Sunday, December 23, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Advent: A Home for Peace

Reflections from my book, 

So I am officially part of the genealogy craze. Well, sort of. A friend who is into those searches volunteered to do some work for my wife, who is trying to find a lost sister. The friend offered to pay to have both my DNA and my wife’s tested, through one of the popular ancestry search companies. We were surprised by some of the results, namely that I don’t have the Native American ancestry that I’d always been told I have. It’s all a craze now, but genealogies are nothing new. Even without the Internet, databases, and DNA, folks have been documenting and researching genealogies throughout human history.

In the Bible, the Book of Numbers is largely about counting people and documenting who came from whom. Throughout the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles we learn about the same things: Who was the father of whom? And then the books of Matthew and Luke trace the ancestry of Jesus of Nazareth. In ancient Palestine, that practice mainly involved tracing the men, not women, in Jesus’s line. But Matthew adds four women. And to some readers, these four are unusual choices.

Tamar is in the line. Tamar was the twice-widowed, and once-jilted Canaanite woman who ended up sleeping with her father-in-law and producing children. Tamar is a great grandmother of Jesus.

Rahab is in the line. Rahab is known for harboring spies and lying about it. Rahab is later mentioned as an example of faith and obedience. Rahab is great grandmother of Jesus.

Bathsheba is in the line. Bathsheba is known not so much for what she does, but for what others did. Kind David saw her one day, sent for her, seduced her and then had her husband killed, so that he could have Bathsheba for himself. Bathsheba is a mother to King Solomon and great grandmother of Jesus.

And Ruth is in the line. The story of Ruth and Naomi is the story of home on the run. Like me and my family, Ruth could not define “home” by a building or even a place. Her circumstances wouldn’t let her. Here’s what happened as recorded in the Bible book of Ruth, which could just as easily be called The Book of Naomi:

Naomi was from Bethlehem, the same town that Jesus would be born in centuries later. Naomi was married to Elimelech. When a famine hit Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, Naomi, Elimelech and their two sons set out as refugees in Moab. The Moabites were not always friendly to the Israelites. There was history. But Naomi, Elimelech and their sons settled there to escape that famine.

We don’t know how long they lived in Moab before Elimelech died. But we know that when he died his sons took Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. Then the sons died, leaving Naomi, Orpah and Ruth all as widows. Naomi decided to go home to Bethlehem, and she wisely suggested—really ordered—her daughters-in-law to go back to their homes, each to their “mother’s house.” As Naomi explained it, “You can go back home, and you are young enough to find a new husband.” Orpah thought that made sense, but Ruth did not agree. She argued with her mother-in-law, and eventually said now-famous words: “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16, CEB)

She was saying, “My home is not where I come from, my home is not where I currently reside, my home is with my loved ones. And right now, Naomi, my home is with you.”

The homeboys and homegirls of Homeboys Industries can share that sentiment. Father Gregory Boyle likes to talk about “the power of radical kinship.” Former gang enemies have banded together and bonded into a family. Marcus found that family at Homeboy.

Once he started gang-banging in junior high school, Marcus never wanted to go home. He felt there was nothing for him. Often there was no food for him, and he felt like there was not much home. The father that he idolized had been shot when Marcus was eight. Already hope was dead. Once he began with gangs and drugs in junior high, it wasn’t long before Marcus was arrested. He found himself incarcerated for six years. When he came out, it took him awhile to take friends’ advice and check out Homeboys. But once he did, he felt at home. He felt like he had a family. He felt at peace.

From Jingle All the Way
A Home for Peace (Addendum)
I Googled it. It turns out there actually is a list of the most memorable fights in Christmas movies. I was looking for one in particular, but I stumbled upon a bunch. “Elf” has a fight. So does “A Christmas Story,” “Scrooged,” “Home Alone” and “Christmas with the Kranks.” Even that classic black and white film, like “It’s a Wonderful Life” features a fight scene. But the scene I was looking for shows up in 1996’s “Jingle All the Way.” In it, two rival fathers, workaholic Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and stressed out postal worker Myron Larabee (Sinbad), both want to get a Turbo-Man action figure for their respective sons.  It’s Christmas Eve, and both men are on a last-minute shopping spree. When you Google “Jingle All the Way fight scene,” what comes up first is a pretty violent scene when Schwarzenegger’s character gets into a brawl with a bunch of Santas. The movie is all fueled by the pressures of the holiday season. And it sounds familiar to us because so much of the season can be full of tension. Some of the tension can be avoidable, like by taking away the emphasis on getting things or by limiting the number of activities that have to fit into the season.

