I Will Seek Them Out

If you’ve been in class with me, or if I’ve taken one of your classes, you may have noticed that I am a knitter. Some people doodle, some people twiddle their thumbs… I make fabric by tying elaborate knots in fiber string with two sticks. This week, I’m knitting a yellow hat, but I usually work on socks. Socks are utilitarian objects, simply constructed, and crazy comfortable. You can make socks out of stuff called sock yarn, which is shockingly thin to people who don’t knit socks. You can use “regular” yarn, which is what sweaters are knit from, and you can even use really thick, bulky yarn if you want a big, cozy pair of slipper socks.  My favourite kind of yarn to knit socks is wool yarn that has a little bit of nylon twisted in for added strength and stretch.

Wool yarn itself has a pretty cool story — it starts out as fuzzy curls on sheep, and goes through a giant process of being clipped off the sheep, then cleaned, washed, brushed, brushed, brushed, and eventually spun into yarn.

I am a tiny bit embarrassed to confess to you that I never really held together my affinity for all things knitting and wool with my affinity for Scripture until I spent some time with this week’s lectionary reading. I don’t know if this admission will get my either my Seminary or Pro Knitter Membership cards pulled. But I’ve learned some interesting things about sheep.

******

The sheep metaphor is strong throughout the Old and New Testaments. Back in the day, this might have been a really useful tool for teaching about God considering that shepherds and sheep were known throughout the many cultures in the Bible. Using sheep to teach about God and the church is probably the equivalent of telling a sermon story about Facebook or the many orange barrels that dot the highways in New York State. But for us today? Sheep are not super relevant.

Sheep are social animals. They stick together in groups called flocks, because sheep are prey, and there is safety in numbers. If one sheep is threatened, its only reaction is to flee the situation, and when one sheep flees, the rest of the flock follows it. When one sheep is isolated from the flock, it becomes stressed immediately. This stress can be so intense and overwhelming that the sheep will quickly become sick if the stress levels continue at a high rate. Not only can an isolated sheep not protect itself, it also is at risk of death from stress.

The flocking instinct can be positive for the group of sheep, but it can also be dangerous. In Turkey in 2006, every single sheep in a 400-member flock plunged to their deaths when one of the flock fled off the edge of a ravine. Sheep cannot be guaranteed to lead themselves well; they require a shepherd.

Shepherds can prevent unmitigated fleeing. Shepherds can guide their sheep away from land that has been thoroughly grazed, away from piles of stool infested with mites and parasites. Shepherds can lead their sheep into the shade when it is hot — sheep will not relocate to escape the heat. They will lay down and die of heatstroke. Shepherds can ward off predators, and take steps to keep their flock peaceful and stress-free. Shepherds notice when the sheep arrive back at the pen out of order. They know that there’s a problem when the sheep who is usually toward the front of the flock is walking at the back of the flock.

*******

Can you see the parallels? Humans are social animals, even those of us who identify as introverts. We stick together in groups called friends, families, and co-journeyers. Humans are predators, yes, but we are just as often prey. We have a couple more reactions to danger than just fleeing — we also fight and freeze. When humans are isolated from other humans, we become stressed, sad, and lonely. Sometimes entire groups of humans become isolated from their regular habitat, or their communities, and I think we all know how horribly damaging that can be.

Humans need shepherds, too. We need shepherds to walk with us as we travel; we need a shepherd in times of stress. We need shepherds to make sure we have adequate food and water, and to lead us into shelter in times of storm. We need shepherds when we lose our footing, or step out of line, or when we find ourselves dangerously close to the precipice.

The shepherd is concerned with the well-being of the whole flock, it’s true. But which of the flock receives the bulk of the shepherd’s energies?

The answer is in our scripture from Ezekiel 34:16, then verses 20-22: 

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

The lost. The strayed. The injured. The weak. The ravaged.

I WILL SEEK THE LOST. I will feed them with justice.

Friends, this is the story of the Incarnation of Christ. We are here today, teetering on the edge of the season where we celebrate the Advent of our Saviour, where we fill our time with extraneous activities that we have been conditioned to believe are meaningful, so much that we often miss the entire point of why that baby was in that filthy manger.

