October 15, 2009
If I stand and pee in our upstairs bathroom and look up I see Jaimen’s handwritten sign quoting Jesus’ “Do to others as you want them to do to you.”
When I turn to wash my hands my eyes fall on the besplattered Mary Azarian “N is for Neighbor” print that is pinned into the wall just above the sink. A man and a woman conversing, smiling, standing on either side of a fence.
When I lie in bed and look up I see the sky and stars, the moon if the timing is right, and the condensation that has gotten trapped in the skylight, and water stains on the wood frame.
I don’t think much of religion anymore. I used to. I know that it has a powerful draw for many people and that that draw pulls from deep inside their being, or seems to. I know that it makes many promises, many claims, and that it shapes language and thought, and corrupts language and thought.
I was always trying to get to the core of things, which of course means that I thought things had cores, which I suppose is a religious idea.
The core that I finally found, dwelling as I was in the realm of Protestant Evangelical Christianity, is hanging over my toilet, and the teaching about loving your neighbor, and that your neighbor is, well, everyone. That was my holy of holies, that’s what I found when the veil was torn. My ticket off the magical mystical tour. My pass out of religion, into the world, into myself, my ordinary self and my actual surroundings. It didn’t make things any easier, but a lot less cluttered. It made things harder, since many of the consolations faded away as well. But more authentic, more real. And for me there are no greater consolations than those. That is certainly what it feels like.
It opens you into the lives of others, and into your own life. Into the life of your community, your society, your time, your world, our world.
It is a strategy, a theme, a posture, and a throw away line, a slogan pinned to a wall, that means less than nothing if you don’t actually try to do it, and think seriously about it. There are other “cores” out there, other strategies and themes, instincts, tendencies, many of which run fiercely counter to “love thy neighbor” and they are not trifles.
I’ll end with some words of Hillel, a famous teacher and contemporary of Jesus. They are on a notecard stuck in a folder somewhere in my office, it used to be up on my shop wall:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
September 17, 2009
It was probably the hundredth meal I had eaten with them and this time I was going to figure it out. How they ate. Without utensils, without getting their hands dirty. I sat on the floor with seven-year old Menahil and her two younger sisters, our plates neatly placed on a rectangular cloth laid on the rug. She pressed her fingertips hard into the parata, the pita-like bread that lay round and flat on her plate, pushing her rigid right hand straight down like a spatula and rocking it, weakening it, forcing a fault line, a rip line, and then with her middle, third and little fingers holding down the larger part, she gripped the smaller with her thumb and first finger and tugged until, single-handedly, she tore the piece away.
She then manipulated the fragment in her fingers, pinching it, forming it into a kind of cup and then shoveled it into the curry, the chunks of chicken, the chickpeas, using it as a flexible, edible spoon, bringing the food up to her mouth, using the piece a few times before it too was eaten, and then she repeated the process – pressing her fingertips in, then spreading, pushing and pulling, ripping.
All the while her left hand rested. Unused. Ahhh. I understood, finally. I looked around. All the left hands, her younger sisters’ and her father’s, sat passively on the rug. Some old fear was present here, fresh and alive in a seven year-old, and her six and five-year old sisters. Three little girls eating their food with one hand tied to a taboo and the other clean, efficient, and artful. They had learned that the left hand was bad, dirty, only used for dirty things, and it had lead to this skillful, single-handed style of eating.
I first met Menahil in February of 2003. I thought of her as baby girl Jesus. It was winter, she was a toddler and was traveling with her young mother and somewhat older father. They were the holy family, fleeing Herod, on Amtrak, homeless, depending on the kindness of strangers; only it wasn’t quite Herod, but a hostile political party in their home country of Pakistan, and the anti-dark-skinned-Muslim xenophobia that had gripped the United States after September, 2001. They were too liberal (left-wing?) for Pakistan and too Muslim and dark for the US, so they had set their sights for Canada and gotten trapped in the no-country land at the border. This was just three weeks before the US would begin to bomb Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
A total of six Pakistani refugees bunked with us that month. Our own children are adopted from India so for Jo and me it was a welcome experience to see them surrounded by people of similar skin color and ethnic background. They loved it. Finally, Mom and Dad were in the minority! And we ate really good food. Sumera (Mary) cooked dinner every night, filling the house with wonderful and spicy smells. And Sajjad (Joseph) and I would stay up late discussing religion and world affairs and humanity and what it means to be a “true human being” and what Westerners think about Mohammed. And Ishmael. We talked about Ishmael, first born son of Abraham, father of the Arabs, pre-prophet of Islam, the chosen son of Abraham, the one that God told Abraham to sacrifice as a test of his faith… “Wait,” I said, “I thought that was Isaac, Isaac was the one almost sacrificed, Ishmael was the rejected one, the one sent out into the desert with his haughty mother Hagar.” “Oh, no,” explained Sajjad, “Isaac was a great man too, he is the father of the Jews, but Ishmael was the first-born, the chosen.” “Really?” I said, but I thought, “ah, a different version of the Abraham/sacrifice story with the sons switched, and the ancient insistence about the primacy of the first-born, the one who “opens the womb.” The first born who is blessed, and sits at the right hand of the father, the hand of power and might, the hand of blessing.
