For Lent: Go to the Show!

Here’s a delightful Lenten practice: see “Lion.” The true story on which the film is based is well known: a 5-year old separated from his family, lost in a part of India where he doesn’t speak the language. His enormous brown eyes and thick, disheveled hair speak volumes: if the lost sheep in the gospel were human, he’d look like this.

The endless possibilities for harm to the vulnerable innocent make the viewer cringe within, or as THE GUARDIAN review says, “The audience fills the frame with dangers of our own making.”  But miraculously, he is well treated and adopted by a compassionate Tasmanian couple. The adoptive mother is played by Nicole Kidman, who has described “Lion” as “a love letter” to the two children she adopted herself in her 20s.  Dev Patel plays the grown man who at age 25 embarks on a quest using Google Earth to find his first home. His adoptive mother blesses his search for his birth mother: “I can’t wait for her to see how beautiful you are.”  Kidman says, “That, to me, is the most gorgeous line in the film.” (Though a close second must be her rationale for adoption: “it’s not a matter of ‘hard.’”)

The reunion scene is almost Biblical: the elderly mother can’t stop touching the son she searched for so long, and the whole village quickly becomes part of the explosive joy. Ah, we think, so this is how the Prodigal Mother might welcome back her son. Views of the actual people who lived this story appear at the end, along with the stinging statistic that 80,000 children a year go missing in India. This story gives specifics and a face to the tragedy. And how often do we get a lion for Lent?

Book Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Sometimes it helps to view our own historical era through the lens of another. Now it seems official policy to demonize the “other.” In North Texas after the Civil War, battles between white settlers and native Americans raged, with brutal atrocities committed on both sides.

Amid the violence, the novel’s lead character, Captain Kidd, seems an oasis of peace and information. He earns a small living by purchasing newspapers, then renting halls and reading to those who pay 10 cents admission to hear reports of other worlds, vast, incomprehensible, far beyond their narrow arenas. For the most part, his audiences are captivated by remote, mysterious tales. “Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

The action begins when he’s asked to return to her relatives a ten-year old girl, who’d been captured by Kiowa, lived with them for four years, then sold back to the US army agent. What ensues is a 400-mile journey through lawless lands, where the vulnerable old man and the heartbroken young girl—almost predictably—bond.

The travel is inevitably fraught with danger and catastrophe, peopled by villains and some surprisingly sympathetic characters. The prose is lyrical, sometimes humorous, and the captain’s gradual transformation unfolds inspiringly. He begins with dread of the contemptuous child, but gradually comes to understand what she has suffered, jolted from her first two homes, unsure of what awaits her next.

She knows nothing of English language or American customs, must be wrestled into uncomfortable clothes, and refuses shoes. The Texans who see her immediately condemn the “savage,” though they struggle to explain her blonde hair. But one perceptive Irish woman explains, “To go through our first creation is a turning of the soul we hope toward the light…To go through another tears all the making of the first creation and sometimes it falls to bits.” It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine children torn from the only homes they know and families fragmented by current deportation policy.

In an after-note, the author cites research showing that children captured by native tribes seldom wanted to return to white society, even when they had been with native American families for less than a year. They rarely readjusted. Because this story gives an abstract “issue” names and faces, we are drawn to sympathize.  And on a closing note of hope, the Captain who had once been skeptical spends his old age working on a dictionary of Kiowa.

Thank you, Justice Robart

You were the first. By temporarily suspending the ban on travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries, you sent a clear signal: the U.S. government isn’t run by the abrupt order of one man. Its systems may seem inefficient and cantankerous, but they follow thoughtful precedent. These legal procedures were constructed over time to ensure the rights of those who might be too easily dismissed. By all accounts a conservative Republican, you know what’s constitutional, what’s not, and have the courage to challenge even your own party.

You may not realize that you stand in a long lineage. On Feb. 22, 1943 Hans and Sophie Scholl were beheaded by the Nazis. The brother and sister had dared to distribute flyers that criticized the ruling regime and audaciously offered hope that it wouldn’t last forever. Sophie could have been describing Robart when she said of her activist group, five students called the White Rose: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

Sophie once played her violin outside the window of her father’s jail cell, and saw herself as a little candle, burning out quickly. She delighted in a May meadow, a clear brook and a Schubert Quintet. Killed at 21, she has lived on in 200 German schools named for her and her brother, and a voice no dictator could squelch. She may have unconsciously responded to the hope of the Hebrew Bible: “None shall make them afraid.”

In Christian terms, she said, “I will cling to the rope God has thrown me in Jesus Christ, even when my numb hands can no longer feel it.” As Fr. Tom Bonacci writes, “Jesus reveals the power of humanity to live without fear of those who claim legitimacy through power, threat and violence.”

It’s not hard to imagine how Sophie and Hans might respond to the sad news that applications for college financial aid from undocumented students in California have dropped 42%. At this time last year there were 13,200 new applicants for state tuition aid; this year there have been 8,600. Although the Cal Grant program has nothing to do with the federal government, students are apparently afraid to file their information. So, a deportation policy designed to thwart criminals instead ends college educations? The California Dream Act is still a beacon of hope, encouraging Dreamers that pursuing education is the best thing they can do.

From Robart to the Scholls to the Dreamers may seem a disconnected line, but one theme unites them all: fear is useless; courage, paramount. The following exchange from J. R. R. Tolkien has circulated widely on the internet, but still bears repeating:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

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:

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