The Facts, Jack

 

We’ve arrived at that place again when I shirk my responsibilities of creating a thought-provoking piece of writing that intersects with our life and work and instead offer you a litany of to-the-point updates under the pretense that some of you really “just want to know the facts”.  Coincidentally, you all seem to clamor for this by slamming my inbox with these appeals at very moment when I need the break most.  So without further adieu, here’s the facts, Jack.

Grad School

Over the last number of years, many of you have affirmed that I have a certain knack at presenting a different kind of world to you.  It’s one that’s experienced daily by our friends who live on the margins both in Croc and also our neighbors in Argentine.  I have sensed that one of my particular callings is to unearth the tragedies that humans have inflicted upon one another and to reveal ways in which God calls a particular people called the church to participate in healing these wounds by more than good intentions.  I’ve been humbled to have been given platforms to do this in ways that I do not deserve and my Bachelor’s of Landscape Architecture does not merit.  And I’ve also felt that I’ve hit a certain ceiling in being able to articulate what I see in the world and I want to know more and to offer those insights back to the church as a gift.  Three weeks ago I received a gift that many of you have been in prayer for.  I received a full scholarship for a Master’s in Global Development and Social Justice from St. John’s University.  It is a part-time, online program that begins with 3 weeks in Rome with a cohort of students from around the world.  Tuition, travel, food, lodging–all paid for.  I leave tomorrow!  I believe that this will only make the work that we’re doing here in Argentine, in Croc, and through Youthfront’s Something to Eat program all the more robust and enriching.  Give thanks to God for this, we’re so excited (Emily too, though slightly jealous.)

Franklin Center

There’s a quote from Gordon Cosby from the Church of the Savior in Washington DC that’s always been quite fitting for me.  He said, “The most helpful experiments are accomplished by people who are too naive to know what they are getting into. The wise and experienced know too much to ever accomplish the impossible.”  A couple of years ago, I was too naive to know what I was getting into and fairly quickly, we ran into the impossible.  Alone, I would have walked away.  But for some reason, there have been people (who are apparently just as dumb and naive as me) who have followed on this and believe in it.  And over the last few months we’ve seen that impossibility become suddenly possible.  We received an expedited approval and received official 501(c)3 status in March.  For those who have attempted this, this is no small feat.  A few weeks ago, the Franklin Center was nominated by the state of Kansas to the National Historic Registry, which means that we can now access tax credits that can pay for a third of the reconstruction costs.  And last night we had an encouraging Franklin Center board meeting where we brought on new members and heard the shared passions for this project from local neighbors with more than 22 years of history with this place and a deep sense that they need to put all of their efforts into rallying others to be a part of this.  I’ve seen God’s grace throughout this project and know that this place and the life that will flow in and out of here is part of God’s shalom that is budding all over our neighborhood.  And I must say that none of this could have happened without Amber Booth moving back from Croc to work and live alongside of us here in Argentine.  She’s been an incalculable blessing not only to us, but to our entire neighborhood.

Immigration Reform

For those of you who may be concerned that we’ve been striking out in concerning directions in our ministry as of late, be not afraid.  This is temporary and we believe that currently, it is quite simply the best way that we can love our neighbors as ourselves.  As my good friend and partner in crime, Jason Schoff said the other day that if we really want to love our neighbors as ourselves, shouldn’t we want them to have the same rights as me?  Perhaps this is another thing that we were too naive to know what we were getting into.  But suddenly, it seems like we’ve been put on the radar of every evangelical pastor in the city of the people to talk to about a Christian response to immigration reform.  Leaders have been coming to us like Nicodemus under the cover of night because they have a God-given conviction that the church must not be silent, but they’re not sure what to do and how to have these conversations with the church.  But God is stirring something deep inside these pastors and I think He’s bringing to light a new awareness of the pernicious nature of systemic injustice and how that gets woven into the very institutions and systems and patterns of thought even (and perhaps most alarmingly) within the church.  I believe and hope that this new tribe of pastors is going to lead a new generation of churches that can reconcile with our past, our silence, and beyond the false dichotomies of sacred/secular, evangelism/social action, soul/body.  It’s a true joy to be on this ride.  I hope that you feel and know that this isn’t just our story, but it is fully yours too.  Thanks so much for all your love, your prayers and support.

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Plan B

photo (9)Raquel was on our couch a couple of weeks ago, slumped over on Emily.  Weeping.  Her 8 year-old son, she just learned, was in an accident.  He broke his leg in several places and the doctors needed to set it with pins.  The surgery would be followed up with several weeks of physical therapy before he’d be able to walk normally again.  The drive to physical therapy sessions was one problem.  One hour, one way, no vehicle.  That meant public transportation or taxi.  Raquel’s friend is a taxi driver and she was generous enough to offer to take her son everyday.  Raquel would have done it herself, but her commute would have been significantly longer–1600 miles longer.  Five years ago she made the traumatic decision to temporarily leave her two kids with her mother in Mexico. One was six months old and the other was three.  Raquel’s tears weren’t so much for her son and his broken leg, but for the five, interminable years separated from her two children.

Last fall, I was next door on Raquel’s front porch.  We talked about life here and life in Mexico while idly kicking off flakes of peeling paint on her porch deck.  I was thinking about my own kids, Luke and Perkins, who were about the same ages as hers when she left them.  I had to ask. “Raquel, how bad was it in Mexico that you decided to leave them when you did?”  She didn’t hesitate long.  “Kurt, there was nothing.  I would work all day long, multiple jobs and I would come back home and I would have nothing to offer my kids.  Nothing.  I was frustrated and felt like I had no other choice.  I’d heard that there were jobs in the US, so I left in despair.”  Tears, filled with doubt, regret, but mostly lost love slid down her cheeks.

Raquel’s story sounds a lot like the story of Jacob in Genesis 42.  His son Joseph, who years earlier had been trafficked across the border into Egypt by his brothers, had correctly prophesied a famine that spread across the entire region.  Probably for the first time in his life, Jacob felt powerless.  There was nothing that even his own resourcefulness (or deceitfulness) could do to save him from the famine.  He was facing forces far beyond his control.  He didn’t get it.  This was the land that God had told his grandfather Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household to emigrate to.  They’d be blessed here.  And now it had come up empty.  He’d heard that there was grain in Egypt so in his frustration, in his desperation, he sent his sons from this land of unfulfilled promises to buy them grain so that they might live and not die.  That’s the impetus that began Raquel’s journey, as of most of our immigrant neighbors’ journeys.  ‘I’ve heard that there was grain in Egypt’–I’ve heard that there are jobs in the US.  Perhaps it’s a son, a daughter, a mother or a father that is sent.  Sent so that they may live and not die.  Most of Jacob’s sons were accused, like immigrants throughout history have been accused, of having maligned intentions of coming.  They were accused of trying to discover where Egypt was unprotected–perhaps how they might steal jobs, plant bombs, or add to the ranks of opposing political parties.  And no amount of convincing, no papers can prove that this isn’t the way they’d scripted their lives either.  This is desperation.  This is Plan B.

