Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Greatest but not The Easiest


Pentecost XXII - October 29, 2023
The Episcopal Church of St. Mary
Bridgeville, DE

The idea seems simple enough. “Love God, love neighbor.” The problem, as always, is in the execution of the idea. Who is God? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love them?

Wrestling with these questions is at the heart of what it means to be a follower, a disciple of Christ Jesus. If we’re honest, we’ve all struggled with these questions at different times in our life’s journey.

As a Hospice Chaplain, these are two questions people struggle with, even at the end of life, sometimes one more than the other. As a person of faith, these are two questions I have wrestled with my whole life.

If I’m honest, I struggled with those questions as I was writing this sermon and, in fact, right up until today. Part of the reason is that the world moves so fast these days, it’s often hard to get your bearings.

Not so when I was a kid. I knew exactly who my neighbors were. That’s because I knew the borders and boundaries of my neighborhood.

Furthermore, I knew the rules – the family rules, the rules of the neighborhood and the rules of the church. And, I obeyed them.

In my neighborhood, we had a policeman who “walked the beat”. His name was Officer Murphy. We all loved Officer Murphy. You could wind your watch when he would appear on your street. He knew every kid by name and where we lived. We felt safe whenever he was around.

And, we loved Fr. Levesque, our parish priest, who also walked through our neighborhood on his way back and forth from visiting with people in their homes. He always had a tin can full of mints in his pocket that he opened and put in our mouths as we swarmed around him like baby birds with our mouths opened for this mid-week sweet communion.

There was also Mr. DeMello, the Truant Officer. He was there to report you to your parents if you skipped school. We didn’t have to worry too much about Mr. DeMello, though. Not in our neighborhood.

That’s because we had Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller was a woman whose kids had all grown and her husband had died so she always dressed in black and lived alone.

If I close my eyes, I can still see her, standing in front of her second floor window, a cup of tea in her hand which she slowly sipped as she watched everything that went on in our neighborhood.

I don’t know if she counted us as we walked together to school but she knew when one of us was missing. She made it her business to know where each one of us was and exactly where we were when we weren’t supposed to be there.

No one dared skipped school in my neighborhood. We were too scared of Mrs. Miller who would come and find us (I don’t know how she found us but she always did), pull us out of wherever we were by our ear, and march us all the way to our parent’s home, still holding that ear as if her life depended on it – our feet barely touching the ground – before depositing us in front of our parents, giving us a hard smack upside the head before she left.

You never wanted to mess with Mrs. Miller. Nosireebob.

There were other people who came into our neighborhood: The Bread Man who came every Wednesday and Friday, the Milk Man who, several times a week, delivered glass bottles of milk or cream and tins of cottage cheese which he put into an aluminum container that sat on everyone’s doorstep. He covered everything with ice before he left. Funny, no one ever got sick.

We were free to ride our bikes everywhere. I was nine years old and, as the oldest of four, rode my bike at least once a week to the market to pick up “just a few things” my mother had called ahead to the grocer who had everything ready for me. He always asked me about school and what I had learned that week and we would have lovely conversations about that subject.

The rules in my neighborhood were also simple: You could play stick ball in the street but one kid always had to be the lookout for oncoming cars, and you always moved to the side as soon as a car appeared at the top of the street. You showed respect. While the streets were for stick ball, the sidewalks were for hopscotch and jacks, and everybody, I mean, EVERYBODY, had to be on their own porch when the streetlights came on.

As well as I knew my neighbors, I also knew God. He was a white man with long hair and a long, white beard who sat on a cloud way up in heaven and, all he had to do was point at someone who was being bad and ZAP! That person was dead dog meat.

I even knew what God sounded like. My father loved to read to us and I loved nothing more than sitting on his lap, my ear pressed against his chest. One day, as I listened to the sound of his voice in his chest, it occurred to me that this is what God must sound like: mysterious, other-worldly, distant and yet just as close to me as my next breath.

And, the rules? Simple. There were 10. Follow those, go to church, listen to the gospel, take communion, don’t skip school, do your homework, obey your parents, do your best to follow the Golden Rule and love God and your neighbor as yourself and you would go to heaven. Guaranteed.

Simple, right? Easy-peasy!

And then, ah, and then, I grew up. And the world was no longer simple or easy. The War to End All Wars which my grandfather fought in rolled itself into WWII which my father fought it; which rolled itself into the Korean Conflict which my uncles fought it; which rolled into The Vietnam War, which was a war no one wanted and everyone hated and protested.

The world began to move very quickly and in 1966, the cover of Time Magazine posed a question no one in my neighborhood would have dared to think much less ask: Is God Dead?

That was followed, five years later, by the 1971 Time Magazine Cover of
a Pop Art psychedelic Jesus who gazed serenely from clouds. It was simply titled: “The Jesus Revolution.”

By the time I was in seminary in the 1980s, I was enormously frustrated, trying to understand a discipline known as Process Theology, founded by a man named Alfred North Whitehead.

I remember crying in a professor’s office because I was so confused. She comforted me and then whispered, “Never mind. God doesn’t even know what Whitehead is talking about.”

And here we are this morning, more than 2,000 years later, listening to these ancient words from both Moses and Jesus who are teaching us the ancient commandment of God to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And, if we’re honest, in our darkest moments, some of us are still asking Who is God? Who is my neighbor?

Who is this God who allowed a very sick man to shoot and kill 18 of his neighbors and friends in Maine while they were bowling or otherwise having a good time with other neighbors?

