Faith—How I Got to Denver

Sermon by Hillary Watson

Almost exactly this time last year, I packed up my belongings, said goodbye to old friends, left the only house I’ve ever lived in, and moved three-quarters of the way across the country to a small town where I shared a room half the size of my old bedroom with a complete stranger. Unlike Seattle, the tallest building was 4 stories and there were more Mennonite churches in a 25-mile radius than in the entire state of Washington. Stories like this, of moving to opposite environments, are not so uncommon among young college students, and they make this decision for many reasons. For me, choosing to make that journey, and sticking with it, was a matter of faith.

As a teen exploring and claiming my religion, faith plays an important role in my life, even more so because I am currently studying for a Bible, Religion, and Philosophy degree at Goshen College. And although I couldn’t articulate it at the time that I moved, I didn’t go to college so far away just to escape my family. My main goal in college was, or has become, to figure out how I can honor God with the gifts I have. As I navigated intense culture shock, lengthy essays, and the challenges of claiming adulthood, I found the perfect space at Goshen to attempt to answer this question, and the many questions that followed.

Who is God, why did I love God, what do I know about God, what do I know about the world, why does my life belong to God alone, what am I going to do with my life, what does it mean to be Christian, and Who am I? I’m not going to attempt to answer all these questions in the next half hour, not the least because I don’t have all the answers. I’d just like to share a few of the discoveries I’ve made about the path that is unfolding for me.

Because all my questions required more than just a few moments of thought while waiting for the bus, or walking between classes. They required a long-term commitment to meet the One Who Created me, and to take risks in that relationship, to go unexpected places and do what I was afraid of, in order to know my God better.

Learning—The Basics and the Good in Denver

That’s the short of how I ended up in Denver this summer, working at a Mennonite-funded organization called DOOR. The long name is Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection. We host mostly high school youth groups who are interested in urban service in five cities across the country—San Antonio, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, and Denver. Groups come in, often from suburban or small towns, for a week at a time to experience urban service. Many consider it a mission or service trip. As a summer staff, I brought teens to work at soup kitchens, day camps for low-income children, and all other places you would be surprised to find teenagers during their summer break. Essentially, it was like being an adult sponsor for our Jr. or Sr. High Service Week, except I did it all summer, and with two or three groups a week.

When people asked about my summer, I told them it was “busy, but rewarding”; which I should enter as understatement of the year. DOOR is probably one of the most challenging jobs for college students; first, there’s the time commitment—I frequently worked as many as 15 hours a day. But the work is not simple, either. It calls for skills in three different areas. Part 1 was youth ministry, when I was with the volunteers. Groups came every Sunday and left every Friday, setting me on a very tight schedule. I had five days to learn names, make friends, teach the teens something about urban life, and stimulate in them a passion for God, or at least make them think about spirituality. I nudged, pushed, connived, cajoled, and forced stubborn teens out of their comfort zones, with varying degrees of success. One of the key parts of the program is Discovering Opportunities for Reflection, and I led all kinds of activities to encourage participants—youth and adults—to consider how their actions impacted their faith. Not only that, but groups came from all over and all denominations, so that one week I worked with a church of agnostic, if not downright atheists, from Minnesota; the next week kids from the home of Wal-Mart in Arkansas; and the following week high schoolers from across the border in almost nowhere, Manitoba. Part 2 was urban service, when I was at the sites. I served hundreds of meals—to women, men, children, drug addicts, mentally and physically handicapped, low income people, and many others. But I did more than work with food—in two and a half months, I visited more than a dozen nonprofits in Denver. I went everywhere from a soccer camp for refugee kids to a women’s day shelter the Salvation Army 4 th of July Picnic. Lastly, the third focus of my work was my personal faith development and discernment, which happened whenever my brain was on. Often, that was during off-hours, like when I returned to the staff house at 9:30pm. Coming off a 12-hour day, the four summer staff could spend at least another hour talking about our kids, ourselves, and God.

It wore me down, it filled me up, it made me think. Because my work was so physically exhausting, it was necessary to keep myself spiritually energized. I prayed more than I used to, both intimate conversations with the divine and the terse, desperate one-liners—you know the type—”God, please make that kid shut up.” The thing was, self-reliance wasn’t practical in my work. After the first week, I resigned myself to the fact that, as our city director said, “I have a plan, but God has a different plan, and it’s usually better than mine.” Standing on shifting, but solid, ground and trusting God’s plan took a lot of energy. To not end up angry, frustrated, or quitting several times a day, I had to be on the same page as God. A few moments of silence and nothingness in prayer kept me going, infused me with energy and optimism in the midst of almost constant chaos. One of the first things I learned, and later forgot, was to not underestimate what God can do when you are doing “nothing.”

