Glow

I practice stillness

to know I am not God.

Mornings, as I wait at the end of the train platform,

I face the sun, shut my eyes, and

see the glowing orb through the scrim of my closed lids.

Light inscribes wisdom there for my inner sight:

gleaming lines, thin as spider silk, stretch out

from the center, more, more, more,

till a flaming web is all I see.

Countless points of light,

connected in, through, to

The Glory.

I lift my eyelids, but the web, for a moment, stays in my sight,

overlaying my view of the platform, my neighborhood, the city skyline beyond.

The train rumbles up next to me.

I step in to a car filled with people,

and each one glows.

“From one ancestor[I]he (God) made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[j] and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’”

from Acts chapter 17, from a speech Paul made in front of the gathered Athenians

Valentine’s night

It is Valentine’s night, and I am on overnight shift as the on-call chaplain.

I print out kids’ jokes to give to staff as I make my rounds, sheer silliness to lighten the night.

What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back? A stick!

What kind of shorts do clouds wear? Thunderpants!

One technician tells me he will share the joke with his patients as he wakes them to check vital signs.

As I walk off one floor, the nurses at the station are already sharing theirs with one another, giggling at the corniness.

A smile is on my lips when a trauma code beeps on my pager.

Suicide. Family not present. No chaplain support needed

–not yet at least.

As I read, my hand clutches the jokes in my pocket, each one printed on a strip of paper,

flimsy and thin, perhaps irreverent, in this moment.

And yet…

I grip them tighter and head to another unit.

I will share laughter for at least a few more minutes,

not to make light of tragedy, nor to ignore it,

but to remember that just as we partake together in joy

so we can also do joint journey through sorrow,

and it is more bearable borne together.

“I Want to Live”–Dreams Deferred

At noon yesterday I was part of a small protest held in remembrance of George Floyd and to protest police brutality. It was local, in the neighborhood next to mine, in the  heart of the Westside of Chicago, at the corner of Pulaski and Jackson, where nearly every household (if not every single one) has either a personal or a family experience of police harassment or brutality.*

At our small gathering the young people in our midst–all of them from the Westside–led the protest, shouting “No justice/no peace,” “I can’t breathe” and “Mama, help me.” Passersby in cars (and one CTA bus driver) honked in solidarity and people walking by raised fists to show support. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man and woman walk by with their two children. Each child wore two pieces of poster paper sandwich-board style, with words written on the poster paper. I was only able to read one sign before they were gone, hidden by the crowd.

“I want to live.”

Those parents had dressed their children in the most fundamental and basic of the dreams that parents have for their children. I know they’re also dreaming of their children thriving, of their actually being seen for who they are, of the unique giftedness each has being equally valued and fostered… But there are also days when the only dream that can be held onto is that of sheer survival. They don’t want to see their children die. They don’t want to outlive them. They don’t want to get word of their violent death or see it splashed across the news. They don’t want them to get degrees, get jobs, move into neighborhoods less riddled by violence, only to see them harassed and possibly killed by an altercation with a white person or police.

On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his dreams for his own children and all African American children.

Nearly sixty years after that speech–sixty years–and parents in my neighborhood are still dreaming simply that their children will survive. The other dreams–those bigger ones that are supposed to be “normal” for parents to dream for their children in this country–those dreams have been deferred, again and again.

I have been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dreams a lot in the last month. Probably the parents of those two children I saw today have been thinking about them as well.

But poet Langston Hughes also talked about dreams, and in the last few days it’s his words that have been echoing in my mind, over and over.

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

 

To read all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, click on this link: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom 

The poem by Langston Hughes is “Harlem” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 2002 by Langston Hughes. Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates, Inc. It was copied from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem

*One Sunday a couple years back when I was visiting a local church, the pastor asked the congregation how many either had a personal or family experience of police harassment/brutality. Only two people did not raise their hands; those people were my husband and I, the only two white people present. The pastor raised his hand as well.

if breath be prayer, a Tanka poem

If breath be prayer—

inhale, exhale, in-out-in…

embracing Life Source,

dispossessing false control

—each in-and-out deepens trust

*Tanka is a Japanese poetic form with five lines with a set number of syllables for each line (5/7/5/7/7). Each line should carry its own bit of meaning, with each line contributing to a larger whole. I made a slightly different version below because I can’t decide which I like better 🙂

If breath be prayer—

inhalation an acceptance

of Life Source; exhales

dispossessing false control

—each in-and-out deepens trust

 

 

Dandelion moment

Single dandelion seed

catches on my sweater,

tethering its breeze-bobbing fluff

at the end of a hair-thin stalk.

I admire its delicate elegance,

then reach for my phone to capture the image.

