Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas! I am so sorry I haven't written anything new recently (to those loyal or deluded few who still read these ramblings). I have been busy with my writing project for Musalaha and with wonderful guests for the holiday season. But I hope to write more and post more in the near future. I have so many skeletal notes for stories that have no flesh, bones, or breath yet, but I'm working on en-fleshing and in-spiring them very soon.

“If you believe God was somehow in Christ, it shouldn’t make much difference to you how he got there. If you don’t believe, it should make less difference still. In either case, life is complicated enough without confusing theology and gynecology.”
-Frederick Buechner

Matthew tells of the birth of a new Moses who will lead the people on an exodus out of exile into liberation. Luke tells of the birth of a prophet filled with the spirit who welcomes the diseased and outcasts and marginalized women, and whose radical invitation into a kingdom poses a life-threatening/giving oppostion to the imperial theology of all empires. Welcome, these artists seem to say, to another kind of world where everything is upside down . . .

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Metaphor

In the Book of John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” but “the truth” was soon extracted and disembodied. This immaterial “truth” has been enshrined on a high pedestal of intellectual systems, only reachable by those with more advanced cognitive faculties. But Jesus did not say, “I am the abstract absolute moral principle.” Instead, he topples the conceptual idol and proclaims, “I AM the way, the truth, and the life,” which is perhaps less a proclamation and more an invitation . . .

Perhaps “the truth” is embedded in “the way” and “the life” for a reason. To say that a human being is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and not a philosophical concept, implies flesh and blood, sweat and tears, growth and breath. It implies life, a way of life that is deep and dirty and raw. In this understanding, truth is not an ideological list, not the “what” but the “how,” the way itself. Jesus invites those with ears to hear down a narrow path: truth is a way of life, and that cannot be fully expressed, only experienced, like God. Much of what many think of as God cannot be seen in a human being, but Jesus puts skin on the passion and character and vocation of God through his way of life. If the Word of God, this character and passion and vocation, could live a human life, then maybe it would look something like a peasant Jewish carpenter. Jesus incarnates the Spirit that pulses as the heart of reality, constantly redeeming things to that heart: “You have heard it said . . . but I tell you . . .”

And then Jesus disturbs the settled words and tells us of a radical kind of God (radical in the more common meaning of “revolutionary,” but also in the Latin origin which means “to the root”). His words are like water flavored with salt that leaves us always thirsting for more, digging for the hidden treasure buried in the field. Through stories and questions, through metaphors and symbolic actions, Jesus prophetically speaks of a God whose way and kingdom reverse the comfortable order of the powerful, exposing whitewashed tombs and unwashed cups. This is a God of simplicity who cares for the poor in spirit and the poor, who lives in the margins with the sinners and “the least of these,” who burns with righteous anger at injustice and hypocrisy, who feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, who gives water to the thirsty and invites the stranger to the banquet, who gives sight to the blind and heals the lame, who loosens the deadly chains of oppression and sets the captives free, and who loves the unlovable enemies. This is a God of renaissance. And in the end, one that we could almost expect, this image of the in/visible God is abandoned and beaten and nailed to the empire’s tree. “We must appreciate that we are lost before being ‘found’ or being ‘saved’ makes any sense.”

This is no picture of a God who sits on high with sovereign power; this is a picture of a God of transforming powerlessness and weakness who dances in foolishness. The world, in its wisdom, scratches its head in condescending bewilderment, plotting crucifixion and the enthronement of a God of power, domination, and coercion. This is no picture of a God of philosophical abstractions or armchair theologians; this is a picture of a God in the dirt and the mud, a God of sweat and blood who calls for hands and feet. This is a picture of a selfless God of compassion and forgiveness who desires the weightier matters: justice, mercy, and commitment. Jesus plants seeds of good news that turn the world upside-down until, as Caputo says, the world of Alice and Wonderland appears sane in comparison to the kingdom of God. The event of Jesus’ life, his sacramental way of life, is a metaphor for God in flesh and blood. Here is Jesus and the lost-and-found-but-never-quite-found God, because finding is seeking and answering is knocking.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vacation All Year Round

I passed through the checkpoint in Bethlehem whenever I went to Musalaha’s office in south Jerusalem. Musalaha, which means ‘reconciliation’ in Arabic, is an organization that brings together Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians through a shared faith, attempting to dismantle the dividing wall of hostility. My attitude always changed for the worse, toward something like hostility, when I walked through a dividing concrete wall, under metal awnings and heard Hebrew barked over loudspeakers at people who mostly don’t speak Hebrew, and watched old Palestinian men ordered back through the metal detector five times. Countries retain the right to have border control, but the seven hundred Israeli checkpoints are not built on any accepted border. They are on Palestinian land. Almost seventy-five percent of the main roads in the occupied West Bank are controlled, or are completely severed, by checkpoints. The World Bank cites checkpoints as the primary reason for Palestine’s critical economic situation. And the Red Crescent Society has reported one hundred and twelve deaths and thirty-five stillbirths at checkpoints because ambulances were denied permission to cross. And not from Palestine into Israel, but from one part of Palestine to another.

The checkpoint in Bethlehem is on the Jerusalem side of the Israeli separation wall, which splits Hebron Road, the main road between the ancient cities, in two. Countries retain the right to build barriers between themselves and other nations, leaving aside whether or not good fences really do make good neighbors. The United States is building a barrier on the border with Mexico, a debatable representation of “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But the United States is not building that barrier in Mexico, on Mexican land. Over eighty percent of Israel’s twenty-five foot high structure slices into the West Bank, pulling more and more land into Israel. Less than twenty percent is being built on the internationally-accepted Green Line, and none of it is being constructed on Israeli soil. When the good fence cuts into the good neighbor’s yard and annexes the good neighbor’s driveway, water tank, and garden, the claim that the fence is for security becomes suspicious.

