Passing the Torch

Reflections on the Journey


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As I walked out in the streets of Laredo…

Dedicated to Anthony Bourdain

Laredo, Texas, nicknamed “The Gateway City,” largest inland port on the U.S./MexicoTile work border, immortalized in a famous cowboy ballad. This was my first visit, and as I rounded a corner, my expectations were realized…

I’ll get back to that; but first…

I have a friend who’s a certified nomad. With her backpack, camera and laptop, she travels the globe and shares her delightful impressions on social media. She has been known to say, “Travel or die!”

Now, I might not go that far, but surely a part of me would wither if I didn’t quench my thirst for travelling. My wanderlust assumes many forms: afternoon plunges into my home city, day excursions, extended road trips, international safaris. Whatever it takes to get out there! Unless I do so, I become like a caged tiger pacing back and forth along the bars of his enclosure, eyes flat and spiritless.

Travelling is an art, and I have methods that suit me well. First, I do my homework on Trip Advisor, Frommer’s, and other web sources. Second, I speak to friends who have visited my target locale and solicit their advice. Third, I set a tentative itinerary.

But then comes the most important ingredient: my belief in serendipity. I am certain that I will encounter an unexpected person, place, or thing that expands my knowledge and appreciation of our magnificent world. The key word here is “unexpected”–a surprise that fascinates and instructs, a bonus for anyone who hits the road!

Here are examples from recent trips:

  • An image of Eva Garza, “Sweetheart of the Americas,” on a mural in my home city of San Antonio. It led me to YouTube and her gorgeous voice.
  • A park ranger at The Big Thicket who recently retired after thirty years in the U.S. Army. This guy is salt of the earth, and I absolutely loved our conversation.
  • A roadside historical marker on the highway north of Trinidad, Colorado, that prompted me to investigate the Ludlow Massacre on April 20, 1914, a day when the National Guard (in cahoots with John D. Rockefeller) killed over two dozen striking miners with their machine guns.
  • An unexpected welcome from hundreds of singing schoolchildren as our caravan pulled into Manyamula, Malawi.

Now, back to Laredo (after you enjoy the slideshow).

 

 

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As I walked along its streets, I saw the recommended tourist sights: the San Agustin Cathedral, the central square with its impressive statue of Ignacio Zaragoza, the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum.

But I also expected a serendipitous surprise, and I wasn’t disappointed. Turning one corner, I saw the city’s port of entry, Mexicans of all ages streaming through its portal into our country. A question sprang to mind. In this era of turbulence surrounding illegal immigration, how many Mexican nationals come legally into our country every day?

Estimates vary, but it is close to a million, counting both ways. They come to work, shop, go to school, visit friends and relatives. On this day, their flow into The Gateway City filled me with a sense of community and friendship. I sat on a concrete bench and watched them: mothers with children, men and women of all ages, part of our global community, brothers and sisters of different mothers.

It may sound simple, but this is what I treasured most as I walked out in the streets of Laredo. And it would not have happened UNLESS I TRAVELED!

I leave you with a quote from Anthony Bourdain that deeply resonates for me: “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch. Move!”

Carpe diem, friends!

 

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Not THAT Great Commission: This One

People seem to need mandates, marching orders, clear commands that fuel theirUntitled-1 missions. No shades of gray; just tell me what I’m supposed to do!

Many Christians, both historically and today, point to the Great Commission as their decree for evangelizing others into their faith. The verses are found in Matthew, chapter 28:18-20, Jesus’s final post-resurrection words to his disciples in that Gospel.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (NRSV)

It’s the ultimate manifest destiny, given by a God/Man who claims all authority, emphasizing baptism and obedience to commands.

There’s just one problem. I, along with many scholars, don’t believe Jesus ever said these words. Do the research yourself, but even if you don’t go down that rabbit hole, consider this. Why would a first-century carpenter who taught in simple parables suddenly lapse into the exact Trinitarian formula used by the Roman Church as it co-opted the People of the Way?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti?

