We Must Continue to Sow

 Sisters from the Congregaton of Divine Providence

Sisters from the Congregaton of Divine Providence

By Amy Schlag

This week we were witnesses to deeply disturbing images and stories such as a mother having her baby taken from her while she was breastfeeding. Toddlers wailing in fear after being stolen from their parents, parents who are given in return a handout with instructions on “How Do I Find My Child(ren). We saw the growth of “immigration centers,” places hauntingly reminiscent of internment camps, as the ghosts of unlearned history begs us to remember it. We witnessed numerous politicians and pastors claiming the actions behind these images were in keeping with the teachings of the Bible. Given their best light, these claims are conveniently misinterpreted understandings. Given their true light they are vile examples of craven “leaders” using the Bible in defense of the indefensible. I will not spend time on responding to those claims, as others have done it with more expertise and elegance than could I. If you are interested in reading these responses, check out some examples included at the end of this post.

Instead, I would like to reflect on something that happened here in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. It is a small story, one not as widely shared as the others. However, it was a moment that actually responded to the call of God and is an example, perhaps mustard seed sized, of what we as Christians are called to do, especially after witnessing such atrocities.

In the Sunday gospel we read from Mark. Mark shares several familiar parables, however Mark also gives us a parable we do not hear in the other gospels, the parable of the Seed [that] Grows From Itself. Perhaps this parable is recounted to encourage those who are disheartened to find out, as in the Parable of the Sower, that many of the metaphorical seeds they have sown have not grown to fruit. In this parable, the labor of the farmer sowing seeds is rewarded. “All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head” (Mark 4: 28). The resulting crop has been fully nourished by God and provided a plentiful crop.

On Thursday, a few hundred folks from Ohio and Kentucky gathered at the Roebling Bridge to sow their own seeds. Kentuckians and Ohioans gathered on their respective sides of the bridge and began to march, coming together in the middle of the bridge, standing in solidarity with immigrants and encouraging an end to the vicious practice of separating families at the U.S./Mexico border. For the Christians in the crowd, they hoped to implore those who heard and saw them to remember the words of Jesus “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” and to act in response (Matthew 25: 40).

The people who were there were united in their outrage and their hope, in their fury and faith, in the belief that their actions could make a difference, and like the sower spreading seeds in the parable, hoping their actions would be seeds landing on fertile ground. For them, the potential fertile ground would be those who witnessed the protest, those driving or walking by, reporters covering the story, and the reports from those stories, reports that would carry the heart of the protest into homes, offices, schools, and conversations

 Like the sower, once the seeds had been planted, the protesters had to then hope that the seeds and ground would eventually bear fruit. This fruit would take the form of those who passed by and felt moved to join the protest, passengers who honked in support, or perhaps the momentary reconsideration of those who agree with our country’s vicious policy. Perhaps the fruit would come in the continued actions of others, more protests, donations to organizations that can help, calls to those in charge demanding we end this inhumane policy, the growing support of people of faith, or in the conversion of the hearts of politicians who have the power to end this travesty.

Among those in attendance were numerous Sisters from the Congregation of Divine Providence, some of which are pictured above, who were also sowing seeds.  Like the others in attendance, the CDP Sisters were moved to be there by our government’s cruel practice of separating children from their family, by the hope their actions could bring change, and also by the fact that they are “moved by the compassion of Christ for the needy and the suffering… [to] undertake whatever [they] can to fill needs, to relieve distress, and to announce the beatitude He promised.”

One of the CDP Sisters shared a moment from the protest with me I found deeply moving, as did she. It was a small, simple moment. As with all good protests, there were signs and chants, with the chants not always coming in unison. In the midst of the protest, a young Latino boy rode by on his bike, and he stopped to take in all that was happening. He hesitantly, but curiously, looked and listened, perhaps having seen or heard previous protests calling for him to go back to where he came from, or worse. As he made out the purpose of the protest, a radiant smile filled his face. It is impossible to know precisely what he was thinking, but hopefully he knew he was loved, supported and welcomed. His smile was the fruit of a seed that had found fertile ground. The CDP Sisters have a mission “to be the face of a loving, provident God to all they meet,” and in that moment they were that face for the young boy. In his smile was the proof that the Kingdom of God can still grow if we continue to do the sowing.

We all know there is work to do, and often that work can feel daunting. I mean what can I, you, do to change government policy, to end this inhumane policy? What difference can one person make? These are questions we have all asked ourselves when facing overwhelming odds. And the answer is, I, you, as single individuals, cannot end this policy. We will quickly give up if we believe our action will end in a stunning change. But we can do small things, and those things are what we are called to do as Christians. As in the parables, Jesus does not demand we succeed in growing all we sow, however, he does demand we try; that we keep sowing. God will take care of the growth, but we must keep sowing seeds. Without seeds there will never be a crop.

Perhaps, if we continue to act, to sow our own seeds, in ways more likely small than big, we too can see the Kingdom of God flourish and reap a mighty crop. A crop, the fruits of which will be justice, mercy, belonging, and a world not separated by borders, but united in the shared love and value for all of humanity.

For those that want to continue to sow seeds, below are a few resources.

American Voice (advocacy for immigrants) https://americasvoice.org/uncategorized/advocates-for-basic-legal-equality-able-call-to-action-donate/

Hola Today at: http://holatoday.org

The Florence Project at: http://firrp.org

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at: https://www.theyoungcenter.org

Kids in Need of Defense at: https://supportkind.org/

Urban Justice Center Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project at https://asylumadvocacy.org/

 

Articles written to respond to the claim that the US immigration policy is Biblical

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2018/06/16/nun-contradicts-jeff-sessions-on-the-bible-calls-immigration-policy-a-travesty/

https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/06/15/father-james-martin-blindly-following-law-not-biblical

https://johnpavlovitz.com/2018/06/18/while-children-are-in-cages/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/us/sessions-bible-verse-romans.html

Shine on Those Living in Darkness

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By Amy Schlag

This week in America stories of suicide came to us in bold headlines as we lost two cultural icons in Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Both lived outsized lives. Kate Spade, who was only 55, was a designer whose work seemed filled with a mischievous grin befitting her company’s mantra, “quick and curious and playful and strong.” Anthony Bourdain was brash and self-deprecating, often serving as a tour guide through spaces most of us would never visit. In doing so he showed us how food connected all of us and our souls across cultures. He was only 61. These two losses, writ large across our screens, left many dismayed.

Yet, in all of the deserved headline space dedicated to them both, there was a missing headline. The headline we did not see is that according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we lost approximately another 860 people in the same week to suicide. 123 a day. 3,690 a month. 44,965 a year in America alone.

 In her poem “Elm,” Sylvia Plath, another we famously lost too to suicide, cries out, “I am terrified by this dark thing/that sleeps in me/All day I feel its…malignity.” And indeed, too many fear the darkness that lives in us, spreading like tumor, encompassing even the smallest glimpses of light. From the rich and famous, whose seemingly amazing lives greet us on the covers of magazines as we wait in line at Kroger, to our neighbors and friends standing in line next to us in that same Kroger. Thoreau tells us that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Jesus knew of this darkness in humankind, and promised, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

And if we look at information recently released from the CDC, we see that these quotes are not just rhetorical flourishes, or statements about the past, they are prescient. According to a report recently released from the CDC, suicide in America is a public health crisis, with suicides increasing in every state over the past two decades, with half of our states seeing an increase in suicide rates of more than 30%.

Additionally, a recent report from Cigna, a health services company, reported that 46% of Americans experience chronic loneliness, with only about half of people reporting having meaningful social interactions, things as simple as an extended conversation, on a regular basis. And it is not just America. In January, Britain appointed its first minister for loneliness after finding similar statistics in their country.

We are lonely and afraid, desperate and poor in spirit. We try to push away the darkness, but often fail, with too many of us unable to fight off the unbearable weight of the darkness

In the face of this we are left with the question of what do we do? As Christians, what is our call? When Paul arrives in Corinth, he declares, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4). In Matthew, Jesus also tells us that in the midst of the darkness, we to be “the light of the world” (5:14)

Right now, the need for those of us who can be the light is utterly vital, as is the need to provide comfort to those in trouble. It is not just a random act of kindness. It isn’t just neighborly or nice. It is necessary. It is life-saving and life-giving. It is our responsibility.

For the responsibility is not being picked up by agencies charged with helping us. Our country’s latest budget would dramatically slash the major source of public funds for mental health treatment, the Medicaid program, and cut another $400 million for mental health and substance abuse programs, including a $116 million cut to the Mental Health Block Grant program. Recently, a 19 year old woman spent 10 days in in the common area of an emergency room, looking for mental health assistance because Maine had no available beds for anyone seeking mental health care.

According to the recent CDC report on suicide in America, it isn’t just people with previously known mental health issues committing suicide. 54% of the people who killed themselves did so without warning, with CDC behavioral scientist Deborah Stone saying, “instead, these folks were suffering from other issues, such as relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems, job or financial problems.” The U.S. currently has no federally funded suicide prevention program for adults.

In response, many well-meaning people have shared suicide prevention numbers and resources, encouraging those struggling to get help. These attempts at sharing come from a place of compassion and good intentions, and it is good to keep trying. However, as a person who has struggled with suicidality, it does not usually help. In those moments, there is no part of most people contemplating suicide that feels capable of reaching out, and we certainly do not believe that there is anybody on the other end of a crisis line that is capable of ending this pain.

 In our Sunday reading Paul offered the Christians of Corinth encouragement, by reminding them, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). But today, too many of us, Christians included, feel the constraint, the despair, the destruction, more than anything else. So for those of us, blessed enough (for it is not just about strength and will) to feel and trust Paul’s reassurance, for those of us able to, “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal,” we must do all we can do each day to be mortal testimony to the love and compassion of Jesus. And we must do it with more than words, but with our presence, with our actions, with our reaching out. We do it in meals, and visits. We do it with unconditional words of love and the holding of hands. We do it with patience and listening. We do it in conversation and service. We do it by being fierce advocates for those who cannot do it themselves, demanding more be done for those that suffer from mental illness, addiction, poverty, homelessness and loneliness. We do it by minute and by ministry. We do it by not walking by the desperate and thinking thankfully, by the grace of God that is not me, and instead realizing that thankfully, the grace of God is with me in what I do for those in need.

 And we remember the 123 who died today, for whom the temporal was more than they could take, and whose loss humanity felt, even it did not come with a headline. May the eternal bring peace to their suffering.

Learning to Trust

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By Amy Schlag

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, ‘‘this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14: 23-25).

Almost each day, when I look at my mail or email, I receive numerous offers, promising  great things, products that will change my life forever, and make my life fantastic, usually offered at little or no cost to me. You probably receive many of the same things. And if you are like me, they go straight to recycling or they are deleted from email. We have been taught to know better.  Every now and then, one might catch my attention, but the first thing I do, like many of you, is go to the fine print. I know something is hiding in there, something that will render this good news a very bad deal, and disappointed I dash it into the recycling. Although, when I put it in the recycling, I am careful to tear it into small pieces, for we live in a time when throwing away our trash can be dangerous. One of these errant pieces of mail could go from bad deal to identity theft. We can’t even trust that garbage is garbage or that our identity is ours.

If you are like me, you probably just wish they would stop being delivered, in all their myriad formats.

There are several truisms we all know by now, and certainly one of those is if it is too good to be true then it is not true. And one of the reasons it is not true is that these offers, are offered from with power, to one with lesser power, and those with the power want to leverage it to greater power. In those too good to be true situations, the bank has the money that will save our house, the loan companies can pay for us to go to school, and the pharmaceutical company has the key to magical weigh loss or clear skin. We need, they have, and they are of course going to take advantage of that need. So we are deeply skeptical.

