Epiphany, Liturgical Time, and the Islamic State

03-liturgical-calendar-2016

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
                                                                 – T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”

***

Like those three wise men, it’s possible for one to feel like he lives among “an alien people clutching their gods,” having learned to live in liturgical time.

***

I can remember early on, as a child of about eleven or twelve, being disappointed with Christmas.  After the gift wrap lay at our feet, after the big Christmas Day lunch at my grandparents’ house, everything felt empty.  I remember hearing about the “post-holiday blues” (though I don’t think I would have called it that or remembered that string of words) and feeling like that resonated with me: people becoming “blue” as the holidays came to an end.  I wanted to keep it going – the anticipation of the event, that is.  The consummation of the thing – the unwrapping of gifts and the feasts and family – would let me down.  And as I got older, this experience recurred every Christmas season.

***

A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a piece online by Graeme Wood about an American man named John Georgelas, now known as Yahya Abu Hassan, who from all accounts, has become second in command in the Islamic State.  It’s a fascinating and disturbing story about an intelligent young man who never quite found his way and according to his father, was always a follower.  Of course, the paradox now is that he is a leader, one of the top leaders, of the death gang that has ravaged parts of Syria and Iraq and now seem to be trying to make headway in other countries.

What was of special interest to me was where Yahya, as Wood refers to him throughout the piece, grew up.  Just up the road from me is Plano, Texas, the city where my wife grew up and where the parish I attend is located.  This suburb of high achievers is where Yahya spent most of his formative years and where his parents still live. What would cause someone like him to abandon family, faith, and culture in such a drastic way?

***

tumblr_inline_nhm0vy7o2z1qkqzlv
Ethiopian Nativity icon

Earlier in this decade, my wife and I moved to Ethiopia to work with orphans and vulnerable children.  One of the things I loved about the culture there was how everything stopped for a major holiday, and the lack of commercialization of a holiday like Christmas in Ethiopia (or Gena) made it feel truly foreign, ancient, and other-worldly.  Even apart from the fact that Ethiopians use a different calendar (the Julian), there were not the usual signs that Christmas was coming – you know, the decorations and products changing hands in all the big box stores around Halloween. Refreshingly, instead of there being commercial signals that a new holiday was coming, you would instead see people walking goats through the streets that they would slaughter for the big feast or women outside crushing chilies into berbere powder – and all this just days before the actual holiday.  There was something organic about it all, something true.

***

In many ways, I can understand what would lead one to abandon a life in comfortable suburbia for a life roughing it with a jihadist cult.  I don’t know what led Yahya to leave his old life behind and join ISIS, of course, but I think I can imagine what it would be. I can identify with a certain ache for meaning, with the desire to find something for which I can live and die, as Kierkegaard once wrote.  After all, such restlessness is largely responsible for my moving to Ethiopia in the first place.

***

Without realizing it back then, the “holiday blues” I used to experience were an aching for deeper meaning.  Yes, I’m sure you can psychologize it and say I was just experiencing a let down after all the build up to, and enjoyment of, a long break away from the drudgery of routine, but the problem with this “secular” way of thinking is that it sees routine as an enemy and “vacation” as something that really matters, something that makes one feel alive.  As I’ve gotten older, what has rescued me from the meaninglessness of the North American “Holiday Season” is the church calendar, or liturgical time.  For one, the calendar is built on a kind of holy anticipation, a looking forward to the consummation of all things.  In a beautiful way, the beginning of every Advent looks forward to the end.  We begin the year contemplating last things (especially as it relates to our need for repentance), and doing so is a reminder that “here we have no lasting city.” And that let down I used to feel as a kid on Christmas Day is cut off at the knees by the realization that Christmas is actually a season, not just one morning of tearing open gift-wrapped boxes.

Learning to live in liturgical time also helps provide meaning beyond the daily grind of getting and spending.  Our society is built on an exchange economy and that economy so shapes our hearts and imaginations that we imagine if one puts in the work and the sweat equity, then he should get what he deserves.  Therefore, “free-time” is bestowed on you as a deserved reward for all the hard work: it’s *mine* and  I earned it. The church calendar, on the other hand, structures our time in such a way that we are put in a place to realize all is gift and nothing that is earned is really worth all that much in the end anyway.  What matters is belonging and the community we’re given to be members of, and the sacred time the church calendar situates us in allows us to experience that. The other calendars of our lives are mostly centered around goals, deadlines, and what needs to be achieved and earned, what *I* need to do to perform or succeed.  Liturgical time allows us to exist outside of that exchange economy (“you get what you’ve earned” thinking) and in a time and space driven only by grace and not the bottom line.

