Sunday, June 28, 2009

To what degree do we let go?

I was reading a New York Times article a while back about Suze Orman, and while I enjoyed a lot of her advice, her thoughts on the importance of money above all else seemed quite at odds with my Christianity. Orman tells the story often about how their house was burning down and after getting them all out, he ran back in to grab their money. He came back out with a metal chest and the skin on his arms had grafted onto the sides of the chest. Orman said the lesson she learned was that money, making it, having it, taking care of yourself financially, was as important as life itself.

Then I think of the Sermon on the Mount (a paraphrase):
"Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what you
shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you
shall put on...
Consider the lilies of the field; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you that Solomon in all of his glory was never clothed as richly as one of these. Therefore, if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"

In our economic crisis, Jesus' promises seem a bit hollow. Maybe if our society had followed a more Christian economic model rather than giving massive sub-prime mortgages, we wouldn't need to worry and could trust in God to keep us stable.

But we live in a capitalist economy, run by many who misheard Jesus as saying, "Seek ye first the kingdom of Gold." As for the rest of us, society demands we work, but often neglects many who do their share, ending up without healthcare, shelter, food, security, in spite of hard labor. And to add to that, sometimes even the work we have is not guaranteed.

So can I or any of us really surrender completely and expect God to clothe us, shelter us and feed us? When we know homeless shelters have to turn people away, and food banks often shut down? The current climate seems more to call for vigilance, the same vigilance towards money that Jesus called for towards the day of judgment. We must be on watch, ready for our job to end, our bank to close, or our savings to disappear like a thief in the night.

I personally don't trust Jesus to calm all the storms alone: I believe it's up to me too. I have to work and watch how I spend my money, and maybe take a second job that would end up giving me less time to be with family and friends or pray.

Yet at the same time, part of my struggle is based on a vision of my life, set by this same worldly society : I want to be a successful well-reputed journalist, living in a place of my own, with savings, the ability to travel, the occasional luxury, and a way to support myself, along with maybe a partner and kids someday. If I was willing to surrender those ambitions for the kingdom of God, perhaps I could trust the Gospel's words.

I would never surrender the call to be a journalist or to explore and travel. Those are passions that I believe God has given me. Many of the others though have been given me by society as definitions of success: maybe shedding that is what Jesus was calling for when he talked about not worrying about our lives.

I don't think God is calling for me to be miserable either. Jesus lived amongst the people and enjoyed their company: he drank the fine wine, healed on the Sabbath. He lived life richly. Perhaps it's holy to seek that, while rejecting the notions that the only way to that richness is through money.

I wish one of the Beatitudes said, "Blessed are those who seek a rich life rather than a life of wealth, for theirs is the kingdom of God."
Or that there was a commandment like "Boast of no financial success, and seek only to take care of yourself, your loved ones, and those in need."

I guess it comes down to how much I'm willing to let go of to bring Christ in, if I truly believe that he can work in my life when I let him.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is anger at panhandlers justifiable?

Dear all,

Lately I find myself getting fed up with panhandlers, not with the act of panhandling itself but with their pleading. There's an old black man outside Grand Central every day who sits curled up on a bucket, hunched over and shaking, pleading "Pleeease! Pleease!" like a freezing man begging for shelter.
I help him sometimes out of guilt, but yesterday after putting some change in his cup, I said, "You're out here EVERY SINGLE DAY like this!" He told me that he couldn't get over his mother's death and that all he wants is to really go back to work. I didn't really buy it honestly. I think for me the pleading eventually feels like the boy who cried wolf: a constant emergency begins to feel like no emergency at all. And if every day is the same, then what's the sense of helping him at all?
I don't know how Jesus would have responded to this: he was great at healing people and calling for support to the poor, but I don't remember many instances of him helping beggars financially. Heck, he didn't have a lot of money to begin with!
I always remember that moment when the woman spent her money to make him (perfume? was it?) and the disciples protested that the money could have been spent on the poor. Jesus said "The poor you will always have with you," but that he was only going to be there for a while. Some might use that phrase to dismiss working for the poor, but I think it was just meant to say that worship of God and Jesus must come first in all our endeavors.
My anger towards that man begins with the fact that he is breaking my heart and the sneaking suspicion that he is taking advantage of my compassion. Perhaps, there is no way around it but to admit that anger and help anyway. Or perhaps it is better to give my money to a cause that makes a bigger difference and then give the man a referral to it: maybe that'd be a bit more of the "arise and walk" response, leaving him the choice to make himself well.
I welcome your thoughts.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fire and glue

