I was sending a text to our organist with a suggestion for the postlude on Sunday. Since we were reflecting on the Fruit of the Spirit—specifically joy—I thought it would be fun to do an upbeat version of the Vacation Bible School song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart (Where?), down in my heart…” While typically sung by Sunday School children of an earlier generation (like mine!), with energetic motions accompanying the words, I knew our musician could jazz it up and send us to our homes with a song in our hearts. I adore the microphone feature on my phone which enables me to simply speak a message into written existence. Her name is Siri. But I’ve also learned that I need to proof her work! She reinterprets my dictation and sometimes spits out some nonsensical messages. So I looked over my message and was glad I did: “We will be talking about Joy as one of the gifts of the Spirit this Sunday. I wonder if you can begin your post lewd with the children’s song, ‘I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart’?”
Siri had perverted my text: post lewd. Our organist could not produce a lewd postlude if we paid him to—which we don’t! Sometimes I think that Siri has a sense of humor!
Music is probably the single most uplifting feature of our worship on a regular basis. We do lots of other things in worship that are meaningful and remind us that we have intentionally come into God’s holy presence. All the elements to a good worship service flow together thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit. But the most common take-away from a Sunday morning service is a song in our hearts. Post lewd? Not so much!
I have to confess this typo brought to mind a Simpsons episode I saw a million years ago. Church is portrayed in a fairly positive light on this show, even if Bart and Homer don’t always go with the purest of intentions. In one episode Bart has switched up the opening hymn by putting the musical score to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in front of the unsuspecting organist. She appears to be in her 90’s but is ready to go when the pastor invites the congregation to stand and join in singing the opening hymn. She pounds on the organ and the song by Iron Butterfly sounds throughout the sanctuary. Of course, Bart had handed out hymn sheets with made-up lyrics so the throng of believers follows the lead of the poor organist by singing the words, “In the garden of Eden, bay-by, don’t you know that I lo-o-ove you…” The music seems to have a grip on the organist who keeps playing with flailing appendages and an increased sense of exhaustion. It’s a train wreck and Bart snickers as he observes worship gone awry, his own creation. The scene ends with the poor organist collapsing on the organ keys at the conclusion of the piece and Rev. Lovejoy (really!) threatening the Sunday School class with eternal punishment if someone doesn’t confess to the dastardly deed. (Millhouse turns Bart in.)
As ridiculous as this scenario is, we know how easy it is for the ways of the world to traipse through our ecclesiastical doors on a Sunday morning and corrupt our holy intentions. Somehow the script is flipped, the hedonism of the culture seeps in and the glory we had intended to offer to God fizzles into self-righteous chanting. Post lewd. The sacred is defiled.
We must vigorously protect the integrity of this thing we call worship. Before we even enter the church building we ask God to enable us to open our hearts to new truths that we might hear in worship. We pray for God to use us to minister to our brothers and sisters in Christ in that particular church family. We humble ourselves through a prayer of confession, acknowledging that we have not acted with the kind of purity we had hoped for when we left the last service. The lewdness of the world may have tripped us up or drawn us in somehow. We come clean so that the rest of the conversation with God during worship can be authentic and grateful. We make a joyful noise in praise of our God, losing ourselves in hymns that reverberate to the core of our being. We listen intently to the reading of scripture, inviting the Spirit not just to confirm what we already believe but to challenge us to more profound areas of service. We pray for the sermon to speak to our heart and the offering to be relinquished freely from our hands. Finally, we allow the postlude to send us into another week full of joy. Because what happens at our church on a Sunday morning doesn’t stay at our church! We carry our love for Christ into a world that has learned to expect the vulgar and overlook discord. Thanks for the good laugh, Siri, for there shall be no post lewd from our church organist! Rather we will revert to the strains of a childlike faith that is instructive to us in our adult world: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart! (Where?) Down in my heart! (Where?) Down in my heart! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart—down in my heart to stay!”
