Author’s note: I was about three hours deep into a political post for today. Then I remembered how well my last attempt to dip my toes in political waters was received. So I decided to post another story from a book that I have been working on for a friend’s publishing startup, a book that may never actually see the light of day. As always, please comment and criticize at will.
While I was living in Haiti I tried to avoid playing a large role in the local church. Don’t get me wrong I went to church every Sunday and participated in many of the events but I skirted around preaching and teaching as much as possible. I did this for several reasons. Number one I didn’t want to be mistakenly labeled as the stereotypical, white, colonialist, American pastor teaching people that they are going to hell because of their primitive ways ala The Poisonwood Bible (I am not at all saying that all pastors do this, I worked with and for Haitian and American pastors who were fantastic men, just that I did not want to be lumped in with the bad ones). Number two I knew that as soon as I began to preach from the pulpit that people would speak to me differently (a topic addressed in the book Gilead), I often corrected people when they addressed me as pastor, which seemed to be a default title for Americans, by saying that I am just a ti blan which means a little white or a little foreigner. Thirdly, if there is one thing that I cannot tolerate above all other things it is church/religious arguments. Also of concern was that any failings in development project may hurt the reputation of the church, a loan gone bad could compromise the position of the church and it’s leadership. Lastly, the pastor that I worked with was more than capable of leading the church from the pulpit and I knew that any words from him would mean more than what I would say. So for all of these reasons and more I often avoided the pulpit (I am fully aware that my reasoning may have been a cop out).
The pastor in our town was an extremely devout and authentic man. Small in stature, but huge in presence in front of a crowd, he often walked into my kitchen unannounced and sat down to discuss church issues. He would ask me on Saturday to preach the next day at church and I would say “no” every time. I finally came up with a rule that he had to give me a two week notice to preach because I would need to think of how to say all of the theological ideas and terms in Creole. My thinking for giving this notice was that he would never plan ahead far enough and I would always have an excuse because of the cemented rule of two weeks. Well it turns out I underestimated the pastor and he gave me the two weeks notice just a few days later. We compromised on doing a sermon in a month or so with me leading a Wednesday night Bible study in between to further prepare myself for the big show of Sunday morning (I later preached on Sunday several times with what I hope was a much better approach than the one below).
So I arrived to the Bible Study like a proud college graduate toting a degree in Biblical Studies, a Moleskine and a compact NASB. I was ready to take on the world. I had spent quite a bit of time preparing, looking up scripture references and Creole words and jotting them down in my notebook should I forget.
My scripture reference for study that night was admittedly cliché. I chose Matthew 6:25-33
25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? 28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! 31 Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
I read the passage, in Creole and, proud of myself for not making many mistakes, began the exhortation, skillfully (in my mind at least) picking apart the literary and historical aspects of the text, and throwing in an ancient Greek word for good measure. When I finished teaching I asked the congregation, who appeared to be hanging on my every word, if there were any questions.
Michelet’s (my closest friend in Haiti) brother, an acquaintance at the time who would later become a friend stood up and raised his hand. Thinking that he was on my side because I often employed him for construction projects I was expecting a softball of a question, what followed was more like a Stephen Strasburg fastball.
“But what about when I really can’t find food to eat or clothes to wear?” he asked.
#@($%^*% I thought to myself, I have no answer for this at all. Not only did I not have an answer prepared, the idea had never really even crossed my mind. I was prepared with pen and paper but completely lacking in actually thinking about the interaction between the people I was speaking to, the passage, and the context in which we sat.
So let’s think about how we read this passage again. What about people who do not have food and clothing? Let me first say that I wholeheartedly reject any form of the health and wealth gospel, that people who are faithful will be blessed materially, as heretical as much as I hate to use that word.
I think that it is important that we think of things through the lenses of other people, especially the poor. For me, reading that passage was simple and superficial, I read it as saying that I should trust in God, which is of course true. However, it is a lot easier to trust in God when you get three meals a day and finding something to eat is not a difficult task. Situations like the one that night made me think that my reading of the Scripture is not the most authentic. In reality the original context of the Gospel passage above likely resembled life in Haiti much more than life in America. So while I may have always understood the ideas and truths behind the passage, I never fully understood, and maybe never will, the meaning of the text, mainly because of roadblocks between myself and the original context of the author. Think of this next time that you are reading any text; try to approach it from all angles, because a passage like this one in Matthew six can have a vastly different meaning to people in other situations. A true reading of Scripture, if such a thing is even possible, reflects upon not only the context of the reader and the writer, but also the possible contexts in which other people may encounter the message.
There are other lessons that could be taken from this story, such as learning not to be prideful, obviously worry, the role of material possessions in our lives, Theodicy etc. etc. To address all of these questions would take a lot more space and time. I would love to have a real ability to accurately document this and other paradigm shifting moments in my life, but this discussion will have to do for now.
I honestly do not remember my exact response to the question, but I am sure that it was lacking. My education had failed me, my preparation had failed me, my Moleskine had failed me and my ethnocentric approach to the Bible had failed me. There was a lively discussion after I presented and several other questions were asked but my mind continually drifted to the first question that had taken me so off guard. As time went on and the sun went down the pastor called the service off due to darkness (no electricity). No really he did, and we picked up where play we left off the next day. Forever that day will be remembered as the day that I had my approach to Scripture turned upside down and my first experience with church being called due to darkness.