The ‘visible sign of invisible grace’

Reflections from weekend of teaching, learning, and my installation as mission co-worker with Iglesia Presbiteriana de Honduras:

Part of my job is to assist with a pastoral education program offered by the Instituto Bíblico Pastoral from Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana. The professors and facilitators asked me to teach a workshop on the sacraments from a Presbyterian/Reformed perspective. So I and my regional liaison, Tracey King-Ortega, prepared a two-hour lesson and activities.

I knew beforehand that the sacraments can be a delicate subject between Honduran and U.S. Presbyterians, because most U.S. Presbyterians baptize infants and children, and the Honduran church believes in a “believer’s baptism,” that is, a person must be of age and able to choose baptism for themselves. There are valid arguments in the Reformed tradition for both, so my goal was to present the varied arguments and discuss the reasons that the Honduran church believes one way and the U.S. church believes differently.

I wasn’t getting very far and had the feeling that most of the pastors/lay leaders in the room were somewhat unthinkingly entrenched. Finally I said, “For example, I was baptized as a baby. By my grandfather, who was a pastor.” I went on to explain that I was confirmed as a teenager in my church, and that was my own conscious decision, and I was not rebaptized. Later, I was ordained, first as a deacon and then as a pastor in my church, and in both cases was following a call by my community and by God, and in each case “remembered” and invoked my baptism but was not rebaptized. “Now not all North Americans feel this way. My mother, for example, was baptized as an infant, and then again as an adult, because she felt that it was important for her to make that decision for herself. But I don’t feel that way. In my heart, I feel baptized, even though I don’t technically remember it.

“Now, in your church, where I am now called to serve, do you think I can participate fully, without being rebaptized? For example, may I take communion, for which baptism is a prerequisite?”

Wide eyes and silence for a few seconds. I knew that at least some in the room were thinking to themselves that, yes, I probably ought to be baptized again, but how could they say that to a new pastor/teacher/missionary that they just met?

Discussion opened up again. The room was still split, but we were somehow no longer unthinkingly entrenched. We talked about the importance and meaning of baptism in our tradition, and we talked about the importance of inclusion as well as personal independence and liberty. We didn’t come to a consensus, but that didn’t matter. We started thinking about the reasons why we do what we do, and not only about how to convince others to think as we do.

Near the end of the discussion, a lay pastor, a 65-year-old farmer with no formal education outside this pastoral education program, shared his own story of personal conversion and baptism. And he said directly to me, “What matters most is your own conscience. If in your heart you are baptized, then you are baptized.”

What a pastor. I felt so affirmed by his response. I felt he was telling me, “I trust you and welcome you, even though we’re different.”

What I learned in teaching this workshop is that formal education, intellectualism, systematic theology, critical thinking are all important tools. It helps if you have them and use them. But they are not what make a pastor. A pastor is someone who touches your heart, who helps you feel seen and trusted and welcomed. And by feeling seen and trusted and welcomed, then we are able to see and trust and welcome others. Personal connection, tenderheartedness, vulnerability, and story sharing: Those are the most important tools of a pastor.

How appropriate, then, that we were discussing the sacraments, of which John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion said: “The seals which are affixed to diplomas, and other public deeds, are nothing considered in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment, and yet this does not prevent them from sealing and confirming when they are appended to writings. …  sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture.”

Advertisements

Honduras Police Arrest Executive in Killing of Berta Cáceres, Indigenous Activist – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/03/world/americas/honduras-berta-caceres.html

The kin-dom comes near

Adapted from a sermon preached at First United Methodist and Centenary United Methodist churches Jan. 21, 2018.

Mark 1:14-20: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

We come to this scripture so soon after we have celebrated Jesus’ birth, epiphany, baptism. Here we inaugurate Jesus’ ministry. In this earliest-written gospel, we hear—words put in Jesus’ own mouth—the reason for his being here.

The reign of God has come near. This is the good news, the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near.

