The wonderful inconvenience of love

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

I love this day so much because this is a day when we can celebrate and praise God for the gift of the strongest force in the universe: love!

Love is the foundation of Christian living. Love is what drives us disciples to do what the world may not ever understand. Love is wonderfully inconvenient. We forgive. We embrace every new person in our life. We abandon our schedules and travel across miles to be present to the hurting; to tell people we love them. We hope for the best for our enemies and pray that they may be well. We run into battle zones, toward the sounds of bombs, if we know a child is in danger.  We lay down our lives for our friends, our neighbors, for strangers we meet along the roadside who are in desperate need of help. We protect and welcome the strangers who are crossing borders, who are fleeing oppression and poverty. We rally in the streets and carry banners that announce love even while folks scowl. We visit the smelly and imprisoned. We give away our food and open up our homes; we share with all our might. We fast and pray for the sake of strangers, for peace in general, for liberation from any power that doesn’t help others feel love. Love is bold and wild and a verb.

Photo Credit: www.freeimages.com/
Photo Credit: http://www.freeimages.com/

Over the years many people have turned to me and said that they have never felt God’s presence, that they don’t know God. To this very real heartache I often respond with a question: “Have you ever felt love for another person?” To that, the response is usually “Yes, of course.”Then,” I respond “you have experienced the presence of God without knowing it.”  

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8

I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith lives is that we tend to put God in boxes; we expect God to be as small and containable as we are. The truth, though, is that God is beyond measure; God is abundantly good and infinite mystery. We must allow this mystery to surprise us, to move through us, to be revealed in ways we would never imagine.

Once we allow God to be in charge of who we are, we will find that love has us doing all sorts of things that don’t make sense, that will be contradiction to the ways of the world. I love the way Courtney E. Martin describes this:

Just as our lives — especially white, economically privileged lives — have suffered from over-privatization, our notion of love has suffered from an over-interpersonalization. We hear love and we think marriage. Worse yet, in the age of dating apps, we hear love and we think swipe. The commodification and Tinder-ization of love isn’t just bad for our romantic relationships; it’s bad for our nation. We think of love as solely intimate, as tumultuous, as something we choose to bestow or withhold based on someone’s capacity to earn it and keep earning it.

But real love is radical because it cannot be earned or unearned. It is tied to inherent dignity. It is unconquerable because it is dumb in its own way — determined to keep loving no matter what the counter forces, no matter what scarcity small men try to message, no matter what fear they try to sow. It’s blindly trusting, also positioned as stupid in our overly strategic society. It’s inefficient, a sin in our efficiency-obsessed time.

It is perhaps most clearly understood as maternal. Just as mothers have, from time immemorial, loved without condition, we must now love this nation like mothers. We must parent it into a new maturity. We must not give up on it, no matter what. We must be prepared to be surprised at how beautiful it will be. We must do all this without knowing what form it will take, but knowing that whatever it becomes will be rewarding if it is shaped by fierce, unending, active love.

(An excerpt from “The Twin Forces of Love and Resistance” by Courtney E. Martin at OnBeing.org)

On this day, may we embrace the wild power of active love. May we allow love of God and neighbor to take complete hold of us and move us into zones—uncomfortable and cracked—where we never thought we would tread. May we learn what it means to really lay down our lives and experience love’s rising power and imitate Jesus Christ.

I love you all and I thank you for joining me in this wild activity!

 

Clothing bales and hurting more than we help

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to tour a recycling center.

Much about my visit was interesting, but what I still remember most vividly are the giant clothing bales.

Photo Credit: http://www.fashioneditoratlarge.com/2014/07/five-thoughts-secret-life-clothes-obroni-wawu/

During the tour it was explained to us that not all of the clothing we donate to thrift shops is redistributed locally; some is shipped abroad and sold at markets to people who are poor.

I remember being surprised by this news … but then I basically thought “Well, that’s good. I want people to have clothes.”

Some time after the tour, I lived abroad in a developing country. I met people who were wearing t-shirts with slogans related to ordinary things in the United States, like little league teams and sandwich shops. I asked about how they got their shirts and they said they had purchased them at the market. They picked out the shirt because they liked the color, but didn’t know what the designs or words were really about.

I began to have questions about this global phenomenon but, even so, I kept on thinking things like “One’s person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” And, upon my return to the U.S., I continued to donate to Goodwill and similar shops, well aware that many of my donations weren’t going to help people locally.

