Monthly Archives: May 2014

Lessons on the Ascension: From my very wise 6th-12th grade youth

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In my church growing up, the Ascension was rarely discussed or touched on. The only way I really knew about it was through our monthly reciting of the Apostle’s Creed on communion Sunday: “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty.” But even though I recited this every month, I didn’t really understand what the Ascension was about or recognized its significance for Jesus’ followers 2000 years later.

However, in the past few years serving in my Lutheran congregations, I have come to appreciate and see the Ascension as something really important in our Christian life.

I have my 6th-12th grade Lutheran youth to thank for this.

In these past few years, my youth have led the joint Ascension worship service for our three ELCA congregations in our neighborhood, Edgewater, which is on the north side of the city of Chicago. (Our youth ministry is a joint ministry among these three congregations and consists of youth from each of them, as well as some youth from the neighborhood.) Both years, I have asked a few of my youth to look over the different texts for Ascension Day, reflect on them, and write a short homily for our service.

Both years, I have learned from my youth and have been touched by their thoughtful reflections on the Ascension and how it is important for our Christian way of life today.

As several of my young preachers have suggested, it must have been extremely difficult for the disciples to deal with this emotional roller coaster of watching Jesus journey toward his horrific death on the cross and grieving as they thought they’d never see their dear friend and teacher again, then being surprised and thrilled to have him back in their lives, only to then be left by him once again as he ascends into heaven to sit at God’s right hand.

What the heck!?

As Steve, a 7th grader in my youth group will say in his sermon tonight: “I mean: to see Jesus die on the cross, come back and then just randomly go to heaven. That must have been hard for the disciples. If I were one of the disciples at that time I would have felt as though Jesus was playing tricks with me the whole time, and to be honest, I would have probably felt that he abandoned me.”

I think many of us today can relate to this feeling. Throughout my work as a pastor with youth and children, I have heard numerous stories about experiences of abandonment… by my youth’s peers, by their most trusted friends, by family members, by politicians who don’t make decisions that promote equal rights for their families, and even sometimes by the Church. And I’m sure this is not just a common story for our young people today… I know too well that – though we may not share these struggles as openly as we grow older – the more years we’ve lived life on this earth and the more people we have encountered, the more times we have experienced abandonment.

And as humans, we too often place God in our own image; telling ourselves that this human abandonment in our lives is proof that God has abandoned us, as well.  Just when God has come to be with us in the flesh, Jesus dies on the cross, and just as we get comfortable knowing he has returned to us through his resurrection, he ascends into a place that we too often feel is far, far away… up into heaven.

And we are like those early disciples, left looking up towards the sky, wondering in our darkest moments: “Where in the world are you, God!? Why have you abandoned me!?”

As Luz, one of my sophomores, explains in her sermon: “Throughout my life I lost hope in God. I did not believe he was there with me in the Holy Spirit anymore. I believed he left me for good like he left the disciples… This year, things were pretty rough… and I lost hope. I thought that things would never be okay again.”

And yet, in the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples abandoned and alone, as they stand on the ground gazing hopelessly up at the sky.  And in the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave us on the ground abandoned, alone, and hopeless alongside those disciples, either. In the Ascension, all of Jesus’ disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: even though God will no longer be physically present with the disciples through the Son on earth, God will be present with them always through the Holy Spirit.

Katie, who was a 6th grader when she preached her sermon at last year’s service, explains: “After Jesus ascends to heaven, these angels appear to the apostles and tell them to stop looking for Jesus in the sky. What I think they meant by this was that the apostles would never see him come back to earth again. So, instead of looking for Jesus in the sky, they should look for Jesus all around them. And this is also a message for us today. No, we’ll probably never physically see Jesus. But we can see the people that represent Jesus. The church community is the first thing that comes into my mind. We all represent Jesus in the good things we do. I mean, we’re not the perfect servants of God. Nobody is perfect. But we see people do good things for other people all the time… As a church community, we help, we serve God and others, too. We pray. We forgive and also ask to be forgivenThat’s just the little part of God inside of us that tells us to do good.  So WE are the Jesus of the Earth.”

