Justice and Humanity

From July 11-20, I was experiencing the lush country landscapes of Guatemala, meeting the beautiful people – both Spanish and indigenous – and learning historical, cultural, and justice lessons with my fellow cohort friends and professors. This intensive residency is a part of our graduate program – a Master’s in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. The design of this class includes pre-course reading and discussion, Scripture reading and reflections, journals, and a final synthesis paper to weave together what we’ve learned about Social Justice and Christian Spirituality. 

What follows is the transcript of the sermon I preached at my home church on Sunday, July 23, processing the intersection of justice and the created intention of humanity.

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back (l-r) Adam (worship leader), Ron, Margareta, Vickie, Gina, Mika, Jess, Jael, Angel, host son, Melissa (prof’s assistant). front (l-r) Cindy (host mom), Will, me, Paul
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The host home we stayed in for our 4 days in Antigua
* Antigua
The cobblestone streets of Antigua, right outside our host home

My time in Guatemala was incredibly beautiful and deeply challenging.

I saw the lush mountains and waters of Lake Atitlán:
01 Lake Atitlan

I visited the great cathedrals and the memorials of the 200,000 victims of the civil war that lasted from 1960 – 1996
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02 Cathedral
03 Memorial

I saw the powerful Volcanoes surrounding Antigua, the same volcanoes that leveled the city in the 1700s and moved the capital to Guatemala City.
04 Volcano Feugo

I hiked through the hilly fields of a fair trade coffee coop in San Juan La Laguna.
05 Coffee

I smelled the filth of the GC Dump – spanning 24 football fields – where scavengers – both birds and humans – hunted for scraps of worth.
06 Dump 2

07 Dump

I met some of the children of dump-employees who are cared for in the school called Camino Segura (“Safe Passage”) to give them a few hours with food, safety, fun and education – a break the cycle of poverty.
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I saw the sprawling city cemetery stacked high with the poorest deceased, their death date scribbled by a finger in wet cement while the rich were honored in grandiose mausoleums.
10 Cemetery

I visited La Limonada, one of the largest slums in the world – with 60,000 people living in shanty homes stacked along the ravine 1 mile long and ½ a mile wide.
11 La Limonada


But I didn’t feel pity. I encountered humanity and experienced how little separates us from them.

I learned that justice isn’t donating to charity. Justice starts by seeing the needs in our community, getting to know the marginalized among us, and acknowledging their humanity.

Being a Christian would be much easier and far cleaner if we kept to ourselves. But following Jesus comes with a biblical mandate to do justice. The prophet Micah declares as much in chapter 6 verse 8: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Reading the word “require” is likely to agitate our inner rebel. Most of us middle-class Westerners prefer a faith that has no specific rules and a god who has no expectations of us. If we look at the first chapter of Isaiah, however, we find the Lord chastising the people of Israel for the way they have perverted the sacrificial system and are bringing “meaningless offerings” (Isaiah 1:13). Instead they must “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Jesus himself confronts this issue of justice with the Pharisees in Luke 11:42. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” These scriptures paint a portrait of the essential practice of justice for those who wish to follow this Yahweh God.

Too many evangelical churches have come to see justice as an optional aspect of the Christian life, a sort of religious “bonus point” if you will. But justice is inextricably connected to the heart of God and His intentions for our lives. I believe God’s creative initiative in the beginning was a call to hospitality: a call into God’s own self and a call to lovingly welcome others into the love we ourselves have received from God. This form of hospitality is the crux of justice: to know the “other” and to love them. We cannot “do justice” simply by donating money to a good cause or by giving a tenth of our income to the local church. If we do not find our hearts being transformed throughout our spiritual journey to join God in his work of love and justice in this world, then we need to seriously evaluate our Christianity and delve deeper into a contemplative connection to God’s Spirit. We must ask God to grant us “epiphany eyes:” eyes to “see through the façade to the real […and] eyes to see by the light of Christ’s word.” If we go about life with our eyes closed we run the risk of avoiding spiritual transformation altogether.  Father John P. Bertolucci is quoted in a book called The God of Intimacy and Action as saying, “[…] prayer and evangelization without social action leads to a pietistic withdrawal from the realities of the human condition and an escape from social problems rather than a confrontation and challenge to change.”

