The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

September 6, 2016

An unexpected gift came to my doorstep this week.  Unexpected.  And, actually, it wasn’t delivered to the mail box or, like an Amazon package, to my doorstep.  Rather it came when I was away from home; discovered while traveling in California.  Elaine and I were in Sacramento. 

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The “Safe” — an empty pork and beans can

Early morning, out on my daily constitutional (the goal is to walk five miles a day), I was stepping along a stretch that looked promising.  It was a grassy and green stretch.  On one side was the I-5 interstate that runs the length of California.  Sounds of rushing traffic — good folks no doubt on their way to work in the city — perhaps in state government.  On the other side of the green way was a row of tall evergreen trees.  Beyond them an empty field.  The stretch, about four football fields long, ran between the Hilton and Marriott hotels.  No paths, little appearance of use, just the promise of a good place to walk alone, I thought.

About half way between the Hilton and Marriott, tucked away under the trees, sunlight streamed like a silver web on the grass.  It gyrated across my path.  The light beckoned me come.   I turned toward the trees and just a few steps away, hidden in underbrush, was a small encampment.  Clearly someone’s abode — plastic bags, a water jug and a couple of bedrolls — these were obvious.  Only the trees for cover.  I called, “hello,” then thought it foolish.  They likely wouldn’t welcome a visitor.  With no response, I looked more closely.  There were a couple of books including an old Bible and what, at first, appeared to be trash — four opened and empty tin cans.   Looking more closely, in a Pork and Beans empty “safe,” was a rosary and 47 cents.  Feeling guilty, embarrassed, about disturbing this hermitage, I quickly moved away.

Who lived here?  For how long?  Was this a “permanent” residence for a couple of homeless folks?  The irony of this camp between two upscale hotels did not escape me. I walked on pondering questions about our society and wondering about these residents on the edge of survival tucked away between the comfortable respite of travelers like me.   How had these homeless folks arrived at this situation?  Bad luck?  Addiction?  Mental illness?  How had our nation come to this point of ignoring the poor among us?  Our bad luck?  Our ideological addictions?  Our mental illness? 

A rosary and forty-seven cents – left in a pork and beans tin can.  Returning along the path, I couldn’t help it.  I returned.  Looking around carefully to make certain I would not intrude.  Still with no one “home,” I fished some cash from my wallet and added it to the modest stash in the pork and beans can. 

I left quickly, and then that first strand of light fell again across the path way.  I looked back to see an old broken mirror hinging from twine on a tree in the encampment that was reflecting the light.  I stopped and prayed, praying as earnestly as I have in years.  Yes, I prayed for these homeless folks.  Yes, I prayed for our nation and world.  More, I prayed for myself.  My intrusion into this purgatory (or was it a haven?), this place of meager shelter, hidden away in our brutal and too often numbing world was illuminating.  So many live on the edge.  It was a heartbreaking reminder of the work yet to do.  How many homeless in the U.S.?  Eleven million?  Or, as some say, thirty million? 

I was also aware that my intervention might not be of value.  Should I call a church or social workers?  NO!  Knowing all too well our systems of “helping,” I didn’t want to further endanger those who sought this place as sanctuary.  Even though I had left a little money behind, I was not a hero.  Nor were my motives heroic.  There is too much in our society that encourages us to believe that we are the heroes and others are the victims.  Our world is not as much of an either/or calculation as so many of our ideologies or theologies all too often communicate.

I wondered if this was a couple and if they had a child?  Might that child be undocumented?  Might that child be a refugee?  A refugee like that child Jesus so long ago?  Might it be a Joaquin, Jamal, Maria or Alice?

IMG_1645Returning to the hotel parking lot, there was another glimmer of light.   Down, and there on the asphalt, was a lost key.  My first thought was to carry it back to the camp.  Leave it there with the rosary in the can.  Then I realized the key might be for me.  I was to remember — that because God loved me so, I was to live in responsible ways, always remembering those tucked away, out of sight, living on the margins.  I was to live aware that because God loved those camped under the evergreen trees, I dare not stop speaking or working on the behalf of all.  Now — here is the real surprise for me.  In that moment there was JOY.  The joy of remembering my faith, of knowing my calling.  The JOY of having another key to my identity.  Lost and found — Joy.  Like an empty can, I had been provided so much by so many. I thought of those who had taught me so much — teachers, parents, friends, the homeless I had known over the years who “took me in.”  I checked with the hotel desk and no one reported losing a key, so I dropped it in my pocket as a reminder.