And as Luz continues in her sermon: “[Although I thought that things would never be okay again], I was wrong. In the midst of my toughest times, I felt God’s presence with me and within me. He never left my side. I started noticing the little things that made me know God is here.” She explains how our youth group has embraced her and loved her for who she truly is and how it is in them and through them, that she knows God is present. Then she urges the congregation: “Just sit for a moment. Think about how the Lord has blessed your life even through all the obstacles you’re going through. Jesus went through many similar obstacles, too. And yet, God blessed him. We are all brothers and sisters, we are all alike no matter what we’ve been through or are going through right now. I know at one point I was confused like the disciples, about how Jesus could just leave us, but honestly he never did because he’s in you, and you and even you. Our Christ is everywhere.”

And this is where we see the meat of the Ascension message. This is where we see and hear our great commission. When Jesus was building his ministry here on earth: preaching good news to the poor, and proclaiming release to the captives, he began his work of empowering and equipping others to do so, as well…

Because this work is not just his work: it is the work of all of his followers.

And the Ascension is where Jesus passes on this great work to all of us. It is when Jesus declares that though he will no longer be physically on this earth to preach the good news himself, his work will continue… in and through each one of us. And we can continue to do this work through the power we receive in the Holy Spirit as we share and build that power by being witnesses of God’s love.

As Ngbarezere, who was a 9th grader when he preached his sermon last year, says: “The Holy Spirit gives us a choice to act, and we have a decision to do the act for good or for evil. This is the power Jesus was talking about, the ability to do good or bad, the choice is ours.”

Steve expands on this: “[Jesus] calls his disciples to be his witnesses, not just witnesses, but witnesses to the ends of the earth. Now what do you really think it means to be a witness? These disciples had seen some pretty amazing things and I think Jesus wanted these disciples to tell people what they had seen… So how [does this] form us in our lives today? To me the end’s of the earth is at our Care for Real food pantry, which is only a few blocks away from here, where we are witnesses of God’s love when we help all of these hungry people get food and feel loved.”

And Ngbarezere adds:  “Jesus said ‘And you will be my witnesses…’ How are we witnesses? With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can be Jesus’ witnesses to all people – to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of loving the oppressed and standing up for justice and equality.

Here’s an example of standing up for justice and equality… A couple months ago I attended a community meeting, and the main cause for it was that they were about to close MY school down. Of course I had to go, and although going helped a lot, I felt I could do a lot more due to the fact that it was MY school. I not only marched with over 500 people, but I also said a speech in front of 500 people, of how I felt about [the city] trying to close MY school down. (They didn’t close the school down by the way).

Now, how do we love the oppressed? We can contribute to changing their day by simply saying a hello. A simple hello can change somebody’s mood, like for another example; I was at the Care For Real food pantry and I was helping distribute the food. Every time I saw someone I tried having a small conversation with them, hoping that I can lighten their day in any way possible. Although tiring, I enjoy going there every time I can to help out. This is an act of what Jesus meant. During these periods of time, I used the abilities that I had for good, for justice, and equality, and each of them contributed in a positive way… When we leave here today, I want you- No even better, I challenge you – every day to receive the Holy Spirit and become a witness of Jesus.”

As my wise young preachers have articulated, the Ascension is not an event that we should just gloss over. It is an event that is central to our Christian faith and how we must consider what it means to live as followers of Jesus.

Jesus did not just leave us alone and powerless when he ascended… He left us with empowerment through the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we, too, can be witnesses of God’s love to the ends of the earth.

This Ascension day, may you be blessed by these wise words of my amazing youth who are doing just that.

