Archives For Mission

#Blessed

Jason Micheli —  January 26, 2015 — 1 Comment

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.

 

IMG_3916-768x1024Here’s a homily written by friend, congregant and seminary student Jimmy Owsley (above…no that’s not me). He wrote this sermon for our evening worship in Guatemala during our mission there in July.

His text was Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3- ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

 

What do you think it means to be poor in spirit?

According to Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 5, “To be poor in spirit is to be contentedly poor, willing to be emptied of worldly wealth.”

Putting it another way “The poor in spirit have accepted the loss of all things, most importantly the loss of self, so that they may follow Christ,” says German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’d like to start this sermon off with the premise that he Sermon on the Mount demands our whole allegiance. If Scripture is our authority then we don’t get to pick and choose which verses we want to follow and which ones we don’t. And this is one of the most comprehensive segments Jesus’ teaching that we have available.

Furthermore, when Jesus instructs in the Sermon on the Mount, he is not speaking of merely spiritual realities. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Heaven, he speaks of a present physical kingdom, the kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament which the Messiah was to bring about. This is why the early Christians could say “Jesus is Lord” in direct contradiction to “Caesar is Lord.” It was kind of a big deal. In orthodox Christian belief, this kingdom an already-but not yet reality that Christian are called to live into. This is a paradigm in which the realities of heaven and earth collide.

So when Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, he is not saying that they will be blessed in spirit sometime later, such as when they die. And he’s not saying that being poor in spirit has nothing to do with earthly wealth. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” he says.

Rather, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who would renounce all earthly gains. This is why Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

And when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is saying those who are poor in spirit are blessed now, in this life. They are the partakers of the kingdom of Heaven. Those who have emptied themselves, who seek not their own gain but live according to the principles of the kingdom of God, that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” these people have God’s peace in their hearts. For these are the ones who, as Jesus says elsewhere, have lost their life that they may find it. How contrary to our “American Dream”?

So he says do not store up treasures on earth, but rather store up treasures in heaven. In other words store up treasures based on the principles of God’s kingdom, where poverty, simplicity, justice, meekness, and mercy are valued. Leave behind the values of the kingdoms of this world.

Indeed, every earthly gain can be lost. But it is our relationships with others, established through loving service of God and neighbor, which are the stuff of heaven. Only our relationships with God and with neighbor can bring us the overwhelming peace that comes with the kingdom of God. This kind of peace requires renouncing the false securities that this world has to offer: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety,” says Bonhoeffer “For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe.”

If you are poor in spirit, if you sacrifice your own wealth and aspirations and live on mission for God in this world as you are meant to do, “Seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness,” God will take care of you, Jesus says. But if you strive first and foremost for your own security, then your heart is not with him in his kingdom for “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

“For this reason” Jesus says “do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on…” And of course, all of us doubt this. How can we not worry about providing for ourselves? And even for our families?

But Jesus anticipates this. “O you of little faith,” he replies. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?

So what would it mean to live at peace? To follow Jesus commands not to worry? To not be pursuing that next highest paying job, a successful career, or that dream of more comfortable house? What would it mean to live wholeheartedly for the purposes of God, relying on each other and trusting that, if we live according to principles of His kingdom which are vastly different and most often contradictory the principles of our earthly kingdoms, that if we trust and follow God will provide?

This week we all will experience God’s kingdom in some way. I trust that you are here, not to check off a box or fill in that volunteer line on your resumes. You are here in good faith because you feel some calling to serve God by serving your neighbor. You feel the pull to live out your faith, and you have renounced a chunk of your valuable time and resources to be here this week.

This may feel like a mountaintop experience for some of you, or a break from reality in some way. And it is a break from our normal everyday American reality. You might wonder how to live so simply and meaningfully in your everyday life when you return.

I encourage you to soak in the principles of the Sermon on the Mount this week, and to fully enjoy the extent to which you will be able to give of yourself. Please also be thinking about ways in which you might reorient you everyday life around these principles. What would it be like to really live according to the beatitudes day in and day out?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish theological concept that refers to God’s commitment to repair the world.

On Friday morning our team of about 30 returned from Chuicutama, Guatemala, an indigenous village about 11K feet up in the Highlands. Over the past few years my church has been committed to providing a complete sanitation system for the 400+ residents of Chuicutama.

In addition, we’ve constructed a community center in the village where volunteer teams like ours can stay to service the neighboring communities and where medical volunteers from North American can come to train indigenous women to provide themselves healthcare.

