Wednesday, March 29, 2017

WWMD "What would Mary Do?"

Note: I was asked to attend a local rally in Laredo to promote good relations with our neighbors in Mexico, and to remind people that many of us who live on the border of Texas and Mexico see much that is good, and much of the complexity of life with our neighbors across the Rio Grande. These were my remarks at the event.

March 25, 2017 - Feast of the Annunciation

At age 17, I had my visa revoked and made to leave a foreign country.  I was there legally, and had not committed a crime. My entire family was made to leave ostensibly for political reasons.  It had been my home for 5 years.  So in 48 hours I went from a fairly normal life, school, sports, friends, church, family, to suddenly not knowing where I would live, where my family would end up.  We each left with one suitcase each, headed for our home which happened to be the United States.  Once you’ve been deported you see the whole issue not just from a political perspective but a personal one.

Two years ago, I made some visits to an immigration jail to visit someone who was being deported. That jail happens to be in Nuevo Laredo, and the person who was being deported was being thrown out of Mexico and made to return to the United States. We forget that deportation works both ways.

We do need borders, and we do need laws. But we can have better laws, and we can make our borders safer and easier for Americans, and I mean all Americans, North, South, and Central to cross. We can work to make not just our country better but other countries as well.

We are Americans. We are a creative people. We put people on the moon. Surely, we can figure our more creative solutions to illegal immigration, both future and current. There is an estimate that 11 million folks are here illegally.

What if we made people legal over time with the requirement that they had to pay a $1000 per person per year tax for the next 10 years. That comes to about 11 billion dollars a year. Let’s split that between the Federal Government and State Governments. Supposedly in Texas there are about 1.68 million people here illegally. That would be 1 billion, 680 million dollars each year.

There are probably hundreds of ways we can think creatively and see people as assets and not liabilities.

Is a wall the best solution? Again, we have surveillance technology, and transportation technology second to none. Even if we build the wall, someone has to watch to make sure people aren’t crossing over it or under it, or through it.  There may be a few places where walls and fencing make sense, but growing the Mexican economy will keep more people from emigrating illegally more than a wall will.

I love my country. But I have a deep obligation to think not just about the United States. I am required to think internationally. I am required to do so because I am a member of the oldest and largest, humanitarian non-profit on the planet. We have members in every country on the planet, including closed countries like North Korea. There are more than 2.5 billion members globally.

Some of us call it “the Church”. And because I am a member of that ancient global fellowship, I am obliged to think about the members of my group who live not only in the United States, but Mexico, Canada, Afghanistan, Egypt, Madagascar, Argentina, Russia, India, and anywhere else.

Today happens to be the Feast of the Annunciation. For many of us it is a reminder of how much God loves the world, and how much the world was changed because a young Jewish teenager said “Yes” to God.  And a few months after that yes, in Luke 1:46 she sings out a manifesto that goes like this.

”My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful  of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

Mary’s words. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” remind me that anytime we make a decision that will hurt the poor or the hungry, we had better be very sure that there is not a better alternative.

The founder of our organization, a guy named Jesus, loved to tell stories. One of his most famous is called the story of the good Samaritan.

Jesus was addressing his critics who were all “Israel First” folks. But when he challenged them they got the right answer to the simple question he asked.  Who was the best person at being a good neighbor to a man left injured by the roadside? The irony was that it was the foreigner.  Yes, some people do need to be deported and prevented from entering our country, but some people we plan to throw out might be some of the best people in our country.

We do need borders, and we do need laws. But we can have better laws, and we can make our borders safer without a wall. But it means that we need to see our neighbors as exactly that:  neighbors, not enemies, friends not foes.  Surely the Virgin Mary whose acceptance of the task to bear the Son of God,  the Savior of our race expects us to do better.

Those you who wish, please join me in this acclamation from Luke's Gospel as we remember her "Yes" to God on this day.

