Saturday, March 28, 2015

Monseñor

Tuesday was the 35th anniversary of Óscar Romero’s death. Who was Óscar Romero, you say? And, why should this anniversary interest you? I will try to answer.

I didn't know of Óscar Romero until a little over five years ago. I was studying at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities where one of the graduation requirements is that each student take a Global Justice class. I had already taken “Globalization at Our Backdoor” which explored aspects of the global economy readily apparent in Minnesota – factory farming, immigration & deportation, and refugee resettlement, among other things.

The requirement was filled. But for some reason, I picked up and read the flyer about travelling to El Salvador during March’s Reading Week. I don’t remember its details and cannot find an e-copy, but I guess the seeds of justice had already been sown within me; I could not set aside the possibility of going. I was serving nearly full-time as pastor to three small churches, had a young daughter with whom I didn't spend enough time. The expense was not insignificant. And I could certainly use that week to … well, read! Still, I felt led to go. I talked with my then spouse and, to his credit, he supported my hope.

So I registered for the class, began the reading, and, on March 18th, joined 20 others on the early morning flight, destination San Salvador. Details of the trip not recorded in my journal are lost in a memory fog (one consequence of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) but the impact of that week remains. Through visiting with people who knew and worked with Oscar Romero, liberation theologians and activists martyred, with people involved in economic & co-op projects that help sustain poor communities, and time spent with representatives of political parties and at the U.S. Embassy, I came to see the world differently. I see the very real downsides to globalization and the impact U.S. international policies, trade agreements, governmental decisions, and military involvement have on peoples outside our borders that I would have never known had I not taken this class. I’m more likely to see social ills as systemic problems rather than individual ones. And, partly because of this experience, I recognize the great burden of privilege that I and those around me live with.

But, to Monseñor...

Óscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977. The government was pleased with the appointment of this conservative who would not make waves. But the assassination in March of another priest (and personal friend) known for his work among the poor had a deep impact on Romero and led to a sea-change in his theology and political understanding.

Traditionally, the Archbishop of San Salvador stayed in a palace in the city. He supported the government and was supported by them. This changed with Romero, who left the palace empty and began to speak on behalf of the poor of his nation and the priests who, for their efforts on behalf of the poor, were being attacked, threatened and even martyred.

In 1979, when a U.S. backed government came into power with escalating violence which would become civil war, Romero wrote to President Carter, warning that increased U.S. military aid would add to the injustice of people struggling for basic human rights. But with concerns that El Salvador might offer communism another foothold in Central America, such pleas were ignored and the U.S. continued military aid with terrible consequence to the people there. (If you doubt this, I encourage you to read about The Massacre at El Mozote. Here's a shorter study by Stanley Meisler from Columbia University.)

In a nation dominated by terror and assassinations, Romero was a voice for the people. During his weekly (very pastoral) sermons – broadcast through the country – he included lists those “disappeared,” murdered or tortured. These broadcasts were the main source of accurate news. And the people loved him for this as much as for his caring attentions in church and in their communities. Romero built up an enormous following among Salvadorans.

But they did not call him Archbishop. Out of love for this servant of Christ who risked all in love for them, they returned that love and called him Monseñor. (I can't say exactly what they meant, but knowing that Señor is Spanish for Lord, I believe this was the people's way of affirming that they saw Christ through this man. And isn't that something more of us could aspire to ... ?)

In the end, the government would not let his Christian witness continue. During Mass at the hospital near his home, on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was assassinated. Only the day before, he had called on the nation’s soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher call and to stop participating in the government's oppression of the people. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. he knew the likely consequences of his actions, but continued because it was the only “right” choice.

Thirty years after his death, I was honored to share in a candlelight procession, walking with thousands of Salvadorans through the streets of San Salvador to the Cathedral in memory of one man’s love for God and for the people in his care. I’d never been political, had never marched out of support (or against) anything or anyone. But this was a profound experience. And it cemented in me the truth that we must stand for something, that in order for our lives to matter, we need to have something for which we are willing to speak up, or rally, or boycott, or sit out, or strike, or maybe even risk death.

    "We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest." 
Romero Prayer


Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Unexpected Visitor

I was in Pennsylvania last week for my grandmother’s memorial service. In the week before leaving, I accepted people’s condolences, while at the same time assuring them that, on at least one level, her passing was a good thing.

It was fifteen years ago I’d gone to a family reunion in the Pittsburgh area. The kids and I were staying at the same small motel where my parents, brother and grandmother had taken a couple of rooms.