Who is this God who allowed the beautiful island of Maui, often called ‘Paradise’, to burn to the ground?

And what kind of God allows innocent men, women and children to die cruel, brutal, barbaric deaths in a place known as The Holy Land, a place dedicated to God by people of three different faiths?  

Not the God we know. Which, if that’s true, raises other questions, ones with which people have also been struggling to understand since the beginning of time: If God is all powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people? What role, if any, does God play in it all?

Here's where I’ve landed on the matter. I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out. Far from it. As a Hospice Chaplain, I’ve had this conversation about these questions many times with many people over the last many years.  Here’s what makes sense to me and why Jesus says that The Golden Rule is the Greatest Commandment:

There are things beyond the intellect and reason of the human mind. God is primary among them. As many advances as can be attributed to the human mind, there are many things we simply can’t understand.

Like, how to understand a love that is so pure, so unconditional, that we have this terrifying freedom to make choices, some of which are good and some of which are not.

Like, no matter what we choose, good or bad, we always have the choice to love because we are always loved.

Think about this mystery: Even before we loved God, God loved us. We are free to love this mystery we call God, who is far beyond our wildest imaginings and yet never further away from us than our next breath.

Free to love this mysterious God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. And, to love ourselves so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves.

Or, not. Whether or not we know God or love God, God still loves us. St. Paul tells us that nothing - absolutely nothing - can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not even ourselves.

Turns out, The Great Commandment is not as easy as it once sounded. Turns out, we grow up and find the world is a very complex and complicated place.

Turns out, one can choose to dedicate one’s whole life to living out that great mystery, to love the questions and live into the questions – Who is God? Who is my neighbor? – so that, as the great philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke said, we may love the questions so much that, one day, we may live into the answer.

That’s why, I think, Jesus says that this is the Greatest Commandment and the second is like unto it. Not only do all the laws and the prophets hang on these two commandments, but the very enterprise of being human hangs in the balance.

Indeed, I would add that the future of the world depends on the kind of love that is humble enough to admit we don’t know everything and we don’t have all the answers, and we cannot see God, but to love, anyway. To choose love. Even when it makes no sense.

As Pascal said, “
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Jesus has lots to say about that in later Gospels that are worthy of our time and consideration and study. For now, and in preparation of that, I’m going to leave you with the whole quote from Rilke to which I think, Jesus would give his stamp of approval:   

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”   


Saturday, October 14, 2023

My Great Tuscan Adventure: Day III

Scenes from an Italian/Roman Bistro

Monuments to Humanity and Museums of Human Beings.

So, yesterday did not turn out the way I had planned but it unfolded exactly as it should have.

I'm not sure what it was, exactly. I know I'm not used to having espresso in the morning. Or, that much dairy, for that matter.

My stomach just kept flipping and lurching and I was in no shape to go to the Coliseum or any sight-seeing spot and deal with all those crowds of tourists.

It's okay. Truth be told, I hate that stuff on a good day. I am not cut out to be a tourist. Full stop.

So, I pretty much hung out in the neighborhood, sitting on benches - not too far from restaurants and pizzerias with restrooms - watching people and their children or their dogs.

I saw some wonderful things - human beings being human beings (and, human doings). I got my bearings - geographically and biologically. I had some perfectly wonderful conversations with some pretty amazing people.

I spoke with a young couple who were walking to St. Paul Outside the Wall, an Episcopal Church not far from my “neighborhood”. I figured out that it's about a 10-minute walk from where I'm staying and it has some amazing mosaics that I understand are a brilliant inspiration to meditation. Indeed, that's one of the churches I plan to visit on Sunday. Maybe today I'll also walk to Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest Marian church in Rome (4th century).

Anyway, this young couple said that they had both left The Roman Church out of utter disgust with, as the man said, "their exclusive nature". He told me his sister felt called to be a priest and had become a nun but was most unhappy and had left the convent "angry and bitter".

They both had "many gay friends, men and women" and were pretty pissed that they were excluded, too. "Almost all our wedding party is gay," they said.

“How can you build a church on the teachings of Jesus Christ and then hate people because they don’t do what you think they should do?” she asked, slack-jawed with astonishment and utter confusion.

They had found The Episcopal Church and, he said, “It was love at first sight. Just like us.” (They shot each other the most endearing look.)

They were absolutely fascinated to learn that I am an Episcopal priest. We must have talked for almost an hour, at the end of which, they asked for my name and a way to contact me.

On their way back from their visit with the priest at St. Paul's, they spotted me in the Pharmacy and told me that they had told the priest that they really, really, really wanted me to preside at their wedding.

I laughed b/c it sounded so ridiculous to me at that moment but when I looked at their faces, I realized that they were dead serious. They said the priest said it was fine and they would fly me there and give me lodging and food.

If I felt woozy from the espresso, you can imagine how that news flew through my body!

Well, anyway, I've got their name, address, and number and we'll see how all of that works out. Honest to Ethel, huh? My great Tuscan adventure just got even more adventurous.

There were other conversations and other lovely things that happened but I have no pictures of any great sights because clearly, this is just not that kind of journey. I think I saw some of the greatest monuments to a civilized society in Rome today.

Young people in love. Young children at play who wanted me to play football with them. Old couples holding hands. Young women walking arm in arm, having relaxed, casual conversations. People sharing a gelato in the warm Roman sun.

I didn't take pictures. That would have been rude. Or, at least, awkward. Besides, they will live forever in my heart, their images longer lasting and grander than that of the Colleseum or the Parthenon and more deeply spiritual and religious than Vatican City.