Friends, can we call ourselves Christian if we are not doing justice?

Ok…now that we’re all panicking inside, I want to invite you to take a deep breath and explore with me what it means to practice justice. Our evangelical definitions are so often severely truncated, keeping to the work of soup kitchens and warming shelters. The biblical practice of justice goes beyond the realm of the physical into the emotional and spiritual, ensuring all of God’s creation are offered fullness of life which Jesus describes in John 10:10. “I have come that they may have life and have it to full!”

My experience in the Guatemala City shantytown of La Limonada was a pivotal moment in my visioning of justice, an encounter using my “epiphany eyes.” What I saw can only be described as paradoxical, a site full of both despair and hopefulness. From the rooftop of one of the safe schools, I gazed out over the cinder-blocked homes stacked one on top of the other into the walls of the ravine, expecting to see only heartbreak and filth, despair and poverty. Instead, my eyes were met with humanity all around me. I saw countless clotheslines strung with surprisingly-white baby onesies and undergarments, well-worn jeans and tshirts. I saw shoes lined up on the doorsteps, little ones being carried in slings by their mamas, and meals being prepared. I was not blind to the pain, but I also saw the Kingdom of God unfolding in the shape of humanity. Though the words of Jeremiah 29:11 are probably numbingly familiar to many of you (“For I know the plans to prosper you…”), the preceding prophecy correlated with my consistent conviction that seeing one another’s humanity is the starting point of justice. In Jeremiah 29:5-6, The Lord tells his people to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters.” This is what life in God’s kingdom is all about – belonging to a community and doing life together. Justice in light of Jeremiah 29 and the slums of Guatemala City starts by seeing the beauty of mundane life in which we have families and settle into community and grow our food and to pray for God’s peace in our world. We can do that, right?!

As we practice the justice-work of seeing one another’s humanity, being with one another in our mundane, everyday life, we are recognizing that God’s kingdom is already among us (in the beauty of families and gardens and animals) and not yet here (in the reality of pain and suffering). When we sit with another in their suffering, we do it not with pity but with a mutual love. We say to each other, “Friend, this should not be. Let me walk with you. Let me hear your story. I may not be able to offer an answer or repair, but I will sit with you in your pain.” This kind of justice is “looking for trouble,” as Jim Martin would say.  [Looking for] “the place where we have become so identified with the suffering of our neighbors that we are suffering alongside them. It’s the place of desperation where we cannot help but fall at God’s feet and beg for his intervention.”

I believe our church is poised for justice work. We are building true community among us and inviting others to join us. We are sharing our chicken eggs and our garden vegetables and our honey. We are going shopping together and playing disc golf together and praying together. We are having fun and we are expanding the Church beyond Sunday mornings. I can’t wait to see how we might participate in Creation Care and Justice Work in the next year. Maybe we’ll have shelves in our fellowship hall where we can begin to actively share the bounty of our gardens and bees and chickens. We could truly have “everything in common” as the apostles in Acts 2. Perhaps we could change a few simple habits within our church and homes, such as eating with reusable plates and silverware or hanging a rack for mugs above our coffee bar. It’s the little decisions that begin to change our hearts and our world.

Mostly, though, I believe our church and our leadership must begin in contemplation and prayer. We must stop and be still before the Lord, to “listen to what the Lord says” as Micah 6:1 declares, in order that we may then “Stand up, plead [his] case before the mountains.” In waiting and responding to God, we will avoid asking God to bless our haphazard-justice-work. Instead, as Bono said in his 2006 National Prayer Breakfast address, my heart would be that our church would “stop asking God to bless what you are doing. [Instead we must] get involved in what God is doing because it’s already blessed.”

Lord, forgive us for doing evil in our pursuit of doing the right thing. Surely we have each fallen into the trap of pleasing you in our elaborate rituals and spiritual practices, when truly our hearts are far from you. How can we join you in healing the world? Help us to do what is right in your sight, to know what it means to “do justice” in our own context, within our neighbors and stores and families and churches. Amen


“As the plane left the ground and the clouds gradually shrouded the beautiful Guatemalan countryside, we looked at each other and spontaneously said, ‘Thank you.’ To the God who sent us and brought us together we also said ‘Thank you.’ We had traveled between two worlds and found them one. Something new was building, strong and beautiful, marvelous in our eyes. ‘De un corazón nuevo nace la paz’ : from a new heart peace is born.”

