A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Sisters, Friends, & Rivals" - Peninah: What More Can I Do?

It’s not that he doesn’t care about me. I mean, he has to – I’m the mother of his children. That’s just it. I’m the mother of his children.

But I see the way he looks at her. I catch him kissing her forehead, touching her hand. I watch as they exchange looks with one another; lovers’ looks. He never does that with me. Elkanah cares for me, I know he does. But he loves Hannah. And it’s killing me.

After all, I am the mother of his children. I’ve given him sons to inherit, daughters to sell off. Healthy children, too, not sickly little ones who don’t survive infancy. I’m always willing, always available. I’ve treated him well, never pushed him away. But he loves Hannah.
But, I am the mother of his children. What good is a woman if she cannot give her husband children? I’ve been the good wife, the dutiful woman, the devoted mother. All she can do is weep, and starve herself, and weep, and pray, and weep some more. But still, he loves her.

She gets the same share of the sacrifice that I and my children get. It’s not fair. The women in the village are starting to notice, and to talk. It’s not fair! She’s done nothing, and I’ve given him everything. But it gets me nothing – nothing.

And it’s brought out the worst in me. I cannot help myself. I taunt her, I make fun of her, I make sure that my beautiful children are always present for her to see, and envy. I’ve said horrible things to her, things not in my nature to say; I’m ashamed of myself, and I cannot stop.
It’s not really my fault though, is it? If only he would stop looking at her that way, stop favoring her when she’s given him nothing. If he gave me the favor, the standing, the love that I deserve, I could easily leave her alone. My cruelty to her, and seeing her weep, is the only reward I have.

How much longer can this go on? She will never have a child, can he not see that? Will he never tire of her, this woman who clearly can give him nothing. When will he treat me with such love and tenderness and longing, the way I deserve to be treated?
Because after all, I am the mother of his children.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jonathan Daniels & Ricky Byrdsong: When Will We Learn?

On the feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, I offer this reflection from a sermon I preached on July 4, 2009. The text was Mark 6:1-13. So many other such incidents, too many incidents, have occurred since that time. When will we learn?

On Independence Day weekend 1999, as I was preparing to enter my final year of seminary, I was working the Friday night shift as on-call chaplain at Evanston Hospital.  As I was about to retire for the evening in the chaplain’s room when I was paged by a nurse in the Emergency Room.  “Would you please come down here?” she asked.  “There’s been a drive-by shooting in Skokie.”

I’ve never followed basketball much, and we had only lived in Evanston for two years at that point, so the name Ricky Byrdsong was not one that I recognized.  I was only aware, when I arrived in the ER, of a distraught African-American woman who could not understand why her husband had been gunned down randomly as he was out walking with his children on a warm summer evening.  Neither I, nor anyone else, was aware that the horror that was to unfold that weekend was only just beginning.  I was struck by the fact that this woman and her young son, who had been with his father and had witnessed the shooting, were surrounding by whites: a white doctor, white nurses, white police officers, a white social worker, and me. 

And as she did her best to encourage her son to cooperate with the police detective while shielding him from the pain and shock they were both experiencing, Mrs. Byrdsong kept repeating over and over that she couldn’t understand why her husband had been targeted.  “He’s not a drug dealer,” she said over and over.  “He doesn’t do drugs.”  I thought about the assumptions many of us make when we hear the term “drive-by shooting”: we may think of innocent victims caught in the crossfire; but we also think of gangs and inner city violence and illegal drugs and other sorts of criminal activity; we think about people not like us.  And I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t imagine that a white woman in a similar circumstance would feel that she had to make such excuses or such denials for the benefit of the hospital staff, so ingrained are those stereotypes about drive-by shootings, and also, of course, about race.

We were told at the time the Mr. Byrdsong’s injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, so I left her in the care of her own pastor, who had just arrived, and excused myself.  About 3:00 a.m. I responded to another page from the ER nurse.  “You’d better come down here again,” she said.  “The ‘drive-by’ died.”  I returned to the Emergency Room and discovered that in addition to the attacks on Mr. Byrdsong, there had been shots fired at Jews in Rogers Park as they walked to and from Sabbath services.  An Asian-American couple had been fired on here in Northbrook.  Police were looking for a light blue Ford Taurus, but had not yet found it.  I attended to Mrs. Byrdsong, her family and her pastor as best I could, and they left the hospital. 