The wall cuts off Hebron Road in two places as it curves like a horseshoe, forming a small enclave in between. Every morning, dozens of taxis crowd in crisscrosses beneath the wall’s shadow, waiting to overcharge unsuspecting tourists as they arrive from Jerusalem. A metal fence, like a grated tunnel, runs along the side of the wall’s concrete slabs, now canvases expressing a voice of resistance through a chaotic tapestry of images and words overlaying words. The grated tunnel leads to a door through the wall and into a small fenced area. A small guarded booth and metal detector must be passed before entering a wide parking lot, the threshold of the low-lying roofed checkpoint. Three terminals line the hallway beneath the florescent lights; two are rarely open at a time, no matter how many people are waiting to pass through. And the passing through always takes longer because people in Palestine do not line up for anything. Instead of lines, people form massive stagnant clots; those just entering casually cut and jump to the front and the long line never gets shorter. At least twelve document inspection stations wait on the other side of the metal detectors and conveyor belts and I’ve never seen more than three open at once. All Palestinians must show their special passes that allow them to leave the West Bank and then place their hands on an electronic fingerprint scanner. I can pass through very quickly, flipping my unopened American passport at different windows and pushing through worn-down turnstiles. Usually, the guards barely looked at me and waved me on with a sharp flick of the wrist. Sometimes, soldiers motioned to me to bypass the queue through another gate but I always refused. In some small way I wanted to be with and as the people there, to force myself to experience what they’re experiencing by denying myself the easy option, because I did always have the easy option.

I was on my way to the office on the last Friday of Ramadan. I heard an unusual amount of noise coming from the area next to the wall, and when I came around a fruit stand I saw that every Muslim in the greater Bethlehem area had come that morning to this checkpoint. They had received special passes because of Ramadan to visit the Holy City and pray toward Mecca at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, next to the golden-domed spot where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven on his horse. The grated tunnel was completely filled, the wired sides almost bulging with the capacity, and every new person squeezing in was like a falling block in Tetris trying to find any available space, except the bottom level in this game didn’t fall away so quickly. Once I got inside I couldn’t get out unless I moved forward with the swarming throng. The noise was deafening as everyone around me was yelling and screaming at one another. Someone climbed up the fence, clambering over people’s heads, and swung toward the front of the horde. A row of weathered Muslim women in hijabs sat in the dust outside the fence and watched as the grated tunnel shook with the pushing and shoving.

I suddenly felt my feet start to lift off the ground as my legs were pushed further apart. I looked down and an old woman on all fours was crawling between my knees. She disappeared between the knees of the next person. I finally got closer to the door in the wall and the small area where soldiers watched through sunglasses beside the armed booth. They started yelling at the disorganized group, attempting to herd them into some kind of line. They tried in vain, because when you dehumanize people to the status of animals, corralling them like cattle through pens and gates and branding them with color-coded IDs, they will begin to act the part.

The turnstiles creaked with the force of three and four people crammed between the swiveling bars. People began pushing more and raising elbows as they carved their way through the person in front. A man next to me held his toddler close to his chest, his protective arms wrapped tightly around the wide-eyed child. The man turned slightly to his left, toward me, and threw up on the cardboard littered on the asphalt. As I waded my way to the door, a small old woman tried to slip in front of me. But by then the swelling crowd was hammering into my back and she became pinned between my body and the wall. I thrust out my arms and pushed against the wall to keep from crushing her; she quickly hopped through the door in the briefly acquired space.

I finally got to the document inspection stations after almost an hour-and-a-half. Tacked between two windows was a poster that only Palestinians and internationals see, because entering the West Bank is illegal for Israeli citizens. The poster showed a family in front of the Roman aqueduct on the beach at Caesarea Maritima. They were all smiling, staring wistfully out to the Mediterranean that reflected their gaze in broken strips of glass-like tide. The daughter held a beach ball and an American football sat in the sand next to the dad’s feet. Israelis don’t play American football. Above the faces and the American football that only Palestinians and internationals see were the words: “Israel- Where it’s vacation time all year round.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Metaphors for God

Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Music can communicate the most unspeakable emotions, but instead of using words, it speaks with rhythm, melody, and harmony. Or rather: music does not speak; it moves.

Not all music is exactly the same. Music sounds differently in every culture, felt and expressed in remarkably diverse ways, all emanating the character and passion of that culture. But even though the style of sounds may be different, it is still music. A Sikh friend once told me that music is one of the five mysteries that break into the borders of this world from the divine outside. Music is somehow transcendent, somehow wholly other, while also being immanent, a transforming presence, whether in gentle ripples or in undulating waves. Music can be haunting, a lingering in the heart, soul, and mind that remains present even in its absence. Music domesticates the chaos of noise to create rhythm and harmony. But music can also be jarring and dissonant, allowing room for some of the chaos to remain. Discordant notes can communicate the unspeakable emotions just as well as the harmonious.

I can’t quite put my finger on the way music moves me, but I know when it does. Music cannot be grasped, but in some way it does the holding.

