BE a neighbor

*Consider the ugly-beautiful story of Sarah and Hagar.

First, the UGLY.

-Sarah, wife of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, has multiple hardships, most of them the result simply of the patriarchal system of her time and place:

  • She’s had to leave her home–twice–and wander for many years as a nomad.
  • One time during her and her husband’s wanderings, Abraham sold her into a king’s harem in order to protect his own skin (he actually did this twice, but the second time happened after the Sarah-Hagar story).
  • Sarah is barren, a mark of deep shame in the Ancient Near East. She is unable to bear her husband the son God has promised to him.

-Sarah, despite her shame and very limited power as a woman, DOES have the authority of being the “owner” of a slave maid named Hagar, and she uses this power to sexually exploit Hagar. She “gives” the slave woman to Abraham with the hope that Hagar will get pregnant and be a surrogate mother.

-Hagar does get pregnant and suddenly realizes she has an advantage over her barren mistress. Hagar, not Sarah, is bearing the master’s child. So Hagar uses her newfound power and lords it over Sarah.

-Sarah, who IS still the mistress, complains to Abraham, and he tells her she can do whatever she wants with Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar to the point that pregnant Hagar runs away.

Now for the BEAUTIFUL!

-God protects both women in this story.

  • He rescued Sarah from the king’s harem (and God will do it again when Abraham “sells” her off a second time), and God eventually names Sarah as a co-partner in the promise of a son–meaning Abraham is no longer free to discard her.
  • God comes to Hagar in the wilderness after she runs away, gives her her own promise of many, many descendants, and tells her she’s carrying a son (a BIG power play card in her relationship with Abraham and Sarah). With this power play card, God sends her back to the safest place possible for a vulnerable, pregnant, unmarried woman. Hagar feels so known by God that she calls God “the God who sees her.”

-God, who is so often named as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reveals himself to be most assuredly the God of Sarah and Hagar as well. He is well aware of the struggles of their lives. He sees them. He knows their point of view.

One of my favorite lines in To Kill a Mockingbird is a statement lawyer Atticus Finch makes to his young daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

In the incarnation, God went beyond knowing people’s skins and souls as their Creator. He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.

But it’s important to consider the exact skin God put on. It wasn’t skin that would be protected by money or privilege. No. The Son of God put on the vulnerable flesh of the baby of two poor people who had to flee violence in their hometown and live as immigrants in a far-off country. And when he was grown and clearly had the power to control the weather and drive out demons and raise the dead back to life, he hung out not with cultured, authoritative people but with fishermen and tax collectors and women–some of them the lowest of the low. 

The skin God chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloth happened to be at hand.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the poor.

The skin God chose was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the powerless.

The skin God chose was carried off into a foreign country.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the refugee and immigrant.

The skin God chose was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the illegitimate.

The skin God chose grew rough and calloused.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the working poor.

The skin God chose often lay itself down on the ground to sleep at night and at times grew tight over ribs.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the homeless.

The skin God chose was bruised and torn by guards.

Because Christ put on the flesh of prisoners.

The skin God chose was naked in the sight of all.

Because Christ put on the flesh of all those forced to expose themselves to others. 

In the story of the Good Samaritan (which we heard today in our Gospel reading), the teacher of the law had spent plenty of time studying the Scripture. He knew what the Law said was the way to live eternally with God. But Jesus didn’t tell him to go around quoting the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” or to spend more time praying. Jesus re-framed the definition of neighbor. He re-framed the teacher’s question. The teacher asked, “Who is MY neighbor; who am I required to love?” Jesus ignored that–because the answer is simple: it’s everyone. Instead, Jesus gave a charge, “Go and do as the Samaritan did. Go and love as a neighbor to all people.” 

I know that the status of immigrants coming into this country has become a political issue, but it is not primarily a political issue for the church. It is a neighbor issue. And I know that we can disagree on different political stances in the church in the United States, but I think we ignore this issue at our peril as followers of Jesus. I think we do damage to the neighbor heart God is planting and expanding within us. I am pretty sure Joseph and Mary didn’t have their papers in order when they entered Egypt, and Jesus doesn’t mention the strangers in Matthew 25 having to present the proper documents in order to be welcomed. I’m not advocating a particular stance; I don’t know enough to. What I do know is that there is no way I can preach on this passage without bringing up the current status of undocumented immigrants and refugees in this country. 

