Ecumenical Institute, Chicago
September 15, 1971
What is a witness? I have three little phrases that keep me straight on what it means to give a witness. First of all, it's a witness to the Word, the Word that comes to us in Jesus Christ, the Word that's been renewed for our time in the theological revolution. It's a witness to that Word. The Second, it's a witness out of your own life. If your own life isn't in it, it's not a witness to the Word. And it's a witness to a group of people to whom the witness is made. The question in making a witness is to ask what witness is needed, what word is needed, what particular reality is that before which a word is being called for?
Let's begin there this morning. Who are you here this morning? What kind of a word is therefore perhaps needed? What is your spiritual war right now? What word is relevant to your life right now? I'd like to suggest that you are spiritually lazy. Not lazy, but spiritually lazy. You do your work, you do what is asked of you. No one could blame you by almost any rational criterion for laziness. But you do not do the quality needed. You stop short of thinking through to the bottom what must really be done. You bugged out when the depth of your action reached a certain level of acceptability. It wasn't that you didn't have time; it wasn't that you didn't have the ability. You were lazyspiritually lazyall day yesterday, and all day the day before, and again today, if you don't watch out.
Life is so complex. It's like a housewife with four pots boiling on the stove at the same time, and the phone's ringing, and then the doorbell starts ringing, and she really wanted to reflect on the speech that she's making tomorrow morning. And there you are in the midst of overwhelming complexity, just sort of paralyzed and in a catatonic state, doing almost nothing well, just running from pot to pot, running from doorbell to phone. Somehow, what you need to do as a spirit man is learn how to say no. A NO to that telephone. NO to pot number one. NO to pot number two. NO to pot number three. And NO to pot number four. I am going to say YES to this doorbell. And I'm going to say YES to this doorbell with the bottom of my being, and all you other four pots can just wait! And you telephone up there, you can just ring your silly head off! I am going to go to the door, and I am going to push this door experience clear to the bottom.
Now spiritual laziness is the opposite of that. It is to live all day long in some kind of catatonic frenzy, before the complexity of life. Or perhaps it is to find some meaningful distraction somewhere so you can forget all these worrisome demands. Or it is to say, 'I'm an inadequate person anyway, I'm spiritually underdeveloped, and therefore nothing can really be done."
Well, how can you get something like "NO" said to your image of spiritual inadequacy. Give your spiritual inadequacy to the needs of your neighbor. God will get you straightened out when He gets ready. Check in and see. It's somewhere in this area where the Word of God for you is this morning. Faith in God is the openness to make this day a sociological act: patiently, thoughtfully, deliberately, from the bottom of your being. "For this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."
I remember when I was very young, the first time I went off to summer camp, and being in a cabin with all these older people and saying to myself, "I can't wait till I can go to camp and be a staff." This happened to me every year. Every summer I went off to camp, and every summer I said to myself, "I can't wait till I'm a staff; it's going to be so much fun!" Then finally that opportunity came, the summer that I was in the eighth grade. When I first arrived at camp I was assigned to work with the third and fourth grade girls. I thought to myself, "Oh, well, that's pretty fun. I guess you can have fun with girls." I had really been hoping to be assigned to fourth and fifth grade boys, because you can do normal things with them, like play soccer or baseball. Then, suddenly, my job was shifted: I was assigned to the preschool cabin. I thought, "Oh, preschool! What did I do to deserve this!"
So I went to work in the preschoo1 cabin with Alice Rose, a very good friend of mine. Now, we were supposed to have an adult in the cabin as well, but the adult never showed up during the whole summer. On top of that, they must have picked out this cabin especially for me: it was a collection of the greatest preschool terrors! Then, when Alice and I started to work on the curriculum, we discovered that it had been designed for use with older children. It was completely irrelevant for the preschoolers. You know, the ideas were great, but what you can do with the attention span of a preschooler was different than what the curriculum outlined. So every night after the staff meeting, which usually didn't end until 10:00 p.m., we would have to sit up for another hour or two working on the curriculum.