I always like to put myself in the first-century hearer’s shoes. This gospel was probably first oral stories about Jesus, and was put in writing around 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death, right around the time of Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Judea, which resulted in Rome putting down the revolt by destroying the temple and turning the Jewish people into a diaspora—a people scattered over the earth.

When a Jewish person in first-century Judea heard that “the time is fulfilled,” this is absolutely not what they were hoping for.

They were hoping for a change—a permanent change. They were hoping for freedom and self-rule. They were hoping for so much more than crucifixion and death, and the destruction of their way of life, of their entire religion.

It’s even harder for us to hear this story, these words of Jesus: The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near. We know even more history than a first-century Jewish person. We’re sitting here, two thousand years later, looking around our world that has suffered from dozens of other man-made empires, global wars, weapons of mass destruction, famine, economies built on slavery. I’m wondering where this kingdom of God is. What has changed? What has really changed?

And the answer is, honestly, not much. Empire exists, oppression exists, injustice exists and persists, and persists.

Honestly, I have a feeling that today, one year after the first Women’s March on Washington, one year after President Trump’s inauguration, nine years after President Obama’s inauguration, seventeen years after President Bush’s first inauguration…we might have an OK idea how a first-century Jewish person in Judea might have felt.

Last month a president was inaugurated in Honduras. He is the first elected president since a military coup in 2009, and executive power in that country has bounced between leftists, right-wingers, and the military dozens of times in the past century.

So, the time is fulfilled! A new era has begun! And?

What has really changed?

It’s pretty hard to look around at our modern-day saviors, leaders, revolutionaries, and feel much more than futility and hopelessness.

I got a taste of this sense of futility the first time I visited Honduras, last November. It was one week before their presidential election. Honduras has been spiraling into desperate straits over the past couple of decades. Corruption in the government is at an all-time high. Gang-related crime and violence has given way to organized crime, drug trafficking, and world-leading murder rates.

This country is one that needs a big time change. There were two leading candidates in the election: the incumbent and the challenger. I was curious when I visited Honduras and met my new colleagues where their hope would lie.

The answer I got was not terribly awe-inspiring. “No matter who is elected, nothing will change.”

I had to look very closely to find a sense of hope among my new colleagues in ministry in the Presbyterian Church of Honduras.

20171118_104302 sm
Reinaldo, a Presbyterian church leader in Honduras

Reinaldo is a 65-year-old man, a farm worker. For the past year, he has been participating in a program for Presbyterian church leaders in Honduras. As he received his diploma recognizing completion of a year of study, he had tears in his eyes. He shared with his classmates, colleagues and teachers how he never attended a day of school in his life, he was raised away from his parents “on the streets” and is a farmer. He told about how he never thought that he would receive any kind of diploma. What saved him, he said, was encountering Jesus Christ and following Christ alongside his brothers and sisters in the church.

That’s what has really changed in this scripture story. Fishermen called as equals to Christ. Farmers and government workers and house cleaners and cooks and mothers and construction workers and students, called as equals, as brothers and sisters, to follow Christ.

We are called into kinship with Christ in this passage. The kingdom of God has broken through, shockingly tearing open the sky at Jesus baptism, when Christ’s heavenly father descended as a dove and said, “This is my son, whom I love,” and the kingdom of God will again shockingly tear through the Temple curtain at Jesus’ death.

And what Simon and Andrew and James and John are called to, and we along with them, is radical brother- and sisterhood with the Christ.

We are called to be the ones who become Christ for others.

MLK Jr. wrote in his pastoral prayer in 1956: “We thank thee for thy Church, founded upon thy Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon thee.”

The very answer to our prayers for change, for revolution, for a new kingdom, depends upon us, and our willingness to follow the call, to live into radical kinship with Jesus Christ.

Additional sources: Spencer, F Scott. 2005. “‘Follow me’: the imperious call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.” Interpretation 59, no. 2: 142-153. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed January 18, 2018). Juel, Donald H, and Patrick R Keifert. “A Markan epiphany: lessons from Mark 1.” Word & World 8, no. 1 (1988 1988): 80-85. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed January 18, 2018).

