Saturday, July 19, 2014

Praying for peace, for faith, even in the absence of it

I recently received the following question via Facebook chat:
I was scrolling through my news feed and saw a comment on one of your posts. I'm having an existential crisis over it. This is not a new thing; I have one just about every day. Ha. Anyway, here's the comment: "'I remember hearing similar prayers 30+ years ago' [for peace in the Middle East]. And that shows the power of prayer." So, people have been praying for peace between Israel and Palestine for 30+ years and they are no where near peace. How does that show the power of prayer? To me that shows the pointlessness of prayer, in terms of actually changing things in the world. It makes the pray-er and pray-ee feel better, but that's about it. I guess that's something. I don't really think it does much else though. Does it?? Am I asking the wrong question? I am failing at being faith-full. See? Crisis. Sigh.

Here was my response (which I first attempted using Facebook's new audio voice message system):

I have a friend who is a philosophy professor who is an avowed atheist who likes to say things like that. My response to him on that thread is what I really believe: Prayer is a strange thing, but who knows how much worse the world would be without our participating in the sustaining energy of God through our prayers.
And second, you aren't failing at being faithful, you are being faithful by asking good questions. Like the Psalmists.

Here was the reply:

PC, for a long time now I have had a secret fear that maybe I'm really an atheist in denial. That is how strong my doubts have been. I read your response last night, then took the dogs for a good long walk, and then read through the compline service in the hymnal. And I realized that I'm not an atheist. I had a moment of clarity (how very Indigo Girls of me, haha). Anyway, thank you.

I think our chat illustrates how rich brief faith conversations can be, and how multivalent, encompassing such wide-ranging media as the hymnal (which we give as a gift to those being baptized at our Easter Vigil), the gathering power of the daily prayer offices to lift our hearts in prayer even when we wonder whether we have the capacity to pray; the importance of silence while walking the dog; the enduring capacity of great music to focus our thoughts; and the ongoing nature of such conversations.

We are all always building up or tearing down the faith of others. Faith is always being given, always under construction, always seeking out and finding us. It is never finished.

I'd also add that if prayer is anything at all, it is probably everything. So my atheist friend is correct to believe that in the absence of God, prayer is nothing. In the presence of the God we know in Christ, prayer is truly everything, even as it remains, on another level, a mystery in which we participate.

Because prayer is the basis for Christ's relationship to the Father, and all our prayers really do is gather us up into the ongoing conversation going on between the Father and the Son. The continuing presence of the Spirit among us in the enlivening power of this ongoing conversation. For this reason prayer really is everything. And because we know what that Son is like, we know he is lamenting to his Father, and singing out in the words of the Psalmist,

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May they prosper who love you." (Psalm 122:6).





Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ELCJHL Calls for Immediate Cessation of Hostilities in Gaza

