Displaced Persons

Sermon from August 25, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

 

                As I walked with my group of colleagues through a Tijuana neighborhood that sat overlooking the city dump, walking over trash, ridden with mangy dogs, methane gas leaks, falling houses made of plywood, and children playing in the streets with coke cans and broken bottles, my friend and brother in Christ looked at me and said, “This has been your summer of displaced persons, hasn’t it?”  I thought about that for a moment and said, “Well, I suppose you’re right.” After touring Auschwitz with a Holocaust survivor and experiencing firsthand the horrors of concentration camps and what the tragic fate was for those who were sent there, there I was, not even a month later in a dump in Tijuana where people lived their everyday lives.  It was a day spent at an orphanage coloring and playing with children and trying to learn enough Spanish to understand what they were saying.  Above all, it was a week where I spent several meals with men who had been deported and had nowhere to go, who were left to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, usually with nothing, sometimes not even the clothes on their backs.

            My trip to Tijuana and the borderlands of San Diego with my colleagues of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership program this past week was not a trip about politics or particular agendas.  It was a week in which to learn about the real issues that immigration presents, the complexities of it, and to put faces and personal stories to the issue of immigration.  Many of us left with more questions than answers to this very complicated, and as we found out, heartbreaking issue with names and faces.  But the point was that we left with a sense of compassion for the people affected by the displacement and hardships because of the borders that divide our countries, and also the borders that divide each of us as human beings.

            Our travels took us to a mission in Tijuana called Casa del Migrante- a place for men to go who had been deported for a variety of reasons.  We stayed at the Casa for 4 days, ate with the migrants, stayed in the very same accommodations, and saw the everyday routine of the casa.  There were different men each day, and with them came individual stories. Some of them sad, some of them scary, some of them complicated and confusing.  We met a young man, 20 years old, from Guatemala who could not read or write- he rode on top of the train to get to Mexico to try to make a better life for himself and his family.  Another man had ridden on the top of the train, was pushed off and beaten, and lost his leg.  He was able to make it back home and received a prosthetic, only to have it stolen from him on the train once again.  He arrived at the casa without his prosthetic, was given crutches, and told some of us his story while doing chores at the home, hobbling around, wondering what to do next.  We heard men tell us that they had lived in the United States for 25 years, had a wife and children, and got pulled over for a broken tail light, and the next thing they knew, they found themselves in Mexico without a job, trying to get in touch with their families back home.  We also met men who had been deported due to criminal acts or drunk driving, who were simply happy about being given another chance, even if it wasn’t in the United States.  Some men had arrived at the casa without a pair of shoes or even clothes, having been taken from their home without even a chance to put anything on.  We talked with men who had a plan to cross back over the border through the mountains, knowing there was a chance that they would be arrested, killed by the heat and elements, or murdered by the drug cartels that ran throughout the area.  We heard it all- but each story had a face and a name.  Not many of us in Indiana can say that we can actually put a face to the complex issue of immigration, and that is what our experiences at the border gave to us.

            On the first night of the trip before we crossed the border into Mexico, our director asked us this question, “What is a border?”  We stated many answers, such as a barrier to keep people in or out, a wall, a protection or safety measure, an oppressive structure.  We also talked about the borders between people for many different reasons, and the borders that we put up to protect ourselves from the outside world, and the borders that we must overcome in order to let others affect us in new and positive ways.  When we arrived at the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, we knew we had to let our own borders down in order to fully understand and hear these men who were open and willing to share their stories with us.  In this way, we could be a caring presence in a time of uncertainty, and in turn, they gave us the gift of realizing that there is not just one migrant, not just one story of immigration or deportation, but many, many faces and stories that go along with these issues.  These migrants were not legal, illegal, or criminals necessarily- they were human beings with names and real stories.  They were displaced persons.

            This passage that I read from you today from Isaiah 43 became the text that we turned to often during our experience on the border because of its joy in God naming, shaping, claiming, bringing the human race together.  Written during the Babylonian exile of the Hebrew people, it is the divine promise that God will call God’s people together again, no matter what sacrifices must be made, no matter if it means that God will bring them through the fire or flood, or other nations will fall, that God will reclaim those who call upon God’s name, whom God formed and made.  I believe this scripture brought us hope that in the midst of complexities, chaos, the misunderstandings between peoples and cultures, and in the midst of borders of any kind, that God longs to call us, claim us, name us, and gather us together, and to basically say, “Come hell or high water, come fences, walls, or mountains, you are mine, and I love you.”

