Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A confession of fire and hail

In a passage of mystery, one of my favorites, Psalm 148 treats dragons and depths, lightning, hail and clouds, stormy winds, as chosen tools of God. Verses 7-6:

Praise the LORD from the earth,

You great sea creatures and all ocean depths,

Lightning and hail, snow and clouds,

Stormy winds that do His bidding…

These things are all called to praise the LORD, and literally, “fulfill His word…”

This is remarkable, and mysterious, because these things are understood by humans to be negative: lightning, hail, storm, swelling depths, sea monsters, clouds… And yet, God is at work in them all! They must praise Him, and do His bidding. Powerful concept, and worthy of meditation...

On the basis of this Scripture claim, people of faith should ask in every circumstance: What is God doing in this situation? No matter how terrible, we can ask, ‘What is God doing here?’ What is God’s intent? Where is God’s redemption?

Calvin said, rightfully, that “Not a drop of rain falls but by will of the Father.”

As children of this loving Father, we then ask, “Abba, what means the rain?”

As I look back over my life, at formative events, I realize that each struggle, each rain-filled era, was carefully guided by a Loving Hand. One person recently asked me what formative events led to my current success. And I looked back…and realized that God had used fire and hail, stormy winds to do His bidding!

My mind went to a traumatic period in my life, grade school in Madison, TN. I attended third, fourth, and fifth grade there in the public school system, taking part in a program of integration. Black inner city children were bused to Madison public schools, and I was a 'white minority' during school hours.

This was shocking and revelatory. My mind did not have philosophical or psychological categories to analyze it all -- I could only experience it as a powerful wave…in a storm.

I saw, viscerally, from a child’s-eye-view, group dynamics that I would later understand cognitively. Conflict was almost a daily thing. Rage and physical response had filtered into the inner-city kids’ mentality. And I was in the middle of it! Immediately I was lifted up as a leader by the ‘white’ kids because I was vocal. Then, I gained respect from the ‘black’ kids because I was athletic. And I was sometimes asked to choose sides, with all the inner conflict this demanded…

Sides would be chosen on the playground, and would always be determined by the black leaders, because they were majority. And the teams would always end up being black vs. white...that is, until I made too many stellar plays against their team. After that, I was always the only white kid chosen for the black team. The first time I was chosen for the black team, I felt a thrill. I knew what this meant, and it felt good to be recognized! But during that game, I’ll never forget the looks of betrayal from my white friends.

After that, I always went over to the black team with reservation in my heart: it was great to be chosen and desired, but ‘my own’ viewed me somewhat as a traitor. I would hang my head at the winning celebrations... And, then, several black kids resented that I was on ‘their’ team and gaining more praise than they.

Sometimes, after that, I had to fight on the playground, before coming in from physical education.

It was a struggle in all ways: Mental, emotional, and physical. I learned what it was to be assaulted in the restrooms, to be punched in the stomach for outrunning dominant athletes, for scoring a touchdown to win a game. I learned what it was like to be pushed back at the water fountain, until all the cold water was gone. I learned what it was like to be challenged and psychologically traumatized because of my color and person. But in spite of all the negatives, I didn’t hate. I was, as only a child can, soaking it in, experiencing it.

I surely didn’t realize it then; only much later…God was using this, as storm, fire and hail in my life. He was forming me, teaching me racial dynamics that textbooks never could.

Existentially, I gained a non-cognitive awareness of personhood and racial equality. God was beginning a process to make me the kind of person willing to reach across racial and ethnic lines, and also across ideological lines, in the work of the Gospel.

God also used this experience to open me to those perceived as lesser, by showing me my own arrogance and lurking sin.

In an interaction that occurred just before leaving that school, I learned of shame and great need for grace. I learned how humans can be *good* and devalue others…and the need for forgiveness.

There were two main classes of students there: The predominantly white students from the suburbs, and predominantly black students bused in from inner city projects. Integration created these two distinct bodies of students: if you fit in with either you could find a niche of acceptance.

But one boy in my grade didn’t fit anywhere. He was a “cracker” – A poor rural white whose family ended up there for the school term.

He looked different. His clothes fit poorly and weren’t clean. His shoes were out of style and always the same pair. His hair was slicked back in some greasy mix. He didn’t fit in anywhere: suburban whites or urban blacks. And everyone picked him on.

Including me.

I wish I had stood up for him in this context that attacked his personhood. I could have. One group considered me their leader. I could have said a word and made a stand and changed things for him. But I didn’t. He seemed weird and different and smelled funny and I didn’t much like him. So I made fun of him with all the rest. He took it with head bowed and never said much. I’ll never forget the day that, after taking all he could take, he turned to me -- directly to me, not the others -- with tears in his eyes and asked me, “How would you like to be me?”

“How would you like to wear shoes with cardboard in them?”
“How would you like to ride in a car where you can see the street through the floorboards?”
“How would you like to eat dog food for breakfast and try to find food for your brothers and sisters?”

I was stunned. Speechless. I had no idea. I had no answer. Shocked. I didn’t even say sorry. I just turned away...

A few weeks later my family moved to PA. I never said I was sorry. I don’t even know his name. But his face and words haunt me.

I’ll never forget that face...that pain. I dehumanized him to value myself. I’ve asked God’s forgiveness, many times. But I wish I could ask his. I wish I could have been a friend to him…

All I can do now is try to befriend others, to lift up those considered be a voice for them and with them. This is my lived attempt at forgiveness…

So, when asked what events have helped me, I look back…and see formation in the fire and hail, the stormy wind…even of my own failure, in the events of life.

Such things, powerful and negative in their own way, have formed me. Such crucibles have formed me as one who confesses the good grace of God “in every drop of rain.” God is good -- even when I am not…or even when life is not!

Now, when tossed by circumstance, I eventually look up and ask, “Abba, what are You doing here?” And then, I smile as a child who is learning to walk…and again learning to see.

For the stormy wind is still doing His bidding!


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