In many of the world’s religions (including the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions) ritual baths of pure water cleanse the body of impurity, giving new life. Water revives and water refreshes. We cannot live without water because water is living. Usually, where water is, there life will be growing also. Food can be ignored for days, but water is essential to our survival, especially as we wander in the desert places.

Water flows in many forms. Rivers move and change the land around them, following a way even as they make new paths. Rain leaves the heavens to wash and cultivate the earth. Oceans are vast and broad and deep. Water is within us, but also something that we can move within, ungraspable as it slips through our fingers.

But the water sometimes dries up, and all we are left with are stagnant pools and small ponds, sometimes with nothing at all and we can die from our devastating thirst. Sometimes the water we are offered is undrinkable. Like an ancient mariner, we may often find that though we are on a sea, there is not a “drop to drink.” But we set out swimming toward that distant unreachable shore, even though our arms and legs soon tire and leave us “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” Sometimes we have to struggle in that space between swimming and drowning. Sometimes the only thing to do is float.

In Greek, Hebrew, and, to a certain extent, Latin, spirit and wind and breath (nouma, ruach, spiritus) are the same. When people said one, they said all three.

All things breathe and must breathe, because breath is the source of life and the ground of being. In the beginning, God formed a shape from the created dust and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul,” (which is a thoroughly non-dualistic understanding of humanity). The soul is what arises when the spirit/wind/breath of God inhales and exhales in and through the dirt. Creation lives because of breath . . . spirit, wind that hovered over the waters.

The one who is like spirit and wind and breath is “over all, in all, and through all,” and the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Like music, we cannot hold spirit, wind, and breath, but we are held by it as it moves within us and around us, literally in-spiring us. Our spirit begins with the breath of God that embraces us like the wind.

Sometimes for most of us, most of the time for some of us, it feels like Someone is holding their breath and we suffocate in its absence. The barren and desolate places that we enter, or that we make, are where the wind stops blowing and the spirit feels dead and we gasp at the shortness of breath. But breath is present, even if it is only our own, whispering like a small wind, a barely perceptible spirit.
Maybe the only way to touch spirit/wind/breath is by touching those stirred by it and filled with it. To touch the world.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Petra: An Epilogue on

The last story in a series of seven about my trip here in March has been published on So, feel free to check it out!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

God, Whatever That Means: Part Two

“God cannot be expressed but only experienced,” because in the end our language about God must be silence. Even the word “God” cannot begin to contain what it strains to reveal, especially because of the connotations that drag so heavily behind the term. And yet, despite this acknowledgement that God is beyond comprehension, the tongues of the ancient mystics dripped with honey as they spoke of the impossibility to speak of God. They relentlessly explored language to find more ways to search for God, because only one metaphor was not enough. They saw God as Fire, Light and Darkness, Silence, Event, and Mother.

In many ways I can rightly be called an ‘atheist,’ but I immediately hesitate writing that word because its assumed reference is too narrow for me, as is the classical definition of ‘theist.’ Maybe a/theist works better, or "orthodox heretic," if labels are indeed preferable. I am nervous to be this honest. I find deep meaning in many traditions of the Christian religion, in people like Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa (among a vast host of others), and even though in many ways I feel like I have left Christianity behind, I know that I can never truly abandon it because it has informed me and shaped my language. Once again, I find Wendell Berry speaking to me: “[T]here are an enormous number of people- and I am one of them- whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it.”

But as I learn more of other religions, I have eyes to see that whatever simmers beneath Christianity also simmers beneath Islam, Native American spirituality, and the teachings of the Buddha. I find myself covenanted to the im/possible event and wrestling to live out the questions through the way of Jesus. I wrestle with what one of my closest friends has tattooed on his arm: meaninglessness and covenant. I don’t know what to say about God. T.S. Eliot said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Maybe that is the best place to start because commitment in humble uncertainty, which is faith, is fertile soil for dialogue.

If everything was certain and mystery was nonexistent, then nothing would need to be asked for, sought for, knocked for because the answers have already been given. Jesus revealed the kingdom of God through stories and questions as mystery, a secret still hidden in its disclosure, like a treasure buried in a field or a pearl of great price whose wealth can only be experienced by giving it up. Jesus could only hint at the kingdom’s presence, and he did this by healing the sick and eating with outcasts, not by establishing religious dogma. I am certainly not suggesting in any of this that religion is utterly worthless, because art, liturgy, lament, poetry, mystery, and the sacred can and should be expressed and practiced in dialogic rituals with a shared community. But I agree with John Caputo when he says “Some people can be deeply and abidingly ‘religious’ with or without theology, with or without the religions. Religion may be found with or without religion.” For him, those who love God are people who are worth their salt, and religions are only good if they are true: “Salt is my criterion of truth, and love is my criterion of salt.” I say “Yes, and yes.”

For me, God is not an almighty, sovereign, separate force that controls or pulls or coerces; I think God is more a weak call, like an inviting whisper that haunts you and must either be answered or ignored. The power of God is in powerlessness, weakness, and foolishness (1 Corinthians), like a beaten man hanging naked on the cross of an empire. True sacrifice and redemption can only happen without the force of power and the certainty of reward. God is more in absence and presence, in the sound of silence, in the faces and cacophonous voices of the suffering who cry out for liberation and deliverance, in little moments, in diversity. God is only experienced in and as action. God is love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, the other. There is an “endless translatability” between God and these things until I am not sure which is a version of which: is love a way of exemplifying God, or is God a way of exemplifying love? The Fox Indians say “When you have learned about love, you have learned about God.” Everything, the Law and the Prophets, everything is summed up in this: “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” and these two are inseparably one. God is like the Tao, the source of life and the way of life, and the Tao that can be explained is not the true Tao. I see all of this most fully and deeply in the life and death and way of life of Jesus of Nazareth. This way requires new eyes, and requires that we be reborn into a new way of engaging with the world that opens up a path to the deep heart of reality, which is God.

