Intolerance and Egalitarianism: A Follow Up

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous asks me in regards to my post from earlier Friday, The Intolerance of Egalitarianism:

[I]s toleration really enough, especially in the body of Christ?

This is a good question. And one that needs some thought.
The emphatic, simple answer is: NO. Mere tolerance is not enough for the body of Christ. Acceptance isn’t even enough for the body of Christ. Inclusion is what the body of Christ is and does to those Jesus gathers to himself. I am included in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism in the way all of the baptized are included. I cannot be more emphatic about this.
But … There is a nuance to this emphatic.
Those who see themselves as called to be the body of Christ in the world — those called to be the church — must be careful about what exactly it is they are accepting and including into. It’s easy for people to come to believe that the cultural and social norms of their time, place and class are the norms of the Kingdom of God and of the Body of Christ. What are people expected to adhere to, to conform with, to be included in? What does it mean to be the body of Christ? Are the ideals and values and practices had in the community the values of the kingdom or merely the values of the community? And how do you tell?
But … There is nuance to this as well.
Because (as a Lutheran) I believe in an incarnational God, a God enfleshed in time and space. That means God is also present in community and custom too. And thus, in some ways, the values and customs of the sanctified community ARE the values of the kingdom. Because God is present in the physical articulation and assembly of God’s people. And, to an extent, God is present AS that very community.
But .. There is yet more nuance to this. 
Because the majority will, practice and custom of the community is not all there is to the articulation of God on earth. Or even on some cute little green acre of earth. (Or benighted, dusty acre of earth.) It’s demands are not God’s will for all people. Or even all people within its reach. The guest, the stranger — that person is also the presence of God on earth. That person is also God incarnate.

And so, both those welcoming and the one being welcomed must remember that they meet God in the other. Yes, among any group of people, there is a “This is how it is done here.” And it would behoove a wanderer or a guest to learn those things. (It would also be nice of those in the majority custom do this teaching with tolerance, patience and kindness, as opposed to cruelty and cluelessness.) Especially if the wanderer is settling down. But the settled community would also best remember that “This is how it is done here” has its real emphasis on the “here.” “This is how things are done here” is NOT the same as saying “this is how people do things.” And God help the community that mistakes the “This is how things are done here” with “This is how all well-adjusted people should or should want to do things.” THAT is the true intolerance of the liberal.

And the settled community should also remember that there are true and honest differences in individual human beings — and not merely abstract groups, because we are children of the Living God, and not merely the sum of which Venn diagrams we belong to — that, because those differences, even differences of “choice,” reflect the many ways in which God is present in the world and to the world, should at least be tolerated.

Because too often the demand for conformity (and the mistake that conformity within the community of the faithful is THE proper practice of the sanctified community) is an end in and of itself. And this gets me back to the original part of Millman’s claim, that the more egalitarian the community, the less defined and visible the hierarchy and thus the identifiable place within the community, the more the community needs and enforces conformity. And the less tolerant that community is of actual, individual human difference.

The Intolerance of Egalitarianism

Noah Millman, a blogger over at The American Conservative, made this brilliant observation the other day in response to Rod Dreher’s rediscovery of tolerance and acceptance in the small Louisiana town where he grew up and recently moved back to:

Not being a Southerner, I can’t comment on Rod Dreher’s post on freak-toleration from direct personal experience. But I suspect part of what he’s seeing is the difference between a hierarchical society and a conformist egalitarian one, the difference between hierarchical Louisiana and conformist Iowa being somewhat similar to the difference between hierarchical (and famously eccentric-tolerating) England and conformist Sweden. A hierarchical society depends for its stability not on the notion of everybody being the same but on the notion of everybody knowing his or her place. And you can make some kind of a place for just about everyone. The question then is whether people will tolerate being kept in their place by others when it starts to chafe. 

My own hometown, New York, follows neither of these models, but is dynamically heterogeneous. We pride ourselves on being “diverse” and “tolerant” but what that winds up meaning in practice is that the overall society is a negotiated coalition among smaller sub-cultures, each of which tends to figure a surprisingly high degree of internal conformity. When a group is struggling with other groups for a relative share of power, dissent is harder to tolerate. On the other hand, when no group actually dominates local society, disaffiliation – to join another group, or none – without physically leaving becomes a much more realistic option.

