In Praise of Librarians

As we extol Christian virtues, we sometimes miss their embodiments all around us. My personal nomination for Patrons of Patience are those who work at airport gates. They’re deluged with an acid rain of complaints when circumstances they don’t control—storms in Singapore? Mechanical difficulties in Denpesar?–mean a delayed or cancelled flight.  Yet they remain professional, calm and sometimes surprisingly cheerful, working out complex alternatives for fuming and ungrateful passengers.

Librarians are high on the list of unsung saints. In many places, they are among the newcomers’ first personal encounters with North American culture. At some libraries, they list on their nametags the languages they speak: often an astonishing array including Farsi, Russian, Cantonese. During a storytime for toddlers, the librarian taught “Eensy Weensy Spider” with gestures, and the moms in burkas were delightedly learning as much as their children.

Furthermore, they are courteous and understanding with the computer-challenged; they answer the same stupid questions repeatedly; they open the treasure house of literature, beauty and information to those who starve for its riches. With ignorance, sloppiness and noise surging around them, they remember why they’re there: to share and safeguard a treasure.

Some say the digital age will mean the demise of the library; some cities are cutting their budgets. But even more reason for them to serve those who don’t have computers, magazines, newspapers or books at home. They anchor every neighborhood  from Palo Alto to Podunk. Many people have written about the joy of loading up a wagon or bike basket with books, then heading home with the anticipation of a great read. Our next superb novelist or scientist may now be tightly holding a parent’s, grandparent’s or caregiver’s hand, putting the first pudgy foot inside a library door. And what a magnificent realm awaits!

A Letter to Muslims

First, profoundest apologies. You’re wise enough to know that the actions of the U.S. President do not reflect the beliefs of all American people. Indeed, we are appalled by the travel ban on people from 7 Muslim-majority countries. Most disturbingly, refugees from Syria, that war-torn country that has broken our hearts with photos of its suffering women and children, seem to be permanently barred. Ironic that no terrorists have come from these countries!

Second, I will cherish memories of the few Muslims I know (and I hope these friendships continue to increase in number and grow in depth.) Dr. Nazeer, a space scientist who helped design the Hubble telescope, began our most recent Muslim-Christian retreat, “in the name of God most gracious, most merciful.” Maimoona drew me into her interfaith women’s group. Maram gave me an ornament for my Christmas tree, made of olive wood from Bethlehem. Hina spoke eloquently of how she consoled her young son, afraid of what Trump’s election might mean: “nothing will happen to us that is not Allah’s design.” Hilal does not want to be overwhelmed by fear, so she “takes refuge in the All-Merciful.” These and others like them have deep reverence for the Christian tradition and compassion for all people. One evening during Ramadan when a group of us visited a mosque, they had prepared a huge meal, and insisted we eat first. (They had been fasting since dawn.) Banning people like you from our country makes it a far poorer place.

Many Christians don’t know that Mary, Mother of Jesus is given a whole chapter, and named 37 times in the Koran.  I’ve long admired Christian de Cherge’, French Trappist killed in Algeria, who sought “the notes that are in harmony” between the two religions. His story was most recently told in the film “Of Gods and Men.”

The president defended the ban with a tweet: we must keep the bad guys out (subtly nuanced as “bad hombres” for Mexico). My 5-year old grandson once used that phrase, but now seems to have outgrown it. It reveals unvarnished dualism; higher stages of moral development know that sadly, the bad guy lurks within ourselves.

Friends know that my move last year from Colorado to California was ambivalent: filled with sadness over leaving my home of 45 years, but anticipating rich family times with my children and grandchildren. Now I am even prouder to be a Californian. They are starting the process to become a sanctuary state. Although I couldn’t attend the prayerful circling of the mosque on Friday, I encircle you now with words, dear friends. May they be a protective garland against stupidity and bigotry.

What It Meant to March

Some readers may be offended by this post. To them I can say only, “I may be wrong.” But there was nowhere else I would have rather been last Saturday morning than the women’s march in Oakland, CA. As my daughter, grandson and I rode the train there, we reminisced on other marches we’d done:

  • When the NRA insisted on holding its convention in Denver shortly after the Columbine tragedy, the mayor asked them not to come. They came anyway; we encircled their hotel, then heard speakers like Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel had died at Columbine, plead for sane gun control. A rabbi who offered opening prayer said he usually wouldn’t do this on the Sabbath, but his children begged him to.
  • The Million Mom March continued to demand gun control, this time in Washington, DC.
  • At another time, we marched against war in Iraq.

One might well ask whether these marches accomplished anything. Maybe not, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least try.

So too on Saturday Jan. 21, the energy was contagious and spirits were lifted for the long haul ahead. It was the first march for my three grandchildren there, ages 1 to 5. Some of my favorite signs were: “I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea,” “Boomers back to the streets!” “It’s so bad, even the introverts are here,” “Melania–it’s not too late. You can still join us!” “ReSISTERS” Creativity, humor and hope are a fine combination.

But something more was afoot. One woman began planning with 12 moms in a living room, hoping they’d get 500 people to turn out in their little town. Instead, they got 10,000. The New York Times photos from around the world were heartening, and hard to deny: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/21/world/womens-march-pictures.html

In retrospect, I think we marched:

  • for the women of Syria, desperately seeking safe harbors for their children
  • for the women of Africa, traveling long distances for clean water
  • for the women of the U.S. inner cities, pounding the pavements for medical care or jobs.

The South African saying, “you have struck the women; you have struck the rock,” seems relevant. Brisk bureaucratic maneuvering, the trappings of power, and executive orders may appear to succeed for a time, but they tangle with a formidable force. I wouldn’t want to oppose the strength of those who took to the streets in wheelchairs or with strollers, with friends and signs and songs. “Still we rise,” said Maya Angelou. When misogyny, racism, threats to the planet, homophobia and bigotry rear their ugly heads, we resist.