To live by this kind of sacred time is inherently subversive as it restructures our lives (our time) around givenness, something that, to our society, is not all that meaningful when often what’s most important is what *I’ve* achieved. We are given our very lives to be lived in holy community.  We are reminded every week at Eucharist that we’re all beggars and, with palms raised upward to receive the Host, we symbolize our need and position as receivers not acquirers.  And while we have to live according to more acquisitive ways of organizing our day-to-day lives to put food on the table, if we let liturgical time shape our hearts and imaginations, we will inevitably run counter to the trends and fads of our culture and desire something different too.

***

Today marks the end of the Christmas season as Epiphany begins and I’m still thinking about what would lead a man like John Georgelas to become a jihadist named Yahya Abu Hassan.  I don’t know the answer since the human heart is too complex and each person’s story so full of variables and nuance.  I am grateful, though, for having discovered that the church, though it may not always act like it, is its own alternative culture to the culture of death and materialism all around us.  We don’t have to go far to look for radical ways to think about money, politics, social issues, or how we think about time.  They’re there in the ancient ways of the Church and always have been. And it’s possible that, once you’ve learned to live according to them, your old life, organized as it was by other priorities and calendars, will feel alien, as part of a “dispensation” that has faded away. Just like it did for Eliot’s Magi.

 

 

Advent and Disposable Society

Fra_Angelico_-_Die_Bergpredigt.jpeg
“Purity of heart is to will one thing…”

Against my better judgment, I was out last Saturday afternoon, three weeks before Christmas, looking for a pair of black shoes.  I was scheduled for my first Sunday as a chalice bearer the next day and, as I am wont to do, I had waited until the last minute to look for the black shoes I needed to blend in with the black cassock that would be hovering just above them.

I didn’t want anything too expensive because 1) I’m sort of a cheapskate 2) I wouldn’t wear these shoes any other time since black isn’t really a color I prefer.  As those were my only two guidelines for my shopping expedition, I visited those receptacles of all that our department stores have deemed disposable: Marshall’s and Ross.

I have mixed feelings about these sorts of stores.  I enjoy that occasionally I can find a good deal on something I need (one time, it was a belt, another, socks).  But while this may be the case on occasion, I generally stroll the aisles at these stores with a sense of gloom.  While you may be able to find some good deals from time to time, these stores, to me at least, are a reminder of our society’s addiction to consumption and waste.  As you search for the thing you’re looking for, you’re surrounded by items nobody wanted or could use – not only shirts and pants and size 14 shoes, but also things like electronic gadgets, cologne, and housewares.  A veritable Island of Misfit Toys here in the real world, and to me, all a bit depressing.

Last Saturday, as I moved out of the shoe section at Marshall’s, I ended up in the area with gadgets and cologne.  I wasn’t too interested in looking at the goods displayed there but something caught my eye as I glanced around.  Down low on a display case was this:

20161203_140853

Not a great photo but I think you can get the idea.  There on the low shelf  was some kind of cologne and perfume combo with the Khloe and Lamar brand on it. What made this piece arrest my attention was the image of Lamar Odom, and while I’m not a celebrity news follower and don’t really know anything about the Kardashians, I do follow the NBA, and if you’ve done so in recent years, you may know the sad story of Lamar Odom.  This isn’t the place to recount it but suffice it to say Lamar Odom almost died just over a year ago when he was found unresponsive in a Las Vegas area brothel.  An overdose of cocaine had caused him to have a stroke.  One of the sweetest persons to every play the game, some say, had players from all over the league, in the days following his collapse, rallying to wish him a quick recovery, which for a while seemed like it might not happen at all.

All I could think of as I glanced at this emblem of our disposal culture is how things seem to be produced in our society almost so they can be tossed aside to make room from something else – including people and in this case, athletes.  The liturgy, if you will, of consuming and throwing away influences our imaginations on a deep level – so much so that we often see this time of year as the time of malls, shopping bags, wrapped presents under the tree, sales at department stores or online.  James K.A. Smith’s “liturgy of the mall,” of course, has shaped many an evangelical’s imagination in recent years as he describes that whole consumeristic enterprise as a formational practice that steers our hearts toward one thing and not another – toward impure desires on the one hand and away from pure desires on the other.

