Thursday, September 11, 2014

Remembering them, one at a time

One of the things that most impressed me in the WTC recovery work was the ordinary goodness of so many lives. The New York Times' Portraits of Grief are brief clips of many of the people who died that day. Each 9/11 it is good to review a few of these neighbors.

MULTILINGUAL AND MULTINICE
Eli Chalouh

Fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English, Eli Chalouh, 23, moved easily among the diverse communities to which his languages gave him access. He spoke Arabic at home, of course: he moved here with his family from Damascus, Syria, when he was 14.

At his new job at the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, in the World Trade Center, he spoke Arabic with his Egyptian colleagues, who got a kick out of him. Mr. Chalouh was not Muslim; he was a Syrian Jew, who learned Hebrew at the yeshiva he attended in Brooklyn.

America was the country he wanted to wrap his future around. He was always in a rush, determined to cram every moment with English studies and other courses: he was so disciplined that he allotted himself only 15 minutes of television at night.

His efforts were beginning to pay off. He had just graduated with near-perfect grades from Long Island University, a member of the honor society and voted by the faculty the most outstanding accounting student of 2001.

Industrious, yes, but enormously sunny and engaging, as well. "Whatever you asked him he would do, and whatever you wouldn't ask, he would volunteer to do," said a supervisor at work, Eddie Jaeger. "He was an unbelievably nice kid."

POISE, AND A SILLY STREAK, TOO
Sara Elizabeth Low

For Sara Elizabeth Low, a career as a flight attendant was a birthright. Family vacations meant piling in the back of her father's small plane and heading from Batesville, Ark., to the Gulf Coast or Rocky Mountains. "Sara didn't think there was too much difference between being in the plane and being in a car," said her mother, Bobbie Low.

Poised, collected, yet prone to sudden streaks of silliness — a personality to calm even the most enraged traveler. And her job sated her wanderlust, her need for cosmopolitan glamor.

"She would call us from the different destinations and give us a hard time," said her older sister, Alyson, a teacher in Fayetteville, Ark. "In the summer she'd phone from San Francisco or Vancouver because she loved that she had to wear a sweater, rubbing it in about how hot and humid it is in Arkansas."

Yet one aspect of the itinerant life wore on Sara: in her first two years as a flight attendant she had about two dozen roommates. So at age 28 she had finally found a place of her own in the Beacon Hill area of Boston, the city from which she boarded Flight 11. "It had a fireplace and wooden floors," Alyson said. "Our mother went to Boston in the summer to help her clean it up, and it was going to be a real home.

A SHARPSHOOTER AND A JOKER
Santos Valentin Jr.

There is a saying among police officers: "When people are in trouble, they call the cops. When cops are in trouble, they call Emergency Service." Santos Valentin Jr., a member of the New York Police Department's Emergency Service Squad 7, answered the call on Sept. 11.

Officer Valentin was a sharpshooter trained in counterterrorism tactics, said his sister, Sgt. Denise Valentin, and his family thought that if anyone could come out alive in this attack, it would be him.

What have lived on are the memories - of the jokes he played on his colleagues, of how he loved his dog, Luger (so much that he would leave the Animal Planet channel on for him when he was not home), of his love for family and friends, and of his bravery. Officer Valentin was not afraid of death, but he did hate funerals. So, a few days ago, his family gave him a send-off at the rubble of the World Trade Center, where he was last seen. He loved his Budweiser, so they poured him a can and said their goodbyes.

THE DREAM JOB
Doris Eng

Long after her friends had left the nest and set up homes of their own, Doris Eng was still sharing an apartment in Flushing, Queens, with her mother, Sui-Kam Eng. Doris, club manager for Windows on the World on the 107th floor of 1 World Trade Center, was single-minded in her devotion to her mother, a garment worker whose husband died last year. "Everything she did was for my mom," her younger brother, Jerry, 27, said in a telephone interview as his mother sobbed in the background. "She cared about other people more than herself.""

