Following Jesus … no turning back

Something I’ve been thinking about for myself and all of us who claim Christianity…

Jesus said “Follow me.” Not just when it’s convenient…or easy…or when everyone else agrees.

He said “Love your neighbor.” Not just when they’re easy to love…or when they’re the same background / race / religion / ethnicity / gender identity…

He said “Take up your cross…and follow me.” Sometimes I don’t want to follow him–because I know it may lead to persecution…or death. Sometimes I don’t want to follow him because I want my life to be easy. I want to get along with all the people around me.

But if I say I am a follower of Jesus…if I claim the mantle of Christianity…then I am called to challenge the status quo…to stand up for and with the marginalized…to speak out against injustice and violence…no matter what.

There’s a song in my denomination’s hymnal that goes like this:

I have decided to follow Jesus (x3);
no turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, still I will follow (x3);
no turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me (x3);
no turning back, no turning back.

The story goes that it was sung by a man in India who came to know Christ and left the head hunter tradition of his tribe. He was challenged to deny his faith or face execution. He stood firm–even though his wife and children were killed in front of him before he too was killed–and left this song as his testimony.

May it also be mine.

They’re not just pieces of material…

Warning: The pictures included with this post are graphic and disturbing.

Several times recently I’ve seen posts saying that individuals who post pictures with the Confederate or Nazi flags aren’t necessarily racist. Sometimes the rationale has been that it’s “just a hick thing” or that those flags are just pieces of material…so why are people getting so bent out of shape?

Well, they’re not just pieces of material.

They represent very real ideologies that see a specific group of people as “subhuman” or “less than.” They are stark reminders of genocide…not centuries ago, but recent.

There are people alive today whose grandparents were slaves. There are people alive today who remember lynchings (lynchings were still taking place in 1981!). These are not abstract events; they are part of families’ histories…and the Confederate flag reminds them of this:

 

See the source image

A slave showing the scars of beatings on his back

Crowd Surrounds the Smoking Corpse of a Lynching Victim : Nachrichtenfoto

Jesse Washington, 17 years old, burned alive while an enthusiastic crowd looked on

Laura Nelson, lynched after being raped by numerous men, her body (along with her 14-year-old son’s) hung from a bridge and a postcard made of her lynching

There are people alive today who survived Nazi concentration camps–and who lost most (if not all) of their families in the camps. And the Nazi flag reminds us of this:

Boy In The Warsaw Ghetto

Nazi soldiers capturing Jews in the Warsaw ghetto

Mass Grave

A mass grave at Bergen-Belsen

Four emaciated survivors sit outside in the newly liberated Ebensee concentration camp.

The original Signal Corps caption reads, 
"EBENSEE CONCENTRATION CAMP.
In the Austrian Alps at Ebensee, Austria, units of the 80th Div, of the Third U...  found one of the largest and most brutal German concentration camps shortly bef...  of the war in Europe.  The camp contained about 60,000 prisoners of 25 different ... all in various stages of starvation.   The camp reputedly was used for scientifi... on the prisoners, who were used as live guinea pigs.  Conditions for the living ... bably brutal and filthy.  The men were forced to sleep four to a narrow bunk in ... barracs.  They died at the rate of 2000 a week, and their bodies were disposed o... ready for the crematory.  The Germans had fled before they had time to burn them.  ... living are being given care and nourishing food.  When they are strong enough to ... they will be returned to their homes.
These photos were taken May 7 and 8, 1945.

PNA                                                            EA 66316
THIS PHOTO SHOWS: These living skeletons are young boys.  
U.S. Signal Corps Photo ETO-HQ-45-46147
SERVICED BY LONDON OWI (INNER FULL)
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR.

Concentration camp survivors

Whether you like it or not, when you fly either of these flags (or give the Nazi salute), you are giving tacit support to those ideologies. They cannot be separated from those flags.

And so they are not just pieces of material. Your use of them and your reaction to them sends a significant message about who you are and what you believe.