Mary: Holding the Tension

As we look at the third bright light, Cana, let’s focus on Mary. Sometimes we think we’ve got a monopoly on stress. Then we consider her situation: steeped in the Torah, reading the Bible stories of God’s fidelity, lighting the Sabbath candles each week as a reminder of God’s goodness.

On the other hand, she lived under Roman oppression. She had friends who were sold into slavery with their children when Romans slaughtered 2000 men of her country. We too move tween two worlds: the promises of our faith, the sad realities of our culture. If we take comfort in the faith, we’re accused of ignoring reality. If we focus only on people’s inhumanity, we risk despair.

Caught between similar, powerful forces, Mary then receives a most puzzling message. At the annunciation, Gabriel doesn’t give her a script. Instead, she’s invited to enter the mystery and live with the unresolved. Nothing guarantees the story of her child will go well.

When she approaches Jesus at Cana, she models how to transcend the dividing lines between men and women that would’ve been strict at a Jewish celebration. She resists the temptation facing all parents of young adults: to deluge with words, control, direction. She simply uses 5 words: “They have no more wine.” When Jesus responds to her somewhat curtly, she hears the “yes” beneath the “no.” In utter confidence, she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

What in my faith tradition helps me self-transcend? Surely, Mary’s model of how to respond to stress.

 

Some excerpts from Mary  by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Books

Baptism of the Lord

Scholars say that the mythic elements in today’s story– the sky opening, the voice of God, the descent of the dove—are common to spiritual experiences in many religious traditions. What makes Jesus’ unique?

Even in more ordinary circumstances, he remained attuned to the source of that experience: to God his father. Whether he was engaged in hot debate, confronting hideous disease, or teaching in the marketplace, Jesus didn’t forget that voice, that spectacular affirmation. He acted always as God’s beloved child. Furthermore, he saw everyone else through that same lens—no matter how cantankerous, sick, or stupid they were.

Do we? When doing dishes or driving, do we remember we are precious? Confronting a crisis, do we carry into it the same qualities that have gotten us this far: our courage, strength or skill? When we’re angry, mistaken, rejected, exhausted, ill, betrayed, depressed, unemployed, or told we’re worthless, does that sense of affirmation rise up within?

What God said to Jesus, God says to us: “you are my dearly beloved child. I’m pleased with you.” That should matter more than all the applause or awards in the world. And we should in turn hear that same description of everyone we meet.

This experience marks a pivotal point for Jesus: he emerges from it energized and inspired for his public ministry. Even in the long desert days, he must hear the echoes of that voice. When we’re tempted to focus on the criticisms, we could turn instead with joy to that life-giving praise.

Epiphany: “Welcome, Everyone!”

It’s not over yet. Sad to take down the Christmas decorations, but three lights still burn bright: the feasts of Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord and Wedding at Cana.

Long before Jesus preached inclusivity, Mary practiced it. Imagine being the mother of a newborn, exhausted from a trip to register for the census in Bethlehem. Then picture giving birth in a stable, which was probably not as cozy and clean as most Christmas cards depict. Mary is far away from her support system, so she can’t rely on her mother, sisters or friends for help. No casseroles, no baby blankets.

 

Then, according to Luke, a crowd of shepherds arrives. They must be strangers, but there is no record of Mary feeling uncomfortable with these uninvited guests. Instead, she “treasures” the memories and is filled with gratitude. Matthew’s account of the magi doesn’t mention Mary’s response, but she must have wondered: how many more strangers would crowd into their temporary housing? These surprising visitors aren’t even Jewish–and bring the strangest gifts.

 

Mary’s experience should give us fair warning. If we hang around with Jesus, we’d better keep our doors open. He brings along an odd assortment of friends. They may not bring frankincense or myrrh, but they arrive unexpectedly when there are only two pork chops for dinner. They come disguised as the children’s friends or the lonely neighbor who talks too long while the rolls burn. They phone at the worst possible times and they interrupt our most cherished plans. And in these, says Jesus, you’ll find me. This feast seems to celebrate James Joyce’s description of the Catholic church: “here comes everybody!”

Book Review: The Kind of Brave You Wanted to Be by Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle’s writing is contagious. No matter how hard I try to resist, I soon find myself modeling his quirky syntax, abundant adjectives and long strings of words that cascade like waterfalls. I admire the way he synthesizes his family life with his faith; as I’ve often said, we need more parents’ voices in a church dominated by celibate saints and clergy.

He can pluck a 50-year old memory from whatever bin it’s stored in and it emerges fresh and shiny: he is eight, his brother is seven, they are eating cereal on Saturday morning while watching cartoons, and the whole scene is varnished in sunlight. “Even when it rained it didn’t.” He explains the comfort of memory:

“How is it that what we experienced, we always experience

And even what we think we forget is never actually gone?”

Doyle is a genius at unveiling the sacramentality of popsicles, rebounds, cedar needles, four year olds, the snap of a baseball bat, scuffling in leaves, owl feathers, attentive doctors, a pint, the chinook, old confessionals, storytelling cops, ratty jerseys. In one succinct sentence, he describes what theologians don’t say as well in volumes of sacramental theology: “there are no tiny things, not at all.” Or: “Everything speaks clearly if you can decipher the language, the music.”

The only way to read Doyle is in short spurts: gorging on too much at once can be unpleasantly like an overdose of ice cream. But read slowly, savored, cherished, he helps us appreciate the sheer grace and blessing of our own momentous minutiae.

 

Available from Liturgical Press, 2016, $14.95, http://www.litpress.org