The world seems to be falling apart as of late. Breaking news stories dash in and out of the media faster than I can keep up with. People older and wiser than I tell me that this is nothing new, that the world has been in upheaval, revolution, and distress since before their time, that the world as we know it exists in a chronic state of emergency.
Some of this upheaval should be celebrated – when dictators are toppled, when systems of injustice are broken, when a Ugandan widow standing up for her rights challenges the unequal status quo of an entire village.
Some of this upheaval challenges us – reminding us that no matter developed we are as a country, no matter how many earthquake-resistant buildings we construct, there is no rationality in the way heartache and pain is dispersed in this world. The only thing we know for sure is that no one is immune.
And so it is times like these that I take great heart in the words spoken by Henri Nouwen, someone who I think definitely fits in the “older and wiser than me” category. I read this passage in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, back in October, and it’s been continually pressing on my mind throughout the last few months, as I encounter particularly difficult and violent cases of oppression, as I walk away defeated from a system that has me beat, as I read stories again and again of disaster and destruction:
“When Jesus speaks about the world, he is very realistic. He speaks about wars and revolutions, earthquakes, plagues and famines, persecution and imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and assassinations. There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the Kingdom of Joy.
People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted a lot more than the darkness itself, and that a little bit of life can dispel a lot of darkness.”
That is exactly the sort of attitude I see evidenced every day in the lives, hearts, and attitudes of my Ugandan co-workers. Every day, IJM staff are out in the field, confronting the most defiantly evil perpetrator who refuses to relent, despite the overwhelming evidence and legal force against him. They live within the reality of a struggling economy and a corrupted government. Many have sacrificed great careers in the business world to serve with IJM.
They interact with broken families and face overwhelming poverty every day, yet never once have I heard them express doubt, cynicism, or disbelief in the goodness of God and His lovingkindness in our lives. They pray unceasingly, patiently, expectantly for the Lord to reveal Himself in our casework and in the lives of our clients.
And so we laugh, we dance, we shout, we sing with incredible joy and excitement. To quote one author’s words, it is in part because we cannot afford the luxury of despair. But mostly, it’s because we know the One to whose family we belong. We know who we serve, He who inspired songs of thanksgiving like Psalms 146.
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation… Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens up the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
“The Lord will reign forever; your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!”