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It’s all over the news. Social media, too. People screaming at one another, slapping, beating, threatening, harassing…and for what? For wearing the “wrong” T-shirt. For trying to go swimming at the local pool. For wearing a hijab. For being brown-skinned.

When all we can do is lash out at one another for being “different,” we are in the deepest of deep trouble. If interculturalism teaches us anything, it’s that no two of us are exactly the same. Unless we can deal with that, we are in for one heck of a free-for-all. And nobody is safe.

Forget about beating
swords into ploughshares;
let’s focus on the lightest
of legerdemain, on simple
manipulation of the bones.
Let us turn fists into flattened hands.
Let us bring to each other our brokenness,
our humility. Let us be weak. Mild. Silent.
Let us bow to the God in one another.
And if we cannot, we must lie down at once:
We are already dead.

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Consider the following: A woman decided that whenever she saw a man walking towards her, she would not deliberately get out of his way. She ran into 28 men in short order.

Consider also: During a prayer ceremony, a box full of beautiful, hand-forged glass beads was passed from person to person. Each bead was unique and connected to a prayer; the bead you chose indicated which prayer you would read aloud. Out of dozens of beads, I chose the bead for “silence.” Oh, the irony! I have always been a quiet person — a good baby, an obedient child, never prone to expressions of emotion or even strong opinion (except in my writing). Loquacious friends know they can call me, and I’ll listen for hours. So what was my reaction to choosing that particular bead? “Fifty-three years of being quiet, Lord. When do I get to speak?”

Clearly, the questions need to be asked: Who always gets out of the way? Who gets to speak and who remains silent? And why do we simply accept these answers?

When it comes to politics, the loudest voice wins. The voice doesn’t necessarily represent the majority; it doesn’t have to. If it makes its point loudly enough and with enough aggression, the others will back down. We are seeing this on a daily basis with our current government. Who is allowed to speak when it comes to immigrants and immigration? Not the immigrants themselves. Why? The story is about them. So why are their voices largely unheard?

Who drives policy and who is expected to step aside, even when the policy has nothing to do with the drivers and everything to do with the conceders? Why? Because the drivers have the power. Is that fair? Is that even logical? And if it isn’t, what will it take for the conceders to stand their ground?

I want you to think about this. Are you the person who steps aside or the one who expects others to get out of the way? Are you a loud voice or a silent one? And most importantly, how does God expect us to treat the other? Is God a walk all over people God or a considerate God? Whom did Jesus side with — the powerful people or the silent people (women, the downtrodden, the poor)? And when the silent are enjoined to be “civil,” to not make a fuss, is that what Jesus would do?

What we do with the answers to these questions will say a lot about who we are. It may even determine what happens to us in the next life. I have a feeling that Heaven is where the silent finally speak.

The magnetic poles have disappeared. Compasses are spinning wildly, madly. There is no true north. Or at least there isn’t in America.

We are losing our grasp on the difference between right and wrong. Worse yet, we can’t even agree on what is right or wrong. For instance: It is either always wrong to deny service to someone in a public place or it is not. Case in point (and without naming names), a Virginia restaurant that recently turned away a public official. Some people are fine with this decision. Others are irate to the point of flinging human waste. Several years ago, a bakery refused service to a former Democratic Vice President. Its owner was lauded as a hero and champion of first amendment rights and invited to speak at a rally for the current Speaker of the House. So which is it? Is it right (in which case apologies are due to the Virginia restaurant) or not (in which case apologies are due to the offended patrons)?

Because here’s the thing: It can’t be both. So often I read (usually in the comments section of a news article, which I should never, ever read) “well, it was okay when so-and-so did it.” Or “you didn’t get mad when [your guy] did it.” Morality is not built on “buts” and “yets.” Either a thing is wrong, and we all treat it that way, or it is right — and we accept it.

The problem is, we’ve lost all ability to suss out what we collectively believe to be right or wrong. Is it wrong to take children from their parents if they commit a misdemeanor (like shoplifting or illegally crossing the border) or no crime at all (seeking asylum, just walking down the street)? If so, it is always wrong, no matter what the skin tone of the child or parent. If it is always right, God help us.

