The Mending Wall

Last week at our Council of Bishops meeting, our European episcopal leaders led us in a worship service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which was this past Saturday, November 9. How critical it is to remember.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Robert Frost’s famous 1914 poem Mending Wall, is a meditation told through the eyes of a landowner who, every spring, joins his neighbor in repairing/mending the stone wall that divides their properties.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

The Berlin Wall is one of the most famous walls in human history. It is also a Mending Wall. When World War 2 ended in 1945, six million European Jews had been murdered by Nazi Germany, and the country was divided into occupied zones. The eastern part of the country was run by the Soviet Union, and the western part of the country was divided into three territories occupied by France, Britain, and the United States. The city of Berlin, located in Soviet territory in the east, was also divided into four parts for each of the four countries involved.

There were some years of relative calm during the Cold War, yet the East Germans suffered greatly. Their territory had not been rebuilt, and several thousand East Germans successfully fled to West Germany every day, seeking a better life. To stem the tide, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev urged East Germany to close off access between East and West Berlin. It was a hasty attempt to stanch the constant flow of refugees from East to West Germany.

Consequently, on the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid more than thirty miles of barbed wire barrier through the very heart of Berlin. Several days later, the barbed wire was replaced by a concrete wall. In the twinkling of an eye, East German families were no longer allowed to travel to the west, and hundreds of families and friends were completely cut off from each other for what would become years.

The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that Jews and Gentiles had been divided from one another through circumcision. Jews were to have no contact with Gentiles, who were not circumcised and were considered aliens, outcasts, unsaved. Yet, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all walls to faith have been removed.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:13-14, NRSV) The dividing wall became a mending wall.

For the next 28 years, Germany was a country divided, a literal “Iron Curtain” separating families through a series of check points. To ensure that no one could escape to the west, there were mines and machine gun emplacements, the walls were topped by barbed wire, and electric fences and watchtowers with armed guards and dogs dotted the landscape. When I lived in West Berlin in 1974-75, at the height of the Cold War, the walls circled the city with 75 miles of electrified fences plus 28 miles within the city. Many thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings, several thousand were able to escape, and several hundred were killed.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

In 1989, a wave of democracy swept through eastern Europe, including East Germany. Citizens became emboldened and demanded change, including the right to leave. Our German bishops told us about Christian Fuhrer, pastor of St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in Leipzig (East Germany), who provided unique leadership during the resistance to the Communist regime. Atheism was the norm in East Germany at the time, and clergy were often spied on, but many of the churches still stayed open. St. Nikolai and other congregations provided a spiritual space where people were free to express their faith.

Leading up to November 9, 1989, thousands of people joined in vigils and marched in the streets of Leipzig, demanding freedom and the right to leave East Germany. On October 9, the movement would not be denied, as 70,000 people marched together in Leipzig against the Socialist Unity Party (SED), transforming their fear into courage. The police were armed but were not permitted to take action as long as the marchers were peaceful.

The communist regime was overwhelmed by this non-violent democratization movement sweeping across Eastern Europe. It was a kairos moment that no one had ever dared dream about. The East German government no longer controlled its people, for this revolution grew out of the church.

Finally, on November 9, 1989, East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions to the West. With thousands of East Germans demanding to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin, the German guards finally opened the borders. Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, took pieces of it as souvenirs and painted graffiti on it. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. East and West Germany were formally reunited in 1990.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

There is one German nation today because a wall that separated became a mending wall. This is not to say that walls don’t still exist today, however. Just as nationalist and tribal instincts continue to influence Germany, so you and I also struggle to create mending walls rather than separating walls.

The Holocaust has taught us much about creating walls that target those who are seen as “other.” The Nazis, who killed two out of every three Jews living in Europe during World War 2, focused their evil on other groups as well, including homosexuals, gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, political dissidents, homeless people, children, and persons of different religions and races other than Aryan.

The Berlin Wall has come to symbolize all of the ways in which we continue to love our walls. There are walls of the like-minded; economic walls that distinguish the haves and the have nots; religious walls that separate Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those who practice other faiths; and ethnic walls that discriminate against other races.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. In the midst of forces that will always seek to build walls in order to separate, however, the mending wall brings people together to create, repair, and unify. For Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, and our call is to ensure that all of the walls in this world become mending walls that bring hope and peace.

As we remember the legacy of the Berlin Wall, I invite you to ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor? Whom am I seeking to wall off from my comfortable existence? What are the forces that threaten to divide The United Methodist Church? And whom do I need to invite to mend the walls together?

Are You a Red Letter Christian?

It was a serendipitous moment. On Saturday, October 26, I had the privilege of offering a greeting to the 167th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa. Whereas United Methodist bishops come and go, Bishop Alan Scarfe was elected as the Episcopal Bishop of Iowa in 2002 and has been a wonderful episcopal leader.

