Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Et tu, Brute?

One of the great advantages to being a single person living alone is that you get to feel like a mostly good person. It’s great: when your only interactions with other human beings are by your own volition in the times you’re feeling most on your game, it’s quite easy to be generous, friendly, and hospitable. The single life is a fantastic nurturer of oblivious pride and almost inevitable self-centeredness, and you can look like a saint in the midst of it. It’s quite the ego-trip, let me tell ya!

Married people, on the other hand, have to work their schedules and desires around another person, and their selfishness is bound to bump into the selfishness of the other person. By the time kids come around, there is no longer the faintest vestige of that rather appealing facade that the single person takes for granted. As a loving aunt, I remember holding my infant nephew in my arms as he wailed with colic, and I found myself filled with an inexplicable urge to throw the miserable baby across the room. It’s amazing what other people’s needs bring out in generally amiable people. Seriously—parents never cease to amaze me!

But recently, due to a hapless whim of generosity a couple months ago, I have been finding my single-person facade begin to crumble from beneath me.

It all started on a(n unseasonably warm) Sunday in April when I sat on my porch to enjoy some Sabbath rest in the midst of crunch time. A chorus of neighborhood girls on the porch next door were singing a gospel song and choreographing a rather involved dance to go along with it. I rocked on my rocking chair and enjoyed the sunshine and song, smiling at them whenever they looked my way, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had a package of Oreos in the kitchen that someone had left at my house. Never a fan of Oreos, I decided to offer them to the girls in appreciation for the performance.

I was swarmed by vultures as soon as I did. The five girls shouted into the house and a veritable army of (about ten) children emerged. I allowed them each two cookies, and returned to my house feeling generous.

What I had not planned on was the inevitable change in my relationship with my neighbors that came as a result. I went from the nameless lady next-door to a vending machine, and when any of the children saw me outside from that point forward (and with ten children in the small house, several are always outside), my presence would never again go unnoticed. Eventually I gave them all my Oreos. Then I came up with a few boxes of granola bars I had bought on sale but didn’t like. Then as the attention continued and I neglected to refill my pantry, I had to start getting more creative. I made Chinese tea for them, cringing as the squirmy kids precariously handled my fragile pottery. I invited them inside to make brownies or popcorn. I got out my colored pencils and let them draw. I let them “help” me mow the lawn and weed the garden. And sometimes, my hospitality quotient waning, I merely let them jump around on my porch while I tried to continue reading.

One evening last week, contentedly finished with my Greek homework, I made some couscous and put it over a bed of salad greens, contemplating taking my dinner out to the porch to eat. When I heard the shouts of rambunctious children on three sides of the house, I thought better of it and decided to eat inside. But before I could sit down, the voices unmistakably congregated on my porch, and right as I was deciding to pretend they weren’t there, the doorbell rang.

I identified the ring-leader as a girl who lives around the block whom I had met the day before via the kids next-door. She was distinctive in my memory because she was always filthy—filthy like a country girl, almost caked in mud. I also remembered her because she had tried to keep the neighbor girls from telling me that she hadn’t had dinner because her mom was too drunk to cook. This evening four equally filthy children were with her, and I was not in the mood to be compassionate.

“Can they see your house too?” the dirty girl asked with hardly any greeting.

“No, not right now,” I tried to say in a friendly voice. “I’m just about to eat dinner.”

“Oh, well, we haven’t had any dinner. Is there anything we could have?”

“No, I don’t have much of anything.” It was close to the truth, unless they wanted the last of my salad and couscous that I was trying to stretch for another week.

“Do you have any other snacks?”

“No, I haven’t been to the grocery store, and I don’t keep many snacks on me normally.”

“Can we have some tea?” She was clearly getting desperate, and there was no way I could claim to be out of tea. But I was not in the mood to referee another tea party with my fragile Chinese pottery, so I turned her down again.

“Can we sit here and have you read to us? Can you play some Irish music?”

In my college years I used to fanaticize living in the intercity with children gathered around me, reading and drawing and cooking and playing music. But that evening, with the muddy children gathered on my porch and my dinner getting cold on the table, with the next day’s homework entirely finished and with no other looming projects, I turned them down. I could not pretend not to have tea or books or Irish music or time. This time, it was generosity that had become depleted from my shelves.

The image of the children peering through my porch windows as I began my dinner until I closed the blinds haunts me. The kids next-door have provided many opportunities in the proceeding days for me to exercise my weakened muscles of hospitality, but the dirty kids from around the block have not returned. I hope I get that chance to read to them on the porch one day, but in the mean time the memory haunts me.

Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, you have my undying respect, as I slowly learn the humility that you can’t sneak your way around. Ironically, hospitality is one of the best teachers of ones own selfishness, and I too am selfish. Here’s to the hope of redemption, redemption that requires the gift of humility to begin.

Friday, June 24, 2011

El Roi - the God who sees me

I sought thee as the magi sought the star—
Be found by me—
For heaven is so high and earth too far
For ants like me.
But in these pebbles where I often crawl
I smell the crumbs of children. Let them fall.

And I have probed the annals of the wise
To find out thee,
But only saw the mirror of my eyes—
Be found by me.
We cross the globe and chase the setting sun
And find our end is where we had begun.

So in the hollow of my empty hands,
Be found by me,
Like springs that burst within the thirsty land
That’s found by thee.
And in my desert thou hast dug a hole
To be thy hermitage within my soul.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Old School

When I bought my home last year and took on the responsibilities thereof, I decided I wanted to find a old-fashioned, reel push-mower for the lawn. My mother, a veritable magician when it comes to second-hand shopping, found one at an estate sale a block away from my new home, and the owner of the antique machine was shocked that anyone was purchasing it. I think she paid ten bucks for it.

The old contraption always elicits a reaction from passersby:

“You need to get a power mower!” is a common reaction, which always makes me feel insulted.

“You need help with that?” one fellow asked when I was nearly done mowing one Saturday. Clearly, I don’t.

“That’s the old school!” brings out a smile on my sweaty face.

One neighbor flexed her biceps as she passed, and I responded by thumping my chest. Yes, I am strong!

“Can I try?” children always ask, which gives me a short break whether I want one or not, but does not save me any of the work.

But one interesting reaction this past weekend came from a neighbor who has a push-mower herself. “Wow, that one is pretty heavy-duty! Ours has a hard time handling this grass. Look how low it cuts too!”

It was an interesting reaction because it made me look differently and my ten-dollar estate-sale find. Suddenly, it went from a useless item from someone’s basement to a gem of push-mowers, a vestige from a time when people built machines to handle real work, machines that last.

It was especially interesting because it made me react differently to the next comment, made by old Harold who comes by from time to time asking if he can earn a few bucks with odd jobs. “That cuts really good!” he exclaimed. “Can I borrow it when you’re done?”

Things walk off in the neighborhood. In my first few days here, I had already had my little garden statue of St. Patrick stolen from my front yard (who steals statues of saints?!). I don’t know what antique-gems-of-push-mowers go for at pawn shops, but suddenly, by his mere proximity to my discovery of the merits of my specimen, Harold seemed like just the type to try to find out.

Nevertheless, when my doorbell rang a couple hours later and Harold appeared, asking if he could borrow my mower, I reluctantly handed it over, saying a quick prayer that I would see it again. I knew that the fact that he was poor was no reason to suspect vice of the old man, and I felt a little ashamed of myself for being worried nonetheless.

While I waited, I got back to my reading:
He that sheweth mercy, lendeth to his neighbour: and he that is stronger in hand, keepeth the commandments. Lend to thy neighbour in the time of his need, and pay thou thy neighbour again in due time. Reap thy word, and deal faithfully with him: and thou shalt always find that which is necessary for thee.

Many have looked upon a thing lent as a thing found, and have given trouble to them that helped them. Till they receive, they kiss the hands of the lender, and in promises they humble their voice: But when they should repay, they will ask time, and will return tedious and murmuring words, and will complain of the time: And if he be able to pay, he will stand off, he will scarce pay one half, and will count it as if he had found it: But if not, he will defraud him of his money, and he shall get him for an enemy without cause: And he will pay him with reproaches and curses, and instead of honour and good turn will repay him injuries. Many have refused to lend, not out of wickedness, but they were afraid to be defrauded without cause.

But yet towards the poor be thou more hearty, and delay not to shew him mercy. Help the poor because of the commandment: and send him not away empty handed because of his poverty. Lose thy money for thy brother and thy friend: and hide it not under a stone to be lost. Place thy treasure in the commandments of the Most High, and it shall bring thee more profit than gold.
-Ecclesiasticus 29:1-14
Harold did come back with the mower within half an hour. By that time I felt sufficiently humbled for having been hesitant to lend to my neighbor in the time of his need, for being tempted to send him away empty handed because of his poverty. After all, I knew that the fear of losing the thing lent was more old-school than my mower itself, and was taken into account when we were commanded to lend nevertheless. After all, I was reminded, I shall always find what is necessary for me.

I pray I become more willing to lose my money for my brother and friend, and that I learn to place my treasure in the commands of the Most High. In the mean time, I’m glad to get the mower back.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Language Barriers

A teacher at the local elementary school was once given a large donation of hundreds of bicycle helmets to distribute to her students. She was grateful for the gift, but was unsure of how many of her low-income students owned bicycles in their quickly-shifting lifestyles that often found them attending three different schools in a given semester.

