Christ in Vegas

Where would Jesus go in this country?

Would he go to the megachurches or to the televangelist sanctuaries? Would he go to the Catholic cathedrals, or to the Mormon temples, or to the Southern Baptist congregations? Only, I think, to cleanse any wickedness that has taken root there. Only, I think, to cast out the fundraisers and decry the modern Pharisees. And if he did go, and if he did preach, I think he would quickly outstay his welcome, for he would preach a message of charity that is often mouthed but not always followed in such places. He’d lead the pro-life marches down to the prison where they’re hanging a man, or down to the military base where they’re planning a war; he’d bring the wine to gay weddings and pass out condoms at Pride; he’d work the fields with the migrants and never cross a picket line. He’d love the wrong people (again) and he’d quote the wrong scripture (again!), and before too terribly long, a lot of Christian churches would probably throw him out. Continue reading

The Emmaean Christ

One of my favorite Bible stories goes like this: two men went down the road to Emmaus, and ran into a third man, who explained something to them that they didn’t understand. At dinner, their new companion blessed the food, broke the loaf, and was gone — leaving two men at a table with three pieces of bread, knowing that they had spent the day in the presence of Jesus. Their eyes hadn’t seen what their hearts already knew.

I love this tale because it ties together several passages at the heart of my faith. First is, “As you do to the least of these, you do also to me,” and its parallel, “I will not always be with you [to honor me], but the poor will always be with you.” And then there are the greatest commandments: “Love your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The road to Emmaus shows me why these commandments were given: if I do not know who walks beside me, then I have to love my neighbors, because they might be my God. So when I see street folk with their hands out, I try to stop to talk, to give them a dollar or two. I don’t know who I’m feeding, or who I’m talking to… and when I pass them by (as I do) I don’t know who I’m ignoring.

For those who don’t believe in such things, there’s a secular version, too: you have no idea who these starving strangers are. Are they ragged because they’re on drugs, or because they’ve got kids to feed? I try to err on the side of the kids.

There have been times when I’ve just walked past, or when a panhandler’s gotten in my face and I’ve pulled a few bills from my pocket with serious reluctance, times when I had other plans for those dollars. So when I have a dollar I don’t want to part with — be it on the street or at tax time — and someone’s standing there who needs it more than I do, it’s good for me to remember: am I on 3rd Avenue, or on the road to Emmaus?

Altar Call

It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.

“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.

But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet. Continue reading

Microactivism

I have developed some habits of action that I try to follow when I am out in the world — small gestures or practices that I hope make our society a somewhat better place. But after reflecting on them, I’ve realized that some don’t do much good unless shared. So I pass these along to you, in hopes that you may find them useful.

I doubt I invented the term “microactivism,” which I derive from the term “Microaggressions,” referring to the small assaults on human dignity that women, LGBTQ people, ethnic minorities, and (occasionally) straight white men run into on a daily basis in this society.

My “microactivism” may in fact be too small to have any effect, but I still do these things anyway. Better to light a single candle, etc.

Unlike my other posts, I may update this one from time to time as more ideas come to me — and if any of you out in the audience have ideas or practices of your own, put them down in the comments! I’d love to get some talking going.  Continue reading

Choosers of the Fed

I had a few unsettling experiences lately. Minor, really, but it does make me question our culture’s priorities, or at least my own. And, misery loving company, what can I do but share that discomfort with all of you?

Yesterday* I exited the bank with $20 in cash in my pocket. Looking across the intersection, I saw a man lying down on the sidewalk under a blanket… next to his wheelchair. Obviously homeless. Obviously unable to work. I considered crossing the street and handing him one of my nice new ten-dollar bills. I decided not to. I decided not to because I was in a bit of a hurry, and because I had an intended destination for some of that money: Ron, another homeless man I’ve come to know pretty well. You help your friends first.

On my way up the road, I dropped into the ice cream shop and unhesitatingly spent $4.50 on a pint for the party I was throwing that night.

Now armed with one-dollar bills instead, I gave a buck to a guy who I didn’t remember at all, though he seemed to remember me pretty well… or at least the (probable) alcohol did.

Today I went up to the farmer’s market and spent another ten-dollar bill on potatoes and kale. A little expensive, but I like getting good local food. I also passed up buying some pears because I knew they’d be just a luxury for me. I deliberately saved a five to give to Ron.

Then I went to the Apple store and spent $86.51 on a new power cord for my laptop.

This last one is the one that’s bothering me most. Did I really need that power cord? On the one hand, I rely heavily on my computer for work, and there are a few projects in progress that I really need a functional laptop for, not one due to run out of power in twenty minutes. Also I’m discovering that I need my computer for social interaction, more than I’d care to admit. So getting a cord quickly was maybe the right idea. Plus I got the whole computer for free, so spending a little on maintenance is nothing, really — less than a hundred spent on a mostly-state-of-the-art machine? Cheap at twice the price.