In early March about 20 of us journeyed to the Double JJ resort for a winter retreat. Our theme was “We Are Family” and we surveyed our congregation about matters related to family reunions. The answers painted a colorful image of what these gatherings are like for our people. The age of people present ranges from newborn to 98. 40 is the number given most frequently for those in attendance. (A great number, biblically!) When asked, “What do you talk about the most?”, the top three answers were kids, memories and life. Most reunions have three generations sharing news but quite a few have four generations and some are even blessed with five! The favorite food to eat is cheesy potatoes and the least appreciated food on the buffet table is jello with fruit! (Jello salads are past their prime apparently.) When asked, “Who/what would you prefer NOT to see at your next reunion” there was an interesting mix of answers: weird uncle, sassy old aunt, step mom, cousin’s boyfriend and Uncle Rick. In fact, Uncle Rick showed up in quite a few of the answers so we had fun learning about the role he played in one couple’s family! Another undesirable part of the reunion was a flaunting of grandma’s scars! Did they follow that reunion up with a group therapy session? The source of tension at some reunions were talk about tattoos, drunkenness, politics, drama and lies. Yikes! But when asked what emotion accompanies their reunions, the most popular answers were love, joy, happiness and excitement. Every family has their history, which they pack up and bring with them to the clan shindig. Sharing blood ties is not easy but it is the most shaping of all our relationships, for better or worse!
Three of my siblings and I traveled through Europe this past summer tracing our roots. One sister brought along a familiar photograph of our great grandfather, James MacDougall. You can see him in full Scottish regalia, wearing a kilt made from the MacDougall plaid and playing his bagpipe. He raised a very musical family, which has been passed down to all of us. (However the bagpipes didn’t make it past his generation.) I looked at the man in the photograph and reflected on the miracle that this man, who looked so frozen in history and foreign to me—was one of the reasons why I’m alive today! I will never fully know how the way he raised my grandmother influences me today but I am certain that some elements to who I am can be traced back to him.
John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, writes to a congregation as a loving pastor. He is advanced in age and has experienced trials of faith and life. He has been imprisoned because of his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Nonetheless he continues to tell anyone who will listen about the saving grace of God that he experienced in such a personal way in Christ. John was one of twelve men who became family to Jesus. Their commitment to Him cost them ties with their natural families. In this letter John tells these young believers that they have entered a new family by being part of Christ’s Church.
We take our name from the head of household, don’t we? Adopted children are given the name of their adoptive parents to show that they belong in a new clan. John reminds his audience of their changed status: “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” He said this to a very diverse congregation who might have struggled to accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. John challenges them to live peaceably since they are all attend the same reunion now. He acknowledged that it doesn’t immediately feel comfortable or natural to identify with new kindred: “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” God may initially appear as alien to us as a Scottish bagpiper in a plaid kilt. But, as we live in faithful relationship to our Creator, we will not only grow to know God personally but to recognize that Divine image looking back at us in the mirror. Cherished family ties take time and devotion.
Families have rules. I love hearing about trips church families have taken (survived?) with children. I’ve heard tale of long car trips: 29 hours straight through to Florida with three young children was one story that made an impression on me!! Parents of young children have rules for car etiquette, right?! To avoid putting the “Survival of the fittest” theory to the test during our vacations, we set up standards for behavior that ensure safe travels for all—but also, hopefully, increased love for each other!
John doesn’t mince words about the realities of a faith community. He names a particular trait, practically engraves it on the family crest: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” The Message translation states it in more contemporary language: “All who indulge in a sinful life are dangerously lawless, for sin is a major disruption of God’s order.” John urges good behavior in the back seat! Share your rice krispy treats. Wipe your runny nose. Don’t hit your brother on the head! There’s an expectation in a family to follow rules that guard the best health for all but that also offer the greatest chance at happiness. If we travel well with our families they will have the same emotions as our retreat members did in anticipating a family gathering: Joy, love, happiness and excitement! In our churches, these should be the emotions folks feel when they anticipate gathering for worship, a Bible Study, a mission trip, even a board meeting.
