About 15 years ago, I preached at Lombard Mennonite Church, near Chicago. I had been asked to talk about our Christian response to violence--turning the other check rather than fighting back (Matthew 5:38-42). I told stories about people who took these words of Jesus seriously, deciding to accept suffering rather than hurt someone.
During Sunday school, I met with 10 students who were visiting from Wheaton College. They pretty much told me I was crazy-no way, when someone tried to hurt them, would they accept pain and try to love the other person, to pray for them. No, they said, they would defend themselves, even if it meant killing the other person.
One of the young men listened for a while. He looked different than they did, somehow more rough and unkempt. Suddenly he interrupted the conversation. "You know my story," he said. "I used to be on drugs and to rob houses to pay for my habit. I carried a gun into those houses and sometimes there were people inside. If one of those people had shot and killed me, I would have gone straight to hell. How can you say that you care about my soul and then kill me and send me to hell? This woman has the right idea-Jesus has plans for me. I've changed; I'm saved; I'm a different person and I'm going to help other people and tell them about Jesus. Christians can't say they care about people's souls and then kill their bodies and send them to hell."
Already in the eighth chapter of the gospel of Mark, Peter is willing to state that Jesus is the Messiah. But as soon as Jesus starts talking about suffering and dying as the Messiah, Peter thinks Jesus has it wrong. He takes Jesus aside. We can't be sure what Peter said in Jesus' ear, but some people think he said that Messiahs don't suffer and die--they fight and triumph and live in glory! And immediately Jesus said harsh words to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan!" (Mark 8: 29-33)
Something about being willing to suffer and die really matters to Jesus' mission here on earth, really matters to the way Jesus wants to bring us peace between us and God, between us and our enemies. And if we want to follow Jesus, we also will suffer rather than fight back. Jesus even says this in Mark 9: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life"--and here Jesus is literally talking about living a safe life, about fighting back against our enemies--"those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it."
We're in the season of Lent. I've never observed Lent in the traditional sense, but this year I'm thinking some about giving up my desire for a safe life, for revenge, and being willing to accept pain out of love for another.
by Merrill R. Miller
"Otterville" is copyrighted and is not to be reproduced in any form without permission. Contact Merrill Miller at <email@example.com>
by J. Ron Byler
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams... (Joel 2:28)
Pere Simone is an 81-year-old Celesian priest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He's been helping children on the street for as long as he's been a priest, over 50 years. From three locations, he runs a school for 120 young boys and girls, ages 10-13.
Pere says he just goes to the markets and invites children to come to the school. He asks them to turn in their knives and other weapons first. He helps these street children get an education, even though he knows some of them will learn to read just well enough so that they can read license plates to earn money delivering drugs.
But Pere has taught three of Haiti's presidents too, although, he says, "They all forgot me."
Pere's school, Timkatec, is one of Mennonite Central Committee's partners in Haiti. When I was in the school last month, I saw first-hand MCC's canned meat, some comforters and school kits. After the earthquake a year ago, Pere received additional help from MCC to help keep the school open.
After 50 years of many failures and a few successes, Pere is still dreaming. He'd like to open up a camp where kids, rich and poor, can come together to play and to learn to know one another without fighting, to see what life can be like.
Pere says we all need to have faith in God but we also need to depend on ourselves. We can't just pray all day, he says, we need to call on the strength within each one of us. That's what he tells the children, too.
Pere says the teachers also need to learn a new way of educating. Even when the children are just playing, teachers need to listen to each one, because it's not just a group of faceless children they are teaching. Each individual student is important.
At 81, Pere is still working with street children and dreaming about how he can make their lives better. He's dreaming, depending on both God and himself to help make it happen.
Jesus invited all people to the table to eat together. Unfortunately, if the United States today were one large economic table, it would not reflect his example. At our table, we find a growing gap between those with the highest incomes and those with the lowest. This is particularly troubling given Jesus' life example of drawing together individuals separated by the economic injustices of that period.
From 2007 to 2009 the country's wealthiest households didn't lose wealth, they just didn't make as much as they would have without the recession. However, households with lower incomes have had more difficulty meeting needs. Since 2007:
At our nation's table, the gap between the wealthy and the vulnerable is widening. Those with lower incomes have significantly less on their plates. Others may not have a table to come to at all.
Current conversations about federal budget cuts must reflect these needs and inequalities. Proposals in the House of Representatives reflect $61 billion in cuts, many of them to domestic and international anti-poverty programs. Tax breaks for couples with incomes of $250,000 a year ($200,000 for individuals) were extended for two years in the last Congress, costing $66 billion.
So, while tax cuts continue for those at the head of the table, those at the lower end may lose necessary assistance for food, housing, child care or health care.
Some tax breaks help to reduce inequalities. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Child Tax Credit (CTC), effectively reach low-income working families and are spent quickly because families use the savings to meet basic needs. In 1990 and 1993, deficit reduction packages expanded the EITC while the economy saw impressive growth. In contrast, much wealthier households receiving much larger tax breaks are less likely to spend their savings quickly. As a result, the economy sees much less of a return.