            These thoughts were running through my mind especially as we walked alongside the huge border fence in Tijuana that went as far as to stretch out into the ocean.  Along this path were paintings and writings on the fence that voiced oppression and concern over its mere existence.  As we later walked down to the beach, the fence continued to stretch into the waves as families played on the beach and pretended it wasn’t even there.  We could look up the hill and see the United States Border Patrol staring down at us, even a helicopter flew overhead.  At one point, a few men who were jogging on the US side came right up to it and said hello to us through the fence, and turned around and jogged back the other direction.  In the midst of the fence, life was still going on, there was still laughter, but also division.  The words of Isaiah echoed in my mind: “I will gather you…I have called you by name.  You are mine.”  Along with these words found on the border fence: “Same God on both sides,” and the words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

On Saturday when we crossed back into the United States, our first stop was to the other side of the border fence.  It was surreal to walk up to it and see through to the other side exactly where we had just been the day before, staring back at the United States.  On Sundays, some priests hold Holy Communion at the fence, and we heard stories of families receiving together on both sides, separated by the fence- the priest having to find a way to get the elements through the holes- eventually, we were told, they resorted to having different elements on both sides of the fence.  Families talked with one another through the fence- mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, separated by the border.  We also talked with a border patrol guard there for quite awhile.  He was patient with us as we asked him a lot of questions about his role and how he felt about the border and those who attempted to cross it.  His main concern was for the safety of the border and preventing the drug cartels and violent persons from entering the country.  He wouldn’t respond to much else that we asked him, but he agreed that this was indeed a very complicated matter.  As we stared at the beautiful ocean from the United States side, we couldn’t help but think that some of the men we had spoken to at the casa would give just about anything to be standing in that very spot.

So what did I gain from my experience of traveling to the border of United States and Mexico and sharing meals with migrants without a place to call home?  I certainly don’t have all the answers or solutions on how to fix anything.  When I learned that we would go on this journey, I honestly did not have much of an opinion of immigration, nor did I have a lot of knowledge about it.  And today, I have more knowledge, but honestly still not much of an opinion.  What I do have is the experience of putting names and faces to the complexities of immigration, deportation, and undocumented workers.  I have the experience of hearing their stories and walking alongside them for a short time while they discerned what path to take to get a job and build a life in Mexico, to go back to the United States to be with family, to take on the life changing task of learning to read and write, or to simply get back on their feet and find the support systems that they need.  I have the understanding that immigration reform is needed- that borders must be in place for the protection of our country from violence, drug and human trafficking, and criminal activity coming from Mexico, BUT that we have laws in place that are separating families, discriminating against people that look different, and are doing harm to our Mexican brothers and sisters.  I learned that the system needs to change in some way so that the immigration system will become more humane rather than stripping people of human dignity.  I learned how important it is that we should never call someone who is undocumented “illegal” because no human being is “illegal.”  I learned the importance of welcoming the stranger as Jesus tells us to, for when we welcome the stranger, we do so in his name and in turn, welcome him.

I also realized in the midst of my second experience this summer of displaced persons, that we still live in a broken world, perhaps now more than ever.  I look back at my time at Auschwitz and still have a hurt in my heart for the history of that place.  I look at the experiences I had with my fellow clergy colleagues at the border and see oppressive walls that separate, broken homes, broken hearts, and broken lives.  I see tears, misunderstandings, the innocent along with the guilty, and wonder how and when the broken pieces will all be put back together again.  I recall the words from another part of Isaiah that says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing- it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” and the words echoing from our text today that God longs to gather us in as not legal or illegal, Mexican or American, brown or white, English speaking or Spanish speaking, but as members of the human race, undivided, united by God, called by name.

And even in the midst of a neighborhood in Tijuana built on top of the dump, scattered with trash and methane gas, that there were children playing, families building their lives, and ministry taking place in small and big ways.  We met a young woman who was pregnant at the age of 13, and while picking up things to sell out of the dump, met a nun, Sister Teresa, who offered her a chance to learn a trade and do something with her life.  So she became a hair and nail stylist, and now offers these services to the people of the neighborhood, along with child care and most recently, a medical clinic.  There is hope, even in the story of a 13 year old pregnant girl from an impoverished neighborhood- does this sound familiar?

Above all, there is hope that we are constantly working in our communities to make people human again in the name of Jesus.  It could be as simple as listening to someone’s story, attempting to learn a few words of a new language, offering a cool drink of water, a meal, a place to stay, a fresh set of clothes or linens on the bed.  It could be as simple as a haircut or coloring with an orphaned child.  It is as simple as looking at “the other” as a child of God before we form any other assumption.  As Father Pat, the director of the casa told us when we first got there, “we must look at these persons as our brothers and sisters first- if not, then God is not our Father.”  In a sense, we are all displaced persons in one way or another.  But we all find our identity in the Lord, who gathers us together, who loves us, who redeems us. 

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

 

Amen.

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Since my time at Auschwitz….

Well, it has been about 4 weeks since I returned home from Poland, and it’s been an interesting time of trying to get back to normal life.  Corey made the comment last night that I am just now seeming more like myself.  A friend put it well when she said that I might never really “get over” feeling different, but I will experience these feelings differently over time with gradual change.  Some days, I feel like I will never really see the world the same again.