Henri Nouwen, Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story

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Homes of Hospitality

I’m going to suggest something crazy: what if God’s call for his people – for us – is to create lives and communities of hospitality? From the time of creation, through the covenant with Abraham, to the sending of the Spirit: all of these pivotal moments in the story of God’s People has had to do with responding to God’s invitation to be part of God’s own self and to join God in his work. What does this look like? Well, Rev. Marjorie Thompson says,

“The essence of hospitality is receiving the other, from the heart, into my own dwelling place. It entails providing for the need, [the] comfort, and [the] delight of the other with all the openness, respect, freedom, tenderness, and joy that love itself embodies.”

Based on today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis 18, I see hospitality as three things: as paying attention, as responding to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, and as giving of yourself – your space, your time, your home, and most importantly your love. This is the story of Abraham and the Three Visitors at the Oaks of Mamre. This passage is called the “Hospitality of Abraham” and it’s an incredible story of God himself – God as three strangers – showing up. Verse 1 says,

“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

By this chapter in Genesis, Abraham has a history of responding to God’s prompting, having made a covenant with God and willingly taken his son Isaac to be sacrificed. God knew Abraham would be paying attention, and so God himself showed up. Abraham notices the strangers and felt the prompting to invite them to his home. He responds by giving of himself, asking to serve them. This hospitality wasn’t a hand-out, it was a loving invitation to spend the day getting to know these strangers and serving them. Abraham’s invitation included choosing a choice calf, having it slaughtered and prepared for a meal, asking Sarah to bake bread (which takes hours alone), and conversing with his guests. The beauty of the invitation is that Abraham is served by his visitors: the Lord said to Abraham in verse 14:  “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Because Abraham was paying attention, responds, and gives of himself, he receives this precious message directly from God. God initiated the process, Abraham responds, and God continues his work. Because of Abraham’s hospitality, we are a part of God’s chosen people – a people chosen to show God’s hospitality.

The Hospitality of Abraham is depicted in this icon of the Trinity. Now, if you’re like me and you’re unsure about icons or just plain unfamiliar with them, fear not! One of my favorite resources, the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook describes them this way:

Icons are not a work of art that people worship – they are a sort of visual shorthand for what matters most. This visual language is not drawn or painted, it is “written” for it communicates unchanging truth about spiritual realities.

The spiritual reality being depicted here is the hospitality of the Trinity and the invitation of God to join him at the table.

In the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham we see the three “strangers” depicted as the three members of the Trinity. While every member’s clothing contains similarities in the blue coloring signifying their deity, there is also a unique element to each person’s garb. The Son (in the center) has a dark brown garment which correlates with his earthly existence along with a gold sash symbolic of his royal priesthood. The Spirit (on the right) is clothed in grassy green, the color of new life and growth. The Father’s garb is largely gold referencing his place in heaven. In the tilt of the shoulders, the position of the feet, and the angle of their heads, we see the mutual dynamic of love and respect shared between these three sitting down to a meal. In the foreground, we notice a not-so-subtle opening at the table. It is to this seat which God invites each of us. There is not a hierarchy nor a prerequisite to joining into this sacred setting. As the Trinity shows hospitality within himself, so God invites us to be a part of his hospitality and to invite others with the same hospitality we have received.

One of my favorite spiritual authors, Henri Nouwen, says this about this icon of the Trinity:

The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.

As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table.  The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure…

We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle… the house of perfect love.

When I say the word “hospitality” your minds are probably turning with your own definitions of what that looks like. Maybe you think of hospitality as creating elaborate meals and making sure your houses are spotless. Perhaps you get excited at the thought of inviting people into your home or maybe you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. Our culture’s definition of hospitality has become exquisite event-planning or perfect Pinterest parties. I’d like to invite you to redefine hospitality. I believe our call to hospitality involves an inner attitude and a way of life. Hospitality is about paying attention to the others around me, responding to the Spirit’s prompting, and giving of myself to make space for those “others.” When we practice hospitality, we are saying to someone, “I see you. I want to make time for you. I want to meet your needs and show you sincere love.”