Doris was also devoted to her work. A graduate of New York University, she had worked in some of the city's finest establishments — Le Cirque, the Mayfair Hotel and the Warwick Hotel — but her job at Windows was, he said, a dream come true. She worked from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., and sometimes came in on the weekends."

A network administrator for the City Council, Jerry was on his way to work last Tuesday when he saw the first plane hit. He tried to make his way into the building to rescue his sister but was rebuffed by the police. "That's the hardest part," he said. "I witnessed everything happen."

THE KICKNIC KID
Kenny Caldwell

You know how most people have to bend down to scratch their knee? Kenny Caldwell did not, because he had hands the size of baseball mitts and arms that went on forever. "He was a little slim Jimmy," said his mother, Elsie Caldwell, from his hometown, Philadelphia, "with big hands and a big, big heart. I called him my little chocolate drop."

Mr. Caldwell, 30, liked being a technology salesman for Alliance Consulting Group on the 102nd floor of 1 World Trade Center. But what he loved was figuring out ways to get people together. "I used to call him the C.E.O., chief entertainment officer," said his older brother, Leon Caldwell. He even invented an annual event: the International Kicknic Contest, held every August in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, for an ever-expanding circle of friends and family to play kickball and catch up.

"My neighbors used to tease me about him while he was growing up," Mrs. Caldwell said. "They'd say other kids collect stray cats and dogs, but your Kenny collects stray people."

A HEART FOR STRAYS
Nancy Farley

Having three cats of her own did not stop Nancy Farley from feeding neighborhood strays and taking them to the veterinarian when needed. "If there was a snowstorm and she saw a cat, she would bring it in," recalled Linda Selnow, Ms. Farley's older sister. "She had the most caring heart."

Ms. Farley, 45, negotiated insurance claims at Reinsurance Solutions Inc., on the 94th floor of 1 World Trade Center. The youngest of three children, she lived with her husband, Robert, in a condominium in Jersey City; her brother lived upstairs. Her father died when she was in high school, and her mother died a decade ago. "Just the three of us were left, and we were very close," Ms. Selnow said.

Nancy and Robert married in Las Vegas a few years ago. Her sister and brother were there, front and center. "It was one of the greatest times the three of us had together," Ms. Selnow said. Except when she was cheering on her beloved Yankees, Ms. Farley was a quiet person. "We believe that she is in a better place," Ms. Selnow said. "It's just the pain of not knowing what happened or where she was."

TIME FOR THE NEEDY
David Suarez

David Suarez cared. He cared about people who did not have his opportunities, people who did not have his education, people who had to struggle. "He reached out to people in a very warm and genuine way," said Ted Suarez, his father. "Everyone remembered his smile. From a little boy, he had a smile that was very endearing."

Mr. Suarez, 24, was a systems consultant who worked for Deloitte Consulting. He reported each day to the office of his client, Marsh & McLennan, in the World Trade Center. He was in the process of sending out applications to colleges, because next fall he wanted to embark on an M.B.A. before returning to Deloitte. His hope was to go to Harvard.

But he always made time for the needy. Social concern was a family tradition. He volunteered for the nonprofit group New York Cares. He worked in soup kitchens and tutored high school students for their college entrance exams.

He always gave the disadvantaged the benefit of the doubt. Friends told a story about how they found him once talking to some beggars outside a bar. Mr. Suarez asked one of the beggars, who was in a wheelchair, "What would it take to make you happy?"

The man said, "Give me $20." Mr. Suarez gave him $20. The beggar got up, folded up his wheelchair and walked off.

Mr. Suarez was not angry. The episode did not make him jaded. He shrugged it off. By his thinking, he would rather lose $20 here and there to an impostor than risk spurning someone who really needed his help. He kept on giving.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

09/11/14

It was thirteen years ago. Devastation came to my neighborhood.