When we allow God to serve as the head of household in our new family, there are amazing gifts that await us. We are given a glimpse of that in the Lukan passage that shows Jesus reappearing after the crucifixion to His disciples. “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost…” Jesus had to show them proof that He was who they thought He was. It wasn’t easy for them to accept that He was back and alive. Verse 41 states, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” This reunion brought joy amidst doubt. As if to allay their understandable shock, Jesus asks for some doritos and a pepsi! He tries to bring them back to some sense of normalcy. Then he preaches His first post-resurrection sermon in which He tells this family of men that His crucifixion and resurrection brought repentance and forgiveness of sins for all people.
John is right. Even though sin goes against God’s order, we all sin. Jesus assures us that there is sufficient forgiveness available for all and that we, who call ourselves children of God, need to spread that good news.
Forgiveness is an easier message to preach than to live. On June 17, 2015, a self-avowed white supremacist opened fire on a group of folks engaged in a Bible study. The believers met in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southern city of Charleston, South Carolina. The killer hoped to further provoke racial tensions at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was being defined. What he couldn’t have understood is how their faith would unleash not just a flow of tears but a torrent of forgiveness from a grieving people. Journalist David Von Drehle wrote, “…the forgiveness expressed by some surviving family members left as many questions as it answered. Can murder be forgiven, and if so, who has that power? Must it be earned or given freely? Who benefits from forgiveness—the sinner or the survivor? And why do we forgive at all? Is it a way of remembering, or of forgetting?”
Judge James Gosnell presided over the bond hearing by televised monitor. Family members of the nine murdered church members and their attorneys were present. Judge Gosnell invited them to make their statement as representatives of their grieving families. Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the shooting, went forward to speak. She told the gunman, whose eyes were downcast, that she was angry because her mother “had more living to do”. But as she spoke Nadine remembered the lessons she had learned from being a part of her church: “You have to forgive people and move on. When you keep that hatred, it hurts only you.” She began to think of how this young man had destroyed his own life in addition to the lives of so many victims and families. He would never go to college, marry, have a family. And so, choking back tears, she found herself saying, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul…You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
The gifts Jesus offers at the family reunion are unbelievable. Forgiveness in the face of tremendous loss? Release from a tremendous debt? Joy in spite of a swirl of confusion? Grace instead of revenge? Really? When Christians show up for a reunion where God is the Head of Household, there are sure to be surprises. Even when we share stories of unfathomable loss or lapses in judgment for which we’ve paid a price, Christ’s family always finds a way to extend love and forgiveness.
Children model this merciful living best. John, the imprisoned old pastor, knew this and used this language in his letter. In verse 7 he refers to his readers in the voice of a tender parent: “Little children, let no one deceive you…” In a letter that takes sin so seriously, we are reminded that we have met the God of Jesus Christ in very personal moments. This Head of Household gives us a chance at new life through the unlikely gifts handed out to a very diverse family. If we can live together and receive these gifts with the enthusiasm of children, our lives will be rich.
Claudia Highbaugh writes, “Think, then, of your children or of you own childhood. Remember group play. Try to imagine yourself working very hard at being understood. Try to think of the importance of being heard clearly. Remember the power of discovery as children participate in a world they create. Think of how important it was to include everyone, to make a place for those standing outside of the circle. Think of the hard work of children. This text is about beginnings. We are called to start fresh, with one another and under the guardianship of the most powerful Caretaker.”
The faded photos of ancestors we never knew give a hint of who we are. But the greater definition of our character will be shaped by those we choose as our clan, our tribe, our kin. Pastor John, with fading eyesight but vivid memories, reminds us of our family name: CHRISTIAN. At our family reunions we can expect amazing gifts, souvenirs much greater than a T-Shirt or leftover jello salad. Unbelievably we are offered repentance, forgiveness, joy and the very presence of Jesus our brother! Wow! Unbelievable. Amen.
