I’m standing on a wall, perched over the season of Advent. Behind me is the year gone by, a year replete with change and intense spiritual growth. In front of me is a new year in the Christian calendar, a year that will undoubtedly be filled with more challenges and opportunities to follow Jesus.
On top of my wall I look both forward and backward, learning from the past so that the future will bring our world closer to the kingdom of God. At this particular moment I am giving thanks for the groundbreaking last week of the Ubuntu Center at Africa University in Zimbabwe.
Three years and nine months ago a seed was planted and a dream began to take shape. What if the people of the Grand Rapids District and the West Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church could help Africa University (AU) fulfill its mission to educate moral, ethical, and spiritual leaders for the continent of Africa?
A small group of clergy and laity learned everything we could about the university. We were especially drawn to the potential of the new Institute for Peace, Leadership, and Governance to facilitate conflict resolution and transform governments and organizations across Africa. We prayed for guidance and felt God leading us to do something significant and transformative, which, by default, implied great risk. But nothing will be impossible with God.
Over the past 1,400 days our task force has learned the lessons of Advent over and over and over by focusing on four themes: mission, preparation, expectant waiting, and Ubuntu (peace or shalom). Each step along the way, we encountered walls as well as God’s presence, both challenge and blessing.
From my Advent wall I ponder how exhilarating and agonizing God’s mission must have been. At the dawn of human history God fashioned us in God’s image to love, care for, and nurture creation’s full potential. Unfortunately, there was one little catch. By creating us with free will, God knew ahead of time that we would not always make the right decisions. In fact, we would continually turn away from God to satisfy our selfish urges.
Perched on a wall God watched … and waited … and wept. Choosing Abraham’s family to bless the world, God delivered them from captivity in Egypt, gave them the Law, and led them to the Promised Land. But we rebelled and built a golden calf. (Remember, this is our story, too.) So God gave the Israelites judges, kings, and prophets. Nothing worked. The wall between God and us could not be scaled, so God made the universe-altering decision to send God’s very own son into the world.
Our AU Task Force started out with a grandiose mission: to enhance Africa University’s capacity to change the continent of Africa through leadership development. This $5 million project would have involved a building on campus, a manufacturing incubator, endowed scholarships, and a partnership with local universities.
Then the greatest recession since the Great Depression swept across our country and found a resting place in the state of Michigan. We hit the proverbial wall and decided to dramatically scale back our project while keeping true to our mission. Psalm 18:29 reminded us to lighten our load so that we could get over that wall, “By my God I can leap over a wall.”
What is your mission during this Advent season? What decisions have you made about your time, money, and service during the next 23 days? Can you, too, leap over a wall?
Perched on my Advent wall, I can see how carefully God prepared us for the coming of Christ into the world. First, God had to figure out what kind of son this was going to be. A king, a religious leader – or perhaps a carpenter? When and where would he be born? Who would his parents be? How would he convey the essence of God’s grace? Would God be able to resist interfering in his son’s life? In the fullness of time, God acted. The moment Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, the walls between God and us began to come down.
Our initial work as a task force was to dialogue with Africa University officials about their needs. The result was a focus on AU’s expressed desire for a retreat center since there was no housing for visitors on campus and no place for holy conferencing. Our preparation included employing an architect in Michigan and creating an affordable proposal.
New walls appeared. How would we work together with the AU administration when we live in different parts of the world? How do we overcome our own cultural, racial, and ethnic biases? Acknowledging that we needed to build relationships before proceeding further, six of us traveled to Zimbabwe and sat around a table with AU officials for three days of meetings.
The turning point came when a 12 year old orphan at the Old Mutare Mission serendipitously preached in the chapel one morning. When Gift Tongerei related how the walls of Jericho came tumbling down by faith as the Israelites marched around the city and the priests blew trumpets, we knew that God was speaking directly to us. Walls came down that day, and the Holy Spirit united us around a plan to move forward.
How are you preparing for the coming of Christ? What walls need to come down?
Arms outstretched on my Advent wall, I keep vigil. During Advent we wait as well as work actively for God’s kingdom to come. Notice how Zechariah and Elizabeth waited expectantly for Zechariah to speak again after John was born. An unmarried couple, Mary and Joseph waited nine months for Jesus’s birth. Simeon and Anna waited hopefully for the restoration of Israel, which would, amazingly, break down walls by including the Gentiles. Magi from the East traveled expectantly for several years to worship Jesus in Bethlehem.
Our task force became accustomed to waiting. If we had known it would take almost four years to break ground for the Ubuntu Center, we might not have persisted. But with each setback, including a six month delay after the Haiti earthquake and a five month delay in breaking ground, we kept focused on our call from God and gained hope from the generous response of our donors. We discovered that expectant waiting means letting go of our own expectations and allowing God to work in and through us.
Can you view the walls in your life in a new way as you wait expectantly for the coming of the Christ child?
From my Advent wall I marvel at the word, Ubuntu, an African word which means, “I am because you are.” We are all one human family, and when one suffers, we all suffer. We only become whole when every person on this earth experiences health and wholeness.
All through the biblical stories of Advent and Christmas we find the themes of repentance, reconciliation, peace, and justice for all creation. Our world cannot be prepared for Christ’s coming until we break down the walls that divide, fill the hungry with good things, give light to those in darkness, proclaim a salvation prepared in the presence of the entire world, and guide all feet into the way of peace.
That’s the sole purpose of the Ubuntu Center at Africa University. It will be a holy place devoted to ubuntu. “For he is our ubuntu (peace); in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Ephesians 2:14
Ubuntu entered the world through the birth of Jesus. Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
How might the practice of ubuntu break down the walls and even fiscal cliffs that threaten to divide and devalue?
I’m poised on a wall, perched over the season of Advent along with my Bible and my guideposts: mission, preparation, expectant waiting, and ubuntu. I realize anew that nothing great comes easily, even for God. The world is changed because of compelling visions of ubuntu that play out through a clear mission, preparation, and expectant waiting.
Next year at this time the Ubuntu Center will be completed and ready to receive guests, break down walls, and dispense ubuntu. But right now it’s time to jump off the wall and let ubuntu begin with me.