Personal faith development was often the most rewarding part of my job because I could see and feel the results. Over the course of the summer, I began to claim my faith. I take pride in being born in the Mennonite church, and I could have told you what a Mennonite was in fifth grade. But the past two year and a half has been a process of not just sharing about them, those Mennonites, but saying “yes, that’s me, I adhere to these values and they do affect the way I live.” Now, when I explain my faith—which often means explaining my actions—I believe it. You can teach basic theology to any young person, and they can regurgitate it back to you, but you can’t teach any person—old or young—to believe that theology. They have to own it themselves, often through the experience of living it.

This experience challenged me to put my faith into action, an uplifting, exuberant feeling. You’ve all seen your kids—or maybe someone else’s—when they come back from the Mennonite youth conventions or Camp CAMREC. And you wonder how they can have so much energy when they got so little sleep, and where all this passion came from. It’s the passion of living intensely in God’s life. And all the kids say, “I really want to hold onto this feeling, and I want God to be in my life, but I don’t know if that will last when I go back to school, into the real world.” As a kid, I tried to believe I could to hold onto that feeling after I left, but this was really the first time I did hold it, and had a sustained connection with God for a sustained amount of time. I believe that was because my faith pervaded every aspect of my life. By putting my beliefs into action, regurgitated religious lessons became a sincere conviction rooted in an unshakeable knowledge that there is a God, and that God is my friend, and that God loves the world very, very much. My sociology prof at Goshen explained this is called an incorrigible proposition. That’s a phrase to remember if you need to sound smart. An incorrigible proposition is a belief people will cling to even when all the facts say otherwise.

Learning II—Sadness and Letdowns in Denver

Sometimes, the facts do seem to say otherwise. In Denver, I found life isn’t all perfectly timed buses. Sometimes you miss the bus, and sometimes you wait for years and the bus doesn’t come, or you realize you’re waiting at the wrong stop for the wrong bus. It was a challenge to keep up that sustained connection with God, especially when the world seemed to get further from God and everything I believed.

My doubt stirred once mid-way through the summer when, on my evening off, I went to the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner, and I ran into a man I’d fed at one of the agencies. I was walking by the dairy products, and he was coming towards me. As I passed him, we exchanged the friendly but curious “do-I-know-you” look. I turned around to wonder who this man was, and then he turned and pointed at me and smiled, like, “Oh yeah, I remember you.” We chatted for a minute, and he spoke with simple sincerity, just like any other friendly acquaintance.

Then, when I left, I saw him sitting against the wall of the store, sharing some food with another man. I smiled and said “hi” as I passed, and he replied with a grin. I was acutely aware that I was walking home, and when I got into the house I would turn on the fan, go to the bathroom, and set the stove on high for dinner. It occurred to me that in comparison to him, I lived a life of luxury. I wondered how he had afforded to come to the store.

That’s when it hit me that although the summer I was here seemed like a long time, the work I did was so temporary. I could talk to him or feed him a meal, but at the end of the day, my short-term work and short-term relationships won’t have a lasting impact. My wealth is so much greater than his, I felt, that I should do more than meet his needs day by day. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”     (Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered to the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, at Riverside Church . 4 April 1967, New York City.)

There was too much disparity for me to be flinging a coin at this man, which was what my work felt like. I wanted to transform that road. I had not only financial wealth, but a house, a family, a church, an education, access, opportunity…. There had to be more I could do.

But that was only the beginning of my despair. The more I looked, the more pain I saw. Israel bombing innocent people, Lebanon’s frail, recovering society falling apart; Kurt Hildebrand leaving for the poorest country in the hemisphere and almost certain persecution; and closer to home, half my coworkers falling sick or battling illness while they tried to do help others. And all I could do was give a few hundred homeless people lunch. There was much to be done in the world and there were too few willing to do it.

My hope lagged because I couldn’t see God’s people doing God’s work in God’s kingdom. I saw God’s people in Israel, no longer letting God fight their battles, but taking it upon themselves to execute total war against their enemies. I saw God’s child, our beleaguered president, not heeding the call of the oppressed in our own nation and around the world. I saw ordinary Christians, knowing how to make a difference. And I saw God’s people, near and dear to our own congregation, being persecuted for their faith and conviction.

This week, I came across a prayer by one Mark Peters, which sums up my despair. He wrote,

       the world is
      changing into
      what the world
      changes into
      when the world
      changes you
      into the world.

(Quoted in Going Going by Naomi Shihab Nye. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2005, ii.)

I looked around and saw the world, changing us into more worldly people, instead of God changing us into more Godly people, people of wisdom, faith, courage, compassion, friendliness, hospitality, and community.

In this chaos, of the world’s complete turning from God, my own work at DOOR seemed a futile plan for recovery. So what if I fed 200 people in a day? In several hours, they would be starving and I would be stuffing myself, and all the same suffering would be on all the same continents. I was buying people time, maybe, but what impact could I really have? How was this exercise in busywork honoring God to the best of my abilities?