I had the privilege of accompanying a group from my congregation to the CANDLES museum last week where they heard Eva’s story for themselves and learned about the museum.  It felt great to be at the museum and to see Eva again.  After being there with her at Auschwitz, her story took on an even deeper meaning than the previous times I had heard it, and it was great for members of my congregation to hear it from her and be inspired for themselves.

Since my time at Auschwitz, I feel like I look at the world in a different light.  I have a hard time understanding (even more than before!) the violence, the intolerance, the prejudice, and the anger in the world.  I find myself asking even more than before, “Why are people so angry???”  “Why are people so inconsiderate?”  “Why are people so violent?”  And, what in the world can we do about it?  There are times when I find myself in the midst of hopelessness for the world, for the church…I see a lot of stories in the news and on social media that speak of nothing but harm and despair from humanity, and the harm that the church is doing to people who claim to be doing this in the name of Jesus.  I struggle to understand.  There are days that I have my doubts about the future, about my own calling, and even about the presence of God.  That’s real talk.

But I continue to find hope in people like Eva who are not afraid to tell their story, who continue to find hope in the midst of despair, and in people of this world who love and do wonderful things every day.  For every act of violence, there are hopefully even more acts of love.  We just don’t hear about them as much.  I continue to have hope in the story of Jesus, the ultimate act of love, forgiveness, sacrifice, and the overcoming of hopelessness, despair, and even death itself.

As for me, I find myself being a little more humble these days, but at the same time, wanting to speak up even more for people who do not have a voice.  I want to teach people about the Holocaust and the events leading up to it, and about Eva and her story of survival and ultimately forgiveness.  I want to pass along her lessons of self-empowerment, never giving up on your dreams, and finding that we are stronger than we think we are in any situation.  I want to pass along my experiences at Auschwitz to anyone who would like to listen, and hope that one day they might find themselves forever changed in some way as we hope and work for a better world where there are no more Auschwitzes.

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A Personal Story and Struggle of Forgiveness

When I was visiting my parents a few weeks ago, my mom asked me if I had ever had something happen to me for which I needed to forgive (or struggled to forgive) in light of my sharing with her about Eva’s story of Auschwitz and forgiveness.  At the time, I had thought about it, and said no, not really, and she shared with me some of her personal struggles with forgiveness (which I really appreciated).  I continued to think about this question, and I had an epiphany this morning in the shower (for some reason, ideas come to me in while in the shower…I guess that time is good for something!)  While my experience and struggle to find forgiveness is nothing like Auschwitz, it is something worth sharing, at least for my own benefit.  We all have our stories to share, after all.

The experience that came to mind was when I was in college, and I decided to rush in order to join a sorority my sophomore year (the “normal” rush time at my college was freshman year).  I went through all of the usual things that girls going through rush went through, and by the end of it, none of the sororities asked me to join.  I was heartbroken.  I was even more heartbroken when I learned through a friend that some of the girls from the sorority I really wanted to join voted against me when my name came up.  I never confronted them about it, I never mentioned it, but I always wondered why someone, who I thought was a friend, would do something like that.  I also wondered what was wrong with me that I could be “rejected” by multiple groups of women.  I felt betrayed, excluded, not belonging anywhere.  At the heart of life, there is this need to belong- to have a home, a family, a group of friends where we feel comfortable, welcomed, accepted.  I already had a great group of friends at college, but the issue still remained- what was it about me that made them all say no?  What was wrong with THEM that they turned me away?

I beat myself up over this for a number of years.  In fact, my remaining years of college were a little uprooted by the whole experience.  Everywhere I went, I felt that some of the sorority women (and there were a TON of them) were pointing and laughing, and saying, “No one wanted her in their house.”  My self-esteem plummeted.  I didn’t feel worthy.  I didn’t like myself.

But over time, I gained my sense of self-confidence back, found that there are many places where I do, in fact, belong, and I look back and realize that I probably wouldn’t have found my true friends just by joining a sorority.  I wouldn’t have had the time I did to devote to my church, which led my into ministry, and finally, my vocation as a pastor.  When I started thinking about this this morning, I realized that I suppose I’m at the point of forgiving myself for what I put myself through, but even after all this time, that rejection I experienced still hurts a little.  Maybe I’m at the point where I can forgive the women who betrayed me, who rejected me, who thought that I would not fit their mold of the “XYZ” house.  Life goes on.  I’ve moved on.  I am not the labels I wear, or self-identified by which house I belonged to, or didn’t belong to in college.  At the end of the day, people really don’t care about these kinds of things…but rejection still stings, betrayal still burns, and self-esteem is always something that I (and probably many of us!) still struggle with from time to time.

But that’s the thing about forgiveness- it’s a process.  We keep working at it.  We keep trying to understand it.  And as a person of faith, I try to strengthen my sense of self in who I am in God’s eyes.  God is the ultimate forgiver, after all.

