Giving A Fig

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We were asked in church yesterday to put ourselves into the parable of the fig tree, which is found only in the Gospel of Luke

A landowner comes to inspect his fig trees. Many are doing well, producing much fruit. But one is not, and the landowner demands that the gardener cut it down and toss it. The gardener pleads for another year to take special care of it, digging a hole around it and fertilizing it. The landowner relents.

The priest asked, which are you, the landowner, the gardener or the fig tree? What are you feeling in this situation?

I immediately thought of myself as the gardener; I am a gardener, but I have also always thought pompously of myself as a nurturer and a cheerleader for the underdog.

Yet my second thought as the gardener was, why the hell haven’t I done something about this fig tree before the owner came to inspect it? How could I have let the tree come to this pass? Now I’ve got answers; why didn’t I try to prevent it from getting to this state?

The parable, we were told, is meant to show that God always gives us second chances.

Maybe She shouldn’t.

There is grace in second chances, but I’m left thinking about the tremendous amount of suffering and death that occurs in the geopolitical world because the nations that are able to do so don’t take the first chance to prevent the situations that lead to that suffering and death.

How many droughts in the poorest countries of the world had been predicted before millions died of starvation?

Who in power couldn’t foresee the mass exodus of refugees from war-torn Syria and didn’t put into place any form of relief and aid before thousands began dying in the cold waters off the Greek islands?

What states-people couldn’t have guessed that invading Iraq would lead to a push-back in which whole villages would disappear?

Who missed the clues, in the early days of the rise of the Tea Party, leading to many of the victories of the civil rights movement, particularly about voting rights, being wiped away by zealous white supremacists who call themselves politicians?

We’ve been given second, third and even fourth chances, but as a global community we have squandered them. How many more chances do we deserve?

Before telling this parable, Jesus was telling people that tragic events are not caused by the victims’ sins. “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Repent, to turn away, to do things differently. I don’t think this parable is about second chances at all, but about the unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences that will befall us if we don’t start looking after our world and all of the people in it.

You can read the full passage from Luke here: Repent or Perish

 

What’s Lent Got To Do With It?

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Presumably everyone who calls themselves a Christian is now observing Lent, the 40-day journey through repentance leading up to the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

I don’t know whether all denominations put on the sackcloth and ashes that I was taught to don as a child. Despite going to Confession weekly, I rarely felt forgiven because the very next time I went to Christian education I was told about some new way in which I was a sinner and that my sins made up the nails that crucified Jesus.

I went to all the movies that came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s about Jesus: “King of Kings,” “Barabbas,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Ben Hur,” etc. And I left each movie haunted about whether I would have been one of the people yelling for Jesus’s blood or one of the women who followed Him.

To add to my neuroses, I used to spend hours as a child poring over three editions of Funk & Wagnall’s yearbooks that were in our house. They must have been for the years 1952, 1953, and 1954. They contained many pictures of dead people: Eva Peron in her casket, Emilie Dionne, victims of gangland shootings, Mau Mau casualties. The yearbooks introduced me to a world of horrors, and they got mixed up with the guilt I already carried so that I began to feel responsible for everything bad that happened in the world.

Through the years, that sense of guilt has never really left me; even now, in liturgical church traditions, I’m told at one and the same time that I am a sinner and also told that I’m forgiven once and for all for those sins of which I’m truly repentant.

Yet in all of my young education, learning about slavery, watching civil rights protesters on television, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, mourning the assassination of Martin Luther King, was it ever suggested in church that the original sin I was supposedly born with had anything to do with the sin of racism. Moreover, the Christian church in the United States has not, as one body, repented of the sin of aiding and abetting racism.

I have been asking myself the last few years, what would Jesus want the form of our repentance to take? Giving up chocolate or meat or TV for 40 days, or setting about righting the wrongs of our national history by admitting to the sin of enslaving, raping, murdering, excluding, and treating with contempt a sizeable proportion of God’s children? If there is such a thing as original sin, then what white people, with the complicity of the white Christian church, have done to Africans and Native Americans is our original sin.

Now is the time to repent.

An organization called Ignatian Spirituality Network is e-mailing daily Lenten reflections to those who sign up. Written by a diverse group of people, the reflections are called “Lift Every Voice.” The website is www.ignatianspirituality.net.

Richard Wright’s Heir

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Many people more eloquent and more relevant than I am have written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

From the first moment I picked it up and saw from whence the title came, I was brought back to Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, and his most famous book, Native Son.

And I have to come to think that there is much that is similar between Richard Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I discern a similar urgency and impatience and anger in their written words. Mr. Wright had to leave the United States in order to be who he really was and to write what he really wanted to write. Fortunately for us, Mr. Coates is able to live and work and have a voice in the US. He has become possibly the most important voice saying what a lot of white people do not want to hear. That is a good thing; we need him.

After reading the first part of the poem, where the narrator is speaking, I also thought of Father Richard Rohr, an important voice in the mystic side of Christianity. From him I learned the word “numinous,” describing an experience that for a period of time takes you out of the world in shock or awe. Learning of the death of a loved one, for example, or equally, seeing the face of God.

I translate Mr. Wright’s words to describe such a numinous experience. The narrator comes upon the aftermath of a lynching and begins to realize what has gone on here, the “sooty details . . . thrusting themselves between the world and me. . .” How can seeing such an abomination not take one into a place of transcendent shock that erases the background of life? In the narrator’s case, it takes him to a place where the lynched martyr forces himself into the narrator, who then is able to describe the lynching in the first person.

Theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) coined the term “numinous.” For him, it was the basis underlying all religions, and he gave it three parts: a mysterious experience that is wholly unlike anything else in ordinary life; a tremendous experience because it can be terrifying whether it is from God or Satan, and finally a fascinating experience because of its potency.

The narrator’s experience certainly falls into all three of these categories. While we might at first think the experience is from Satan because of the evil of the deed that caused it, an argument might be made that it is really from God. How else can we redeem and restore our history if we do not first face the evil of it? We have to go right into the pain of the martyred and the oppressed in order to come back to ordinary life and say with authority, as Richard Wright did and Ta-Nehisi Coates does, NO MORE! NO MORE! NO MORE!

Between the World and Me
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled     suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly     oaks and elms And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting     themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly     upon a cushion of ashes. There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt     finger accusingly at the sky. There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and     a scorched coil of greasy hemp; A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,     and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,     butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a     drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the     lingering smell of gasoline. And through the morning air the sun poured yellow     surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity     for the life that was gone. The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by     icy walls of fear– The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the     grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods     poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the     darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves     into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into     my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and     cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red     upon her lips, And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that     my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth     into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my     black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as     they bound me to the sapling. And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from     me in limp patches. And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into     my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a     baptism of gasoline. And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot     sides of death. Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in     yellow surprise at the sun….

Richard Wright was only 52 years old when he died after suffering a heart attack in Paris. Ta-Nehisi Coates is 40. Let us pray that he will have many, many more years to force us to look at ourselves and dare to visit the belly of the beast of racism in order to conquer the beast.

The following link is a filmed narration of “Between the World and Me”: Richard Wright on YouTube