Sunday, November 29, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 1

This is from a sermon I prepared for the third week of Advent 2009. I thought I'd serialize it here.

Part of what’s so amazing about Christmas is its modesty. We sing songs about heaven and nature singing, about herald angels and jubilant shepherds, but we also sing songs about little towns and silent nights. So while any day of the week we could take to the streets singing loudly “How Great Is Our God” and “Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty,” and we would be perfectly justified in doing so, it's also important to notice the little things, the subtle movements of God that sound best when whispered: Emmanuel—God with us.

God’s ministry to and through Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not always whispered. Sometimes it’s shouted, trumpeted. A few years ago our neighbor church down the street erected a thirty-five foot metallic statue of Mary in their back yard. People would come from miles to venerate it, to pray together next to it, to drink juice and eat picnic lunches in its shadow. It’s called “Our Lady of the Millennium,” and it’s far from modest. It crisscrosses the country on the back of a flat-bed truck, making visitations, and it makes the papers wherever it goes.

I mention this not to poke fun at people’s tendencies toward bombast, but as a caveat to my own comments. While the Mary we remember here we’ll remember as modest, she’s also unusually strong and resilient, like steel; she’s remarkably larger than life and casts a long shadow on the church, for very good reasons; she conducts herself, in any estimation but especially given her historical context, in ways that can best be described as heroic. And so this Mary we remember here as quiet and modest we should also remember as one of the greats in our Christian history; as we consider what it means to be a Christian today, we would do well to read up on Mary and consider how we might be like her.

I’d argue, in fact, that in many ways contemporary Christians are like Mary, most notably in this: as people who have embraced the call of the gospel, who have heard the message of love and justice and reconciliation that God offers us and have moved toward it, have surrendered ourselves to it, we are carrying love.

The apostle John makes it explicit to us that when we’re talking about God, we’re talking about love. If someone asks you to describe God, you could do worse than simply quoting John: “God is love.” Often we think of God and other qualities come to mind: severity and judgment when we’re feeling guilty, perhaps, or benign and disinterested, when we find ourselves disinterested in God. But John tells us what the entirety of the Bible shows us: God may show himself to be many things, but at the heart of it, God is love. And we can take comfort in that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Altercation at the Overnight Shelter

It's worth mentioning from the start that I've been going, two or three times a month, to the local overnight shelter to serve breakfast, clean up and commiserate with local homeless folks, for the past couple of years. And I'm known, by and large, as a pretty friendly guy. I mention all this not to toot my own horn (although it's pretty clever how I managed to do that anyway, if I do say so myself). No, I mention this upfront because in that time I've had multiple heated arguments with friends, family members, coworkers, fellow churchgoers, telemarketers and business owners. And through all those heated arguments with people close and near to me, I never witnessed any significant relational volatility among the guests at the shelter until yesterday morning.

Don't get me wrong. Some of these folks strike an awfully intimidating pose, and while I can bring myself to be nice to them, I generally steer clear of them in conversation, favoring the more welcoming glances of other guests. I also know that while I've not personally witnessed a fight at the shelter till yesterday, other volunteers at other shifts have seen people go a little nuts. And I'm worldly wise enough to presume that even the nice folks with the welcoming glances, being human beings under pressure, most likely lose their cool every now and then. So I'm not suggesting that the homeless people in the western suburbs of Chicago are magically serene. I'm only observing that they're human beings living in a civil society, and they know how to conduct themselves as such. And every once in a while something gets on their nerves enough to raise their hackles and cause a scene.

That's what happened yesterday morning. Addy, notorious for oversleeping and waking up grumpy, was exceptionally tired and uncompromising. Fifty-plus people had been handed plates of eggs and toast while she slept on. Fifty-plus people--including several little kids--had bathed, dressed and packed for the day while she slept on. An entire infrastructure of mattresses and modular walls had been disassembled all around her while she slept on. Gentle nudges and whispered "Wake up, Addy" wasn't doing it today. So another guest, exasperated by the stress Addy had apparently created in the dumbstruck volunteers working quietly around her, took it on himself to show Addy a little tough love.

He yelled at her to get up. He yanked the blanket off her. He pulled the pillow out from under her head. And when she started protesting, he grabbed the mattress and started pulling. I'm pretty sure my mom and dad and scout master woke me up the same way on more than one occasion. Addy finally surrendered the mattress, but she was ticked off to no end, so while the guest triumphantly folded up her blanket and added her pillow to the pillow cart, Addy stormed over to the breakfast buffet and poured a cup of coffee. Then she marched back to him and threw it at him.

"Oh, now, that's assault," he responded. "Ma'am," he said loudly and repeatedly to our shift supervisor, "could you call the police?" She ignored him and went to talk to Addy, so he shrugged and called the police himself.

Our shift supervisor didn't know what to do. Neither did I; neither did the other volunteers. Most of the guests minded their own business, but the conversation that ensued revealed some important details: Addy did this all the time; complaints to the volunteer staff never resulted in any discipline taken against Addy; complaints to the shelter administration never resulted in anything. Addy hadn't just been chronically oversleeping, she'd been systematically alienating the community that she traveled with by default. I could almost hear the chorus: "How do you solve a problem like Addy?"

I suppose we all know someone like Addy, and I suspect, the way I've told this story, that our sympathies lie with her. If someone wants to sleep a little late, the logic in my head goes, let her. The worst thing that happens is she misses breakfast and doesn't shower, and the people charged with cleaning up the shelter add a minute or two to their schedule. Big deal.

But I find my sympathies drifting to the other guests. Addy was being a glaring fly in a delicate ointment. Addy was a visual reminder that the rules of homelessness, as designed and enforced by people who are not homeless, can be nearly as arbitrary as they are draconian. One evening someone might be turned away for showing up late; the next morning someone else might be allowed to sleep late and even have a special breakfast prepared for her because she missed the main course.