Dear all,

Last Sunday, I slept in and missed the 11 am service at Judson Memorial Church, a church I had tried down by NYU. After waking up at noon, I headed to my sister's improv performance downtown, and afterwards my family and I had an early dinner. After leaving the restaurant, I began the walk home and on top of feeling achy, I began feeling a desire to be in a church, to pray and connect with the presence of God. Luckily, I found Calvary Episcopal, a church in the Flatiron District that was perfect. The 6 pm service was just getting out and there was time to relax, and spend some time praying.
I have a lot on my mind now as I prepare to move to San Francisco, to leave my family, the small group of friends I've made, my church group, and other support networks, therapist, gym, etcetera. I can feel the tension rising in me quite often. In these moments, prayer truly does settle me.
I've gone back to reading Ronald Rolheiser's book "The Holy Longing" a kind of how-to about preserving a Christian spirituality in modern America. It's a good read and one of the things Rolheiser says that's really stuck with me is that the soul is both fire and glue. It is what inspires us to action and what holds us together in chaos. As I get closer to leaving, I keep on thinking about that balance, keeping life both on fire and glued, stable but inspired. I'm someone who tends to overthink things, so I could analyze that idea for days. Yet, it's still worth keeping in mind.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"A Life Apart: Hasidim in America"

Dear all,

Over the weekend I went cycling in my area of Brooklyn. The weather was wonderful, 70 degrees and sunny, a light breeze floating through town. I took my bike down through Greenpoint and criscrossed Williamsburg from north to south, ending in Clinton Hill. On my way there and back, I entered the Hasidic neighborhoods of South Williamsburg a few times.
The Hasidim here seem to live in an enclave: one street I went on near Clinton Hill was a one way street flanked with matching apartment buildings, all belonging to Hasids. The kids played in the street, usual stuff, bikes and balls, while the parents watched them from their apartments. They almost all spoke in Hebrew, not English.
At one point, being my gregarious self, I passed a Hasid boy on a bicycle, and I said, "Hey there." He looked at me a bit like I was from outer space. This is a reaction I'm not unfamiliar with: there seems to always be a bit of distaste, resentment, or maybe fear when it comes to interacting with us goyim, especially the goyim in shorts and T-shirts riding through their enclave, breaking so many taboos of modesty in our dress.
That night after riding home, I watched a documentary from the 90s on Hasidic life in America, called "A Life Apart," which mostly looked at Brooklyn's Hasidic tribes. The doc noted about 5 main tribes in Brooklyn, the Lubavitch (many in Crown Heights), the Satmar, Bobov, Skver, and one other I can't recall...
From what I gathered, the Hasidim are separate from the rest of orthodox Judaism in that they have put study of the Torah above all other things in their lives, rejecting university and college studies because they would challenge and poison their spiritual practice. Hasidim can pursue careers in business, or in teaching at Orthodox schools, but not in any field that requires professionalization like medicine, law, or politics.
I don't know what the Hasidim think of Matisyahu, or Matthew Miller, the Orthodox Jew reggae singer from Crown Heights. Apparently, Matisyahu still makes his home there among the Hasidim with his wife and child even though he's confessed to feeling "boxed in" by Hasidic enclaves. In 2004, when asked about how he viewed his music in light of his religious practice, Matisyahu said, "The rabbi would like me to be in Crown Heights, sitting in yeshiva and learning more," Matisyahu confesses. "But right now my energy is in music. I have a way to affect people and uplift them. To give that up is to go against what God wants."
The funny thing is that the documentary talks about how joy is at the core of the Hasidic lifestyle, yet that joy is seldom evident when the Hasids see us goys. Whether it's their disgust at our lifestyle, fear that they'd be tained with interaction with us, there's very often a sense of just barely tolerating us. Yet if their lifestyle is all about joy, why shouldn't more of them be expressing their differences with us through joyous prayers, like the Hare Krishnas or the Mennonite choirs I see in Union Square? Strange that the Hasidim keep that joy locked inside the closed doors of their synagogues...the documentary reveals them in song and dance, loving their children, dancing like fools and madmen (in a good way), and yet in public life they seem all business.
I guess I wish the Hasidim didn't see me and the rest of America as part of the big "treyfe medina," a land of defilement, inhospitable to people of faith. Until then, I'll continue riding my bike through their neighborhoods, with a smile on my face, despite the blank stares and downcast faces that often greet me.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

For tomorrow

I will make my weekly entry tomorrow morning. I have pushed my wrists too far tonight clinging to my bike handles through my rides in Brooklyn, and need to rest them up. But tomorrow I will write of my impressions riding through the Hasidim community of South Williamsburg.