Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Looking Into A Mirror

People have asked me why I am so taken with the undocumented immigrant.  There are law-abiding people who need your help, they say.  

Good point.  

Why do the stories of the undocumented immigrants touch the deepest parts of my soul?  Why do I remember their stories more vividly than all the others I have heard in my work at the Willow Creek Legal Aid Ministry?  Why is it that I can still see the eyes of the undocumented immigrants when I close mine?  Why do their stories, so different from mine, seem like part of my own story?  After all, I grew up downtown Chicago in a upper-middle class white family.  I have never gone without anything I need.  I attended the best schools and enjoy any number of privileges.  The undocumented immigrants I have met have experienced a very different kind of life, one with very little schooling, if any, and even less privilege.  

For example:

Mario grew up poor, in a tiny village in Mexico.  At age 16, his alcoholic father disowned him because he was not “manly” enough.  His father beat him and told him to leave and never come back.  He even told the corrupt local police to arrest Mario if he was ever found near the house again.  He was told to leave and never come back.  So, one night in the darkness, Mario crossed the border illegally into the United States, a place he had heard about since he was a kid.  Now, four years later, he wants to become “legal” so he can go to college.  

Louisa is a single mom who, along with her two kids, lives with friends.  She left Mexico because she had no way to support herself and the kids after her husband left them.  They were smuggled into the United States, hidden in a dark, suffocating truck bed.  She came to the Legal Aid Ministry asking what to do about the traffic ticket she received.  She had failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and was also cited for having had her youngest strapped into a too-small car seat, a car seat she was able to afford only because a neighbor had put it out on the curb as garbage.  

Leo dreamed of coming to the United States for better work.  So he did, but without working through the normal, legal process.  The prospects here were just too tempting.  Now, twenty years later, he has a wife and two kids, each of whom is a citizen.  But he lost his job and can no longer provide for his family.   He wants to know what his options are for citizenship or residency.    

Despite our vast apparent differences, the expression of hope I saw on Mario’s face is etched into my brain.  Louisa’s heartbreak feels like my own.  Leo’s desperation seems familiar to me.  Why?  Why can I not turn away?  Why do I love Mario, Louisa, and Leo?  Because when I look at them, I feel like I am looking into a mirror.  

I have been undocumented.  And there was nothing I could do to bring myself into compliance with the law.  No amount of paperwork or legal arguments would secure my citizenship.  I had broken the law and the longer I lived, the more laws I broke.  Sometimes I felt justified by the circumstances, which were beyond my control.  Sometimes, I was just too tempted and gave in to the prospects.  At times, it was as if certain laws were enacted just for me to break them.  So incapable was I to remedy my situation that someone else had to intervene on my behalf – to the point of death on a cross, nails through the wrists, blood running freely.  All of this when what I deserved was to be deported, sent away, never to be reclaimed.  

Instead, I received eternal citizenship and an all-access pass.  So how can I tell the undocumented immigrant, “I can’t help you because you broke the law”?  How can I say, “You’ll have to just figure this one out on your own”?  How can I feel anything but compassion?  How can I turn away?

Why am I so taken with the undocumented immigrant?  Because I have encountered the grace of God and it has brought me to my knees. 

(See this post on also!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lord Jesus, Have Mercy On Me

A few months back, my daughter asked me if I thought I would have believed Jesus was who he said he was if I lived during the time he lived on earth.  I wish I could have answered very strongly: "Of course!"  But sometimes I wonder if my role wouldn't have been a little more like this:

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.  And I began to accuse him, saying "I have found this man subverting our nation.  He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."  Then I began shouting: "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"  With loud shouts, I insistently demanded that he be crucified and my shouts prevailed.  So Pilate decided to grant my demand.  He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one I asked for, and surrendered Jesus to my will.

The governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetoreum and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him.  I stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head.  I put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him.  "Hail, king of the Jews!" I said.  I spit on him and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.  After I had mocked him, I took off the robe and put his own clothes on him.  Then I led him away to crucify him.

As we were going out, we met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and we forced him to carry the cross. We came to a place called Golgotha (which means the Place of the Skull).  There, I offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall, but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.  When I had crucified him, I divided up his clothes by casting lots.  And sitting down, I kept watch over him there.

I hurled insults at him, shaking my head and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!  Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!"  I mocked him.  "He saved others," I said, "but he can't save himself!"  I continued to heap insults on him.  

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.  For the sun stopped shining.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."  When he had said this, he breathed his last.  

