Good Friday and the Illusion of Control

For Christians like me, Good Friday is often that day in Holy Week to easily move past.  Many of us are more comfortable with the joyous entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, than we are with Good Friday. We’d much prefer moving on to the joy of Easter.

Part of our discomfort is that we simply don’t want to deal with the pain that takes place between these two events.  Who wants to focus on betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and death?

Our society in the USA (at least for white middle class folk like me), is built on the illusion that we are in control.  Captains of our own destiny.  This illusion teaches that power, possessions and accomplishments will make us happy and give our lives meaning. Our economic and to varying degrees, our political system, is built on this narrative of the rugged individualist.  This illusion also permeates and to often warps Christian theology

The pandemic that we are living through, has laid to rest this illusion.  We aren’t in control. We have a profound sense of dislocation. We worry over our health and economic well being of self, family, neighbors, nation and world.

This pandemic has made the Good Friday story relevant and real. We can relate to the despair that the early disciples felt on that Good Friday as they watched Jesus take his final breath.  Many of us have lost family or friends to COVID-19. We too know grief.

The story of the cross is of God entering into the pain and brokenness of the human condition lived out in the life and witness of Jesus.  People who live on the margins know this to be true. (For the Passion story, read Luke 22 -23)

In the 1970’s a group of Catholic bishops in South America, led by Gustavo Guttierez spoke of God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed.  They chose the phrase ‘Liberation Theology’, to reflect God’s accompaniment with the vulnerable.

Liberation Theology is rooted in a theology of the cross, in particular Jesus being crucified at the hands of the Roman Empire.  This complements Jesus’ other teachings, such as Matthew 25:40:

“Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.”

Such words, coupled with Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross, reflects the heart and essence of God.  As Jesus says in John 15:

“No one has greater love than this, than to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

Such teachings and witness have so much to say during this pandemic crisis. We belong to one another and, we belong to God.  It was true at the time of Jesus and it is true now.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker theologian speaks of  a tensions between an ‘economy of scarcity’ as compared to a ‘gospel of abundance’.  During this pandemic we see the economy of scarcity being lived out as affluent nations gobble up ventilators, while poor countries struggle to respond.

For example in Nicaragua I’m on the board for a public health ministry called AMOS: Health and Hope (http://www.amoshealth.org).  It is estimated that there are less than 100 ventilators in a nation of 6 million people.  The AMOS staff are gearing up to be on the frontlines of COVID-19 with few tools to draw upon.

Cross overlooking volcano in Managua

Truly the vulnerable in such nations are living out the pain of the Good Friday story.

Yet, there is another way.  The path of sacrificial love as expressed by Jesus. A way of living and being that teaches that we belong to one another.  That love transcends national boundaries.  That when we see each other as connected, we become responsible to and for one another.  This is what Parker Palmer calls, a Gospel of Abundance.  This radical love is in part, what the cross symbolizes.

That few countries, including my own, will respond in such a way, does not make it any less true.  Or, any less compelling.

Those who live on the margins know the truth found in Good Friday. During this challenging time more of us are discovering this truth too.

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From Scarcity to Abundance: Refugee Crisis, Part 2

In the previous blog we explored how our world is governed by the Economy of Scarcity. A scarcity mindset constricts the mind, imagination and heart. Scarcity teaches that there is only so much to go around and we must protect what is yours.

Desperate refugees fleeing civil war and grinding poverty in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and northern Africa are fleeing in record numbers to the gates of Europe. The response of the Hungarian government is a grim example of the scarcity mindset at work. That government has set up razor wire barriers and passed a law criminalizing any refugee who seeks to pass through.

Refugees-Hungarian-border-2015

Is there an alternative to scarcity thinking? Yes. The answer is found in an ancient story. Whether you take the story literally or metaphorically there are lessons to be had.

2000 years ago a healer and prophet named Jesus brought about a miracle. A crowd of 5000 had gathered to hear him. Late in the day his disciples urged Jesus to disperse the crowd so they could forage for food. Instead, Jesus had the crowd break into companies of 50 and 100. Then Jesus took his disciples scarce provisions, 5 loaves and two fish and offered everything he had to the crowd.

At first glance this seems like a hopeless and reckless gesture. How do you feed so many with so little?

Parker Palmer the theologian suggests that this intentional act of vulnerability led to the miracle. Moved by the generosity and selflessness of Jesus and his disciples, the crowd which had hidden away food of their own, began to share with others.

The miracle was that those who had nothing now had enough. Those who had much and a little had enough. And, points out Palmer, by breaking the vast crowd into companies of 50 and 100 it was no longer as easy to ignore or refuse to help. Now the person in need had a name, a story.

This is called the Gospel of Abundance. Translated to today’s refugee crisis, nations of the world have the capacity to solve this crisis. We have the resources to feed and place those who are fleeing war and poverty. We have the resources and capacity to solve the conditions that have led to the wars and poverty.

The Gospel of Abundance tells us that there is an alternative to fear which fuels scarcity thinking. When we act abundantly we make a series of choices: We choose to not give in to fear. We choose to take a risk and share what we have. We choose to open our hearts, minds and imagination to new ways of thinking, new ways of partnering to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Do we see examples of abundance at work? Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Jordan, Turkey have been on the front lines for many months and in some cases for years in housing and rescuing refugees. Germany has committed to receiving and housing up to 800,000 refugees in 2015 at a cost of 6.6 billion dollars.

