A Big, Beautiful World: A Review of Creation Care, by Douglas and Jonathan Moo

I care deeply about the care of creation. And I care that the church cares about the care of creation. While I believe in general, it has taken us too long to join the conversation, there are some theologians who are calling us to account. This review of Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World,  by Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is reprinted here with their permission.  

In the midst of the cacophony of strident voices in contemporary American politics and culture, one of the loudest strains of shouting back and forth across the fence is with regard to environmental issues, and particularly climate change and human causation. In the midst of the debate, what does the church have to say, and what must the church do? The father and son co-authors, Douglas and Jonathan Moo seek to answer those questions in their new book, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World.

They begin from the premise that God has given us a big,  beautiful world to live in. As human creatures, we respond with wonder and praise. From that premise flows the notion that it is our responsibility to care for that creation. With regard to the calling to care for creation, the authors frame their discussion around these two specific questions:  1) What do we mean when we talk about the care of creation? and 2) Why is it important to talk about it?  The short answer is that Christians are called to care about creation because we worship the God who called creation into being. Then they go about grounding their apology for creation care in scripture. They seek “a strategy for biblical interpretation that is broad, integrate, and creative.” While acknowledging that both culture and science contribute to our understanding of and response to the call to care for creation, they spend little time on either and a great deal of time laying out scriptural support for creation care.

Our call to care for creation is rooted in the notion that we are always seeking to become who God created us to be. Our care for creation is an inescapable part of who God has created us to be. The human dominion over creation is subsumed under the reign of God, and that reign defines the priorities and purposes of creation care.

The authors spend a significant amount of time and ink relating creation care to Jesus’ new reign. They do so because this is really at the heart of their apology for the Christian call to creation care. “In Christ, we see the breaking in of God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom in which old enmities are abolished and peace is established between God and humanity, humanity and the earth, and human beings and each other.”  Here, the Moos unpack in some detail a number of New Testament passages which speak of new creation, suggesting that part of the new creation is that God will bring all things — the created order included — into an appropriate relationship with himself.

Consistent with their view of the goodness of creation and that God is in Christ reconciling all things to himself, they argue against a cataclysmic, disaster-induced ending the present order. Instead, the eschaton will bring a renewal and fulfillment of this creation; therefore, it is of critical importance that humans steward well this created order. “Creation is not just the stage on which the story of redemption takes place; creation is an actor in that story.”

After a long apology for the biblical mandate for care for creation, the final few chapters of the book move to how the church and individual Christians might contribute to that work. Of necessity is the Christian call to Christlike daily living, which includes appreciation and care for creation. Only in the penultimate chapter do the authors talk about the urgency of the human-induced crisis with regard to environmental degradation. In the face of this crisis, Christians must live faithful lives and form faithful communities that care about the earth. That faithfulness comes in being more aware of the natural work and to contemplate purposefully and engage actively with that world.

The authors write from within the Evangelical community, and the work is intended for that community. In both style and substance, the book is written for a community in which belief must be grounded in specific references to the Old and New Testament scriptures and in the detailed interpretation of those passage.  In seeking to engage that community — and it seems to me that a subtext of the work is to engage that community without causing offense or controversy — the authors don’t push hard and they don’t challenge. There is no attempt to sound an alarm, nor do they paint a dark picture of the consequences of failing to act. It’s a straightforward argument for Christians to take seriously the call to care for the created order. The book is part of The Biblical Theology for Life series published by Zondervan which is intended to bring “groundbreaking academic study of the Bible alongside contemporary contextualization and proclamation.” I would not characterize this work as anything groundbreaking in terms of academic study. (For groundbreaking academic study, I’d be more inclined to look to Larry Rasmussen’s Earth-Honoring Faith or Sallie McFague’s Blessed Are the Consumers.)

On the other hand, the authors have brought a scriptural proclamation to the matter of care for creation and have placed that care squarely into the context of the faithfulness of the church and her individual members. For an introduction to the Christian call to care for the environment, and for a carefully organized apology for the same, especially for those who might not be inclined to perceive the urgency and importance of the stewardship of creation, this might be just the book to read.

St. Matthias, Patron Saint of Ordinary People

Actually, I made it up that Matthias is patron saint of ordinary people. But he should be.