Friday night I was at a Lights for Liberty prayer vigil in Humboldt Park, praying for migrants in detention, for separated families, and for people in this country who are facing deportation. It was hosted by a church in Humboldt Park, and we gathered in a fenced-in parking lot next to the church. As I listened to local pastors and a state representative pray and speak, I noticed a sign attached to the fence next to me. It had this picture on it, the picture of Yazmin Juárez with her daughter, Mariee. The two left Guatemala and sought asylum in the U.S. and were held at a detention center in Texas. While there, Mariee became sick. After Yazmin and Mariee were released, Yazmin and her mother took Mariee to a pediatrician, and Mariee was immediately admitted to a nearby hospital and diagnosed with a lung infection. She died in the hospital. Yazmin blames improper medical care, “terrible and inadequate” living conditions, and a culture of neglect at the migrant holding facilities for her daughter’s health.

Yazmin testified before House lawmakers and said, “I am here today because the world needs to know what is going on in ICE detention centers.” 

 As I stood next to the picture and read the brief bio of Yazmin and Mariee, I immediately thought of Hagar–Hagar fleeing with her child in her womb. I knew that God saw Yazmin and Mariee, and I, a follower of God, didn’t have the choice, standing next to their picture on the fence, to not see them as well. God sees each and every person held in a detention center; he collects the tears of every parent and child separated from each other; he hears the whispered prayers of those fearing deportation. 

 Last night our family got food from our favorite taco joint. It’s straight up Laramie Avenue from us, in south Belmont Cragin. Right next to the register was a little stack of cards with a sign. The sign, in Spanish, read, “Know your rights. Take a card.”  The cards have instructions for what to do if ICE comes to the door. 

The student population at the school where my husband teaches is about 60% Latino. At times in the last couple years, the school has had to bring in grief counselors because the stress about deportation among students has spiked so high. People in our communities are afraid. No matter what their U.S. citizenship status is, Jesus calls them our neighbors. Jesus calls US their neighbors. 

 I’m not saying that the story of Hagar and Sarah or the parable of the Good Samaritan or Matthew 25 holds all the answers as to the stance each of us should take on immigration in this country. I know it’s very complex. But these passages reveal the heart and actions of our God, and they give us a charge as to what we are to DO. “Go be a neighbor!” Jesus tells us. And we’d better not be neighbors only to the Abrahams of the world or even to the Sarahs of the world. We are neighbors to the Hagars of the world, to the beat-up stranger on the side of the road, to the despised Samaritan, to the fleeing Josephs and Marys with infants in arms.

God’s tenderness for Hagar is breathtaking, especially when we remember that societies, by and large, have never valued people like Hagar. We still don’t. Hagar is merely one of those peripheral, powerless people who never become anyone “worth” knowing. Yet God sees her, knows her name, and speaks tenderly, personally, and directly to her.

“Which of the three,” Jesus asked, “was a neighbor to the man unseen by people but seen by God?” 

“The one who showed him mercy,” the teacher answered.

And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” 

*The post is part of a sermon I preached in our church’s Genesis: Stories of Redemption series. The poem in the middle of this post is a revision of a blog I wrote and posted a couple years ago. 

 

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manna and muffins

Last week a friend sat in my kitchen while I cooked dinner. She lives overseas, in her husband’s home country, where they care for children from their community (among many other things). As we chatted, and I chopped, I said something about not knowing exactly how much I was fixing. “It’s okay, though,” I said. “God taught me awhile ago that no matter how many gather around the table or who shows up unexpectedly, the food will stretch. There will always be enough.”

She laughed and then her face grew serious as she told me of a conversation she’d had with a well-meaning friend not long before. “She said my husband and I had taken on too much, that we shouldn’t have taken in all the kids, that it’s too much stress on our marriage.”

I stopped chopping and looked at her. “What did you say?”

She shrugged. “I told her I didn’t think we had any more stress than any other cross-cultural marriage, and, besides, what were we supposed to do? Turn the kids away?”

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, a place God describes in the book of Jeremiah as “a land of drought and deep darkness,” they understood they were completely at the mercy of God. They had no capability of providing for themselves. He had put them in a place of utter dependence.

