As you know we’ve embarked in a new adventure. The way here has been filled with Spirit moments, seeded in an angst that is hard to describe but blooming in the fertile ground of the layers of soil, the organic material of the last few decades. Each layer with its fruitfulness and fitfulness, each layer with its signs of life and its signs of death, each layer important for blooming to take place.
I thought about you often during the discernment. As you know more than once I appealed to the saints, asking for wisdom, clarity, and intercession. More than once I could see you with Abuelo, my Abuela Yia, and Abuela Lico who joined the great company in February. Though there have been the difficult moments I could feel you all’s presence, wisdom, and love. You all faithfully supporting and helping me awaken to joy.
“Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world.”
St. Oscar Romero
“I believe in a church that is a sign of the presence of God’s love in the world, where men and women extend their hands and encounter one another as sisters and brothers.”
St. Oscar Romero
Since I can remember I’ve strived to be a peacemaker. For me this meant a certain discomfort with conflict, a desire for people to come together, I thought with right words I could “convince” people to find middle ground. It should not surprise you that I was an early talker, who was argumentative, people person, and connector.
I can understand why it might seem like the end of time is near. So much is happening around us, every day brings a new surprise, and it seems like the entire world is walking on eggshells. The entire world filled with angst about the worst possible outcome coming true, a nightmare becoming reality.
Reading I Have Some Things To Tell You reminded me why letters make up such a large portion of the New Testament. Pastoral letters are ways to expound on the preaching life, ways to explain, struggle with, and communicate to God’s people. Letters help all us slow down and take it in, reflect on it, and use it into the future. In the same way I Have Some Things To Tell You invites us into a conversation and like other pastoral letters it is both contextual and universal. The realities that Smith describes in her context are the realities to many (if not most) other congregation-pastor relationships. Her courage in expressing those struggles encourages other communities and other pastors.
At the cornerstone of Smith’s intimate correspondence is God’s grace. This grace is at work in the messiness of life, in the difficult intersection between personal relationship and our relationship to God, in the complicated nature of pastoral relationships, and in the acknowledgement that pastors, like all other followers of Jesus, are people in desperate need of divine grace.
In this season of social distancing I’ve been teaching a bible study on the Gospel according to Mark. The Zoom experience has provided much needed community and an opportunity to learn more and feel connected as a congregation.
Any time I go back and dig into the gospels I am reminded why I call myself a follower of Jesus. It also reminds how deeply my sense of meaning has been shaped by the Christian story — not the Christendom story and not even the Christianity story — the transcendent exists, its primary character is wholeness (shalom) expressed in loving-kindness, it became incarnate to show us what the divine looked like and that it was obvious that God’s image lives in all humanity, shalom though loving-kindness was once again rejected by our bent to want to be god, the divine showing solidarity with all those who die everyday due to humanity’s bent, as it turns out death could not, is not, and will not have the last say, resurrection becoming an act of revolution against the forces of sin and death.
I want to begin with some first things. These are very personal and because of that they provide a way to interpret my writing, past, present, and future. These are markers to my identity, many of whom I’ve had a difficult time claiming. They are also my experience, for it is the only thing that I am an expert on.
In North American parlance I am a multi-racial human. I say this very specifically ‘cause the idea never crossed my mind until that first encounter in a U.S. High School. It quickly became apparent that there were sides based on skin color and identity. It would take me years to realize that it was more than that!
I fell in love with the Benedictus—the Canticle of Zechariah—when I began praying Morning Prayer my senior year in College. Every morning and now all these years later I can say it from my soul. There was something powerful about beginning my day by reminding myself why a savior came, why the promise was fulfilled, and why that promise is still real and being fulfilled today.
Over the years different verses in the amazing prayer have guided me and helped me through difficult times. “That he would save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us,” “you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,” and “to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” And today, “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
It would be difficult to describe my 41st year of life. As my 40th birthday approached last year I knew that forty provided a new beginning. Not just because it was another decade but because I felt this move inside of me, this angst, a difficult to explain shifting happening deep within my soul. Sabbath, do not be anxious about anything, children getting older, my beard graying, a post-Maria Puerto Rico, a culture around me that seemed to be turning against people like me, and the continued struggles in United Methodism and in the local churches of this great tradition where some of the words, phrases, and happenings that kept me alert to the stirrings going on within me.
