Amnesty for Adam: Pastoral Ministry in a Border Community

This is part three in a three-part series on border/immigration issues written for my summer internship work with Pasos De Fe.  For more information, please read the introduction.

Previously:  Who Is My Neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)
Previously: The Law and the Lions’ Den (Daniel 3 & 6)

Amnesty for Adam

Definitions of Amnesty:

from Merriam-Webster Online:

  1. The act of an authority by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.  

from Wiktionary.org:

  1. Forgetfulness; cessation of remembrance of wrong; oblivion.
  2. An act of the sovereign power granting oblivion, or a general pardon, for a past offense, as to subjects concerned in an insurrection.

There was once a man named Adam, who lived in a beautiful garden with Eve, his wife.  He really wanted to please God, and obey the one simple law that God had given.  But he broke that law, and God sent him away from the garden.  Adam broke a lot of laws after that, and God started working on  a new plan.

Once, when there was no work and no food, Adam immigrated to wealthier country called Egypt and worked in construction, doing odd jobs and such, unskilled labor.  A lot of Adam’s people came too, so many that the Egyptians got worried that their infrastructure couldn’t handle all of Adam’s people.  They passed some laws that made it harder to work.  Some Egyptians treated Adam pretty badly, too.  Eventually, God rescued Adam and took him to a new land, a good land, a land just for him.  God told Adam never to forget the time when he was an immigrant in Egypt, and to treat immigrants better in his land.  He gave Adam ten laws this time.  And even though Adam still wanted very much to please God, he broke every single one of those ten laws, too.  God kicked his new plan into high gear.

Adam did well in his new land, and became pretty wealthy.  In fact, he made his own laws now.  Lots of them.  He took the ten laws God gave him, and added more to them, and even though he couldn’t keep any of them, he figured that the more laws he had the closer to God he would be.  Adam took great pride in his laws.

It was right around that time when the immigrant showed up.

His name was Jesus (pronounced “Hey-soos”).  He was from really far away.  He had really dark-skin, maybe because of where he was from, or maybe because he didn’t bathe much.  He looked like he hadn’t had a haircut in a long time.  But Adam remembered (sort of) what God said about immigrants, and he gave Jesus a job doing some carpentry work around town.  Adam checked in on the immigrant from time to time.  He broke a lot of the laws Adam had made, but when Adam confronted him, Jesus always seemed to talk his way out of it.  He usually reminded Adam about God’s laws, the ones Adam was breaking.  Things got worse.  Jesus seemed to attract law-breakers too, wherever he went.  Adam was afraid things might get out of hand, so he quietly arranged to have Jesus…removed.  God would understand.  Adam was just protecting the land that God had blessed him with.  Adam really wanted to please God.  In order to have Jesus removed, Adam broke a few more of God’s laws.

With Jesus out of the picture, Adam was free again to make as many laws as he wanted, to enjoy his land again. But somehow he couldn’t.  He remembered what God said about immigrants.  He remembered the time when he had dragged an illegal in front of Jesus, and demanded that she be punished for breaking the law.  Jesus said ok, but only as long as the punishment came from someone who had never broken the law.  Adam had been tempted to punish her anyhow.  Adam remembered a story Jesus used to tell about an illegal who had been granted amnesty by the judge, but who on his way home saw another illegal and turned him in.  When the judge found out, he revoked his amnesty and had him deported.  Adam remembered his time in Egypt.  He wondered if God was at all like the judge.  Adam knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he would always be a law-breaker.

Some days later, Adam found an unopened letter at the bottom of a stack of papers that he had somehow missed, or forgotten about.  It was dated several months ago.  The return address was listed as “Heaven,” and the sender, “God.”   Adam tore open the letter and began to read:

Dear Adam,

I think I’ve figured out a way to get you back on track, to go all the way back to the way things used to be back in the garden days, maybe even better!  I’m sending my son to visit you and help you figure it all out.  Please listen carefully to what he says, and give him the welcome I know you would give me if I were there myself.  His name is Jesus.

See you soon,

God

Adam’s stomach twisted painfully inside of him as he slowly put two and two together.  His first instinct was to find a place to hide, but then he remembered how that didn’t work so well the last time he tried it.  Instead, he sank to the floor and began to cry. He thought about having himself…removed.  It should have been me, he thought.  It should have been me.

