Archives For Guatemala

   rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311111.jpg13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

People speak of the dying experiencing their lives flashing before them. I suppose that’s something, albeit slower, of what it’s like with cancer- the ‘hell of prolonged farewell‘ that it can be.

And it’s funny the memories that cancer calls to mind, such as the ones I have of a man named Wayne.

One summer Sunday morning, about 6 1/2 years ago, I sat down in a plastic lawn chair in the courtyard of the bungalows where a service team from my church were staying in Guatemala. I had a bowl of cereal in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

It was just the beginning of our week. Most of the service team had already eaten and had left to explore the lake at the edge of town and to snap pictures of the volcanoes that surrounded it.

For a moment or two, I ate alone.

Until another plastic lawn chair scraped across the concrete and a tall, lanky, balding man sat down next to me. He was wearing navy cargo pants and a bright yellow t-shirt that said ‘Fredricksburg UMC’ on the chest.

I recognized him immediately, but I could tell by the look on his face that the recognition wasn’t mutual.

He held his hand out and said matter-of-factly: ‘Wayne.’

‘Jason,’ I replied and shook his hand.

There were several other mission teams there that week and Wayne asked me which church I was a part of.

‘Is your pastor here with you this week?’ he asked.

‘Yep,’ I said nonchalantly and crunched some cereal.

After a pregnant pause or three, I said ‘Actually, I’m the pastor.’

He looked up from his cereal bowl and paused for a moment to see if I was being serious.

‘I wouldn’t think a pastor could get away with a shirt like that,’ Wayne observed.

He was referring to the black, triathalon t-shirt my wife gave me. It has pictures of a runner, a swimmer and a biker on it and below the images is the caption: ‘Threesome anyone?’

‘Shit, they’d be surprised if I didn’t wear shirts like this.’

‘So I guess they wouldn’t be shocked by your language then either?’

‘Not for a while now,’ I said, ‘though my bishop’s a different story.’

‘And does your congregation know you wear an earring when you go on mission trips?’ he asked me.

‘I wear it all the time,’ I said.

‘Really?’ he replied and again looked up from his cereal bowl to see if I was being serious.

‘You’d be surprised. It’s my sandals that irritate my congregation the most. I wear them all the time.’

He smiled and, with a napkin, dabbed at the milk in the corners of his mouth.

‘Are you really a pastor?’ he asked one last time.

I could tell he still didn’t recognize me so I said: ‘I was here last summer when you were here.’

He pointed a long, thin finger at me and snapped- like he’d just experienced an ‘Aha’ moment. And then he rubbed his chin as though he were trying to place me. But really I think he was just remembering the previous summer.

That past July

Wayne’s church and the service team from mine- we’d met in a tiny Guatemalan village called Alaska, so-called because the mountain altitude makes the community cloudy and cold. Both of our churches had gone there that day to participate in a reforestation project and to celebrate the construction of a new school.

Wayne had cancer that summer.

I remember hearing how he’d collapsed and spit up blood during the week while building a wood stove for a Mayan family. I remember overhearing him say in a defeated voice that he’d been coming to Guatemala for fifteen years to build stoves and how he expected that summer to be his last.

A Mayan priest had been invited to the village that day to perform a ritual blessing for the new school, but because of Wayne the priest instead performed an indigenous healing ceremony.

Wayne’s church and ours sat in a circle with a fire in the middle. Wayne sat with his shoulders slumped over. Wayne’s wife sat next to him and with a blue bandana, stoically wiped the tears from behind her sunglasses. The priest prayed a long, elaborate prayer with ‘Wayne’ being the only word distinguishable beneath the hard-sounding, Klingon-like Mayan dialect.

After the prayer, the priest dipped a bouquet of flowers in to the smoke and brushed Wayne’s body with it, up and down, front and back. He anointed Wayne’s neck and temples with oil. And then the priest placed his hands on Wayne’s chest and back and whispered another long prayer into his ear.

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When the priest finished, the emotion swelling in the group was such the entire circle sang the doxology to Wayne. Sang it as a blessing. And, one-by-one, we hugged and promised to pray for him.

     ‘Have faith,’ I remember telling him, approximately 7 1/2 years before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.

A year later, that summer Sunday morning, sitting there at breakfast, Wayne was about the last person I expected to see.

‘How are you?’ I asked him.

No matter what I’d told him before no part of me expected him to live. So I was surprised when he said: ‘I’m fine. The cancer’s gone. I’m cured.’

It’s hard to say anything to that without it sounding cliche or contrived so for a while I just smiled awkwardly at him, the same way I do when the salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret catches my eyes lingering over the posters on the wall a bit too long.

But then I asked him: ‘Has it strengthened your faith?’ A pastorly type question I wagered.

Wayne put his elbows on the table and he looked at me like he had a secret and he said:

‘Well, that all depends on how you define faith.’

I pushed my cereal bowl to the center of the table, and I gestured to Wayne in a tell me more sort of way. He rested his chin on his hand and he said, confidingly:

‘I used to think faith was just a personal thing. You know- just between me and my God.’

Then he smiled as though he were embarrassed by what he’d said.

‘When you think your life’s just about over,’ Wayne whispered, ‘you realize: faith is about more than just you and God. Its bigger than you. It’s not just in here or in here.’

And he pointed to his head and his heart.

‘It’s here,’ he said and he circled his fingers all around.

‘It’s about changing the world,’ he said in a case-closed tone of voice.

‘I guess I never thought about it like that before,’ I said.

And he squinted his eyes at me and asked: ‘You’re not just yanking my chain? You’re really a pastor?’

Wayne came to mind a few months after that morning while I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 11.1-16, a passage in which the author, whom scholars refer to as ‘the Preacher,’ preaches:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’ 

     As with any sermon, if you read between the lines you can learn what’s going on in the preacher’s congregation. And when it comes to this preacher’s congregation, it’s obvious. They’re tired.

They’re tired of the endless challenges of serving their neighbor. They’re tired of the monotony of worship. They’re tired of the routine of church life.

They’ve heard every bible story and learned every prayer and the Good News- it’s not so new anymore.

This preacher’s congregation-

they’ve had faith for so long they’ve forgotten what faith is.

So the preacher of Hebrews attempts to reignite them, to call them back. And the preacher pulls out all the stops to do so.

The preacher preaches about how Jesus is superior to every angel in heaven. The preacher preaches about how Jesus is the only one who is blameless when it comes to sin, the only one who can approach God Almighty and plead our case.

The preacher preaches about how Christ is our great high priest, the One who mediates a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant that is new and perfect and forever, a covenant sealed with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that is final and once-for-all because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

It’s a kitchen sink, swing for the fences, altar call kind of sermon.

But then-

Just when the congregation starts to nod their heads and murmur ‘Amen,’ just before the preacher works his way to the crescendo- he stops. And he lets all the momentum leak out of his sermon.

The preacher stops. He looks out at his congregation. And with all deliberate plainness he says:

‘Before I preach another word, I want to make sure we all know what faith is.’ 

     And probably some there in the congregation yawned, thinking they don’t need to be reminded of what faith is. And I bet there were others there in the pews that morning who looked at their watches and wondered why the preacher was wasting time on this.

After all, it’s obvious what faith is. Right?

Faith is believing in what you can’t see. It’s being confident of what you can’t prove. It’s like trust. It’s like obedience. It’s personal. It’s a relationship. It’s in here, as Wayne told me he’d once thought.

Before cancer.

But for this preacher, those usual definitions they don’t quite measure up:

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for…’

     The preacher preaches.

Except- that’s not quite it, I made a point to point out in my own preaching that day. What we hear in the passage and what the preacher’s congregation first heard aren’t the same thing. Something’s lost in the translation from Greek to English:

     ‘Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for…’ 

     That’s what the preacher preaches. The trouble is biblical translators think that word carries too much philosophical baggage to give it to you straight up. So they translate it as ‘assurance.’

Hypostasis.

It’s the same word we recite in the creeds when we affirm how Jesus the Son and God the Father- even though they’re different and distinct- somehow, mysteriously, share in the very same life, the very same work, the very same mission. Faith is like that- that’s what the preacher’s getting at.

Hypostasis. It means literally ‘very being.’

     In other words, ‘faith is the very being- one and the same- of what we hope for.’

Or a better way of putting it- ‘faith is the reality of what we hope for.’  An even clearer way of putting it would be- Faith brings into the here and now what God has promised for tomorrow.

To make the preacher’s point really plain- Faith makes our future hope real in the now.

Our hope for things on earth to be as they are in heaven, our hope for the empty to be filled and the lowly lifted up, our hope for mourning and crying and pain to be no more.

     Faith makes our hope real.

So of course it’s can’t just be in here or in here. It’s about changing the world, as Wayne told me. And I’ve been preaching that kind of faith 52 Sundays a year ever since.

     Except, I wonder now if maybe that’s not quite it either. 

The poet Kazim Ali advises that when you write or speak about something for a living you need to walk away from it for a time or you cease to know anything about it.

I think there’s wisdom in that advice. It’s been nearly 6 months since I ‘walked away’ from preaching and now I find myself recalling Wayne, whose point I once reiterated in sermon after sermon, and wanting to push back a bit.

Maybe it’s because Wayne was ‘cured’ when I spoke with him that morning over breakfast and, even if the months of treatment in front of me still go well, I never will be.

Maybe it’s because the teenage boy in the room next to me today, who has leukemia and the alienesque translucent skin to prove it, spit up blood all over the bathroom.

