Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Insomnia

There are a lot of things close to home lately that have been difficult to work through, but I also find myself acutely aware of several places in the world, the thought of which leave me restlessly chasing sleep. I wish I could write about these places with elegance and expertise, but the geography is too vast and the struggles too complex for one person to hold them all together. Nonetheless, they have a hold on me.

I long for justice to roll down like a river in these places, for righteousness and peace to meet with a kiss. Until then, all I have to offer are my lamentations, small and insignificant though they be. I grieve for my neighbors in:

Manama, Bahrain
The Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, Sudan
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Gaza, Palestine
Aleppo, Syria
Somalia
D.R. Congo
Jos, Nigeria
Northern Mali
Qinghai, Ngaba, and Lhasa
The Arakan region of western Myanmar
Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
The Saharwi refugee camps
Dagestan

 Oh, that you would recognize on this day the things that make for peace!

Selah

Friday, July 27, 2012

For Syria

Common Ground

The weapons of warfare are suicidal.
Bent toward destruction
of other
they cripple self,
maiming soul and spirit
until we are left
desolate,
bereft of humanity.
We are at war with God,
striking at his image in our neighbor,
in ourselves.


What is the knowledge
of good and evil
but awareness
of unsightly otherness?
To be naked and ashamed
is nothing less
than forgetting the way
we laid side by side
in unformed clay,
silently
waiting.


Speak to us friends.
Remind us with bleeding voices--
there are no borders
beyond the curtain,
where enemy and ally
rest in the common ground
that eluded them
in the broken brotherhood
of flesh.

-- E. Ramón Chaparro, 2008


























Monday, July 23, 2012

The most serious thing you ever felt

Snow Geese

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
to ask
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
a flock of snow geese, winging it
faster than the ones we usually see,
and, being the color of snow, catching the sun
so they were, in part at least, golden. I
held my breath
as we do
sometimes
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
The geese
flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won't.
It doesn't matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

-- Mary Oliver

(Thank you to Kenneth Pruitt for sharing a blog post on the contemplative stance that contained this poem).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Final Revisions


"The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it." 

--Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

 ********

                Charley Bob Brewer was 30 years old when they found him in his house on the night of October 14th, a fatal gunshot wound peeking out from his chest. It's hard to believe I had just seen him, and even harder to admit what I was thinking about him the day he died. I feel bad because I was thinking that though he appeared to be a nice guy, I couldn't find it in myself to like him very much.

                See, Charley was hired to fix my mother's ailing computer, and it became clear early on that he didn't really know what he was doing and my mother's bill was growing in direct proportion to his ignorance. He came to my mother's house three times and each time he suggested she replace another component. After the first time, I told her that I didn't think he knew what he was doing. She seemed to agree, but she felt it would be counterproductive to go to someone else after he had already done so much work on the computer. So the process dragged on unnecessarily for weeks. Classic inertia.

                As much as I'm inclined to dislike people who try to take advantage of my mother, I think what troubled me the most was the two times he brought his family along when he came to do repairs. The first time, I was at the house alone and he was supposed to install a piece of hardware and be on his way. Several hiccups and nearly an hour later things were not working, and he decided to take the computer home to work on it. It wasn't until I walked him to the door that I saw his wife and kids sitting in the car, parked in the driveway beneath the baking sun. I asked him why he didn't tell me they were there, as they were more than welcome to come inside. He just laughed, said they didn't mind, got in the car and drove off.

                It took an inordinately long time, but he finally returned my mother's computer. This time both of my parents were home, so I let them field his never-ending flow of affable chatter. On an impulse I looked out the window to see if the car was occupied, but I didn't have a clear view. Twenty minutes later, I heard a car door open and I looked out again. There were his wife and two kids, opening the car doors to get some fresh air. He might have been unclear on the etiquette of bringing his family on house calls the first time, but after an explicit invitation the second time seemed intentional. Charley was still happily chatting away and didn't look to be in any rush, so I discreetly motioned my father over and explained the situation. He and my mother gently sidestepped Charley's objections and invited them inside to relax on the couch and enjoy some refreshments.

                It was an odd experience. I mostly stayed in my room, but there was definitely some unease in the air. The kids were young, 3 and 6, and they quickly warmed up to the new environment and the strangers who inhabited it. Indeed, the 6 year old appeared to have inherited his daddy's gift of gab. Charley's wife, Cheryl, began to smile shyly as she saw her kids having fun, but there was an electric thread of tension between her and Charley. He was still laughing and smiling, but it felt a bit forced, and she wouldn't meet his eyes. Chalking it up to some people just being awkward around strangers, I mostly stayed to myself until Charley finished working on the computer and we all said goodbye. That was October 13th.