Adam was so caught up in his sorrow that he didn’t see the dark shadow creeping across the entrance to his house, across the floor and up the wall behind him.   For a moment, the room went cold and time itself seemed to hang in the air.  And then Adam looked up, and the shadow was gone, and standing in the doorway was Jesus.  Adam rubbed his eyes a few times, looked at Jesus and started to speak, but couldn’t seem to find his words.  This went on for some time.

And then Jesus began to speak:

The Lord works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

And then Jesus reached deep within the folds of his clothes, and pulled out a card, bending over to place it gently in Adam’s lap.  He smiled.   The card was neatly folded in half, green, with black print.  Inscribed across the front of the card were these words:

For all God’s Children:

AMNESTY

Go and do likewise.

*****


Some years later, a man by the name of Paul asked the obvious question:  If we grant everyone amnesty, won’t that just encourage more people to break the law?  He answered his own question in a letter to some people in Rome who probably were taking advantage of their amnesty.  And some people undoubtedly will take advantage of grace, mercy, forgiveness, amnesty.  But I, for one sure am glad that God didn’t stop short at that argument and decide to call the whole Jesus thing off.  And what a hypocrite would I be, sitting here in this wonderful, wealthy land in which I just happened to be born, which God has given to me, and which I, a law-breaker, did not earn…what kind of hypocrite would I be to deny that same God-given gift to a fellow law-breaker?

Pastoral ministry in a border community requires us to live and preach not only the law, but also the gospel of Christ to all of Adam’s children:  A radical grace and forgiveness — an amnesty — that is not limited to the spiritual realms, but permeates our laws, our policies, our institutions, and our daily interactions with our neighbors on both sides of the border.   And if we cannot grant amnesty to our brothers and sisters here on earth, we ought not to expect amnesty from our God when we stand before the heavenly throne on judgment day.

The Law and the Lions’ Den: Pastoral Ministry in a Border Community

This is part two in a three-part series on border/immigration issues written for my summer internship work with Pasos De Fe.  For more information, please read the introduction

Previously:  Who Is My Neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)

The Law and the Lions’ Den

Some of the most vehement and passionate arguments against immigrants are directed specifically at those who cross the border and reside in the United States illegally.  Those who make these arguments generally insist that they have “nothing against” those who come to the country legally, but that there should be “zero tolerance” for those who do not respect and obey the laws of the country to which they come.  Especially among Christians, the refrain “Obey the law!” is given as not just a legal, but a moral, imperative.  Christians are commanded in the Bible to obey the authorities of the land.

The book of Daniel (chapters 3 and 6) tells us of some young men who were living in a foreign land, and who refused to obey the law of the land.  Instead they obeyed a higher law — God’s law — that was at odds with the law of the land.  For this impunity, three of them were thrown into a fiery furnace, and one into a lions’ den.  God saved them from death, and ultimately the law of the land was changed.  The laws of human governments are fallible, and sometimes it is not only our right, but our duty to disobey laws that conflict with a higher law.  So what is the “higher law” in the case of illegal immigration?

Some immigrants illegally cross the border for nefarious or criminal reasons.  But the vast majority of immigrants who leave behind their homes and heritage to illegally cross the border do so out of desperation:  To protect their families and children from violence and death, or because there is no work, no money, and no food with which to feed their families.   Why not apply for legal residency?  According to the US Department of State website the current projected wait-time for a Mexican immigrant who applies to receive a visa today, August 13th 2010, is 18 years.  EIGHTEEN YEARS! By contrast, the wait-time for someone from India, The Dominican Republic, or China is approximately five years.

If violence, hunger, or extreme poverty threaten the livelihood of my family, and “legal” immigration is, for all practical intents and purposes, impossible…yes, I will break the law of the land.  I will give my allegiance to the higher law that tells me to care for my family.  And I will pray for the people of my new land that they might see the cruelty of a law that forces me to choose between “obeying the law” and feeding my children.  But I will not wait eighteen years for them to change it.  Like Daniel, I will walk into the Lion’s Den and trust that God is on my side.

Pastoral ministry in a border community requires us to see the Godly countenance of Daniel in the face of the illegal immigrant, and if we cannot be the King who changes the law, we must at least be like the lions, whose mouths remained closed in the presence of God’s servant.

