Wednesday, July 20, 2016

life in the desert

The Taklamakan Desert may be the most hostile place on the planet to live.

By day the sun hangs overhead like a hot coal that burns the eyes and the skin, and scorches the earth below the traveler's feet. There is no water to be found, and sand dunes stretch in every direction. At the end of the desert lies another desert. The Taklamakan's name may come from the Turkish phrase “The place of ruins.” When he set a story there in 1992, Neil Gaiman offered a more picturesque name: If-You-Go-In-You-Won't-Come-Out-Again.

The worst part of the Taklamakan is its winds. During the summer temperatures pass 100 degrees, and during the winter, they can drop below zero. During the spring, as the ground begins to warm, the air begins to move and gale winds arise with the force of a hurricane. Sand and dust blow and fill the air, creating a fog of dirt that reaches heights of 13,000 feet.

In these conditions, the sky can get so dark that visibility is imaginary. Your only hope of survival is to stay together, and your only hope of staying together is to affix bells to the camels and to one another so that you can hear how close you are to one another. The sand dunes constantly rearrange themselves, so your only hope of staying on your path is to set up a sign each night before you go to sleep so you can be sure to continue in the same direction when you waken in the morning.

Try to imagine living in those conditions. Try to imagine crossing a desert like that. The Taklamakan is a no man's land. It is a nowhere that lies between two places, an empty space that no one claims for their own. If you go in, you won't come out again.

Deserts come in all degrees and varieties. Far to the north are deserts where rain never falls and plants struggle to grow, but the ground is cold and frozen year-round. There are deserts where rains come often enough for cacti to grow and to bloom, and even for trees and animals to grow that have adapted to the climate.

Other deserts used to be green and fair, until men came and felled the trees and overgrazed their flocks until there was nothing left but wasteland. These deserts may be among the worst. Their desolation bears silent witness to the violence we have done to the land and to ourselves because we refuse to see what we are doing.

And then there are the deserts we make of our own societies, spiritual wastelands where we strip away justice and allow those with power to wield it with only a pretense of accountability. Executives loot the pensions of their workers and never face jail time or admit their wrongdoing. Government officials cut support for the needy and refuse to require a living wage. Power exists to serve the powerful and not the powerless.

In this desert, the victims of police violence are legion. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The list of names is too long. It goes back too far to remember, and it joins the names of others martyred to white fears of a black country. James Byrd. Emmett Till. Greenwood, Okla.

Justice denied fuels anger, and as violence begets violence the body count begins to rise, and the voice of God rises in reprimand. “What have you done?” he asks, as he has since the first story was told. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”

In the desert we rally to support a man who ridicules the disabled while he belittles and savages women. We rush to elect a man who lies outrageously, encourages violence, and incites hatred of Muslims and Jews, Mexicans and blacks.

In this desert, our nation's most avowedly religious Christians support this man, while we make a tremendous point of displaying our piety around the flagpole and at the National Mall, and everywhere we go. We shout our faith to the heavens, but heaven is a place that demands justice first and foremost.

From the book of Amos:

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
    I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Justice. That word sounds threatening, but it doesn't need to. What is it that makes the Taklamakan so dangerous? It's not the wind, or the sand, or the soft geography. It's not even the sun. It's the lack of water.

The Taklamakan lives in the shadow of the Himalayas, mountains so tall that they block rain clouds from ever reaching the Taklamakan or the rest of the Gobi Desert region. About an inch-and-a-half of precipitation gathers in the West, and less than half an inch in the East. Even cacti find the Taklamakan too extreme. Most of the area is barren.

Most, but not all. Even that inhospitable desert comes to life where the water rolls down. Around the edges of the desert region are river valleys and deltas, and places where the groundwater comes close enough to the surface to ease the oppression of the desert sun. Herds of gazelles run free through these open spaces, and wild boars live among the river valleys, where even wolves and foxes hunt.

Justice is not a force of destruction. It is an agent of renewal. Where the river flows through the desert, trees put down roots. They grow fruit when it's the season, and even in the summer heat their leaves do not wither. The trees that line the river provide shade for the weary, the grass along the river is easy on the feet, and there is food to eat.

In the desert, an oasis like this is a place to rest, to recover, to heal and to stay a while, perhaps even to put down roots of our own. The justice of God is a shelter in our society, a place where black lives matter as much as white lives, where everyone is welcome to be themselves, and where no one is viewed with suspicion because of race or color.