I did learn of a bus one can take for 35 Euro which tours (drives by) all of the "important sites". I may take that so I can, in fact, say that I was in Rome and saw all those things. But, I can also say that, when I was in Rome, I did what Romans do, and I can assure you that it's not just visiting museums and statues.

Around 8 PM, I felt ready to handle dinner. I went to Mabru Bistro, a five-star place down and across the street from my hotel. I had the Tagliatelle e Funghi Porcini e Finferli (Pasta and Mushrooms). OMG. OMG. OMG.

I chose that dish because first, I want to learn how to make tagliatelle pasta but also because it was stressed to me by several of the wait staff that the porcini are in season and "fresh, fresh, fresh, yes?" and "once they go out of season, there is no more until the next season."

I love the passionate urgency about the freshness of food.

I met the chef and he provided a "supplemento", gratis, the addition of a few Tartufo Nero in Aggiunta (Black Truffles).

It was, in a word, amazing.

He then insisted that I have dessert ("gratis, on me, You simply must taste this before you got to Tuscany!") which was Capezzolo del Dio al Pistacchio – (Pistachio Nipple of the God) which was a mound of frozen ricotta, filled with green pistachio "juice" and topped with a crushed pistachio "nipple".

I think I've died and gone to heaven.

I came here to learn how to cook but I'm learning that there are things I'm going to learn that surpass my understanding and imagination.

So off I go, then, into this new day. No cappuccino for this girl. Maybe not even eggs. Maybe just some buttered toast and some English Breakfast Tea.

Then, it’s a long, lovely day of walking and watching, listening and engaging in conversation, and soaking in centuries of history and eons of hopes for the future which are all contained in conversations with the people on the streets of Rome and in their shops and bistros.

Today, my prayer for Palestine and Israel comes from the statement from Justin Welby, The Archbishop of Canterbury. First let me say that I am quite pleased that the news has begun to include interviews and conversations with Palestinians who have also lost loved ones in the war.

Someone asked, "If Palestinians do not want Hamas to represent them, why don't you throw them off?" The man showed enormous restraint and said, "Have you been to Palestine in the past decade? More and more, we have become an Israeli open-air prison. How are we to throw off two oppressors: Hamas and Israel?"

CNN, the NY Times and RNS (Religious News Service) have also been running some balanced articles along with some really excellent Podcasts, one of which featured interviews, side by side with an Israeli and a Palestinian journalist.

It is clear: War is evil. Full stop. And so is oppression.

Here are the words from Archbishop Welby:
"But in the face of a ground offensive in Gaza, I plead that the sins of Hamas are not borne by the citizens of Gaza, who themselves have faced such suffering over many decades.

The price of evil cannot be paid by the innocent. Civilians cannot bear the costs of terrorists. International humanitarian law recognises that, for the sake of everyone’s humanity, some acts can never be permissible in the chaos of warfare. I pray that Israel does everything it can to limit the harm caused to innocent civilians.

Over two million civilians in Gaza, half of them children, are facing a catastrophe. A humanitarian corridor and convoy are needed as rapidly as possible, as set out in the Geneva Conventions. I pray particularly for the Anglican-run Ahli Arab Hospital and all those caring for the injured, who need medical supplies and generator fuel.

I join with the US Secretary of State and others in urging the Israeli government to exercise their right of defence with the wisdom that might break the cycles of violence under which generations have struggled. Amidst the chaos and confusion of war, and as much as is possible, I join the calls for Israel’s military response to be proportional and to discriminate between civilians and Hamas.

Pray for the people of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Pray for the future of the Holy Land. Pray for those who will weep, and fear, and die tonight.

Lord God, we pray, by your great mercy, defend your children from all perils and dangers of this night."

Buongiorno! Make it a great day!

Friday, October 13, 2023

My Great Tuscan Adventure: Day II

 My Great Tuscan Adventure, Day II

Buongiorno! It's my first morning waking up in Rome. I slept like a foolish man, as I heard said in Ghana, which is to say very, deeply and soundly, without even getting up once to pee (and I always get up at least once to pee.)

Okay, that's probably TMI - Too Much Information - right out of the chute but, you know, I am discovering that this is The City of Too Much Information.

Italians have to explain EVERYTHING in great detail - and with their eyes and their faces as well as their hands - especially when they think they've done something that you think is wrong, but they KNOW isn't and they have to tell you why.

I've got an example with the door to my hotel room - it's not the key, and no, I haven't kept it near my cell phone, and look, even your night housekeeping staff can't get in without jimmying and jiggling so something obviously needs to be filed down or drilled or adjusted - but, instead, I want to tell you about breakfast this morning.

First, as you have already surmised, I love food. I love it enough to respect it and my body. But aging is neither a gentle nor kind process so I eat a little more strategically these days. I try to portion and more evenly distribute my fats, sugar, and carbs throughout the two or three meals I eat a day.

This was my breakfast: scrambled eggs and a lovely cappuccino. What decaf? Decaf? Who drinks decaf? Impossible! And 2% milk? What fresh hell is that? Do you think the gods drink decaf coffee with skim milk in heaven? Are you out of your mind?

When the lovely young lady came to bring me my cappuccino, she looked at my plate and frowned. "Did you need some toast?" She inquired. No, thank you I smiled, admiring her heart-shaped frothy handiwork on the cappuccino.

"No?" she responded, looking as if I had just admitted that I thought matricide was acceptable in certain circumstances. "Ah, then meat? Would senora like me to bring some meat?"

