Invitation: If you have not read the first three posts or at a minimum the post “A Reminding Dream” please do so before reading this one.
What finally moved me from procrastination to publishing blog posts was a crying session Saturday morning. As I stood waiting for my mug of high-test coffee to fill up, I started to cry. If you know me, you know that I am a crier and a proud one at that. I cry silent tears and I wail. I cry when I am overjoyed and when I am in the depths of despair. When those tears flow seemingly without reason, it is often a sign from God. They tell me when a sermon is the right one, regardless of what I have prepared. They tell me when I am avoiding what I call my God-time, when there is something with which I don’t want to deal and I know I’ve reached a point where I must. They tell me when I am embarrassed because I am not being the person God has created me to be. As I investigated the reason for Saturday mornings tears, I realized that God was calling attention not only to my embarrassment but to heartbreak.
For several days, I have been obsessed with an agonizing combination of national news and anniversary documentaries on the 1960s. Even though I was raised in a household where newspapers were delivered every day and ignorance of current events was met with intense disapproval, I have tried to tune out. Why tune in when I will only get depressed and angry, lose sleep, and not be able to do anything to change the situation? God reminded me on Saturday that I am able to do something as is every individual. What we each are gifted to do on any given day may be different but we all are capable of doing things that will change the situation. We may not know what the impact is of what we do or say but we can be sure that doing and saying nothing is not an option, not if we have hearts, not if we have souls. The tipping point for my heartbreak on Saturday was the treatment of children, children who are being separated from their families by our government, and the failure of so many Christians to even express any outrage. So today I add my one voice to the voices of those Christians who are speaking out.
One of my pet peeves as a pastor has been hearing church going Christians go on and on about how sad it is that there are so few children in worship or Sunday school. One church in which I served even had a room filled with decades old toys and furniture for children, maintained as if the children who had roamed the halls 20 or 30 years ago would some day miraculously reappear. The same people who bemoaned the childless state of the church also were the people who did not see the huge number of children who lived in walking distance of the church. They also showed no concern for the children who came to the church every Sunday afternoon as part of a congregation that rented space in the building.
For example, one Sunday as our congregation had a reception in the fellowship hall, members of the other congregation began to arrive for their service. Their pastor would pick up many of them in a small van, dropping off people a van-load at a time. Since our trustees were adamant that the other congregation did not enter the building before their scheduled time, adults and children were standing outside on a concrete parking lot in the July heat, patiently waiting. Our senior pastor invited them in over intense objection and later was penalized by some of the members of our congregation for having done so. Why do I share this story?
I share it because it is an example of what happens when we start to see some people as less than others. I believe most of the individuals in the congregation genuinely wanted to welcome and nurture children in the building again. The problem was that consciously or unconsciously many of the members had narrowed their definition of children to the images, characteristics, and qualities that made them comfortable. They wanted children, but the children in the neighborhood and the children of the other congregation did not come within that definition. There were differences of dress, mannerisms, language, and ethnicity that led to discomfort and fear. Somehow these little beings were threatening at best and at worst non entities. They were invisible, except when someone needed to be blamed for spilled juice or some other similar capital offense. The senior pastor, who also reached out to the neighborhood children, was first ostracized and then removed as senior pastor, unsupported and unprotected by the local church and denominational powers that be. Children were desperately wanted in the building, in the denomination, in the faith — certain kinds of children that is.
Even though I was supportive of the senior pastor and took minor risks in what I would do or say during my tenure there, I must add myself to the list of people who were not vocal enough. Would I have opened the door if I had been the senior pastor or member of the congregation at the time? Probably not. As much as my heart may have wanted to do so, my mind kept saying no. My own snobbery, my own selfishness, my own fear combined to keep me from acting.
Apply that same combination in my own mind and apply the mindset of those members of the congregation who limited their definition of children to the children crossing our border with Mexico and you may understand what I mean by heartbreak. Regardless of any of our views on immigration policy, national security, or economic policy, there is no justification for separating any child from her family simply because they are trying to enter the United States. Let me repeat that. Regardless of any of our views on immigration policy, national security, or economic policy, there is no justification for what is taking place at our border with Mexico. If there is doubt as to whether what is being reported is true, then our response should not be to simply convince ourselves that it is not true or content ourselves with research from sources that will yield the answer we want.
As people of faith we have a responsibility to speak whether it is to our elected officials, from our pulpits, or in response to our colleagues. We must not allow our policy positions, our political affiliations, our fears, or our definitions of patriotism take precedence over our faith. Being Christian and being American are not the same thing. They never have been. On our best days as a nation, they overlap. Those are the days when we demonstrate our compassion for all people, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, economic status, or citizenship status. Those are the days when we are courageous enough and compassionate enough to see the humanity in every person and to act accordingly. On our worst days as a nation, being Christian and being American are diametrically opposed. Those are the days when only certain kinds of people are deemed worthy of entering our sanctuaries, our communities, or our nation. Those are the days when only certain kinds of people are deemed worthy of compassion, of value, of being seen and heard. Those are the days when we become so fearful of each other that we can no longer speak or act with civility. Those are the days when our version of Christianity and our calls for religious freedom are not about being free to express our love for each other or being hospitable to and welcoming of each other, but instead about seeking justification for excluding others and for refusing to face our fears of what is different or unknown. Unfortunately, those are the days in which we are living.
If you have not tuned in to any of the recent documentaries on the 1960s, I encourage you to take the time to do so. I also encourage you to do so in a group of people who you trust and who you know have different opinions from your own. It is the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Robert Kennedy and there are a host of documentaries on each of them, on the civil rights movement, on the Vietnam War and the related protests, and on the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon and the contentious political conventions and processes in which they each were involved. Most importantly, listen to the words and watch the actions of ordinary people, both the footage of the time and their reflections on the time. They are us. We have more sophisticated and subtle ways of ignoring each other, fearing each other, and hating each other. We have more ways to justify being too busy to engage each other, to be aware of what is actually occurring in our country, and to seek ways of learning and sharing. But at the end of the day, they are us.
In these days in which we are living, I pray that we will have the courage to be the people of faith we are called to be. When we dig deep within ourselves, we know when our faith and our fears are being used to divide us. We know when so-called faith leaders are more concerned about their personal fame and fortune than about the people they claim to lead or the God they claim to serve. Yes, as a nation we must address issues of immigration and national security, but I submit to you that as with any issues, we must address them with our hearts and our minds. As Christians, that means putting ourselves in the position of the least of these. It means remembering that there is a way or ways in which each of us is among the least of these. Whenever we are tempted to turn away, to remain silent, or to champion division and exclusion, we must remember the incarnation of God, not in a first-century Roman citizen or in a wealthy merchant or in the politically sponsored clergy of the day but in Jesus of Nazareth, a non-citizen, a poor laborer, a child refugee in Egypt, a person who spoke Aramaic, not the Greek language of the Empire, and a person to whom many religious people closed their doors and their minds because listening to Jesus of Nazareth was too inconvenient, too disruptive of daily life and deeply held beliefs, and too socially, politically, and economically risky. We know in our minds what it means to listen to Jesus of Nazareth. We know in our hearts what it means to be followers of Christ. May we speak and act in the ways the Christ in and of our heart guides.