends all of our cultural barriers and claims us as one people with many different facets and dimensions. It is the call to begin to connect with each other at a deeper level – one that insists on including everyone as we gather at the table.
As elders, we have a responsibility to pass the Gospel on to the future generation. But this passing of the Gospel calls for our global awareness that God is creator and liberator of ALL.