Really? I don’t think so. This is a scribal interpolation, an addition to early manuscripts that justified the expansion of Christendom. And where did that lead? Surely to much beauty and goodness, but also to untold misery. Ask those who suffered the Inquisitor’s tortures. Ask indigenous peoples stripped of their dignity and lives. Witness the wholesale plunder of riches and land under the banner of a cross. Witness the unholy alliances between kings and pontiffs. Look at the flag-waving aberration called American Evangelicalism. I know…it’s a litany we’ve all heard. It is nonetheless true.

Clearly, this regrettable legacy lives on today. I recently took a trip to meet church leaders in two African countries, and I heard it repeatedly. Their reason for expanding their mission, their evangelical touchstone, is the Great Commission. I cringed, because I also heard its corollary: “WE have the truth, not other faiths, and WE have an eternal obligation to share the ONLY way.”

God in a box. Anthropomorphism running rampant. Religion trumping unity.

Personally, I adhere to a different commission. Not a mind-calcifying mandate, but a lodestar for living. It stems not only from the world-overturning teachings of Jesus, but other enlightened human beings. It includes these qualities but is always evolving.

  • A desire to love what we call God/Presence/Creator, and to love others as I love myself.
  • A striving for life in the Spirit rather than a grasping of material things.
  • A compassion that empties itself in service.
  • A forgiveness that defies logic.
  • A heart that longs to hear—and eyes that long to see—the often forgotten, silenced peoples of this world.
  • A vision of unity that transcends religion, race, and national identity.

Though I often stumble, I’m trying to live from this vision more fully every day. I believe it opens the portal to a place Jesus called the Kingdom of God, a new way of being human.

Grace and peace to you on your journeys, my friends!


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A Memorial Day Tale to Remember

In a former life that seems light years away, I served as an Army Chaplain at Fort 4 chapsJackson, South Carolina. My duties included weekly preaching to recruits in a World War Two chapel that housed the beginnings of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum.

That’s where I first heard of George Fox, Alexander Goode, John Washington, and Clark Poling. Theirs are not household names, but on this Memorial Day 2018, let’s recall them with gratitude.

Even if you know the story, it’s worth remembering.

On the evening of February 2, 1943, the U.S.A.T Dorchester—a cruise liner converted to an Army transport ship—was carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen, and civilian workers across icy waters from Newfoundland to a base in Greenland. Shortly after midnight, the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester through its periscope and fired three torpedoes. One strike was deadly: mid-ship, starboard side, far below the water line. The Dorchester’s fate was sealed.

Scores of men died instantly or were seriously wounded. For those that remained, chaos reigned. As they staggered to the deck, bracing themselves in an arctic wind, many panicked, throwing themselves into the frigid water rather than lifeboats.

That’s when four chaplains began ministering in the midst of tragedy: George Fox (Methodist), Alexander Goode (Jewish), John Washington (Roman Catholic), and Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed). They calmed the frightened, tended to the wounded, and guided the disoriented to safety. As they distributed life jackets from a locker on deck, the supply ran out. Calmly, each of them took off their own preservers and gave them to others.

Survivors recalled their last image of the four men. They were standing at the railing on the slanting deck, arms locked together, still offering prayers and words of courage as the ship sank to an icy grave.

One survivor, John Ladd, said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

Ultimately, the deaths of these chaplains are no more meaningful than the legions of unknown soldiers who lost their lives in conflict. Their heroism, remembered in chilling detail, has no more eternal value than anonymous acts of bravery lost in the sweep of death, never to be told.

Still, there is so much here that brings hope to our souls: love, self-sacrifice, and a vision of humanity than transcends divisions of religion, class, or race.

Memorial Day should never be a glorying in the death of our troops. It is meant as a deep and sober reminder of the higher values for which they died. It calls us to embody in our own lives these words from Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive…to achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The sinking of the Dorchester cost the lives of 672 men. On January 18, 1961, President Eisenhower awarded the posthumous Special Medal for Heroism to each of the chaplains. Stringent guidelines for the Medal of Honor, requiring “heroism under fire,” prohibited that award, but the medals these families received were meant to have the same weight.

Today, as we remember men and women who died in the tragedy of human warfare, let us include George Fox, Alexander Goode, John Washington, and Clark Poling.