Sunday morning I’d gotten up, taken people’s coffee and baked goods orders and walked across the street to Dunkin’ Donuts. Back at the motel, I knocked on doors to share the bounty. After being unburdened of some of the load, I stood at the open doorway of the room Mother and Mom-mom were sharing. Mom-mom was sitting up in bed and I remember her saying to my mother, “Barb, give something to the boy,” referring to me.

My hair was short, though not as short as it is now, but I can easily dismiss this, even remembering that her eyesight was as good as mine. I’m not as well-endowed as some, and was probably dressed in baggy morning clothes.
But, that comment marked the moment I realized that Mom-mom was disappearing. I’d noticed other memory issues a year or so earlier - like when she made notes about our order before going up to the fast food counter. But this was different. She hadn't recognized her oldest granddaughter.

Two years later, at the age of eighty, Mom-mom entered the security of a nursing home. I say security because she needed that, as she seemed quite adept at trying to go home. How many times did Mother go to collect Mom-mom from somewhere along the highway?

Death, in this instance, was not unwelcome, or even unexpected. This is not always the case.

Earlier in the month, our church lost someone in quite a different way – unexpectedly, leaving many of us in shock. After hearing the news I sat on my yoga ball, staring, trying to take it in. Death can catch the breath out of us that way.

In one of his parables, Jesus confronts us about our assumptions. He speaks of the bridegroom not arriving as anticipated. The wait is longer than expected. And some of those whose part it is to watch, and then to alert the rest of the wedding party, are caught unprepared (Matthew 25:1-13).

How often do our assumptions get in the way of living the way God would have us live? Particularly our notion that life will go on indefinitely? I had wondered about Kay. How was the experience of Mom-mom’s death for her? She was only four when my dad died. Though she was never close to her great-grandmother, this was her first close, fully-aware experience of human mortality.

Sometimes people seem to think they’re invincible. They don’t think about death, so it isn't real for them. And this isn't just young people.

How do you find yourself experiencing life differently after a death? Would you take a moment and share what you have noticed in a comment below. If any conversation is worth having, this is one of them.

After our church friend died last month, I found myself saying or hearing over and over, “We just don’t know when… “and “live each day fully…”

With death’s unexpected visit, I faced mortality differently. I made more phone calls to Pennsylvania. I was more aware of the people who are most precious to me, longing to see their faces. And when I saw them, was surprised and even confused by the depth of emotion I felt. I’m not through unpacking all of this for myself; I’ll keep at it. Maybe you’d like to join me by looking inside yourself as well.

What assumptions keep you from living life fully?
What is God inviting you to let go of so that you can cherish each moment?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

“Did you hear about ...”

    Where there is no fuel a fire goes out;
        where there is no gossip arguments come to an end.
Proverbs 26:20

I’m preparing a presentation for tomorrow morning on “gossip.” Our lead pastor has repeatedly said that he liked the way I defined it a few months ago. I wish I could remember the words I used.

I think gossip is a power play. As in, I have knowledge and this makes me important. I can share it with the ones I want to and leave others in the dark. We've seen it at play in churches. Linda calls everyone at church to complain about the pastor changing the music at church (or the flowers or using something other than The Apostles Creed). Fred vents at choir about what George said during a recent finance meeting. Ladies in the kitchen chat about this person and that, not noticing when they stray into the personal. The prayer coordinator shares - with just a few friends - details that he ought to keep to himself.

Sharon Strand Ellison, in her book Taking the War Out of Our Words, includes gossiping as a kind of “Surrender-Sabotage” defensive reaction. “Surrender-Sabotage” is when a person cooperates or gives in – outwardly – but then proceeds to undermine the other person in some way. I’d say gossip fits in that category.

Gossip, by my definition, is saying something about a person that you wouldn't say if he was standing there, or at least not say that way. It’s telling one person something about another person, without permission, which the listener has no business knowing.

And here’s the kicker… It doesn't matter if we mean no harm – not to the ones we injure, not to the churches or other organizations whose relationships are fractured because of the gossip, not to ourselves after people stop trusting us because we spread stories.

Yes, we spread stories. This is not only for the people on the other side of the screen. I regularly catch myself up, wondering, did I have to say that to this person? Could I have shared less of the story? Should I to have asked him why he was telling me about her? Did I unthinkingly violate a trust?

I read The Chronicles of Narnia to Kay not so many years ago. One of the scenes that has stayed with me occurred in A Horse and His Boy. Aslan (the G-d figure) had just helped the boy Shasta to escape from a scary situation. Shasta asks Aslan about what is happening to his friend, Aravis. Aslan tells him (rather sharply, in my memory) that this is not a part of his story.

In other words, never-you-mind. Pay attention to your own story.

There, maybe I’m ready.