In 1988 I spoke the words, “The only country I’d never want to go to is America.”
I’ve now lived here more than half my life.
When I first arrived I felt the expected loneliness of an outsider. After years here, that outsider feeling has continued. It became clear at a missions conference as I heard stories of missionaries and the love they had for the places God had called them.
Why didn’t I love the place I lived? Was my heart hard?
As I took time to ask these questions of the Lord I began to sense that my call was to not assimilate, to bring a different voice to my context. It’s a very lonely place to be—not quite an Australian but not allowed to be an American either, to feel my difference was part of my call.
An Awkward Perspective
Although I long to belong, I got used to being the person in the room who raised the awkward question. Usually the awkwardness wasn’t because my perspective was so controversial but the controversy seemed to be that there was another perspective. It often seemed an affront that someone had offered a different view at all. The response I got often seemed to say, “We weren’t asking you to question the question. The framework is set, don’t mess with it. It’s worked fine up until now and we don’t like how you’re making us feel.” When the system works for you, it’s invisible. When the system doesn’t work for you and there’s no way to question it, it’s all you see.
When I went to the Missio Alliance Truly Human gathering I had a new experience.
It was one of the most enjoyable ministry events I’ve ever attended. So it was surprising when a friend said, “Wow, I’m really struggling this week. We’re talking about so many hard things. They’re important but I can only take so much at once.”
It was true: the event raised some incredibly difficult questions—about race, gender, sexuality, the future of our crumbling system and church. So why did I feel so light-hearted? It wasn’t because I had answers to all the questions that were being asked but because, for the first time, I wasn’t the only one asking the questions. I wasn’t happy because these issues are fun to talk about but because we’re finally talking about them!
I felt at home for the first time in years because I was among people who wrestle. I had finally found Americans who could look at the framework and begin to wonder if it worked for everyone. Underneath all those questions was a release of our own exceptionalism. Perhaps we’re not untouchable afterall? Perhaps we’re just like everyone else? Which feels like a loss when you’ve felt exceptional and untouchable. But to the rest of the world it feels like a gain—we can be one again. I rejoice as Americans join in the humbling mess with the rest of humanity, knowing our limitations, our need for each other.
9/11 and New Questions
As I’ve watched this shift as an outsider in American culture from 1989 to the present, a huge turning point was 9/11. If 9/11 has humbled us, made us question the way we’ve always done things, revealed to us how our comfort is built on the suffering of others, our assumptions built on the silence of others, that feels like a stripping away. But Scripture is filled with such scenes.
Jeremiah 4 is one of the lectionary passages for Sunday, September 11, the 15th anniversary of 9/11. It describes a scene that feels like the creation story in reverse:
I looked at the earth,
and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
This is what the Lord says:
“The whole land will be ruined,
though I will not destroy it completely.”
The people of Israel have so perverted God’s ecosystem that there is no saving it. It’s tempting to want to find a shortcut back to how things once were but the only way forward is to go back to nothing. Like the people of Israel, we just want to just keep building, gaining, growing. But if the whole framework is corrupt, there’s a time to knock everything down to nothing and rebuild.
As we watch everything collapse, we mourn the loss of all we’ve ever known, we feel desperation at the questions it raises, the assumptions it undermines, the blank future ahead. But God sees potential in a stripping away. He looks at formless, empty things and sees a blank canvas—in the story of Israel and in the story of contemporary America. We mourn the loss of all we’ve ever known, God sees potential in a stripping away. Click To Tweet
How can we join him in his imagination? How can we begin to release what has been, grieve our loss, confess our desperation and hope that from the ashes God might be shaping something new? We may find that there are some unlikely leaders in our communities who can face the change with courage, some for whom the system didn’t work and wasn’t comfortable—outsiders, foreigners, minorities, the sick and the poor. As we see the hope in their faces we may begin to see the creative potential God sees in destruction.
Behold! He makes all things new!