One Way or Another

One Way or Another

I’ve seen images this week of my old teenage stomping grounds under siege. I’ve seen the area where I began raising my own children torn apart when a young man was shot dead by a police officer.

michael_brown_portrait_brother600

I graduated from McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri. My best friend in high school, who was later the best man at my wedding, lived in Ferguson.

After college and a brief stint in another city, Maggie and I began to raise our family in St. Louis. We bought a house that is only 4-1/2 miles from the QuikTrip that was burned Sunday night.

My Dad passed that very convenience store twice last Sunday as he gave someone a ride to church and back home.

My dad lives 2-1/2 miles from where some of the looting took place. When our kids were small, my folks, my sister and brother and their families, and Maggie and I with our own kids would gather at a restaurant in that shopping plaza.

When I talked to my Dad on the phone this week, the man who is rarely rattled, seemed unnerved by the events in his own backyard. He told me stories of my nephew Jacob and his friends (all young men of color) being harassed by police.

And, so, this is personal.

My emotions are invested in this national story because people I love are a part of it.  I have heard on-the-ground reports from my former church youth group leader, a former employee, and my other nephew Bryan. 

But even if this weren’t personal, as a Christian I should be appalled: an unarmed 18-year-old boy was shot dead on the street.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine the grief of that mother and father? Can you? I’ve tried but somehow I can’t quite put myself in their place. Maybe that’s because I’m white. Maybe that’s because the mental picture is too horrifying and my psyche is protecting me.

When I was in my teen years, my friends and I did some stupid things in that area of St. Louis. Once, for example, I was stopped by the cops for a, um, questionable driving maneuver. My biggest fear was getting a ticket and having to tell my parents. I got off with a stern warning and I didn’t tell my parents.

It never even occurred to me that my life might be at risk. It never occurred to me that I should put my hands on the outside of the car door as actor Levar Burton does to assure he’s not shot by a nervous police officer because of the color of his skin.

It is within this context that Michael Brown was shot. I don’t know the circumstances of the shooting anymore than any one of you does. What I do know is that we have a race problem in this country and we refuse to talk about it in a productive way.

Those of us who have light skin, may not be actively racist but we all have racist imperfections having been raised within our culture. We may not be actively or verbally racist but we still benefit from the color of our skin because of systemic racism that views us as the norm. We benefit from things within our institutions and culture simply because of the color of our skin.

Talking about race is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It can be painful!

It’s also easy to ignore when you’re white.

But avoidance doesn’t work. When we fail to talk about racism the problems don’t go away. They just come out in unhealthy ways. We don’t grow as a human family…we just stagnate and learn to mistrust our sisters and brothers. When we don’t talk about race, when we ignore the problem we find ourselves drawing circles of insiders and outsiders.

***

Our human inclination to define boundaries of worthiness between ourselves and others is not new to our age. Our desire to  claim God’s love for ourselves, and those like us, while excluding folks who are different has been going on for a very long time.

In our scripture lesson from the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul addresses the drawing of circles that exclude others from God.

Early in the history of the church, the gentile Romans to whom he writes had already drawn a circle that excluded those Jews who did not view Jesus as the messiah. They thought that because some Jews did not accept Jesus as Christ that they were outside God’s love.

Paul reminds the Gentiles that he himself is a Jew when he writes,

I’m an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Romans 11:1b CEB

He reminds them that God made a covenant with Abraham and God doesn’t break promises. Paul reminds them that,

God hasn’t rejected [God’s] people, whom he knew in advance…God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Romans 11:2:a, 29 CEB

God’s love is not conditional. God created each human being in the divine image, God’s hopes and dreams for each of us is endless. As Paul wrote earlier in his letter to Rome, “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 CEB).

And, so, when we draw circles that exclude others from our love and from God’s love, we sin. When we participate in racism, a hateful and extreme form of exclusion, we participate in sinfulness.

When we fail to recognize that racism is real because, well, we’re white and we have that option…

We sin.

When we fail to see racism because we have a black president and that means racism is over…

We sin.