And God provided. Manna fell from the sky, and there was always just the right amount of it. Some gathered “more, some less. But when they measured it …, those who had gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” Those who purposely gathered extra—in case the Lord didn’t come through the next day—found their leftovers had worms, but on the Sabbath Day, when no manna fell from heaven, the amount gathered the day before was miraculously enough.

The Israelites forgot this as soon as they fell into some natural resources. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things,” God said. But in the apparent ability to nurture one’s own sustenance, to provide for oneself—they forgot God. (See Jeremiah 2:6-8)

Even the slightest bit of abundance makes us, too, forget that every meal, every resource comes from God—just as much as the manna did. There is no sufficiency outside him. ALL we have is gift, is manna, given to nourish us and given to be shared—and to miraculously multiply in the sharing. Do we believe this? Do we believe God will stretch what he’s given us when we stretch out our hand to press it into the palm of another? We have been given the privilege of witnessing, like the disciples, the loaves and fish mysteriously expanding, being enough—and MORE—for everyone, filling and overflowing needs, becoming abundance.

But this miracle of multiplication and abundance cannot be set in motion without our sharing what is perceived as “ours” (money, talents, time, resources) with others. Sometimes, though, the miracle is hidden from our sight, and we continue to worry, to wonder, “Did we give too much? Will we have enough for us?”

Oh, to realize that the answer to this question is ever and always “NO!” In and of myself I cannot provide enough. But God has and IS enough and more. If we are honest enough to ask it, the question beneath is, “Will He have enough?” but we dare not ask that question because to say it out loud seems sacrilegious, a bit blasphemous, because, after all, of course he has enough. He’s GOD!

But what are we saying when we make the question instead about our own resources? Are we suggesting we can be sufficient without him? that we’d like to make it on our own? Are we essentially saying, Thanks but no thanks, God; I’ll call out when I’m really in dire straits, but I’ve gained some independence, you know. Grown up into a responsible adult, capable, hardworking.

Oh, but God didn’t grudgingly give the manna, and he didn’t provide the land with its resources to get the Israelites off his to-do list. He longs to provide for us; he longs for us to depend on and trust him.

There is reason Jesus calls himself—in one of his many, many self-descriptions—the “bread of life,” the sustenance that takes us through our days—and not stingily. A page from Lauren Winner’s book Wearing God* comes to mind. She writes, “I once asked a circle of people from church, if Jesus is the ‘bread of life,’ what kind of bread is He? Not a one of them said, ‘He’s that small round wafer we use at Communion.’ I wrote down their answers. I think they make a good prayer:

a bagel

rye

toast with jam

morning glory muffins

chocolate tea bread

rosemary ciabatta

my grandmother’s sourdough

my grandmother’s challah

French toast

a crusty baguette

“This gorgeous list,” Winner writes, “expands our attention from the usual thought ‘if God is bread, then God meets my needs,’ to the category of delectation.” I might add, if God is “morning glory muffins”—which sound both delicious and beautiful—then he is “company bread,” meant to be shared. He is the challah made by your grandmother, a gift that begs you to gather others around your table and enjoy with you.

All—I’ll say it again, all—we have is gift and we must, as disciples, lose the stingy, grabbing mindset of the world that fears dependence and scarcity far more than it fears separation and estrangement. Mother Teresa told us “…we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Share your bread,

Learn belonging,

And discover the abundance of God.

 

 

 

Blindness to God and neighbor

The story of Bartimaeus, as told in Mark 10, seems very straightforward: Jesus restores the sight of a blind man.

First, Bartimaeus calls out for Jesus to have mercy on him.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers, “I want to see.”

Jesus says, “Go; your faith has healed you.”

And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus.

I love Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus (click here to read a post on that), but as I have read, listened to, and told this story several dozen times in the last several months, I have come to appreciate an irony in it.

Bartimaeus is not the only one in the story who is blind, and Jesus is doing two kinds of healing: he is restoring physical sight to Bartimaeus, and he is revealing the spiritual blindness of those who think they already see.

They have good reason to believe this; they see the sun, the sky, the trees, the grass. They see quite well the people around them who are wealthy and powerful. They see those who run in the “same circles” as they do themselves. Most of all, they see themselves.

They even, to a certain extent, see Jesus: see his miracles, see his power, see the possibilities following him might bring them.