The magic of Christmas is that Christ came to earth as the God-Man to seek the lost. The magic of Christmas is that Christ who always is God, and had always been the Logos became a man, and existed simultaneously and fully as God and Man for one reason: to go out into that far country (to quote Karl Barth), so that all the lost would be found.

The magic of Christmas didn’t happen in a barn. It didn’t happen in that little town of Bethlehem. It really happened somewhere inside a closed-up cave outside Jerusalem, sometime between Good Friday and the Resurrection. It happened because Christ joined our flock, and became a sheep like us, and gave himself over to the Predator to pay the price for that time we used our horns to push another sheep out of the way, or used our hooves to trample one another on the way to the top of the heap. He didn’t flee, or trip one of us up so that we could be the prey. He knew his role, our loving Shepherd-Sheep-God-Man, and not only did he fix it so that we don’t have to be the prey any more, but he also showed us how to see the lost, the strayed, and the weak. He modeled how we should love our flock.

*****

What does it mean to model how we ought to love our flock? First and foremost, it means we need to know how many are in our flock and who they are, and then we need to identify the ones who are lost or lagging behind. Where are they: the lost, strayed, injured, weak, and ravaged? Not at the center of the flock. And they are definitely not the ones at the head of the flock.

They are the ones on the edges, in the margins. The ones who are hungry and need food. They are thirsty and in need of water; naked and needing clothing. They are the ones who are sick, and imprisoned, and need to be visited. And whenever we come alongside the marginalized and buoy them with deeply needed resources, we are not only shepherding well, it’s as if we are shepherding Christ. And when we shepherd like Christ, we become the hands and feet of Christ, and we tell the story of the Incarnation with our very lives.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Here’s the thing, though. Sometimes the margins seem really far away. It’s so much easier to go the same places you always go, and to leave the margins to someone else. It’s so much easier to blame the people who are on the margins, for being in the margins, than it is to help. 

Therefore, God, the Master, says: I myself am stepping in and making things right between the plump sheep and the skinny sheep.  Because you forced your way with shoulder and rump and butted at all the weaker animals with your horns till you scattered them all over the hills,  I’ll come in and save my dear flock, no longer let them be pushed around. I’ll step in and set things right between one sheep and another. Ezekiel 34:20-22 (The Message)

Just as Christ entered the wilderness alongside us, to bring us to himself, we need to go out from our comfortable places. We need to get up out of our pews, walk out the door, and meet the people who are lost, in the places where they are.  We need to come armed with food for the hungry, and drinks for the thirsty. We need to stand between the plump sheep who force their way with shoulders and rumps and horns, and the weaker ones who are getting pushed around. If we are to imitate the Shepherd, we need to get out of the barn.

This is the Gospel of Life. This is the euangelion. This is the legacy of the Jesus Way. And if we learned anything by studying the life of Jesus, we know that it is not an easy path. Jesus was on the road for the entirety of his ministry. Jesus walked that road even unto suffering, and into his death.

And he asked us to walk with him, and to live our lives as a gift, just as Christ lived and died.  I invite you to spend some time in the wilderness this Advent season, and to take on the mantle of the Shepherd. Let’s travel out across the hills to seek the lost and live like we really believe in the miracle of Christmas.

me, too

It was a beautiful mid-August day. The Doctors Burke, brothers who shared a dental practice, returned to their office after lunch in midtown Manhattan. The word on the street was that the war with Japan might be over. Their assistant offered to walk to Times Square to get the news on her lunch break.  Like every other day, Greta Zimmer was dressed in her white nursing uniform — white dress, white stockings, white shoes — she removed her white nursing cap, and quickly walked the couple blocks from the Lexington Avenue office to investigate. The news ticker that wrapped around the Times Building at One Times Square exclaimed V-J DAY! V-J DAY! V-J DAY!!! Greta, who was 21 at the time, said she barely had time to register the cacophony around her when she was grabbed hard by a sailor — “a very strong man” is how she described him — bent backwards and kissed full on the mouth. Unbeknownst to both Greta and the sailor, this moment was preserved for all time by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. In a 1980 interview for the Library of Congress’s Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans’ History Project, Greta Zimmer Friedman described it as a silent act. She said, “And the reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded.”