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Jesus as the “Way of Life”: Deconstructing John 14:6

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{Thoughts on the Lectionary Gospel text for the 5th Sunday of Easter: John 14:1-14}

 

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

This declaration by Jesus in John 14:6 has traditionally been singled out, quoted, and interpreted to mean that believing and confessing in Jesus Christ is the only exclusive way to God and to salvation in life after death. Consequently, we often use this passage to condemn those who are not Christians and to point fingers at others whom we determine are not “believers” by our standards. And in the meantime, while we take this verse out of its context and hold onto this very limited understanding, I believe we miss out on a much deeper meaning of Jesus’ statement that comes with a lot more responsibility for followers of Jesus. With a careful study of the passage’s historical and literary backgrounds, we can gain a much more profound interpretation of what Jesus is saying and why the author of John includes it in his gospel.

 

Audience of the Gospel of John

The authorship and date of the gospel of John have been highly debated. Some scholars argue the author was the “Beloved Disciple” mentioned in the gospel itself; others claim it was written by a school under the discipleship of the “Beloved Disciple;” others assert it was written by a Jewish Essene community living in Qumran; and still others argue that it was written first by one individual or group of individuals and was later edited by redactors.

While the authorship and date of John’s composition are debated, there are a few factors that suggest the gospel was not formulated until around the end of the first century and therefore was not written by an eyewitness.

  1. Many scholars claim that the latest the gospel could have been written was sometime in the early second century. This is because the Rylands Library Papyrus P52 – which contains parts of the earliest preserved manuscript of John’s gospel – is believed to have been in circulation around Cairo, Egypt by at least the middle of the second century. Accordingly, if the gospel was written in Ephesus, which is suggested by many scholars, it would have taken several years to get to Egypt, thereby dating it no later than around 100-110 AD.
  2. The similarities between John and the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) indicate John’s author may have been familiar with one or more of the Synoptics. While scholars have debated whether or not John’s author used the other gospels as sources for his own work, most agree that he had known at least Mark’s – and possibly Luke’s – oral traditions and may have seen some of their pre-gospel manuscripts. For that reason, the majority of scholars claim that the earliest John could have been composed was after Mark’s composition date: around 68-73 AD.
  3. Since the gospel does not allude to the fall of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD), some scholars argue that it was either written before or much later than the fall (when the fall of the Temple was no longer a topic to emphasize in writings).
  4. There are three places in John (9:22, 12:42, and 16:2) that mention the Christians feared “expulsion of the synagogue.”[1] If the author was alluding to the official expulsion that had already taken place, an event dated around 80-90 AD, then we must surmise the gospel of John was composed at around 85-100 AD.

Location of the Audience

The task of determining the location of John’s authorship is also difficult, as there are no specific references in the text that state where it was written. Yet, many scholars believe it was written in Ephesus or another multicultural city context for the following reasons.

  1. Several Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius, claimed the gospel was written in Ephesus.
  2. While these Church Fathers are not considered authentic sources by many contemporary scholars, Ephesus is still considered a plausible city for the gospel’s authorship because the gospel includes Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish terms, names, and concepts, suggesting the author was writing to a multicultural inner-city audience.[2]
  3. Ephesus fits this multicultural profile, as it was considered the “Metropolis of Asia” and served as the central “meeting place” between the east and west because of its location and travel access.[3] Due to its location, Ephesus was a highly populated and diverse city containing numerous religions, such as Judaism, polytheism, practices of magic, and the Artemis cult. Ephesus had also been the home to many Greek philosophers during the Hellenistic era and was one of the largest and most influential Roman cities by the beginning of the first century, therefore making the use of Greek philosophy and Roman imperial language popular writing techniques in late first century literature.

While Ephesus is a likely location of the composition of John, Antioch and Alexandria are other suggested possibilities. However, in any case, we can conclude that John was likely written in Asia Minor to an audience in a late first century multicultural city context.