When we fail to speak out when a friend begins a sentence with, “those blacks”…

We sin.

When four unarmed black men have been shot by police this month alone and we fail to ask why (1)…We sin.

When our inactions & indifference tell our sisters and brothers of color that their boys are outside of our circle of concern and God’s circle of love…

We sin.

***

The Good News is that God’s plans for humanity are,

plans for peace, not disaster, to give [us] a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11b CEB

It is time to take our heads out of the sand about racism and strive to be a part of God’s plan for love, for peace, and for hope for all peoples.

We can do that by opening our minds and our hearts. We can do that by listening to the mothers and fathers who fear for the lives of their boys <> on August 12, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.and to those who have already lost their sons.

As followers of the One who endured ridicule, torture, and who overcame death we are each called to love. We’re called to love,

God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength…[and] love [our] neighbor as ourselves. Mark 12:30-31

The Apostle Paul says God’s call is irrevocable. Open your hearts and minds to our neighbors who suffer under the scourge of racism. Face the challenges and messiness of racism and work for justice.

One way or another, God’s love will prevail. Choose to be a part of it. Live your calling so that one day humanity can say,

Look at how good and pleasing it is when families live together as one (Psalm 133:1 CEB)

Amen.

___

This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Condon is a tiny town in rural, eastern Oregon. The church community, reflecting the larger community, is nearly all white.

(1) (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/3-unarmed-black-african-american-men-killed-police)

Aliens Among Us?

There are two ways to read a mystery novel. You can start on page one and read from start to finish. The reader who reads this way allows the story to unfold in its own time. Some would say in the way the author intended.

Another way to read a mystery novel is to skip to the last page first to find out whodunit before returning to the beginning. This reader — knowing the ending — watches the story unfold but enjoys spotting the literary clues the author has left.

***

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 7.35.26 AMChristians start reading the Bible with Jesus. We read Genesis through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the prophets through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the Psalms ever mindful of Jesus. Even Christians who read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation already know what happens to Jesus. Since we know what happens, we understand the rest of the Bible in a particular way.

Our elder testament — the Old Testament — accounts for approximately 75% of our sacred text. Yet, we spend most of our time reading and preaching the younger testament.

This is a mistake. To understand Jesus and his teachings, we must understand his faith. To understand his faith, we must read and study his Bible.

***

In our scripture reading from Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:28-31), several Jews, of whom Jesus is one, are discussing the Torah. (The Torah is the first five books of our Bible.) 

Like UCCers, many Jews of Jesus’ time did not read the text in a rigid way. They believed, like we do, that the Bible is a living document through which God still speaks. Like us, they believed that the Bible is best understood within community. No one of us has the answer. It is in community that varied perspectives and voices are part of the conversation and more fully enable us to discern God’s will.

And, so, overhearing the discussion a legal expert asks Jesus,

“Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Jesus responds by quoting from Torah. He paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5,

Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.(Deuteronomy 6:4-5 CEB)

Jesus doesn’t stop with one commandment, however. He tells the legal expert that there are two commandments that serve as the foundation of our faith. And, so, he paraphrases from Leviticus 19 as well,

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 CEB)

Jesus tells the legal expert, “No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:31 CEB) 

If the teachings of Jesus are foundational for Christians, as we claim, I argue that when he tells us what the Greatest Commandment is, we should try to follow it. Says Jesus,

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” 12:30-31a CEB

This. These words of Jesus quoting Torah can serve as the yardstick by which we measure our actions and relationships in the world.

These words are the sunglasses through which, as followers of Jesus, we view a brighter, a more hopeful possibility for the world. They allow us to see the world in a different way and determine the actions we will take in our personal lives and in our advocacy for others.

***

Many of you have been rightfully upset by the unaccompanied children who have been entering our country at the southernmost border. I’ve had multiple conversations about “What can we do?”

Here is a short video shared by Kate Epperly that I think frames the issue well. Kate is our UCC Minister on the Disciples/UCC Family & Children’s Ministry Team.

So, what do we do? What would Jesus do when faced with a complex political and ethical issue? He might pray; he might look at scripture. I suspect that he’d do both as he considered his actions. 

