It has been just over a month since I’ve returned back to my life here in the States. After spending four months in Ghana through a semester with Calvin College, I am back to life, as I knew it. After living, listening, laughing, and learning in a new country, a new culture, a seemingly new world; I am back to familiarity, friends, and family. The question begs however, am I really back?
Spending four months in Ghana; with one foot, my previous experiences, rooted in my life growing up in the United States; and the other foot, my present perceptions, stumbling around this new place called Ghana provided me with the gift of unbounded identity with the world and it’s various cultures. I feel I was given the gift of Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” In this verse Paul is commanding the congregation in Rome how they ought to live, in my experience however, this was a gift given to me. I did not decide one day to think and live in this way, rather through my experiences, and particularly through my experiences in the prior four months, I was given the gift to see the world with formative roots of existence and belonging but also as an outsider and a guest. What follows are some of my thoughts, experiences, and ramblings about returning as someone who is coming home but at the same time visiting.
-Friends and Family-
While in Ghana I was away from all of my friends and family. Of course, I made new friends and enjoyed the community of my ‘Ghana Family’ but they form a different, indeed special, role in my life. My friends whom I have learned, discerned, and grown up with throughout my life are now more special to me. As they welcomed me back with open arms (and painted chests), I appreciate their patience, their commitment, and their love in a new way in my return. My family, who know me better than I know myself, are more clearly recognized for their overflowing love and support and their clearly evident care for me. Spending time reconnecting and reestablishing friendships and relationships has been one of the highlights of returning. I am truly blessed by the people placed into my life.
Soon after I returned, the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut occurred. My heart broke as I began to ask the questions it seemed everyone was asking: How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why kids? Why again? How do we ensure this doesn’t happen again? Opinions flooded in from seemingly every direction and from seemingly every point of view about how we ought to deal with this issue: more guns, no guns, stronger gun restrictions, more security, less security, less social participation for the handicapped. Some of the proposed opinions were quite offensive while others were quite compelling. I myself passed my judgment on this topic through the lens of my new perspective, my recent experiences, and my roots.
If freedom is the ideal that binds the United States and acted as the social adhesive to build and grow around, peace is the corresponding ideal for Ghana. Just as freedom is at times the end all goal for most issues of public life in the United States, peace is the goal and the glue in Ghana.
As the ideal of freedom has carried the United States quite far, the ideal of peace seems to be doing the same for Ghana. In the weeks leading up to the Ghanaian presidential election, a time of ethnic tension and impending violence for many African countries, the people of Ghana stressed peace above all else. And I am happy to say that it was a success! Ghana has recorded another “free and fair” election leading some to crown Ghana the “model for African democracy”.
What if we integrated the idea of peace and aligned it as parallel with our ideal of freedom? What would this do to our public decision-making? Jesus came into this world to save his people, but how did he do it? With weapons wielded and guns a blazing? (Ok I realize they didn’t have guns back then.) No, he came to us as a humble baby, fully human and fully God, spreading the truth of the Gospel with grace and peace. Jesus is called the “Prince of Peace”. He taught us we can disarm violence without mirroring it. He showed us we can rid the world of evil without becoming evil ourselves. Again the question begs, what would happen if we, citizens of the United States, exulted the ideal of peace as much as we exult the ideal of freedom?
This year, as I have on countless occasions in the past, was asked to read a passage of scripture during the Christmas Eve candle light service at my church. This year I was asked to read II Corinthians 8:1-9. It is a verse that quickly captivated my thoughts and formed my posture during this Christmas season. The formative lines in the passage is the closing verse 9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” While in Ghana I experienced and began to understand poverty in a new, perhaps more holistic way. I learned that poverty is fundamentally relational. This passage is clearly picking up on the relational characteristic of poverty. When the passage speaks of Christ being rich it is not financial richness it rather harkens to his richness in his relationship to the Father and the Spirit.
Like most sound interpretations of the Bible this points to the Christ’s death on the cross and the further relational poverty he suffered. Philippians 2:6-8 speaks to the three levels of relational poverty Christ experienced during his life and death here on earth. The first level, Christ becomes “a servant in human likeness”; the second level, Christ is “obedient to death”; and the third level, “even death on a cross.” This is the model for humility that Christ lays before us in his physical existence on earth. This is the love that he gave to us in his life and death. This is the grace he extended to us, not by our own doing, but as a gift.
-The New Year-
As we begin yet another new year, most take some time to reflect on their lives and commit to cutting out the bad, unhealthy, or unnecessary parts. This is all fine and good, in fact is no doubt beneficial to not only us as individuals, but also our communities and world around us. But of course cutting things out of our lives is only half the battle. We are called to bring commitments of worth, of justice and grace, into our lives as well. Sin is both things we ought not to have done, and those things which we ought to have done. God speaks to this point specifically through his prophet Ezekiel when speaking of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in Ezekiel 16:49, “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Sodom and Gomorrah were immoral but so was the rest of the world then and now.
As a new year begins lets commit to cutting out the sin in our lives that is bad, unhealthy, and unnecessary. But lets not forget to also add a commitment to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”