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.