Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving, Privilege, and #Ferguson: What We Can Learn from 10 Lepers in Luke

I watched the unfolding of the Ferguson Grand Jury's decision in the comfort of my home with a newborn baby resting peacefully on my chest. I was able to lament in luxury and from a position of privilege.

That's because I am not Michael Brown. I also am not Trayvon Martin. I am white. I am male. I am privileged.

But I am not shocked. While it is rare for a Grand Jury not to return an indictment to the prosecuting attorney, which simply would allow for this case to go to trial, I was not surprised the group selected chose to be one of the few to do so.

We would like to think the walls of division all around us are crumbling, but the reality is bricks are being added vertically and horizontally every single day. Whether it's race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or political affiliation, segregation continues to plague our nation, world, and even sanctuaries. We are a divided people and neither the setting fire to local businesses and police cars nor the refusal to take this case to court will further progress our communities towards the reconciliation and peace we all long to be the fabric of our future.

We can do better.

It's interesting that the decision not to indict Darren Wilson came on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. The temptation, as a white male situated in the suburbs of two Pennsylvania cities, is to watch the events unfold and hang my hat on gratitude and be thankful.

I could give thanks that when I get pulled over for speeding, which happens at least annually, other assumptions and suspicions are not cast upon me based upon the pigment of my skin.

I could give thanks that when I walk my dog late at night or in a parking garage after shopping, those who pass by me in my hoodie don't assume I am an aggressor.

I could give thanks that I have never had difficulty finding a job because of my skin color or gender.

I could give thanks that I do not know the pain of Michael Brown's parents that lead them towards both longings for four-and-a-half minutes of silence en memorium or to seek vengeance on those a part of an egregious decision by the Grand Jury.

I could give thanks that I have never experienced something in my life that has tested my commitment to nonviolent resistance or even to want to act out on deep-seeded rage.

I could give thanks for all the privileges I have not earned but simply assumed, thanking God I was neither born black, gay, middle eastern, Muslim, or even female, but then I would simply widen the gap and add to the piles of bricks that continue to work against any and all forms of reconciliation.

That's because we give thanks not in contrast to the circumstances and experiences of others, we give thanks as a means to link arms with the God who made all of us. Our gratitude is cruciform and moves us towards solidarity with all of those who suffer in silence, long for justice, work for peace, and protest the many manifestations of corruption and oppression near and far.

Thanksgiving is not about feasting on our privilege but leveraging it for the sake of the other.

I wonder if that is the real punch of Luke 17:11-19 and Jesus' healing of ten lepers.

All ten were reconciled and made whole. All ten were set free from their identity as a marginalized people group. All ten were made new by the One who was in the process of making all things new and right again.

But only one, a foreigner from Samaria, returned to the source of reconciliation and gave thanks. Only one fell facedown in worship and identified with the One who could use this healed leper to extend the same sort of healing towards others. Only one was thankful and chose to link arms with the mission and movement of the Messiah.

Only the man from the margins understood and so was charged by Jesus, "Get up, rise, be on your way. Your faith has saved you. Resurrection has happened in you. Practice resurrection all around you. No longer keep your distance from me but draw near to the kingdom and those like you who are invited into it."

The other nine kept their distance. They were set free from their marginalization and chose to cling to their new privileges. It's quite possible they even returned to the temple priests, declared their gratitude from afar, and returned to full participation in the religious community. How quickly they forgot their Master and Teacher who healed them and those on the fray and a part of their leper colony.

Are we the same? Do we merely give thanks from a privileged distance versus living out of our gratitude as we link arms with Jesus and those to whom he identified? Do we respond to embarrassing dismissals by Grand Juries with acts of violence and vandalism so distant from the teachings and witness of Jesus and wreak havoc on small business owners part of the same marginalized groups seeking justice? Do our faith communities even talk about what is taking place in our country this week or do we give thanks from afar, grateful we do not live in Ferguson, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Coatesville or other parts of the world torn by violence and injustice?

Do I keep my distance because now is not the time and there are others more capable, whose life circumstance more susceptible, to truly work towards change?

If we believe in the resurrection and long to have any part in it, our discipleship and life as those who follow Jesus begins with gratitude to God; it's what we do when we worship. When we give thanks and worship, like Luke's Samaritan, we no longer keep our distance rather link arms in faith with the God who made us in the beginning, reconciles us in the person of Jesus, and sends us by the Spirit on our way to use all we have and all we are to be God’s generous, gracious, and just people in and for the world. We live graciously out of our thankfulness, which moves us out of our privilege and towards those all too familiar with exclusion, injustice, prejudice, discrimination, and systems bent against them and others in their communities.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for those who are on the front lines of God's kingdom, which is justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit. I am grateful for lawyers, advocates, preachers, teachers, and protesters who will peacefully work towards change. I am grateful for those who will not tire despite the opposition but will use their privilege to link arms with those on the margins longing for a voice.

