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Schooled by the bus stop lady

“Do you have a light?” she asked, sitting down next to me on the concrete ledge, wanting to share the narrow piece of shade in today’s bright, hot 103-degree weather.

“I don’t,” I said, and then, feeling like I had to have a reason for not having matches or a lighter, I added, “I don’t smoke.”

She twirled the butt of a hand-rolled cigarette in her fingers and then put it between her lips. When she took it out again, it was ringed with her pick lipstick. Her face was leather, a flashing neon sign announcing she’d spent way too many days in the desert sun. Her hair was an orange that couldn’t be natural, an un-brushed halo framing watery eyes outlined with too much makeup.

“The police are after me because I was assaulted,” she said, her words slurred. “I have traumatic brain injury. Three actually.” Then, she started pointing to places on her head and face and mumbling details of these brain injuries.

I couldn’t understand much of what she said, but it seemed the gist of it was an altercation at the downtown smoke shop because she stumbled and someone got hurt and the cops blamed her. She stumbled not because she was drunk, no matter what anyone thought of her – “people always thinking something about me, everyone, all the time” – but because she had fallen so much her head wasn’t right.

I can spot a drunk at 20 paces and she sure seemed like she was drinking or drugged in some way, but she didn’t reek of a 40 or pot the way many folks at the downtown transit center do. And the fact that she just plopped on down and started talking, well, that was impressive.

She continued mumble-talking for about a minute while a voice in my head was asking me why I was trying to make sense of a conversation that probably had no reasoning in it, and another voice was reminding me that there, but for the grace of God, go I. We so often forget that.

So I stayed focused and tried to piece the disjointed puzzle together. At one point, when she heard the whistle of the train as it passed by a few blocks away, she got really excited telling me about her friend who drives a train, has been driving for 20, 30 years and makes “six or eight figures a year.”

“Can you believe it?” she asked, shaking her head. Nope, I said. That’s amazing. Then I asked if I should call the police for her, since she said she’d been assaulted. There were no obvious injuries, but when someone tells you they’ve been attacked, shouldn’t you dial 9-1-1?

“I don’t want them,” she said, standing up now, her black t-shirt and shorts hanging on her skinny frame. She’d accessorized with mismatched earrings and a necklace, both of which looked like they came from the dollar store. She stumbled slightly as she dug into her purse, then, sighing, sat back down. “Do you have a light?” she asked.

Before I left for my bus, I realized I had some cash on me. I asked if she needed money for food and gave her the three bucks I had. That sum won’t buy anything downtown, but there are fast-food places where three dollars can feed a person just a short ride away on the bus she said she was waiting for. It was the first time in Tucson I’ve ever given money to someone who wasn’t asking for it.

“Thanks, ma’am,” she said, putting the bills into her purse. She said she’d pay me back – or at least that’s what I thought she said.

“That’s not necessary,” I said. I never see the same homeless (or homeless-looking) people at the transit center, and even if our paths did cross again, the likelihood of her having any money to spare seemed slim. We didn’t need to pretend.

“No, no,” she said, leaning in close. “I’ll pay it back to someone else, somewhere down the line. I’ll pay you back by helping someone else. That’s how it works.”

Great idea, I said. Lesson learned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pope Frances, climate change, abortion and being fully Catholic

It didn’t take long for people to become apoplectic in regards to Pope Francis’ addresses to Congress and the United Nations. Self-labeled conservatives took to the interwebs to claim the Pope is not really a Christian and/or is ignorant and cowardly on the real issues. Give them time and they’ll insist that him offering a blessing instead of condemnation is further proof he’s a fraud.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, considering that what passes for conversation these days is nothing more than bullying on social media, and people’s attention spans have been reduced to that of a goldfish, but still I am. The general public can’t seem to grasp what the Pope is, in spite of his outfit, which really should give a clue. So, let me help everyone out: Pope Francis is a Catholic. Wholly, fully, completely.

