Thursday, June 30, 2005

A sacred trust

It isn't every day that somebody I've never met calls me to say that they have thirty minutes until the bank forecloses on their house, and they need over three thousand dollars to save it.

OK, I admit, today is the first time that ever happened to me.

The call came totally out of the blue. Before I even had time to say hello, there was a seventy-year old woman pleading with me to help her, that she was about to lose her home of forty-six years that she and her husband built with their own hands. She was a member of my church years ago, though I've never met her.

So I told her I'd see what could be done. The first thing I did was to call her bank, hoping that things weren't as dire as she was claiming. Unfortunately, they were. I got on with the vice president of the bank, who told me that, yes, indeed, they were foreclosing on her house in twenty minutes.

"Sir, I am pleading with you to give me twenty-four hours to see if our church can get together the funds to make this payment, so we don't have to put a seventy year old woman on the street."

"I can't do that."

That is so fucked up. How do you live with yourself? How do you sleep at night?

"Sir, isn't there anything you can do? You are, after all, the vice president. You must have some authority."


"I'll give you till five o'clock."

So I started making phone calls. I called the church, and some people I know, and a couple of church organizations. I got some resistance. I didn't know this woman, but some other people did, and the whole story started tumbling out.

"...son is a doctor, but he's a drug addict and out of work..."

"...daughter isn't working, can't hold down a job..."

"...we've been through this before with her..."

But after I talked to people for a minute, I noticed something interesting. They told me "No. No, I don't think so. No, I don't think this is a good idea. No. OK, how much?" It really didn't take all that much persuading. People had reservations, but ultimately, nobody thought a seventy year old woman on the street was a good solution to this problem. Everybody knew this wasn't a perfect situation, but everybody wanted to get involved anyway. I was so proud of them.

By two o'clock, I had promises and pledges for most of the money.

Now came the hard part. I had promised those who agreed to donate that I would drive down and talk to this woman, and see if there was any realistic hope that, if we helped her this time, she would be able to go on making the payments. I knew the neighborhood she lived in from the address, a run-down, lousy part of town. Her house was poorly maintained, with a broken-down Jeep out front. Inside, her son's medical diplomas were hanging on the wall, an impressive collection, many with "cum laude" and other additional honors. She told me her son was in the hospital, that he had been in and out of the hospital for the past several months. She told me she had mortgaged the house to pay his medical bills. I asked her if she had a copy of the latest mortgage statement from the bank. She brought it over to me, and my jaw dropped.

The principle balance was over $450,000.

My head was spinning. I had assumed this was a $50,000 or maybe a $100,000 mortgage. I had assumed that the money she owed was payments she had missed over at least two months. Turns out it was just one month's back payment from the month of April. She has income of about $600 a month from Social Security. There is no way she can handle these payments herself. And I'm not really sure she has any more equity to squeeze out of the house. Was her son really in the hospital? Did the money really go for doctor bills? Or just a serious cocaine binge? All the blow you can snort for, say, six months?

She kept assuring me that her son would be back from the hospital tomorrow, that he would take care of everything else, if we could just help her this one time, just this one time. While she was talking, a tape was playing in my mind.


drug addict




will take care of it

I walked out of there with no idea what to do. The money people had pledged was a sacred trust. That money could be used for other people in need, other situations just as dire, just as urgent as this one, maybe more. People were counting on me to make a good decision. If I spent this money, and all it ended up buying was another month before foreclosure, then it was all a waste.

I went back to my office, and stared at my phone for half an hour. And then I picked it up and made the call.

I was 4:33 PM.

Did I do the right thing? I don't know. I honestly don't know. But there is one thing I do know.

I will be able to sleep tonight.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The alcove of God's house

So last night I was walking home after a wake, when I saw Milton in his wheelchair at the corner on the other side of the street. We don't see Mark and Sheri on the corner anymore. Mark is back in prison; he failed to report for his parole, and it finally caught up with him. Sheri, on the other hand, is doing incredibly well. She went into a treatment program, and now has almost three months clean and sober. She's coming over Friday night for dinner. I'm so proud of her, but I worry what will happen when Mark gets out of prison, worried that somehow he will sabotage her progress, worried that she'll end up back on the streets with him.

Milton didn't see me, and it was late, so I started to just continue on up the street, then changed my mind and doubled back, and we talked for awhile. A year ago, Milton wasn't truly homeless, but what social workers call "underhoused," doing odd jobs to get by and living in a friend's apartment. That all changed one day last year, because he decided to do a good deed for a kid. A kite had gotten stuck on the roof of the local library. Milton was a good climber, proud of his agility and upper body strength, so he climbed up onto the roof of the library and got the kite and threw it down, to cheers from the kids. He was starting to climb back down, and then he fell. He hit the ground and felt his leg snap just above the ankle.