Whatever experience you have had that requires at least a thought about forgiveness, I hope you will at least explore it for yourself.  You might be surprised at the feelings you encounter. Above all though, tell your story.  Don’t be afraid.

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Forgiving, Not Forgetting- Sermon July 14

Matthew 6:7-15

7 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  9 ‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,  hallowed be your name. 10   Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11   Give us this day our daily bread.* 12   And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 

13   And do not bring us to the time of trial,but rescue us from the evil one.
14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The emotions finally came as I entered the dark gas chamber at Auschwitz.  The day before, we had seen the vastness of Birkenau, the remains of destroyed gas chambers, ground that had seen more death than we could ever fathom, but today we were actually standing in a gas chamber.  I walked up to the wall and saw scratches from those who were desperate to escape and save their lives.  I looked up and saw openings in the ceiling where the SS men dropped Zyklon B down into the room and waited for the screaming to stop.  It didn’t end there.  As we walked out of the gas chamber, we were face to face with the crematorium furnaces where the bodies were taken and burned 24 hours a day.  It seemed that the air in that place was stifling.  It was hard to take in.  I’ll admit that I wasn’t prepared for the moment that I would walk into a gas chamber- I guess no one really is.  I knew that we would see one, but didn’t actually think of how it would be to walk into one and see it for myself.  It’s one thing to stand over the remains of one that had been destroyed.  It’s another to actually walk into one for yourself and imagine how terrifying it must have been to think that you might not walk out again.  As I walked out of the gas chamber, I was trying to wrap my mind around what I had just experienced.  People around me were crying.  I didn’t really know what to feel.  Suddenly, the tears came.  And then the anger, the bitterness, even hatred for those who somehow in their twisted minds thought that this was something that should be done, something that was ok to carry out, something that no one should stand up and fight against.  Next came the feelings of guilt and hopelessness, and as we walked away, it seemed that none of us would ever be the same again.

Up until this point, we had spent quite a bit of time with Eva, hearing her horrendous stories about her experience at Auschwitz, but also a lot about her feelings of forgiveness toward Dr. Mengele and the Nazis and how she eventually got to the point of forgiving.  Of course it was not right away- it took Eva 50 years to come to these feelings- she forgave Dr. Mengele, the Nazis, her parents, and herself for feelings of hatred and resentment.  Her forgiveness is something that she came to on her own and feels that it is an act of self-healing, self-empowerment, and freedom from the hatred and burdens of the past.  Forgiveness to Eva is more than letting go- it’s proactive and a constant in our lives that we should work toward, and it does not condone the actions of those who have done us harm or say that we grant them amnesty or political asylum, because the question of justice is separate from the issue of forgiveness (CANDLES website).  On the path to forgiveness, there is much to work through, many feelings to sort out and a lot of history to remember and pass on.  As I stood there in the gas chamber, I may have struggled with Eva’s feelings of forgiveness, but I understood completely the need to never ever forget.

Over the years, our culture has somehow come up with this notion that forgiving and forgetting go together, and I want to say that this is not true at all.  We can forgive perhaps even the worst of acts, but in all honesty, we will never forget, we should not, and we should not have to.  Some of us have had horrible things happen- perhaps you’ve been betrayed, lied to, abused, abandoned- it’s impossible to forget. Forgiveness is about empowering ourselves to be set free from the pain and burdens of the past, not forgetting it.  To forget is to open the door for an tragic event to happen again.  In the entrance to one of the exhibits at Auschwitz was this sign: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”  It is our job to tell the story, to carry on the facts and figures of what has happened so that generations to come will work for a world where there are no more wars, bombs, genocide…no more Auschwitzes.  Still in our world today there are stories of genocide and mass murder- we are still learning our lessons.  If we are taught to forgive and forget, then we are setting ourselves up for more pain and heartache. When we are not comfortable sharing the past and educating others about it, we open the door to further the pain of this world- if we never learn, we will never progress in the direction of a more hopeful and peaceful world.

It’s important to mention that Eva’s concept of forgiveness has nothing to do with any religion- she feels that forgiveness is something available to everyone since all have the right to be freed from their pains and burdens of the past- not all are religious, but all have the choice and the power to forgive.  But, of course, as a pastor, I want to understand how this notion of forgiveness could apply to people of faith and the church today.  We talk about God as a forgiving God.  We talk about Christ who forgives sins and makes us whole, new, transformed persons.  We talk about the importance of forgiving one another.  Jesus talks about forgiveness quite a bit throughout the gospels, teaching lessons about how to pray, how to live, how to interact with one another.  When Peter comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, how many times must I forgive one who has sinned against me?  Seven times?”  And Jesus answers, “Not seven, but seventy times seven!”  Or when Jesus teaches that before we approach the altar of the Lord, we must go and forgive our brother or sister with whom we have had a conflict so that we may approach the Lord with a pure heart.  And Paul in Ephesians reminds the community to be kind to one another, forgiving each other as God in Christ has forgiven you.  With Christ being our ultimate example of forgiveness, so we should be forgiving and grace filled people.  But never once does Jesus teach that forgiving and forgetting are one and the same.