Millman puts his finger on something very, very important, something I noticed not long after I arrived at this midwestern Lutheran seminary. The American Midwest is very egalitarian. And very conformist. In fact, that intolerant conformism is because of its egalitarianism, and not in spite of it.

Some years ago, when I Jennifer and I were living and working in Logan, Utah (I was a reporter for the Herald Journal), I had a conversation with her (ELCA) pastor (I was not Christian at the time, and worshiped with the small group of Muslims at the Logan Islamic Center) about what it was like to live as a member of a tiny religious minority among the Mormons. The pastor did not like it. I asked him why? (What I really I wanted to ask was: Do they forbid our worship services and arrest us? Make us wear distinctive marks on our clothing? Force us to convert upon pain of death?) His response was interesting — they do not accept us as fellow Christians.

(Well, of course the Mormons don’t, I replied, since they have a very different understanding of what it means to be church then Lutherans do, and Lutherans are not part of that understanding of church.)

But I also contemplated his essential angst: They do not accept us. This, I think, is the core of liberal understanding of tolerance. Mere tolerance is not enough — acceptance is what is needed. (Another ELCA pastor in another circumstance used basically those words.) The pastor in Logan lived at the intersection of the Midwestern Lutheranism’s political and cultural piety (his background was Norwegian). It is not enough to merely tolerate people — they must be accepted as well. They must be equals in the community and in society.

I know, this sounds really good on the face of it. And in many ways, it is. But it is also has a long, dark, cold shadow. The main problem I have experienced with this notion of “tolerance as acceptance” is that it isn’t tolerance at all. It doesn’t tolerate real difference or non-comformity. It merely seeks the expansion of conformity. And it has been my experience that actually makes life harder for non-comformists. Not easier.

I see the ELCA’s struggle with homosexuality and in particular the ordination of clergy in open homosexual relationships. (Please note, I am generally supportive of what the ELCA is doing in this regard, since I believe it means we are open to God’s call.) Liberals call this diversity, and maybe it is, but what it really means is that grounds of acceptable conformity have been expanded. You can be gay, and married, and still conform to the expected social norms since gay and married has been added to social norms. For the liberal (in general), since no one should be discriminated against for things they cannot control — race, gender, and now sexual orientation — certain expressions of these things are now part of allowable conformity. (So long as they are phlegmatic and bourgeois.)

But in a conformist society like Millman’s Midwest, if we are all more or less the same, then we must all be more or less the same. Expanding the ground of allowable conformity actually makes things more difficult for non-conformists (of whatever kind, and this usually means people who are simply different) because in saying the society will now accept you for the things you cannot change, it will become less accepting of things you can (or should be able to) change: aesthetic choices, interests, outlook on life, so on. So, fail to conform to the expanded norm — a big deal in a society that is averse to obvious hierarchy (midwesterners are extremely uncomfortable with me when I use sir and ma’am) — is the fault of the one who fails to conform, and not of the society or community in which they find themselves.

Because this model of acceptance is not of individuals but of abstract groups of people into which individuals can be slotted. Midwesterners in general, and ELCA Lutherans in particular, love stereotyping. (“Tagging” as one pastor put it.) In fact, prior to being in this culture, I’d never been among people for whom stereotyping was such a virtue.

(I grew up in the 1970s — stereotyping people was wrong. THAT’S what lead to discrimination and racism.)

At this point, I have to admit that I am not so interested in acceptance. I like tolerance. Can we build a community here and generally be left alone, to do what we have been called to do? Or leave people alone who want to be left alone? That to me is the high water mark of life in society. I am not so interested in equality as I am in liberty (both individual and collective), and I am perfectly okay with significantly more inequality and social unfairness than a lot of people in the ELCA simply because I focus on how much freedom there is for those who choose or feel called to not conform. And building community among like-minded non-conformists. (Which, yes, is itself a type of conformity. But this is why I really like Millman’s city.)