And the more I thought, the more I despaired.

Hope—Regaining Strength and Faith

In retrospect, what it boiled down to was that in all that I learned about God, and I forgot one thing: God is always active in the world. As long as Christians are active, God is active. Like Paul said, “Christ has no hands on earth but yours.” You see, hope is intimately, inextricably, connected to faith. To have faith is to have hope because faith—Christian faith—is based on the unshakeable conviction—that incorrigible proposition—that we can transcend the sin, suffering, agony, and abuse which we see everyday in our world apart from Eden. Faith recognizes that we are more than we see, we are better than our best selves. We can’t see the best, the most perfect part of God’s creation, but we hope and we believe it is coming.

This morning, we heard Psalm 27, and for me, that is a Psalm of Hope This Psalm is rooted in the incorrigible proposition—if you can stand that phrase again—that God cares very deeply for us, even and especially when we suffer. David calls God his “shelter in the day of trouble.”     (All Biblical quotes taken from The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. All Biblical quotes taken from The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.) God is his center of compassion, hope, and assurance in the knowledge of our better selves when we act our worst.

The only request David makes is in verse 4:

“One thing I asked of the LORD [YHWH],
that I will seek after:
to live in the house of the LORD [YHWH]
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD [YHWH]
and inquire in [the] temple.”

(Rephrased using gender-inclusive language.)

Yet, this request is very simple: it is a desire to be with God. And surrounded by all these verses about enemies and troubled times, it expresses a desire to be with God even when God feels distant.

The Psalm begins boldly with the words, “The LORD [YHWH] is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” Despair too often turns to fear, and fear to hate, as “What is the world coming to?” becomes “I’m afraid of what the world is coming to,” which turns into, “I hate and must destroy myself what the world is coming to.” This is the point at which we become dangerously close to building a wall between us and God. We need not take it upon ourselves to change the world, as tempting as it is. For when we know our Creator and understand our place in Creation, what do we have to fear? Of course, we will still be afraid sometimes—I have a wild imagination, and can scare myself thinking of all the what-ifs in even the best circumstances. But David reminds us that often, fear is a waste of time. Phrased as a question, he asks “Whom shall I fear?….of whom shall I be afraid?” The answer is that we should and we shall be afraid of no one. It doesn’t mean we always are.

Verse 3 continues, “though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” There is nothing to fear in the injustice and oppression of war. We can even have hope in the face of war because we know we are capable of so much more than brokenness and God will restore shalom. The former Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say, during the despairing height of the repressive, unjust apartheid regime in South Africa, that the oppressed black South Africans had already won, and even invited whites to join them in victory. In his appropriately titled book God has a Dream he writes, “All the ‘objective’ facts were against us—the pass laws, the imprisonments, the teargassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists—but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God’s universe. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is no way evil and justice and oppression and lies can have the last world. God is a God who cares about right and wrong. God cares about justice and injustice. God is in charge.”  ( Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream . New York: Doubleday, 2004, 2.)

It’s ironic, paradoxical, and maybe even nonsensical, but despair is hopeful. And Desmond Tutu continues in the same book, “It is only because evil deeds are less common that they are ‘news.’ It is only because we believe that people should be good that we despair when they are not. Indeed, if people condoned the evil, then we would be justified in losing hope.”   (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream . New York: Doubleday, 2004, 13.)  And if Desmond Tutu, who has a résumé of oppression longer than the list of casualties in South Africa, can have hope, then it should be simple for us to have hope, too.

Tutu showed me just a spark hope in the world, but that was enough to restore my energy for the summer. It’s odd, but hope is one of those fickle things that is sometimes passed on, and you must sometimes find for yourself. What it comes down to is that the question “Where do I find hope?” does not have an ultimate, universal, light bulb answer. I can’t find the light switch, and then show you where it is so that we are all illuminated, floating through the world in bubbles of ecstatic glee. There isn’t even a glowstick or a nightlight answer to the question of hope, something tangible and bright. Instead, hope has a firefly answer. Hope is in the wisps and glances of light in a twilight sky, in evanescent moments that shine so stunningly and fade too soon. The best we can do is point out the fireflies to each other, and share their beauty.

I saw so many fireflies of hope this summer, although sometimes, it took me a while to realize what I’d seen was hope. Hope is in the truth that I did give someone enough food to live through today, and that does make a difference, or maybe that I made an agnostic teen think about spirituality. Hope is Danny Warren and Sarah Kraybill finding someone who can make them happy, for the rest of their lives. Hope is one person who can make me believe that I made a difference, and inspire me to continue trying to change the world. Hope is knowing my communities are praying for me.