Here in our desert, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. Perhaps we don't know the burdens people of color face in our society because too often we still haven't taken the time to let them share, nor believed them when they've told us.

Hate evil, and love good; establish justice in the gate.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Let it begin with me.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Together 2016

The youth group at our church is planning to take a trip next Saturday to Washington, D.C., to attend Together 2016.

What is Together 2016? I'm glad you asked, because it took me a while to find anything approaching a useful description! The event's web site invites you to "Fill the mall! Be one of a million standing for Jesus on 7.16.16." It also notes that 315,976 have "joined the movement," as of 10:53 p.m. July 6. What movement is that? I'm really not sure. I only heard of the movement a week ago, and have not been able to find any identifiable goals.

There are a lot of amazing things that movements have accomplished, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. The Society of Friends, a christocentric movement also known as the Quakers, is legendary worldwide for its commitment to peace, to the abolition of slavery, and to the advancement of civil rights and women's suffrage. Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton are two well-known Quakers. The Civil Rights movement also drew heavily on the teachings of Christ, and on theologians who influenced Martin Luther King Jr,, such as Richard Niebuhr.

What social issues is Together 2016 going to tackle? Maybe there's something about income inequality, gun violence, or the current issue of police brutality disproportionately affecting the black community. Maybe there's something about the xenophobia and white nationalism whipped up by presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump. If so, you can't tell by reading the web site. It says nothing.

"Our generation is the most cause-driven in history. But our causes are pulling us apart. Even religion doesn’t unite. We believe only Jesus can bring us together," the site declares on its About page. "July 16, 2016, is the day our generation will meet on the National Mall to come together around Jesus in unified prayer, worship, and a call for catalytic change."

Change sounds exciting, especially with an unfamiliar word like "catalytic" in front of it. But change can mean different things to different people. Stepping up regulation of abortion would be exciting to some Christians and perfectly alarming to others. The same is true for gay rights and same-sex marriage. Is it part of a concerted assault on marriage, or is it welcoming our gay friends and relatives into community with us, and recognizing the importance of belonging with another person?

The site doesn't take a position. It doesn't even acknowledge the subject.

Together 2016 isn't like Burning Man or a trip to a popular Christian music festival like Creation or Cornerstone, in that you know more or less what to expect. It's being called a worship gathering, with speakers and worship leaders, which is fine; but it's being held at the Mall, in D.C.

I've scoured the web looking for more information, but the most I can find, even after reading all the free articles I could find at Christianity Today is that organizers say there is no agenda, just "resetting the country for Jesus." That sounds nonthreatening enough, but we all have different ideas on what that means, don't we?

To many of our nation's older evangelical leaders, that would mean resetting America to a time like the 1950s, much like Donald Trump does when he says he wants to "make America great again." I doubt many blacks would like a return to the days of legalized segregation, or that women would want to give up their careers for a June Ward existence, or that gays and lesbians would want to return to the terror of the closet. And no one from a religious minority is going to want to return to the days when a civic Judeo-Christian religion was expected.

I read about a half-dozen articles on Together 2016 today, and one of them noted that speakers will avoid entirely hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. A friend of mine summarized her thoughts for me: "Just looks like a big dumb prayer meeting," she wrote. "Big. Dumb. See You At The Pole X 20k. It's an excuse to go to D.C. and hang out with other teens/have over-the-clothes groping on the bus." (It sounds like her youth group had more fun than mine.)

In all fairness, the leaders of the movement probably do mean it to be exactly like a giant Meet You at the Pole event. But if that's the case, they really should have picked somewhether other than Washington, D.C., to host their event. As soon as you've set something in the capital, you've just guaranteed that it has agenda, if for no other reason than the eyes it has decided to attract.

And that often is the whole point of these gatherings. It's to send a message to the community, to the nation, to our leaders: "We are here. We are many. Don't ignore us when you vote." Expect the message to be co-opted as soon as you start to gather. There are people lined up right now to tell politicians that all those Christians support greater trade with China, oppose environmental regulation of America's rivers, and think the color green should have a little more yellow in it.

If that's what you want, that's fine. Feel free to knock yourselves out. But don't expect the gathering to reset America for Jesus. He talked about public declarations of faith, and by and large he wasn't impressed.

