Monthly Archives: June 2012

When pricked, I will bleed… eventually.

A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention.  It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause.  “Huh.  That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down at my hand.  Huh.  It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers.  I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken.  I only stopped when the wound began to bleed.  It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Bleed indeed!  It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open.  I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures.  Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…).  I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it?  I’ve yet to feel pain at the site.  The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand.  How remarkably odd!

That evening, as I laid in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio.  Antonio goes to great lengths to secure a loan for his friend: offering a ‘pound of flesh’ as guarantee.  The description of their friendship borders on the erotic.  Antonio doesn’t hesitate to help Bassanio (mirroring the words on Portia’s leaden casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”).   It was  Antonio’s unexplained depression — “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” —which stopped me in my tracks.  Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake, indeed soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than platonic love between the friends than meets the eye–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused  Antonio great pain.  The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.

It is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest.  It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion.  The words on the lead casket echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ (Matt 19:29)–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things. Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. Evil’s plans (in this case, the Jewish merchant, Shylock) are thwarted, and it all works out in the end. But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted?  What if Antonio paid with a pound of flesh? What if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?

Can there not be limits to where my devotion might take me?  A recent reading the introduction to Craig Keen’s The Transgression of the Integrity of God pushed these buttons for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students of Keen’s) describe a radicality in his devotion which is dangerously inspiring: that nothing would get in Keen’s way of his discipleship.  “Everything was up in the air.  Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which  he felt himself called.  Marriage, school, career–everything.”

Such language stirs the valiant among us to nobel ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations.  Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitude of daily life for others to attend to.  In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will).  Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that the God worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?

It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhārtha Gautama more compelling than the teachings of Jesus; certainly more so than many of the ‘followers’ of Jesus.  While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’, Siddhārtha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

When immersed in the pseudo-evangelical holiness world, is it possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential? The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility to those left holding your urn.

The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path.  Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Oddly, this middle way bears a strong resemblance to holiness…

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Looking compassion on the world…

I recently struck up a friendship with a man who loves people.  By that, I don’t mean he’s particularly social (although he enjoys going out).  I mean he delights in people.  At first I thought it was a hoax.  (You are taking to a woman who once bought a two-seater car for the sole purpose of NOT having to give people rides.)  No one is that nice.  But this man–he loves people. He is amused when folks overreact.  He smiles when someone shows their worst snarky side, and marvels at the humanity of us all.   He loves life in ways I never have, but always wanted to.

He is far from perfect, but acknowledges his own foibles and in doing so, allows others to do the same.  He sees the imperfect, perfectly. And because he loves people, people adore  him.  He not only makes them love him, but he makes them loveable–to themselves and those all around.

I was recently asked to be the liturgist at my local church, and was asked to read this piece by St. Theresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

As I spoke aloud “Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world” my mind immediately turned to my friend who sees the good in everyone, and reflects that good like a thousand mirrors- in endless repetition.

I want to learn to love people that way: to see them with the eyes of Christ.  I want to learn to look compassion on the world. 

Paper or plastic?

Few times stand out as clearer to me as a prime example of culture shock, than when I was for the first time ‘on my own’ at a grocery store in the US. I’d been overwhelmed not simply by the vast quantities of food and merchandise available, but by the variety from which to choose.  A simple task like selecting toothpaste became a half hour, painstaking decision.

When I finally gathered my list of goods together, I was exhausted and overstimulated. I arrived at the check out counter to be greeted by a friendly smile, but accousted by a persistent question: “Paper or plastic?” Befuddled I stared blankly back at the inquirer.  “Paper or plastic?” he repeated. I blinked. “Paper or plastic?” His tone had shifted from friendly to ‘annoyed’. Scrambling to find an adequate response to his insistent query, I finally blurted out “Is cash OK?”

Tough love…

Yesterday was the Pride Parade in Chicago and I attend with an agenda in mind: 1) to lend my voice of love and acceptance and celebration to the throngs of people who will be ‘Out and About’, and 2) to bear witness to a different way of being Christian–documenting on film for anyone who stumbles across this blog that there are churches who welcome you and support you, in all your fullness and complexity.

To those ends, I offer the following witness to love:

The Hill Family (clergy–United Methodist)

Rev. Jacki Belile, clergy, American Baptist Church–USA

The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Churches in Chicago.

A sea of banners announcing the churches who are welcoming and affirming.

My own church’s banner.

What a powerful statement of trust: it is a robust pneumatology indeed.

It is an amazing statement to those who’ve spent their lives excluded by the church, to be celebrated by the church on their own terms!