Yes, I was so privileged.  I had work to do.  In a world where our political candidates seem determined to forget the homeless, in a world where our refugees are a small fraction of the refugees all across the planet, there is work to do.

I recalled C. S. Lewis who wrote of these moments:  ” I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

I brought the key home with me.

 

 

 

 

The Great Identity Theft of 2015

The Great Christmas Identity Theft of 2015 

The devastating assaults in Paris have shattered our best hopes during this season.  I was traveling the day following this tragic time and couldn’t help but marvel at the way persons sitting in the airline terminal transfixed by the television images from Paris.  The usual noises of travelers hurrying through the terminal were muted.  We were all distracted.  Fear and anxiety overwhelmed any sense of normalcy.  Then, our worst fears about the future of terrorism seemed confirmed by the murders of innocents in San Bernardino.  Terrorists assault.  They kill and gravely wound unsuspecting civil servants at a holiday party. 

How do we respond to such evil.  What can we learn?  How will we find a way forward when there are appropriate fears about the future.  One healthy response is to seek to learn more, to understand more, to gain knowledge of the situation.

Who are these misguided murderers?  What motivates?  Why do they choose these suicidal theatrics.  We want to know who is doing this and what are their motives. This is all healthy and appropriate.  It is needed information.  And what can we learn about Islam and this radical apocalyptic cult — this ISIS or ISIL?  Important this is, all of it.

Still, isn’t it intriguing that during these days of terror, we hear volumes from the experts about Muslims — who they are and how they behave — while at the same time there is little or no consideration about who is a Christian or how Christians might act at this time.  The media are full of analysis about Islam.  Good.  knowledge is helpful; as one of my mentors would say “facts are our friends.”

It may be as important, make that more important, to consider what it means to be a Christian in this time.  In the seasons of Advent and Christmas 2015 we hear again the Jesus narratives.  His life and words are captured in carols and story and sermon.  What is there to be learned from this narrative about retaliation, revenge, exclusion, bigotry toward those who are different? 

It is interesting that on the same day that Pope Francis announced the beginning of Year of Jubilee as a time of mercy and reconciliation, Donald Trump is loudly and adamantly speaking words designed to stir up fear and set up new systems of discrimination.  Many people in this country seem to agree with him — in some places, places where there are strong “Christian” environments, there may even a majority who agree with The Donald.  

What has happened?  Most of those who seem to agree with Trump would be quick to say the United States is a Christian nation.  Really?  There is grave danger here.  If we are to choose the way of discrimination toward persons of a different faith, this is a danger I would label identity theft.  Someone is taking the basic elements of what it means to be a Christian and substituting a cheapened, debased form of shallow and self-serving religiosity.

It is not up to me to say whether Donald Trump is a Christian or not.  He says he is, “I attend church on Christmas, Easter and special occasions.”  He says that if he is elected president he will be “the greatest Christian representative ever to be in the White House.”  His faithfulness and the ways he acts on his beliefs are between him and God.  However, he doesn’t get a pass on his easy claims.  How do they match up with the story of Christmas?

9931687_sNo, it is not my call to determine whether Donald is a Christian… but we do know a great deal about who and what a Christian is expected to be from the scriptures and the great traditions of the church.  Racism, bigotry and calls for revenge displayed by too many just don’t square with the person and teachings of Jesus.  Right now — as we gain knowledge about others, equal care needs to be given to thinking clearly about what it means to be a Christian.  Certainly the calls to exclude persons from the United States based on a religious test is unconstitutional.  That is easy.  For me, however, it is more important to ask, is it Christlike?

We are warned at this time of year to guard our credit card information.  We are told to be careful giving out information about social security numbers or family background.  Someone might steal your identity and this would be disastrous.  I want to warn of an even greater identity theft that is underway — it is a theft of what it means to be a Christian.  Guard this closely.  The loss of this identity might be even more damaging than having one’s credit compromised.  The loss of this identity may close down important options that will be needed in the future if we are to find a way past this current wave of terror.