But they are spiritually blind, and this is revealed in their response to Bartimaeus. They don’t notice him, don’t acknowledge him, don’t listen to him. They even try to shut him up when he dares to speak.

Bartimaeus, though, is named in Scripture. Though so many others are not, including those with wealth and/or status (the rich young ruler, most of the scribes and Pharisees who interacted with Jesus, the Centurion), both the personal and family names of this blind, begging man are shared. Jesus, the Son of the Creator God, filled with the Spirit of Life, hears and sees Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. He loves him.

Jesus does not want the crowds to be wowed with his miracles. He does not want them enamored with his power. He wants them to know God; he is revealing God! He wants them to understand that the God who rescued them and made them his people did not do so in order for them to become proud and separated. God did this so he could teach them to love as God loves, with heart and soul and mind, to love both God and neighbor in this full, complete way—and then to be a light to all people, being themselves a mini-revelation of this incredible God.

Bartimaeus somehow understood this, at least on some level. He was not truly blind, for when he regained his physical sight, he didn’t use it for his own purposes. He followed Jesus, and I can imagine Bartimaeus running up to downtrodden individuals all along the way, inviting them to Jesus. “Come and see,” he would say, “Come and see Jesus!”

It was the people around Bartimaeus who were actually blind. They chose not to see God as the Yahweh who had rescued and covenanted with them for no reason other than love. They chose not to see God’s love for all people, and instead they loved as the world self-servingly loves, showing attention only to those whose response might be beneficial.

All this was evident in their attitude toward Bartimaeus. “Be quiet,” the crowds around told him. “We don’t want to hear about your needs. We don’t want Jesus’ attention to be focused on you. Stay down there, on the ground.”

But Jesus stopped to listen to Bartimaeus’ cry, and he responds in an interesting way. He does not call out directly to Bartimaeus. He tells the crowd, “Call him here.” See him, Jesus is saying. Notice him, talk to him, interact with him. You are both creations of the living God. You cannot love God and refuse to love your neighbor.

In Jesus’ view, Bartimaeus already possessed sight; he had faith vision. Maybe he’d heard stories of Jesus announcing himself with Isaiah’s words and then actually doing them, preaching good news to the poor, restoring sight, pronouncing healing and freedom to the downtrodden and burdened. Bartimaeus was convinced by what he’d heard. He knew he needed Jesus; he believed Jesus would want to help him (and could!); and he cried out for help.

The crowds, however, were like the Pharisees, who saw no reason to throw themselves on God’s mercy and lovingkindness. They believed they possessed special favor, and they didn’t want God’s favor to be extended to anyone else.

In Jesus’ estimation, they were the blind.

Jesus longs to heal our blindness. He longs for us to see God more and more clearly, to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly…

And to love our neighbors–all our neighbors!–as ourselves.

Anything less is blindness.

 

NOTE: I have been thinking about this post for a long time. I do not write it only as a response to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville this past weekend, but it is very linked in my mind. We (meaning the Church) must not ignore the spiritual blindness of racism, especially when it is held by those who say they are following Christ or doing the work of God. Christ did not keep peace with the blind; he named their blindness; he called them to admit it and turn to God. We must do the same. Here’s a blogpost by Michael Frost that is very pertinent to this. And here’s another by Jen Oshman–also excellent.

Some thoughts on Mark 4:35-41

In Mark chapter 4, Mark recounts a day of Jesus telling stories to a number of people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When evening came, Jesus told his disciples to cross to the other side. So, leaving the crowds behind, the disciples and Jesus set out in a boat, and other boats went with them. A great storm blew up, with furious winds and waves so large they began breaking into the boat, threatening to swamp it.

Jesus, meanwhile, was asleep on a cushion in the back of the boat.

If you were reading this passage, which is only a few verses long, you would discover very quickly that all ends well. In fact, most Bibles have a heading for this passage that is something like “Jesus Calms the Storm,” so you know the outcome before you even begin reading.

The disciples, however, did not know the ending. All they knew was that, because of Jesus’ instructions, they were out in the middle of the sea in a terrible storm that was filling their not-so-large boat with water, and they react in the same way as many other biblical characters, whose “hard times” left them uncertain and sorrowful and doubting. Unlike many other biblical characters, though, the disciples’ ordeal did not last very long. (A couple months ago I wrote a post about how waiting and suffering are often compressed in Scriptural accounts; ten seconds of reading, and we’re through months/years/decades of struggle. We have to identify with the characters—we have to take time ourselves—in order to gain a clearer sense of the story.) To identify with the disciples in this story, though, we don’t need to imagine the toll of a long stretch of time; we need to imagine the panic of a perfectly good situation suddenly gone terribly wrong.

