Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Crisis at the Border Is Also Close to Home

"The New Colossus"
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

                             Emma Lazarus, 1883

Emma Lazarus’ poem is not in the Bible, but it is sacred scripture just the same. For Americans, it is one of our most sacred texts. It stands engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty, greeting those who enter New York harbor with a clear declaration of what America is all about. Children memorize it in grade school and adults treasure those words throughout their lives.

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, one hundred and sixty-five years ago this week. She was the fourth of seven children born to Moses Lazarus and Esther Nathan, Sephardic Jews whose families had come to New York from Portugal in colonial times. She was a supporter of Henry George, one of the great reformers of the Social Gospel era and she was deeply committed to the poor and the outcast. She was widely recognized for her poetry, but she died on November 19, 1887, long before her poem was dedicated as part of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.

Last Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick invoked the spirit of Emma Lazarus in his emotional announcement of a plan to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 of the children who have come to the United States in the past several months. The Governor made reference to our historic commitment to giving “sanctuary to desperate children for centuries.” He went on to say that he is haunted by our refusal in 1939 to accept a ship filled with Jewish children desperately trying to escape the Nazis. We turned them away and many perished in the Holocaust. Fighting back tears, Patrick made reference to a passage in Deuteronomy, “My faith teaches,” he said, “that if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him but rather love him as yourself.”

In Governor Patrick’s plan, the children would be housed either at Westover Air Base in Chicopee or at Joint Base on Cape Cod. After considering the options, Joint Base, formerly known as Camp Edwards has been selected as the preferred location.

Last night, on Emma Lazarus’ birthday, the Selectmen in the Town of Bourne, my hometown, met to respond to the Governor’s proposal to temporarily house the children on the base, which is largely in the Bourne. George Brennan, reporting for CapeCodonline, writes: “The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick opposing the use of Joint Base Cape Cod to house unaccompanied immigrant children, citing the potential financial effects and strain on emergency services.” According to Brennan, those who packed the hearing room were overwhelmingly against housing the children.

Sadly, the Selectmen in Bourne are just a microcosm of America. We see it on the news reports every night. Grown men and women carrying American flags, some with their faces painted in red, white and blue, shouting at scared children, “Go home!” “Not my problem!” “No way, Jose!”

It is ironic that on the birthday of Emma Lazarus, we have decided that we do not want to be the country she believed we were.

When I was a child, growing up in the Bourne school system, no one told me about how badly we had treated immigrants. I grew up with the vision of a lamp beside the golden door and I was proud of that vision. Later, when I learned a very different and more painful history, I was reassured by the belief that even if we had failed in the past to live up to our vision, that vision would call us forward. If we had not always been the country we should have been, we would do better in the future. And I believed that there was a broad consensus among us that, as Martin Luther King said, we would live up to our promise.

Even now, when I am well aware of the human capacity for evil, I am shocked by our response to the children at our borders. In the long term, as citizens of the world, we know (or we should know) that borders are just lines on a map. This is a global issue and it will require a global solution. But in the short term, we need to “welcome the stranger.”

If we were erecting the Statue of Liberty today, would we affix a plaque calling her the “Mother of Exiles”?

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

In a parable about the final judgment, Jesus said that the righteous will ask, "Lord, when did w see you a stranger and welcome you?" And the Lord will answer, "When you welcomed the least of these my sisters and brothers, you welcomed me."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Three Men I Admire Most

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
Matthew 19:13-15

We have a baptism this Sunday.

I did not always look forward to baptisms, but I do now. In fact, I love them. Baptizing infants and children is one of the things I love most about the ministry.

The baptism of youth and adults is important, and there are times when knowing how someone has chosen to be baptized can be incredibly moving. But babies and children are special.

I’m not sure when my attitude toward baptism changed. Maybe I was influenced by being a parent. Maybe it was knowing firsthand the hopes and dreams that parents carried for their children as they brought them to this moment. Maybe it was just about getting older and being more aware of the preciousness of each life. Maybe it was understanding baptism as a profoundly counter-cultural act. Claiming this child for the Kingdom of God as over and against the kingdoms of this world.

At the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich, we celebrate a lot of baptisms. And one of the things that makes them so special is that almost every one is with a family that really belongs to the church family. These are not folks off the street who wanting to have their child “done.” They take discipleship seriously. It means something.

In spite of my very positive feelings about baptism, I was underwhelmed by an article in the Huffington Post about a new ecumenical agreement between Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants on the mutual recognition of each other’s baptisms. In the opening paragraph, Jaweed Kaleen writes,

“In a monumental occasion for ecumenical relations, the U.S. Roman Catholic church and a group of Protestant denominations plan to sign a document on Tuesday evening to formally agree to recognize each other's baptisms.” Later, Kaleen explains that, “Currently, the Protestant churches recognize Roman Catholic baptisms, but the Catholic church does not always recognize theirs. The mutual agreement on baptisms, a key sacrament in the churches, has been discussed between denominational leadership for seven years and hinges in part on invoking trinity of the ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ during the baptism.”

Although Kaleem initially says that the agreement “hinges in part” on the traditional Trinitarian formula, he later reports a spokesperson saying that “for our baptisms to be mutually recognized, water and the scriptural Trinitarian formula 'Father, Son, and Holy Spirit' (Matthew 28: 19-20) must be used in the baptismal rite." So, in the end, it comes down to saying the rite (and right) words as we invoke the Trinity.

I know that words matter. That’s why I long ago began using the alternative formulation of “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.” Initially, I adopted that language because I wanted to be inclusive and I knew that the “Father” language for God evoked male images which were troubling for many women, confusing in their theological implications, and subverted our egalitarian ideals as Christians. That language is not as important now as it was in terms of gender inclusiveness, but it may be even more important in terms of our theological understanding. The “Father” image lends itself too easily to the personification of God as that great old man in the sky. And the Trinity is already problematic enough, without making the relationship among the “three persons” sound at least partially biological.

Words matter because the wrong words can hurt and exclude people. And words matter because they have meaning, and meaning matters. But words are not magical. A liturgy is not an incantation.