51yr3tsnfhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_In his book The Truce of God, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes about pure and impure desire.  Impure desire, according to Williams, “desires to stop having to desire,” to stop needing and to be self-sufficient.  Pure desire, on the other hand, can live with an “unlimited horizon;” it’s at home with longing and anticipation.  Williams writes:

The ‘impure heart’ is a heart which never wants anything enough to be intolerant of substitutes.  Beneath its readiness to make do with less than reality is the fear of real desire.  For real desire means the candid acknowledgment that I am incomplete and need something in order to be real myself.  Impure desire, on the other hand, assumes that I am solid and important: I take things to myself as my fancies suggest…I consume things – to stop myself from being consumed by real desire.”

Dismissing a moralistic/simplistic understanding of purity, Williams reveals that what’s really wrong with the impure heart and what it desires is its spiritual sloth, or as the monastic tradition calls it, acedia.  It’s the noonday demon of making do with what is less than real by bouncing from one distraction to the next.  Because the impure heart cannot acknowledge that it is “incomplete and need[s] something in order to be real” itself, it fails to integrate the negative in itself, in others, or in the world.  To do so is too costly: it means to surrender to one’s frailty and spiritual lack.  As Williams is later quoted as saying, “Unreal desire stumbles from moment to moment trying to gratify an immediate hunger, without accepting that ‘hunger’ is part of being human and so cannot be dealt with or understood by an endless succession of leakplugging operations.”

For me, this is where Advent comes in.  Advent is a kind of resistance movement against the barrage of “unreal desire” being piped through the various devices we find ourselves staring at or plugged into on a daily basis. The marketing that surrounds us and that is the air we breathe is trying to get us to forget that “hunger is part of being human.”  All the disposable, throwaway “stuff” being pushed on us from all directions is seeking to persuade us to that the I is important and solid and complete in of itself.  You need nothing else (except what they’re trying to sell you, of course).

Advent, on the other hand, is about pure desire.  It’s about acknowledging and being mindful of our hunger, our incompleteness and our need, and any disposable thing that leads you to skip over the surface of those needs that make up the hunger of living is a lie.  Advent, as a season of repentance and expectation, reminds you it’s OK to be hungry and to feel the need you bump into in your daily life. Advent reminds you to embrace your full humanity and to be “intolerant of substitutes” that keep you from living wholeheartedly.

But it’s easy to forget we’re in need on a daily basis.  Not only do we live longer and (perhaps) suffer less due to advances in modern medicine but we live in a throwaway society where the temptation never to sit still long enough to feel ones need is always with us. We can easily move from one consumable distraction to the next without even tapping into our own spiritual poverty. Because of our smart phones, our music is always with us as well as instant TV and movie access.  And while there certainly have been movements in our society to buy less “stuff” and rid ourselves of waste or even to “unplug,” there has to be a more abiding reason to do these things than simply to have a cleaner home or no credit card debt or better sleep (even those are all important).  While those things are good, as Christians we should simplify our lives out of a desire to identify with the Other, especially the poor, the refugee, and the excluded. There should be no greater motivation to pursue such discipline than God’s identification with us in the person of Jesus.

And that’s exactly what Advent is about: identification.  God identified with us in our neediness and we, in turn, should seek to identify with those in need who are all around us.  Meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation and our own spiritual poverty and then letting that meditation move us toward action is what Advent is for.  To do so is to engage in a counter-cultural movement that moves us away from consumption and greed and toward mercy and kindness.  And when that happens, then maybe we will be a church shaped not by the desires of the market economy and our throwaway society but by the expectations and vision of God’s economy.

Vocabulary for Real Life: Another Story from ESL Class

 “Guess – chures, guess – chures.”

“No, remember how we pronounced it: JEST-chures.”

“Ah, yes…”

Helping my level four students acquire a facility with new vocabulary is part of my work, and one of the words we had a couple of weeks ago was gestures, which we defined as “hand movements that have meaning.”

Most days, as we’re learning a new grammar skill or learning to write a paragraph, I let my students break into groups and help each other with their work. One day a couple of weeks ago, as I had my students writing sentences to practice a new grammar skill, I watched as two Ethiopian men who sit near the front of the room interacted as I answered a question for them.  I don’t remember what they had asked but I do remember what happened as I tried to clear up their confusion. As I helped them, one of the men, a younger guy close to my age who I’ll call Addisu, began to explain to the other, an older man in his late 60’s who I’ll call Temesgen, what I had said.  As Addisu spoke, I noticed his right arm extend across his chest and over to Temesgen’s paper (he was sitting close to the elder man’s right side) where he began to erase one of the mistakes Temesgen had made in one of his sentences. As I continued to explain what Temesgen’s mistake was, Addisu then noticed that the elder man had made the same mistake in each of his sentences.  Arm still extended across his chest as though he were about to embrace him, Addisu proceeded to erase each of the mistakes in Temesgen’s other sentences as well. All this time, the elder gentleman sat listening to the younger man, letting him use his eraser on his paper.  There was no shame or embarrassment (even for a proud man like Temesgen), either in having someone help him or in having someone else so close and in his space.