Pope_Francis_Korea_Haemi_Castle_19_(cropped)I know this concept of being wholly, fully, completely Catholic is hard to understand, what with your Nancy Pelosi Catholics and your John Boehner Catholics and all the rest of us sinners in between, but stick with me and I’ll explain.

Someone who is wholly, fully, completely Catholic believes in a being a disciple of Jesus Christ through – this is the tricky part – the action of a relationship with Jesus Christ and other people. Not just a me-and-Jesus connection like some Christian denominations, and not just and me-and-people bond like others, but both Jesus and people.

This comes directly from the Gospel in the form of Jesus’ answer to a question about the greatest commandment: Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. It is the ultimate pro-life message, and, frankly, not many of us are good at it. We’re flawed humans who tend to think of ourselves first and our neighbor second – or not at all. We pick our particular issue and gnaw it to the bone, but ignore (conveniently) other issues, insisting (selfishly) that our issue is the real issue.

But Pope Francis has it down, something you can see by how he chooses to align himself with the poor and marginalized just like, you know, the guy Christians claim to follow.

Everything Francis said in his White House and United Nations addresses fit right in with love of God and neighbor: The powerful have no right to take advantage of the weak because the weak are our neighbor. We do not have the right to kill each other – be it in the womb, on our streets, in war or in prison – because we are each others neighbor. We have no right to abuse, much less destroy, the environment because our neighbors, both now and in future generations, depend on the environment to life. We should fight greed that destroys one part of the world and its people’s because the people in that part of the world are our neighbors.

You cannot have relationship with another person if you’re yelling at them all day long on your Twitter feed. Or if you’re demonizing them in a presidential race. Or bullying them in the halls of Congress or at the United Nations or over your backyard fence or at your dinner table. You can’t have a relationship with someone if you already think you know everything about them and know everything they think. And you sure as heck can’t have a relationship with them if you’re driving planes into their buildings or bombing their cities to smithereens or bulldozing their houses. These things do not make for peaceful co-existence.

There’s plenty blame to go around, and the Pope knows it. His message isn’t that one country is all bad and others are all good. His message is that the world has gone crazy and the world’s leaders have been acting selfishly for two long. Get a grip, he’s saying. Look into each other’s eyes. Pay attention. Stop thinking just about yourself and think about the common good and a future for all. Exchange pictures of your grandchildren.

We have a knee-jerk tendency to want people to fit into a neat little boxes we’ve constructed. We are more comfortable with people who look like us, talk like us, think like us, worship like us and live like us. Pope Francis doesn’t fit into a neat box. He’s 100 percent pro-life all the time. That means he’s against abortion and destruction of the environment and war and capital punishment and greed and nativist tendencies that talking heads stoke in an effort to feed fear.

Francis is bigger than our boxes and frankly, better than us. He is challenging all of us – especially Catholic Christians – to get a grip and realize that all of us must learn to live together or none of us – including the children he so cares about every step along the way – will survive. It would be easier if life were uncomplicated, sacrifice-free and didn’t require us to think about what our actions might be doing to our neighbor on the other side of the globe, but that’s not the Pope. The Pope sees the big picture and that picture is of one big family on one small spinning planet. It would do us well – all of us – to heed his message and act on it.

Kim Davis, gay marriage and true Christian persecution

I haven’t blogged for nine months, mostly because I fell off the blogging horse after a rather traumatic opening to my year. The longer I was away from it, the more I questioned whether I had anything unique to add to cultural discussions. This insecurity will be familiar to other people of my Tribe, because writers are nothing if not lacking in confidence.

But then the situation in Kentucky happened, and with people claiming that Kim Davis is being persecuted for her Christian beliefs, I thought maybe I did have something to say. To wit: Christians do Christianity no great favors by manufacturing outrage in the name of God.