As ugliness becomes normative and polarization drives an even deeper wedge between opposing camps of people, I wonder how well our churches invite diversity? Do we “tolerate differences”, hoping to bring folks around to our (enlightened) stance? Do we invite growth in our congregation just so long as the newcomers don’t change our stale vision of doing ministry? Who is warmly welcomed around the communion table and who wouldn’t dare to push through our doors?
Our church probed the issue of offering a wider welcome through an unlikely art project. We envisioned setting a table with each chair representing one group or population that might be rejected in the setting of a church. Of course, those “outcasts” or peripheral people will change with each community. So we asked people in our small study groups to list the three categories of people they believed face the greatest discrimination in our North American Christian Church. From their suggestions we put together a Top 12 list and they became the guests at the table. In no particular order these were the esteemed twelve: Ex-convict; Not My Denomination; Pierced, Tattooed or Non-traditionally Adorned; Those with Disabilities; Poor; Not My Race; Mentally Ill; LGBTQ; Loud in Worship; Homeless; Divorced; and Middle Eastern. A 13th chair at the table was set for the host, Jesus.
We asked for donations of old chairs. Some were quite nice and sturdy. Others had…real personality. It was a perfect mix! We asked church folks to adopt one of the groups on the list and be ready to transform an outcast chair into a representation of their unique population. Not surprisingly, most people adopted the group that was personal to them in some way. After worship one Sunday our adoptive artists looked over the chairs and chose one that lent itself to the transformation they had already begun to imagine. We had a few gaps in our list so we pulled in unsuspecting people from coffee hour and convinced them to take a chair home. It’s amazing how beautifully our guest list was adopted out to just the right people. Folks had one month to prayerfully design a chair that told a story about their people. Each artist was invited to write an artist’s statement about their work. These were powerful, vulnerable stories that were often auto-biographical in nature.
I had also asked my brother-in-law, a woodworker in the church, to construct a table. I told him it had to be long enough for 6-7 chairs on each side. It could be quite narrow. I would have been happy with a plywood creation but he hauled a fallen tree out of the forest in January. He took it to the sawmill to have it planed on a day warm enough for the oil in the giant saw to flow. A tree felled in a storm became a long, beautiful table with metallic crosses inlaid onto each table leg. It was made without nails and didn’t have enough time to dry out before it was hauled into our church.
Our gathering date to set up the tableau was Ash Wednesday. As I led worship and we imposed the sign of the cross on our foreheads, the youth group assembled the table and thirteen guest chairs. We decided that we would have the chairs facing away or out from the table during Lent, representative of their outsider status. We put a plate in front of each with their particularity written on the plate. We had a pitcher and plate with faux bread on it in front of the Jesus chair. We placed a wooden bowl at one end of the table with index cards and pens available for writing out a prayer. As people exited the sanctuary from the Ash Wednesday service they were confronted with the Open Table?, newly on display.
I loved hearing people’s reactions to this 13 by 7-foot artistic representation of the Last Supper. The artists’ statements were collated into a book and the stories they told were beautiful. Church members invited friends to visit the church during the week to look at our table. Quietly it gave testimony to the stories of those who are often overlooked, disliked or flat-out rejected in our sacred spaces. Prayers were left in the bowl that were heartfelt. On Easter morning the chairs were turned around to face the table, showing full inclusion in the Body of Christ. The resurrected Messiah loves and serves all, calling us to do the same.