“How many of you have a bicycle?” she asked a classroom of students. In response, a mere two students raised their hands. Though she was prepared for a non-universal response, the paucity shocked her.

“Are you serious?” she asked incredulously. “None of the rest of you have a bike?”

“Oh, you mean a bike!” the stupefied students responded. “You didn’t say a bike!”

A long-time teacher in this neighborhood, she was shocked at the language barrier she had just stumbled upon between her and her students. How many times had she unknowingly spoken over her students’ heads? How many times did they dumbly nod, chirping “Yes, Ms. Smith” without any idea what she was saying, too embarrassed to admit they were entirely lost? It was a sobering realization, one that still brought her to tears years later when she related the story to me this week.

Having learned from her error, she went into the next classroom prepared to meet this new challenge. “How many of you have a bicycle or bike?” Still, only one or two students raised their hands.

“Are you serious?” she asked again. “You mean that none of the rest of you have a bike?”

“We don’t have them here!” the students responded. “We took the bus!”

Obstacles to communication are endless, even outside the context of some of the drastic cultural and educational barriers she was facing that day. God give us the grace to learn how our words sound to those on the other end of them. God give us graciousness to handle the confusion that mounts in the mean time.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


“I will be found by you,” declared the Lord,
But all I saw were lines of cornrows in
A child’s hair that glistened as she warred
The heat with mud, and so I looked again.
Her brother’s hose created seas upon
The shattered sidewalk as if on earth’s third day,
And her shrill screams outdid the birds in song
To chime that it was good. And who’s to say
That they won’t touch you with their muddy toes
While my well-educated fingers hoist
A heavy page, or that they chose
The better part who never got a choice,
While he who hovered on the waters and on men
Has giggled off for me to seek again?

Two Kinds of Gentry

“Why don’t we talk about the meeting last night for those who weren’t there?” a neighbor suggested as eight of us sat in her living room after a community dinner. My feelings about the event in question were still rather jumbled, so I passed the torch to another neighbor who had also been there.

The night before, over 25 people had crammed into a small nearby living room to discuss the kids of our urban, low-income neighborhood. As the various teachers, professors, non-profit workers, and councilors introduced themselves, I realized something: not only were only three of them male, but only two of them were black. As a white woman in the room, I felt like a statistic.

Many ideas were shared—a summer ceramics class, more publicity for our community garden, some kind of Saturday school—but I had an eerie sense that we were crippled from the start by our status as outsiders, a bunch of white women who sit around eating hummus, teaching art classes, and wondering why these urban kids aren’t flocking to our community garden.

“...There was a lot of good energy in the room,” my neighbor concluded as I was jerked back into the postprandial dinner conversation. “There are good people moving into the neighborhood, and I think they’ll do a lot of good.”

“Speaking of that,” another neighbor interjected, “did you hear the neighborhood association is considering raising the income requirements?”


“I know. I hope it doesn’t happen. I don’t want to see gentrification happening here. I want it to keep its native culture.”

I scratched my head again. Had no one else noticed that of the eight white people in the room, all were college graduates, most had masters degrees, and several were working on PhDs? I assumed whatever was meant by “gentrification” involved a different class of folks, ones with larger paychecks who wanted lower taxes, not our over-educated selves who taught ceramics classes and planted community gardens and experimented with vegan recipes and bought energy efficient appliances.

Either way, I knew both kinds of “gentry” were equally far culturally from the kids we longed to serve, and I didn’t know how I could point my finger and cry “gentry” at other folks. I will try to help my neighbors serve the kids who walk our streets, but I know we do so rather perilously: we respect some aspects of the urban culture, but to serve the neighbors with the tools we have we unknowingly call them away from that culture.

We are of course well-meaning, and can only give what we have to give. For now, that’ll be ceramics classes and community gardens. I hope we can meet our neighbors somewhere in the middle.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rejecting the Rules

During my first semester of college, I attended a discussion between an Evangelical campus minister and an agnostic Religion professor (who is now a Unitarian pastor). After answering the question of what drew him toward the person of Christ, the professor was asked to explain what drew him away from Christ. A mere two months after 9/11, the issue of the suffering of the innocent came immediately to his mind.

“I understand all your arguments about free will and sin,” he interjected when dozens of hands shot up around the room to respond with their attempts to justify the ways of evil to man. “I understand that if the rules demand an option of evil to prevent us from being puppets, then a good God would give us the option, and that the choice of evil hurts all of creation, even the innocent. I understand retributive justice and atonement theology and eschatological justice at the world’s end. If those are the rules, then I guess that’s just the way it is.”