Which made me think of Wayne spitting up blood.

Which made me think of that boy in the room next to me.

Or maybe it’s that I have cancer now and, dammit, I’m entitled to my own take on things.

It’s probably all three, why I want to resist Wayne’s now, push back on his insistence that faith is about changing the world.

Frankly, there’s just too much changing that needs to be done.

While she flushed the lines of chest catheter today, I asked my nurse if she enjoyed her job. I was just making chit-chat, but I’m sure on some level we were both thinking of the boy in the next room.

‘I went into nursing to help people,’ she said, ‘You know, to make a difference, change the world.’ And she raised her eyebrows like you do at an old high school photo of yourself you barely rescue (or want to).

‘I enjoy it, yeah, but after so many patients, especially ones with what turns out to be a terminal illness (and she glanced at me and blushed), it’s easy to think you’re not really changing anything. There’s always the next one, so much need.’

‘Compassion fatigue, I guess’ she said and smiled.

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Strangely, her words reminded me not of Wayne, not at first. but of the ending to a book we’ve all read, Charlotte’s Web. Like I said, cancer conjures curious memories. We’ve all read the book but, I think, forgotten the melancholy ending:

“Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash.

Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all.”

Anyone in the often grim trade of ministry or anyone in oncology can tell you: deaths like Charlotte’s, lonely deaths where the world goes on at best oblivious and at worst indifferent, they happen all the time.

And that’s just 1 statistic with which you can scratch the surface. You can throw in war, poverty, sex-trafficing- what Paul calls the ‘Principalities and Powers’ against which we must contend.

Of course, that’s the rub. Elsewhere Paul also claims those selfsame Principalities and Powers have been defeated. On the cross.

     What my nurse hit upon by expressing her feelings of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s suffering and need is what theologians mean by describing the ‘already/not yet’ character of Christ’s saving work.

That is-

Christ’s victory over the powers of this dark world has been achieved already; his work upon the cross is perfect, complete and once-for-all.

But the effects of his victory, Christ’s reign and his Kingdom, the evacuation of suffering and alienation, the elimination of Sin and Death, still are not yet realized upon the world. Innocents die of collateral damage. Kids die of cancer. The poor suffer our affluence. Prisoners suffer our indifference. Minorities suffer our blind and casual callousness.

In a nutshell, already/not yet translates to:

The world is not the way it’s supposed to be if- especially freaking if- A) God exists and B) God is sovereign and C) God as the Incarnate Christ already defeated the Principalities and Powers.

Believe me, take the cancer ward as just one possible exhibit A. It can get hard to believe in the already when you’re surrounded by, thrust into, so much of the not yet. So much so you start to worry- any sane or moral person would, I think- that your faith in the ‘already’ isn’t really a form of cognitive dissonance. Not pie in the sky as much as willful shutting of the eyes to all the shit below the skies.

 Now, with cancer myself, I find myself begging to differ with Wayne:

Christian faith is not about rolling up our sleeves and changing the world, chipping away at the ‘not yet’ one compassionate act at a time.

It can’t be because ever since the alleged ‘already’ at the first Easter about 2 thousand years of ‘not yet’ have accrued and, much like the sin that begat the cross in the first place, that’s a debt we cannot possibly pay.

To insist that faith in the Risen Jesus is about changing the world not only suggests that we can ourselves what Jesus still has not done himself (for whatever reasons), it surely also inflicts the kind of fatigued sense of futility my nurse expressed to me, as though Christians are called not to baptize but to burnout.

So if Christian faith isn’t about changing the world, then what’s the why behind our compassionate actions?

What’s the why behind bothering to build wood-stoves in Guatemala? Behind serving the poor? Behind caring for the sick and the suffering?

People often ask me these days if cancer has gotten me to rethink any of my theology.

Here it is:

Christian faith- our compassionate acts of faithful service- are not about changing the world.

They’re about protesting it.

Protesting the ‘not yet’ way of the God’s world.

Portrait Karl Barth

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I first cut my teeth, writes that whenever we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s Kingdom to come we cannot come to terms and be satisfied with the status quo.’ 

We are, Barth says, by our prayerful action to ‘revolt and fight against the disorder which inwardly and outwardly controls and penetrates and disrupts all human relations and interconnections.’ 

Or, as it’s put more concisely in a quote attributed to Barth: ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising agains the disorder of the world.’ 

 So we pray, we serve, we roll up our sleeves and care in order to protest- to point out- that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, far far from it (screams the boy’s blood in the bathroom next to me), and although we cannot change the world ourselves we pursue these modest acts of faith as a witness, a summons, to the only One who can.

Of course, if Christian faith is more about protesting the world than changing it, then it should become obvious that our biggest protest is to against God, who still has not yet made good on the already of his Easter promise.

     Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes even- maybe at our best times, despair.

#Blessed

Jason Micheli —  January 26, 2015 — 2 Comments

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-2 I continued our Unfinished sermon series this by taking a look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-14, specifically ‘Blessed are the poor.’ If there’s a danger in romanticizing the poor, I think there’s an equally grave danger in always seeing them as objects of our blessing.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

Here it is:

Often when you serve the poor hands-on or go to someplace like Guatemala to work on a mission project, you hear people say things like ‘It really makes you appreciate all your blessings.’

It’s always struck me as an odd turn of phrase, even though I’m guilty of using it myself, and I thought it was an idea worth puzzling over.

     Now, whenever Jesus wanted to look at something upside-down and possibly leave his listeners confused and PO’d, he’d tell a parable.

So…

 

Once upon a time-

In a small mountain village atop the Guatemalan Highlands, in the thin air where coffee grows and cornstalks grow short and the cirrus and cumulus mingle with pines, a church mission team from Anywhere, USA threw their 3 figure North Face luggage onto the roof and climbed into their well-appointed rental van, their white skin chapped and burnt from the nearby sun.

Sitting down in the first comfortable seat they’d had in a week, the baker’s dozen of them wiped their faces of the grime that still lingered after days of cold, quick showers.

They stretched their legs feeling, if not clean, refreshed, wearing the clothes they’d saved for this final day at the bottom of their duffle bags, their dirty work clothes left behind to be discovered like orphans by whichever needy woman cleaned up after them.

As the diesel van pulled away from the village, a cloud of dust and scampering, waving children in its wake, the mood in the van turned reflective. The van shifted into second while the pastor of the group pulled from his bag not his bible or his Barth but his iPhone.

Seeing the half-eaten apple come alive in the (Otterbox-protected) glass screen, secretly the pastor was proud of himself for going so long without it. Jesus in the desert still had 3 weeks on him, the Pastor mused, but surely this must be what the Savior himself felt when he stumbled from the wilderness and took his first bite of bread.

Gary, a hospital administrator, leaned his head back again the cushion and daydreamed about the hot, sandal-less, mouth-wide-open shower he was going to take when he got home, one that would go on for as long as he was willing to pay the city for it.

In the row in front of him, Jessica, a high school senior, spoke of looking forward to sleeping in her bed- a real bed- made warm from the vents in the floor and not a mountain of blankets piled on top of it.

And food, she said, McDonalds. She couldn’t eat any more rice and beans, she confessed, unless of course it was from Chipotle.

Gene, a retired engineer sitting in the passenger seat, asked no one in particular, what they were going to do to take this ‘high’ they’d felt all week into the ‘real’ world.

Meanwhile, the pastor presented to listen as he thought about how he would celebrate this week past on the only altar that really, truly matters: social media.

As if hearing the pastor’s thoughts, Mike, a government contractor, activated his international phone and set about updating his Facebook profile picture, to a shot of him kneeling beside a little village girl who smiled despite having nothing in her life.

Nancy, a middle-aged mom, who’d sort of become the mom of the group for the week, tried to frame their experience, point out the big picture, like a mom would do:

When you see people like this who have absolutely nothing, it makes you realize how blessed you really are.

And everyone in the air-conditioned van nodded at what seemed the Gospel truth of it.

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When they could no longer see the visitors waving goodbye in the window from the back of the van, normal returned as quickly as it had gone for a while. The little children went to go play. The school-aged kids went to school and everyone 14 and older went to work.

A 4 year old boy named Diego stood, along with his 3 friends, near the carpet of tin siding his parents had laid on the grass, on which lay harvested ears of corn drying in the sun.

Diego and his friends stared down, next to the corn, at all the bright, colorful toys their visitors had left behind, toys with strange-sounding names like ‘Frisbee’ and even strange scents that none of their olfactory memories could identify as ‘packaging.’

New packaging.

Diego stared at all the stuff- he’d heard their visitors use that word more than once, stuff- and then he grabbed the hard, plastic ball, about the size of a softball (though he didn’t know what a softball was), a ball his brother had had before him, and he and his friends started to play soccer like they had a million times before in their few years.

Kicking the ball square on his inside left, Diego thought briefly about how blessed he was. Maybe he couldn’t put into words what was running through his 4 year old brain, but all the same he was considering his blessings.

Sure his ball wasn’t a real soccer ball and, yes, it was dimpled and about to break, but Diego couldn’t imagine how poor it would be- sad, really- to have so many toys that you don’t know with which one to play. What would be the fun in that?

Or even worse, Diego thought, how poor would it be to have so many toys you forgot the most obvious thing about toys? That it’s not about with what toy you play; it’s about with whom you play it.

As he watched his pal celebrate a goal, kicked straight through the stacked bags of cement, he felt a twinge of melancholy for those who lacked the blessings he and his friends enjoyed.