Did you know that the root of bless means blood, that blood and bless share the same root? Because the temple priest would kill the ram, or goat, or pigeon, and spray its blood around the altar. In churches they do not spray the blessed blood, but pour it and drink it, symbolically, as wine. God bless America. Hmmm…
And right. The root of right means straight, stretched. The right way is the straight way, the correct way, the mainstream way. The crooked way is bad. Only crooks and scoundrels walk it, leftists and homosexuals. To be erect is to stand straight up. The righteous are right, by definition, and the right way rules. Rule itself, and royal, regal, reign, Rex (king) all derive from the same rightist root. The Divine Right of Kings, the right hand that holds the scepter, the symbol of power, that holds the weapon, the threat of violence that guarantees power. Right makes might. Might is right and a sign of the deity’s blessing. And there is only one right way. One God. One blessed Son. One Prophet. And so only one right hand. The left, the gauche (French for left), the sinister (Latin), is the rejected other, the one relegated to shit, to dirt. And so with people, races, and nations. One nation rules over another, one race over another, one color, one sexuality.
Or… not. Slavery is abolished (in some places). The working class gains rights. A majority white nation elects a black president. Gender and sexual minorities assert rights — are right. Despite its etymology, and cranky taboos, there emerges more than one way of being right, of being a true human being, and of breaking bread – single-handedly, double-handedly, with utensils, with refugees at your table, or in Montreal, on a rug, with a no longer homeless baby girl Jesus and her sisters.
July 30, 2009
reading through the four gospels
one after the other
each time hoping that Jesus
would come down off the cross
as if he could somehow learn
from the experience of the previous gospel
as if each time the story started over
there was a chance for a different ending
Matthew — he dies
Mark —he dies
Luke — again
one more chance — come on Jesus!
come on God the Father!
but no — in John he dies too
bravely, but willingly, passively
and abandoned by God
I remember the darkness,
the resurrection stories didn’t hold my attention
I read them quickly, skimmed them
anxious to get to the next gospel
to see if the outcome would change
they seemed unlikely and awkward
tacked-on happy endings
strange and not credible to an eight year old
who already knew that dead was dead
and they didn’t address the issues anyway
that God would abandon
such a good and decent soul,
that we would be robbed of uncounted future years
of his teachings
resurrection as ad hoc afterthought
weak and transparent
crucifixion as what it is
March 29, 2009
talking about Jesus with A
asking him what the Jewish tradition says about Jesus
how he has been regarded by the rabbis over the years
A grows quiet
in his quietness I sense immediately a closer,
more vital and painful connection to Jesus than I could ever know
and then his remark that commentary and teachings about Jesus
were dropped from Jewish writings
on account of the violence they inflamed in their neighboring Christians
his silence brought forward the deletions and excisions
somehow, behind his eyes, in the inflection of his voice,
I could see and hear the angry Christian priests, rulers, and mobs:
how dare you say anything about Jesus?
you can not have him unless you have him on our terms,
any other way is blasphemy
my loss of the sense of time, that this pressure, this self-censoring is now ingrained into the Jewish identity
A’s quietness, his eyes averting, his reluctance to speak, his knowledge that other Jews who spoke of Jesus were persecuted, even killed for their comments
reverence to their memory?
March 25, 2009
March 19, 2009
I call her “baby girl Jesus” because she arrived at our house with her parents, Sajjad and Sumera, on a cold wintry day when they had been turned aside at the Vermont/Quebec border. They were a refugee family, fleeing persecution in Pakistan and the good ole USA. A homeless holy family. Good friends. Good people. They have found a home in Canada.