Communion, Room 304

“Are you my sister?”
asked the white-haired
woman stretched out
in bed as I
stepped
from the harsh
light of the noisy
hallway to
her side.

Blinds drawn tight.
A pair of highback
wheelchairs parked
on hard tile
against the doors
of dark
wooden
closets,
set as out
of the way
as they
could be.

“No ma’am
I’m from
the church.
I came
to visit.”

She smiled then
returned to
some distress
I could
not see.

Moving a chair
beside her bed
I tried to
reassure.

We spoke of the
sleeping woman
in the
bed next to
her own.

“Maybe she’s
my sister.”

“Maybe
I want
something
to eat.”

“I brought
communion but
that might not
be enough?
We’ll see
I guess.”

I dipped the
dry wafer in
the juice and
placed it in
her mouth.

She chewed
silently for one
moment, then
another.

“How about we pray?”
I asked.

She touched
my hand.
“Your hands
are cold”
she said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“So cold. Let me
warm them.”

She took
my hands
and cradled
them in
hers.

That
was
our
prayer.

Crucify Whom?

Today is Good Friday.

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

Black bodies?

Transgender bodies?

Undocumented immigrant bodies?

Muslim bodies?

Poor bodies?

Disabled bodies?

Lesbian bodies?

Addicted bodies?

Refugee bodies?

The body of the earth and its non-human living things?

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

 

On Why It’s Hard to Be a Christian in Today’s World

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could retreat into my little bubble of middle-class privilege and really not give a damn about the suffering of poor people and the ways in which our economic system benefits the very few at the expense of the many.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I and my white self could hide behind some vague notion of colorblindness and ignore the very real violence being done to black and brown bodies in this country and around the world. I could refuse to see and refuse to change a system that feeds on fundamental inequities in the distribution of power and wealth, that enshrines racism as a means of divide-and-conquer.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could skip the outrage at our ravaging of the planet for the sake of human profit, our disregard of life beyond our own, our denial of our complicity in past, present, and future environmental disasters.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could tell homophobic people – all of them – to just fuck off rather than to continue to work toward mutual relationship and meaningful dialogue.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stare at people with disabilities and think there was something wrong with them instead of with a culture that denies their full individual humanity and refuses to embrace them for their diversity and their contributions.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could think that people who disagree with me are stupid rather than working to value them as fellow precious children of God.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stereotype, judge, and dehumanize Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and people of any other faith or no faith at all and do my best to keep my distance from them.

It’s hard being a Christian – because then I could see people dying across the globe from preventable wars, preventable diseases, and preventable hunger and thirst without losing sleep over it. I could see those problems as some fault of their own rather than of a global system that has for centuries robbed entire nations of their assets and their autonomy, often with the approval and even the assistance of the Christian church.

God, it is hard to be a Christian in today’s world.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Christianity – or any religious perspective – is not the only reason people care about these things. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just talking about where I come from. I fully affirm the idea that non-Christians and non-religious people can have grounded and nuanced ethics. If that’s you, all props to you and peace and strength to you for your work.

And there are certainly Christians who disagree with what I’ve said here – to y’all, I say . . . I say . . . I say that you are my family in this faith and I hope we can be in conversation about what living out that faith looks like in our contemporary world. I will listen to you with an open heart. I hope you will receive me in the same spirit (Spirit).

Among Us

A quick story for a busy week –

Running late
as usual
one block
after leaving
my house
traffic stopped.
A man
stood in
the street
asking each
passing car
for some
unknown need.

I started
to cross
to the
other side
But then
saw his
body turn
toward me.

Ah hell,
I’m late.
I don’t
have time –
“What do
you need,
my brother?”

“A lugwrench.
Please. We
got a
flat right
up there.”

Sure enough
in the
worst bend
of the
road sat
a red
car, tire
flat, and

another man
with a
Falcons cap.

Oddly easy
to help
once it’s
decided. One
quick reach
behind my
Jeep seat
and with
rare flourish
I could
help this
time, this
one clear
time.

“You
drink beer?”
the first
fellow asked,
an offer
to repay,
a trade,
as I,
barely slowing,
could not
wait for
the wrench.

“Yeah, man,
but no
worries. I’m
good.”

Nowhere to
keep beer
in a

Jeep. I
hollered into
the wind
where they
could leave
the wrench
if they,
two black
men at
dusk wished
to wander
my labyrinthine
white neighborhood.

No surprise
at no
wrench on
my porch.
(I had
warned of
dogs). but
it’s okay.

The gift
was these
angels on
the corner
with one

flat tire.

Gentry of the Bowery

A true story. Consider it prose with a dose of poetry –

Walking up the Bowery this chilly November afternoon,
we passed a group at the edge of the sidewalk,
seated in old office chairs with wheels and one old wheelchair.

Notable for their laughter and evident pleasure in one another’s company.

Some in this gentrifying area might have called them shabby.

But who dares fault shabby sidewalk joy in the cold sun as shadows grow long?