“In the day of my trouble I call on you” — Psalm 86:7

Witnessing the bombardments, hearing the sirens, listening to the cries of mothers and children, seeing the ambulances carrying the wounded and people living in absolute fear, the ELCJHL cries out to God. We also raise our voice to all Christian sisters and brothers, along with all people of goodwill, to end this latest round of violence between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people.
In these days, many of us are quite depressed and frustrated, left wondering where this country is headed, along with much of the Middle East. As a church that has always strongly condemned violence as a means of solving conflicts, we were deeply troubled by the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers and the kidnapping and burning alive of the Palestinian teenager. We strongly condemn both of these actions as inhumane and despicable acts.
As we condemn the kidnappings, we also unequivocally condemn in the strongest terms possible the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Hamas against civilian targets and the ongoing Israeli blockade and bombardment of Gaza (resulting so far in the deaths of more than 200 people, 80 percent of whom were civilians and 20 percent children). Both expressions of violence are flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights laws and should be immediately ended.
This country and its people have gone through 65 years of violence, retaliations, and counter-retaliations. The ELCJHL believes that the existing political deadlock between Israel and Palestine cannot be resolved militarily. The current hostilities do not serve the long-term interest of any party. We have always believed in non-violent struggle and creative resistance to illegal state policies. Throughout our history we have worked to alleviate human suffering, promote peace and reconciliation.
We are afraid that this current wave of violence may force more Palestinian Christians to seek immigration. And what is the Holy Land without its Christians? To Palestinian Christians here in this land, I call upon you to remain, continuing your service as instruments of peace, brokers of justice, bridge builders, and agents of change.
In reaffirmation of our position, we call for:
  • Parties to the present conflict (Israel and Hamas) to agree upon an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities. This ceasefire should be facilitated by the international community to bring an end to human suffering. The focus of the international community should be on humanitarian and development assistance for the communities most negatively affected by the current round of violence. What Palestine and Israel need at the moment is justice, peace and dignity rather than the radicalization, revenge, and bloodshed promoted by one-sided diplomatic or military support for either group. The people of Palestine and Israel need to live in peace and dignity.
  • The resumption of direct peace talks to achieve a comprehensive and sustainable peace based upon a two-state solution on 1967 borders and abide by international human rights and humanitarian law. The unity government of the Palestinian Authority should be respected. Any ceasefire addressing the immediate situation should be anchored in a long-term peace agreement in order to prevent other relapses into violence.
  • The lifting of the Israeli siege on Gaza. This indefinite siege on Gaza has created great suffering and instigated greater hostility. If a sustainable peace is to be achieved, Israel should lift its blockade. The unified Palestinian people of Gaza and the West Bank should enjoy their right to freedom of movement.
  • Critical support for healthcare infrastructure. The international community has long supported healthcare services for Palestinians, especially in the West Bank and Gaza. The present violence has severely affected healthcare infrastructure. We especially raise our concern for the financial crisis faced by Augusta Victoria Hospital and the system of East Jerusalem hospitals and medical centers.
  • Material support for interreligious cooperation and peacebuilding through the educational and diaconal ministries of the ELCJHL. These ministries empower the forces of moderation to build up civil society and create a shared future. Recurring cycles of violence place the church and related agencies in a chronic state of crisis and emergency, making it difficult for local institutions to thrive.
  • That the global Christian community—including the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation—provide necessary assistance to those who have been internally displaced or affected by the current wave of violence in one form or another and to help the economic and development growth of the Palestinian people, especially in Gaza.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land raises its voice to ask all people of good will to intervene in the present situation of unacceptable violence and bloodshed. Your intervention and action will create hope in a hopeless situation. If we cannot take steps toward peace, we will continue to be held hostage by extremism. Please do not leave us alone in this moment of struggle. The whole Middle East is boiling. We need your prophetic voice and support so that peace built on justice and reconciliation built on forgiveness will prevail.
Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

Monday, July 14, 2014

Those unaccompanied children crossing the border? They are Jesus #ActOfLove

Nationalism is one of the great idolatries of the past century. People of faith have allowed their nationality to take precedence over the unity they have in Christ, and the unity we have in our common humanity. Either way we look at the current "surge" or "border crisis," as secular citizens of this nation or Christian readers of this blog, the way we are treating marginalizing children who come to our border for refuge represents a major moral failure.

The United States is currently debating what it calls a humanitarian crisis, and failing at it miserably. It remains to be seen whether we will welcome the children coming across our borders faithfully--as refugees, vulnerable minors in need of safety and protection--or whether we will perceive them as threat--harbingers of a future with increasing numbers of children crossing our border and in need of deportation.

A few years ago, I made the argument in Lutheran Forum that we need to consider immigration and refugee issues in light of the doctrine of baptism. I still think our doctrine of baptism is a significant resource for considering the current border crisis.

However, in this case, we also need to consider it simply as a humanitarian crisis. We need to advocate for justice. These children need our love.

For more on how you can get involved directly and immediately, please go to the Lutheran and Immigration and Refugee Service page for Houses of Welcome, http://lirs.org/housesofwelcome/

I think it helps for us to remember that Jesus was a child refugee. Stephen Bouman of the ELCA says, 
“As people of faith, we are reminded that among the children who had to flee across borders because of threat of life was our very own Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When children flee across two international borders alone, the community of Jesus – the church – must accompany them,” said the Rev. Stephen Bouman, executive director, ELCA congregational and synodical mission. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7677#sthash.u700qkJT.dpuf
Lutherans have been active in advocacy for unaccompanied minors for years, especially centered in and through the work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Anyone interested in participating in this advocacy can visit http://lirs.org/bordercrisis/ to learn more.