It's amazing how everything can change, life as you know it can end, with a sound so soft that no one can hear it but you. "This is the way the world ends," said T.S. Eliot, "not with a bang, but a whimper."

They took Milton to the general hospital to fix his leg, which had a compound fracture, the bone protruding through the flesh. This isn't the nice hospital where rich people go for their illnesses and operations; its the one where they take the poor and minorities, where the emergency waiting room is always full, where they are chronically understaffed and short on supplies.

Milton got a staph infection in the wound while he was there at the hospital, and his leg never really healed. He has had thirteen operations to try and repair it after the infection. The doctors are now talking about operation number fourteen, trying to repair his achilles tendon, which has shrunken and become so tight that he can't move his foot. His left leg, which was broken, is now a full two inches shorter than his right. The infection has gone into his bones; we had a laugh together about him being "bad to the bone." A very short, bitter laugh.

Recently, he asked the doctors about pain medication because his foot had been giving him a lot of pain. The doctors told him they couldn't give him any of the good medications like oxycodone (they cost too much), but they could put him on methadone, a heroin substitute used to treat addictions, that is itself fairly addictive. Instead, he decided to take his chances with beer, just enough to take the edge off, he told me.

Milton has been trying to go on permanent disability, but SSI has denied his petition. Now, he sleeps in the alcove of the local Baptist Church at night. He goes late and gets up early, so he doesn't think they have noticed he's staying there, but if they have noticed, they haven't kicked him out yet. Milton said that it's God's house anyway, and God never tries to kick him out.

Milton told me that, when the time comes, he doesn't really need a mansion in heaven, not even a little one. He just wants to curl up in the alcove of God's house, somewhere where he can be safe, somewhere where he doesn't have to hold onto his wheelchair at night while he sleeps, so it doesn't get stolen like last time.

I told Milton I had to get going, and he said it was time for him to move along as well. Time to start heading for God's house.

I told him to say hi from me.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Happy name-day to me...

Yes, it is indeed the feast day of St. Sampson the Receiver of Strangers, and thus the name-day of the Guerilla Orthodoxy blog.

In Greece, you have to buy everybody dinner on your name day. So go ahead, take yourselves out and send me the bill!

Actually, I would like to say thanks to everybody who reads this blog, and especially those who write comments. It has been a learning journey for me. Thanks for making it so.


Sunday, June 26, 2005


Psalm 14
Journal entry dated March 6, 2005

"The fool says to himself, 'there is no God,'"

The atheism of which the psalmist speaks here is not philosophical atheism, but the practical atheism of injustice. "There is no God" means that there will be no reckoning, that I have no obligation towards my neighbor, that I am free to do as I please. And in the view of the psalmist, this leads to a world of corruption and depravity.

The psalm raises a question about who we are: is it only the fear of punishment, the threat of a reckoning, that maintains good order within society? Is it true that if you take God, heaven, hell out of the picture, people will necessarily behave barbarously towards one another? If we believed that there was no God, how would our behavior change?

Probably it would change very little. We would still get up in the morning and go to work, come home at night and watch television, eat, sleep. Perhaps we would even go to Church on Sundays, because there are many reasons to go to Church other than believing in God. We would still give a little charity, because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Within the world of this psalm, "there is no God" is the denial of the possibility of a better world. To say "there is no God" is to mock "the hope of the poor." "There is no God" is cynicism, the greatest failure of the spiritual life.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Psalm 13
Journal entry dated March 5, 2005

"How long must I bear this doubt in my heart?"

The doubt of which the psalmist speaks is predicated upon external circumstances, upon the apparent triumph of the wicked. And on some level, we must admit that this doubt is a natural result of looking long and hard at the world as it truly is. When we see the wicked prevailing, the powerful preying upon the weak, the rich exploiting the poor, hunger, misery, enmity, death--then doubt becomes a way of struggling for faith.

Those who never seem to doubt, those who never question, either refuse to look closely at the world, or else have aligned their interests so closely with it that they see nothing which is capable of producing doubt. In a world of injustice, doubt may be the only way of keeping faith, while those who never doubt may have more in common with those who say "there is no God" than anyone else, since both remain untroubled and undisturbed in a world of intolerable and inexplicable cruelty. Doubt may almost be said to be an expression of hope, or at least of waiting, holding out, not for better explanations, but for a better world, waiting in the hope that doubt, too, has an end.