But I got the computer from a friend who used to fix them for a living, nor is he the only friend who knows a thing or two. Should I have called someone and tried to get the power cord patched up first? Should I have pushed for a repair at the store, instead of a replacement? Should I have just limped along on my old slow computer until I made something else work? I have a nagging feeling that I didn’t really pay for a functional computer. I paid so that I could go back home and get on the internet fifteen minutes later. I paid to have it be easy.

Considering I spent a big part of the party talking with friends about the constraints of stuff, the inability to shed all the accumulated items of a life, I have the particularly nagging feeling that I didn’t command my stuff: it commanded me.

I juxtapose this with my encounters with the homeless because a thought keeps crossing my mind as I pass them on the street: “If I give you this dollar, and you eat tonight,” I keep wondering, “who else doesn’t get to eat?” I am nervous about being such a “chooser of the fed,” if you will. I am always nervous when I have power over others, a power not of their own choosing… or at least I should be. I am especially so when I realize that the cord now powering the laptop I type this on costs more than a night in a hotel room for Ron. If I’d figured out another way to fix the problem, then he might have had another night out of the cold.

Instead of helping my fellow people I spent money on ice cream and power cords. Or, to put it more simply, these past few days I was “chooser of the fed” whether I liked it or not, and I decided to feed myself luxuriously.

“It was your birthday!” some may say. “You need the power cord to make more money, and thereby help more people,” others might point out. These are not untrue things. What’s also true, however, is that I walked past one man and picked another to help… and I also helped myself. Was there any justice in that? Any compassion?

Someday, I think, I may have to go Full Assisi and give away everything. But is that wisdom, either? Is it better to parlay my education and my property into a useful salary, so I can keep funneling wealth to the causes I prefer? Keeping myself alive is probably a halfway-reasonable cause, too, but does it need to involve ice cream? Or by renouncing everything down to the clothes off my back, might I be the inspiration to others to break the shackles of their stuff and give more freely too, as St. Francis would be the inspiration for me? Or would the whole thing be a self-indulgent, self-centric, Guilty White Boy stunt to assuage a troubled conscience? Would that, too, be a purchase of convenience, a shortcut to an untroubled conscience, another way of making it easy? Considering the huge number of people I still wouldn’t be feeding, would it even make much difference? Would it even matter that much “to that one” as the starfish story goes? Am I greedy, lucky, overly analytical, or all three?

For the moment I have no answers for myself or for you. But perhaps the questions aren’t a bad place to start. If we all start to think about the way we choose to feed some and not others, maybe more people would wind up fed. If we kept thinking along those lines, we might even begin to shift the world a bit. Who knows, maybe it would be a world where good potatoes and power cords cost less. Just a thought.

And maybe, if we stopped buying ice cream and power cords altogether, we wouldn’t live in a world where those with the money like me decide every day who we choose to feed. Maybe the hungry could feed themselves, and we the wealthy would no longer have power over them.

But for today, the power to choose — indeed, the power to think about choosing, which is a luxury of sorts — remains in the hands that hold the dollars, be it one or a billion. And we choose whether we think about it or not.

*: Actually last year. Such is the nature of the Filter.

Hear the Word

I would see justice done.

I would see the long labor of the poor rewarded at last, rewarded as it has never been even acknowledged in full. I would see the return of investment and the fruits of harvest benefit all who sweated for them, not merely those with their names on sheets of paper.

I would see children fed. I would see the sick tended. I would see the prisoners and the impoverished remembered as human. I would have it so that no one has to stand on the sidewalk and beg for scraps. I would see us remember that all who live on this earth are our kin, our family, no matter the color of their skin, the language of their tongue, the riches in their pockets, or the faith of their heart. I would see justice done as it has never been done, not since some few thought to exalt themselves at the expense of the many.

I am done with this misery. I am done with this suffering. I am done with laws and codes and customs that claim it is fitting that the poor live in pain. I am done with “deserving.” I am done with “They are lazy.” I am done with “Don’t coddle them.” Do you hear me? I love all, and deserving’s got nothing to do with it. In this I follow my god, the One, and the words that the Holy One gives to me. Continue reading

Divine Timing

A few days ago I had a fair amount of misfortune with buses. One of my lessons got out early, and if I had jogged to the bus stop I could have caught a bus that would have had me home by 8:30 rather than 9:05 — but I assumed I could not catch it. As it was I had miscalculated. Instead I passed the half-hour to the next bus in Half-Price Books, where I was able to purchase Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” (which I have longed for), inform the clerk that the actress she was thinking of was Alyson Hannigan, and later on direct another passenger to the bus stop he needed. In short, my bad timing proved useful not only for me, but for two other people.

It’s not the first time the bus has taught me this lesson; on one occasion I missed my stop on the Route 44, got off later than usual, and immediately saw a homeless man panhandling outside Bartell’s; I had $5 in my pocket and I gave it to him, understanding that this was exactly why I had delayed getting off.

Accidental leadings, we might call them — not that they are leadings that happen by accident, sent by some absentminded Almighty, but leadings that take the form of seeming accidents, inconvenient for us but ultimately positive for others (or for ourselves as well).