This type of hospitality can take many forms. Certainly it is having friends or family over for dinner or taking care to set out the food you know someone will love. Hospitality might look like inviting someone to take up residence in that spare bedroom or giving a stranger a ride to work. Hospitality can also be found in a conversation with someone, giving them your full attention. You can create space for the “other” in your home, in your time, and in yourself.

In my January grad school residency, one of our assignments was to lay out attainable goals for our churches for creating lives and communities of hospitality. First, Church, I have to tell you how incredibly moved I am by the type of hospitable community you all have created over the past couple of years. Most every person who comes to worship with us comments on how safe and welcomed they feel, and how they can experience the love of God and a complete lack of judgment. This is an outstanding testament to the work God has been doing in us as a people.

Today, I want to challenge you to take this a step further. I believe God is wanting us to expand our church’s hospitality by creating homes of hospitality. Dr. Christine Pohl of Asbury Seminary writes,

Recovering hospitality will involve reclaiming the household as a key site for ministry and then reconnecting the household and the church, so that the two institutions can work in partnership for the sake of the world.

We want to become a church that continually and casually welcomes both friends and strangers into our homes, breaking down our barriers of insecurity and pride. This means inviting people into our space no matter how much or little we have to offer, despite our messy living rooms and our dirty bathrooms. It doesn’t matter if we live in a an old farmhouse, a modest ranch, a tiny apartment, or a cozy trailer. Our homes are a gift God has graciously given us and God himself dwells with us; therefore our homes are a sacred space for hospitality. This means letting strangers become friends as they see the pictures on our walls and eat our cooking and watch us bicker with our spouses over how to load the dishwasher. It means holding each other’s babies, helping the elderly up the steps, it means sitting around the fire roasting marshmallows or playing a rousing game of euchre. Hospitality is anytime you welcome another.

I hope the Lord has already been prompting your heart this morning, giving you ideas and bringing people to mind. I challenge you to join me this week in creating homes of hospitality.

Let’s hold one another accountable to creating homes of hospitality. Let’s ask each other each week, “Who have you welcomed and how? Where did you respond to God’s prompting?”


 

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Cor. 13:14

 

 

Stay in the Cloud

 

The essence of this exercise is nothing else but a simple and direct reaching out to God for himself…not (asking) to be released from pain or for his reward to be increased; in a word (the practitioner) asks for nothing but God himself; so much so that s/he takes no account or regard of whether s/he is in pain or in joy, but only that the will of Him who s/he loves be fulfilled.

I sat with this concept for a long time during this week.  Before I read these words, the Lord was already cultivating this soil in my heart, leading me to a patient lingering in the Tension. Is it possible that God wants me to wait in the tension, to stay in the Land of the Unresolved? I have always longed for direction and a solution. Lord, just tell me what to do and I will do it. I am an active (struggling with the contemplative) after all. I am willing to have the difficult conversations, to confront or to apologize. But to just wait?!

Waiting (and not forcing an answer or solution) is a difficult concept, and one that I have honestly not considered. My form of waiting is really just badgering the Lord for answers. Yet God is asking me to be with Him. It is not time to move on past the pain. This land, this tension between the Already and the Not Yet, is where He wants me. Perhaps an “answer” (in the form I’m imagining) will not come. Maybe I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, settling in deeper to the heart of God because what else is there, really?

 

These are reflections on my reading of The Cloud of Unknowing for my Master’s class in Formational Theology.

 

My Loving Priority

As part of my grad school coursework, I am instructed to participate in various prayer practices during the week. Last week in my practice of the Jesus prayer, I noticed two important shifts in my thinking and I am thankful for my experience with the Lord. Praying the Jesus Prayer is simple and profound. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

During my prayers, I found myself convicted of my priorities at the start of my morning. I always begin my day in my certain seat in the living room, Bible open, journal and pen in hand. This rhythm helps to start my day in peace and with Jesus. But for the past few weeks, I had selfishly and lazily allowed my iPad and all of its social media pitfalls to lead me away from my Loving priority. What shocked me about this realization wasn’t so much that I shouldn’t start my day on Instagram (I knew that already), but that my social media interaction at 5 or 6 am was actually harmful to my mind and spirit. Thanks to the tender grace of Jesus, I noticed that my body was already tensing up, engaging with the exterior world before I was adequately bathed in his loving acceptance. My heart was racing, my mind following suit. Oh, Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…

