More Valuable Than a Fingerling: the Gift of Vulnerability

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[Join us December 10 at http://www.trinitylafayette.org as we observe United Methodist Global Migration Sunday and focus on the themes of vulnerability and weakness.  At 9:15 we’ll gather for a discussion on how our personal weaknesses can become a gift and a blessing to others.  During 10:30 worship, we’ll be joined by Syrian immigrant and local physician Dr. Akram Al-Makki who will share the story of his extended family’s experiences (past and present) with immigration and migration.]Image result for pictures of broken things

When I started graduate studies at the University of Akron, I did not have an apartment.  So a faculty member invited me to stay at her home.  On my first day of fall semester, I drove the 1 ½ hours from northwest PA to Akron to attend class.  It made for a long day.  Before leaving campus, I stopped in the office to discover the professor had left a note for me.  She would be delayed getting home.  She provided her address and directions to her house.  She explained the door had been left unlocked.  I could go in and make myself comfortable.

It was pre-GPS days so I had a hard time finding her house.  When I arrived (feeling already stressed and anxious), her dog was barking aggressively at the door.  I decided I would hang out in my car and wait.  One hour turned into two.  I was getting so hungry.  Money was scarce.  I had a bag of peanuts.  I munched on those.  It began to get dark.  I began to cry.  Why was I here?  Over the next hour I played a self-defeating loop of negative thoughts, convincing myself that grad school was a big mistake; leaving PA was a big mistake; coming to a city where I knew no one… also a big mistake; thinking I could become a professional musician: big mistake; staying in the home of a complete stranger… you guessed it – mistake; risking walking in on a barking dog that I’d never met: sure to be a mistake.

Decades after the fact, I look back on that evening and laugh.  The faculty member finally arrived home with take out from a Chinese restaurant.  We ate dinner and talked.  She was gracious and hospitable and, by the end of the week, I’d found my own apartment.  But that evening, waiting alone in my car outside a stranger’s home, I felt terribly – dreadfully – vulnerable… and I didn’t like it one bit.

In life we often become attached to stuff, positions, accomplishments, even relationships that we think will provide us with a sense of security: retirement plans, an influential supervisor or mentor, a title that sounds impressive, prominent positions in civic organizations.  We want to feel strong and capable; not weak or breakable.  But to be human is to be vulnerable.

In our gospels, Jesus admonishes his followers to become like children.  We love children in our culture.  They are adorable!  But in Jesus’ culture, children weren’t viewed as precious and innocent.  They were viewed as chaotic and undisciplined.  Their only virtue lay in their potential to grow up and be respectable adults who could contribute to the honor of their family and village.  There were no Children’s Protective Services.  If people wanted to beat their children, that was their business.  Ugh!  Children were extremely vulnerable and entirely dependent on their parents.

When Jesus invites us to become like children, he is inviting us to embrace the reality that we can’t control life in this world.  No matter how we worry and scurry and plan, things can go wrong.  But, God is with us and loves us and will be faithful in looking out for us if only we will embrace the reality of our vulnerability.

This Advent, the United Methodist Church is celebrating Global Migration Sunday.  Migrants and refugees – like the children of antiquity – find themselves in an especially vulnerable and precarious position.  Jesus, the Savior whose birth we will soon celebrate, knew that experience.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee the country, escape across the border into Egypt, because King Herod was slaughtering infant boys all over Bethlehem and the surrounding area in an effort to find Jesus and kill him.  The Son of God (along with the whole pregnant-mom-out-of-wedlock thing) was born into a family of poor peasants forced to become refugees in order to escape genocide (see Matthew, chapter 2).  Maybe that’s why God has always been such a fan of welcoming the alien and the foreigner. 



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I have to confess: there are moments when I think that ministry might not have been the best decision for my soul.  After all, fewer and fewer people go to church in America these days and everything has become far more complex than it was when I was a child going to Sunday School… back in the days when just going to church made you a “good American” and a “good neighbor.”  And so we are all challenged (by the culture and our own religious establishments) to work harder and do more to “grow the church.”

But the irony is, as I have aged I’ve discovered, the harder I work for God, the less I become like God.  When I work more than I should, I become tired and I find myself losing patience with others and myself.  I become resentful of others, cranky and easily frustrated and discouraged.

In her book, “Sacred Rhythms,” Ruth Haley Barton writes, “The point of Sabbath… is to honor the body’s need for rest, the spirit’s need for replenishment and the soul’s need to delight itself in God for God’s own sake… I live within physical limits of time and space… There are limits to my capacities relationally, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  I am not God… [O]ur unwillingness to practice Sabbath is really an unwillingness to live within the limits of our humanity… Something about begin gracious and accepting and gentle with ourselves… enables us to be more gracious and accepting and gentle with others.”[i]

Sabbath was listed among the Ten Commandments and I find we Christians struggle to know what to do with those commandments (OK, even the word itself – “commandments” – leaves us feeling uncomfortable).  Some church-goers today seem to feel that memorizing those commandments would get us all back on track and straighten out the world.  Others remind us that, as Christians, we are living under the new covenant established in Jesus.  But either approach seems to recognize that those commandments – like the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – were really all about relationship; i.e. what it means for us to live as human creatures in right (or righteous) relationship with God and one another.

So I don’t think a legalistic enslavement to the practice of Sabbath will help us unwind and rest in God’s presence.  But I do think it is God’s reminder – God’s invitation – to us to consider what it means to be human and to live relationally.  God is God; we are not.  We need rest: time for prayer and play, rest and reflection.  If nothing else, we need time to settle in to an awareness of God’s presence, to simply breath in the breathe of God, and invite God to “have thine own way” within us so that we can become not just hard workers for God, but joyful collaborators with God.

[i] Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton, IVP Books (Formatio); 2006; pp. 137-138.

Neighbors of a Feather… should grill together

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I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago.  Checking my mail at the church office, I opened an unsigned letter (never a good sign!) from someone who walks by our church.  She’d read the quote about peace by Gandhi on our church sign.  She was not impressed.  She pointed out that – although he may have done some good things for his country – Gandhi was not a Christian and therefore would go to hell.  “Weren’t we a Christian Church?  How stupid was I?”

Wow!  It’s good that it wasn’t signed because I’d hardly know where to start!  But it got me to thinking; the author’s perspective revealed what I fear has become the frightening normative assumption in our culture.  It is the very unhelpful assumption that those who do not believe or think as I do have nothing to offer me and most certainly are not those with whom I can join hands to work toward a common goal.

I imagine the letter writer would have been even more distressed had she known that, just a few days prior to receiving her letter, I’d participated in an interfaith panel on fasting followed by an Iftar (the meal eaten by Muslims when they break their fast during Ramadan)!

About a month ago our Indiana Conference awarded Trinity (my church) a grant focused on Urban Transitional Communities.  The Centennial neighborhood (where my church is located) is undergoing significant change.  This summer my congregation is hosting “Garden and Grill” gatherings on our front lawn.  It is a meal for our community.  It has attracted a diverse crowd reflecting our diverse community.  What a blessing.  One of the things I’ve enjoyed most has been watching people at the tables connect to one another; to chat and share together as they broke bread.

I really wasn’t angry at the writer of that letter about Gandhi.  Honestly, I felt sorry for her.  I suspect she lives in a world as divided as our congress is right now; divisions of “us” and “them”; a world where those who believe differently don’t have a place with “us” or can’t teach us anything or offer us anything useful or helpful or meaningful.  But thinking like that will never solve our nation’s healthcare crisis or any other challenge we face.  Sometimes the most helpful ideas come from people who see the world from a different perspective.  They are apt to see or consider something that might not have crossed my mind.

In the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus has an interesting interaction with his disciple, John…

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.                     Mark 9:38-41 (NRSV)

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”  I guess I need to put that up on the church signboard.

