They Will Know We Are Christians

This weekend I attended church via Facebook Live. Our church will start in person services next week. One of the songs played was a folk song created in the 1960s by Father Peter Sholtes. The song is called, “They Will Know We are Christians By Our Love.”

While humming this tune this morning, I reflected on that song and what it means. What does the word, Christian, conjure up in people’s minds today, especially in the United States? Does it mean I am a Republican? Or does it mean I am pro-life? Does it mean that I oppose gay marriage?

None of these sentiments express love. They are cultural issues, not necessarily spiritual ones. I am a Christian because I love God and I love others. That’s it. No other requirements.

The ideal to love is all I need. I can mess up because love covers a multitude of sins. I fall short so often of what I think a Christ follower should be. But to be labeled as a Christian by Jesus I have to love, not fret about my shortcomings.

I can love Democrats and Republicans, because love isn’t about political parties. I can love someone who supports abortion because, again, it’s about love, not the hot-button topic of the day.

I can love gays.

Jesus didn’t ask me to choose sides. He doesn’t require that I support Donald Trump. Or support Joe Biden. It’s not about that.

It’s about love.

Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Christmas in July

The following article was submitted to Guideposts Magazine. This is the edited version that will appear in a special December 2020 issue. The original was published earlier in December 2019 as Christmas Eve in Jail. This is a true story.

I stood in front of a metal detector at the parish jail. A guard patted me down and handed me a visitor’s badge. This wasn’t where I wanted to be on Christmas Eve.

Tina, my church jail ministry partner, had called earlier to say she couldn’t make it to the women’s Bible study at the prison like she’d promised. But the group was expecting someone. I pictured them sitting around a metal table in the communal cell, waiting to be uplifted by Tina’s lesson. She always led the meetings; she knew what to say. What did I have to offer these women spending Christmas in this lonely, dismal place? 

The guard took my purse and waved me through the metal detector. Another guard accompanied me to the women’s wing with my Bible.

A door buzzed and I heard a clamor of voices before I walked into the cell. Roughly 30 women in orange jumpsuits and jail-issued sandals stood with expectant looks.

“You’re here!” one of them shouted. A few began pulling sheets off their bunks and wrapping them around themselves like tunics or cloaks. A semicircle of chairs seemed to be arranged for some kind of performance. 

“Everyone in the audience, sit down!” shouted an imposing inmate of Native American heritage. The woman strode toward me and introduced herself as Jenny.

“We don’t want a Bible study today,” she announced. “We’re putting on a play. All we need is a real audience and here you are.”

With that, Jenny stepped back and opened a Bible. The women in sheets took their places. When they were ready, Jenny read: “Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Two of the inmates walked to the middle of the semicircle, and I realized they were Mary and Joseph. This was a Nativity play. Jenny read from the gospel while the women played their parts, stopping at various points to sing.

The baby Jesus was a pillow, carried lovingly by Mary and placed on a chair—the manger. The shepherds came in led by angels. The three wise men followed with their gifts of ramen noodles and toiletries.

Jenny moved everyone through their roles with jailhouse bluntness: “Get in there!” “Pay attention!” “Next!”

I joined in singing “Silent Night.” The women had surprisingly lovely voices. After the song, Jenny ordered everyone to kneel before the baby Jesus. The actors kneeled.

“You too!” Jenny shouted to the audience. “Now!” One by one the inmates kneeled. I knelt too.

The room was silent.

I did not know these women particularly well, but in my visits with Tina I’d gotten a general idea why most of them had ended up in jail. Domestic disputes. Drugs. Bad checks. Prostitution, maybe to support an addiction. Crimes of poverty, with jail time inevitable because no one could afford bail.

Tonight, all of that seemed to vanish. These women were full of joy and purpose. Jenny read from the prophet Isaiah:

For unto us a child is born,

Unto us a son is given;

And the government will be upon his shoulder.

And his name will be called

Wonderful, counselor, mighty God,

Everlasting father, prince of peace.

A moment more of transportive silence. Then Jenny barked, “Okay, play’s over!”

I applauded, genuinely moved, and the group rushed toward me from the makeshift stage. “Did you like it?” “Was our singing in tune?” “Could you imagine the real story?” 

I was surrounded. No one expressed bitterness over missing Christmas at home, or worry about kids and elderly parents left behind. No one sounded lonely or depressed or fearful. The women needed no more from me than my appreciation for their effort. In the story of Jesus’ birth, they had clearly found the love and forgiveness they yearned for. Tonight, all that mattered were God’s forgiveness and promise of new life, as real as that pillow placed lovingly on a chair.

