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?

Indeed.

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.baby-girl-jesus

Jesus with a Flight Bag

July 30, 2009

Jesus with a flight bag

this image appeared on a brick wall in Andalusia
from our trip to Spain, 2006

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 emptiness
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

injustice, cruelty
tragedy
that God would abandon
such a good and decent soul,
the loss
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

Jews and Jesus

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

his silence,
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?
sorrow?

yard-sale-red-haired-jesus

and some of us get upset when we see Jesus portrayed as an African… found object, 2008 Daniel Wetmore

baby-girl-jesus
Menahil, Montpelier, 2005 Daniel Wetmore

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.

hitching with Jesus

March 2, 2009

The third ride:

From Montpelier to Marshfield, I am picked up by a state employee who inspects high altitude lakes and ponds for acid rain content. Beat up truck, long hair, beard, state employee.

He explains: rain is acidic because of acidic particles in the air, particles are what rain precipitates on. The particle is essential for the water vapor to condense. It must condense onto something, it can’t condense into empty air. The particles are acidic, so the rain is acidic. It is the same with snowflakes, where a variety of forms can grow on a tiny bit of dust.

The first precipitation is of vapor becoming water on the dust particle, after that vapor condenses on the tiny drop, water on water. The dust, which made precipitation initially possible, becomes unimportant. It is just a bit of dust swimming in the now evergrowing droplet. I suppose with a snowflake the dust particle remains frozen in the center of the flake.

So, the word precipitation means the emerging of water out of vapor onto small particles, then it comes to mean the rain itself.

The process by which something is created becomes the name of the thing.

Jesus as precipitate. Some of us can not come into existence, precipitate onto, into, the hard dusty facts of our own existence, so we latch onto a story of some ideal or perfect being and then proceed to build our lives around this bit of idealized fact. It is still our life. It has little or nothing to with the actual person Jesus, but that doesn’t matter, the miracle happens, we come into existence and thank Jesus for it.

T-shirt shop, Wildwood, NJ, 2005

T-shirt shop, Wildwood, NJ, 2005

Easter Sunday, 1982

February 23, 2009

Service at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier
October 7, 2007
Daniel Wetmore

Chalice Lighting

A full stomach says a ripe guava has worms.
An empty stomach says, let me see. (Creole proverb)

We light this chalice for those with empty stomachs
For those who wish to see, for those who wish to be

First Hymn
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Meditation

Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow,
not some more convenient season.

It is today that our best work can be done
and not some future day or future year.

It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater
usefulness of tomorrow.

Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work,
and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.
(WEB DuBois)

Sermon

It felt like a play, like I was in a play, if I could only remember the words being spoken I could write them down, but I knew I wouldn’t and then Stephen would stop and it was my turn and the words came, few and perfect and then Stephen was off again, pacing the floor, stopping by the bed, taking another can of beer off the pillar of six-packs. It was so like a stage, the big grey bed, the bare light bulb hanging from a cord in the middle of the room. The tired armchair in which I sat, the rusty sink in the corner into which Stephen would pee every 30 minutes or so, even as he kept talking, guiding me ever deeper into his life. Even the window was theatrical, the one window opening not to the street or the sky or color but rather the still gray air of a light shaft that penetrated the heart of the hotel.

An hour earlier I had been on a different stage, the shelter on 30th and Lexington. It too was spare and gray and held two actors, Charles and me. 8 am on an Easter morning, coming off the night shift and we had sent our sleepers into the street so we could sweep and mop and rearrange the tables and chairs for the day’s big dinner. I was a young Wasp seminarian, a recovering evangelical trying to find God, serve God, play God, among those living and dying in the margins of New York City. Charles was a merchant mariner, taking a break from the sea, older than me, a man of few words, as dark-skinned as anyone I had ever seen, large and powerful and new to the shelter. Read the rest of this entry »