"When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

In the end I started to wonder why I was bothering trying to figure out what the goal of Together 2016 is. My kids are probably going to have zero interest in attending.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Forgiveness is personal

Corrie Ten Boom was 52 years old when the Nazis came for her and her family.

For two years, the Ten Booms had been helping to hide Jewish families and other refugees during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. When she was arrested, Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where Betsie died. Ten Boom survived, and when the war ended, she returned home and established a safehouse for refugees.

Two years later Ten Boom was back in Germany, sharing with the internationally reviled German people a message that God forgives. One night, at a church in Munich, she recognized a member of the audience. He had been one of the guards at Ravensbrück.

At Ravensbrück, Ten Boom had known hunger and want. She had been stripped of all her possessions and forced to walk naked past the guards. She had been forced to sleep in beds infested with fleas. Her sister Betsie had died, one of an estimated 50,000 women to perish at Ravensbrück. Prisoners there had been starved, overworked and even experimented on. Ten Boom had endured and witnessed unimaginable suffering, and this man had been a part of it.

And he didn't want just a divine pardon. He wanted hers as well.

If you've heard the story, you know how it ends: She forgave him. (If you don't know the story, go read it.)

Corrie Ten Boom's story is one widely shared in Christian circles, in no small part because it is so amazing. It's hard to imagine a more difficult request than the one the former Ravensbrück guard made of her, and it defies belief that she actually forgave him. It's not just amazing; it's supernatural.

That's one of the reasons we often lionize Ten Boom and portray her as a larger-than-life hero of the faith, but when we do that we miss out on so much. We can draw inspiration from saintly heroes, but following in their footsteps is too daunting if they wear seven-league boots and we're left to chase after them in sandals. There is hope if we remember that seven-league boots only go one step at a time.

We'll start with the first step. Let's suppose we could approach Ten Boom the afternoon before she arrived in Munich. Maybe she's having a cup of coffee, or maybe she's writing her thoughts down on a piece of paper. She sees us coming, and smiles that encouraging smile of hers, so we ask her the big question. Has she forgiven the people responsible for the death of her sister, for all that she had suffered and seen during the Holocaust?

The words wouldn't even be out of our mouths before we realized what a stupid question this was, not to mention rude and presumptuous. Of course she has forgiven these people. She's in Germany, isn't she? While other survivors of the camps were weighted down with horror and grief, or quietly rebuilding their lives and starting new families, Ten Boom had come back to the land where she had suffered, to share God's forgiveness with the nation that had visited such evil on the world.

And then there was Ten Boom's work in the Netherlands. She hadn't just been caring for Jewish refugees and other victims of Nazi savagery; she also was providing shelter for jobless Dutch citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation.

How could anyone think to ask if she had forgiven? Of course she had.

Her encounter with the former Nazi brings out the one thing missing from this forgiveness narrative: the human element. It took his self-awareness and his desire for forgiveness to set this amazing story in motion. It's easier to forgive in the abstract, but it's much more meaningful to do it person-to-person. If the former guard hadn't been in that Munich church that night, he never would have asked Ten Boom to forgive him; and neither of them would have experienced that soul-shaping moment.

It's not just enough to offer forgiveness carte blanche. For real, deep and meaningful forgiveness to happen, someone needs to ask for it, and someone else needs to give it.

So where does that leave us when people are unaware how badly they have hurt us, or in even worse situations, know what they have done but don't care, because they don't see it as a big deal? Is it possible to forgive someone if they don't ask for it? Even the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the grandfather of teachings about forgiveness, says that God's forgiveness is free but we are required to acknowledge our sins and to repent of them, rather than merely feeling sorry about them.

Think about the story of the rich young ruler. He wanted to follow Jesus, who told him that mere belief wasn't enough. The ruler also needed to part with his wealth and give it to the poor around him. Unfortunately, the money meant too much to him, and the young ruler walked away, prompting Jesus to lament that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Compare that to the story of Zacchaeus. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus used his position with the Roman government to extort money from his countrymen. Jesus didn't even need to prompt him. During dinner, Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded, after which Jesus declared that salvation had come to Zacchaeus' house.

Jesus seems like a forgiving guy. You're left with the impression from these two stories that he's going to have a good relationship with Zacchaeus going forward. The other guy? Not so much.

So where does that leave us? I've heard for years the merits of letting go of things, and there have been many times I've given that same advice to other people. And letting go seems like excellent advice when someone is overreacting, like being angry because their favorite seat was taken, or because someone else ate more cookies than was fair.