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Something To Celebrate

If you watch television, you will come to believe over time that your calling in life is to buy and consume – food, cars, technology, clothes, hair products, movies, music, books, sex, alcohol, and more television.  These things are so seductive.  They are salve.  You know that feeling of putting your hand under cold water after you have burned yourself on the stove?  Instant relief.  The pain ceases immediately and all you want to do is hold your hand under flowing faucet until the burn heals.  This is how I am with consuming.  Other than food that I actually need to survive, most of my purchases (sometimes even food) are made to relieve some burn I have.  This is not always a conscious thing, but I think probably almost always there.  For a moment or even many moments, consuming feels like satisfaction of some deep need.  I take something into my life and the space inside is filled, like the cold water rushing over a burn.  

When I was a kid, I lived in an area of Chicago called the “Gold Coast.”  And, it was as it sounds.  People there had the means to consume whatever was advertised.  Just to the southwest of the Gold Coast was one of the most gang-, drug-, poverty-, and crime-infested projects in the country at the time: Cabrini Green.  During this particular period in history, we all had a hero, whether we lived in the Gold Coast or Cabrini Green, named Michael Jordan.  Michael Jordan had a product line, you’ll recall, called Air Jordans.  One pair of these shoes was over $100, which was quite high during that time.  But to have these shoes meant something about your status, your allegiance, and your worth.  Despite this high price, many people who lived in Cabrini Green and in other impoverished areas wore these shoes.  The people who could “afford” these shoes complained about how sad it was, and what flaws it exposed in the character and perseverance and values of the poor, that they would spend what little they had on these expensive, unnecessary Air Jordans.  No wonder they were poor, they said. 

Today, those who can “afford” smart phones – i-Phones, etc. – make these same comments about those who cannot afford such things.  I have heard people complain that poor people should use the money they spend on i-Phones to buy healthcare and then at least that problem would be fixed.  If people would save their money and spend it on the things necessary for survival instead of on these unnecessary things, then they would be better off.  There are homeless people I know who have been screamed at by passers-by for having new shoes or expensive looking jackets or bags.  How can you be begging for money on the street and then using it to buy such things, they ask.

Unquestionably, people make bad, illogical purchasing decisions.  This is true of poor people and wealthy people.  And, I cannot explain every poor choice, clearly.  But I am willing to bet all I have on this:  most of our poor purchasing decisions (and by this I mean purchases we make that we cannot afford or that we simply do not need by any objective measure) are driven by a burn that we would do just about anything to relieve.  The people who lived in Cabrini Green and bought Air Jordans and the people who lived in the Gold Coast and bought Air Jordans suffer from the same affliction.  They have a huge space inside of them and when a salve that offers the hope of alleviating the pain appears, they will take it at any cost.  This is true whether it ultimately undermines healing, busts budgets, causes longer-term pain, or looks like the most illogical choice one could make under the circumstances.  

Last week I hosted a dinner for about 25 people in my life with whom I have experienced the presence of God.  We gathered to celebrate God’s goodness and from the outside, a description of this collection of individuals sounded a little like the beginning of a joke: a lawyer, a homeless guy, and an ex-prisoner walk into a bar . . . We were from all walks of life, literally.  As one friend said, you could not have come up with a more diverse and unlikely group had you simply taken everyone on a local city bus and put them at a table together.  We shared communion together, prayed together, shared a meal, and then shared stories about the work of God in our lives.  There are simply no words to describe the holiness of that night, and my head is still reeling from it.  I have struggled to understand all that happened and all that I felt for days.  I only realized this morning, while reading my Bible, some of what I believe God showed us the night of our gathering.

1 Corinthians 8:1-3 says this: “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church.  Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.  But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes.”  Each of us at the table had our own Air Jordans at one point in our lives.  These Air Jordans came in different sizes, shapes, and packages, but we all had them, we all fell for them, we all sought their immediate relief from the deep burn in us.  We also all at one point in our lives came to the realization that these Air Jordans did not heal us.  They only made the burn deeper and more painful.  We came face-to-face with the fact that nothing we consumed could heal the deep burning in us.  No amount of cold water, no immediate relief, no Air Jordans and no cell phones, would suffice. 

We sat with each other at that table, each having had experienced this naked and terrifying moment.  And, for each of us, it was in this naked moment that the real healer showed up and recognized us.  Every person had a story about the day Jesus Christ came into his or her life and brought healing of the long-term and transforming kind.  By this I don’t mean someone said they once lied and after they confessed it, they were healed.  I mean each of us had incredible darkness in our hearts, inexplicable pain, and inexorable trappings.  You know, the same stuff that’s in your heart and your life if you dare to look closely.  But each of us, in the very moment of deepest despair, was met with recognition from Christ, the one who created all things, “is before all things,” and in whom “all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)  With his recognition, the deep burn began to be healed for the first time. 

To be sure, each person at the table last week has a long journey to becoming fully transformed into the likeness of Christ.  Darkness still rears its ugly head in us and we still fall for quick-fixes and temporary salves.  Daily, we need to surrender the open spaces and burning places to Christ.  His work has begun, though, and he will not stop until completion.  (Phil. 1:6)  This is something to celebrate.