So when we are hampered or inconvenienced or delayed, let us open ourselves to the possibilities that might flow from the delay. This is not to say we should bear abuse or injustice lightly; while good things can flow from our response to abuse, we should not, as some rather controlling faiths have advised, simply suffer in silence when we are willfully mistreated. But simple misfortune might actually prove to be great good fortune, if we bear the inconveniences and don’t let them frustrate us into rage.

“The One still controls random chance,” I said once — the chance meetings, the want of a horseshoe nail, the small flickers of fate that tug at us (and the whole world) in different directions than the ones we want to go in. Let’s remember, as we ad lib our lines and entrances on life’s strange stage, that there may well be a director behind the scenes and in the audience who has an idea about the pacing of the play.

The First Blessing

This week seems like a good one to talk about Jesus and his wacky notions. Check back at the end of the week for another post on him, too.

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There is a woman who rides the buses in Kirkland; I see her frequently. She is very distinctive because she wears black trashbags, tucked with practiced care around her body, and pulls a handcart wrapped just the same. Rain or shine she is hooded and cloaked this way, and I imagine she’s relatively immune to said rain. We’ve had mild weather lately, but I wonder how well she does with cold. Tonight she was wearing old flip-flops, her feet looking callused to the point of crust, and had a makeshift bandage around her ankle. I think the bandage was the same one I saw her wearing weeks ago.

She seems to have enough money for bus fare often enough, and seems to know where she’s going. I saw her before it got cold last year and now I’ve seen her after, so evidently she’s surviving. She never asks for anything. She never says anything at all, in fact, and no one says anything to her.

I don’t claim that the Bible’s stories are literally true, as I’ve mentioned lately, but I still claim to follow the teachings of Christ. Or at least I can claim I try. So I have to ask, despite the cliche: what would Jesus do? Continue reading

Observations on Colors

Three men shared the back of the bus with me. By their talk they seemed to be homeless, discussing where they’d encountered each other before: Workforce, the Millionair Club, various street corners. They were dressed for hard work, and looked like they had been doing it. They discussed the times: loss of jobs (one man was laid off from a position he’d held for 14 years, and was only hanging on thanks to the second job he’d had for much of that period) and a black president. Being black themselves, they expressed their continuing astonishment: “Never thought I’d live to see the day,” one said repeatedly, and the others agreed.

And then one of them said something which blew me away: “Maybe we’ll get another one.”

It really shouldn’t have astonished me so much. After all, the walls have theoretically fallen, yes? It’s now been clearly demonstrated that a mixed-race child of a single mother can grow up to be president. Obama is our first president of color: that means, surely, that there can now be more. But it’s a thought that had never before entered my mind. Had I already begun to think of Obama as our token president? Or is it just the case that we’re not thinking about the next one because we’re still grappling with the president we’ve got — and because those who hope to take power from him don’t seem likely to run a person of color as their contender?

I was tempted to enter the conversation myself, but I did not; instead, to sort of indicate my openness, I broke out my copy of Real Change. (For the non-Seattle readers, Real Change is the homeless newspaper in town, very focused on social justice, and sold by the poor and homeless on street corners around town. I buy two copies, one for me and one for my parents.) I thus flew my flag as a sympathetic ear. Two of the men got off before long, and silence fell.

As we were crossing Lake Washington, the remaining man tapped me on the knee and pointed to the western horizon. The sun was setting. It reached just under the rain clouds, setting the atmosphere on fire in startling shades of gold and purple. It was astonishingly lovely, and I said so. The two of us watched the sun until it slipped behind Captiol Hill and the Madison radio towers.

I glanced north, and now it was my turn to point something out to him: the sunlight still fell on the north lake, and so did the rain. A rainbow, colors as vibrant as the sunset, was arcing up out of the water. It had a faint double bow further north; and, as my eyes followed it, I saw it was a perfect bow, running the whole north-south length of the lake, from Juanita to Renton.

My friend and I sat in awe and spoke of our wonder to each other.

“This is why I never moved away,” he said, and I said it was the same with me.

He got off at Montlake, and clapped me on the arm as he did, saying, “Good talking to you, man.”

“You too,” I said, and I meant it.

On the Street at Christmastime

There have always been homeless people standing by the highway ramps, begging for change from the stopped cars. But this year there have been many more of them. I see them in increasingly unlikely and unlucrative places, clearly forced there by desperation when all the other decent spots were taken. It was in such a spot that I saw a first for me, as I rode past on my bus to work: the cardboard sign read “Pregnant and homeless.”

The bus drove on before I had a chance to give the woman anything but a blessing, and one for the man who had moved more quickly than I and dropped a bill out of the window into the gutter. I hope they both fare well this winter.

Something about being pregnant and homeless at Christmas feels deeply, deeply wrong to me; some resonance with “no room at the inn.” So pause a moment, and think on what we do to the homeless in this society of ours.

Continue reading