Grace

Finding Joy in a Place of Need

Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Go Here to read the second in this series, Competing for the Greater Good

Peru is a land of extremes, especially for a motorcycle pilgrimage. Our journey from Lima to the orphanage in Moquegua took us through some of the most severe riding conditions imaginable. Storms of Peru, the second segment in the Neale Bayly Rides series, provided a glimpse into the challenges we faced, as Peru would not give up her beauty easily.

Our ride began in the congested, chaotic streets of Lima — a thriving metropolis of 16 million people — where an aggressive riding posture is your only chance for survival. It’s not that the Peruvians are bad drivers; it’s just that traffic laws don’t seem to be a concern for any of them. Riding through the boiling cauldron of cars felt like a massive vehicular free-for-all. Lima provided a baptism by fire for our adventure and, exciting though it was, we were glad to leave the haphazard traffic behind us.  

We rode south toward the beautiful but haunting desert of Ica. The life-smothering heat and blowing sands sweep across the land and stop abruptly at the Pacific Ocean. Riding through the rugged terrain of crushed rock, sugar sand, and loose gravel was even more challenging than it appeared on television. I was glad the production team didn’t show everything. I bit the dust more times than I care to admit.

The country is amazingly beautiful, as are the people. There's a crazy juxtaposition of things you have to see to believe — poverty mixed with joy, beauty and brokenness in the very same face, a fierce gratitude in the meanest of circumstances.

Boston, Bombs, and the Scandal of God’s Criminal Justice

Guardian angel, umbertoleporini / Shutterstock.com

Guardian angel, umbertoleporini / Shutterstock.com

I am tormented by what took place at the Boston Marathon. An iconic event that is supposed to be a celebration of achievement and companionship will be scarred with memories of injury and death for years to come. However, the source of my distress is not only the horrific sights and sounds of violence and terror, but in such dreadful disasters I also struggle with our common conceptions of a loving God. As many wonder where God was in the midst of such tragedy, and while others question why God did not (or could not) prevent such terror from taking place, I am personally tormented with my belief of where God's love will be placed in its aftermath.

On the one hand, we are told “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5: 4), and in receiving the Gospel in such ways, we take comfort in the belief that God is with those who suffer and directly at the side of those who struggle. This conception of a loving God offers relief for the victims in Boston and all those on the receiving end of transgression. However, while we proclaim a God in solidarity alongside those in pain, we are also often told that God is present with those who cause the pain, for the love and forgiveness found in Jesus is inclusive, it has no boundaries, and nothing is able to “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). So just as Jesus was sent to soothe those who suffer, he also absolves those responsible for the suffering. As a result, we are left with a God who seems to love both saints and sinners, which means we are both comforted and confronted in the aftermath of tragedy in Boston. 

Walking in the Father's Embrace

Alone man,  luxorphoto/ Shutterstock.com

Alone man, luxorphoto/ Shutterstock.com

I try to be a diplomat, to err on the side of patience, when it comes to theological differences between Christians.

Reconciliation and peacemaking come natural. My wife says I stop sounding like myself when I'm hard-nosed or critical.

But recently, sitting across from a young man who heroin ("that boy") very nearly got the better of just days before, I lost at least a layer of my irenic self, lost a bit of my cool. When it comes to certain teachings, I'll not be as diplomatic in the future.

When are we going to stop teaching that the Father has to look on Jesus to love us? Why do we teach that the Father turns away from us, abandons us because of our sin? When are we going to stop teaching that the Father is angry with men and women or hates us (or stop projecting any other merely human emotion on to God?), conveying by our messages (verbal and nonverbal) that God despises that which he gloriously made in God's image?

The message we too often send is that Jesus must persuade the Father to love us, must plead with his Father not to forsake us.

A Struggle for the Nation’s Moral Center

Court gavel with play letters, zimmytws / Shutterstock.com

Court gavel with play letters, zimmytws / Shutterstock.com

Sharletta Evans of Denver says it was her faith that motivated her to forgive the teens who killed her 3-year-old son, Casson, during a drive-by shooting. When she did, Evans says, she could feel the hate evaporate from her body. She has since developed a relationship with one of the young men, whom she hopes to see released from prison.

Minnesota’s Mary Johnson drew on her faith for the strength to meet with and forgive Oshea Israel, who was 16 when he killed Johnson’s 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd. Mary now considers Oshea, who lives next door to her, her spiritual son. The two now frequently speak together about anti-violence and the power of forgiveness.

And Mona Schlautman, whose 15-year-old son, Jeremy Drake, was kidnapped and killed in a park in Omaha, Neb., says her faith — plus her belief that it is good public policy — have led her to support changes in that state’s laws that would ensure young people who go to prison for serious crimes have meaningful opportunities to be considered for release after they have acknowledged what they did, asked for forgiveness and sought to make amends. She testified before the Pardons Board several times on behalf of Jeremy Herman, who at 17 was convicted of kidnapping her son. He was released from prison after 19 years.

Throughout the United States, people of faith are on the front lines of the effort to replace life-without-parole sentences for children with age-appropriate accountability measures that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing is an annual event intended to engage faith leaders and further increase awareness of individual, community and social needs arising from the current juvenile justice system.

What Are We Guarding Against?

Airport security, Tifonimages / Shutterstock.com

Airport security, Tifonimages / Shutterstock.com

As I stood in line at Orlando International Airport, a little girl did not want to go through airport security. She was desperately clinging to her grandmother.

I had already been pondering, as I *always* do, the enormous investment the nation has made in these checkpoints, going on 12 years now, in response to the actions of 19 men. 19 persons. These lines are here forever now, just one more cost of the fall, one more insult to our usual illusion of normalcy.

I'm not inconvenienced by the searches or the scanners, or worried about my personal liberties, though half stripping in public is embarrassing (we men have to take our belts off). At least the posture in those full-body cylinders reminds me that, at a very real level, this ought to be my more constant pose: found wanting, presumed guilty, and in need of throwing up my hands in surrender.

Still, I marvel at the sheer amount of money we must spend for all of this equipment and personnel, hoping this all somehow makes us safe. I'm skeptical.

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