When we'd finally go back to the cabin we'd have to wake up the ones who had wetting problems, take them all to the bathroom, bring them back, and put them in bed. By the time we would get into bed it would be 12:30 or 1:00 o'clock in the morning. Now, these preschoolers are better known as alarm clocks. Bright and early at 6:30: "Good morning, Kristen!" Peter, who had his bunk bed next to mine, was very good at saying that, right on time. I would look at him and want to be mad, and want to say, "Oh, Peter, shut up. Let me sleep!" But the kids were so lively, that all I could do was say, "Good morning, Peter!" And get out of bed, help the kids get dressed, and get down to morning worship.
As the summer went on, I found myself very busy with these preschoolers. I had never thought being a camp staff would be so much work! It seemed like the curriculum was getting more and more abstract, so we were spending more and more time working on making it meaningful. In addition we were trying especially to work with one of the preschoolers on her wetting problem, so we'd get up sometimes twice during the night to take her to the toilet. Now that wasn't easy because she does have a will of her own, and she didn't want to go to the toilet in the middle of the night either.
But as the end of the summer came, all of a sudden I realized that it really had been one of the greatest summers of my life. We had created a play called "The Snout", for which we wrote a song which the children danced to. I remember how proud I was when they performed. I also remember how proud I was at the end of the summer when we got to see al, of their parents. Especially when one of the Mothers came up to me and said, "Kristen, I really have to congratulate you. You know, Christopher usually comes home from camp with no clothes. Well, this year he came back with all of his clothes. In fact, I think he came back with a couple extra pairs of socks!" That really made me feel good.
So I started thinking, "After all that work, after sleeping in a cabin with ten preschool 'terrors', five of whom wet their bed every night, after staying up all night working on curriculum and taking kids to the bathroom all night, how come I had such a good time? How could all that work have been so much fun?" That was the same summer when some big posters were printed. The one that really struck me was the one that said "Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed."
The next year I went to Peru and we had those posters hanging up in our meeting room. I remember some days I used to just sit there and stare at that poster, and think about what those words meant. One day as I was sitting there thinking, I remembered once when I was younger, asking a question of my Mother. It had to do with House Church (weekly Communion). I remember not understanding why it was that when people got the bread to their own plate, and their own wine, why everybody would pour their wine onto their bread. So I asked my Mother, who explained to me that it was every person's individual decision, of giving their lives, of pouring out their lives for other people. And as I looked at the poster and thought about that, all of a sudden House Church had a meaning for me. And then, every week when I got my bread and wine, I would make a decision: am I going to give my life for others? Sometimes I'd pour just a little bit of wine onto my bread, and sometimes I'd pour a whole lot of wine onto my bread.
But that to me is the importance of this meal. It is not only a great historical event that happened in the church, but it is also a decision that each one of us makes every week, of giving our lives so that others may benefit, and knowing that our lives affect everyone in the world around us and how important it is to give of ourselves. As a card my aunt sent me says, "The light you give unto others returns to shine on you.
Kristen Cramer February, 1982
Witness at House Church on the
Occasion of her 17th Birthday.
I've been singing one of our old songs lately. You know it well. "I am a stranger here within a foreign land. My home is far away upon a golden strand." Then I find myself rehearsing that strange line from the act of Gratitude "We are the lonely ones, rejoice!" De Chardin writes in a slightly different slant:
A deep process of renewal had taken place within him: now it would never again be possible for him to be human save on another plane. Were he to descend again now to the everyday life of earth even though it were to rejoin his faithful companion, still prostrate over there on the desert sand he would henceforth be forever a stranger.
My own experience of being apart has been intensifed this year such that these words have communicated greatly to me. These days have reminded me of the incredible journey we took in Philadelphia three years ago toward that unprecedented event of the Human Development Training School in TiogaNicetown. I had lived in black communities before. I had lived with black people. But our Tioga colleague Emily had the patience to open my eyes to the authentic cultural, worldview, mindset, and linguistic gaps between myself and the people of that black community. In the middle of Philadelphia I met people who had never dialogued with a white person seriously, had never eaten a meal with a white person. It's then I realized even though I'm talking English, the screen I'm using is not necessarily the screen my black colleague is using. It wasn't much longer until I felt the mistrust, hate, and rage just lying under the surface. The very act of walking down the street alone in that community got transformed into an awesome event. I experienced another nation within my nation. "I am a stranger here within a foreign land." This was even more awesome because I was in my own country. This year has been that same kind of journey for me. It's been that kind of journey for others of my colleagues too. Recently one of them asked me to see her immediately. I wasn't prepared for the sobbing, collapsed human being I encountered. Most of the time I'm convinced that I'm the only one who feels so empty inside. What I want to witness to is not the journey of the conversation together. There is hardly anything you can say in such moments except to acknowledge that that pain, anguish, bafflement, and surprise is all real and finally unavoidable in life.
