Saturday, March 3, 2007

What I Learned About the World

So recently I have been reading this book called, “a long way gone” by a guy named Ishmael Beah. Ishmael is a native of Sierra Leone Africa, and his book is a memoir of the time he spent there as a child fighting in his country’s bloody revolution. It is graphic. The accounts are vivid. It is hard to read yet even harder to tear your eyes from the pages as his painful story unfolds. The war in Sierra Leone lasted ten years, and left the country in shambles. Ishmael’s story touched me, in a different way than most books have. I had someone ask me why I was reading it, and I couldn’t describe exactly why. I couldn’t put into words how badly I want to leave my ethnocentrism behind, how badly I want to leave my comfort zone and my luxurious American existence. It’s so easy here. But yesterday I had a conversation that put this in perspective for me. I am in an international human rights law class at ASU, and yesterday we were discussing various human rights violations that have occurred recently. The man sitting across from me, a large African man with kind eyes and a broad smile, began to talk about the things he had seen growing up in Africa, in Sierra Leone, he said. He spoke with great passion about the terrible things he had witnessed, and, though he did not speak very long, the entire class was a bit shaken by his account. After class I went to this man (his name was Ed) and I asked him if he would mind me asking a few questions. He turned to me, and with his deep African accent and a smile, told me that it was fine. I asked him about how he came to be here, and I told him that I knew a little about the civil war in Sierra Leone, but not much. He waited a moment, then told me that he had seen many terrible things in Africa, things too terrible to speak about. He said that he had smuggled his wife and two kids out of the country and into Guinea, the closest neighboring country. He and his family were placed into a UN camp, then sent to America where he has been since 1997. As he said all of this you could hear a real sadness in his voice, as if he was remembering something dark. After he told me this I asked him if he would ever go back to his country, to see the people he had left behind. As I asked this, suddenly his demeanor changed and he put his head in his hands. He just sat like that for a minute, and I quickly began to wonder if I had asked the wrong question. Slowly he looked up at me and said with almost a wince that he would never go back, that he could never go back. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t push him. I thanked him for his time, and in an instant he was back to his old self and with a smile and a mild laugh he shook my hand.

There is part of me that is wary of talking to people like Ed because they force me to examine an area of life that stretches beyond my convenient American lifestyle, forcing me to confront the darker regions of life. But more than I fear it I like it, I like it because people like Ed feel real and earthy, like he can say whatever he wants because he isn’t confined to boxed-in formulas and linear thinking. Most of the time I don’t feel real and earthy like Ed. People like him make me ask hard questions, like: why not me? and what am I doing to help people like that? But more than just the questions, he put flesh on an abstract idea I had that terrible things happened to good people. He is the manifestation of this idea, and, without him even trying, he showed me humanity that I wouldn’t have thought possible from someone who had undergone so much. It makes me wonder. And I hate it when I get like this, if you want to know the truth. But it makes me ask why people who don’t know God care more about these things than I do. Why they are more concerned with poverty, AIDS, and war than I am. What am I concerned about? I asked myself. The three things that popped into my head first were law school, the things that live under my bead, and Ann Coulter. Not very worthwhile, I concluded.

But I want to be worthwhile, you know?

A friend of mine, Joe the pastor, asked a couple of weeks ago how we could have an encounter with the God of the universe and not be any different. How we could remain unchanged. And I wanted to thank my friend for this powerful truth because it is so true. And the beautiful thing is that when you have really encountered God and want to follow him, you can’t help but care about these things. You can’t help but love people, you can’t help but want to change things. And that, I believe, is the real beauty of following Christ. That through him we can step out and love people, to be the physical manifestation of Christ’s love. And I think that is why people like Ed come into our lives, to shake us, to push us enough that we might wake up to who we are supposed to be. I feel like God is poking me, like he is pushing me with his finger, moving me toward being a guy who gives a crap about people.

This guy Don Miller says that the great trick of the devil is not to get us into some kind of sin, but rather to have us wasting time. I think this is true, and I don’t want to waste any more.

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