June 2017

I have just returned after a couple of days with some of our youth in Chicago on their mission trip. Our group (Robert Pike, Katy Pike, Maia Klein, Ari Cutler, Ethan Giles along with Steve Dressel) is working hard and beautifully representing our church community. They are being hosted by an organization called DOOR. DOOR is a faith–based network that provides opportunities for service, learning, and leadership opportunities within the urban context. They have offices in various cities such as Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. They are inviting young people to “see the face of God in the city.”

For the two days I was with them, we worked at a community garden and a food pantry for people with HIV/AIDS. While we interacted with various people, what struck me the most were the many volunteers we worked with at each of the sites. I was awed and amazed by their commitment each day to embody God’s love in their service.

At the community garden we met Robert and Pat who daily work in gardens in the middle of the city. Chicago has formed these gardens out of abandoned lots that more often than would be dumping grounds for refuse and illegal activities. They have made these beautiful gardens with flowers, and shrubs, and vines, and trees, and growing vegetables. A place of natural beauty and wonder in the midst of the city. Much of the joy was getting to know Robert and Pat who shared their passion for gardening and creating a better neighborhood. Robert had served in the army for over twenty years including a fifteen-month tour in Iraq. He suffers from PTSD and finds the gardening helps soothe his soul. Pat has been tending these neighborhood gardens in Chicago for over twenty years.

At the food pantry for HIV/AIDS victims, we met Kelli, RaChelle, and Maddie who work weekly if not daily at the pantry. Kelli is a college graduate about to start nursing school. RaChelle is a retired African American woman with a funny sense of humor. And Maddie was a 95-year-old volunteer who delighted us with her spunk and spirit. It was a joy to work with them throughout the day.

In the world today filled with its darkness, anger, and conflict, it is saints like these who give me hope. They make a difference through their commitment every day to touch another person’s life. It may be through the cultivation of a beautiful flower or handing out a can of soup, but these people make the world better through their service. One of the places I saw the face of God in the city was in their faces!

These People Are Crazy

12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:12-13

One of my favorite memories as a child was visiting with my grandparents and going to their church. My grandparents lived in public housing in downtown Dallas in a small apartment. With the innocence of a child, I was unaware they didn’t have much as they had been tenant farmers their whole life. But whenever we went to stay with them, my grandmother would hide candy all over the apartment, and my sister and I would race to find these treasures. On Sunday mornings, we would get up and have biscuits and gravy and then head to their church. Their worship was in a small store front with about thirty people or so. I didn’t know what it meant at that time, but they were Pentecostal.

What I did know was their worship was quite different from what I experienced at my church. At various points in the service someone would stand and shake and start speaking in tongues. They would hold their hands in the air and dance in the aisles. Some would even “faint in the spirit.” I just remember being fascinated by it all. But even at that young age I was Presbyterian enough to think to myself – “These people are crazy!”

Over the years I have come to appreciate that experience as a child. Whenever I read the story of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the image of my Grandparents church comes to my mind. I have loved worship in my Presbyterian church growing up with its beautiful liturgy, meaningful music, and thoughtful reflectiveness. Yet my grandparents church had something that challenged my stolid and serious sense of God. They were so free in their joy no matter their life circumstances.

To me the Holy Spirit is about being set free to dance and sing and celebrate life. Pentecost is letting go of what confines us; it is setting aside expectations; and it is being so free in the moment that one cannot help but shout one’s experience of God. I yearn for such moments in my self-conscious way of being in the world. This Pentecost season, I pray that we all may find those times when the Spirit comes and we forget ourselves and we are set free to dance.

Ekram’s Story

“Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Luke 16:26

This past week I was in a Bible study with a number of folks in the Presbytery including Ekram Kachu, who is pastoring the 1st Arabic Worshipping Community. Ekram preaches to this community of Sudanese refugees as well as ministers to the larger refugee community here in Des Moines. She does amazing work witnessing to Jesus through her compassionate ministry not only to Christians but to Muslims as well. I am always enlightened by her perspectives on Biblical texts each week.

We were studying the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), a challenging biblical text that raises particularly troubling questions for those of us more easily identified with the rich man than poor Lazarus.
In the course of our discussion, she spoke of how her community was feeling much fear these days. She shared how many of her people have been having painful and degrading encounters with different people in grocery stores and restaurants. The common denominator being an experience of alienation and dismissal expressed in rude words and actions.

She shared a personal story that had happened within the past week. She, her twelve-year-old daughter, and some Sudanese friends were going to the store and, after waiting for another car to leave, pulled into a parking space. As they entered the store, an older white man accosted them and physically took hold of her daughter. He yelled at them that they had taken his parking space. He told them they should “Leave the country and go back home.”

I found myself filled with various emotions. Shocked and flabbergasted that something like this happens in Des Moines. Anger at how someone can treat another human being in such a way. But most of all, grief that we now live in a place and time where an atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and antagonism towards the “Other” causes some of the most vulnerable in our communities to live in fear.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by Ekram’s story. Recently we have had racist chants at a local High School Basketball game; a tweet by a prominent politician stating “we cannot restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”; and a note left at a mosque in Des Moines that warns them that we “will do to them what Hitler did to the Jews.”

I would like to think these are isolated incidences reflective of fringe elements of our society. But that perspective reflects more my position of privilege where I can dismiss such stories without really changing anything. It maintains a great chasm between me and the “Other” whether they be an immigrant or a Muslim. That attitude does not honor Ekram’s story.

Maybe the best way to honor such a story and begin to cross the divide that exists in our communities is to embrace her story and let that story change us. Ekram honors her own story as she continues to compassionately care for her immigrant community despite living in a time of fear. There are people who honor such a story by not silently standing by when others shame immigrants. We need to honor such a story by seeking out the refugee and immigrant among us and truly listening to their story. In this way, we make Ekram’s story our story.

A Confession of Faith

There is a purported Chinese curse, most likely apocryphal, that goes something like this: May you live in interesting times. I think most of us would agree we live in “interesting times.” Maybe too interesting!

The election, inauguration, and implementation of the Trump presidency has been a catalyst for highlighting the divisions that underlie our country and society. We find ourselves wrestling with basic questions about democracy, the role of government, immigration, and justice.

The political skirmishes that have always been a part of our national dialogue have erupted into a deeper turmoil in our capitals and on our streets. It is to say the least an interesting time to be a follower of Jesus in a confusing and conflicted world.

Many of us find ourselves struggling to figure out how to respond running the gamut from whether we should post our anger and frustrations on Facebook to whether we will ever talk again to our family relative who voted for the other candidate (God knows why?).

There are some who feel vindicated in their political beliefs and others who are deeply depressed by the direction of the country. Many of us have protested in some form or another while others have been puzzled and frustrated by this reaction.

In this conflicted and interesting time, what are we to believe and do?

In our tradition, we identify as a confessing church. In other words, we assert that part of our “doing” as disciples is confessing to the world what we believe about God and God’s work in the world.

The first part of our constitution (Book of Confessions) as a church are a number of these statements made throughout history. Almost all of these confessions were written when the people of faith found themselves living in interesting times. They were forced to examine together in their time and in their place what they believe about God and God’s purpose in the world.

In our Book of Confessions, we have the Barmen Declaration where the church, in response to Nazism and its control of social institutions of Germany in the 1930’s, simply stated one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord! Jesus is Lord and not Hitler or a particular political party or a particular ideology.

We have the Confession of 1967 where the church bravely insisted in our society torn asunder by racial discord that reconciliation and justice was not only possible but inevitable by the Spirit of God.

And the most recent addition to our constitution is the Belhar Confession written by the church in South Africa during the period of horrible atrocities and ravages of apartheid. This statement asserts God is the God of the destitute, poor, and oppressed and claims that all forms of segregation (racial and social) are a sin. Interesting times leads to a clarification of values and fundamental beliefs as a church.

In the spirit of being a confessing church in interesting times, I want to share with you a short confession that I wrote for my own clarity of purpose as a disciple in the weeks following the election.

I do not share this faith statement as a litmus test for your own faith response but to encourage you to reflect yourself on what it is you believe in these conflicted days. And I invite you to share your confession with me either through email or via our Heartlanders Facebook page. (If you are not a member of the Heartlanders Facebook group, simply like the page and we will add you to the group)

You may not agree with the some of what is stated below or may not agree with how it is stated. But I am truly interested in your beliefs and assertions about God. And maybe we can develop together our common Heartlander Declaration of Faith.

 

A Personal Declaration of Faith

We, People of Faith, declare in a time of disagreement and disillusionment the value and dignity of all human beings.

We reject the religious and political ideologies that build walls and scapegoat vulnerable people as a means to define our identity as a people.

 We reject the use of religion to support political parties and policies that deny the humanity of all people.

 We reject the denial of women their full personhood.

 We declare a vision of humanity beyond the racial, religious, and nationalistic boundaries that divide us.

 We declare a commitment to stand in solidarity with those who face persecution from those in power.

 We declare a promise to work for a more just and peaceful world with people of different faiths and with those who do not claim a faith.

 We, People of Faith, declare in a time of disagreement and disillusionment the value and dignity of all human beings.

 

 

Huh? What did Jesus just say?

“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love you neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

~ Matthew 5:43-45

We have been traveling through the strange blessings of the Beatitudes on our journey through Lent.

We have wrestled with such blessings as poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness. I don’t know about you, but I am as confused as ever! I can relate to the most common characteristic of the disciple’s response to Jesus teaching as

“Huh? What did he just say?”

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From guest blogger Priscilla Eppinger

Kin-dom Solidarity with the Communities of El Tablón

In January, Alex Thornburg and Priscilla Eppinger represented Heartland Presbyterian Church on a delegation visit to our partner communities in El Salvador.  We quickly became aware of the serious drought conditions this country has endured during the past two growing seasons; from the airplane we could see dried-up riverbeds that should have had water flowing in them, and people everywhere remarked on how changes in climate have made the rains of the growing season less predictable.

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Listening to Their Stories

We have been listening to stories.

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This is the essence of what we have been doing this week here in the mountains of El Salvador. We visit each farming community called a “Tablon” (a kind of extended village), and we meet with the elected leaders of these communities called a “Directiva” who share the stories of their successes and challenges of the past year. We then proceed to visit people in their homes where we talk about their families, their lives, their problems, their hopes, and their dreams.

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Oscar Romero and The Church of the Poor

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Portrait of Oscar Romero

Oscar Romero served as the Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until his death in 1980. Romero is considered a kind of patron saint of El Slavador, and I do not joke when I say there might be more pictures of Romero posted everywhere than there are of Jesus. This is a significant difference than when I was in El Salvador twenty-five years ago when the government harassed and silenced anyone associated with the controversial Bishop. Continue reading