The worth of all persons…

One of the Enduring Principles of my faith tradition is expressed this way: Worth of All Persons. These points help expand on its meaning…

  • God views all people as having inestimable and equal worth.
  • God wants all people to experience wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
  • We seek to uphold and restore the worth of all people individually and in community, challenging unjust systems that diminish human worth.
  • We join with Jesus Christ in bringing good news to the poor, sick, captive, and oppressed.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Easy to say…but maybe not as easy to live out.

If I truly believe that all persons are of worth, that includes

  • People I disagree with politically.
  • People who are of a different culture or religion.
  • People who have hurt me.
  • People I am afraid of.
  • People of a different color.
  • People I love.

It means ALL.

That also means

  • I cannot support separating children from their parents with no plans on how to reunite them–simply because their families are seeking a safe place and a hopeful future.
  • The homeless person I see on the corner is deserving of my willingness to make eye contact with them…and to put aside my judgmental attitude.
  • I need to support help and shelter for the mentally ill and those unable to take care of themselves.
  • I am called to uphold in prayer even those I have major disagreements with.
  • When I see injustice, I need to call people and policies to accountability–even if that is uncomfortable or unpopular.
  • I need to learn more about other cultures, countries’ histories, and faith traditions in order to understand today’s world.

If I truly believe that, it will change how I interact with others…with how I live…with policies I support. And I have to decide to make that a priority in my life.

But if I am truly going to follow the One whose name I claim, I cannot do anything else.

Finding safe places

The news a couple days ago had a tragic story about an extended family who apparently got caught in the middle of a war between drug cartels in a rather remote area of Mexico. They were traveling in three SUVs on their way to a wedding–but instead, they are now planning funerals for three women and six children. Several other children survived and were flown to hospitals in the United States for treatment.

The family members were dual citizens of Mexico and the United States and had lived in the area for decades. They are part of a fundamentalist Mormon group that had had issues with drug cartels in the past–but this was like nothing they had experienced.

There has been an outpouring of anger and sympathy over the incident. Anger that innocent women and children could be gunned down like this…sympathy for the family members left behind and for the children injured.

It’s understandable–and appropriate to want to ensure that this family and the surviving children find safe places and healing.

However…what about the families and children who are not United States citizens who live in similar circumstances? Do they not also deserve similar concern? empathy for their desires to find safe places and healing?

Or do we only do that for families with white skin? and United States citizenship?

I am aware that sounds harsh. But I cannot help but wonder. Yes, I know there are children needing help in the United States…and I know we need to take a good luck at our immigration policies.

But when I look at the families–and their children–who are living in tent cities…or whose children have been separated from them and put in cages in detention centers or, even worse, given to potential adoptive parents without their biological parents’ consent or knowledge…can we not have empathy for them?

Many of them are fleeing situations that are every bit as bad as this American family experienced. They fear for their children…and hope for a better future.

Do they not also deserve safe places? Even if it’s not in this country, can we not help create safe places in their homelands? or at the last, treat them with dignity while they are waiting to hear about their future?

In my theology, every human being is created in the image of God. And my scriptures tell me that the way we treat other human beings is the way we treat Jesus, whom I worship as God-in-the-flesh.

This same Jesus was a refugee with his family as a baby, fleeing genocide, according to the Bible. He deserved–and found–a safe place.

So do all people.

Being prophetic is hard!

I’ve been thinking about the biblical prophets recently…and am discovering I have a lot of sympathy for them!

They were rarely liked–or believed–while they were alive, although we now tend to honor them (mostly…although I’m not sure how often we really read them).

Just think about what they did…

They challenged those who were in power…telling hard and inconvenient truths that those folks didn’t want to hear.

They called people to repent for behaviors they liked doing…and had to put up with people saying things like “Who do you think you are, telling me what to do??”

They sometimes spent days (or even years) in the same smelly clothes…definitely not wearing what the “in” crowd wore!

Although their main focus was not on foretelling the future, they warned people of problems that would be coming if they didn’t change their ways.

