Passing the Torch

Reflections on the Journey


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Even Jesus had to Unlearn Racism and Privilege

Our images of the mystery we call “God” do matter. The ultimate reality that we worship shapes our lives until our final breath. It is important to continually expand our concepts of the Creator, the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being.

No wonder God gave that powerful name to Moses at the burning bush: “I am being what I am being.” Fluid, evolving, free from anthropomorphic boxes of human imagination. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 1:25, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” Even Einstein at the height of his brilliance only touched the floorboards of God’s estate.

I have issues with a certain type of theological box–those who constantly emphasize the divinity of Jesus. You know what I mean: the Cosmic Christ, the Resurrected One, the sinless Son of God, the Ascendant Deity sitting in power on high.

That Jesus holds no appeal for me, and this brings me to a story that I hold dear in my quest to follow the Nazarene’s footsteps. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, the message of this brief incident is prophetic in our fractured world.

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Jesus is travelling in the region of Tyre and Sidon in what is now Lebanon (Matthew 15:21-28). At that time, it was part of the Roman Empire, but had previously been home to the Phoenicians, those legendary seafarers who traded a rare purple cloth dyed from the extracts of a sea-snail.

Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman agonizing over the condition of her daughter, described as “having a demon.” Obviously, Jesus’s reputation as a healer has preceded him because the woman goes to him pleading for help.  But Jesus ignores her, and his disciples mutter, “Send her away; she’s annoying.” Jesus basically agrees, saying, “That’s right; I came only to minster to Israelites, my own people.” Then, in order to brush the woman off, he turns to her and says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Ouch! Wait a minute! Jesus just called this suffering woman a dog! Fill in the blank with your most hated racial slur and dog ranks up at the top.

But, what a woman! Driven by loyalty to her child, she perseveres. She throws this incredible line back at him: ““Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

At that very instant, a miracle happens. I’m not just talking about the healing of the woman’s daughter. I include the conversion of Jesus’s narrow-mindedness. He sees this woman, really sees her, recognizing the imago dei within her. The boundaries of his love stretch to include someone other than the privileged children, the chosen ones of Israel. This Canaanite woman becomes just as worthy of God’s love as any Israelite.

In the end, we must come to this story as the Spirit leads us. Those who insist on the “sinless Jesus” will claim he was only testing the woman’s faith. For me, it is Jesus’s very humanness that endears me to him more. This is a savior who struggled like me, like all of us.

And if a man who called a woman a dog could go all the way to the cross, saying in his final moments, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” then there is hope for humanity.

Selah.

 

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Have a Blessed Trailer Park Christmas!

Don, Linda, Jeff, a child whose name I never knew; their faces haunt me, even as they crystallize my calling.

Trailer Park Christmas

During 31 years of ordained ministry, I have served in rural, suburban, and inner-city settings. I’ve always joked that the motto of “characters welcome” was perfect for a permanent banner over our doors. You could see evidence every Sunday.

Musicians from a local bar played in our praise band. An ex-homeless woman with intellectual disability was our weekly greeter, passing out bulletins. A man found sleeping in our parking lot became a prominent member of our outreach ministry. Addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill discovered that the love of our congregations was a boon to their recovery. A recluse who had served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam came out of hiding and made meaningful relationships in our midst. We embraced all colors, classes, and sexual identities—God’s children!

Given my hard-earned affinity for broken people, I led our members to seek out the poorest in our communities. One place we found them was at impoverished mobile home parks, often tucked out of sight, pockets of American poverty that are more prevalent in our country that we want to admit.

I remember Don and Linda. Don was a Vietnam vet, suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and his long addiction to alcohol. He finally got sober and was living in a shabby Winnebago in Pomona, California, an inner-city community racked by gang violence. We met him while circulating flyers at his park. Someone lovingly offered to drive him to church, where he eventually joined our family.

One day, Don met Linda while she was begging outside a grocery store. He gave her what he had, then invited her to come to his trailer for a meal. Linda was intellectually disabled, a lost soul, and she ended up moving in with Don. It was the only stability she had known for many years. Eventually, as Don’s condition worsened and he was confined to a wheelchair, she became his caregiver. Theirs was surely a match made in heaven.