When he looked at scripture, he’d probably find any number of passages about God’s expectations regarding our response to this Hebrew word variously translated into English as alien, as immigrant, as sojourner, or sometimes traveler.

Contextually in the seventh or eighth century before Christ, when Deuteronomy was written, there are no Hiltons or Motel 6s. There were no McDonald’s or Denny’s. If you were traveling, you depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This serves a dual purpose. For the traveler, it meant a place to stay and food to eat. For the host it was a way to honor God.

To breech this obligation to care for others was to breech your very obligation to God. Writes UCC scholar Walter Brueggemann,

Deuteronomy has in purview a profoundly neighborly ethic that understands the formation and maintenance of a communal infrastructure as a primal mode of obedience to the God of covenant. (Abingdon OT Commentaries: Deuteronomy, loc. 122)

And, so, when Jesus looked at his scripture, he might’ve looked at Deuteronomy 10 in which the writer, speaking as if Moses, says,

Stop being so stubborn, 17 because the Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. 19 That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:16b-19 CEB)

Jesus’ Bible and our Bible is chockfull of widening the circle of love. Jesus himself widens the circle to include not only the Jewish people but Gentiles as well. Jesus himself spends much of his ministry at the margins of society, among those who are not fully included in society.

We are called to include all peoples within God’s circle because our God is an “awesome God who doesn’t play favorites! (Deut. 10: 18 CEB)

And, so, as followers of Jesus I ask you now, what does God ask of us?

When we view this crisis through the lens of the Greatest Commandment, what position do we take? How do we manifest loving God with all our heart, all our being, all our mind, and all our strength? How do we love our neighbor as ourselves?

What actions do we individually and collectively take? What would Jesus encourage us to say and do? How will we respond to the aliens among us?

Amen.

___

Following this short sermon, preached at the Condon United Church of Christ on July 20, 2014, the congregation had a lengthy discussion regarding ways to respond to the current crisis of unaccompanied children at the United States’ southern border.

Weary of Literalism

I am weary of being accused of manipulating the biblical witness or being a tool of the Devil.

"Love One Another" by Tim Graves
“Love One Another”, Photo by Tim Graves

The implication of literalism when applied to those of us who study the Bible using historical-critical and literary methods is that we are at best naive and at worst lack integrity.

I do not have the answer. I am not sure that there is one right answer. Just as self-identified literalists, I begin my biblical reading as a human being with my own assumptions and biases.

My weariness lies in what feels like accusations of having biases by those who pretend they do not. Yes, as a human being I read the Bible through my own experiences of God. We all do.

I assume, and assume is the correct word, that it is ancient literature inspired by God. It is a collection of various writings by ancient people seeking to understand, explain, or express their experience of the Divine. This assumption is based on prayerful and rational reasons.

Others, those who self-describe as literalists, assume the writings in the Bible constitute the “literal, inerrant word of God.” Just as I make a decision about what the canon is before I ever turn a page, the “literalists” do the same. Both decisions are extra-biblical, meaning we decide what the Bible is based upon our personal and cultural experiences.

Just as I have well-thought out, prayerfully considered reasons for my approach, literalists have reasons for their approach. While I do not agree with their approach, I do not question their faithful desire to be true to God’s intentions. We are both seeking to be faithful to the One we describe as God.

But here is where my weariness of literalism’s proponents comes in. I grow weary of the accusation of bias when my interpretation of the Bible is different from their interpretation. The accusation that I have bias comes with an implicit (and sometimes explicit claim) that they approach the text without bias.

This is simply not true nor is it possible.

The arrogance of “rightness” and having the one right approach feels like judgement to me. It closes off discussion despite our need for one another. It makes it harder for all of us to hear and act upon the Divine persuasions to love our neighbors as ourselves. (See Mark 12:28-31.)  It separates us from one another and severs the body of Christ.

If that is not a sin, I don’t know what is.

__

Related Post

Characterizing the Truth, August 26, 2011

War on Christmas? Considering Our Motivation

Images like this button miss the loving message of Jesus.