No, it wasn’t any fun being prophetic.

It still isn’t.

In my faith tradition, we believe that God continues to speak to us as a body through our leader. Among the things that we have accepted as scripture are these, given to the church in 2007:

God is calling for a prophetic community to emerge, drawn from the nations of the world, that is characterized by uncommon devotion to the compassion and peace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Among other challenges in that same scripture are these statements:

…Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.

There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God….

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

These are not comfortable statements…but they are prophetic. And…like the biblical  be prophets, if we choose to really live them, we will find ourselves uncomfortable in the world around us. We will not be liked…we will not fit in…but we will be doing our part to plant the seeds of a better world.

For the children

I am a follower of the one who is called the Christ. He was someone who love and spent time with the marginalized…the outcast…those who were considered “less than”…and that included children.

One of his strongest statements about children was this (as stated in Luke 17:1-2):

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (NRSV)

“He said to his disciples, “Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but too bad for whoever brings them on! Better to wear a millstone necklace and take a swim in the deep blue sea than give even one of these dear little ones a hard time!” (The Message)

I’ve been thinking about that the last few days…and have been reminded of a question often asked: “Is it good for the children?”

As we look around ourselves today, are our actions good for the children? Not just the children in our own homes…our own communities…our own nation…but all the children in the world.

What kind of environment are we leaving them? One in which they can breathe? in which they can delight in the diversity of creation? in which they can be safe? Or are we destroying the world around them?

What lessons are we teaching them? To cherish each other and to see each other as brother and sister? or to be afraid of someone who looks, speaks, loves, or worships differently from them?

Are we teaching them the importance of peacemaking and conflict resolution? Or are we teaching them that “might makes right”? that hatred is the strongest force in the world? that their lives are less important than vengeance…or oil?

We’re not going to be perfect. But we have the power to do better…and we must. Otherwise there will be no world for our children to inherit.

…a little child shall lead them.

This is a phrase from the description in the book of Isaiah about the peaceable kingdom…a place where

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

There are other places in the Bible where it talks about our need to have a child-like faith. Not a childish faith, but a child-like one.

As I’ve been watching the news recently, I’ve found myself pondering what it means to have that child-like faith.

Children tend to believe they can do anything. The words we adults use often encourage that belief.

  • If you want to do it badly enough, you can.
  • You can be (or do) anything you want.
  • Whether you think you can’t or think you can, you’re right.

And so for them, nothing is impossible.

We adults are often jaded. We are tired from the struggle. We see that life is not as simple…not as black and white…as we thought when we were younger. And so we often find that some things are impossible.

But we need the energy and “impossible” faith of youth. They are the ones who force us to face our fears…who challenge us to make our world better. They don’t take “no” for an answer…and because they don’t, we discover that the “impossible” things really are possible.

Who are some of these children who have challenged us?

  • Joan of Arc – led an army to free her country during the Hundred Years War. She was just 19 when she was killed.
  • Sophie Scholl fought against the Nazi regime and was killed when she was 22.
  • Anne Frank – kept a diary while in hiding from the Gestapo that has become a haunting memoir of both the evil around but also a faith in the goodness of people. She died in a concentration camp when she was 16.
  • Ruby Bridges – was the first African-American child to enter a segregated elementary school when she was 6.
  • Hector Pieterson – fought against apartheid in South Africa and was killed when he was 13.
  • Iqbal Masih – escaped from forced child labor in Pakistan and fought against child labor and for the right of children to receive an education. He was killed when he was 12.
  • James Chaney (21),  Andrew Goodman (20), and Michael Schwerner (24) – three civil rights workers who were killed as they were helping African-Americans to register to vote
  • Malala Yousafzai – defied the Taliban to campaign for the right for girls to be educated. She was shot in the head when she was 15 but survived and has become an advocate for human rights.
  • Greta Thunberg – has become a global leader for environmental issues, leading protests against global warming at age 16.

We need their passion…their energy…their hope for a better future.