One Christmas Eve, our church included them in our offkey but joyous caroling tour. I’ll never forget the sight of Linda wheeling Don onto the porch. In the glow from a single string of lights, I watched their tears of gratitude at being included. A pit bull on a chain from the next trailer strained to get at us, its barking a crude counterpoint to our tunes.

I remember Jeff, a young man with aspirations to join a rock band, yet whose marijuana and meth habits drained his meager income and frail health. His lived in a small trailer in the high desert outside Littlerock, California. It was papered with posters from his favorite 80s bands—Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order—but also classics he had learned to love from his mother, especially The Beatles.

On one of my visits, he asked if he could play Eleanor Rigby during worship. Of course! Backed by our praise band, he offered his gift on a Sunday just before Christmas, and when he sang “Ah, look at all the lonely people” we felt God speaking to us through an unexpected medium.

I remember a woman and her children living in a squalid trailer park in Alice, Texas. Our congregation was passing out food and toys, and when we knocked, the woman sheepishly peered through a crack in the door as an odor of cooking grease and old diapers seeped around her. Were we the police? Immigration officers? In English and Spanish we assured her that we were simply bearing gifts. Her children hovered behind her. I looked past them to see that the ancient trailer was sloping. Her youngest boy was seated on a ratty couch, a hole in the floor at his feet, revealing mud and debris beneath him.

That boy’s face still haunts me.

So, this is my Christmas shout out to all the lonely, struggling, hurting people in our communities who deserve more than FB memes or occasional hit-and-run charity. They long for loving company—the communion of saints—which is the greatest gift any community of faith has to offer.

Have a blessed trailer park Christmas, y’all!


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One Church Takes a Stand at the Border

In December 2016, a federal judge in San Antonio, Texas, ordered that hundreds of women and children–most of them refugees from Central America–be released from two south Texas immigration detention facilities. He had deemed the sites unsuitable for holding minors, sending the families into a wet and frigid winter night. Members of the San Antonio Mennonite Church, longtime activists for just immigration, gathered to address the emergency. How could they respond to the crisis? This is part of their story, excerpted from “Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission.” You can preorder it here.

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As officials released women and children from two detention facilities in response to a court order, hundreds of people suddenly needed temporary shelter and support. On Friday, December 2, 2016, SAMC’s leadership offered its guest house as a shelter. When its two floors filled up, they opened their cavernous fellowship hall, and when even that area overflowed, they opened the doors of their main sanctuary, pushing pews to the walls to provide sleeping space.

At the guest house, a big- screen TV hung from the ceiling announcing departure times for women and children bound for destinations around the U.S. Upstairs was a phone bank for calling lawyers and family members, its long line extending into the hallway. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) learned of SAMC’s willingness to shelter the released prisoners and began to bus them directly to the church’s front steps. Their numbers continued to swell.

John Garland, pastor of SAMC, reflects on that experience and how its ripple effects continue to shape the congregation’s ministry.

“It’s easy,” he says, “to quote Old and New Testament mandates to care for the least and the aliens in our midst. But real conversion to our neighbors doesn’t begin by declaring ourselves a welcoming space for the homeless or a sanctuary for refugees. It always begins in real, face-to-face relationships. This is the essence of incarnational ministry.”

Garland, like most of SAMC’s members, was at the eye of that human hurricane for a number of days. The experience reaffirmed many of the congregation’s cherished beliefs. For instance, Mennonites strive to live simply, believing God will provide more than we need as we walk the path of faithfulness. This trust in abundance proved warranted during the refugee crisis in a number of ways.

Hundreds of surrounding neighbors rose up to provide support in the way of food, water, and backpacks for the traveling women. Many of them openly said, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m glad you are here and I support what you are doing.”

When the fire marshal got wind of the church’s overcrowded conditions, he threatened to shut everything down. This evoked responses from the mayor, the city council, even a congressional representative, all of them wrangling over what to do. But it was the neighborhood fire station that provided the solution. Its firemen, even after working long shifts, volunteered to patrol the perimeter of the church, providing the emergency coverage necessary to make everything legal.

