Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Grief of our Corporate Souls

Can you help? 

This was the somewhat desperate question asked of me by the refugee resettlement agency. A family of six was scheduled to arrive within 24 hours and the house they were going to live in had not received clearance by the city inspectors. The family, a mother with four kids and a grandmother, were refugees from Rwanda who had fled to Cameroon. After years in a refugee camp they had been transported to the Sudan and were in route from the Sudan to Paris and then to Chicago, they’d be here the next day, after a grueling 36 hours of travel. The church and I, having participated in refugee resettlement for a couple of years, decided that we could house this family for a few days. It was summer, no Sunday School, and the building was mostly unused during the day. We set up six beds in one long room. Next door was a living room like space with a television. Downstairs was a fully stocked kitchen and bathrooms with showers. In short order we had everything ready, including food in the refrigerator. The family arrived, along with staff from the refugee agency, about 4pm on a warm sunny afternoon. After the trauma and the challenges of travel, the family was nearly catatonic. Over the next week the church was filled with the sounds of a family coming back to life - kids playing outside in the playground, food being prepared in the kitchen, and faces that began to smile with eyes that shone from rest and hope. By the end of the week the agency had the house ready and the family moved on, but the members of that church, who had opened their doors, were forever changed. 

“Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:34-35).

Who is the stranger? 

Did you know that there are about 60 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, and the number is growing daily. 

Forcibly Displaced people fall into several categories:

IDP’s: Internally Displaced Persons: about 40 million people have been forcibly uprooted and displaced within their own country due to violence and conflict. They remain in their country but not in their homes. They are not protected by the government and have no access to resources. 

Asylum Seekers: In 2014 1.66 million people submitted applications for asylum. A potentially even larger number of people are waiting to make it through the legal system to apply. Asylum seekers are at a distinct disadvantage in that they have zero resources available to them. A number of agencies focus solely on helping asylum seekers, such as Freedom House in Detroit. The criteria that grants one asylum are: cannot return to home country because of a real risk of being killed due to one’s race, religion, ethnicity, politics, or because one is a member of a particular group such as the LGBTQ community. And, I read recently that there are women in South America who fall into the “particular group” category because they are in marriages they can’t get out of. 

Refugee: a refugee is someone who has been forced out their home and country because of a real risk of death and violence. There are about 20 million refugees in camps around the world today. Most refugees today are fleeing Syria, followed by those fleeing Afghanistan as well as Africa, South and Central America, and other countries in the world that are experiencing conflict. Refugee resettlement is a long, arduous process. A number of international agencies, often affiliated with the United Nations, work with the governments that have created refugee camps with the intent of resettling as many people as possible. Each person considered for resettlement undergoes intense back ground checks, health and psychological evaluations. Refugee status can take years to acquire and even longer to receive the needed approval to be resettled in another country. 

Migrants - a term used frequently, all individuals who cross a border into another county is a migrant. However migrant differs from IDP’s, asylum seekers, and refugees in that a migrant can still seek the protection of its home government.

Here in Southeast Michigan the largest resettlement agency is LSSM - Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. They have partner affiliates with other agencies, such as EMM - the Episcopal Migration Ministries. It is anticipated that we will receive nearly 1000 refugees, beginning in about 18 months, or as soon as President Obama gives the clearance for resettlement to begin. 

Refugees are resettled first in countries and cities where they already have family members. If there are no family members with whom to be reunited, refugees are resettled in regions where there are other people with whom they can form community. 

Every effort is made to ensure that refugees are resettled into community, for it is with community that people are able to rebuild their lives and move from despair to hope. 

How can you help? As refugees begin to arrive in SE Michigan I will receive requests from LSSM for assistance. This will be a request for immediate action: a team of youth or adults to greet a refugee family at the airport, a team of people who can set up a house or apartment including making beds and organizing a kitchen, a team of people who can acquire new or gently used clothing or household items, a team of people who will go to the grocery store a stock the kitchen with culturally appropriate food for the family. Some churches may choose to take on a larger, more expensive portion of resettlement, such as sponsoring a family by paying for the expenses to migrate including Visas, airfare, the items in their new home, and so forth. 

And, be sure to stop by the LSSM booth in the vender hall and pick up materials on refugee resettlement. 

Thank you, Bishop Gibbs, for your support in enabling me to attend the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services conference earlier this month, and for encouraging our participation in refugee resettlement. 

The Diocese of Michigan has a long history with  refugee resettlement, and now we will have that opportunity again.

Thank you also to Christ Episcopal Church, Dearborn, and our Vestry, who also supported this endeavor and the trip to Baltimore to attend the LIRS conference earlier this month. 

We are informed and formed not only from Jesus’ words in the Gospel, to help the stranger, but also from Deuteronomy we are reminded that we are to help the stranger for we too were once strangers in a strange land. If we reach into the resources of our corporate soul, there resonates a grief from a common loss of home, of the places our ancestors left behind, may this grief inform our compassion and inspire us to heal the broken and the wounded with love. May we do this with God’s help. 

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Why not me? And other thoughts on crap, God, and faith....

I am almost sixty years old and in the course of my life I have been blessed and I have experienced profound suffering. When the challenges last too long or are too intense I begin to wonder about God and faith and to question what I believe. 