My theological model for church is exile. I realize that is a difficult model for the ELCA to wrap it’s heart around because it is a confession of settled people who don’t see themselves as exiles and who don’t think exile is a desirable or normative human condition. Which is funny, given that once, so many of them packed up and migrated — Abraham-like — to a land far away.  Most human beings wish to belong to a community of other human beings. I know I do. And I also know that here I’ve found a community that actually seems to want me in its midst. (Which, to be fair, was also true of the Saudi Muslims in knew in Columbus, Ohio.) But I also know the brutal and fiery result of the community’s demand for conformity. No matter how egalitarian and accepting a community or society will be, someone will always find themselves on the wrong side of the demand to conform, who will be thrown underneath its wheels, who will always be wounded by it. Because it will be experienced as brutality. Or it will actually be brutal. (It was both for me.) I don’t necessarily want to be accepted, or rather, I do not want to be made to fit into some great broad category that has been predetermined as “acceptable.” I merely want the space to do what God has called me to do among the people God has called me.

Frankly, I want to be tolerated. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

After An Octave, I Certainly Wouldn’t Complain

Okay, a brief refresher course on the long unused English Liquid Imperial Measurements. Ready, okay:
4 gills = 1 pint
2 pints = 1 quart
4 quarts = 1 gallon
9 gallons = 1 firkin (you knew that, right?)
18 gallons = 1 kilderkin 
36 gallons = 1 barrel (this is NOT the barrel used to measure crude oil, which is 42 gallons)
54 gallons = 1 hogshead (but pay attention, this is not always true)
72 gallons = 1 puncheon
108 gallons = 1 butt (two hogsheads are one butt … there’s an obscene joke in there somewhere)
216 gallons = 1 tun (two butts are a tun … that too is an obscene joke)
1 gallon of wine = six quart bottles
1/4 cask = 13 dozen quart bottles
Octave (or 1/8 cask) = 6 and 1/2 dozen quart bottles
Which means that 
1 cask = 52 dozen bottles, or 624 bottles of wine
Which is an awful lot of wine. Enough to drown perhaps an entire brotherhood of monks for a week at least, depending on how many brothers there are how they hold their wine. And how stingy the abbot is.
But careful, because
1 Hogshead of wine = 43-46 gallons
(and just for fun, and to make sure you’re paying attention)
1 Hogshead of rum = 45-50 gallons
Now that you have a passing familiarity with measurements that aren’t used anymore, this little advert from the back of a 1946 issue of Blackfiars, the monthly journal of the English Dominicans:

Obviously, Albert H. Wetz was selling wine in staggering amounts. For communion, of course (wink wink), but I find myself wondering: who on earth would complain about communion wine not being strong enough? Or is there something going on in English Catholicism in the middle of the 20th century, perhaps a Great Weak Wine Crisis, the kind of wine that didn’t give Father Marsh quite the nip and tuck he needed after a long Sunday of confession and baptizing and dominus vobiscum. And what is the highest strength of wine “permissible by Canon Law?” I suppose I ought to google that. Someday I will.

(Approbation is a good thing. No, I didn’t know that, though it’s fairly easy to ascertain from the context.)

Apparently, these folks still make and sell wine. I wonder if I can still get a firkin of the stuff. Sorry, an octave. That’s still a lot of wine.

(And I’m going to write the nice people at Mt. Gay Rum and see if they sell rum by the hogshead. The proper rum hogshead, and not some piddly wine hogshead…)

Can You Feel the Love Tonight?

So, how does a 27-year-old man show that he is the father of a nation  — and the figurative father — of 24 million people?

Simple: you show him caring for those people in a very fatherly way.

This is Kim Jong Un from a Korean
Central News Agency photo describing his visit to Korean People’s Army Air Force Unit 354. The news article that goes with this photo is the usual stuff you’d read from the KCNA about a visit of the Great Leader (any North Korean Great Leader) to any outpost of the state in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He observes with great interest, he takes part in a very personal way in how the soldiers live and train, he exhorts their commanders to take good care of the soldiers who in turn tell of their love for their leader and their country (pilots singing songs while they fly over Pyongyang), and finally he shows he cares for the soldiers themselves by (in this instance) making sure they have enough water in their bathhouse and that it is the right temperature (checking it “personally”).

This is typical of all of the stories I’ve ever seen and Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Now, I will not pretend I’ve made anything resembling an exhaustive study of North Korean propaganda. It’s a hobby for me, and I’m an amateur. But what I never saw Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il photographed doing was what Kim Jong Un is doing in this photo — hugging two air force officers.