This Thanksgiving I pray I would do the same.

Only then will I truly demonstrate my gratitude, even within the comfort of my home with a new baby yet to be discouraged by the despair of yesterday.

 

Related Links

Statement by Stated Clerk of General Assembly (PCUSA)

Call to Prayer by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Christian Leaders Respond to Ferguson Grand Jury

A Sad Night in America by Jim Wallis

White Privielge and Male Privilege by Peggy McIntosh

Photo above is a peaceful demonstration by varied persons of faith, including Cornel West and Jim Wallis.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Prayer as Graffiti of the Soul and Melody of Mission

As parents of three little ones, it's a rare thing to find quiet and solitude in our home. When I covet devotional time for prayer and meditation, I often feel like the Psalmist: Where can I go? If I take the wings of the morning, you are there asking me to go potty. If I descend into the depths of the basement, you are there planting a mine field of Legos. If I turn out the lights and hide in the darkness, you turn on the flash of my iPhone and claim we've constructed a fort. For even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day so you find joy in pushing your bedtime later and later (Psalm 139, Parent Remix).

These aren't complaints. They also are not confessions of a parent who hides from his children, for nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, it's an honest embrace of reality. Real life is not crafted for variations of monastic prayer. But prayer is most definitely intended for real life and the chaos that comes with it.

Which brings a whole new meaning to Karl Barth's well-known statement, "to clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorders of the world."

Prayer is one of faith's greatest mysteries. Prayer cannot be defined, explained, comprehended, defended, or perfectly performed. Yet, whether while we pace with a fussy newborn in the middle of the night, wash dishes that have piled up during the day (or week), walk the streets of Philadelphia or the market of Tegucigalpa, huddle together with forty teenagers on retreat, or sit in the silence of an empty chapel, we are invited to pray.

Prayer is a lot like graffiti, we are not always certain about the how or the why or even the who and when of our prayers. Prayer pops up all over the place, not limited by convention or sacred galleries we call sanctuaries. Prayer, much like graffiti, is beautiful because it's honest and scribbled over both the ordinary and complexity of everyday life. You could even say prayer is a secret movement of the Spirit whose petitioners and practioners do not look for public recognition rather express what is frequently buried deep within the human soul.

Jan Milič Lochman says it well, "Prayer as this inner dimension embraces and accompanies the whole polyphony of human life. In this sense all thoughts and actions that respect God and his creation are acts of prayer" (The Lord's Prayer 6).

PolyphonIc prayer includes all of the following and more:

Stillness.

Silence.

Chaos.

Gratitude.

Heartache.

Anger.

Forgiveness.

Hope.

Deliverance.

Confession.

Trust.

Strength.

Doubt.

Help.

Prayer as encompassing all the varied sounds of human experience may be why the writer of First Thessalonians challenged the faithful to "pray without ceasing" (5:16). Prayer, in the midst of life's ebbs and flows, is the on-going, steady, and centered posture of trust in the God who made us, redeems us, and sends us into the world. When we doubt, lose trust, and stray from our sacred center, prayer is the Spirit's metronome that gently tugs at the heart and draws us back again.

It could be said that prayer is the never ending melody that shapes our whole life and interaction in and for the world. So when we pray without ceasing to a God who has promised always to hear our prayers we begin to see ourselves, others, and the world around us through the same lens of the God who made all things and the Jesus who suffered, died, and rose again for the whole world, including you and I.

Prayer must also ultimately push us towards action. We don't pray passively. We pray expectantly. We pray for healing, justice, forgiveness, comfort, generosity, peace, and for all the wrongs, even our worst of enemies, to be made right and good again. And when we pray these kind of prayers, we begin to shape our lives so they echo the sounds and move in rhythm with what we have prayed for and to whom we have prayed.

"Christians pray to God that he will cause his righteousness to appear and dwell on a new earth under a new heaven. Meanwhile they act in accordance with their prayer as people who are responsible for the rule of human righteousness, that is, for the preservation and renewal, the deepening and extending, of the divinely ordained human safeguards of human rights, human freedom, and human peace on earth" (Karl Barth, The Christian Life 205).

We confess this because prayer is not only about asking for things from God. Prayer is also about God asking for a response from us. Prayer reminds us we are God's partners and co-laborers in ushering in the kingdom, God's dreams for a new and transformed world.

There's a whole lot more that can be said about prayer. But prayer is meant to be engaged not by a talking (read: blogging) head, but by the collection of the faithful called the church.

Actually, prayer is meant to be humbly and mysteriously sprayed with quiet utterances all over the disordered world. These are the very beginnings of subtle uprisings that draw others towards the love, justice, generosity, and peace characteristic of the new heaven and new earth already here and still to come.