But to the churches who practice so-called “tough love” by condemning homosexuality  and homosexuals in the name of Jesus, I offer a word of caution: Gay people aren’t beating down your church doors, wanting to get in.  There are options, as evidenced here.  When you, in the name of Jesus, preach judgment and condemnation, stop and think who it is you are preaching to: your own.  It is only your own closeted gay children who even attempt to stay in the hostile environment that is your church–whether out of conviction or nostalgia.  The rest will find places where they are celebrated and welcomed and love flows freely.  They will surround themselves with life-giving people, in life-giving places.

The only ones you exclude are your own.

The day the rabbit(s) died…

No, I was not pregnant.  I was 19 and working as the head of maintenance for the summer camp for the Peoria Southside Mission.  The camp was located 20 miles outside of Peoria, on 380 acres of wooded land. It seems that when you’re raised an MK, there are a lot of assumptions made about your skills–assumptions you yourself embrace. Who doesn’t want to be considered a renaissance woman? a Jill-of-all-trades?

That summer I fixed fences, door frames, and roofs. I plunged toilets, mowed lawns, painted, planted trees, you name it–I even learned to drive a bulldozer.

The camp had a petting zoo of sorts–all donated animals who were found to be misfits in their former homes.  We had three horses, two miniature goats, three very large goats, a flock of geese, several dogs and puppies, and there were always kittens around.  Half my day was spent tending to the animals–either simply feeding or grooming them–the other half was spent (it seems) chasing them down and repairing fences.  I have been known to walk two miles with a full-grown goose tucked under each arm, green goose shit running down each pant leg.  Sigh.  But I digress.  The point I was making is: these animals were misfits.  On any given day, someone would drive up with a dog who was pregnant, and not wanting to terminate the pregnancy, decide to ‘donate’ the dog to the mission.  And we took in anything that wasn’t sick and didn’t bite.  We’d seen how therapeutic it was for our inner city kids to spend time with the animals, learning to care for them and grow attachments in healing and healthy ways, we were pleased to take the strays in.

One day I received a phone call that someone would like to donate some domestic rabbits.  Could he bring them over right away? Knowing our policy of accepting pretty much any healthy donation, I said “Sure! Bring the bunnies over! The kids will love them.”  I set the phone down and began to scramble to figure out what type of cage I could quickly assemble for these rabbits.

I should have asked more questions.  Really.  Within half an hour of the phone call a pick up truck drove up in the hot July sun with a large wooden crate in the back–the crate literally filled the truck bed.  The donor walked across the yard and asked where he could set the crate, and I cast about for a suitable temporary spot and pointed to a spot telling him it would be fine to ‘put it there, under those trees in the shade.”  To my surprise (and subsequent panic) he and his buddy unloaded that huge crate FULL of rabbits.  “I reckon there are about 100 of them.”  I filled out the tax deduction form for them and quickly as they came, the gentlemen were on their way.

Good grief!  I was building a pen for a few rabbits–I’d been thinking 5 or 6. Now I had 100 to deal with! I set about anew, trying to figure out not only how to contain these animals, but where I could put such a large brood!  I phoned my boss in the city, and he suggested a temporary run on the grass, where we could then build up a proper hutch/shelter. He was excited about the number and had visions of inner city children quietly holding and stroking these gentle lapin.

It took me about an hour to gather the posts and fencing and wire to create the ‘run’ on the grass and locate a suitable site which would provide shelter and shade as well as some bright sunny spots. As usual, I had about 20 kids watching my every move.  I set to work.  It took an additional hour to get the pen set up in a satisfactory fashion: I needed the rabbits to stay in, and the local raccoon and coyotes to stay out.  As I was finishing up, my boss arrived from the city.  He inspected the pen and was pleased with my progress.  He then asked to see the rabbits.

It turns out that the shady spot I’d picked out for the donor to set the crate in remained shady for only a few minutes. As the day progressed (unbeknownst to me, as I was frantically building a rabbit pen) the shade shifted until the majority of the wooden crate was exposed to the hot July sun.  My boss began yelling…

I came running with a crow bar to open the crate.  The rabbits had gotten so hot they were huddled all on one end of the crate, trying to get into the shade.  They were piled on top of each other.  Those on top were sweaty and panting.  I ran for a hose, while my boss began sorting them out.  We hosed the lot of them down in an attempt to cool them quickly.  My boss suddenly stopped what he was doing and laid into me with a barrage of blame.  “These animals were in your care and you neglected them!  You’ve killed them!  This is your fault!”  The barrage went on for a good ten minutes or longer.  The kids who’d gathered round began crying.  I was crying.  My boss was crying and continuing to scream.  He finally assaulted me with a “This is on your head!” before storming off.