Literary Genre and Establishing a Rule of Life:

Although we might assume Christianity would be accepted in such a diverse society, this was not the case. Around the end of the first century, Christians were officially banned from the synagogues, spied on during worship gatherings, criticized for their worship practices that were not customary to Greco-Roman society, and accused of being associated with pagan temple prostitutes and female promiscuity.

Consequently, as the Church began to deal with persecution by outsiders, it developed the need to establish an identity that would define the group without the physical presence and guidance of Jesus Christ, give it hope, and provide a rule of life in which its members were to treat one another and their oppressors. If we look at the literary form of the unit which encompasses John 14:1-14, as well as the main themes within that unit, we can see that John’s author was doing just that.

 

Fairwell Discource:

John 14:1-14’s literary genre is that of the Farewell Discourse common in Jewish antiquity, which includes chapters 14-17 in the gospel of John. The Farewell Discourse genre was typically in the form of a speech and was given by a teacher or leader to his students. The speaker often encouraged the immediate audience regarding their fears or tribulations, prepared them for the “immediate future… which includes being established by God as God’s chosen people,”[4] discussed how the group should behave and treat others, particularly toward one another, and usually concluded with a hymn or prayer.

John 14-17 contains almost all of the determining factors: Jesus tells the disciples not to let their “hearts be troubled” (14:10), warns them that he will soon go to the Father (16:25-28), implores them to keep his commandment (15:12), and closes with a prayer to God (17).

 

Interpreting John 14:1-14

It is critical to note the important elements of this genre when interpreting the meaning of John 14:1-14. As mentioned above, Farewell Discourses strongly emphasized the ways in which a community should live and treat others once their leader left them on their own. This emphasis on the community’s delegated rule of life is especially noticeable in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses gives the longest Old Testament Farewell Discourse to the Israelites before his death. What is significant is that almost the entire book focuses on the commandments to the people: out of thirty-four chapters, eight designate how the community should live as a “people of God” (chapters 4-11) and nine report laws dealing with how the community should treat others justly (chapters 12-26).

Toward the end of the speech, Moses concludes,

“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” (30:16)

In other words, the “way to God was through the practice of and meditation on God’s law,”[5] a belief that was endorsed by Judaism. This has significant theological meaning for John’s Farewell Discourse because – as many scholars argue – it was specifically modeled after Deuteronomy in order to make Jesus’ message resemble Moses’. Therefore, since Moses’ central message claimed the way to God was loving God by “walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (30:16), then Jesus’ message in John would have emphasized this same “way” of life as well.

The difference in John is that he redefines what this way of life should look like, to the later first century Christians, and how they ought to love God, walk in God’s ways, and observe God’s commandments. In fact, John’s Gospel provides a “new commandment” to his audience: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” According to Walter Harrelson in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “the commandment to love is not new,” for it is found in Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:4. “What is new is the shaping of that love according to the life and death of Jesus.”[6]

 

ή όδὸς: “The Way”

When we look at the Greek text of John 14:6, we will notice that Jesus’ statement could be interpreted in two different ways, one of which supports Harrelson’s conclusion. According to Danker’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, the word ή όδὸς (“the way”) could either mean “a way for traveling or moving from one place to another” or the “course of behavior, way, or way of life.”[7]  If Jesus’ statement refers to the first definition, it would likely suggest Jesus is the pathway to the Father, but if it refers to the second definition, Jesus would be declaring he is the “way of behavior” in which one should follow.

The second definition is the more plausible definition for a few reasons.