 
Aside from this conviction, I was thankful for the way that this prayer was taken with me into my day. I found myself praying this Jesus prayer while I was driving, refocusing on my Love and confessing my need. As I took multiple stroller-walks with my daughter, I meditated on the Jesus prayer with each plodding step. At first I had started a podcast, something mindless and fun. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, sometimes just for fun is just what God wants of me. But last week, with the rhythmic steps and the sunny skies, I am thankful for praying again and again,

Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

The Slow Work of Grace

I know there are plenty of analogies for how Americans have created an “instant gratification” culture. We like fast cars and fast food, microwaves and Netflix without commercials. (Can I get an “Amen?!”) I like all of those things too. But in the past few weeks, I have been continually reminded that our cultural mindset produces a major issue for the work of spiritual growth. God’s work in our life does NOT go at our speed. The work of God’s grace is slow, painfully slow at times.

Saying God is slow in his work probably isn’t the best way of saying it, though. It’s not really a time-frame thing. Spiritual formation isn’t linear (as much as I try to make it so). This journey in Christ is weaving and wandering, loving and kind, exhilarating and frustrating. There isn’t really a speed associated with how God works out his grace in our lives. There can’t be. God’s grace is unquantifiable.  God’s grace is a continual presence in our life, a constant invitation to join him in the dance of love.

There are moments when you think you’re making it. “I am on the right track,” you think to yourself, “Finally!” You find yourself energized by various spiritual disciplines, loving corporate worship services, intentionally connecting with others. But then Anger rears her ugly head. Anxiety creeps out of the crevices. Pride stomps in uninvited. And you realize you are so far from the mark of steady growth, still desperate for God.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

This “Jesus Prayer” is apt for every moment of your life, no matter the season. Breath out these words. Breath in his mercy. It’s bountiful enough for you today.

When God Shows Up

Throughout the past seven days, I have experienced the peace of God in a more surprising way than ever before. In the weeks leading up to my Master’s class residency, I was anticipating a serious contention with anxiety. I would be away from my family – including my one year old daughter for the first time – with people I didn’t know, working within a schedule I wasn’t getting to set. I waited for the fear to grip me, for the nausea to sweep over me as it has countless times before.

But it never came.

I got in the car after hugging my most-loved people and drove off with confidence rather than despair. For the first time in my life, I didn’t experience one ounce of homesickness in my time out of my element. God showed up. God met me in the most obvious way and gave me residing peace every moment of the day.

In our Master’s program, we’re working through intense dialogue, having read large stacks of books with weighty words, and we’re hearing from professors who challenge our status quo. As we look at the syllabus and the assignments looming and as I open up the syllabus for the upcoming course, I anticipate that fear-wave to crash over me again. Every single class I’ve ever taken includes at least one mild moment of panic as I wonder how on earth I’ll get it all done. But God showed up. Not a drop of worry tip-toed into my thoughts. I didn’t question, didn’t fear. And it felt weird. But this crazy kind of peace is more than welcome.

On Wednesday during my spiritual direction meeting, I was trying to encapsulate the peace I’ve been experiencing. My thoughts have been so clear. My mind has been so present, with the subject and with the people. It all felt so foreign. I couldn’t put my finger on the “why,” but it felt very much like I had a rare moment of clarity as I gazed back at my old mind and looked ahead into my new mind. I was standing on the precipice of change. I had an opportunity to leave behind the mindset of fear and anxiety, of not-good-enoughs and incompetence, of lie-believing and criticism-lobbing. Would I step forward into the truer version of me, the self who knows its worth in Christ, the one who speaks truth, lives in love, and exudes joy over judgment?

How could I express my embrace of the transformation toward which Jesus was leading me? 

My spiritual director invited me to open my palms, a sign of receptivity to the work of the Spirit and my lighter grip on my life. This open-palmed liturgy will become a practice of mine. Yes, during worship and private prayer. But also during moments when I see the Fear creeping around the corner or notice Shame blowing into the crevices. When I feel the need to grip tightly to control, I will open my palms. Release. And I will keep my palms open to gratefully welcome whatever or whomever God brings to me. Receive.