Meanwhile, volunteers such as myself don't notice when we're slipping into a way of interacting with guests that's patronizing and demeaning. Our shift leader chided the guests: "If you have a problem with someone, you need to tell us"--as though "we" the volunteers had any idea what to do. When the guests protested that they complain about Addy all the time, with no discernible response from the powers that be, our shift leader responded, "It's like the older brother beating up the younger brother with you guys." The complaining guests were, it seems, one complaint away from a time out, two away from a spanking. Meanwhile, the call to the police led, in true suburban form, to a four-car intervention. As I was leaving for work, several police officers were crossing the church parking lot to keep the peace.

I'm not dogging the cops. I don't know what it's like to be an officer of the peace, and I didn't hear the guest's complaint, the content of which may have called for a strong response. As I drove to work, however, it struck me that an argument like the one I'd witnessed would never have resulted in a raid like that. It would have been handled internally, because it was essentially an in-house argument. The coffee throw was a bit extreme, but Addy was far enough away from the other guest that she never would have hit more than his jeans and his shoes. It was a symbolic gesture, not really assault. The entire interchange was evidence that the system needed attention, that the rules needed to be restated more clearly and applied more consistently. And the community--guests and volunteers alike--needed a reminder that we had cast our lots together, at least for overnight, and we each had responsibility to the others.

Because this is a community, temporary as it is: always the same people, with occasional new faces, coming together regularly, eating and sleeping and working and commiserating together, observing and addressing the problem of homelessness together. We're all in over our heads because we're each complex individuals involved in a complex community, a collision of private interests, a congregation united by a common messiness. Throw in all the washing of clothes, mattresses, tables and bodies, and the breaking of bread and pouring of beverages, and the homeless shelter becomes almost sacramental.

I left for work--earlier than I needed to, I can admit from a day's distance. That whole altercation made me nervous: I didn't know who to side with or how to resolve it. I don't like conflict, and frankly, some homeless people scare me. People like Addy, with her wild hair and her otherworldly eyes. That's my confession for today. I ask all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Dr. Seuss and Other Gateway Drugs

Mary Doria Russell, author of several books including the sci-fi duo The Sparrow and Children of God, was in Lombard this weekend to receive a key to the village (insert colloquial joke here), speak with local high school students about writing, and sell some books. I got to attend her presentation at the Helen Plum Memorial Library, where she worked as a page while growing up, and get her to sign some books for my parents. I've read The Sparrow and am reading Children of God; I wanted to meet this woman who has done the seemingly impossible: written two novels that both my parents would read and enjoy.

The pitch for The Sparrow is brilliantly simple: "Missionaries in Space." Intelligent life is discovered in another solar system; the Jesuits lay down enough money to fund a mission. Calamity ensues. It's a sad and very human portrayal of what happens when worlds collide, when inadvertent error and mixed motives overshadow the better angels of our nature. Mom and Dad loved it; I loved it; my boss loved it; one of the authors I edit loved it. Who knows? Maybe you'd love it.

Russell has written a couple of other novels since these two; not being much for fiction, I'm frankly unlikely to read them. But I did enjoy her presentation. She waxed nostalgic about growing up as a reader, exploiting the addictive quality of reading. She characterized Dr. Seuss books as "a gateway drug" and Nancy Drew as "the tobacco of books": "You look like a smart little girl; I'll bet you'd like Nancy Drew. It'll make you look more mature--it has chapters." And on and on until Russell hit age forty-two and "started cooking up my own crystal meth," switching irrevocably from writing journal articles in her field of anthropology to writing deeply human novels. She says that they're in a second or third round of discussion for a film version of The Sparrow, and--news flash--Brad Pitt is doing a treatment in the hopes that the film will be his Hollywood swan song. Well, well, well . . .

Russell grew up Roman Catholic, attending mass at the church just down the street from the library. "I switched from Catholicism," she told us, "to anthropology, quite frankly," when she was fifteen--a kind of protest against trends she observed in Vatican II, which seems to amount to her preference for old hymns and Latin masses. She didn't go into detail, but she alluded as much. When she became a mother at age thirty-five, however, "cultural relativism became not terribly helpful." By then the notion of the incarnation--God taking on flesh and dwelling among his people (in other words, the divinity of Jesus)--was untenable to her, but Catholicism became a springboard to its own roots for her. "I went deeper, to the faith Jesus practiced." In Judaism she found a faith system that satisfied her intellectually and gave her an ethical foothold for making her way in the world as a woman, a mother, a whatever: "At the heart of Judaism is the question, How do we raise children who want to be good?"

That's a good question. Doesn't do much for me, as an adult with no children, but underneath it is the idea that we live and move and have our being in a real world that extends both before and after us, and the prime directive for us as a species, particularly if we're wired to self-propagate, is to trick our self-interest into being constrained by a moral and ethical compass. I'd argue that with the incarnation Christianity does that more completely: Whereas the Old Testament tells us of the good life, the life lived under God, the New Testament shows it to us, while simultaneously showing us that we are undergirded with a divine love practiced in defiance of our own fickleness. The God who dictates morality and ethics to us also loves us at the cost of his own comfort, his own existence. In the incarnation Jesus shows us that we are rooted and established in love--which is a pretty good first lesson in raising children to want to be good.

The incarnation is what we commemorate with Christmas, what we anticipate with Advent. We're a little early to start talking about that now--not that you'd know from the displays at the megastores--but it's on my mind, thanks to this wry and sassy, deeply human author. You might consider The Sparrow and Children of God as Christmas presents for the thinking reader in your life this year; they're not simple, but they're pretty brilliant.