But what I do want to witness to is the mystery of seeing this same human being just a few days later stand before a group leading it with power, confidence, poise, direction, and spirit insight, literally creating a magnificent happening for those gathered.
In that moment, I saw a new light on the line "In the midst of loneliness there has been comfort." You can't convince me that my colleague was feeling any better. Nothing had changed in her situation. Somehow she discovered herself sustained in life. Somehow, she came upon herself sustained in covenant.
It is not strange to discover and rediscover that strangerhood or loneliness is forever part of cur human journey. It is awesome to discover and rediscover that it is the doorway to profound humanness. It is awesome to discover that loneliness does not go away but sometimes is transformed into something I might call solitude. It is awesome to discover that your loneliness, your apartness is all you have to offer up to your fellow colleagues and finally to history itself.
And so I repeat IN THE MIDST OF LONELINESS THERE HAS BEEN COMFORT.
But then I would add
There is a place in Alaska, called Minto. It is a village like many that we have worked with elsewhere, I suspect, though it may be a bit colder than most. But probably the dynamics of village life are pretty much the same as those of any village in India or Africa. But for me, Minto is something more. I suspect that each one of us has had someplace in our lives, some experience, that has rocked us to the core of our being. For me, Minto has been that place.
I have been brooding a lot about Minto these days, which may seem strange, since it has been 2 1/2 years since we left the village. But I think it has to do with the fact that we are now on the eve of the greatest maneuver in our history, the IERD. And somehow it seems important to step back to look at the journey we have been on, to see just how we got here. Its not just Minto, of course, for that village represents Kawangware, Maliwada, or anywhere else where any of us have expended ourselves.
I think those of us who had the privilege to work in Minto, and it was a privilege, experienced it as sheer mystery, sheer otherness. For those of you who have never been there, I need to throw out a few images. First of all, Minto is a community of 200 Athabascan Native Americans, who call themselves the Minto people. The village itself is located, quite literally, at the end of the road, overlooking a land of many small lakes called the Minto Flats. And it is incredible country, especially the last 30 miles coming into Minto, where there are few trees, and just the wideopen land and sky. It also gets very cold in the winter. Many of the people still subsist off the land as much as they can, hunting, fishing and trapping. There is one telephone in the village, and the mail plane comes once a week. And the celebrations...if there is one thing that Minto knows how to do, its how to celebrate. Between Christmas and New Years, for example, they celebrate every single night. Can you imagine staying up until 5 in the morning on Christmas Eve square dancing?
And there is the Potlatch. The Potlatch is probably Minto's finest hour. It is a profound, intentional celebration of the community's life in the face of the final mystery of death. It not only manages to honor the person who has passed away, but also rehearses, selfconsciously, the gift and significance of being the village and people of Minto. People actually get up and make speeches, in the midst of feasting, traditional dancing and games, and giftgiving.
It is an incredible place, but it is also a deeply painfilled one. They experience themselves caught between their own culture and style, and that of the Whiteman. Alcoholism is the most visible problem. And, on top of all that, Minto has a reputation, among both natives and Whites, as being the stubbornness, sometimes most downright mean, village in all Alaska. This, in all its glory and struggle, is the village that we decided to work with.
