The Juxtaposition of Death and Life. (Church on a Bike)

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.
I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me. The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

It was a holy moment.
It was Church, on a bike.
I skipped church yesterday, but all of this just reminds me that God still speaks through every medium around us.

Life. Death.
A life that cannot yet speak is growing inside the womb of a woman I pass by.
Life.
Three dozen birds lined up shoulder to shoulder chirp on the overhead telephone wires like white colored lights hugging the perimeters of homes in December.
Life.
My heart pumps blood and oxygen to mobilize my legs as they go up-down, up-down.
All around us, death and life, life and death. Pitch black darkness, confusion, pain, redemption, hope, joy, life, and healing hover around us and within us each day and it’s rarely a smooth, seamless process. Situations feel impossible to traverse through. We enter into dark places of human trafficking, urban poverty, and violence. And yet, still, a thin glimmer of hope is somehow able to sneak through the cracks of our breaking hearts. The hearts of Lazarus’ sisters when he becomes sick, the sorrow they experience in his death, and the joy that unfolds as he miraculously rises from the dead. Jesus gets mocked, criticized, and experiences sharp pangs of a sword entering his side. They call it Good Friday, but in this moment, it feels anything but good. Doom. Defeat. Grief. The nadir. The zenith. Valley of the shadow of death. Suckiness. Whatever you want to call it. And what was he doing on this cross, anyway; is this all some sick joke, God? Ah, but, alas, Sunday comes and he rises from the dead, refusing to let hopelessness and death have the final say, as both coteries of Jesus’s followers and his biggest cynics realize that all of the things he stands for cannot be taken away.

And so the story of death, life, and rebirth continue to emerge out of thin pages composing scripture into our everyday experiences today.

So may we find the hand of God in the mysterious places between life and death.
May our eyes be opened while we pedal and climb around our cities and our towns, ready to find God in the faces we meet.
May we discover hope in hands held tightly in embrace.
May we choose to believe in redemption and healing and that joy can truly return again in the morning.
May we discover our Fridays, and let our Sundays, much like Jesus, have the final say.
And may we discover the peace that longs to be given to us this side of heaven.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.

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My love/hate relationship with the Bible.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Bible this year.
There.
I said it.

Oh, I know what I’m supposed to say about the Bible- it’s divinely inspired, living and breathing, sharper than any double –edged sword. I know what I’m supposed to do-  read it daily, memorize it, “eat it” (Jeremiah 15:16), “hide it in my heart” (Psalm 119:1).

But I’m trying to be real here.
And in my current season of life, that’s not quite where I am.

This year, these feelings have been precipitated by a writing piece I’ve been working on as well as the inspiration and wisdom I’ve read from several authors/bloggers I respect. Rachel Held Evans posts about Biblical Womanhood and points out that this can mean anything from making a woman marry her rapist, to calling your husband master, if you take the Bible at its literal word. She was making a point that we need to ask better questions about why we interpret things the way we do and to be wise with the way we throw around “Biblical” in front of words. Because we all “pick and choose” which scripture to follow. For example, I choose not to follow the scripture verse that says to kill a woman if she isn’t a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:21). All of this reading and processing got me thinking. I’ve been working on a writing piece in which I’m trying to find 101 verses that Evangelicals no longer follow and 101, in contrast, that if followed, would literally change the world. I’ve had lots of stops and starts along the way. I’ve been working on it since April. It’s now October.

Why do I keep stopping and starting?

I stop often because I lament and am frustrated about the way women were treated in the Old Testament and how certain verses in the Old Testament and New Testament are used to promote gender roles, in particular, that women should be submissive and men should be leaders. I mourn the wars, the violence, God smashing babies heads on rocks. I feel unsettled when I read narrow verses about eternity and can’t fathom God banishing my Jewish friends or my Muslim sisters in the Middle East who lived their lives in Earthly Hells of forced prostitution, genital mutilation, and honor killings. They dealt with this their whole Earthly life, and now, supposedly, they will have a relentless life in Hell in their life after death too?