I was reminded of all this last week when I was fortunate to view the film Poverty, Inc. with a great crowd of concerned citizens here in La Crosse. (Find out if the film is going to be screened at a theatre near you here.)

Poverty, Inc. is incredibly thought-provoking; challenging many of my ingrained assumptions about the effective ways to help people.  Although, to quote a concept in the film, I believe I am basically a person that has “a heart for the poor and a mind for the poor” and tend to be careful about what sort of charities I donate to, I realize I still have some embarrassing assumptions about poverty and other people.

Back to the clothing bales, I suppose I assumed the reason people need our old clothing to be sold at markets is they didn’t have the means to fabricate garments locally. So, when a woman from Kenya was interviewed in the film and spoke about how several decades ago the shops there sold clothes with the label “made in Kenya” and there were many thriving cotton farms, I was disturbed.

As explained in an article published in The Guardian, the policies of World Bank are to blame for the fact that Kenya’s textile industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Kenyan manufacturers can’t compete with our cheap second-hand clothing, in the same way that other local businesses are frequently unable to compete with free goods (like TOMS shoes) that are flooded into developing economies. This is one of many examples of how the current global aid system keeps people poor.

Even with our good intentions and values, often times we are hurting others more than we are helping them.

Undoubtedly, the system is complex. Poverty, Inc. did not present any easy solutions because there aren’t any. I gained more consciousness about globalization, poverty, and structures that perpetuate inequality. I left with more questions than answers. The film highlights that what is lacking in the current aid system is “the ladder out of poverty” including access to the rule of law for the ordinary person, a simple infrastructure to set up and manage a business, and so on.

As people of faith, we have a duty to be mindful about how our actions impact others. We must be thoughtful, charitable people. We must be focused on justice as we work for peace and the protection of the dignity of every person.

We must keep in mind the words of Jesus.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” –Luke 6:31

““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40

As I continue to pray and discover ways to advocate for just changes, I will remain supportive to the NGOs and charities that promote the dignity of those who are poor and offer support to people as they emerge from poverty–organizations like Heifer Project International and Catholic Relief Services. I continue to believe it is important to provide food to people when they are hungry as well as to help them gain the stability and skills to feed themselves.

And so, instead of donating clothing to charities that may gather it up into giant bundles to be sent to developing countries, I will work to reduce my consumption and keep my former goods within the local economy. More clothing will go to my neighbor who might understand the t-shirt slogans, the bales will get smaller and the African woman can once again take pride in labels that say “Made in Kenya.”

Then, hopefully, I will be truly be helping people near and far.

adventures in the Spirit, part 3

A wise priest once helped me understand what Spirit means.  Spirit, he said, is all that relates beyond boundaries.  Our Spirits can transcend time, place and bodily nature to relate to our God, the Great Source.  Jesus said His Spirit would be with us always.  At times, it seems as if the spirits of those who have died are close to us.

And, here and now, in our daily Gospel living, our Spirits can relate across the borders of culture, race, social class and place.  It is the work of service, ministry, and real, messy, Gospel-living to move across borders and interact with those who are different from us.

As our Spirits relate in new environments, we learn the Truth. We gain awareness and compassion.  We become more interconnected and united.  We build the reign of God and become more holistically the body of Christ.

This is the continuation of the story of 11 people moving their spirits across borders and relating to difference.  It’s a great adventure to live in the Spirit.

Day 3: Loving God’s Creation

Wednesday.

We’re beginning to get sleepy from all the fun and activity and it’s a little harder to be ready on time this morning, but we still get up and enjoy another wonderful homemade breakfast served by our hosts.  Afterward, we gather around our painted candles for morning prayer and reflection. We are reminded that we can rejoice, as God loves the poor:

I will praise the name of God in song,
and I will glorify him with thanksgiving:
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”   Psalm 69: 31, 33-34

The first place we visit is the Postville office of Northeast Iowa Helping Services.  We are overwhelmed to hear how domestic violence and poverty harms people in rural areas.  We learn how hard it is for victims to leave abusive situations when there are so many dual-roles in small communities.  We have to think about how hard it is to run-away from violence in the country where there is no public transportation and everything is spread far apart.  In the country, there may not be fears of gang-violence, but violence is still damaging lives.

The sad stories of sin sink our spirits and we struggle with learning the Truth.

After an intense start of the day, we venture out to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.  We head to Effigy Mounds National Monument in the river-bluffs by the Mississippi River near Marquette, Iowa.  In the woods we get to contemplate how to respond to injustice in loving ways and have fun learning about Native Americans and nature.

