Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Reading Mother Teresa--Mission

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The Reverend Stephen R. Riggs died in 1883, many years before I was born. I didn’t know him—I couldn’t have. He may have had an acidic personality—I don’t know. He may have mistreated his wife with, at best, inattention. He was a preacher, but he may well have been ornery as a junkyard dog.

But from what I know about him, I respect him. He played an unimaginably significant role in an American horror story, the Dakota War of 1862, a bloody legacy that still haunts the state of Minnesota, where it happened. Hundreds died, and 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in American history.

Riggs was no saint, at least no one has ever canonized him. He did almost unforgiveable things during the Dakota War, like, without doing any significant investigation, bringing almost instantaneous charges against Dakota men accused of rape and murder, charges that resulted in death by hanging.

I still respect him. He may well have been wrong, but his story is a human story of perseverance. He started a ministry among the Dakota in the Minnesota River valley in the 1830s; by the time of the Dakota War, he and his wife had been there for decades. He translated portions of the Bible into the Dakota language, a language that hadn’t been written before he started work. You can still buy his Dakota grammar on Amazon.

After the war, when Minnesota's white folks wanted all of the Native people—even the Ojibwe, who hadn’t been involved—dead or deported, Riggs was a tireless advocate. When Native suffering became unbearable—hundreds died—he was there beside them, helping.

But most of all I respect him for staying, for making his mission into something more than a mission. Really, Stephen R. Riggs never left the field. He may have come to Dakota country on a mission, but it wasn’t a mission—it was his life. He stayed with the Sioux; he moved to South Dakota, but he didn’t leave, and neither did his children. He didn’t retire to Ohio, from whence he came. He stayed.

There are, of course, different definitions of mission. In war, a mission might well be to secure a perimeter or capture a bridge, to free hostages or destroy an airfield, in other words, an important but temporary action: mission, a specific action to be accomplished.

But mission refers to something larger too, a statement of purpose or, even more broadly, a reason for existence.

By the end of her life, Mother Teresa was, by all measures, a celebrity. What she said made news, where she traveled there were crowds. The Missionaries of Charity were still her people, but she’d become a star.

But what I’ll always respect about her is what everyone around her knew: no matter where she traveled or who she met or how many networks carried her picture, she loved nothing better than coming home.

When, as a girl, she went to India, she went to war all right—war against poverty and loneliness and fear. Her mission was to destroy the darkness that people experience when all they see before them is a curtain--life or death without love.

But mission wasn’t something she intended to accomplish, only to return to the home place in Skopje, Albania, or some adorable little flat in Rome with a nice view of the Vatican. Calcutta was home, the streets of the city she’d walked for so many years. Once Mother Teresa started her mission, she never left the home place.

Missionaries come in all sizes, of course, and perfectly understandable reasons exist for leaving the field when it’s impossible to stay. And there are innumerable reasons to canonize Mother Teresa—her life was a gift not just to the poor she served in Calcutta, but to all of us.

But I think the crowning glory of what she did is that she never once saw her mission as something to be accomplished. She lived where she served. She never left. The people she served were her neighbors, her brothers and sisters. Her mission was her home.

Praise be to God.
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And so ends dozens and dozens of meditations on the life and work of Mother Teresa, a project I started two years ago, when I literally walked out of bookstores with Come Be My Light, the story of Mother Teresa by way of her own letters and diaries.  It was early in the morning at a Texas hill country retreat center.  No one was there to pay.  

There are dozens of these meditations now, some of them right here on the blog if you care to go back.  I'm finished.  It's been a wonderful experience for this old Calvinist to visit with an actual saint of the Roman Catholic church.  Hers is a different species of the Christian faith, but we know the same Savior, and she's taught me a ton about Him.

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