  1. As mentioned above, the author of John was writing to a diverse Christian community, including both Greeks and Jews. The Church had already been dealing with an internal conflict between the two groups, who debated over which group was truly Christian. Many Jewish-Christians believed the Gentiles needed to be “Judaized” before they could become Christian, and many Gentile-Christians assumed they were superior to the Jews because they were “free” in Christ and did not need to follow the strict “works of the law.”[8] Paul had already been teaching that Jesus was the new “identity symbol”[9] who did not exclude others (as did the Jewish “works of the law”), but rather included all people into the community of God. It is likely that John’s audience was dealing with the same issues Paul did, particularly after the Jews banned the Christians from the Jewish synagogues, which created more tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Therefore, it is unlikely John would center his gospel on an exclusive Jesus. Rather, his message would have presumably claimed Jesus was the way in which the diverse group of Christians could unite – by following in Christ’s footsteps of loving and serving one another.
  2. It would make sense in this mixed group of Christians that John used ή όδὸς to describe Jesus’ life as the example one should follow. This concept and behavioral interpretation of “the way” was common to both Jews and Gentiles, and thus, would have been an easy analogy for everyone to understand. In Judaism, “the way” was used to describe how one should live in biblical texts (such as Isa. 55:7-9, 56:11, 59:8, or the seventy references in Proverbs, to name a few), “early Jewish sources” (like Tob. 1:3 and Jub. 20:2), and “in the rabbinic use of halakot.” Additionally, Isaiah 40 in the Dead Sea Scrolls[10] described “the way” as “study of the law.”[11] Greek philosophy emphasized that “the way” in which one should live was finding “truth” in proper thought. For example, Epictetus commends Chrysippus for his “philosophical reasoning [which] ‘shows the way’ to correct thinking” and Marcus Aurelius states that “those who do not think properly have wandered astray and ‘do not know the road.’”[12]
  3. John also uses this Greek concept of “way of life” in another form: through the Greek word, ό λόγος. This term, which is often translated as “the word,” was understood as either “a certain type of function (such as reasoning, judging, or knowing)” or “a norm: the ‘right’ or ‘reasonable’ way to act, feel, or think.”[13]  This is significant because Jesus is described as ό λόγος in the very first verse of the entire Gospel. Since the author of John was extremely particular about his style of writing, language, and use and placement of words in his text in order to emphasize critical messages, it would be likely that his gospel’s very first verse would be one of – if not the most – important theological points of the Gospel, thereby serving as a type of thesis statement. If this is the case, it would be logical to assume that John 14:6 was a repetition, as well as another way to accentuate the thesis statement laid out in John 1:1 that Jesus’ life was “the way” in which to live.
  4. Besides the preeminent use of the λόγος way of life, John also stresses that Jesus is the “way of life” in his narratives. One that particularly displays this theme is John’s account of the Last Supper, which radically differs from the Synoptic account. In the three Synoptic gospels, the climactic moment in the Last Supper is when Jesus shares the Eucharist meal with the disciples. However, in John, the focal point in the Last Supper is when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet (13:1-30): an action of complete humility, love and servanthood toward others. Just after Jesus had finished washing the others’ feet in John’s narrative, he declares, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (13:14-15).  Another narrative that displays this theme is in John 10 where Jesus states that he is the “Good Shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” or God’s children, (10:11) and loves and protects them (as the “gate” in 10:9). He goes on to explain in verse 17 that the reason the Father loves him is because of what Jesus was doing for the people. Then in chapter 21, John ends his gospel with Jesus passing on this responsibility of laying down one’s life for others to Peter: each time Peter states He loves Jesus, Jesus answers with “Feed my lambs” (21:15), “Tend my sheep” (21:16), and “Feed my sheep” (21:17).

*****

As we look at these historical and literary contexts, we can see that one of the themes that is most emphasized in John’s gospel was to follow Jesus’ example of serving and loving others. Since John’s author stressed this message throughout his gospel, and because the concept of “the way” was commonly used by John’s Jewish and Greek audience to describe a “way of life,” John 14:6 also seems to portray the message that Jesus is the way or example to follow. For that reason, we might consider that John’s author did not intend to make belief in Jesus the exclusive “way” to reach the Father, but rather he stressed that the “way” to experiencing the full love and grace of the Father is by emulating Jesus’ actions. For Jesus commanded this as well:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

With this in mind, rather than using this John 14:6 verse to condemn others for not “believing” in Jesus, maybe we need to ask ourselves and our Church how we are not following Jesus? Maybe we – ourselves – need to be looking more closely at the teachings and actions throughout the gospel of John of this radical Jesus that we are called to follow…

Maybe we need to be asking ourselves: How might we follow this radical Jesus today? How might we feed and tend Jesus’ sheep? How might we serve others with humility, love today’s sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, and care for one another in the Church (even when we – like the first century Jewish and Greek Christians – have so many differences and disagreements?)