We enjoy a picnic and explore the museum and woods.

The views of the Mississippi River from the bluff tops are remarkable.

We still need to do something to make a difference.  We go to Osborne Nature Center near Elkader.  Before working we get to see some wild animals up close.

Then we help to clear an invasive species, garlic mustard, from the woods to help the natural wildlife thrive.

The next thing we do is attend Bible Study.  We’re nervous and excited about joining the youth group from First Baptist Church in Elgin for their weekly meeting.  After eating pizza and playing get-to-know-you games, we become comfortable with each other even though we seem different.  We pray and contemplate scripture. Then we have a lot of fun playing in the dark on a trampoline with the local Iowa teens.

Back in Gunder, at evening prayer and reflection, I asked the students what the most important things were that they learned that day.  One student said that he learned how important it is to stand up against violence and abuse.  Another said that he learned that the woods can be a lot of fun.  A third said that he learned that there are good people everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or the color of your skin.

Day 4:  Broken Systems, Breaking Bread

Thursday. Our last full day in Iowa.

We’re getting weary but yet we wake up excited for another day of adventure.  After breakfast, our morning reflection reminds us that it is Holy Thursday.  This night, Jesus gathered with his friends and broke bread and taught about communion.  We pray that we can unite through the brokenness of humanity.

Our first site today is Decorah.  Decorah is interesting because it is the closest major town to Gunder.  It’s 40 minutes away and where you can find the nearest McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.  We are warmly welcomed to the Luther College campus with a presentation, gifts and a tour. We learn that Northeast Iowa was settled by immigrants from Norway and Germany in the 1800’s and that’s why there’s a Norwegian ELCA Lutheran college in this town.

Our excellent host at Luther, Pastor David Vasquez, has arranged for us to enjoy the college’s climbing wall and enjoy lunch in the college cafeteria.

We all feel pretty successful after the experience.

Well fed, we go to help feed the hungry. At the First Lutheran Church food pantry we help unload the truck from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and learn how the church helps provide food and free health care to people from all over Winneshiek County.

After a break for shopping in downtown Decorah, Pastor Dave helps us reflect about everything we have experienced on our trip.

And, Pastor David grounds us in the stories of God’s people.  We are reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament and how he and his brothers immigrated to Egypt.  We learn about the push and pulls that have caused people to move for centuries.  We hear about horrors of the Postville Immigration raid of 2008 and watch this trailer:

And, we hear how God’s law of Love tells us to work for justice:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.-Exodus 23:9

The Spirit has moved people across many borders.  After the presentation, we learn about the Norwegian Immigrant Experience to the United States in the 1800’s at the Vesterheim Museum.

We are learning about human struggle, but we still enjoy a break at The Whippy Dip before we go to Postville.

In Postville we hear about the horrors of the 2008 Immigration Raid right where it happened. We visit the tiny St. Bridget Catholic Church where hundreds sought refuge during the aftermath of the raid.

We see the meat-packing plant that was once called Agri-processors. In both places, Pastor Dave tells us the true stories about what his friends lived through.

Our Holy Thursday dinner happens around a giant table at the Mexican restaurant in Postville with the stories of brokenness stirring in our spirits.

Afterward, we go to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Elkader for mass and hear how Jesus washed the feet of his friends, pray, break bread, sing songs and feel a little uncomfortable because we really stick out for being different.

Back in Gunder, we try to reflect on all that we learned throughout the day.  One of my student says “What happened in Postville was a really big deal. Why doesn’t everyone know about it?”  

We give thanks for the ways that the others in our group have blessed us throughout the week. Around a fire we are commissioned.  We will return to where we came from, but we’ll keep living by the Spirit.  We shall continue to relate beyond bounds.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of adventures in the Spirit.

Visit here for Part 1 and Part 2.

adventures in the Spirit, part 2

The Spirit of Truth has a lot to teach us when we open our minds and hearts.  No matter what our motivations are, God is alive and hard at work.

God speaks to us through the stories of our lives and through the adventures we live through.  As we move, we do the work of trying to pay attention to God and cooperate with God’s ways.

God’s ways are surprising, just, peaceful, loving, challenging, encouraging, uniting, hard-working, open, holy and adventurous. God’s ways are good.

This is the story of how 10 people from Chicago (8 of my students and another chaperone and his son) went a new way.  They followed God (and me!) to a “foreign land” where the population is small and the skies are wide.  In this foreign land there are few people, a lot of peace and quiet and a lot to learn and do.  This is the the story of the Hales Franciscan High School Service-Learning-Rural-Immersion Trip to Northeast Iowa during Holy Week, April 2-6, 2012.