As I read this story over and over, what caught my attention was this: the disciples were exactly where they were supposed to be. They’d followed Jesus’ directions; he was there with them; they hadn’t left him behind to follow their own whims. They’d made no bad decision or been foolish or rash. They were right where Jesus wanted and told them to be.

But they still encountered a storm.

A great storm, one with howling winds and waves tall enough to menace above the sides of their boat like monsters and then crash down upon them. A storm strong enough that even the seasoned fishermen among them feared for their lives.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever done exactly what you thought Jesus was telling you to do and then found yourself in the middle of a storm? Did you start to wonder if you’d done something wrong? Misheard his voice? Wandered off on your own path? Failed to do something right?

My brother-in-law recently suggested to me that perhaps Jesus knew the storm was coming and was actually leading the disciples into a test of their faith.

Could be. Could be that he wanted the disciples’ faith in him to stretch to cosmic proportion—beyond physical healings to authority over the sky and sea.

Could also not be. Jesus, self-limited as he was in humanness, might not have known the storm was coming. Perhaps he just went out on the boat with the disciples knowing he needed rest and in full assurance that no matter what happened, God would be right there caring for them.

We don’t know which is the case. All we know is that when the disciples woke Jesus, asking him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus got up and told the wind and the waves to be still. And after the storm stopped–immediately!–he turned to the disciples and asked, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

And then the disciples were really afraid and they said to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The boat, the disciples, and Jesus reached the other side of the Sea of Galilee with no ill effects. Not all our storms end this way, with every person accounted for, with no lasting injuries or loss. Some storms take years, even a lifetime, to recover from. Some storms don’t end. Some storms are of our own making, and regret compounds our pain.

But, no matter the circumstances of your particular storm, we can know that God has good for us–“best” for us–in the middle of the tempest. God is not spiteful; God does not have an awful sense of humor; God is not conducting a faith experiment for research purposes; God is not plopping us in the midst of it like numbered lab rats. Rather God, who calls His people the apple of His eye, wants us to find that He has provided an eye in the center of the squall specifically planned for each of us. He has for us the certainty that—even when all evidence points to the contrary—we are seen and known and loved and cared for.

We are much like the disciples. The best, in their opinion, was a trouble-free trip across the sea. For the landlubbers among them, the best was probably their feet touching solid ground on the other side after a smooth crossing.

But God, as we are told, sees things very differently. And in God’s view, our presence in His eye is His absolute best for us.

a dose of gladness

flowersThis morning, as the dog ran in the park, I sat on a bench, leaned back, and lifted my face—and then had to squint because the sun hung in the air so bright it seemed to make the blue of the sky and the edges of the young leaves almost pulse with intensity.

It felt too sharp.

Friday night my husband came home from his inner-city school and went straight into our bedroom. I followed him in, took one look at his face, and shut the door behind me. Between tears, he shared with me one tragedy after another he’d learned of that very day. The violence and dysfunction in several neighborhoods had spilled over, and several students and one teacher had endured trauma and loss and setback.

No matter where you teach, there is always hardship. No matter where you live, there is always heartache. But we’re learning that when you teach in an inner-city school, when you live in an under-resourced neighborhood, the hardship and heartache seem to be the norm rather than the exception. The students and teachers at Dave’s school are always going through something, but this past week, there was simply too much. Their young, vibrant principal called a special meeting Friday and, in tears herself, relayed to her staff one story after another after another.

“We have to love each other,” she told them at the meeting’s end. “We have to encourage each other and love our kids and get rest. This is really, really hard.”

Yes, it is.

After Dave told me everything, and we cried together, he lay on the bed and fell asleep. And I went out and explained to our kids and our guest that it was going to be a slightly different evening than we’d planned. And our wonderful guest said that was perfectly all right.

The weekend rolled on. Soccer on Saturday morning and an evening spent with friends; church on Sunday and then, unfortunately, lots of homework. But underneath was heaviness.