I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. However, I think a country should have a moral backbone; we should stand for something. So what does America stand for? If it is civility and decency, those things must come from the top down. If it is making money and closing our ears to the plights of the less fortunate, it is time to own that position. Because if we don’t — if we don’t come together to decide what is acceptable moral behavior and what is not — not only do we become the biggest hypocrites on earth, we fail one another. We also fail God.

We are picking our teams
(red team, blue team)
with alacrity (rushing to
curry favor with the captain
of choice) in louder and louder
voices (playground voices;
no one listens to inside voices anymore)
touting superiority of size, of mind, of soul,
of strength and riches and greed and hatred.
We are choosing sides for a most important game.

The only trouble is
Jesus keeps getting picked last.

My friend Alice is collecting answers to the above question. Feel free to chime in. As for me, I always speak most clearly in poetry.

Providence is the hand of God in the world.
It is like the wind: You cannot see it,
you can only see what it does
(stir a sailboat, rustle a leaf
loosed from a tree),
and even this is best glimpsed
in your memory’s rear view mirror.
It is a confetti storm of pieces of paper,
a single word printed on each,
that somehow settles into a book.
You could have read it weeks ago,
but your eyes were not ready.
It is the tiniest movement of a fly
on a leaf that sends a drop of water
skittering to the ground below where
a seed has been mislaid, unlikely to ever
make anything of itself. Instead it flowers.
Perhaps it will be a rose, perhaps a cactus.
But even that will make sense when you are
lost in the desert, and in falling over, parched,
you break open the limb of a saguaro and there is water
cool and reviving, inside.*

 

 

* Just a metaphor. Do not do this in real life.

 

 

Clue: “Kid with X-Box changes left for right and makes an appeal.” Answer: Prayer, of course! As anyone who loves cryptic (or British) crosswords knows, the solution is right there in front of you. In cryptics, part of the clue provides the answer; the rest consists of the mechanics to get there. In this case, a kid with an X-Box is a “player”; you then exchange the “l” (“left”) for “r” (“right”) to get “an appeal,” which is “prayer.”

But why am I bothering to explain this? Either you already love cryptics (and found the answer annoyingly easy) or you have developed an antipathy merely from reading the opening paragraph of this post. I am obsessed with them, often creating my own clues (see above) just for the fun of playing with language. But I wonder, why do I so adore these puzzles? They are frustrating, hilarious, stupid, wickedly difficult, unfair and deeply satisfying. They are like my mind.

They are also a link to my family. When I was very young, I’d hear, from my bedroom at night, my mother and my Aunt Beverly working cryptics in the living room. They’d shriek with laughter. I wanted in. So I taught myself how to do them (there are a finite number of ways to solve the clues, such as hidden words, anagrams, charades, double meanings, etc.). I have spent many a happy hour since then unraveling these puzzles with my mom (with my father often playing straight man and voice of reason) or alone.

Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable with the many mysteries of faith. Jesus is both God and man? Sure, why not? The Eucharist contains the real presence of Jesus? Stranger things have happened. Cryptic crosswords have opened my mind to the possibilities and seeming impossibilities of creation. I get why God made aardvarks and platypuses. I’ve never struggled with the lack of reason sometimes involved in spirituality. Because I believe the reason is there; it’s just hidden — cryptic, but present.

When I run into a problem with my faith, it does me good to remember my puzzles. I’ve often stared at a clue for hours before the answer clicks into place (“murder victim sounds qualified” had me stumped until I remembered our biblical friend Abel). Maybe faith is like that. Maybe our frustrations come not from a God who is inconsistent, but from our own inability to decipher his clues.

Because you gotta know that God is far more complicated than a crossword puzzle. But the joy of understanding God? A million times more rewarding than any puzzle could be.

 

A collection of crows is called a murder. A clutch of kittens is called a kindle. So what do you call a group of human beings?

The answer, at least of late, and (gratefully) in a minority of instances, is to call them animals. Those gang members are animals. That person is an animal.

This is all very easy and very satisfying. It makes sense to separate these people from our own species, to make them less like us. It creates a comfortable distance and encourages us to not bother treating them as we would other human beings. It gives us license to dismiss them. Or worse.