So may our prayers never cease, even when we cannot find quiet or solitude. Actually, may we pray all the more in the midst of life's chaos and confusion. That's what God intended anyway.

 

*Image above is street art in London by the mysterious Banksy. The boy is praying in front of what is supposed to be a stained glass window crafted over graffiti on a building. The irony is awesome.

 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Yep, Our Son Was Born on October 31: Parenting as Fear and Faith Formation

I am not sure why, but I had this hunch that October 31 was to be the birthday of kid No. 3.

Maybe it's because holiday deliveries seem normal to us, as our Twinado made their grand entrance just over three years ago on Maundy Thursday. This made for a poetic albeit chaotic Easter when we brought new life home for the first time.

Maybe it was because I have never been a huge fan of Halloween and thought the universe, in a cruel twist of irony, had aligned the stars so I would be forced to celebrate on this day every year from now until forever.

Maybe it's because I love the significance of All Hallows' Eve and had already considered my son a saint in utero.

Maybe it was because I had visions of a book in honor of Martin Luther, who on October 31, 1517, posted 95 Theses for church reform on the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany. However, unlike the great reformer, my book would be a collection of humorous anecdotes titled, 95 Feces: An Unorthodox Guide to Parenting in the Way of Jesus.

Maybe it was because I saw how uncomfortable my wife was at the tale end of the pregnancy. I knew 39 weeks was considered full term and a few days early would've been welcome relief for the courageous yet tired love of my life.

Needless to say, my prediction was a spot on oracle of precision.

So here we stand with a baby boy born on both Halloween and All Hallows' Eve. His delivery surrounded by cultural dramatizations of horror and ecclesial celebrations of the holy. While we may eventually grow tired of festive cliches and birthday puns, October 31 may ultimately serve as perfect metaphor for parents like us who hold in tension the frightening and hallowed call to faith formation.

We may fear the health and safety of our children, not wanting them to be short changed by debilitating diseases, become victims of unnecessary hazards, or lose out because of the irresponsibility of others. At the same time we pray our children hear God's hallowed call to take risks for the sake of others, especially margin dwellers and oppressed persons. We pray the pain they will endure, for they indeed will, moves them to enter into and seek to alleviate the pain of others.

We fear our children will not be treated with the same kindness and love we have taught them about since their birth. We dread school buses, lunch tables, and playgrounds that can be communities of grace and platforms for hostility. We cringe as we consider the possibility that our children will be the butt of jokes tossed at them by the same kinds of children we encountered when we were young. We also dare our children to cling to the hallowed image of God that defines them and can never be taken away from them. We must nurture them to be saints who reflect that very image in all those they encounter, celebrating diversity versus condemning difference.

We fear finances and the inability to provide all that our children need or want. We fear mounting medical bills, student loans, and rising costs of living. We fear our children will become pawns in the capitalistic, consumer culture and obsessed with the need for more and better. We strive to foster a holy trust in the very Creator who promises us not abundance but daily bread. We pray they would explore opportunities to share that same bread with those who are poor, sick, and hungry.

We fear they will become cynical in light of a world saturated in violence, poverty, injustice, and steady streams of corruption and hypocrisy. We pray for the sacred opportunities to dream alongside them as they quest to become agents of generosity and innovative peacemakers, embodying the different world they know can and one day will be possible.

We fear they will become jaded by church systems and politics that quickly distract God's people from the mission of God and God's dreams for a better, cleaner, and safer world renewed by creativity and beauty. We covenant as faithful parents to empower our hallowed children, in the words of Richard Rohr, to critique the bad with the practice of the better. We also hope to tilt their eyes and ears to those very places where the world still reflects the very brilliance of Eden and wondrous sounds of God's shalom.

We fear our children will live in angst and anguish in light of what they read, watch, witness, and personally experience. We long to respond to our Christian call and form them to be disciples not crippled by fear but propelled by the perfect love of God in Christ that has driven all fear away.

Let's be honest, fear is a part of parenting. Fear is intimately a part of being human. Maybe that's why we mimic it on Halloween.

Still more, faith formation is the sacred call of parents, who are accompanied by the great and hallowed cloud of witnesses called the church. When we hold in tension the reality of fear and our holy obligation to faith formation, the possibilities are endless not only for us, but also and especially for our children.

After all, theirs is the kingdom of God.

So I guess I'm kind of grateful for my son's October 31 birthday, colliding with both Halloween and All Hallows' Eve. Maybe this annual celebration will be a reminder for him (and us) to live within the tension of fear and faith formation. That seems to be the very place where God dwells, too.

Happy Halloween. Blessed All Hallows' Eve.

Even if it's a bit belated.

 

Related Post: http://gregklimovitz.blogspot.com/2013/09/stop-comparing-parenting-green-eggs-and.html

 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Job and Jesus at the Dump: Suffering Part 2

There's an epic moment at the end of Toy Story 3. (Don't judge my current movie and media references, I have young kids, my wife is pregnant, and I now drive a minivan.)

