Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cowboys and Indians

When I was about three or four, my older brother and I were playing with our plastic Cowboys and Indians in the sandbox.

“Wawawawawawa!” I cried as I held the rigid body of an Indian to his horse, threateningly aiming his arrow at the kneeling cowboy in my other hand.

“Bang, bang!” I shouted as a response from the crouching Cowboy as his otherwise stiff figure shook from the backfire of his weapon.

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” I gasped from the equestrian native, who began sliding off his mount in defeat.

Suddenly my older, wiser brother interrupted my reenactment. “Em, what are you doing?!” he scolded me in alarm. “Do you realize what really happened in the New World? The Indians didn’t do anything wrong, and then the cowboys came and took away their land!”

Confused, I looked at the plastic toys in sadness, trying to allow this new information from my six-year-old elder to sort itself out in my shaken worldview. Their rigid figures had become strangely complex, and an afternoon adventure in the sandbox had been robbed of all its simplicity.

Suddenly, in a burst of inspiration, I put the cowboy on the horse, repeating the same scene in inverse.

“Hahahahaha!” shouted the evil settler as he charged toward the innocent native, and “Twang, twang!” fired the arrow of his foe. A potentially confusing afternoon was saved.

All that to say, I remember when the world was simpler, when there were clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and all a kid had to do was figure out which were which. I remember being able to talk about political issues without ever knowing anyone on the other side, or being able to talk about theology when I had only ever been in one kind of church. Like I had been that afternoon in the sandbox, I was as confident about evil as I was of good, and confident that I knew how to identify both.

On the other hand, I also remember developing some kind of a Christian agnosticism in which one could never know anything for sure beyond God, Jesus, and the Bible (the interpretation thereof, of course, was anyone’s guess), and I would not suggest that position either, at least not to anyone with a similar propensity to despair.

But I do need to keep reminding myself, as I slowly gain the courage to believe God has not left us to muddle through moral and theological ambiguity alone, that confidence divorced from humility creates travesty as monstrous as the one I enacted in the sandbox. May I learn the courage to believe in knowable truth, but never lose the humility to imagine I might be mistaken about it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Feast of St. Guasact

Since I've done a bad job posting during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity but have intended to do so in order to encourage my readers to pray, as Christ prayed in John 17, that we may be one as he and the Father are one, I thought I'd at least repost something here at the end. Today is the feast of the good St. Guasacht, part of the throng of Irish saints for whom there is almost no historical evidence, as happens on an island with little recorded history and much oppression. Please use this post as a reminder to pray for forgiveness and reconciliation in all the many factions that have divided our family over the millenia.

* * *

Today is the feast day of St. Guasact. As the story goes, unreliable and erratic as all the best Irish tales are, after Patrick was kidnapped from his home in Great Britain and sold to Maelchu (or Miluic, if you prefer) in northern Ireland where he spent years in slavery tending sheep, he grew up beside Maelchu’s children, St. Guasacht and the two Sts. Emers (feast day December 11). Why history remembers only one name for the two women I do not know, but since it barely remembers anything more I suppose we should be grateful. Beggars can’t be choosy, after all.

Patrick, as we all know, receives a vision while tending sheep on Mt. Slemish, miraculously escapes Ireland, reunites with his homeland, hears the Irish people calling him in his dreams, and returns to the land of his captivity where he proceeds (from what I can tell) to found churches in virtually every town and to convert personally nearly every fourth- and fifth-century Irish saint (and believe you me, there are many!).

But the first priority is the very family who had enslaved him, and, while Maelchu burns himself alive in his home rather than see Patrick again (evidently those are his only two options?), his three children receive the faith, dedicate themselves to mission of bringing the gospel to the druidic people, and became some of the first bishop/nuns. As Patrick puts the veil on his two foster sisters, their feet sink into the stone beneath them, and the marks are visible to this day.

So today from a less fantastical land of parking lots and laborious rearranging of 1s and 0s where nevertheless the scars of bitterness run just as deep and the power of grace trumps them just as conclusively, I thought I would venerate Patrick’s slave-owners-turned-sisters. Pray for us slave-owners, St. Guasact; pray for us slaves.

Monday, January 17, 2011

With both lungs

I learned once that Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. had been good friends, and that they had originally thought of going into ministry together. For whatever reason, whether for disagreements or mere differences in vocational leanings, they did not. “You stay in the stadiums, Billy,” King (or “Mike,” as Billy called him) wrote to Graham, “because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets.” Perhaps he did. Perhaps.