********

                The police are reporting that Cheryl called 911 to say she had shot her husband. Further details have not been made public as of yet, but it is my understanding that no charges have been filed. At the very least I can say that as of October 27th she was not incarcerated. That was the day she came to my parents' house for the last time.

                At the time it only seemed moderately strange. My mother answered the doorbell and found Cheryl on the stoop with a package for her. My mother did not recognize her until Cheryl said that the package contained my mother's old internet adapter. I thought it was strange that she brought the adapter alone, but I didn't give it much thought since every interaction with them had been strange.

                But tonight we found out that Charley was shot, and my mother reflected that she'd also found the interaction to be strange. Not because Cheryl was alone, but because she had gently held onto my mother's hand for a moment when she handed her the package. My mother told her to tell the boys hello, but Cheryl didn't respond. It's eerie to learn now that she brought the forgotten internet adapter without her husband because he was already dead, perhaps by her hand. When Cheryl left that last time, we had assumed that we would never hear about Charley and Cheryl Brewer again. 

********

                It's amazing how the mind molds our memories. I read somewhere that the memories we hold onto most, the ones we most often rehearse, are just that – rehearsed. They shift subtly with each retelling, fitting more closely to the larger framework we are using to make sense of the world and our lives. We add embellishments and change time frames, all toward the end of shaping a memory that does not hinder the flow of how we narrate ourselves. It took me years to realize that my memory of seeing the Space Shuttle Challenger explode at liftoff in 1986 was erroneously staged in the house which we didn’t move into until 1988. A counselor friend of mine told me this might be a subconscious way of staging a traumatic event in a safer environment, which makes me wonder how many other memories have received such treatment. It seems that the things I can consistently remember are often shockingly inconsistent with reality.

                Who can say if my mother really noticed those details when Cheryl came to our door? But after her recollection a pensive silence fell around the dinner table. I was thinking about my various interactions with them, wondering if there was some way I could have known, could have prevented what would happen. Would one extra smile at Cheryl and the kids have made the difference? Was the electric thread of tension between them exacerbated by my interfering with their house call arrangement? Did it pull and pull and pull until everything unraveled in a flash of gunpowder and blood? 

                Speculation abounds, not just in my head but on the streets. Small communities are genetically predisposed to parse through the gossip and take sides, and right now there are several factions. One says that Charley was a saint, but Cheryl struggled to kick a drug habit. She is therefore obviously guilty of murder and ought to be locked up. Another muses that Charley was abusive behind closed doors and Cheryl shot him in self-defense. Why else wouldn't she be in custody? Yet another posits that it might have been an accident, being hunting season and all. Finally, some folks whisper that Charley had recently experienced some significant educational and occupational setbacks, and the pressure might have been too much for him to handle. All of these sides only show that speculation often conforms itself to our preferred narratives, according it a tenuous tie to reality similar in nature to that of memory.

                However much we scour our memories for hints, however many theories run through the gossip mill, the reality is that Charley is dead. His grandparents have outlived him. His young sons are partial orphans, his wife a widow. Reality as they knew it has changed irreversibly, and it is heartbreaking. Denied the power to change reality, we can only speculate and tinker with our memories until we tell a story that lulls us to sleep, dreaming that we've made sense of things at last.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Upside Down Kingdom, pt. 2

In the New Testament, the books of Luke and Acts are seen by most scholars as two parts of one composition which lays out the story of Jesus and the growth of the community that followed Jesus' teachings. In Mark and Matthew, the first words we see Jesus speak in his public ministry are about the kingdom of God/heaven. In Luke however, Jesus' first public explanation of his mission, parallel to his announcement of the kingdom of God in the other gospels, comes from an earlier Hebrew prophetic text:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
     because he has anointed me 
     to proclaim good news to the poor. 
 He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives 
     and recovering of sight to the blind, 
     to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 
 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

The rest of the narrative in Luke shows Jesus consistently teaching that God is on the side of the poor, oppressed, and outcast. Assuming that the author means to portray the community of Jesus followers in Acts as living according to those teachings, we can see the perception of these teachings lived out when that community is later accused before Roman officials:


'These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also...and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus." And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. [emphasis mine]

I don't mean to be simplistic and say that merely being on the side of the poor put the first communities of Jesus followers in opposition to the Roman Empire. However, empires are sustained by maintaining (or inventing) divisions within the populace to prevent various factions from banding together in opposition to the ruling elite. These divisions can be enacted along many different lines - ethnic, linguistic, economic, religious, social, tribal - lines that determine who has access to the benefits of imperial power and who will be excluded from that power. So, in the context of empire, being on the side of the poor is indeed a transgressive act, as is crossing any other of the dividing lines.

