Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope

As some of you may know, I’ve been spending the holidays with the boyfriend, in Birmingham. After a lunch of Alabama bar-b-que ribs – the first I’ve had in ages, and boy are they different from Texas’s – his parents asked if I’d wanted to see anything else in Birmingham. I commented that I’d heard good things about the Civil Rights museum, so we stopped in there.

The experience felt . . . different. In a certain sense, it reminded me of a more hopeful Holocaust museum: documenting the horrors of the past so that the world won’t forget, but showing the power of a steadfast commitment to justice. I’m glad I went.

The museum evoked some of the same thoughts that I felt reading Martin & Malcolm & America recently, particularly the parts of the book on Malcolm X. As a Christian, and really as a human, I’m clearly called to fight injustice and defend the oppressed. But how do I react to situations where that’s not possible – when the battleground has shifted (race may still be a dividing line in America, but in different ways), or when I’m inextricably part of the enemy (as Malcolm X saw it)? The answer, of course, is to take courage from the past and apply it to the needs of the present. The problem is understanding what those needs are.

I look at the not-too-distant past and almost envy those protesters, with the clarity of their anger. The civil rights movement, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century social movement, had deep roots in the Church, and theirs is the faith I crave: a faith unashamed to proclaim Christ’s love through their words and deeds. Of course, to those suffering injustice, the battlefield on which to fight is clear. For me, though, a white educated American, I have the luxury of choosing my battlefield. And I’m still genuinely uncertain of the best place to stake my flag.

It’s clear to me that the Big Issue of these times is globalism and all its related questions: the rise of extremist religious groups, the pressures of limited resources on expanding populations, the control that powerful international entities have over the lives of the less powerful, the complexities of “humanitarian intervention” in a world where we really can see genocide happening before our eyes. It’s why I sometimes find myself feeling callous toward problems in our own country. See, while I’m the last person to dismiss the real hurdles faced in America by minorities, low-income families, immigrants, LGBT people, women, persons with disabilities, and more, those problems pale in comparison to the 40% of the world’s people who don’t have toilets, let alone access to any opportunity for economic and personal flourishing.

I’m sounding negative, most likely, but today I don’t feel it. Rather, I feel excited about my generation’s opportunities to speak against those injustices. Someday, when they make museums to document the horrors happening today in this world, I want my name to be on the list of those who didn’t stay silent.

Have a wonderful new year, everyone.

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A Brumalian Wish

From the damnable shadows of madness,
From the corpse-ridden hollow of Weir,
Comes a horrible message of gladness,
And a ghost-guided poem of cheer –
And a gloom-spouting pupil of Poe sends the pleasantest wish of the year!

May the ghouls of the neighboring regions,
And the curséd necrophagous things,
Lay aside their dark habits in legions,
For the bliss that Brumalia brings –
And may Druids innum’rable bless thee, as they dance on the moor’s fairy-rings!

So, Galba, may pleasures attend thee
Thro’ all thy bright glorious days;
May the world and the mighty commend thee,
And the cosmos resound with thy praise –
And may all future ages be brilliant with the light of thine intellect’s rays!

– “Edward John Ambrose Bierce Theobald,” aka H.P. Lovecraft

The consummation of the swallow’s wings

I had trouble focusing my attention during church today. It wasn’t the fault of the singing, which was heavenly – the moment the choir broke out into a glorious rising Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, I could feel my breath swept away – or the fault of the sermon, which was much-needed and well-delivered. Sometimes these days just happen; I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or I’m too focused on everything I’ll be doing that afternoon and week, and my attention keeps drifting from God. I confessed my sins and took communion, then returned to my seat for the blessings and the organ voluntary.

The organist began playing the first familiar notes of “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, and I couldn’t think of anything else. Nothing. The same melody, constant and unchangeable, wove through and around itself in an eternal golden braid, so beautiful that even its beauty disappeared into its perfection. This is sacred music, I thought to myself afterward, and imagined what it would have been like to enter a church as a peasant at the time it was written, too poor for the luxuries of daily devotions or written scriptures.

Perhaps the experience would be a bit like when I first listened to Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, sitting on a bumpy bus weaving through the hill country near Jerusalem. I felt torn between the desire to close my eyes and listen to the music forever, and the desire to share that perfect experience with everyone I knew. That’s what I want my response to God to be – not an evangelism driven by fear or compulsion or obligation, but an outpouring of radiant joy, joy so pure it drives out all pride and fear.

If God contains all perfections and all truth, I don’t doubt that it’s echoes of God I hear in music this perfect and true.

One day . . .

One day, I’m going to write a novel. It’s going to feature Saul, an aging evangelical demagogue – a Billy Graham sort of figure with a bit of televangelist sleaze – and he’ll be trying to continue his career without letting the public find out about his steadily worsening mental health. His son, Jonathan, will be an attractive but reserved seminary student whom everyone expects to take up his father’s mantle one day. One day, he meets a fellow student, David, who has ambitions to become the kind of spiritual warrior he sees in Saul’s public persona. David quickly becomes Saul’s protege and a close friend of the family. Michelle, Saul’s daughter, falls in love with David, and the two begin dating: the perfect storybook romance. But slowly things start to go sour; Saul becomes increasingly paranoid and jealous of David’s increasing success, and Michelle starts to suspect that David’s only courting her because she’s the closest thing to Jonathan that he’s publicly allowed to have. The triangle between the three becomes increasingly more intense; trapped between the people he loves most, and realizing that he’ll never fill his father’s shoes, even Jonathan begins to wonder what David’s ultimate motives really are . . .

(And of course, the sequel, describing the next generation, would be just as exciting: public nudity! rape! incest! murder! sexy men! familial warfare! Plus, everyone’s favorite machiavellian political advisor, Joab!)

All of this, of course, is predicated on me having the time to write anything but papers. Which is never going to be the case at this rate.

NY Times links of the day.

“When I taste the challahs that these women give me, I can feel their hands in the dough.” – Hanukkah food in an extremely insular Hungarian-American community. For some reason that line in particular, spoken by a rabbi in a community where women have no hands to do anything but cook and raise children, chilled me more than any other.

“A lot of people are freaked out because their only exposure to evangelicalism was a bad one, and a lot ask, ‘Why would you want to be part of a group that doesn’t like you very much?’ ” Mr. Lee said. “But it’s not about membership in groups. It’s about what I believe. Just because some people who believe the same things I do aren’t very loving doesn’t mean I stop believing what I do.” – How different evangelicals deal with being gay or lesbian.

“The finding is a striking example of a cultural practice — the raising of dairy cattle — feeding back into the human genome. It also seems to be one of the first instances of convergent human evolution to be documented at the genetic level.” – The evolution of African lactose tolerance.

And, just for fun, have an adorably addictive flash-based winter game!

. . . tear it out and throw it away.

“For is it not because of sin that the bodily members were condemned in the first place? The right eye is no less sinister than the left. It is pointless to chastise a foot that is unaware of lust and thus involves no grounds for punishment. But our members indeed do differ from each other while we are all one body. We are here being advised to pluck out inordinate loves or friendships if they are the occasion that leads us further into wrongdoing. We would do well to not even have the benefit of a member, like an eye or a foot, if it furnishes the avenue by which one is drawn by excessive affections into a partnership with hell.” – Hilary of Poitier’s commentary on Matthew 5:29

God, give me strength.