A young woman, all alone in a big city, was grabbed and kissed by a random man who thought that forcing himself on her was a good way to thank all the nurses who cared for the wounded in World War II. It was a silent act in the middle of a celebration in crowded Midtown Manhattan.

*****

It’s the sentence, “It was a silent act” that gave me pause. With all the noise of New York City, plus the noise of the celebration of V-J Day, where did that silence come from? How did it happen? Why is it that silence is a character in stories of abuse?  How is it that so many women and girls are assaulted in silence?

It’s not that silence is inherently bad — it’s absolutely not.  Silence, when it is used well, can create space for growth. It can stand in for the many things that need to remain unspoken. Silence can be meditative, it can accompany rest; silence can bring healing. Silence has power. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, the First Baron Acton, was an English Catholic historian and writer, and is best known for giving us the quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Saying that silence has absolute power is going a bit far, but I believe that silence has enough power to at least accompany corruption.

Last week the story broke about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct. I’m not going to get into the heartwrenching details — I’m certain you all know how to consult the Googles for all the news that’s been deemed fit to print — but a common element in many of the stories I’ve read is the use of silence to reinforce power. People were encouraged to not speak up or complain about Weinstein’s crimes for fear of losing their jobs or being blackballed completely from the movie industry. In addition to enforced silence, many victims were dismissed with comments that suggested this behaviour was the sort of thing one should expect from such a powerful, wealthy man, which calls to mind a phrase that’s absolutely forbidden in my home and around my sons: Boys will be boys.

Boys will be boys in the movie industry; boys will be boys on Wall Street; boys will be boys in the locker room, boys will be boys outside the locker room; boys will be boys in academia; boys will be boys in the church.

*****

Judges 19-21 tells the story of a Levite and his concubine who were traveling through Israel. They arrived in a town late one night and none of the townspeople took them in. This was a major violation of the code of hospitality that everyone was expected to adhere to. Finally a local man arrived home very late, and offered hospitality because he was embarrassed by his neighbors. You’d think that this would be a happy ending, but this is where the nightmare started. The rest of the men of the town demanded that their neighbor turn out the traveling man, but the neighbor would not. Instead he offered the crowd his daughter and the traveler’s concubine. The crowd was displeased, and the situation deteriorated. The story says that the traveller opened the door and gave his concubine to the crowd. There were no words spoken. It was a silent act. The crowd destroyed the concubine and left her on the doorstep. The next morning, the traveller speaks. Did he ask her if she needed water? If she needed help? Did he apologize for throwing her to the pack of human wolves? No. He told her to get up. The traveler was completely silent about the woman’s obvious suffering and about what had happened the night before. She was unable to even move, so he threw her over the back of his donkey, took her home, and cut her into twelve pieces, which ultimately started a very enormous intertribal war. Did he kill her? Was she already dead? It’s unclear who caused her death, but it is very clear who was responsible. The traveler used silence as a shield for himself, to preserve his own life and to assert his power over the concubine.

The last verse of Judges 21 says: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. In second Samuel 11, we read the story of King David, who did what was right in his own eyes when he forced Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite to have sex with him, and he did what was right in his own eyes when he created the perfect scenario in which Uriah lost his life. Silence and power worked together to allow Bathsheba to be raped and become pregnant. Nobody spoke up for Bathsheba. Nobody said to David, “This is wrong.” David did what was right in his own eyes, and it wasn’t until after the whole mess had played out and Uriah was dead, did Nathan the prophet call King David out.

*****

My friends, I hope you know these things still happen. We have a President who has been named more than 13 times as perpetrating sexual assault, and was voted into office (many thanks to my fellow white women) even after a widely circulated video clip where he proudly claims to have assaulted women by grabbing them.  You know the one. This kind of power harms, and silence intimidates, and when someone does have the courage or enough frustration to speak out, they are forced to repeat their stories again and again and again until the people with the power are satisfied that, yeah, they are probably telling the truth. But what were you wearing, and what did you have to drink, and why didn’t you say no and why didn’t you file a complaint with HR and why didn’t you call the police and why didn’t you behave differently and why do you hate men and why do you expect me to do something about this so long after it happened… why, why, why.

