Friday, October 25, 2013

what God continues to write

 My fifth grade year was a living hell that I don't like to remember much, but during that very difficult time - I had one place of refuge.  

Betty Lou Gervais was the fifth grade Sunday School teacher at Kane First UMC.  I don't know what experience or credentials she had, or if she had ever taught anything before in her life, but I thank the goodness of Heaven that she volunteered to teach our class.  We did lots of crafts - and not just junk to throw away, but high quality stuff that my mother still proudly displays around the house - and we listened to the Bible stories that Betty Lou told us.  She spoke the book of Genesis, telling the stories in the fashion of a soap opera.  For weeks we sat on the edge of our seats waiting to find out if Sara would survive her captivity in Egypt, we felt the great betrayal, we showed up week after week to find out if she was really pregnant and if she could really have a baby at her advanced age.

A few years later, in an English class, our teacher asked if anyone knew one of those stories from Genesis - all seven of us in that classroom who had been taught by Betty Lou raised our hands in unison to tell the story.  The whole class got an ear full as we compared notes on the finer points of the story.  The proof is in the pudding.

There are really only two ways to look at the Bible.  There are those who see a book written thousands of years ago - a book that can be studied, dissected, and ultimately proven and understood.  And then there are those who learned from Betty Lou and the millions of Betty Lou Bible teachers around the world - there are those who see the Bible as a book that God continues to write on our hearts - a book that is meant for us and for our lives, to give meaning and purpose to an otherwise senseless world.

One of the girls from that Sunday School class got engaged to her partner this year, and as Pennsylvania inches toward becoming another state to get on the right side of history - I think that she'll get married fairly soon.  I don't know Betty Lou's political position on such things, but I know her great love.  I know the way she loved the Lord and I know the way she loved all of her students.  I'm glad that we had a teacher who taught us about God's great love, a love that passes all understanding.  It's helped shape and form all of us into the people we are today.

There's a big brouhaha about a retired United Methodist Bishop who will be officiating at a same sex union this weekend.  It is a bold and prophetic step in a grand march that began decades ago and will likely continue for decades to come.  The Bishops who have sided with institutional security and the law over grace will soon seem like relics of a distant time.  In the same way that I can't imagine what kind of Bishop sided with segregation, I'm sure that many will wonder what our Bishops were thinking.

Of course our problem is that we elect politicians to high office and not prophets.  We need more people known for their holiness and preaching and spirit to lead the church instead of people known for their policies and procedures.  We need more leaders who are willing to follow God's still small voice and to ignore the megaphones of our pundits and politicos.  We need Bishops who lead.

Well, I'm sure that there are many who will see this wedding and bring out their holy measuring tape and hold it up against their holy textbook divided into columns and they will pronounce it disgusting and unruly.  But my heartfelt prayer is that some will hold open their hearts, that God may continue writing the greatest love story ever told.  Someday we will be a church where all are accepted, supported, and loved.  Until that day, we must do all that we can to live into God's vision of a reconciled world.  We must preach that Gospel for all, we must minister to all and especially the least likely, and we must teach the Bible as a living and gracious book - because that is exactly what it is and that is exactly what we are called to do.    

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ancient Gypsy Stereotypes Alive and Well Today

Perhaps you've read an article about the mysterious case of the "white angel" of Greece.  It seems that all European media outlets are obsessed with the fair skinned princess kidnapped by gypsies.  I have heard that media attention is equally fixated on the story back in the states.

The couple who were holding her, who DNA tests have confirmed are not her biological parents, really might be terrible monsters.  While their version of the story is within the realm of possibility, the truth might be far more sinister.  They might be the sort of people who are just evil.  Perhaps they felt no remorse in kidnapping this child.

But let me clear one thing up.  The fact that these people might be monsters and the fact that these people are gypsies are not related.  Their Roma-ness ( which might best translate to "humanity" in the Roma language) has no bearing and no relation to this story.  Lots of people are monstrous human beings.  Many people kidnap children.  It just so happens that these two (possible) monsters are Roma people.

We cannot allow ancient stereotypes to continue to repress an entire people group.

When I was in the gypsy camp back in the spring, Pastor Volodymyr was showing me pictures of different teams that have come.  I pointed to two white children and asked which team they were from.  I was genuinely surprised that American or European parents had brought their children to the village and risked exposure to untreated diseases.  Pastor Volodymyr looked down at the picture and then back up at me.

"Those are our children.  They're Roma children.  I was there when they were born.  They're really ours."

I had struck a nerve I wasn't aware of.  I hadn't read of fair skinned Roma children and had never heard whispers of gypsies stealing children.  I apologized, but went back later and apologized again once I had read and understood the terrible social stigma that follows Roma communities with fair skinned children.

In Ireland a child who didn't look like a gypsy was taken away from her parents and only returned after DNA tests confirmed that she was their daughter.