But other tensions are just there. They come from relationships broken or strained, or from bad memories or from hard-to-let-go-of expectations. It’s might sound a little strange that we emphasize the peace of the season just as those tensions are the hottest.

For many folks at Homeboy Industries, the seasonal conflict might be heightened by a history that has had no peace. The sweet peaceful home pictures that many portray around this time do not reflect the reality of these Homegirls and Homeboys. They have memories of anything but peace. There are memories of gang warfare, of insecure homes, of unstable relationships. Add those memories to the stress of the season, and the mixture can be volatile.

But at Homeboy, many have come to embrace peace. Some rival gangbangers have become best friends. Many from difficult homes have found family and home. Some who were away from their family members have been re-united.

For all of us, it is tempting to get caught up in the tensions and forget the season. But in every week of this season, on every day, in every moment, we can decide to embrace the peace as we anticipate the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Third Sunday of Advent: A Home for Joy

Reflections from my book, 
Home for Christmas: Youth Study Edition

I’m usually pretty good at finding things that I’ve lost, but, well, not always. On this one occasion I was feeling tense. There was a churning in my stomach, a restlessness in my bones. And my mind was alternately single-minded and scattered. Why? Because we bought three avocados in the last few days; they've been trying to ripen for guacamole. I finally decided they were ripe enough, and I gathered all my stuff. But I could only find two avocados! I REALLY wanted three.

I know what happened. "Somebody" (he was about 15 months old) thought the avocado was a "ball" and played "Put It in the Cabinet" or "Put It in the Drawer" or "Throw It Over There." No one was watching him that particular moment, and now somewhere in our house an avocado was rotting.

I know: one out of three avocados shouldn't have that much power in my life. For your information, I don't really think it was the avocados. I think it was Moby's CD "Play" (this was awhile ago and actually it's the two-CD deluxe set). Before I started looking for the avocado, I started looking for the CDs. It was an all-day search. I was actually looking for Moby for a work project. Since I had CDs both at work and home, I looked all day both places. Whenever I didn't have to think about something else, my mind was working on where Moby could be.

I asked the teenagers in our home. They all let me know either by words or tone that they were not really fans of Moby anyway. Not the point.

Maybe it was in that black bag I've carried back and forth from work. Maybe it was in that box, or that one, or that one, or the closet I've already looked in four times. Finally I told my wife, “If it's not in that black bag (wherever THAT is), I give up. I'll have to save my pennies and order another one.” I found the black bag. It was not there. I gave up. The churning lessened.

I shifted gears and started cleaning up my ongoing mess in the home office. Too much stuff, I know. I thought cleaning up a little clutter might de-clutter my mind. “Just empty this box and I can get rid of it.” I thought “There, it's emptied. And what's this behind it? Oh Moby!” Now if we could only find that rotting avocado.

Even without the avocado (we must have found it eventually), I felt that joy. And the search reminded me of the stories Jesus told about lost things. We mentioned one of those stories two weeks ago, when we focused on the love a father had for his lost son. The story goes on to demonstrate the joy the father had for the return of his son, even though his son had insulted and embarrassed him. The same chapter in the Bible talks about a sheep-gatherer who has lost one sheep, and a poor woman who has lost one coin. Like me, they dropped everything to look for their lost thing. Unlike me they never stopped looking. And then, the boy was home, the sheep was returned, the coin was found. And the searchers were filled with joy!

When we think about joy, we don’t always think about those everyday simple joys. We think maybe of celebrations or of something we are anticipating. During the Advent season, joy is often tied to those kinds of pursuits. But there is a deeper kind of joy that is longer lasting.

Father Boyle has seen it in his homegirls and homeboys. Many of them were searching for family, security, and survival. Joy was not on their minds. But in time, joy surprised them. Brandy is an example. Brandy found “happiness and contentment” in full-time work, but it was a long road. She was 17 when her brother was killed. That incident led her to join a gang and seek revenge. But her family members didn’t know how involved she was until her first arrest. Her troubles with the law ended after six years, when she was released from jail. But like most formerly incarcerated folks, she couldn’t find work with a record, even though she had already graduated high school and earned an associate’s degree in college. Homeboys took her in. She was seeking security and survival, not joy. But with relationships and with work advancement, with recognition, she found herself describing her life as happy and content. She was describing joy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Second Sunday of Advent: A Home for Love

Kodak Instamatic 233-X from threepointsofthecompass
Reflections from my book, 
Home for Christmas: Youth Study Edition

Unfortunately, I don’t remember many specific Christmas seasons. I don’t remember many specific church services, Christmas parties, shopping excursions, or holiday concerts. I don’t remember many Christmas mornings.