 

After their visitors disappeared down the dirt road, Maria, a 5th grade girl, hurried up the gravel slope to the village church that more often doubled as the village school.

As she walked, Maria remembered how one of their visitors, a teenager, had asked her simple Spanish if she liked school. And when she’d given the true and obvious answer (si), the visitor had reacted with genuine surprise and had asked again as though not trusting her own Spanish (si?!)

It seemed she couldn’t imagine Maria enjoying school, but Maria couldn’t imagine how anyone could not love school, especially when they got to go even after they should be working or starting a family.

As a 5th grader, Maria herself only had a few years left of school so she was determined to savor them. She loved learning; it felt to her like creation was more than willing to yield its secrets to those willing to tug and tease them out- like the way the numbers and fractions on their cracked chalk board revealed themselves on her father’s plumb lines and masonry work.

Maria stamped the dust off her feet as she entered the church, feeling sorry for those who lacked. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be without: joy, excitement and curiosity, wonder at God’s world around you.

She sat down in the 5th grade section of pews next to her friend Brenda, who was talking to the girl next to her. Like everyone else that morning, Maria could hear, they were discussing their recent visitors.

Remember when they showed us the pictures on their cameras, Brenda recalled, the  pictures of their houses?

So huge, her friend replied, so many rooms!

And thinking about that, Brenda recalled a bible story she’d heard in this same room, where Jesus says to let your light shine and not hide it under a basket.

     Brenda thought that when you lived in a house so large, it must easy for your light to get lost in all those rooms.

And suddenly she felt sorry for those visitors. Your light is everything, Brenda knew, and without out it you have nothing. Her parents would be proud, she thought, sitting there and feeling grateful for how blessed she was.

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The church bell rang the start of school and the roosters crowed for those who might’ve missed it and, once they’d quieted, almost like the tick-tock of a minute hand, you could hear the sounds of hoes striking soil all around the mountain fields.

Manuel braced himself in the sheer, sloped field and went to digging in the bean field. The familiar rhythm took possession of him. This is what he did, what he’d been taught to do by the fathers who’d done it before him, and Manuel did it with the stern and subtle grace of someone who knows his purpose and life’s meaning, and, for that, he felt blessed.

This was, after all, the land his fathers both heavenly and earthly had bequeathed him.

It fed the children he was charged to protect, the wife he was vowed to care for and the neighbors he was called to love as much as himself.

Life was exceedingly simple when you took such a long view, Manuel thought and, in thinking, thought of their visitors. Manuel couldn’t imagine what life must be like from where they came. To travel so far, so many miles, to find a sense of meaning or purpose in life?

Perhaps, Manuel wondered, they’re what Jesus refers to in Luke’s sermon on the plain as ‘poor in spirit.’

As the leader of their village church (a priest hadn’t been through in years), Manuel was given to such ponderings, his thoughts in time to his work like a metronome, thoughts like the nagging one he had now about the toilets their visitors had so generously provided.

While he and everyone else in their community were sincerely grateful for the gift, Manuel nonetheless pondered what was worse: to be without sanitation or to be without the everyday knowing that so many in the world were without it?

It struck Manuel as a question with no easy answer, the sort of question he’d drop in a sermon and leave to others to sort out.

Manuel stood up to straighten his back and wipe his brow and look over his work. Their visitors had worked hard and without complaint while they were here. Still, it was clear that they were not used to such work.

He tried to imagine what it would be like, to be without such knowledge, to not know the labor that goes into the food in your belly and the home over your head, to not know the feeling of slumped shoulders and aching backs and muscles burning like paid-out ropes.

If you didn’t know such a sensation, Manuel the churchman pondered, it seems that it would be easy to become callous about those who did labor and maybe even indifferent about those who exploited them.

Thankfully, he thought, returning to work, Manuel didn’t need to worry about such an impoverished spirit afflicting him. No, it was as tangible as the soil in front of him: he was blessed.

 

At sundown that day, as the volunteer team from Anywhere, USA ate McDonald’s and waited for their plane to board, Miguel, a stonemason, returned to his cement block home for dinner.

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His wife, Isabella, was standing by the brick stove where she’d been all day. Now that their visitors were gone they’d be eating simpler fare. Well, not simple, Isabella thought, humble maybe but not simple. Their food was never simple. After all, they’d sweated into their food out there in the fields, at tilling and planting and harvesting and all the in-between times and sweated into it in here over the fire.

She handed Miguel a stack of fresh tortillas and he received them, as he always did, as though they were the host. Manna.

And maybe they were, she thought, knowing herself, just as well as Moses ever did, the fragile line between scarcity and survival.

A little less rain one day, a mudslide another- that was the thin difference between being filled with good things and being empty.

But knowing that ever so slight balance, she thought, was itself a good thing wasn’t it? And not knowing it, that would be a kind of poverty wouldn’t it?

What must it be like, Isabella wondered, her mind drifting reflexively to their visitors, to say grace at the table and not know just how much the food in front of you is exactly what the language of prayer declares it to be: a not so small miracle, a blessing.

A fact that always made her feel blessed.

She and the kids sat down at the table next to Miguel to eat. The volunteers had sat there this week and after dinner each night they’d sit here and sing and break bread and read scripture.

Not knowing English, Miguel couldn’t make out their conversations but he’d listen anyway, feeling curious and even a little sad.

     How would you even hear scripture when you’re them, he wondered, sympathetically, when you’re not the sort of people God wrote it for?

Take Mary’s song, he contemplated, where Mary sings about how Jesus has come to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, humble the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty.

It’s easy for me to hear that as good news, Miguel regarded, but how does it sound when you’re the proud and the powerful?

It must make a simple story like the Gospel seem confusing and complicating, he decided, suddenly feeling blessed that such a burden was not his to bear.

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That evening before she boarded the plane, Nancy typed an email to her husband on her tablet: I want our kids to come here someday. Maybe then they’ll learn to…

But she lost the wifi signal before she could send it.

As she and the rest of her team got on the first leg of their flight, Manuel and Miguel and some others from the village warmed themselves by a stove’s fire, sipping hot chocolate and reflecting on the week gone by.

It’s inspiring how they always seemed to be smiling and happy despite everything they lack, Manuel’s wife observed.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Having visitors like that come here, Isabella said, it really makes you appreciate your blessings.

Miguel said si and wiped the cocoa from his lip and then speculated: I think they blessed us as much as we blessed them.

His thought provoked nods all around but Manuel, in his churchman’s tone, said: Don’t be ridiculous.

They couldn’t bless us even if they wanted. Jesus says it plainly in the bible.

We’re the ones with God’s blessing not them.

They don’t have it to give. We do.

Silence followed as they all tried to square the clear facts of scripture with what their experience told them.

I guess what I mean is…Miguel explained and then stopped, still sorting it out…that when you spend time with people like them, who lack so much…it reminds you…that God’s blessing isn’t what he gives. It’s that he’s with us.

Some more nods circled around the fire’s glow.

I hope they still come to visit when our kids are older, Isabella said. If they do, maybe it will teach our kids to appreciate all their blessings.

 

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

     When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

But what I realized that Advent morning is thatʼs not my place in the story.

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire.

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

 

So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.

 

She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

IMG_2133Today is World Toilet Day, a globally recognized occasion to direct the attention of pampered, fat-a#$#@ like you and me to the lack of sanitation in the developing world.

Not only is not having a pot to p@## in a lack of dignity even America’s poorest can’t imagine, lack of sanitation brings with it systemic health and socio-economic effects.

World Toilet Day has been celebrated by the UN, NGO’s and the philanthropic community since 2001 with a campaign that- I’m quoting here- ‘mixes humor with serious facts to help people resonate with a problem most otherwise ignore.’

Ignore.

Because from a fundraiser’s perspective, toilets aren’t as sexy as a kid with flies in his eyes or buying a playground for him.

And from a funder’s perspective toilets are just, well, ICK.

I know today, November 19, is World Toilet Day.

I’m just surprised- cr!% in my pants shocked- that UMCOR knows its World Toilet Day.

That’s UMCOR as in United Methodist Committee on Relief, the social service arm of the United Methodist Church, the mainoldline denomination in which I toil for love of Jesus.

For the past 30 months, I, and many of my congregants, have literally worked like c@#$ to raise the money and provide much of the hands-on labor to install one complete sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama, Guatemala.

We did so primarily because the leaders of the community themselves identified sanitation as the number one transformative step we could help them take towards an empowered future.

We did so also because 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to sanitation.

Not only does that lead to a 9/11 everyday of bacteria-related fatalities, it’s the main obstacle to girls staying in school once they hit puberty (think about it).

Probably, you DO have to think about it because YOU DON’T HAVE TO THINK ABOUT TAKING A S#$% any day much less everyday.

Toilets are something we take for granted which means it’s not easy to raise money or awareness about someone else’s need for them.

Not to mention a giant Victorian taboo about talking about s#$% stands in the way.

Over the past 2 years we’ve raised over $100,000 off-budget. We’ve also sent more volunteers to help install the sanitation system than most Methodist churches have in worship on a Sunday.

We did so through…drumroll…’mixing humor with serious facts.’

A series of short videos of a guy in a collar (me~ fully clothed) on or near one of my church’s 37(!!) toilets. In each video I tried to playfully point out that getting upset about taboos like talking about doodie in church is pretty unJesusy when he died naked and most of the people he claims to prefer literally live in, play in and eat food washed in doodie every day.

I was told by the denominational powers-that-be that the word ‘toilet’ is inappropriate in church and in church communications. If you want more of that story please call (703) 768-1114.