In some upcoming posts, I want to share several metaphors for God that are deeply meaningful and engaging to me. All cultures and religions use metaphors to carry the deep wonder of their experiences of the divine over the void, into meaning. Metaphors are bearers of meaning; they are sacraments because they can convey the divine to us, and they convey it among us. For many of us, the divine has only been conveyed through Western, masculine metaphors; we choke God with these confining sweaters that we weave, refusing to allow any room for God to move or breathe. In our oversaturation, we have lost the nourishing insight that “[t]he unnameable is omninameable” . . .

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dust and Dirt

The greenhouse at the Al-Basma Center was barren. The crumbling rows were empty and lifeless. Patrick, Paul, and I took our pickaxes and hoes inside and began to churn the clotted earth. Basma, the acting director who has been with the Center since its beginning, sent us out in hesitant English to “break up the ground so the farmer can bring the planets”; Patrick later drew a picture explaining the difference. Soon, the cucumber plants would be placed in the ground. Soon, the water in the drip-irrigation pipes that rested on the rows would seep into the ground and the plants would grow. Soon, we would be wrapping strings, tied between the ceiling’s spines and the pipes, around the growing plants. And soon, we would be picking the cucumbers from the whiskery leaves and eating them with pita, tomatoes, and rice. But now, rocks needed to be sifted from the soil and weeds needed to be pulled and composted. This small patch of earth needed to be healed before it could give.

Aside from Musalaha, I spend some time each week working with the Al-Basma Center (to see my short story about the Center for the Palestine Monitor, go to Patrick has worked fulltime with the Center because the organization he spoke to before coming never confirmed a possible job for him. Something about the Center spoke to him that first day he visited, so he never left. My family has been close friends with the Center’s founder and director, Abdullah Awwad, for several years. The three of us planned on living with Abdullah and his wife, but just before we came he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Because of his call for justice and the end of the Israeli Occupation, Abu Shahdi has been barred from entering Jerusalem. However, he somehow gained permission to go for treatment and before we arrived he left for surgery in Germany. Palestine hasn’t been the same for me without him here.

Like Jemima, the Al-Basma Center, which is in a building connected to the Arab Women’s Union, takes care of developmentally disabled youth. Through activities like olivewood carving, recycled card-making, weaving, and creating fuel from sawdust, the youth are taught practical skills and the belief that they are capable of contributing to society. Six incredibly devoted and sacrificial women are paid next to nothing so the Center can continue. Each month is a struggle to survive. And yet, even with the Center’s severe financial problems, the place is filled with laughter and the obvious love the workers have for the students. On occasion they give us their needed leftover food to take back to our flat on the hill. Noor cooks and dumps the food into plastic containers and orders us to take it; we say “Shukran, Noor,” and she replies “Aufwan, habibi.” She cackled through her crooked teeth when she first saw me, exclaiming, through translation, that I looked like Mohanned, the star of an insanely popular Turkish soap opera called Noor, which made her cackle all the more. Last summer, every conservative Muslim woman whispered Mohanned’s name as I walked past. I’ve never received more lauding attention than when I’m in Palestine and people beg to take their pictures with “Mohanned.”

Whenever the students arrive at the Center, Patrick and I come out of the little office to greet them. Nisal excitedly crouches down and shouts “Habibi!” and spreads his arms out to hug me. He began calling me “Mohanned” and somehow that became “Abu-hanned.” Sometimes, he seems to forget our names, or plays a guessing game, because every now and then he calls Patrick “John.” Nisal frequently comes through the small patio to the open pink door of the office, sometimes dancing as he comes, watching as Patrick prints words on the recycled cards after I’ve cut them to size. Nisal repeats our names (“Abu-hanned? Ah, John? Batrick?”) over and over until we finally look up at him. Then he raises his hand dramatically and begins belting operatic undulations and then whispering falsetto melodies. Khalil is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. His face displays the characteristics of Down’s syndrome; I have never seen him stop smiling. His short, stubby body shuffles toward me and his innocent, illuminated eyes stare up at me as he takes my hand, saying nothing, smiling. I’ve watched Khalil regularly push another student in a wheelchair up the ramp to the Center’s entrance; Khalil bends down to talk with his friend but the wheelchair starts swerving and they almost run into the railing. He blows kisses at Patrick through the window of the bus as he leaves in the afternoon.

Abdullah is tall with cropped hair and he waddles around on his tiptoes with his shirt tucked in. His brow and eyes always look worried as he hurries from group to group, like he’s afraid he’s been excluded somewhere. About a hundred times a day he races toward Patrick until their noses almost touch, pointing his forefinger in Patrick’s face and crying with exploding intensity “Batrick! Inte sahibi! You are my friend! Innnnte, inte sahibi!” Sana is spry and thin, a perpetual mischievous and salivating smile beneath his scruffy unibrow. He knows everyone in Beit Sahour and he enters every room saying his name as a greeting. He sits quietly outside of the kitchen whenever we eat breakfast, his ferret-like features intensely watching the diminishing pita and eggs. Then he swoops in and snatches a piece of bread from the table, scurrying out with crumbs falling from his mouth.

