Friday, June 28, 2013

Loving Our Undocumented Neighbors

Migrant Farm Workers Are the Backbone of the Agricultural IndustryIt's all over Scripture. I like the frankness off Leviticus 19:33-34 “Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land... love them as you love yourself.” (NLT) But you can find similarly worded commands in Exodus 22, Psalm 94, Zecheriah 7 and all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus also thought pretty highly of foreigners in his day, saving his highest compliments for them (Luke 7:9, 17:18)

God has a special place in his heart for foreigners. I do too. I do not mean to imply that I am more godly than others because of my regard for foreigners. I have sympathy for their plight, because I was one once.

I am not an immigrant to America. I was born in Iowa. I did, however live in the Middle East for more than two years where I was a foreigner. I moved to a country where I did not speak the language. I had no friends. I did not have a job lined up when I got there, or a residence visa, (although I did enter the country legally with a visit visa). I placed a lot of hope and not a small number of prayers in finding a job that would grant residency to me and my family. I studied hard to learn the language, I was told that I excelled in my study. But in the end, my Arabic was still broken, at times incomprehensible to native speakers. My friends were very patient with me to figure out what I was saying, and to word things simply enough that I could understand them.

Sometimes I think people are under the impression that immigrants coming to America have it made. They have arrived, after all. They made it to the greatest country on earth. They have freedom and opportunity at their fingertips. They can just sit back and relax and enjoy the blessings of prosperity. We get even more cynical about those who enter or stay in the country illegally, that is without the proper residence permits. We act like they maliciously came in to this country to steal someone's job and claim government benefits they are not entitled to.

I don't think most Americans realize what it means to be a foreigner. We don't realize how much we depend on the relationships of family and friends, how cut off we really are when they are not around. We don't realize all the rules, both laws and social mores we take for granted, that a foreigner simply would not know. It's difficult to do simple things like pay bills or get a drivers license when they are done so differently than in your home country. Most of us have never really tried to master a second language, or know how difficult it is to live in a place where you don't speak the language. Immigrants are often victims of trafficking and exploitation. They often simply don't understand all that is going on around them. Or they are just too desperate to care. I don't think most immigrants would put up with half the crap they take if the situation were not so dire, if people back home were not depending on the money they send for their next meal.

Immigration has returned to the national dialog as a contemporary shibboleth. Your stance on immigration will show who you are: bold progressive, limp-wristed moderate, or true-blooded American. I hesitate to say anything, because I hate to put too much weight on politics. We won't solve the issues of immigration with politics or a new piece of legislation. But there are some clear spiritual issues that need to be addressed. You can not follow Jesus and hate the foreigners living among us. You can not love the foreigners living among us and refuse to acknowledge their existence. You can not love the foreigners among us without feeling compassion for their dire situation or taking action to bring justice to them.

Denying justice to the foreigner. That was one of God's indictments against sinful Israel in Ezekiel 22:29. That is exactly what is going on today in America. Undocumented Immigrants have no legal status. When they fall victim to a crime (which happens quite a lot) they avoid reporting it for fear of being deported, or imprisoned. They broke an immigration law. You've probably broken some laws too: driving over the speed limit, and possibly some far worse things. Does that broken law make it justifiable for someone else to steal your wages or force our daughter into prostitution? As long as we force immigrants to live off the grid, they will never receive justice, let alone the compassion we owe them.

First, we have to face the fact that immigrants are not going anywhere. Expelling them all is logistically impossible. It would also be devastating to our economy, driving up prices on a number of goods and services that are supported by the low wages immigrant laborers (both legal and illegal) usually earn

Second, we need to let God convict us that the status quo is not acceptable. We can not continue to deny justice to immigrants simply because they broke an immigration law. The evil being done to them far outweighs any evil they have done. I do not know all the ins and outs of this new immigration bill being debated in Congress. No doubt it is imperfect, made by imperfect people. I do know it is far overdue. It puts us in the right direction of providing justice and compassion for immigrants. I think that is what God would want us to do.

Finally, we need to let the love of Christ compel us to see immigrants as people made in the image of God, loved by God. We need to stop looking at them as a special interest group in the midst of a political hot-button issue, and just look at them as people. As people, living in a strange land, they could probably use some help from time to time getting around, knowing where to go to get things done. They might need some help learning English if they haven't mastered it yet. Most of all they probably need a good friend, someone they can depend on, because that person is a committed follower of Jesus. And when you put aside your prejudice and befriend one of these foreigners, you might be surprised how much they enrich your life as well.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Simple Like Zombies

You'd have to be some kind of isolated prepper type to have missed the explosion of apocalypse-themed books, movies, and television series that have made their appearances over the last decade. From TV series like The Walking Dead, and Revolution, to books like Zombie Survival Guide and the Hunger Games Trilogy. Movies from Wall-E to World War Z. We as a society are full-on obsessed with the end of civilization as we know it.

The dystopian view of the future  is hardly a new phenomenon although the pace has certainly sped up in the last few years. Our parents watched Charlton Heston battle it out in Planet of the Apes. Our grandparents read Orwell's 1984, and our great-grandparents, H.G. Wells' Time Machine. The future has looked bleak for a long time.