When the visit was over, we all wished each other a merry Christmas and the door buzzed. I was escorted back to the exit and handed my purse.

Night had fallen and I walked to my car under the glare of security lights. I remembered how apprehensive I’d felt going in. It occurred to me that the first Christmas was probably a lot like this. Two poor refugees with nowhere to call home, sleeping in a stable. The baby Jesus, born as a nobody with a mission to rescue the lost. This wasn’t where I’d wanted to be on Christmas Eve—until I saw that Jesus himself was inside, bearing the priceless gift of God’s loving grace. I was honored to have witnessed it.

Just Mercy

A few days ago, a friend sent me an email with this quote from the book, Just Mercy.

Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion . . . we’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from our sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too.

My church has a women’s night meditation group on Wednesday night. We read a portion of scripture aloud three times. Then, we pause to reflect on its meaning in our lives. Then we repeat the reading three times again with fresh questions as we note the verses or thoughts that come up from the reading. This past week, we read the story of the woman at the well from the book of John. As you may recall, Jesus met a woman at a well in Samaria, and he asked her to serve him water from the well. She’s surprised at his request. Men didn’t talk to women, at least in public, and even more so, a woman he didn’t know. Finally, she’s suspect because she’s a Samaritan woman, belonging to a group of people who the Jews at the time were at odds with.

But Jesus talks to her, revealing who she is, and also offering her a chance of hope and redemption as he reveals himself as the living water. As the group at my church read the passage, I found myself drawn to this woman. I felt as if I were her, underserving and frankly surprised that Jesus would speak to me. I don’t deserve it. My prayer life is a quick thing each morning lately, with my thoughts scattered in a thousand directions rather than on the one thing I need – God.

Lately, I have been leaning into mercy. I watched Just Mercy, the movie. I wept for the injustice and final righting of wrongs for the wrongfully convicted Walter McMillian. Then, I read the book of the same title written by Bryan Stevenson. Unless you have a heart of stone, the book and the movie will move you. It moved me towards compassion and mercy.

It’s not that I am such a great Christian, either. I was moved because I need mercy. I need compassion. I need forgiveness. Everyday, I need it. I have joined Noom* to help me with reaching my goals for losing weight. It doesn’t require special foods or buying their stuff. I’ve lost about 10 pounds in the past 2 weeks. But I have so far to go. I am fat. I need to stop unhealthy eating patterns. Eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is way too easy for me. I need to walk, bike, or do something in my free time beside sit in front of a screen, either online or the television.

When I look at myself, I see someone who needs mercy. Mercy because of my lack of self-care, mercy for my lack of spiritual devotion, and mercy for all the other things I struggle with everyday. I am reminded of a story by Ann Lamott. She tells of visiting a friend in her kitchen, chatting as her young son played nearby. Suddenly, he whelped out a cry. She looked down and saw that his head was stuck between the legs of a chair. He cried out, “Help me. I need help with me. ”

That’s my cry today. Lord, help me. I need help with me.

*Noom is an app on your phone that helps you track your weight, monitor what you eat, and connect with like-minded people in your same situation.

Five Books/Films to Understand Racism

I think of past movements that brought change in our nation and world. The abolitionist movement, the suffragette movement, the civil rights protest of the 1960s all had naysayers, those who refused to see the importance of the times they lived in. I don’t want this moment to past by without me changing in the process.

As I look at what is happening across the nation, I have been trying to listen and learn. I want to learn and make real changes in my thoughts and actions towards the black experience. There is something profound happening in our country.

Here’s five books and films that I can personally recommend if you want to join me in learning about racism.

  1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It’s a book and a movie. It’s also the true story of a black man on death row in Alabama. I haven’t finished the book, but I watched the movie. It moved me to tears. The movie is available free for streaming through the month of June on most streaming services.
  2. undefinedWhite Fragility: Why it’s So hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson. I haven’t finished reading this book, but I am engaging the text.
  3. undefinedA Lesson Before Dying by Earnest Gaines. It’s a fictional work about racism, imprisonment and justice in the South. This short volume is a modern classic.
  4. undefinedHarriet. A movie available through various streaming services including Amazon Prime. It is the story of Harriet Tubman, the famed heroine of the Underground Railroad. Sometimes we have to understand the past in order to understand the present.
  5. undefinedNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Again, understanding the past roots of America’s struggle with race can help navigate today’s complexities.
  6. BONUS MOVIE: Get Out. Being white is spooky in this movie. It’s a thriller/horror movie with racial commentary thrown and mixed around. I loved this movie.