So this morning, between sending Dave and the kids off to school and getting to work myself, I took the dog to the park and thought and prayed about the hard things I know about and all those I don’t, and then I just needed to sit down.

And the sunlight was too bright.

How, God, when you know all the darkness, all the sorrow, all the hurt and pain and evil inflicted by humans upon each other—and even on themselves—how does the sun still shine? How is the sky so blue, the trees so green?

If I were you, clouds would hover above the sites of such tragedies; trees would stand bare and stark in sorrow at what they have seen; the sun would hide; and the grass and flowers would shrivel in horror at what we humans do to each other, at what some humans must endure.

And yet…

And yet, the sight of a tree breaking into purple flower still caused me to smile—just this morning.

How?

I don’t know, but I do know that in the midst of all this, we need gladness in small doses and large, to whatever degree we can take it.

So today I pray that for a few particular students, one particular teacher, a couple of graduates, a student now in search of a new school. I pray that something—like purple flowers, the brilliant blue sky, the squinting-ly shining sun or the gleaming green of the trees—makes them smile today in spite of everything. Better yet, Abba, may a fellow human, bearing your image and your presence, make them glad.

In spite of everything, may they sense a love that cannot be explained or seen but which is real, is true.

Is you.

Taize, March 2017

I tucked the candle and its paper drip guard

in the hymnal rack of the pew in front of me

til we sang “Christ Jesus, light of our hearts, we praise you”

and a young girl made her way down the aisle,

lighting the tapers of those at each row’s end.

My friend Beth’s candle burst into flame

and I leaned mine to meet its glowing tip.

My wick, too, sparked to brightness,

burning fast, flame high, wax flowing.

My weary mind fixated on the flame and flow,

And the shrinking of my candle.

The candle—me.

Around me people sang in Spanish:

Nada te turbe/nada te espante/

quien a Dios tiene nada le falta/

nada te turbe/nada te espante/

solo Dios basta.

I translated bits in my mind,

but mostly watched the wax drip, drip, drip.

Melting, lessened, reduced.

Reduced.

Lower, lower it burned.

Then, same song, English words:

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.

Those who seek God will never go wanting.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.

God alone fills us.

I remembered the Spanish: solo Dios basta

Basta—enough.

We filed to the front,

placed our candles in sand-filled bowls at the foot of the cross,

returned to our seats.

From there I could not see the candles,

But their collective glow lit up the Christ painted on the cross.

Another song began

and the cross was lifted from among the candles

Placed in front of them, flat on the ground.

Come forward, we were invited.

Come to the cross.

The line was long.

I watched the candles.

Many had burned down to nubs,

their flames low in the sand.

Others still stood tall.

My turn.

In the flames’ flicker, the painted face and hands

of the Christ on the cross seemed to move.

When I knelt, put my hand on his,

I almost expected them to clasp together.

Around me voices rose.

The final line washed over me.

Love and do not fear.

Climb in his skin

In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books, lawyer Atticus Finch gives his young daughter some advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

climb in his skin

In the incarnation, Christ did exactly that, didn’t he? He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.

But it wasn’t just any old skin he put on. Christ chose a very specific skin, and he walked around in it and considered its very particular point of view for 33 years.

The skin he chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloths happened to be at hand.

Because Christ put on the skin of the poor.

It was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.

Because Christ put on the skin of the powerless.

It was carried off into a foreign country.

Because Christ put on the skin of the refugee and immigrant.

It was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.

Because Christ put on the skin of the illegitimate.

It grew rough and callused.

Because Christ put on the skin of the working poor.

It lay itself down on the ground and at times grew tight over ribs.

Because Christ put on the skin of the homeless.

It was bruised and torn by guards.

Because Christ put on the skin of prisoners.

It was naked in the sight of all.