The trouble is, it's easy to let it go and forgive when someone is five minutes late picking you up, but not so much when they completely forget about you, leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere and potentially put your life in danger. It's easy to let go of an inconvenience. It's much harder to forgive when someone has really hurt you.

At best, letting go may be the first stage of forgiveness, one where no one learns anything, except for how inexcusably awful other human beings can be. But maybe that's the highest we can aspire to in some circumstances.

Author Madeleine L'Engle once described herself in a situation where she realized she needed to forgive someone but couldn't find the strength to do it. So she prayed this: “God, forgive the son of a bitch,” and found that in the end, it was enough. It was a start.

And so, for those who have wronged us and who make no attempt to set things aright, we pray to the Lord: "Lord, forgive the sons of bitches." Amen.

So say we all.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Monday, July 04, 2016

Forgiveness: It's a struggle

I've been having a hard time with forgiveness lately. I'm sorry, did I say lately? It's been a problem for years. More than a decade, even.

Fourteen-and-a-half years ago, my wife and I opened our home to a foster child. At the age when our own daughter could climb stairs, feed herself, draw pictures with crayons or pencils, and communicate her thoughts with laughter, tears and words; Isaac could barely stand, much less walk. His vocabulary consisted of wordless but excited moaning, and he had no idea how to play. (He could sit still for TV, though. His parents taught him to do that extremely well.)

We didn't do this alone, though. I was from Pittsburgh and my wife was from Tuscon, Ariz., but we did have the support of our church, a community of believers we had been a part of since we came to the area. As one they stood before God and swore an oath to support us as we took this child into our hearts, and to support not just us, but also another couple who were offering their home to his sister.

Isaac's problems were worse than we initially realized, but for those first few months things went gloriously. One of the women in our church was a licensed social worker, and at the beginning she and her husband handled arrangements for supervised visits. They gave us support in other ways too, as she gave us perspective, explained state regulations and even offered advice on how to engage a 2-year-old who was used to being ignored.

Isaac's mother had started coming to our church several weeks before the state removed the children from her custody, and Carla had difficulty understanding boundaries; so other friends ran interference for us. And everyone expressed great enthusiasm for what we were doing. If shouldering the burden of caring for someone else's abused child is Paradise, then that winter was Eden.

The serpent had arrived in Eden by springtime. The pastor our church had hired a year previously was showing his colors, as he used his pulpit to manipulate, to bully and to control. As quickly as he had drawn new congregants in his first several months, he was now driving people away, and as they went, our support network unraveled.

The social worker and her husband disappeared from the scene first. Then other people began to realize that they were overextended, and they began to pull back as well. We couldn't. There was a child depending on us.

I want to say I don't blame these people, but I do. I hear from time to time how this person or that one is facing trouble and needs prayer, and I walk away. I see how others are respected in the churches they have moved to, and all I can feel is disgusted. The betrayal hurt that much.

My wife bore the worst of it. In addition to the extra attention Isaac needed, we had to care for our own daughter and there was a second child on the way. Harder still, I had started a job that spring that demanded more than 50 hours a week, including almost all day Monday and Tuesday. I could get relief by going off and working in the garden, but for my wife, Eden became a cage with iron bars.

She tried to get help. She called people from the church and asked them to watch our daughter for an hour or two just so she could attend a medical appointment. They told her no.

Time went on, and soon it became evident that Isaac was returning to his birth parents. We watched as the progress he had made in our home was torn up by the roots and thrown out. If our church was grieving with us, we couldn't tell. By midsummer, the church had all but fallen apart, and the people who had sworn to be with us were nowhere to be seen.

Isaac had come into our lives with a great deal of fanfare, but when it came time for him to depart we were almost completely alone. When I came home from work at two in the morning and found my daughter sitting at the stop of the stairs crying because her brother wasn't around, I was there to comfort her.

When the quiet and the grief overwhelmed with a depth too profound for words, the community I had believed would be with me, was gone.

So I say this to my old church: You screwed up, big time.

These people had sworn before God that they would be there for us throughout the entire time we fostered. They sang our praises, and told us how our faith inspired theirs. When we lost Isaac, they were nowhere to be found. We didn't even get a lousy sympathy card. One person when I saw her barely a month later actually told me to get over it.

Those last two really hurt. Fifteen years later, and forgiveness is still a struggle.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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