Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gracias! - Review

Last week I took a spiritual retreat up to the mountains of northeastern South Korea (just below the border).  While there, I picked up a Nouwen book out of the monastery library.  Nouwen has been my most common spiritual director on retreats down through the years.
Gracias! did not disappoint.  It was full of profound cultural and spiritual insights which I needed to hear.
Gracias! tells the story of Nouwen's six month sojourn in Bolivia and Peru in the early 1980s while he was attempting to discern whether he was called to serve in Latin America.  If you think back about your world history, Latin America was a mess in the 70s and 80s.  For hundreds of years Latin America was ruled by European colonialists and their grandchildren.  Native Americans and people of mixed ethnicity were poor, uneducated, and deeply oppressed.  The fair skinned ruling class wanted to keep them that way, but around mid-century, the poor slowly decided that they didn't want to stay poor.
The Catholic Church - by far the largest religious group in Latin America - took a "preferential option for the poor" and assisted them in developing their lives through education, health care, better farming, better saving, social organization, healthier diets, etc.  Gustavo Guiterrez was developing and teaching his now famous - Liberation Theology - at this time.  As the poor gained knowledge of their human rights and hope that enabled them to shed fatalism, they began to push for reforms.  As the reformers were first ignored, then punished, then brutally persecuted, reform slowly merged into revolution.
And - given the power dynamics of wealthy nations, USA vs USSR, democracy vs communism - all of these issues in Latin America were set in the light of communism versus everything else.  80-90% of Latin America was poor at that time, and anyone who sided with them or helped them risked being labeled as communist, leftist, destabilizing, disruptive problem-makers.  The result was mass persecution of the Catholic Church whenever and wherever it openly assisted the poor.  People began to disappear.  The martyrs began to be counted by the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands.
It is in this milieu, Nouwen was considering a life among the poor in Latin America.  A brave question and a brave sojourn.
I learned or relearned three important lessons through Nouwen's reflections.  Some of the most meaningful parts of the book came in his reflections of Gustavo Guitierrez's lectures which Nouwen attended several times.
1. Reform takes time.  I consider myself a reformer, a progressive, someone who is participating in the larger reform of the Church of our time.  I deeply want us to return to our Biblical and Christlike roots as a church, which will - yes - include much more service to the poor, but also much more love for all our neighbors and much more intense commitment to understanding and following Jesus in every possible way and reform in our structures and styles of doing church.  I have struggled with others' resistance, apathy, and lip-service to this reform.  However, observing the Latin American struggle from the distance of space and time encouraged me - oddly.  Their struggle - far more painful than ours - persevered as was largely successful, though it is still incomplete and ongoing.  If they can persevere in the face of persecution and death, I can persevere in the face of complaints or walk-outs.  Also, some of the people in the liberation theology group advised Nouwen that this all takes a great deal of time, that progress is slow, and that it must be done at the pace of the people not the pace of the reformers.  I felt a strong call to perseverance and patience.
2. True reform is deeply spiritual.  Gutierrez lectured on the spirituality of liberation and explained that without maintaining a deep connection with God, we lose the both the heart of love and the will to persevere.  Gutierrez advocated spending time in the "useless" work of prayer and meditation.   Nouwen observed that many of the reformers around him were hostile, angry, and militaristic (at least in words and mindset if not in action).  But the "old fighters" called these young bucks to peace, to patience, to connecting deeply with the Spirit of God, and to working patiently with the people even if that means suffering with the people as the people develop their own desire to further the reformation.  I felt a call to go deeper in my own spiritual life - even if that means less time for "tasks" and "productive" things.
3. Gratitude is central.  Nouwen was deeply struck by the inherent gratitude of the Latin American people.  They view everything as the gift that it is.  Life is a gift.  Food is a gift.  Work is a gift.  Home and family are gifts.  Every good thing we have is a gift from a gracious God.  As a reformer, as someone who deeply wants our world to be better, often I can focus on what is lacking the good that we need but is not yet.  Often I can look at our world as one large bundled collection of problems and deficiencies.  This is an extremely distorted view.  Yes, our world is broken and needs healing.  But even amid our brokenness, God is at work, and God has blessed us with innumerable good gifts.  Despite the dents and the dust, these gifts retain their glorious goodness, and I am - we are - called to celebrate these many gifts at all times and in all places.

The Josh rating: JJJJ.

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