The budget debate has largely ignored that deficits are a result of both spending and revenue. Allowing wealthy tax breaks to expire won't fully balance the budget. But they are one example of how current proposals disproportionately (and unnecessarily) prioritize cuts to vulnerable populations, increase injustice and weaken the economy.
To cut the deficit we must address root causes including tax revenues, military spending and the needs of our aging population. Otherwise, current proposals will deepen poverty, creating neither a strong economy nor reflecting a table with space for all.
Congress can and should make cuts that would shrink the space on the table--not make it bigger than ever. They need to hear from us that revenue must be addressed, and that the budget can and should invest in vulnerable populations.
Once again, here at the monastery, as throughout the Christian world, we have begun our observance of Lent which feels, even as late in the calendar as it is this year, to have come upon us almost unexpectedly. It always seems to me that the liturgical season that we are most likely to avoid thinking about is Lent and we find ourselves saying things like "Wow, is it that time of year already?" and "Wasn't it just Christmas?" I think this is a defense mechanism, because I have met very few people who actually like to observe Lent. To so many, it seems gloomy, terribly old-fashioned and filled with words like wretchedness and sinfulness. Now I ask you: who likes those words?
And that's why I think so many of us put off even thinking about Lent until we absolutely cannot get away with it any longer. Wretchedness and sinfulness are, after all, difficult things to face in oneself or in our community or nation. But I think Lent is so much more than that. I think Lent is a desert.
Now not everyone thinks that deserts are so great either. But I do. They are beautiful and a great allegory of God's love for humanity. We are, after all, a desert religion. From Abraham, to Moses, to the Prophets, to Jesus, to the Apostles, to the earliest Monks and Nuns, we are a faith that has been built on the desert tradition. Lent is about fundamentals of the faith and so it seems appropriate to return to the fundamental geographic source of our faith at this time of year, even if that return is only figurative.
On the first Sunday of Lent, the most common Gospel reading in churches all over the world is one of the accounts of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. This year, that account comes from Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11) and it is a particularly compelling telling of that story. At its outset, Matthew tells us that Jesus "was led by the Spirit into the wilderness" (another way of saying the "desert") and that should be our starting place as well.
There are times in our life, and Lent seems like one of them, that the Spirit must lead us into the desert of our own lives. There in the desert a fast takes place, at the end of which we are quite famished. Now this fast might be literal, but more likely it has to do with the giving up of our pride and ways of protecting ourselves, so that we might become more open to the working of the Spirit within our lives. However, the other side of that coin is that when we lower our guard, we also become vulnerable to our demons.
That is what Jesus first encountered in the desert. He had fasted for forty days and forty night, by the end of which he was famished. It is at this point that Jesus meets the demon (called the tempter in the NRSV) who suggests three temptations to Jesus, which involved food, power/security and wealth. The caveat, of course, is that in order to obtain any of this food, power or wealth, Jesus was required to cease trusting his Father and place his trust in the tempter.
What the tempter was really inviting Jesus to do was to lose his faith that he was the Son of God. The tempter wanted to replace faith with panic that would cause Jesus to doubt the experience he had just had at the River Jordan when the Holy Spirit descended upon him, proclaiming him God's Son. The tempter was desperate to create havoc with God's plan for Jesus and all of humanity, and so he offered all that he could--comfort, security, and wealth--in an attempt to steal Jesus away from his mission.
However, we know the response that Jesus gave. It was the same nonviolent response he would give at every confrontation with evil right up until the last. His response, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," tells us everything: trust God alone, God will provide all that we need and what God does not provide, we do not need.
I think it takes going into the desert to truly believe this. The desert does not have to be a literal place; it can be the desert of solitude in your home, on retreat, on walks in a park or anywhere else you might find appropriate. That desert is truly facing down and admitting to ourselves how little we can control in our own lives. That desert is the landscape of our lives that is often desolate, dried up, famished, longing for the water of a nurturing rain. That desert is the admission that we must not put God to the test, but must instead place all of our trust in him.
The grabbing for food, the willingness to exert our power in emotionally or physically violent ways, the ruthless aggression to obtain wealth are the subjects of Lent. A visit to the desert of our lives helps us to confront whatever it is we are tempted by and to make the choice we are all offered of either doing violence to our beliefs and grabbing for power and wealth, or of finding a way to live in peaceful harmony with God, our brothers and sisters, and all of God's creation.
Even one encounter with the desert teaches us that we do not hold the power. When we go to the desert, we gradually become famished. And once we accept that, following our Lenten Desert, we find a gentle Easter rain falling on that desert turning it into a beautiful landscape of blooming flowers that emit a fragrance so sweet we are able to finally reject the tempting demons of our life and walk in peace with our God, each of our brothers and sisters, and all God's creation.
