The Tears of the Children

templo mayorWhen I was a student in seminary, one of the requirements for graduation was that we take part in a cross-cultural experience of some sort. There were rural immersion experiences for “city kids,” urban plunges for those who grew up on farms, and opportunities to visit many places in the world.

I chose to spend two weeks in Mexico, not in the gated resort communities where people go to spend their vacations, but in the neighborhoods where the poor lived and worked and improvised in order to get from morning to night every day, where they supported one another in prayer and in action, where they knew that their only hope was in Christ, because all other hope had been snatched away.

On one of our first days in Mexico, our group traveled to the historic central area of Mexico City. One of our stops was Temple Mayor, an archaeological site of an ancient Aztec temple that had been destroyed by the conquering Spanish forces in order to build their own cathedral on top of the ruins. One of the shrines at Temple Mayor was to Tlaloc, the rain god. Worship of this god involved sacrifice of children, in order to persuade the god to allow rain to fall. Dozens of children were sacrificed, many of them sold by their own parents. On the way to the top of the pyramid where the killing would take place, the children were threatened and physically hurt so that they would cry and scream, the louder the better. It seems that children’s tears, in addition to their lives, were demanded by the rain god.

What was your reaction as you read that last paragraph? Did you have the same reactions I did, that this was horrific, brutal, barbaric. What kind of parents would allow their own children to be subject to such inhuman practices! Who would allow their children to live in fear and to be killed because of the fears of their parents? How much progress we have made!

Progress indeed. We have progressed to the point that our children’s cries and screams are heard at country music concerts. We have progressed to the point that our children fear going to school because there might be someone with a gun. We have progressed to the point that we sell our own children into fear and even death because we are afraid to stand up to the tyrannical rain god known as the NRA. Just as we know that Tlaloc didn’t really need the death of children in order to send rain, we know in our hearts – in those parts of our hearts that know the truth, beyond the reach of all the propaganda – that the NRA’s predictions of calamity will not result from common-sense measures like background checks and limits on magazine size. And still, we knowingly send our children into the line of fire, into the heart of danger, in order to convince ourselves that the NRA-god will smile on us.

Progress indeed. We have progressed to the point that our children’s cries and screams are heard on city streets as they are shot to death. We have progressed to the point that our children of color fear going to the store, driving their cars, or walking home at night because there might be a police officer with a gun who is afraid. We have progressed to the point that we as a nation sell our children of color into fear and death because we are afraid to insist that their lives matter. Just as we know that Tlaloc didn’t really need the death of children in order to send rain, we know in our hearts – in our hearts as parents and friends and coworkers – that the danger the police claim to fear from young men of color is not real. And still, we knowingly send our young men into the line of their fire, into the heart of danger, in order to convince ourselves that we will somehow be safer if their lives do not matter.

Progress indeed. We have progressed to the point that our children’s cries and screams are heard as they are forced to deny their gender identity an orientation. We have progressed to the point that our children fear going to school, naming who they are, or loving whom they love because we won’t try to understand any experience but our own. We have progressed to the point that we sell our children into fear and death because we are afraid to stand up to those who would tell them that they are beyond the bounds of God’s love. Just as we know that Tlaloc didn’t really need the death of children in order to send rain, we know in our hearts – in our hearts as parents and siblings and friends – that these children are every bit as precious to God as we are. And still, we knowingly send our children into a world that would hurt, shame, and even kill them, in order to convince ourselves that we are worthy of God’s love.

Progress indeed. In so many ways, we are no different than the parents who sold their children to be tormented and killed to ensure their own comfort and prosperity. When we fail to defend our children from gun violence and hatred and abuse, we look in the mirror and see the brutal, barbaric, and inhuman parts of our souls.

We no longer worship the got Tlaloc. We have replaced him with an array of gods that try to demand bullets as the price of peace and conformity as the price of safety. Perhaps it is time to consign those gods to the history books as well. Perhaps it is time to remember that rain comes from a loving God who wants all children to thrive.ray

This is the prayer I wrote for our final worship on that Mexico trip. Much of it could still be prayed today.

We have been called to this place to see clearly, to think deeply, and to act boldly.  Let us join our hearts in prayer for the church, the world, and all those in need.

Two-thirds of the people in Mexico try to earn a living in the informal economy, including a third of children under ten years old.  Children sell Chiclets on the street and men lie on broken glass in the subway.

For those who must struggle each day to earn enough money to feed their families, that they might receive daily bread…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…  Our real task is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.  [George Kennan, for the U.S. State Department, 1948]

For those whose self-interest blinds them to seeing the needs of others, that they might be awakened to their place in the family of creation…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Solo:  Eternal Spirit of the Living Christ, v. 1

Each year, over 4,000 people die attempting to cross the border from Mexico to the United States.  Each of these people has a name, a home, a family.