Next:  Amnesty for Adam (Genesis, Exodus, Psalm 103, Matthew-John, & Romans)

Who Is My Neighbor: Pastoral Ministry in a Border Community

This is part one in a three-part series on border/immigration issues written for my summer internship work with Pasos De Fe.  For more information, please read the introduction.

Who Is My Neighbor?

There is little doubt in my mind that the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus gives in Luke 10:25-37 as an answer to the above question, applies very much to border communities, especially those along the U.S./Mexico border.  And it also seems self-evident that in order to love one’s neighbor, one must actually get to know one’s neighbor.

This is perhaps not too difficult for many of the Mexican-American individuals who live in border communities, who are often only a few generations removed from their immigrant forbears, or from family still across the border in Mexico (although according to Oscar Martinez, this demographic has its own challenges in forging and retaining a cultural identity that does not veer into one extreme or another).

However, for the majority of Anglo-Americans living in border communities, my experience growing up in El Paso is still typical:  Interaction with our neighbors in Mexico is limited to superficial relationships (often of the consumer-to-servant variety) or short jaunts across the border  to take advantage of cheap goods and services.

In the past few years, even this latter connection has been largely abandoned due to the increased violence of Mexican drug cartels.  In other worrds, like the religious men in Jesus’ parable, we are still walking quickly by while our neighbor gets beaten up by robbers, fearful for our own skin.  After all, it’s “their” problem, isn’t it?  We’ll be good Samaritans as soon as it’s safe.  Or worse, we build a fence to keep the robbers AND their victims locked together, both safely away from us.

The good Samaritan crosses the street to rescue a foreigner, then takes him into his home, gives him medical care, and then gives him money to get back on his feet.  Too often, we do the exact opposite:  We refuse to cross the border to help, we barricade the entrance to our homeland, and are resentful when foreigners try to obtain care in our hospitals or financial assistance from our social services.

Pastoral ministry in a border community requires us to take seriously the charge of Jesus to be good neighbors, even especially when there is risk involved.  We can start by crossing the street.  Or in this case, the Rio Grande.

Next – Part II:  The Law and the Lions’ Den (Daniel 3 & 6).

Pastoral Ministry in a Border Community: A Series

Although I grew up in El Paso and Mexico was (quite literally) a stone’s throw from my house, I never really connected much with Mexican culture or the issues (like immigration) that are an inherent part of living and working in a border community.  So for my internship this summer at 1st Presbyterian Church in El Paso, Texas, I have intentionally set aside one day a week to work for Pasos De Fe, the which is a part of the larger Presbyterian Border Ministry.

For the past two months, under the guidance of Rev. Amy Robinson, the U.S. Director for Pasos De Fe, I have participated in a ride-along with a US Border Patrol agent, met with an immigration attorney for an “Immigration Law 101” briefing, read some excellent books, crossed the border several times into Juarez, Mexico, participated in the opening of a community center, and visited many culturally relevant places (museums, markets, churches, etc.) on both sides of the border, interacting with people and worshiping communities along the way.

And I’m far from finished with any of these things yet.  But my illustrious supervisor has asked me to write some reflections in light of my experiences about pastoral ministry in a border community.  So, the next three posts, over the next three days, will explore three border/immigration related topics, each one in connection with a biblical narrative:

  1. Who is My Neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)
  2. The Law and the Lions’ Den (Daniel 3 & 6)
  3. Amnesty for Adam (Genesis, Exodus, Psalm 103, Matthew-John, & Romans)

Hope you enjoy them, and perhaps learn something in the process.  I did.

I’m a Promiscuous Church Member

At this summer’s PC(USA) General Assembly, I was frequently asked the question “What church do you belong to?” This question always gave me some pause, and I’m not sure I ever figured out the best way to answer, other than saying “Which one?” At the moment, I belong to four different church communities with varying degrees of “membership.”