The Story of Gumbo and a bit more

The name of this blog is Gumbo Ya Ya. For years, I wrote under a similar name, the Honduras Gumbo. That changed when I left Honduras over 5 years ago.

In parts of Africa, the word, gombo, means okra. And in Angola, specifically, okra, was known as ngumbo. Is gumbo, then, an African dish? Well, yes and no. The slaves who came to Louisiana brought okra with them. They were known to eat a dish of okra and rice. But, we know that the French brought bouillabaisse with them to the New Orleans area. Then, there is the filé, which is dried and ground sassafras leaves, which is used to thicken gumbo. Filé came from the Native Americans who lived in this area.

Where do we get gumbo from exactly? Hard to tell. I would say all these cultures had a part in the dish. It’s a composite dish.

In the same way, we as a multi-ethnic nation. We live in a diverse culture. White, Black, Native American, Latino, Asian, and much more make this a culture that’s dynamic and ever-changing.

At this moment in our nation, I couldn’t write under the title gumbo, which is itself a fusion dish without mentioning our national diversity. I also must mention the ongoing protests in the nation and in some parts of the world, too. I believe these protests are a good sign that white people in particular are being awakened to the plight of our black brothers and sisters.

It is tempting to be cynical, to say that the protests are not going to change anything. It’s tempting to say that the media is capitalizing on the sensational of the moment. Or, we can acknowledge that racism exists, and that we, especially white Americans, can and must change.

What can I do besides post a social media post about race or write a few words on a blog read by a small audience? One thing I will do is be part of the conversation on race. Starting Tuesday evening, I am taking part in a book club that will discuss White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin J DiAngelo.

I refuse to be a cynic. I believe my small efforts can make a difference. If you are interested in being part of a book club with me, let me know. We can start another group using Zoom.

I can’t share a gumbo with you via Zoom, but I can and will invite you to the table of humanity where we all have a seat. We can make a difference. It doesn’t have to end with just a few more days of people in the streets.

Stormy Weather

A storm is brewing in the Gulf. Right now, Cristobal is meandering over land near the Yucatan. It won’t stay there forever. It is forecast to make its way toward the Louisiana coast on Sunday. It’s not likely to be a strong storm. At its worst, forecasters agree it could be a nominal hurricane.

Considering the fragility of our coastline, though, it may be just one more weapon that will be like a battering ram on our area. The boot in the picture above represents what used to be the coast of Louisiana. I couldn’t find a good image on the internet to show what it looks like today, but much of coast of southeastern Louisiana is gone. The land that I grew up on is increasingly being eroded and falling away. Open waters lap at our doorsteps, in some cases, quite literally, as people are forced to move to higher ground.

That’s one reason that I live where I live today. I didn’t see the sense of buying another house in New Orleans, after coming back here after nearly a decade in Honduras. New Orleans is surrounded more and more by open waters rather than protective wetlands, or near my hometown on the bayou where land is lost everyday. At least where I live now, a bit north and east of New Orleans, I don’t have to worry about small storms such as what is being projected for this weekend.

There are other storms. Some of the storms brewing are not tropical at all. There are political and racial storms that are raging now in our country. What do we do with the information we have about racial injustice and protests? Do we, as white Americans, just put up a social media comment in defense of justice and go along our way as if nothing has happened?

I’m guilty of doing that. I just posted a few things about injustice. I felt better. But what if I were really committed to understanding what’s happening in our country? I think I need to seek voices from the black community. I need to listen. There are battering rams of injustice and inequities hitting our nation right now. If not addressed, they will weaken our democracy.

Whenever we have storms in the Gulf, our motto is be prepared. We do what we can to protect our homes, and we ride out the storm as best we can. (Evacuation is still the best choice for large storms). I need a game plan, too, to prepare to understand my black brothers and sisters.

I plan to watch Just Mercy, a film about racial injustice in the penal system. You can rent Just Mercy for free in June through a variety of digital movie services in the US, including Apple TVFandangoNowGoogle PlayAmazon Prime VideoRedbox, the PlayStation Store, VuduMicrosoft, and YouTube. Join me in watching the movie.