In conversations with many Christians about immigration reform they can sympathize with immigrants like Raquel and the impossible choices that they face.  But there’s always one hangup that we can’t seem to get over.  They broke the law.  They’re here illegally.  We reference Romans 13 where we clearly see that the authorities that exist have been established by God and whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.  Undocumented immigrants, therefore, are rebelling against what God has instituted.  But stories like Raquel’s can throw an emotional wrench in the our allegiance to this pristine, faceless hermeneutic.  They beg for exceptions.  They beg for grace.  But it’s not simply contemporary stories that rattle our interpretation of Romans 13, but Scripture itself.

Jacob had only intended that his family get what they were lacking in Egypt and return as quickly as possible.  But his son Joseph was their man in Washington who leveraged an appropriations bill to get them the best land in Egypt.  They were vulnerable as an ethnic minority group who it appears did the jobs that no Egyptian wanted to do (Gen. 46:34). As long as they had an advocate among the Egyptian elite, it appeared they would be just fine.  But Joseph, the pharaoh who showed him hospitality, and all of that generation died.  Coupled with that was a Hebrew immigrant population that was exploding.  A new king voiced the fears of all Egyptians.  These immigrants posed a risk of losing their country, their cultural identity, their privilege, their way of life.  Pharaoh recognized that their economy depended upon them or he wouldn’t have expressed his worries about self-deportation (v. 10). So Pharaoh took preemptive action and enforced the harshest of immigration control measures instructing Hebrew midwives to kill all of the immigrant baby boys.  But the midwives didn’t follow the law.  The king had issued an executive order and they disobeyed it.  Instead, they engaged in a premeditated, subversive, illegal plot to save the lives of these babies.  It was an act of civil disobedience, rebelling against an authority, which according to Romans 13, was instituted by God.  And not only did they rebel, they lied about it.  And how did God punish them for their rebellion against the government he instituted?  God didn’t.  Instead, God blessed them and made them even more numerous because of it.

Most Christians know that not all laws are just or moral ones.  Most evangelicals will decry Roe v. Wade.  Most US Christians have no problem smuggling Bibles into China.  The Hebrew women were not bad people disobeying good laws.  They were good people disobeying bad laws.  Acknowledging that God has instituted the authorities in Romans 13, doesn’t mean that God endorses all of the policies and systems that a fallen government institutes.  We can love our nation, but we do it not blindly, but rather critically, and always secondarily as people whose primary citizenship longs for God’s kingdomand the righteousness and justice offered there.  As Christians, we can call our nation to live up to the vocation that is theirs.  Theologian Walter Wink offers us help.  “God at one and the same time upholdsa given political or economic system, since some such system is required to support human life;condemns that system insofar as it is destructive of fully human life; and presses for its transformationinto a more humane order.  Conservatives stress the first, revolutionaries the second, reformers the third.  The Christian is expected to hold together all three.”

Raquel isn’t a bad person.  While Gomez undoubtedly broke a law, he isn’t a criminal.  There simply was and is no legal pathway for them.  There is no line for them to wait in.  If they had an immediate family member who had legal permanent residency or citizenship (which they do not), there would be a line, but they’d be waiting in it for 22 years for a response.  Currently in 2013, INS is processing immigration applications from 1994.  I’m generally a patient and law-abiding citizen.  But there would be no law, no line that I would wait in that would keep me separated from my family for 22 years or from working to earn a living that could keep us alive.

Raquel lives in the shadowlands, an exile from her kids that feels both forced and chosen at the same time.  Yesterday was her day off.  She works as a maid in a water park hotel.  For the past couple of months she’s been collecting unused bracelets that guests had left that allow entrance into the water park.  She’s been saving them because she’s been wanting to take Luke and Perkins as well as some of the other neighborhood kids to go down the water slides some afternoon.  Raquel was hoping that yesterday was the day, but instead, she spent the afternoon taking all of our kids to a park a few blocks away.  After an hour or two she dropped off Luke and I thanked her for taking them all.  She said, “No, thank you Kurt, you know the pleasure was all mine.”

Raquel was glowing.  She was as radiant as yesterday’s spring afternoon.  For a couple hours Raquel got to delight in a group of children as if they were her own.  She got to jump rope, go on the swings, laugh and do all of the ridiculous things that mothers do that men will never understand.  For a couple of hours she was able to forget about the fact that there are people who do not know her, who do not want to know her, who have no understanding of the kinds of circumstances she came from nor the sacrifices nor the risks she took on behalf of love to get here that are intent on sending her back.  And maybe for a moment, my kids unknowingly participated in an unspeakable mystery.  Maybe for a moment, my kids became her kids, sacred placeholders that dissolved the miles, the years, the tears, and the unquenchable yearning to have them back in her arms.  Maybe for a moment, Raquel closed her eyes and found herself in an embrace with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the thousand scattered shards of her life were whole again.  And maybe together, we can make it more than a moment.  Maybe we can help make it a lifetime.

The Good People

I was only sent to the principal’s office once in my life. For most of the school year, I’d been involved in a milk-smuggling cartel. The scheme was quite simple.  The first thing we’d do going through the lunch line was to pick up a carton of milk from the cooler that bridged an open door between the line and the cafeteria.  We’d get a nod from one of our agents already embedded in the lunch room, telling us we were clear.  Then each of us when grabbing a milk, would casually put a second (or a third) carton on top of the cooler that would conveniently be waiting for us as we exited the line and entered the cafeteria. I was a middle manager-type.  I had not the guts, the imagination, nor the clout to be the principal architect behind this dairy devilry, but neither was I an entry-level lackey.  I’d been at it for a few months which merited a promotion to henchman.  And then we got busted.  Mr. Schreurs said he had all of the names of everyone involved.  He didn’t.  We should have known by the laughably small quantities he pegged us for, but we turned ourselves in anyway.  That was the end of my run-in with the law.  Scared Straight by skim milk.

I was always a “good” kid.  I was like that expert of the law nerd in Luke 10 who stood up and asked Jesus, “Teacher, Teacher!  What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He and I both already knew the answer.  We were just begging for the teacher to turn the question back around on us so we could show off and tell him the right answer in front of everyone.  “You have answered correctly.”  That stuff right there, those words fueled us better in 1985 than Marty McFly’s flux capacitor.  Only ask questions when you already know the answers, don’t stick your neck out, stay out of trouble and you’ll do just fine.

