Monday, August 12, 2019

Throwing Cement

Every place we've lived, I've found a place to run.  Along the ocean in New Zealand, through the woods of Michigan, along the rivers in Moscow and Taipei.  A place comes alive when it's just you and the world.  It's as close to being a local that I can become.  Some of my favorite memories of a place are how I see the world when I'm running.
For the first time in my life, I find myself running with a group of people.  Up to this point, I have avoided this at all costs.  I am the slowest runner ever.  When I'm alone it doesn't matter.  I just trot along listening to a podcast.  Ok, I'm also not one to push myself - do I really need to break a sweat?  I love running outside.  The fresh air cleanses my mind plus I need to see that I'm accomplishing a distance.  Monrovia is the first place I've lived that I don't want to run alone.  I feel too vulnerable, too exposed.  So I run with a group.  They are amazing.  They keep me moving, one foot in front of the other.  And I sweat and gasp and feel like dying.  They never make me feel like I'm the slow one.  They accept my lack of ability without a care in the world.  But I love it and keep showing up for another run and another.
A few weeks ago we decided to run through the city and loop back around, following the beach.  Half the group was ahead by a bit.  The mid point was at the top of a small hill where we regrouped before heading down to the beach.  Rainy season is well underway which causes the ocean to be a torrent of emotion, throwing cold waves on the shore, thundering their danger.  A group of a hundred or so people were gathered at the edge while others scurried around the beach with some sort of unrecognizable purpose.  When the sun is peaking over the earth's edge, the beach is typically a quiet place.  There may be a few people at the far end rummaging through the huge garbage heap searching for a usable piece of clothing, but otherwise it's typically a quiet run with only our feet pounding the pavement and the waves pounding the sand.
I brought up the rear as we came down the hill.  My slower pace allowed me to look around.  Men were gathering sticks and breaking them into two foot lengths then running to the shoreline.  Others found chunks of cement and threw them at larger pieces to break off grapefruit sized pieces.  I came up to a man whose arms were full of cement and stopped to ask him what was going on.  He glanced at me with a crazy look in his eyes and yelled something over his shoulder as he turned and ran.  A few more paces and another man was carefully inspecting his cement pile.  Again I asked "What's going on?"  He stopped, looked and me and replied in clear English, "A man stole something and we are going to throw  stuff at him until he is in the water and drowns."  My heart stopped and time slowed as I turned to my friend.  "Let's get out of here!" he shouted.  A stoning.  I didn't see the man who stole.  I didn't see them throw the cement or beat the man with sticks.  I didn't hear cries for mercy.  But the situation sat heavy on me for several days.
They call it "jungle justice" here in Liberia.  People are desperately hungry, but if you take a bag of rice from your neighbor, you have taken food for them and their extended family for a week or even a month.  A pair of shoes may be a month's wages.  There is no punishement from a governmental system so people take justice into their own hands. 
John tells a story about a woman who was caught in adultery.  The Pharisees and teachers bring this woman to Jesus who is sitting in the temple court teaching a crowd of people.  She is probably ashamed and angry and embarrassed.  She's probably trying to hold it together as the Pharisees say to Jesus, Teacher, this woman's caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?  The Pharisees demand justice by their law but they're also trying to corner Jesus, making him chose between the law and the woman.  The tension in the air is thick.  Jesus begins to write in the sand but the Pharisees can't hold their anger any longer.  They demanded to know what Jesus will do.  Jesus straightens, looks them in the eye and says, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:1-11)  
As I thought through what I had seen on the beach, one thing really struck me.  When the men bent down and picked up a chunk of cement, they committed themselves.  Rational thinking was gone.  There was a single goal - justice through death.  Not a single man picked up a piece of cement and reconsidered his next actions.  The look in the eyes of the first man I talked to was chilling.  He had made a choice and he would do what it took.  Jesus understood the commitment of picking up the stone and of being the first to throw it at the woman.  A path.  A choice.  A destiny.  There was a slight distance between the Pharisee's hearts and their actions.  Not a single one of them was willing to pick up a stone.  They all walked away.
When Jesus is teaching the crowds up on a mountain, He tries to get the people, us, to understand that what God is looking at is so much deeper than the law.  He's looking at our hearts.  Jesus says, You have heard it said to the people long ago, "You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment."  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, "Raca," is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, "You fool!" will be in danger of the fire of hell.  A few verses later Jesus continues, You have heard it said, "You shall not commit adultery."  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28)  I saw men stoning a man on the beach that day.  It shook me up and has stuck with me.  But what about the anger and judgment I've had in my heart?  God knows when mentally I've bent down and picked up a piece of cement.
Back when we lived in the states Doc made a knife throwing board.  It was a great way to release a bit of energy and, well, throw a knife at a board.  He's been working on building one here.  I've had a lot bottled up inside of me lately.  Anger at situations outside of my control.  Because things are so outside of my ability to determine the outcome I began to blame people associated with the situation.  This is a slippery slope to go down.  One day I said, "I'd like to tape their picture to the knife throwing board and hurl a knife at it."  My heart had picked up the cement and hatred and bitterness wasn't just creeping in, it was barging in full force, pushing all bits of reason, love and light out of its way.  Jesus knew this danger.  "Don't go there," He said.
Probably none of us will physically stoop to pick up a piece of cement and throw it at a person. But how often has my heart condemned a person?  For me, it wasn't too many days ago.  When I find myself headed down this path, I start talking to Jesus.  I'm honest with him about all the hurt, anger, bitterness, unjustness and everything else that is going on inside of me.  Sometimes I yell.  Sometimes I cry.  When I'm honest with God, in some miraculous way, He takes it all away from me.  Not the situation and problems, they're still there and I'm going to have to walk through that journey.  He takes away the anger and hatred - the need to pick up a piece of cement.  
What's going on in your heart?  Have you been honest with God about it?  It's pretty simple.  Just tell Him.

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