Consider:

  • There absolutely are Christians being persecuted for their faith throughout the world. They are tortured and killed for nothing more than believing that Jesus Christ was who he said he was. These acts are carried out by radicals of other faiths who want to drag every person back to the good old days of the Middle Ages and are tied up in cultural, political and economic histories. If you want details on how bad it is, as well a big-picture view of anti-Christian behavior in the world, please see John Allen Jr.’s great piece in Crux. 
  • U.S. Christians are often treated in a manner that can make one feel persecuted. I’ve experienced this among colleagues in the media and at the university, and I’ve heard from students who feel shamed by professors because they are “out” as Christians at a public university. People of faith fighting abortion are dismissed as “holy rollers”, “anti-woman” or “radicals” in spite of Pro-Life Humanists and Democrats for Life and the fact that 73 percent of all Americans want abortions banned after 12 weeks gestation. However, feeling persecuted in these ways in no way compares to the aforementioned actual persecution of Christians. In fact, the United States affords all faiths – especially Christianity – a ridiculously wide range of protections, and it is stupid for us to pretend otherwise.
  • God does not need our protection or defense, as evidenced by the litany of “Save me, my Lord!” statements in the Bible and the absence of God crying out, “Save me, my people!” Christians who think they have to protect or defend God because God’s not big enough to do it himself have not carefully read the Scriptures.
  • And finally, God did not anoint any of us to save people’s souls or appoint us jury on other people’s faith or life practice (See: Jesus as Savior; see also: Mote in brother’s eye, log in your own).

God did, however, ask people do do a few things, which are illuminated by what Jesus Christ said when directly asked what God expected from his followers.

  1. Matthew 5:44: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
  2. Mark 10:21: After following all the 10 commandments perfectly, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.”
  3. Luke 11:25: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

That last one is the biggie. A brilliant priest once explained it this way: The first part of the verse instructs us to love God with all that we are, and the second part tells us to love people with all that we do.

People of faith often feel that a secular world gone amok is being crammed down their throats. Violent and dehumanizing music lyrics, abortion on demand, websites that encourage and enable adultery, the sexualization of childhood, the latest Jack Black movie – all of this can be frustrating. I’m certain Kim Davis feels frustrated, or perhaps her personal history and subsequent religious conversion made her feel the need to take a stand.

But because – praise the Lord – we do not live in a theocracy, frustration doesn’t mean you get to stop following the law of the land. If you disagree with that law, you can go through appropriate channels to try to change it. You cannot, however, hang onto your elected position while refusing to carry out the duties of that elected office and claim that act is Christian. Because, it is not. However, something else is.

Right now, this very minute, there are thousands of refugees flooding into Europe, entire families dying as they try to escape war and actual persecution. What are you doing to love that neighbor? Right now, someone in the poor part of your town or your city is trying to figure out how to pay all her bills and still feed her kids. What are you doing to love that neighbor? Right now, someone elderly that you know – your grandmother, your spinster aunt, the guy you saw on the bus yesterday – is desperately lonely. What are you doing to love that neighbor? Right now, in more neighborhoods than we have the strength to admit, children are being tucked into bed in homes where parents counsel them to stay away from the windows for fear of stray bullets. What are you doing to love that entire neighborhood?

The world is full of true suffering, true persecution, true need, true injustice. And Jesus told his followers what God expected of them, which wasn’t anything like “Be outraged in my name.” Instead it was, and remains, just this: Love your neighbor as yourself. If we spent our time actually doing the hard work of loving all our neighbors with all we do, of solving the actual problems caused by war and famine and violence and despair and, yes, actual religious persecution, we’d have no time for outrage because we’d be too busy acting. And we’d never have to tell people we were Christians either, because they’d know we were by our love.

This is what God looks like

I’ve battled depression on and off for nearly 30 years. During that time, I’ve had three bad episodes, week-long events when I needed help with my family life so I could make it to doctor’s appointments and throw darts at a medication chart to see what help might present itself to me.