Let me explain here that "meat" in many European countries - as it apparently does here, as well - means "sausage" but is actually a hot dog; or bacon which is grossly under-cooked, sort of browned fat with thin strips of meat throughout and dripping and glistening with grease.

No, I said, smiling. Grazie.

For half a second she registered the same look of shocked surprise mixed with confusion she had when I had turned down the bread but quickly recovered with a cute, sweet Gina Lollobrigida pout.

"American, yes?" she said, probably picking up on my accent. "You eat bacon, eh?"

Of course, I said, to her instant smile, but no, not today.

She shook her head as if I had three heads and one was flopping, probably muttering to herself, "Go figure with these people!"

I had finished my eggs and was halfway through my cappuccino when I decided some fruit was definitely in order, so I put my napkin on my plate, left my phone and my sweater (it's presently 67 degrees and rainy), and got up to return to the buffet in the area next to my table.

When I returned - it was 3 maybe 4 minutes later - everything was gone. My empty dish. My lovely 1/2 cup of cappuccino, my sweater and . . . gasp and gulp! - my phone!!!

Italian pickpockets are one thing, I thought, but Jeeze Louise, my phone!!! Are you serious right now?

I flew out of the room and ran into my server. "My phone!" I said, sounding every bit like an emotional Italian. "My phone!" I said slowly and a bit louder than I intended but in that embarrassing way one speaks to another for whom English is not their Mother Tongue.

"Yes, yes . . ." she said, trying to calm me down with her hands and her face as well as her voice, "Reception. Reception ... ermm ... desk. I put. Reception desk. Phone and sweater."

But, I was not finished! I said. Again, loudly. I... I... and then I sighed loudly, threw up my hands like a proper Italian, and ran toward the Reception-ermm-desk, with the kind of out-of-proportion anger melting into relief that follows anxiety.

The manager, looking up at my face coming toward him, held up my phone and then looked down to return to his work. I surmised this must happen at least six times during breakfast. He had that look of bored distraction Italian/Mediterranean men have with women when they just don't want to engage. (Don't say you haven't seen it because you have. Just watch Di Niro sometime.)

When I returned to the breakfast room, the young woman was waiting for me, full of apologies. Good Lord, was she ever filled with apologies!

And that's when I got the Italian TMI. Full on. Hard press.

I have no real memory of all she said. Something about they have a lot of guests right now and they need to make sure everyone has a seat and that it is clean and that . . . . blah, blah, blah-ditty-blah-blah.

I had my phone. And, my sweater. I wanted my fruit. And, another cappuccino. I waited for a moment when she would catch her breath and I could stop her with, "Cappuccino? Yes? Per favore?"

She stopped right in the middle of her next explanation and snapped to attention. "Yes, of course, senora!" in that tone one uses when royalty has given a command to an underling servant, adding, "Right away. I fix especial for you. And, your fruit. I bring you a nice dish of fruit."

Which then made me feel bad. I slumped back into my seat, aware that the people in my little sitting area were looking at me. I looked up at them and they were smiling at me. Their faces said, "We tried but there was no stopping her." And, "Good for you!"

I have only been in Rome a full 24 hours. I'm afraid I may be coming to a stereotype but I'm trying to develop a coping mechanism to get me through the next few days before I'm off to Tuscany which, I could be wrong but I strongly suspect will be much different than here, in Rome. Well, okay. Different.

I can't imagine what it must be like to live in a country, to occupy a space you call 'home', which is so steeped with thousands of centuries of history and exquisite art and music and deeply admired culture and copied and coveted clothing that you feel simultaneously proud and personally insignificant.

I think it leads to two things, I think. One, that you feel you must constantly explain things to 'outsiders' because, how can we know or understand, really? Except to understand - especially as Americans - that we can not ever fully understand what it must be like to be Roman and Italian?

This leads to the posture of TMI which I experienced with the young Gina Lollobrigida in the Breakfast Room as well as the detached boredom which is easily confused with arrogance from the Robert Di Niro at the Reception Desk (I suspect it may be part of the job as a hotel manager but the attitude is Italian).

I have so much to learn about people. The more I learn, the more I know that I need to learn more. In other words, part of what I love about travel is that I learn just how limited I am and how much more I need to grow.

This is the part of my travels when I realize that I need to slow down. Take a breath. Intentionally skip a few beats. Know my place. Understand my identity and role here. I am a guest. I am a lifelong student, engaged in the ongoing study of the human enterprise and the appreciative inquiry of the various cultural and ethnic and racial and class experiences of being human.

Being here is not about me. If I'm going to more fully enjoy my time here, I've got to get out of my own way. As I learned in Thailand, I have to stop asking, "Why do they do that?" Instead, I need to start asking, "Hmm... why do I do what I do when they do that?"

This is about being curious about others, and learning from them so that I might be a better human being. It's about appreciating the rich history of being American so that I can appreciate the rich history of being Italian, upon which a great deal of being American is also all about.

And, to know that, in the end, Fr. Kourmranian, my Armenian priest mentor in Lowell, MA, was absolutely right, "God is God and people is people."

So, off I go, then to experience more of Rome. It's stopped raining but it's presently 72. Air quality is reportedly poor, so I need to make sure to adjust my walking pace to "saunter". I'm headed over to the Colosseum and will probably get in a good 5-8 mile walk, stopping, of course, for a light lunch around 2 or 3 PM, before everything shuts down around 4 PM. Except, of course, pizza (which is square).

