I have this app on my phone called WhatsApp. It’s a bit like Facebook, but it’s not as pretty so it uses a lot less data, which makes it popular for messaging and calling in places with unreliable cell service or high data rates.
I hadn’t heard of WhatsApp until I started working at Friends United Meeting. I’m now part of a group that includes Quaker pastors and other leaders from across Kenya. It’s a funny mix of stuff: a daily devotional from John Muhanji, a prayer or two from other members, Bible verse memes and videos of children’s choirs and sometimes, updates on what’s going on in the various churches and yearly meetings.
But this week, of course, it’s been all about politics. They had an election on Tuesday, and the results weren’t announced until Friday, leaving three long days of waiting in a country that has experienced ferocious election-related violence in the recent past.
Three. Long. Days. Sound like part of a death and resurrection story that you might have heard me tell before?
And then, just like in the Gospels, the news is revealed and no one is sure what it means. Maybe the government faked something? Maybe there was cheating involved? Maybe this was legit?
Maybe it doesn’t matter, because the power structures that ran the world last week are going to continue to run the world next week, and there’s precious little to be done about it.
I’ve been obsessively checking this app for updates, even when I know that:
1) I’m checking it in the afternoon and evening, and they’re seven hours ahead of us so they’re all sleeping rather than playing on the internet, and
2) I also have a news alert on my phone that would update if anything big happened, and
3) There’s nothing I can really do about any of this, aside from praying.
Praying like this frustrates me, if I’m honest. Kenyan Friends are asking for prayers for peace, for gentleness and courage, for friendship and fellowship to win out, for people not to become hard-hearted. And it’s literally about the least I could do, so I do it, but I don’t understand.
I get the idea that we’re all held together in the presence of God and the communion of the saints, and that somehow prayer makes sense in the economy of love, but it just feels sometimes like I’m doing nothing but exploring my own feelings.
Maybe you know that frustration, yourself.
So I keep checking this app, even when I know there won’t be any new posts, because my friends are hurting and maybe in danger and I don’t know what else to do.
I’ve heard it said before that prayer is less about moving God and more about moving ourselves toward desiring the Kingdom of God. I may have even said that myself. It makes prayer into something that does little good, when it comes to hoping that Kisumu won’t experience a wave of violence, but I do find that the praying is good for me.
What that may or may not be doing for the people of Kenya, I leave in the grace of God. We’re called to fulfill the law of Christ by carrying one another’s burdens, so I do what I can.
But there’s the shift that happens in me, when I start praying for brothers and sisters in a situation where I legitimately don’t know what the right answer could even be. I’ve read a few articles about the political situation in Kenya, but not nearly enough to have an educated opinion.
So, I’ve avoided praying for any one candidate to win. I’ve limited myself instead to holding Friends in the light who are working with Friends Church Peace Teams and other anti-violence efforts, and to praying for peace to prevail.
I find that this opens my soul up. It’s not about praying for my team to beat your team, but for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done. It’s a simpler and purer kind of prayer.
And making a habit of praying like that changes me- my soul retains some of that openness when I turn from praying for the burdens that my friends carry to consider my own load.
I don’t know who would make the best president for Kenya, but there are some things that I do know.
I don’t believe in literal demons, but I still find the word demonic to be useful when I’ve run out of any other way to describe the ravaging effects of opiate abuse. Hope House does what it can, and others do what they can, but it’s like planting shrubs as a windbreak to stop a tornado.
We say some awful and dehumanizing things about addicts, but you can’t spend much time with them and keep up the lie that they’re anything other that people with a sickness that we don’t understand. That’s a truth that we know, deep down, whether we like it or not. Every single one of us bears the image of God, including the ones that the world despises.
Perhaps it’s especially the ones that the world despises, if we take the example of Christ seriously.
Here’s another thing that I know: a lack of unity in the church is never in God’s will. It happens, sometimes, and we can handle it with tact and care or choose not to, but there’s no morning on which God raises the sun in the east and sets the birds to singing and says “today’s the day when I tear that group apart.”
We had a pretty contentious yearly meeting session a couple weeks ago, and while it wasn’t all bad, here were some of the invited guests: hostilities, strife, bursts of rage, factiousness, divisions, and similar things.
Sound familiar? I told you before, and I tell you again, Paul writes: people who do such things will not inherit God’s kingdom.
That’s harsh language, but sometimes the Gospel is about giving a cup of cold water to the thirsty and sometimes it’s about getting a splash of cold water in the face.
Hostilities and divisions are not how we inherit the kingdom of God. They’re not the fruit that the Spirit tends.
We can’t and shouldn’t act with anything less than integrity, when it comes to our position on marriage equality. If others don’t want to be in fellowship with us over that, then so be it.
But we also can’t and shouldn’t act with anything less than kindness and humility, when facing people with whom we disagree. If it isn’t returned, that’s not on us… but I know I have a long way to go before I can say that I’m not siding with a faction or contributing to the strife.
That’s the cool thing about praying for Kenyan Friends. I don’t have an opinion, or at least not much of one, so I can just send love. In my own conflicts and discernments, that’s a lot harder. I’m more tempted to pray for my team to win than for thy kingdom to come… and maybe that’s just another version of factiousness and strife.