Jesus Christ, consistent with his childhood experience, as an adult was mindful of the need not to exclude children. All three of the synoptic gospels take time to report Jesus' teaching on the place of children in our communities:
Matt. 19.14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Mark 10.14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Luke 18.16 But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
If as Christians and as a nation we are truly going to accompany these children in their experience as migrants and refugees, we are going to need to practice what that means on every side of the border. Many of the conversations right now about whether to deport or not (will deportations reduce the number of children who risk the dangerous journey north?) still focus solely on border security, with very little concern for who the individual children are, and their stories.

The issue is further complicated by the different legal processes we put in place depending on whether someone who arrives at our border has a legitimate claim to refugee status, or whether they are attempting to cross the border as an undocumented immigrant.

All of that being said, I think the current situation with unaccompanied minors seeking refuge at our border illustrates a larger failure of Christian and Western imagination: a disdain for children. It boggles my mind that a nation like ours wouldn't welcome vulnerable children with open arms and care for them. We certainly don't want to create a situation where children flee family and home unnecessarily, and we should work in relationship with neighboring nations to the south to ensure they are communities in which children can flourish... but in the meantime, the most important point should be that children are a good and beautiful thing, and they are entrusted to us collectively to care for and nurture that they might flourish. Children are an opportunity, not a burden. They are an entrustment, not a crisis.

All of our conversations, legal proceedings, sanctuary offering, border patrolling, and more, needs to start with this basic assumption, that children are a great, great good, a blessing (Genesis 17:6).

Another portion of the ELCA press release reads:
“We confess with the wider church that all Christians are responsible to attend the needs of the lost, forgotten and lonely,” said Kuhlman. “St. Luke's has this as a central part of our mission statement. Foster children, wherever they are, need love and care and a family to help them become what God can make them to be. Christians in the United States must help children in other countries find places free of violence and abuse where they can experience loving support and new opportunities.” 
“Our Lutheran church members could help here by becoming foster families or by supporting those who are able to give this gift to these young people,” said Gordy. “Along with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, our Immigration Ready Bench bishops continue to push our elected officials to fix a broken immigration system and to support those who come here as refugees.” 
To help address the influx of unaccompanied children coming to the United States, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has launched a national advocacy campaign led by youth and young adults. The agency announced the “#Act of Love” campaign at a May 27 press conference in Washington, D.C., where, according to a press release, “young people from across the U.S. expressed their concerns for the refugee children and detailed plans for a social media campaign which includes a petition written and signed by young people and addressed to President Obama, Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.” The petition “urges lawmakers to provide adequate emergency funds to address this humanitarian crisis, improve protections for children and collaborate with UN agencies, other NGOs and faith communities to offer safety to children.” - See more at: http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7677#sthash.u700qkJT.dpuf 
The most confusing issue here is how to be the most effective, and help the most children the most quickly. American lawmakers tend to talk about it as a crisis in partisan politics, a sign of our broken immigration system. Or they address it practically: what is the least expensive option that will get the children deported more quickly?

However, we passed a law back in 2008 unanimously with bipartisan support, one of the last bills signed by Bush, that made a distinction between children coming into the country from Mexico, and children coming from other non-contiguous South American countries. The reason for this distinction: It is important to discern whether children coming to our border are refugees rather than voluntary immigrants.

On this issue, I think I am with the Republicans more than the Democrats. In a recent report on NPR:
"There are Republicans who say they want to fix the law but still provide for asylum where necessary. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain have proposed a bill that would speed up the process for getting these Central American kids back home but, at the same time, increase the numbers of kids who could claim asylum."
We don't want kids languishing for an unnecessarily long time during the process of assessing the legitimacy of their refugee claims, but we also don't want to deport children back to the dangerous situations they fled. We don't want coyotes to take advantage of families, promising parents security for their children while actually placing them in danger, but we need to approach the entire situation consistently from one perspective... that of the children, and Jesus accompanying them all along the way.

The Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be primarily focused on getting funding for an expedited deportation process:
"There are fault lines in the Democratic Party. Immigration advocate groups and Hispanic Caucus members and some progressive Democrats don't want the law changed. On the other hand, you have Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader in the House, say she's fine with having it changed because she needs - we need to solve this humanitarian crisis. And you've got the administration sending Jay Johnson, the Homeland Security Director, down to the border to these detention facilities to tell these kids you will be sent home."
The response by Pelosi and Jay Johnson is seriously wrong-headed. It's focused on expediting deportation and solving an immigration issue rather than treating children seeking refuge in a humane and caring manner. This is not a humanitarian crisis because it is an immigration crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis because adults aren't treating children humanely.

Where is Jesus Christ in all of this? He is with the children. As people of faith, we need to begin from that perspective, and ask ourselves how we want to treat Jesus Christ and these kids.

--

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/child-migrants-surge-unaccompanied-central-america

http://homeland.house.gov/hearing/field-hearing-crisis-texas-border-surge-unaccompanied-minors

http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/politics/surge-in-unaccompanied-children-at-the-border/1173/

http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2014/07/02-unaccompanied-children-central-america-negroponte

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/us/immigrant-surge-rooted-in-law-to-curb-child-trafficking.html?_r=0

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/most-children-illegally-crossing-the-border-alone-will-be-deported-white-house-signals/2014/07/07/0f9ec85e-0603-11e4-bbf1-cc51275e7f8f_story.html

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

God, or Nature: On the Varieties of Religious Experience in Arkansas, the Natural State

Baruch Spinoza had a way of talking about God that has frequently been misunderstood. He often wrote two words together as a pair, "God, or nature" (Deus siva Natura) as a way of naming God. He did so not to equate the two, but rather to indicate the surplus meaning available in the name God, which could include an understanding of God as nature, a dynamic nature that indicates how vital and alive immanence itself is.

Natural bridge over which we drove our ATVs
If Spinoza really believed that the words God and nature were equal, he could have written it (God = Nature), or simply replaced the name God with the name Nature. But he didn't. So we have, for the past few centuries, had to develop our philosophies and theologies, influenced by Spinoza, in ways that take account of the more complex way he unites the two terms. Nature in God. Nature as a subset of God. Or in the original way he wrote it, which I quite like: "God, or nature."

There is a popular way of expressing this: Some people like to say that they get out in a deer stand, or on a hike, or volunteer at the park, and that is their worship. They see or encounter God in natural settings, and so they prioritize spending their Sabbath time in natural places.

Although as a pastor I don't agree theologically with notions that equate Christian worship with spending time outdoors in the woods, I do sympathize with the general tendency. Ideally, Christian worship would be so evocative of the surplus of beauty and meaning in God's creation that worship would feel like nature... and concomitantly, I would hope as a Christian leader I can help equip those out on hikes with deepened sensibilities of how to experience (and think about the experience) of being in nature specifically as a Christian.

Last week our family spent a few days on vacation in The Natural State. We got in the car early Sunday morning and crossed the Boston Mountains towards Fort Smith. I had a few podcasts queued up for the drive, so I spent a portion of the drive listening to Krista Tippett interview Roseanne Cash for her show On Being. Roseanne Cash experiences God in music to such a degree that if she were to write like Spinoza, she would probably give God this name: "God, or music." It's a powerful interview, and I confess I totally teared up when John Leventhal kicked in with guitar backup before she sang "God Is in the Roses" live for the show:



children's message at St. Luke's
It reminded me of another NPR installment I had heard recently, about Nature-Deficit Disorder. I had been wondering, like many of us do, what it means for us to lose balance with nature as we spend increasing amount of time staring at devices, and inside buildings.

We had left Fayetteville early Sunday morning so we could attend worship at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Forth Smith. Call me old school, but when I'm on vacation, I still want to go to church, and part of our travels always includes research into where we might attend. St. Luke's is our closest ELCA congregation to the south, and is kind of on the "frontier" for our kind of Lutherans in Arkansas. Head south from Fort Smith as a pastor, and you're like an old-time circuit rider, you have to go quite a ways into Texas before you find the next ELCA congregation.

We had a very warm welcome at St. Luke's 10:30 a.m. service. They provided busy bags for the kids, free brownies for us when we left, and the guest preacher offered a fun children's message for the kids. Some of the guys tried to conscript me for the church choir. It was a good way to start the trip.

From Fort Smith, after a brief drive down the affluent Free Ferry Street and some play at a local park, we continued our drive to Mount Magazine. There are a lot of fascinating sights along the way, including a family chapel in honor of a deceased mother, that included an extensive collection of bells. The chapel was beautifully appointed with pews, a small organ, and everything anyone would need for a small worship gathering in the mountains.

Family shrine with bells
On this part of the drive, I listened to Tripp Fuller interview  Greg Horton, a professor of religion in Oklahoma, on Homebrewed Christianity. He had some fascinating insights into the tensions between how religion is taught in religious studies departments, and how religion is practiced in the state of Oklahoma.

Our reason for the drive, however, was Mount Magazine State Park itself. We had heard great things about the lodge and hiking there. The mountain itself includes the highest point in any of the central southern and midwest states, higher than any point in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, etc. Like many of the state park Arkansas lodges, it's a rustic destination with high quality facilities.

Over the course of our four days there, we did a three hour ATV tour, hiked four different trails on Mt. Magazine itself (all short trails, we hike with an eight, six, and three year old), and did two ranger led tours, one overlooking the valley and describing the state park itself, and the amphitheater they are rebuilding, the other focused on hummingbirds.
Under a cliff

Mount Magazine itself has some unique topography. Some plants grow only on this mountain, and then further east in the Appalachians. I'm personally quite fascinated with these mid-United States mountains, flattened and ancient as they are.

The whole time we were out in this "nature," I was continuing to ponder the relationship between God and nature. What can we learn about worship in church buildings with other Christians by being out in nature? What do we learn about nature by gathering for Christian worship? Are the two mutually exclusive? How are they related?

It's especially hard to think through these questions in the modern period because so much of what we do is still technologized. Even the photos I'm providing in this blog post (not to mention the blog itself) are digital mediations of the "nature" we went to Mount Magazine to see. So if you are reading this blog post, is the post disconnecting you to nature, or connecting you to it? Is what we experience in nature real enough on its own, or does it become more real, or only real, when we share it virtually?

If I am out in "the nature" always anticipating how I might take a photograph of it or otherwise mediate it for others (like in a tweet or blog), is my experience of nature always "framed" by the ways I anticipate mediating it virtually?

Similarly, although we sometimes think taking children to worship is different than taking them on a hike, actually the two share a lot in common. Our children tire as quickly on a hike as they do in a worship service. An hour starts to be a long time. They want snacks and distractions. In this sense, both the trail or the pew provide unique challenges and opportunities, and a screen or electronic device seems a plausible solution in either situation. I can't say I encounter God more or less in either place, it quite depends on the specifics--I do know I find both contexts challenging as a parent, and technology an ever present temptation.

Mt. Magazine Lodge
We packed up after a few days at the lodge. The kids loved it and want to go back (I think because they liked the room and the pool as much as the hikes and the nature). Driving back to Fayetteville on the south side of Mount Magazine, we encountered some portions of Yell County. I think Yell is a county that encapsulates in some ways the perceive culture of Arkansas as a whole. At least the Arkansans I know in Northwest Arkansas have some choice things to say about Yell County.

Faith Lutheran Church, Boonville, AR
The drive back through Havana and Magazine and Boonville and Van Buren is a pretty rural drive. The area is sparsely populated, the towns struggling somewhat economically, although there are some vital businesses like Rockline Industries along the way. In Boonville you have a small ELCA mission outpost, Faith Lutheran Church. The fact that our state park trip was bracketed by brief visits to the only two ELCA congregations in the southwest quadrant of the state framed this God and nature topic even more starkly for me. We sometimes say that we experience God more clearly when we go "off-grid" into nature. Is it also possible that some churches that are on the frontiers, away from the central pleas, also experience God more clearly because they are in diaspora, on the edges?

Is it perhaps the case that in a modern, denatured world, both worship in a church, or a hike on a trail, are precisely some of the places God comes to meet us, not because God is nature, but rather because the surplus of meaning available through worship is clarified by places passing through and beyond, that inexorably draw us up not into transcendence, but re-embed us in immanence? All of which leaves me completely perplexed as to whether our experience of the digitally mediated world is transcendent, or immanent, or something else entirely.