I am deeply grateful for the common historical roots between the Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church. The Methodist movement in America sprang up from the Anglican Church in England in the 1700’s, and our founder, John Wesley, never left the Church of England, even as he gave birth to a new church in America.

Since 2002, The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church have been engaged bilateral dialogue, seeking to discern God’s will regarding how our churches might embody a new kind of public witness to the unity of Christ’s body. Seeking full communion as the goal, the document, A Gift to the World, has been submitted for potential action at the United Methodist General Conference in May of 2020, with the Episcopal Church scheduled to take action on the proposal at its General Convention in 2021.

I arrived early to the Episcopal Convention and was both surprised and delighted to meet Shane Claiborne, who was the primary speaker. Shane and I connected right away because he has United Methodist roots, lives in Philadelphia (my home territory), and is the founder of The Simple Way. The Simple Way is a small organization and intentional living community that supports the building of neighborhoods of positive change and hope in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. Claiborne has now spent 22 years of his life living in community.

Shane is a prolific writer and speaks around the world about simple living, discipleship, community, and social justice. He recalls the time he spent with Mother Teresa in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, one of the poorest cities in the world, and the wisdom she shared.

  • “Let every person I come in contact receive the forgiveness of Jesus.”
  • “Taking a cold shower makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others.”
  • “We are not called to do great things but small things with great love.”

Claiborne told us about the feet of Mother Teresa, how they became deformed because there were just enough donated shoes at the Missionaries of Charity in Kokata for everyone to get a pair…and not many extras. So Mother Teresa went through all the donated shoes and took the worst pair for herself. Over the years, wearing ill-fitting shoes all the time deformed her feet. Then Claiborne said to convention-goers, “Calcuttas are everywhere. God gave you eyes to see your own Calcutta.”

Claiborne is also a disrupter. He is not afraid to confront us with our own prejudices, failings, and reluctance to be “all in” with the teachings of Jesus. These statements of Claiborne were both challenging and convicting.

  • “Our Christianity has become less and less fascinating because of how unchristian, judgmental, and hypocritical much of Christianity seems to feel.”
  • “What do young people think of the church? You will know them by their love. This is what young people are hoping for.”
  • “We are called to be the Good Samaritans, but after pulling so many people out of the ditches, we need to rethink the road to Jericho.”
  • “We are way too adjusted to racism. We are called to resist.”
  • “I met Jesus and he messed me up. It’s time to disrupt with holy agitation in a holy, humble, and non-violent way. (Shane has been arrested 20 times.) We will not tolerate the things that squash any person.”

But there’s another way in which Shane continues to challenge our, at times, lukewarm Christianity. Claiborne and Tony Campolo, both well-known Christian activists and speakers, co-founded Red Letter Christians as a non-denominational movement to “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Years ago, when I first heard Tony Campolo refer to red letter Christians, I was confused. What was he talking about? Finally, I got it. Many Bibles today quote in red the words of Jesus that are commonly accepted as authentic. These red-letter Bibles were meant to be a handy way of discerning the heart of Jesus’ ministry through his very words. In some Bibles, Old Testament passages that Jesus directly quoted or referred to are also printed in red. Staying true to the foundation of combining Jesus and justice, Red Letter Christians mobilize individuals into a movement of believers who live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings.

In his presentation, Claiborne noted how interesting it is that many of us underline passages in the Bible that particularly speak to us. Kind of like printing them in red to get our attention. The problem is our human tendency to latch on to the things Jesus said that we like and ignore the rest. These are usually the words that are the hardest to hear or that mess with the safety of our faith, like the first shall be last; go to the end of the line; sell what you have and give it to the poor; love your enemies; and turn the other cheek.

Claiborne wrote an article in Esquire magazine in 2009 in which he said, “In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay ‘out there’ but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, ‘Nothing good could come.’ It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.”

At the end of his presentation, Claiborne described his calling as a Red Letter Christian, “What would I do differently? I would take more risks. I did not tiptoe through life so I could arrive safely.”

Red Letter Christians. They do not tiptoe through life. Rather, they are committed to loving Jesus and loving justice. They live simply. They live faithfully. They live expectantly. And they are committed to doing what Jesus said, like caring for the immigrant, reaching out to the hopeless, and offering a hot bowl of soup. Are you a red letter Christian?

You did so much

The privilege of officiating at baptisms, weddings, and funerals has always been one of my greatest joys. Perhaps the most satisfying part ministry for me has been helping parishioners prepare to enter the last phase of their life. The conversations that I have had with people who are transitioning to assisted living or a nursing home, or who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, have been rich as well as poignant.