Not everyone, however, was approving of SAMC’s work. Online threats were frequent, some of them warning of violence, and though Pastor Garland never read the specifics, he was aware of potential danger. So, when a jacked-up truck with a Confederate flag on its rear window rumbled into the parking lot, he was understandably concerned. A burly man stepped down from the cab.

“Is this the place that’s helping the illegals?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“Yes, it is,” said Garland.

“Good,” said the man, “because I have some food in the back I’d like to donate to the cause.”

Garland sees this not only as an example of the abundant response of others, but of the unlikely conversion of one neighbor to another in our midst.

There is another incident dear to his heart. During that onslaught of need, SAMC discovered a child separated from his mother. In all the hubbub, some volunteers had taken the mother to the hospital. Until they located her, Garland took the child home and let him snuggle between his two young daughters, a lasting lesson for him and his girls about the need to protect and love our neighbors no matter how they come to us.

He sums up so much of what he learned in a succinct anecdote.

“On the fullest night of that crisis, with the church packed, I tried to sleep in my office. The building was a cacophony of two primary noises. There was the beeping of the ankle monitors each detainee was required to wear, and the coughing! Most of the women had caught a respiratory bug in the detention facilities, and the coughing was nonstop. Between those signs of sickness and the incessant beeping, I thought I was going to lose my mind.

“Then a beautiful voice rose above the din. It was a mother singing a lullaby to her child. That song had a clear message to me. ‘Sorry, white boy, if you are struggling this evening, but I’m trying to put my child to sleep.’

“I realized right then that none of us responding to this crisis were the heroes in this passion play. It was these women who had left everything—their homes, their countries of origin—to protect their children.”

The overcrowded conditions eventually subsided, but not the regular and ongoing need. Today, SAMC and its partners continue to minister to the women and children who come to them from the detention facilities—these neighbors in a global family—but now their service echoes with an even deeper connection born of those days in December 2016.

UPDATE: SAMC continues to shelter stranded asylum seekers in La Casa de Maria y Marta. They also offer Peacebuilder classes, training people how to respond to those experiencing trauma because of their refugee status.

 


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Buster Scruggs, Babies in Jars, and the Dignity of Frederick Boyce

The Coen brothers are geniuses. Their latest effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is an anthology of tales set in the Old West that is violent, funny, even profound. It gripped me from the first frame. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says, “The gallows humor of their fatalistic Ballad allows the filmmakers to do what they do best: laugh in the face of death.”

It is cold laughter, indeed! There are three segments that filled my veins with ice. One of them is “Meal Ticket,” the story of a freak show huckster (Liam Neeson) who sets up his wagon in frontier towns. His attraction is a limbless orator, the “Wingless Thrush.” Neeson props the young man’s torso on a chair, where he recites passages that include Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address. It is haunting to hear his eloquence, to watch his rouged cheeks and expressive eyes in the flickering gaslight. It is even more vexing to witness his abject dependence on his handler, a drunk whose only motive is profit. Eventually, the crowds thin. What happens next is not only tragic, but entirely believable.

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Why did this affect me so deeply? Partly because I have a son whose disability may be different (intellectual), but who could have been born in a crueler era. The fight for “handicapped” civil rights has been long and tortuous. I recently read The Story of Intellectual Disability: An Evaluation of Meaning, Understanding, and Public Perspective, by Michael L. Wehmeyer. With penetrating scholarship and a journalist’s ear for storytelling, Wehmeyer chronicles how intellectually disabled people have been treated throughout history, including:

  • The practice of infanticide, even in “enlightened Athens,” where “defective” children were left in jars near temples in case someone took pity and adopted them.
  • The demeaning theories of both scientists and theologians, who regarded these “idiots, morons, and imbeciles” as part animal or part demon.
  • Nazi concentration camps for flawed children who were ripped from their families, gassed, then incinerated.
  • Mass incarceration and virtual slavery in “institutions for the feeble-minded.”
  • Forced sterilization as a standard practice in many parts of the U.S. until the 1970s.
  • Substandard education and crippling segregation.

Wehmeyer also highlights individuals who championed the cause of dignity for themselves and others.