Hail Mary, full of grace,   
The Lord is with Thee;
    Blessed art thou among women,
    And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
    Holy Mary, Mother of God,
    Pray for us sinners,

    Now and at the hour of our death. Amen

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Indios and Immigration

Indios and Immigration

Somewhere at at 4 or 5 in 1959 or 1960, my grandmother Lois took my brother Mark and I to visit the trading post run by Charles "Charlie" Eagle Plume, who ran a trading post between Estes Park and Allen Park, near Long's peak in Colorado.

We were deeply impressed. To two boys who were raised on Western Movies and Western TV shows, meeting a real live Indian was beyond compare. He was kind, and spoke to us without speaking down to us. As we walked through the store he showed us various artifacts. He answered all our questions about Indians. It was the beginning of a realization in me that perhaps the cowboys and the settlers might not have always been the good guys.

There is a great debate about immigration in our country, and great anxiety about people from Mexico coming to the U.S.  But one of the things that rarely gets mentioned or talked about is the undeniable fact that huge numbers of people from Mexico are genetically part Native American.
In part because of our Judeo-Christian heritage, we of mostly European descent, act as though we are descendants of a kind of New World Israelite. We descend from our heroic ancestors who drove out our enemies, (and God's enemies),from our promised land. We usually think of those enemies as the British, but forget that many more Native people were killed as we invaded this land.
I am not sure God sees that conquest in quite as heroic a light.
We think of the early white pioneers as the original Americans. My grandmother could trace her ancestry back to William Ripley who immigrated to Massachusetts in 1638. She was proud of that heritage, but always reminded us that we did take the land from the Native peoples.

We likewise think the people coming here across the Southern Border are invaders. But it could be argued that many of the folks coming North from Mexico and other parts of the Americas are simply coming back to lands their ancestors lived in. If we gave out visas by genetic tests, most of those invaders are far more "American" than those of us who only go back 500 years or so. Just a few hours from where I type this, is Seminole Canyon, which was continually inhabited for at least 9,000 years, and only abandoned due to the wars we waged on the Indians. Many of their descendants live on both sides of the Rio Grande. We call them Mexican or Mexican American, and so they are. But they are also part Native People.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln speculated that the bloodshed of the Civil War was in part, Divine Judgement for the sin of slavery.

I have often wondered what form Divine Judgment for the acts of conquest and genocide of the Native Peoples of the Americas takes. Perhaps we are looking at part of it now. Perhaps the immigration of other Americans, whose genetic heritage is closer to the original inhabitants is God giving back part of what was taken by force.
In all the debate about immigration we should be careful to judge, and we should seek God's perspective first.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Walls - Part 2

(This is part 2 of a previous blog)

Leviticus: 19:33 "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." (NIV)

As I sat in my office with two men who had illegally crossed the Rio Grande in search of medical care for an elderly grandmother, and work for the two of them, my heart sank. I knew they'd sold some of their property back home to pay the people smugglers.

It turned out that it was one of the people who worked for the smugglers who told them that cancer therapy in the United States was free, and that if they just got their Grandmother across the river she be treated and healed.

The young niece who had also come was to be united with her mother and father who had come several years earlier when both lost their jobs when a factory closed.

After a few phone calls, we discovered that both the Grandmother and niece had already been sent back to Mexico and were in the care of the DIF, the Mexican Social Services agency. The men were relieved. \

After a few agonized minutes they decided they could not leave the young lady and their grandmother, They asked how to get back to Mexico and how to find the DIF. After getting them directions, I drove them downtown, gave them enough money for the pedestrian bridge toll and bus fare in Nuevo Laredo. And I gave them my card, and told them to call me if they needed anything else.

I parked near the bridge, They  hugged me, thanked me and set off back to Mexico.

Simple work visas would allow people to come, work, earn, pay taxes, visa fees, and go home when there was no work. Instead we spend billions of tax dollars on immigration agents, when we could be collecting billions of visa dollars, letting people work and pay tax dollars. Spend tax dollars - Collect Tax dollars?

At the level of politics, economics, national security, and more, immigration is not really quite that simple. But much of what drives our current policy is driven by fear and racism.

