Friday, June 28, 2019

How Things Should Be

  The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   
-Luke 4:18-19 (NIV)

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez was just 26 when he died. His daughter, Valeria, was just a month shy of 2 years old when she died with her arm around his neck. Their bodies were found last week in the shallow water and undergrowth along the bank of the Rio Grande, near Matamoros, Mexico. There was nothing between them and the United States but the river. It might as well have been a wall.
     Óscar left San Martin, El Salvador, in April, along with Valeria and his wife, Tania. They made it to Matamoros about a week ago, where they intended to apply for asylum in the US. That’s something to note about their case: they intended to enter the US legally. But they heard that Mexico would crack down on migrants in response to threats of trade tariffs from the States. They found that with the sheer number of asylum-seekers and the reductions in the number of migrants the US allows to apply for asylum each day, it could take weeks to even begin the process. That’s when they decided to cross the river and figure out what to do from there.
     Witnesses say Óscar took Valeria across while Tania waited on the Mexico side. He got Valeria safely to the US side, then went back for his wife. Valeria, unfortunately, went into the river after him. He went back to get her, and the current took them both.    
     Isabel Turcios, a nun who directs the Casa del Migrante shelter in Piedras Negras, has seen it many times. She says that those who work for her shelter warn migrants not to try their luck in the Rio Grande, but often their warnings aren’t heeded. “People get desperate and cannot keep waiting. They just want to cross.” 
     “They always tell me that if God wants them to make it then somehow they will make it. It’s not how things should be.”    
     No. No, it isn’t. I think surely everyone can understand that, can’t we? I mean, we’re told that there are rapists, murderers, and terrorists massing at our border, just waiting to get in and prey on us, the good people who live on the right side of the border. Strange, then, that what we keep hearing about are kids kept without their parents in abysmal conditions while the government — the one that’s of the people, for the people, and, oh yeah, by the people — wrangles in court over the definition of “safe and sanitary.” Our political leaders keep telling us about the dire consequences of migration to “our way of life” (Whose way? Defined by whom?) Strange that they can’t offer statistics for any of those dire consequences. Politicians win elections playing to our fear of an army of migrants coming across the border to invade our country.
     Strange that all we keep pulling out of the water are the bodies of toddlers holding on to their daddies. 
     Parents shouldn’t have to wade into a raging river to provide for and protect their children. But they will, you know they will if they’re desperate enough, because so would you. Sister Isabel is right, it’s not how things should be. But it’s how things are.
     As Christians, though, one thing we should be quite clear on is the difference, the Rio Grande-sized divide,  in our world between how things should be and how they are. We’ve always held that distinction in our minds. Our Scriptures and songs proclaim it. In fact, the central story of our faith is all about that wide discrepancy between things as they are and things as they should be.
     Sometimes we’ve dealt with that discrepancy by pointing to the coming of Christ as the time when things will be made right, when we’ll no longer have any use for that phrase, “It’s not how things should be.” There’s truth and hope in that, of course. But, to be honest, we’ve also sometimes used that hope as a way to stifle the objections of those who are hurt most by things not being as they should be. Some of us use that hope, in fact, to say that our faith has no place for those aspirations that things should be better. We should just buckle down, have faith, and not make trouble. “Our hope is not in this world,” after all. 
     The thing you might notice is that the Christians who say this with the most volume and conviction are often those who seem to have the most invested in the way things are, and who fear they’ll lose the most from how things should be
     Bruce Springsteen’s song of a few years ago, Matamoros Banks, seems prescient. Unfortunately, it’s just that what he was singing about back then hasn’t changed:

For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound…
Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
'Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same.

     But, really, did the one we follow think that the things of heaven and the things of earth should be so far apart? Did he teach us that it doesn’t matter if the inequities of where a person is born and how much money they have takes away every trace of who they ever were? Didn’t he teach us to pray, “Your Kingdom come/ Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? 
     Jesus came proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor;” that the blind could see, the oppressed could have relief, prisoners could go free, and that there was actually good news for the poor. We believe that time will be culminated and brought to completion when he returns, but we believe (because he believed) that it started when he came the first time. When he healed someone, when he raised the dead, when he showed love and compassion for the weakest in his world, when he died for our sins and rose for our redemption, he was proclaiming that the year of the Lord’s favor had commenced.
     How could those of us who follow him not do the same?
     I believe there is still hope in the gospel of Christ for Oscar and little Valeria. I believe a day is coming when they will wake to security, peace, and joy that they never found in this life. I hope I’ll get to meet them then, if only to see them smiling and laughing and enjoying being with each other and with Tania. But that hope doesn’t make it OK that they died, nor that some of us who wear Jesus’ name could shrug it off, or object that it’s just the way things are.
     Protest. Write decision-makers. Vote, or don’t vote. Those are the tools of a democracy. But we depend on something greater than that. Pray. Add words of hope, gospel words, to the debate. Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, then show our world what that looks like. It looks like love, grace, acceptance, compassion. 

     That’s how to begin to change the way things are into the way things should be.    