The expert of the law should have stopped there.  He should have kept his mouth shut.  The answer he’d gotten was clean. Clinical.  To the books.  Just one more question, “And who is my neighbor?”  So Jesus tells a story.  He brings shape to the law and he animates it by bringing people into it–characters–some frighteningly similar to him and some–so hopelessly, distantly other.  They were the ones he was able to avoid by keeping his nose to the book and not sticking his neck out.  But Jesus drew him into the story and by participation in the story implicated the expert and forevermore muddied the crisp lines of the law that demarcated his entire life.  The hero, the “good” person, in Jesus’ story is the one who stuck his neck out.  The one who didn’t calculate what he had to lose.  The good person, the true neighbor, was not the one who avoided trouble, but got himself into it for the sake of another.

What it would be like to interview that priest or the Levite afterwards, telling them what the Good Samaritan did that they didn’t do?  I imagine that there would have been legitimate regret.  They were good people.  I think we would have heard something like, “I’d wished I would have stopped.  It kept me up 3-nights straight just thinking about it.”  The priest, we’re told by his friend, declines to comment out of sheer embarrassment.  “You’ve got to understand”, he pleads.  “He was scared.  He had a lot to lose.  There was so much he didn’t know.  He didn’t know if he was next, he didn’t know if this man was a con-artist, he didn’t know if the man was even alive and would put himself at risk of becoming unclean.  He didn’t even know if he was a Jew, for crying out loud!  It was regrettable, for sure, but understandable I’m sure you’ll see.  A good man.”  We nod our heads somewhat reluctantly, recognizing that they were perhaps “good people”.

I’m sure their responses sounded somewhat like white Evangelical pastors recalling their silence during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, while many Jews and secularists stood with blacks.  There is legitimate regret.  “We were wrong.”  “I wish we would have spoken up,” we hear.  “It continues to haunt us to this very day.”  And in similar fashion, friends explain, “You’ve got to understand.  They weren’t racist.  They were just doing their job, preaching the Gospel.  They didn’t want to be associated with what the churches and the seminaries were crying out about the dangers of the Social Gospel.  They couldn’t have said something even if they wanted to, and if they did, they might have lost their jobs.  They had too much to lose.  It’s regrettable looking back it, yes, but these were good churches and good Christians, I hope you understand.”  And we nod our heads reluctantly, think back and say, yes, they were good people.

I recently heard someone say that he regretted some of the trouble that he got in, but also feared looking back at his life wishing he’d gotten into more.  I fear looking back over my life wishing I’d actually fought for my refugee friend, Modeste, when he felt he was being treated unfairly by social services.  I wrote him off as impulsive, as not understanding the system.  I fear looking back over my life wishing I’d actually fought for my friends Raquel, and Zaira, and Gomez, as they live their lives in the shadows as undocumented immigrants here.  I can hear my own excuses 30-years down the road, “You’ve got to understand.  You were doing the best you could–you got them better housing, you connected them with jobs, you shared your lives, you shared the Gospel.  You depended upon financial support from the church.  Can anyone blame you for not advocating on behalf of immigrants to Christians who don’t share your views on immigration reform?  You had too much to lose.”  And I nod my head reluctantly.  A good person.

I’m beginning to believe that today, the man we find stripped, beaten, and half-dead on the Jericho road is the illegal immigrant.  As the American church, we don’t have a clue what we’re supposed to do with him.  Like experts of the law, we’ve got it worked out on paper.  There’s a clear violation of American law, a government that’s God-ordained.  They’re in the wrong.  How can we possibly come to their defense?  If illegal immigrants are exploited, if they’re underpaid, if they’re beaten up and stripped down, they shouldn’t have been walking down that road in the first place.  So we pass by on the other side.  We leave them up for the ACLU, the bleeding-heart, half-bred liberals, to take pity on them and bandage their bleeding.  We leave them up to the ERs, to let the taxpayers pay the two thousand denarii bill.  We leave them up to Pilate and the other politicos to decide what their fate will be while the radio talk show vultures cast spiraling shadows on the desert road.

One of my greatest fears is that 6 months from now immigration reform will have passed.  I’ll applaud the fact that finally my friends and my neighbors and 11 million other undocumented immigrants will feel like they have a place, a home.  Belonging.  But I fear that the church will have had little or nothing to do with it.  By that time the attitude within the church towards the immigrant will have changed.  They will finally have met the requirements of the law, now worthy to be called ‘neighbors’.

Then thirty years from now our children and our grandchildren will ask us who were the real neighbors to the undocumented immigrants.  They’ll ask because they want so badly to hold onto the faith that has been passed down to them, but they ask because they want to know it’s more than rhetoric, more than dogma, more than law.  They want to know that this faith is about more than being “good people”.  They want something or someone worth following that calls them to stick their necks out for the vulnerable.  They want a faith that gets them into trouble for the sake of others without calculating the financial, political, social, even theological risks to do so.

When that time comes, I pray we’ve got something more than to say than apologetically stammering, “Well, you’ve got to understand, we were good people…”

Peasants’ Day

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     “I distinctly remember being, even then, most strongly impressed with the idea of being a free man some day. This cheering assurance was an inborn dream of my human nature— a constant menace to slavery— and one which all the powers of slavery were unable to silence or extinguish.”  Frederick Douglass

I was five years old during the Ethiopian famine of the eighties.  I remember sitting on the booger green carpet of my kindergarden classroom when the teacher asked for prayer requests.  All I could think about were those kids with bellies like rubber, foursquare balls.  Hungry.  Even National Geographic, the kindergarden porn with pics of babies on dried out breasts, couldn’t drum up the usual snicker.  Desperate.  Even then, I seemed unable to accept that this is the way life is, that this is how the world works.  Some have a lot.  Some don’t.  There’s no explanation. Or at least God has some reason.  A plan.  So you just do what you can.  You move on.  You go out and enjoy recess.  

     Maybe that’s why I was there on Monday.  I’ve never let go of that five-year old’s dream of a world unbroken.  There I was on President’s Day, the Shangri-La of winter recesses, with a Youthfront auditorium full of five, fifteen, and fifty year-olds packaging thousands of meals consisting of rice, soy protein, dried vegetables and vitamin powder to be shipped to countries facing urgent food crises.  I named our event the Peasants’ Day Feast.  It’s a cheeky play off a day where as a country we remember the privileged and the powerful.  Only here, we gathered as a church to honor the peasants and the poor, pledging our primary allegiance to a Kingdom and a King that lives by different values and different rules.  We were living into a different imagination of how the world will one day be. 

     I’d been part of a lot of planning with the Justice Initiatives team over the past couple of months, but there was a piece of this we never saw coming.  At 1:02pm, two minutes into our event, our CEO Mike King received a message from a global partner that distributed our last shipment of 275,000 Something To Eat meals to a region in Kenya that was hard-struck by famine last year.  Because of ethnic and religious tensions, the images we projected from our screens had blurred out photos of the face of Abdi Welli, a fearless, enigmatic local partner, as he distributed the meals.  Then Mike somberly shared the news that Abdi was killed last weekend by a fundamentalist, Islamic rebel group.  The weight of his death mocked our dreams of a new world.  