The first memes declaring that “it’s Merry Christmas not Happy Holidays” showed up in my Facebook stream on Thanksgiving day. I long ago grew tired of the so-called war on Christmas as it distracts us from the significance and meaning of the season.

Consider why it is you choose to wish another person a Merry Christmas. If it is to offer another good cheer, then a hearty Merry Christmas is appropriate — if you know that they celebrate the holiday. If, however, you know they do not, and you do so to win a battle in the Christmas war then you’ve missed the core message of the Christian faith: extravagant love overcomes even death.

A loving response to another is sensitive to their sensibilities. To cynically offer a Merry Christmas to others to prove a point is not a loving response. It wins no friends for you, it gains no friends for Jesus, nor does it make our culture more Christian. It is contrary to the teachings of Jesus who reminds us that the most important commandment is,

“Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31 CEB

Holistic Faith

Holistic Faith
This image was created by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales.

Click here to listen to Holistic Faith.

I found this print in the gift shop of an historic church in Albuquerque several years ago. I wasn’t going to buy it. I didn’t need it, I told myself. We couldn’t afford to buy a lot of trinkets on this vacation. I kept circling back to it in the shop. As testament to my strength, I left the shop.

Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This image has a spiritual power that beguiles and enchants me. We later came back to the shop for the express purpose of purchasing this print.

It is not lost on me that this image of Jesus shocks our Puritan roots, our Anglo prudishness, and our deeply ingrained thinking that the body and anything remotely sexual is inherently immoral.

The power of this image by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales is not the result of American oversexualization and titillation. It does not draw me in because breasts are sexual.

The power of this image is in the humanity of Jesus. What draws me in is THAT baby!

Jesus had a body like each of us have a body. He had a mother who nursed him at her breast. He undoubtedly cried, whimpered, got the occasional sniffle, and needed his diaper changed. He probably had to be burped from time to time. He may even have spit up once or twice on Joseph’s shoulder.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was human.

***

In the ancient world, there was a deep, cavernous divide between the spirit and the physical worlds. In greek thought — which heavily influenced western thinking — a god could not be human. A god by definition is spirit and cannot be incarnate, cannot be physical.

And, yet, we have Jesus.

There are those who clung so desperately to this idea of spirit-good, body-bad that they came up with wild theories about how the divine Jesus could appear — appear being the operative word — appear to be human. Some even came up with an invasion of the body snatchers theory in which God simply inhabited someone else’s human body.

And we still have this greek idea within our culture and too often within our faith. There’s a reason that many traditional theologians and scholars got totally freaked out recently over a scrap of parchment that seemed to imply that Jesus had a wife. To be married would have been to be physical with another human being. And we just can’t abide that the divine Jesus is also the human Jesus.

We are afraid of an angry Jesus, a sobbing Jesus, a laughing Jesus, a Jesus who is tempted to swear when he stubs his toe, and, yes, we’re afraid of a Jesus with sexual urges.

I suggest we’re afraid of all these things because we fear them in ourselves, because we cannot control them in ourselves. We are uncomfortable with a fully human savior because while we’re human, we have neglected the love, the divine image of God within us. We too often fail to,

love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength.” (Mark 12: 30 NRSV)

We equate our physicality as separate from our spirituality because we can’t reconcile the two. We’re trapped by the greek thinking that spirit is good and body is bad. So, if we can’t be human and spiritual, we find it difficult to grasp that Jesus could.

And yet he did.

We underestimate the One who was born to a human mother, who nursed at her breast, skinned his knees, had conflict with other boys, and still grew up to be the Lord and savior of the world.

***

As an adult, Jesus was asked by a scribe, what is the greatest commandment? In typical Jewish fashion the faithful asked one another questions to help them to process and figure out the meanings of the scriptures. It’s not unlike what we do in our adult Sunday School class when we go back and forth about different aspects of the Bible passages we’re discussing.