I am also part of a book club that will be reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. I want this moment in history to count for something. I was only 6 years old in 1969 when the public schools in our school district were integrated. I was too young to have a voice, but I now see what a seminal moment that was for our town. I don’t want to be in denial this time, like my parents were in the 1960s.

In my morning devotions today, from Pray as You Go, the text was from Jesus’ words about the two greatest commandments. The first is to love God. The second is to love our neighbor. If we don’t grapple with social and racial inequities in our nation, I fear more storms are going to hit us. It’s time we met the storms with foresight and prudence.

In This Book

Yesterday, President Trump chose to walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church. In the process, lawful, peaceful protestors were gassed and hit with rubber bullets so that Trump could make the short walk to the church. There he held up a Bible upside down and had his photo taken. He didn’t pray, read a Bible verse or speak at all.

I can’t for the life of me understand why he did this. He gained nothing from lifting up a Bible for a prop in front of a church that he doesn’t attend. The whole event smacked of base hypocrisy. He used his power and authority in ways opposed to the Christian faith that I affirm.

I quote from Melissa Florer-Bixler, “In this book are the words of a pregnant, brown, teenage Jew living under military occupation, born into poverty, who said that one day the powerful would one day be cast down from their thrones and the rich sent away empty. This would be the work of God.”

Jesus’ way as detailed in this book, the Bible, was to lift up the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the hopeless. When Jesus gave his disciples a model prayer, what we call the Lord’s prayer, he said, “Let your kingdom come.” The kingdom of God, which is the opposite of this world’s systems’, can break into this current world system if we truly embody the words in this book, the Bible.

Lord, help me to discern correctly in this book what you want from me.

Conspiracy theories among Christians

This is important folks. Conspiracy theories are running rampant on social media.

BRIAN HAYNES

A close friend in our church texted me this question today amidst the whirlwind of conspiracy theories wildly blowing among believers on social media.

“What are your thoughts towards the uproar of believers posting conspiracy type things online (especially today)? I feel overwhelmed by the amount of fear and disunity.”

This is the worst of Christianity in America. Conspiracy theories are birthed in fear. This is all very convoluted at the grass roots level because people don’t trust leaders for good and bad reasons. Here are my thoughts in short form:

  1. The virus is real. We (Christ-followers) should do our best to be responsible citizens out of obedience to our God who teaches us to pray for and submit to our leaders as far as possible without disobeying God. Also, we live in communities with people we call our neighbors we are to love relentlessly. So we follow guidelines to…

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Hope

“Hope is (for me) not usually the religious-looking fingers of light slanting through the clouds, or the lurid sunrise. It’s more a sturdy garment, like an old chamois shirt: a reminder that I’ve been here before, in circumstances just as frightening, and I came through, and will again. All I have to do is stay grounded in the truth.”     Anne Lamott

I found this quote yesterday on Facebook. It was part of a longer piece written by Anne Lamott for National Geographic in 2018. I like it. To me, it says hope, as well as its cousins, love and faith, are more than holy talismans that stand apart from our ordinary, everyday life. Hope, for me, is something that is as natural as breathing. It sustains me.

In Louisiana, today we enter Phase One of the return to normalcy. Restaurants will open with limited seating. Retail shops are open. Barber shops and beauty salons open with limited capacity. I was able to score a coveted spot with my hair stylist next Monday.

I hope the curve continues downward in Louisiana. For a time, we were one of the nation’s hot spots for Covid-19. Fortunately, the New Orleans area, which was one of the nation’s leader in per capita cases, is now subsiding in new cases. There’s hope for the city and the state.

If you prefer sunrises and slanting light in clouds (in this case a sunset) I have one of those, too. After all, nature too can bring about a sense of hope. I think I’ve had this one on the blog before but I like it. It’s a sunset over Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville, Louisiana.

lake sunset

Consider the Lilies

Fire daylily1jpgThere is something magical, God-breathed inspiring, about day lilies. For just one day, a bloom is magnificent and break-taking, then each lily shrinks and shrivels into nothing but a memory as a fallen bloom.

Yet, each day, when I wake up, I can’t wait to see which lilies will grace my yard with their glory. They require very little upkeep, and they propagate without my help. All I offer is a bit of weeding and fertilizing, and nature supplies the sun and soil weaving a tapestry of beauty. I don’t have a special macro lens for my camera so this is the best I can do as far as photography will allow me to capture the day’s offering.

perfectly pink

mild yellow daylillies

pale orange2

 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;  and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not [l]arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Matthew 6:28-