Today is the feast day for Matthias, Apostle. If you’ve never heard of him or taken note of him, there’s no shame.  You’re probably not alone. He was the one chosen to replace Judas after Jesus’ ascension. Coincidentally, yesterday in church, we read the few verses from Acts that tell the story of his election. If you want to call it that. There were only two candidates, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, aka Justus. The one qualification was that they had been a part of the larger band of those who followed Jesus from the beginning. Luke reports they both filled the bill. But there doesn’t seem to have been any search committee, any careful study of their curriculum vitae, no checking the references. There was no vote. They simply flipped a coin, or the first century equivalent. That’s it.

And then we never hear of either one of them again. We can speculate that both of them went on to serve in some capacity in the early church. Matthias now carried the authority of an apostle. But there is never any report in the canonical scriptures of where he went or what he did.

Not even the tradition agrees about Matthias. The Greeks say that Matthias did missionary work in Cappadocia and on the coasts of the Caspian Sea. Nicephorus records that he first preached the Gospel in Judea, then in what is modern day Georgia and was there stoned to death. Still another tradition has him in Ethiopia. I know enough about geography to know that both of those traditions are probably not true. Take your pick. What seems more clear is that Matthias was an ordinary guy who became an apostle, and went about doing his work faithfully. Ordinarily. Not even 15 minutes of fame. More like 5 verses of fame (Acts 1:21-26).

For a long time now, I’ve gotten to work with ordinary people in the church. Like the couple who shows up early every Sunday to make sure everything is set for the service, even if it’s not their job. More often than I’d care to admit, we have no ushers assigned, so they step in. Because someone needs to do the job. I hear frequently that she has offers to give someone else a ride to Green Bay to the doctor or shopping or whatever. That’s a 3 hour round trip. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

One of my colleagues got up yesterday and gave eloquent testimony, sharing the stories of the people who are struggling in our community. She challenged the rest of us to see them and to be the hands of Christ for them. She is kind and generous, passionate about serving others. She knows everyone in Door County, it seems. I think she is extraordinary. Yet, she is probably not known outside of northern Door County. I’d be surprised if anyone at the denominational headquarters has ever heard of her. There have been no articles written about her service. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

I’ve heard over and over at funerals the sentimental notion that our loved ones will be remembered forever. While I get it that we want our lives to count for something and for those we love not to have lived in vain, the truth is that very few of us will be remembered beyond a few decades after our deaths, if that long.

Yet, the work of the church, the work of the kingdom, could not be done without the countless ordinary followers of Jesus, thousands of whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. I think about you today as we celebrate Matthias. I give thanks for what I’ve learned from you and for the profound gift that our lives have been graciously intertwined.

You ordinary followers of Jesus, I honor you and celebrate you. Lift a glass to yourself. We could not be church without you.

Five Recommendations for Black History Month

As we continue to observe Black History month, here are 5 histories that have been the among the most compelling that I have read.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson, tells the history of the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the Industrial North in the decades following the Civil War. While full of well-documented history, she structures that history around the stories of three different individuals who migrated at different times to different places. Those family stories bring the history to life and make for a compelling chronicle of the northern migration, both the opportunities and the pitfalls.

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist. Baptist writes a history of chattel slavery in the US from the perspective of economics and argues that the emergence of the US as a world economic power was only possible because of the tortuous institution of slavery. The expanding production of cotton in the 19th century brought prosperity not only to the owners of the land and production, but to northerners who invested in that production, not to mention others who benefited indirectly from the rippling effects of cotton production. Even the Industrial Revolution of 19th century England, centered in the milling of cotton and the production of clothing, would not have been possible without the whip-induced productivity of black slaves. “For what was done in the fields — specifically what was done to force enslaved people to create new ways to accelerate the pace of their own labor — shaped what was possible in the factory, the bank, the marketplace, and the halls of state. Invisible new financial wires bound the bodies of enslaved people to the dreams and desires of whose whose measuring eyes stared down women and men on the auction block and to those of investors around the world. Slavery rendered the United States powerful, its white citizens richer and more equal.” (p. 421)

Family Properties by Beryl Satter. Here you’ll find the well-documented history of the contract housing crisis in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960’s. Satter, who teaches history at Rutgers, does not, however, tell the story in the cold, distant tones of an historian. Her father was an attorney who represented many of the African Americans in their fights to keep their home. The dysfunction of the City of Chicago, is exposed, along with the realtors and property owners whose motive was money over people. Satter chronicles the breakdown of whole sections of the city. One of the chapters that I found particularly compelling was the one that told the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to the Chicago. He attempted to import strategies that were successful in the South to Chicago and got buried by the Daley machine.

