We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Moses the Migrant

Once upon a time, long ago, in a place far from here, a familiar story unfolded. In this place there was a Ruler and this Ruler’s land was inhabited by people of varying ethnicity. There were those who named themselves “the People” and there were those named “the Others.” The Others were a strong-bodied people who worked hard, bore children and established themselves in the land. In fact, they became so abundant, that the People began to fear they would be overrun by the Others. The fear was so great that the Ruler began to look at the Others as invaders, though they had lived amongst the people for generations. They had, in fact, lived amongst the People so long that the Ruler—who was not a diligent student of history—had forgotten, or perhaps never learned that the Others had actually been invited to the land by a ruler from the past. They had helped sustain the land during a time of need. Now, they were not perceived as an asset but a threat.

In one version of this story, the Ruler is called Pharaoh; the People, Egyptians; the Others, Hebrew. Pharaoh responded to the Hebrew threat by summoning their midwives. “When you are preparing to deliver the babies of Hebrew women,” he commanded them, “you must abort them as they are being born.” The women did not argue. They also did not obey. Noticing that Hebrew babies continued to be born, Pharaoh summoned the midwives once again, “how is it that I continue to see my land overrun by newborn Hebrews?” he demanded. The clever women played helpless, “These Hebrew women, they are so hardy and energetic, they give birth before we even arrive in their homes!” Though the midwives civil disobedience delayed deaths, it did not prevent them. In his desperation, Pharaoh ordered that all male children be killed, even after being born.

Perhaps there were many families whose love and ingenuity compelled them to find ways to preserve the lives of their children. Ancient texts direct our attention to one particular family. And isn’t it often the way that our best education about broad truths comes through a narrow focus, from an individual encounter? The family was of the Levite clan. Though she already had two children, the mother of this family was struck by the beauty of her new child, a son, and she could not bear to see him lose his life even if that meant she could not share in that life with him. This child’s mother and father and brother and sister conspired together. They crafted a basket, carefully waterproofed and padded it. They placed within it this child, one of many born in the land but to them a unique marvel and mystery of creation to whom their hearts were bound. Reverently, with prayers and petitions, they placed the baby-filled basket in the river and hoped for salvation. His sister, Miriam, followed the flow of the river from the bank.

Almost of another world, another daughter ventured along the river bank. Pharaoh’s daughter, she shared the same land with Miriam and the other Hebrew daughters and sons, but knew little of their life. She lived life in a bubble of security. Even now, as she ventured to cool herself in the water of the Nile, a band of attendants followed around her; their presence both an irritation and an expectation, for she knew no life but a sheltered one. Immersing herself in the water this daughter heard a cry. She saw the unusual craft and could guess at its cargo—but how could this be? “Go fetch that basket,” she commanded an attendant. And her attendant obeyed. Opening the lid of the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter caught the spell of wonder that had been laid in the basket with this baby. She recognized love in him and wanted to share it. “I’m going to adopt him,” she said. And she named him Moses.

I imagine this encounter affecting the daughter of Pharaoh not only with compassion, but with curiosity. How did it come to be that this child was set afloat? Perhaps she learned more about the policies directed toward the people inhabiting the land she lived within. I noticed that when Moses grew to adulthood, there were still Hebrew people of his generation—they were not destroyed. Can it be that Pharaoh’s commandment was rescinded? I wonder if that had anything to do with his daughter finding her heart captivated by one Hebrew that led her to advocate, if even in only one small way, for the lives of his people. I wonder if the thought of each Hebrew baby’s death tore at her as though it were the murder of her own child?

The timelessness of this story occurred to me in a new way as I revisited it this week. Experience has a way of tinting the lens through which we look at the world. Where I stand in my interior landscape effects the perspective I have of the exterior, even when I am unaware. This time I was aware that I was reading with a mind toward the immigrants that share the land where I live. Aware that whatever people group we come from, we were all sojourners once. “My people” were primarily Dutch and Irish, welcomed when extra hands were needed, rejected when we became too many and were no longer seen as a resource but as burden on resources that were limited. A threat to familiar ways of being and looking and sounding. I thought of the South and Central American migrants who I’d never given much mind to until I encountered their belongings, abandoned during their troubled sojourn in the Sonoran Desert; until I met them, broken on the border.

Now they people my thoughts and influence my reflections. I have been reading Steinbeck’s account of his journey across America with his dog Charley. There I found that his reflection on the Bad Lands stirred in me reflections similar to those that had been awakened by a tale from ancient Egypt. Once upon a time, not long ago, very close to home…Steinbeck’s experience of the Bad Lands brought back my memories of the contradictory nature of the desert in Arizona that divides the United States and Mexico. Such a monster in the day, so majestic in the evenings. Though I tried to describe it, he says it better:

…the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled…the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich brown and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black…once stopped I was caught, trapped in color and dazzled by the clarity of the light. Against the descending sun the battlements were dark and clean-lined, while to the east, where the uninhibited light poured slantwise, the strange landscape shouted with color. And the night, far from being frightful, was lovely beyond thought, for the stars were close, and although there was no moon the starlight made a silver glow in the sky. The air cut the nostrils with dry frost…this is one of the few place I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day (Travels with Charley, pg. 120).

