We used our sabbatical to travel to Athens to help serve refugees. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the way we were shaped by being there. The purpose of our trip was not to have a particular experience or receive a benefit. The motivation was concern for those in crisis and a desire to do something. But service is never one way. When humans encounter each other in relationship we are all changed. Just because we went as volunteer helpers does not exclude the potential that we would benefit also. In God's economy we are all beggars helping other beggars to find bread. It is not surprising that service would be the place that he meets us and changes us.
Athens was different. It was different in ways that were hard and ways that were good. It offered a different perspective on life. Because of that, I think that I became more aware of the pitfalls of secular western life. The pitfall that I keep thinking about most is called control.
One of the defining features of life in America is the expectation that we should be able to control things. This has some benefits, but it also has some toxic side effects, many of which are hard to see. Life in Athens was one big experiment in having no control over things. It was frustrating at first, but it was a climate in which healthy spirituality could flourish.
I think that the crowning belief of all secular culture is that humans are the primary agents of control. With God out of the picture, we have no one to blame but ourselves and our political opponents when things go wrong. This has the benefit of stirring people to action, but without the boundary of divine authority the impulse to control can become all consuming.
American culture chants the mantra of self determination with rhythmic regularity. "You can do it. Follow your dreams. Make it happen. You can do it..." When you live inside of it you seldom see it. As they say, "If you want to know what water is like, don't ask the fish." But life in Athens exposed all of my control impulses. A different rhythm played in my head and challenged me in a new way. Instead of the drumbeat of self determination, I felt the repeated blows of powerlessness.
At the beginning of the trip I wrote about my experience of entering a "squat" (an unofficial refugee housing unit) and feeling the nagging sense of powerlessness. I wanted to do something. Fix something. Bring something. But there was nothing to do, or fix, or bring. I could only be there. And listen. And pray. And smile. And receive a cup of diluted tea in a small Styrofoam cup. Instead of control, God's purpose was for me to be present with someone in their suffering.
Other aspects of life warred against my illusion of control. The entire Greek economy is out of control. They are a small nation who feels blown about on a stormy sea. Their resentment towards Germany probably stems from the feeling that Germany controls their destiny more than they do. Unemployment is high and domestic life is challenging. Life is spent waiting for subway trains to show up. And sometimes when the operators strike they don't show up at all.
The refugee crisis as a whole is beyond control. The millions of displaced people who are living in terrible conditions around the world are the result of layer upon layer of sin and violence. There are no easy solutions. If you gave me a magic wand and told me to change any policy right now, I don't have confidence that I could make things better.
On a small scale, most of our refugee friends are waiting for someone else to tell them what will happen in their life. Waiting to find out where they will go. If they will go somewhere. Waiting for a border to open. Waiting for the refugee service to answer the phone. Waiting for food to be served. Waiting for a seemingly endless war to end. Waiting. And there is nothing I can do to fix it.
Our refugee friends usually mark each future hope with the Arabic saying, "If God wills", and each statement about their current condition by saying, "Thanks be to God." It is a verbal reminder that they do not control their lives. Greeks speak differently and, of course, have very different beliefs but they also are far more likely than we are to believe that life is uncontrollable.
There are many negatives to this life outlook. It discourages activism and can lead people to be passive in the face of injustice. If my ministry was in a different place, I would probably need to think a lot about the ways that the Bible teaches the dignity of human responsibility and our call to act under God as responsible agents for change. But that is not my ministry. The American view of human dignity is no longer something that exists "under God" and as such our quest for control knows no constraint. Crawling outside of the water that I regularly swim in has helped me to see the ways in which our insistence on human control produces toxic side effects. Like all good things, when human power is pried loose from the framework of God it becomes distorted. When human agency exists in the cold bare universe of the secular West it grows and shifts. What is fundamentally good can become monstrous. To use religious language, it becomes idolatrous.
