When Nationalism and Self-Righteousness, Surface

1-the-good-samaritan-english-school.jpg

“‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ Jesus asked.   The lawyer answered, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’   Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'”  Luke 10:27

In the wake of ICE raids and cruel incarceration at our borders, Luke’s Gospel provides not a comfortable narrative but a subversive parable – exposing not only the ancient bystander’s unconscious prejudice but in particular our own.    Here is a modern retelling of this timeless classic:

Once there was an elderly woman who needed some groceries at the market in a neighboring town.   Not wanting to take the bus, she called for a cab to come and pick her up at her home.   It was late in the day.

When she arrived at the market, rather than select her items right away – she took a few minutes to sit down and peruse some of the magazine offerings in the front of the store.    It was good to be out and about.

Then taking a grocery cart, she carefully went down the aisles selecting the groceries she needed.    Looking up, she realized it was getting dark.   But she wasn’t concerned.

Only when she opened her purse when stepping into the check-out line, she became alarmed.   Somehow, she must have left both her wallet and cell phone in the cab.    Looking up, she realized everyone around her just wanted to get their shopping done and go home.   But she didn’t know a soul at that store.

Then out of the corner of her eye she saw a minister from a nearby church.  Having just finished purchasing his groceries, she managed to get his attention.    But instead he pointed to his watch.   He was in a hurry, so he turned and left.

She began to grow alarmed.  What to do?   Then she saw a security guard.  The Help Desk had since closed.   Maybe he would help?    But as she approached him, he abruptly shook his head.    Crossing his arms across his chest, he tersely said, “Look lady, my shift is nearly over.   Helping someone I know is one thing, but I haven’t seen you before in my life.”

Tears came to her eyes.  Pushing her grocery cart aside, she made her way to a bench and plopped down.   Over the loud speaker, it was announced that the store would be closing in fifteen minutes.

Turning around, she gazed out into the parking lot.   By now it was dark and the lot was nearly empty.   Clutching her purse, she looked furtively around her.   Tears came to her eyes.  She was alone.

That is until she looked up and saw a woman looking her way.    The woman wore a scarf; only it was also draped around her neck and shoulders.   Her skin was much darker than her own, as were her eyes and the dark hair that peered out from under its covering.   She looked, well, foreign.

The elderly woman put her hand to her mouth.   What would she do if this woman came over to her?    But as if seeing the elder’s distress, the woman clad with the headscarf crossed over – and began walking her way.   Then standing before her and speaking with an accent, she asked, “Do you need help?”

Fumbling with her purse, the elderly woman felt her face grow hot with embarrassment.   This was an unthinkable situation.   But when she looked up and her eyes met that of the stranger, she saw only compassion.   Her shoulders relaxed a bit.

Realizing that the store would be closing shortly and without thinking, she blurted out.   “I left my wallet and cell phone in the cab.”

“Are those the grocery items you need to buy?” the woman asked motioning to the cart beside her.

Without looking up, the elder woman could only nod.

Taking her cart, the woman got into the checkout line.  After purchasing the items, she returned to the bench.    The elder looked up and seeing the bagged groceries, said, “Oh, I don’t have any money…my wallet.   But I want to pay you back.”  Her voice trailed off….

“It’s alright,” the woman said assuredly.   “I don’t drive but I’ll call a cab for you also.  You need to get back home.”

“But, I don’t have my wallet, my money!” the elderly woman protested.   “I can’t pay for it.”

Again, the woman gently reassured her.   “I have a mother your age,” she said.   “Let me help you get back home.”

With that, she offered her arm.   “The store is closing,” she said.   “I’ll wait with you outside for your cab.”   So the elderly woman took her arm and got up from the bench.    She held on to the scarf-clad woman as she deftly steered the grocery cart outside, her own bag of groceries alongside those the woman had bought for her family.

Looking back, the elder woman couldn’t recall how long it took for the cab to come as they waited on the bench in front of the empty and darkened lot.   For the most part, they were silent.    But after a while, her embarrassment and awkwardness gave way to a kind of winsomeness….even wonder.