Sometimes I feel a sense of shame for feeling the way I do. Especially because I “know” what I “should” be thinking, feeling, and saying about the Bible.

But simply put, I can’t fake it anymore.

It’s leaking out.
I bring my Bible to less and less places these days.
I open it less and less these days.

But I am learning more about God, the ways that He/She speaks, more about people and imago dei than ever before. I am learning that the story didn’t end with Revelation. I believe, along with the UCC and other churches, that God is, indeed, still speaking and that he isn’t limited to the sole medium of the Bible.

By looking for him in ways other than this book, I am washed over with refreshment by all of the ways I discover him all around me. In the beauty of the trees. In a song. In the resilience of women and girls who have been trafficked but refuse to see themselves or others as victims, rather as victors. By not reading this book as much as I “should,” I am more acute to these other ways he speaks (kind of like how dogs don’t have good vision, but make up for this with an excellent sense of smell). I guess what I’m saying is I see him everywhere. And it’s not in the more traditional places that I’ve been so affixed to.

He’s everywhere. All day. I see his love win out over evil time and time again. I know that’s supported by a verse in the Bible. Though I’m not reading it right now and quoting it, I am most certainly experiencing it and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God’s hand is in this, making beauty out of brokenness.

There’s some dark stuff in the Bible. Genocides, infanticides, killing animals (God’s creation) to assuage God into forgiveness of sin, commanding women to remove themselves from everyday society simply because they had their period and that this uncontrollable bodily act is somehow so revolting that women should be embarrassed to be seen when it, by no choice of their own, arrives biologically…

There’s beautiful stuff too. You know. Faith, hope, love. Forgiveness, grace, life over death. I can’t read 1 Corinithians 13 without feeling a deep connection to something holy and beautiful. I can’t read the Sermon on the Mount without feeling as though Jesus was truly remarkable, encouraging all of us to live a life very subversive to cultural, societal, even, at times, religious mores.

But for right now, I’m taking a little break from this book. You can tell me that I’m straying in my faith. You can tell me that I shouldn’t be doing this. You can tell me I’m wrong. You can tell me I’m missing out. You can call me a disrespectful sinner. You can tell me that God doesn’t like the way I’m talking about His word. Go ahead.

As for me, I’ll be sitting here, real, raw and exposed, being transformed into something, someone, I hope, that has experienced God on a visceral level, reminded that some of our “Heroes of Faith” mentioned in Hebrews 11 did not even own Bibles. And to let you in on a little secret, I do, in fact, still turn to it from time to time. Just not as often as I have in the past. And to let you in on another little secret, I really do love this book. Not in the pollyanna ways I once used to, but from a part of me that’s been willing to ask questions, talk to God openly and honestly about what’s going on here, and take a chance that even though I may not be reading it, I am, in fact, experiencing it. And sometimes in life we don’t need to read anymore; sometimes we need to get our hands dirty, our toes squiggling through wet grass, because life is meant to jump off the page, have actions to correlate with words, and to be LIVED. Because the story is still being written. Somewhere along the way, I feel as though I’m living the words I have read or heard quoted time and time again. And sometimes I wonder if I’m literally standing on a page in the Bible. But then I realize that I’m experiencing it, in real time, and somewhere in between this reading and experiencing, it all amalgamates, and I don’t know if I’m reading or living or both. All I know is it’s beautiful, it’s holy, it’s reckless, swelling with this life abandoned, messy with watercolor streaks painted far outside the lines. I’m not worried about my behavior (or misbehavior if that’s how you see it) in this season. I’m ok with experiencing God in ways predominately outside the Bible in this current season. Because He’s got me. He’s got you. Letting each one of us experience Him in the ways we connect with him the most. I’ll keep coming back to this book; you can count on that. You can travel the world over, but there is some place in the world that can resonate as home. I guess what I’m saying is I’ve left my “safe home” of Bible reading “quiet times” (Christianese for Bible devotionals) and I’m running around the field, to first base, and second base, and even third, and I will always end at home. I might strike out on my way. But I always start fresh at bat from “home.” I’ve found my home in Christ, and this home is lit with the light from the Bible. And it’s also lit with solar panels and candlelight; it’s energized by some stories of the poor, some preaching, some time spent in solitude out in Creation, sunlight on my face…

It’s beautiful.