One of them is Frederick Boyce. In 1942, at age seven, Boyce was confined to the Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, an institution for “idiots.” He was given mandatory labor, received scant education, and was housed in a dilapidated dormitory ruled by a harsh attendant. Because he was well-behaved, he and a few other boys were invited to join the “Science Club,” where Quaker Oats and MIT researchers secretly served radioactive oatmeal as part of a study on calcium absorption.

Even with those atrocities, the worst, according to Boyce, was the indignity of being labeled a “moron,” a term that stuck with him as he struggled to find employment after discharge. Finally, he began working at carnivals and fairs, operating games of chance. He bought his own booth and traveled the amusement circuit all his life.

In 2004, Boyce and six other Fernald alumni petitioned Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, to expunge the word moron from their records. They also wanted a formal apology.

In May of 2005, at the age of 63, Boyce received a letter from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation stating that he “was not mentally retarded.”

He died of colon cancer three days later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Yes, There Is a Plan – A Thanksgiving Shout-Out to God

In the film Simon Birch, loosely based on John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, there’s a scene that knifed my heart. Simon, born with dwarfism, goes to his local church seeking spiritual guidance. He enters the pastor’s study and struggles into a chair.

Simon: “Does God have a plan for us?”
Pastor: “I like to think so.”
Simon: “Me too. I think God made me the way I am for a reason.”
Pastor: “Well, I’m glad that, um, that your faith, uh, helps you deal with your, um…you know, your condition.”
Simon: “That’s not what I mean. I think God is going to use me to carry out a plan.”

Later, when Simon gets discouraged, he returns to that same pastor.

Simon: “I want to know that there’s a reason for things. I used to be certain, but now I’m not sure. I want you to tell me that God has a plan for me, a plan for all of us. Please.”
Pastor (shifting in his seat, obviously uncomfortable): “Simon…I can’t.”

Sitting in the movie theater, I almost stood to shout my objections. If that pastor had lived nearby, I would have made an appointment the next morning to speak my mind. “Listen, if your doubts have undermined your calling to proclaim Good News, why don’t you take a break or consider a new line of work?”

In my 31 years of ministry, I have struggled with tragedies that rocked the foundation of existence. Stillborn children, a young man killed just days before his wedding, suicides, overdoses, floods and fires, cancer that wrenched parents from their children. I always refrained from unsolicited platitudes like “God has a purpose for this.” Those words are hollow, even insulting, as we cry out against injustice or suffer from breathtaking loss.

However, if someone sincerely asks me that question voiced by Simon, I don’t hesitate to answer.

Yes, I do believe God has a divine purpose, a plan that works its way through our days. And though none of us can fully fathom the mystery of God’s providence, we can experience it numerous ways.

God’s purpose appears as divine appointments. With deep gratitude, I think of meeting my wife, Donna, when we both needed love and companionship. I think of how she and I have helped each other rise above our common disease. I think of counselors and mentors who entered my life exactly when I required their wisdom.

God’s purpose grips us with a love that brings order and healing. God is love, says the famous verse in John’s first letter, and as we move from asking “why?” to “how?” this love becomes an experience of God’s design. It drives us to spend ourselves for justice, to comfort the lonely and outcast, to be a conduit for unity and peace.

God’s purpose compels us to exercise our gifts. We all have something unique to contribute. It is what Simon meant when he said, “I think God made me the way I am for a reason.” Thousands of years ago, David rejoiced with these famous words from Psalm 139: “I praise you, for I am reverently and wonderfully made!”

Friends, on this Thanksgiving 2018, I have a shout out to God. Thank you, Creator, for not only giving us loved ones on this journey, but for also being with us, offering your purpose that illuminates our path. May we experience your active presence—and our unique part in your plan—more clearly every day.

Thanksgiving blessings to all of you!

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Accept. Forgive. Love. (repeat) – by Carolyn Venema

I’m no guru. But I am learning that, for me, true gratitude is authentic expression within the act of living – even amid challenges, personal, interpersonal, global. It’s easier when I am centered and at peace; the challenge, of course, lies in finding that space when unsettled or disquieted, overly-stimulated or simply on autopilot. It’s too easy to be bombarded by suffocating, all-surrounding violence and anger right now it seems, making it difficult to breathe sometimes, let alone find the way to peace.