No, he’s not just hugging them. He’s holding them. He’s comforting them. My guess is the two men are weeping, expressing their gratitude. (Whether it is real or faked is a question for another time.) The KCNA story does not explain the photo, and does not caption it (at least it does not do so in English; it may do that in Korean). There is a tenderness communicated by the photo. Even Kim Jong Un knew (or was well-coached) on how to look for this photo. He’s not quite the Virgin Mary with an all-knowing, all-caring and all-forgiving smile. But he is not bewildered either. He looks like a man who is comforting small children, and is slowly growing comfortable with that role.

This is, I think, an interesting way to construct an image of fatherly care for a young man who otherwise has no accomplishments of his own. Kim Il Sung could at least claim to have made the revolution and defeated the Americans in 1953. Kim Jong Il could at least claim to be Kim Il Sung’s son, and co-ruler during the last decade of the elder Kim’s life, who made North Korea a nuclear power and sent rockets into space. Both men could at least claim they were strong protectors. Kim Jong Un can claim … well, not very much.

Except that he cares for his people.

Plus, It’s Better Than Burning

I came across this recently while cataloging some bound periodicals in the seminary library. At first, I thought it ought to go on my other blog, Stuff Found in Library Books, because it is found in a library book. But this is actual content, not something that fell out when shaking to book or popped out when flipping pages. So, it goes here.

The Word is the magazine (now) of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, the Arabic-speaking flavor of orthodoxy in the United States. (Jennifer and I have worshiped at St. George’s in Cicero, and I love the liturgy in Arabic!) Once upon a time, it was published by the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese, before some mergers created a bigger church. We have copies of The Word bound going back to 1957 or 1958, and I spent a little time wandering through them (I work too fast, my boss keeps telling me, and she trouble keeping up with me, even when I plow through 90 volumes of Roman Catholic periodicals). And I found this somewhat strange yet charming item in Father Buben’s Question Box, an advice column, from February 1964:

What starts out as promising something a bit dour ends up as a charming invitation to the joys of married life. “[B]y all means, don’t let her escape.” This sounds like advice from a man who knows the joys of which he speaks.
Something else of note. It is interesting how important cotillions — debutante balls — were in Arab-American Christian communities in the 1950s and 1960s. Late spring was full of photos from Syriac churches across the country, from San Francisco to Brooklyn, featuring comely young dark-eyed lasses in their finery. Sometimes with an aged (but strangely smiling) orthodox bishop in his finery (which was usually more ornate than anything the women wore). By the early 1970s, however, the cotillion photos were gone. They still had lots of pictures of bishops and archbishops, however, and nary a one in a strapless cossack.

Wait, Palestine Has an Ambassador to North Korea?

There are places hierarchies send people because, well, they are out of the way and they are a good place to shove people who have caused trouble. Or they are such awful places to send people that those sent will get the message — you have done wrong. Not so much wrong that the bosses are going to arrest you and send you to prison, or fire you, but just enough wrong to be sent to that very special place where wrongdoers are sent. Because that place is so awful, so miserable, so boring that the wrongdoer will do anything — anything — to get out of that place.

So, my question is this: What on earth did Ismail Ahmed Mohamed Hasan do to deserve being the Palestinian ambassador to North Korea? Or are there worse postings for an ambassador from Palestine?

And aren’t those flowers lovely?

Pyongyang, January 19 (KCNA) — The dear respected Kim Jong Un received a floral basket from Mahmoud Abbas, chief of the Palestinian National Authority, with the approach of the lunar New Year, Juche 101. 

The floral basket was handed over to an official concerned by Palestinian Ambassador to the DPRK Ismail Ahmed Mohamed Hasan on Thursday. -0-

About the term “floral basket.” Kim Il Sung was constantly receiving floral baskets. As was Kim Jong Il. Not an issue of The People’s Korea that I have from the late 1980s goes by without Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il receiving a floral basket from someone: the foreign minister of Mozambique, the president of Bangladesh, the chairman of the Juche Study Committee in Uruguay, the second-vice secretary of the Korean-Finnish Friendship Society. Floral baskets for the erstwhile leader of North Korea is a big news item. On North Korean holidays, such as the birthdays of Great Leaders and Dear Leaders, the list of floral basket senders would simply go on and on. There was probably not an uncut flower within 100 kilometers of Pyongyang. There must be something in Korean culture — either the real culture or the invented mishmash that is the Juche Religion of the DPRK — that gives status to the floral basket, or to the one receiving the floral basket. And funny, all those short little stories about floral baskets, and I’d never actually seen a picture of one. Until now.

