I can relate certain periods of my recent life to the Hillsong albums I was listening to as I experienced them. What would my experience of Jerusalem be without the knowledge that he meets us like springs in the desert (“Desert Song”), and that he longs to “Tear Down the Walls” and welcome us into his “Arms Open Wide”? What would sophomore year of F&M be without the realization that God wants to break our hearts for what breaks his, and wants to raise up a new generation that seeks his face (“Hosanna”)? What about my flight back from Ghana, flying above the clouds as the bass of “Father” merged with the hum of the engines, as if everything around me were groaning for the heavens to be rent, for God come back to his children?
Now, 7 months into TFA, a new Hillsong album, new realizations, and new glories to be experienced.
“Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” A year ago, my InterVarsity staff worker gave me a “hope”, a picture frame with an artistic revelation of what she felt God was telling her about me. It had a picture of a wasteland, and a caption: “The desert is God’s means for building his saints.” I had no idea that 6 months later, I would indeed be entering into the harshest desert of my life, of teaching in inner-city Baltimore. I hated it at first. But I’m starting to see that, like Jesus, like Israel, I too must go through trials and temptations to prepare me for the hard work that lies for me later in life.
The song “Oceans” sings, “Sprit lead me where my trust is without borders/let me walk about the waters/wherever you would call me/take me deeper than my feet could ever wander/and my faith would be made stronger/in the presence of my Savior.” The words come from an occasion where Jesus walked on water towards the disciples, who were struggling to row against a fierce thunderstorm. Peter cries out, “Lord, if it is you (if you are the one who saves, if you do love me, if you can truly deliver us!) then call me to come to you on the water!” Come, Jesus says. And so Peter walks upon the waters, his faith is made stronger. But then his eyes doubt, and his feet fail, and he starts to sink! Oh God, but you called me here! Why are you letting me drown! So Peter calls upon the Name of Jesus, and immediately, Jesus takes his hand and pulls him up.
I know God led me to teach in Baltimore. I know he led me here to plant seeds. I know that, as the psalmist promised, “he who sows in tears will harvest with shouts of joy.” I know my faith will be made stronger. But then I sink! My feet may fail, and I sink beneath the waves! But every time I have called out, Jesus has reached out his hand and caught me. Saved from self-doubt, from self-condemnation, from sin. This experience has been harder than anything I’ve ever done. Yet I have grown so much. Some things can only be learned by stepping into the desert, by walking out onto the waters.
Last Friday, at 6am, there was a men’s prayer gathering at my church that I had decided to skip. Until God helped me get all my work done quickly and I found that I would have enough time to make it there and to school on time. At the prayer gathering, I met a twin: a guy from upstate NY, went to a small liberal arts college, and had a PA girlfriend. We prayed together, encouraged each other—and perhaps our paths will never cross again! All I know is that for that day, God gave me what I so desperately needed, and the day was so much better for it. I had cried out for help, and God answered.
An Orwellian phrase, who can believe? Yet I tell you this has grown truer every day—when the anger against my students rises up, when they refuse to stop talking, when they deliberately do that which I told them not to do—Love is War. To love my students is to war against myself, to war against fear, to refuse to let apathy or anger get in the way of my mission. A war that must be constantly fought, never given up.
The alternative to love could be anger, or it could be indifference. When a student was having a panic attack yesterday, I could have sat back, and at first I did. Other students were already working to comfort him, and the nurse had sent him back to sit in class. But instead I felt the smallest whisper urging me forward. So I asked him if he wanted prayer, and he nodded a small yes as he bent over wheezing. The other student and I laid hands and I prayed calmly, asking God to give him peace and full breath. Before I had said amen, his wheezing had ceased and he sat peacefully. I then gave him something to eat. This student, who I have at times previously been angry and frustrated with, was able to experience love because I fought against laziness, apathy, and anger.
Tomorrow, I want to make sure I show love to another two of my students, Destiny and Diamond Barnes, who had an older brother who was shot dead last week. They expressed almost no emotion when they told me (death is all-too-common in the inner city). But that does not excuse me from an obligation to love, and to mourn with them.
I also want to make sure I continue my conversations with Micah. Poor, sweet Micah is small and suffers many health problems. Poor Micah is not so sweet as he insults others, picks fights, and blows up tiny insults into major issues. I knew Micah was a Christian, so I asked him if he had ever heard that Christians were supposed to “love their enemies.” He said he had. I asked him if he had heard that Christians were supposed to “pray for those who persecute you.” He said he had. I asked him if he had heard that he was supposed to “forgive others so that you might be forgiven.” He said he had. I then told him that if he called himself a follower of Jesus, he would need to do the things that Jesus did. I challenged him to pray for those who bullied him, to bless those who were his enemies, and to forgive them in his heart. Micah then took my green dry-erase marker and made believe it was a microphone, and pretended to be a pastor! He gave a “sermon” on the very topic of loving one’s enemies, while I played devil’s advocate: “But Pastor, what if they call my mother a b?” “You still must love them, just as our Lord and Savior Jesus did!” Micah wants to be a pastor when he grows up. So I’m going to keep on challenging him to join in this war of love.
“Oh to be like you/ give all I have just to know you/ Jesus there is no one beside you/ forever the hope in my heart.”
The scandal of grace is this: that God actually loves us, while we were still sinners, and even knowing that we would keep on sinning after he died for us! Why?
I had a revelation last Friday. Here’s what I wrote as I sat outside Panera, with a bright sky as snow flurries scattered around: “This moment is glorious. The sun of your pleasure shines bright, your snow of mercies and favor alight upon my face, and your sparrows keep me company—for you provide for them. You love the least of these. And you take care of them.” The sparrows sat around me, hoping for a crumb I did not have. So I went inside and bought a French baguette.
As I sat and journaled and worshipped, I felt God’s heart for the sparrows—I loved them, as I scattered crumbs. I longed for them to come close, to eat from my hand—but they were afraid. So much like humans! And yet I still loved them, and cherished them, and wished them well—sparrows! If I, an imperfect human, can love and care for sparrows, how much greater must God’s love be for humans, for the people made in his own image. I am still learning that God loves me for who I am, instead of the things I do. May we all learn to accept this scandal, and to run to his arms, open wide just for us.