World Trade Center, 9/11/11, photo by James Nachtwey

I remember my first trip by the site the following week. The smell that hung in the air. The shocked, hard faces of the soldiers who stood guard along Broadway. The glimpses of the wreckage one block over. And my fellow citizens filing by, a commuting crowd unlike any other I'd seen.

The attacks of that day soon led to more attacks. Thirteen years later, we are in a seemingly perpetual war. The wounds of 9/11 were used to justify more attacks, including the evil disaster that was the invasion of Iraq. Now a new American President is calling for a re-engagement in Iraq and escalation of warfare in the region.

Colin Powell had the right idea - "you break it, you own it" - but America has never owned up to our responsibility for breaking Iraq, for breaking the troubled political balance of the Middle East, or for unleashing the dogs of war which have now killed hundreds of thousands.

Over the last 13 years, the United States of America has been waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen and Pakistan and Libya and Syria. If we had used a tenth of that war spending on non-violent interventions, the world would be a better place. And so would America.

Someday, we may have a leader or be a people who do not see air strikes and arms as the only option. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.*

We are reaping the bitter harvest of the killing we have sown around the world for the past 13 years. We cannot have a better harvest until we sow a better kind of seed.

God always remembers the victims. On this solemn day of remembrance, let us also remember our own folly.

* The Apostle Paul's Letter to the Galatians, 6:7.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Independence Day 2014


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There's no doubt that one of the freedom's envisioned back in 1776 was the freedom to engage in commercial activity. But in commemorating July 4th as a pivotal date in the nation, let us remember those words, for the Declaration's truths were not self-evident then, nor are they now.

1. "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." It is remarkable today to think of any congress composed of our states as united and unanimous, especially on a matter of controversy. Certainly the national opinion was far from unanimous. Challenging one of earth's most powerful empires took courage, conviction, and those who put their names on the line were taking a great risk. Any union has tensions and potential divisions. The Continental Congress worked hard to get a united agreement, and the subsequent war was as much a story of maintaining the states' alliance as it was about the military action. The Declaration could not have worked unless the states were and stayed united - in union there is strength.

2. "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another..." Think of the Declaration as the initial filing in a divorce proceeding. Skip over for a moment those great "self-evident" truths and you will find a detailed case against King George ("a history of repeated injuries"), the claims of how the colonies have been faithful and tried to make the relationship work ("In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms"), and the conclusion that these differences have become irreconcilable.

3. They knew the Declaration meant war. They accuse the King of waging war against the states, and declare instead that the States have "full Power to levy War." War, warfare, and the military are mentioned at least 13 times in this short document.

4. An imperfect union.
We now see the gap between "all men are created equal" and the reality of inequality built into the young nation. The pictures of the Continental Congress show white men only, with some women in the gallery. But the vision they put forth has had legs: equality before the law, a government constituted by and in service of its people. The Declaration of Independence started to enunciate the conditions that would allow the new nation to grow in wisdom. Those who came after could use these words in pursuit of greater equality, liberty, and happiness than could be reached in 1776. The Declaration challenges its heirs to a critical patriotism. As another patriot would say a century later: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right" (Carl Schurz, Senator from Wisconsin and a German immigrant, 1872).

May the blessings of liberty be known in every age and in every land, and may we always keep our eyes on that prize.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

How good?

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Jersey City

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.


When people read the Bible, they always read for a purpose. When you are studying the Bible, you are looking to understand something about it: historical background, its development at a text, or its meaning in a variety of ways. You can read the Bible devotionally, looking for guidance, or to develop your faith. Or you can read the Bible for evidence, seeking proof that the world was created in seven days, or that there is - or is not - a God.

It may not be all that often that people sit back and read scripture for its beauty. But this chapter is surely one of the most beautiful in the Bible. While not formally poetry, it is poetic. Immediately you notice phrases which catch the ear, true in English as well as the original Hebrew.