White Rage, by Carol Anderson. I first learned of Carol Anderson through a powerful op-ed she wrote in the Washington Post following the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. In this book, Anderson examines each historical era in the US since the Civil War and tells the story of how the white privileged, institutional structures of oppression have denied economic opportunity to our African-American citizens. She terms “white rage” that reaction of white people to the advancement of people of color and in that reaction, the inevitable move to derail their advancement. This book was compelling in laying out the ongoing systematic structures of oppression.

The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. On its surface this seems like an odd choice for Black History month, but stay with me for a moment. Here, Painter documents the development of race theory as a real thing, and in particular the notion of American whiteness. Race is not based on biology, but on a sociological construct that is meant to privilege white people and oppress people of color. She provides numerous illustrations through history of how white people have constructed notions of race for a variety of social, economic, and political gains. Read this book for a full scale debunking of the myth of race and of the devastation that such myths have unleashed on those whose skin is not white.

What books of Black History would you recommend?

An Odd Day, an Odd Faith — a Sermon for Ash Wednesday When It Falls on Valentine’s Day

This is the text of the sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin.

What an odd, odd day. Ash Wednesday is odd enough in itself, but when it falls on Valentine’s it’s even more odd. Many of my clergy friends have been making the most of this strange calendric convergence.  One posted on Facebook this imaginary conversation: “So, what are your Valentine’s Day plans?” “Oh, I have to work and remind everyone that they’re going to die.”  Another toyed with the idea of plastering the sign of the cross on her parishioner’s foreheads with melted chocolate. I, on the other hand, have been threatening to make an ashen heart on your foreheads.

While Valentine’s Day takes its name from two separate Christian martyrs who were both executed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Claudius II, the holiday has come to extol romantic love — it’s the day to send chocolates or roses to your true love, or to the one you hope will become your true love.

Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite. It’s not a party, but the definition of a non-party. The Old Testament lesson from Joel blows a trumpet to announce the darkness of sin and suffering. Joel urges the ancient people of God and us, all of us, from nursing infants to the most aged among us to come before God and pay attention to those things that are most important — our sin, our mortality, our need for divine forgiveness, and the accompanying assurance that God is merciful.

Ash Wednesday calls us to face the harsh and precious reality that each of us was molded by the hand of God out of the elements of creation and each of us will once again become those elements. Yet we don’t speak of this reality in a cold or clinical way like we might approach a cadaver in a morgue. We do so with a sense of wonder, and again, with a eye to the promises of God. The ashes we allow to be inscribed on our foreheads are understood as symbols of our frail mortality and certain death. The ashes point beyond themselves to a hidden life-giving power.

For a few years before moving to Door County, Sheryl and I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands Nature Conservancy Prairie Preserve. It’s a project in western Illinois that now encompasses nearly 4000 acres and is being returned to its original state as a biologically diverse grasslands. Key to that restoration is the annual controlled burning in the spring of the year. Regular burning is a necessary step in the health and vitality of the prairie. The heat germinates certain seeds and clears the way for others to sprout and grow.

Here is the paradoxical truth of Ash Wednesday. The loving presence of God is hidden in the dust and ashes that dominate this day. Far deeper than the romantic love of Valentine’s Day and chocolates and roses, God comes to us with a love that rescues us from our violent ways with each other, from the limits of our mortality, and promises life that endures beyond our death.

See, the season of Lent that we begin today is going somewhere. Where? We’re headed to Easter, that grand celebration of death that gets turned into life. There’s this part of the communion liturgy we call the Proper Preface. It comes right after the opening sentences. You’ll recognize it because it begins, “It is indeed our duty and delight that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, almighty and merciful God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then it goes on in poetic language to tie this eucharistic celebration to the themes of the church year. I kind of miss the old one for lent; they changed it in this new hymnal; the old one proclaimed that where death began, life will be restored and that the Evil One who by a tree once overcame will likewise by a tree be overcome. That infamous apple tree of the Garden of Eden will be superseded by a cross-shaped tree on a gruesome hill outside Jerusalem; there the possibility of life with God was born. Indeed, dear church, because we are so truthful today about our mortality, the promise of resurrection is all the more sweet.