I’ve also had exactly three days – count ’em three – when I’ve felt complete peace and enjoyed what I think must be the average amount of happiness “normal” people feel on most days. They were wonderful days and I hold out hope that someday a fabulous mood-disorder cure will be developed to allow me dozens more of those days.

With the exception of the aforementioned episodes, I am fine, just fine, as long as I stick to my medication-doesn’t-work-for-me regime of exercise, my happy light, eating a fairly healthy diet and getting a decent amount of deep sleep. Life inside my head is far from sunshine and rainbows, but I can participate fully in all parts of the world: work, family, second job as a closet novelist, church, friends, our dogs, random hobbies. Most of the time, I feel that life is hard but beautiful. (Or as the Momastery folks say, “Brutiful.“)

But now the Demon is back and it seems worse than the other times. I know this because I’m doing things I’ve never done before. I’ve missed Mass because the thought of driving there is overwhelming. I’ve sent regrets to wedding invitations because trying to figure out which dress to wear is too much. I’ve missed weekend meetings with friends because the thought of having to shower on a Saturday – or at least wash my face and comb my hair – makes me burst into tears.

I have almost no energy, and what little I have is reserved for my job. I know that eventually this episode, like bad weather, will end and I don’t want it to end with me unemployed, so all the strength I have goes to the Monday through Friday routine. I’m like a squirrel saving up for winter except I’m only saving up on the weekends for the rest of the week. I’m basically Just No Fun. And like the millions of others suffering from depression, I’ve felt really alone and for a bit, forgot what God looks like. This past week, I was reminded that God looks exactly like Love, and in my particular case, Love looks like this:

photo (2)
Tiny, beautiful candles from my daughter dropped off in the middle of a Sunday afternoon….
… a who-wouldn’t-love-this-face card sent with an iPad case by my soon-to-be-related-not-just-friends friend Stacy …
A custom card filled with tiny notes from my women's group reminding me that it will get better.
… and a custom card filled with tiny notes from my women’s group reminding me that they love me, God loves me, my family loves me, and no matter what, Love Always Wins. Always.

What you learn on the bus

The great thing about riding the bus is having no distractions, and thus, plenty of time to think. This is also the problem with riding the bus: Having plenty of time to think. If you’re prone to rumination like me, sometimes thinking isn’t the best idea. But every so often, I decide to put down my smart phone or my book and just look around on the bus, like I did this Monday, and when I do I am reminded of truths I’d forgotten since the last time I looked around.

First: You see that, for the most part, it really is true that the people who ride the bus are the poor. You count yourself lucky that riding public transportation is a choice for you, something you can decide you want to do instead of have to do to get to work or school.

Second: You notice that most of the poor – in spite of what FOX News might say – don’t actually have fancy phones, and they most certainly don’t have Kindles or iPads. They might be reading the newspaper, but just as likely are not, and it is rare to see anyone with a book.

Third: You see that the poor all look pretty dang tired. The older poor look exhausted. Every day you ride, no matter what time you ride, they look tired. And the younger poor look frustrated, angry, irritated, confused.

Fourth: You remember that almost all of the poor are in some sort of uniform. They are waitresses or vet techs or cosmetology students or mechanics or nurses aides or Goodwill employees. They are trying to make it in a world that says if you work hard you’ll succeed. You realize that mantra really does depend on the definition of success.

Fifth: You realize the younger poor are often nicer to the older poor. They stand so the older, more tired version of themselves can have a seat. They pick up canes that are dropped on the floor. You realize, with shame, that the poor  – at least these poor on the new route you now take to the new job you have that allows you the choice to ride the bus or drive a car – take care of each other and are, quite frankly, kinder and more patient on even rotten days than you are on good days. They are more humble and more steadfast and less whiny than you are.

You wonder, watching, if you would have the energy and determination to keep going if you had to pull on a waitress uniform each day and have your pay check determined by the mood of the family who stops in for breakfast on their way to whatever kind of day they are going to have, a day that seems like it will be better than yours by far because, at the bare minimum, they had a car to drive to your restaurant while you had to ride the bus. And you decide, with some amount of embarrassment and shame, that you don’t think you would be.

