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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the gift of small,still,held

Gift—

to see life shortened, distilled to droplet,

one small dribble in the ocean of time & humanity:

important as all drip-drops are—unique & part of the whole.

To see this, for a snip of a moment:

life span compressed,

decades before-after storyboarded, laid out,

choices, big&small, flattened.

Sigh of release,

to know finitude-mortality held with-in Eternity.

Today-Tomorrow’s to-do’s, anxieties, decisions… demoted, settled.

Questions of Being & Purpose, examinations of Meaning… stilled,

Robbed of power to disturb, frighten, unmoor.

Breath in, breath out.

This moment important & encompassed.

Rest

 

No Tug of Will

In fullness of time

the Spirit overshadows,

the love of the Father descends

and the Son becomes human,

for all to see, to touch, to hear, to know God:

Father, Son, Spirit.

Three-in-one; one-in-three.

Communion, diverse unity.

“My Beloved,” the Father says to the Son,

The Spirit’s wingbeat thrums love,

And the Son, close to the heart of God, fully lives,

As truly human

And truly God.

God-come-down

bears humanity up.

Re-union in the one human-divine person of the Son,

Who is filled by Spirit,

and Loved full by Father.

The redemption of humanity a trinitarian work:

One will

one love

one hope for all the throbbing world

In fullness of time fulfilled.

I wrote the above poem in response to all the readings on the Trinity I’ve done this quarter (I’m very, very grateful, Dr. Nordling). This past week I read part of A More Profound Alleluia. Here’s some great stuff from it (p. 7-8): “The doctrine of the Trinity means that God is not different from what we see in Jesus. …Jesus is a faithful witness, a transparent window into divine life. …Trinitiarian doctrine of God sturdily reinforces our understanding of God’s lavish grace … toward us. … The Triune God not only models salvation but accomplishes it. … Trinitarian theology stresses that God’s life is one of abundant communion, a kind of fellowship … that overflows to include us.”

 

Perichoresis

Our little lives, our little minds

So easily focused on the me, mine,

Sometimes expanded to the we, ours

But so prone to “other” others,

To “they” them—keep at arm’s length,

Outside the inclusive circle.

At times we can step closer with “you,”

But we are most comfortable with its

Imperative and accusative forms,

And, ultimately, “me” trumps all.

And so our mind boggles at the Holy Dance

Of Father, Son, Spirit—

“I, you, we” embraced.

Mutual dance, distinct and one,

A glorious mystery.

Deeper secret still—that the perichoresis,

Without disruption to its perfect sphere,

Extends hands to us, and when,

Compelled by the gift of the Spirit within,

We respond, we are pulled into the dance,

Into abiding, into embrace,

Into partaking the nature of God.

In this we are consumed yet made whole,

In this we enter into choreographed freedom.

And we learn that what we thought merely ethereal

Is True, is Real.

For this the Son put on flesh:

That we might know Father, Son, Spirit,

our beautifully dancing God,

That we, drawn in, may see all as “we,”

And paradoxically discover—

In the giving of “I” to “us”—

That the “me” is best known.

“wear your grace like skin”

The song lyric loops through my mind all morning:

replacing the litany of lists

and the chorus of cares

that too often occupy my thoughts.

“…we wear your grace like skin…”

Just the one line.

No more comes to me, and

I hum the six words again and again.

On our school/work commute,

I ask my daughter to play the full song,

To hear the phrase within it.

Yet this morning, it is the one line that is for me.

“We should do that,” I say out loud, “put on grace like skin,”

and she, in the way daughters do, just nods.

We should wear grace—

Not as the coats we take off and on in the winter weather,

The extra layer.

Not even as the outfits we wear that are part of the selves we present to the world,

more like the union suits the pioneers stitched themselves into for seasons at a time,

the undergarments closest to our skin.

But perhaps it is all of the above: coat, outfit, undergarments,

Grace becoming to us protection, presentation, covering.

The Scripture says to

Be “clothed with Christ,”

To “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,”

and Julian of Norwich, pondering this, wrote,

“He is our clothing that for love wrappeth us,

claspeth us,

and all encloseth us for tender love,

that He may never leave us;

being to us all thing that is good.”

I remember a friend telling me she imagined being clothed with Christ

As the floor-length fur coat she once modeled at a charity function.

“It had weight,” she said. “Like a presence I carried with me.

I couldn’t forget I had it on.”

Christ and grace—person and idea. Christ, the face of grace,

The feet, the hands, the outstretched arms of grace.

In true knowing of Christ, I know grace.

Grace presses down on me,

clings to my body, embraces me, seeps into my inner being, into my heart…

I put on grace till it becomes like skin,

That I may never take it off.

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.