In this case, the scribe was raising the question about what the unifying theme or principle of the scriptures are. Scholar Bonnie Thurston suggests that the question is more accurately put: “What is the one, fundamental thing, the building block or cornerstone, on which all the rest of the law rests?” (Thurston, Preaching Mark, p. 138)

And so when Jesus answers, he is telling us the core of our faith. The core of what it means to be a good Jew or a good Christian. He’s telling us not only that we must love God but about God’s nature — one — and about how to love God.

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one; You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:29-30 NRSV)

We’re called to love God with our whole selves but…

But how can we love God with our whole selves when we reject an integral part of who we are? How can we love God if we reject our physicality as somehow inherently bad? Consider, Genesis 1:27 in which the biblical witness tells us that,

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 NRSV)

The creator God made us as physical and spiritual beings. Created in the Image of God, my body is integral to who I am no less than my spirituality. We experience life through and from our bodies. Human physicality and spirituality are intertwined just as Jesus’ humanity and divinity were intertwined.

And so when we turn to love God, to follow the commandment that permeates all of the Bible and the whole of our faith, Jesus — quoting and interpreting Deuteronomy 6:1-9 for us — tells us that we must do so with our whole selves.

With Our hearts.

With Our souls.

With Our minds.

With Our strength.

***

Ah, but Jesus goes beyond the scribe’s question in our passage today. Jesus gives him a bonus answer,

The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12: 31 NRSV)

Commandment. Not commandments but commandment. I love how Jesus refers to two commandments here and calls them one. The implication is that you cannot follow one and not the other. It is impossible to love god with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength in isolation. We are created as communal creatures. We depend upon the pack. We need one another for survival. And so to love God is to love one another. To love one another is to love God.

To love God is to hurt when our community hurts. When the hopes of our kids are dashed by a loss at volleyball, we hurt because we love them. Likewise we ache when members of our community must give up independent living or face cancer. We desire the best for them. We love one another.

What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. Created in the image of God, we — like God — are one. We are physical and spiritual.

We are Andre and Jerry. We are Karsen and Jean. We are Chuck, who is down under, and Yvonne who is in Florida awaiting back surgery. We are Stacy, Lily, and Jason.

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one (Mark 12:29 NRSV)

But when we love God with all our hearts, all our soul, all our minds, and all our strength we are more than just Ione or Morrow county.

We are one humanity. We feel the pain of our kindred in New Jersey, on Staten Island, in West Virginia, and in lower Manhattan. We ache for the woman whose two children were snatched from her arms by raging, angry waters!

We love our neighbors as ourselves.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:29-31 NRSV)

 ***

Is this image shocking to our sensibilities, especially in church? Perhaps.

Consistent with the gospels? Absolutely.

Of course, Mary nursed Jesus because Jesus was not just fully divine, he was fully human and because she loved God with all her heart, and with all her mind, and with all her strength, she gave birth to a son, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and loved him. She loved with her body to provide a necessity of life to the Galilean who became the One…

…the One who would be taunted, tortured, and killed but also overcome death to rise on the third day.

That, my friends, is Good News! Amen.

***

I preached this sermon at the Ione Community Church on Sunday, November 4, 2012.

At the Risk of Another Male Voice

Rape is about power and control of one person over another. It is a violation. To use the law, personal coercion, or any other means to force a woman to carry a child conceived in rape is a second violation. It is violence compounded upon violence. It is immoral and inconsistent with the values of following Jesus.

***

I have spent my adult life working with, working among, and advocating for children. I risked breaking state regulations to enroll an infant living in a crack house, in an early childhood center of which I was the director. I cared for a sick preschooler that would’ve been better off at home, to save her mother’s job. I lied by omission to a father to prevent a two-year-old from being beaten for wetting herself during nap time. I snapped ferociously at my own children out of fatigue and stress more times than I’d like to admit because I was overworked.

Contemporary life is complicated. The most loving response is often veiled between two or more imperfect and confusing choices. In the end we each do the best that we can. Photo from Fast Signs.

There was no easy, simple solution in any of these situations. Each of these is a case in which, in my human frailty, I tried to respond to others lovingly. I doubt that my children had warm fuzzy feelings when I screamed at them so loudly that I gave myself a sore throat.