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49 (NRSV)
The concept underlying this column, Balancing Acts, is that discipleship includes both spiritual and practical aspects. We recognize that our well-being and faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord involve worship, devotion, and yieldedness to the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus summarized this aspect of our discipleship in John 15:5 saying, "Apart from me you can do nothing."
Nevertheless, there is a practical side to our discipleship as well. James asserts in James 2:17, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." Jesus likewise emphasized this practical side of discipleship in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 where the king tells those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those sick and in prison, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
These scriptures stand in stark contrast to the scripture above from Ezekiel. Most of us, when asked what was the sin of Sodom, would probably think of sexual sin of some sort. But the prophet surprises us by emphasizing that Sodom "had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." We in the United States, as well as in the other developed countries of the world, stand in danger of having this accusation leveled at us.
It is true that we have had a "great recession" these past couple of years. It is true that we still have a relatively high percentage of our population out of work. And it is true that states, municipalities and the Federal government have large budget deficits, but we nevertheless are quite prosperous compared to most of the people of the world. Here are a few facts from One Day's Wages (<http://www.onedayswages.org/about/what-extreme-global-poverty>) :
By contrast, consider the following figures for the United States:
It is evident from these few facts that despite our economic challenges, we are really quite prosperous. If we are to avoid being guilty of Sodom's sin as ones who have "prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy," then we must choose to act. Hence the title of this article "Choice."
The realms in which our choices are made are varied and some will feel called to act in some areas but not in others. We can make choices to help those in need by making appropriate changes ourselves in our daily lifestyles, our giving to churches and charitable organizations, our willingness to pay taxes that fund important poverty-reducing programs, volunteering in service organizations, and other ways. Some possibilities to consider:
These are simply suggestions. The important thing is for us to choose to act in ways that will "aid the poor and needy" and not be guilty of "prosperous ease."
Several months ago, I found a hibiscus plant in a dumpster. Half of it was dead, but the other half was perfectly healthy. It had been raining, and as I carried it home, the dripping five-gallon planter was so heavy I thought my arms might fall off.
It thrived out on the balcony until I brought it inside the night of the first freeze in late fall. Though it took up residence in the sunroom for several months, it limped through the winter. I did, too.
When spring came in the South with an explosion of warm weather in early February, I moved it back outside. Now I watch in awe as new life emerges from it daily. I observe the sprouting of each leaf and the development of each bud with joyful anticipation. It makes me wonder about God's own experience of watching all of creation--including each person--grow and come into fullness of being.
Witnessing new growth and new plant life almost always has this effect on me -- producing awe. The other day when I went for a walk in the woods and saw the first buds on a tree, my heart actually burst into singing "Great is Thy Faithfulness." After limping through the winter, I wasn't sure that I remembered the words. And I've been amazed that it picks back up each time I go out for a walk again.
I also have been monitoring the weather reports carefully; taking my hibiscus outside when it is warm enough, and bringing it back in if the temperatures drop too low. If the wind is so strong that my plant could be knocked over, I move it against a wall to protect it. What great lengths I go to in caring for this one plant!
Then my heart broke a little today when I noticed a broken stem on my hibiscus. I don't know how it happened and I suppose it doesn't even matter. But noticing one leaf that had been damaged brought to mind the affirmation that "even the hairs of your head are all counted" (Matthew 10.30). It was comforting to think that if I noticed one injured leaf on my plant, wouldn't God notice when God's own people are in need and hurting, too?
The more time I spend outside, and caring for my hibiscus, the more I am reminded of Jesus' invitation to "consider the lilies of the field" (Matthew 6.28). In the context of the worry and anxiety to which he is speaking, this begins to resonate in new ways with me. "Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6.26)"
Scholars often say that many of Jesus' teachings and parables utilize agricultural images because that's what his audience knew and understood. Maybe those sayings could be reworded to apply to our technological culture and become more accessible. But I have to say that even though I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in the age of technology and nowhere near a farm, I am so thankful that taking Jesus' teachings seriously get me out of my head, out of the house, away from the technological world, and into God's created world.
When I "consider the lilies of the field," I am in awe of creation, in awe of our Creator, and my heart willingly relinquishes its firm grasp on fear, insecurity and anxiety. It's not a permanent solution, but a constant reminder and open invitation that gives hope and life.
Fortunately, the Lenten journey that leads to new life recurs every year, just at the dawn of spring, to beckon us back to life in God.
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3)
O God of the earth
Bring calm to the ocean floor
Let creation rest
O God of the sea
Pacify the Pacific
Let the land be dry
O God of the rocks
Buttress the Sanriku coast
With its rocky ports
O God of the plains
Protect the rich rice paddies
With their habitats
O God of mourners
Comfort those who are weeping
Hold them in your arms
O God of rescue
Save Iwate, Miyagi
Ken Shenk, a Japanese translator in Findlay, Ohio, grew up in Japan. The meter of this prayer is based on the 5-7-5 syllable combination used in Japanese haiku poetry. Ken is a member of First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, OH.