     I never knew Abdi.  I had a sense that this news should have moved me.  It didn’t.  I wanted it to.  I took a moment to think about the fact that at one moment, Abdi held in his hands the very meals that young people I knew right here in KC held in their hands.  And now Abdi’s hands have gone cold because the world has grown cruel and cold for his people.  Maybe I wasn’t moved because it’s a world that is so distant from my own experience of it.  I don’t feel guilty for that fact.  Just saddened.  I find the task of enjoying the grace of the good world I live in quite burdensome knowing that others are left out.  

A couple of weeks ago, I was presenting at a conference and exposing some of the social and economic inequalities in our world to a group of people much like me.  Some became anxious, uncomfortable about some of the implications of this information.  Almost angry.  God has his reasons, they say.  We need to do what we can to help out.  But don’t feel guilty about it.  Move on.  Go out and enjoy recess.  

     I was saddened.  I wasn’t trying to induce guilt.  It wasn’t about retributive justice, exacting revenge to undo the wrongs of the past.  It wasn’t about class warfare.  But that’s what we digress to when we forget to dream.  There’s a vast difference between being coerced by guilt and moved by a deep longing, an unquenchable desire, for God’s shalom.  It’s about having a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, for the world to be put to rights.  It’s praying that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s about yearning for all of us to be enveloped in the community of the Trinity, where scarcity and fear are displaced by abundance and love. So instead of being captivated by a dream, we settle for being comfortable.  Because for me, for us, the world isn’t such a bad place.

     I suspect that Abdi didn’t have that kind of choice.  For him, it likely meant either capitulating to a world where death pressed upon him at every corner or believing against logic, against history, against the cries of famine that life, not death, has the last word.  Abdi chose to serve that God, that dream, that hope, even if it cost him his own life, much less his own comfortability.  This dream was Abdi’s cheering assurance, the hope of God’s future brought into the present if only in part, if only for some.  Abdi’s story is not only a constant menace to despair in his own village, but a menace to my own comfortability, to the objects of my allegiance, to the dreams I dream and one which the powers of death are unable to silence or extinguish.  
 

The Second Noel

The second Noel had to have been one of the greatest letdowns in the history of Christmas.  A classic sophomore flop.  A year prior, infant Jesus came out swinging and screaming to angel choirs and after-hours, maternity ward visits by complete strangers.  Each carried a story surrounded in mystery and miracle.  Some rumored of a new star appearing in the east, a cosmic conception mirroring the one in Bethlehem.  Legends grew of a mute uncle; prophesies uttered by an old man hanging onto the last hours of his life only for this–for one glimpse of this child.  Even the infant’s cousin reportedly danced a kind of in utero, Gangnam Style at the sound Mary’s voice.  Gifts of gold and glittered skies, heaven and earth colliding, what would become of this child, Jesus?  A year later where they might have hoped to gather with family and friends at home in Bethlehem around a birthday cake, laughing hysterically with tears streaming down their faces at baby Jesus huffing and puffing at a single, stubborn candle, they found themselves in exile.  In Egypt.  Alone at a cheap, border town motel that didn’t fair much better than the barn they found themselves in exactly one year prior.

This wasn’t the script that Mary and Joseph expected.  There would be no miracles this Christmas.  This year they were blowing long, slow breaths over steamy cups of ramen, sombered by departed dreams of being home for the holidays, hiding out as refugees because their child was considered a political threat.  Only in the neurosis of a deranged king’s mind could an infant be considered a threat.  That diagnosis might have changed for me this past year.

The birth of our second son, Perkins, late last year was too, awash in miracle.  According to all medical prognoses, Perkins was going to be born without the nerve bundle that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.  It would likely mean learning disabilities, coordination problems, possibly seizures.  Regardless of the severity of the problems, our lives were going to change.  I had no angelic visitations nor prophetic confirmations, but something inside me was telling me that God was about to do something out of the ordinary, that the governing rules of reality were going to be bent and God was going to heal our baby.  God did just that.  The next few weeks, stories emerged of mystery and miracle, near strangers praying specifically for our baby with little doubt God would heal, a Christmas gathered with family and friends permeated with the aroma of Immanuel–God was truly with us.

And then came exile.  It wasn’t a sudden flight in the night, but an unexpected one that set its pace over several, sleep-deprived nights.  We weren’t prepared for what two kids would do to us.  This wasn’t the script we’d expected.  Emily and I were frustrated.  Frustrated with each other, frustrated with Perkins being back in the hospital, angry at sleep patterns, angry because there were no sleep patterns.  It was then we recognized that this baby was more than a miracle.  It was a threat.  Our exile wasn’t one that impinged upon us by outside forces.  I didn’t sweep my wife and children away heroically like our silent, supporting actor, Joseph.  Our baby was a threat to me.  Herod was within me.  Perkins was a threat to my position of having a wife who not only loved me, but liked to be with me.  He dethroned me and changed the dynamic of the relationship that Emily and I had.  I used to be someone who was wanted.  Now, I got the leftovers.  So there we were slurping up ramen, frustrated, feeling separated, isolated, utterly alone.  Parenting in exile.

Little by little, Herod died.  We learned how to take just a moment to look at each other every morning as husband and wife, not just as father and mother.  We learned that we didn’t have to compete for the most dismal titles like ‘the one who got less sleep’ or ‘the one who stuffs more diapers’ in order to lord them over one other.  And slowly, we came out of Egypt.  We shook off the fog of exile, we came out of hiding and into the light.

And now this Christmas, we’re settling into Nazareth.  We’re settling into the ordinary and finding we like ordinary even more than the miraculous.  Perkins toddles forward, wings wide, and we tumble down together in laughter.  The second Noel.