The Open Table? creation took on a life of its own. I was asked to speak at a Red Cord Society event about the project. Other speakers came in with a thin notebook holding their speech and I enlisted the help of my family to transport a 200-pound table and 13 chairs into the sanctuary of the host church! All ages were drawn to these inanimate objects, finding themselves or their loved ones among the cherished “guests”. A year later our application to have the tableau entered into the Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition was accepted. We were allowed to display it in the same church where I had spoken the previous year. Again, the bowl was on the table inviting the throngs of visitors to this unique art event to add their prayer to those of others. I visited our ArtPrize entry a couple of times and watched as people circulated around the table reflectively, being moved by the message of loving inclusion.
Open Table? had a lifespan, as do we. The chairs have since been un-decorated or given away as designed. The table is now about 100 pounds lighter than it was on Ash Wednesday because the wood has had time to dry out. It is stored not far from my in-laws’ home and brought out when a large table needs to be set for family dinners. The bowl of prayers ended up in my office and I was moved to read the range of sacred expressions left behind. In their variety they represent a diverse community that values the same gifts in life. These prayers give us a keen insight into the inner yearnings of our hearts to find a place to belong. While they are offered personally, many of them could speak for all of us. So let me share some of them in hopes that these gifts from our Open Table? will bring you more fully into God’s presence:
My son Dan needs a better job. He is deaf.
I pray that every person in Grand.Rapids (and elsewhere) knows they belong and they have a seat at the table. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Thank you God for the many things you have given me. Help my non-giving.
Lord, Help us see peace around us and give us patience to listen to one another.
Peace on earth and pray for the victims of the Las Vegas mass shootings.
Lord-Please help those with need. Help all SEE and strive to be of assistance to the less fortunate — Your daughter.
I pray in thankfulness for my new job as a social worker.
Take away my pain from my past.
NEVER give up for God shall reward you.
Pray for Gordon whose cancer has returned.
A happy death for my aged mother.
Pray for those who are lost.
God, thank you for letting this person know she is priceless beyond possessions.
Lord Jesus, Give me wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to do what is pleasing to you and excellent health.
And prayers written by children:
I love God because He is so nice and sweet. I am thankful for everything He does. (M.M. age 4)
Amistad. Spanish for “friendship.” Wikipedia explains that it’s a friendly relationship or connection. Examples of usage given on spanishdict.com are:
Nuestra Amistad ha sido fuerte y duradera—Our friendship has been strong and lasting. Or,
Hacer o trabar amistad con—to strike up a friendship with or become friends with.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
But the word “Amistad” goes down in history not for warm, fuzzy images of best buds. La Amistad was a two-masted schooner owned by two Portuguese businessmen. It was a cargo ship used for trade but they made some adaptations to the sturdy boat. Using shackles and bars, they transformed it into a slave ship that could make some money off the trade in Cuba. Sailing out of the Havana harbor on June 28, 1839, it was loaded with 53 captives. Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez had purchased them and they were anxious to move their “cargo” to another part of the island.
The Africans had been kidnapped in Sierra Leone and were part of the Mende tribe. Though they didn’t understand the language of the crew, they knew that their best hope for freedom came while on the water . With determination one of the prisoners, a 25-year old named Sengbe—or Cinque to his captors–managed to escape from his manacles and plot an uprising. Grabbing machetes stored on the boat, they stormed the crew, killing the captain and other sailors. They kept Ruiz and Montez alive and demanded that they sail them back to Africa. The Mende knew what direction the ship should be pointed based on the position of the sun. So the men cooperated during the day, sailing east as the Africans moved about freely on the ship. But, at night while they slept , the slave traders sailed the boat north, hoping for rescue. After 63 days of zig-zagging through the Atlantic Ocean, the ship grounded near Long Island. The United States Federal government took charge of the vessel and its “property”. They charged the Africans with piracy and murder, then sent them to prison to await trial in Hartford.
La Amistad. Friendship. Really?