Running a flower shop in Pyongyang would be a very lucrative business, all those flower baskets.  Well, it would be, if you could legally do business in North Korea.

(I will, at some point, dig into the box where I keep all those copies of The People’s Korea that I have and go through them. It will be fun! It was something that got mailed to the San Francisco State University student newspaper, and no one else wanted them. All kinds of nonsense got mailed to our newspaper. Including a number of poorly made and horrifically racist rants by one Mark Margoian of Waukegan, Illinois. Which I kept, by the way. And if I’m feeling particularly daring, I’ll dig those horrible things out too.)

The Very Strange Gift

This is what happened to Jacob on a dark night as he prepared to meet his estranged brother Esau in the desert:

22) The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23) He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24) And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25) When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26) Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27) And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28) Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29) Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30) So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31) The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32)

* * *

I have this gift. It’s hard to explain, and I’ve not really done so previously, because I’ve never been sure how to. I also don’t want to come off as conceited either. I’ll try and describe it to the best of my ability. Because it’s not the kind of thing that makes much sense. Even to me.

(And I’m not purposefully trying to tug at heart strings with this and the previous blog entry. It’s just where I am right now. Cavanaugh and Kim Jong Un can wait.)

I listen. I listen well. I am extremely tolerant of the very odd. And the very marginal, especially the homeless. Homeless African American men seem to get this. Perhaps it is my physical size, and they assume I will not be afraid. But whatever the reason, I often find the homeless talking to me. On occasion, I will get whole life stories — that happened once at the 55th St. Green line station, a man in the bus kiosk sat down next to me and just started telling me his life story. And we talked — well, he did most of the talking, telling me how he was homeless but got off the streets into subsidized housing and how grateful he was for that, and then about his family life grown up in Chicago, and his mama, and all sorts of things. I get that a lot, life stories. For some reason, strangers seem to know that I can be trusted to listen. And I do listen.

I even listen to the mentally ill. In fact, I try to especially listen to the mentally ill. When I was working for The Oil Daily in Washington, there was a homeless woman who would arrive (or was deposited) at the corner of 14th St. and New York Ave. Time and the elements had not been kind to her, and it was impossible to tell how old she was. But she always had nice clothes, and three very fat suitcases in very good condition. Wherever she slept, it appeared she was safe and warm. But she couldn’t stay there. And so, she wandered the corners of 14th and New York, chain-smoking, having animated conversations with people who were not there, loud conversations about laser-beam eyeballs, the theft of souls, the Central Intelligence Agency and federal prison. (It was like listening in to one side of a phone conversation.) It was fascinating watching this woman function. She rarely stopped talking, and never seemed to engage in conversation in the “real” world. And yet, she was fully cognizant of the world around her — she could get out of the way of things, navigate around people, handle coffee and lunch. She never begged, at least for nothing more than cigarettes.

But always talking loudly about eyeballs and souls. And going to prison.

Mental illness fascinates me. I think it says something interesting about God in whose image we are made. My wife Jennifer is dyslexic, quite severely. That is how God made her. It is not a disorder to be fixed. Her dyslexia, and what is very likely very mild Asperger’s, are who she is. And this tells me something of the God in whose image she is made. Because she is whole. Complete. And so, the schizophrenic is whole and complete too. And in the image of God. So, our task is not to “fix” those who are “broken,” but to make room for them with us in God’s world. Because they too are created in the very image of God, and how they are made tells us something of the God whose image we are all made in.

So, because I think because I am open to the encounter, in particular, with the mentally ill — because I am not frightened by them — I have been the recipient of a great deal of grace. Of life stories. It’s only increased as I have done my seminary studies, learned what this being a pastor thing is really all about. Wear a clergy collar on the streets of some Chicago neighborhoods, and it’s as if you are wearing a big blinking, neon advertisement for this kind of thing. Yeah, people will ask you for money. I take seriously Peter Maurin’s admonition that meeting a beggar is meeting Jesus, and I always try to have something — even a small blessing, even a silent prayer — for someone who begs.