There was some big drama on Twitter last week. Actress Rose McGowan was put in Twitter Jail after a series of tweets condemning Weinstein’s actions, and one of the responses to this drama was the suggestion by a women’s rights non-profit to tweet #metoo if you experienced sexual assault or abuse. Perhaps you saw statuses and comments on your social media feeds that said “me, too.” The oft-quoted statistic is that one in three women are sexually assaulted in the United States. And maybe it’s true, maybe it was only a third of my Facebook friends and a third of the people I follow on Twitter and Instagram, who said “me, too;” I was too horrified to count and do the math. But I know two things: 1) Silence is powerful, and I know there are people who are not interested in sharing their pain and their shame in a public forum. And 2) NOT ONE WOMAN SAID, “This has never happened to me.”

*****

Isaiah 61 says: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 

This is the scripture on the scroll Jesus read to introduce himself at the synagogue. This is the scripture that Jesus declared fulfilled after it was read. As the Body of Christ, we need to acknowledge that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we need to lean into the power of the Spirit and reclaim the power that oppressive silence steals from us.  It is our mandate to bring good news to the oppressed. Good news like “I believe you,” and “You didn’t deserve this,” and “There wasn’t anything you could have done to change the situation.” It is our mandate to bind up the broken-hearted, to share the oil of gladness, to wrap the broken-hearted in a mantle of praise. This means providing health care that does not consider rape a pre-existing condition. This means providing emotional and mental health support, recognizing that assault victims experience PTSD, and destigmatizing depression and mental illness. It is our mandate to love, and that love will create space for the healing and restoration of the broken and vulnerable among us.

And finally, to those of us who are broken-hearted, who are mourning, who feel faint in spirit, who have said “me, too,” whether it be in an act of silence or an act of defiant solidarity: The Spirit of the Lord is also upon us. There is healing and restoration available to us, and it is us who will be called oaks of righteousness and who will continue to display his glory. And for THAT, I say thanks be to God.

it’s another banner day in washington

Today, the House of Representatives pushed a shiny, new healthcare bill on through to the Senate. No hearings, little analysis. This bill has been called “a monstrous act of cruelty,” and has been denounced by pretty much every medical-related field except big pharma.

The list of pre-existing conditions includes CRIMES.

Rape is a CRIME.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

Domestic violence is a CRIME.

And instead of offering embrace and support, victims can now be penalized for seeking medical attention for those three crimes against them. All this happened while the President of the United States made statements saying that women want to be sexually assaulted, and abusers in the entertainment industry were awarded Oscars and given multi-million dollar severance packages.

AND DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON THE JOHNSON AMENDMENT.

What today’s executive order accomplished is to make it legal for churches to tell their congregations which way God wants them to vote. Nobody’s First Amendment rights were violated by the Johnson Amendment. No pastor has been sanctioned for looking at sociopolitical current events through the lens of the Bible. No priest has been reprimanded for asking, “What would Jesus do about _______?” No pastor has been fired for preaching about how the church should interact with refugees or the poor, or about issues of race and gender.

But.

Now no pastor’s tax status will be on the line for preaching the Gospel of Trump. No church will lose its 501(c)3 status for bowing to the idol of America. No house of worship will be in hot water teaching the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism.

Because that’s why we have church, right? To hear about how great the government is, and to have someone tell us what is God’s perspective on our political climate. It’s too much work to look at the critique of government provided throughout the Bible, and compare those situations to what we face today. And besides, Revelation is so dramatic and confusing and HARD.

*****

I took Introduction to Preaching this semester, and Tuesday was my turn in the pulpit. I preached from Jeremiah about prophets, and about the responsibility we have to speak truth to power.

Here’s some truth:

This administration does not care about its constituents. It does not care about women; it does not care about children. This administration does not care about the disabled or the people suffering from mental illness. It does not care for our elders. It does not care about the land, the water, or the air. It does not take seriously nuclear war, nor does it care about the blood already on its hands. It does not care about the poor or the oppressed.