As Saturday morning dawned I drove home to our family’s apartment on the Seabury campus. I turned on NPR’s Weekend Edition, only to hear Scott Simon telling the nation about a tragedy I now felt a part of, albeit a very small, insignificant part.  A young man named Benjamin Smith, a disciple of white supremacist Matthew Hale and his World Church of the Creator, had gone on a shooting spree that we would soon learn was not yet over.  Police still did not know the whereabouts of that light blue Taurus; was Smith still in the area? Our young daughter was upset by the events and terrified at the thought that such a man might still be nearby.  I wanted so badly to tell her that people like Benjamin Smith don’t go after blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed children like her; but I knew that if I used race as an excuse not to worry or fear while others were threatened and suffering, I could not face my friends of color, as well as my Jewish and gay and lesbian friends.  I later learned that one of my seminary classmates, a young African-American man, had taken the elevated train from the city to Evanston late that night and when he heard the news reports about the shootings had sprinted the entire 2-1/2 blocks from the station back to the seminary, all the while fearing the sight of that light blue Ford Taurus.  I cannot imagine what that kind of fear must be like.  And of course before the weekend was over, a Korean student would be shot to death in Bloomington, Indiana; and Benjamin Smith, finally caught and cornered by police in Salem, Illinois, would take the coward’s way out, committing suicide rather than allowing himself to be arrested and brought to justice.

 It’s been over a decade, and I can still recall nearly every detail of that weekend.

When Jesus sent the apostles out two by two and in the process of proclaiming the Good News, and asking all to repent, and spreading God’s peace, we’re told, the disciples “cast out many demons”.  We may think of demons as Satan’s minions, ugly, violent, tempting us to give in to sin; we tend to personify them.  But the demons we face seldom present themselves that way, and that makes exorcising them all the more difficult.  Demons like racism and xenophobia and homophobia need to be “cast out” just the same, but they are still very much with us.  Freedom to act on our fears and prejudices in violent and threatening ways is not a freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.

I think about the ethnic prejudices that still manifest themselves far too often in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I think about the deplorable way so many Muslims in this country were treated after 9/11.  I think about the murder of Ricky Byrdsong.  I think about our Church’s own saint of the civil rights movement, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian gunned down more than forty years ago while protecting a young black girl from a gun-toting, white racist Alabama shopkeeper who was acquitted of his murder by an all-white jury.  I think about all these tragedies and so many more, and I wonder when it will ever end.  And then I think about our own sending out, every week, and the power we have to effect change in the name of the gospel: power we are reminded of and sent out into the world to use in the name of Christ to live out our baptismal vows by speaking out against prejudice and hate, by challenging those who practice the kind of habits that wound the psyches and often the bodies of our neighbors.  Strengthened by Eucharist and by the Word and by the strength of our Christian community, we do have the power to begin to effect that kind of change.  In the name of Christ, and in thanksgiving for the blessings of freedom, we can do no less.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Caged" Silence

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of American composer John Cage. (The centennial of his birth is coming up on September 5th.)  In an article in the New York Times this past Wednesday, Allan Kozinn wrote about having a “John Cage moment” on the uptown A train in New York City. Such moment exist when we stop and listen to the ambient sounds around us and begin to perceive the music they make.

Kozinn highlighted what may well be Cage’s best known work, 4’33”, in which he explored what the writer refers to as “the music plucked from the air”. Over the course of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, a pianist opens the lid, then closes and reopens it two more times to signify the three movements of the work. The pianist never strikes the keys or plucks the strings. But just because the piano is silent doesn’t mean the audience hears nothing during that time; at least, not if they’re truly listening.
As I write this I’m having a “John Cage moment” of my own. What do I hear, aside from my fingers clicking on the laptop keys? My husband turning the pages of a newspaper in the next room, with an occasional laugh or sotto voce comment; my son upstairs practicing scales on his double bass; cicadas outside the open window. I listen more closely, to the sound of my own breathing, the traffic on the street outside, the sound of a jet plane passing overhead. In other such moments I’ve occasionally heard the sound of children’s voices playing outside, something all too rare these days. And birds! Have you ever noticed the music of birds – the pitches, rhythms, the sounds as varied as instruments in an orchestra?

The composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was once asked if he listened to his MP3 player while walking around Manhattan (surely I’m not the only person who would love to know what’s on HIS playlist!). He said he left it at home, preferring to hear the ambient noise from the city streets. We’re no longer used to listening for these ambient sounds, something our ancestors often had to do just to survive. We go around with little buds stuck in our ears so that we can hear canned music that could be listened to any time, while the music in a given moment flies by and is gone forever. When Simon and Garfunkle recorded “Sounds of Silence” decades ago, they were surely onto something.

Listening for the sounds of silence takes an open ear, a willingness to use our God-given imagination and creativity, and patience. So here’s a thought for today, in honor of Cage: stop, and listen. Just…listen. What do you hear? Remove the earbuds, turn off TV and the radio, stop talking - and listen to “the music plucked from the air.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sisters, Friends, and Rivals: Hagar - in the wilderness (the second time)

She thought she owned me.

That was always the problem – she thought she owned me. And I suppose, in a sense, she did. When Pharoah realized he’d been duped, lied to by Avram the Mesopotamian, I was a human part of the settlement he made to get him and his wife out of town. So I was “given” to Sarai, as a slave to do her bidding.
But I had an advantage. I was young, and fair, and I was fertile. So when my new mistress had given up all hope of a child from her own aging body, she traded me to her husband – traded for the son they both knew Avram needed if the God he had so recently adopted as his own was to be trusted.
And so I conceived; and as I felt the life grow within me I realized Sarai owned me no longer – I had something she would never have no matter how badly she wanted it and that made me bold indeed. She knew it; she saw it. And it made her crazy with jealousy.
She slapped me, once. She cursed me, often. She even forced me to do heavy labor. And where was the father of my child – where was Avram? Hiding behind his cowardice, passive and complacent: “She’s YOUR slave girl – do what you want with her.” Did he care so little for his own legacy, his own child? Did he care so little for the promises of his god?
So when I could stand the abuse no longer I ran away. Into the wilderness – better to die there than face the indignities of their home. It was by a spring in the desert, on the way to Shur, that I saw the presence and heard the voice calling my name. “Go home, and submit to your mistress.”
“What’s in it for me?” (Well, I had to ask!)
“I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
Then I knew who this was, this presence. God had seen me, this god of theirs, and had allowed himself to be seen. I had seen God and lived to tell about it. So I gave this God a name: “the god who sees”.
So back I went, back to the abuse, back to the passive father-not-my-husband and his cruel wife; and in the fullness of time I gave birth to my “wild ass” child, a child who was all mine. Years passed and as time went on it turns out that he did not belong to my mistress as she planned; he would never be her son.
That made her crazy, too.
Then one day three visitors came. They must have been walking for miles across the desert, but it seemed they just appeared out of nowhere. Boy, did things get busy then! My mistress was making cakes, my fellow slaves were slaughtering and roasting a calf, and the party started. They talked with Avram while they ate, and I saw Sarah listening from inside the tent; but I was listening too, where she couldn’t see me. A child – really? A child, at her age. No wonder she laughed. I laughed too. They needed no child, deserved no child. My son was more than enough to fulfill God’s promises to Avram: descendants as many as the grains of sand in the desert, as many as the stars in the sky. My son would be their father, and they would know “the God who sees”.
But in time Sarah’s child was conceived, and the child was born. Isaac, she named him – Yitzak, “laughter”. My Ishmael loved his little half-brother, loved to play with him, care for him. Loved him too much, perhaps. Until the day my mistress caught him them playing together, and once again her jealousy took over. So I was given food and water and told to take my son, my only son, whom I loved, and leave them for good. Avram was sending us away. Once more into the wilderness, the place I had wandered before, with only a day’s worth of water and a little bread between the two of us.

And now the water is gone, and we have nothing; and this time there is no spring in the desert; only the water of my tears. I wait to hear the voice of “God who sees”, but I despair. I’ve put Ishmael away from me, in the shade of a bush, not far away but far enough, while I wash the dry sand with my weeping. I cannot bear to watch him die.