But some will ask for more — your time, your attention, your effort. And they may even give you something in return.

I have received a lot of grace in these encounters. I have had to accept that they happen when I least expect them, when they are least convenient, when I am sometimes least prepared. And so, I have learned to be prepared.

The oddest of these happened about a week-and-a-half ago, on a cold Monday evening. My friend, Sean Foley, was on an extended layover in town on his way to academic conference in Beirut (yes, THAT Beirut). We met to have coffee downtown, in the loop, and I put him back on the Blue Line to O’Hare. I had a Metra Electric train 10-trip ticket with one trip left on it, so rather than take the Green Line “L” back to Hyde Park, I decided to take the Metra. Which meant walking up Michigan Ave. to the underground station at Randolph and Michigan.

So, as I was walking, a homeless African-American man came up to met just as I crossed Washington St. and asked me:

“Will you pray for me and give me a blessing?”

Now, he may have been asking passersby that question all afternoon. And who knows, maybe more than a few people prayed for him. But in all the years I have wandered streets and been accosted by the homeless, I’m usually asked for “spare change” or a hot meal. And not a prayer and a blessing.

(Once, in Minneapolis, a drunken Indian thought I was John Candy…)

Jennifer and I have been worshiping the last several years at an African-American Lutheran church on the West Side, Bethel Evangelical. And slowly, thanks largely to Pastor Albert Starr, Jr., I have been learning how to pray publicly. And so, I asked the man’s name — Philip — and I took his hands, and I prayed. For a warm place to sleep. For a hot meal. For all those on the streets of Chicago, and everywhere else, who need those things. I prayed for bread from heaven, for the saving power of God, and I prayed for these “in the mighty name of Jesus.”

All the while, Philip would echo “amen!” and “yes, Jesus!”

And then I blessed him. I made the sign of the cross on his forehead, blessing him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Telling him he was forever God’s beloved child. And then I did so for his friend, and African-American woman in wheelchair whose name I wish I could remember but don’t.

He then asked me for $20. (Well, yeah, so what?) He smelled of cheap wine and swore whatever money I gave him was only for a place to stay. I gave him what I had, $5. And blessed him again. I long ago gave up worrying what people in need or who beg do with the money I give them. That’s between them and God.

Again, it could be that he’d asked everyone who passed by for a prayer and a blessing. Perhaps it was how he tried to get $20 out of people. But I don’t think so. It’s strikes me as a really bad ploy. Not many people walking about downtown Chicago have the time or energy for eye contact, much less an active prayer and blessing.

So, maybe there is something about me. This kind of thing happens enough that I need to consider the possibility. As strange as it may be.

But I have to admit, every time something like this happens to me, I am overwhelmed. It is overwhelming, this giving of God’s grace in the world, this bearing the blessing of God to the world. I never quite know what to make of it all. Who am I that some people seem to see this in me? To ask — no, demand — a prayer and a blessing? Who am I that someone would ask this? And what is this gift I have that some people see this in me?

Who am I?

The Only Promise Worth Having

I apologize for not updating the Cavanaugh book review. I got stuck this weekend in some personal doldrums and have not been able to sit down with chapters six and seven and work out a synopsis. And I didn’t update Stuff Found in Library Books on Monday either. Same reason. I promise I will get to that Thursday.

Frankly, this blog has been something of an intellectual distraction from some things I have been dealing with for the last two years. I would really like to talk about it all, but I do not feel that I can at this point — really, I just don’t feel safe enough to do that. It’s difficult and unpleasant and church related. It could more or less make the last six years of my life all for naught. I mean, not really — nothing’s ever wasted — but it also could simply make it all pointless. And that’s about as far as I’m willing to go with this.

So, this is a personal blog entry. And it’s peripherally related to the above.