Day One: Community

Monday.  We finally leave the high school around 9:30 a.m. Our principal prays a blessing over us before we go.  Very quickly we’re forced to get comfortable with each other and be very close together. A 12-passenger van is not as big as it seems.

After about three hours, we finally cross over the Mississippi River and into Dubuque where our first stop in the foreign land of Iowa is to get a simple lunch.  Then it’s time for our first real challenge. We must become a team.  We must unite as community.

Our first great challenge was the Ropes Course at EWALU Bible Camp near Strawberry Point.  We learned how to trust each other, communicate and be encouraging.  We worked together as a team on low-ropes challenges. And we encouraged each other as we climbed up high, took a leap of faith, and flew through the woods on a zip line.

As a new team we went on to Gunder.  Our base for the trip was The Gunder Inn, the bed and breakfast owned and operated by my parents, Kevin and Elsie Walsh.

My parents also own and operate The Irish Shanti , home of the world-famous one pound Gunderburger.

All students tried to eat an entire sandwich and the first one done was one of the skinniest students in the group.

After dinner we played outside.  Students enjoyed football on the lawn, playing ghost in the graveyard in the real dark, under the star-lit sky, and a couple of them even tried driving a tractor!

Before bed we said our prayers, discussed the highs and lows of our day and painted candle holders to represent who we are and how we were to shine our gifts through our experience.

Day Two: Meeting the Stranger

Tuesday.  After a delicious homemade breakfast served by our hosts, we gathered in a circle for morning prayer and reflection. We heard the word of God proclaimed:

“When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it
and will send it back here at once.'”
So they went off
and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street,
and they untied it.
Some of the bystanders said to them,
“What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They answered them just as Jesus had told them to,
and they permitted them to do it.
So they brought the colt to Jesus
and put their cloaks over it.
And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches
that they had cut from the fields.
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out:
“Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!”        – Mark 11:1-10

We contemplated how we could respond if someone were to ask us “Why are you doing this?” upon entering their villages.  We thought about what we bring and what “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” could really mean.

We then made a giant diagram and played a game to think about the challenges and experiences of people who live in rural areas.  We thought we were ready to go and meet some strangers in villages and try to bring blessings to their lives.

Our first stop was a visit to Valley Community Schools, in the middle of the country between the towns of Elgin and Clermont.  This is my alma mater.  Now the entire school district- preschool through grade 12- is in one building. Many of the young children stared at my students. I was impressed with how they helped each other through the awkward experience by reminding each other that many people may have never seen black people there before.

Next, we went to Gilbertson’s Park in Elgin for a picnic lunch and a service project.  A couple of us helped the Naturalist build a fence, which was a thrill.  Most of us helped clean mud, sticks and rocks off a paved trail to improve accessability for people with disabilities.  It was hard work on a beautiful day.

From there we went to the Shepherd of the Hills Food Shelf in St. Olaf.  We had fun working together to stock the pantry’s shelves.

We were amazed to learn that all the food put on the shelves would be gone in about a week.  For a county with a small population, that’s pretty fast!

Speaking of food, the next thing we did was learn where some of our food starts.  First, we visited a fish hatchery tucked into the woods along the Turkey River.  If you look closely at this picture you can see the fish swimming in the water.

Then we went to my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm to help with milking chores. For some of us, this was the highlight of the entire trip.

My uncle helped some students milk cows.

And my aunt helped them feed the calves.

One of the calves had been born the morning that we visited and was named after the youngest person in our group.

We also got to have the experiences of playing in a hay mow and jumping in a corn bin.  Before leaving, we learned all about the expensive farm equipment and tried sitting in the machinery.  As we were leaving I heard one of my students say that he was never again going to let people bad talk farmers, as they are some of the hardest working people he has ever met.

Afterward, we played basketball in the town park and had pizza and root beer floats before evening reflection and prayer.  It was a great day!

Stay tuned to hear about the adventures in the Spirit over our next three days!

 

Obama and Jesus on Fairness

Obama always snags me.  I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness.  Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”

What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me?  Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.”  He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom.  We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.

Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better.  She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.

Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak?   Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper.  Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.

Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus.  He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do.  He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.”   Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.

But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.”  It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.”  They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense.   God chooses an economic location for grace.   Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.

Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then.  It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world.  It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.

Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night.  While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit.  We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it.  We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.