But it will not be detained.

In my moment of inattention, it departs.

Featherweight parasol floating away.

 

*This is a collaborative piece. My friend and housemate, Susanna Frusti, took these pictures the other day. When she showed them to me, I said, “I just wrote a little poem about a dandelion seed!” So we decided to pair them as a post.

IMG_20200513_155806919

This face, these faces

I generally encounter my face only in bits

-post-brushing teeth inspection

-close-up of lids and lashes for makeup application

Then off I go.

But in this time of social distancing/virtual meetings, I have been faced with…

My Face.

Right there, on the screen, staring back at me.

It surprised me, the sight of her.

I watched as a hand snuck up to touch the soft skin below her chin,

And when I felt its fleshy sag, screen and reality connected.

She–that grey-haired woman with slightly pouchy cheeks–not jowls yet, certainly not jowls!–is Me. I am She.

She-I smiles/smile at a remark made by another meeting participant, and I examine her/my crows’ feet–made by more than one crow, apparently.

I am struck by her/my resemblance to my Italian father.

The creases around my mouth, the roundness of my olive cheeks,

Deeper, pouchier on my small, 91-year-old father, who is…

Vulnerable.

A social media update, posted by a former writing colleague, comes to my mind. Her husband, in his fifties, is battling Covid-19. “I watch his face,” she wrote, “check his temp, gauge the color of his lips, try desperately NOT to count his breaths.”

Many virtual meetings into a pandemic that disproportionately affects our elderly, my eyes dwell only briefly and with sympathy on my own growing-old face…

before wandering off to watch the others on the screen, some more lined than my own, some less,

each one dear.

Beyond them, connected by unseen webs, are countless other dear faces, one linked to another, another, stretching round our hurting world.

So many faces, each one Dear to at least one Someone.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Seeking Joie (a Bananagram poem)

Explanation: We’re a household of 8 right now, none of us essential workers, so we’re homebound except for trips to the grocery. We’ve played a number of games of Bananagrams in the last few days. It’s a game in which you take letter tiles and make words that must intersect with each other (like a crossword). My niece and I, both writing geeks, set each other the task of writing a poem with our words. I took the words from two of our games (they’re underlined below) and wrote the following:

In waxen, waiting times (as in the here-and-now of COVID distancing) we want to jug Joie–Joy!–like fine oil, each little bit and pip of it precious, as worthy of hoarding as toilet paper.

Yet, in this waxen, waiting time–in which we have time–we must learn that true joy is not simply fetched but requires seeking, a tracking down, a following of one clue after another.

Joie’s clues? Shh, I’ll tell you…

‘Tis time, says Joie, to bayonet our grievances and set them adrift in deep, diked waters, to press into prayer for all beings, from bison and badger to next-door neighbor and even that Facebook enemy.

‘Tis time ‘to let go of all liens–be they financial or psychological–and set free our grudges, from those we consider “quaint quirks” to our -isms (sex-ism, patriarch-ism, rac-ism, class-ism, gender-ism…),

‘Tis time to send home the judge and jury and practice acceptance, nay, to practice LOVE!–LOVE unending, like the digits of Pi stretching ’round the world and back till our own hearts are pierced,

‘Tis time to invite God in, flaming like shining fire, permeating like fragrant cigar, to melt our icy bits, fumigate our every stinky corner,

‘Tis time to buy, as the Scripture instructs, the living water, with zero money, zero price,

So that our wilted beings rise–cleansed, freed, loved, lightened–filled to overflowing with JOY!

BE a neighbor

*Consider the ugly-beautiful story of Sarah and Hagar.

First, the UGLY.

-Sarah, wife of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, has multiple hardships, most of them the result simply of the patriarchal system of her time and place:

  • She’s had to leave her home–twice–and wander for many years as a nomad.
  • One time during her and her husband’s wanderings, Abraham sold her into a king’s harem in order to protect his own skin (he actually did this twice, but the second time happened after the Sarah-Hagar story).
  • Sarah is barren, a mark of deep shame in the Ancient Near East. She is unable to bear her husband the son God has promised to him.

-Sarah, despite her shame and very limited power as a woman, DOES have the authority of being the “owner” of a slave maid named Hagar, and she uses this power to sexually exploit Hagar. She “gives” the slave woman to Abraham with the hope that Hagar will get pregnant and be a surrogate mother.

-Hagar does get pregnant and suddenly realizes she has an advantage over her barren mistress. Hagar, not Sarah, is bearing the master’s child. So Hagar uses her newfound power and lords it over Sarah.

-Sarah, who IS still the mistress, complains to Abraham, and he tells her she can do whatever she wants with Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar to the point that pregnant Hagar runs away.