Welcoming refugees

Such examples of abundance offers an example to the United States. My country has stood largely on the side lines and only recently agreed to receive 10,000 Syrians at an undetermined rate. We are capable of doing so much more.

As a pastor I see local communities of faith being capable of getting involved and making a difference. A committee in the church I serve is researching ways to lobby our elected officials to make our nation more generous. One step is to lobby for ‘The Protecting Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act’, now before Congress. We’re also looking into ways to partner and help house refugee families.

Imagine what happens when every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, tribe, city and nation is led by the Gospel of Abundance. 2000 years ago a prophet and healer named Jesus made a choice not to be governed by fear or scarcity. The result was a miracle. That same capacity for the miraculous is found within you and me and the communities we belong to. Don’t you think its time for another miracle?

Scarcity, Fear and the Refugee Crisis: Part 1

Much of our world is governed by the Economy of Scarcity. The Economy of Scarcity teaches that there is only so much to go around and that the wise person takes care of oneself and one’s own first. If anything is left over then you may choose to share. Nations go to war to protect what they have.

The governing principle of Scarcity is fear. Fear of not having enough. Fear of someone else taking what is yours. Fear that you must rely on yourself first and foremost. In the United States our mythology of the strong, independent pioneer reinforces this mindset. Libertarian principles both political and cultural reinforce this ideal.

The positive side is that it leads people and nations to strive to be self-sufficient. The negative is what takes place when circumstances are so overwhelming that individualism is not enough.

We are in such a time. According the United Nations there are currently 195 million refugees the largest since World War II. A series of regional wars fueled by political instability, tribal and religious tensions have formed a perfect storm.

Currently hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, Libia, Yemen, Somalia and other locals are fleeing for their lives seeking the stability and resources of Europe. The response of Europe has been mixed: Italy and Greece have done their best to cope with refugees coming to their shores in leaky boats (3000 are estimated to have drowned in 2015 to date).

Refugees in boat

Hungary has put up barbed wire fences and is moving to criminalize those fleeing to their country. Germany and Austria which have been the principal leaders for a humane response are at risk of being overwhelmed unless other hesitant countries in Europe step up.

Here in the United States the scarcity mindset is at work. After a long silence the Obama administration has offered to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees. In contrast Germany has said it will take up to 800,000 refugees in 2015.

Donald Trump is leading in Republican presidential polling with anti-immigration rhetoric. He is calling for forced deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the USA (primarily from Mexico and Central America). He is playing the scarcity card that we can’t afford to take care of others problems whether it be people fleeing poverty or war.

Yet the reality is that our world is inter-dependent. Instability in one region has implications for everyone. The Economy of Scarcity offers no answers. Is there an alternative? I invite you to read this blogs next installment. But before we can explore an alternative we must acknowledge the subtle and not so subtle hold that scarcity thinking has on how we so often function as nations, states, tribes, families and as individuals.

Fear drives scarcity thinking. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Stay tuned.

Naomi’s Potlatch

On an appointed Sunday, Naomi invited her friends to her apartment to go through boxes of books and to take whatever we liked.  Naomi was raised in a family that treasured books.  She worked for many years as a book buyer and had accumulated many boxes of books.

Over the course of the afternoon a steady stream of friends stopped by.  Many of these books had a special place in Naomi’s heart and each was a gift of friendship.   It seems that Naomi had far more books than her lovely, cozy apartment could make room for.   For sometime the boxes had been stored in that uniquely American growth industry, a storage center.

Naomi however is a soul who values both books and friends and it didn’t seem right to lock away what she no longer needed or had room for. So she entered upon a profoundly counter-cultural act, to give away most of her books.   No storage locker, no garage sale, no eBay.

She served wine and cheese and provided box upon box for our sorting pleasure.  Often she would recommend a book to a particular friend making the gift even more special.  I was reminded of the Native American potlatch.   A potlatch is a gift giving ceremony and economic system practiced by indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest coastline.  The word comes from the Chinook language meaning to give away.

To give something away simply for the pleasure of another is a wonderful experience.  To give that which you value away for the well-being of the community is beautiful to behold.  For the tribes of the Pacific Northwest the potlatch was based upon the core belief that the community was to be valued and honored.  What better way than to gift what you hold most dear with those that you rely upon the most.  The indigenous people believed that our true security rested not on what we accumulate but rather upon the support and caring of one’s fellow community members.

The potlatch is based upon the belief that there is always enough to go around, that those with much will share with those who have less.   The potlatch teaches that we all go through times of wealth and scarcity and what is constant is the support of the community.  In our highly individualistic society Naomi’s book potlatch is radical stuff.

Naomi is a generous soul by choice and by nature.  A relative newcomer to McMinnville she has come to treasure the friendships she’s made and the ways she has been welcomed into people’s hearts.   Her book potlatch was a reminder that we belong to one another.   Thank you Naomi for the great books, particularly the one by Robert Coles that you recommended.   Thank you for reminding us of the importance of community.