Friday, September 30, 2016

You No Hear Me

Dinah has Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), caused by a random deletion or mutation of chromosome-15, which is typically not inherited. PWS affects one in every 10,000 to 30,000 people worldwide. At birth, they have weak muscle tone (hypotonia), difficulty eating, poor growth, and slow development, resulting in a high infant mortality. They have distinctive facial features like a narrow forehead, almond shaped eyes, and a triangular mouth. They are also typically small in stature, have small hands, and feet. If they survive infancy, during childhood they develop an insatiable appetite resulting in chronic overeating (hyperphagia) and food hoarding often resulting in morbid obesity. People with PWS have significant intellectual impairment, low IQ (in the range of 40-60), and learning disabilities. Most suffer from temper outbursts, stubbornness, and compulsive behaviors like picking at their skin. PWS people require a lifetime of care and supervision and while life expectancy continues to improve, the average age is forty, more often dying of complications that result from morbid obesity.

Dinah fits the general profile of a PWS person, except for two anomalies. What had further complicated Dinah’s situation was that she had suffered from pneumonia and a 108-degree temperature at nine-months-old. My mother had kept Dinah breathing using CPR while my dad drove them to the nearest hospital over an hour away. Some doctors have speculated that the high temperature and lack of oxygen caused brain damage, subsequently effecting Dinah’s future ability to form words and sentences. Still, Dinah has beaten the odds of survival due to PWS and her lack of ability to communicate effectively. Leading to the second unusual aspect of her life, as I write this in 2016, at sixty-one Dinah is the oldest known living Prader-Willi in Arizona.

In 1998, while at ArtWorks in Tucson, Arizona, Dinah created a piece of art she titled Blue Jesus. It is an 8x10 linocut print. She carved her childlike stick figure of Jesus on the cross, onto a large piece of rubber-like material. From that carving, one print was made and I have it. Jesus’ head is oval as is his mouth. His eyes are somewhat square in shape. The eyes and the mouth are hollow; there are no pupils, neither are there teeth, just simple shapes. The trunk is a square box, out of which the arms extend at odd angles. The bottom half of the trunk in distended from which the legs jut, neither equal in length nor width. The arms and legs are not in proportional balance with the trunk. The way Dinah drew the figure it appears to be androgynous. Her sketch of Jesus makes him look misshaped, strange, odd, broken—disabled. Around the cross, she carved out, what look like, tears drops radiating upward from the cross. When the ink was applied, Jesus became aquamarine blue and the tears drops, dark red. Our eyes are drawn to the center of the painting by the contrast of the colors, as if it were a mandala.

I think Blue Jesus is Dinah’s self-portrait. Her art speaks for her, if only we can listen to what she and Blue Jesus have to say. Sometimes when my sister is trying to tell me a story, I simply don’t understand what she’s saying. If she gets weary of trying different ways to help me figure out what she’s trying to tell me, she’ll say, “You no hear me.”

In Jesus’ parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), I think Jesus might be feeling a bit of my sister’s pain. At the end of the story, Jesus says almost in frustration at not being listened to, “Even if someone were to rise from the dead, we wouldn’t listen to them.” I wonder if Jesus were still roaming around the earth today, 2,000 years old, would we listen to what he would have to say? Or would he simply be a freak of nature and someone we’d become so comfortable seeing that we’d stop listening? Like yesterday’s news as it were, no longer a novelty.

Today it seems that those who profess to be Christians don’t pay much attention to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ statement that we should love our enemies seems to be long forgotten. Most of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to follow, if at times, impossible—I imagine for most, much easier to ignore. For what seems to be the majority of those who call themselves Christians, it appears to be more convenient to worship Jesus, which he never asked us to do, than to follow his teachings—like love our enemies.

I wonder if Jesus were blue, would that make him interesting enough to listen to? Or would we find Jesus saying to us, “You no hear me?”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Peacemaking: Hope for the Future

Sunday was the fifteenth anniversary when two airplanes flew into New York City’s twin towers, destroying both and killing thousands. At the same time another airplane flew into the Pentagon, causing massive destructive. All the while, a fourth airplane crashed into the Pennsylvania landscape before it could be flown into the US Capitol. Since that infamous day, terrorism has become a chief topic of concern in our daily lives. Our concern for our safety has been expanded beyond our travel, to athletic events, concerts, and our schools; anywhere a crowd can gather. While political, economic, and culture issues are central to terrorism related issues, what draws the most heat in the conversation is religion; primarily the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have all played some role in international terrorism scene.

What seems to be at threat is our spiritual safety. Interfaith groups have taken on the topic of creating safe space in order to express one’s religion, while learning about other religions.