This easy-to-pass-over moment in what was an otherwise normal morning of teaching stopped me where I was. As I watched Addisu help a man who was probably old enough to be his dad learn his grammar, I caught sight of something profound: a gesture–a younger man helping an older man understand a grammar concept that he wasn’t getting, going out of his way to make sure an elder had what he needed before he tended to his own work.

We live in what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture,” where the insatiable appetite of consumerism, which we are all subject to, influences us to always be looking for the next thing, or the new and more interesting thing.  That which is no longer interesting or new is simply replaced and we move on, leaving the old and outdated behind.

What interests me most in working with people from places like Ethiopia, the Congo, and Iraq–all countries that are still largely uninfluenced by our consumeristic ways–is how I can learn from these cultures–and even how many of their cultural norms are more in line with what I believe as a Christian than what I see here in my own country.  In these communities, I see people devoted to neighborliness, graciousness, and hope. In their cultures, community is still prioritized: the good of the other is my good too.  It’s not a zero sum game.  And in most cases, what is new or more interesting is not more important than helping my neighbor.

And so there I was. That one small gesture by Addisu stopped me that day long enough to humble me into remembering that I have a lot to learn from my students.  They may come to me because they want to speak and read English, but I need them in my life to help crack open the hardened shell of individualism that has formed a protective layer around me from years of trying to get ahead and make a name for myself.  I’m thankful that I get to do this everyday and be a witness to their grace and generosity.

The Ministry of Accompaniment

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890 by Van Gogh.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air–especially after the darkness of last week and the week before.  As Americans, we’re used to a high level of predictability in our lives, such as leaving for work each day assuming that we’re safe and will return home without harm.  This is a good thing and one whose value I do not seek to diminish but when certain high profile people call for a ban on Muslim immigration,  we need to take a step back–and by we, I mean Christians–take some deep breaths and remember where our hope lies: not with political parties or agendas, not with the state and its political and military power and not even with security and predictability (even though, again, both of those are good things).

Our hope, especially as we remember it during this Advent season, is with “God with Us,” Emmanuel.  He came to accompany us in our uncertainty and in our fear and suffering.  The problem is that, at least in my life, I have not had a lot of deep fears and suffering.  Sure, I’ve had my fair share of struggles but for the most part my life has been pretty uneventful and so have the times in which I live (except for a few major events, 9/11 being the foremost).  But the dark shadow of terrorism continues to lengthen over us (at home and abroad) and as Christians we must really work to develop the right frame of mind in order to participate in God’s mission in the world.  We’re not used to the uncertainty that terrorism brings with it and the unpredictability it can force upon us.  As a society, we’ve exerted a significant amount of control over our future for a number of generations now, shaping our imaginations and hearts in such deep ways that even being a Christian doesn’t make one immune from such an influence.  But when we’re seeking to be a part of God’s mission in the world, so much of our work is about learning how not to be in control.

This past summer, as a way to help myself prepare for the work I would be doing with refugees, I wanted to continue to explore what it means to develop the imagination needed to work with those who live on the margins of society.  I had once read in Rowan Williams’ wonderful book, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment, about the “intelligence of the victim,” which is what we develop when we learn to look “at the world from the point of view of those excluded from its systems of power.”  The victim, as Williams points out, is an “abiding challenge” to any system that claims to be the one complete solution to the needs and problems of mankind, and when we stand with and advocate for the victim, we presume a “questioning stance towards such claims” (46). I wanted to explore that world more–of what it means to stand with the victim, or those on the margins, who have little to no voice in society.

One thing that I have been reminded of so far in working with refugees these past few months is that you can’t always “fix” their problems. When we lived in Ethiopia, this was an abundantly clear fact.  The poverty ran too deep, the corruption was too wide spread, and the system often seemed rigged so as to keep those with power in power.  At times, it was easy to be cynical about doing any good for anyone in the face of such overwhelming complexity.  And so often, all my ministry consisted of was being present to those who needed help.  In Ethiopia, that was children.  Now, it’s adult refugees and immigrants.

The only difference with my work now is that I’m doing it in the U.S. and so often, I feel I have a lot more control over what I can do for my Iraqi or Burmese or Eritrean friends. And this is true…most of the time.  Or maybe better put, this is true when it comes to practical matters: filling out paperwork, helping them register their kids for school, or referring them to a lawyer for legal help.