Semper fidelis

 

 

 


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A Rose for Baby Haab

Call me morbid, but I find it enlivening to stroll through graveyards. A few days ago, myBaby Haab 2 wife and I drove down a remote road in Hardin County, Texas, to the Holland Cemetery, a lovingly preserved sanctuary. Surrounded by lush grass and a canopy of live oaks—cardinals singing in their branches—I came upon a rain-stained headstone.

But first…

I daresay I’m not the only one afflicted by a certain dis-ease. I have been blessed with abundance on so many levels: a loving family; more than adequate food and shelter; decent health; a creative vocation that engages my mind, heart, and soul. I have recovered from a near fatal disease.

Yet I still find myself ungrateful at times, restless in spirit. In a culture where enough is never enough, I allow myself to become a spiritual casualty.

My recovery process has taught me that ingratitude—like fear, worry, and resentment—is a slayer of inner peace, a murderer of time. From a Buddhist perspective, these states of mind are the epitome of suffering, and they are SELF-INDUCED. We can immaturely point to external factors as the source of our complaints, but WE are the ones who choose our responses.

To rouse myself from this stupor, I have adopted a discipline that spans history. In medieval Christianity, it was called memento mori; in Buddhism, maranasati or lojong; in Islam, Tadhkirat al-Mawt. It is the core of every Dia de los Muertos celebration.

Remember death. Internalize life’s brevity and you can awaken to its present magnificence. Your hands, clenched so tightly around illusory problems, will relax and let them go.

I recently visited the San Antonio Art Museum to see an exhibit called San Antonio 1718, Art from Viceregal Mexico. It is a collection from that period of Spanish colonialism and includes oil paintings of idealized clergy. Clutched in many of their hands are memento moris, small replicas of skulls to remind them of death.

I have objects like these in my office, gathered during my service as a pastor, decades when I was the one people turned to for comfort during times of loss.

  • There is the box given to me by a heroin addict. She found it while dumpster diving and could not, in good conscience, throw it back in the refuse. Its label reads: Cremated remains of Baby Bridget Spell, age 0, Date of Death, 9-20-88.
  • There is my wristband that says “Help me help the next Hugo Tale-Yax,” a tribute to a 31-year-old homeless Guatemalan immigrant, a Good Samaritan stabbed while helping a woman avoid mugging. He bled out on a street in Queens, New York, while dozens of pedestrians passed by.
  • There is the small picture of 13-year-old Tony Matrulo, who died in a freak go-cart accident just months after I baptized him.

Now, I have another. A photo of a headstone that says: Infant Child of Mr. & Mrs. A. G. Haab, Born and Died, January 2, 1920, Only sleeping…

Unnamed child of God, knitted together in your mother’s womb, you never knew the seasons of this life. You never loved, laughed or grieved. You never smelled a flower or lifted your face to the sunlight. You never wrestled with the questions of existence. And yet, your headstone cries out to each of us: Remember death, and through its portal, savor each moment!

I laid a rose at the headstone of baby Haab, then walked from the Holland Cemetery.

A cloud raced across the sun…

 

 

 


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To His Family and Church: “These Stories Need to Be Told!”

Recently, Tommy Moreno took his mother and grandchildren to Poteet, the Strawberry Strawberry newCapital of Texas. There, in the sun-drenched fields of a friend named Donovan Garcia, they picked fresh berries together.

More importantly, Teresa Villalobos Moreno sat with her great-grandchildren and recreated the days of her youth, growing up as a Mexican-American near the border. She arose at 4:00 a.m. to harvest crops alongside her family and friends. She would then proceed to school, attend to her studies, and return in the afternoon to labor once again in the furrows. At night, she slept on dirt floors under a tent her father made by throwing a piece of canvas over the side of his truck and a tree.

“Were you poor, Nana?” asked one of her great-granddaughters. “Yes, but we didn’t know it because we were happy and our family was full of love.”

As Tommy watched his grandchildren soak up their great-grandmother’s wisdom, as he saw them stoop to gather fruit with her, he prayed that the purpose of the trip would endure. “I hope these memories live with them forever,” he says. “They learned so much today about our history and how blessed our family truly is. These are stories that need to be told!”