Buzz, Woody, Jessie, and their entire network of toy heroes are about to be consumed by a fiery furnace at the local dump. While at the top of the trash heap, they brace themselves for inevitable destruction on the heals of their greatest adventure to date.

They no longer speak.

They have surrendered their visions of some sort of dramatic escape.

They know there are no plans for Toy Story 4 and so have lost all hope.

As their garbage pile moves closer and closer to the edge, the friends silently link arms, grasp hands, and gaze into each other's eyes as a final digital display of solidarity.

A pretty dark and dramatic moment for a kid's flick.

It's also what came to mind when I thought of another story whose characters suffer in silence upon different trasheap of despair:

"Satan left God and struck Job with terrible sores. Job was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes...Three of Job’s friends heard of all the trouble that had fallen on him. Each traveled from his own country—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, Zophar from Naamath—and went together to Job to keep him company and comfort him. When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering."

Job 2:7-13 (The Message)

This ancient story reminds us sometimes there are no words in the face of death, dying, and human suffering. While we may be tempted to promote our carefully crafted theologies, unleash clever Christian cliches, and defend God and all related God speak we have been taught since childhood, there are moments when silence is best.

I only wish Job's friends would've stopped there. I wish they would've ended with their decision to dump dirt on their heads and practice the presence of the God who hears more than speaks. I wish the three ancient theologians would've been willing to bypass rigid quests for certainty and reason and embrace mystery in the midst of a friend's misery.

I wish they would've remained silent.

But I'm glad Job didn't. I'm grateful for the pages that turn rather quickly as Job confronts the very God who has apparently permitted his agony, which will never sit well with me. I am grateful Job gives vocabulary to the emotions I have felt in moments of anguish. Job even permits us to challenge God's (lack of) involvement or concern. I am grateful Job freely vocalizes his rage. I am grateful God listens, too.

I am also grateful for another dump of despair outside Jerusalems city limits:

"The soldiers brought Jesus to Golgotha, meaning "Skull Hill." They offered him a mild painkiller (wine mixed with myrrh), but he wouldn’t take it. And they nailed him to the cross. They divided up his clothes and threw dice to see who would get them...At noon the sky became extremely dark. The darkness lasted three hours. At three o’clock, Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Mark 15:22-24, 33-34 (The Message)

We frequently look to the cross as a symbol for the sin of the world. We see the crucifixion as synonymous with other words like forgiveness and atonement.

But what about the cross as a witness to a God who not only saves but also suffers and dies? What about Golgotha, a trash heap on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as another Job-like encounter with the garbage of death, dying, and a world caught within the grips of evil and injustice?

What about the cross as a grand mystery that dares us to sit in silence and ponder the meaning of the Messiah's most difficult question, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

There are enough people ready and willing to respond to a suffering world with pat answers, carefully-constructed statements, and well-intentioned theological systems. But I wonder, are there even more willing either to sit in silence alongside those who grieve, crucifying a lust for controlled rationale or still more faithful enough to venture alongside others who suffer in silence and pray for someone to speak up as advocates for their deliverance.

Teenagers seem to have a knack for this sort of ambiguous confrontation with pain and heartache.*

Maybe that's because they have a hunch that this is what the cross is all about. Maybe they know this is what it means to carry one in a world with more than a fair share of Golgothas.

Still, Job and Jesus at the dump are not overcome by darkness. If we linger in the story long enough we encounter a God who carries and buries the sufferings of this world in the cross of Christ. God doesn't bury our suffering so to dismiss, hide, or increase divine apathy and ignorance. Rather, like a careful and confident gardener, God plants the seeds of our sorrows in the soil of God's promise with full awareness that in time new life can and will sprout.

This will be true for all of us, indeed true of all creation.

But until that day, sometimes all we can do is sit by the dirt and quietly wait.

Or get our hands dirty and plant seeds of justice and peace.

But we clasp our hands and wait nonetheless.

 

Related Links and Books

On Job by Gustavo Gutierrez

Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain by Frederick Buechner

Is God to Blame? By Gregory Boyd

Why Does Life Hurt So Much Sometimes? Suffering Part 1

*"Let me suggest with total inaccuracy that the word adolescent is made up of the Latin preposition ad, meaning 'toward,' and the Latin noun dolor, meaning 'pain.' Thus 'adolescent' becomes a term that designates human beings who are in above all else a painful process, more specifically those who are in the process ofdiscovering pain itselfoftrying somehow to come to terms with pain, to figure out how to deal with pain, not just how to survive pain but how to turn it to some human and creative use in their own encounters with it. Thus adolescents, as in the official etymology, are ones who are growing to be sure but who, in terms of my spurious etymology, are growing in this one specific area of human experience."

Frederick Buechner, "Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain"