A Persistent Faith

power-persistence-careerWhen I first read this Gospel text from Luke it felt really false.  After Jesus tells a parable about a widow who gets justice by continually asking, continually pestering an unjust judge, we get this summary statement about God from Jesus: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”

Really?  I can go along with God granting justice.  But “quick” justice?  C’mon.

Seriously, where’s the quick justice for the people of Syria?  Certainly we’ve all been bothering God with our prayers for justice on behalf of the innocent men, women, and children being killed there.

And where’s the quick justice for the poor in our country, for the “have-nots,” for those left out in the cold, or forced on furlough while our government was in shut down mode?

Where’s the quick justice for our environment, God’s beautiful creation, that has to put up with us, with our unsustainable ways of living, with our appetite to consume and destroy?

Where’s the quick justice for those who are pushed down, shoved aside, and oppressed by racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, prejudice and hate?

“When the Son of Man comes,” Jesus concludes, “will he find faith on earth?”

Well, Jesus, if you’re looking for faith in quick justice, you’re not going to find it in me.  I mean, let’s be honest.

I was discussing this text with my resident theologian, my husband. (Sometimes it’s so nice to be married to a man with a PhD in theology.) We were in the car on the way home from a fun morning in the Quad Cities with the kids.  Ella and Isaac had their headphones on, engrossed in a movie in the backseat.  So I took advantage of the rare quiet to rant about this scripture passage to Dan.

He agreed with my point about quick justice, but he didn’t really feel that this was the point of the passage; he thought the message was more about persistence, the persistence of a desperate widow in the face of her unjust situation, and about how that persistence was faith.

Suddenly, Dan had reoriented my thinking on the text.  And as I have been living with it, its truth has become clearer to me.

It became especially clear as I thought about a visitor we had on campus about a week ago, Rick Ufford-Chase.  Rick is a peace activist and a leader in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  Most of his activism has been focused on helping immigrants along the U.S. / Mexico border.  But he’s also been in the thick of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and has led many Presbyterians to Colombia to accompany the people there as they seek justice from their government. I have admired Rick and his work for a long time.  So it was a thrill for me to spend a lot of time with him and get to know him as I shuttled him from meeting to meeting, and event to event.   Rick spoke a lot while he was on campus.  Every talk he gave or sermon he preached was incredibly thought-provoking.  But it wasn’t so much what Rick said that made the greatest impact on me…as who Rick was.

Every moment I spent with Rick was intense.  Every conversation I had with him was about something that mattered. He clearly knew his purpose in life, and that purpose was to live every moment of every day seeking justice for God’s children.  This purpose influenced what he ate, how he dressed, whether he chose to drive or walk to his next meeting. Rick embodied persistence.  He was one of the most faithful people I have ever met.

He was also one of the most exhausting.  When he left I collapsed!  I was so tired from all that intensity of thought and persistence of faith. So I know how the unjust judge felt in Jesus’ parable when the widow kept bothering him with her persistent requests.  He finally grants her request so that (as it says in verse 5) “she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  That is the power of persistence.

While here, Rick gave a fascinating lecture about his work on behalf of immigrants on the Mexican border.  He talked about how citizens can foster social change and chip away at unjust systems through acts of civil initiative.  One example he gave was how his activist group on the border placed blue plastic wells of water in the desert, or in the corridors of death, through which Mexican immigrants are trying to come into our country. By doing this Rick’s group had saved lives, people who would have otherwise died of dehydration in the desert.  But (we wondered with Rick in a Q and A time after his lecture) the problems associated with immigration are so big and so complex.  Putting wells of water in the desert certainly saves some lives, but this is a huge structural, systemic problem, how can we possibly solve this or other issues like it?  Rick remained persistent, though, even as we asked these questions.  He remained persistent in his message that these small, strategic efforts matter and are worth doing.

Then my husband, Dan, asked Rick a good question.  He asked, “Rick, how do you get out of bed in the morning?” In light of all the injustice and all the problems in the world that Rick seemed intent on tackling, how does he get out of bed?  How does he keep going?

Rick’s answer was fascinating.  He paused, lowered his head thoughtfully and said, “Sometimes I get in trouble for saying this, but for me it’s not about hope.  Hope is for the privileged.  I’ve been with too many hopeless people, to many despairing people, to rely on hope to get me out of bed in the morning.” Then Rick looked at us and said,  “Instead, it’s about my faith.  I am called to get out of bed in the morning because my faith tells me I must.  I have no other choice.  It’s who I am.”

So the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow has become clearer to me.  I am reminded of the unjust societal system of the 1st Century that forced widows into the most poor, most vulnerable, most desperate of situations.  The widow in Jesus’ parable actually had no other option than to persistently pester the judge for justice, to wear the judge out with her requests.  She had no other option.