I don't know if it's possible to be addicted to salad but, well, Hi, my name is Elizabeth . . . . .

Or, as I'm called here, Eee-leesss-a-bet. Lovely, init? I sound like somebody else. Someone young and sexy and . . . Oh, shut up! Let a girl have her moment of fantasy, will ya?

Oh, was that TMI?

Today's prayer for Israel and Palestine comes from the United Anglican Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough, which operates the al–Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza.

I offer today's prayer especially mindful that Israel ordered the evacuation of more than a million civilians from the entire northern half of Gaza. Egypt has refused to accept Palestinian refugees, unofficially acknowledging that Israel would never allow them to return to their homeland and refusing to do their work for them. The UN said the order would lead to “devastating humanitarian consequences,” and Gazan officials have told Palestinians not to comply.

Oh, Lord, hear our prayer:

"God of light and salvation, our refuge and our strength, we pray for the people of Israel and Palestine amid the escalating violence taking place in these days. We pray for those killed and injured by rockets from Gaza in southern Israel. May your rod and staff comfort them. We pray for those who are grieving and fearful. We pray for protection over those who have been taken hostage in Gaza.

Oh God, we call on you this day to change hearts, bring an end to this current violence, and protect the people living in this land that is so precious and dear to your heart. Amen."

Buona giornata! Ciao!

My Great Tuscan Adventure: Day I

My Great Tuscan Adventure, Day I

Well, I arrived in Rome at around 9:00 AM, Roman time but it was actually 3 AM in my body. I figure I got about 2 hours of sleep. Which is about what I usually get on a plane but this was much more comfortable sleep. Had we had more time in the air, I would have slept longer. Of this, there is no doubt.

As it is, I got to my hotel - about 45 minutes from the airport - and. by the grace of God or Pinocchio or Geppeto or the Blue Fairy or whoever it is who's in charge of things today, the folks at the front desk had mercy on me and allowed me in my room at 11 AM vs. 2 PM.

I am a bit disappointed with my room. It's small. That's okay. I'm only going to be here until Sunday morning. Three nights is all and I'm going to be out all day most days. But it has all the essentials one would expect and need: a bed, hot water pot with instant coffee (Yuck) and tea, a toilet, with a bidet, of course, a lovely shower, and a small closet for hanging clothes.

The view? Well, let's say I'm not looking at the Wonders of Rome. Indeed, I'm looking at another building and an alleyway. Bunch of concrete and a tangle of wires and metal. Not pretty.

I confess: I immediately took a nap. I slept fitfully but I slept. I'm now hungry so in a bit I'm going to head out to find something to eat. This is Rome. That ought not to be a difficult excursion.

I am also going to call Ms. Conroy. She's having her second eye surgery this morning. I hate that I'm away for that but this trip was planned long before her second eye surgery so we just have to suck it up and do the best we can.

Our dear friend Anita is driving her to and from the surgicenter and will be walking and feeding the puppies (no bending or stooping for 3 days).

Our next-door neighbors John and Lisa are also going to be checking in on her and our across-the-canal neighbor Betsy is a retired nurse, so between them and all of our friends who will be checking in, I think we've got this covered.

I also left her with some soup in the freezer and one of her favorite meals of chicken, mashed potatoes and corn in the fridge so she won't starve.

I'll call her again tonight around 8 PM my time, 2 PM her time which is about when she should be home. We are absolutely loving WhatsApp. We can text and video chat and there is no cost. I'm sure that, after they get you hooked there will be some cost. Just like Netflix and Hulu with their "introductory rates" that suddenly soar. Well, we'll deal with that later.

So, a quick shower, fresh clothes, a bit of a walk for something to eat and that's about as much as this Happy but Weary Wanderer is going to be able to stand for the day.

Make it a great day, everyone. Walk into the day with a heart filled with gratitude and you'll be sure to end it with a heart filled with love and a mind filled with happiness.

My prayer for Israel and Palestine today comes from the mind and the heart of John Lenon:

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin' life in peace.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

Bom dia. Ciao!


Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Issac Saul: From a broken, weary heart.


This is long but, in a word, brilliant. I don't agree with everything in it, but I appreciate the attempt to view the nuance, grey areas and humanity.

Isaac Saul

People ask me all the time if I am "pro-Israel" because I am a Jew who has lived in Israel, and my answer is that being "pro-Israel" or being "pro-Palestine" or being a "Zionist" does not properly capture the nuance of thought most people do or should have about this issue. It certainly doesn't capture mine.

I have a lot to say. I’ve spent the last 72 hours writing, texting, and talking to Israelis, Jews, Muslims, and Palestinians. Much of my reaction is going to piss off people on "both sides," but I am exhausted and hurting and I do not think there is any way to discuss this situation without being radically honest about my views. So I'm going to try to say what I believe to be true the best I can.

Let me start with this: It could have been me.

That's a hard thought to shake when watching the videos out of Israel — the concert goers fleeing across an empty expanse, the hostages being paraded through the streets, the people shot in the head at bus stops or in their cars. I went to those parties in the desert, I rubbed shoulders with Israelis and Arabs and Jews and Muslims, I could have easily accepted an invitation to some concert near Sderot and gone without a care, only to be indiscriminately slaughtered. Or, perhaps worse, taken hostage and tortured.