The three of us bent down to our knees and began ripping out weeds along the far translucent wall of the greenhouse. Somehow this particular area became extremely infested. The strong roots of the weeds were deep and connected like a web, twisted around larges clumps of dirt. My hands were soon blistered and bleeding as I ripped the weeds from the rocky soil. My hands felt good. Sitting in front of a computer in an industrial zone in Jerusalem depressed me and I needed to get my hands back in the dirt. There is goodness in dust and dirt. And in people who come from dust and dirt and breath, which is everyone. I am happier under an open sky with no concrete under my feet. I am happier when I feel connected with people and with the earth, with the sacred. I want relationship with life.

The land is a gift, and it gives gifts because it gives life. Wendell Berry, a poet and a farmer (which go together so naturally), said “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” Much of creation is stolen in Palestine through a spreading colonialism until eventually only patches like the greenhouse will be left for the people who live here. And water is being stolen as well. Water and land mean life. I recently heard about a family in Beit Sahour who, like many families, has not had water for five days, and their reserve tank is running low, because the irrigation systems favor the web of illegal settlements that twist around the clumped hilltops. The family once relied on an old well on their land when the water was shut off, but they returned home one day to find the Israeli army digging up the pipes and rerouting them toward the settlements for the swimming pools and gardens. This is a desecration to dust and dirt, and breath.

Wendell Berry also wrote this in a poem: “There are no unsacred places:/There are only sacred places/and desecrated places.” This is a sacred place and a desecrated place and somehow the two are more visible because they reside in and as the same land. The sacred burns beneath the desecrated and, like sparks, every now and then flickers through.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My sixth story in a series of seven about my trip to Israel/Palestine in March has recently been published on The titles are: Return; The Holocaust and the Nakba (which is frustratingly not the edited version that I sent them; either way, this short story is thoroughly inadequate for the enormity of the subject matter); Water is Welcome; The High-Tech Oasis of the Desert; Birdcages; and Embracing the Incomprehensible. The final one, Petra: An Epilogue, should be published in the near future . . .

Monday, October 19, 2009

God, Whatever That Means

“We must appreciate that we are lost before being ‘found’ or being ‘saved’ makes any sense,” because we have to lose in order to find, to be emptied in order to be filled.

Martin Buber once said “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The world is large, and contains multitudes, and no system will completely resolve all the contradictions, both beautiful and terrible. But the world’s multitudes can be embraced. Perhaps, in this way, “God,” whatever that means, is like “the world.”

A great divorce always exists between God and our words about God, because we are never really speaking about God, but only about our understanding of God. But for some unexplainable reason, we cannot stop ourselves from stretching our language to the breaking point in order to make some sense of that which we cannot make sense. John Caputo, one of my favorite authors, exclaims, and I with him, “Why can I not stop speaking of God, of whom I cannot say a thing? . . . To set out for a shore that we can never reach, to be exposed to a secret we can never plumb- what is that if not a description of a proper path to God?”

I cannot offer any answers, because I don’t want to dogmatically construct yet another kind of individualism. Instead, I want to form community with others as I ask and seek and knock. As a poet once said, "[T]he point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Perhaps we can see our language, our “raid on the inarticulate,” as an embrace of God rather than an attempt to define God.

My attempt is to find some way through these stories and reflections to speak meaningfully of God, which is not the same as speaking authoritatively, as if humans could ever do such a thing. I only have a hunger that is rarely filled, because I hunger for something meaningful. And I hunger for “what has been lost/And found and lost again and again.” I hunger for God, whatever in the world that means, and so I walk willingly out to wander through the forgotten deserts. And in my, and our, going may we remember, as Tolkien reminds us, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Almond Tree

Ra’ed Hanania sped through the serpentine roads of Beit Jala, haphazardly shifting the gears without completely pushing down the clutch. He honked as we rounded every turn so that anyone on the other side knew we were coming, or maybe because everyone honks here, and everyone honks here constantly: people drive with one with hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on the horn. Stoplights haven’t changed from red to green before someone pounds the horn fifteen cars back.

Patrick and I met Ra’ed earlier that morning at the Talitha Qumi School in Beit Jala, where Musalaha held a monthly curriculum teaching seminar. Ra’ed’s name was on my list of forty people to interview. We stood together in line for lunch and talked about a possible meeting time. Ra’ed was incredibly friendly, and he spoke quickly and laughed spiritedly. He had very short, curly, gelled hair and his hand occasionally reached up to scratch his scruffy chin. Between mouthfuls of pita and hoummus, we talked about Musalaha, and I confessed to him that I had some questions about the organization and if, in all the needed talk about reconciliation, justice was ignored. He thought for a minute and looked around, his head lowering between his shoulders as we hovered over the table.

“Musalaha does many great things and I think it is so good to try and bring people from both sides together through, you know, a shared faith. But, sometimes, I think they try to say that we are equal, and we are not. In the eyes of God, yes, we are equal, but in the eyes of the people, the Israeli government, we are not equal. One side is occupying and oppressing the other and this we cannot forget.”

Ra’ed then told us about his job as management deputy for Jemima, a home in Beit Jala for physically and mentally disabled children. He was excited when he learned that Patrick and I were working with the Al-Basma Center and he immediately invited us to come and see Jemima. We soon jumped into his little car with worn-out gears and drove to the complex which cuts into the side of a steep hill. As we pulled in on a small driveway between a playground and rock face, Ra’ed said that Jemima was the name of one of Job’s daughters. I didn’t remember Job’s daughters having names. Maybe the children who live at Jemima are like the daughters of Job, forgotten in the midst of some sick cosmic test.

