Sunday, May 17, 2015

Peace Sign

I drive into the Twin Cities about once or twice a month. Taking the freeway, I exit on Randolph Avenue in Saint Paul either to have lunch with a friend or keep an appointment with my spiritual director. 

Often there is a person holding up a sign at the off ramp. The person wants money, I suspect actually needs money.

There are lots of reasons not to give such a person money. They might spend it on something unsavory. They might be a scammer and not really in need at all.They ruin the look of the neighborhood nearby. (I have actually heard these last two excuses from a few people.)  They should make use of the many social services available to the poor. Etc. Etc.

I always give them money, as much as I can, in fact. Buddhists will tell you – and have told me – that it is a blessing to have the opportunity to give. It’s a grace. That’s how I see it.

Others will say that what these folks really want is some interaction, a greeting, a conversation, to be seen. It’s hard enough for me to talk to people I know well, much less strangers, much less someone who might view me as somehow other. And I've seen too many Uncle Tom scenarios where the privileged person makes nice with the under-privileged person and is rewarded with jollity and deference. Nope. I won't act that part.

But I always smile and say something: how’re you doing? God bless you. Stay warm. Something quick and superficial. Usually, I have a green light and barely have time for a smile before I have to turn onto my street.  Today I had a red light.

There was the first woman I'd ever seen in that spot. She was late middle age, early fifties, I’d say. Slightly overweight and very shabby looking. Her pink knit pants were dirty as if she’d been sitting on the ground. The sign she held was a piece of bent cardboard with a message on it. The message was so wordy and so long that I’m sure no one could have read it.

But I knew what it said.” I lost my job 18 months ago and have to feed three children. I am alone and any help would be appreciated. “  Or something like that. As she was, no one would be hiring her any time soon, even in our state of full employment. 

I reached out my window and handed her a bill, smiled at her and said God bless you. She asked God to bless me, too and she seemed a bit surprised. Do women not hand out money to other women? To her? Do they not invoke the Lord?

Waiting for the light to change, I wondered if I should roll down the window and ask her a mild question or mention the possibility of rain. Then the light turned green and I looked out my window to wave to her. 

She was waiting for me. Giving me the very biggest smile she had, she flashed me the peace sign. I was just able to manage a quick peace sign back, turn the steering wheel and continue on my now very merry way.

The peace sign is an insider thing. It says we know each other. It says we are compatriots, tribesmen. We share beliefs, experiences. We are in league. I don’t think I've received such a greeting in thirty years. There was a time when it was so common it barely meant anything. Long hair, a string of beads, a flowered shirt - flash the sign. March for peace, Civil Rights, Animal Rights - flash the sign. In line for a Stones concert - flash the sign.

Today, though, it meant a lot. We were not just two people behaving civilly to each other. She was a person to me and I was a person to her. And it was she who broke the barrier, not I.  Just for that second, there was something real between us. She gave me what I was not able to give - a human moment.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Different Kind of Mother - A Different Kind of Day

Robert Frost famously and rightly said, “Home is where, if you go there, they have to take you in.” The woman and her son dying of thirst in the desert surely knew, if they’d ever doubted it, that the place they recently left was no home and never had been. A slave is property. She can be used just as a piece of crockery is used, fill it with what you want, have it for a while then toss it all out.

Sarah was finished with Hagar and Ishmael. There was no need of either of them once Isaac was born. In fact, it was possible that Abraham, the old romantic, might just decide to let Ishmael share in Isaac’s inheritance. So out the door they went into a desperate and deadly future.

How much of a mother to Ishmael was Hagar? At first, she was simply a vessel to deliver to Abraham some sort of son so that his line and fortune would continue. Did she love Ishmael then? Did she delight in his little-boy antics, or did she withhold that love knowing he would not be hers for much longer? He would have a clear future. She might be allowed a livelihood. Would he cherish her or would she embarrass him when he came into his true place?

We will never know because that story did not play out. What did play out was their exile from the house and land of Abraham. Certainly, wandering there in the desert Hagar loved Ishmael. They shared fear, hunger, thirst, despair. Did she look at him and feel she had failed him? If she’d been just a bit more conciliatory, would they have been allowed to stay? If he’d been just a bit less beautiful, clever, full of himself, would he have been more tolerable to Sarah? Can you possibly ever wish your child to be less than he is?

Unable to bear the sight of his dying, she placed him a ways (a bow shot) off and wept. It was then that an angel of the Lord opened her eyes and showed her where a spring flowed and their thirst was no more. The angel assured Hagar that they would be safe now and that God had heard the voice of the boy. “God was with the boy and he grew up,” we are told in Genesis. Was this a happy ending?

The theme for Lent at our parish this year was “In the Desert”. Our prayer group held a number of sessions on this theme, one of which was a lectio divina prayer on Hagar’s story. As we prayed with the text, the people in the group (even the men) focused on Hagar’s motherhood -- not on her meeting with the Lord, which is what I wanted them to focus on. They could not turn away from this homeless mother and her unwanted child. They said that motherhood was itself a desert. Even in the midst of a loving family, it can be a lonely job with a world of uncertainty.

Our prayers at the close of the session were said for the mothers we know and had and are, for mothers who wonder about their abilities and about their future. We prayed for children who find themselves out on the street. We prayed for the self-righteous, cold-hearted mothers who turn them away.

Earlier in the story Hagar, taking refuge in the desert from Sarah’s mistreatment, was told that Ishmael would be a “wild ass of a man with his hand against everyone and everyone’s against him.” I had always felt this to be of little comfort to poor Hagar, but my friends in prayer group decided that it meant that Ishmael would not be pushed around and owned as his mother was. He would be his own person and if that meant having his hand raised against everyone, then so be it. Before he’d be a slave, he’d be buried in his grave, to paraphrase the song. *

Hagar and Ishmael are not exactly heroes in the Judeo-Christian tradition.They are written out of the narrative early on. But that day, that mother and that child in that desert spoke to us. They told us that God takes care of even the outcast, even the foreigner, even the trouble-makers --- especially the trouble makers.
Happy Mothers Day.

You can find the story of Hagar in Genesis 16. 17. 21.

* “Oh Freedom” a American folk song, associated with the Civil Rights Movement