Monday, August 24, 2009

Juvenile Court

Earlier this week, I sat for a while in the Denton City Juvenile Court, just as an observer.  A court official called out names.  Each name was repeated into a room behind the court. Then the young offenders, dressed in shapless and ill-fitting jumpsuits, would walk in, their hands touching behind their backs, elbows akimbo, and join family members standing before the judge.  Each had spent at least the weekend in juvenile lockup, some longer than that.


After initial instructions by the judge, the charges against each youth were read.  Some attorneys were present, but most were unrepresented by legal counsel. 


After stern admonitions by the judge, some of the youth were released to parents or guardians. Others were deemed too dangerous to be released, and were detained pending further arrangements.


I sat in complete stillness and prayed for each individual, each family.  I watched faces full of anger and frustation, grief and sorrow.  I saw a few of the mechanics of a complex legal system seeking to cope with youth who had transgressed the boundaries of normal society while seeking also to preserve the boundaries of legal protection for these young people.


How does it happen?  What has gone so wrong? What will these youth become as they move into adulthood?


I don't know the backgrounds or the family histories here.  I can safely assume, however, they each young person had a place to live that offered a confortable bed for sleep, adequate if not abundant food and clothing, and multiple entertainment options. 


After returning to my office, I saw an article about young girls in the South African country of Swaziland who work at deslolate truck stops in that impoverished and ill country (one-third of the population is infected with the H.I.V. virus). The writer interviewed a 16 year-old orphan named Mbali, herself H.I.V. positive.  She said, “I have nowhere to sleep unless I find a man.” She added, “Sometimes I don’t have money and food for two days. A man without a condom will pay more, so obviously I say O.K. because I need money. I am so tired. These men are so rough.”  


The interviewer found herself unexpectedly moved emotionally by this young woman's story and burst into tears.  Here's what happened next:  "Mbali held my face and said, 'Don’t cry!' She hugged me. How absurd can life be? A 16-year-old, H.I.V.-positive orphan was comforting me while I wept. It was a strange way to carry on an interview, but that’s what we did. I asked her what she needed most. 'Someplace safe,' she said. 'Someplace to be a girl. Someplace where I won’t have to have sex with men anymore.'


What a strange world.  The rebellious and angry youth in the courtroom today seem to have cavalierly thrown away the places that would look like a heavenly haven to Mbali and the many others in her awful situation.  She and others like her would treasure the opportunity to live a life with parental support and restrictions. 


Are the homes that those youth in the juvenile court today come from perfect and lovingly supportive of the challenges of growing up?  I seriously doubt it, mainly because I have yet to see that perfect home and family. 


I know that growing up is hard.  I wish we all did it better than we do.  A simple moment of sadness here--there's just got to be a better way.


So I am troubled as I observe and read about these things.  I have no quick and easy solutions. I do know, though, that the people, whether youth or more mature in age, who have actively served in areas of extreme underprivilege tend to receive life with considerably more gratefulness and happiness than those who just take what is given and then demand more.  I just want to be one of the grateful ones.



Monday, August 17, 2009

Getting Rich with Jesus

There's an article in this past week's NY Times that quickly made its way through a circle of colleagues and acquaintances: The opening paragraph reads:  "Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God."

As I continued reading the article, my frustration and anger grew. This is all so very wrong.

Keep in mind that there are multiple manifestations of the Christian faith.  With the Bible widely available, and study tools accessible to anyone, people can, and generally do, pick and choose which parts of it to emphasize and which parts to ignore.  The Bible is a complex book, written thousands of years ago with multiple authors and in cultures and contexts radically different from our own.  

The longer I study the Bible, however, the more convinced I am that this book does open to us the way to God.  Also, the deeper I move into the Scriptures, the more I become aware that I am capable of understanding very little about the mystery and magnificence of that which we call God, or Creator, or Divine, or The Holy One or any other term we use.  My finite mind cannot wrap itself around that which is infinite.

As my humility has grown--for in my early years I was sure I had all the answers--so has my willingness to admit that I might be wrong about some things. Viewpoints of others, even when radically differing from mine, may have a solid foundation in biblical truth and should be treated with holy generosity.

Nonetheless, on this point I take my stand:  the "prosperity gospel" described in that article is not just a travesty of what is taught in the Bible, but I believe it that it cannot be properly called "Christian."  These few very, very rich "evangelists" (an evangelist is one who announces the Good News of Jesus Christ) systematically prey upon the poor and disadvantaged, sucking funds from them in order to maintain lifestyles that can only be described as gluttonous in their materialistic excess.  All this talk of private jets and expensive clothes and jewels and lavishly decorated estates and fancy automobiles finds no basis in the life of God's people as described in the Bible. 

How can those who function as spiritual black holes, feeding their unending greed for material things by preying upon the financially precarious and vulnerable, possibly be loving others the way they love themselves?  

My own life contains considerable luxury.  After all, a flip of the faucet gives me hot and hold running water; thermostats keep the house and workplace at comfortable temperatures; toilets flush on demand and toilet paper is soft and plentiful; food spills out of my cupboards, partly because of the overflow from the garden, which I can keep watered without having any rain fall. A machine washes my clothes, another washes my dishes.  My mobile phone and laptop computer mean instant connection to pretty well anyone anywhere.  And just about everyone reading this column has those same luxuries. 

However, the moment I see these luxuries as evidence that God loves me more and is blessing me more than someone who doesn't have them, or that I have more faith than the "less blessed" person does, I tread on shaky theological ground. Instead, my luxuries give me a different obligation. I must recognize to those who have much given to them also have much expected of them.  Any response other than gratefulness to God and generosity to others in the light of such blessings will quickly destroy the soul.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Parking spaces and bermuda grass

There are few things more precious in Texas during August than a parking spot in the shade.  It means some relief from the horrid heat when re-entering the car after some time outside.  So, when I pulled into a parking lot recently and saw that it looked like there might be a hint of shade in one empty parking spot, I was delighted.  What good luck!

However, when I reached the spot, I discovered that the car already there had deliberately parked over the line in order to maximize the shade for his/her car.  In other words, he/she had taken two spaces and hogged the available shade.  

Now, I understand the desire for a shady spot--after all, I was delighted to think that there was one for me.  But to take up two spots and not even share the shade with someone else?  To take all the blessing to oneself and not leave any for another?  It seems like such a selfish act.  What's the problem here?

This event came on the heels of several hours spent in a flower bed where I had let the weeds take over.  Between the heat, and an unusually heavy summer schedule, I had neglected to keep on top of them.  So, when I finally decided I couldn't stand it any longer, I began to tackle what I knew would be at least 12 to 15 hours of hard work getting it cleaned out again.

Most of the problem was bermuda grass--wonderful for the yards, horrible for flower beds.  It's invasive and persistent and nearly impossible to eliminate.  As I dug down, working on the deep roots with their almost impossible to break hold on the dirt around them, I had to consider the nature of bad habits that get as entrenched in our lives as this bermuda grass is in the wrong spots of the yard. 

I believe it is possible to become so used to our destructive habits that living that way becomes normal rather than abnormal.  I suggest that the person who needed the two spaces for the shade (and it was a compact car, by the way) may be so used to thinking, "I'm going to get what I want when I want it and don't care whether anyone else gets anything at all" that it never occurred to him or her that there might be another way, a way that would lead to greater freedom and beauty in life.  Selfishness works that way. Like bermuda grass, it is invasive and persistent and nearly impossible to eliminate.  All children go through a period of being very selfish.  All loving and competent parents and care-givers work hard to help children learn that persistent selfishness leads to a very lonely and unhappy life and that joy comes from giving, not grabbing.  

Bermuda grass has it's very useful place.  Healthy care of the self--a way of being "self"-ish that leads to good health and balanced life also has a very useful place.  Either one of them out of place or out of control cause significant problems.  I'm just reminded on this hot August day that I need to watch for the persistent, invasive sins that can so easily take over without constant attention to the larger picture which calls for a repentant heart ready at all times to be receptive to cleansing grace.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Hearing the Cry

"We have not heard the cry of the needy."  This is a phrase in the general confession of the church that we often pray as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive and grant forgiveness.  "We have not heard the cry . . ."  This phrase took special meaning this past Sunday. A young woman, Brittany Burrows, who had just spent most of last year as a volunteer worker in an orphanage in the Congo in the central part of Africa, spoke of her experiences there.


The orphanage itself was a rotting building of five rooms, and housed about 30 children, mostly boys.  There were a few bunk beds, not nearly enough, and no mattresses. The children who had a bunk just put a blanket down over the metal wires; the rest slept on the floor. No mosquito nets, and malaria was rampant.  Hardly any food--essentially one meal a day of non-nutritous corn meal.  No shoes, no bedding, no medications.


At one point, Brittany asked some of the children what they were most thankful for.  Each one said, "I'm thankful to be alive."  Brittany was a bit frustrated at their answers--she thought they were just echoing one another and not being creative or really thoughtful about them.  But it wasn't long before she discovered something:  they were indeed lucky to be alive and rightfully thankful for it.  In their short lives, they had seen and experienced much horror and seen a lot of death.  Yes, they really found life itself, with all its deprivations, a real gift.


For the first time in her life, Brittany experienced real hunger.  She told me earlier, "I lived on beans and rice the whole time I was there.  I would walk down the street and try to buy food, but it is very expensive and I didn't have enough money.  I was hungry the whole time I was there."


During this past year, our church here sent enough money to purchase mosquito nets, mattresses, bedding, shoes, a stove and freezer, food and a number of other things for these children.  The reality, however, must be faced:  a lot of what we helped purchase has probably been stolen by now, taken by those who think their own cries are most important than the cries of these needy orphans. 


This is a terribly broken world.  We who are privileged with full stomachs and closets bursting with clothes and who busily rent storage units to keep our unused but oh so necessary stuff must start hearing the cry of the needy and seek to fill empty stomachs.  More than that, we must work with courage to fight the kind of injustice that perpetuates a system where over 1000 children die per hour somewhere in the world of starvation. 


May God have mercy on us if we don't.  We're going to need it when we face the Holy One and are asked, "Why did you let them suffer?"