So beautiful that the more I think about it, I wouldn’t describe my Bible relationship as “love/hate.”

I’d say it’s “love/freedom,” and it’s an insatiable love that cannot be contained to any page or binding.

If you see me somewhere along the way on my journey to “home,” I’d appreciate your encouragement, not your judgments. I hope we can ask each other hard questions. I hope we can recognize that there is so much going on here than we will ever realize and that’s why it’s called FAITH. I hope you accept me when I say that I see a lot of grey in the Bible, with a few “black and whites.” But maybe you won’t. And that’s ok. I’ll see you at home plate, where we will celebrate the big, big God we worship as this big, big team as brothers and sisters. There might even be ice cream.  

For Where Your [Treasury] is, There Your Heart Will be Also

April 30, 2012

With the same dollar that says, “In God we Trust,” America funds exploited foreign labor of men and women from developing countries in American combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. While attending an International Justice Mission advocacy workshop a couple of weeks ago, righteous anger filled my heart as I learned about this and the many horrors of labor trafficking stemming from U.S. government contracting. Volunteers imbued to do something about human trafficking took to Washington D.C. on April 16 to lobby for three specific bills that will address trafficking.

The one that grabbed my attention most was the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act introduced in March 2012 by 11 senators and congress members from both political parties to address the deceptive and dehumanizing practice of foreign worker exploitation. Currently, the United States uses three main defense contractors (KGB, Fluor, and DynCorp International), who then subcontract to other subcontractors, subcontracting even further to reach global subcontractors, many of which are on the human-trafficking noncompliance list.1 These recruiter agents then go to countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and other developing countries to recruit locals, eager for employment. Individuals are promised a job in a big city like Dubai upon paying an exorbitant recruiting fee (an average of $3,000) to pay for a visa and travel. Since many individuals cannot afford this fee, they will go to a loan shark, where they are charged 35-45% interest or use their house as collateral.1 The individual is then given a tourist visa (not a permanent visa), and instead of arriving at a five star hotel in Dubai, they find themselves in the middle of a U.S. Combat Zone on a U.S. military base. Known as “third country nationals (TCNs),” these workers serve in occupations such as janitors, cooks, and hairdressers serving American Army men, women, and families, making half of the money they were promised, living in a dangerous environment.

Despite having a zero tolerance on human trafficking, more than 250,000 people have been victims of labor trafficking on U.S. government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years2; combat zones that we (the U.S.) created. Instead of starting our own war and dealing with the implications of that (that’s a whole other story), we are now suddenly bringing other countries’ citizens into our war, without their prior knowledge, through deceitful forced labor. Hidden in some contracts to TCNs are consent to work “seven days a week, twelve hours per day.”1 Additionally, there have been cases of harassment and repeated sexual abuse. 1 Some workers were housed on soiled mattresses with twenty five other migrants from countries around the world. Not only faced with harsh living conditions and paltry pay, workers face the risks of mortar fire, rocket attacks, and explosive devices. One woman interviewed in the New Yorker recalled that “a Kevlar helmet and bulletproof best sat at the foot of her bed.” Hardly the beauty salon in Dubai that she had been promised.1 Worse off, in an attempt to disrupt U.S. supply chains in 2004, Sunni militants kidnapped, blew up truckers, shot and even beheaded TCNs to send the message that they should be punished for working with the U.S.2 Many of these workers find themselves unable to escape their situations because their passports and other forms of documentation have been sequestered from them. For the few who do make it home, many encounter difficulties paying off their loans to the loan shark.