Truth be told, the broohaha probably helped us raise more money and I was fine with that until I got this email last week from UMCOR, one of the agencies of the denominational powers-that-be.

Telling me today is World Toilet Day and asking me- I s@#$ you not- to learn more by watching a video.

Of a church employee (a pastor?).

At a toilet.

Talking about the importance of toilets.

Even if we think it’s impolite to talk about.

Toilets.

I don’t think I’m being vain by pointing out the similarities (i.e., stealing) in approach. This UMCOR video is the Gary Busey to my Nick Nolte, the Rutger Hauer to my Anthony Hopkins, or even if it’s the reverse the resemblance is there.

I like to think of myself as a trend-setter, but even I can’t make ‘toilet’ an appropriate word in church if it truly is/was a vulgar, ‘grievous’ offense. Anyways, all the crap was worth it because come January, when our mission team arrives, the project will be complete and we’ll be just an inch closer to new creation.

Since it’s World Toilet Day, why not give to Aldersgate’s Guatemala Toilet Project here. Every wee little bit helps, so do you doodie.

And to celebrate Word Toilet Day, here’s a never-published and not-so-amazing (I was told to delete all the old ones) video my kid did for the project in ’13.

 

In preaching, I work hard never to make myself the hero of a story. The rules of rhetoric require it. Even with those anecdotes where I did say or do the right, bold thing, I will instead labor to make myself sound like a d@#$, putting those right, bold words in to someone else’s mouth. I don’t want listeners to think I have a messiah complex and thus miss the message of the actual Messiah.

But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t flatter me in a sermon.

My friend, Taylor Mertins, recently shared a story about me and my family in his sermon on Exodus 2. While embarrassing, it was warmly intended and warmly received. You can check out his blog here, and here’s a post he wrote this summer for Tamed Cynic on what he learned during his first year of ministry.

Without permission, here it is:

newjudaicia4

Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

Exodus-Chapter-2-The-Child-Moses-on-the-Nile

Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him.Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

394705_268204743284233_733312341_nIt’s not uncommon for parents to send their youth on mission trips hoping the experience will impart some life-lesson in gratitude.

Parents often send their youth to places like Guatemala, hoping their son or daughter will return home feeling fortunate for the ‘blessings’ they have in their own life. Parents’ motivation for funding a mission trip frequently isn’t religious at all; they just want their kids to come home realizing they shouldn’t complain about what model Xbox they have because at least they have shelter, food and water.

I don’t doubt that when my boys are teenagers and themselves being consumed by materialism I’ll have those same motivations in shipping them off to some desperate, developing nation.

At the same time, the motivation to ‘teach our kids how fortunate they are’ has always rubbed me the wrong way.

After all, aren’t we essentially using someone’s poor kid to teach our rich kid a lesson?

That’s not mission; it’s not service. That’s, really, just another form of consumerism.

We’re sending them off to a place of poverty because there’s nothing we can buy in the store that will teach them that particular lesson.

Here’s what else I think and I only realize this because I didn’t send my kids off on a mission trip I happen to be here in Guatemala with them:

When we want our kids to come away from mission feeling fortunate for what they have, we tip our hats to the fact that having is really what’s important to us.

Seeing this place through Gabriel’s and Alexander’s eyes has taught me an important lesson. The poor, indigenous Mayans with whom we’ll serve this week- they don’t know they’re ‘poor.’ They don’t think of themselves as poor.

And neither does Gabriel. Nor does Alexander

They’re just people to them. 541013_10200197862772183_68837880_n

Seeing this place through their eyes has shows me how poverty is a category we impose on them because we’ve allowed materialism to call the shots in how we define ‘riches’ or ‘happiness.’

Gabriel and Alexander don’t notice that none of these kids have a Wii and they don’t feel badly that they don’t.

They don’t show compassion to them because it doesn’t occur to him that they should be pitied.

Instead Gabriel has been perfectly content to play in the dirt, broken bits of plastic making just as good an Ironman toy as a $10 one from Target. Their homes are just their homes, that their floor is mud and ours hardwood is of no consequence to him.

Parents often want their kids to return from a place like Guatemala realizing that they should be content with what they have. I’ve never heard a parent say they want their child to return realizing that a full, rich life can be had apart from having.

But it can be. That’s what my boys teach me here, and it’s taught me that until you’re hit with this realization you can never see ‘poor‘ people as…people.

And if you can’t see them as people your act of charity isn’t Christian precisely because it’s neither relational nor incarnational.

I’ve been coming to Guatemala for over a decade to do projects like these for people like this but, seeing them through Gabriel’s eyes, it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time.

JanetThe overlap between art and faith coincides at a number of points.

Both rely upon tradition and discipline to think about the things which matter.

Both use symbolics to make a prophetic point about the world as it is beneath our pretensions.

In both art and faith, the debate between what is sacred (or just appropriate) and profane is continuous.

In fact, I would argue the ongoing power and relevance of both art and faith is due to their ability to blur the line of convention and provoke just such a conversation.

Recently, some have raised the question of the appropriateness of the word ‘toilet’ in a sacred setting.

Is the word itself profane?

Or does context- how and to what end it’s used, say raising money for an indigenous community- determine it’s propriety?

Can an ordinarily ‘profane’ word become ‘sacred?’

Janet Laisch, an art historian and church member, picks it up from here.
Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968il_340x270.545836925_2ejm

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1964 above is displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) as a replacement for his original from 1917. After his brother’s death during WWI, Duchamp moved from Paris to NYC and helped form the Society of Independent Artists as a way for emerging artists to exhibit their work without censor. In preparation for the first show, Duchamp purchased a mass produced plumbing object from the Mott Hardware store, signed it using his alter ego R. Mutt short for Richard Mutt and dated it 1917.  Duchamp categorized this entry as sculpture and paid the required $6 fee only to have it rejected and “lost” or destroyed. The controversy that ensued became part of the object’s meaning and eventually the impetus for Duchamp to recreate it and have it displayed permanently at the SF MOMA.

The following is a direct quote from a 1917 periodical: “The Richard Mutt Case,” from The Blind Man, May 1917:

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“They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.” Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain.

Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited. What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain:

 1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.

 2 Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.

Now Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows. Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object. As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”

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Creating art during WWI when most objects were mass produced and easily replaceable, Duchamp asked: should art still be hand-made, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, unique?

Should art be visually pleasing?

Must art require impressive technical skill?

What is art?

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Through the use of only minimally manipulated mundane ready-made objects, Duchamp sought to move away from the established definition that art should showcase the visual and technical skill of the artist and instead made art about a concept. The idea the object conveys is the more permanent nature of the art(ifact) as long as it has a vehicle for communicating its message. The object itself will eventually disappear much like Duchamp felt after his own brother’s death during WWI.

The idea once created remains a part of history as long as it is remembered either by creating a replacement or by communicating about it. For this work, Duchamp chose the plumbing object, displayed it at 90 degrees and signed it in black and called it sculpture.  Applying a title not associated with its original use may change it very drastically.

The very title—Fountain—transforms the way I view this ready-made object.

Duchamp wanted people to reconsider it– that is why he provided it with a new name. He wants us to free associate using the plumbing object and title to form new ideas and think about society in a new way.

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For example, we find it absurd to drink water from Duchamp’s Fountain or vile and revolting.

Hopefully we are angry enough that we don’t want anyone to drink non potable water.

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It is a loaded image because it reminds me of really vile behavior and oppression when different standards were not recognized as evil.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

We don’t have to agree that this object is art or that Duchamp is brilliant.

I hope we can agree that these people are beautiful, one-of-a kind, unique, and irreplaceable.

When it comes to ‘toilets’ and getting toilets and clean water to children like these, the question is not between the sacred and profane.

It’s a question of what is holy.

To give to the Guatemala Toilet Project, click here.

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Here’s the homily from Sunday on Mark 1.40-45. You can listen to the audio below, on the sidebar to the right. You can download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

The sermon was short this week because we used the worship service time to package meals for Stop Hunger Now.

1. AUMCK_Sermon_23_MAR_2014.mp3     

This is Anna Lucia.

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     She’s five years old in this picture. I met her just before Christmas a few years ago. She lives in the Highlands in Guatemala.

I built a wood-stove in her family’s house so that her mother would have something to cook over instead of cooking over an open fire inside their home.

Anna’s house is about half the size of my bathroom. It’s made of mud with an earth floor in a village routinely devastated by mudslides.

The only other possessions in the house were a dirty mattress, a faded soccer poster, and a tiny little Christmas tree with jagged, broken colored lights.

At that altitude it frosts every night, but there’s no heat. Not even a door just bright pink tapestry hanging from the ceiling- and you could hear that cold in Anna’s breathing. It sounded like she had pneumonia.

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You can’t tell from this photograph but Anna’s nose ran with black snot from the fire her mother had to cook over.

The only water Anna Lucia has access to is polluted.

She and her family have no sink. No toilet.

Anna’s mother is named Maria and she’s only a teenager though she looks three times her age.

Her father works a tiny field outside their house.

The summer before this picture Anna’s parents borrowed money to send a family member to the States to find work.

So when I met them not only were they impoverished, they were in debt too.

I’ve been working in Guatemala for a long time. Aldersgate has been sending service teams there for almost 10 years.

     People often speak of the ‘spiritual high’ they get from serving the poor.

     They talk about the ‘joy’ that comes in helping others.

     And that’s part of it.

     But you know what else I always leave feeling?

     What I left Anna Lucia feeling?

     Anger.

 

Right after he’s baptized, Jesus goes to Galilee.

‘Galilee’ is Mark’s shorthand way of saying ‘on the other side of the tracks.’

As soon as he arrives, a leper comes up to Jesus. Gets down on his knees begging.

Leprosy assaults your body as your skin rots away.

But ‘leprosy also attacks your social network.

It brings you isolation. It makes you unclean. It leaves you socially unacceptable’ (Walter Brueggemann).

So not only does leprosy makes sick, it stigmatizes you.

Which, if you weren’t already, makes you poor.

 

And according to the Law of Moses, a leper’s ‘uncleanness’ can only be ritually removed by a duly vested priest.

 

This leper obviously knows the rules don’t give Jesus the right to cleanse him. That’s why he gives Jesus an out: “You could declare me clean, if you dare.”

And Mark says that ‘moved with anger’ Jesus stretches out his hand and Jesus touches this untouchable leper- touches him before he heals him- and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

     And while the leprosy leaves him, Jesus doesn’t say ‘come and follow me’ or ‘your faith has made you well.’

     No, Mark says Jesus snorts “with indignation.”

ὀργισθείς

     Here’s the money question Mark wants you to puzzle out:

     Why is Jesus so angry?

Because this pushy leper didn’t say the magic word?

Because now all anyone will want from him are miracles?

Because this leper is only interested in a cure not carrying a cross?

Why is Jesus so angry?

     In order to answer that question, you have to ask another one:

     Why does Jesus send this ex-leper to show himself to the priests?

 

The answer Mark wants you to tease out is that this ex-leper had already gone to the priests and with the same question: ‘Will you declare me clean?’

 

Jesus is angry. Jesus snorts with indignation. Jesus huffs and puffs because before this leper begged Jesus, he went before the priests.

Just as the Bible instructs.

And they turned him away.

 

You see, the priests in Jesus’ day charged money for the ritual cleansing.

And money, if you were a leper, is something you didn’t have.

     So not only were lepers marginalized and ostracized, they were victimized too.

     And that, Mark says, makes for one PO’d Messiah.

What Would Jesus Do?

As often as we ask ourselves that question, ‘Get Torqued Off’ isn’t usually what comes to mind.

Jesus only has 19 verses of actual ministry under his belt here and already he’s righteously mad.

And Jesus keeps on getting angry, again and again, in Mark’s Gospel.

 

When a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus in church and the Pharisees look on in apathy, Jesus gets angry.

And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and sees what’s going on, Jesus gets angry and throws a Temple tantrum.

And when Peter brings a sword to protect the Prince of Peace, Jesus gets angry and scolds him.

 

We tend to think that anger is a bad thing, that it’s something to be stamped out not sought after. Some have even numbered anger a ‘deadly sin.’

But we believe that Jesus was fully human, in him was the full complement of sinless human emotions.

Not only do we believe Jesus was fully human, scripture calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.

 Meaning:

Jesus wasn’t just truly human; he’s the True Human.

He’s not only fully human; he’s the only human- the only one to ever be as fully alive as God made each of us to be.

Yet Jesus is angry all the time.

So anger isn’t always or necessarily a bad thing.

Instead of a flaw in our humanity, anger could be a way for us to become more human, as fully human as Jesus.

 

But how do we know the difference?

Between anger as a vice and anger as a virtue?

Scripture speaks of sin as ‘missing the mark.’ 

That is, sin is when our actions or desires are aimed towards something other than what God intends.

When you read straight through the Gospels, you notice how Jesus gets angry…all the time.

But what Jesus gets angry at-

is injustice, oppression, poverty

suffering and stigmatization

abuse and apathy.

That’s the kind of anger that hits God’s mark.

 

As a pastor, I run into people all the time who are convinced either that God is angry at them OR that the god of the Bible is an angry god.

So let me just say it plain:

     The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for us is unconditional.

     Because the love between the Father, Son and Spirit is unceasing.

     God’s love for us is unchanging because GOD IS UNCHANGING.

We cannot earn God’s love, no matter how hard we try.

We cannot lose God’s love, no matter how hard we try.

God does not change his mind about us.

Because God does not change his mind.

Because God does not change.

     God IS NOT ANGRY.

     God CANNOT EVER BE ANGRY.

     Because he’s God.

But Jesus, the True Human Person, the 2nd Adam, the Fully Human One, he gets Angry.

And that means…so should we.

 

When we built that wood- stove in Anna’s house, we looked around for bits of rock and odds and ends to use to fill the holes in the cinder blocks before we filled them with mortar.

Want to guess one of the things I came across underneath some old, woven grain sacks?

An empty wrapper from an old meal.

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     What we do today by packaging these meals for people like Anna- I hope it gives you that feeling of joy that comes from serving others; I hope it leaves you with a sense of fulfillment having helped a cause greater than yourself.

     But I hope it leaves you a little bit angry too.

     Because if it does, you’ll leave here just a little bit more human.

 

Here’s the latest- flu bug- installment for the Guatemala Toilet Project.

You can do your doodie by giving today. Every a wee little bit helps.

So much of what I do as a pastor is ephemeral.

It’s hard to step away from the pulpit and know if a sermon will survive any longer than the moment that’s just passed. It’s difficult to sit by a hospital bed and discern if you’ve been anything more than simply kind, if you’ve been helpful. Or true. I do believe in measuring. I believe numbers matter because people matter to God, but I also know that in ministry there are not as many quantifiables as some would like to pretend. Still fewer are the tangible outcomes produced by ministry.

One of them, however, is the mission work made possible in part by my congregation, and thus in part, by me.

I hope it sounds neither sentimental nor self-interested that I find a great sense of fulfillment in knowing that I had a small role to play in the Community/Clinic getting built in Chikisis, Guatemala over 2012-2013.

Not only will the center house service teams in a region of the Highlands otherwise too remote to help, it will serve as a gathering spot of indigenous women in the region to receive medical training and o

ther empowerment skills.

Here are some photos taken by our most recent team of the center as well as some photos of digging the central sewage lines for the community- part of our larger Guatemala Toilet Project in Chikisis.

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1533912_788137987868343_1539293862_nMany of you helped fund or build the Community Center in Chuicutama, Guatemala.

Our Christmas mission team lodged there this December while working on our Sanitation Project. Now, you can see the community center being used as it was intended: to train and empower indigenous women in the Highlands.

 

DESIGNIt seems the people of scripture are forever journeying to Bethlehem.

Jacob, Ruth and Naomi, Hannah and David.

I invite you to prepare for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem by recalling the Old Testament characters whose journeys intersected in Bethlehem. Click here to download the ebook.

Proceeds (if there are any) will go to Highland Support Project, our partner organization working to empower indigenous Mayan communities in the Highlands of Guatemala.

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Your Salvation is Impossible

Jason Micheli —  November 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

camel-needle-surrealHere’s this weekend’s sermon on the rich (young) man.

You can listen to here, on the sidebar or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

1. Tamed_Cynic_Your_Salvation_is_Impossible.mp3     

Mark 10.17-27

I originally tried to get an actual, live camel here for this weekend. As it turns out that would’ve been obscenely expensive, which Dennis thought would’ve been too ironic given this month’s focus on simplicity.

So I don’t have a live camel, but I thought I could approximate one to help us visualize the story. I need a few volunteers.

According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, the one-humped dromedary camel is about 7 1/4 feet tall, from the ground to the top of its hump, and about 10 feet long from nose to tail.

In his day and in his part of the world, the camel was the largest animal Jesus could’ve have conceived. Just just hold those dimensions in your mind.

In Mark 10, Jesus and the disciples are a few miles outside the nation’s capital. Jesus has just taught that if anyone wants to enter the Kingdom of God they’ll have to approach the Kingdom as children, as having nothing, as children have nothing.

No sooner are his words out of his mouth than someone with everything approaches Jesus. A rich man. You don’t have everything you want without knowing how to get anything you want. So the rich man tries his hand at flattery: ‘Good Teacher’ he calls Jesus.

And then he asks him a rich man’s kind of question. With everything in this life taken care of- no worries- the rich man asks what he has to do to inherit the next one.

Jesus doesn’t return the rich man’s flattery and responds disinterestedly by giving him the most ordinary answer imaginable.

He recites the 10 Commandments.

But the rich man waves him off: I’ve already done all that. I’m a good person. I’m religious. I don’t lie. I haven’t cheated on my wife. I haven’t stolen from my neighbors.

You’re still missing one thing, Jesus says.

Go.

Liquidate your 401K. Empty your savings. Put the house on the market. Trade in the car. Sell the season tickets. Forget the beach vacation. Cancel your membership at the club. Everything. Give the cash to the poor.

And then come follow me.

And the rich man says: ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. What do you know? You’re just some homeless guy.’

Then Jesus looks at this one rich man and makes a sweeping generalization about all rich people:

 their salvation is impossible.

This same Jesus who promised paradise to the thief

This same Jesus who refused to condemn the adulteress

This same Jesus who compared himself to a shepherd who will go out of his way searching for a single lost lamp

This same Jesus who said God’s love was like an old lady who turned her house upside down looking for a dime

This same Jesus says salvation is impossible for the rich.

The disciples, who’ve grown up believing that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, they ask Jesus: what do you mean it’s impossible?

I mean, it’s about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded 7 x 10 foot camel through the eye of a needle.

Jesus says.

Or, as we might say today, when it comes to heaven the rich have a snowball’s chance in hell.

I offer it to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Just kidding.

