If you know me a little or know me a lot, you’ll know that I lived in Scotland for a couple years. What you may not know, however, is that I took a position with an ecumenical, incarnational mission order among the poor for three years. (Translation: I lived with a team in an underserved community where we worked with our neighbors on grassroots community development.) These years were foundational to this past decade and indeed to my whole life.
Known as the “sick man of Europe” and one of its “most violent cities”, Glasgow has confounded researchers. In relation to other comparable working class cities (Manchester, Liverpool, etc), which tend to have one staggeringly depressive factor that sets them apart, Glasgow suffers across the board with low life expectancy, high rates of poverty, violence, addiction, and poor health. This has been labeled the “Glasgow effect”.
But to me, my wee corner of Glasgow was confounding in a different way. Where others saw only problems, despair, addiction, and trash, I saw people, connections, hope, new life, and beauty. This was home - a place where I felt safe and known. People recognized me on the street and in the shops. People offered me rides and asked me about my family and my culture. (Glaswegians are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.) To be sure, I wasn’t blind to the despair or addiction, but it was matched by my lived experience on these streets and this feeling of community, belonging, and beauty.
But the longer I was there, in that small corner of Glasgow, my hope hardened. The very sky, with foreboding, thick, low-hanging gray clouds, mirrored my now-hazy hope. The world as I knew it was suddenly not as I knew it. I saw the corruption of power and the way systemic power structures unequivocally oppress people on the margins. I saw abuse and addiction up close. I saw someone fall from a third story window in a desperate attempt to save her life, and I stood at the witness stand in the related trial for this attempted murder. I saw how people’s circumstances left them hopeless, seeing no way out of their personal hell. I saw my privilege (more on that later) and the way it afforded me an entirely different experience in the world.
I saw all these things I can’t unsee. The grief of unmet expectations, unrealized hopes, and unanswered prayers weighed on me. And I found that my hopeful, “do good” mindset couldn’t hold up in the face of all this hardship.
The despair roundabout me awoke despair within me, and this was disorienting. There was this creeping feeling that God was absent, silent, inactive.
Questions about the world ensued: “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the poor always get the short end of the stick? Why do people with power want to keep it for themselves?”
Then questions about church: “Has the church as I’ve known it got it all wrong? Would Jesus recognize this production that we’ve formulated? Would he identify with the fancy lights, impressive bands, and simulcast preaching? Which groups are we ostracizing in the way that we do church? Is the ‘born again life’ we evangelize about actually good news to the poor and people on the margins? What even is the Gospel?”
And then questions about the very nature of God: “How can God be good and allow this? Who is God? Where was God when ________? Why didn’t God ________? Does God even hear my prayers? What’s the point of prayer?”
And last, this process of disorientation has changed me, causing me to reconsider and rebuild my very self. And so of course then there were questions about me: “Who am I? Who am I becoming? Why am I changing so much? Do I like this person? Is it bad that I feel so different from who I was?”
And here I’m brought back to disorder (see the first post in this series). Disorder disorients. It causes us to reconcile the world of our imagination and expectation with reality. And in many ways, that’s what this past decade has been. I’ve come to see that the world isn’t a plaything. It’s not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. God isn’t in a box. And who I am seems so elusive.
And in all this, I’m brought back to the notion of reorder. Disorder means there’s an opportunity for reorder. And so perhaps the disorientation has a place and a role in the great reordering of me and of all things.
More to come on this in the next post.