For those who have died, for those who mourn, and for those who wait for news that will never come, that they might be comforted…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

As a condition for making loans, the World Bank imposes Structural Adjustment Programs that lead to reduction or elimination of social services.

For those with power and influence, that they might be guided to use their authority in ways that build up the body of Christ…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Solo:  Eternal Spirit of the Living Christ, v. 2

I would like to make a special appeal to the members of the Army… In the name of God, in the name of your tormented people whose cries rise up…  I beseech you, I beg you, I command you:  Stop the repression!  [Bishop Oscar Romero, the day before he was assassinated while leading a worship service in 1980]

For those who take a stand in support of the poor and in opposition to ruthless power, that their voices might be heard and heeded…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Across the country, base Christian communities gather to pray, to study the scripture, and to take action to accompany those who are struggling.

For those who care for others in your name, that they might be strengthened through their service…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Solo:  Eternal Spirit of the Living Christ, v. 3

We have experienced the radical hospitality of home visit hosts, who give up even their own beds so that we might have a place to sleep.

For those who, in the midst of their poverty, evangelize us, that both we and they would grow in our sense of community with one another…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

For those who wait upon the promise of your favor, that their souls might continue to magnify your name… Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

In the silence of this moment, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts to stir up faith in us and to pray for us those prayers that, right now, we cannot pray for ourselves…  For all that you see your children need, we pray, in the name of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

 

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Escaping the Echo Chamber

Escaping theEcho Chamber (1)I have a lot of friends whose views on political and social issues are pretty similar to mine. I am neither apologizing nor feeling guilty about that; it’s natural for all of us to want to spend time with people who have similar outlooks and ideas. The problem is, we can too easily get caught in an echo chamber, where the only voices we hear are those that sound just like ours. If we don’t have a chance to engage differing opinions, it becomes too easy to stereotype those who disagree with us. We start to imagine ourselves as the Good Guys and the “others” as the Bad Guys. And if we happen to cross paths on Facebook or in the comments section of a blog or media article, the dialogue quickly degenerates into name-calling and character assassination.

This is not a new problem. Jesus’ disciples were convinced that their Samaritan neighbors were completely evil and untrustworthy. They were shocked – scandalized – when they saw Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman by a public well. And the familiar Bible story is called The Good Samaritan because that’s what made it news. Samaritans were rarely thought of as good. When we only associate with people who think like we think, say what we say, we can start to think of that as reality, not as the echo chamber it really is.

One of the remedies is to intentionally seek out people from different places in the social-political landscape and to listen to them. Listen… not debate, argue, or try to convert… but listen deeply and respectfully. I have friends who have tried to create spaces for conversations that cross the red and blue political lines. Sometimes they work well, other times not so much. In my own associations, I have some people who might be good conversation partners, except that they won’t put in the time and effort to craft an original contribution to the discussion of any issue. Instead, they lurk around Facebook pages and blogs and wait for someone to make a statement about a news event or current issue. Then they jump in with (verbal) guns blazing and engage in all the bad behavior. Those aren’t thoughtful contributors to any conversation; they are what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. They simply generate noise and ill will.

Fortunately, I also have some thoughtful conversation partners. One friend with whom I disagree on many issues but whose voice I appreciate is Rebecca Florence Miller. She and I met nearly 15 years ago in seminary. She has a blog on the Evangelical Channel of Patheos (here), and she frequently offers opinions on the day’s events on her Facebook page.

Rebecca is significantly more conservative than I am. But I am enriched every time I read one of her blog posts. She does not paint issues with broad-brush simplistic strokes; she is attentive to the nuances of a situation. She is a strong believer in accountability and will challenge those who try to dodge their ethical responsibility, regardless of their political stripes. And she seems never to forget that even those who are acting the worst are children of a God who loves them and wants better for them.

I am grateful to Rebecca and to the many other people in my life who are thoughtful, ethical, and willing to hold me and others accountable for our own words and actions.

Khaleesi Chronicles – We Have a Truce!

20170618_104057

For those who have been following the adventures of my furry little Mother of Dragons, this will be a quick update.

 20170618_104146My 7-foot-tall cat tree sits in a corner of the living room, right next to my couch. Russell has peacefully napped on one of the couch cushions ever since we moved here, without ever noticing the cat tree (unless I loaded it with treats; then he would consent to climb on it, until the treats were gone). Now that Khaleesi has claimed the top three levels of the tree as her domain, suddenly he wants to push her out and take over the space. As I’m typing this he is on the back of the couch, looking longingly at the spot she has claimed (and that isn’t big enough for two cats).

The two of them have reached some sort of armed truce… most of the time. He sleeps on the couch, she sleeps in the cat tree, they take turns sitting by the patio door to supervise the birds, they have a schedule for who is at the food dish when, so they never have to confront each other.