Our text today from Matthew is a very familiar one to many of us when Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray, which today is known to us as the Lord’s prayer.  We say it every single Sunday of the year.  Why do we do this?  It’s something we know by heart, it brings comfort, it’s a way to unite our voices in prayer to God- perhaps we feel that the Lord’s prayer encompasses all that prayer should be- we praise God for being holy or hallowed, we pray for God’s will to be done on this earth as it is in heaven, so we are praying for heaven to come down to earth and to dwell among us, bringing peace and hope, we pray for our basic needs to be met in food and water when we pray for daily bread- this bread is nourishment for our bodies, but also for our souls- we pray to be spiritually nourished as well.  And finally we arrive at this line about forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors.  There are many translations of this word “debt”- sometimes you’ll hear “trespasses,” sometimes you’ll hear “sins”- sin is actually the most accurate translation of what Jesus is talking about here.  So we are to pray that our sins are forgiven and that we may have the strength to forgive those who have sinned against us. That is a profound prayer if we really think about it.  I’d venture to say that it’s been awhile since many of us really stopped to think about what we are praying when we pray the Lord’s prayer.  I’ll admit that there are times when someone is leading a group I’m a part of in prayer, and when they are about to close and they say, “Let us pray the prayer that Jesus taught us,” I’ve been known to doing an eye roll every now and then, thinking to myself, “This again?  I don’t feel like praying the Lord’s prayer,” and it is so easy for it to become routine, something we don’t think twice about.  But really, this line gets me every time.  Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.  We are to forgive, or pray for the strength to forgive, but we are not to forget.  Jesus teaches plenty of lessons about forgiveness, but never links forgiveness and forgetfulness together.  I think there is a reason for that.

When we pray that we might forgive someone who has done us wrong, we pray for strength, courage, and the self-healing and empowerment we need to overcome our fears and burdens of the past- we pray to free ourselves from hatred, from sadness, from pain.  We do not seek the power to forgive without acknowledging what, in fact, has occurred.  The trials that we face in this life have an everlasting impact on who we are, where we have been, and where we are going.  Eva has been and forever will be shaped by her experiences and life at Auschwitz- it would be impossible for her to forget Auschwitz, to forget what Dr. Mengele did to her and to her sister- impossible for her to forget the pain she experience as she saw her mother for the last time on the selection platform- to forgive is not to forget, but to be set free of the hatred and bitterness of the heart.

Eva’s forgiveness has given her strength to be able to share her story over and over again because she has set herself free from the hatred and pain she experienced.  Her power also lays in the importance of remembering the past so she that may teach others to not repeat it and to break the cycle of violence, prejudice, and intolerance.  Just as forgiveness is a seed for peace, remembrance is the root of education and the beginning of stopping cycles of violence and abuse.  Remembrance also honors those who have died due to tragedy or genocide, and a reminder to continue to educate so that such events do not occur again.  Even in our personal lives, when we are able to forgive, we are also empowered to take with us the lessons that we have learned from the experience or relationship, to pass them along to someone else who has gone through something similar.  In this way, remembrance is a way to serve, to pray, to stand alongside those who have suffered, offering a word of comfort.

As I stood in the gas chamber at Auschwitz that day, I found it hard to understand forgiveness.  I found it almost unbelievable that someone could forgive what the Nazis had done to millions of innocent people, and in the most inhumane ways.  But when I am reminded that forgiving is not about forgetting, I understand more what forgiveness is about.  It’s not about “making light” of the events that have occurred, it’s not about pardoning the deeds that have been done, it’s not about seeking repentance from the person or persons that have done wrong, but it’s about empowering yourself and your daily choices to be free of what has haunted us in the past, but not forgetting it.  Remembering is part of the journey and process of forgiving.

Perhaps the events of the Holocaust and what I experienced as a walked through Auschwitz still hurt too much to venture on to forgiveness for me personally- and to think that I was not even an actual victim of it, while Eva was.  But perhaps we are all victims of tragic historical events such as the Holocaust in some way- it has and continues to affect the world and the way we treat people.  It is a cause to examine the human condition so that we might continue to work against inhumane acts and intolerance, and it’s obvious we still have a long way to go.  It will take me some time to fully come to understand how Eva has the courage and strength to forgive what has happened to her.  But as a person of faith, I might pray to understand forgiveness the way that Eva does, and pray that I understand God’s forgiveness toward each of us.  Either way you look at it, forgiveness is a profound and extreme act.  So is remembering and passing the story along.  Jesus challenges us to pray to forgive those who have sinned against us, and pushes it further by saying, “You must pray to forgive, so that your Heavenly Father will forgive you.”  I have a hard time with this particular text, especially when we consider that many acts of humanity are nearly impossible to forgive.  I read this as a challenge for each of us to understand the importance of forgiving, to pray that we might find it in our hearts and souls to forgive, and that we might seek understanding of God’s amazing love and forgiveness toward us.  Might we seek to understand forgiveness from the depths of our souls, might we seek to understand the ways in which God forgives us…and may we find the strength to share our stories, to never forget the past, to remember our history so we will not live through it again.  Amen.