A Dutch couple founded Jemima in 1982 and the place now contains a small school and a living facility for the children. Jemima provides physical and speech therapy and care-workers are on 24-hour shifts so that someone is always present. Last year, I wrote a story for the Palestine Monitor about the Al-Basma Center, and this applies to the children involved with Jemima: “A large number of mental disabilities among youth in the area are the result of the close marriages prevalent within Palestinian culture . . . [S]tigmas resulting from a lack of awareness are associated with disabilities.” A family abandoning their child because of disabilities is not unheard of. Some are left on the doorstep or in hospitals. Jemima and the Al-Basma Center welcome the marginalized of the marginalized.

Ra’ed began working with Jemima while he was a student at Bethlehem Bible College. He wanted to do something helpful even if he wouldn’t be paid, something good because he said “Not doing something bad is not the same as doing something for God.” Jemima needed volunteers and so the BBC put him to work there.

“I was always scared of handicapped people,” he said with a shamed smile. “I would go to the other side of the street because I was afraid to walk past them.”
We entered the several-storey living facility and got the elevator to the third floor.

“My first job was a care-worker, so I was changing diapers, giving showers, and this, this changed me . . . it changed me a lot. I was touching them.”

Francis of Assisi was the rich son of a prominent cloth merchant. He was deathly afraid of lepers and would walk in another direction in order to avoid meeting one. But Francis slowly began to reject the wealth and comfort of his life. In order to master his overwhelming fear of lepers, he decided to give to any poor person who asked for alms. One day soon after this, Francis met a leper on the road. He passed the outcast as quickly as possible, still gripped with terror. But then he stopped, turned around, and grabbed the outstretched hand of the disfigured beggar and kissed it and filled it with money. Francis gave away all of his money and returned all of his clothes to his affluent father, marching naked out of the city center to spend the rest of his life in simplicity and devotion to the lepers near Assisi. Ra’ed’s conversion reminded me of one of my greatest heroes.

As we entered one of the living facilities the children greeted Ra’ed with enthusiastic shouts. He hugged them and kissed them on their heads. A little boy with knobby knees repeatedly exclaimed “Aghhh!” as he threw his toys into a big metal bowl. He looked at the collection for a few seconds before throwing them all back on the floor and picking them up again. Another boy named Anwar stumbled toward us and gave us fives. He wore a Finding Nemo t-shirt and had a Winnie-the-Pooh sticker on his forehead. He grabbed my arm and dragged me down the hall toward his small room saying “Yallah! Yallah! Let’s go! Hurry!” Ra’ed and Patrick laughed and ran after us. Anwar began jumping up and down, clapping his hands as he proudly pointed out his bed and a few toys scattered on a shelf. Then he snuck out of the room with a huge grin and tried to leave us inside. Patrick and I cried for help and pounded on the door with feigned despair before Anwar burst through and doubled over with laughter.

One of the little boys was three-years-old and still unable to talk. His head was almost as big as the rest of his body and very misshapen, like it had been squeezed in a vice. He couldn’t focus his eyes to look at us and they kept rolling around. But he smiled. Another boy sat in a wheelchair. His legs were severely underdeveloped and his head was like an over-inflated balloon. His face couldn’t fill up all the open space and so he tried to smile even wider. I looked around the room and I felt like I was watching God, whatever that means. I was watching the absence and presence of God in the same moment in the pure faces and broken bodies of those children who smiled. G-o-d-i-s-n-o-w-h-e-r-e lives in Jemima. A holy damned mess of the world’s suffering beauty.

One story about Francis of Assisi says that he looked with frantic intentness at an old almond tree in the dead of winter and cried “Speak to me of God!” And the tree immediately began to bloom.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


The Alternative Information Center, as its website describes, is an “internationally oriented, progressive, joint Palestinian-Israeli activist organization. It is engaged in the dissemination of information, political advocacy, grassroots activism and critical analysis of the Palestinian and Israeli societies and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” and operates with the “awareness that local struggle must be practically and analytically situated within the framework of the global justice struggle.”

I visited the AIC in Beit Sahour several times when I lived in Ramallah during the summer of 2008. On Tuesday and Saturday nights the AIC hosts speakers or films that present a rarely-heard perspective in the conflict’s raging cacophony. Patrick, Paul, and I walked down the tall hill from our flat to a quiet alley off Suq Al-sha’ab, the center of Beit Sahour. The dim rooms sat slightly underground and burrowed back into parlors beneath low ceilings. A man walked down the stairs to the bar in the corner alcove. He welcomed us warmly, introducing himself as Steve from Wales, “which is the smallest and poorest country in Britain, rather like the Arkansas of the UK.” He invited us into an adjoining room with a small window opening to the entrance hallway. “Boycott Israel” and “Olive Tree Campaign: Keep Hope Alive” posters on the stone walls filled in the spaces not taken by wooden bookshelves. I scanned the diverse titles, ranging from books about the conflict to geography, from Edward Said to Norman Maclean’s rhythmic A River Runs Through It. Patrick, Paul, and I sat down at a large table in middle of the room.

Steve sat in a small corner with his long bony legs crossed. He had shaggy curly hair that was pulled away from his hawkish face and wispy goatee. He had dark crescent moons beneath the rims of his eyes. As we talked he rolled dozens of cigarettes, pausing his speech to lick and seal the paper and take a sip of Taybeh beer. Every now and then he gazed into the red ashes of his cigarette like he was looking for something he could never find because it kept disappearing in the flame. He came to Palestine six years ago, barely twenty years old, and married a Palestinian Christian girl from Beit Jala.