Actually, the story’s maybe not as bad as it sounds.

As the ancient Church Father, Origen, pointed out, the Aramaic word for camel (kamelon) is almost identical to the Aramaic word for nautical cable (kamilon).

It’s just 1 letter difference. It could be as simple as a copyist’s error.

So when Jesus says ‘impossible’ he doesn’t mean camel-through-the-eye-of-a -needle impossible.

He instead means that the rich getting into heaven is more like threading a mariner’s rope through the eye of a needle.

 

See, that’s more comforting right? Not really?

If nothing else, we can seek solace in the fact that Jesus didn’t say this to everyone.

Jesus didn’t tell his 12 disciples to sell everything and give it to the poor. Sure they dropped fishing nets and left boats behind in the water and walked away from homes and, presumably, families inside them.

But Jesus didn’t tell them they had to or heaven was null and void.

And when a lawyer- who definitely wasn’t poor- asks Jesus this very same question about eternal life, the lawyer doesn’t get an impossible image of a camel squeezing through a needle.

He gets a story about a Good Samaritan.

And the woman at the well, when she asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell her ‘Go and give away everything for the poor.’

Jesus tells her ‘Go and sin no more.’

So before you get all worked up about this Gospel passage, just remember that Jesus doesn’t say this to everyone. Jesus doesn’t pull the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle comparison for everyone. He doesn’t say salvation is impossible for everyone.

He just says it to the rich, about the rich.

So as long as we’re not rich, we’re in the clear.

We can love our neighbor as ourself. We can go and sin no more.

We don’t have to worry that our salvation is impossible.

But how do you know?

If you’re rich?

After all, rich people are notoriously adept at deluding themselves.

In study after study, sociologists have shown how rich people seldom think of themselves as rich. Hardly ever.

It’s always the person above them, in front of them, who has and makes more who’s wealthy. Not them.

Rich people rarely think of themselves as rich.

Even if we were rich, chances are we wouldn’t think we were. So how do you know?

A few years ago, Money Magazine surveyed its readers and asked them how much they would need in liquid assets to consider themselves wealthy.

Guess how much? 5 million dollars.

That seems a little high to me.

But here’s the thing-

When it comes to wealth, we don’t need to agree on tax brackets or net worth.

We don’t need to debate exact amounts or dollar figures because we can easily identify a rich based on some very specific behaviors.

Some ‘you might be a rich person if’ behaviors.

Because rich people have so much money they do some crazy, strange things that are easy to point out.

For example, one of the things rich people do is called ‘upgrade.’

Maybe you’ve read about it. It’s when a rich person has something that works, perfectly, and then they go out and get another just like it, only a litter newer.

And then they have 2.

Strange right?

Like I said, we don’t have to agree on net worth because we can I.D. rich people by the crazy things they do they have so much money.

Don’t believe me?

Listen to this:

Rich people will go into a kitchen, a kitchen with countertops, a microwave and an oven, and guess what they’ll do

They’ll rip it all out.

And then…they’ll replace it.

With countertops, a microwave and an oven.

You’re smiling because it’s crazy right?

That’s why we don’t need to agree on how much money makes a person rich because we can identify a rich person based on what they do.

Some rich people I know, they’ll go to the mall and they’ll wait in line outside the Apple Store, and let me tell you rich people hate waiting in line.

But they’ll wait in line at the Apple Store for an hour, 2 hours, 3 hours. And while they wait, they’ll pull out their iPhone and they’ll post on Facebook: ‘At the Apple Store, waiting to get my new iPhone.’

Rich people do such strange things they make themselves obvious.

Something else rich people do- maybe you’ve heard about this before.

They’ll open up a refrigerator filled with food, and they’ll look inside and then they’ll say the craziest thing: ‘There’s nothing to eat.’

It’s true.

I know rich people who will do the same thing in front of their closet.

They’ll stand in front of a closet full of clothes and they’ll say: ‘I’ve got nothing to wear.’

And the truth is, they’ve got work clothes, workout clothes, afterwork clothes and work in the yard clothes.

It’s ridiculous I know.

Don’t say anything, but I know this one rich woman. She’s got like 13, 14 pairs of shoes and she’s always on the lookout for another.

What could you possible do with 14 pairs of shoes? That’s like half of February.

You see, we don’t need to peek inside a person’s portfolio to know if they’re rich. Their behaviors are so easy to spot.

For example-

Rich people have so much stuff they’ll gather up stuff they don’t use- it all works fine- and they’ll give it away.

They’ll give it away.

And then, they’ll feel good about themselves for giving away stuff they don’t need in order to create more space in their house so they can go get more stuff.

I’m telling you, rich people do the craziest things.

But it’s not just the crazy things that make a rich person easy to identify.

How many of you know someone who owns a car? Any kind of car?

Only 8% of the world has a car. 92% of the people in the world would look at that person with the car and think ‘rich.’

How many of you know someone who has some way to drink a glass of clean water?

Because 1 billion people in the world would look at that glass of water like it was gold and lick their lips and think ‘rich.’

How much change do you have on you? Right now in your pockets?

Over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. I won’t tell the IRS but congratulations, you’re rich.

How many of you know someone who will eat something today?

Because half a billion kids won’t.

This girl on the back of your bulletin. 

I’ve been to her home at least 3 times. Fact is, I can tell you for sure that my garbage disposal eats better than she does.

I’m rich.

When surveyed, the readers of Money Magazine said they’d need 5 million dollars in liquid to consider themselves rich.

 

The truth is- if you have a combined household income of $45,000 you’re in the top 1% of wage earners in the world.

You’re rich.

And I know, the way wealth works, you probably don’t think of yourself as rich.

I know, most of you, in this part of the world, in our part of the world, you’re not considered rich. But don’t forget Jesus was a homeless dude and probably wouldn’t find that a very persuasive argument.

It’s a dangerous thing when we think our world is the world.

It’s dangerous because we might read right on past a passage like today’s and not even realize that Jesus just said our salvation is impossible.

 

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The rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus answers by reciting the 10 Commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet or cheat or dishonor.

But notice.

Jesus doesn’t rattle off all 10 of the Commandments.

Jesus leaves off the first 2, the 2 most important ones, the 2 of which the other 8 are only subsets:

I am the Lord your God.

You shall worship no other gods but God.

‘I’ve done all that; I’ve kept those commandments’ the rich man says.

 

And Jesus parries:

There is one more thing- what about the first 2 commandments? How are you with those?

Only Jesus doesn’t phrase it that way.

 

He asks it in an object lesson instead.

Go sell all your stuff. Put it on Ebay and Craigslist. Auction it off.

Take the money- I don’t want your money- give it to the poor.

Get rid of everything you have so that you just have me.

Get rid of all you treasure and you can have me, your homeless God, as your greatest treasure.

 

How does that sound?

Mark says the rich man walked away, ‘grieving.’

And that word in Greek (aganakteo) it’s the same exact word that Mark uses to describe another rich, young ruler in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he gives everything away, when Jesus weeps and sweats blood because he’s losing the most precious thing he has: the presence of God the Father.

Mark says the rich man ‘grieves’ thinking about losing his god.

As the rich man walks away, Jesus says ‘Huh, rich people…their salvation is impossible.’

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I know enough rich people to know that that rich man- he probably heard that as bad news.

It just goes to show how money can make it hard to hear the Gospel.

Because it’s not bad news.

It’s not.

Let’s be honest, rich people like us- we’re such sinners. Our hearts have so many idols, money is only the primary one. Our values and priorities are so compromised . We’ve hurt so many people in our lives and messed up our own lives in so many ways.

It would take a completely impossible miracle to save rich people like us.

I mean, it would be as likely as a rich man willing making himself poor. Not going to happen.

Our salvation is as unlikely as a King stepping down off his throne to become a slave. What are the odds?

It would be like someone paying an incredible debt that someone else racked up. There comes a price point where no one would ever do that.

It would like an innocent man laying down his life not for his friends or his family or his country but for a guilty man. What are the chances of that happening?

Our salvation IS an impossibility!

It’s like hell freezing over. It’s like pigs flying.

It’s like a dead man coming back from the grave.

It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle.

Thanks be to God.

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The only people who are saved are the ones who realize that their salvation is an impossible miracle.

An act of God.

A gift I don’t deserve and could never purchase.

Something that was bought at great cost but has been freely given…to me.

Once that Gospel transforms your heart, once it becomes your treasure, once it becomes the most precious identity-forming thing in your life, it changes everything.

Once the Gospel transforms your heart, you realize that asking the question ‘How much do I have to give?’ or ‘What percentage do I have to give?’ misses the point completely.

Because it’s not about obligation.

You should want to give all that you can because Jesus Christ gave it all away for you.

Even putting the question that way: ‘How much do I have to give?’ is a good indication that you haven’t experienced the Gospel yet.

You might be a religious person; you’re just not a Christian.

That’s why, for example, it never works out when people say ‘I’ll give more once I make this much money, once I’m at this stage in my career, once the kids are gone, once this bill is paid off.’

Odds are, you won’t.

Because it’s not a money issue. It’s a God issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

Statistically, the more money a person makes the less they give as a percentage of their income.

Because the more stuff you have, one, single gift doesn’t seem quite as important does it? The more provisions you have, the less you need a Provider.

It’s not a money issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

It’s not about asking how much you have to give.

It’s about having your attitude about money- and everything else- shaped by the Cross.

It’s not about percentages or pocket change.

It’s about giving and living sacrificially.

And by definition, giving and living sacrificially means it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. It’s costs something. It’s not easy. It strains you.