The End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act addresses these problems by promoting prevention, accountability, and enforcement. Contractors with contracts of over $1 million must implement compliance plans to prevent trafficking abuses such as confiscating passports, misrepresenting work location, and activities supporting the procurement of viable sex acts. This bill will improve accountability by requiring a contractor to notify the Inspector General if they receive “credible evidence” that a subcontractor has engaged in prohibited conduct. Investigations of such cases will be required and findings must be reported to the public. Finally, the bill will strengthen enforcement of polices by taking action against violations, including the removal of employee(s) or the debarment of the contractor.

While I think this bill is progress, I think there is a bigger issue at hand: Why are we creating policies to manage injustice rather than dismantling such systems? Why are we putting global citizens’ lives at risk in the first place? Why are we (the U.S.) paying men and women of developing countries unlivable wages, subjecting them to harassment, long work hours in dangerous conditions to begin with? Just to save money? Just so the casualties these workers are subjected to won’t be the death or injury of an American life? If Americans were hired for government work, labor polices would be in effect, including at least minimum wage, benefits, and liabilities. But we must not see third country nationals as deserving of such liberties, or else we would have already done so. We would have already made outcry and spoken instead of passively ignoring the issue with silence. It is our silence on such issues that sustain systems of corruption and injustice.

Whenever we value money over people, we will fail as humanity time and time again. When your priorities are power, defense, and capital, there is little room for respect and dignity. When we print, “In God We Trust” on our currency, are we trusting that God will bless our effort of military might and power, while ignoring our lack of dignity towards those of other countries? Do we trust that God supports our policies, however biased they are towards preserving American quality of life at all costs, simply because we sing “God Bless America” and have American flags in many of our churches? What does it say about the heart of America when our treasury funds a hierarchy of whose safety, well-being and labor “does” and “does not” really matter?

“For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Imagine a world where our time, money, energy, and priorities, are spent on love. Imagine a world where we don’t trust in the little gods of flags and patriotism, but we trust in the God of the Nations. Imagine a world where a Nepali life is valued as much as an American life. Imagine a world where we might be able to consider asking for God’s blessing because we not only love our neighbors, but we love and do good to our enemies. Imagine a world less focused on its borders and boundaries and a world that realizes that no matter which part of the Earth we reside, we are all ONE- humanity and life itself unite us, not our flags and fences. It seems to me that if we’re a nation that “trusts God,” then we should start trusting in the Kingdom values— That when Jesus talks about storing up treasures in Heaven, he meant that we are to invest in the attitudes and practices of the Kingdom of God: LOVE. What we spend our time, money, energy, voice, and very life on reveals what’s important in our lives, reveals what we stand for. Better than bills, greater than policy change, is loving and serving others (no matter the race or nationality), treating each person as you would like to be treated. THAT is worth placing our treasure in, and our hearts will be always and forevermore be changed.

So, what do you think?—

Are the lives of people in other countries valued as much as the lives of American people?

How can we support fair labor practices, not just in government contracting, but in our everyday purchases/expenditures?

Edmund Burke once said, “All that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women!] do nothing.” How do you feel about this?

________

To learn more:
1. (2011, November 2). Are government contractors exploiting workers overseas? Examining enforcement of the trafficking victims protection act. http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/11-2-11-Subcommittee-on-Technology-Information-Policy-Intergovernmental-Relations-and-Procurement-Reform-Hearing-Transcript.pdf

2. Stillman, Sarah. (2011, June 6). The invisible army: For foreign works on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, war can be hell. Retreived from www. Newyorker.com/reporting/2011/06/06/110506fc_fact_stillman

3. http://www.wartimecontracting.gov/

To act:
-Support the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act of 2012 here: https://www.popvox.com/bills/us/112/hr4259

Email, call, fax, or meet with your representatives and ask them to support anti-trafficking initiatives. Thank your legislators that do. Many organizations already have pre-filled email submission forms requesting support for legislature that individuals can sign for the organization to deliver. Check out the email campaigns of IJM.org and one.org.

-Write an op-ed to your local newspaper explaining key trafficking issues, pieces of legislature that address them, and encourage community participation in any local anti-trafficking events. Create your own event if none exist. Changing the world is easier than you think 🙂