 

 

 

My brother’s keeper

At our house, our kitchen counter serves as a place to prepare food, leave messages for each other and drop the daily mail. I came home from Mass today and sifted through yesterday’s mail that Husband had fetched from the mailbox. “Oh no,” I said, fingering one particular piece. “Yeah,” he said, “I was debating whether I should leave that for you to see.” It was this:

CAM01309The notice was on a card I’d sent to my brother the prior week. It was the second letter I’d sent in four months. The first wasn’t answered, but it wasn’t returned either, so I took that as Sign of Life. This returned one means that B is no longer living at his last-known address, or, maybe, something worse. I’m a journalist by training, so I could find out what this worst might be, but I can’t bring myself to tonight. The past eight weeks have been a never-ending stream of Hard and I’m just not my normal Little Engine That Could.

The last time I saw B was more than a year ago. I was concerned because I couldn’t reach my brother by phone and the last time we spoke – the night of our father’s death – things had not gone well. B only gets pay-as-you-go coverage on his phone, so I always know when he’s absent a job and can’t pay as he goes, because the phone no longer rings.

That day, about a year ago, Husband and I drove to Phoenix to check on him and he hid from us in the backyard of a house he had told us he owned, a house he said he got through a quitclaim deed from his prior roommate. Each time we’d made the trek up north we found him in the backyard of this house, never in it, and he never invited us inside. After this final visit, we accepted he was most likely living in the backyard, not the house. We also had to accept that he didn’t want to see us because he ducked behind a wall the minute he heard me call his name. Husband, being tall enough to view over the fence, saw B before he went into hiding, so we knew he was alive. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

I spent all my free moments the next week talking to a mental health professional about my brother and how to approach him. I don’t know his diagnosis and I couldn’t report if he was on medication, I could only report behavior. He can seem fairly normal one day and the next manic or anxious or paranoid. Five years ago he spent Christmas with us, and while there were a few moments of Awkward, overall he did well. But then just two months later he was incoherent, bits of his life all mixed up like a 500-piece puzzle falling out of the phone at me in a torrent of pain.

The mental health professional and I went over a variety of options, and we had to settle on me sending letters with information about how to get help and a phone card. I couldn’t do a well-check because I couldn’t say for certain that B didn’t have a gun. Lots of veterans have them. If I sent cops to do a well-check and B wasn’t well and got aggressive, my do-gooding would land my sick brother in jail instead of a hospital. So I sent a letter. I didn’t get a response or a phone call. And now, laying on my kitchen counter, an “Attempted, not known, unable to forward” postal message.

A long time ago, when we were the final two children in a home troubled by alcoholism and abuse, I was my brother’s keeper. The problem was, I wasn’t very good at it. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of us standing in our pajamas in a dark hallway watching our parents yell at each other. B was shaking so badly that his right hand kept hitting mine and his left was hitting the wall. “Make them stop,” he cried, “make them stop.” I couldn’t control those adults of course, but instead of comforting my brother I yelled at him: “Stop shaking, you have to stop shaking!”

He was a fragile child, always, and suffered at the hands of bullies in school. There was no refuge at home, because forty years ago little boys weren’t allowed to cry and fathers yelled at you if you weren’t “man enough” by eight years old. As I’ve said before, my parents did the best they could with what they had, but they simply weren’t equipped to deal with their own marital misery and the needs of their children. And in the end, living amid chaos and fear, all of us children moved into survival mode, focused on saving ourselves.

I know it is “normal” to do that in a highly stressful environment, but it doesn’t make me feel any better, looking back, realizing that I should have reached out more to my brother, paid more attention to what was happening to him, tried to get him help long, long ago. Nor does it make me feel better knowing that at any point in the past five years since we have been re-connected, I’ve never offered shelter to him. He’s my brother, for goodness sake.

