“Lessons from the Dessert”

I’m deeply committed to the integration of an interior life that is attached to Jesus and an exterior life that represents Jesus’ priorities of justice and reconciliation in the world. These two postures are sometimes pitted against each other, or one is downplayed while the other is lifted up. My friend Pastor Daniel Hill likes to say that we lean toward being unbelieving activists or inactive believers and I think he’s right about that. This sermon (beginning at 4:30) by Pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship Church in NYC is one of the most beautiful visions I’ve heard for holding together these two essentials of the Christian life.

Faith & Race

This video is long, rambling, and about as lo-fi as it gets, and I think it’s pretty great. Pastor Michelle Dodson and I recorded this a few months back for an all-day Faith & Race workshop that our church recently facilitated. I regularly have really interesting conversations about these topics with really smart, thoughtful folks like Michelle so it’s nice to be able to share this one here.

“True spirituality is one that is incarnate in acts.”

Even if I must be reckoned a materialist, I shall add that I scarcely believe in a spirituality that is content with interior states. Just as it is unhealthy to be content with observances without caring about what goes on inside, so we are deceived by cultivating sentiments not translated into any practice. Pharisaic exteriority has  a no less deadly counterpart: pure interiority, combining beautiful states of soul with middle-class comfort. True spirituality is one that is incarnate in acts. The realism of the ancients understood this well. To despise these concrete practices that make the man is to separate the soul from the body, to enter into a sort of death, to fall into angelism and illusion.

 Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience (1986).

Good luck finding this book – I had to borrow it through my seminary’s inter-library loan – but it’s worth it if you can. Vogüé, a Benedictine monk, has for many years practiced the regular fast in which only supper is eaten each day. He uses his experience as a way to explore fasting and why it has slowly fallen from favor within much of Christianity. His happy approach to fasting is a surprising and helpful entry into a subject we usually think about with some discomfort, if not dread.

“Forgetfulness is the easy way out…”

Innocent history is selective forgetfulness, used precisely to avoid the consequences of a more realistic memory…

Responsible remembrance, on the other hand, leads to responsible action. A clear example is the repeated injunctions to Israel: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21); “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19); and an even more radical consequence of that memory of pilgrimage, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). For white North Americans to remember that they are immigrants and that the land is not theirs would lead to an attitude toward the original inhabitants of the land, and toward more recent immigrants, that the present order cannot bear. Forgetfulness is the easy way out, just as it was for the children of Abraham who refused to remember their bondage in Egypt.

-Justo González, Mañana (1990).

Go back to your country!

I sat next to my friend, a pastor, and across from his wife and young son in a booth in a suburban diner listening as he recounted what had happened to them recently. The emotion was still fresh, a mix of anger, fear, and confusion. I felt the same as the story spilled out. He gave me permission to share it here. I’ll call my friend Pedro.

Pedro is originally from Mexico and recently became a citizen of the U.S.A. His wife, also Hispanic, was born in this country. I have visited their church, worshipped with their community, and ate many meals with them. They were once kind enough to invite me to preach despite the rusty state of my Spanish.

A few weeks after the presidential inauguration Pedro and his family drove to a local auto parts store. As is common at these kinds of stores, my friend opened his the hood and had begun adding windshield wiper fluid. That’s when it began. A man who’d been shoveling snow from the sidewalk in front of the store approached the car and told my friend that he wasn’t allowed to open his hood in front of the store. Pedro knows from experience this this simply isn’t true but, nevertheless, he responded that he was almost finished and he was about to leave. The white man wasn’t pleased with this response and began aggressively telling Pedro to leave, and then… Leave now or I’m going to call the police. Go back to your country!

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Credit: Juha Haataja

In the restaurant, in front of his young son, my friend didn’t want to include all of the crude and hateful language the man had used against his ethnicity and country of origin. His wife chimed in, describing the rising anxiety she felt watching her husband berated, his place in this country denied, her son in the back seat unaware of how quickly an uneventful day had become fraught with ugly possibilities.

Pedro again told the man that he was almost done. Infuriated, the man scooped up a pile of snow onto his shovel and dumped all of it onto the pastor’s legs and into his shoes.

I don’t know how he kept a level head. Probably he was remembering his wife and son in the car and the threat to call the police. Who would the officers believe, the white man or the man with an accent and a Latino-sounding name? And so he closed the hood and walked into the store. After explaining what had happened to an employee behind the counter Pedro waited for some sort of sane response, perhaps a bit of compassion.

I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do. That man owns the store.

So Pedro walked out of the store, got in the car, and drove away with his family. What else could he do?

He finished the story. We shook our heads. I’m sorry that happened to you, I said. Or I think I did; my head was swimming, imagining myself in his ice-filled shoes as my own wife and children looked on.

My friends told me about their church and about the members who are afraid. The stories of deportation and harassment are everywhere and gaining frequency. Friends are sleeping one one another’s couches rather than driving home after dark. The threats from Washington D.C. are not simply one news story among others- they are visceral and attached to particular bodies and families.

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The question facing the churches today is not whether or not these sorts of hateful things are happening. They are. The question is whether or not we care. Do we genuinely believe that we are attached to one another across race, ethnicity, culture, and language? Do we believe that the eucharistic blood shared between Christians is, as Jesus told us, thicker than the blood of biology and race? My friends and their church full of recent immigrants want to believe that this basic Christian theology can be true.

They need it to be true.