Ministry has few tangible results to which you can point. I’m grateful that due to the generosity and hard work of many of you we’ve made an impactful differences in the lives of the people in Chuicutama.

This work I believe is one way important way we’ve embodied tikkun olam as a community.

In December/January when the dry season has come the final sewage lines will be added to the system bringing the multiyear project to a close. It should be a cool celebration to experience. If you’re interested in joining our winter team to share in that moment just let me know. 

For my sermon on Sunday I walked people through images from the week’s work. If you’d like to listen to it, you can below. Or you can download the free mobile app.

If you’d like to read my introductory and concluding comments, you can here: Tikkun Olam Romans 4 Sermon

Here’s the slideshow that went with the sermon: Toilet Project Slideshow

Here are some images from the week:

James Matthews, Ron Good and I digging the ditch for the main sewer line.

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Our ladies sorting rocks and sifting sand for the septic tank’s filtration system. IMG_3891

First Manhole (10 ft down)IMG_3897

First Community Street’s Sewer Line
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Jimmy Owsley digging and digging and digging…IMG_3916

200 lb sewer pipesIMG_3904

Mainline about 1/5 of the way dug :(

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The hard work leads to high jinks:

This picture, I think, captures just how invested every member of the community is in this project. It’s something we’re doing with them not for them. IMG_5519

Lorenzo, a member of the community, received a needful wage from our fundraising for the Toilet Project.

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Carrying the sewage pipes a 4-man affair

IMG_5110My brother-in-law, who quit his job and sold his stuff about 16 months to volunteer full-time in Guatemala, overseeing the Toilet Project.

IMG_5107Community Septic System. The Community Center was the first building in the village tied into the system.

IMG_4567IMG_4553The completed Community Center where our team this week lived and ate.

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Miguel, the leader of Chuicutama, thanks Aldersgate for all their work and partnership (the power went out our last night so it’s dark):

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.

‘Inodoro’ is Spanish for…find out for yourself.

My friends Ben and Lupe at Highland Support Project did me a huge, inconvenient favor by putting together this video from Chuicutama, Guatemala.

Take a look at the situation in the village and how we’re empowering and partnering with the members of the community to change their lives in an urgent and needful way.

After you’re done watching, click here and give us your money.

Give till it hurts. It’s Lent after all. ‘Tis the season of suffering and sacrifice.

 

 

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.

segregation-drinking-fountain

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.

guatemalan-children

 

WV-logo_rgbIn the Church world, no matter what side you are on at some point this week you found this to be outrageous, embarrassing news.

First, World Vision, a global Christian non-profit announced it would no longer discriminate against married gay persons per the policies of their employees respective Christian denominations. Not to mention, World Vision is headquartered in a state (Washington) where gay marriage is legal, making WV a potential target for discrimination lawsuits and thereby jeopardizing the millions of children and impoverished people in the developing world aided by WV.

Not that that actually matters because droves of conservative Christians (or just plain old conservatives) responded by pulling their sponsorship of children in protest. Nice!

It’s not like Jesus ever said anything negative about those put ideological purity above compassion towards those in need.

Wait…well, crap, I guess Jesus did teach about it (See: Samaritan, Parable of)

But that’s why the epistles of Paul more important!

In response to the backlash- and understandably not wanting to throw the world’s vulnerable children under the partisan bus- World Vision reversed its decision.

That I’m sure their decision was carefully planned and discerned and backlash anticipated yet STILL the vitriol was such that they had to do an about face in 24 hours says a lot about the bullying in the American Church on this single, freaking issue.

I get that people disagree about issues of marriage, sexuality etc. I really do.

But let’s be honest.

Just the other night, I was watching the Ken Burns’ Civil War film with my boys.

Haven’t seen it since I was in Middle School. In the first episode, Sam Waterston quotes a Protestant pastor (Methodist, I think) in the South  (Virginia, I think) speaking about how due to the context of slavery the Church amended [willingly] its MARRIAGE LITURGY AND VOWS.

‘…until Death- or Distance- do us part…’

The idea that marriage has been a bible-based, a-cultural institution until only recently is patently, objectively false.

The suggestion that 2 gay Christians who are faithful to each other poses the gravest threat to said institution is repugnant when considered against other historical exigencies in which the Church as proved nimble in what constitutes “biblical marriage.”