I found it confounding, trying to reconcile the splendor of the evenings with the treacherous conditions of the day. Similarly, I find it confounding trying to reconcile the juxtaposition of beauty and cruelty in people when we choose, sometimes so arbitrarily who will be bequeathed with our favor, and who will be subject to our wrath. Unlike Moses, the rulers of this land don’t directly threaten migrants with death, but with deportation. Though, considering the hundreds of deaths that occur each year in the desert by those restricted, or returning after being sent back—considering how separation of mothers from children and husbands from wives causes life to leak out from rent hearts—the difference between death and deportation becomes blurry at best.

Who will be the fairytale-type princess in this version of the story? Who will be the unlikely one that bridges the gap between the outcast people and the obstinate ruler? “Encounter” seems to me to be the magic word that breaks the spell of blindness. I think of my own life’s experience; I began to care when my senses and feelings were engaged. I cared about the migrants because I walked their trails and heard their stories. I cared about men in Guantanamo who I’d barely given a second thought to because I saw their picture and heard their stories and read their poems. I was touched by our common humanity. Their pain hurt me. If those of us who are sheltered by the rulers of the land could learn the stories of those who are persecuted, if we would take a few steps beyond our comfort zone, perhaps their cries could stir our heart like the cries of a baby in a basket. Perhaps, if we wade in the water, God will trouble us toward compassion and we will learn the abundance of an interwoven life.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Afterglow from the farm

Today I am dizzy and seem to have done nothing. Do you ever have the empty distracted feeling that comes after some experience of total clarity or connection? Yesterday was that day for me when the very sunshine meant utterance direct from God, and the light was everywhere bringing depth and color to all things. I could lay in the catch and swing of the hammock and serenely stare into the green oak leaves and the breeze was my companion soft and caressing.

Today I am checked out in the background as present as I can be. But I wish it were yesterday on the farm again and I were again walking the perimeter for the first time. I would sit down and seem floating on the landscape watching the white shirts bend over the vegetable crop. Or amazed I would want to see the bees in slow motion to track where each buzzes off or back from and I would again want to shrink and squeeze into that hive in curiosity to meet the queen.

My senses seem dull today, off like a faucet, but while there on the land every pore was open wide. I pruned the tomato like a feisty toddler and I mulched the green onion like she were my grandmother. The hay I held crept into my body and possessed me and now I am dry. And wanting.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


On a stroll down F street I tasted flat doctor pepper. I said to myself, Isn’t it interesting? I looked at my thumb hooked into a Burger King paper pint cup and saw no fizz but could complain to no one because this seemed my lot. I had discovered this idle cup five sixths full on a cement ledge of a University Museum and after holding it with my inserted retractable thumb for half a block I determined that sugar water could be invigorating. Though flat it had purpose. I wondered about a mentor soccer coach who used to always shake out the carbonation from a can of pop before he gave it to his kid. This sugar water would be practical, if not unhealthy.

How do we gain trauma mastery? One way seems to be by developing our self-awareness to the degree that we see ourselves without judgment. One practice recommended by Laura Lipsky in Trauma Stewardship: A Guide to Caring for Ourselves as we care for Others is to develop the habit of asking ourselves one simple question: Isn’t it interesting? Meanwhile the Catholic Church marks ordinary time tomorrow with a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “Even all the hairs of your head are counted.” Hmm. Oh!

And William Hazlitt penned an essay in 1823. Didn’t know that myself until today. I appreciate Norton Anthology so much more now for informing me of this important datum. This Hazlitt fellow was big stuff in his day when he wrote this essay called

My First Acquaintance with Poets. He went on a long walk with Cooleridge twenty-five years earlier, in January 1798, and wrote this by no means pedestrian account in reflection, actually, about how Cooleridge had backslid from his former radicalism.

Isn’t great what you can learn by picking up an abandoned Starbucks cup and following it from whence it came. Lying to the barista in his face, I gained entry into the cafĂ© for a $0.54 cent refill. I sat down with the Norton uncritically, just noticing my lie: Isn’t it interesting?

Hazlitt also wrote a sublime piece of piled quotations called On Gusto. If I had never seen a Titian painting in Madrid I doubt it could have been so flattering. Sad, I just remembered how the pixel versions taken by my buddy Bernie were one night robbed when we slept out in a Barcelona park despite his having clutched it like a teddy. Gypsy theft in them parks is mighty usual, the Catalan cop seemed to say.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote "Wherever God is, there is Heaven." In The Saints Guide to Happiness Robert Ellsberg suggests that her spirit sought out from the ordinary the memento dei, an awareness of God cultivated at all times and all circumstances. Isn't it...?