When the cab arrived, the woman got up and taking the elder’s arm walked with her over to the waiting vehicle.    When the cab driver got out to put the elder’s groceries in the trunk, the scarf-clad woman gave him instructions along with money for the cab drive back home.

No longer afraid or embarrassed, the elder realized that the woman who had helped her – didn’t have a car or ride.   She said, “You have extended such mercy to me, but how will you get safely home?  It’s dark.”

The woman smiled.  Nodding in the direction of an apartment dwelling just adjacent to the market, she said, “I live just over there, with my family.   I’ll be alright.”

But the elder shook her head and nodding in the direction of the cab driver said, “We won’t go until you’re across that parking lot and safely back home.”   Seeing the driver smile, she continued, “I may not ever be able to repay you…but I want to do this.   For you showed me, mercy.”

And then the scarf-clad woman’s entire face lit up.    “You have done likewise,” she smiled.   Then lifting her bag of groceries onto her hip, she turned and walked into the darkness….but now as a neighbor and a friend.

 

[1]  The painting, “The Good Samaritan” is from the English School, 19th century

Companioning each other on the journey

iStock-620697086_0.jpg

As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” 2 Kings 2:2

Ever since the outcome of the 2016 election, there is a fantasy I’ve engaged in.   Out of nowhere, a spaceship emerges.  Massive, it can be seen for miles.

Suddenly, a mass exodus of people migrate towards it – illegal immigrants, deportees, children who had been housed in cages at the border, gays, and transexuals, the poor and disenfranchised, the undereducated, underemployed and homeless, the exploited and maligned, those without any healthcare, the disabled and unwanted, those who hit bottom a long time ago and never resurfaced.    They come over many miles and walk for days and even weeks on end.

They go seeking refuge.   Like Elijah of old, they seek to be taken up in a whirlwind into the heavens.    But in the meantime, they live on a planet fractured by ecological devastation, war, famine, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and abject cruelty.

No, they are not the Elijah of old.   They have no emancipatory deeds or prophetic speech to their credit.   But like the chair that is left empty at gatherings in anticipation of his arrival, they are with us now.

Yet there are no spaceships or chariots of fire on either our immediate or distant horizon.  No direct means to sweep them up from the terrors and extreme disappointment of this life.   But they do have us.

No, we are not the heir apparent, Elisha.    Painfully aware of our own limitations, we haven’t sought a double portion of the prophet’s spirit as our inheritance.

But imagine if we did.

 

 

Dominion, then and now…

6a00d8341c3e3953ef0192ab3b3db1970d-320wi.jpg

“Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”…”   Luke 8:29-30

In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, there is an account of that takes place in a Roman outpost on the other side of the Sea of Galilee and Jewish Capernaum.    If we were to read the passage strictly from a literal perspective, it has all the makings of a solitary man being healed of mental illness.    And while the herdsmen, as well as townsfolk, are chagrined by this miraculous turn of events, it could be written off as a loss of economic benefit and mere disturbance of the peace.

Yet the language used to describe this incident, says otherwise.   Like Alice in Wonderland, where the heroine tumbles down a dark passage and into a non-sensical and wholly unpredictable underworld, Luke’s narrative uses subliminal language and imagery that harkens to an oppressive and ruthless political undertow just underneath. Such as with the word, Legion, a term used to describe the Roman Army.

While on the surface,  it was the man broke the fetters used to restrain him and escaped into the wild – who was the insane one – a deeper investigation shows another side of this story.   Dominion not only subjugates those who would challenge it; it also maligns and scapegoats them in order to avoid self-examination.  Cut off from the mainstream and ceremoniously unclean in the eyes of the Jewish population, writes Ched Meyers, “…we might say that the political body of this man, possessed by destructive demons, mirrored the body politic of militarily occupied Palestine.” [1]

Taunted by the demons, the Son of Man will have none of it.   Recognizing that He is not cowed, the unclean spirit pleads to be released into a herd of swine grazing nearby.    Charging down the mountain (another military term), and re-enacting the same fate that awaited the pursuing Egyptian army in Exodus, the possessed swine fall into the lake below and drown.    Released from bondage, the man is finally restored.