The irony of all the anger and hostility toward foreigners in the United States is a sign that most Americans no longer know their own story.  My ancestors came to the English colony of Massachusetts to escape religious intolerance. Others came from Ireland to escape English economic oppression. Some came seeking a better life in the new world.

Here on the border, in the late 1930's and 1940's a steady stream of illegal Jewish refugees came into the United States via Mexico. Today we'd call them OTMs (other than Mexican). Mexico was willing all through the 1930's and 1940's to accept Jewish refugees when we were not.

Our State Department was full of people who were anti-Semitic, and we had official policies to keep Jewish people from coming to the US.  Many people died in concentration camps because we refused them refuge. How short sighted those seem now!!

God help us to reach back into our ancestral memories and realize that all of us came from somewhere else.

And as Christians, we should look back even further, to a much older ancestral memory: Exodus 23:9 “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt."

Friday, February 19, 2016


Ephesians 2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

They were both still damp. Their shoes were still squishy and water would drip out when they stepped down. "Are you the priest?" 
 "Yes." I replied. 
 "We need help." they said.  "Tell me what you need."

A story poured out. A few hours earlier four people had crossed a river.  These two brothers, their niece, and their 75 year old grandmother.  They'ed sold their home, given the cash to smugglers, been abandoned in an overgrown lot, after they crossed the river, and shortly later, their niece and grandmother had been picked up by the Border Patrol.

"Why in the world were you bringing your grandmother?" I asked. 
Weeping, they explained,  "She has cancer, and everyone knows  that in the United States, the doctors have the power and medicine to heal cancer."  
My heart sank. "Who told you that?"  
"The man who put us in touch with the people who were going to help us come to the US." they answered. 

I have lived and been a pastor in two border communities in South Texas for 17 years. Every time I hear someone talking about a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, I cringe.  

In Jerusalem there was a wall. Not the city wall, but a wall that separated the Temple. Chiseled into the stone were warnings that any non Jew caught crossing the wall would be killed. 

When Paul writes to his church in Ephesus about Jesus breaking down the dividing wall, he cannot help but think of that wall, whose entry way he himself had once sought to protect even to the point of  killing. In fact he himself was almost killed when he passed through the wall and his enemies thought he was smuggling in a non Jew.  (See Acts 21:27ff)

Bu in Christ there is another way.   - Tomorrow, more of the story. -

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Dust to Dust ...Alleluias in Lent!?

Lent is begun. Alleluia! (Except that some of us refrain from using Alleluia during Lent,) Many Christians "fast" from using the word until Easter in order to rejoice greatly as we celebrate the Resurrection.  And yet the phrase itself means "Hallelu  Yah"  in Hebrew,  or "Praise God" in English. Certainly we should praise God even more during Lent even if we refrain from that particular expression of praise. Lent offers us a time ot re-focus our lives on God. Hopefully as we do so we find many reasons to praise Him.

And perhaps we should look at our praise of others. I try to praise others for their work. Perhaps I can do more of that this Lent. We can seek opportunities to praise children for their academic, service, and athletic efforts. We can express admiration for courageous and sacrificial behavior. And we can intentionally praise God.

Janani Luwum - Late in Lent - Better late than never

Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016 - Episcopal Church remembrance of Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, and Martyr, 1977  - Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.

Late in Lent
I had planned a Saturday February 13 start to my Lenten blogging. I blogged for Lent a few years ago and thought it would be simple to do so again. But I did not really "count the cost" or think through how much my life and schedule has changed over the last two years. The last time I blogged for Lent, Anne and I were empty nesters, our grown children off on their own.  This time, we have been blessed with a niece and her three young children living with us.  And so, my musings and outlines sat and never materialized into my posts.

I considered dropping the whole thing, but decided better late than never. My posts were mostly my own Lenten work, meant to help me spiritually. If they also were helpful to others, thanks be to God.

So, better late than never, a week from Ash Wednesday, here goes.

I had never met anyone from Africa before. But my father, then the Episcopal Bishop of Guatemala, had invited a Bishop he'd met at the 1968 Lambeth Conference to come to Guatemala for a visit. When my brother Mark and I arrived home from high school that afternoon, we heard loud laughter, and a lilting English sounding accent. As we stepped into the house my father called from the living room, "Boys, come meet Bishop Luwum."