Encounters in the Desert

Acts 8.  Philip gets a trippy message from an angel of the Lord to just start walking down this desolate, desert road that nobody travels on.  No doubt Philip had questioned whether he’d heard the angel quite right as he stood in the blinding, midday light swearing up and down at blasts of gritty, hot wind in his face.  But the comedic irony only got better as he saw someone either as delusional or maniacal as he was coming down the road in a chariot.  And it was no less than an Ethiopian, a rare incarnation of the most foreign of foreigners, a veritable fable in flesh.  The joke couldn’t get more fantastical than this.  But it does.  He’s a eunuch.  Yep, that kind.  And in the Jewish world, when someone doesn’t have all of the bits and pieces in the right places, they don’t get to go to church.  Where was he coming from?  Of course.  On pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  The scroll in his hands seems to be evidence enough that some well-meaning usher at least had enough compassion and evangelical sensibilities to turn the man away at the door with some reading material–a bit of Isaiah and perhaps some catchy pamphlets entitled, “So Now You’re a Eunuch…”  But Philip is sold on this surreal story.  He is all in. Probably because he realized how epic and absurd this was becoming and that the retelling of it would be even more pee-in-your-cloak, hilarious.  So when the angel of the Lord said ‘jump’, he jumped right up into the chariot with the private-less pilgrim from Narnia.  Bypass all formalities and small talk, jump straight to religion.  Cocktail party rules don’t apply.  “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Philip asked.  The Ethiopian responds, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”

The honesty of the Ethiopian is refreshing.  “Do you get it?  Do you understand what you’re reading?”  Nope.  Not a bit.  We don’t often honor the fact that the Bible isn’t as straightforward as we might hope for it to be.  We can call it God’s “love letter” or the more disturbing “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”, but the reality remains it’s difficult to understand.  We can spiritualize it and say that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, and while I don’t disagree, it’s simplistic.  Even the Ethiopian eunuch–a neighbor to the Jews, a contemporary to their struggles still needed someone to explain it to him.  He was living in a moment where God’s Spirit was dissolving previously unquestioned boundaries across ethnicity and language, but he still needed an old-fashioned, boring human to jump out from the desert and scare him like a sand zombie in order to explain it to him.

The explanation awakened something deep inside of him.  Maybe the eunuch resonated with verse 33, “In his humiliation he was deprived of justice”, perhaps humiliated himself after a long, desperate pilgrimage to find some answers of a God he’d only heard about only to be shooed away at the door like a dog at the dinner table, stripped of his dignity.  Maybe it was something else, but something came to life, something leapt inside him, kicking for daylight like a baby in its mother’s womb.  The words were right there in front him.  They were right there all along, but he didn’t have the eyes to see it until Philip stumbled along.

What’s interesting to me is that Philip was just as confused as the Ethiopian.  We could say that God sent Philip into the desert for the sake of Ethiopian, so that the gospel could be extended to distant lands.  But what is so important about the details?  Why the desert?  Why an Ethiopian? Why the eunuch?  I think we need to say that God sent Philip not to just teach this person who was excluded from God’s story about what God was doing in Jesus Christ, but that God wanted the Ethiopian eunuch to teach Philip.

Philip might have thought he had a decent handle on what the Good News was.  His explanation was getting pretty slick, but he never expected the gospel to become slippery itself.  It was quite literally taking on a life of its own and taking him to places and people that before we’re unimaginable.  The scope of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ was cosmic in character.  Ethiopians, eunuchs, the whole of all creation were being caught up in the wake of God’s redemptive movement.


That was me 10 years ago, thinking that Emily and I were somehow being called to the desert of Croc.  I thought we might be able to come alongside people reading Scripture and help them understand what they were reading.  Maybe we helped some people, to what extent I’m unsure.  But God had another question for us in our own desert encounters with the poor of Croc.  “Do you understand what I’m doing?  Do you understand what’s going on here?”  Something awoke in us.  Through the people of Croc, God was showing us that our gospel was too small.  It couldn’t contain what God actually wanted to do and is doing.  Our singular message of hope for life after death was too shallow to address their present hells.  It contains that hope too, but we awakened to a gospel world, to a God-drenched kingdom that is unimaginably more than that.  There was a reciprocity in the revelation of God’s truth.  We found out we were not the saviors, but rather our relationship became a venue where we became participants and witnesses to God’s unfolding new world.  Our encounters with people opened us up to encounters with Scripture that made us see things that were there all along, but we didn’t have the eyes to see them.


    A couple of weeks ago I was in Croc again.  This time, Alain, one of our Youthfront Mexico co-directors, had four different training events for me to speak at.  One was with my coworkers Erik and Mike, who joined a youth worker training we did, and the others were at a missions school.  Alain believes that how we’re living the gospel and talking about it in Croc is something that is too good not to be shared.  To be honest, I was skeptical we’d get very far among a fundamentalist-leaning audience.  I was so wrong.  I encountered an eager, passionate, diverse group of Christians from all ages and walks of life who have a deep love for Scripture.  As we took those hundreds of students back into God’s Word, starting at Genesis and slowly revealing a thin, but unmistakable thread all the way through to Revelation of a God who is taking the broken shards of a shattered creation and putting them back together again in Christ, something awoke in them.

Something broke forth that neither they, nor I was expecting.  Suddenly, God’s mission that was protected and kept safe, predictable, and manageable in glass jars suddenly broke and spilled out the doors, leaked out into the streets and crept out over the entire cosmos.  God’s work was no longer simply the work of pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, but of teachers, masons, attorneys, and businesspeople.  It went out to those who have been turned away at the doors of far too many churches in Mexico.  They, we, and all creation groaning for this.  Groaning for the children of God to be revealed.  The gospel is loose and alive.

And it was there all along, right before our very eyes and we never knew it.

Practice Resurrection

     And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.  Ezekiel 37:7

Every once in a while, life sneaks up on you and you catch your breath.  This morning, we all went outside to pick Luke’s last watermelon from our garden before a hard freeze stole it from us.  The watermelon itself is a bit of a miracle.  Partially from having survived through an unquenchable drought and the precipitous waning of its gardeners’ attention; and partially because within that sour-sweet rind the miracle at Cana was reenacted in slow motion.  The drama of water into wine, of sun, earth, and water transforming themselves into flavors and rhythms that save the best of summer’s party for last.

Then there was another miracle we hadn’t expected.  Something hanging from our front porch column caught our attention.  There, I encountered the most delicate, green chrysalis that I’ve ever seen.  It hung there, impossibly suspended like an acorn dressed in spring green and rimmed with the most refined, gold gilding.  Yet the potential for the tragic loomed.  All of this expectant beauty, brimming with life and possibility, ready to emerge just days before fall’s fatal kiss could bring the story to a stunted conclusion.  It was a rare gift of life found at a moment where the forecast predicts death and decay.

I received another unexpected gift the other day that sneaked up from my periphery with the same sense of awe and gratitude as that fall chrysalis.  Together with a group of people in Argentine, we’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Practice Resurrection.  Peterson describes the church with the same fashion, patience, intent and craft dedicated to making that perfect chrysalis, describing the church as “an appointed gathering of named people…who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines.”  Reading and slowly ruminating over his description of the church resonated with me in the deepest parts of my soul.  It connects with that groaning, that longing that catches us by surprise because we didn’t really know it was there until something awoke it.  Peterson woke the dragon.  The church—a gathering of people who practice resurrection in a world where death seems to be winning by a landslide.