This is an odd day, this Ash Wednesday, made all the more odd by the juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day. But then ours is an odd faith, a faith that began in the dust and ashes of a borrowed tomb, a grave, a place of death. That womb of dust and ash and death was the resting place of Christ who loved the world all the way to death on a cross.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are the words that will be spoken over you in a matter of minutes. Your life is fleeting. The clock is ticking. But the mark of the cross reminds you that there is so much more. Death gives way to the life that was promised at your baptism. Ashes are not forever. Endings always call up new beginnings. Now, even now, in the midst of dust and ashes on this day of love, it is a day of deep grace, the day of our salvation.

For That Time When the World’s a Hot Mess

I usually don’t post my sermons on this blog, but we had this thing happen in northern Door County on Saturday. Snow. Quite a bit of it. And by Sunday morning, not too many people had dug themselves out, so we had a pretty small attendance in church on Sunday. So, this is mostly for the benefit of Shepherd of the Bay folks who may have missed the Sunday service. Here it is: a sermon based on the first lesson for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Isaiah 40:21-3. And remember, this approximates, but does not duplicate what was preached. Sermons are for hearing, not so much for reading. 

It’s a hot mess out there. Every week we’re subjected to more drama in Washington, and it’s having consequences. I don’t that to be a partisan statement or a criticism of any one person or a particular party’s politics. It seems to me, there’s enough dysfunction to go around. Some days its exhausting, and some days its simply overwhelming. It’s a hot mess out there.

In the middle of a hot mess, it’s good for us to hear these words from Isaiah. We listen in on words from the prophet Isaiah who is speaking to the Israelites who are in exile. When we listen in, it has been a generation already since they were conquered by the Babylonians and had been forcibly moved from Jerusalem to Babylon. In this section of the book of Isiaiah, the prophet proclaims over and over again that the Judeans who have been living so far from home for so long are about to be released and allowed to return home. But this isn’t just the prophet whistling his pipe dreams. There is strong theological foundation for his proclamation. The prophet’s confidence is in the power and the gracious will of God.

First, a little set-up. I want to take you back to the first part of the chapter, the part we didn’t read this morning.  You would find the words that we read back in December as we were awaiting the birth of Jesus, “Comfort, comfort, my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her exile is over.” That’s a pretty good clue that the prophet intends these words we hear this morning as words of comfort and strength.

The part we did read this morning is a section dominated by rhetorical questions. You know rhetorical questions, right? The kind my mother used to ask when she was irritated with me.. “Jimmy, do you think that trash is to take itself out?” “Jimmy, do you think that bed is going to make itself?” “Jimmy, do you think someone else is going to do your homework for you?” Rhetorical questions make assertions by assuming answers and they lay foundations for the responses that follow. When someone asks a rhetorical question, they’re not really asking a question; they’re making a statement. You’re supposed to know the answer to the question.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” What the exiled Israelites should have known but have apparently forgotten is that the one who sits above the circle of the earth — namely, Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant — is also the one who brings down princes and rulers. In other words Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant, is ruler over history. God is the one who is in charge, even when it looks like the world is a hot mess. And believe me, when the Judeans were in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, they were not feeling like Yahweh was in control. Their world was a hot mess.

There’s more. “To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” And of course, the answer is that there is no equal. And if you want some evidence, the look around you, the prophet says. Look at the heavens, the stars, and sun and moon. Look at the extraordinary moonrise last Wednesday evening, the convergence of the blue moon and the supermoon. Look at the extraordinary diversity and beauty of the flora and fauna of Door County. Look at the intersection of land and water where we live. And know that the one who has created it all knows the name of each star, of each plant, of each animal. Don’t you think the one who knows each star cares more deeply and lovingly for each of you? (That’s a rhetorical question and you’re supposed to know the answer!)

The third section of today’s reading begins with an actual question — not a rhetorical question, but an actual question that communicates Israel’s sense that they have been abandoned by God. The have believed that God is absent from their lives and from the hot mess in the world. Again, it seems to me that the notion that God was absent from their lives was a perfectly logical for the exiled people of God. So, the people ask, is God unaware of what’s going on? Why is God ignoring the cause of the righteous? Why does it seem like evil is winning and there are so few voices for justice and righteousness anymore? 