I don't know what we had expected, but it was not a towering, large man who wrung our hands, patted on the back and greeted us warmly. We were polite, and planned to exit to leave the two bishops to their conversation.  But it was not to be. Janani wanted to know about us, what we were studying, when  and where we planned to go to University.

Our answers were too short and quiet for his liking. "Speak up young men. Now tell me how you plan to serve God with your lives."

I can't speak for my brother Mark, but the last thing on my mind my sophomore year of school was anything with God in the job description.  So I mentioned that I liked archaeology, biology, and history, but didn't really see myself in a God kind of job.

"Well then," he said, "you must consider being a teacher, a missionary teacher. You boys need to seriously consider coming to Uganda and serve the Lord as missionaries. Perhaps God wants you there."  During the days he stayed with us, he kept urging us to take seriously how God might use us in many different ways.

My whole life as a preacher's kid I'd been dogged by peoples comments about following in my father's footsteps. By high school I had become immune to any consideration of them. But for some reason the intensity, personality, and fervor of this energetic apostle broke through some layer of resistance. I was fighting hard to put the wall back up, but in some small corner of my mind the thought that there might actually be a God, and not only that, the kind of God who did actually call people to do things, got a small foothold.

Just over 4 years later I found myself as a lay volunteer, in Houston doing evangelism and outreach from  inner city Episcopal church. Every once in a while I would think of how that African bishop had urged me to consider what God wanted me to do with my life.

In 1977 on a cold February day in Houston, the phone rang. One of my housemates called out, "Paul, it's for you, it's your mom."  When I answered I knew something was wrong. "Hey mom, what's up." "Honey, do you remember Bishop Luwum who stayed with us when we were in Guatemala?"  "Of course mom, Bishop Janani is a hard to forget!"  "Your dad got a call today. Apparently he was arrested by Idi Amin, and was tortured and murdered. We know that you've mentioned how he really made you think about what to do with your future and we wanted you to know so you could pray for him and his family and the Church in Uganda."

2002, Canturbury Cathedral, Kent, England
Touring the Cathedral, I went and knelt at the altar rail at the far eastern end of the building, noticing that it was now called The Chapel of the Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time. After a brief prayer and a glance at the windows, I noticed a few feet over, a three ring binder on a string. I opened it at random and starting back at me was a black and white photo of Janani Luwum.

Unexpected tears sprang into my eyes. Tears of gratitude, and grief. Thankful for a faithful ;servant of God, willing to confront the evil of his time, Thankful for a few words spoken over 30 years earlier that got a foothold in my heart and mind.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

New Year Course Corrections

This January 3rd marks the first Sunday of the New Year. I am not inclined to make New Year’s resolutions. But I do try to make New Year’s course corrections.

A few weeks ago a person came up to me after church. I noticed them arriving about 5 minutes before the service ended. Afterwards they said to me. “Thank God I got here before the service was over. I’ve had an awful morning, but just being here for the final prayer and hymn, and being here with my church family helps me so much!”

I have learned over the years that small steps are often much more successful than huge ones. If I decide to do some exercise every day, even if it turns out to be five minutes rather than sixty. Over the course of a year even those 5 minutes help.

The same is true about our religious life. For many years Christians have known that real spiritual growth takes two conversions and two disciplines. We must be converted to Christ from whatever else we make more important than Jesus. That is how we begin to live out the first great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.”   

Second we must be converted to the Church, because it is there that we learn to love others the way God loves them, and learn to love ourselves because God commands us to love ourselves! This is the place where we gain the knowledge and skill and the power to live out the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Practically this means that you will have much more success in developing a deeper relationship with God if you take the small steps each day. Pray for at five minutes a day. Come to one church service a week on Wednesday or Sunday.  If you miss a week, come the next week, rather than letting guilt keep you away. If you’re going to be late, trust me, worship is one place where better late than never is always true.

Much love and best hopes and prayers for 2016 – Fr. Paul