Peterson’s description works on me in much the same way that seed catalogs do.  They arrive in the coldest, darkest days of winter promising me everything that is absent outside my window.  The glamorous, glossy photos of Gurney’s and Miller Nurseries and Stark Bros., transport me to a mythical, August day where flawless filet beans and heirloom tomatoes and petite zucchini emerge from a thick, musty layer of black, weedless humus.  They seduce me with their imagery, causing a momentary fog of amnesia whereby I conveniently forget the weedy brothel that plagued last year’s attempt before the calendar even had the chance to turn to July.

That’s the danger with Peterson’s description of the church–a people who’s entire reason for existence, their purpose, their vocation is to bear witness to and work out the implications of Christ’s resurrection in the brokenness around them.  Bringing life out of death?  That is glamorous.  That is heroic.  That is something I can get behind.  That is a pearl I’d leave everything to find.  That is a ripe, robust Brandywine among florescent-lit aisles of flavorless, shapeless, grocery-store-pink tomatoes.  But it seems that for a growing number of people, myself included at times, the promise of the church sooner or later wears off and it feels more like that unkempt, weedy garden.  Sure you find a tomato or two–a successful youth retreat, a raked lawn at a widow’s house, little things that remind us its not all in vain.  But it doesn’t look like what the seed catalogs sold us in January either.

The other night, a man who lives here in Argentine called me like he does every day or two.  Scared.  Alone.  Drunk.  Depressed.  As he typically is.  I’d had it.  We relive the same conversations over and over again.  I’d given him all kinds of opportunities to get out of some of the situations he’d trapped himself in.  But I was done.  He was sharing suicidal thoughts again and I didn’t care.  There was a job opportunity for him to go out of state.  I encouraged him to do it.  Not so much because I believed it was in his best interest, but because it was in mine.  Our friendship wasn’t just costing me time, it wasn’t just costing me, quite literally, thousands of dollars, it seemed to be costing me my soul.  Wanting to run away from this man’s burdens, I was running away from the very way of Christ I believed in.

The thing you forget about practicing resurrection, as heroic as it sounds, is that its preceded by death.  Jesus was no Clark Kent.  He didn’t pop into a phone booth at the moment of crisis to swoop down and be our Superman for one shining moment.  He walked on our earth, bore the burden of being misunderstood for years by the political and religious authorities, suffered rejection by his people, abandonment by his only friends.  And then death.  And then death.  That’s the part I don’t want to hear.  I want to hear the bones rattle and witness them form flesh and tendons and ligaments.  I want to pick that August tomato.  I want to see fireworks in these Argentine kids eyes when they start to get the gospel story.  But I don’t want to be there for the monotony of weeding, day in, day out.  I don’t want to be there for the late night drunk dials.  I don’t want to be there when we’re pulling teeth to get a kid to just wash dishes after our common meal. It seems that practicing a life of resurrection should feel a little more like that of Superman and less like that of the unappreciated, unrecognized housewife.  And it seems like it should be done in the company of heroes in their own fields of expertise like Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America, not with the uncredentialed, uneducated, recovering addicts of Galilee, much less Argentine.

The church is a scandal.  The banquet table that the powerful and pedigreed, the superheroes and the paparazzi rejected is a mockery.  It is no utopian community.  But it is this church, this congregation filled with embarrassingly ordinary people that Peterson suggests is exactly what God intends.  It is where the drunk and suicidal find that they’re no longer alone.  A noise.  And their presence reveals the savior-complexes of the impatient.  A rattle.  We begin to realize we need one another.  The bones come together.  And it’s finally revealed that practicing resurrection is God’s work not ours.  It’s a gift.  It’s the church.  A chrysalis hidden in the periphery, expectant with hope, anticipating life and resurrection in a land of death.

Environment Matters (Part 2) – The Privileged

Last time we ended with a question: Should we let the poor off the hook for their bad decisions simply because of their past?  Do we allow them to continue to play the helpless victims because they grow up in environments that make it easy to fail?  When Aaron, the interim leader of Israel, turned their church potluck at the foot of Mount Sinai into the scandalous set of a Lil’ Wayne rap video, God didn’t let them off the hook for their choices.  While its clearly understandable that years of slavery growing up in the ghettos of Egypt would affect their psyche, changing them from a people of promise to a self-destructing time bomb, it didn’t matter.  The God who had so compassionately heard Israel’s cries for liberation just weeks before was now poised to destroy them for their disobedience.  God’s message for them was to grow up and to take responsibility for themselves out of a mess that was neither their own fault nor their own creation.  And Israel screwed up.  Likewise, while we empathize with the difficult environments these Argentine youth are coming from, we’re also asking them to do the seemingly impossible.  We’re asking them to do the heroic, to choose the good in places where it’s the hardest.  It doesn’t seem fair, it may lack compassion, but we’re not doing these kids any favors by lowering expectations.

But our questions of responsibility don’t end there just as our Sinai story doesn’t end with an apocalyptic genocide executed by the hand of God.  Moses interrupts.  He questions God’s sense of justice.  Moses appeals to God’s compassion and to his covenant peace treaties.  As a person of privilege, who grew up in palaces rather than Israel’s poverty, Moses advocates on behalf of the person that he would have become without his mother’s subversive act of civil disobedience and of faith.  Moses recognized that just as Israel had grown up in a culture of poverty and slavery through no fault of its own, Moses came to a recognition that he’d grown up in a culture of privilege created through no merit of its own.

Let’s imagine that instead of being dropped off into the middle of the Israelite camp on Sinai, that we land, like Moses did, in the palaces of Pharaoh.  If we had no historical context, we’d probably think that this was the greatest country on earth.  Moses grew up in a world of opulence, a world of luxury with palaces, gardens, temples, flagrant displays of unprecedented wealth and architectural wonders engineered with staggering ingenuity.  Moses likely enjoyed the best teachers, the best recreational activities, and rich travel experiences that exposed him to the best people and places that life has to offer.  Everything around would speak to the glories of Egypt’s achievement.  There would be little to question it.

And then one day Moses went for a walk.  He walked to the construction sites, to the factory floor, to the gritty places among the people who were building it all.  He didn’t see happy, well-behaved people who treated and talked to him with respect.  He saw the raw, ugly, dehumanizing conditions that made it all possible.  Moses was seeing that the glory of Egypt, their privilege, their wealth was built not so much on their own merit as by the the toil of the Hebrew people.  And then he saw an Egyptian, someone like him in life’s experience, beating a Hebrew slave, someone like him in physical appearance.  Seeing himself in both men at the same time caused something within him to snap.  Moses didn’t know what to do with it.  So he killed the Egyptian.  He killed the injustice.  He killed his own privilege.  Moses’ world was coming undone.