No doubt, sometimes suffering happens because of my own foolishness. Sometimes I cause my own problems or I make them worse by my attitude or behavior. But, for example, when I hear someone blaming an individual for their life circumstances without recognizing the large socio-economic issues at play, such as when someone will suggest that people are poor because they are lazy or addicts, I think we need to be careful about judging others and casting blame. Sometimes suffering just happens, undeserved, unwarranted by anything a person has done or not done. Often, all of us in developed countries, because of how we live and what we eat, influence the global economy and contribute to poverty, immigration, and other social concerns. Sometimes there is a corporate accountability that needs to be recognized for the suffering of the world.  Likewise blaming God for suffering conveys something false about the character of God. God does not cause suffering. But, that God allows for suffering to exist in the world is one of the great mysteries of life. Why? The book of Job wrestles with these ideas. 

The story begins by telling us that Job is an exemplary person of faith, very faithful to God, a man of tremendous success, peaceful, wise, a good man. And then the Satan makes a bet with God, and everything in Job’s life changes - he loses his house, his means of making a living, his children all die, he is rejected by his community, his wife scorns him, and his friends blame him for the catastrophes that have befallen him. In this story the Satan is a member of God’s counsel, an advisor to God. The Satan is a metaphor, highlighting how random suffering is, striking without cause. And God allows it to happen. But in the end the Satan loses the bet. Job remains faith to God, Job does not lose his faith. He does however ask God about justice, God’s justice, in light of the profound suffering. 

We can ask the same question, where is God in the suffering of the world, where is justice? Where is God’s justice in school shootings? In the destruction of homes and lives from wildfires or hurricanes or any other natural disaster? Where is God’s justice in war and violence and terrorism? Why does God allow horrible things to happen and people to suffer?

We might ask other questions as well, such as, is our faith based on a “commodity principle” of belief? Do I expect God will bless me and my life will be good because I have faith in God? I use to think that way, the more I “believed” -  the more I tried to live the rules of the church -  the more “protected” I would be from suffering. I use to think that “believing” would guarantee a life of peace, or maybe grant me some kind of eternal reward. I believed in a consumerism God who doled out blessing like the values we hold in our capitalistic society, work hard and I will live the American dream, I will have everything I need and more. Believe hard and God will protect me from suffering. 

Except bad things have happened to me, as they do to all people: an illness strikes, a job is lost, pension is stolen by corporate greed, the stock market fails and retirement savings are lost, a loved one dies, suffering happens. No matter how “good” I am, there is no way to avoid suffering.

Paradoxically,  I’ve come to believe that because my life has been filled with tremendous challenges, deep profound, life changing challenges, that I am a better person, more compassionate and self-aware. Through those challenges I have come to recognize that God has journeyed with me and helped me to grow wiser. Eventually, despite all obstacles, and usually in hindsight, I come to see the ways that God was with me all along, through the trials and tribulations. God did not give me challenges to make me believe more, nor to make me stronger, nor to make my faith deeper, nor to punish me, nor to make me wise and more compassionate. God did not give me challenges. Life just happens and life is filled with challenges and suffering. It just is. The real question ought to be, “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I experience suffering and pain? Everyone else does, its life. That said, I assure you, I don’t like it. Not one bit.

How I live through suffering says a lot about my faith and why I believe. When life really sucks all I can do is trust that this too will pass and one day I will feel better and life will be better. And when life feels good, I give thanks and treasure it because I know it won’t last forever. I try to have some detachment to my feelings of despair and view them with some distance in order to not let them control my behavior. I try to not make others miserable just because I am. I continue to put one foot in front of the other. I keep going. I wait for the time to pass. I pray. I come to church. I stay in community and I work to stay in relationships, to have healthy relationships. I work on my self, to become more aware of my emotions and to tend to my physical health. I believe because I trust that God is with me and God will guide me through the crap, that ultimately God wants me, and you, to have a good, healthy, happy, peace-filled life, to whatever degree that is possible. 

The Gospel reading this morning takes us down a similar path albeit from a very different direction. The Pharisees continue to question and challenge Jesus, hoping to trip him up and catch him in some remark that they can use against him, to discredit him. Over and over, in response to these questions, Jesus replies with wisdom, seeing through their effort to have him convey a narrow sense of God. Over and over Jesus reveals the expansive wide open love of God. The teaching in Mark is less about the legality of divorce and more about justice, God’s sense of justice for all people, a radical hospitality and equality for the oppressed. Jesus gives examples of those most marginalized in society, women and children. 

When we accept God’s grace and have some experience of God’s love in our lives, then we are better able to see and love others as God loves, fully, equally. This expansive sense of God’s grace is intended to affirm our faith and sustain our trust when life is difficult. It is also intended to inform how we respond to the suffering of others - not as Job’s friends do, who blame him for his suffering - but by being compassionate and revealing to others God’s love in and through us. Jesus reminds us that our faith is intended to strengthen our reliance on God, sustain us with an attitude, a deep inner reality, that God is with us, even when there are no obvious signs of God’s presence. We do this by living community, feeling one another’s pain and suffering and, instead of blaming or judging, being wiling to be the face of Christ and the hands and heart of God, by loving one another as God loves us. 

Proper 22B: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16

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