Contemporary life is complicated. The most loving response is often veiled between two or more imperfect and confusing choices. In the end we each do the best that we can. This is why I am begrudgingly pro-choice despite my passion for children and children’s rights.

I would like to live in a world in which women only became pregnant when they yearned for a baby. I wish we did everything possible to support mothers and fathers before and after the birth of a child. I’d be happier if men spent less time thinking it was our responsibility to tell women how to lead their lives.

Let’s face it, if patriarchy was dead, if misogyny was a distant ancestral memory, positions of power would be more evenly distributed between women and men. Western culture — and Christianity — still has anti-women elements that are far from gone.

Jesus, on the other hand, pushed those boundaries according to the gospels. He worried less about being touched by an unclean woman than about healing her (Mark 5: 25-34). He opposed men haphazardly divorcing their wives to protect women. In the culture of the time, being thrown out to fend for herself would mean poverty or worse (Matthew 19: 1-12). Jesus challenged the social conventions of his time to expand the rights of women.

Despite the patriarchy that chose what was included in our Bible, the broad strokes of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) includes many examples of powerful women as well as limits on male domination. God created male and female equally and simultaneously in the first creation story (Genesis 1:26-28). Though a marriage arranged by men, Rebekah had the final word on whether she would marry Isaac (Genesis 24). The prophet Deborah led men into battle (Judges 4). Esther herself is the heroine of an entire book of the Bible.

The biblical writers’ implication is clear: God trusts both women and men to respond lovingly to the Divine coaxing.

God of Wisdom and love, The world in which we live is confusing and filled with many sadnesses and evils. Open our ears as you whisper to us. Encourage us to hear and trust your still, small voice so that we might be a part of your unfolding realm. Remind us that you whisper in the ears of every man and every woman pushing us to respond with love.  In the name of the One who breathed you into his very lungs and breathed out your love and respect for both women and men. Amen.

Trusting God’s Persuasion

I struggle between American culture and my call to follow Jesus. The culture in which I live tells me that my value is based upon doing, upon fiscally-defined success, and upon accumulating and consuming possessions.

Unlike many self-described Christians, I see very little in the biblical text to support our capitalistic culture that elevates individualism to hero status. Rather, the broad strokes of the Christian canon emphasize communal living, sharing possessions, caring for the poor, working for justice, welcoming the stranger, and an ever-expanding circle of inclusion.

I fall short in all those ways of being. I give too little. I share less than I’m able. I want when my belly is full and a little bigger than it ought to be. I fail to tithe when creditors harass me. Still, God calls me to leave behind the security of my possessions and my financial security as Jesus’ disciples did in the gospel narrative.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Mark 1: 16-20 NRSV (Read in context.)

Leaving behind the metaphorical fishing business requires me to be open to the Holy Spirit’s luring, to God’s claim on my life.  And wouldn’t you know it, God can be irritating! God means this shit!

Having given away all of our possessions except 23 boxes of books and “what fit in two cars” when we moved to Oregon last year, I’d hoped for some respite and security. “Hey! Look at us! We gave away all our possessions!” Except we didn’t. Photo by Tim Graves

The trouble for me is that I was raised within our consumer culture. I was raised in a culture that says responsible people build future security in pensions and property. I was raised in a culture that says paying a bill is more important than giving a dollar to a beggar or – GASP –  giving up some of my comforts so that others might have needs met.

Having given away all of our possessions except 23 boxes of books and “what fit in two cars” when we moved to Oregon last year, I’d hoped for some respite and security. “Hey! Look at us! We gave away all our possessions!” Except we didn’t.

We arrived in Portland one-year-ago with two cars, two computers, an iPad, a Kindle, two iPhones, and boxes of mementos and things we just couldn’t live without. We proceeded to buy bookshelves, a sofa/sleeper so we had a place to sleep, and a chair for good measure.

In fairness to our efforts, we sold a car and recently gave up our iPhones. Still, I wonder if Simon and his brother Andrew ran back into the house to collect their phones and laptops? Mark doesn’t tell us whether or not Simon said, “Jesus, can we stop by Ikea when we get to Jerusalem? I need to pick up a Poang armchair for my achey back.”