Sobbing, I kept sorting the animals.  The ones on the bottom were wet and stiff.  The ones still living were placed in a box in the shade–I think there were maybe twelve still living.  The rest I threw into the back of a truck and headed off to the dump.  All the while I had kids from the city watching… and some of the older ones rode with me to dispose of the lapin bodies.  I backed the truck up to the edge of the dump and the kids made a game out of tossing the 90 or so rabbits into the ravine.  I then covered them with the bulldozer: picture the college girl in tears behind the controls of that land mover.

The kids talked about it as one of the most fun days of their whole camp experience.  I, however, went back to my cabin and sobbed.  And can still end up crying when I think about it for long.   I know that it was an impossible situation, exacerbated by a boss whose crass display of frustration only compounded the guilt I felt.  But I felt responsible: all around responsible–for the deaths of the rabbits, for the experience of the kids who watched–for it all.  I caused the deaths.

The next morning I got up before anyone else and released the remaining rabbits.  I couldn’t bear to face them.  My boss cornered me that evening and asked if I was the culprit.  When I affirmed, he stared at me grimly and told me they’d likely not survive in the wild.  “You’ve killed them all.”

The flirt

male
female
matters not

this is neither sexual nor gendered

he sees the divine and calls it forth
with eye contact
or a tip
a friendly smile
a casual gesture

the invocation that rolls off his tongue
is music to the ears

the recipient: caught off guard and delighted
to be included in the beauty he pronounces

it is production
performative

the average joe is sanctified under his gaze

It is grace.

The perfect storm

That there was a pedestrian accident on the Metra affecting Northbound trains, an afternoon Cubs game at home, and an extra-alarm fire at Fullerton shutting down the Red, Brown, and Purple line El trains was sufficient ingredients to cook up the perfect commuter storm.  I was stuck on the Red line of the El underground for about an hour Monday, awaiting word on where we could move to, and where we could escape our interment.  They finally allowed us to proceed to the North/Clybourn stop, and disembark.  The underground platform was crowded with confused and inconvenienced sojourners.  Body to body we were moved en masse towards the narrow escalator and stairs–and I thought to myself how easy it would be to get trampled or knocked off the platform onto the ominous, electrified third rail below.  Shudder.

We emerged from our dark womb and stood squinting in the bright sunlight.  There were shuttles off to one side, promising to take folks around the disaster to the next strain stop to the North, but there were also thousands standing in line, waiting for said shuttles.  I turned and walked the opposite direction, getting caught up in the sweep of the crowd.  It took me several blocks to get clear of people enough to figure out my bearings.  I could see the skyline and determined the best thing for me to do was head towards the lake.  Perhaps, even, if I headed slightly South I’d have a better chance of catching a cab or bus.  And so I walked. And walked.  And walked.  I wished I’d worn better shoes to the office.  My computer bag was beginning to weigh heavily and my feet became inconsolable on the hot concrete.

I paused to take a break and wipe the sweat from my eyes, and looked around. I was standing on the edge of one of those large city blocks designated for construction–fenced off, but for now, just a large overgrown field.  In the bright sun, the tall grass shimmered in the heat.  And I was transported to another world.

I’m 11 and sitting on a grassy airfield with my 13-year-old brother in Irian Jaya.  We’d been dropped there with the plane’s cargo the day before, and were patiently waiting for the pilot’s return.  We’d been on our way to ‘the village’ from boarding school, but cloud cover had made the hour and a half flight into a much longer series of dangerous holding patterns.  Running low on fuel, the pilot set us down on an open airfield and promised to be back once refueled and the cloud cover had receded.

24 hours have passed.  We don’t speak the language.  We don’t entirely know where we are.  We sit.    I wandered off for a bit, only to have my brother (big brother) yell at me, concerned I’d get hurt, uncertain of the wildlife in the area, and just generally being controlling.  “What if the pilot comes and you aren’t close by?  We might have to wait for you and the clouds might come back!” We worry about being on the wrong side of the border–given we don’t have our papers, and border fighting is common.

I begrudgingly come back to the pile of cargo we’ve been left with.  We are dirty, hungry, and mildly scared.  Our thoughts turn naturally towards abandonment, and whether or not any one has even missed us yet.  We fight–verbally and physically.  Finally, we are silent and sullen.

And the sound of the plane comes over the horizon…

Back in present day Chicago, I’m struck as to how very vulnerable I feel.  Vulnerable and alone.  Would anyone notice I was missing?