Because Christ put on the skin of all those forced to expose themselves to others.

~~~

“Then the King (Jesus) will say to those at his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father: Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—

you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-40

All children

The verse, “Children are a gift from the Lord” hangs right next to my bed. It was given to me not long after the twins were born. I hung it there mostly because there was already a nail and it fit the space perfectly, but also, in all honesty, because sometimes I need that reminder!

A few weeks ago, I lay in bed late one night staring at that verse, but I wasn’t thinking about my own kids. I was thinking of the two teenage boys who’d been killed in our neighborhood earlier that day. I was thinking of their mothers. Was anyone mourning with them?

I’d read the news account of the killing. The two boys were barely mentioned, just their names and the statement, “Police believe the shooting was gang related.” Much more space was given to the neighbor lady who was injured by a stray bullet.

I get that. She was the “truly innocent bystander,” caught in the crossfire of Chicago’s gang violence.

But they were teenagers; one of them 17, the other 16—the age of my Emily. And though I understand the attitude that glosses over their deaths a bit—because, after all, “they chose to be in a gang and they know how violent they are and who knows what they did to cause retaliation and…”

…they were 16 and 17.

I don’t know about you, but at that age, I was nowhere near ready to make major life decisions. Particularly not ones that involved gangs and mortality. I was nowhere near ready to step completely out of the flow of all my peers. I was nowhere near ready to recognize and then actually carry out logical planning to map out potential options for my future and how to proceed.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t need to do all that. I was guided in that process. I was surrounded by peers who were, for the most part, engaged and busy and active with good things—because they too, for the most part, were being guided—by their parents, by our school, by the structures surrounding us—in the messy, confusing business of growing up. We were guided toward a future we couldn’t even imagine yet. We were shaped into and equipped to be productive members of our society.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the case for those two boys. There was lots of shaping and equipping going on, but I doubt there was much future planning involved. Boys in gang-saturated neighborhoods, going to underfunded schools, coming from broken family structures, living hand to mouth… they often don’t expect to live very long, and the few who do don’t know any other structures to pass on to the next generation. I would argue that most 16-year-old kids involved in a gang have few other options presented to them. It’s not a real choice in the sense of “I’ve got a few good, productive options in front of me and I see them as real and possible.”

Honestly, though, my point in writing today is not to write about the violence in Chicago. It’s not even to protest police or military force (though I think it’s a horrible idea.)

Here’s what’s been itching at my heart the past few weeks. A couple days after those boys were shot, I walked past the house where it happened. There was nothing there to mark it—other than police tape. No signs, no candles, no stuffed animals—nothing. They’d been erased, and it really felt like no one cared.

But they were someone’s babies. They were someone’s boys. They were created by God just as my precious children were. They mattered. And they really had no chance.

At least not like the chances my kids have.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

I would say that until we see other people’s children as being as valuable as our own, as valuable as the children of our friends and our neighbors and our fellow church members—we will not seek justice for them. In fact, we will place the needs and the safety of our own children above theirs. If we feel that good done to other people’s children might have negative effect on our own, we will choose against them. In other words, we really won’t care that much.

Martin Luther King also said, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”

Those are strong words!

But I think they need to be repeated.

And we need to listen.

Till we see all children as precious, precious gifts.

the Love

As the presidential election results came in last night, one of my sons watched with a Mexican flag wrapped around him. He did this in support of his Mexican-American friends. He did this because he loves them, because he doesn’t want them to be seen as second-class citizens, because he doesn’t want them to live in fear for those among them who are undocumented—like some of their parents.

My husband teared up this morning as he got ready to go in and teach his Latino-American and African-American students. “What do I tell my kids?” he said. “A lot of them have been really scared about this. What do I say?”

A few weeks ago when Trump made comments about African Americans in inner-city neighborhoods living in “hell” and how “stop and frisk” would be a possible solution, my children wanted to know what that meant. Then they asked, “Who would they stop? Our neighbors? On the street?”

They knew it probably wouldn’t be their white dad getting frisked on the way home. The gentleman across the street, though, the one they wave to every day and tell where they’re going and how they’re doing—he might.

A couple weeks ago, an ad popped up of a mother whose son has autism. She was offended by Donald Trump’s hand-flapping gesture. She said something like this: “My son isn’t welcome in Trump’s world. I don’t agree with much of Clinton’s stances, but I can’t vote for him.”