A fourth generation Presbyterian Ruling Elder, Tommy believes there are stories that also need to be told to our denomination. Both his great-grandfather and grandfather were deeply involved in the Texas-Mexican Presbytery of the old PCUS. Founded in 1908, it established Mexican-Presbyterian churches, placed ministers, disbursed support funds, and launched two schools: The Texas Mexican Industrial Institute for Boys in 1912, and the Presbyterian School for Mexican Girls in 1924. It also initiated a Spanish-speaking department at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Tommy himself is a graduate of Pan American Presbyterian School (Class of 1979), one of the PC(USA) racial-ethnic schools.

We can debate the wisdom of separate governing bodies. We can scrutinize whether they are separate and equal, or just divisive. But there is no doubt that Presbyterian energy for Hispanic ministry in Texas was strong during those years. Tommy wonders what happened to that initiative and vision? Despite our denomination’s talk about inclusion—even mandating Committees on Representation—change has been glacial, almost non-existent. While the culture continues to become more richly diverse, the PC(USA) remains over 90% white.

Perhaps, in reality, we have gone in reverse. Tommy points to the fact that in San Antonio alone, there used to be seven Hispanic Presbyterian Churches. Today, there are only two.

Tommy recently joined Northwood Presbyterian Church, San Antonio, one of a handful of Hispanic members. He sings in the choir and acts as the congregation’s liaison to Habitat for Humanity.  At a recent Men’s Breakfast, the guys were discussing a Presbyterians Today article about the interplay of faith and sports. Their dialogue veered to Colin Kaepernicks’s NFL protest actions, a conversation that led naturally to race relations in America. Tommy asked the all-white gathering some pointed questions about realities that he has personally experienced.

“Have you ever been profiled and pulled over for driving a nice car? Have you ever been refused service at a restaurant because of your skin color? Have you ever been followed in a store because they thought you might shoplift? Have people ever crossed the street because they saw you coming towards them?”

“I continue to be a hopeful presence,” Tommy says, “even though sometimes I feel like a stone in the river that others flow around. But, like that rock disrupting the course of the stream, I hope I will create a current that carves out a new landscape. One of God’s greatest creations, the Grand Canyon, formed from the rolling waters of the Colorado River. Change is inevitable and constant. Rather than fight it, let’s embrace a new future, one where humankind can see the Majesty in others that are not like them. A time when we truly realize that beauty comes in many colors and forms.”


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The Gunshots that Changed a Church (and Its Pastor!)

September, 2017. A typically busy morning on the campus of Divine Redeemer

Una Mesa Para La Gente, a mural of inclusive community partially painted by youth from Divine Redeemer

Presbyterian Church, San Antonio (DR), a congregation that has ministered to one of the poorest neighborhoods of its city for 100 years.

Pastor Rob Mueller and a church elder were clearing a stump to make way for a donated trailer. On the sidewalk, scores of people stood in line to receive a weekly donation of food.

Suddenly, kitty corner to all of them, shots rang out in the front yard of a home notorious for drug dealing. A gang leader from a nearby housing project fell dead with 15 bullet wounds. His assailant fled. All of it in broad daylight at 11 a.m.

“I had listened to neighbors’ descriptions of other shooting incidents,” says Mueller. “I had talked with youth about the pressure to join gangs. But when I became a witness to murder, something flipped in me.  I could no longer stay on the sidelines.  I had to figure out how to stop this.”

Mueller began to converse more intentionally with the church’s neighbors about drug trafficking in their midst. These residents knew the players—what they sold, when they sold it, and who was buying. But they hadn’t spoken up for fear of reprisal.

Experience is the greatest teacher. As Mueller thought about the statement he had given the police, fearful questions crept into his own mind and heart. What if the gang members returned to ambush him late at night as he left the church? What if they targeted the congregation in a coordinated attack?

Listening to their community has been a mainstay of DR’s ministry, but this was a new and gut-wrenching level of awareness. “I empathized with the fear that my neighbors feel all the time!” says Mueller.And yet we knew we had to find a solution together.”