But I remember one. It was my first year of college. I had gone away for school, and was fortunate enough to come home for Christmas. It was a great time to see old friends, to be with my family, to visit my old church, and even to sing again in the church choir. There wasn’t much of the material stuff that I was thinking about, but I was hoping my parents would be able to buy me a camera for Christmas. There were no smartphones then, and I wanted to document my college experience. Christmas day came, and after I opened a few small gifts, which did not disappoint me, my parents said, “We have one more thing for you.” “Let it be a camera, let it be a camera,” I thought. The box was too big for a camera, but you know that trick about wrapping smaller gifts in big boxes. I opened the box. It was a television. Apparently, I had talked so much about the tv that my roommate had in our tiny room, that my parents, who knew I would be moving to another room, thought a television was what I wanted. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I felt loved that my parents were trying to read my mind, and I felt unloved because they read wrong. I said, “Thank you.” And Dad said, “You don’t look very happy.” I tried to explain the expression on my face. My loving parents were understanding, and we returned the TV for a camera.

The gift of my parent’s love (even when it doesn’t deliver what I hoped it would) is, well, a precious gift. And too many people are not as fortunate as I am.

In the Bible, we learn a lot about love from Jonathan, his father, Saul, and Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth. Maybe you have heard about Mephibosheth, maybe you haven’t. Some would say he had a good life…at least in the beginning. His grandfather, Saul, had been king. And although Mephibosheth’s dad, Jonathan, never got to be king,  Jonathan was lifelong best friends with the next monarch, King David.

The Bible talks a lot about Jonathan and David’s friendship. They made vows to each other when they were young. 1 Samuel says that “Jonathan loved David as much as himself.” (1 Samuel 18:3 CEB)

Jonathan proved that love over and over, especially when Jonathan’s dad was trying to kill David. According to the Bible, Jonathan’s dad was so jealous of David that he was continually trying to kill David. Jonathan first started warning David, then started hiding him, and then started hiding WITH him. Jonathan was in such a risky situation that his dad even tried to kill HIM. So as Jonathan showed his love for his friend, David, he was also living through the lack of love from his own father.

Eventually both Jonathan and his dad were killed in a battle. By that time Jonathan had children of his own. His son, Mephibosheth, was 5 years old when his father and grandfather were killed. David had become king, and now it was his turn to prove that he understood how to love. He remembered his vow to Jonathan. He wanted that vow to continue to the next generation, so he invited the young Mephibosheth to live in his home. They became family even though they were not blood. They were kin.

Father Boyle likes to talk about radical kinship. At Homeboy, they practice that kinship every day. Person after person talks about the love they have found in their Homeboy family. Truth be told, many had already experienced a kind of family in their gangs. But unlike Jonathan, who would die for his “homie,” the gangbangers were more likely to kill for the gang. Here at Homeboy, they are practicing the power of love.

In some ways, the holiday season is the worst time to think about love. Too often we measure love by material things we have hope to be given or by whether certain people remembered us. That one Christmas day that I remember left me confused about my parents’ love. It shouldn’t have. They had showed it in so many ways, even in their attempt to give me the perfect gift.

I have since learned a lot about love. Maybe not enough. But enough to focus more on my loving than my being loved. This is what King David did. When his best friend died, his first question was, “Is there anyone left in Jonathan’s family that I can show kindness to? How can I demonstrate my continued love for my friend? And how can I make a difference in someone’s life?”

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “We must discover the power of love,
the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”

At Homeboy, old rivalries die, as they practice kinship—as they work together, pray together, learn together, and laugh together. They bear one another’s burdens. And they experience love when they share love.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

First Sunday of Advent: A Home for Hope

Photo from Moley Magnetics

Reflections from my book
Home for Christmas: Youth Study Edition

I would hate to be an electronic device. Because it happens every few months. A new phone is introduced. Or a new tablet, laptop or desktop computer. Some folks are fortunate enough and eager enough to buy the new device immediately. They have heard about it, read about it, and anticipated the release date. They buy the new one and either put away, give away, sell away, throw away, or otherwise dispose of the older gadget. The older gadget probably works perfectly fine, but times have changed, and the new is thought to always be better.