Hope Cafe and Pray Chicago

Hi everyone,

I’ve been out of the loop a bit the last couple weeks with travel and my kids being out of school. I’m getting caught up now and should be back to regular posting next week. In the meantime, I’m sharing two things:

  1. a for-fun piece I wrote for dineANDrhyme about Chicago Hope Cafe. Hope Cafe is my new away-from-home office and is a coffeeshop with a great cause–to support nearby Chicago Hope Academy, a  Christian inner-city high school (those are a real anomaly!). If you ever find yourself on the west side of Chicago, swing by (they have free street parking!). Tell them you read about them on Dine and Rhyme; they’ll be thrilled! Click on the dineANDrhyme link above (or in this sentence) to read the poem. Click on the Hope Cafe link above (or in this sentence) to visit the cafe’s website.
  2. Pray Chicago is having an event this weekend, a prayer summit (scroll down for a video and info about the prayer summit) at Progressive Baptist Church on Sunday evening. Pray Chicago is also asking Chicagoans to consider this Sunday a day of fasting and prayer. If you haven’t visited Pray Chicago’s website before and you live anywhere in the Chicago area, it has my full recommendation.

The Table

Eat my flesh.

Drink my blood.

Those outside the early church, hearing these words,

accused of cannibalism.

Understandable.

But though there were no ritual drums,

No contemptible ingredients.

It was; it IS—

a brush with the holy.

No matter literal or symbolic,

We have, in truth, taken. in. God.

Mystery upon mystery:

that the God of the universe

Put on flesh,

veins, arteries ribboning through,

Coursing with blood—

And offered himself for our consumption,

Entering us, being in us.

Somehow making each

Unique

Yet (another mystery!)

Part of a people, the people of God

Belonging as family, truest family,

the Presence within far surpassing the differences without.

So let us not forget, as we come to the table, as we are told,

“This is Christ’s body, broken for you.

This is Christ’s blood, spilled for you,”

These holy mysteries:

God enfleshed,

God in me, you,

Us, the people of God.

Remember—

with lips and teeth and tongue and throats,

with chewing, swallowing, digesting.

So that,

in-Presenced with Christ

From fingers to toes, and all in between;

Empowered with the energy of digested bread and wine—

Flesh and blood—

with life given to heart and lungs and mind and limbs,

we love with heart and breath and mind and strength:

God and neighbor.

God and the Family.

And lest we forget—how easily we do—

We come to the table again

And again and again.

Take, eat.

Take, drink.

This is my body, torn for you.

This is my blood, spilt for you.

The gifts of God for the people of God,

So we can be filled with him,

Can be a people filled with him.

Do this—take and eat—

and remember

 

God’s ear

If every act of violence—every single one—

boomed like heavy bass,

or screeched like nails on a chalkboard,

would it be less common?

But what if it IS loud—

and we’ve just grown hard of hearing it?

What if we’ve turned down the volume

till urban killings, wars in far-off nations, child abuse,

slavery, the rape of girls in other places

is merely white noise, background buzz?

Has God, too? Has He grown deaf

or simply unplugged the speakers of our pain?

Wouldn’t you—if that’s all you heard from this broken world?

Remember the crucifixion?

What a soundtrack that had!

Moaning, wailing, cries of pain and terror, sobs of grief,

shouts of anger and hatred, too.

The clamorous theme of our broken humanity.

Darkness covered it—could God not bear to watch?—

But He didn’t cover His ears!

No, He added to the noise.

Not with a whimper or a whisper—

with a loud cry!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The shout of the Son Incarnate,

victim of intentional violence,

carrier as well of the entire burden of the image-bearers

who’d spurned the image and lived the loss.

The Father heard,

listened,

responded—

with gusting winds,

rumbling skies,

a shaking earth,

and then, a final, awesome noise:

the tearing of a thick, dividing curtain.

Top to bottom, it split

With a rip that shook the universe,

Opening the way for us

to whisper our pain

Directly into God’s ear.

*I always feel like I must add a disclaimer when I attempt poetry. I’m not a poet! There are lines in here I like, but the whole lacks something (the problem with not being a poet is that you don’t know what’s lacking!). So, if there are any poets out there who read this and think, “I know what I would do!”, PLEASE feel free to tinker with it. I would love to post an updated, collaborative version.

a piece up on DineANDRhyme!

matcha 2Sometimes, in the middle of writing class assignments and web articles, you gotta’ write something just for fun! So last week, as I was trying to squeeze a paper down to its required 5-6 pages (I failed), I wrote about my favorite “office away from home,” Cafe K’tizo, and submitted my just-f0r-fun poem to DineANDRhyme, a blog of poems about restaurants.

Here’s the link to my poem about my favorite treat at my favorite place. The piece on DineANDRhyme also has a link to K’Tizo’s website. You can order teas from the website no matter where in the world you are, but if you happen to be in the western suburbs of Chicago, I would suggest visiting the store in person. Who knows–you might see me there!