Maybe we need to be asking ourselves: How might we turn over tables in the Temple when it is taking advantage of the outcasts and boldly advocate for the sick, the oppressed, and the poor?  How might we challenge the unjust systems that oppress and marginalize many?

Maybe it is when we stop judging and condemning others for not “believing” what we think they should believe and actually start following this way of life Jesus laid out for us, others will, indeed, start seeing who God truly is: a loving and compassionate parent, accept the new life God offers us, and begin moving in this “way” to the Father – of loving others as Jesus did – as well.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

 


 

[1] Kysar, Robert, Augsbury Commentary on the New Testament John, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 1986), 14-15.

[2] Tilborg, Sjef van, John in Ephesus, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 4.

[3] Gritz, Sharon Hodgin, Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus: A Study of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in Light of The Religious and Cultural Milieu of the The First Century (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1991), 11.

[4] O’Day, Gail R., Hylen, Susan E., John, (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 142.

[5] O’Day, Hylen, 142.

[6] Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Version with the Apocrypha, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 1936.

[7] Danker, Frederick William, A Greek-Enlish Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Ed. 3,(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 691.

[8] Yeo, Khiok-Khng, What has Jerusalem to do with Beijing? (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998), 25-32.

[9] Yeo, 26.

[10] The Manual of Discipline in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS) also discusses the “way” in terms of behavior in 9.16-21: “there must be admonition of true knowledge and righteous judgment for those who choose the way; each according to his spirit, according to the regulation of the time, to guide them in knowledge and so to give them understanding in the marvellous mysteries and truth among men of the community, that they may conduct themselves blame-lessly, each with his neighbor, in all that has been revealed to them- that is the time of clearing the way to the wilderness– to give them understanding of all that has been found to be done at this time; and to be separated from every man, and not to pervert his way because of any error.” McCasland, S. Vernon, “The Way,” Journal of Biblical Literature v. 77 n. 3 (September 1958): 225.

[11] Keener, Craig, The Gospel of John, A Commentary, (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 941.

[12] Keener, 941. Quotes from Marcus Aurelius 6.22

[13] Gill, Christopher, Greek Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12.

A Mother’s Day Prayer: For those who find joy in this day and those who find this day painful

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Oh God, our loving and compassionate parent,

we pray today for all who find joy in this Mother’s Day and for all who find this day to be full of pain, grief, and feelings of inadequacy.

This Mother’s Day, we pray:

for the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, foster mothers, and godmothers who have raised and provided love and support for the children in their lives

for the children, youth, and adults who celebrate their mothers, grandmothers, foster mothers, and godmothers today

for the children, youth, and adults who have never experienced a loving or caring mother, grandmother, or other mother figure

for the mothers and their sons and daughters who have broken relationships

for the mothers and other mother figures who feel they have failed as a parent or guardian

for the children, youth, and adults who feel they have failed as a son or daughter

for the women who long to be mothers but cannot

for the women who choose not be mothers but feel that their choices in life are devalued, judged, or said to be “less than”

for the mothers, grandmothers, and other mother figures who are able to spend time together on this day

for the mothers, grandmothers, and other mother figures who are unable to be with their children today due to distance or illness

for mothers, grandmothers, and other guardians who have raised their children by themselves

for the children, youth, and adults who grieve the loss of a mother or mother figure

for the mothers, grandmothers, and other mother figures who grieve the loss of a child or grandchild

for the children and mothers, grandmothers, or other mother figures who have been separated

May all be filled with peace, comfort, and hope today through your loving presence.