Lifting the Johnson Amendment might accomplish one of the to-do items on the Republican Evangelical’s to-do list. But more importantly, it built a pulpit that allows the rest of us to call them out.

Thanks for holding the door open for us, Mr. President.

*****

Jeremiah 5: 26-29

“My people are infiltrated by wicked men,
    unscrupulous men on the hunt.
They set traps for the unsuspecting.
    Their victims are innocent men and women.
Their houses are stuffed with ill-gotten gain,
    like a hunter’s bag full of birds.
Pretentious and powerful and rich,
    hugely obese, oily with rolls of fat.
Worse, they have no conscience.
    Right and wrong mean nothing to them.
They stand for nothing, stand up for no one,
    throw orphans to the wolves, exploit the poor.
Do you think I’ll stand by and do nothing about this?”

a confessional lament

Another assignment from my Psalms class.

Oh, Lord, my God
I approach your throne with a heavy heart and tears on my cheeks
You are the protector of the land, you love the people you created.

I repent for my ancestors, who stepped off the Mayflower on to Wampanoag land.
I weep that while they explored, they desecrated a burial ground;
they stole corn buried safely for spring planting.
They extended a hand of smallpox instead of a gesture of peace.

My ancestors took the land, reviled the sacred, and polluted creation.
Greed, and war, and rape, and torture became the standard,
and slowly genocide was enacted.
I am ashamed that my ancestors created reservations.

My people stole their children, discredited their spirituality.
We enforced their poverty, we spend millions of dollars with businesses who
make their living by exploiting caricature,
Exploiting their culture because we are addicted to colonization and power.

And now they rise, and they stand in prayer and we beat them with clubs.
We burn their eyes with gas and spray and force them into kennels.
we shoot them with guns that leave them alive and traumatized.
I repent for my ancestors. I cannot scrub colonizer privilege from my skin.

Creator, they are oppressed, and yet they remain peaceful,
and yet we beat them back, and yet they remain.
Protect the ones who would protect your work.
Protect the ones who love the land you made,
The ones who are your true children, who honor you by honoring your creation.

You have punished armies, ended conflicts.
You take power from oppressors; you restore the oppressed.
You heal the brokenhearted; you set prisoners free.
You bring suffering to those who do not love;
Lord God, make us pay for we know exactly what we do.

possibilities for the people of god

My Bonhoeffer classmates coordinated the worship service at CRCDS on Wednesday, November 2, 2016. The scripture reading was 1 John 4:11-21. I had the opportunity to offer the sermon. Here it is.

My oldest child is almost 14, and has very particular tastes and strong opinions. Because APPLE — TREE. I put a lot of time and effort into gifts for this kid because of these opinions and interests, and I find it rewarding to deeply engage my creativity, resources, and this child’s perspective. Driving home from class one night in September, I had a true light bulb moment. I decided that for Christmas, I would give my child two tickets to see Hamilton in NYC. My light bulb quickly shorted out with the realization that there were only a handful of tickets available for one matinee sometime at the end of June, and that two tickets to Hamilton cost about the same as seven months of mortgage payments. We now console ourselves by listening to the soundtrack once a day, reading/watching any media coverage and performances by the musical’s stars, and by learning more about the real life people upon whom the musical is based.

There are a few central themes to this telling of Alexander Hamilton’s life that I feel are relevant or even parallel to the current sociopolitical situation in the United States today, and are also relevant to the Church’s response. The first theme is introduced early on in the musical; Hamilton asks his new friend, Aaron Burr, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” This discussion of ethics and values happens a number of times throughout the course of the musical, and the tension between the two characters rises until [SPOILER ALERT] they duel and Burr shoots and kills Hamilton. The End. I’ve now saved you $4000 and a trip to NYC. You’re welcome. The second theme is Hamilton’s sense of urgency and purpose, and is expressed in the lyric, “I am not throwing away my shot;” a line that returns with every new opportunity that Hamilton faces. The final theme, woven through both acts of the show, is that we don’t know who is going to tell our story after we are gone, and we don’t know how our actions will be interpreted by future generations.

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that the Presidential Election is looming, and that the current social and political situation in our nation is at best, tense. And don’t worry — I’m not going to tell you to not vote for the hatemongering, xenophobic, racist bigot. I’m going to talk about love. First John 4 tells us that God sent Jesus to the world as the manifestation of his love, and because God so loved us, we ought to love each other. The early church loved each other by sharing all they had, and making sure all community members’ needs were met. Verse seventeen is a promise full of hope:

By this, is love perfected with us, so that that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world.

He is in the world, just as we are in the world. It doesn’t say that God’s love is only abiding in us, and it’s not just that God’s Spirit abides in our hearts—God is present and active in this world, in the midst of mudslinging, in the midst of angry words, in the protesting, and in the brokenness. Verse eighteen:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

The earth is groaning for want of perfect love. The lament we hear from oppressed communities is utterly heartbreaking. The images and violence from Ferguson, Miami, from overpoliced neighborhoods around the country, and even as I speak, from the landlocked sovereign Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

The election on Tuesday is not going to change this. Policy, laws, systems — none of these things will bring comfort to our souls or assuage our fears. Diettrich Bonhoeffer said in The Church and the Jewish Question, “A state that threatens the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself.” I humbly suggest a slight change in his words to make this applicable to the US: A state, or political party, that inserts itself into the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself. When people in power claim to be lovers of Jesus on Sunday, but do not love their neighbors on Monday, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. When those same saints profess their love of God on Sunday, but on Tuesday cut Medicaid and Medicare funding for families and seniors in need, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. And on Wednesday, when those powerful, saintly men condemn a rape victim for having a few drinks, but give the rapist a Get Out Of Jail Free card, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. And on Thursday, when they send the National Guard to violate the civil rights of an indigenous people on their own sovereign territory, they negate the value of human dignity, and they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. That’s a lot of negation. I mean, I’m only on Thursday in my little illustration, and I haven’t even mentioned the two hundred seventy eight people of color who have been killed by police this year.

What are we standing for, my friends? If we stand for nothing, friends, what will we fall for?

In that same sermon, Bonhoeffer suggested three solutions, or “possibilities for action that the church can take:”

First, we can question the state about the character of its actions. “Governor Snyder, how do you explain as a person of faith, letting the water situation reach crisis levels in Flint?” “Mr. Trump, as a man of big faith, how do you respond to the KKK’s endorsement of you? The KKK is a notorious domestic terrorist organization, how does that fit into your faith practice?”

Next, we can embrace the victims of the state’s actions. This means we lament with the families and communities of those 278 victims of police violence. This means we stand beside the Sioux and 500 other tribes at Standing Rock—whether it is our physical presence, or making calls to your Congresspeople every day until they recognize your number on the caller ID, and until they step up. This means we find a better way to communicate to pregnant women that we believe in the sanctity of life.

And finally, Bonhoeffer says that it is not good enough to “Not just bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel, but to seize the wheel itself.” This is a really drastic option that Bonhoeffer says should only be used when the church sees the state is failing. I don’t know if we are quite there yet.

Where exactly is that perfect love of God? Are we hoarding this love that is perfected with us, storing it like a commodity, putting it in the bank? Friends, we can’t sit back any more and accept the things that are happening in our country. There is no more room for neutrality. Bonhoeffer said, “The neutrals pose a special problem—in the first place, there really aren’t any; they simply belong to the other side.” Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Our communities of faith need to be on the side of loving our neighbor, not the side of the oppressor.

We love because He first loved us.

This is our time — let’s not throw away this shot to infuse our neighbors and our communities with the perfect love of Jesus. We cannot throw away this opportunity to acknowledge the people who are suffering, the children who are hungry, the ones who are afraid. My friend’s 15 year old son dressed up as Luke Cage for Halloween on Monday. At one house, the white woman who answered the door told him he was pathetic, and he shouldn’t have been trick-or-treating because his costume was inappropriate. My friend was not present for that interaction, and her son was hesitant to share what had happened because he had been humiliated by a person who didn’t see him as a human. She saw him as a scary Black man in a bullet-riddled hoodie. She was afraid of a child in a costume that she didn’t understand, from a television series that was not made for her. She saw him and was full of fear.