They are still negotia20170618_104148ting the finer points of their agreement, complete with hissing and howling, usually accompanied by Sadie barking her encouragement from the sidelines. But that seems to be a little less each day. So I think we’re in pretty good shape for her having been here just over two months.

The best news of all, though, is that she is finally acclimated to people enough that I can pet her and even brush her. And this time I have pictures to prove it! The brushing is only good for a few minutes each day; then she gets restless and swats my hand away. But compared to how she was when she first arrived, this is huge progress. Not a lap cat just yet, but I’m confident we’ll get there.

 

Khaleesi Update – Lots of Progress

In so many parts of life, progress comes unevenly. For quite a while, it seems like nothing happens, and then there’s a big jump. The last few days have seen a big jump in progress for Khaleesi.

20170611_192643 - croppedA couple of days ago, I told you that I had noticed Khaleesi up on the second floor in the middle of the night, a few feet outside the bedroom door. This morning when I came downstairs, I noticed that she was up on the cat tree. As soon as she saw Russell, she jumped down and retreated to the basement. I was pleased that she had found her way up to the cat tree, at least while the rest of us were out of the room.20170611_192555

This afternoon, it was as though Khaleesi and Russell had suddenly decided that fighting was too much work. (Maybe it’s just too hot.) I was sitting in the living room, and Russell was in his usual spot, asleep at the end of the couch. Just a few feet above him, Khaleesi was in one of the top bins of the cat tree, seeming very calm as she enjoyed the view out the patio door.

Eventually they both started moving around the living room, in the cat tree, behind the couch, under the coffee table. They carefully kept their distance from one another, and there were a couple of very quiet hisses if someone got too close. But overall they were astonishingly calm.

I am hopeful.

A Tiny Khaleesi Update

My time is limited today, filled with a list of things I hope to complete yet this afternoon. So this will be just a tiny update on our newest family member.

Khaleisi 2 (2)

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom. That’s not unusual, but when I was on my way back to the bedroom, I happened to glance at the stairway. There at the top of the stairs on the second floor was Khaleesi. She was settled in comfortably, as though she had been napping while the other two critters were sound asleep in my bedroom. Of course I didn’t get a picture. I don’t normally take my smart phone with me to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But I was awake enough to know that it really happened.

The most amazing thing was that she didn’t bolt down the stairs or into a hiding place when she saw me. She watched me carefully, ready to move if I came toward her; but I didn’t, so she stayed right there. I had the feeling that she had been doing that every night for quite a while, coming up to the top floor, settling in a few feet from the bedroom door, and spending at least part of the night

For some reason, that made me over-the-moon happy. I’m imagining that in a few days or a few weeks, she will settle in the doorway to the bedroom, and maybe eventually on the bed with the  others. But for now, the fact that she seems to want to be where we are is enough, and I fell back asleep with a smile on my face.

The Uninvited Spirit

A sermon preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017 at St. John Lutheran Church in Alma, Wisconsin.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today is Pentecost, the third great festival of the church year, along with Christmas and Easter.  But many people have not heard of it, and most of us don’t remember Pentecost being talked about a lot in our growing-up churches.

So what is this festival all about?  Back in the book of Genesis, chapter 11, you can read of a time when all the people had one common language. In other words, they could speak and listen and understand one another. Maybe not agree, but at least understand.

But then humans took that gift of common language and twisted it to work for their own gain. They decided to build a tower reaching up to heaven, so they could make a name for themselves. God acted to foil their self-aggrandizing plans by confusing their languages so they could no longer speak and listen and understand one another.

There is a sense in which we can think of Pentecost as a “reversal” of Babel.  One language became many, many languages shared one message.  But it’s also a reversal of focus.  The people in Old Testament times were motivated by their own status and reputation. But the wind and fire of Pentecost stirred the people up with a different kind of ambition:  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages about God’s deeds of power.

Pentecost is not just a “back then” occasion.  Every day, the Spirit gives to each of you gifts to be used to tell God’s story.  To some of you, the Spirit gives the gift of teaching, to others the gift of encouraging and comforting others, to others the gift of “telling it like it is” and speaking up about things that are unjust.  To some of you, the Spirit gives the gift of organizing people to get a big job done, to others the gift of study and knowledge, to still others the gift of remembering others in prayer.

To some of you, the Spirit has given the gift of being mothers or fathers or caregivers, nurturing the faith of your children and grandchildren by praying with them, teaching them the stories of God’s deeds of power and love, bringing them to worship every single week, even when they don’t want to get out of bed or would rather stay home.  And even when it seems that you and your children are speaking different languages – which may be most of the time – the Spirit gives you the unity that you could never create for yourself.