Friday, June 7, 2019


     For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. 
-Romans 12:4-6 (NIV)

A friend of mine emailed me about leaving his church recently. I have a lot of conversations about things like that. I guess people figure I’ll be interested because of what I do. 
     Anyway, he didn’t have any deep theological concerns about his decision to leave. No doctrinal worries, at least none that he expressed. He did talk a little about “pastoral vision,” but when I asked him to tell me more about that he really couldn’t seem to elaborate. 
     What really drove his decision to leave this church he had been a part of for a significant number of years seemed to boil down to the fact that this church didn’t offer some things he was looking for. He’s a good guy, a strong Christian with a solid faith. But it felt like he was making the decision to leave a group of believers with whom he had served and prayed and worshipped and laughed and wept for nearly a decade, over a couple of things that weren’t to his liking. Things that I suppose he could have started himself.
     Talking with him, the phrase in that text in Romans up at the top of this page came to mind: “each member belongs to all the others.” That might be a tough sell in our world; after all, we switch cable companies every couple of years to get the promotional rates. We change employers if we see a better opportunity for advancement. We’re loyal to brands only to the point that they disappoint us, and then we’re trying something else. We even end marriages sometimes because we meet someone we like better.
     It’s a little quaint, in a world like that, to talk about being so knitted together in Jesus that we have the sense of belonging to each other.
     Paul isn’t really saying there that we’re stuck with each other because we’re part of the same group. I mean, that’s true as well, but what he’s getting at is theologically more important. The comparison he’s making is with the human body; we all know that the parts of our bodies are interdependent. The brain knows when something needs to be picked up. It sends the electrical impulses down the nerves that move the muscles of the arm and hand to pick that thing up. But if there’s no hand to grasp it, then the brain’s best efforts amount to nothing. Your right hand won’t independently cut off a finger from your left hand. Your eyes won’t close while you’re walking down the street so that you run into a lamppost because you wouldn’t let them look longer at the flowers in the park you just passed. There’s no mutiny among the parts of your body because your body has been put together for the purpose of living, surviving, and thriving. 
     Paul’s saying that in the church we belong to each other like that. We belong to each other in the sense that we’re responsible to use our gifts for one another, and for the good of the church as a whole. I know that isn’t always easy to remember, but forgetting it doesn’t make it less true. 
     Right here is where church leaders sometimes want to use this body metaphor to manipulate members by saying something like, “So you members should do what we leaders tell you to do.” (We’re rarely that explicit, but I assure you we’re sometimes thinking exactly that…) The problem with that thinking, of course, is that it assumes church leaders are “in charge” like managers or CEOs or officers. I recall, however, that Jesus said something about leadership in the kingdom being done from a position of service. So I want to start unpacking this idea of belonging to each other by saying that church leaders belong to the church, and to the people we would lead. Our job is to help the church to grow in Christ; not command them, tell them what to do, or use their efforts for our own agendas. We listen, pray, sympathize, serve, demonstrate — then we teach and talk. “Belonging” is dangerous if it doesn’t start at the top.  
     In the church, adults belong to the children. Sometimes we rationalize that there are people in church who are “gifted” at working with children, and sometimes that’s true. Mostly, though, I find that those who are “gifted” at working with children are just those who choose to invest the time and effort in doing it. It’s a shame that in the church we have to coerce people to teach Sunday school or help in VBS or whatever. It’s a shame that we adults aren’t lining up to share our faith with what is potentially the next generation of the church; and what is, at the same time, potentially not. Children in the church aren’t a distraction, an inconvenience, or a special interest group best served by specialists in segregated Sunday schools or youth ministries. They’re a part of the church, and they need we who are more mature in years and in faith to look out for them. 
     In the church, young and old belong to each other. In opposition to a world that wants to segregate young and old with individualized marketing, forced retirement, and the mutual dismissiveness and distrust with which generations treat one another, we witness to a different reality. We believe that young and old need one another, that each is less without the other. We believe that our differing experiences of the world better inform our life together and make us better able to live out the gospel of Christ.
     In the church, conservative and liberal belong to each other. We don’t believe the false dichotomy that says the church has to be one or the other, that either label can accurately represent or encapsulate God’s kingdom. We don’t bow to the cultural pressure to demonize the other side. We don’t buy into the message that one or the other is the salvation of the world. We think that both conservative and liberal believers have something to bring to the table, as well as those with no political persuasion at all. We recognize that each helps us as Christ’s body to better understand the problems in our world and act as salt and light 
     In the church, those in the minority and those in the majority belong to each other. Those of us who have advantages in the world based on where we’re born, the color of our skin, our gender, our education, or the money we make recognize those advantages. We see them as resources, blessings from God that can be used on behalf of the church and the world. We use them especially for those who don’t have such advantages, following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and the early church’s example of sharing in one another’s suffering. 
     We don’t leave when we get frustrated or discouraged. We don’t let “issues” separate us. We talk out disagreements, listen to each other, and try to understand. When we can’t agree, we go forward anyway as parts of the same body.
     It’s hard to commit to this way of thinking about one another when there are many other churches in close proximity to you. That, I suppose, is the reality my friend is running into. He’ll be a blessing, I’m sure, in whatever church he decides to attend next. I can’t help but think, though, of those believers he chose to walk away from. In what ways is that body less now because he chose not to belong?

     May we choose to belong, really belong, to the churches we’re a part of. Not as subscribers, consumers, or investors, but as indispensable parts of the body of Christ in those places.