The experience of being there was one of total immersion in the Other. It is very easy to start feeling very isolated and alone, particularly when you've just come from Chicago, and it's night and 30 below outside, and your oil stove goes out, and you can t seem to get the oil line unfrozen. It was very much an experience of never being able to escape the village while you were there, day or night. I can remember any number of nights when Solomon Peter, who was a friend of ours, would come banging on our door at 1 or 2 in the morning, drunk, and we would sit down with him, give him some coffee, and just talk, because we knew he had come to sober up. It was just something that needed to be done. But you couldn't even escape into your room. There were nights when Solomon would go barging into Sharon's room when she was in bed and Al wasn't home. Which got Sharon very ticked off, of course. Or there was the experience of the Potlatch. When someone died, everything stopped for a week, and you would have to bracket all your plans and go help out with the Potlatch. like everyone else.
We experienced ourselves immersed, yet we were always Other from the village. There we were, a bunch of mostly White citified folk, in this native village. Even Whites who had married into the village years ago were outsiders. The Minto people are a proud and stubborn people. You could not do anything unless the Village Council was upfront and actually engaged. And when you run into a situation when, for six months, the Council does not want to deal with any of the crisis which suddenly pop up, much less with you, you are stuck.
We experienced ourselves as stumblebums. We had the Consult, of course, and all kinds of great ideas and plans came out of it. Especially for the light industry which the village very much needed. We had plans for a furtanning plant, and a furgarment industry. We even attempted to enable the village to buy a plastics business and move it from Anchorage. You know those little plastic totem poles which they sell in airports and the like? It would have provided 20 badlyneeded jobs. Yet most of those plans finally did not have the consensus of the village behind them, even though the people had participated in the Consult. Even the ones that we did get going, such as the Crafts Coop, soon collapsed after we left. We certainly made plenty of strategic mistakes while we were there, things that when you look back, you cannot imagine why you couldn't have seen them then. I think we experienced our own utter inadequacy.
Finally, of course, there was the experience of being voted out of the village. It wasn't like they did it behind our backs, at least the actual vote, they did it in front of us while we were sitting there in the community hall. That was an experience of humiliation.
Yet, despite all of that, somehow our presence there was exactly what was required, for both Minto and for us. Despite our putting ourselves in an absurd situation, despite our stumblebumness and our naiveté. It was our presence which was required. And the village itself, strangely enough, has sensed this, though most of them would probably not articulate it. Minto is now an awakened village. Many of the projects that we had tried to catalyze are since being implemented, by them. Minto has become a node for the whole interior of Alaska. People come from villages all over to attend meetings in Minto. It still has great pain, and much unclarity about the future, but it will never be the same. It is on the move.
Finally, what we were doing in Minto is acting out what it means to be the Church. We have always understood that to be the Church is to be the pioneers, to risk everything on behalf of all, and to often fall flat on our faces and show ourselves as fools. Quite simply, it means to live our stumblebumness to the hilt.
We didn't see that, then, of course, it takes some stepping back and gaining some perspective. Even after we were voted out, we tried every strategy in the book, every gimmick, to maintain some sort of working relationship with the village, to not lose all the expenditure we had poured out there. Yet, finally, God had decided that our work with Minto, and Minto's work with us, was complete. Finally, we had to accept that.
We would not be where we are today, if it were not for Minto...and Kawangware and Aspitia. The IERD would not be possible, not only strategically, in the story we tell the world. But also in terms of what we learned there, for we learned much. And it would not be possible in our guts to do IERD had we not been in, and lived and worked in, those places.
And all this has something to do with this thing that we have been talking about as the "New Paradigm. There is a learning here, an insight. It has to do with the fact that finally We are Nothing. We are simply those who immerse ourselves totally in life, in all the complexity and ambiguity which is the world. Which is what it means to engage in radical, authentic dialogue with all of life. We are certainly not in control, nor do we need to be. We will probably spoof ourselves for a little bit with this great thing called the IERD, thinking that we are, somehow or another, at least a little bit in control. But we will remember, or God will remind us.
Finally, it is not our Strategies which are important, nor is it our Methods, as powerful as they may be. Nor is it even clarity about who we are as a body or people, nor clarity about our missional thrust, which is required of us.
All that is asked for is represented by these two symbols sitting here in front of us. The bread and the wine. To take within ourselves the brokenness of this bread, which is finally, simply, our stumblebumness. And to take within ourselves the spiltout wine which is the willingness to risk everything, to immerse ourselves totally in life. God requires nothing else of us.