Fear is a powerful thing; so is knowledge.  It is critically important in these days to know more about Islam — what is true and what is false?  Let me suggest that it is even more essential, for those of us who make the faith claim that we are “Christian” to consider carefully what this means — what is true and what is false? 

 

 

Unwrapping an Early Christmas Gift

Christmas 2015: A Pageant of Imagination

How will church nativity pageants be different in 2015?   Should we check the visas of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus before they process down the church aisle?   Or, should they be detained before they sit beside the manger scene in the chancel?  After all, these three family members were “outsiders” threatened by terror.  They were vetted by the authorities and found to be dangerous.  As a result, they became refugees.

You remember this part of the story, don’t you?  As a nation we in the United States seem to forget or perhaps simply say, “Well, that was then and this is now.”  Right?  Well, no, not really.

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Rembrandt’s rendering of “The Flight into Egypt”

 

The fears generated by tragic events in Paris this past week have resulted in U.S. political leaders loosing their ability to think clearly.  To call the response “knee-jerk” is disrespectful to knees everywhere!  The ignorance and intolerance displayed by folks like Donald Trump are not worthy of a great nation like ours.

Suddenly, our greatest fear is the 10,000 Syrian refugees who are being forced by terror to seek new homes?  While Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are accepting millions of displaced refugees, we proud Americans, who are an ocean away, can’t welcome 10,000 who have been screened for nearly two years — and these are persons who are going to be placed with resettlement organizations most of which are religious groups with long histories of working with such refugees. 

Members of the House of Representatives quickly pass a bill that is designed to target persons based on their religion.  It is an astonishing nod to the bigotry and ignorance of the cheap seats in the American electorate.  It has been said by many and it is true — “we are better than this.”

However, rather than writing a screed on the small mindedness behind the statements and legislation that has been proposed, I choose to believe that these events just might be an early Christmas present, waiting to be unwrapped.  An early Christmas gift to be shared at our Thanksgiving dinner tables.  There is the opportunity here for imagination, for those who will be guided by thought, prayer, a clear-eyed view of our history to offer another version — not of who the Syrian refugees are, but who we are, especially if we are persons of faith.

I think of heroes like Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, who was faced with the demands of the Roosevelt administration to set up detention camps for Japanese Americans in his state.  Carr, a conservative Republican was shaped more by his Christian faith than political expediency.  He said, “No, not here, not on my watch” and he paid the price of losing an upcoming election to the U.S. Senate.  Today if you visit Denver you will see that the state judicial building is named for Ralph Carr in recognition an ethical clarity, drawn from  his faith, that allowed him to stand for justice against the popularity of bigotry on the march.

If you watch the news carefully, you will see politicians already coming to terms with their reactive bigotry.  News speak is that they are “walking back statements made about Syrian refugees.”  The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia is an example of one who had to change his suggestion that we go back to camps like those used to detain Japanese Americans during WW II.  Presidential candidate Ben Carson now says he regrets speaking of the refugees with a rabid dog analogy.  Fear is a powerful emotion mixed with self-interest in which human beings sometimes get lost in the worst of our impulses.

These events, put together, provide the occasion to think more holistically and imaginatively about how to proceed.  Should we accept Syrian refugees that are carefully screened.  Absolutely, YES… and I think we should welcome even more. 

HOWEVER, this is only a start — there are dozens of other things that might be done in the United States and in other parts of the world to humanely address this crises.  How do we assist those in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey who have borne the brunt of the tragedy in Syria?  How do we assist those in Europe facing these challenges?  Now is not the time to play the tortoise by hiding inside our shell.   

The nations of the world no doubt will make increasing military responses to ISIS.  There are arguments to be made as to what might be done and how.  Again there will be dozens of ways to respond.  As for me, there will need to be a witness against war and violence — as our continuing “go to” solution to every dangerous and hostile situation.  Didn’t we get here by trusting too much in overusing the military as a solution to everything?

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James J. Tissot’s “The Flight to Egypt”

 

This week, let’s join one another in unwrapping an early Christmas present at the Thanksgiving table.  Make this your early gift — encourage imagination.  Help others remember that our Christmas pageants are more than little parades of children in bathrobes and silly hats.   Laugh, play and retell the Christmas narrative in fullness, including the parts about a refugee family driven from their home.