It wasn’t by mere chance that Moses ended up in the king’s court.  God placed him there.  Moses didn’t escape infanticide and wasn’t plucked out of slavery so that at least one of God’s chosen, Hebrew people could enjoy a life of wealth and comfort.  God called Moses, a person he’d placed in a position of privilege, in order to relinquish that privilege and turn his back on this way of life in order to bring freedom to those on whose backs this extravagant wealth had been created.  God did this not because he glorified poverty or despised wealth, but because God had a plan to create a new people, a new kind of nation with a new kind of exceptionalism and new definitions for success and prosperity that had no room for the kinds of disparity prevalent in Egypt.

God’s demand for individual responsibility didn’t extend only to the poor Hebrews growing up in the ghetto, it extended to the people of privilege who grew up in Egypt’s palaces. Perhaps our questions are no longer simply if the poor should be let off the hook for their bad decisions, but if the privileged should be held responsible for what they do with the deck they’ve been handed.  Our questions become more complicated especially when they turn back on ourselves.

In the US, we’re no strangers to these kinds of gaping disparities.  Current data from the most comprehensive information about household wealth by race and ethnicity from the US Census Bureau, shows that the median net worth of whites is $113,149 compared to the $5,667 of blacks and $6,325 of hispanics,  Whites have 20 times more wealth than blacks.  Something is direly wrong and it can’t be explained away by merit.  These aren’t questions of politics so much as they are questions of the church.  Right now we’re living in a nation where one political party lets the poor off the hook for their bad decisions and another party lets the privileged off the hook for their unwillingness to acknowledge they’ve inherited advantages they haven’t earned that made their wealth possible.

The prophetic call of the church in this context both for those living in poverty and those in privilege is to ask what we’re going to do with the hands we’ve been dealt.  Are we going to live into our pre-assigned roles where the poor play the resentful victims and the privileged seek ways to protect their advantage and maintain the status quo?  Or are we going to seek God’s kingdom together?  Are we going to believe that another world is possible, living a kind of earthy spirituality that transforms even our social and economic arrangements?  Will we create environments where everyone grows up in places where it’s easy to succeed and difficult to fail?

Because the truth is, as frustrated as I am with some of these local youth and how slow they are to give up their ways of poverty, I’m even slower to give up my ways of privilege.  Like Moses, I’ve taken a walk to where the construction sites are.  I’ve lived in Mexico’s shantytowns where the undocumented flee from.  I live among people that pack our tomatoes and clean my hotel room. But I still have a hard time letting go.  Maybe I’m more hard-hearted and a slower learner than Moses, but I do want to be taught the ways of the kingdom.  And I believe that some of those lessons can only be learned among the poor and marginalized.

The heart of our ministry in Argentine is precisely this.  It’s an invitation for all us, both the privileged and the poor to be released from our captivities–captivities to our own greed, to our privilege, to our power, to drugs, to resentment, to irresponsibility, to domestic abuse–and to recognize that God has a beautiful future waiting for us.  If only we’d let go.  If only we’d believe that we don’t have to secure it and hoard our manna in jars.   May God help us all.

Environment Matters (Part 1)

 “But they’re lazy!  Why should we hide that from people if it’s true!”  The frustration and the clash of cultures was boiling to a frothy head.  One of our summer staffers had reached the end of her rope with some of our local Argentine youth.  It was obvious that the kids were being lazy, but I didn’t want it to be true.  Many of them weren’t doing their jobs, but I didn’t want them to be living right into the stereotypes of poor, urban youth.  I knew they were capable of more.  I’ve seen them do it.  This summer staffer came from a place of relative privilege and wealth, just like myself and the vast majority of the youth and sponsors that lived and learned with us each week this summer.  For me (and probably most of you), work ethic was something that was ingrained in us.  There was an ethic embedded within the fabric of our communities that made it easy for us to choose to work hard to the point that it was no longer a conscious decision to do so.  It was a place where it was easy to succeed and difficult to fail.  You simply do what is required of you.  And for us, there were clear, tangible benefits by working hard as well as clear consequences for not doing so.  Though not everyone lived by these standards.  Some of them chose to do their own thing and perhaps rightly earned the classification ‘lazy’.

I was uncomfortable having our local, Argentine youth labeled ‘lazy’ because while the actions (or inactions) of these kids and the ‘lazy’ people from where I grew up are essentially the same, it seems that there is something categorically different going on that begs our attention and demands that we not so quickly deem them ‘lazy’.  In contrast to a place where it’s easy to work hard and succeed and it takes conscious effort to fail, the environment and culture that these urban youth grow up in seem to be the opposite.  Here, it seems that we find a culture that makes it easy (and normal) to fail, and one that requires lotto ticket-like odds to succeed.  Appeals to youth to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’, while compelling (and quite possibly points us in the right direction) don’t seem to appreciate the complexity of the situation.

The logical conclusion might then be that it’s not so much about deficient individuals who lack motivation and initiative as it is about a deficient culture.  Maybe it’s because the ethnic communities found in our cities poorest neighborhoods are too accepting of things like single-parent homes, illegal border crossings, not stressing the importance of education, and having too many children.  Yet I think that’s far too simplistic of an answer itself.  But one thing I’m beginning to recognize is that environment matters.


Imagine being dropped into the middle of the Israelite camp at the foot of Mount Sinai.  What is it you see?  We see a people who had so quickly forgotten what had just happened to them.  Just moments before on Mount Sinai, God had put on the most amazing light and laser show in the history of rock music; he’d walked them through the bottom of the ocean sans scuba gear; and they’d promised to do everything Yahweh would tell them to do.  And like bored teenagers waiting around for their long-in-coming parents to arrive home, Israel’s innocent game of spin the bottle on the desert floor waiting around for Moses to come down turned into only the beginning of their foolish choices.  Only the present mattered.  They forgot their past and they forgot their promised future.  They carelessly dumped their new-found wealth on things that offered instant gratification creating a god like they had in Egypt.  They listened to an incompetent, lying leader who knew better.  They ate, drank, danced, and partied like a Saturday night on the Vegas Strip.  Israel was running wild and their enemies were laughing at them, knowing full-well that they wouldn’t have to do anything because Israel would destroy themselves without outside intervention.  They were their own worst enemies.  How could this have possibly been the people of God?  His chosen ones?

This sounds a lot like the images and stereotypes that we have of the poor in North America.  They don’t have much money, but when they do, they spend it on impractical things that only provide cultural currency among their tribe.  And instead of saving that money for the future to avoid further problems, they use it to drink and party.  They chase after and glorify shameful role models.  They make stupid choices that keep them from any chance of escaping poverty.  They’re lazy and they’re simply reaping what they’ve sown.

But the Israel we see at Sinai was not the same one that entered Egypt 400 years previously.  They started off as a strong family, that had material wealth,  good relationships and reputations, and a God who’d promised them a great future.  Until they become vulnerable.  Until they were exploited.  The oppression that they suffered changed not only the course of their history, but the very collective character of their people.  They entered Egypt as refugees from a food crisis.  Yet they maintained dreams, hopes, and a grand promise that God had given to their father Abraham.  But generations of slavery turned them into a very different, impoverished, destitute, self-destructive people.  Through no fault of their own.  