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Sermon July 7, “Mourning Into Dancing”

Psalm 30:  

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.  O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.  O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.  Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.  For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.  To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:  “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?  Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”  You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

           

Well, if you paid any attention to the newsletter this month, you probably noticed that I had planned a sermon series for the rest of the summer, but my trip to Auschwitz threw that right out the window.  I came back last week and sat in front of my computer screen, feeling at a complete loss on what or how I was going to preach any sermon that would even begin to cover the emotions and feelings that I am experiencing about everything that I saw as I walked through Auschwitz with Eva Kor, who survived the hell of it all.  Throughout the week, I kept asking myself where God was present in the midst of all of this, and how anyone could have an ounce of hope for humanity after seeing the terror of the camps.  To stand in Auschwitz is to stand in the midst of humanity at its absolute worst- the extremeness of human depravity meets in this location- to walk through and see the destruction of life, the amount of time and money wasted on hatred and intolerance, and to wonder how humans could sink so low as to view people, made of their own flesh and blood, as nothing more as animals to do away with or specimens to study.  I’ll admit that as I walked through the camps, I did not feel very much- I was deeply moved by Eva’s story, but I was really focused on taking it all in, learning as much as I could about Auschwitz, and honestly, the days we spent there were quite numbing.  It was hard to wrap my mind around all of the things I heard and witnessed, and the vastness of it all- how big it all was- no book, movie, or documentary prepares you for the size of Auschwitz- the amount of space they allotted for mass murder is astonishing.  While I was trying to wrap my mind around many things, I also had moments of grief and anger toward humanity itself, especially as I walked into one of the gas chambers, and when I saw the piles upon piles of human hair and shoes, or the hallways filled with pictures of the prisoners who did not even look human anymore.  There were many moments of anger and grief that still continue to play over in my mind.

            But in the midst of all of this was Eva.  While I will continue to process my feelings and experiences of Auschwitz, I hold fast to Eva’s spirit of forgiveness, her sense of humor, her passion for life, and her compassion for people.  Even through Auschwitz, she remained a pillar of strength, hope, and peace.  She never wavered in her story, never held anything back, and was an open book for all who came to hear from her.  One of my favorite stories I heard was when Eva was sitting in front of her liberation photo in Auschwitz waiting for tour groups to come in.  A group came in, and the guide pointed to the little girl in the picture and said, “This is Eva Kor.”  She then waited a few more seconds, walked over to Eva sitting there, and said, “This is Eva Kor.”  One of the young men in the group then dropped to his knee in front of her, and said, “Please explain to me your forgiveness.  I don’t understand it.”  Eva quickly became famous in the camp wherever she was, rolling up her sleeve to show her tattoo of her number, talking with a group of monks, and catching the attention of a sweet 17 year old girl whose dream it was to walk through Auschwitz and meet as many survivors as possible.  But Eva never got annoyed or overwhelmed, or tired of answering questions- her goal is to educate, to inspire, to change the world through sharing her experiences and her feelings of forgiveness.  She truly is changing lives, setting people free from their pain, and doing her part to heal the world.

            As I wrestled with my own feelings of anger and even hatred toward those who committed the horrendous crimes that we heard about, I also wrestled with my own understanding of forgiveness along with Eva’s.  Thousands of people who know Eva’s story struggle to understand her forgiveness- how could she forgive Dr. Mengele or the Nazis who have done such terrible and unspeakable things?  For Eva, it’s not about them, but about you and me.  If we can forgive, we set ourselves free from the burdens and the pain that we live with.  If we can forgive, then we put ourselves in charge of our own destiny, free of the past, and onto a more hopeful future.  If we can forgive, we open more doors for ourselves, and to others to experience life to its fullest, free of those who have done us harm.  I’ll admit that there are times when I struggle to understand Eva’s forgiveness of Dr. Mengele and the Nazis, especially after seeing Auschwitz for myself.  But I don’t have to fully understand it.  All that matters is that she is at peace and is changing the world through her message of forgiveness, and after spending a week with her, I can truly say that she is doing just that- changing lives for the better, making peace a reality, making hope a tangible thing to see, reach out for, to touch.