There’s a homeless woman here in Hyde Park, I’ll call her Shawna. I’ve seen her around, and gotten to know her, off and on since Jennifer and I arrived six years ago. Helped her out with a dollar or two, bought some toiletries for her when she was living in a halfway house. Mostly, though, I took the time to listen to her. At first, she did what a lot of street hustlers always try to do — talk up that she was trying to get her life together. So that whatever I could give her would not be “wasted.” But after a few encounters, our conversations became a little more human. She stopped trying to pretend she was getting her life together, and instead started talking about her hopes that her life could be put back together. Again, mostly I listen. I think that’s the most important thing anyone can do for anyone. Especially someone lost on the street.

So, a couple of weeks ago, during our first big freeze, I ran across Shawna, trying to pilot her bicycle across an icy street.

“Good morning,” I tell her. In my cheerful way that must puzzle and frighten some.

“No, it isn’t,” she responds, and then she tells me all about the difficulties she is having trying to find a warm place to stay. A warm, safe place to stay.

“Do you know what that is like?” she asks me.

“Only kind of. Not like you, but kind of.” And I explain to her when Jennifer and I were homeless for a month in San Francisco many years ago. Because there were no jobs and we ran out of money and friends to help.

She nods and wonders if San Francisco really is a better place to be homeless — no winter and all that. I respond that I really don’t know.

And then she asks me: “Am I going to be okay?”

She starts to cry, and wonders what it was that she did that God should punish her the way God has. She relates some of the awful things in her past — and they are awful. Then she stops to breathe, and looks at me.

I take a deep breath. “You’re going to hate my answer. If by okay, you mean you’ll have a place to sleep and food to eat, I don’t know if you’re going to be okay. I can’t tell you that. I wish I could, but I can’t. But I can tell you this: you have not been abandoned by God, even though it feels like it. You are not alone. I know it feels like it. I know you feel like God has left you, forgotten you, but God hasn’t. God is with you. And that means no matter what, you are okay. I’m sorry, I can’t give you a better answer than that. It’s all I have. It’s all I know. It’s a terrible answer.”

“No, that’s a good answer,” she says. “Thank you for being honest. And you’re right, I know God is with me. It’s hard, but I know it. Every day I wake up, I know God is with me.”

She notes how icy the street is, and says to me she probably should walk her bike rather than ride it. And then she asks me: “Would you pray with me?”

So I take her hands, and we pray. I pray. She prays. On the sidewalk, in the cold, I call out to God, remembering God’s care for God’s people in the wilderness, remembering the times Jesus came among those who were sick and lame and cast out and his healing them and making them whole, and I demand — as Israel demanded — that God care for Shawna in the wilderness. As we prayed, our breath made little clouds that floated and evaporated in the air. She then asks me if I could help her out, and I give her what I have — $8.

And then Shawna looks at me. “You do know what it’s like.”

“Only kind of.” And I tell her a little bit about my current situation. How I’ve been studying to be a pastor, but have had some … difficulties. Many I caused for myself. It has not been the easiest journey, and some people on this journey have been unwilling to get to know me, to really meet me, to know who I am.

“There are a few people who think I shouldn’t be a pastor,” I tell her. “And right now, they count more than others. I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I know is I have to trust God. It’s all I have.”

“Well,” she said. “I know you should be a pastor. I just know it. Remember, God is with you too.”

She blessed me. I blessed her. And we went our separate ways.

It’s been strange, because at times when I have most needed some kind of reassurance that I am truly called to this, to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Shawna pops into my life. And she always manages, in our encounters, in her circumstances, to remind me that I am indeed called. Because there are times, given what I dealing with, that I need that reminding. It’s hard to remember sometimes.

So, wherever you are Shawna, I hope that you have managed to stay warm. And safe. Because I look forward to meeting you again.

And I ever get ordained, I want you to be there.

On The Spot Guidance

Here is the Great Successor Kim Jong Un (do the North Koreans even call anymore comrade anymore?), the “Genius among the geniuses,” talking with his minions from Acme about the bat-wing rocket sled and the anvil balloon and the best way to use iron birdseed and a powerful electromagnet to catch the roadrunner giving some kind of “on-the-spot guidance” (Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were always giving on-the-spot guidance to farmers and factory workers and soldiers and students) to a collection of North Korean soldiers.

I! Love! Those! Hats! No, those aren’t hats, they’re half-turbans! Perhaps they double as flotation devices. Maybe they work like frisbees, and allow North Korean soldiers to while away the time — when they aren’t singing songs in praise of the “Genius among the geniuses.”