Halfway up the block, a large ebony-skinned, grey-bearded man in an
old olive Army coat,
separated momentarily from the group by some errand,
turned to face us and stretched his arms wide.

“Hey ladies,” he said with a broad smile.

We received it with a smile of our own as I,
expecting the question to follow,
tried to recall if I had given all my singles to
street musicians along the way.

So busy thinking I almost missed the blessing.

“Ladies, you look courageous,” he said, stretching the words into a
sharp
genuine
mysterious
compliment.

“God bless you,” he added.

I thank the grace of that God for helping me

miss only one beat as I answered “And you too,”
my own smile widening,

miss the shame that left me as soon as it came
because this man meant me joy not shame

not miss the gift
not miss the lesson

of give and take.

As we turned the corner, I asked my daughter if
she felt courageous.

“I do now,” she said.

Second Chances: Mark 10: 17-31

Jesus has on
ladybug slippers said
sweet Maria, age four
as we discussed the
rich man
squeezed from heaven by the
needle’s eye and his own
love of money.

We agreed cats might be
found within the
Gospel narrative, as I saw
no reason to question that
Jesus would pause to
give the man a chance to
reconsider and while
he waited,
hoping for a
conversion moment to
surpass the weight of
accumulated riches,
there might be cats.

And being Jesus, he could
find them food and would
of course because in this story
no one goes hungry
unless he can’t set
down the
bags of gold to open his
hand to the
real riches
promised
but available only
when we let go and
offer our
unclenched palms to the
sky.

Faith at the Front Door

The bell signaled
Jehovah’s Witnesses
on my porch.

Polite, older, black women in
neat dresses.
Umbrellas tucked under one arm,
tracts under the other.
Prepared.

They looked disconcerted
to hear that I,
barefoot,
in coffee-stained pajamas,
already had a a vision of
heaven, that I was
studying God at that very moment at
my computer before the
bell rang and the dogs loudly
raised the alarm.

I studied God
in them
in that odd minute.

I don’t know that they were pleased.
But I was.

God was beautiful.

Asphalt Chronicles: An Afternoon at Wildwood Centre

I am learning to love parking lots
to see the beauty –
small scraps of hope
flashes of green holly and red berries
a hint of a crape myrtle in the
tortured trunk and tiny sprouts.
Squirrel, mourning dove, crow,
stranded oak.
Maples
root-bound yet
determined in their
circumscribed islands of soil.

I am learning to love parking lots, to
forgive the harsh word, the
rude gesture, the
impatient insistence of dominance, the
thwarted intention.
To watch the care as parent reaches for child’s hand,
not judge the car that straddles the line or the
rapid reach for the cell phone and the
peril averted just in time or the
cart full of Fruit Loops and Cheetos.
Or the memory of what grew here before.

This is what is.

The song says we paved paradise.
The deed done,
asphalt laid,
now cracked, faded stripes,
ghosts of a meadow and creek.

Parking – a
gift? right? privilege? requirement?

Multiculturalism in the
Honda
Dodge
Audi
Ford
Jaguar row.
Intersectionality at the intersection.
Saabs and Jeeps and Chevrolets.
We’ll take our diversity in the form of
paint colors,
model years,
features we want or
what we can afford.
Consumer choice.
Do our wheels speak to
one another in accents of the land in which
they were made?

I must learn to love this,
this world here.

Two yellow cars fringe a row of
more mundane shades.
For a moment the eye can dance.
Alice Walker guides us in this place:
live frugally on surprise.
What happens if
you start with expectations low,
eyes open?

Windows down, the
rain begins.

Fall colors
Taco Bell bags
chocolate bar wrappers
gnarled plastic straws.
Black pavement
beige buildings
white faces and brown faces.
Nary a pastel in sight.

Nuns at Wal-mart,
old people buying useful old people things and ice cream.

A man leans against his car, smoking, his
old brown hat angled,
knife case secure on his belt.
He waits,
not with patience.
Man and car both need a bath.

A woman hesitates.
To carry her coat or not –
what matters most?
Freezing for short minutes
between car and store?
Or the weight of the coat
as she shops?

Zoning, shopping, crime and naps.
It’s all here.
Of us and we of it.
Heat and cold alike radiate,
water washes
off in torrents
drains trash and streaks of oil.

This is what we wanted.

This is what we were told we asked for.

Everyday Blessings: Or an Orthodontist, a Request, and a Cue from Grandmama

During our recent travels, my daughter ran out of the rubber bands that attach to her braces to correct her bite. It was a simple miscalculation. Problem is, we get those from her orthodontist, 1000-odd miles away from where we were staying. You can’t just walk into Rite Aid or Walgreens and pick up a few packs.

“Maybe we can get some from another orthodontist,” I said. “We can offer to pay for them. Surely they’ll go for that.” I picked the closest orthodontist office and off we went, just before we were due to leave town for our next stop up the road.

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We entered the office to find two women in scrubs seated behind a long reception desk. A man in a tie and jacket stood between them, discussing paperwork. Each of them adopted a serious face as I explained our quest and our willingness to purchase these rubber bands.