            I struggled to connect with God and my faith while at Auschwitz.  As we walked through Auschwitz II/Birkenau, Eva made the comment a few times about how surprised she always is to see grass growing there, because there was never any life at Birkenau, and there still isn’t today.  It was as if death still hung around there, gray and dark like the clouds.  But the grass grows there now, nonetheless.  And as we ventured on, it became obvious to me that even though we were walking upon ground that was soaked with blood, sweat, and tears of millions of people, that Eva was a sign of life among the dead- because here she was, alive, strong, and willing to share her story so that those people who died would never be forgotten.  Here she was, making little jokes every now and then, smiling at us, smiling at other visitors that day, shedding light on the darkest of situations.  Just to give you an idea of her sense of humor, her son Alex told us that when she went to Auschwitz many years ago with her twin sister, he was not able to come along, so she brought him back a t-shirt that said, “My mom survived Auschwitz and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”  Eva is one of those people that does not like to dwell on the negativity of the past, but rather make something positive out of it.  In fact, I overheard her telling many in our group on occasion, “No more tears, no more tears.”

            So as I sat down this week to write a sermon, to prepare a message to share with all of you, this Psalm spoke to me.  It is a psalm of hope in the midst of despair- a message of hope and trust in God, a thanksgiving for the strength that we are given in order to make it through tough times, and even to survive.  Eva was and is a survivor.  Her strong will to live, mixed with some luck and smarts, was what got she and her sister through Auschwitz alive.  The psalmist writes, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed…but you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.  O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”  When I read this psalm, I think of Eva, that strong mountain, that pillar of hope and strength, that woman clothed with joy who will not be silent as she seeks to share her story with the world.

            Yes, there is grief, anger, and even hatred still present at Auschwitz.  There is grief, anger, hatred, prejudice, intolerance, ignorance still present among us in this world.  But if Eva Kor, who survived Auschwitz and lived to tell the tale, and even to forgive to go on to promote a message of peace, there is hope for us as well.  There is much mourning at Auschwitz, many tears, many shocking images that will never leave my mind, but in Eva there are signs of life and hope, even laughter and being reminded that it’s ok to laugh, it’s ok to live, it’s okay to sing and dance and celebrate the life that we have.  There are lessons that we should never take life for granted, that we should never ever give up, and that we should live each day to the fullest, doing what we can to better the life of someone else in everything that we do and say.  And if we have faith in God, yes, but also in ourselves, then our mourning will be turning into dancing and we shall be clothed with joy, and we shall be set free.  These are the lessons that I am still learning and have taken with me from Eva while walking through the hell that is Auschwitz.  She is proof that mourning can be turned into dancing.  In fact, one night after dinner, someone in our group got up and started playing the piano, and the song was “Great Balls of Fire,” and Eva began to dance right there in her seat, and actually at one point grabbed her spoon and fork and began to drum along.  Everyone got out their cameras and began taking pictures and filming this great scene unfolding before us.  Eva was literally dancing.

            So whatever you are going through today, whatever questions you are struggling with, whatever doubts you may have, whatever pain you are experiencing, know that you are not alone, know that there is hope even in the midst of the worst of situations, and sometimes that hope comes in the form of the people in your life who teach you profound lessons, who uphold us through the toughest times, who are right beside us as we walk through the fire.  And in our faith, God established us as strong mountains, ready to turn our mourning into dancing.  And if we feel that we ourselves are not there yet, may we be surrounded with those who will be that stronghold for us as we seek healing and peace.  After my experiences in Auschwitz, I am still trying to get there, still trying to wrap my mind around, still trying to understand.  Forgiveness and peace will come with time, but I will hold fast to Eva’s personhood and spirit, who reminds me of God’s promises that death does not have the final word, and that we have so much to carry on and teach the world, and to never ever forget.  Amen. 

 

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The Emotions Set In

Today has been a very emotional day.  We finally arrived back in the USA last night, and by the time we got back to Terre Haute, it was around 10:45 at night, so I crashed with a friend in town since I was too tired to drive home to Morgantown.  I got up early this morning and drove home, showered, and went to church.  I was so thankful that today was youth Sunday!  I had zero responsibilities except for being there to support them and to catch up on the congregation.  During the silent prayer time and closing hymn (“How Great Thou Art”) I started to get emotional.  I was sitting there thinking of everything I had heard, experienced, and saw this past week at Auschwitz, and now here I was, back home to normal life, routines, and where, for the most part, people are happy and life is good.  The message this morning was about how God gives us what we need to do well in this life and to share our gifts and talents with the world and not be ashamed to do so.  This message took on a new meaning for me as I sat there wondering how God was present at the camps, and I struggled to find an answer.  During “How Great Thou Art,” I pondered whether or not God is truly good all the time.  If so, then it is really the evilness and depravity of humanity that we need to continually examine so that atrocities such as the Holocaust never happen again.  