But what proves to be much more challenging–actually, impossible–is to make them feel at home.  When you begin to scratch beneath the surface a little, when you sit with a refugee long enough to really hear them (and often ask the right kinds of questions), you will hear the sorrow in their voices–the ache of having to leave their homes.  I never had to gather my family and run for our lives, but I do know what it feels like to live in a foreign land where I really don’t “get” how things work.  In fact, I know what it’s like to live in another country and know just enough about the place to realize that I don’t really understand the people and they don’t really understand me.  That’s what missionaries and international aid and development workers reckon with all the time (if they’re honest) when living overseas.  My wife, Jana, and I certainly dealt with it living in Ethiopia.

While the loss of one’s home can’t be taken away, what someone working with marginalized people can do is practice what Jean Vanier called “accompaniment,” or what I’ve heard others call the ministry of presence.  I can’t give my students their homes back.  I can’t make the wars in their countries stop.  I can’t remove the trauma that now resides in their bodies.  But I can give them my presence: I can help them bear the weight of loss and grief and the disorientation of living in a foreign land that, while relatively safe, can be very difficult to navigate, and I can do this without having to “fix” those problems (since I can’t really “fix” them anyway).  In doing so, I can help them feel, even though they are not at home, a sense of belonging. And in doing so, I know I follow in the footsteps of the God who, while not giving us answers for our why we suffer, decides instead to suffer with us and bear our grief and sorrow of our brokenness.

The problem for us as Americans, though, is that we like to fix things and it can be very difficult to provide a container, if you will, to hold the difficult experiences and feelings of those on the margins.  We’re too busy trying to find a solution. We want to do good: it’s in our blood.  We’re a nation of problem solvers, organizers, and efficiency experts.  To live out the ministry of accompaniment means we have to submit to doing “nothing” and when that happens, our Protestant-work-ethic-American-“we can do it”-guilt kicks in and Mammon, the god who always demands more of us while giving us fewer resources to make more happen, takes his seat on the throne of our hearts.

But it’s when we allow ourselves to do “nothing,” to be “disarmed” as Christine Pohl and Chris Heurtz call it, that we can allow the Spirit to work.  Pohl and Heurtz’s book, Friendship on the Margins, was one of the resources I turned to this past summer when I wanted to develop further “the intelligence of the victim,”or how to go about better embodying the ministry of presence with those on the margins. In that book, Pohl and Heurtz write:

When we allow ourselves to become disarmed, we become both vulnerable and strong.  The only weapons then at our disposal are those of the Spirit.  We choose the way of Jesus, laying aside all earthly resources that give us power–in order to be present to those we love….

In other words, when we give our presence to those we serve, rather than seeing them only for the problems they present to us for us to fix, we follow the “way of Jesus,” which is the way, as mentioned earlier, of God With Us, Emmanuel.  It is the way of the one who did not provide us with a theodicy, an explanation of how a good God can allow evil, but instead laid aside his power to feel what we feel when we suffer under the weight of brokenness and death.

Just this morning, one of our friends, a sweet lady from Mosul, Iraq, because of a passage of Scripture that had been read during our break time, began telling me about how ISIS killed all the Christians in her hometown or sent them into exile.  As she spoke, she began to weep quietly while saying, “I will never forget what they did. As long as I live.”

What can one do in a moment like that?  Promise that allied forces will soon destroy ISIS and return Mosul back to those to whom it belongs?  Such an answer would feel better–would feel like I’m “doing” something–but could very well be an empty hope given that we’re not called to trust in the power of the chariot or the horse (Psalm 20.7), nor in princes (Psalm 146.3).

We’re called to something different as Christians.  We’re called to suffer with the other–called to the “inaction,” if you will, of accompaniment. Such inaction feels like nothing and makes us feel powerless.  But when we’re in that place of powerlessness, then we can be sure we’re following the way of Jesus, who made himself nothing and, as we remember in this Advent season, came as a defenseless, powerless infant, born in a cattle stall.  When we accept such powerless, we follow in the way of Jesus and make way for the Spirit to work.  Dare we let go and watch what he does?

“Which of these proved to be a neighbor?”: A Story from ESL Class

vangoghgoodsam
Van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix

For about the last month, I could tell the ladies in my afternoon ESL class were up to something: notes kept being passed from one student to another, whispers were carefully protected behind cupped hands, sheepish glances were sent my way as plans were being made.  I pretty much knew what was going on since one lady asked me, about a week before all the secrecy began, when my birthday was. But I could not anticipate, when my birthday actually rolled around, the amount of time and effort they put into my party.  I was assuming they were getting me a birthday cake and that was it (which was more than enough, of course). You know – the way we Americans do it: get a birthday cake, sing happy birthday at the end of class, after all our business had been taken care of and then we’d go home…

Not these ladies and two gentlemen.  From the moment I walked in the room with their “Surprise!” it was a no work day.  They had plans that involved a lot more than just a cake.  There was all kinds of food: Ethiopian misir wat and tibs with injera, a Burmese noodle dish with chicken, fruit, and yes, a cake. But there were also gifts: a Burmese bag and robe for men of the Karen people and other clothes (yes, clothes).  These folks gave me their best and I could not have felt more valued and welcomed into their lives.