I believe to be a follower of Jesus means proclaiming allegiance to a different kind of sovereignty and citizenship in a different kind of country. It is to challenge and subvert dehumanizing imperial narratives that breed oppression by seeking to be human in a totally different way. It is to belong to an upside down kingdom.

The Upside Down Kingdom, pt. 1

Looking at our respective histories, Christianity and I have little reason to be associated with one another. My father's side of the family is rooted in Puerto Rico, where Christianity made its debut alongside Spanish conquistadores who greeted my ancestral Taíno people with rape, enslavement, and smallpox that by at least one estimate combined to decimate their population by 80%-90% within 30 years ("La tragédie des Taïnos", in L'Histoire n°322, July–August 2007, p.16). My mother's side of the family is rooted somewhere in a forgotten African culture prior to American slavery, Christianity being introduced to them in the context of religiously sanctioned bondage.

Naturally, I was moved as a teenager when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time and considered the teachings of the Nation of Islam that Christianity had been used throughout history to oppress people of color. Irreligious at the time, I remember thinking very clearly, "I have no business ever becoming a Christian." I could see no separation between the religion of Christianity and the empires with which it has been associated throughout centuries of cyclical subjugation and conquest.

Despite my initial stance, I have in fact come to be associated with the Christian tradition. The journey between then and now is too long and complex to detail here, but my initial discomfort regarding Christianity's historical pairing with oppressive powers persists to this day, perhaps even more keenly now that I am affiliated with said history. Most bewildering of all, after 15 years of studying the Bible, I find the overwhelming emphasis to be a critique and renunciation of the very powers with which Christianity has often allied itself in the last two millennia.

How can the history of Christianity be so far removed from the oppression-averse paradigm at its roots?

The biblical writers frame several historical imperial regimes as the quintessential oppressors, most notably Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome. The biblical writers also offer numerous critiques of the impulse within the people of God to emulate or ally themselves with those very empires which sought to subjugate them, including Samuel's condemnation of the establishment of an Israelite monarchy and Jesus' rejection of Jewish nationalist aspirations to violently overthrow the Roman Empire. In fact, J. Richard Middleton asserts that the creation narrative in Genesis in which humanity is created in the image of God is a critique of mythologies used to legitimate imperial oppression (see this brief article or read the fuller examination in his excellent book The Liberating Image). From beginning to end, empires get a bad rap in the Bible.

Many of the biblical narratives are fraught with the tension between the human impulse to oppress others and the divine call to a new way of being human that empowers others. The reason that Christianity continues to be attached to oppressive powers is because that seems to be the natural inclination of human nature. Like every other institution and regime critiqued in the Scriptures, those of us in the Christian tradition have to be willing to hear and respond to prophetic calls to a new way of being human that radically alters how we speak and act in the world. From a Christian standpoint, this prophetic call is exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who spoke continuously about a concept that Christianity has often misappropriated or completely forgotten - the kingdom of God.

This is such a rich topic, and I will come back to it in my next post. For now, I simply want to say that historical manifestations of Christianity have far too often been allied with imperial ambitions. In contrast, the call of Jesus to experience the kingdom of God is a call to live in such a way that subverts the oppression on which empires are built.

More on that in the next post...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Born Into Becoming

The seeds of this post were planted more than 15 years ago, when I prayed and admitted to God, "I have no idea what I'm getting myself into, but I will follow Jesus for the rest of my life." It has been a long journey from seeds to roots, and these hidden roots are difficult to articulate, though they are slowly digging deeper and spreading farther than ever before. For years the first shoots have struggled to break the surface and emerge into the light. In the open air, these initial offerings have been somewhat fragile and uncertain, unsure of what maturity looks like as they endured the hard work of being born into becoming fruitful.

Now is the time for pruning, for intentional moves toward that fruitfulness. That is where you come in, fellow thinkers and readers. I need your minds, your hearts, and your convictions to help me shape this life that is emerging into the light. Pruning shears are sharp by nature, so please do not dull the sharpness of your disagreement or critique in the name of friendship. Also, do not hold back because you feel like you have nothing to say. The act of speaking to a plant gives it nourishment to continue the difficult journey of upward growth, and every voice is beautifully life-giving and necessary.

So, this is my invitation, no matter your religious, political, or cultural affiliation -- please join me in breathing life into this blog, guiding it toward maturity and action.