But it is also very dangerous. For one thing, animals aren’t like people; in many ways they are better. They don’t rape and kill for power and position…or just for the heck of it. There were no muskrats or springboks eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Even if you only accept that story as metaphor, animals are clearly exonerated. When they kill, they do so from instinct — to eat, to protect their young. You won’t see any real wolves on Wall Street — or bulls or bears, either. Just humans doing human things, which are often greedy, self-motivated or based on the basest of emotions: fear or anger.

The truth is: Only human beings willingly choose evil. That is a frightening thing. But it is also a fact that we must look at, clear-eyed and without flinching. Only when we understand our complicity in evil can we start to correct it. But that understanding has to start in our own souls, because that is where evil hides out. None of us is immune to it. If we can call a person an animal, we can commit evil against that person. It’s a slippery slope, folks, lined with Slip ‘n’ Slides and plummeting down to the depths of human depravity. They may be on that slope, but so are we.

Every human being, no matter how unlike us they might be, is a human being. God made them. God made us. God made Liberals. God made Conservatives. God made gang members. There is never — ever — justification for treating someone as less than human, even if that person is choosing to treat me as less than human.

Let’s remember that the next time we feel the urge to other someone. And let’s respond in a truly human way — with hugs, not name-calling.

When Jeannie says it, she means saints, a concept new to her; in her Protestant experience, prayer is “you and Jesus, no one else.” But a brush with Catholicism brought with it the idea of saints as intercessors, friends who sit on your shoulder and pray alongside you. Now Jeannie asks for a few good words every now and again from her new friend, St. Mother Theodore Guerin. But the way she expressed her good fortune (see title above) provoked, yes, a poem.

How do you acquire them
and where do they perch?
Do you feel them as a brush of wings
against your shoulder, or as a rush of wind,
hot, like breath, and intimate? Have they
set up shop (prayers, five cents each, like
a comic strip psychiatry stand) or —
are your insistent wishes just a blip in their routine,
something to do on the way to the fishing hole,
the café, the clean white shops of heaven?
Whatever. The machinery of it is unimportant.
What counts is the concern, unfathomable,
laughable, even, of a child, a nun, a martyr,
of those who burned or hung, lay with lepers
or led armies into battle, who died in perfect faith,
reaching across immeasurable time, to chime in
a single good word: Amen. I thank them for their
affirmation; I hope to join the chorus one day.

Done in by the heat of setting up for the parish’s Cinqo de Mayo dinner, we sank gratefully into folding chairs. We talked about work — at 64, she figured she’d work “three more years. No, maybe five.” Then she laughed. “I like my job.” On the following Thursday, she showed up for the year-end banquet of the altar society (the same altar society she’d confessed to me she’d avoided joining for years because she felt she “wasn’t old enough!”), posing in a photo with all the other ladies. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, she was dead.

I tell this story not to cause panic, but to induce thought. None of us knows the day or hour of our death. So live big. Love hard. Don’t let things ride. Deal with your inner demons. Choose joy. Phone a friend.

We haven’t got time to dilly-dally, so let’s concentrate on loving one another. Okay?

What is the difference between poem and prayer? The older I get, the more I think there is none. I was raised on both: My mother, a devout Catholic, read poetry to us kids from the time we were tiny. And I mean real poems — Wordsworth, Poe, Coleridge, Whitman. By the time I could read, these poems were as familiar and dear to me as any fairy tale or nursery rhyme.

When I started writing poetry (at age 6), it didn’t occur to me my own poems could be prayers, mostly because I wrote about nonspiritual stuff — my toys, Christmas, flights of fancy. It was only when I got a gig writing nondenominational prayers that I realized: If the intention is there, poem is prayer.

Word is word, whether
molded by mouth or hammered,
hewn, by hand. And all words rise,
sure as heat, the heavens
being the only landing strip
for such strange dirigibles.
Voices are louder, quicker
to pierce Paradise, but clumsy, too,
all diphthong and sibilant s’s.
Written, words fly graceful as doves,
land, preening, offer themselves
as white sacrifices. The God of Words
collects them, views their pulsing hearts
thanks them and sends them home.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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