One of the most hopeful parts of this intense summer was meeting a few exceptionally bright, mature young people with passionate faiths. I found two, maybe three, teens out of the 200 who came through First Mennonite Church, who showed a real passion and aptitude for the work we did. This handful of youth are ones who will be qualified to work at my job in a few years. And three people is enough to keep that program running.

One more note on hope: The Real World

Perhaps my greatest moment of hope, the largest firefly I saw, was at the end of the summer, on the final night of the final group. Every Thursday night, we took the groups up to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater. We ate a picnic dinner with a breathless, silencing view of the city and the mountains, and then we take them to the Amphitheater itself. I can’t begin to describe this place. Two huge pillars of dirt red rock stick up from the ground at an odd angle, forming a natural amphitheater. And you walk around one of the pillars, and you see the theater, rows and rows of broad, benches sinking down toward the stage. This place holds 10,000 people, it’s huge. Then you above the stage, and at eye level, you can see all Colorado’s lowlands, and Denver’s smoggy skyline spread out in front of you. As the sun sets, you can watch the whole city light up. On our first visit there, one of the other staff said to me, “I wish I could take anyone who doesn’t believe in God right here, and just have them look around.”

Red Rocks works magic on the kids, too. Most of the time. But this last night, when we got to the amphitheater, we were a little distracted. Because the three staff saw seven, well-dressed, ethnically diverse, gender balanced, young adults on the stage, surrounded by cameras and recording equipment, and we all turned to each other and said, “I bet that’s The Real World. ”

Let me back up, for those of you who don’t watch MTV regularly. The Real World was one of the first so-called reality TV shows. It throws a handful of young people into a house in the city and films what happens. From what I hear, it’s degenerated since the first season, but it was a real innovation when it came out. Now, The Real World was filming in Denver this summer for the next show’s season, and so throughout the summer, the staff joked about seeing them. Anyway, we made the mistake of telling the kids we thought this was The Real World . So, during the final reflection, which is supposed to be a quiet, introspective time, everyone kept glancing toward the stage and gaping at the people.

Then, as dusk set in, the seven young people left, leaving the camera crew scattered across the amphitheater. Someone turned on a spotlight and there on the panel of one of the huge rocks, the words “The Real World” shined. They stayed overhead as we took communion, and as we sang our final song (which is always “Sanctuary”). And as I left the amphitheater, I looked up and remembered what someone had said at a retreat I went to in high school. On the final night, we were, of course, talking about what it would be like to go back to “the real world,” scattering to all our homes across the country and how we would keep this feeling when we returned. Then one boy from Virginia stood up and said, “We aren’t going back to the real world. This is the real world.”

And he was right. The Real World, the original world, is the beautiful paradise God created. The Real World is God’s kingdom, which we hope and pray will be made on this earth as it is in heaven. As David wrote, in faith in Psalm 27, “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Yet, people of God, we can do more than hope to see God’s good in the land of the living. God can make us that goodness.

David prays, “Teach me your ways, O LORD, and lead me on a level path.” This is a plea for God to give David hope and peace even when he is surrounded by his enemies. As David says, “Teach me your ways,” he is saying, “make me an instrument of Your peace,”   (St. Francis of Assisi, “The Prayer of St. Francis.”)  make me in Your image. The Christian mission calls us to service which is often difficult, and we see great suffering or we suffer greatly ourselves. Think of how much pain Jesus must have seen every day in his ministry, and how much he suffered at the end of his life. But we can still have hope, and like Jesus, we can become centers of compassion and bring hope to others. Where we see poverty, oppression, and deprivation, we can have faith in the eventual restoration of a better community. In learning the ways of the Lord, David wants God’s peace within him, but he also wants that peace to work through him, and to be a light for God in the world.

Gandhi said we ought to be the change we want to see in the world. It’s so cliché, but it’s so appropriate. Because as you try to change the world, and make it more Godly, God will change you, and you will become more Godly. When we walk toward that vision of God’s Real World, we open up space for God to work in us. And this summer, I thought I was changing everyone else, but I have no evidence of that, only hope. Instead, my incorrigible proposition is that God had changed me. And I encourage you to go out this week, and work for God. Work towards God. Be the change, and keep on being the change, even when you aren’t seeing a difference. Open up that space so that God changes you, and through you, change the world. You probably won’t change the world. But through God, all things are possible.

Some of our groups came in and thought they changed the world in a few days. And we try to tell the groups, “You’re not bringing God to the city. God is already here, you’re just temp labor.” And that’s an important role. But DOOR—like life—is not about spending a self-congratulatory week admiring all the good you’ve brought to the broken world. What I’d like to tell groups, but never did, was: Don’t ever be so presumptuous as to think you’ve changed the world. Don’t ever be so cynical as to think you won’t.