And, if we are honest with ourselves, despite our skepticism, we have all probably fallen for one of these too good to be true situations. Loans, credit cards, free vacations, weight loss, friendship, love.  Of course we have.  We are human. We need. We are forever searching to fill a need deep within ourselves. Something that will make everything feel whole and give us peace.

We are disappointed when the weight loss never happens, and the promise being of thin and desirable eludes us.  We are frustrated when the free vacation to paradise felt a lot more like purgatory. And when the loan we took out to help save our house, just ends up being another debt we cannot repay, we are left feeling hopeless.  We are disappointed in ourselves for falling for it, and promise to read the fine print more carefully next time. Our trust has been compromised.

And the hurts are often much worse when we lose love, family, or friendship. So much of what was promised to be unconditional and often forever, turned out to have had conditions and forever was much shorter than we imagined. We are left hurt, and disillusioned, promising, never again will we let that happen.

Which is why for me, when, according to Mark, Jesus says to his disciples on Passover, ‘‘This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many” (Mark 14: 24), or as Matthew records, “Jesus said, ‘for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins’”(Matthew 26:28) I want so desperately to believe, so deeply to trust, but often find it almost impossible to do so. It is way too good to be true. And our experiences have taught us better. Where is the fine print?

God and Jesus are powerful, so why would Jesus die, for those who are less powerful? Why would God be willing to endlessly forgive me, when God’s power grants God the ability to do whatever God wills? Why would God continue to love me, when those who said they would love me forever, and had more to gain, failed to deliver on their promises? Why would someone as unflawed as Jesus be willing to shed his blood for someone as flawed and messy as me? Like those other contracts, this covenant is way too easy. And frustratingly, a search through the fine print does not turn up anything of which to be wary. So just let go, and let God, right? Just trust. Just believe. That is all we are being asked to do.

I try, almost relentlessly. Right now, while I am feeling hurt and scared, I want to do nothing more than place my trust and belief in the words of Jesus and the hands of God. I try, but I fail. I want to fully trust, but I cannot get there yet. It all just seems incomprehensible and out of reach.

I remind myself God it is incomprehensible only because the fullness of God is not completely comprehensible to us. If we are lucky, we might get a glimpse. The experiences that have caused us to lose trust are experiences that came at the hand of humankind. Deeply flawed, cracked and broken humans, they are not of God. And so I persevere. I do not give up trying, I do not give up searching, and needing and wanting God in my life. That is an important step for me. Those other searches were foolhardy, and left nothing but disappointment

No matter how demanding the struggle, I try with all I have to truly believe that God will not disappoint. In the days when I can’t fully summon my trust, I hope God knows how much I want to believe, and hope that for now that will be enough.

Those earlier pieces of mail and the emails that are delivered daily, those that I wish would go away, well they keep coming, and I keep throwing them away.

However, more persistently, in a deeply patient and loving way, God keeps sending out messages, reminders, and hints of God’s love and peace.  Unlike the other offers, I do not want those to go away. I need them to keep being delivered, until I can fully trust. God keeps trying and so do I.

Gifts and Hope

Gifts and Hope

Perhaps, as part of the gift of this loss, I am being given the great opportunity to fully embrace my faith and work towards letting go of the bitterness, fury, anger, and I was holding. I have held onto those things for a long time in my life, and certainly after the experiences at my last job, maybe I even brought them into this job. Perhaps this is an invitation to finally rid my life of those things, and finally have the time to fully consider what gifts I have, what I am being called to do to do my part in building up the body of Christ.

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Use Your Voice.

Recently Pope Francis spoke to the youth of the world. He encouraged them to shout and not remain silent in the face of injustice. 

"There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make them keep quiet, ask nothing, question nothing. There are many ways to sedate them, to keep them from getting involved, to make their dreams flat and dreary, petty and plaintive," the Pope continued. "Dear young people, you have it in you to shout." 

On March 24th, the youth did indeed shout. And much like the faithful shouts that brought down the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6:20) the youth marching to end gun violence shook the walls of power in this country.