Praying at the Corner of Michigan and Ohio

2897091862_eea07b3c15_oToday I prayed for the man sitting, cross-legged, his back against the street pole at the corner of Michigan and Ohio. He held a cardboard sign like all the other cardboard signs with “Help. Hungry. Homeless.” written in bold, black marker. My prayer began with the man but led me to those who had made me aware of the man as more than just another suffering human. Crouched around him in a semi-circle sat a curious group of youth whose adult did all the talking. “What did you do today?” “Where did you go?” I heard the questions but not the answers as more and more people gathered, waiting to cross the street.

With my eyes fixed on the signal that would tell me when to leave this scene behind, I prayed about the man’s shame, about his being exposed—even more—by this doting group of urban missionaries. And I prayed about the relief I felt he felt as he slipped a new pair of Thinsulate gloves over his stiff, cold fingers—a gift from the group who would soon disappear. And I prayed about the knowledge of poverty, the awareness, the street-weary experience the group craved because I knew that craving too. His story was all the homeless man had. But that was all they wanted. So I prayed for the man to hold on to his story and for the missionaries to move on and for the wind to not be so cold and for the universe to be more right and our problems to be less complex because I didn’t know what else to do.

 

[Feature Image: Kymberly Janisch]

 

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.