The Africans inadvertently landed in a favorable setting. The Abolitionist movement was in full swing on the East Coast. Local justice advocates rallied around these unexpected celebrities who sat in the New Haven City Jail. The American anti-slavery advocates paid for their defense and translation services. The Amistad cause became symbolic in our country of the evils of slavery. Meanwhile various players in the drama put dibs on them. Queen Isabella II of Spain, aged nine at the time, pressured President VanBuren to return the slaves to Spain since their sale in Cuba, a Spanish territory, determined their rightful ownership. Slavery was legal in Spain–as long as it could be proven that the prisoners sold were Spanish.
However the slave trade was illegal in the United States. Those defending the 53 individuals had to prove that they were not Spanish. If they were African or some other nationality, they were free. In addition to Montez and Ruiz, who had “bought” them and transported them in The Amistad, there were two men who had helped overtake the ship when it came into the American harbor. They had legal salvage rights, like reward money offered to those who help to apprehend criminals. Since the Africans were being tried for mutiny and murder, bringing them successfully into the U.S. justice system entitled the two rescuers to take their share of the value. It was a high visibility case with great import beyond our American borders. Cinque became the leader of the group. He was able, through a translator, to tell their harrowing tale of being kidnapped then sailed across the ocean on a deadly journey. President VanBuren favored the return of the captives to Spain. But an unlikely advocate emerged when the case was advanced to the level of the Supreme Court. Former President John Quincy Adams became involved and requested all the paperwork from the lower court rulings. He argued before the Supreme Court for more than eight hours, passionately defending their innocence. He gave Cinque a chance to talk before the judges about their terrifying abduction. The decision reached in 1841 was that the Mende citizens of Sierra Leone were Africans and had, therefore, been illegally transported and held as slaves. Thus they had been within their rights to fight against their captors for their freedom. The very public decree was that they were to be freed and returned to their homeland as soon as possible. It is a remarkable moment in the ugly history of slavery when release was granted to the captives.
Our denomination, The United Church of Christ, played a role in this justice battle for the Africans to be freed. The Congregationalists in New Haven provided them with housing, tutoring and legal aid during the trial. Once they were liberated the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Farmington offered to meet their needs. They housed and clothed them. They paid for teachers to tutor them and helped to pay for their return to their homeland. James W.C. Pennington, a Congregational Minister and fugitive slave in Brooklyn, worked to raise funds for their trip to Sierra Leone. When everyone’s claim of ownership legally dried up, it was our denomination that walked alongside of these friends to bring them home. La Amistad. Friendship. Really!
My first stop on the trip out east this summer was in New Haven where there are several places in the town that hold part of the Amistad story. We traveled to Farmington the next morning because my father’s cousin has served as the Music Director at the First Church for more than 50 years. He offered a personal tour of their historic church facility to our vanload of family members who had traveled in from the Midwest. Although the building was constructed in 1771, the congregation was formed in 1652! The early leadership of the parish was no modest list! The first pastor was the son-in-law of Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford. Noah Porter was an early minister. He is heralded as the founder of American’s first foreign missionary society. His daughter, Sarah, was the founder of the still prestigious Miss Porter’s School, situated across the street from the sanctuary. Her rather austere portrait hangs in a commons area of the church building. I get the sense that her success was due in part to a no-nonsense approach to education! She offered girls an outstanding education in an era when boys were prioritized for higher learning opportunities. Noah Porter, Jr. became the President of Yale University.
The congregation, representative of our Congregational Church roots, worked for justice in different areas of American life. It was a central stop on the Underground Railroad and opened a “Sabbath School” to teach the local Tunxis Indians about the Christian faith. When they learned that a band of controversial Africans needed help raising funds to get back to their homeland, it was only natural that they would make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish this. We drove around to various spots in the vicinity of the church that relate to the Mende presence in Farmington in the early 1840s. Noah Porter, the pastor, opened his home to one of the Mende girls, Margru. Samuel Deming provided dormitory space for some of the men on the second floor of his store. This space became a school for them later. Church women met at the Union Hall to sew clothing for their new African friends.
