An American Dream

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.” 

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.

When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.

I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling?  How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

 

Graphic courtesy of PBS.org
All documented mass shootings in America in 2015: graphic courtesy of PBS.org

Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.”  I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.

Part of my heart urges me to continue this train of thought by addressing the refusal of so many to take into consideration how entrenched the U.S. is in the production and distribution of weapons. It is an enormous and enormously profitable business in which machines made specifically for the purpose of destruction of life are sold with little to no discrimination both within and outside our borders. Part of my heart is prompting me to illustrate the terror that unfolds in villages that are haunted by drones or where the land has become a permanent battlefield because of unexploded ordnances, or where people live under threat of a night raid, always terrifying, often lethal.

Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.

There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.

And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.

Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.

22709617203_6e722b715d_b
Witness Against Torture activists participating in a Thanksgiving Day Fast near Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com / Witness Against Torture.

There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.

~~~~~~~~

An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.

Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.

Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:

I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba:

They have guns, but we have flowers—a modern beatitude

The beatitudes have been called Jesus’ version of the Ten Commandments. They sum up the heart of his message, point us in the right direction, show us the truth of God and grant eternal hope.

Except they are a lot harder to understand. And to follow.

What does it really mean, that

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 5:3-10 

This week I heard the closest thing ever to a modern restatement of the beatitudes. It was an interview with a young French child and his father at the Bataclan, the site of one of the terror attacks in Paris last Friday.

“They might have guns, but we have flowers.”

Or in other words….

In the face of a gun, we light a candle and place a flower.

In the face of loss our empty hands link with other empty hands and we are not alone anymore.

In the face of horror we touch that place/time where God’s love is absolutely unstoppable.

Thank you to all the children who are suffering fear and loss this week and have taught us the meaning of Jesus’ words again.

P.S. Sometimes I like to hear the beatitudes with fresh ears. Check out this version from The Message by Eugene Peterson, which is not a Bible translation but a re-telling in modern language.

“And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

So—keep getting into trouble!

adventures in the Spirit, part 1

I am an urban-educator who grew up in the country.  I often feel like my entire life is a Truth-seeking adventure.

I grew up in Northeast Iowa in a very rural community.  Currently, my parents live in an unincorporated village where the town welcome sign proudly announces 27 residents.  Practically everyone I knew growing up looked and sounded a lot like me (fair skin, light eyes and hair, with a twangy Iowan accent).  I attended public school until I went to college (even though I have always been interested in Christianity) because it was the only option.  I didn’t live a sheltered life, really, but I was actually pretty isolated and protected. The woods, fields and pastures were my playground and I only heard gun shots during hunting season.

Now I live in Chicago-land, a sprawling urban area that has a population of over 9.8 million residents!  I teach at an all boys inner-city, Catholic high school pretty much right-smack in the middle of all the action on Chicago’s south side. Today some of my students were casually talking about how they heard gun shots during their baseball game in the park, in the way that my high school friends would talk about hearing thunder during a game.  “It was all right,” they said. “We got to keep playing because they weren’t too close.”  I am worlds away from where I grew up.

I serve in a culture that is not my own.  This high school is much more lively than mine ever was.  From the elders to the children, there’s a different style than I am used to.  Even though I have been in this community for about three years now, I am still frequently exposed to food, music, art, history and speech that is so foreign to me that it seems a passport should be required.  I have had to adapt my teaching style, my expectations and learn a new way of communicating and making jokes.  Everything is interesting and fascinating, and yet I am constantly self-evaluating to make sure I am not subconsciously behaving paternalistically.  Fortunately, I have been embraced by the community and have experienced success.  I am here to serve and it’s an honor and blessing to be so welcome.

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.   -1 John 5:1-4, 6

During Holy Week 2012 I went on a Truth-teaching adventure.  Eight of my students, a school colleague, and an urban 10-year-old (a chaperone’s son) and I squeezed into a van and drove five hours to the foreign land where I grew up.  We stayed four days and nights growing as a team through many fun experiences, service-work, reflections, challenges, prayer and communion.  God was up to a lot of good.

When I get to witness the Spirit at Truth at work, I am amazed I am part of it.  I am amazed I get to see God in action.  Observing enlightenment is like watching a flower bloom or a sunrise, a glorious newness emerges so gradually and quietly.

Before my students and I went on the trip, we had meetings to get ready.  At one meeting I made a huge chart on the board that looked something like this:

We  had a very interesting conversation when we tried to fill in the gaps. Before our trip we left the Truth row blank. Finding the Truth was named as one of the trip’s missions.

Jesus was our trip companion.  Although we were in the hills of Northeast Iowa, I tried to keep my Holy Week spirit with Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem.  Jesus is the man who is the best at teaching the Truth!

Like he said: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” -John 8:31-32

In this blog series, adventures in the Spirit, I’ll write about all the Truth that was taught and learned by my students in Iowa during our Holy Week adventure.