Waiting, groaning for the world to turn

Adapted from a reflection written for San Francisco Theological Seminary during Advent 2017.

A response to Romans 8:22-27, and the hymn Canticle of the Turning.

Over the past ten years in Honduras, Berta Cáceres successfully organized her indigenous Lenca people’s community against a World Bank- and private business-funded dam project that was implemented with little or no input from local inhabitants of the Guadalcarque River. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, as the dam project was stalled, and investors fled. In 2016, Cáceres was shot to death in her home, in a town called La Esperanza, which cooincidentally in Spanish means “hope.” Eight men have been arrested, but the murderers have not been brought to justice. Many murderers in Honduras are not.

I imagine that Berta’s heart cries out. But with joy? With hope? Hope for what? She hopes for what she never will see.

The violence menaces still. Honduras is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, for environmental and political activists, for community organizers, for women. Dozens of activists are killed each year, hundreds of women, with impunity. In three weeks leading up to the national election on Nov. 26, at least four political activists, from various parties, were attacked and killed. At least one protester, a 19-year-old woman, has been killed in the weeks since the election.

I work for the church, a U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker, partnering with the Honduran Presbyterian church. I do not know what I ought to pray for. Is it enough, surrounded by such menace, to say that we care for our congregants’ souls, and we leave “politics” out on the church steps?

As She—Mary, Berta, Spirit—intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, we do not know what we ought to pray for. We hope against hope, though we die. The world is about to turn, the hymn says. Until the world turns, creation groans, the earth groans, our very bodies groan, and the body of Christ groans for the redemption that has been promised today, not tomorrow, not after death, but now, in the turning of the world.

A narrative introduction

I am a new mission co-worker, ordained by the Presbytery of Santa Fe and called by World Mission to serve with Iglesia Presbiteriana de Honduras (Presbyterian Church of Honduras) in theological education and leadership development. I plan to move to Honduras in January 2018.

I first became interested in Central America when I was 13 years old and my parents took me and my sister to visit my aunt, who was a mission co-worker in El Salvador during that country’s civil war. During this trip to El Salvador, I learned the refrain to a song that was part of a mass commissioned by the late Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero: “Vamos todos al banquete, a la mesa de la creación. Cada cual con su taburete tiene un puesto y una misión.” Translated, it is “Let’s all go to the banquet, to the table of creation. Each of us has a seat and a mission.” This song was filled with peace and hope for equality.

I had this song in mind as my family visited places such as El Mozote, the site of a massacre of peasants by the U.S.-supported Salvadoran military. Where was the place at the table for these men, women and children who were slain? I saw mansions surrounded by 20-foot walls with razor wire and broken glass at the top, practically next door to cardboard- and newspaper-insulated homes with dirt floors and mothers my age in hammocks with their babies. At my young age, this was the first time I recognized the depth of divides between rich and poor, and I saw the contrast between the lived reality of Salvadorans and the song that was so hopeful and idyllic. So often the hope we proclaim in Jesus Christ feels so far away from the world.

After I returned to the United States, I became a journalist, and I learned in part the power of narrative and stories. As a journalist I listened to stories with compassion, yes, and with a heart for the truth, but also with an agenda. Would the story sell in the paper? Was it “newsworthy”?

During my first year in seminary, a theology professor told my class, “People think of their lives as narratives. Religious people think of their lives as narratives connected to a larger narrative, with a bigger meaning.” Aha, I thought. Narrative is something I know about. The ministry I envisioned for myself started to become one of storytelling and narrative.

When I became a chaplain, I worked first with patients in a hospital burn unit, then with patients in hospice care. In both cases, my work was hard to describe in concrete terms. As a chaplain, I could not “do” much to help my patients. I sat with them, I listened to them, sometimes even as they could not speak or communicate for themselves. When I met patients for the first time, they often looked at me with suspicion. “What are you going to do for me?” was their question, or, “How are you going to try to ‘fix’ me or convert me or change me?” Hospital and hospice patients rarely need more people telling them what to do, giving advice, or judging their choices. Their bodies have become not their own, taken over by disease, and handed over to medical professionals for physical healing, so most patients are naturally reluctant to then hand over their spiritual and mental space to a strange chaplain standing in the doorway.