Realizing full well that faithful Christians disagree about the issue of marriage and sexuality (as my denomination puts it), the World Vision clusterf#$% prompts me merely to point out this black/white, no wiggle room Bible Math:

# of Times the Poor Mentioned in Scripture: 400+

# of Times Homosexuality Mentioned in Scripture: 2*

*4 if I’m in a generous mood

 

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.

UnknownThe guys at Homebrewed Christianity better watch out. We’re going to start doing a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

To kick things off, we snagged Will Willimon.

Jesus must have a sense of humor, and I love the irony.

A year ago I got in trouble with my bishop for posting about farts on this blog.

Last week I found myself on the phone with Methodism’s most famous and important voice, Bishop Will Willmon, making jokes about sex and mas%$#$@#$%^ (‘it’s sex with someone I love).

All sprinkled with a generous helping of curse words.

We edited some- but not all- of it.

The rest is vintage Willimon: pithy, deeply theological and as arresting as a slap across the face.

Which, by the way, is how he describes Karl Barth’s effect on him.

For those of you who don’t know Will Willimon, he was recognized by Baylor as one of America’s 12 Best Preachers. The Pew Foundation lists him as the 2nd most read author among Protestant clergy, selling over a million copies. Take that Beth Moore.0

The former dean of Duke Chapel and former Bishop of North Alabama he currently teaches at Duke and pastors Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. The very best of my preaching is just a shallow imitation of this master artist.

As a young seminary student, Willimon’s sarcastic, caustic demeanor freed me to be me in the pulpit.

You can find his blog and links to his books here.

Bishop Willimon will be our guest preacher on Sunday, March 30 and will host a ‘Lunch with the Bishop’ Forum that same day.

Be on the lookout for the next installments. We’ve got Kendall Soulen, Stanley Hauerwas, Thomas Lynch and others in the queue.

You can listen to the Willimon interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

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.

fnHVf_AWswRoaitS9AmyiwvxgGK2utXzxlJspg4clZsuJFp3IYyRlyqlNbjQkI1E0ElXaFOAQlA-R2qGz5oI8UHRp2RSrAQttd6-KZgcGKwEhTaNgJGzgE-tLVKGUWAXoCqTzIx-BteD0bSG87xRbA5oUjwg2xfShJW48wQE1lcAT7d3zaHAWLSLvQrQEkx7ZhEJeTAyisghuMQR9SG6BNQa5EdidSkr4X8eSEumPz0BC0Q8p81_8jnfBXZ1wb6VfcFeSXbZ-1THmQa2u8kTpfMxSoWFYCdChMrHqH0VZe4fYLKcV8C-CVJpJv6uyyDcCaScGhrzgg64jvT6sHyv-75wOZKunc-Hks_Pc4VE-dZaqpuzv-tumSEelPS51BQMYAEqSjKUSOoj8muqj9VIPhBgpCzvyUf3VsJBluLy7Z9XTUyGRD5bphKfDd8rGgbzL74SZLosSYH5ARuca8U3b3F2c

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

acts-2-42In his sequel to the Gospel story, Luke reports that after the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost Jesus’ community of disciples:

“…devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” 

In the immediate aftermath of Pentecost, the Spirit’s anointing manifested itself in the believers sharing their prayers, bread and money with one another in a community of faith.

But is this, I wonder, meant to be a good thing?

Does Luke intend for us to see here in Acts 2 a blueprint for how we should do Church?

Typically theologians and preachers romanticize the Church of Acts 2. It’s there that we find the closest approximation of the ‘true Church.’ I know I’m guilty of unrealistically lauding Acts 2 as the ideal after which today’s Church should strive to embody.

Not only is the Acts 2 model unrealistic, I now wonder if it’s even a good, faithful model of the Church Jesus intended. After all, a community of believers sharing their possessions together, eating together, gathering together, teaching and praying and fellowshipping together just may entail too much togetherness.

What if the Acts 2 Church about which preachers so often wax poetic was actually a contravention of Jesus’ final commandment?

To take the Gospel to the very ends of the earth.

As easily as one can romanticize the Acts 2 Church, it’s just as easy to view it as a static, inward-focused community- both static and stationary, camped out in Jerusalem.

Maybe what we’re supposed to see in Acts 2, especially when contrasted with the rest of Acts’ unfolding, is not a romantic ideal but the caution that Christian community is not an end in itself.

In fact, I’ve come to think that a better reading of Acts understands the actual birth of the Church, in the sense of the community of disciples living up to and living out their calling, happening in Acts 8.