Lord, in your mercy,

Hear our prayers.  

 

Prayers for Yayi Abana and the rest of our girls from Chibok #BringBackOurGirls

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What if 276 girls from schools in Chicago were kidnapped in the middle of the night by armed men three weeks ago and are still missing?

I can just imagine what kind of uproar the city of Chicago – let alone the rest of the country – would make if this were the case.

However, this kind of uproar I envision is not being made for the 276 school girls in Nigeria who have been kidnapped and are being sold into slavery, forced to marry, or coerced to convert…

Maybe this is because it is difficult to comprehend such a horrendous event.

Maybe this is because we struggle to embrace our anger, to grieve, and to take action for our children and youth across the world when the situation seems so distant from us and we feel so powerless.

Maybe we just don’t have the words to say, the knowledge of what we can do, or even just the ability to swallow the realities of this horror.

The past few weeks I have found myself struggling with this tension.  One minute I am overwhelmed with my incredible heart-break over these young girls and the next minute I go back to my privileged life where I don’t have to think about or face this reality…

And yet, I keep coming back to these girls… These helpless girls who once sought education, dreamt about doing something great with their lives, played with their friends at school, and were loved by their teachers and families.  I keep coming back to these girls: thinking about what it would have been like for them to bravely go to school in the midst of the growing threats and violence that surrounded them.  I keep going back to these girls: picturing what it would have been like for them to be woken up in the middle of the night by armed men disguised in army uniforms, thinking they were being led to safety, and then finding out they were wrong as they were forced into trucks and watched their school get set on fire by these once-trusted “guides.”

I keep going back to these girls: thinking about how they could have been my neighbor, my niece, my goddaughter, or my youth from my church ministry.

…And then my heart aches, and I feel angry, grief-stricken, and powerless.

Yesterday I was inspired by Jan Edmiston’s post “Please Pick One” where she urges readers to pick one name on the list of abducted girls (only 180 out of the 276 have been identified) and pray for her every day until she returns home.  This is just a small commitment we can each make.  It only requires us to make room for a little interruption each day in our very privileged lives.  But it is one thing we can do to stand with these girls, their families, and all other girls around the world who have been denied their humanity.

I have chosen to pray for Yayi ​Abana.  I don’t know much about her.  All I know is that she is identified as Muslim and she is a daughter, a granddaughter, a neighbor, a friend, a student, and possibly a sister.  She may be 15 or 16 years old.  She likely had dreams and inspirations, struggles and fears, celebrations and joys.  She is a beloved child of God.  

I pray for Yayi, her family, her friends, her neighbors, her community, the protesters who are bravely standing up for her.  I pray for hope, healing, safety, answers.  I pray for community, comfort, love, peace.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

And I urge you to pick a girl on the list (or think of a girl whose name is unidentified) and make a commitment to pray for her daily, as well.  Maybe writing a prayer or a reflection about her and her family and sharing it with others on your blog, Facebook, twitter, or in person will help you to follow through with this commitment and will encourage others to do the same.  These girls and their families need our prayers.  They need our support.  They need the world to feel outraged and to cause an uproar.  So let us join together in lifting our voices and our prayers boldly and loudly for God’s children and youth around the world because all of God’s children deserve to live fully as they were created to live!

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Related Articles:

Please Pick One (achurchforstarvingartists)

Do We Pray For Chibok (Rev. Grey Maggiano)

Dear World: A Lament for 234 Nigerian Girls (terynobrien.com)

Why Girls In Nigeria Should Matter To You (rageagainsttheminivan.com)

Nigeria Abductions: 6 reasons why the world should demand action (cnn.com)

Tonight, All the Children are Crying: A Lament for Nigeria (thetalkingllama)

In Which We Pray: Bring Back Our Girls (sarahbessey)