In March of 2010, I was invited to attend an interreligious conference at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) along with my colleague, Ahmad Shqeirat, Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, Arizona. The conference was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Twenty Anglican (Episcopal) and twenty Muslim leaders were invited to discuss a peaceful response to what would then be the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Ahmad and I had been invited because we were leaders of a gathering on September 11, 2009 in Tempe, which was held in response to the threatened burning of the Holy Quran by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.

The VTS conference was three, twelve-hour days packed with listening to intense stories. One of the most disturbing stories came from my friend, Ahmad. On November 20, 2006, he and five other imams were escorted off of a US Airways flight bound for Phoenix out of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. Before boarding the plane, the imams had said their noonday prayers in Arabic, apparently making some passengers waiting to board the flight, uncomfortable. Ahmad told us that one imam was blind. All six were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs, escorted off the plane, forced to walk unassisted down a ramp, placed in separate police cars, and taken to a detention center for interrogation. After hours of questioning, a federal agent determined their detention was unwarranted and the six were returned to the airport. US Airways refused to issue them new tickets or let them board another flight. The imams had to purchase new tickets from another airline in order to get home.
This kind of treatment of innocent Muslims who are US citizens is alarming.

Since that time Phoenix mosques, including the one in Tempe, have been defaced and picketed and their members threatened. And of course, in our current Presidential election, the basic rights of Muslim-American citizens have been called into question and the debate has extended to Muslim immigration. Because of fear, the atmosphere in America and Arizona has called into question one of this country’s most cherished constitutional rights—the freedom of religion.

I am not going to try and make any generalized statements about how Christians or people of faith should respond to terrorism, US citizen’s rights, or immigration. I would, thought, like share with you how I try to understand the hard work of peacemaking, creating safe space, and listening.

Let’s take a look at Micah 4:1-5 as an example of how to be peacemakers. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BCE. He was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. Micah said that religious worship without social justice is meaningless. He was concerned with ethical issues and the exploitation of the unemployed, those who had jobs, and landowners. In chapter four, Micah offered a formula for peacemaking, which I believe still applies today.

Inclusivity—Being in the presence of God is inclusive and welcoming experience. (4:1) God invited all people to the sacred mountain. What does that mean for me? I want to use language that is inclusive and welcoming. I don’t use language like “my God.” God is not my personal God, nor is God exclusive to Christianity.

Accessibility—Everyone has access to the divine teachings. (4:2b) I try to use language about God that doesn’t create a barrier between someone and the divine. In other words, when I speak, preach, or write, I work hard at not using theological lingo, words like sin, salvation, incarnation, or Trinity. Most clergy can’t agree on what these words mean and many people that come to our churches don’t agree on the definitions or these words or don’t know what they mean. Frankly it doesn’t matter. My language should not be a barrier to someone hearing the divine message.

Non-violence—God’s people will lay down their tools of war and become peacemakers. (4:3b) Howard Thurman (1899-1981) scholar, teacher, preacher, prophet, and mystic wrote that, “Non-violence is not merely a mood or climate, or even an attitude. It is a technique…a discipline…it is a rejection of physical force, a renunciation of the tools of physical violence. (Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, 125) He goes to say that, “Not to fight at all is to choose a weapon by which one fights…Of all the weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating.” (122) I personally can’t find any other way to follow the ways of YHVH than to be a pacifist.

Safety—God’s people will accept other people’s differences by creating safe space for all people. (4:4) My own experience has taught me that the only way I can create safe space for another person is to listen to their story. When I went to the VTS workshop we listened to one another’s stories. I listened to Ahmad and he has listened to me. I know about his faith as a Sunni Muslim from his perspective, which is also different from being Shia or Sufi. And he knows about my religious ideas. We have prayed together. We have shared meals. We know about each other’s families because we have met them. And we have been honest with one another about our differences in religious beliefs and practices. In the words of Micah, Ahmad and I sit under our own fig tree and neither of us has made the other one afraid.

For some of us September 11, 2001 is raw in our memory. It’s an event that is seared in our mind. For others, though, 9/11 is something that happened in history, like Pearl Harbor Day—while you understand the significance of the event, it happened before you could remember of before you were born. Or maybe you’re from another country and September 11, 2001 is something you can relate to because attacks like that have happened in your country. Whatever your relationship to September 11, 2001 might be, the threat of terrorism and war is present in our daily lives like a societal cancer. The question is how do we now, fifteen years later, bring about healing and peace?

Yes, we must respect the dignity every person that has suffered; with reverence for those who lost their lives, with grief for families who lost loved ones and friends, with honor for those who willingly gave their lives to save others. But, then, what do we do next? For me, my only response is to live a life of inclusivity, accessibility, non-violence, and creating safe space by listening. By working at peacemaking I feel that this is the best way I can honor those who have suffered—it is also the only way I can imagine that we have any hope for a peaceful future.