In first trying to imagine this, I thought of a backpack. Which is it, Paul? Should I carry my own backpack? Or should I carry someone else’s and let them carry mine?
There are two problems with that image, though. The first is just logistical- if we’ve all got a backpack and we’re all carrying a backpack, then who cares which one I carry? I could just put my backpack on and walk off. I wouldn’t need the community.
The second problem is more central: who has so few concerns that they all fit in a backpack? Who among us has all their problems so neatly corralled and organized?
So, carry each other’s burdens, and carry your own load. I think a better image would be the Quaker Breaker moving group that helped Craig and I move into our house. Friends literally showed up to help us carry our burdens: chairs and books and food and books and towels and more books. Someone even must have carried in Craig’s box that is just labeled “detritus,” and didn’t dump it on the lawn and drive away in frustration.
But also, we showed up to carry our own loads. We didn’t set up lawn chairs in the living room and sip lemonade while directing the action. We showed up to do our own work, grateful to be surrounded by Friends who were making that load lighter.
So I pray for Getry to help carry her burden, as she carries her load in Kenya while I’m asleep. And Friends pray for us, as we prepare to carry our own loads.
I don’t think we can talk about carrying our own loads, Friends, without talking about what’s happening in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I’m not going to try to summarize everything that’s been on the news, this week, but there were literal white supremacists with literal torches spewing hatred and Nazi slogans. Someone is dead because someone else intentionally drove their car into an anti-racist gathering, mimicking the tactics of ISIS.
It’s horrifying to watch. It’s hatred on the loose. I used the word demonic to talk about the opioid crisis, and I’ll use it here again… not because I think that people are demonic, but because hatred is just as much an addiction and a killer as heroin is.
It takes lives. It destroys communities. It aims to replace blessing with silence and friendship with hostility and strife. No one will inherit the kingdom of God by following that path.
At our yearly meeting sessions, the first chapter of Romans was read repeatedly. It has some language in it that can be used, if you stretch it all out of shape, to condemn loving same-sex relationships. Much hay was made of this, and much time was spent inviting us to consider how people in loving same-sex relationships are really about the same as idolaters and murderers.
You should read the chapter, if you haven’t. It doesn’t do to avoid things, and it’s better to know what it says for yourself than to feel caught off guard when someone uses it as a weapon against you and those you love.
But here’s something that you’ll find, though, if you read the chapter- it’s not really about sex at all. It’s about knowing who God is, in a deep and natural sense, and then refusing to remember.
We don’t have time to get into why Paul begins his letter to the Romans this way, but here’s the central argument: God’s essential attributes are clearly seen in creation, and are known to humanity.
We understand the glory of Creator God, in our hearts, but we suppress this truth in favor of worshiping created things instead.
We know the love in which we are held, and the hope in which we are called, and the peace in which we are called to live, and the joy of the one who holds and calls us. We know these things because they are written into our bones, because knowing them is part of what it means to be human.
We profess to be wise, when we come up with excuses, but we know.
We know that our addicted neighbors are human, even though they’re caught in a version of what Paul calls drunkenness and wild partying.
We know that those who judge our addicted neighbors are just as caught in hostilities and bursts of rage, and deserve the same sympathy and hope.
We know that love is love wherever it’s found, that people are not meant to be alone and that when God brings two people together, we should celebrate.
We know that those with whom we disagree about this, at the yearly meeting, are sometimes motivated by love… and that we ourselves are sometimes motivated by divisions and strife.
We know that the spirit of God does not lead us to buy Party City out of tiki torches and go try to terrify people while shouting Nazi slogans. We know that the Light of Christ does not direct us to drive cars into crowds of non-violent protesters.
We know that the spirit of God does not lead us to say that anyone is beyond redemption, that people inflamed by the spirit of hatred should be cast aside rather than offered healing.
We know these things. And if that’s all there is, then frankly, none of us will inherit the kingdom. We’re all guilty.
I told you before, and I tell you again: people who do such things will not inherit God’s kingdom.
And yet: this kingdom is still being offered to us.
Craig had a friend who was fond of saying that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of each of us. The line between good and evil doesn’t divide us by political party, or by nationality, or by social class. It hits every one of us straight in the heart.
Paul gives us these two lists about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit, but these two lists taken together provide an accurate description of humanity.
We’re jealous, and we’re generous. We burst with rage, and we burst with greatheartedness. We lose ourselves in whatever will distract us, and we practice self-control.
We water the weeds of hostility, and we bear the fruits of peace and love. Either list could be an accurate description of us. To be human is to deeply know the call of love, and yet to feel pulled between the works of the tangible world that surrounds us and the fruit of the kingdom that beats in our hearts.
Let me share the vision of that kingdom with you, Friends.
And as I read, bear in mind that this is no lofty, otherworldly goal. It’s about finding hope within our opioid epidemic, and finding kindness among Friends in our region, and finding peace in a nation where Nazis are marching with tiki torches. It’s about finding hope in the light and the darkness of our own souls.
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
This is the life that we know, in our bones, the life that we search for because the compass that points to it is embedded in our souls. This fruit is the meal that brings us life.
We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.
We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
May we all inherit this kingdom together. May we inherit this kingdom of love in ourselves, in our families, in our church, in our community, in our country, and in our world.
Let us pray.