Now for the BEAUTIFUL!

-God protects both women in this story.

  • He rescued Sarah from the king’s harem (and God will do it again when Abraham “sells” her off a second time), and God eventually names Sarah as a co-partner in the promise of a son–meaning Abraham is no longer free to discard her.
  • God comes to Hagar in the wilderness after she runs away, gives her her own promise of many, many descendants, and tells her she’s carrying a son (a BIG power play card in her relationship with Abraham and Sarah). With this power play card, God sends her back to the safest place possible for a vulnerable, pregnant, unmarried woman. Hagar feels so known by God that she calls God “the God who sees her.”

-God, who is so often named as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reveals himself to be most assuredly the God of Sarah and Hagar as well. He is well aware of the struggles of their lives. He sees them. He knows their point of view.

One of my favorite lines in To Kill a Mockingbird is a statement lawyer Atticus Finch makes to his young daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

In the incarnation, God went beyond knowing people’s skins and souls as their Creator. He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.

But it’s important to consider the exact skin God put on. It wasn’t skin that would be protected by money or privilege. No. The Son of God put on the vulnerable flesh of the baby of two poor people who had to flee violence in their hometown and live as immigrants in a far-off country. And when he was grown and clearly had the power to control the weather and drive out demons and raise the dead back to life, he hung out not with cultured, authoritative people but with fishermen and tax collectors and women–some of them the lowest of the low. 

The skin God chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloth happened to be at hand.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the poor.

The skin God chose was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the powerless.

The skin God chose was carried off into a foreign country.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the refugee and immigrant.

The skin God chose was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the illegitimate.

The skin God chose grew rough and calloused.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the working poor.

The skin God chose often lay itself down on the ground to sleep at night and at times grew tight over ribs.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the homeless.

The skin God chose was bruised and torn by guards.

Because Christ put on the flesh of prisoners.

The skin God chose was naked in the sight of all.

Because Christ put on the flesh of all those forced to expose themselves to others. 

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he did so in response to a question posed by a teacher of the law. The teacher asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question around on him: What does the Law say? How do you read it? The teacher answers well: the way to live eternally with God involves loving God with one’s entire being and one’s neighbor as oneself. But then the teacher follows up with a question of limitation: who is my neighbor? In other words, Who do I HAVE to love? How far does my love have to extend? And Jesus changed tactics; he stopped the back and forth of questioning and told a story instead. The teacher had asked, “Who is MY neighbor; who am I required to love?” Jesus’ story makes that answer clear: it’s everyone. And with that truth set in place, Jesus’ redirects the teacher’s question with a charge: “Go and do as the Samaritan did. Go and love as a neighbor to all people.” 

I know that the status of immigrants coming into this country has become a political issue, but it, in my opinion, should not be primarily a political issue for the church. It is a neighbor issue. And I think we ignore this issue at our peril as followers of Jesus. I think we do damage to the neighbor heart God is planting and expanding within us. I am pretty sure Joseph and Mary didn’t have their papers in order when they entered Egypt, and Jesus doesn’t mention the strangers in Matthew 25 having to present the proper documents in order to be welcomed. And there is no way I can preach on this passage about Hagar without bringing up the current status of undocumented immigrants and refugees in this country. 

Friday night I was at a Lights for Liberty prayer vigil in Humboldt Park, praying for migrants in detention, for separated families, and for people in this country who are facing deportation. It was hosted by a church in Humboldt Park, and we gathered in a fenced-in parking lot next to the church. As I listened to local pastors and a state representative pray and speak, I noticed a sign attached to the fence next to me. It had this picture on it, the picture of Yazmin Juárez with her daughter, Mariee. The two left Guatemala and sought asylum in the U.S. and were held at a detention center in Texas. While there, Mariee became sick. After Yazmin and Mariee were released, Yazmin and her mother took Mariee to a pediatrician, and Mariee was immediately admitted to a nearby hospital and diagnosed with a lung infection. She died in the hospital. Yazmin blames improper medical care, “terrible and inadequate” living conditions, and a culture of neglect at the migrant holding facilities for her daughter’s health.

Yazmin testified before House lawmakers and said, “I am here today because the world needs to know what is going on in ICE detention centers.” 

 As I stood next to the picture and read the brief bio of Yazmin and Mariee, I immediately thought of Hagar–Hagar fleeing with her child in her womb. I knew that God saw Yazmin and Mariee, and I, a follower of God, didn’t have the choice, standing next to their picture on the fence, to not see them as well. God sees each and every person held in a detention center; he collects the tears of every parent and child separated from each other; he hears the whispered prayers of those fearing deportation. 