Lest this degenerate into a kind of smug "liberal chic," the question must be asked, "What am I doing to contribute to the creation of a better world?"

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Holy defiance

Psalm 11
Journal entry dated March 2, 2005

"In the Lord I take refuge! How can you say to me: take to the hills like a bird!"

"In the Lord I take refuge." This is the psalmist's response to those who are urging him to "take to the hills like a bird" in view of the threatening behavior of the wicked. It is a statement of courage, and perhaps even more, of defiance. "In the Lord I take refuge" is as much as to say, "Let them do their worst, but as for me, I will not be intimidated, I will stand my ground as a witness to the evil of their doings." As Woody Guthrie sang, "We shall not be moved."

This holy defiance, this willingness to stand in the place of threat, this refusal to retreat to safer ground, seems to be a characteristic of so many great people: Mother Maria of Paris and Fr. Demetri Klepenin, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Sister Dorothy Stang. All of these, in the face of imminent threat, responded to those who urged them to seek safety, "the Lord is my refuge."

To live in the spirit of this psalm is to inhabit dangerous spaces fearlessly, in the cause of justice.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Lord reigns

I want to skip ahead in the "Selah Project" to an entry in my journal written today, in order to talk about a book that I just finished reading, Losing Moses on the Freeway: the 10 Commandments in America, by Chris Hedges. For those who are interested, the poem "Decalogue" was partially inspired by an interview with Chris Hedges I heard on NPR. A few days later, some good friends gave me a gift card to a co-op bookstore in town, and I bought the book and read it.

I think the best chapter in the book is chapter two, "Idols." I want to give a couple of quotes from the book, followed by today's reflection on Psalm 97, which draws from Hedge's book and thought.

And yes, I highly recommend the book.

"We depend on our idols to to give us order and meaning. We depend on our idols to define our place in the world. Idols give us a world that appears logical and coherent. Idols free us from moral choice. Idols render judgment. We follow. We conform.

"When we see the hollowness of our idols, how they have led us to waste time and energy, when we smash these false gods and peer at the uncertainty of life, those who continue to revere the idol turn against us. We are expelled from the cult, stripped of its identifying power and left alone. It is easier to remain silent, to pay homage to a false god even after this god is exposed as a fraud. Those who worship idols deal harshly with those who become apostates.

"No institution or cause will remember or reward us for the sacrifices we make. There are no shortages of lives wrecked by idols. Those who spend their final years waiting forlornly for a call from children they were too busy to know because they were too busy building careers, must peer into the empty face of the idol they worshipped. Idols, when they are finished with us, discard us. They keep us from God."

Psalm 97
Journal entry dated June 22, 2005

"The Lord reigns! Let the earth rejoice! Let the distant shores be glad!"

This exclamation "the Lord reigns!" is found throughout the so-called "royal psalms." In this psalm, God's reign is described as universal in scope, and is contrasted with the worship of idols. God's reign is identified with justice, which constitutes the foundation of God's throne, the basis of God's rule. God's reign, God's kingdom, is present wherever justice is found.

The draw of idolatry, its allure, has always been its promise of comfort and security. The children of Israel, liberated from slavery and led by Moses into the wilderness, immediately began to long for the comforts they had left behind, for the "fleshpots of Egypt," for the "cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic" (Num. 11:5). The making of the golden calf, one of the objects of Egyptian worship, is an expression of this nostalgic yearning for comfort and security.

In order to discover within ourselves the idolatrous strongholds that must be rooted out in order for God's reign to become truly universal, we have to ask ourselves, "what are the places in our life that promise us comfort and security?" These are the zones where we are most likely to sacrifice justice on the altar of the false gods; that is, of self-interest, for all idolatry is, in the final analysis, self-worship. Tearing down these shrines is a frightening prospect, an act of self-deconstruction that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and insecure, yet it is only by this process of deconstruction that the reign of God is extended and becomes truly universal within us.

What are these loci of security and comfort in our lives? Our jobs, which not only provide us with economic security, but also with a feeling of personal identity and worth. Patriotism, our national identity, which provides us with a sense of security for which we are often willing to sacrifice the security of others. Our churches, which have at times been guilty of holding up obedience as a higher value than justice, in blatant disregard of the teachings of the Gospels and the prophets. In all these contexts, we are more likely to "look the other way" when we encounter injustice rather than risk our security and identity by challenging it. We understand that the potential cost of speaking out is disownment, the loss of both security and identity. In biblical terms, we "harden our hearts" like Pharaoh, resisting our impulses towards compassion and justice in order to preserve a status quo that is favorable to us.

