The colt returns: El potro regresa

My hooves slipped on the palms and mantles that lined the streets. I did my best not to stumble, to bear up under the unfamiliar weight. He clutched my mane, digging in his fingers, and gripped my sides with his heels.

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A reflection on Mark 11:1-11, on Palm Sunday, for San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Lenten devotionals series. Leerlo en español después de la pausa..

I don’t know what Hosanna means. They said it was a blessing, as I was chosen from obscurity. I don’t know what blessing means. Hosanna, we are saved! The crowd shouted, waved, clamored. I couldn’t see him, of course, really just his hem and feet if I looked back. I curled my long ears back, straining to hear, to know something of this burden I bore. He didn’t say anything then, or if he did, I couldn’t hear for the Hosanna. I heard he had said, come, follow me. I heard he said, blessed are the poor, the obscure, the persecuted. I don’t know what persecuted means.

His followers, the ones to whom I owe this great supposed honor, told me then that I would be returned. That all would be returned. That the kingdom would return. I don’t know what kingdom means. I know that my hooves slipped on the palms and mantles that lined the streets. I did my best not to stumble, to bear up under the unfamiliar weight. He clutched my mane, digging in his fingers, and gripped my sides with his heels. That helped.

After the parade, I was indeed returned. Instead of a man, the next day, I carried firewood, and the day after, a hundred flat loaves of bread. I know what burden means, now. I heard later that the man said, “Remember me.” I was returned to normal, but not normal, and I don’t know how to remember. The tether chafes, now that I know the feeling of his heels, his hands. Which is the blessing? I smelled the iron, the blood, the smoke – heard the clamor and crowds, farther away. Whenever I hear the rustle of a palm, now, I also strain for his voice. Though I never actually heard it, I listen, through the clamor, trying to remember.

Continue reading “The colt returns: El potro regresa”

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.”

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!

Xela, Guatemala: No more silence

“I got married to be a family together, not to be a single mother,” said the woman.

“I can send you money!” said the woman playing her husband in the play.

“Money isn’t everything,” she replied.

He went anyway, crossing the border after several tries and staying in the United States for too many years.

The story is real and all-too-common in Guatemala, creating the circumstances for many social problems in the country, including hunger, violence, unplanned urbanization and homelessness. Six women of the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala have created a project called Historias de Fe (Faith Stories) in order to share their life experience outside Guatemala and to educate and encourage Guatemalans. On Wednesday, the stories they shared with our seminar were about migration, a topic that touches most Guatemalans.

In one skit, the women re-enacted their experience in attempting to get visas to travel to the United States to visit the theater company Looking for Lilith. One woman was denied a visa, even though she carried the same credentials and reference letters as everyone else. She suspects she was denied because she got flustered when the U.S. Embassy interviewer asked questions about her income. Her answer differed slightly from her paperwork. Other women said it might have been that Spanish is her second language, and she wasn’t as confident. No one is told why a visa is denied; it is the discretion of the interviewer, who might see 100 people a day for three minutes apiece.

“You see people come out, and you know they’ve been denied. Some are crying,” said Marina. “I was almost trembling when I went up. I thought that would happen to me.”

For North Americans to hear this highlights the incredible privilege that comes with a U.S. passport. I have never been detained at customs. As a visitor, I have never had to apply at a consulate for a visa. (My parents did when we traveled to El Salvador in 1993, and someone did my Costa Rican student visa paperwork for me in 2001.) I don’t tremble when I approach a port of entry; I assume they will let me through. If something goes wrong, the most I will have to do is correct my paperwork or pay a fee.

Not true for Guatemalans. They can and often will be harassed and asked the same question over and over, officials “trying to trick” them and betray a desire to overstay their visa, the women said.

Freedom of movement is fundamental to who we are as human beings, and international policies, especially those of the United States, increasingly serves to remove that human right. Migration should not be stopped, but migration forced upon people by economic need or violence, must be stopped, and freedom of movement, exchange of culture and ideas, and trade and commerce must be restored.

I was struck during the women’s skits, which they developed themselves and which are their own true stories, at how similar their project is to The Vagina Monologues and V-Day anti-violence projects. At San Francisco Theological Seminary, women are preparing to produce the Monologues for the fifth year. Participating in the play has been the single most transformative experience of my seminary career. Learning to speak for my body and to recognize and celebrate its sacredness taught me more than anything else what it is to be created in the image of God.

I was telling this to one of the Faith Stories women, and telling her that the play is a bit scandalous but is intended to voice things that women experience but that are kept hidden. “Que callamos,” she said. “That we are silent about. We can suffer internally, and we feel alone. For this reason we need to share.”

That is why the women of Faith Stories do what they do. People who see their stories realize that they are not alone. They can speak.

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