There was reason to keep him out of our house when we had children growing up; the parental instinct of protection is one that must be attended to. But after they left home and B and I had had a year of phone conversations leading to a dinner in Phoenix leading to Christmas at our home with three of our four 20-something children, there wasn’t really a reason. Maybe if he lived with Husband and I, he’d get better.

Except for the fact that just two months after that normal Christmas, we gave him a used computer and two hours later he called me frantic that he saw something in a picture we accidentally left of the hard drive, a picture of my son in ski goggles. The government was spying on him through those goggles, he yelled at me. Why was I trying to help the government spy on him? I finally gave the phone to Husband, who spent an hour trying to calm him down. We thought it was settled, but he called at least three more times that night, continuing to yell at me about helping the government spy. Finally, I said I wouldn’t talk to him anymore and hung up on him.

Two weeks later he called, a different person. Calm. Apologized. “I’ve ruined the computer,” he said. He explained that he tried to “scrub” the insides with a toothbrush. He couldn’t stop, his mind wouldn’t let him, until he’d pulled everything inside the computer out. There was no fixing it. “I’ll pay you back,” he said. I told him his phone call had frightened me, asked if he remembered what he said. Yes, he said, sometimes he got a little paranoid and it made him say stupid things.

“A little?” I asked. He chuckled. No, he said, more than a little. But he was getting help now. Except, it seems he wasn’t. Because if he was, he wouldn’t have been living in his back yard.

B is suffering. He is mentally ill and he’s poor, a lot like the People of the Bus. He can be scary – again, like some of the People of the Bus. You have to wonder which comes first – the being poor so then you can’t get help for Illness and Illness morphs into Scary, or being mentally ill so you can’t hold down a job and unemployment leads to terror? I don’t know. All I really know is that because B is unpredictable, I’m uncertain how to get him help without risking him hurting me out of fear someone is trying to hurt him. As the youngsters say, “It’s complicated.”

And yet. I see my 8-year-old brother shaking in that childhood hallway and at 19, at our mother’s funeral shaking again, and then just last year, hiding in his backyard, huddled behind a cabinet, no doubt still shaking. And my heart breaks. Then I see him, five years ago at Christmas, 49 years old but looking 60, laughing with two of my sons and building a gingerbread house. And I wonder, am I not my brother’s keeper? If not, who is?

 

 

 

 

On funeral etiquette, ritual and grief

My new job requires me to travel quite a bit, so sadly, I’m doing less bus riding and more car driving of late. Now instead of noticing things on the bus, I’m noticing things on the road, including something I’ve never seen in 15 years living in this Tucson suburb – a funeral procession. It looked a lot like this:1388118391_cb42260d2bThe reaction of other drivers to this event made me think about the pace of our lives. Most of the cars driving in the opposite direction of the procession just kept on driving. They didn’t slow down, and only one pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

As a young child I was taught that all cars should stop when a funeral procession is approaching,and if driving in the same direction, one would never overtake it. That lesson was long time ago but it stuck, so I was surprised to see so many drivers acting as if nothing was happening as the procession passed by.

I don’t think people were necessarily trying to be rude. There’s a chance they’d never seen a funeral procession (especially not one at 5:30 p.m.) or that they’d never been taught funeral procession etiquette.

But there’s also a chance they were simply too busy to notice. There are children to fetch from school and groceries to buy and dinner to cook and music lessons and soccer games to get to and blogs to write and … all this after working an 8 or 9 hour day. We’re tired. We’re distracted. And, frankly, I think we’ve lost touch with the importance of ritual as a process that helps us grieve.

The Western world, IMHO, doesn’t have much space for grief any more. In other countries – those we like to call “developing” – when a parent loses a child or a spouse his or her mate, the grieved person can take to the streets and wail and it is considered perfectly appropriate. You’re allowed to dress in black and hole yourself up in your room and burst into tears at a moments notice and no one questions it. There are funeral rituals that last days, if not weeks.