We do, though.  We have options.  We who are not hopeless….

So when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Dear God, I pray that you will find faith, a persistent faith, in me and in all your people, when you come again because then, and perhaps only then, will we know justice here on earth.  Amen.


Foolishness of Faith

feast-of-fools-bw“We are fools for the sake of Christ” 
1 Corinthians 4:10

I oftentimes find myself struggling with the foolishness of the Gospel.  I want to be faithful, but I also want to be responsible and reasonable.

In the Spring of 2006 I got completely engrossed in the news about a hostage crisis in Iraq.  Four Westerners had been taken hostage by terrorists, one an American Quaker named Tom Fox.  These four were in Iraq as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team, an organization that believes that violence can be reduced through non-violent direct action.  Three of the four hostages ended up getting freed.  Tom Fox, the Quaker, was killed.  I remember discussing this news with a member of the congregation I was serving. He was retired military and thought these Christian Peacemakers were fools.  Only a fool would go unarmed into a situation of violence, he said.  Which made me wonder what he thought about Jesus.

My struggle over this hostage situation was complicated further by my love for my husband, who is wholeheartedly committed to his pacifism and who has felt called at times to join a Christian Peacemaker Team.  On the one hand I admire his faithfulness, and I am proud of his courage.  On the other hand I am scared that he will put himself in harms way.  My fear tempts me to pray for him to be reasonable and responsible, to consider his family rather than his call.

I remember an article in The Christian Century written by James Loney, one of Tom Fox’s Christian Peacemaker Team who was taken hostage in Iraq.  Loney brought Fox to life in this article, describing him as the spiritual “anchor” of the group.  He described Tom diving into prayer

“the way a warrior might charge into battle.  He turned his captivity into a sustained, unbroken meditation.  The chain that bound his wrist became a kind of rosary, or sebha (the beads Muslims use to count the names of God).  He would picture someone: a member of his family, a member of the Iraq team or the CPT office, one of the captors—whoever he felt needed a prayer.  Holding a link of the chain, he would breathe in and out, slowly, so that you could hear the air gushing in and out of his lungs, praying for the person he was holding in his mind. With the completion of each breath, he would pass a chain link through his thumb and index finger.”[1]

Loney went on to describe Fox leading them in bible study, refusing a blanket and pillow so others could have them, advising them on Iraq’s kidnapping industry and teaching them the Arabic they needed to communicate with their captors. When they took Fox away, blindfolded and handcuffed, his last words were to encourage his friends. “Be strong,” he said.

Loney’s article about Fox had a profound effect upon me.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this Quaker, this fool who walked unarmed into violence, and his staggering commitment to peace. What leads a man to this kind of life?  To be this kind of person?  To know this courage?  Was it faith?  Because if it is, I don’t know if I have it.

I would like to think that the life of faith isn’t particularly dangerous.  That those who have been killed for acting on their faith (Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Tom Fox) just weren’t being smart or safe.  But I can’t say that about these people, nor can I think it, because I admire them too much.   Their stories are the stories of Christ himself.  The convictions they held, the goals they worked toward, all proclaim the truth of the Gospel.  Their stories are the greatest testimonies to the difference one life can make.

I know I am reasonable and responsible.  Lord, help me be more foolish.

[1] James Loney, “Cell group: Held hostage in Iraq,” The Christian Century, July 24, 2007.

about Martha

Luke 10: 38-42

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

You are worried and distracted, worried and distracted, worried and distracted.  Jesus, I can’t get your words out of my head.  Dammit.  I’ve got guests to host and dinner to prepare. I’ve got young children to corral.  I’ve got friends who want to socialize.  I’ve got a husband who expects me to do everything well.  And I’ve got a Teacher who wants me to sit.  Of course I’m worried and distracted!  As you should know, Jesus, as you should know.  For you are the one who led me to all of this.  You are the one who encouraged me to this life of discipleship while also being wife and mother.  You are the one who called me to this worried and distracted life.  So how am I to understand in the midst of many things, I need only one thing?  How am I to take your approval of Mary, when I’m the one doing all the work?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

Your words don’t make sense to me, Jesus.  Why have you chosen Mary over me?  Why have you told me she is better when you know how hard I try?  You’re words hurt me.  I feel like I can never give you enough.  You’re always wanting more.  Yet I don’t have more to give.  I might just lose it, Jesus.  Right here and right now.  I might just come crashing down at your feet in a big sobbing mess.  What would you say to me then, Jesus?  If I were to fall, collapse, give way right at your feet?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”

I’m undone, Jesus.  I opened my home to you, my heart, my whole life.  I just want to know that I am okay.  I just want to know that I am on the right track.  I know I’m not perfect.  But I’m trying so damn hard.   Please, Jesus.  I beg of you.  I kneel before you.  I lay myself at your feet.

“Martha, Martha.”