The irrational choices that we see Israel make only begin to make sense once we remember where they came from.  At the foot of Sinai, Israel thought only about the present because in slavery, the future was never promised.  They were worked to the bone 7 days a week, 365 days a year, because they were expendable.  When Egypt gave them money as they exited, they spent it.  Why?  They’d never had wealth to manage before and slavery taught that soon it would be gone anyway.

     For all of the frustrations that we have with the youth that we’re in friendship with in Argentine, their laziness, their coarse language, and the stupid decisions they make begin to make sense when we remember where they came from.  Some of our kids are black.  I’ve come to see that the conspicuous brokenness of the African American community of today that cause humiliation for some and flaunting rebellion among others, are the festering wounds left unhealed after generations of slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement.  Working hard still doesn’t mean advancement or profit for blacks.  Some of our kids are undocumented immigrants.  They’re here in the US for reasons not unlike Abraham’s kids, whose father sent them away because he’d heard that there was grain faraway in Egypt, economic refugees who’d heard there were jobs in America.  Without papers, their future isn’t promised to them. Some of our kids are political refugees from Burma and Liberia, who’d lived quiet lives as subsistence farmers until oppressive regimes decimated those who opposed them.  Their communities, their cultures, their ways of life, destroyed.  Through no fault of their own.

Now, like Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, these youth are attempting to renegotiate who they are as individuals in ethnic communities who themselves are trying to hold together the fragmented shards of what they had while reluctantly learning to play by new sets of rules and new definitions of success.  Lazy?  Perhaps by some definitions.  Should we let them off the hook allowing them to continue to be helpless victims because of their past?  God didn’t seem to let Israel off the hook.  He still held them responsible for their actions.  So what are we to do? This conversation is about to get interesting…we’ll pick it up in the next Minute in about a week.  I know, killer cliffhanger.

 

A Hand Down

A couple of weeks ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through status updates on Facebook until this image arrested me.  It’s a picture of Noe, one of our Youthfront Mexico staff members and four women who are a part of our business development program.  They’ve all received microloans through our ministry in order to start small businesses in Croc and they’ve all been quite successful in them.  And here they were, four women from a poor, redneck ranchito dining at an upscale, all-you-can-eat steak buffet in metropolitan Monterrey.  The caption to the photo said it all, “Now they’re empresarias–businesswomen.”  I loved it.  The rags-to-riches element in any kind of story still tugs at me.  And what made it even better was that it wasn’t a picture of these four, now-successful women being treated to dinner by an American organization celebrating their heroic intervention.  No, they picked the restaurant and they picked up the tab for the young, program director of that American-sponsored initiative.

I wondered what being enamored by this picture said about me, about what I value, and about the story we live in.  What does it say about me, about us, that while they play several roles as wives, mothers, even grandmothers, that we only take notice and they’re really only taken seriously asbusinesswomen?  A businesswoman–a title of importance, a person who is to be taken seriously in a culture where commerce is king.  It only makes sense then that a ministry working among people who are marginalized in such a world would work to give dignity to those who have been left out.  We’d work to give them the tools, the capital, and the positioning to be people who demand to be taken seriously in this context.  And it makes sense then that these poor women–who’d always been the ones bussing Caesar’s tables, washing his dishes, and cooking his food–that at least for one meal, they would sit in Caesar’s throne.  They would eat his food and they would have their photo posted on such a powerful, public platform that the privileged people around the world could pause and take notice.

We have a desperate need to be taken seriously, to feel important, to feel powerful.  I believe that it is one of the most serious issues facing our urban neighborhoods.  In wealthier neighborhoods, the desire to feel important is no less present, its just that in under-resourced, urban neighborhoods, the expressions of that desire are often more pronounced (and sometimes more outlandish).  I see it expressed in a couple of teenagers, former refugees, who above all else want to live in California and be actors–ultimately to be famous.   I see it in Antonio, who wants to go into the military so he can carry a gun and kill people.  I saw it in the guy who walked down the middle of 35th street two weeks ago, rapping to heavy-laden, anti-institutional lyrics while Don Gomez and I looked at each other across the street in wonder.  I saw it through Victor’s invitation for me to accompany him to his company Christmas party, when I had dozens of other things to do, but his best friend, Don Gomez had none.  I was Victor’s trophy whitey.  Hitching his wagon to a white dude like me has seemingly more cache at a meat wholesale company’s Christmas party than that of another Mexican immigrant.

James and John tried to use Jesus as their trophy.  They weren’t stupid.  They knew they were of humble means and they saw Jesus was going places.  For the two boys of old man Zebedee, Jesus was a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor. In Mark 10, we see them trying to secure a pair of executive positions for themselves on whatever it was Jesus was up to.  But Jesus and the Kingdom he embodied didn’t have space for the rags-to-riches stories that are so deeply entrenched in our American myth.  Where James and John saw an opportunity to be on top, Jesus saw the coercive power structure of the haves and the have nots that was already alive and well in Caesar’s kingdom.  Jesus didn’t come to take twelve, poor, marginalized, undocumented immigrants from the hood in order to put them on top like hundreds of revolutionaries before and after him had attempted to do.  Instead, Jesus tells James and John that if they want the all-you-can-eat steak buffet, they’ve got to be the busboy.  They’ve got to be the wait staff, the line cook.

Good, secular understandings of poverty alleviation include some kinds of measures for creating pathways for the poor to become full participants in our society, determining their own future.  But it’s always a one-way street.  We talk a lot about not giving hand outs, but rather hand ups.  We’ll pull you up to where the rest of us are at–at least where those of us who are people of importance, people that deserve to be taken seriously.  But the scandal of the incarnation is the denial of those privileges.  By taking on human flesh, Jesus unravels our notions of importance.  You want to be somebody?  Become the least.  Jesus is teaching his disciples that the way of the kingdom isn’t about hand outs or hand ups, but about being offered a hand down.  It’s a way off of your pedestal.  And it’s not just to put you at the bottom to stay there, but its a way of putting to an end to all of our ways of privileging some at the expense of others.

It’s interesting what gospel stories we celebrate.  We celebrate Jesus’ call to the Samaritan woman.  A hand up.  We celebrate Jesus’ call to the woman caught in adultery.  A hand up.  But we’re not sure what to do with Jesus’ call to the rich man to sell everything he has.  A hand down.  It’s not that Jesus wants any of us to be poor or that he hates riches and steak buffets or that he’s got some kind of hidden, socialist agenda.  Instead, Jesus gives us a different kind of image, a different kind of buffet.  He gives us a table, wine, and bread.  And at this table, we all have a place.  We’re all honored.  We’re all important.  And there is always more than enough.  This is the ministry of reconciliation.

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