Fast forward to last week. After the Paris attacks, there’s been a lot in the news, and in the general public discourse, about refugees, and as I’m sure you are aware, not all of it has been good.  Lots of fears have been fanned into flame by the rhetoric of certain politicians and other public figures, even certain Christians, concerned about our borders and who we’re letting into our country.  While I understand the worries that the attacks in Paris create and don’t wish to minimize them, I can’t help be reminded of the kindness the refugees and immigrants, most of whom have very little money or possessions, showed me on my birthday.  There I was, the American, supposedly making them feel welcome and at home in this country, being outdone in kindness and love.  It was a humbling day.

I know there are evil people out there who want to do a lot of harm.  ISIS is a death cult and as satanic as they come.  But Christians have a clear call to show hospitality to the stranger and the exile.  My refugee students outdid me in love on my birthday because many of them come from cultures where they still value (and practice) community and neighborliness (and do so in a way that seems too inefficient and messy to us Westerners).  We in the West have largely lost that sense.  We’re too busy, too individualistic and fragmented. In fact, in this regard, a lot my students (and my Arab students in particular) come from cultures that still have a lot in common with first century Jewish culture, the culture that gave us the story of the good Samaritan.

When Jesus asks the lawyer at the end of his telling of that story which of the characters–the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan–proved to be a neighbor to the beaten man on the side of the road, we all answer with the lawyer, “the one who showed mercy.”  But can we still say that even with the fear of a death cult like ISIS roiling in our collective gut? Can we still embrace the stranger among us?  Can we let the politicians and pundits argue about policy and borders while we, encouraged (literally) by the God who has taken us in as one does a stranger, with great cost to himself, love those among us who are here because they were forcibly removed from their homes–a choice undoubtedly they would not have made on their own?  These people would rather be in Baghdad or Asmara or Kinshasa; they would rather be home–just like you and me if we were in the same position.  Can we not show mercy to them, seeking to imagine exactly what kind of homesickness they must feel, the kind of disorientation they must experience on a daily basis living in a place like the U.S.?

I hope we can.

Love the Stranger as Yourself: An Exhortation Written to an Imagined American Christian Audience Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, the Refugee and the Migrant

NoOneChooses

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Lev. 19.34

“…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” – Matthew 25.35

Dear American Christian Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, Refugees and Migrants,

Did you hear that Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the U.S. will increase the number of refugees it will take in over the next two years?  Currently we take in about 70,000 a year but by 2017, we will see 100,000 coming to the U.S. That’s a lot, right?

Well, on the other end of the spectrum, I heard on the radio not too long ago that Iceland’s government has agreed to take in fifty Syrian refugees (you read that correctly: fifty) as a way to help alleviate the burden of other European nations trying to help these migrants.  But what struck me as I listened to this story was not the small number of Syrians Iceland has decided to accept.  Instead, what caught my attention was the story of a group of private citizens of the small Scandanavian country that are offering their homes to refugees in order to do what the Icelandic government cannot, or will not, do, which, of course, is to provide hospitality to those who have been forcibly displaced.

I was moved and inspired as I listened to this story by the fact that, while governments may busy themselves with the business of governing and law making and debating policies, groups of people, outside the official channels of governance, regularly have to take it upon themselves to respond to the moral crises of the times and in this case, love these strangers as themselves. So while governments do what they do, ordinary people, without any official sanction, go about doing what governments are unable to do—in this case, give generously to those in need.

How much more should the church be involved in this kind of response to one of the great moral crises of our time? Of all the different communities in society, we are the ones who should “know the heart of the stranger” because we, of all people, should have the ability to empathize with others in their need.

When God was forming and shaping his people, the Israelites, he made it clear that they were not only to welcome the stranger but to treat him as though he were a “native.” But then, he took it a step further and told his people to “love him as yourself.” The stranger was not only to be considered “one of our kind.” God’s people were to treat him as they would want to be treated if they found themselves in the same position—a position, in fact, they once were in when they were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It should be no surprise then, that when God became man, at the core of Jesus’ message was the truth that with the measure one uses to judge others, that same measure will be used against him—that we were to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Jesus’ followers, God’s people, should be characterized by an ability to empathize and a courageous compassion that reaches out to the stranger because they have the ability to listen and be moved to action by the story of another in need. We have been loved much and out of the overflow, we are more than willing to love others—even when our politicians, and others around us, are worried they’ll be a drain on our resources or are clamoring for walls to be built or other drastic security measures to be taken.