Listen to those repeated phrases:
“There was evening and there was morning...;”
“Let there be...;”
“And it was so;”
“And God saw that it was good.”
Each one serves as an echo or amplification of the ones previous.

Those phrases also help point to the structure of these Days of creation. Those phrases repeat in each day. But notice also how the lesson is printed. The first three days parallel the second three days. Day One and Day Four deal with day and night; Days Two and Five are about the waters and the sky; Days Three and Six bring forth the land and the things which live on it.

The stateliness of the language and the orderliness of this process contribute to the notion that “God's got this.” You remember the song “He's got the whole world, in his hands”? Well, this story is where that song comes from.

Genesis 1 paints a picture and tells a story of the way God gets involved in the unruly, disordered state of the universe, and carefully, decisively, speaks a Word and creates a world, a world which makes sense, where there is an order, where there is a certain rightness to where things belong. Even if all the details aren't yet sorted out, the direction is clear. God is interested in the world, and God is willing to be engaged to bring order out of chaos, blessing out of nothing.

When you read through, or better yet, let your imagination wander through these seven day, they are wonder-ful, and it is easy to be filled with: awe, admiration, amazement that the world is brought into being in such a way.

But to truly appreciate this story's beauty, you need to hear another story, still more ancient, and also told with poetic beauty. The Enuma Elish is the Babylonian creation story, more ancient than Genesis 1 by 500-1,000 years. You see, ever since humans have been telling stories, we have wondered about how the world began and our place in it. We tell stories of how the world began... to explain how the world works.

That's just what they were doing in ancient Babylonia. “When the sky above was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, and their waters were mingled together...” Sound familiar?

In the Enuma Elish, chaos, named Tiamat, is a fearsome dragon goddess of the primodial world where sea and sky are mixed together. A young upstart god, Marduk, challenges this sea monster to battle, and traps her with his net, blows her up like a balloon with his wind, and pierces her belly with an arrow. He then rips her corpse into two halves with which he fashions the earth and the skies. Marduk then creates the calendar, organizes the planets and stars, and regulates the moon, the sun, and weather. Sound familiar?

As a finishing act, Marduk goes on to destroy Tiamat's husband, Kingu, and uses his blood to create humankind, so that we might do the work of all the other gods – who, at the end of the story, can live a life of leisure. They rest. Sound familiar?

The stories share many themes in common, yet are completely different. In Enuma Elish, the world is created from the corpse of a murdered god. Humans are fashioned from the blood of a murdered god, and made not to keep order on earth, but to serve as the gods' slave labor force.

In Genesis, the other gods are gone.* The violence is gone, the murder is gone, and our slave status is gone. In Genesis 1, the great sea monster Tiamat has become merely “the waters” or “the deep,” the process of creation is no longer warfare, but God speaking a Word which orders the world. Humans are now made in the image of God, and are not assigned work to feed the gods, but are given gifts to feed ourselves.

It matters which story you know, which story you tell, which story you believe. The two worlds they describe are incompatible. The gods of Enuma Elish cannot live, do not live in the world that Israel's God is creating.

It is all the more remarkable when you consider when and where this story is first told. In the year 586 BCE, the kingdom of Judah came to an end. The land of Israel had been the battlefield between the Egyptian and Babylonian empires, its leaders chose the wrong ally, and Babylon invaded and destroyed the nation.

When I say destroyed, I really mean destroyed. The Temple was burned, and those leaders who were not killed were taken into slavery and exiled to Babylon, which is where they first told this story. In the home of these violent gods was born a vision of a God creating a very different kind of world.

This week, we have to remember that Babylon is Iraq, and Baghdad is located just north of Babylonia's ancient capital. As Iraq is once again the site of violence and chaos. Each side hopes to slay the beast, win victory, and put the world in order… for their side. Victory in war has always meant death and domination for the losers, and wealth and pride for the conquerors.