Offering pastoral care is most challenging when meeting with dear saints of the church who lament their limitations and express regret that they can no longer be active anymore. At times, they will say, “Looking back on my life, I wish I had done more. I could have visited others in need. I could have taught Sunday school. I could have been more faithful in financial stewardship. I wish had been more supportive of my pastors.”

When that happens, all I can do is wipe away my own tears and say, “You did so much. Do you know that the legacy of your life shines bright as the stars in the sky? Now it’s time to be at peace and allow others to take up the mantle.” My prayer has always been that those who feel as if they can no longer contribute can recognize that their prayers and their legacy are more than enough.

Oskar Schindler – By Unknown – Yad Vashem, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39536435

As All Saints Day approaches, I remember the movie that has impacted my life perhaps more than any other. Schindler’s List, which came out in 1993, was a film adaption by director Steven Spielberg of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical fiction novel Schindler’s Ark. The movie tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist in World War 2, who is credited with saving 1,200 Jews from the concentration camps by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories in occupied Poland. “Schindler’s List,” which was one of many lists retyped numerous times during the war, contained the names of the 1,200 Jewish workers in his factory.

When the tide of the war changed in 1944 and the Germans began closing the easternmost concentration camps and moving them westward, Schindler persuaded German authorities to allow him to move his factories to Brünnlitz in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Schindler spent much of his fortune successfully bribing officials until the war ended, thereby preventing the murder of his workers.

There is a scene in Schindler’s List that has always reduced me to tears. Although the veracity of every aspect of the movie is often disputed and Steven Spielberg may have taken creative license, Oskar Schindler gathers his factory workers on May 7, 1945, to listen as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Germany had surrendered and that the war in Germany was over.

Bruunlitz – Photo taken by Miaow Miaow in August 2004 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=111333

Afterward, as Schindler gets into a car to leave the factory, a spokesperson hands Schindler a piece of paper and says, “We’ve written a letter, trying to explain things, in case you are captured. Every worker has signed it.” Then he gives Schindler a ring made from the gold tooth of a factory worker and says, “The words on the ring are in Hebrew. There is a saying from the Talmud that whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” This prompts Schindler to break down crying and lamenting.

“I could have got more out. I could have got more.”

“There are 1,100 people who are alive because of you.”

“If I made more money. I threw away so much money. You have no idea. I didn’t do enough.”

“You did so much.”

“This car. Why did I keep this car? I could have saved ten more people right there. This pin. Two people. This is gold. It would have given me more two people, and I didn’t. I could have gotten one more person, but I didn’t.”

You can watch the video clip of this poignant scene by clicking here. As Schindler sobs, the Jews whom he saved surround him and hug him. In a 1983 television documentary, Schindler was quoted as saying, “I felt that the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them; there was no choice.”

Holocaust survivor Rena Finder, who is also one of the 1,200 people on Schindler’s List. Photo by Julian Cardillo.

Rena Finder, now 90 years old, was one of the youngest persons on Schindler’s List, and she and her mother worked at the Brünnlitz factory. At a speaking engagement at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School in New Jersey in May, Finder said that when she and her parents were forcibly removed from their home in Krakow, Poland, Rena never saw or heard from her father again. Rena still remembers her neighbors looking out of their windows as they left. She knocked on the doors of her friends’ homes to say good-bye, but no one answered. Rena then said, “You cannot stand by and do nothing.”

For many years, Finder has spoken in schools around the country about the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust and works with the organization, Facing History and Ourselves. Finder knew that Schindler was a complicated man and had his flaws, but she also recognized that he did much good. Finder said, “He had the courage, you see? He cared about human beings. He had the courage to do the unthinkable.”

Oskar Schindler died in 1974 after his Jewish workers returned his generosity of spirit by helping him through some difficult times. After all these years, Rena Finder still has deep gratitude for Schindler, saying, “He was sent by God to take care of us.”

As Christians, we celebrate All Saints Day in order to remember and celebrate not only our loved ones – the saints who have gone before us – but to renew our commitment to be “living saints” who do what we can as long as we can to model and share God’s love with those around us.

I wonder. How might our world be a more compassionate and just place if we simply encouraged one another with acts of kindness? How might our beloved United Methodist Church be a more grace-filled and transformative presence in our world if we saw Jesus in every person that we met and inspired them to claim their God-given worth? How might our communities be more welcoming and embracing if, rather than disparaging those who need our assistance, we would welcome the gifts that all human beings can offer, knowing that whoever saves one life saves the world entire.

Finder said that in the US and around the world, “There is a lot of hate again against Jews and also against the Muslims and others,” and that the worst thing we can do is “sit by and do nothing.” She went on, “They have to stand up against injustice, against hate, and just treat everyone with respect and forget about the color of their skin and their religion.”

“You did so much.” For all the saints, thanks be to God.