Stereotypes harm people.  This is a stereotype that we must end.  We must look beyond ethnicity and see that all people are different.  Ted Bundy was a white man, and yet no one is accusing me of being a serial killer because of my whiteness.  The fact that so many willingly accept a connection between this couple's monstrous deed and their gypsy identity just shows how much more we must fight for acceptance and love of all people.

For further reading, you might look at this excellent piece written by Slate's Joshua Keating.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The table seems so long as we pass sushi from one end to the other.  The birthday boy sits yelling distance away, but there isn't any need to yell.  The live musicians play music fitting for a classy party, and I am struck by how wonderful the people present are.  I love their adult lives: their jobs, their relationships, their children, and their travels.

They are all Pilgrims - their lives forever shaped by Fred and Stacy Vanderwerf and David and Shannon Goran and all the other mission interns and teams that have walked this road over the years.  They live out the Gospel that they heard over and over again.  They live in Christian community together.  It's a beautiful thing, and near the end of the table - I am just overwhelmed by the beauty of how God has worked and continues to work in their lives.  

At our student center, we are beginning the process of forming a group of new students.  If all of the school students and first and second year students came on the same night we would have 15 or more new students, but they are hit or miss and generally uncommitted.  It's the way that things begin and we are just thankful for  the opportunity to be there on the journey with them.  We have the love and support of our long term Pilgrims - of those who graduated years and years ago and still show up every week to lead worship and disciple new students and of those who pray for us and show up on the off chance that their work schedule allows them a free Thursday - and we certainly couldn't embark on the journey of reaching out to a new generation without that support.

The sushi restaurant where we gather for the Birthday party perfectly captures the city we work in.  In a quite alleyway that used to be filled with a few unique restaurants, over two dozen options present themselves for where to eat.  The sushi shop looks perfectly plucked out of Japan and placed in our European fort-city.  This city is changing fast, and we must have the courage to move with it or we will be lost in it.  English language outreach doesn't have the pull that it did even three years ago.  Dozens of new schools pop up each year, and cult religions bring in increasingly large numbers of American young people to bring in young people through English.

It is exciting to see our core leadership, an open and enthusiastic group of young servants, make the decisions that make this ministry what it is.  On Wednesday nights we gather and pray, plan, and clean.  Our prayer time is eager and honest and our cleaning heartfelt and sincere - it's wonderful to see their servant hearts in action.

Please keep this little ministry in your prayers.  We have faced unparalleled challenges in the last year and a half and it seems that new tasks present themselves every day.  Doing this remodeling job in a legal way has been more work and taken more time than anyone could have ever dreamed - offer up an extra prayer of thanksgiving for Pastor Volodya and his tremendous work of guiding our community on the narrow and treacherous path of legal reconstruction.  Please continue to pray for our new young students - pray that they will continue to find community and joy in this group and that they will be called back over and over again to join with us in worship and fellowship.

And please keep me in your prayers.  This has been one of the hardest times in my life.  I never asked for this job, but God continues to give confirmation that I am right where I should be.  I am thankful that God is faithful even when I am not, and that our wonderful local leadership picks up the slack in all the areas that I am just not capable of doing.  It is wonderful to see the Gospel being lived out by such a dedicated group of people.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Marysville First UMC OHIO

About a year ago, I got an email from a church in Ohio asking if I could Skype with their youth during Sunday school. It was a busy Sunday, but I roped one of our High School students into joining me for a chat with their students.  They asked Vitya questions and I translated both ways, and we all laughed a lot.  The students asked great questions.  It was a lot of fun, and they asked how they could help.  

They sent Christmas gifts for our leadership team - beautiful clothes and jewelry for the leadership girls and DVDs and other great gifts for new students.  They also included a gingerbread house kit in a box.  The box arrived a little bit after Christmas (it got stuck at the border, which is common!) so we decided to make the ginger bread house at a later date.  Someone (not me!) had the bright idea of checking the "best by" date and we found that it would soon expire - so we planned a Christmas in October English Club.  I mean, Christmas decorations are already out at stores in the states - so we're not that early.  

Erica Oliveira leading a small group discussion.

We were precisely 77 days away from Christmas when we compared and contrasted Christmas traditions, ate Christmas food, listened to a Christmas story, talked about the ideals of perfection, and built the magical ginger bread house. 

Almost finished.

English Club students gather around the finished ginger bread house.

It was a fun activity for all of the students, but the children of our adult students liked it best.  It was a good activity to bring together all the ages that our open and free English Club brings in.

Fiercely proud of their creation
And then we ate it.  Now, I've only made a ginger bread house once and that was straight out of the oven and I don't think we even finished building it.  This one was pretty tasty for a box kit sent last Christmas.

Hopefully edible

Thank you, Marysville First UMC in Ohio for making our October Christmas festivities a real hit!