 Last night our family got food from our favorite taco joint. It’s straight up Laramie Avenue from us, in south Belmont Cragin. Right next to the register was a little stack of cards with a sign. The sign, in Spanish, read, “Know your rights. Take a card.”  The cards have instructions for what to do if ICE comes to the door. 

The student population at the school where my husband teaches is about 60% Latino. At times in the last couple years, the school has had to bring in grief counselors because the stress about deportation among students has spiked so high. People in our communities are afraid. No matter what their U.S. citizenship status is, Jesus calls them our neighbors. Jesus calls US their neighbors. 

 I’m not saying that the story of Hagar and Sarah or the parable of the Good Samaritan or Matthew 25 holds all the answers as to the stance each of us should take on immigration in this country. I know it’s very complex. But these passages reveal the heart and actions of our God, and they give us a charge as to what we are to DO. “Go be a neighbor!” Jesus tells us. And we’d better not be neighbors only to the Abrahams of the world or even to the Sarahs of the world. We are neighbors to the Hagars of the world, to the beat-up stranger on the side of the road, to the despised Samaritan, to the fleeing Josephs and Marys with infants in arms.

God’s tenderness for Hagar is breathtaking, especially when we remember that societies, by and large, have never valued people like Hagar. We still don’t. Hagar is merely one of those peripheral, powerless people who never become anyone “worth” knowing. Yet God sees her, knows her name, and speaks tenderly, personally, and directly to her.

“Which of the three,” Jesus asked, “was a neighbor to the man unseen by people but seen by God?” 

“The one who showed him mercy,” the teacher answered.

And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” 

*The post is part of a sermon I preached in our church’s Genesis: Stories of Redemption series. The poem in the middle of this post is a revision of a blog I wrote and posted a couple years ago. 

 

the gift of small,still,held

Gift—

to see life shortened, distilled to droplet,

one small dribble in the ocean of time & humanity:

important as all drip-drops are—unique & part of the whole.

To see this, for a snip of a moment:

life span compressed,

decades before-after storyboarded, laid out,

choices, big&small, flattened.

Sigh of release,

to know finitude-mortality held with-in Eternity.

Today-Tomorrow’s to-do’s, anxieties, decisions… demoted, settled.

Questions of Being & Purpose, examinations of Meaning… stilled,

Robbed of power to disturb, frighten, unmoor.

Breath in, breath out.

This moment important & encompassed.

Rest

 

I read. They teach.

The weather is nice—a rarity in Chicago this spring—so it’s a quiet morning at the women’s shelter at Breakthrough. Most women are gone for the day, out and about, but one regular, C, an older woman whose soft, gentle voice is rarely heard, is here. Kristine, a staff worker stationed at the desk in the common room, introduces me to J and tells me J, too, is coming. J is wiry and full of nervous energy. She’s an addict, she tells me in a spill of words, has been for years, but she found Breakthrough and has a bed there and wants to finally attack her addiction. She’s started going to AA meetings. “This,” she says, waving her hand at the three of us gathered to pray and read Scripture, “will help me. Prayer always helps me.”

I always begin our time together by asking if anyone has any passage or story in particular they would like to hear from Scripture. J says she wants to read about beginnings, since she herself is embarking on a new start. I read Genesis 1 and then I ask if they would like to hear the beginning of Jesus’ story here on earth. Both do, and I turn to Luke 2 and read. J has to leave for a meeting, so I ask C what she would like me to read next. She puts her finger on my Bible and points at the next chapter. “You want me to keep going?” I ask, and she nods.

So I read Luke 3. C whispers, “Keep going.” Luke 4. She smiles and gives a little nod of encouragement. Luke 5. Another smile-nod. Luke 6.

Luke 2-6! These are long chapters, covering (among other things) Jesus’ birth, baptism, and temptation; his calling the disciples; his healing people with demons and leprosy and paralysis and withered hands. The grand teachings of chapter 6 include “blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep…; love your enemies; be merciful; don’t judge; produce good fruit”… And all these teachings are followed by the parable that begins: “‘Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?’” Jesus talks about the house built on rock and the house built on sand. He ends by saying, “‘The one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’”

I finish reading chapter 6 and check the time. It’s past 11. We’ve been reading for over an hour. “Sorry, C, we have to stop here,” I say. “Do you have anything particular you want to pray about today?”

She reaches over again and touches my Bible, pointing to that parable. “Let’s pray about that,” she says softly. “I don’t want to be that house that falls.”

“Me neither,” I tell her. “Me neither.” And we pray that we will be followers of Jesus who do what he tells us to do.

Every Monday, I read…

and they teach.