Here’s where the voice of God sounds most powerful and most gracious as the prophet repeats the rhetorical questions from the very beginning of our reading. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” And in what follows, the assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. Listen, dear people of God. The assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. God, our God, is the everlasting God, the creator of the whole earth who never tires and whose understanding is beyond human comprehension. That same one gives power to the faint, to those who are weary and fearful. God gives strength to the powerless, to the ones who look at the hot mess and think there’s nothing that can be done and that there’s no hope. Listen:  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

What images of comfort and strength and hope! Think of the image of an eagle soaring, gliding effortlessly on the breezes. The promise of walking back home from Babylon to Jerusalem and never growing tired. Of moving on and on and on through whatever the journey brings, full of confidence and strength and hope. That’s the image of the journey of faith for those who wait for the Lord. To wait for the Lord is to have confidence, faith, trust. To wait for the Lord is to commit yourself to God in hopeful expectation. To wait for the Lord is to know that despite what you see going on around you, the God who has redeemed you, the God who went to the cross to give you life, the God who has called you his own in the waters of baptism, the God who every week calls you to this table to receive strength and nourishment for the journey, that God, our God is in charge. To wait for the Lord is to acknowledge that we don’t see what’s going on in the mind of God, nor are we fully aware of God’s plan for the princes and rulers and nations of this world. To wait for the Lord is to confess again that we walk by faith and not by sight. The one who calls you to freedom is the God who created all things, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits, and who gives that strength to the faint and the powerless, to us. God gives those who wait for God the power to fly. 

I guess that’s why this weekly gathering is so important to me. It’s easy to get bogged down in whatever is going on around us. Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned about the burdens that many of you are facing, that go beyond the hot mess of our national life. So, we come. We hear the Word and we sing; we pray. We remind each other that God is faithful and that God is in charge. We remember our baptism, our new life that springs from Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we come to the table for this taste of manna, bread for the journey, nourishment for whatever we face. Have you not known? the prophet asks. Have you not heard? Of course we have.

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

I Have Been to Haiti

I wonder if Donald Trump has ever been to Haiti. I guess it’s not impossible; still, I’m gonna put it in the category of unlikely. It would not be a pleasant place for a reported germaphobe; I doubt if Port-au-Prince is in the running for a Trump luxury hotel.

I have been to Haiti. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. It’s tough.

I immediately knew I had entered a different world when the jet that I boarded in Miami landed in Port-au-Prince and stopped in the middle of the tarmac; we climbed a stairway to the ground and walked to the terminal. Once inside the terminal, the luggage conveyors weren’t working; I later learned that they had never, ever worked, even on the day the terminal opened. Instead, the baggage handlers opened the double glass doors on one wall and stacked all the luggage right there. We were on our own to sift through the luggage to find what belonged to us.

In the several trips I made to Haiti, our drivers always carried extra cash. Seeing white people in the car dramatically increased the chance that our car would be pulled over. The only way to avoid a ticket or arrest was to have ready cash to pay off the police officer.

Driving around Port-au-Prince makes one appreciate the stop signs and traffic lights in the states. At least there is some order to all of it. In Port-au-Prince when one approaches a major intersection, it takes forever to get through it, because all 4 cars approaching the intersection play a game of chicken to see who can get through the intersection quickest. And don’t even think of trying to make a left turn at one of those intersections.

I heard a story — apocryphal perhaps — that once Mother Teresa was asked what it’s like to work in the worst slums in the world. The interviewer, of course, was referring to the Calcutta slums where Mother Teresa was doing her work. Reportedly, she replied, “I don’t know. Ask those who are working in Cite’ Soleil.”  Cite’ Soleil is a densely populated, extremely impoverished commune in Port-au-Prince. Estimates of the population range from 200,000 to 400,000. The shacks — one is hard pressed to call them homes, though they serve as homes to these poorest of the poor — are made of whatever can be scrounged, plywood, cardboard boxes, scrap tin. The dense population means that there aren’t enough beds for everyone, and people sleep in shifts, which means that at any given time, day or night, someone is sleeping and someone is out on the dirt alleys that run through Cite’ Soleil. On the day I visited Cite’ Soleil, children were bathing in what I would generously call a big mud puddle. 

I could go on, but you get the idea. Haiti is a poor country, the vast majority of whose people barely eke out a living. Corruption and dysfunction are the primary descriptors of the basic structures and institutions.   