I think that the temptation to idolatry is especially strong for those of us for whom religious identity and vocational identity coincide. Within this context, to challenge institutionalized injustice jeopardizes, not only our membership in the religious community, but our economic security as well.

There was once a time when I put my place in the church on the line by marching in a rally against the Iraq war. And this was, simultaneously, one of the most frightening and liberating experiences of my life. It was a moment of personal deconstruction.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Senate Apologizes for Failure to Pass Anti-Lynching Law

Today the Senate formally apologized for its failure to pass an anti-lynching law in the first part of the twentieth century, despite nearly 200 such bills being introduced, and seven presidents calling for the passage of the bills.

4,743 lynchings were recorded in the South in the period between 1882 and 1963.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


I see them displayed
On the walls of courthouses
Where justice is dispensed
Like soft serve ice cream
In two colors
Where lynching is a proud tradition
Like guns and Confederate flags
In the back of pickup trucks

I see them displayed
On the walls of schools
That look much as they did
Before desegregation, integration
Words in black ink
On creamy white paper
And no one ever wonders
Or even seems to notice
The contradiction
Between word and reality

I see them displayed
On the walls of churches
Where people sit in air-conditioned comfort
Listening to comfortable sermons
While bombs fall on children
Hard steel meeting soft flesh
Irresistible force
Meeting an all-too-movable object

And I see myself engaging
In acts of holy vandalism
Like Gideon-Jerubbaal
Destroying the idols of my fathers

Tearing them down from the walls
Smashing the glass of the frames
Like fire extinguisher panels
That say "Break Here in Case of Emergency"
Ripping the creamy paper into shreds
And scattering the pieces to the winds
Like ashes

Taking a sledgehammer by night
To granite courthouse monuments
Smashing them to bits
As Moses did long ago
In protest at the desecration
And the people saw and were ashamed

But we have no shame
We can worship the golden calf
And still revere these tablets
And so we have made them
Into the ultimate idol
The icon of the god
Of the oppressors

Until we have made a contribution
To the creation of a world
Where everyone is assured of a place
Until they are written
In our hearts
We have not earned the right
To display them
On our walls.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Arise, then, Lord!

Psalm 10
Journal enrey dated March 1, 2005

"Arise, then, Lord! Lift up your hand! O God, do not forget the poor!"

This call for God to rise up, to lift up his hand, is a prayer for a decisive victory of justice over injustice, fairness over exploitation, equality over oppression. It is a call for decisive intervention. My initial response is, "Does this ever happen? Does God act to rout the wicked apart from our struggle? Are the wicked ever truly routed?" I am wondering what prayers like this really mean. What would it look like if God were to arise, to lift up his hand? It would look like the overturning of power structures, the upending of pyramids of dominance.

The key word, perhaps, is "then." Not "then" as in "some other time," for the psalmist clearly means "now." "Then" means in view of everything the psalmist has previously recounted: the powerful preying upon the weak and vulnerable. "Arise, then, Lord!" is a cry that expresses the unbearable tension of the present situation, its unacceptability.

The question that the psalm puts to us is whether we see and hear what the psalmist sees and hears: violence, oppression, unbridled consumption of limited resources. Do we experience this unresolved tension, or has it resolved itself for us? When we look at the world, do we say, "Arise, then, Lord!" or do we yawn and say "All is well"? Are we in our own element or out of it, a fish in water or out of it? Is the world an authentic or a deceptive cadence, a suspension awaiting resolution, a dissonance straining towards harmony?


Psalm 9
Journal entry dated February 28, 2005

"He governs the world with justice, he judges the people with fairness."

This psalm claims that God is "enthroned from eternity," that he has "set up his throne for judgment." God is portrayed as "a tower of strength for the oppressed," one who "never ignores the cry of the afflicted," so that "the poor shall not be forgotten forever, the hope of the needy shall not be in vain."

The psalm is telling us that God's reign is present wherever justice is found, wherever the rights of the oppressed are upheld, wherever fairness is dispensed, wherever the most vulnerable are protected.

Where is the reign of God in my life?

I am noting a shift in my thinking since leaving the small town for the big city, a movement from a "help" centered model to a justice centered model. And I wonder about this. "Justice" can become so abstract, so comfortably theroretical, that it demands nothing from us except perhaps a certain liberal hipness. "Help," of course, has its own drawbacks.

What am I doing to further the reign of God in my own concrete situation? In a world of injustice and exploitation, is it enough to believe in justice as a principle? Short of running naked and screaming through the streets like Jeremiah, how does one uphold justice?