I don’t believe Hamas is killing Israelis to liberate themselves, nor do I believe they are doing it to make peace. They're doing this because they represent the devil on the shoulder of every oppressed Palestinian who has lost someone in this conflict. They're doing it because they want vengeance. They are evening the score, and acting on the worst of our human impulses, to respond to blood with blood — an inclination that is easy to give in to after what their people have endured. It should not be hard to understand their logic — it is only hard to accept that humans are capable of being driven to this. Not defending Hamas is a very low bar to clear. Please clear it.

It’s not possible to recap the entire 5,000 year history of people fighting over this strip of land in one newsletter. There are plenty of easily accessible places you can learn about it if you want to (and, by the way, many of you should — far too many people speak on this issue with an obscene amount of ignorance, loads of arrogance, and a narrow historical lens focused on the last few decades). But I'll briefly highlight a few things that are important to me.

In my opinion, the Jewish people have a legitimate historical claim to the land of Israel. Jews had already been expelled and returned and expelled again a half dozen times before the rise of the Muslim and Arab rule of the Ottoman Empire. Of course it’s messy because we Jews and Arabs and Muslims are all cousins and descendents of the same Canaanites. But Arabs won the land centuries ago the same way Israel and Jews won it in the 20th century: Through conflict and war. The British defeated the Ottoman Empire and then came the Balfour Declaration, which amounted to the British granting the area to the Jewish people, a promise they’d later try to renege on — all before the wars that have defined the region since 1948.

That historical moment in the late 1940s was unique. After World War II, with many Arab and Muslim states already in existence, and after six million Jews were slaughtered, the global community felt it was important to grant the Jewish people a homeland. In a more logical or just world that homeland would have been in Europe as a kind of reparation for what the Nazis and others before them had done to the Jews, or perhaps in the Americas — like Alaska — or somewhere else. But the Jews wanted Israel, the British had taken to the Zionist movement, the British had conquered the Ottoman Empire which handed them control of the land, and America and Europe didn’t want the Jews. As a result, we got Israel.

The Arab states had already rejected a partitioned Israel repeatedly before World War II and rejected it again after the Holocaust and the end of the war. They did not want to give up even a little bit of their land to a bunch of Jewish interlopers who were granted it all of a sudden by British interlopers who had arrived a hundred years prior. Who could blame them? It had been centuries since Jews lived there in large numbers, and now they wanted to return in waves as secularized Europeans. Many of us would probably react the same way. So, just as humans have done forever, they fought. The many existing Arab states turned against the burgeoning new Jewish state. One side won and one side lost. This is the brutal and broken and violent world we live in, but it is what created the global world order we have now.

Are Israelis and British people "colonizers" because of this 20th century history? Sure. But that view flattens thousands of years of history and conflict, and the context of World War I and World War II. I don’t view Israelis and Brits as colonizers any more than the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Romans or the Mongols or the Egyptians or the Ottomans who all battled over the same strip of land from as early as 800 years before Jesus’s time until now. The Jews who founded Israel just happened to have won the last big battle for it.

You can’t speak about this issue in a vacuum. You can't pretend that it wasn't just 60 years ago when Israel was surrounded on all sides by Arab states who wanted to wipe them off the face of the planet. Despite the balance of power shifting this century, that threat is still a reality. And you can't talk about that without remembering the only reason the Jews were in Israel in the first place was that they'd spent the previous centuries fleeing a bunch of Europeans who also wanted to wipe them off the face of the planet. And then Hitler showed up.

American partisans have a narrow view of this history, and an Americentric lens that is infuriating to witness. As Lee Fang perfectly put it, "Hamas would absolutely execute the ACAB lefties cheering on horrific violence against Israelis if they lived in Gaza & U.S. right-wingers blindly cheering on Israeli subjugation of Palestinians would rebel twice as violently if Americans were subjected to similar occupation."

And yet, many Americans only view modern Israel as the "powerful" one in this dynamic. Which is true — they obviously are. It isn't a fair fight and it hasn't been for decades because Israel's government is rich and resourceful, has the backing of the United States and most of Europe, and has an incredibly powerful military. At the same time, Israeli leadership has made technological and military advancements that have further tipped those scales — all while the Israeli government has helped create a resource-thin open air prison of two million Arabs in Gaza.

Conversely, Palestinians are devoid of any real unified leadership, and the Arab world is now divided on the issue of Palestine. Israel is unwilling to give the people in Gaza and the West Bank more than an inch of freedom to live. These are largely the refugees and descendents of the refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars that Israel won. And you can't keep two million people in the condition that those in the Gaza strip live in and not expect events like this.

I'm sorry to say that while the blood on the ground is fresh. The Israelis who were killed in this attack largely have nothing to do with those conditions other than being born at a time when Israel and Jews have the upper hand in this conflict. Some of the victims weren’t even Israeli — they were just tourists. This is why we describe them as “innocent” and why Hamas has only reaffirmed that they are a brutal terror organization with this attack — an organization that I hope is quickly toppled, for the sake of both the Palestinian people and the Israelis. But as someone with a deep love for Israel, with friends in danger and people I know still missing, it breaks my heart to say it but I'm saying it again because it remains perhaps the most salient point of context in a tangled mess full of centuries of context:

You cannot keep two million people living in the conditions people in Gaza are living in and expect peace.

You can't. And you shouldn’t. Their environment is antithetical to the human condition. Violent rebellion is guaranteed. Guaranteed. As sure as the sun rising.