Here in the “modern world,” we’re not so good at that. We allow for some grieving, and some religions are better than others at offering rituals that helps walk people through the beginning stages of mourning. But as a culture in general, we want people to pick themselves up and march right along as if nothing has happened. Sure, you can feel out-of-sorts for a week or two, but then you’ll have people tell you to “keep busy” and “move on with your life” and other advice that only further highlights how uncomfortable we are around overwhelming sadness. We prefer people pretend that their heart hasn’t been ripped from their chests and torn into a million pieces; we’d like them to ignore the fact that every time they try to take a drink of water it feels like they are swallowing glass.

This past week, the 33-year-old husband of a former colleague of mine died. He possessed a great talent for someone so young, evidenced by his body of work in photojournalism. And, evidenced by the 100 or so people who attended his wake, he possessed a larger-than-life ability to be a friend.

Both he and his wife were journalists, making them part of the tribe I call my own, so I went to the wake to pay my respects even though I didn’t know Will. I saw a few of my former students and expressed how difficult it must be to have a friend who is so close to their age die. One explained that this was her second experience of young death and she had learned something the first time around. This time, she said, “I’m giving myself time to be sad.” As tears welled up in her eyes, she told me she wasn’t going to pretend things were normal when they weren’t.

That’s what we do when we stop for a funeral procession – we acknowledge that things are not normal. Perhaps it seems an old-fashioned ritual, but in our busy lives, I think we need more of it. We pay heed that the world has changed for the people in that long line of slow-moving cars. We pay attention, if even only for the two or three minutes it takes for the procession to pass, to the fact that someone lived and has now died. And maybe (hopefully) we think about the people following the hearse and the sadness they feel, growing a tiny bit more empathetic to our fellow human beings as they walk through the valley of death.

 

 

 

 

Less of a Lent loser this time #Lentchallenge

I have the self-discipline of a sloth. I’d like to have focus and determination of a leaf-cutter ant or some other creature of control and tenacity, but in much of my life, I simply don’t.

This is especially true when it comes to Lenten practices. I’m impressed by people who can abstain from coffee for 40 days and still be gracious at the workplace, or folks who sacrifice a particularly addicting pleasure (chocolate, movies, Facebook) and never complain. I really admire those who add significant extras to their Lenten journey (daily Mass, for instance, or what Brian Harper’s doing over at Busted Halo) and still exude peacefulness in a world where there is never enough time.

While I’ve not been a total Lent loser, I’ve rarely made it to the Easter finish line without the sad side-effect of replacing the sin I was trying to conquer (i.e. gluttony) with another (i.e. grumpiness). Not exactly the reason for the season.

But this year may be the non-loser one for me. The #LentChallenge of reading the New Testament in 40 days is proving quite doable, perhaps because this particular discipline fits my personality: I like to read, I like to learn, and I like to be able to check off boxes or cross things off lists.

Additionally, it fits my bus-riding habit. I’m on the Route #6 for about 40 minutes each day, and the readings take about 35. I just hop on and read for the ride, which is what I would normally do but with the daily paper, not the Bible. (Lo, she went into the desert for 40 days with only the Word of God and became woefully uninformed about the world. Journo 5:18)

This change of habit – Bible not newspaper – has led to some interesting encounters with other members of the Public Transit Tribe. One man asks questions every day about what text I’m reading and then tries to engage in a verbal battle about why the Bible is “crazy.” Another woman asks me which Church I attend and raises her eyebrows when she hears the name. “Oh, you’re Catholic?” she asks. “That’s interesting.”

These experiences and others have made me realize how uncomfortable I am reading a religious text in the public square, and that has made me think a bit on why that discomfort exists. I wasn’t always this way, but then again, I didn’t always ride a public bus or work at a public university.