“Go home and tell the people what God has done for you,” Jesus tells the newly healed and liberated man.  This was his charge and as those who resist, this is our charge too.  Liberated from the shackles of our false selves and redeemed by the Holy One of God, to follow Jesus is to return to the very places and people we’d rather keep away from.   “Go and tell the people what God has done for you,” he counsels.   No, he is not suggesting that we’ll change hearts.

But he wants to make it clear that he has changed ours.

[1] I am indebted to Ched Meyer’s analysis on Luke 8: 26-39, June 2016, Radical Discipleship.net

What if the Sun (and solar energy) is also God’s Gift to Us?

sunrise-2.jpg

 “[Rather than fossil fuels and coal], I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!…”  Thomas Edison

 What if the sun is God’s gift to us – not just in terms of warmth, sunlight and the means for plants to engage in photosynthesis – but as renewable, abundant, clean energy?

 When growing up in Southern California, I would walk for hours – away from replicated housing developments, carefully manicured lawns and acres of blacktopped parking – to find an “undeveloped” parcel of land.   Even if the plot of rocky soil was populated by scrub brush and tumbleweeds, I would find myself breathing a sigh of relief and then, unceremoniously, plopping myself in the middle of it all.   OK, it must have been perplexing for passing motorists to find a teenager sitting right in the middle of a scourged piece of undeveloped real-estate, but to me, I had finally arrived.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that God is in Richard Rohr’s words, in every single thing, meaning all of creation.   Unlike pantheism, where God is identical with the cosmos, early church mothers and fathers perceived that God was revealed in and through creation, as biblically attested in the opening verses of Genesis.  States Rohr, “Creation was the First Bible and it existed some 13.7 billion years before the Second Bible was written.”

Concerning solar energy, there is a quote attributed to one of the world’s most prolific inventors, Thomas Edison.  Ninety years ago, and speaking to industrialized nations’ reliance on oil and coal, Edison said, “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy – sun, wind, and tide. I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!”

What if the sun is God’s gift to us – not just in terms of warmth, sunlight and the means for plants to engage in photosynthesis – but as a source of renewable, abundant, clean energy?    Seen from a prophetic perspective, what if taking Edison’s words about harnessing this inexhaustible resource spares us from undermining what preserves and protects us? Particularly now, as we reckon with the challenge of global warming.

An early mentor of mine used to say that “God is always the bearer of Good News – which does not deny but empowers us in the face of grave challenges.”  As we grapple with the need to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, could the Good News mean being able to harness the sun’s renewable power, God’s gift to us?

Unlikely Sanctuaries – Yup, That’s Us…

2014%2F01%2F24%2F2c%2Fcrowd.bc1f9.jpg%2F950x534__filters%3Aquality%2890%29.jpg

“Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s [sanctuary] and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  1 Corinthians 3:16

Yesterday I walked at length in a park and wilderness area known as Horn Pond.    It is a place away from it all, even though it is adjacent to a municipal power station and not far from a mall.    Wanting to escape, I left its crowded parking lot and followed along a paved road to a system of dirt trails that bordered smaller ponds and a marsh area.

Once on the trail itself, I stopped mid-way and closed my eyes.  Here the path overlooked a marsh filled with reeds.   Hearing the intoxicating song of birds, I felt the breeze on my cheek.   Breathing slowed.   Muscles relaxed.   I had arrived.

I had discovered a outdoor sanctuary.    But it was in the unlikeliest of places.

In scripture, our bodies too are regarded as being the temples or sanctuaries of the Holy Spirit.    For that matter, this also applies to the mass of humanity across the regional, ethnic, cultural and political spectrum.    An outrageous claim when you think about it.

But what if God actually deems our bodies as places of wondrous and holy habitation, as temples and sanctuaries?   What if the divine indwelling is a manifestation of God’s grace and yearning to be (dare I say it?) in union with us?   What if this profound and intimate encounter with God is the agent that finally changes us?