But their divergence was not only strategic; it was certainly somewhat ideological. Graham was unsure of King’s methods of civil disobedience, saying that “No matter what the law may be—it may be an unjust law—I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it. Otherwise you have anarchy.” King responded with the words of St. Augustine: “an unjust law is no law at all.” Over time as King began to speak out against the Vietnam war and poverty in a time when Communism was a looming threat, the divergence between him and his old friend became more pronounced.

Nevertheless, their friendship remained intact, and Graham took some radical stances for desegregation at his crusades. He invited King to join him on the pulpit and paid his bail to have him released from jail, and King’s famous declaration that “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America” is actually a quotation from an article of Graham’s.

Years later Graham confided to some Civil Rights leaders that he wondered what would have happened if he had taken to the streets with his friend, and I suppose we cannot know the answers to questions like that. What indeed might have happened if the iconic figures of liberal and conservative Christianity, figures whom both sides respect even if they disagree, had found a way to share their ministry? What kind of ministry would it have been? It might of course have been a loss to the great good that both of their ministries accomplished, but I cannot help but wonder if it might have muddled some of the sharp distinctions between liberal and conservative Christianity that I have grown up among.

Pope John Paul II, when calling for reconciliation between the eastern and western divisions of Christianity, spoke of the need for the Church to “breathe with both lungs.” Here in America, I am reminded of our lop-sided breathing in every walk from my poor neighborhood to my rich university, every transition from conversations with my Mennonite friends to my Catholic, every Sunday morning stroll by a white church to a black.

I’ve been told many times that Church unity is something we will not see “until heaven” (as if “heaven” were so ephemeral as to be identified by a time rather than a physical place). Today on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which happens to come the day before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins, it seems as good a time as any to remember that our Lord has taught us to pray that his Kingdom come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Intersection of Peril

The day after a record-breaking snowfall, I asked a friend if I could make socio-economic assumptions for why the city had not even begun plowing the roads in my neighborhood. After another day had passed, he said I could consider those assumptions to be conclusions. By the fourth day, I had ceased to care.

“Do you think she’ll make it?” I asked my friend as he slowed his car as we approached the intersection before my house. A car was swimming in the snow in front of us, thick and gelatinous after the three feet of snow we received four days earlier which the city had still not gotten around to clearing from my neighborhood.

“Well, she’s still moving...” he observed, wavering between his choices to stop his car or veer around her. “No, her tires are just spinning now,” he finally concluded. “Do wanna help her?”

“Yeah, let’s do it.” My friend stopped his car in the middle of the road before the slushy intersection and we got out.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to push her car either backwards or forwards, I volunteered to run home and grab my shovel, and my friend moved his car away from the chaos.

By the time we started shoveling under her tires, another stranger approached on foot and joined our rescue attempts. The three of us shoved, pushed, slid, sunk, and shushed for several humorous minutes, and eventually the hapless car was free.

Of course, by that time, another vehicle was stranded in the same intersection, and our makeshift rescue team turned to investigate. “You have four-wheel drive!” a man in a van behind her laughed. “How can you get stuck?”

“I don’t know how, but I sure am suck!” she retorted. Before we could help her, the fellow in the van behind her offered to bump her with his vehicle, and we watched the heroic effort. While he did manage to free her, our cheers turned to laughter when his tires spun to reveal that he was now stranded in the intersection of peril.

“Are you gonna help me too?” he laughed.

That afternoon, after I had said goodbye to my friend and my collection of rescuers and rescuees and was nestled on my couch getting reading done, I learned to identify the sound of spinning tires out my window. Each time another car got stuck, I looked out the window to see a collection of passers-by helping the victim. I remembered my experiences of Irish hospitality and Southern hospitality, and was warmed to find that it had followed me out to the cold Midwest.

The city did get around to plowing my neighborhood that night, though by that point I had learned that good neighbors are more reliable than public service. I am grateful to live where people are simple enough to have time to be good neighbors.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

'Tis better to give than to give

In my last year of undergrad I spent a lot of time with the homeless people near my campus. I knew many people’s names and alleged stories, had given many rides to church or doctors or grocery stores, and had even been a guest in one woman’s tent. I bordered near despair in those days, knowing that my greatest service to these new friends of mine was hardly more than a drop in the ocean, but began to imagine that the sanctification of my own soul was on the line as much as theirs, and that culturing a giving spirit was only Christian way I could think to respond to poverty.

On Valentine’s Day as I was on my way to my coffee shop to get some studying done, Barbara heralded me. “I want to ask you for something,” she said, and my heart sank (as it always did) as I prepared myself for another of her elaborate expensive tragedies. “It’s Valentine’s Day,” she said; “I was wondering if I could have some money for some candy.”