“My wife is very different from most Beit Jala Christians,” he explained in a thick Welsh accent. “Most Beit Jala Christians are very sectarian and condemning of their Muslim neighbors, which is a bit strange because they find themselves as a two percent minority in the Bethlehem area.” He paused his speech to blow into the end of his cigarette until it glowed, wiping away the gray ash that fell on his knees. “If you ever find yourself as two percent of any population the first rule is to keep your head down. You don’t stand up on a pedestal and say ‘You are alllll bastards!’”

Steve and his wife started a permaculture farm called Bustan Qaraaqa, the Tortoise Garden. They wanted to instigate a green movement in Palestine that would engage problems like food insecurity and environmental deprivation. The Palestinian Territories don’t have the resources for ecological welfare, which means recycling is nonexistent. Trash is dumped into large metal containers by roadsides and burned. Bustan Qaraaqa experiments with simple and inexpensive projects for sustainable living. He told us he was now preparing to move back home in order to create an eco-village in the rural farmland of Wales. He hopes to form connections with the farm he started here and with other similar places around the world to encourage and promote equitable and holistic farming.

“I’m a bit nervous about going back to my consumerist homeland,” he said, taking a larger sip from his glass of Taybeh beer. “This is where shopping centers are in buildings like B-52 hangars in complexes as big as the West Bank, where the good citizens go and push their carts with their heads cocked to one side, their eyes glazed over as the sweet music places like some Orwellian nightmare.”

He shivered and some of the ashes from his fifteenth cigarette fell to the stone floor and he took another sip of beer.

We told him some of our stories and he marveled that three graduates of a conservative Christian university in Arkansas were sitting with him in Palestine. Sometimes, I said, closed environments can be the most fertile places for radical transformation because once you start questioning one thing then everything is open to being reinterpreted. In such places you start to question because often the opposite is encouraged. And the conversion becomes more real because the initial desire for conversion has come from deep inside.

“You’ve made a point there, you have,” said Steve nodding. “Here you’ve got all these liberal hippie kids who grow up in the most open environments and they spit out platitudes about justice, but then they do nothing about it and are actually just as close-minded and hateful as the people they criticize. There’s nothing pushing them to be genuine.”

Our conversation diverged on a hundred little paths and we talked about the plight of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, the fact that the world’s headquarters for child sex-trafficking is Tel Aviv, and the complete history of the Texas comedian Bill Hicks. Before I left on this trip for the Middle East my family and I spent two weeks driving around the North American Midwest. Steve readily agreed when I pointed out that the way American Indians were forcefully moved and partitioned is eerily similar to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, almost like there’s a thinktank across the ocean and shady politicians in nice suits meet in Washington coffee ships and say “Oh that worked splendidly over here, you should give it a go where you are!”

The voices in the next room were getting louder as more people gathered around the small bar. Whatever activity that was scheduled for the night was about to start. Steve drained his glass and lit another cigarette.

“You know, you can find a worse example of anything happening here in Palestine somewhere else. Anything. Water crisis: somewhere else there is a far more severe shortage. Other places have more volatile social and religious conflicts. More land has been stolen in other parts of the world. And there are even worse military occupations than Israel’s.”

He leaned forward. “But the interesting thing about Palestine is that everything, all of those things, can be found right here, like it’s a microcosm of the entire world’s disasters.”

The air above Steve’s head was hazy as another puff of smoke assembled in the growing cloud. Paul held his chin and stared quietly at the table’s cracked surface. Patrick slowly nodded as he processed the conversation. Steve methodically rolled another cigarette and the dark crescent moons under his eyes began to grow as the room darkened and the shadows connected across his gaunt features.

“It’s a funny place here,” he said softly.
“To say the least.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Try to Follow

Patrick unhooked a ukulele from the straps of his backpack and Paul pulled a long travel guitar out of its black case. Their discordant plucking soon tuned into harmonic sounds and I tried to keep the beat by drumming on our wooden bench in Victoria Tower Gardens. Paul leaned forward as his fingers strummed faster. He usually looked more like a leprechaun with wavy red hair and a big red beard but he was neatly trimmed for our new journey. Paul is a natural musician and a clever engineer, which means he can make an instrument out of almost anything but the guitar would do for the moment. Patrick bent over his ukulele, his face distorted into grimaces and his body squirming. He always looks like he’s in pain when he’s making music, almost like music is too much a part of him to let go of too easily. “People walk a tightrope on a razor’s edge,” he cried with his eyes squinted and his legs kicking up, “Carry their hurt and hatred and weapons/It could be a bomb or a bullet or a pen/Or a thought or a word or a sentence.”

As our music got louder and our voices sang more freely, curious passersby briefly slowed down in order to catch a few chords in the breezy air. One smiling tourist snapped a few pictures of the three rugged bums on the park bench by the River Thames. Our voices mingled beneath the sound of footsteps on crunching leaves: “The wind blows wild and I may move/The politicians lie and I am not fooled/You don’t need no reason or a three-piece suit to argue the truth.”

Earlier the three of us walked out of a dark subway tunnel into the sunlight at Piccadilly Circus. Our journey from Houston to Tel Aviv was broken by a fifteen-hour layover in London and we decided to take advantage of it by spending the day in the city. We followed a map on a few pages cut from an old Lonely Planet guidebook, leading us past red telephone booths and statues of Lord Nelson. Parliament soon stood before us like a towering cathedral with hundreds of windows like eyes. Big Ben slowly wiped his face in time with each passing minute.