Our desire for self determination shapes the way that we do life in this fallen world. It causes the focus of our vision to gravitate inward towards ourselves. For the Christian this leads us away from dependence on God, prayer and worship. This is disastrous for the life of faith. But it also has negative consequences that are not strictly spiritual.
Obsessing over control invites the illusion that all problems are fixable. Or to be more specific, that all problems are easily fixable. We prefer easy solutions and we are inclined to think that the reason a problem has not been fixed is because of our political enemies. Stepping away from American politics for a little bit has helped me to see how easily people of all political persuasions do this. We assume a simple solution and then fortify our narrative by blaming our political opponents for what goes wrong. I think this has produced a shrill and vindictive political spirit. It is also a cheap substitute for real service.
Sharing life with refugees was a wonderful antidote to simplistic thinking. There are no easy solutions. There are many hard problems. And there are people that we can know and relate to in the midst of it. Instead of blaming and ranting, each day offered the opportunity to enter into the mess and share life with people living in uncontrollable and uncomfortable circumstances.
Obsessing over control also invites us to create lives that are controllable. We have the freedom and affluence in America to avoid uncomfortable people and uncomfortable problems. We can control who we live near, who we go to school with and who we work with. There are many, many Americans that live painful lives that are beyond easy fixes. They are surviving. Their reality challenges our illusion of control. But we can avoid them. Or blame their problems on our political opponents.
Some days I didn't want to enter into the lives of suffering people in Athens. I don't want to make this blog post sound like I am trumpeting our heroism. I didn't feel like that at all. We worked with extraordinarily brave and committed people and followed them into service. Sometimes I followed begrudgingly. But what I am reflecting on most is the surprising realization that sharing life with refugees was beneficial for me spiritually. I prayed more regularly and more passionately. I looked with hope to God for the coming of his kingdom. I spent more time thinking about how to be with people faithfully. I was reminded that God is not asking us to control the universe. That job position is filled and applications are not being received. Instead, he is asking us to be faithful in the midst of what he is doing.
As i look back on the summer, I think that there was a turning point for me. As the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates said, there was a moment of crisis. Rereading my journal I am reminded of the time early in the summer when the adjustment was particularly challenging. The tone of the entries are full of despair. I wrote often of a lack of control and feeling powerless. Then, on July 2, I wrote, "I have no hope of being fruitful here unless God works."
I believed that and I prayed with fervent desire for God to break in. And he did. Now, through the clear vision of hindsight, I can see that many blessings of God were waiting just around the corner. God is faithful and he is active. He works for those who wait for him (Is 64:4). Letting go of control, I began to move forward in faith. Most importantly, I came to love people who lived in uncontrollable life. That changes you.
Yes, we are endowed with dignity and called to use our ability to fix the world around us. But, unless it is submitted to God's divine authority that ability can become monstrous. It will distort the way we relate to people and the way that we think about ourselves. The people I worked with did many things to help those who were suffering. Their approach was not fatalistic. But the starting point was relationship. The starting point was entering into a difficult situation and then looking up to our heavenly Father in dependent prayer. It is a very different approach to doing life. It is a life of faith.
Many of my American friends know how to live this dependent life of faith. They are not as easily swayed by the chants of self reliance. But I needed the crisis in Greece to remind me. Now, back in the United States of America, I can already feel the toxic mist of self determination seeping into the windows of my bedroom. I can't fully describe it, but I can feel it. The temptation to say that I can do it on my own. I don't need God. That human flourishing lies just on the other side of our authentic self expression.
This is a tempting myth for the affluent and the healthy and those fortunate to live in relatively stable countries. But for the vast majority of people in the world that lie is quickly exposed as a cruel joke. Life is hard and it is not easily controlled. World problems are massively complex. Our lives are altered by large scale events far beyond our control. The hope that we need lies outside of our own abilities.
And that, I believe, is a tremendous benefit that comes from sharing life with refugees.