Look, full disclosure: you pay my salary.

So if you want to chalk this up to a self-serving, fundraising sermon, fine.

Don’t give your money to the Church.

Give it to Lupe to use in Guatemala.

But give until it hurts.

Give until it hurts because it’s NOT ABOUT MONEY.

Jesus didn’t want the rich man’s money, and God doesn’t want yours.

God wants your heart. He already paid a lot for it.

God wants your heart.

And God wants your heart to be shaped like his.

And if the preaching of Jesus, again and again and again, is any indication:

 

Nothing competes more for your heart than money.

 

Nothing competes more for your love of Christ than the pursuit and management of wealth.

 

Nothing works against you following Christ fully, you maturing in your faith, you surrendering everything you are to Christ, you making yourself available to Christ’s call upon your life- nothing works against you following Christ more than the pursuit and management of a lifestyle.

Nothing competes more for our hearts than money.

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So it’s always good to find out where our heart is, whose our heart is.

 

Now I’m not going to test you like Jesus did and challenge you to sell everything you got and give it away.

 

Because actually, you can find out where your heart is without all that trouble.

You just have to think about this one question and answer to yourself honestly.

Here goes:

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear:

There is no God. Your sins haven’t been forgiven, but that’s okay because there is no heaven and after you die you won’t be with God or any of your loved ones.

Or

You have no money.

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear: there is no God or you have no money?

Where your answer is, there lies your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

* ‘rich’ anecdotes and closing question owed to Andy Stanley.

9The women of Pixan are Mayan women from the Highlands of Guatemala being trained by Highland Support Project to to compete in the global marketplace.

These are the same women helped and empowered through our other projects such as stove-building, women’s circles and the sanitation project.

You can check out the video below and then go to their storeto purchase a life-changing project yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

_DSC0359Penelope Norton is a former youth, now friend, who interns with our partner Highland Support Project in Guatemala. This is from her blog, an important reflection on how culture objectifies women. As Penelope points out, we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think machismo attitudes don’t play themselves out in a variety of societal ways; we’re kidding ourselves too if we think our own culture is immune to such abuse.

It didn’t hurt, but I could still feel where his hand had landed harshly on my backside. For several hours after I could feel the outline of every finger not due to pain, but because of how gross I felt. Thinking back to the few moments before it had happened it all made sense. I was waiting at the only light there is on my 15 minute walk to work. When it turned green I proceeded to walk across the street and as a couple was about to cross my path I slowed down. They were looking at me for what seemed like more than the average amount of time. I only seemed to notice it looking back on the scene. As I slowed, out of my peripherals I noticed a boy oddly close to me and once I slowed he veered away from me and down the street I was crossing. A block later I heard hurried foot steps behind me and then a firm smack. I immediately wheeled around amidst a stream of curses (I’m embarrassed to say)and by the time I had made a one/eighty to face my accoster he was already scuttling away and had made it at least 5 feet. The maybe 17 year old boy in a school uniform, the same boy from the block before, was retreating as fast as he had come on.

I had known it would be coming. If I had read into the events that happened right before the slap that was heard through Xela (not really); the couple watching him follow closely behind me, me turning on him right before he had planned to slap me while I was crossing the street I would have realized it was coming. I have been here four months and I’m honestly surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. There are many American, European, and Canadian women in Xela working for non-profits or here to go to Spanish school. We stick out like soar thumbs and due to our light skin, blue eyes, and golden hair we’re targeted. We’re new, exciting, something men here don’t see everyday. We’re something to brag about, “I touched agringa‘s ass today!” I have made many girlfriends here and they all have the same story to tell, all seeming to have the same reaction, dumb-founded stairs, silence, and sometimes even tears. I had mentally prepared myself for this moment, for when it was my turn. I had decided from the beginning that I could not stare dumbly. I told myself from very early on, “Penelope, you will take every precaution to be safe here, but something like being slapped, pinched, or grabbed will happen to you. You can either let it happen or you can do something about it.” I had given myself this pep-talk every time I had heard one of my girl-friend’s most recent stories.

Within my family I am known for my “take-no-prisoners” mentality and I hope it never fades. I was mentally ready. I turned around ready to do I don’t know what, but found him already several feet away. Metal water bottle in one hand and tupperware container full of my breakfast (yogurt and fruit) in the other. With him already out of arms reach, making it unable to grab him by the collar and shake him I did all I could and chucked my breakfast at him. Store owners watching. The boy’s eyes widened and I think he was literally dumb-founded. Unfortunately missing, my rage had not given me the clarity to aim (you can be sure something I will be practicing) and the unusual weight and balance to the tupperware throwing me off. He kept retreating and I proceeded to walk after him, metal water bottle raised yelling at him the whole way till he was in full sprint and around the corner. I am sure this was not his first rodeo, but I am confident that this was the first time he had ever received this sort of reaction. Ashamed and embarrassed of what he had just done to me I went and retrieved my breakfast which had luckily not broken open, but was lying sadly in a dirty puddle.

I think about all the women that are sexually accosted on a much greater level. How, what happened to me was really just child’s play, but still made me feel disgusting and low. Why is that women are the ones that feel embarrassed after something like this happens? We did nothing wrong!

Guatemala lives under macho rule. Women don’t have much to any say, constantly belittled, daughters don’t usually receive the same treatment as sons, wives don’t find themselves partners in their marriage, but just an object conquered; expected to clean, cook, and bear children. Within this macho culture women are raised to be passive and to obey men. Women are constantly berated with more than your average cat call (a simple whistle just won’t cut it); heads hanging out of windows, targets of obscene sexual comments, and as I have experienced being touched inappropriately and without permission. This is normal. Sometimes I feel like the women have bought into it here, but really its all they know.

I only hear the stories of the other Western women that are here as I don’t have many opportunity to have these conversations with Guatemalan women. I assume that they have similar and worse stories. In reality, us “white girls” have a little protection. If a Guatemalan women is touched, raped, goes missing its rare for justice to be served. There is little weight put on their lives. Heads would role if this happened to a “white girl”. They rather not go through the trouble.

In Mayan culture God is made up of both feminine and masculine energy. When Mayan priests begin their prayers they first recognize the feminine energy, second the masculine. It was with the invasion of the Spanish and the male dominated culture they brought with them that the traditional gender role views slowly began to shift. While Mayan culture’s appreciation of both female and male energies equally remains it suffered a greater blow. Guatemala has been heavily wounded by violence. The civil war left deep scars and Guatemalan women are especially exposed. In Guatemala more women (per capita) are murdered than anywhere else in the world (2009), and the murders, the so-called “femicidios”, are characterized by raw brutality and hatred towards women. Women find themselves the punching bags to drunk, stressed, depressed men.

While the appreciation for women within Mayan culture has suffered it is still a breath of fresh air to get out of town and walk through the dirt paths of the Mayan communities.

The need for education is great. The need for a rise in women’s self-esteem is desperate. We work every day through women circle meetings to praise women. Teach them their not worthless. They are more than a body who’s soul purpose is reproduction. I am proud of our work in the communities. We have seen differences in pride and self-esteem which will in turn change the view of how things should be in the home and the rest of the community.

Things are changing, but not fast enough and not on a large enough scale. Never the less I am proud of the progress we are making.

*For family and friends that read my blog I want you to know that I am not in danger. I am extremely careful. I walk no where on my own after dark. When I notice men on the sidewalk I move to the street and visa versa. I am very aware of my surroundings. If anything this experience has strengthened my vigilance. Please do not be worried. I promise I am more than alright.

The Fruit of Our Labor

Jason Micheli —  July 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

Last July, a mission team from my church raised the funds and constructed a kitchen for an elementary school in the mountain village of Chikisis, Guatemala. Previously, women cooked lunch for the children over an open fire indoors. To add to the ill health from the smoke, for many of the children in Chikisis this is the only or the only nutritious meal of their day.

This July we started a multiyear sanitation project in a neighboring village, but before we left we hiked up to Chikisis to check out the finished kitchen. Thank you to all of you whose generosity makes projects like this transformative in others’ lives.

8329_1245755266240_8036607_nThis week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.

Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4. According to Torah, a big part of the good news of the Jubilee is reconciliation of wrongs in the world- a theme Paul picks up in 2 Corinthians.

To complement this theme, I’ve asked Mike Crane, a friend and parishioner to offer his reflections.

We’ve all been there before: that awkward moment—coming up out of the Metro, stopped at a long traffic light, or in any one of a dozen other situations—when a grizzled man or woman in wrinkled, dirty clothes calls out to you (or holds up a cardboard sign).

“I’m homeless.  Can you help?”

They’re right there—right in front of you.  And they’re looking straight at you.  Or, at least you feel like they are.  Now you have to decide.  Do I give them a few bucks?  Or do I look to the side (or right through them) and walk (or drive) on?  Either way you go—and if you’re like me, you’ve chosen both options at some point or another—it’s over in a minute or two and you move on, back into the comfort of the world you know.  Your world—light years distant from the one the grizzled drifter lives in—and from the eyes of the drifter.  It was just a one-off occurrence, anyway.

Maybe a one-off occurrence, though, has driven you to take a closer look at the drifter’s world.  You’ve felt moved to help with the local homeless ministry.  Now, it’s twenty sets of eyes looking at you.  There’s no avoiding the eyes, anymore.  Soon, you’re sitting down at the table to eat with four or five men and women from that other world.  You can’t help but notice the dirt under their fingernails.  And they want to talk to you—and for you to talk to them.  You’re drawn into their world—and you’re starting to think that the huge distance that you thought separated you really isn’t there.  It may be one world, after all.