_________ isn’t welcome in Trump’s world. You can fill in the blank with a lot of words, all of them representing human beings, generally marginalized, without much voice. I couldn’t vote for him either.

I know some people reading this would say that my husband and I have filled our children’s heads with a lot of soft, pie-in-the-sky ideology.

But in the course of the evening, one of my older son’s friends—who would identify as a Christian—posted a pro-Trump slogan on social media and followed it with the hashtag “#build that wall.”

My son, tears in his eyes, asked me, “Mom, where’s the love?”

Oh, I’m glad for that heart.

Where is the love?

I understand that some at this point—were this a dialogue—would refer to love for the unborn.

And I get that. I really do, but I also wonder this: if we can’t love those right in front of us, those that some in the majority might see as “not-like-me, might-be-taking-my-tax-dollars” folks, then any love for the unborn, who are easy to love because we’re not changing their diapers and footing their bills, seems a little suspect.

And, I might add, what also seems suspect is that Trump has some sense of love and justice for the unborn.

The electoral college just elected a businessman whose entire career is based on success for himself regardless of the cost to others; a man who sees women as little more than sexual objects; a man who seems to view most others as beneath him (and that’s almost automatic if you have a different skin color or ethnicity than his); a man who wants a return to good old days—days when almost all white churches supported or tolerated racial injustice of many kinds.

I don’t think small government and lower taxes were worth that much.

I know I’m simplifying this—that so many will say there were other issues, but I fail to see the biblical, ethical, righteous concern in many of them. I find a lot of “rights” involved, and I struggle with this because I don’t find my rights touted in Scripture, and I do find a lot of statements about standing up for others when they’re oppressed.

At one point this morning, my children gathered around me in the kitchen, “What do we do?”

“We remember who we are,” I told them. “As Americans, President-elect Trump will be our president, but we are not Americans first. We are followers of Jesus. He is our King, and we live first and foremost as his followers, as his citizens. We will love Him, and we will love our neighbors, and when we need to stand with and for them, we will.”

O God, make haste

I’m struggling with worry right now. On the other side of this move, with some things settled (like Dave’s teaching position), other things are still very much up in the air: a job for me that brings in more income but still allows me to homeschool Em and “mom” my kids well; Em’s schooling—is this the best path longterm?; soccer and friendships for the kids; church; adjustment to a decreased budget…

I finger all the strands in my mind, till it’s simply a snarled mess and I’m hopelessly tangled in it.

In very low moments, I ask, “Are you there, God?”

In other moments I know He is. I remember His faithfulness, the fact that he has never, ever failed, that the darkest moments of the past have then turned into seasons of watching and marveling at the creativity and goodness of God.

I feel like I’m cycling through the lament psalms, repeating the psalmist’s rhythm of despair/crying out/remembering God’s faithfulness/hope.

By the time I get to the remembering part, I’m ready to dump my entire snarled mess in God’s lap. “Please take this. I can’t do it. I can’t figure this out.” This brings relief, because his lap is large, big enough to hold me as well as my mess.

But, just a day or two later, sometimes only a few hours later, I find a fresh snarl of yarns in my head and the cycle begins again. Who knew my mind could gather fluff so quickly and spin so much so fast!

God has used my neighborhood to help shred my worry web, to help me move past myself to others. When I get out and about in the neighborhood and pass mothers waiting at bus stops, holding children on hips, others by the hand, I think, How many of them are running a rat race that feels hopeless? How many are working minimum-wage jobs, trying to feed and shelter a family on $350 a week, with childcare swallowing up a huge chunk of a paycheck? And, comparing these struggles to my current light-in-contrast worries—which I’m flattened by pretty easily—I wonder how long it would take before the hopelessness of that kind of grind would wear a person into the ground.

My husband’s work also shapes my perspective. The other morning he got a text from one of his student’s mothers, asking if Dave has heard from her son, that he ran away the night before and she’s hoping against all the fear in her heart that he shows up at school, that he hasn’t succumbed to some gang that’s promising him belonging, that he’ s not using, that… oh, the darkness that can swallow up all our hope.

And so my prayers change, and when I say, “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us,” I do not have just my family in mind but my neighbors, my city, beyond.

As I recite Psalm 143, I imagine myself standing before God linked hand-in-hand with a long line of people: “Hear (our) prayer, O Lord, and in your faithfulness give ear to (our) supplications; answer (us) in your righteousness.”

And for those who are so burdened they cannot even whisper the words, whose heads are bowed low, whose knees are week, I change the singular pronouns to plural; I speak louder; I raise my voice: “Our spirit faints within us; our heart within is desolate. We stretch out our hands to you; our soul gasps for you like a thirsty land.

“O Lord, make haste to answer us; our spirits fail us; hide not your face from us lest we be like those who go down to the Pit. Let us hear of your loving-kindness in the morning,

For in you we put our trust.”