Having grown up in our culture, its voices are very strong. I feel sorry for myself that I gave up going to a couple conferences this year because of money and that I may have to miss my nephew’s upcoming wedding. I struggled with our move out of Portland to the Columbia River Gorge and what it means for my image of ministry. I feel sorry for myself that we have to juggle our lives with one car. I yearn to have a regular job though I believe I am on the path on which God calls me, unpaid lifestyle and all. I desire the accolades of professional peers and I catch myself defining my self-worth by doing when the Holy Spirit nudges me to be. I fail to trust.

Trustworthy One,

I hear your call,

   and I make excuses.

You call me to take seven steps,

   and I take one-half.

Help me to trust you,

   help me to quiet the voices that tell me your culture,

      is less important than American culture.

Hold my hand,

   as I take each step for being who you created me to be.

Smile and applaud,

   when I take my half-step,

      encouraging me to take a full step even though it’s hard for me.

Open my eyes and heart that I might put my wants,

   the demands of our economy,

      and my cultural rationalizations behind the needs of others,

         behind your will.

In the name of Jesus,

   the One who took your very breath inside,

      and breathed your love on all whom he met.

Amen.

The War on the Poor

My wife and I recently downsized to pay-as-you-go dumbphones. I’d like to say that our movement toward a simple lifestyle is the primary reason. (See Emptying Barns for posts on our journey of letting go of possessions.) But, if I’m honest we’ve done so to save money. With my continuing non-paid lifestyle, we can use an extra hundred bucks a month.

This photo by Rudy Costanza of the Times-Picayune created a stir in New Orleans and the Internet.

I thought of this when I heard that an internet bitch session has begun over a photo of a poor child with an iPad. Can you hear the uproar? “I can’t even afford an iPad and I pay for people on welfare to have one!” Embedded in this comment and others like it is a judgmentalism about the poor. The poor are lazy, the poor are manipulative, and live in luxury on the back of hardworking taxpayers, goes the judgement.

Until our contracts were complete with the big corporate phone company, we did not have the choice to downsize to affordable phones. Though our finances dictate that a pay-as-you go basic phone is the wise choice, until earlier this week I carried an iPhone. If you knew my income and saw me with an iPhone you might ask yourself, “Where’d he steal it?” or “I can’t even afford an iPhone and I pay for someone on welfare to have one!”

Or you would if you perceived me as a poor person.

We have a disdain for those who are poor in this country. We blame the victims of this complex social issue. When we oversimplify it, we oversimplify the role that personal responsibility plays. Yes, personal responsibility matters but poverty has far more to do with oppressive systems within our culture and economy.

Having spent decades in educational and social service agencies, I have known some people who skirt ethics and legalities. Some of them have been poor. Most have been from middle-class or upper-class socioeconomic groups. This is to say we are all human with our faults regardless of our income.

Judging another by an object they own (or simply possess) is dubious. I have had my eyes opened more than once as I visited the homes of children’s families who were poor. I’m not convinced I wouldn’t spend a tax refund — that might be better spent — on an iPad for my child if I raised her in some of the hope deserts I’ve visited.

But, for those who profess to follow Jesus, none of these facts are the reason to refrain from our harsh, disdainful judgment of the poor. Never mind that pesky little ol’ passage about not judging others (See Matthew 7:1-5), the Gospels (and the Old Testament, too) are chockfull of passages about how we treat the poor. Many argue convincingly that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because [God] has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.” Luke 4: 18a NRSV (Read in context.)

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Mark 10:21-22 NRSV (Read in context.)

‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Luke 11:42 NRSV (Read in context.)

Just & Loving God,

Soften our hearts,

   open us to your love,

      that we might breathe it in and,

          breathe out its compassion, empathy, and

             burning desire for justice.

May we leave judgment to you,

   and exude your extravagant love for the poor,

      in our actions and words.

Amen.

***

Related Reading

The author of the original Times-Picayune article discusses the reaction in a newspaper column.  An interesting discussion of what the poor deserve as explanation for the reaction can be found here.