 

Beyond the Profane

“But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'”  Acts 11:9

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… [for in this way] everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  John 13:34-35

 

accidental-encounter-by-frits-ahlefeldt-laurvig.jpg

What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.

In the Hebrew scriptures and later in the Second or New Testament, a lot of energy was directed to remaining as holy and distinctive before God.    Taking the form of law or regulations, these applied across the spectrum in terms of prohibitions applying to kinds of animal life as well as certain birds, shellfish, and insects.   Deemed as detestable or profane, abstaining from their consumption coupled with other prohibitions – allowed the faithful to be set apart and thereby, live in holiness or wholeness before God.

Millennia later, we are still setting ourselves apart.   But the reasons aren’t necessarily faithful ones.   Consider whom you prefer eating with because of dietary preferences, or whom you associate with or avoid, if you live under a roof or are homeless, or the country you owe allegiance to or renounce?  What about whom you voted for, what you do for a living or if you’re the right sexual orientation or not.  The list goes on

In the New Testament, there is a curious but compelling account where all species of animals, birds, fish, and insects – are pronounced by God as clean.   No longer would the dietary prohibitions apply.   But was God’s pronouncement done to broaden the width of the Israelite palate?   Or was God’s expansive embrace enacted so those once separated by dietary restrictions, culture, history, and ethnicity, could now eat at a common table?

But if dietary preferences, culture, history, geography, race, gender, employment, religious and political affiliation are not what distinguishes us  – then what does?

Jesus said just hours before his arrest, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… [for in this way] everyone will know that you are my disciples…”   John 13:34-35

Talk about distinctiveness.   But given how annoying it is to be in the company of those whom we dislike, disagree with, think are stupid or find repugnant, can we still consider ourselves as loving but refrain from associating with them (especially at the table)?  Can we love those whom we like and merely tolerate those whom we don’t?

Evidently and according to Jesus, that answer is ‘no.’

Writes Aisha Brooks-Lytle, “…it is easy to rationalize our way out of loving one another. We want to qualify love. We want to complicate it by adding stipulations as to who is worthy to receive it and who is not. We want to pat ourselves on the back for tolerating the unlovable and loving those we tolerate.” [1]

What if merely tolerating those whom we deem as unloveable – makes us unloveable in the eyes of God?   What if we are the ones who are most in need of God’s love and acceptance – as generously offered through the “least of these?”

 

[1] Image from HikingArtist.com

[2] Aisha Brook-Lytle, Living by the Word – John 13:31-31, (Christian Century, April 23, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Doesn’t Belong to Us

blue-ridge-parkway-nc-cowee-mountains-panorama-robert-stephens.jpg

“The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;” Psalm 24:1

Does claiming ownership defy mortality?    Consider that in the course of our lifetimes, we acquire any number of possessions – land, homes, automobiles, furnishings, businesses and a plethora of other personal property.   What if in claiming it as ours, we achieve a modicum of permanency?   Why think about the brevity of our lifespan when we’re comfortably situated in our own backyards.

Writes Jim Antal, author, and environmental activist:

“Only a misinterpretation of scripture justifies human domination and control of the land…Once the claim of a Creator God had been sidelined, instead of regarding land as creation, society began to regard land as a possession.   Our consumer society only reinforces this, leading to aggressive and absurd claims such as the ‘oil’ found on God’s earth is ‘our oil.'”   [1]

I confess that nothing gives me more satisfaction than to lay claim to my own little plot of land.  The rituals of tending the garden, planting shrubs and spring flowers and beholding young seedlings help me forget the limitations of finitude.   And yes, there is a huge part of me that wants to claim it all as MINE.    But when God’s creation is viewed as something to be used (because it belongs to us) rather than being cherished, are we really escaping the inevitability of our own demise?

What if we were to not only offer words of thanksgiving for all of God’s Creation – but prayerfully ask that God would make us stewards and guardians – not just for this generation but for future ones?    What if we were to live each day protecting what rightly belongs to God?   Such that by giving assent to safeguarding what is NOT OURS, our lives can be a blessing for future generations, through acts of preservation, activism, and love.

[1] Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change, (Landham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), pg. 151