I posed as a curious George to ask the Indian couple where little India was. The lady started walking away and said “What you want we don’t know.” Hmm. Oh! Maybe she was Pakistani. Anyway, I didn’t get a chance to ask why the man took a picture of her there at the corner of Ridge and Devon. Was the gas station exceptional?

The rain hasn’t fallen since Friday, eight times twenty four hours ago, and still in the street along Devon a binge of water hasn’t drained. Between two cars floats an article from the Metropolis paper featuring summer films at the park; a subtitle calls out a few goodies from among the rest, or "the pedestrian". There was a familiar photo too. Like an image come together in a dark room, the Spielberg frame most endearing to me as a kid had not yet dissolved: there E.T. still rose into the moon, peddled higher and higher.

And isn’t it interesting, I thought, seeing a sticker saying “This meter remains as a courtesy to bikers.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why I write for this blog.

Because I know you and you know me.

Because here is a space where we collect hope.

Because here an ugly body is beautiful.

Because we can speak of God as she, and as Uighur.

Because I cannot be silent.

Because on the 4th of July brothers are indefinitely detained.


Something has to be done to correct history. Our friendship ought to mean something real enough to one day become common sense. Don’t you agree that if we can begin to invest in each other emotionally, or have the courage to think with each other boldly, out loud, that we can become founders of the future?

No, a plague has not fallen on our two houses-God and Creation. One day, history will absolve the crisis of despair and ecological devastation. I am more convinced of this having finished Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Tolstoy elevates the role of writer into the chair of historian in his account of the Franco-Russian wars of the 19th century. Only the great writer, he argues convincingly, is the one who can convey the most of an event without speaking about it. To do this, he employs three aristocratic families and fourteen hundred pages full of perspectives.

He may be turgid in his philosophical sections, but the repetition does have an awakening affect on the reader as he weaves in the further strands of narrative. For instance, as I relived the invasion of Moscow, I could grasp better the view of an Iraqi in the midst of Operation Freedom. Tolstoy’s account of Pierre’s rescue of a girl from a fire brought back how the Baghdad archives were ransacked, the purity of truth pillaged. His subsequent capture and witnessing of an execution by fire squad has triggered my conscientious objection to extrajudicial killings by drone warfare. A novelist does have the power to produce such awakenings as no mere scientist of history can.

Tolstoy aims to bring the reader into not the experience but into the reality of God. To do so, he repairs on the notion of a history of consequences made by a hero. All the masses must consent for the will of the hero to be made plain, and all the circumstances and all the relationships must align with the purpose of all the people. He gives a stencil analogy of how God only allows to be the purposeful:

…just as in stencil-work one figure or another is sketched, not because the colours are laid on this side or in that way, but because on the figure cut out in stencil, colours are laid on all sides.1365

By God’s design we have hero’s and heroine’s of history. I agree that Tolstoy should be considered a hero because he contributes hope to my world view. His character Natasha suffers a painful loss after nursing a dying fiancĂ© for several weeks. All has gone numb within her when the family receives news of her young brother’s death. Her mother is stricken with heartbreak and Natasha finds a way to console her:

“A spiritual wound that comes from a rending of the spirit is like a physical wound, and after it has healed externally, and the torn edges are scarred over, yet, strange to say, like a deep physical injury, it only heals inwardly by the force of life pushing up from within.

“So Natasha’s wound healed. She believed that her life was over. But suddenly her love for her mother showed her that the essence of her life—love—was still alive within her. Love was awakened, and life waked with it.” 1230, War and Peace

Natasha could be said to be in recovery from vicarious trauma, a topic we will address Friday at the White Rose Roundtable. Her wound may be invisible but the suffering is deeply real, all but eclipsing her ability to love. I know that I personally am indebted to the compassion of this Kairos community for supporting me through my imprisonment. Even as I adjust back into life at the White Rose I have hope of being present to each of you. Realistically, becoming fully present to you will take some time and I count on your patience with me. Finally, I write for this blog because I feel safe to share, and because when I am out of character you correct me with love.

War and Peace increases my conviction that our two houses—God and Creation—do not suffer the fate of a plague. For Tolstoy reminds us that love will wake within us. Though I see about me ecological devastation and beg forgiveness for despairing, the essence of my life pulses with longing for the wholeness meant to be. Tolstoy corrects the idea that history itself is the active agent of change, instead widening the aperture of our outlook to include understanding of God at work. In history, the pattern of God’s will does become apparent. If sometimes it is to much for me to imagine that we masses co-create the destined Ecosystem of God, then sensing beyond what I can see affords me hope. When I see Rehema and Bethany playing in our backyard, I buy into the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Rehema celebrates her birthday Saturday, allelujah!

For reflection:

1) The book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others presents a test applicable for the kairos community:

“Identify the members of your microculture. To what degree do they nurture hopefulness, accountability, and integrity? Think about whether you could use stronger role models in any of these areas.” 187 Trauma Stewardship

2) How do you consume hope on a daily basis?

“All the lives this place

has had, I have. I eat

my history day by day.”

--From History by Wendell Berry