Isn't it weird that we would be obsessed by a world where technology is useless. Where people band together and live off of the land. Where death is an ever-present possibility. Post-apocalyptic stories speak to people, and in particular to the people of America in the early 21st century. They tell us something about ourselves, and something about what we would like to see in ourselves.

Our outlook of the future first tells us how we see life now. Dystopia is merely an exaggeration of our own excesses, a magnification of the faults we see in society today. The Hunger Games trilogy, while bringing us many ponderous themes, is largely a critique of our obsession with entertainment, and our willingness entertain ourselves at others' expense. H.G. Wells saw the division between classes that already existed taken to he next level in Time Machine. As for zombies - zombies represent the way we see most people, a bunch of mindless followers, destroying and infecting the rest of us. Zombies represent our fear of loosing ourselves and becoming part of the herd.

Above all, we obsess about the downfall of society because we don't like society as it is.  Life has grown too complicated. We are not happy. We have an abundance of possessions, but find no joy in them. We listen to an abundance of voices, but they are all noise.

We long for a simpler life. I don't want to live my entire life on a smartphone or from behind a pair of Google Glasses. Humans were meant to have real abundant lives. A part of us longs to work the soil as our ancestors did, to produce things with our hands. A part of us wants to slow down and spend time talking to real people. We want a simpler life, but we lack the discipline to just unplug and throw it all away. So we invent a reality where that choice is taken from us. In a post-apocalyptic world we have no choice but to simplify.

The stories of society's demise remind us of what's really important. Much of these plots revolve around family and friends supporting one another and protecting each other from harm. We see people like us, living full lives without TVs or computers or cell phones. They are far more concerned with finding food, shelter, or preparing for the next onslaught of flesh-eating corpses. Just being with those they love, seeing them alive is the reward of our favorite characters. That is the simple life.

Jesus spoke to this need to simplify our lives long ago, when life was much less complicated than it is today. Jesus showed us a way to revolutionize our lives in the here and now, wherever the here and now happens to be. He told us that our lives do not consist of the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15). Life is not in stuff. He told us to stop worrying about what we should eat or what we should wear, but to trust God. By following Jesus, we can free ourselves from the power stuff wields over our lives. That is truly the simple life.

Here's the good news: we don't have to wait for an army of zombies to take over the world to begin simplifying our lives. It is possible to make the changes we long to see in our lives without atomic destruction. We could throw off the constraints of an ever more complex life and live life simply and purposefully. We could do it radically like Jesus recommended, "go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor." Or we could start small and work our way up to that. You could just decide not to buy something you don't need. It could be a bigger TV, a newer model of smartphone,  nicer car, or an exotic vacation. It can also mean paring down the possessions you already have. Have a rummage sell and get rid of some baggage. See how much lighter your life will feel (and it could help out some poor people too).

Does living a simple life seem exciting? I didn't come up with the idea. Here are a few good resources to learn more. Start with Jesus in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt 5-7) Also check out Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, Celebration of Discipline, and Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster, and Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Dad Got This Right

Happy Fathers Day! This will be my eighth as a father. It has been a lot of fun. I have learned a lot, but I don't have it all figured out yet. When I do, I'll write an article entitled, "Everything You Need to Know About Raising Children." Until then, I'll share the little nuggets of wisdom I have gleaned from others.

My biggest fear in parenting is not that my children will grow up to be criminals or drug addicts or gay. I don't stay awake at night worrying about their physical safety or their health. My biggest fear is that my kids will grow up to be normal, safe, vanilla-flavored Christians. People who go to church on Sunday and live life Monday through Saturday pretty much like everyone else. I fear my kids will not suffer, not sacrifice, not find the joy that comes from a life dedicated to following Jesus. I think my father must have had the same idea.

In some ways we are so different, my father and I. I travel the world; my dad won't get on a plane. I love music, and have made it a big part of my life; my dad sings a little off-key baritone at church. My dad wouldn't touch alcohol; I enjoy it in moderation. My dad is very politically active; I barely vote. Yet in other ways we are so very similar. We look a lot alike. We talk a lot alike. We share a dislike of cats. We can both be a little socially awkward. My father is also a writer. We pick up most of our traits from our parents' example. We learn how to be human because of what we see them do.  And for those of us who follow Jesus, our parents' example will forever imprint upon us how to go about doing that, whether for good or for ill.

When I think of living out following Jesus, I think of how my father would pick up hitchhikers. My mom worried a little bit, but no harm ever came to any of us. I also think of how he sacrificially gave of his time and money to causes he believed would help people. Although my dad is a scholar at heart, he worked with his hands to provide a for his family. I remember going with him to protest against what he saw as evils in the world, like abortion. I recall my father visiting the elderly, taking them meals or communion. He didn't just go, he would often take me along to do it with him. I learned early on that following Jesus was as much about doing something as believing something. It seemed normal that I should always be doing some kind of active service to others, because that is what I saw in the example of my parents.

We had family devotions every evening when my sister and I were young. I can not remember a single one of them. My father taught countless lessons and sermons that I overheard. None of them really stands out as life changing. But I will never forget the lesson of his life. The example he lived shaped me in ways I still probably don't even grasp. Makes me stop and think about what my kids are learning from my life.

"Setting and example is not the main means of influencing another; it is the only means."  - Albert Einstein.