Idolatry – the worship of a false god or image as such, a practice prohibited by the law of God. Figuratively, any obsessive concern can become idolatry.
Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms
Last year as I was doing one of my Bible in 90 Days marathons the theme that kept on I jumping out of the page was idolatry. The constant struggle of the people of Israel to keep their eyes on the one true God. Over and over again idolatry has been at the center of human frailty. From a serpent that claims some wisdom to the Baal’s, Marduch’s, Ashera’s, and El’s. In the New Testament there were more identifiable gods: power, fame, money, and religion. By the time Paul writes his letters he too reminds us of the constant human tendency that is at the root of our bent towards sin and death and that is our exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans” Romans 1:23.
Our prioritizing and humanizing of things and then placing them at the center of our identity, loyalty, and conviction continues to do what it has done from the beginning, separate us from God, from our true humanity, and from the true humanity of the other. This is not a new phenomenon for it is the basis of our primal story and the center of our existence as God’s people. We in need to be transformed, redeemed, and restored so that we can become a light of who we truly are as created ones different and apart from the creator.
In the last few days we have witnessed the terror of gun violence that inflicts us in the United States. We then have witnessed the terror of oral violence that continues to paralyze us from acting towards a more peaceable society. Some of this violent rhetoric is active and ovbious—name calling, insults, demeaning words, and mischaracterization of the other—the other is not as obvious but as deadly, silence. Specifically the silence that demands that we not mention certain words: guns, racism, xenophobia, white supremacy.
The people of God are not immune to such violence. We too get in the fray and often create more harm. In Facebook posts and comments, in emails to fellow believers (and pastors), and in face to face conversations around the coffee pots at work, in the marketplace and in the church we behaving in ways that place our ideologies, partisan affiliations, and world views as primary identities instead of our faith in Jesus Christ. In other words we too easily falling into our primal sin of idolatry.
The Christian faith calls us to “confess Jesus Christ as our savior, put [our] whole trust in his Grace and to serve him as Lord.” We forsaking other God’s, especially the gods of our own making, the gods we love to see in the mirror, and the gods of nationalism. We standing in the messy border between what is and what is to come, the kingdom of the world and the kin-dom of God. We shining a light and recognizing that evil, injustice, and oppression exist in the world. That in a society we must be willing to come together and say the words, struggle with them, and not allow ideological paranoia rule us, our knees easily bending to the gods we can easily see.
I don’t know what to do about guns, I don’t own one, and never will. I have an ethical and theological struggle with how easily they can take a life. I’ll have to confess that I do not trust myself with one, my emotions too raw at times of fear, uncertainty, and anger. But neither do I judge or blame another from having one.
I do know and have experienced racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy both in individuals, and in systems (including the church). I say this while continuing my sanctifying work from my own prejudices. I say this while recalling key events in my life when I have received such evil treatment both directly and indirectly, by word and by deed, by action and inaction. At times it has been my skin color, at others my accent, at others by my name (If I had a written collection of “Juan” jokes it would be more than one volume), and yet at others by those who claim “color-blindness” to avoid calling those around them and the systems into a new way.
I say this to invite all of us to a willingness to say the words. To study the history of colonialism, the slave trade, Women’s Suffrage, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, scientific racism (including but not only eugenics), natural theology, and American History (including Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and American Civil Religion) and from the perspective of Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans (especially Mexican Americans).
In saying the words and being willing to learn more we open the doors for repentance, forgiveness, and pardon. We, like those who wrote the Holy Scriptures, being willing to be honest about our own history, even when painful, so that we never forget. Remembering is key to forgiveness, freedom, and future.
Let us come together as people of God humbly and willingly engage each other in these conversations with love, compassion, curiosity, and in community. In doing so we might model for our neighbors, friends, love ones, and even enemies what it looks like to live into the way of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. Us, all of us, who claim to follow Jesus, living a cruciform life, with no other gods before us!
I say these things with bated breath but convinced that silence would be a worst sin. As a pastor I have committed that sin (alongside pride and idolatry) more than most others out of fear. I also say these things because I actually believe that the people of God can disagree on policy, politics, party affiliation, and worldview and yet be committed principally to the way of Jesus, to the way of love, compassion, justice, and peace.