“The rupture of our religious surfaces can be extremely valuable.” Frederick Ruf, Bewildered Travel: The Sacred Quest for Confusion.
In my spiritual writing class we’ve been discussing the religious value of rupture, fracture, misfortune, suffering. Of forced disorientation to stimulate growth, learning, and an awareness of a new more real reality.
Of breaking through the surface to something deeper, something dangerous, something delicious.
In Mary Oliver’s poem, “Acid” wonderfully recounted in Bewildered Travel, she comes across an image “that she simply cannot assimilate—something, in fact, that burns instead of dazzles.”
She describes this something, this rupture, as a “bead of acid” that she carries with her for all of her days, forever changed.
Below is my bead of acid, my religious rupture, my reason for being who I am today.
February 2006, Managua, Nicaragua
Plastic smoldered and filled the air in a hazy smokescreen that seared my eyes and bit at my nostrils in the city dump of Managua, Nicaragua. Skeletal cows munched on the aluminum cans that children searched all day for in the city dump. This was their home, their school, their playground. Our yellow school bus heaved and rattled into the dump. We pressed our faces against the hot window panes, peering out into the ocean of refuse. When we realized where we were, our faces dropped, eyes averted and laughing silenced. One man lifted his dark, gnarled hand to brush the sweat from his furrowed brow. Our bus grinded to a halt and the door creaked open. Trevor, one of our program facilitators poked his head out and yelled something to the man in broken Spanish.
Did he mind speaking to us for a minute? Did he mind sharing his story with us?
The man carefully stepped over the debris, clambering his way to the open bus door. He moved through the sea of trash like an experienced sailor. Like he’d long since lost his land legs. We wore fresh skirts and smoothed slacks. The old man glanced down at his modest t-shirt, sweat stained and torn. We wanted to know what his life was like. How was he surviving? What did he think about God? Parched and at a loss for words, the man swallowed a few times, his tongue wetting his chapped lips, gums, and the few teeth he had. Then he told us the only thing he knew.
“Dios ha bendecido a mi familia.” “God has blessed my family,” he said. “God is good. Before this garbage dump we were on the streets, and that was worse. God has provided, and God is good.”
Trevor thanked him for sharing and handed him a cold, dripping water bottle. He greedily grabbed the fresh water, and the condensation formed tiny rivulets in the deep, cracked creases of his craggy palms—living water in a thirsty, barren land, fresh water in a sulfuric sea. God is good.
Blessed? The last time I checked, my definition of blessed did not include the privilege of sorting through trash and watching your children inhale toxic fumes on a daily basis. I thought being blessed meant you were an American, lived a life of privilege, and received a college education.
This is why I have spent the last four years working for a non-profit organization (seriously check them out) that empowers rural families to restore their land, raise their incomes, and learn to thrive BEFORE they end up desperate, at a city dump. Why I still struggle with the word blessed. Why I’m still working through what it means to see God at work in this unjust world.
The next day we visited a Catholic church that was beautifully decorated with colorful murals portraying the Stations of the Cross. The images were vibrant and tantalizing, unlike any religious paintings I’d ever seen. But the biggest difference was Jesus. Their Jesus wasn’t white. Their Jesus didn’t look just like me—he looked just like they did, with dark skin, calloused hands, and the numbness of poverty in his eyes. I got the feeling that their Jesus wasn’t too concerned with whether or not I had a “ring by spring” or six pack abs. I got the feeling that their Jesus didn’t try to spiritualize their poverty or look the other way. Their Jesus was oppressed, an outcast forgotten and scorned by society, just like them.
I could no longer live like God was the God of the rich, the white, the educated, and the fashionable. I could no longer live like God sympathized with my struggle to feel successful, beautiful, and well-liked more than he sympathized with the struggles, hopes, and dreams of the poor.
“The rupture of our religious surfaces can be extremely valuable.”
Yes, but it hurts like hell.