Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti, Afghanistan and the White Rider

The news from Haiti this week has been devastating. I struggle to form an adequate response to the horror and suffering. As I pray, mostly in silent yearning, sometimes the only thing that comes is, “Jesus, have mercy.” Actually, that’s not a bad way to pray.

Concurrently I’ve been reading the book of Revelation, along with Eugene Peterson’s insightful commentary (Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, 1988). Peterson interprets the last book of the Bible, not so much as prophecy of future events, but as revelations about Jesus, the church and God’s sovereignty in history. Connections abound.

Peterson’s comments on chapters 6 and 7 of Revelation are entitled, “The Last Word on Evil.” As the Lamb, Jesus, opens the first seal, a conquering warrior on a white horse appears. Peterson sees this as another symbol of Jesus, in his role as sovereign over human history. The seals that follow symbolize all the evil our world currently experiences: war, famine and poverty, sickness unto death, religious persecution and natural disasters. The sixth seal focuses the imagination on an enormous earthquake, and the pictures evoked match the images coming from the television set.

The challenging part for me is connecting the White Rider, the sovereign King, with what is actually happening in Haiti right now. As of this writing, water and food are still sitting on the airport tarmac. Time is running out for people trapped under the rubble. I pray for the conquering one to hurry up, while the hours stretch thin. The big questions of evil, suffering and a sovereign, all powerful God are not easily answered.

Another incident this week adds a thread to the weaving of the White Rider and the earthquake. This one brings in the war in Afghanistan, the threat of terror and the dubiousness of my own country’s military intervention. It’s a rather simple, everyday type of incident, but it brings me hope.

I met someone who is quietly making a difference in Afghanistan. Julia Bolz is her name, and you probably have not yet heard of her. My friend Fred Gregory had told me about her, as part of our conversations about US Christians and the rest of the world. Julia is doing in Afghanistan what Greg Mortenson is doing in Pakistan (made famous in his book, Three Cups of Tea). She happened to be passing through town this week, and Fred called me to come over to the president’s office at George Fox University (where he works) to meet her. We conversed for no more than an hour, but I find my hope for world peace and all sorts of other impossible dreams renewed.

Julie, a young woman, possibly in her late thirties or early forties, left a profitable law practice in Seattle about eight years ago, in search of a life with more purpose in a hurting world. After a series of brief stints with NGOs in places like Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan, she landed in Afghanistan. A time of questioning local people about their needs and any hope they saw for their nation, prompted her response. She began working with leaders in a small village in northern Afghanistan to build a school for girls.

One thing led to another, and today Julie is leading an organization with an on-site team of expatriates and Afghans, responsible for building 10 new schools for girls, improving 20 existing schools, facilitating teacher training and other support programs. Julie estimates that 25,000 Afghani children are currently receiving their care and attention. She feels that hope for the rebuilding of the country and the fight against terrorism lies in education, and specifically in the education of girls.

I am fascinated that Julie chose a Quechua/Aymara word for the name of her organization, Ayni Education International. Ayni is an important word in the Aymara culture where I’ve spent so much of my life. It means reciprocity and reflects a key Aymara value. I imagine this is also a key value in Afghani culture, and an important concept for any kind of international development work. (Julie told me I was one of the few people she had met that was already familiar with the word ayni.)

So, how does this relate to the disaster in Haiti, and where does the conquering White Rider of St. John’s strange vision come in? The fiery red horse of Revelation 6 represents war, and one of its contemporary expressions is certainly Afghanistan. But the White Horse and its Rider?

I’m reminded of the nature of apocalyptic literature, that it stimulates my imagination and engages my heart, rather than presents me with a blow-by-blow description of present—or future—reality. I’m also reminded of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, how he compared it to something as small and common as a seed, something that often works invisibly. The invisible, buried seed and the White Rider seem like opposites. Rather, they provide two perspectives on a Reality that is active amid all the distressing realities of our world. And that gives me hope.

So, I will keep on with my ridiculously small prayers for mercy in Haiti. I will join with my local congregation to find responsible ways to channel financial gifts to Haiti, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. I will pray for Julia Bolz and tell people about her. I will continue to offer my body as a living sacrifice of worship, to be used in whatever way God determines. And everyday I will remember the center, the quiet place in the storm, the one who is both the invisible seed and the White Rider.

Jesus, have mercy.

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