The two women glanced to the man, whom I correctly surmised to be the senior orthodontist. He was not seeing patients that day, but he stared at us for a moment and then said, “We don’t sell those.”

I prepared to plead.

He paused, looked at us, and continued, “You know what? I can give them to you. Ours are a little different, but if you hand me those (empty) packs, I’ll see what we’ve got that’s close.”  The orthodontist disappeared into the back of the office and reemerged after several minutes with 2 packs of rubber bands similar to those my daughter uses. He handed them to her and told her, rather gravely, “These ought to help until you get home.”

I wanted to thank him. He’d already refused money. The office was a rather understated set-up, into which effusive offerings of words would likely strike a dissonant note.  We all stood there for a quiet half-second.

And then it hit me.

When my grandmama requested and received a favor from someone, she would invariably tell them, “Ask me to do something for you next time.” Though she died five years ago, I can still hear those words in her voice. She meant them – and because she offered them with sincerity and grace, they evoked a resonant power.

Our situation, however, did not lend itself to such mutuality of engagement. Within minutes we would be leaving the state.

I repeated our thanks – and then it came to me. Echoing from the memory of my grandmother, I heard these words from my lips:

“May someone do something kind for you.”

The man’s face softened as he acknowledged our thanks and our blessing.

I walked away thinking about how this and similar small blessings might be repeated, either audibly or silently, throughout our days. Having simple rituals could enable us to reach out to those around us, to engage with them in a new spirit. How might the world and our own lives be better if we came to know and rely on a reflexive blessing or two?

I can think of any number of situations where our (ahem, my) reflex is the opposite – when I crack my elbow against a doorframe or encounter a car whose driver stubbornly refuses to let me merge on the expressway; when I hear the voice of an antagonistic politician or a the words of a neighbor proclaiming some old racist or homophobic fallacy. I can jump to a reflexive curse pretty quickly. And as southerner, I know that “bless your heart” often signifies a problem rather than a sincere wish.

But what if I had on hand simple words and rituals that speak of and to that which is good? Could I make kindness and connection come more easily to me? Could I make it my automatic response to recognize and honor that part of God that dwells within each person?

I’m sure plenty of people already do so, including those in faith traditions other than my own. But mainline Christianity as I’ve known it has not given me much experience in this area. I don’t have the words waiting for me. I may be prepared to fuss or cuss, but I’m not ready to bless.

I want to change that.

“May someone do something kind for you” is thus becoming one of my regular refrains, a small blessing I aim to offer throughout the day when I encounter manifest kindness.

(and if people use or create other everyday blessings, I’d love to hear the words that work for them).

I acknowledge that these are small and simple words in a big, complicated, and often bleak world. I’m not suggesting that such everyday blessings are a revolutionary means of righting wrongs and upending injustices. Instead, they serve as one way of deliberately connecting ourselves to other human beings. We cultivate an awareness of our interdependence and of our mutual need for deep kindness. It’s a step away from the dehumanization that infects our culture. It points toward transformation – in the image of God – of ourselves and our relationships to one another.

May someone do something kind for you.

On Observance

We are staying over the long weekend in a neighborhood that’s home to a substantial population of Orthodox Jews. In addition to the Christian celebration of Pentecost and the national holiday Memorial Day, this year the weekend also marks the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses and to the gathered Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

From the beginning of the Sabbath all through the weekend, we’ve noticed groups of men in suits and yarmulkes striding, women in soft hats and long dresses pushing strollers and carriages, attentive fathers listening to stories and answering questions from their small children, and older couples, accompanied by caregivers, making their way deliberately along the sidewalk. These assorted groupings of well dressed, carefully covered men, women, and children have repeatedly made their way back and forth from home to one of the several synagogues scattered around the area.

One memorable grouping was led by a father and an older daughter swinging a younger daughter by the hands as she jumped her way to morning services. They were trailed by the mother pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. The older woman’s husband walked alongside. This latter trio looked quite austere until the older man, dressed in a sharp navy suit and fedora, broke into a huge smile and complimented my dog for waiting so patiently for them to pass through a narrow passage of sidewalk.

The term ‘observant’ is applied to Jews who follow the careful prescriptions of Talmudic teachings. I heard a young Christian friend say recently that Jews had it easy because all they had to follow was the Ten Commandments. This woman was unaware of the vast scope of Jewish scholarship and prescriptive law that governs the behavior of the faithful. Observant Jews must pay attention throughout daily life and on the Sabbath to a range of guidelines that immerse them in a faithful life.

While their traditions differ from my own, I appreciate the idea of being ‘observant’. In doing this work, I’ve made reference to the sacrament of the everyday, to the acknowledgement of the sacred that permeates daily routines and encounters. We all have the potential to live lives suffused with holiness and justice and mercy . We can be observant in our daily practice of living with one another and in our connection to God.

It is not casual, but it can become habitual, our accustomed way to engaging with the world around us. We all have the potential to be observant. I thank those attentively observing Shavuot this weekend for the steady reminder.