It’s safe to say the majority of people where I work are non-religious and many have no qualms about expressing their disdain of all things faith. They are especially intolerant of Islam and Catholicism, although they would never call it intolerance. For instance, someone will say the Catholic Church is “categorically wrong” to fight abortion because “a woman has the right to her own body.” If a Catholic were to point out that yes, a woman does have the right to her own body and by the same token, so does the female fetus, that person would be dismissed as being blinded by religion, even though groups like Secular Pro-Life make the same argument and are atheist.

Or someone will say that they don’t understand how a Muslim woman – a graduate student, for goodness sake! – could choose to wear a hijab, and when that woman tries to explain her feminist rationale for doing so, the non-religious person will announce that the Muslim woman is misinformed about true feminism because she is “constrained by her religious heritage.”

I’ve had a professor describe the parents of potential university recruits as “holy rollers” and had colleagues make offensive jokes about every religion possible because I used to be a religion reporter and it is assumed I’ll find the jokes funny.  I’ve stood in line for coffee behind women in abayas and overheard whispered criticism of them as “religious nuts,” and had Christian professors in the sciences confide that they are in a “religious closet” because they don’t want to be labeled zealots or have their research questioned.

Considering this, it is probably not surprising that I’m uncomfortable reading a Bible in public. But because I really don’t want to be a Lent Loser this year, I’ll keep it up. Maybe if I make it all the way through, my husband will buy me a pony. Or, at least a chocolate bunny.

#LentChallenge Learning

I’m a week into the #LentChallenge of reading the New Testament in 40 days and I’m only two days behind! Notice the positive spin: I could have said, “I’m already two days behind,” but if I did, I’d only feel rotten about myself. Instead, I’m only two days behind!!! That sounds pretty successful to me.

For reference, keep in mind that I’m using the New American Bible translation, which includes scripture scholar notes. I’m spending as much time reading all the footnotes and references as I am the text, which is probably why I’m two days behind. That and the fact that I had a huge birthday surprise to host this weekend with lots of out-of-town guests and distractions.

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As originally announced by the author who sent out the Lent Challenge, folks are supposed to be blogging/tweeting/facebooking about what they’re learning/relearning as they read through the New Testament this Lent. Mostly this is happening on Twitter, but here’s my four-shot of what stood out in Matthew:

1) The name Jesus was a “common Jewish name”; first-century Hebrew would be Joshua (Greek: Iesous). So, in Matthew 27:16, where Pilate is asking the crowd who they want released, he asks, “Which do you want me to release to you, {Jesus} Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” The footnote says “this reading is found in only a few textual witnesses, although its absence in the majority can be explained as an omission of Jesus made for reverential reasons. … The Aramaic name Barabbas means ‘son of the father’; the irony of the choice offered between him and Jesus, the true son of the Father, would be evident to those addressees of Matthew who knew that.”

2) Jesus, long preached as merciful and forgiving, is shown as petulant in at least one part of Matthew, 21:18-19, where he curses a fig tree that had no fruit on it when he was hungry. ” ‘May no fruit ever come from you again,’ he said. And immediately the fig tree withered.” Ouch.

3) The term “brother” is interpreted different ways in different verses. Matthew 18:21-23 regarding forgiving your brother 77 times, is a direct instruction to disciples of Christ forgiving their fellow disciples who sin against them. It would make one wonder about forgiveness of non-Christians (or, in ancient Israel, non-countrymen) except Jesus has already commanded his followers in Matthew 5:44 to love their enemies “and pray for those who persecute you.”

4) Finally, a verse that’s been co-opted by popular culture and tossed around like a juggling ball, “Don’t judge me .…” and was the basis for the quote heard round the world when Pope Francis’ uttered, “Who am I to judge...”. The scholar’s note on Matthew 7:1 – “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” – is interesting:

“This is not a prohibition against recognizing the faults of others … but against passing judgment in a spirit of arrogance, forgetful of one’s own faults.”

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