It’s not until Stephen’s bold ministry in Acts 6 and 7 provokes persecution and eventually martyrdom that the disciples disperse beyond their community.

It’s in fleeing that the disciples inadvertently find their former calling: to be a missionary people, a community on the move.

If this is a fair reading of Acts then I think it follows to say that Christians do not seek community as an end in itself but rather community is the result of us seeking other, larger ends.

We build community not for its own sake; we build it incidentally, as our hearts and energies are captured by the greater cause of proclaiming the Gospel message

The anthropologist Victor Turner distinguished between ‘community’ and what he labeled ‘communitas.’

Whereas ‘community’ can be described: as something to be built, as inward-focused, centered on encouraging one another and creating a safe space, Turner says ‘communitas’ is the experience of deeper bonds, support and relationships of people who undergo a shared ordeal.

What Turner labels ‘communitas’ is what people on mission trips often experience as the ‘spiritual high’ of their time serving the poor. With a cause bigger than ourselves, community just sort of happens on its own.

Communitas is only experienced by taking risks together, suffering together, and working together for a cause greater than the community itself.

In other words, when it comes to the ideal Church Turner would have you think of Saving Private Ryan more so than Acts chapter 2. Too many churches miss this experience of ‘communitas’ for no other reason than that they avoid shared ordeals. They opt for a safe, secure environment. Indeed they make a safe, secure environment their goal.

Alan Hirsch explains ‘communitas’ this way:

“…it is a community infused with a grand sense of purpose; a purpose that lies outside of its current internal reality…It’s the kind of community that happens to people in actual pursuit of a common vision of what could be. It involves movement and it describes the experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people actually engaging in a mission outside itself.”

 

 

 

I’ve got a bunch of new blog followers since we started the project so couldn’t resist posting the video again.

Anyways…

Here’s some photos of our ongoing project in Chuicutama, Guatemala. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported our work. And we invite you to continue supporting us.

Pictures in chronological order

Construction and completed pictures of phase 1 – construction of Treatment Plant

photo descriptions in order:

building forms for pouring roof of septic tankbuilding filter tank

installing man hole in street

connecting community center to system

finished filter tank, water inlet manifold, canal

treatment plant from bellow

finished man hole in street

treatment plant from above finished

good view

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IMG_0516I spent the last week in the Highlands of Guatemala, working on a sewage system for a Maya village in the mountains. I’ve heard it before but the numbers still have the power to shock:

75% of the children in the Highlands under 7 years old are critically malnourished.

Hearing that stat my first thought, perhaps oddly, was peace.

The scriptures declare that God’s vision and promise to us is shalom, which is usually translated as “peace.”

It’s meaning, however, is much richer than what is conveyed by our English word.

Shalom means wholeness, healing, justice, and righteousness, equality, unity, freedom, and community. Shalom is a vision of all people whole, well, and one, and of all nature whole, well, and one.

According to United Methodist Bishops it is “the sum total of moral and spiritual qualities in a community whose life is in harmony with God’s good creation.” They specifically relate Jesus’ ministry to the gift of shalom and affirm, “New Testament faith presupposes a radical break between the follies, or much so-called conventional wisdom about power and security, on the one hand, and the transcendent wisdom of shalom, on the other.”

The book of Revelation imagines the completion of human history and the full realization of God’s redemptive purpose for the world in terms of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Its visionary author, John of Patmos, described when God would be with and among human beings.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ [Revelation 21:1-3].

John seems to have in mind the words of Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind… I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; …They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well…

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord [Isaiah 65: 17-25].

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nOne can only imagine how these words must sound to the millions in our world today who labor to build houses for others, but whose earnings enable them only to live in homes of scrap metal and cardboard.

Who work fields owned by others, the harvest of which is shipped to another, wealthier land while they most scavenge for food in landfills.

Whose children will die with bloated bellies before they see adulthood.

The gospel of the Kingdom of God, the gospel that proclaims the promise of shalom, is surely good news for the poor.

But what is it for us? Is it message one of woe?

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep [Luke 6:21-25].

It need not be.  Matthew 25: 31-46 is typically identified as “the judgment of the nations” or “the last judgment.” It speaks of “the Son of Man” coming in glory with the angels, sitting on his throne with all the nations gathered before him.

It is judgment because it envisions sheep being divided from goats. The sheep will go to the right, the goats to the left. To those on his right, the King says,

““Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  But those on the left: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  

And what was the difference between the sheep and the goats, those who gained entrance to the kingdom and those shut out?  Simply, their response to the poor and oppressed determined the judgment.