He paused, and then said something that still haunts me ten years later. “But... God made the rules. If something seems terrible, we have to accept it as the way the world works, but God made the way the world works. I know you’re going to tell me it wasn’t the way he intended it to be and explain a comprehensive system to understand evil, and I couldn’t necessarily tell you a different way it could have been. But I imagine that God could have. I don’t actually reject God; I just reject those rules, and I suppose if you equate them with God then it would look to you that I am rejecting him.”

Though I wouldn’t recognize it until years later, there was something of Job’s challenge to God in his words, and something of his friends’ rationalization of suffering in our theological responses. It was fitting that it came from someone on the outside, as it were, just as Job himself was outside the people of Israel. In any case, I started to wonder on that November evening if the professor’s demands for God’s goodness were more in keeping of faith than our canned acquittals were.

I bumped into that old professor this week in cyberspace. I don’t have the answer to those questions of ten years ago, but I am grateful for the way he helped me distinguish between my faith in Christ and a closed system of rationalizations that looks cold from the outside.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Amen, Go Lord Jesus?

There was a song that was popular when I was in high school among the Christian circles in which I was walking called “Trading My Sorrows.” The jist of the song was quite simple: we trade our sorrows to receive the joy of the Lord. Other common trades we would talk about include trading our sin to receive Christ’s righteousness, or trading our death to receive his life. These are all a bit unbalanced as far as trading goes, and in each case we seem to get the better end of the stick. Perhaps that was supposed to be the scandal of the gospel. (I’m not going to attack these happy trades right now, though I have taken the first one to task in an earlier post.)

There was one passage in particular that confused me as a college student that did not fit neatly into the trading rubric. While Luke’s version of the beatitudes says logically enough, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Matthew’s much more quoted version renders it, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” a strikingly less triumphant trade. Even if those who mourn have comfort to look forward to, I would ask, wouldn’t it be better not to have mourned at all? What is blessed about receiving comfort, at least as opposed to not mourning to begin with?

Moreover, the Ascension seemed like the worst trade of all. When Jesus is explaining to his disciples that he will be going to the Father and they will see him no more, he anticipates their grief and asserts, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” How is it to their advantage that he go away in order that he may send them someone to help in his absence, I would wonder. Wouldn’t it be better for him to stick around so that they wouldn’t need a helper? It would have seemed a rotten trade to me.

Thus there is a mystery we celebrate this weekend on the Feast of the Ascension, a mystery that looks ahead to Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the mystery that the comfort for the mourners and the Comforter whom the Father sends the disciples is not mere consolation: it/He is further blessing. It is for our good that we mourn, for we will receive his comfort. It is for our good that we seem to be bereaved, for the Spirit has come.

It is good theology to be certain, a theology that says that God will not abandon his people nor allow their weakness to triumph over his redemption. Half the time I don’t believe it; half the time I think mourning trumps comfort and human frailty trumps the Holy Spirit. Thus this weekend the biggest act of faith I can muster is to rejoice.

Go on up to your Father, Jesus, in order that we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Alleluia, I suppose.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jokes that had once been funny

“I may be 62,” my dad said with a wily twinkle in his eye after he blew out his birthday candles on Sunday, “but I can still pass for 61.”

The joke is always funny to a few non-family members in the room as it might have been to us the first several times we heard it many years ago. At this point for the family members who have heard him say it year after year, however, who have adapted it on their own numerically smaller birthdays (after all, though I am 28, I do not feel a day older than 27!), the joke is not funny as much as it is comforting. It is part of the liturgy of the family, the repeated phrases and jokes-that-had-once-been-funny that let us know that, while so much has changed around us over the decades, some things have remained the same.

“I’m deathly allergic to zucchini, and anything else I can’t spell.”

“It’s as I always say: feta makes everything betta!” (my joke, to which my dad’s response is “Gag me with a spoon!”—he is allergic to a great many things).

“Ahhhhhhhhh...choo-choo train!”

Once upon a time, these jokes had been funny in their own right. Now they produce laughter not because of the joke, but because of the teller. We laugh because the words have somehow molded into our image of the speaker himself, because the words have combined vacuous ideas with a living, breathing person whom we love. We laugh because we love.

And as we grow in the faith of a God who has revealed himself to us as the Word made flesh, the rereading of Scripture and the repetition of liturgy has every bit as much vitality as my father’s predictable jokes. We repeat words we have spoken when our hearts were breaking or when they rose in exaltation, and we are connected to the person from whom we first heard them, the person who spoke them to us time and time again, the person of Christ and his Church. The Word was made flesh in the Incarnation, and words are still a part of the person from whom they are born. Repetition becomes an expression of love.