Most meaningful to me was the ongoing indicators of the African presence still in the First Church of Christ, Farmington. My dad’s cousin, Ed, was able to show us where the newly-freed men and women sat in one of the upper balconies. My nieces and nephews sat there to enter briefly into their world. How amazing for this congregation to have their worship space sanctified by the presence of these kidnapped Africans almost 175 years ago! In this sacred space the Mende practiced their music, led by church choral leaders. The baptismal font and communion table both are crafted with wood that comes from Sierra Leone. They have a special relationship with a ministry in that part of Africa today, rejoicing that the love of Christ unified them when other efforts worked to enslave them. The Africans raised money for their return trip by putting on concerts. Their signature piece was one I hadn’t heard of before: From Greenland’s Icy Mountain. The first verse undoubtedly spoke to them and their audiences of their unlikely journey into the Christian faith from the unimaginable starting point of being abducted: From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand, where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand; From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain, they call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.
I can’t imagine being violently torn from my family, people and land, brutalized every step of a long journey, fought over like cattle in a lengthy court proceeding in another country in a language I don’t understand. It seems impossible that I would then worship God in a foreign church and put on concerts of Christian music to audiences that don’t look like me just to get back home! Clearly the Spirit was at work in the lives of the Amistad men and women, who were listed as cargo on the ship christened “Friendship.” These “savages” from Africa were the civil ones while their captors were the barbarians.
In 1842, one year after our Supreme Court declared them innocent of all charges and worthy of an escort to their homeland, they set sail for Sierra Leone. Just 35 had survived from the initial number of 53. Several Americans voyaged across the ocean with them as some of the first missionaries to tell of the saving power of Christ in a new land. One of the Mende young women returned to her family in Africa but later came back to America to do missionary work in our country. When God is at work, the natural order to things is inverted: the last are welcomed first and strangers become friends!
We’re still learning some basic lessons that the Amistad captives taught our American ancestors 170 years ago. No one owns another person. No one race is inferior to another or deserving of poor treatment. Abusers of power must be held accountable. You’re never done serving—even if you already retired from your term as POTUS—and you can’t just sit back on your laurels! God calls us to action. When the Spirit is at work prisoners are freed and foe becomes friend.
La Amistad. Friendship. Really.
When a car comes whipping around a curve on the country road where I’m running, I have to jump onto the shoulder of tall grass. My world collides with that of the grasshopper. As my big human feet come crashing into their turf, they ricochet frantically in all directions. They are as surprised by my trespassing as I am by their scratchy undersides when they land on my skin. Our contact is brief! They leap off of me before I can swat them away.
This encounter with nature hearkens me back to the field behind my house in Omaha, Nebraska. We lived in a newer development, at the top of a hill on Dagmar Avenue. I spent five years of my childhood there when my dad was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base as a chaplain. From age four to nine I lived in a cozy neighborhood where friends were just a house away and we met up in each others’ cement basements to survive another episode of “Dark Shadows!” We felt safe riding our bikes seemingly long distances for penny candy at Pep’s convenience store. There was a field behind our house that seemed expansive. It afforded opportunity for different activities for neighborhood children. The shared backyard sloped from our house at the top all the way down to the bottom of the hill. There were no fences subdividing the hill into impassable parcels. There were no mean homeowners who told us to “Keep off the lawn!” In the winter we would sled all the way down those backyards gleefully and climb right back up to do it all over again.
In the summer that field became a whole new world full of interactive creatures! I sashayed through the weeds while grasshoppers made exit launches before my footsteps. I was both cautious and fascinated by these airborne friends. They had their own daily agenda to which I became privy when I entered their domain. They seldom landed on me, seeming just as apprehensive of encountering me directly as I was of them. Grasshoppers coexisted with other insect friends. Once a bee buzzed near me. I had been advised to freeze if a bee landed on me so it wouldn’t be provoked into stinging. Obediently I stood perfectly still as it landed on my head—and stung me! I ran through the tall grass to arrive home, wailing in pain but more out of a sense of betrayal. The bee hadn’t followed the rules! My mother reassured me to a place of renewed trust.