And the cycle of violence seems locked in to self-perpetuate, because both sides see a score to settle:

1) Israel has already responded with a vengeance, and they will continue to. Their desire for violence is not unlike Hamas’s — it’s just as much about blood for blood as any legitimate security measure. Israel will “have every right to respond with force." Toppling Hamas — a group, by the way, Israel erred in supporting — will now be the objective, and civilian death will be seen as necessary collateral damage. But Israel will also do a bunch of things they don't have a right to. They will flatten apartment buildings and kill civilians and children and many in the global community will probably cheer them on while they do it. They have already stopped the flow of water, electricity, and food to two million people, and killed dozens of civilians in their retaliatory bombings. We should never accept this, never lose sight that this horror is being inflicted on human beings. As the group B’Tselem said, “There is no justification for such crimes, whether they are committed as part of a struggle for freedom from oppression or cited as part of a war against terror.” I mourn for the innocents of Palestine just as I do for the innocents in Israel. As of late, many, many more have died on their side than Israel's. And many more Palestinians are likely to die in this spate of violence, too.

Unfortunately, most people in the West only pay attention to this story when Hamas or a Palestinian in Gaza or the West Bank commits an act of violence. Palestinian citizens die regularly at the hands of the Israeli military and their plight goes largely unnoticed until they respond with violence of their own. Israel had already killed an estimated 250 Palestinians, including 47 children, this year alone. And that is just in the West Bank.

2) Every single time Israel kills someone in the name of self-defense they create a handful of new radicalized extremists who will feel justified in wanting to take an Israeli life in retribution sometime in the future. Half of Gaza’s two million people are under the age of 19 — they know little besides Hamas rule (since 2006), Israeli occupation, blockades, and rockets falling from the sky. The suffering of these innocent children born into this reality is incomprehensible to me. They will suffer more now because of Hamas’s actions and Israel’s response, all through no fault of their own.

There is no way out of this pattern until one side exercises restraint or leaders on both sides find a new solution. Israelis will tell you that if Palestinians put their guns down then the war would end, but if Israel put their guns down they'd be wiped off the planet. I don't have a crystal ball and can’t tell you what is true. But what I am certain of is that every time Israel kills more innocents they engender more rage and hatred and recruit more Palestinians and Arabs to the cause against them. There is no disputing this.

So, why did this happen now?

I'm not sure how to answer that question except to say it was bound to happen eventually. It was a massive policy and intelligence failure and Netanyahu should pay the price politically — he is a failed leader. Iran probably helped organize the attack and the money freed up by the Biden administration's prisoner swap probably didn't help the situation, either. Israel's increasingly extremist government and settlers provoking Palestinians certainly didn't help. Nor has going to the Al-Aqsa mosque and desecrating it. Nor do blockades and bombings and indiscriminate subjugation of a whole people. Nor does refusing to talk to non-terrorist leaders in Palestine. Nor does illegally continuing to expand and steal what is left of Palestinian land, as many Jews and Israelis have been doing in the 21st century despite cries from the global community to stop. A violent response was predictable — in fact, plenty of people did predict it.

Israel is forever stuffing these people into tinier and tinier boxes with fewer and fewer resources. But if you want to blame Israeli leaders for continuing to expand and settle land that does not belong to them (as I do), then you should also spare some blame for Palestinian leaders for repeatedly not accepting a partitioned Israel during the 20th century that could have led to peace (as I do).

Please also remember this: Hamas is still an extremist group. The Palestinian people do not have a government or leaders who legitimately represent their interests, and it sure as hell isn't Hamas. Will some Palestinians cheer and clap at the dead, or spit on them as they are paraded through Gaza? Yes they will. And they have. Many will also mourn because they loathe Hamas and know this will only make things worse. This is no different than how some Americans cheer at the dead in every single war we've ever fought. It's no different than the Israelis who set up lawn chairs to watch their government bomb Palestine and cheer them on, too. This doesn't mean Palestinians or Israelis or Americans are evil — it means some of them are giving in to their violent impulses, and their zealous feelings of righteous vengeance.

Solutions, you ask? I can’t say I have any. If you came here for that, I’m sorry. The two-state solution looks dead to me. A three-state solution makes some sense but feels out of the view of all the people who matter and could make it happen. I wish a one-state solution felt realistic — a world of Israelis and Arabs and Muslims and Jews living side by side with equal rights, fully integrated and defused of their hate, is a version of Israel that I would adore. But it seems less and less realistic with every new act of violence.

Am I pro-Israel or pro-Palestine? I have no idea.

I'm pro-not-killing-civilians.

I'm pro-not-trapping-millions-of-people-in-open-air-prisons.

I'm pro-not-shooting-grandmas-in-the-back-of-the-head.

I'm pro-not-flattening-apartment-complexes.

I'm pro-not-raping-women-and-taking-hostages.

I'm pro-not-unjustly-imprisoning-people-without-due-process.

I'm pro-freedom and pro-peace and pro- all the things we never see in this conflict anymore.

Whatever this is, I want none of it.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Give God a Chance

Si vis pacem, para bellum (Publius Flavious, fourth or fifth century)

“If you want peace, prepare for war.”

That hasn’t worked out so well in the Middle East.

On 7 October 2023, a significant escalation of the Gaza–Israel conflict began with a coordinated surprise offensive by multiple Palestinian militant groups against nearby Israeli cities, Gaza border crossings, adjacent military installations, and civilian settlements.

The images are horrifying: Innocent Israeli citizens being pulled out of their private cars and homes by Hamas (Palestinian) rebels and kidnapped, taken to one of the many underground tunnels in the city to be used as human shields.

