147. The Wall

This month, the world celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On Nov 9, 1989, the gates were opened and crowds of people from East and West Germany intermingled freely for the first time in decades. They began to pick apart the wall, stone by stone, to the utter astonishment of the armies, politicians, and governments of the world.

The Berlin Wall was actually two concrete, steel-reinforced walls, 12 feet high, with barbed wire and guard towers on top and a killing ground in between. The Wall provided a stark symbol and bleak reminder of the divisions of the world, the struggle for freedom, the clash of ideologies, and the legacy of war. During the mid-1980s there were murmurings of change taking place, of incremental movement. But no one expected things would change so suddenly. No one predicted that in one 24-hour period, our understanding of the world and the experience of millions of people would be irreversibly transformed.

One writer reminiscing on the events from 1989 reports that on the night of November 9, he was in a hotel with West Germany Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Warsaw watching the events on TV. The Chancellor was himself as surprised and stunned as everyone else.

I take great heart from the events of November 1989. It reminds us of our complete incapacity to predict the future, and of history’s incredible capacity to surprise us and to interrupt our expectations. In ways we cannot anticipate, major changes spring forth, their arrival unrevealed until the moment. New birth. New life. New direction. Amazing. This gives me hope. The Wall that was a symbol of hopelessness became a symbol of hope for me.

When I was in seminary in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the social witness of the church focused on several issues that at the time seemed completely hopeless, unsolvable, and intransigent. Civil war raged in Central America, with death squads, disappearing people, and outsiders intervening. Apartheid reigned in South Africa, seemingly impenetrable by outside criticism or inside protest. Nuclear proliferation seemed beyond restraint as Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe lined up nose-to-nose with American missiles in Western Europe. These issues fostered a gloomy outlook, making it impossible to imagine a day when these problems might be resolved. They were just too big; peace, justice, and real change were too much to expect.

Not all of these hotspots from twenty years ago are entirely healed or resolved, and yet consider the progress and the reversals that have taken place which no one back then could have imagined.

Or imagine trying to convince American citizens in 1945 that fifty or sixty years later, our closest economic allies and political supporters in Asia and Europe would be Japan and Germany. Such a notion was preposterous and beyond imagination. But here we are.

The ability for people to change, for history to evolve, and for communities to transform themselves gives me hope. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Transformation really does happen. Work, prayer, persistence, sacrifice, sweat, tears, and by the movement of God’s spirit, even through people who do not know God’s spirit by name, the world really does transform. History is malleable rather than determined. That gives space and room for God to work, and for those who seek God’s peace and justice to influence outcomes.

The same is true for individual lives; facing challenges that now seem permanent, impossible, and utterly overwhelming, a new direction emerges totally unbidden and unexpected that changes us forever. Grace happens.

Today we face our own insurmountable, impossible, and intransigent issues. Terrorism, war in the Middle East, global warming, poverty, the killer diseases of malaria and HIV in Africa—these are all too big for us to imagine how things might change. I’m not suggesting that we naively sit back and trust that these things will get better. Rather, I’m reminding us to bear witness to the power of persistence and prayer, and to the importance of remaining active and hopeful.

We follow the one who taught with seeds. From the smallest of initiatives comes the most consequential of results. Much change remains unseen, invisible, and unknown until its emerging. Resurrection is our faith; new life is our Way.

Yours in Christ,