I have literally been in a different world this past week- physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Coming home to friends, family, warmth, food, sleep, the freedom to make choices in life, the gift of freedom, home, and love- all of this after being in Auschwitz and seeing literally the worst, the most evil acts that this world has ever seen.  There have been several moments today where something will trigger an image from Auschwitz or an experience I had there, or a conversation that I’ve had today about the trip will cause me to break down into tears.  When I was there this week, I simply took it all in- I wanted to learn, to remember, to see, to hear, to experience.  I felt some emotion for sure, but not as overwhelming as it is hitting me now.  I wasn’t prepared for the after effects of seeing Auschwitz for myself.  Obviously, I am still processing it all.  I still have some emotions to sort out, and time to settle back into everyday life, but I know that I will look at things in a very different light for awhile.  It will take me awhile to feel “normal” again.  I am thankful for the experiences I had, and wouldn’t trade them for anything.

The bottom line for today: never take life for granted.

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Back to Auschwitz

Eva at the execution wall ceremony

Eva at the execution wall ceremony

 

Today was a good day back at both Birkenau/Auschwitz II and Auschwitz I.  I think that some in the group were skeptical about spending another full day at the camps, but it went by quickly.  We arrived at Birkenau first and went right to the cattle car and sorting platform where Eva read letters of forgiveness- one to her father, and one to her mother.  It was quite an emotional moment as we got a glimpse into her childhood and her painful relationship with her father, and a glimpse of how incredibly painful and unimaginable it was for her to be ripped apart from her mother on the platform, never to be seen again.  She had several witnesses sign the letter, and we all will get an original signed copy to keep for ourselves.

We then had the option of touring Birkenau with a guide- I enjoyed my tour as we learned more about life at the camp and heard facts and stories from our guide- Birkenau sits on 400 acres and was the camp added onto Auschwitz I for labor and extermination.  It was a late opening camp, going into operation in May of 1944, built from scratch by the prisoners that worked and died there.  Our guide challenged us to think about what was “unique” about the Holocaust- the industrialized mass killing and systemic genocide, as well as being the largest number of people murdered by genocide in the world.  We were always reminded: “Never again.”

After lunch, we went back to Auschwitz I to walk through Block 10 at the camp, which is where Eva endured many of the medical experiments.  They camp actually opened the building just to our group so we could see it.  It was mostly empty, and had a very creepy feeling/energy about it.  You walked in and could tell that horrible things happened there.

We then had a candle lighting memorial ceremony at the execution wall where so many lost their lives for no reason at the hands of the SS soldiers in a violent death.  We each lit a candle in memory and honor of those who perished in the Holocaust.  We each had the opportunity to speak to the group about why we lit our candle.  My statement was, “For those who perished in the Holocaust and in hopes that WE might be lights for the world.”  The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead was said, and we stood and watched our lights and all that they stood for.

We then had the chance to walk around the camp on our own and go back to places we would like to see again.  I decided to go back to the gas chamber- I’m not quite sure why- maybe I wanted to experience it again after my intense emotional reaction to see how I felt a second time.  I also wanted more time to process it while standing inside of it.  For a few moments, I was the only one in there and did not feel as intense of an emotion, but rather the still and quiet of the large room where so many had died.  I had a chill as I imagined the stillness of the loss of life after the struggles of all who had perished in that very place.  Afterwards, I went outside and found a place to sit outside of the gas chamber.  I sat there for about 20 minutes and watched groups go in and out of it.  I was fascinated by some people’s facial expressions and demeanors, comparing them to before they walked in, and after they walked out.  Some had the same expression, others looked as if something had changed and they had been deeply impacted.  I think that was the most meaningful moment of my day.

Reflecting outside of the gas chamber

I also decided to go back and visit the exhibits with the shoes and hair- to take it all in again and to take my time.  Both were larger that I remembered- I keep thinking that it’s so hard just to wrap my mind around how large, how extensive, how bad the Holocaust actually was/is.  I feel that the mere scale of it is and always will be just out of reach.  As human beings, it is nearly impossible to fathom so much death, so much hatred, so much horror, so much injustice done to so so many people.  I guess the real focus should be- what are we going to do about it?  What can we teach people?  When we educate, when we teach our children about loving one another, about tolerance, about not judging, we carry the light of hope into the world.  That’s what our responsibility is.  Eva talks a lot about the “ripple effect.”  That everything we do, everything we say has an impact on someone else.  If we remember that in our words and actions, and work to be the best version of ourselves to others, then the hope, the expectation should be that that person will carry that on, hence the ripple effect.  Just imagine how people could impact and change the world for the better.

Tomorrow is our free day, so I will probably not be posting- but once I get back to the USA, I will post more reflections and especially focus on my thoughts on Eva’s forgiveness and I would like to think theologically about her thoughts, and about my experience here- what I will take away, and how the trip as a whole has and will continue to impact my life.  I’ll be thinking on that, and will get back to you.

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