By now, those one-off encounters on the street and the time you’ve spent with people at the homeless shelter are telling you there’s more for you to do.  So you decide to take a chance and head off on a mission trip to Guatemala.   You leave the modern airport—much like the one back home—and very quickly you’re struck by the crowded, poor conditions that exist side by side with the wealth of an international capital.  When you get to your destination, a small rural village, you come face to face with real poverty.  The people you meet aren’t homeless, but they live in a country with no natural source of potable water.  Where ten people live in a single room—dad, mom and kids living out their whole lives in less space than you have in your family room, back in “your world.”

How can we not address the need that we’ve grown increasingly unable to look past?

That one homeless guy at the Metro has become a roomful of homeless people at a shelter.

And that’s become a country—a world—full of people in need, trying to survive from one day to the next.

It’s like tending to a tree damaged by a tough drought.  And you look up to see that the tree is part of a grove of struggling trees—and that grove is just a part of a vast forest.

When we think about it, it can seem overwhelming.  Tending a tree—treating the grizzled drifter with dignity and helping him when we find him—is a manageable task.  It’s what we’re called to do, and it does make a difference.  That’s our mission.

But injustice has thrown our world out of kilter.

It’s allowed a country rich in natural resources, blessed with nearly forty watersheds, to have no potable water for its people.  It allows hundreds of millions of people to live at subsistence level while a relative handful have more than they know what to do with.

We have to understand justice issues, to argue for justice, if we expect to help set things right.

Mission and justice go hand-in-hand—and they bring us ever closer to the day when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

When the eyes of a homeless person won’t trouble us—because she can’t be found, no matter where we look throughout our wide world.

 

This week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.

     Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4. According to Torah, a big part of the good news of the Jubilee is reconciliation of wrongs in the world- a theme Paul picks up in 2 Corinthians.

To complement this theme, I’ve asked Laina Schneider, a friend and college student at Virginia Tech to post her thoughts on Jubilee. Laina studies agriculture at Tech and has served as Aldersgate’s mission intern in both Guatemala and Cambodia. Perhaps more importantly, as a college student her wrestling with questions of faith and life are just what the Church needs to hear. I’d encourage you to subscribe to Laina’s blog here.

During my time in Cambodia, I realized that everyone thinks Westerners are really lazy. 33526_1549442418229_3208720_n

Every time I stepped foot out of my hotel there were a group of motodops and tuk-tuk drivers yelling for my attention, all wanting my business. “TUK TUK LADY???” Often I just wanted to go on a walk, or the restaurant I was going to was only a few blocks away. They thought that any Western person wanted a ride everywhere, and they would charge high prices for even the shortest rides, thinking we didn’t know any better.

Although this demand for attention was annoying, it also made sense. In a city of nearly 3 million, where most of the vehicles on the road are mopeds, it is a very competitive business. Tourism is a blossoming industry, and many locals, from the city and surrounding provinces see this as the most realistic way to make money. It is not a cheap investment. Many drivers spend their entire life savings on a moto or tuk tuk, in the hopes of earning just a few dollars a day. There is often no profit involved; the money made from one ride will be immediately spent on street food, or go to their children’s school fees. After purchasing this expensive vehicle, especially if they have come in from the province, it is all they have. They live on their moto. Drivers will pull over on the side of the road and sit, very uncomfortably, to sleep on their moped. Tuk tuk drivers will sling up small hammocks from the bars of the cart to sleep in their off hours. It is hard for me to imagine literally having only one possession. What if it breaks? Or needs expensive repairs? Even if you can somehow afford the repairs, that’s at least a week of no income. These drivers’ lives are only their work; they’ve given up everything for the business.

The city is a jungle marked by patterns Darwinian survival.

They are literally enslaved to their poverty.

They have no choice but to keep working where they are, the risk of stopping to find another job is too great, and jobs are hard to come by, especially if you don’t speak English.

This is just one example of enslavement to poverty, people across Cambodia and the world, struggle everyday just to make ends meet, and often have no other choice.

We are so lucky, to live where we do and have so many blessings. We have been shown unbelievable grace, and now it is ours to share. Not only do we have time, money and skills to give, we can grant people grace just by showing them compassion and respect.

By building relationships in a process of empowerment we can simultaneously release them from their enslavement and define their lives with love.

 

33526_1549442418229_3208720_nThis week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.

     Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4. According to Torah, a big part of the good news of the Jubilee is reconciliation of wrongs in the world- a theme Paul picks up in 2 Corinthians.

To complement this theme, I’ve asked Laina Schneider, a friend and college student at Virginia Tech to post her thoughts on Jubilee. Laina studies agriculture at Tech and has served as Aldersgate’s mission intern in both Guatemala and Cambodia. Perhaps more importantly, as a college student her wrestling with questions of faith and life are just what the Church needs to hear. I’d encourage you to subscribe to Laina’s blog here.

Each mission trip and organization that Aldersgate involved with is founded some level on the concept of reconciliation. Though how that element affects the overall purpose and role of the organization varies, we can see throughout, a tendency towards service with an oppressed people.

In Cambodia, the working class is one that only a short time ago was scarred by the powerful Khmer Rouge regime, who inflicted a genocidal wound in the kingdom no one could heal.

In Guatemala, the Mayans have been pushed out of their homes and told that their culture and language is lowly for hundreds of years. They have been forced out of their fertile fields and pushed into the last livable place high in the mountains. Their war-stricken country has taken the lives of so many men, leaving women and children to fend for themselves.

The Ft. Apache reservation was formerly a U.S. military post, chosen specifically to trap the Apache tribe and control their actions and interactions. American Indians, Mayans, and the Khmer people are all injured. They are calloused from a history that we today may not have had control over, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend it never happened.

Jesus’ message of Jubilee is centered on forgiveness, the forgiveness of debts, neighbors, and all wrong doings.

So what is our role in this Gospel?

Mission can serve as an avenue for reconciliation in places that we, or others, have done wrong. It is easy to say “sorry” or to act like because we are living now, that it wasn’t our fault. But it is our job as Christians to show love to these people. To reach out and show them that not only are we sorry, but we want to help them to help themselves.

Mission provides an opportunity for both forgiveness and tangible reconciliation in ways that not only provide relief and an apology, but also create a sustainable process to ensure empowerment of many generations to come.

 

 

33526_1549442418229_3208720_n     This week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.

     Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4; one of the implications of the Jubilee, according to the Torah, is that the Jubilee year be marked by letting fields lie fallow. The land itself rests on the Sabbath year, which itself is an act of faithful trust that in that year the Lord will provide.

     To complement this theme, I’ve asked Laina Schneider, a friend and college student at Virginia Tech to post her thoughts on Jubilee. Laina studies agriculture at Tech and has served as Aldersgate’s mission intern in both Guatemala and Cambodia. Perhaps more importantly, as a college student her wrestling with questions of faith and life are just what the Church needs to hear. I’d encourage you to subscribe to Laina’s blog here.

Food unifies us. Humans, animals, plants. All life requires sustenance. Food is many different things to many different people. To some it is a cheeseburger, to others a bag of chips, and to many more a portion of grain. Our culture is one, which for some decades has widened the gap between food and dirt. Yet soil is the source of life. It is that blackish brown stuff you walk on everyday, literally supports our world, and is the medium in which all food is grown. Yet many people seem to think that the interaction of food and dirt, literally and associatively, is “gross”.

This separation is a symbolic representation of the disconnect apparent in our industrialized commercial food system. How many people know where their food comes from? Or the conditions or methods used to produce it? How about the energy required to process and ship it? Most people don’t know any of those things. Even in the middle-upper class movement towards “organic” or “local” food, most people shop based on assumptions of standards behind labels, which are often misleading. Not all countries operate this way however.

There are many cultures, like those you may encounter in Guatemala or Cambodia, comprised of people whose lives are centered on growing food for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. This life is, all at once exhausting, infuriating, exciting and rewarding. It is necessary and systematic, a physical and emotional struggle to ensure the existence of those you love. In our society, the breadwinner in a family provides the money to purchase prepared foods in a grocery store down the street, but in an agrarian lifestyle, the name is a bit more literal. Try to imagine the crushing realization that the rains are late, and your store of rice will run out long before the next harvest comes in. Imagine having to look at your children and knowing that you cannot give them the nourishment they need, and that your hands are supposed to provide.

     Christ’s idea of jubilee is directly related to farming.

Biblical stories are constantly using agricultural metaphors or themes: sowing seeds, grape vines, harvesting, gleaning, the list is endless. But the stories were written this way, because it was relevant. Everyone could relate to those stories, because they were all growing food and understood the fundamentals of agriculture. Jubilee was a time to rest and let the fields lie fallow. In fact, they were supposed to let the fields lie fallow every seventh year. This means that no new crop could be sowed, the fields could not be plowed, and that everyone would have to eat only what was in their store. This is an impossible request. Imagine being asked to not go to the grocery store for a year. You could eat whatever was in your pantry, but could not buy anything new.

Maybe God asked this because he had an intricate understanding of soil chemistry and fertility and wanted the land to build up some organic matter to recharge the humus layer of nutrients….maybe. Or maybe God commanded this so there would be a year of rest, for people to take a break, and appreciate the beautiful blessing that is His creation.

As usual, what God wants isn’t easy, but we can identify how hard it is for us to sometimes do what God commands, with this idea of the fallow fields.