I had to learn to embody humility, conveying that I have no agenda but to support the patient’s agenda, to hear and value the patient’s narrative, and that I will wait to be invited in. Everyone has a place, a mission, even the patient, even the poor. A chaplain’s work is often one of empowerment, of narrative, and this work cannot be done with telling or advising. Most often it can be done only by listening, and accompanying.

As I look forward to moving to Honduras, I have this image of a banquet on my mind. I am an educated, relatively wealthy Anglo North American, and I am conscious of the legacy my people have in Central America. Over the past 150 years, Honduras has been rather used by the United States for the United States’ own agenda of extractive colonialism, neo-liberal capitalism and military strategy. Like a chaplain arriving in the door of a hospital room, I will be carrying all the baggage of my people’s narrative into my relationship with the people I am meeting for the first time.

Nevertheless, the Presbyterian Church of Honduras has requested the presence, the partnership, the accompaniment, of the Presbyterian Church-USA. The leaders of the Honduran church are hungry for education and empowerment that has until recently been unavailable. I want to do what I can to change the narrative of U.S. activities in Honduras from one of colonization to one of table. I go to Honduras to join the church at the banquet, where neither I nor the U.S. church is at the head. I go to sit alongside the Honduran church leaders, to break bread with them, to feast with them, to live into the hope of justice and good, and to proclaim, “each of us has a seat, a place, a mission.”

I welcome your partnership in this mission. Please pray for me, correspond with me, visit me, and give financially. (You can do that here.) Your prayers, presence, and gifts encourage me and bring me joy and hope, and enrich our relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. Thank you for your interest and attention. Vamos todos!

Guilty Feminist: Faith and feminism

One of my favorite podcasts tackled faith and feminism in such a wonderful way: “The problem isn’t the Bible,” a queer feminist chaplain said. “The problem is whom we’ve allowed to read the Bible.”

http://traffic.libsyn.com/guiltyfeminist/GF65_Feminism_and_Faith_with_Reubs_J_Walsh_Leyla_Hussein_and_Rev_Kate_Harford.m4a?dest-id=325135

Pussyhats and rabbit poses

Originally written as a Lenten devotional for San Francisco Theological Seminary, a reflection on Ephesians 3:14-21:

Right away I cringe at this text. “I bow my knees before the Father,” the writer says, and my third-wave feminist mind conjures images of submission, passivity, and docility. This is not the posture of a woman who makes sure she always has a seat at the conference table during meetings, who changes the lyrics of hymns to call God “mother,” who crochets pussyhats for the Women’s March on Washington. My image of serving Christ is usually more like standing up and shouting before “She-Who-Is.” This is an image I’ve worked hard to integrate into my being, working against societal norms of polite silence for women.

At a yoga class during this Lent, I tried a pose that was new to me. The teacher called it “rabbit” pose or sasakasana. I was on my knees, with my head to the floor, and my hands reaching behind me to grab my heels. This passage from Ephesians flashed through my mind, and it occurred to me that there is no more possible bowing my body could do. I was completely doubled over. The instructor encouraged us to breathe in and out, and as we breathed, to deepen our bends, and to feel the grounding of our bodies. “Thank your body for getting out of your own way,” she said.

I’m not so sure my chubby body was really doing such a good job of getting out of my way as I lay there with my knees pressing my bosom and my sweaty face stuck to my yoga mat. Nevertheless, I thanked my body, my imperfect female body, for bowing its knees, for taking in breath, for helping me to be me.

I thought of all the other kinds of bowing I have done during this Lent: kneeling on the floor to play with a coworker’s 5-year-old son, bending to whisper prayers for a hospice patient who is journeying towards death, kneeling beside the bereaved during a funeral rosary. This rabbit pose and numerous others during my yoga class.

All of this bowing, letting my body get out of my own way, helped me realize that in Christ, and in my bowing, I can also be “rooted and grounded in love.”