If you live in the Lafayette area, join us for our next Garden and Grill on Tuesday, August 15, at 6 p.m. on the church’s south lawn.  Get the details at http://www.trinitylafayette.org 


Let Me Introduce My Friend

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Years ago when I was involved with Hispanic ministry in our conference, I went to San Jose, Costa Rica for a Spanish immersion experience.  I am far from a world traveler.  I grew up in south central PA, referenced as either “God’s Country” (for its beautiful mountains and scenery that a native will never cease to pine for) or Pennsyltucky (since it is geographically located within Appalachia).  My family didn’t have much money so an exotic vacation was camping on the Jersey shore!  I was in my 20’s before I took my first plane ride and well into my 30’s when I traveled outside the U.S. for the first time on a mission trip to Honduras.  (Traveling abroad with a church group provides a very helpful sense of security.)  My Costa Rica trip was my first time to travel alone.  Before my departure, Verizon assured me my cell phone would function there.  They were wrong.  I spent my first night lying awake worrying that my husband would be laying awake back in Indiana worrying and wondering why he still hadn’t heard from me.  It was the next morning until I was able to phone home and also discovered that I would be taking the bus to my Spanish classes every day.  I’ve spent most of my adult life in urban settings but, somehow, have managed to avoid (for the most part) navigating the mass transit system.  For whatever odd reason, mass transit intimidates me… and even more so in a city where I can’t speak the language of the bus driver.

On my first day after class I boarded the bus.  My stop was near the end of the line.  I watched nervously as all my classmates disembarked and darkness fell over the city.  My anxiety reached panic levels when I realized that people were pulling a chord at the front of the bus to request the driver make a stop.  I was too short to ever reach that chord!  I saw my host’s home through the window.  As we drew closer to it, I realized (from the bus’ speed) that it was not a regular stop.  Jumping to my feet, I ran down the aisle of the bus yelling “alta, alta” (which is NOT what you are supposed to say), perhaps causing my driver to panic that he had missed a stop sign.  He slammed on the brakes and opened the bus door.  I was wearing a backpack.  When he hit the brakes, the weight of my backpack turned my little frame into a projectile; I rolled forward, hurtling down the aisle toward the door.  Scrambling unsuccessfully to right myself, I ultimately rolled down the stairs and through the open bus door, sprawling in the street.  (In hindsight, it probably looked pretty funny.)  I’d torn one of my favorite blouses and my hands and elbows were bloodied.  A neighbor had witnessed this production and came out of his home to help me.  He spoke some menacing words to the bus driver which I could not – and, I suspect, should not – translate as the driver sped away.  In tears, I limped to my host’s home where the woman cleaned and bandaged my wounds while the neighbor explained my mishap with a great deal of passion.  I ate a little dinner and went to bed.  Lying there in the dark, I began to berate myself for my foolishness and my reflections ended with this “prayer” (a prayer more fitting for a five year old than a seminary graduate): “God, please get me home safely and I promise I’ll never leave the U.S. again.”  Looking back on that experience, I realize how silly I was.  But, that night lying in the dark, I felt terribly insecure, lonely, lost and afraid.

Today’s blog is a departure from my usual writing because today I want to introduce you to my friend, Neetu.  She came to this country with her husband when he was a visiting professor at the university in my town.  He was abusive.  The police were called and he moved on.  Neetu did not move with him.  But her brave decision was not supported by family in her native country where women who leave their husbands for any reason bring dishonor to their family.  She has been shunned by her family.  A local ecumenical ministry includes an immigration clinic.  They have been working with Neetu for more than a year.  She is an intelligent woman.  She would like nothing more than to work and support herself.  But the delay time for processing work permits is extremely lengthy.  Neetu is caught in a situation with no good options.  Her only option (while the wheels of immigration grind along slowly) is to rely on others in order to keep a roof over her head.  She finds herself in a very vulnerable position in a strange land.  She bears a double burden as a victim of domestic violence and our confusing and excruciatingly slow immigration process.

Some of you followed my Facebook postings over several weeks in February and March that shared scriptures of God’s commands to care for the foreigner or the stranger among us.  Within the gospel of Matthew, the final parable Jesus tells (before his passion) is often referred to as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  It is a parable that explains how we will be judged at the end of time and – in a way that is frankly quite unsettling – it makes no mention of what we believe.  It lists no requirements of faith or adherence to any particular creed.  According to the parable, our “final judgment” will be determined by how we have chosen to respond to the most vulnerable strangers/aliens/foreigners* among us… because the steadfast love and mercy of God doesn’t stop at the threshold of our homes; nor is it restricted to our family tree, our town, or even our nation.  The steadfast love and mercy of God knows no boundaries or borders.

If you would like to help my friend Neetu, here is a link to the YouCaring page that has been set up for her: https://www.youcaring.com/neetu-814666.  I hope that you will pray for her and I hope that you’ll share her story with others.  Most of all, I hope (and pray) that, as disciples of Jesus here in a land of freedom and opportunities, we will want to share – not fearfully hoard – the abundant mercy and goodness God has shown us with others.  (See Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 10:25-37)

*the Greek word in our bible is xenos; the origin of our English word xenophobia, a fear of strangers.

At the Root of it all

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Tomorrow is Palm Passion Sunday. It is my favorite day of the year… which might sound a little odd.  You’d expect a pastor to say that Easter or Christmas Eve were their favorite days of the year.  But if you ask me, it is Palm Passion Sunday that answers the why of Christmas and Easter.  In a certain sense, without Palm Passion Sunday, there’d be no need for Christmas or Easter.

When I was a child, that last Sunday before Easter was comprised of nothing other than the pure joy of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday.  It was festive and cheery… Just as the palm parade must have been for Jesus that day so long ago.  Attendance was good because, after all, who doesn’t love a parade?

But, as Protestants, not many people returned for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday worship.  Nothing cheery about those days.  Who really wants to hear the dreadful news that all of Jesus’ disciples ditched him like the sniveling cowards they were.  Who wants to hear the ugly description of Jesus being whipped, spit on, mocked and having a crown of thorns pressed into his head.  Who wants to think about him hanging from a cross gasping for air.

Years ago, the Methodist Church began to emphasize that Sunday before Easter as Palm Passion Sunday.  And now, even if you only go to church on Sunday, there’s no avoiding the ugliness of it all… not to mention the jolt to our systems.  Within one hour of worship we go from waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna, loud hosanna” to hearing the pastor speak the words of that first century mob: “Crucify him!”

But is life, our day to day life, really any less jolting?  It seems to me that all around us, everyday, people who ought to know better and ought to do better ditch “the better” in order to save their own necks.  Anywhere we find the threat of blame or punishment, we can also find a lot of buck passing.  We talk about peer pressure among children but watch any adult fold if living out their principles comes at too high a personal price.

People can turn on a dime.  I remember the old Bill Cosby monologue about him fixing breakfast for his children.  His wife always did it and he didn’t know what to do.  Faced with a table of hungry children, he spotted the leftover chocolate cake from the prior evening’s dinner on the counter.  He sliced that up and put it on plates in front of the kids who began to chant “Dad is great; gives us chocolate cake…” until his wife came round the corner in her bath robe.  Cheering ceased.  Even the youngest among us learn quickly how to keep our heads low when things get dicey.  After all, it’s just more expeditious to put the blame on one guy than to mess things up for everyone… so said Caiaphas, the high priest who decided it was time to put an end to that rebel rousing rabbi named Jesus.

Fear makes us do ugly things.  It’s makes us say things we shouldn’t and go mum when we know we ought to speak up.  To put it in a nutshell: fear makes us think first of saving our own skin.  So God came, enfleshed among us, to live and to die out of faithfulness, not fear; out of sacrifice, not envy.

How do you feel about that?

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For whatever reason when I blog, I usually try to disperse some form of theological knowledge… maybe that’s why I don’t have a lot of followers!

But as I have reflected over the last few weeks, I am more prone to write about what I feel, rather than what I think or have learned.

I have a rather peculiar spiritual practice.   Nearly every night – as I snuggle in to my warm, soft bed with a kiss from my husband and my dogs settled in to their dog beds next to mine – I give God thanks for such a simple blessing.

Now before I mislead you into thinking how virtuous and magnanimous I am, I’m pretty sure the impetus for the genesis of this practice was me feeling sorry for myself at some moment in the past and whining at God as I lay in bed at night… until at some point the Holy Spirit or my own common sense (likely both) kicked in and reminded me how good I had it.  I have, for all intents and purposes, had a pretty easy life.  Not perfect, of course; and none of that proverbial silver spoon stuff; but, as a pastor who hears many stories of people’s struggles and tragedies, if has given me some modest degree of perspective.

And lately, as I lay in bed at night enjoying that privilege of comfort, warmth and safety, I think about the people who struggle so desperately for it.

I am sincerely mystified by our disdain for immigrants and here is why…
I was born in America to parents who provided me with everything I needed nutritionally, spiritually, emotionally, medically, educationally, and on and on and on.  And what part did I play in attaining such an awesome life for myself?  None, absolutely none.  Now granted, eventually I had to choose for myself how I would live in light of those blessings and – my college years aside – I generally chose well.  But that does not erase the reality that I played no part in selecting the country in which I was born or the parents to whom I was born.  Now (I shudder to say) some might assert that my life was all preordained by God from the get go thereby relieving me of both free will and responsibility… and also creating an arrogance that God must like me better than the people whose birth landed them in much less hospitable circumstances.  But I don’t think such an attitude has a theological leg to stand on.

And so as I lay in my safe, comfy bed, I consider that I could have been one of those children born in a violent city in Mexico or Syria or… well, you get the point.  I might have endured my government bombing me and drug cartels shooting up my street.  And, if I had, I imagine my mom and dad would have done anything they could to get me out of that.



Up Close

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More than two decades ago, Bette Midler released a song that topped the music charts:  From a Distance.  (If you’re old like me, you remember it.  If you’re too young to remember it, well, that’s what You Tube is for. Check it out.)

The song’s overall message is that all of us, across the world, share a great deal in common.  We share common desires for hope and peace and we must learn to share this world and its resources.  But I do take issue with the song’s recurring chorus that God is watching us from a distance.

Today is Christmas Eve.  On this day followers of Jesus celebrate that God does more than watch us; that our God is not one who monitors the situation from a distance, keeping us at arm’s length.  To be a Christian is to reject the notion of a “distant” God.  The baby whose birth we celebrate today is a God who came to live among us (see John 1:1-14).

It’s a remarkable thing if you stop to think about it.  The God of the universe chose to put on human flesh.  And not just any human flesh.  He came as a baby… which was particularly bold and risky.  In the first century Middle Eastern world, children weren’t adored and doted over as they are in our culture today.  From a first century perspective (read some first century writings and you’ll discover this is true) children had little value aside from their potential to grow up and become adults who could maintain the honor of their family and provide “social security” to their parents in their old age.  The rate of infant mortality was incredibly high.  To be a child in first century Palestine was to be in an incredibly vulnerable position.  That’s why Jesus points to children as model citizens in the kingdom of God.

That the God of the universe chose to put on human flesh of any sort is astonishing enough.  But to come as an infant makes it even more remarkable.

Right now we are living in a world where everything and everyone seems to be “amping it up.”  We’re awash in rhetoric of power and dominance.  But, if we believe the Christmas story at all, we must accept the truth that love is expressed (and life is truly lived) through vulnerability.  Today is a “holiday” not for the mighty and powerful; but for the most humble and vulnerable among us.  Luke (chapter 2) communicates that it wasn’t the Emperor Augustus who showed up to worship the baby in a manger; it was shepherds, blue collar laborers working the third shift.  Matthew (also chapter 2) tells us that King Herod never made it in time to see Jesus (and slaughter him as he hoped to do).  But little Jesus was visited and worshiped by a bunch of “heathen” foreigners with dubious religious and cultural customs.

Johann Christoph Blumbardt wrote:  “The Savior of the world is one of us.  He placed himself in the midst of our human condition.  He is not like one who stands apart and looks high above us.”   Our God is with us.