We have an opportunity right now to take the love that has been perfected in us and use it to reshape and rewrite the social narrative of the United States. In the same way that a mama gathers up her child who is shaking and cry-talking from a nightmare, we need to grab a box of tissues, pour a glass of water, and embrace the people who are hurting and oppressed and afraid. And we need to hold on to them, and lift them up, and honor them.

Right before the Battle of Yorktown, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Washington sings a very short but powerful song,

I’ll tell you what I wish I’d known,
when I was young and fully of glory:
You have no control
who lives who dies who tells your story.
I know that we can win,
I know that greatness lies in you.
But remember from here on in,
History has its eyes on you.

History has its eyes on us. History always tells what we’ve done, from the Early Church to the Crusades, to the Religious Right, and I promise you that History is making a detailed record of our comings and goings as a people of faith. What will our children and grandchildren say about us when we are no longer here? More importantly, what will the children and grandchildren of the people who are oppressed right now, say about us?

Let us move forward with the confidence of a people full of perfect love. May we grasp Bonhoeffer’s possibilities and question the character of the state and the people who represent us. Let us lift the wheel off of the oppressed, and not only bandage their physical wounds, but work to heal their emotional trauma. Let us not throw away a single opportunity to embrace our neighbor and to love our brother, so that the story of the people of God in this time and place becomes the story of how God’s perfect love brought healing and reconciliation to this land. Amen.

participant, not author

I had one goal for this summer, and one homework assignment from my academic advisor. The goal: to get active, and hopefully walk/bike/whatever my way to shedding the extra softness I’ve acquired from all the sitting, reading, typing, and snacking I did as I worked my way through my Master’s degree. I did a somewhat mediocre job at activity in June, and at the beginning of July, I caught the germs that keep on germing. Some kind of respiratory-plus-fever nonsense rendered me completely useless for a week, and since then I’ve been working super hard to cough up a lung. Which lung? Depends on the day.

So that’s been completely awesome.

My homework assignment was to decide which denomination I wanted to join. I did a lot of reading about what each branch believes, and if I’m being honest, there’s not a lot of variation within the Protestant sector. I have been a member of the United Methodist Church for my entire adult life, and as I get older, I find I’m a bit more left-leaning than the official church policy. I started out looking at the denominations that met my qualifications, which isn’t the best possible way to look for jobs when you work for God.

I’m not going into ministry because it’s an especially attractive or exciting line of work, I’m pursuing this because I feel drawn to it. Perhaps drawn isn’t the most accurate word to use; I feel like this is a unique opportunity that has been set in front of me, and I need to honor the opportunity and the giver of opportunity. Right now is a completely terrible time to enter the ministry on a whim. People are full of fear, racism’s ugly heads and claws are tearing into people of colour, into immigrants, into followers of Islam; the evangelical church has positioned itself as a supporter of the Only Pro-Life If You’re An Unborn Baby Party.

It seems like something happens every single day that makes me have a Lorelai Gilmore conversation/monologue with God, “This is what you want me to do? Are you serious? I mean, I know you’re serious, you’re God, you invented serious. I’ve read the Old Testament. I get it that you are not playing, but how do I respond to my friend whose newborn granddaughter just died? Will a solid Ugly Cry be okay, because that’s all I have right now.”

And while I carry on, I picture God looking at me with his lips pursed like Emily Gilmore, or like Edward Herrman playing Lorelai’s dad, casually reading the newspaper, waiting for me to stop talking, so that he can ask me if I’m finished yet.

Yes. I’m finished. Kind of.

The BMI people are unhappy with me, and I’m signing up with the Methodists. None of the other choices was the right one, so here I am. It’s not really about my preference at this point, anyway. (Yes, that is a line from my Lorelai monologue.) I feel like there is a plan, and I trust that there is a plan. And I trust the author of the plan enough that I’m freed to be present, and to participate.