Whatever gifts the Spirit has given you, specifically you, they are to be used to continue telling and showing the story of God’s love and care for us as God’s children.  Now I could stand here and tell you to go out from here and continue to tell and show God’s love;  but I don’t need to do that.  You see, the Spirit has already taken care of that. The arrival of the Holy Spirit is a disruptive event in our lives – when we are touched by the Holy Spirit, nothing is ever the same for us.  Even if you’re not looking for it, the Spirit will come into your life, uninvited, and will put people in your path, people who need a word of hope, of encouragement, a word that tells them that God will never let go of them, no matter how far away they may feel.  The Spirit will put those people in your path at the bank, or the coffee shop, or the local pub.  And when you bump into these people, the Spirit will put words in your mouth, just as the Spirit put words in the mouths of the early disciples.  It may be a simple “I’ll pray for you” to someone who is struggling; it may be an invitation to have a cup of coffee and some conversation to someone who just needs to talk; it may be a compliment on playing a good baseball game or growing beautiful flowers to someone who doesn’t think they’re worth much.

In just a few minutes, we will be reminded again of the our unity in the Spirit.  As we gather around one table, as we share the one bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord, as we receive forgiveness and new life at the Lord’s table, we know that we are united with Christians of every time and place.  And as we leave the table and go to our homes, our schools, our work, our communities, we are united in our commitment to let our words and our actions share the news of God’s love to a world that needs what we have been given.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Book Review and Giveaway: Bible Sisters

Bible Sisters is a collection of 365 daily devotions about women in tBible Sisters Coverhe Bible. The author is The Rev. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks. She is the Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Preaching and the director of the Styberg Preaching Institute, both at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

I received two copies of the book from Abingdon Press, one to use in my review, and one to give away. Here’s how you can be part of the giveaway: Simply leave a comment on this review. While you’re commenting, I’d love it if you’d tell me who is your favorite woman in the Bible. (That’s not required to enter the drawing; I’d just be curious which women get mentioned.) You may leave your comment on my blog (fireopalpastor.com) or on this review on Facebook. Please leave your comments by 5PM (Central) on Thursday, May 25. I’ll randomly select one person to receive the book and contact you to get your mailing address.

There are about 250 women or groups of women represented in this book (some of the women are discussed on more than one day. You will find women who are likely familiar to you (Eve, Mary, Ruth, Naomi) along with quite a few women whose names may be unfamiliar (Meshullemeth, Euodia, Syntyche). Many of the women are not cited in Scripture by their names, so we meet them by their description (the wife of Jeroboam, the woman who married seven brothers). Each day’s devotional includes a scripture passage (usually one or two verses), a reflection on how this woman’s story might intersect with our lives, and a short prayer. Each page is titled with a day number (Day 1 through Day 365) rather than a specific date. The back of the book contains an index by scripture reference as well as an index by the women’s names.

As I sampled several of the daily devotionals, I found that the author’s reflections often took non-traditional approaches. Sometimes, she offered a counterpoint to our usual understanding. On Day 114, for instance, the reflection begins “Eve has been blamed often for the fall of humanity. Interestingly, the Apostle Paul wrote that it is through Adam that all die.” Sometimes, the author provides us with more information about who this woman is before offering a connection to our lives. There were times when this (Lutheran) reader was uncomfortable with the author’s language that seemed to describe God’s favor as being conditional, depending on our actions. Overall, a reader will find something in nearly every page that will inform you, inspire you, or challenge you.

Of course, you could use this book in the usual way, starting at Day 1 and reading one page each day for a year. Since the pages are numbered, not dated, you don’t need to wait until January to begin. Additionally, you could use the indexes to pull together several days around a specific theme, to use in a Bible study. Or it could serve as a reference, allowing you to look up the passage(s) that speak of a particular woman. In any case, you will almost certainly want to keep your favorite Bible close at hand; with only one or two verses printed on each page of Bible Sisters, you often won’t know the whole story of that woman. You may want to look up the quoted verse in your Bible, and then explore the passages before and after to set the verse in context.

Finally, I have a couple of observations about the physical book itself. The book’s compact size makes it easy to keep on a nightstand or end table, or even to tuck into a purse or bag. That same compact size, however, limits the nuance that can be included in each devotion and occasionally results in an oversimplified reading. The type face used in the printed book is just small enough to be troublesome for readers whose eyesight is failing. And somewhat more problematic is that the Bible verses are printed in even smaller type on a gray shaded background, leading to even less legibility. Out of curiosity, I downloaded the sample pages from the eBook version. While the size of the font can be adjusted, the gray shading behind the Bible verses may still present a problem for some readers (another reason to keep your favorite Bible nearby when using this book).

A final reminder: if you would like to be included in the drawing for the Bible Sisters giveaway, leave a comment on this review before 5PM (Central) on Thursday, May 25. I will contact the winner on Friday morning.