Other images show homes and apartments and office buildings in Gaza being bombed, destroyed and demolished. People, innocent men, women, and children, being killed.

There is no doubt that this is the beginning of another long, protracted war in the Middle East. In the end, I fear Gaza will be no more, neither side wishing the other to live there.

I am no advocate of war. I abhor violence. Violence and war have never – ever – paved the pathway to peace.

Let me be clear: Hamas is a terrorist organization (not "a people" as one lovely but uneducated Christian lady told me) that has not served the Palestinians well.

Their actions should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The images we are seeing are hideous and terrifying and no one – no one who’s been paying attention – ought to be surprised.

I'll repeat: No one ought to be surprised.

And, I'll say this: No one’s hands are clean.

There have been so many thousands of years of blood spilled on the ground of Israel and Palestine, that it is hard to believe any kind of life can be sustained there.

The ancient war continues today between the offspring of Ishmael, the firstborn son of Abraham and Haggar, and the offspring of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, over who is the “legitimate” heir of the land. The offspring of Ishmael are known as the Muslims and those of Isaac, the Jews.

Israel became an independent nation in 1948, shortly after the end of WWII. The Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, provided the urgent impulse for the re-establishment of the Jewish state. The hope was to solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.

However, the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was never implemented and, in fact, provoked the 1947–1949 Palestine War. Providing a home state for one nation prompted the expulsion of another. The UN agency created to serve the displaced population (UNRWA), reports that 5.9 million Palestinian are currently registered as refugees.

There have been flare-ups, escalations, and de-escalations but ancient tensions persist. Most recently, the Israeli military has been carrying out an intensified campaign of arrest raids, particularly in and around the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus, after a spate of terrorist attacks in Israeli cities that killed 19 people in the Spring.

The military raids, which take place almost nightly, are often deadly. Close to 200 Palestinians and nearly 30 Israelis have been killed so far this year – already surpassing last year's annual figures and the highest number since 2005.

The Israeli authorities say that many of those were militants killed during clashes or while trying to perpetrate attacks, but some Palestinian protesters and uninvolved civilians have also been killed.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes both people blind and toothless.

When I was there in 2020, I saw The Wall. It is, in a word, hideous. The Wall separates families, and forces people to drive miles out of their way to get to work, or the clinic, or the hospital, or school. The Israelis have blatantly ignored the agreement made with the UN and built settlements on land that has been designated Palestinian.

Worse, when you look at the pattern of Israeli settlements on Palestinian-designated land, you see that they have done so with strategic limitations to access to water.

The Israelis control the flow of water and frequently and without explanation shut off the water supply. When pressed for a reason, they will say “routine maintenance” but everyone knows it is “routine power play” – just to let the Palestinians know who is in control.

I was struck by the number of large black cylinders on the rooftops of Palestinian homes. When I inquired what they were, I was informed that this was a reserve water supply, for those times when they would be denied water – sometimes for as long as 4-6 weeks – for “routine maintenance”. Besides homes, this affects Palestinian shops, stores, clinics, and hospitals.

Palestinians have no sovereignty as they are occupied by Israel. They are disenfranchised – they have no voice or vote or their own system of government, laws, local or national defense. They cannot travel freely as Israel will not issue them passports; Jordan will, but Israel looks scrupulously over their shoulder.

I’m just going to say this, flat out: The violence we see in the Middle East is the inevitable outcome of Israel’s persistent and systematic violation of the rights of Palestinians.

Golda Meir famously said, “Peace will come when Arabs love their children more than they hate us.” Yasser Arafat just as famously said, “Palestine is the cement that holds the Arab world together, or it is the explosive that blows it apart.”

I saw these words of Nelson Mandela written on The Wall in Palestine: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

All I’m saying is this: Palestinians who are Muslims are not monsters. Neither are Israelis who are Jews. The descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are all – each and every one – children of God.

It is important to note that after Abraham tried to sacrifice his son, Isaac appears never to return home. He is not reported in attendance at his mother’s funeral. After the attempted sacrifice, Isaac is seen again in Beer-la’hai-roi, when his bride Rebekah is brought to him.

If you look on a map, Beer-la’hai-roi is not at all far from Beer-sheba and Paran which is the place where Haggar and Ishmael came to live after surviving banishment by Abraham at the behest of Sarah, his wife.

I wonder. Did Isaac reject his parents and find comfort in the arms of Haggar? Did he find solace in his relationship with his brother Haggar?

How many years of peace existed between the tribes of Isaac and those of Ishmael? I wonder what difference it might make if the Israelites and Palestinians came to recognize and embrace this part of their mutual history and ancestry.

All I am saying is this: Any comment or analysis of what is going on presently in Israel and Palestine that doesn’t take ALL of these facts into consideration today is shallow, hollow, immoral, and dehumanizing.

And, any interference by Christian evangelists who are invested in their interpretation of the Rapture at the cost of human lives is theologically and morally bankrupt.

Good Christians asking for prayers for Israel without asking for prayers for the Palestinian people are playing politics with prayer

All I am saying is this: I pray for the sovereign nation of Israel.

I also pray to see the formation of the sovereign nation of Palestine.

Because the origin of peace is not the preparation of war. Both the Torah and the Qur'an are quite clear: Peace is one of the names of God, and the origin of peace is in right relationship with God.

All I am saying (with no apology to John Lennon), is give God a chance.

Here's a short timeline of some of the more recent history of the Middle East Conflict

PS: For a balanced religious perspective on the Middle East, please check out FOSNA: Friends of Sabeel North America.