So what happens to that older device? If it was sold or given away, it might get life for another year or two. Those of us who aren’t fortunate enough or eager enough will happily or unhappily buy last year’s model. We are content that it is better than the one we currently own. But in time that older devise that is new to us is put away, given away, sold away, thrown away, or otherwise disposed of again. Even if we wanted to keep it, the issuing company wouldn’t support it; they almost make you feel embarrassed for still having it.

Eventually throwing away is the only option. And in most communities, that means the device will end up in a landfill, serving no-one, and actually harming the environment. Tons of electronic waste, or e-waste are heaping up in our landfills.

But some companies are finding ways to recycle those devices. Homeboy Recycling is one of those companies. As Kabira Stokes, CEO of Homeboy Recycling, puts it, “Here in California, we have two huge problems: Our landfills are overflowing, our prisons are overflowing. We believe we can solve both of these problems at the same time.”

She says, “Seven out of ten people who leave the California correctional facility return within three years. It’s not because they enjoyed their stay there. It’s because it is a broken system.”
And for her, the beauty of training previously incarcerated people to recycle electronics is that it reminds us that both the workers and the old devices still have value. It’s a message that we easily miss in a disposable world. Our prisons and jails can easily be treated as places to dispose of unwanted people, people treated much the same way we treat old electronics.

It is too easy to think of people who have committed crimes as people we can throw away. But that is not what the Christian story says. According to the Christian story, no-one reaches the point when we are worthless. Each of us is valuable to a loving God, no matter what. The story of the Lost Son in the Bible is a great illustration.

A young man tells his father that he is leaving home and he wants the inheritance due to him. He basically says, “Dad, I can’t wait for you to die. I want to get whatever is coming to me now.” Rather than argue with him, the father grants his request. The young man leaves home, goes to another country and spends all of the money on all the worst things. He is finally out of money and ends up trying to find work. He finds himself feeding food to pigs and hoping to eat the food they eat. He is poor, depressed, lonely and feeling guilty. And then he remembers home. He decides to hope maybe he can return. He remembers how loving his father had been. He decides to take a chance on that love. He rehearses the words that he thinks might work. “Father I have sinned against God and against you. Please take me home and treat me like one of your servants.” He figures that’s the best he deserves, and maybe the best his dad will give him. He travels back home, and as he’s approaching the house, his father sees him. His father goes running after him to welcome him home. The son can barely get his rehearsed speech out, when his father starts planning a party for him! That’s the kind of joy the father has in his son.

Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries talks about God’s love for all of us that way. He says that God delights in us—that God is too busy loving us to have any time left for disapproval. Like the lost son, we can confidently turn from anything and find a loving God ready to welcome us home. Though we are infinitely more valuable than old electronic devices, we can find new life just like they can. That is our hope.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Sacrificing Everything. Without Even Trying.

Taya Kyle, widow of “American Sniper,” Chris Kyle, delivered a solid, sane, and mostly logical critique of the recent Nike ad featuring NFL ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Her critique is right on the money (accidental pun claimed). To the point: Kaepernick, the devout Christian, has not sacrificed “everything.” He has sacrificed, but the loss is nowhere close to “everything.”

She elaborates, saying that men like Pat Tilman, the devout atheist who left the NFL to enlist in the armed forces and then was killed (by “friendly” fire), sacrificed everything. She mentions other “warriors” who have lost their lives because of what they believe in.

She likens Kaepernick’s “sacrifice” of his career to her own career “sacrifice” in order to stay home with her children. I find it an awkward comparison, but her point is still made.

The argument is solid and important. Nike has perhaps overplayed by using the word “everything.” By so doing they have commercialized, sanitized, and sensationalized a legitimate cause.

But it would be absolutely wrong to let Nike’s marketing decision and Taya Kyle’s critique distract from that legitimate cause. We cannot forget that cause. We cannot forget that Kaepernick’s protest is also about lost lives. Taya Kyle ignores those lives.

A black boy with a toy is shot in the park. A black man is shot for open-carrying in an open-carry state. A black man is shot in the back. A black teen is shot in the back. A black man is killed by a policewoman invading the teen’s apartment. A black school-worker is shot while co-operating with the police during a routine traffic stop. A black woman mysteriously dies in police custody.

These people did not actively “sacrifice everything.” They did not calculate the risk and select sacrifice, like Kaepernick did, like Tilman did, and like so many others have done. They did not have the chance. No, they were simply going about their lives being black. And their lives were taken. They did lose EVERYTHING. For no reason. That is what the protest is about.