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But I’m also learning there’s a reason why the sun sets everyday. As stuck as we might feel sometimes, we are, in essence, transient beings, nomads seeking peace: that centered space of peace and love. Acceptance has to be a part of finding that peace. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation or apathy as a response to the personal world in which we live; rather, acceptance is personal responsibility.  What is the personal responsibility for me in each moment that I find so suffocating?  Is it a call to personal action? Is it a call to be still? Is it a call to forgive?  Is it a call to dive in deeply into the moment to learn from it, be bathed, be refined by it, as much as we want to turn away or hide from it? I think, in each case, it is a call to let it go – to let the sun set; for a new day is guaranteed to follow.

I’ve always loved the way poet  e.e. cummings expresses it:

let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
go

let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
dear

so comes love
– e.e. cummings

So comes love.  So comes peace.  So comes that space we seek where gratitude is an authentic expression of living fully. Rich blessings for a Thanksgiving where we find that space of acceptance, peace, love.

Carolyn is an educator and learner at heart. She is mom to two young adults and holds46297033_479452082561332_808117119152553984_n every moment as a precious gift. Without one specific religious or spiritual affiliation, she is an open, present, continual learner in spiritual practice.

Black and white sunset photograph, © Carolyn Venema, 2018


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You Can’t Be Hateful and Grateful – by Steve Nootenboom

Somewhere in my childhood, I got the notion that it was OK to complain. Looking back, I’m amazed at how many years I let the blessings of my life go unnoticed. I now see gratitude as 100% choice. It has nothing to do with my external situation. But it wasn’t easy learning this lesson.

My wife and I were mission workers in the Philippines. One day we went to a poverty-stricken village where people lived on a garbage dump, making their homes out of scrap. We came across a woman who had just birthed a baby in the midst of that squalor. I gave her all the money I had left, some pocket change, and my wife gave her a pair of Levi’s and a Bible.  The woman’s joy at our meager gifts was incredible.

That was a sobering incident, and I wish I could say it transformed me. But my life didn’t change much after that; I was just haunted for years by those scenes of poverty.

In 2008, I survived the market crash better than most, but in 2009 our beautiful home was taken from us through the shady manipulations of a bank. I was angry to the point of getting physically ill. I had no sense of gratitude for anything, and I was filled with a growing bitterness that bordered on hate.

Then, an acquaintance who had lost everything in 2009 told me that she had never been happier. She had begun a simple discipline. Every day, she would not only list the things for which she was grateful, she would also speak them out loud.

With nothing to lose, I started my own list. Honestly, on the first day, I could only think of two things. First, I still had my wonderful wife in spite of losing just about everything else. Second, I still had respect from my children.

From there, slowly, my daily list began to grow, first with obvious things, then with small details I had too often overlooked. I even started timing myself to see how quickly I could bounce back after getting a disappointment. When I first started this new behavior it would take an average of two or three days before I could lift my head and start seeing the benefit of something gone terribly wrong.

That brought me to the loss of my home. I remembered something an old cowboy friend of mine told me, “Steve, never waste a good crisis; learn all you can from it.” Eventually, even though it was painful, I came to feel grateful for the theft of my home, because it has given me so much freedom and mobility.

Today, I’m able to spring back from disappointments more quickly than I ever imagined.  One of my little jokes when people know my situation and wonder how I can be joyful, is this: “The bank that burned me on my home drop kicked me through the goal posts of Zen mastership!”

I am the main beneficiary of learning to choose gratitude, but the benefits spill over to everyone around me. No one wants to hang around with someone who is ungrateful. It’s a bummer!

When I show gratitude, it’s like a magnet that draws healthy people to me. It’s irresistible. Being grateful brings me into the moment, the “now.” The past is regret, the future is anxiety, but my “now,” my present, has become wonderful and I AM GRATEFUL.

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Steve Nootenboom is an artist, filmmaker, and builder. He and his wife, Tanya, have been married 36 years and have four children and six grandchildren.  Steve and Tanya have pioneered two churches and aided in mission efforts to China, the Philippines and Mexico.  Steve still enjoys rock and ice climbing, sailing and hang gliding. The two of them are living a migratory lifestyle visiting their children and grandchildren. Check out Steve’s Facebook gallery page here.