The Four Churches I Love

  • Faithbridge Presbyterian Church.  On paper, my connection here is strongest, but in actuality and function, the connection here is the most tenuous.  Faithbridge is the church I was a member of when I entered the ordination process, and therefore the church I remain “under care” of until after seminary.  That said, we now live 1,500 miles away from this church, have no family and few connections there, and I haven’t heard from my “session liaison” in well over a year.  Faithbridge played a large part in my decision to enter ministry (for which I’m eternally grateful), but it’s hard for me to consider myself a “member” there, even though of all four churches, this is where my membership officially resides.
  • Middlesex Presbyterian Church. This is where my family attends every Sunday morning in New Jersey, and we are “affiliate members” here.   I consider the pastor here, Dr. Neal Presa, as “my” pastor, and the congregation is an extended family that looks out for and cares for me and my family, and we participate actively in the life of the church.  However, even though this church is a lot closer than Faithbridge, we still live 45 minutes away, making it hard to engage with the community throughout the week.  We spend long chunks of time away from this church in the summer and over the Christmas holidays–some of the most important times in the life of a church.  I also realize that this is a temporary family for us, as my time at seminary will come to an end, and we have no deep roots or family in New Jersey.
  • First Presbyterian Church of Second Life. This is the online community I helped organize a little over a year ago that meets in the virtual world of Second Life.  It is probably the most cutting-edge and innovative of all my church communities, and there is a great excitement among those who participate.  My wife and I can participate in this church wherever we travel, and even worship together when we are in separate cities.  There is a very real, very embodied community in this church, that has deepened my faith and my relationship with others.  However, because our denominational polity still lags behind the technology, this church cannot yet be recognized as an “official” church, and there is no way (yet) for my children to actively participate with us.  Many members of this community are also members at other, geographically-based churches.
  • First Presbyterian Church of El Paso.  This is the church where I’m currently serving as a summer pastoral intern.  On one hand, this church is entirely new to me and to my family (and has been very welcoming), but on the other hand, El Paso is my hometown, where my wife and I  grew up, met, and married. We have more family here than anywhere else, and will almost certainly return here after seminary.  I am not a member of First Presbyterian, bu t shortly after my arrival, I was given two things: An email address (neal@firstpres-ep.org) and a  very professionally made and nice-looking hard-plastic, magnetic name tag.  These things may sound trivial, and yet one (the name tag) is traditionally recognized in church culture as an unofficial sign of membership, and the other (the email address) is a clear and certain hallmark of membership in the digital culture of my generation.  For this and many other reasons (like the fact that the pastor is a former college English professor, and that the father of my high-school best friend is an elder here) I feel very much “at home” here.

Serial Monogamy vs. Polygamy

While monogamous relationships have long been the ideal in Western culture, many sociologists have noted the recent trend toward “serial monogamy” – in other words, people are likely to have multiple amorous relationships over the course of a lifetime, but in sequence, not all at once.  Church membership has seen a similar trend:  For most,  the era where a person might be baptized, married, and buried all in the same church community is long gone.  Still, in the 20th century, church members were generally committed to only one church at at time in a given location – serial monogamy.

So does that make me a polygamist when it comes to my own church membership?  Am I “cheating” on the church where my membership resides by seeking to fulfill spiritual needs elsewhere, or by contributing my time & talents elsewhere?  Perhaps this is where the metaphor breaks down, but I do feel a certain guilt in the fact that I “need” not just one alternate church community, but no less than four!

Each of these church communities, to some degree, offers something necessary and good for my faith journey.  I like to think that I have something to contribute to each of them as well.  And yet all also have shortcomings – yes, all churches have “shortcomings” but here I do not mean the sort that results from human failing or lack of effort – the shortcomings in this case are all hurdles of geography, technology, or institutional structure.  They are shortcomings for which no solution currently exists, other than “polygamous” or at least “promiscuous” notions of church membership.

Toward Post-Modern Membership

So, in case you hadn’t noticed yet, fixed boundaries are rather difficult for those of us who grew up in a post-modern world, and classic notions of membership seem to be built on expectations of exclusive fealty.  Contrast this with membership in the very post-modern world of the internet:  I have “officially joined” facebook, twitter, Second Life, Google, Wikipedia, FourSquare, Presbymergent, BrightKite, Amazon.com, Ebay, ReverbNation, Pandora, YouTube, Yelp, and hundreds of other “social networks.”  In fact, I was required to join each of them before I could “fully” participate in the life of their respective communities. This is a fixed boundary of sorts.  And yet it is fluid:  None of them seemed to object to my membership in of any of the others — in fact, the really smart (and successful) ones have found ways to actually help me integrate my participation accross platforms so that the unique strengths of each community can benefit the others.  This is the paradigm of “membership” that I think most people in my generation embrace, whether consciously or not.

