In Trying Times, Luther’s Words Challenge, Comfort — Mark Staples
By Mark A. Staples, writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale
I am struggling just a bit with the turbulence of these times. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” words penned by Thomas Paine at the time of the American Revolution, come to mind. It may be that the times are always trying, but in part because of recent personal experiences, out of the headlines for the most part, these days seem especially poignant for me.
I’m a writer – for 50 years now – and a Lutheran Christian. On November 1 I began an assignment for American Baptist Churches USA to write about a growing humanitarian crisis in Mexico. Haitian migrants, thousands of them, were converging on Tijuana, hoping to gain access to the U.S., where many family members live. Baptist congregations, six of them, were responding to offer shelter. Even though many parishioners there are impoverished themselves, one church leader said simply, “It is something we are called to do. We have to help each other, and now is the time.”
Haitians have had many occasions to flee their homeland – in 1982 they fled in small boats from the cruelties of their president, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. I wrote about Haitians detained in Florida back then. More recently they have been fleeing ravages of a 2010 earthquake and this summer’s devastating Hurricane Matthew. Many of the Haitians in Mexico had migrated from Brazil, where they had once found work building venues for the 2016 Summer Olympics. But now the work is gone. And they feel like they can’t go home.
On December 23, as a shipboard visitor with credentials from Homeland Security to visit in U.S. ports, I visited a stranded ship off the Baltimore coast to deal with a much smaller but no less significant humanitarian crisis. The ship’s Greek owner had run out of money. After dropping off her cargo of asphalt delivered from Curacao and with no money available for needed repairs or dockage fees, the vessel was placed at anchorage a mile out into the Chesapeake Bay making the ship’s crew – essentially — prisoners. The ship had spent three months twisting in the Chesapeake winds with few visitors. By launch we delivered food, warm blankets and clothing and a small, artificially lighted Christmas tree to 11 Filipino seafarers and their Romanian captain. They too could not go home until a financial solution could be found.
After participating in these events I thought about how easily I take “going home” for granted. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reports that a record number of people – 65 million around the world – can’t go home tonight to gaze at photos of loved ones or forebears on the hall table or walls. That’s one of every 113 people – six out of 10 Iraqis – and so many others displaced by violence, war, famine or natural disaster – including some in the U.S. displaced by the ravages of recent storms.
At a time like right now it is helpful to recall that the Bible is filled with stories of displaced people. Some of them were displaced in the very lands where people are being uprooted today. Among the plentiful and pertinent Old Testament references are stories of Cain, Abraham and Sara, Noah and other chapters found in Exodus. In the New Testament, reading Matthew 2: 13-14 tells of the flight to Egypt of Joseph and Mary with their child Jesus to escape the clutches of Herod, who was seeking to destroy the child.
These thoughts stirred me to help convene a small group of disciples at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, PA, where my wife and I have been members for 26 years. We invited Kelli Gottemoeller of Bethany Christian Services to join us. That agency resettles refugees from a host of countries and by the end of the meeting we had agreed to help resettle an Iranian Christian family. It was a small effort to reduce the number of displaced individuals across the globe. The decision revived a congregational tradition of resettling other families over the years.
Now the U.S. has suspended entry of refugees to its shores, at least for a time. And I find that profoundly troubling given our history and values and the nature of my God-given faith.
I found myself asking, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer can become complicated. My immediate neighbors are, on one side, a young Muslim man and his Mom originally from Afghanistan, and on the other an elderly African American widow. The Muslim man is still dealing with the excitement of having become a U.S. citizen this summer. He has a good manufacturing job. Some of his family members were tragically killed during violence in his homeland many years ago now. We have been trying to console the widow who, after her husband’s recent death, is suddenly alone.
It seems, as I thought about it, as though my neighbors also include Haitians from Mexico and Baptist congregations I have written about, 12 Filipino sailors and their Romanian captain stranded in a wintry bay off Baltimore, and a family of Iranian Christians. My neighbors also include people that I know and don’t know who are concerned about or afraid of terrorism. They include left-behind Americans that J.D. Vance writes about in the best-seller Hillbilly Elegy. Listening to each other matters.
For greater understanding and hope I’ve been turning to prayer and another best-seller, Freedom of a Christian, a pamphlet penned by Reformer Martin Luther. It was written in very plain language of the day.
OK, it was a 1520 best-seller, but a best-seller it was.
Luther termed the pamphlet “the whole sum of the Christian life. A Christian person is a free sovereign, above all things, subject to no one. A Christian person is a dutiful servant in all things, subject to everyone.”
Gulp. Think about that for a minute. From a variety of resources, Luther describes in the treatise how faith unites one’s soul with Christ, as Philip D. W. Krey and Peter D. S. Krey describe in their Paulist Press book, Luther’s Spirituality (2007), in which they translate some of Luther’s key writings.
Toward the conclusion of Freedom of a Christian Luther writes, “Look, in such a way God’s possessions must flow from one person into another and be (held) in common. Each one should so accept the neighbor as if the neighbor were himself or herself. All good things flow into us from Christ, who accepted what we are into his life, as if he were what we are. These same things should flow from us into those who have need of them. In addition I must place even my faith and righteousness before God for my neighbor, so that they cover my neighbor’s sin, and then take that sin upon myself, and act no differently than if it were my very own, even as Christ did for all of us. That, you see, is the nature of love when it is genuine. And love is genuine where faith is genuine. Hence, the holy apostle (Paul) in 1 Corinthians 13:5 attributes to love that it does not seek its own interests but the interests of the neighbor.
“Out of all these things the conclusion follows that Christians do not live in themselves but in Christ and in their neighbor – in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love…”
These words both challenge and comfort me.
And they lead me toward questions for each of us to consider in our own way in these days of backyard fences, borders and walls: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” and “What do we do then?”
The author, a free-lance writer, lives in Norristown, PA, with his wife, Lynn, and writes regularly for American Baptist Churches USA.