Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, is British author Joseph Conrad’s famous novel about ivory trader Kurtz who sailed up the Congo river in Africa to manage a Belgian trading post in the heart of what was known then as the Congo Free State. The novel’s narrator is Marlow, the steamboat captain who tells his story to a group of fellow sailors aboard a boat anchored in the River Thames in England. As readers, we begin to realize early on that Conrad is leading us simultaneously outward and inward: journeying deep geographically into the heart of the African continent, as well as deep inside our own soul and conscience. Parallels and contrasts between Africa and Europe become painfully visible; it dawns on us that Conrad is using the horrific historical reality of Belgian King Leopold II‘s imperialistic exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and peoples as a backdrop for his fictional novel. The water of the Congo river provides fluidity for the story – a movement back in time to re-examine and ponder details of past lives (both fictional as well as historical), as well a movement through space to a place of darkness and horror.
This past week we read about Jesus’ healing of the man born blind in John 9:1-41. John’s gospel story deals with blindness and the recovery of vision. Jesus’ strange action of spitting on the ground to make mud with his saliva, which is then applied to the blind man’s eyes, is totally puzzling and hard for us to understand. We learn that the blind man is then sent to the Pool of Siloam to wash the mud from his eyes and “came home seeing”. Even more confusing!
Conrad and St John the evangelist perhaps both understood something quite fundamental about human nature. We are rarely capable of knowing for sure whether or not we ourselves are leading good lives. This is hardly an idle question given Jesus’ command to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” in Matthew 5:48. It seems that in the course of our frantic lives, we rarely even ask ourselves that question. Is it really any consolation that most of us may not be as “morally repulsive” as Leopold II - who history records as having engaged in blatant genocide, forced labor, systematic mutilation, and selfish exploitation of natural resources and native cultures in what is today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo? Often, talking about “those repugnant evil other people” (always out there) turns out to be self-serving since this talk deflects attention away from ourselves.
Returning now to Jesus’ application of dirt and spit to the blind man’s eyes in John’s gospel. Perhaps one way of understanding this strange story is that Jesus understood us better than we can imagine. He knew that each of us also needs to look within and take that terrifying journey into the Heart of our own Darkness – especially those of us who feel self-justified and self-righteous.
We begin the interior journey by blinding/blindfolding ourselves first to the outside word just as Jesus did for the blind man. We simply stop, pause and detach ourselves from the world so that we begin to see ourselves within. And we move back in space and time between our past and current life. This difficult, seemingly unnatural activity has an end point and a destination: reawakening and cleansing waters. John’s gospel gives us a very real advantage however: unlike the blind man who simply was sent with instructions, we have already read how the story ends in that pool called Siloam.
The New Testament account of Nicodemus’ nocturnal visit to Jesus in the Gospel of John initially seems to bear little resemblance to the visit this week of another Nicodemus – a Sudanese man who came to speak about his life with potential mentors of a new refugee outreach group – Sumitra - forming at St Lukes.
The biblical Nicodemus was a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, ostensibly on a mission under cover of night. His official reason for the visit was to investigate and gather evidence against a troublemaker who was threatening law and order as well as destabilizing the entire religious establishment of the time. However, he was also apparently a careful man who understood that it is best not to rush to judgement or make decisions about anyone without first hearing them out. To this end, we learn that he later recommended that the entire Council first listen to Jesus before condemning him for heresy.
In the 3rd chapter of John, Jesus uses language with Nicodemus which immediately throws him into confusion and chaos regarding literal vs. figurative meaning of words and ideas which strike at the heart of his birth, origin, identity, and place in the world. What? How can one be “born again from above”?
Later in the 19th chapter of John, after Jesus’ crucifixion, we learn that Nicodemus wraps and prepares the body of Jesus with precious spices for burial. Apparently his earlier encounter led him to respect and honor Jesus to the point that he decided to become so intimately involved with his burial.
The biblical Nicodemus was a religious legalist whose encounter with Jesus led him to ponder questions which went far beyond how to properly follow Jewish customs and law. This Nicodemus then disappears from any further mentions in any of the Gospels. His story disappears after Jesus’ death.
Fast forward to an evening in North Park, San Diego last week, about 1950 years of so after the writing of the Gospel of St John which relates the mysterious story of Nicodemus the Pharisee meeting Jesus under the cover of darkness so long ago.
A young Sudanese man named Nicodemus stood up before us and spoke for about 20 minutes. Turns out he was one of the 20,000 Lost Boys of Sudan: orphaned as a young child during the 2nd Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), conscripted into a rebel militia, forced to walk thousands of miles, lived homeless without even knowing when he was born in a resettlement camp in Kenya, before arriving in San Diego back in 2001.
This Nicodemus – the Nicodemus of Sudan and San Diego - told his personal story; a story that related acts of extraordinary kindness, generosity and hospitality on the part of several American individuals stretching back almost 16 years. He stood now proudly and confidently before us – a successful college graduate with an IT degree and now a Masters in Public Adminstration. He told us that the American educational system, along with the help and love of several volunteers, had taken the place of his parents.