So what would it look like if church membership took a page from the Web2.0 playbook?  I think the greatest fear that might be voiced is one against fragmentation and confusion.  Promiscuous membership might indeed play into our existing consumerist tendencies.  And yet, is “church collecting” really worse than “church hopping?”   Another fear might be that members would be “stretched thin” – too involved at too many places to be of any use to one.    This is certainly a valid fear.  But I think that here again, skillful integration might be the key.  Most aspects of our lives are balancing acts to begin with, and church communities that find ways to complement and contribute to one another are more likely to survive than those who prefer their members live in isolated fidelity to one community.  I participate in the Amazon.com community far less frequently than I do in the twitter community, but when I need an objective and detailed book review, 140 characters doesn’t quite cut it.  But once I find the review, chances are I’ll post a short-link to it on twitter for others to follow — and thus value is added to both communities.

Epilogue

I would love to say that from here I will now ride happily into the sunset with my four beautiful church communities in tow and live happily ever after – but I acknowledge we’re not quite there yet.  I suspect that my membership promiscuity still makes some people uncomfortable, in some communities more than others.  But I also see hopeful potential  in an expanding understanding of “membership” – for me, for my family, and especially for a denomination in dire need of new approaches and new forms of collaboration.  After all, the one thing my four church communities have in common is that they all share a common name, “Presbyterian.”

Uh oh.  Does that make it an incestuous promiscuous relationship too?

I guess I’d better stop before the metaphor gets “out of hand“…

Preaching Tomorrow: I Am No Prophet

Tomorrow will be the first of three sermons I’ll preach during my internship here at First Presbyterian Church of El Paso, Tx.

This one draws from the lectionary passage (Amos 7:7-17) as well as a few scattered reflections from General Assembly 219 and my personal angst over the ongoing “numbers crisis” in the PC(USA). While I’m certainly preaching to myself here, I hope others may find something of value in it, too.

And I’m still tinkering, so if you have any suggestions or comments, please feel free to weigh in – you’ve got until about 9am tomorrow.

Anyhow, here’s the Link to the full text over on my wiki:

Confession of Faith for the Church in Virtual Worlds

(Also posted at Sacred Space in Cyberspace)

PREFACE

In a time of deep cultural change, the church has both great opportunity and great responsibility.  It is propelled into the future by its mission, while connected to the past by traditions, teachings, and writings stretching back to the beginnings of our faith.  It is often tempting to forge ahead into our mission, mindless of the lessons and wisdom of our predecessors.  It is equally tempting to enshrine our traditions as idols, embracing only the familiar and failing to acknowledge the new paths where God would lead us in the fulfillment of our mission.

Technology changes things.  But technology is a part of God’s Creation, and a gift:  We can use it for good, twist it to evil, or ignore it.  The last option, while always popular, has rarely been successful.  Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world, paving the way for the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Because it made possible the Reformation, it also brought drastic changes to the church, changing almost every visible aspect of Christian worship and theology in just a few generations.   In our generation, the internet and digital communication have already brought about drastic changes, and will continue to transform the church in sweeping and dramatic ways in a short span of time.

In the past few decades, church participation in our culture has been in steep decline.  And yet, as millions of people leave behind behind their communities of faith, millions more are finding community online, in places that a few years ago wouldn’t have even qualified as places.  Worshiping communities of Christians are also beginning to appear online, especially taking root in 3-dimensional synthetic interfaces known as Virtual Realities, or Virtual Worlds.  The writers of this confession are among them.

We are not “virtual” churches.  We are not “virtual” people. We are very real people forming very real relationships and communities that happen to gather in virtual locations.  Like the churches of the early Reformation, we have been met with interest and acclaim, with bitter criticism and rejection, as well as casual disregard. But we aren’t disappearing, and right now we are faced with some critical questions:  Can we forge into the future without losing sight of our past? Can we successfully articulate our faith to churches that have little understanding of virtual worlds, who see our endeavors as nothing more than game-playing?  Conversely, can we successfully articulate our faith to the millions of people already engaged in virtual worlds, but who have little understanding of the church, who see it as irrelevant to contemporary life?

Like many confessions, this one springs from a time of great upheaval, and a strong desire to preserve the integrity of the gospel and the unity of the church in the face of new situations and challenges.

 

I. GOD

We trust in one God, who alone is the creator and sustainer of all worlds and all realities, whether labeled virtual, physical, spiritual or otherwise.  God reigns over all. God loves all. Continue reading