“God brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me. (Ps 18:19)
After four years of growing up there, my dad flew out to Taiwan, where he would serve on a military base for a year. My mother was left in Nebraska with five daughters, stretching in age from two months to ten years. I was old enough (nine years old) to understand goodbye but too young to know how to put it into words. The evening he departed I headed out to the hill behind our house. I climbed to the highest point, looking down at the expanse of conjoined lawns. There were no laughing children, sledding with the sting of snow on their faces. Even the grasshoppers had settled down for the night. I was alone with my thoughts. God sat with me as I tried to wrap my head and my heart around my dad’s absence. That wide open space was a friend to me, a hospitable site even when we had climbed up it to get a view of a tornado swirling in the distance. It was an extension of our home which was crowded with siblings. The lighted windows of our house against a dark Nebraska sky offered security. But the field gave me a natural vista with room for my young reflections.
“You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. (Ps.4:1)
As the Babylonians advanced on Israel, a superpower that crushed anything in its path, the Hebrew people must have felt the need to scatter like grasshoppers. News of the army brutality preceded them so that those in their path assumed they were doomed. As most people hunkered down in their homes, the prophet Jeremiah bought a field. Families cowered together, protecting their elders and children. But Jeremiah found an abandoned field for sale in the middle of the chaos and bought it! “What an idiot,” the townspeople must have thought as they peered from behind heavy curtains. “Our town will be destroyed and he will be left with a scorched field.” Aware of their judgment, Jeremiah bought a field anyway.
This faithful prophet’s goal was not to buy a plot of land where he could teach his children about nature or find a haven away from worldly concerns. Jeremiah wanted to show his people that he believed in this land which held such great significance for them. Their memories didn’t need to be forsaken. He bought it to give hope to God’s people who assumed they had been forgotten. Soon the field would become a highway through which all ages of Israelites marched as a conquered people. With soldiers on either side of an unending chain of humanity, they were marched to Babylon as slaves. Grasshoppers and other animals who claimed this field as home would have fled in all directions. Such an unlikely crossroads of besieged captives and scattering creatures! All were held in the hand of a God who allows us to carve out our own destiny.
“Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place (Ps. 118:5)
Jeremiah teaches us a crucial lesson as people of faith. When facing certain demise, we are called to offer hope. When everyone else is divesting of their responsibility to fellow human beings, we Christians invest in ministry to the least of these. We see value where others only see defeat. When a tidal wave washes away whole families and destroys a village in an instant, we set about to restore the community. When our neighbors lose everything in the fury of Hurricane Florence, we dig deep in our pockets and contribute to the rebuilding efforts. When folks stand on the sidelines of crises, placing blame and playing politics, we roll up our sleeves and bring in a truck-full of hope. We buy into their reality and assure people that they are not alone.
That Nebraska field behind my house played a role in my faith development as a child. It was communal. My parents organized a “Tent-In” one night, allowing us each to invite several friends to spend the night together in tents. The parents laughed together while we made s’mores over a campfire and shooed away the grasshoppers who seemed anxious to be included in the fun. We emerged through the canvas doorways the next morning with serious bedhead and some wonderful memories. But I also remember looking for our missing cat in the field and finding her on the far edge, killed by a dog. My father retrieved her and we brought her across the expanse of tall grasses to our backyard where she was buried with our prayers and our tears. Life and death, joy and sorrow, community and solitude were housed in that broad space.
Jeremiah bought a field—with all that lived in it—to tell a despondent population that God is always near even when our future seems bleak. Jeremiah bought a field as an act of solidarity with his own people who had given up on their God. Jeremiah bought a field to remind the Israelites that, especially when they felt as insignificant as grasshoppers, God had them in view. Jeremiah bought a field. Crazy, right?!
“You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.” (Ps.18:36)