 

the church loves refugees now

My heart is broken for Syria. I have been closely following the civil war since before it was a war, back in 2011 when peaceful protesters gathered to declare their desires for a better, less-oppressive Syria.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Lebanon and spend time photographing refugee life in some of the informal tented settlements.

home

no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well*

The next two generations of Syrian leaders are homeless. Two years ago, it was estimated that more than half the population of Syria was internally displaced. More than 11 million people are homeless inside the borders of Syria.

And that is only a guess.

DSC09421

This sweet babe was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. He is not entitled to a Lebanese birth certificate, and his mama can’t afford to return to Syria to get a birth certificate because they live in abject poverty. It is likely that he will live his entire life as a refugee: lacking food, adequate shelter, and suffering chronic health ailments related to a lack of clean water.

The Syrian Crisis did not materialize one day last week. Aylan, the precious baby found face-down on a Turkish beach, was not the first Syrian baby to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. Hundreds of Syrians have drowned escaping the war, but Aylan was the first one that people chose to see. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died in the war –many of them children– but none of those images or stories grabbed the Church’s heartstrings.

The Western Church is, at long last, appropriately horrified by the situation facing the Syrian people. Christians on social media are hashtagging their indignation: #BeTheChurch and #WeWelcomeRefugees are everywhere. There are petitions asking governments to resettle refugees. Much-needed money and supplies are pouring in, and that is truly a benefit that will make people’s lives better.

Why now? Why did the Church decide to “Be The Church” on a random day in August? What made that day more significant than any of the other previous 1,640-ish days since the Syrian Crisis began? Cute babies die daily in Syria. I’m not trying to be crass or to downplay the significance of those deaths; it breaks my heart that people can cause such damage to one another.

DSC00496

But where have you been, Church? Where have you been for the Palestinians? Where are you for the Afghans? For Iraqis, Somalis, Congolese, Myanmarese, Colombians, or Sudanese? Because from where I stand, it looks like you aren’t here for any of these, or as Jesus called them “the least of these.”

The least of these are mostly confined to their own countries, mostly out of sight, and definitely not affecting the West or Western culture in any way. But those Syrians… they have come to Europe. There are white people carrying the bodies of their dead away in front of white media, and white people are shocked. White people are sweeping in to take care of the poor people of color, white people making decisions, white people saving.

Is the Church really interested in being the Church, in being a servant to the hurting people of the world, in housing the homeless and feeding the hungry? This newfound passion has taken the Church by storm. It looks like a fad, like Christians have discovered the next cool thing to be on fire for, that will soon be forgotten. When was the last time you heard a Christian mention any of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Did you know that Boko Haram is still kidnapping and murdering people? Remember when all of the truly devout Christians in America changed their social media avatars to the Arabic letter that is the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian, to honor all the Christians in Mosul, Iraq who were being massacred? It was so important!

This movement to provide for the Syrian refugees is not an organically-grown movement. It is a public relations campaign that catapulted itself into existence off the body of a dead baby. It is a campaign of shock and awe– shock at the realization of the masses that babies are dying horrible deaths, and awe at the incredible spending power of Western Christianity. I do not see the “We Welcome Refugees” people coming alongside the servants who have been working to assist the Syrian refugees for the past four and a half years. I don’t see this new force even granting the benefit of a mention to the countless NGOs who started the movement to support Syrian refugees. The Church is once again using its financial power to control the lives of the less fortunate, and is steamrolling those who actually have been “being the Church.”

DSC09248

“Be The Church” is giving Christians a quick and easy means to feeling good about themselves, but it lacks the relational component that is necessary to keep the short attention span of the West focused on people who don’t look or dress like them. The Western Church will show us what it means to be the church: it will burn hot and fiery for a short period of time, and then it will find something else with which to entertain itself.

The Syrian Crisis is going to continue to be a crisis in October. It is going to be a crisis in 2016. It will still be a crisis in 2026, and for decades after. This isn’t a problem the Church can fix. It is one of the most complex social issues facing the world today, and it is one that will outlive my children, and possibly my grandchildren. If the Western Church is going to have any lasting effect on the lives of refugees, it needs to ditch its Saviour complex and learn from the people who have been battling this crisis since the beginning.

*excerpt from the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire,
you can find the entire poem here.