In light of such political rhetoric, it’s important for Christians to consider that Jesus was once a refugee. In the first years of his life, Mary and Joseph had to flee their home with the Christ child to escape the wrath of Herod. They sojourned to Egypt where they lived for a time. This means that when God became man, he submitted himself to every experience imaginable in order to take on our humanity in all its fullness—even forced displacement. We’re familiar with his taking on sin and death, but how often do we think about his taking on our “less spiritual” conditions—such as being a refugee, in this case? What does this mean? That we worship a God who has made himself vulnerable to the full gamut of our experience? It means that we should follow suit by following Jesus in his identification with us.

In following Jesus, we adhere to the values and economics of God’s kingdom—a kingdom where the worthiness of those in need is not ours to judge. A kingdom where the concerns of the nation state—scarcity and plenty, threats and security–do not dictate our behavior. Why? Because there’s always enough in God’s economy (it’s the foundation of his economics) and the only threat to his kingdom is the threat of one’s love growing cold. When love’s potency becomes diluted by the cares of this world—the love of money, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—then we can be sure we are acting not as the sojourning followers of the slaughtered lamb but rather as the conquered subjects of Caesar. We are to live as “resident aliens,” existing in the tension between “in and not of,” and resist the forces that seek to shape our hearts and imaginations to that of the will of this world.

But if talk of our status as “resident aliens” and being “in but not of” is too spiritual and abstract, then we should consider whether our inability to identify with the stranger is borne out of a drive to always make sure we’re an insider and rarely, if ever, an outsider. Perhaps we’ve never been in a position where we didn’t have control or privilege—where we didn’t really have to listen to the “other” because we still held a position of power. We’ve always moved easily from one community to the next because of the connections we had or because of who we knew. What if those connections were lost? What if we gave them up willingly? To let go of such privilege and power—and in this case, in a small way—is to practice the kind of kenosis (“emptying”) we see in Jesus as the Son of God, and to practice such self-emptying is to practice conversion—the conversion from following Jesus as business as usual (Jesus as the rubber-stamper of our ideological platform, for example) to following Jesus as exactly that: a follower—one who has given up control to another to go where the other leads. Such self-emptying, arguably, is the core of the gospel. Jesus lays aside his privileges and prerogatives and enters our experience and suffers every aspect of it. Such identifying with “the other,” then, is at the heart of God’s mission in the world and we are called to follow suit.

In the climactic scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the greedy, vengeful Shylock, when persisting in his demand for pay back, has no ears to hear Portia’s wise words directed at his desire for justice on his own terms: “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render to the deeds of mercy.” Shakespeare understood that we all want mercy—especially when we feel vulnerable or in need. But how often do we feel that need? How often do we find ourselves in a position to feel the need for someone’s unearned attention and help? Those who have suffered have felt this way, and that is why, while not good in and of itself, suffering is often one of the prerequisites for empathizing with those in need—especially when that person is someone from another country forcibly displaced by war or persecution.

But we are used to insulating our lives, insuring it against all manner of setbacks and potential disasters, and that version of the good life—the accumulation of wealth and property and the insuring its protection—has hardened our hearts to the way God’s kingdom operates. Sure, we all reap what we sow, but in the final analysis, love is what keeps this world going and love will have the final say. Not the kind of love conservative people imagine when liberals or progressives talk about love—not that idea. It’s the kind of deathly serious thing that led God to identify with the other (us) and to submit himself to our every experience, including death, so that he could fully love his creation. Yes, he could have loved the world without the incarnation, I suppose, but that god would be more like the god of the Deists than the God imaged in Jesus.

So if we are to follow this God, our hardened hearts must be broken and remade. And this remaking happens when we practice the conversion that comes by learning to die daily to what we think we need to be secure and in control of our lives and instead learning to follow the economics of God’s rule, best elucidated in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus says there, if we only love those who love us how are we any different than the “tax collectors” and “Gentiles” (5:46-48)? Likewise, if the church in our time only welcomes those who can give us something in return (a sense of felt security because they don’t look different from us, for example), how are we any different from the Icelands of the world—or any other nation whose interests are ultimately ruled by Mammon? How are we any different from those who are concerned with storing up “treasures on earth,” as Jesus speaks of later in the Sermon?