So why am I telling you all this stuff about Iraq? So we won't invade it again? So we can be good Christians and pray for peace in a part of the world that we, through our government, has helped un-create?

I'm telling you because this beautiful story of God's creative action contains something we might take to heart. Those wonderful words in the text – “And God saw that it was good” – call for a little more attention. The Hebrew words behind them are “ki tov.” There are at least two ways to read them, and I'd suggest we might listen to both. Literally, they mean “how good.” You can hear them as God looking at the works of his hand and taking delight: “How good!” But you can also understand them as God looking at what she has made and asking the critical, evaluative question: “How good?”

I am sure that the end of the story is unambiguous. On the sixth day, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” But I am also sure that God continues to evaluate the world and name adjustments. Creation was not finished on Day Six, because the Bible has many subsequent chapters which tell how the story develops. These unruly humans need a little work – as we all know! Still to come are the great journeys, the Law and the Prophets, and the Lamb who redeems the world.

The Day Six world is not done, because God is not done with us. How good!

I'm telling this story because God's story of creation in Genesis 1 is a radical vision of hope spoken in the midst of a chaotic, unjust world which actively seeks to demolish hope, and hide or drown out the very thought that the world might be just, might be fair, might be peaceful, and might be organized for the benefit of all people, rather than some people.

It is precisely when the world was most chaotic that God spoke this word of creative faith straight to the heart of the people’s desolation, confusion, and hopelessness. We don't have to experience the desolation of invasion and exile to need a good, life-creating word. Every life has its chaos and crisis. Anyone can be sucked into the delusion of the myth which says that we are worthless and need to accept our place, while others run the world. We don't have to believe the story that violence and coercion is the way to solve every problem. We don't have to buy tickets to “Die Hard,” when Genesis 1 is ours for free.

We speak of creation as the world, all these things we see around us, but in the Bible, creation is not really the stuff that makes up the universe. In the Bible, creation is the process by which God fashions the world into something more just, more loving, more peaceful, more holy than creation's elements would be on their own. Creation is the imagination of God loose in the world.

Can we do the same?

God's story is beautiful not just because of the stately phrases and the wonderful language. This story is beautiful because the world it sees is righteous, touched by God in a beautiful way. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...
“God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light....
“God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply'...
“God saw everything that she had made, and indeed, it was very good.”


Can you imagine being able to look at the worlds we make and say the same thing? Whether it's in our work, our neighborhood, our family and other relationships, in our church, let us be able to say “How good?” and “How good!”

Trust in God and speak a better word. Seize onto the best story you know, make it your own and share it every day of your life. God said “Let there be light,” and gave us a world. Let us live in that light.

* There are still linguistic traces of the older stories. Tiamat has become the de-personalized “deep” (Hebrew tehom), and the council of gods echoes in Genesis 1:26 “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”


Images:
1. Unknown image.
2. "Earth in Hands," attribution unknown.
3. Combat between Tiamat and Marduk, from the bas-relief on the walls of palace of Assur-nasir-pal.
4. Reuters stringer, Iraq
5. Moonrise, Siskiyou Range, Oregon


Postscript:

There are some texts you will forever associate with people. For me, Genesis 1 and Phyllis Trible is such a pairing. When I learned she was retiring from Union Seminary, I rearranged my work schedule to be able to take one of her last seminars there, a semester on Genesis 1-11. We never got past Chapter 3, and spent perhaps the first half of our time on Genesis 1. I remember her practiced opening to the class - she was, after all, a student of rhetoric. "If I had to go to a desert island for the rest of my life and could only take one book, it would be the Bible. And if I could only take one book of the Bible, it would be Genesis. And if I could only take one chapter, it would be this one." She went on to say that it had always rewarded further study.

I have not yet exhausted its mysteries, or tired of what it has already brought to me.

It was Dr. Trible who directed my attention both to the text as linguistically beautiful, and to the dual sense of ki tov. How good is that?