The church and its neighbors agreed on a goal of shutting down a handful of known drug-dealing homes nearby. They began a process of engagement with local authorities. What they discovered was an array of resources they didn’t know existed. This was especially true with the city police department, which provided support through its San Antonio Fear Free Environment program, as well as two experts whose community organizing influence has helped other neighborhoods plagued by similar violence.

Together, DR and its neighbors have learned what it takes to build a case for change, not only marshaling available resources, but truly coming together as a community of witness. They are now in the process of vigilance, watching and cataloging the evidence they need to move forward. Their strategy is to collect information via neighbors, channel it through the church to protect them, and then slowly and deliberately, one by one, remove drug dealers from their area.

As for the murder? The victim, a young African-American man, becomes a grim statistic. According to detectives, the perpetrator fled to Mexico and may never be apprehended.

Yet the legacy of their violent altercation will live on in a positive, unexpected way. A sense of hope is rising in the neighborhood around DR. They are feeling their united strength, dreaming of a future when community children will not have to resist appeals to buy or sell drugs. A future when they will be free from bullying.

“We have finally begun to feel the power we actually have to transform what we previously considered an impenetrable force of evil,” says Mueller. “We now believe that together we can turn the tide from death to life.”


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Slaying the Two Goliaths

Did he write the words himself? Did he riff them from another source?istock_000001115184small_man_with_arms_raised

Some still wrangle these questions, but this much is true. In 1943, during some of the darkest days of WWII, Reinhold Niebuhr – pastor, theologian, seminary professor—concluded his sermon at a church in Heath, Massachusetts with these words. “God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Slightly altered…forever immortalized…this became The Serenity Prayer, one of the most recognized petitions on our planet.

We who find strength in Twelve Step fellowships will tell you this: putting flesh on this prayer is a daily discipline. We especially need courage to change our thinking about the two greatest killers of serenity: fear and resentment.

Meet the two Goliaths that threaten to undo us.

Fear, worry, anxiety: it’s a form of insanity too many of us indulge, whether it be fears about our health, our families, our finances, or any other shadows from the future. These fears range from irritants nibbling at the fringe of our consciousness to full blown obsessions. And if we are the fortunate ones who shoulder responsibility, we may justify our stress with the adage that “it’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it.”

“Worry” comes from the Old English wyrgan, meaning “to strangle.” Could it be any clearer? The abundant flow of life, fully streaming in this moment, choked to a miserable dribble.

There’s a simple but eternal sentence spoken by Jesus in what we call his Sermon on the Mount. “Which one of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” The genius is in that word “hour.” Not years, months, even days. Our futile anxiety cannot add a single hour! As Jesus said, “Let those who have ears really hear.”

RESENTMENT, ANGER, UN-FORGIVENESS: they infuse our world with poison. “Resentment” comes from the Latin sentire, meaning “to feel.” So, at its root, resentment means to re-feel, re-experience, negative emotions from a prior wound. That injury may have come from a real transgression against us. It may simply be self-scarring from our prideful egos. It may be aimed at ourselves for chances missed, mistakes made. Whatever the object of this re-feeling, the result is cancerous.

HERE’S THE REASON FOR THIS POST. We must find ways to slay these two Goliaths on a daily basis. If you think of life (I HOPE YOU DO!) as learning to treasure every day, our fullness of life depends on this.

In Twelve Step groups, we speak of “a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” How do we claim this Cinderella liberty? DISCIPLINE. Mental, physical, and spiritual practices that help us banish fear and resentment. There are so many! Find one that works for you, like:

  • Meditation that allows this blessed moment to wash over us and cleanse us.
  • Daily gratitude, especially for past evidence that our Creator has brought us through trial after trial.
  • A crisp walk surrounded by the beauty of nature, glimpsing eternity and our humble place within it.
  • An act of love that transforms our self-indulgence into a blessing for others.
  • Forgiving and asking for forgiveness.

Do you have a discipline? If not, please find one. I am a man who squandered far too many years on fear and resentment. Let’s whisper this prayer together on our daily journeys…

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”