Back now to that 3rd Chapter of the Gospel of John in which Jesus spoke of being “born again”. The biblical Nicodemus really struggled to understand what Jesus was talking about that night. Jesus’ words mysteriously scintillated and fluctuated between literal and symbolic meanings in an attempt to open a space between earth and heaven for Nicodemus. The Sudanese Nicodemus, I suspect, understood Jesus’ words without confusion or hesitation …. in a way that perhaps few in our audience of potential mentors/volunteers for Sumitra that night could grasp, what it means to be born again.
Today we heard disturbing news about the willingness of our nation to welcome and protect some of the world's most vulnerable people: refugees. By definition, refugees are those fleeing their country due to war or persecution. They need our help.
San Diegans can feel particularly proud of our role in welcoming large numbers of refugees to our region. In the early 2000s, St. Luke's Episcopal Church members made it a point to meet Sudanese refugees at the airport and begin the long process together of learning to live in the United States. Today St. Luke's is proud of its identity as a home for many Sudanese refugees and their American-born children. In turn, these Sudanese-Americans have warmly welcomed recent arrivals from many nations, including the Congolese men leading the Swahili song in the video at right. If you're wondering how to show your support for the refugees living among us, consider:
- donating to RefugeeNet, a local refugee services nonprofit that runs a food distribution for sixty three City Heights refugee families out of St. Luke's kitchen every Thursday
- contributing to the upgrade of St. Luke's kitchen so that we can enter into a partnership with the International Rescue Committee to begin a culinary arts job training program for refugee women and youth
- let us know if you'd like to serve as a companion to a local refugee family -- we looking in to creating a pairing program
St. Luke's strives to be a haven for those left without homes, and we're doing this by serving newly arrived refugees and North Park's recovery community. We're proud to announce that we're now also hosting Uptown Community Services Center on campus, a faith-based nonprofit that serves North Park's homeless. Check out this great article and video published last week by the Union-Tribune on Uptown and St. Luke's!
Thank you for your support and your prayers -- may God give us the clarity of vision and the courage to stand with refugees in this time of their great vulnerability.
Colin and Laurel
St. Luke's Episcopal Church/North Park Project
I just finished reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, which documents a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There was much about the book I appreciated, but I was also struck, again, and again, by how well-worn the teachings they set forth are. Compassion. Gratitude. Seeking to serve others rather than fixating on oneself. Three quarters of the way in, I felt a little desperate for something I hadn’t heard, in church or life, thousands of times before.
Ashamed of myself, I honestly thought of these good and holy men: come on, guys -- at your age there has to be a deeper secret. But in the end, this IS the gift of wisdom human beings have been given. The most spiritually sage, like these wonderful octogenarians, simply know these things more deeply, practice them more fully:
- Pray or meditate each day.
- Practice compassion.
- Cultivate Gratitude.
- Seek to love and serve others, especially those who suffer.
But if we know all these wise things, if we’ve heard them hundreds of times before (in or out of church), why are we ... well, you know. The way we are. Not particularly joyful as a planet right now. And if, as the Dalai Lama believes, the hope for humanity lies in education, how can the church do a better job at being a school for these virtues?
Speaking of old things, this is not a new question. But each generation might need to answer it anew. How are we going to form communities in Christ that are at least semi-effective schools of discipleship, schools of compassion?
As a parent, I think about these things with more urgency. As a person who would like to grow in love for God and neighbor through these practices but need a lot of help, I yearn for structures that would support me. I’m guessing I’m not alone.
As globalization and information / bad news overload keeps our heads spinning, we need communities that will help ground us in these age old truths. This week, will hear these two jarring passages from scripture:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16)
For Christians, this light is Jesus. All those practices mentioned by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu? Jesus said we should do these things, showed us the way, asked us to follow. (Like 2,000 years ago. Other major religious leaders have said the same. I credit the Holy Spirit.)
We’re still working on it, right?
But how can the church support EVERYONE in these well-known, if not well-worn, paths to joy and justice?
Not everyone is yearning to engage in this spiritual strength training. We don't have to look far to find examples of men and women who are not so interested in humility, healing the poor and suffering, discovering unexpected power through vulnerability.
"For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:18)
“To us who are being saved:” Whoa. Big baggage. But I translate this in my head as “to us who are being made whole.”
The message about the cross -- about power in and through humility and self-sacrifice, and a God who loves us so much there’s nothing we can do to shake that love (even, say, trying to put God to death) -- there’s a lot there to spark prayer, compassion, gratitude, service. And, I should say, I am (maybe literally) eternally grateful for the way the church has carried that torch, that story, through the ages.
Yet practically speaking, how can the spark of that story, the spark of that truth, shape our lives more fully, light the fire of our days and not just represent the votive we look at each Sunday? We are being saved; we are going made whole; it is our work, alongside God, for however many days and weeks of life we are given.
If the church, the gathering of those who seek to follow Christ, is (in part) a school, how can we better train and support one another, and our children, in these daily practices of discipleship, of growth, of being made whole, of being saved? Ideas welcome.