Without going into any detail about the host of mixed emotions and conflicting values that went into my interactions with Barbara, I will say that I was straining to come up with a way to be generous when candy was a luxury I didn’t even buy myself in those days. Fortunately, I didn’t have to strain for long; I remembered that my parents had sent me a box of chocolates that I happened to have with me, and I gave it to her without another thought.

It’s probably all for the best anyway, I consoled myself as I walked away, bereft of my little luxury. Now she will get to feel special on Valentine’s Day, and I will not fill my empty stomach with chocolate.

But then I saw Benedict standing at his usual corner, and my heart rose (as it always did) to see him. After our usual joyful greeting in which I asked him if he had had anything to eat and he insisted he was fine even though I knew he wasn’t, he announced that he had something for me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Here,” he said, handing me a small bag of healthy treats—granola bar, apple, raisins, nuts—along with a homemade Valentine’s card apparently made by a school child. I assumed it came from the homeless shelter. A homeless man was offering me food.

“Benedict, I can’t take this!” I protested. “This is for you.”

“I want you to have it,” he insisted.

“How ‘bout I just take one thing,” I compromised desperately, reaching instinctively for the raisins because they were my least favorite item.

“No, I want to give it to you,” he insisted. “Please take it.”

I did take it. All these years later, I remember that as the day that I learned that, because it is indeed better to give than to receive, part of compassion involves giving others the chance to give. Benedict did not want my money or my things (as indeed Barbara did); Benedict wanted friendship, which for him in particular required an opportunity to give to me. The only loving thing I could provide him that day was to receive from him.

In the six years since that day, I have tried to culture a receiving spirit to match the giving spirit I’ve always been urged to have. I allow the generous friend to cover the meal without immediately planning a way to pay her back. I accept whatever odd gift my grandmother finds for me at a garage sale. I proudly display the doll my poor neighbors give me because it reminds them of me even if it was not what I would have chosen for my dining room. True friendship, after all, cannot be one-way, and the only gift I really know how to give anymore is friendship.

It is indeed better to give than (then?) to receive. Let me not be greedy with that gift.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Leading out

I stumbled accidentally into academia a few years ago (much to no one’s surprise but my own, as it turned out). After a year of living in an intercity commune, I listened to the wise counsel of some of my housemates who suggested, after living beside me for a year, that I may find the logistics of a public school teacher (the vocation I had been pursuing actively for seven years) to be stifling to my flexible lifestyle. They suggested I consider teaching community college instead, and, after a teary conversation, they encouraged me to leave the commune to pursue my master’s in a nearby city, assuring me that the doors were open to me should I decide to move back after my quick M.A.

It was a confusing time for me (incidentally, the time I started this blog), a time when I was slowly realizing that I had no place for Grace in my worldview, that I related to God like a slave to her tyrant, that I didn't know how to think of myself when I wasn't trying to single-handedly save the world, that I was motivated more from a hero complex than from love, that I didn’t know how to distinguish my voice from his or the million other voices clamoring around me. In that time, oddly enough, academia became a place of refuge for me, a place where I felt the closest thing to healthy I had felt in quite a while. Part of that reason may be because it was the right fit, certainly, but I had an inkling that the primary reason was quite simpler:

Academia gave me something to analyze other than my own mind.

This comment must not be interpreted as a criticism of self-examination or psychology or other forms of understanding oneself. On the contrary, I assume I still have a life full of inner probing in front of me. What I needed for a time, however, was time; I needed to learn to leave my unanswered questions unanswered for a while, to gain perspective that was outside myself, to listen to voices other than my own.

At any rate, I remembered all that as I read the closing chapter of At War With the Word, a book about liberal education by a scholar who has meant quite a bit to me over the past three years, R. V. Young. For any of my readers interested in scholarship or education (from either the producing or receiving end), I am including it.
The Latin educare means to “rear or bring up (children or young animals),” and it in turn derives from educere, “to lead forth” or “to lead out of.” Implicit in the term is the idea that education consists in leading the young out of something, and the something out of which everyone must be led is the peculiar, self-interested ego; for to be self-centered is the common predicament—that narrow, stifling subjectivism that is the universal prison of all human beings. A great work of literature is, then, a book that extends our horizons, that alters our perspective, that makes us take notice of something beyond our immediate needs and desires.
-R. V. Young
May I never leave the journey of knowing myself, and may I never lack for people to lead me out of myself!