But to acknowledge that reality is very different than saying Haiti is a shithole country.

First, let’s acknowledge how they got there. Haiti was a French colony. The French imported slaves from Africa to work the sugar cane fields that supplied Europe with their 18th century newfound obsession with sugar. The French colonialists and plantation owners were making money hand over fist, not because the cultivation and production of sugar cane was so inherently profitable, but because it was profitable when you didn’t have to pay the workers who were doing the hard, grunt work in the fields. Slave labor wins again.

In the closing years of the 18th century into the dawn of the 19th century, the Haitian/African slaves launched what historians describe as the only successful slave rebellion that led to the formation of a sovereign state governed by those who had formerly been enslaved. Over the next few hundred years their relationship with Europe and the Americas demonstrated that the white colonial powers were determined to insure that what happened in Haiti, would never happen again. Haiti became a pariah in international relations.

Here’s a little known tidbit of the United States relationship with Haiti: President Thomas Jefferson’s deal with the French government that is popularly known as the Louisiana Purchase likely would never have happened without the successful slave rebellion in Haiti. Jefferson wanted to purchase the territory, but the US was experiencing its own economic and political instability. Jefferson was ready to offer the French an amount that his entire administration had little hope would be accepted. At the same time, Napoleon sent three armadas of ships and soldiers across the Atlantic. One was intended to retake Haiti for France, and the other two were headed for New Orleans to reinforce the French presence in the New World. When the Haitians repelled the first wave of French soldiers, Napoleon redirected the other two to Haiti to finish the job the others failed at. As it turns out, the Haitians repelled all three French offensives. Napoleon, desperate for cash, offered Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase at a cost far below the lowball offer Jefferson had intended to make. (I learned that story in chapter 3 of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. I’m sure you can also find it elsewhere.)

The relationship between the US and Haiti is complicated and open to interpretation. I acknowledge that. I also acknowledge the brutality of the father and son Duvalier regimes. Still, the US is not without blood on its hands. Most historians agree that US policy with regard to Haiti has been more about politics than about improving conditions for the common Haitian citizen. The various economic embargoes through the years may have served to make a political statement, but they did not bring improved economic and social conditions.

Here’s the other thing I want to say, and maybe the most important thing I want to say. The Haitian people who I met and with whom I interacted have touched me deeply with their faith, resilience, and generosity.

For much of the time I was involved in work in Haiti, we partnered with a woman who ran an orphanage and school that she had built with her own savings from her work as a domestic in the US. Marie had moved to Miami as a young woman and worked for a wealthy family as their housecleaner and occasionally providing child care. She saved money and eventually bought a modest home. On a trip back to Port-au-Prince to visit her brother, she was walking down an alley and heard whimpering which she at first thought was from puppies inside a nearby garage. What she found when she looked in the window was a family of children who had been abandoned by their parents.

Marie never went back to her home and job in Miami. Instead she bought a home in a Port-au-Prince suburb where she cared for those children. In the meantime, she began taking in other abandoned children from the neighborhood. She eventually built another building so that her orphan children could go to school, a building that quickly became a school for the entire neighborhood.

Until my congregation became involved in supporting her school, Marie did this all with her own money, her own savings, along with the proceeds from the house she sold in Miami. I don’t want to sugarcoat Marie’s work. She made mistakes and so did we. We learned as we went along. I would do things differently now, knowing what I know. But Marie did the best she could with what she had, all with the laser sharp focus to care for children who had no one else.

Marie is an icon for what I found consistently in the Haitian people I met. She was a person of deep faith, believing that she had no choice but to care for her neighbor and that somehow God would provide. She was generous to a point that Americans might say she was reckless. She did not hesitate to pour her own resources into the preservation and thriving of children that she had never met, with whom she had no biological connection, children for whom she might reasonably had said were someone else’s responsibility.  She was incredibly resilient and resourceful, oftentimes making silk purses out of sow’s ears.

It is shamefully easy to call Haiti a shithole country. It’s also shamefully shallow, racist, arrogant, and woefully ignorant of our complicated history.

I wish for a more compassionate response that would acknowledge the human suffering of our neighbor and our own complicity in the brokenness of Haitian institutions. I wish for a Haitian/American partnership that could bring real improvement for the extraordinary Haitian people. At the least, I wish for simple respect.