A row of dust-covered tents on the other side of the street paralleled the immense government house. A large sign was propped up next to the end of the tents: “On Strike for Peace: 24hr peace picket, parliament square,” and other protest signs lamented the disasters in Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Gaza. Stained and tattered flags struggled to rise even when the wind encouraged them.

A man stood in front of the tents. He leaned on a pair of metal crutches and his suntanned leathery hands were joined in front of him as he stared at the sidewalk. The three of us walked across the street toward him with Parliament in front of him and Westminster Abbey behind him. He greeted us with a thin smile framed by a greasy peppered beard. His bloodshot eyes were darkened beneath a deteriorating miner’s hat that disappeared beneath protest buttons. He spoke quietly, almost inaudibly, as if he was afraid Parliament would overhear. As he told us about the corruption of the British government and the complicity of churches in organized murder, he glanced over our shoulders at the bobbies patrolling the gates of the government seat. He seemed worn down by the authorities’ disregard of his protest. He stared at the parapets and spires but the hundreds of windows like eyes ignored him. No one was listening to his conversations and he spit out the word “Parliament” like it was bitter and burning his mouth. The lonely protester soon forgot we were there and began staring again, waiting for any hint of recognition. I noticed a small sign as we began to walk away: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do; Children forgive us for now we do.”

The trees in the park reached over the stone wall and dipped their fingers into the water. Shadows and sunlight conversed above fallen leaves on the pavement. We wiped the crumbs of our trail mix onto the ground and Patrick and Paul began strumming again: “The air on my skin and the world under my toes/Slavery stitched into the fabric of my clothes/Chaos and commotion wherever I go, love I try to follow/Love will come set me free.” Paul put his guitar back in its black case and Patrick strapped the ukulele to his backpack. We sat silently and looked at the boats speeding under bridges on the river. We listened, but all we heard was the whispering call of love and justice, which “is what love looks like in public,” and it was calling us to chaos and commotion. So we stood up and followed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Stories of Paradox

The door to our flat on the hill is open and the space serves as a funnel for occasional breaths of wind. A few branches from the tree on the concrete patio dip beneath the mantle and are nodding with the call to prayer that rises from the village of Beit Sahour, the House of Vigilance. The slow, undulating chant hits me like a surging wave against a shoreline and I can’t tell whether the call is adding to me or eroding me, or both happening together. I feel like maybe I should stand up in respect or lie down in assent, so instead I just sit and listen to the deep-voiced reverence and feel the breeze of Palestine that cools the room.

For the next six months I will be working with an organization called Musalaha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), which is committed to uniting Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, as they dismantle barriers and deconstruct worldviews. I was given a list of forty Israelis and Palestinians to interview and then incarnate my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with the other and events of reconciliation. And I will help the Al Basma Center, a facility for developmentally disabled youth in Beit Sahour. Working in orphanages in India and Nepal during March and April waits in a possible future.

Patrick Covert and Paul Elliott, two of the closest friends I have ever had, are with me and I am so excited, because living alone in the midst of oppression and violence and hatred and poverty is not easy. I was nervous, almost hesitant, about putting my feet down again in this place for the fifth time (for seven stories about my most recent trip in March, please visit But my nervousness made me want to come even more and I felt hesitant and anxious at the same time: hesitant to go and anxious to get there. I realized that I wasn’t coming to Israel and Palestine for comfort or safety or an easy chance to travel. I wanted to come because I want to do good work, with my words and with my hands. Here I am almost forced to live more deeply and more fully because I am completely emptied as I wonder and wander. Tolkien said “Not all those who wander are lost,” and few words contain so much meaning for me, both spiritually and geographically. This blog is a place where I hope to share some of my wonderings and wanderings.

The first blog I kept, called “The Wanderer,” was during a semester abroad in China, Australia, New Zealand, and a few South Pacific islands. I started the second one last summer while working as a journalist for the Palestine Monitor in Ramallah; I didn’t stress myself too much looking for a new name, because the title of the second one was “The Wanderer: Part Two.” So for the third round I wanted something a little different, but a name that still found itself within the recurring theme. I wrote an article for a website about a worldview of travel rooted in wondering and wandering. The word wonder can mean “to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe,” but it can also mean “to doubt” or “to question.” To wander is “to travel about, on, or through,” and not only geographically. The W(a/o)nderer is my attempt to see the two as inseparably one.

Frederick Buechner wrote that “In Hebrew the term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’ Thus to say something is to do something . . . Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.” Words and actions create stories and stories create meaning.

We are saved by stories. Truth is discovered, created, given room to happen in stories. But stories are only true if they inhabit the “paradoxical between,” wrestling in the tense coexistence between hope and despair, order and chaos, joy and sorrow, absence and presence. In stories we live out the questions. We become part of a transforming, resurrecting story that doesn’t necessarily seek to answer the questions, but instead presents a Way in which to live them. I am beginning to have eyes to see that truth, whatever that is, is a paradox, because if I want to be found I have to be lost, if I want to be filled I have to be emptied, and if I want to live I have to first die.

The stories I want to share are about life in the paradoxical struggle and tension. I hope they will be true. And maybe these stories can create an open space for the sacred event of what seems like the impossible to happen, because stories not only describe reality, they transform it. Stories say something and do something.