The church, more than any other group, should have the courage to welcome the stranger because the church, more than any other group, should know how to hold on lightly to “treasures on earth.” When God called his people into being, he commanded them to love the stranger among them. When Jesus laid out what Stanley Hauerwas has called the “constitution” of Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount, he reaffirmed this same kind of love for those different from ourselves (even enemies!).

Though we don’t see within our own borders the crisis Europe is currently experiencing with refugees pouring into its member states, each year, the U.S. takes in the most refugees of any country in the world. And that will probably not change any time in the near future. With that in mind, the church has a clear duty to seek out the refugee and migrant, not as a problem to be solved with our American ingenuity and know-how, but as strangers to be befriended, people to be loved as we would want to be loved if we were in the same position. We should go to those hidden corners of our cities and forgotten areas of town where refugees and migrants live and seek for opportunities to serve and volunteer with organizations that have been quietly living and working in those communities since well before refugees became the top story in the news cycle.

The refugee crisis that is happening in the world today is not a problem; it’s an opportunity. Governments may argue and debate about numbers and security issues, but God’s people have a clear chance to do what has always been part of their mission.  Let the politicians debate and argue, but may we Christians follow our God who suffers with us.

Peace of Christ,

Michael Funderburk

What We Talk About When We Talk About Language: Cultivating Faithful Speech with Faulkner, Taylor, Hauerwas, and Wiman

Caravaggio’s “St. Jerome Writing” (from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a long while since wrote anything here on this blog.  I took a hiatus, which I will probably write about at some point.  But for now, I would like to get back into this by quoting four passages that have stuck out to me lately (well, some I’ve known about for quite a while), all having to do with language–its necessity and its limitations–especially when it comes talking about God and our experience of him.

This is of interest to me because, ever since I was young, I have struggled with language, especially language used in church–language about God, faith, justification, salvation, etc. This struggle was never primarily an intellectual problem for me–more of an existential one, if I can make that distinction.  Existential because the language that was used to describe one’s, say, experience of God, never really seemed to do justice to the complexity of my experience. Words or phrases used over and over again, a kind of code, created much angst for me because I couldn’t find my own voice that would match what I encountered.  Much of the language of my church community was worn slick with overuse and I needed to find my own.  That wouldn’t happen until much later and still continues to this day.

So because it’s been a while since I last wrote, I want to include here some quotations regarding language and faith that mean something to me–help me delve deeper into the mystery of life with God and his Son, Jesus.  I like to think that all of these voices here are in conversation with one another.  Put all together–at least to me–they help me make some sense of something so fundamental to our lives, and therefore common, that we often don’t stop to consider its (i.e. language and communication’s) influence on how we understand reality and what’s true.  Faithful speech is difficult in a world of complex realities–especially when those realities bump into the ways we talk about God and our faith (see Hauerwas below)–but it is a task that Christians, foremost of all people, are called to embrace as we seek to cultivate a community of faithful followers of the Word made flesh.          

—————————————————————————————–

“His voice was not unkind.  It was not human, personal, at all.  It was just cold, implacable, like written or printed words.”

                                                                                 ~ William Faulkner, Light in August, p. 130

“I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other.  If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe.  I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I not anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.  For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.”

                                                                   ~ Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 107 

Recognition of truthful speech begins when readers identify the words they encounter as an honest expression of life’s complexities.  The theological trick is to show that speaking honestly of the complexities of life requires words that speak of God.  Theologians betray their calling when they fear using such words and begin to think that they are not necessary.  Often the result is desperate shouting…as John Howard Yoder would have it…the task of theology is ‘working with words in the light of faith’…one can draw from his description the conclusion that words do not constitute the ‘light of faith.’  In fact, faith is nothing more than the words we use to speak about God.  And yet the God to whom and about whom we speak defies the words we use.  Such defiance seems odd, because the God about whom we speak is, we believe, found decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, the very Word of God.  Still, it seems the nearer God draws to us, the more we discover that know not what we say when we say ‘God’…How theology can at once be about God and about the complexities of human life is never easily rendered.  Some theologians in modernity have tried to split the difference between speech about God and the complexities of human life, with the result that their theology is more about ‘us’ than about God.  When that happens, it is not clear that you need the word ‘God’ at all.  If my work has seemed to be ‘in your face,’ I think it has been so because I have tried to show that ‘God’ is a necessary word.”

                                                                    ~ Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child, pp. 235-236   

“The purpose of theology–the purpose of any thinking about God–is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning–by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings–more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful.  This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.”

                                                                                ~ Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, p.130