Of course, the judge first expressed the matter in terms of their response to his need.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”   Both the saved and the damned professed ignorance.  ““Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”  

His response:

““Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Is it a mistake to suggest that our salvation hinges on our response to the crises like the aforementioned stat?

 

 

IMG_0516As you might know, I just returned from the Highlands of Guatemala, a place whose staggering beauty is rivaled only by its systemic poverty.

Making the transition back to home from a place where clean water and a flushing toilet are literally a PIPE DREAM always leaves me feeling……?

Indicted?

And why would that be?

Probably because, despite what Glenn Beck would have us think, the biblical witness is clear—from the exodus, through the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus himself—that God acts for and calls us to liberation of the oppressed.

Theologians call it God’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ Meaning, God attends particularly to the plight of the poor, the most vulnerable, and exploited and expects his people to do the same. To this we might add now that effectively responding to the needs of the poor and oppressed is a moral priority for those who seek to live in faithful relation to God.

Further elaborating this point, is a piece written by Dr. Barry Penn Hollar, with whom I collaborated on a Christian Ethics book a few years ago:

The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt is central to this claim.  The exodus was and remains the fundamental, identity-shaping experience of the Jewish people.  It is the focus the Passover festival, which to this day roots Jewish identity in the experience of liberation by the almighty hand of God.  We who are Christians remember that it was in the context of the Passover festival that Jesus began the festival that is our fundamental, identity-shaping experience: the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

At the center of the Exodus memory is an insight about the very character of God: God’s compassionate sharing of the experience of oppression.  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters,” God says [Exodus 3:7].   This is not a detached and disengaged awareness. Rather, God says, “I know their suffering.”  The Hebrew word “to know” is used with reference to sexual intercourse or intimacy.  It implies a sharing of the experience to which it refers. God knows and shares their suffering. Moreover, it is an awareness that leads to action.

The verse continues: “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.”

This portrayal of God as one who shares the suffering of the poor and oppressed and acts to deliver them is consistent throughout the Old Testament.

Amos, Isaiah, and Micah were noteworthy for their insistence that injustice and oppression was a religious issue or a matter rendering the peoples’ relationship to God faithless and their worship inauthentic.

Consider these words from Isaiah:

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow [Isaiah 1: 15-17].

And listen to Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream [Amos 5:21-24].

Finally, consider Micah:

 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:6-8]?

Let’s be honest:

Can we consider the statistics of the world’s poverty, the global reach of our national influence, the degree to which the international economy is organized for our benefit, and doubt that these words apply to us?

Is all our worship, then, no matter how sincere and doctrinally proper, a sham?

When we stand to praise God—lifting our hands and our voices in air-conditioned sanctuaries with cushioned pews, dressed in finery that has been produced by women’s hands in factories whose conditions are unknown to us—does God, in fact, despise it all?

Despise us?

However you answer, you have to at least admit: there’s sufficient cause to wonder.

 

Below are two images of the Clinic/Community Center we built in December in Chuicutama. The finishing work is set to be done once the rainy season is over. The other images show the septic system which we built last week (it’s across the street and down the hill from the Center) which will be the first building linked into the system.

You can give to this project here: Guatemala Toilet Project.

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Digging septic tank foundation. Check out the guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting block over rebar. Check out the guns.IMG_0538

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tying the wire onto rebar before pouring concrete forms.

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Carrying wood down for concrete forms. Check out the guns.

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What the community currently uses for toilets- pit latrines that fill into the ground and, once they’re filled, the toilet is moved to another location of their yard.IMG_0505

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pouring cement into form after 2nd level of septic tank. Check out the guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My brother-in-law, Mikey, making sure we’ve actually dug the adjoining tank foundation on the correct side.IMG_0533

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeannie mortaring. IMG_0526

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Paul watching my brother-in-law do all the work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bending rebar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bending rebar. They did about a million of these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leveling the corner blocks.IMG_0519

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 4- Septic Tank ready for roof/lid once it’s dry.

 

 

 

 

 

Clinic/Community Center waiting finishing.

 

 

 

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8329_1245755266240_8036607_nI just got back from Guatemala with a mission team from Aldersgate. We worked on the first stage of our Toilet Project, building a large septic tank to which the homes in Chicutama (CHEE-COO-TA-MA)will eventually connect.

If you would like contribute to the project: Guatemala Toilet Project.

Here’s my brother-in-law, Mike Keller, explaining the project: