Friday, January 29, 2010

Three AM Phone Calls

Rainy, cold night, perfect for good sleep--until the mobile phone, rarely far from my reach, begins its buzz and tone around 3:30 a.m.  Notification about a church member about to go under because of a personal crisis.

I appreciated the notification, and both the notifier and I agreed I could take no further action until later that day, so I returned to my bed, my side no longer warm because of the length of the phone call.  Sleep, however, had fled from my bedroom and body.  The engine of my brain roared to life, with no key available for me to turn it off.

I have a running joke with a local businessman that I only work two hours a week--the two hours of worship on Sunday mornings.  That, of course, is the perception many have of us who fill that public role, but whose other work is often invisible.  

I wonder today, in these dark hours, if time spent in heart-rending and passionate prayer for my people count as work hours.  If the hours spent in careful self-examination and personal study that enable me to more mindfully offer a life suffused with grace and spiritual health to this community get to be counted as well. If the long moments spent with the sick of soul and sick of body seeking to re-ignite the hope of eternal life, both in the present and in the future, can be added to my work hour list.  What about the moments when I am being told that I have failed as both pastor and leader because I have not lived up to the expectations placed upon me?  Can I add those?  

Clearly, the dawn has not yet broken, either outside or inside.  I ponder those who work these dark hours:  those in law enforcement, medical care, clerks in all-night enterprises.  Does the outside darkness oppress them?  Does the time spent in that inkiness reinforce for their tendency to melancholy as it does mine?  Sleep, now hope of it completely gone, provides such a sweet way to spend that time.  This has not been a sweet night at all.

The wind is picking up outside as greater chill invades North Texas.  I sit wrapped in blankets, enjoying the warmth of my computer on my lap, noting that my hot tea grows cold quickly. My husband slumbers on, his rest only momentarily disturbed after I answered the call.  I'm grateful for his sleeping sounds, the restful breaths.  If I can't, at least he can.  He spent his many dark hours doing what I am doing tonight and his rest is well earned.

I think about what seem to me to be stupid choices that have led to this 3 am. phone call.  Everyone gets to make them. The more I try to protect people from the consequences of their choices, the worse things get.  Ultimately, each of us has to assume responsibility for our own salvation, working things out directly with God.  I can't force it, although I wish I could.  I ponder again my own stupid choices over the years, remembering once more that there really is nothing that can separate us from the love of God except my decision not to receive it.  God is present even in our stupidity--perhaps even more so, because those moments sometimes crack open doors to new life that have remained stubbornly stuck before.  Sometimes . . . I can only hope tonight is one of those times.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Oath of Allegiance

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."

You have just read the Oath of Allegiance, recited by those who wish to obtain United States citizenship.  I proudly sat with my oldest son last Friday while we watched his wife, my lovely daughter-in-law from Colombia, take that oath in company of 147 others from 44 different countries as each ended a long path to become US citizens.  

Smiles graced everyone's faces.  People cheered and clapped.  Cameras everywhere recorded the moment for posterity.  All had worked hard to get there, studied, prepared, hoped they passed and had properly filled out myriads of paperwork.  To them, gaining an understanding of US civics opened a door to new life and hope.  To me, born here in the USA, generally unconscious of the freedoms I enjoy because of it, civics was a boring high school course I had to suffer through in order to graduate.  To them, being willing to serve in any capacity for the sake of our freedoms is a privilege; to most of us, it is an unwanted and unwelcomed responsibility, and to be avoided if at all possible.

A quick leap, isn't it, to what people of faith claim to have:  citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.  I wonder how many of us who claim that citizenship could pass even a simple test on the basics. For example, one of the possible questions during the immigration interview is, "Name the first 13 states."  Well, how about naming the 12 original apostles?  Another question, "What do the stripes on the flag stand for?"  How about, "What is the purpose of the resurrection of Jesus?"  Or, "How many changes or amendments to the Constitution are there?" vs "What are the two greatest commandments?"

I also wonder how many of us who claim citizenship in the kingdom of heaven are actually ready to carry the burden of defending that place?  How ready are we to serve when called upon, even to the point of disrupting our normal lives because there is indeed a greater call upon us?

Both people who claim heavenly citizenship and people who claim US citizenship are woefully ignorant about our faith and our nation.  It's more important to know the TV schedule, plots of the latest movies, key moves to the latest electronic games, the scores and rankings of our favorite sports teams, and the passwords to our computers than it is to learn the language of political freedom and the language of religious belief, both of which have far, far more real impact on our lives.  

Parents and grandparents:  get your children to church and to church educational programs. Quit making excuses for their absences.  Someday all young people need to decide for themselves what they will believe and why. But unless they have some knowledge of what their faith tradition is about, they have no basis upon which to make a decision.  And that's just not right.  As they say, ignorance of the law is no excuse.  Nor is ignorance of matters of eternal importance.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti and Charity

For many reasons, I can't get the situation in Haiti off my mind right now.  I go to bed at night wondering how many more will die there this night.  I sleep in comfort, aware that breakfast awaits me in the morning along with good work that I love and find both challenging and fulfilling.  From what I can tell about Haiti, long before the earthquake, only the tiny elite enjoyed anything like this.

UNICEF estimates that only 2% of children in Haiti receive education beyond elementary school.   Can you imagine what your community would be like if 50% never attended school at all and 98% dropped out at about the fourth or fifth grade?  The language of commerce, government and education is French, yet the vast majority of Haitians speak Creole, a very different language, and therefore are cut off from educational and political power and influence.  I've traveled enough in countries where I do not know the language to know how disempowering it is not to speak or read the official tongue.  Isolation and frustration build quickly.

Add to this a corrupt, and now apparently completely invisible government, inadequate police, precarious heath care system now destroyed, and we are ripe for disaster way beyond what the earthquake brought.

What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to offer here?  How can someone who can't read or has never learned to think on anything beyond the basics of physical survival even begin to comprehend grace, that unmeasurable presence of God that continually invites us to understand   the reconciled life and to receive the gift of forgiveness offered to us?  How can someone whose primary food consists of biscuits made from edible mud, shortening and salt, possibly grasp these words, "I am the bread of life."  

Maybe, just maybe however, those utterly impoverished ones might have even a better handle than we rich ones on the whole concept.  If I am desperate for bread, would it not make sense to turn to One who says he is the bread of life?  If I am dehydrated to the point of illness by thirst, might I not be receptive to the words of someone who says that if I come to him, I will not thirst again?

I'm very grateful for my education. I grew up surrounded by books and with academic gifts that meant I could and did read voraciously.  I still do, as I am fascinated by the world of ideas and intellectual argument.  Frankly, I have no experience of the kind of poverty and suffering taking place right now in that tiny country, not terribly far from us.  

But one thing I do know:  for all my education, for all my privileges, for all the good work I may have ever performed, I have earned no greater place in the kingdom of heaven than the most impoverished, undereducated, unsophisticated, suffering Haitian.  God either loves them and brings them to wholeness and salvation as thoroughly as God loves me and brings me to wholeness and salvation, or the good news of the Savior is a lie.  And because those terribly suffering ones need bread and water, I who have plenty of both have a responsibility to help.  We are very much our brother's keeper, and I think we can lose our own souls when we turn our backs on suffering of this magnitude.  

I have no idea what it will take to rebuild Haiti.  I also know that the opportunists will quickly be on site, and will suck again the life out of that nation if righteous people don't stand up to them.  I ask you to stand of the side of hope here, and do what you can to help.  Let us escape from our cocoons of comfort and perceived invulnerability and recognize that we are all connected in this disaster and in the future of these people.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Common Good and Individual Freedom

I suspect about everyone has seen or heard the story now. A preschooler in Mesquite does not want to have his hair cut in order to conform to the Mesquite Independent School District's dress code, and his parents support him in his refusal. For the time being, he spends his days in the school library, being taught by an aide while isolated from the other students.

The civil libertarians shout, "Of course he has the right to wear his hair long!" The rule followers disdainly respond, "That little kid better learn to get in line now or he will grow up to be a out-of-control teen-ager." The free spirits pop up, "the dress code is too stringent anyway." And the little kid cries if his hair is braided, which was the compromise offered by the school district. So, he sits in the library with his hair covering his eyes and curling sweetly below his collar, a necessary aide ripped from more important classroom duties at his side, while the adults engage in mud-slinging as they assure themselves of personal righteousness and absolute clarity of thought and response.

What would Jesus do? Seriously. What would Jesus do if this situation were brought before him? I know I'd be tempted to grab a razor and just shave the kid's head and tell his parents to get a life. But I have a feeling Jesus would respond with a parable of some sort. He'd tell them a story with a riddle inside it and suggest they think hard about the answer.

Perhaps it would be something like this, "The kingdom of heaven is like a community where everyone wants to see the children well educated and each person has a different way to reach that goal. One person rides the horse of intellectual rigor, and wants the requirement that every student learn to pass nationally standardized tests, so adds two hours to the normal school day for mandatory after-school tutoring and cuts vacations to two weeks/year. Another muscularly insists that healthy bodies are necessary to healthy minds so stipulates every child be enrolled in competitive athletics, with three afterschool practices per week and two games every weekend. Yet a third sings the song of music appreciation, having learned that music is the gate to higher mathematical understanding, so each child has morning choir practice, an additional class period per day for instrument mastery and monthly recitals. A fourth intones the mantra of character development and religious understanding, so schedules weekend field trips to area houses of worship and twice weekly debates (required of course) on situational ethics versus absolute truths." After telling this story to the disputing parties who now look at him as though he had lost his mind, Jesus then says, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear: What's good for one is not necessarily good for all, but without an awareness that we must honor the common good, we lose our right to cherish our individual freedoms."

The common good--that part of our lives that overlaps with others and has resources all need and all use--faces extinction now and we're all be the poorer for it. It used to be that many rural English towns had a "commons," an area which could be used for grazing by animals needed by local households for milk or labor. It worked when all respected the limits of the commons. But as soon as one person decided to monopolize the commons by acquiring more animals and not acquiring additional land upon which they could graze, the entire community faced threat and the possible impoverishment of some. It only took one greedy person to destroy the glory of the commons.

More than anything else, public schools are our "commons" now. It takes efforts from all to maintain it; it only takes one to destroy it. Make your choice.