Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Crucifixion of Palestine

In 2003, a year after Israel had begun construction on a 440-mile wall to separate Palestinians in the Occupied Territories from Israel, Pope John Paul II said: "The Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges." The wall, he said, "is seen by many as a new obstacle on the road leading to peaceful cohabitation."
Without the reconciliation of spirits, there can be no peace. May the leaders have the courage to return to dialogue and negotiation, thus opening the way toward a Middle East that is reconciled in justice and peace.
Nearly three years later, the pontiff's hopes have not been fulfilled. The wall, built largely on Palestinian land inside the 1967 "Green Line" separating the two sides according to international law, has effectively cut the West Bank into enclaves, making movement between communities, or between towns and farmland, almost impossible. Illegal settlements, however, are protected, in effect made a part Israel. The UN calls the wall an "unlawful act of annexation," and says it cuts off more than 200,000 Palestinians from social services, schools and places or work. The wall, and roads built for troop movements but denied to Palestinians have carved the Occupied Territory into bantustans, the geographical technique used by white South Africans to enforce apartheid.

Years ago I heard Catholic theologian Rosemarie Radford Ruether argue that the Arab-Israeli conflict, now almost sixty years old, is not about religion but about land. This to me was a startling claim, given the almost universal belief that the battle was between Jews and Muslims, with Christians often caught in the middle. But for Ruether, the struggle was over land -- the "deserts" made by Jewish settlers to bloom on land where the homes, villages and olive trees of the original residents had been bulldozed by the Israel Defense Forces.

Today there is a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza where nearly four million Palestinians are suffering under the brutal occupation. After the victory of Hamas in democratic elections earlier this year, needed aid from the US and Europe has dwindled to a trickle. Services are crumbling. Targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders include innocent bystanders, often children. Businesses are failing. Over 50 percent of the residents have fallen below the poverty line. A public health disaster and starvation are possible.

Is all this retaliation for a horrific campaign of suicide bombings, or is it part of a master plan to ethnically cleanse the Promised Land of an Arab presence? If outright "transfer," the euphemism coined to describe Palestinian removal, is not possible, then apartheid is the means to make life so impossible that residents of the West Bank and Gaza will have no choice but to move elsewhere. I know this sounds like conspiracy theory, but a little research will uncover a consistent thread to the motives of successive Israeli leaders.

All of this breaks my heart. The stories and photographs coming out of the Holy Land portray a crucified people, abandoned by the powers of this world. I bow my head in guilt for the injustices caused by my government in my name. The United States has been the prime supporter of Israel and currently provides almost $3 billion in aid, more than it gives to any other country. The media and Jewish lobby in this country portray criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. But to be anti-Israel is not to be anti-Semitic.

When I studied Jewish mysticism and the history of Judaism with Mishael Caspi at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s, he spoke of life growing up in Jerusalem as a boy before World War Two. He said that Jewish, Christian and Muslim children played together happily in a time of innocence before the establishment of the state of Israel. I also learned about a golden period in 12th century Spain when Jewish and Christian mystics and Muslim Sufis flourished together. The People of the Book are not natural enemies. They worship the same God.

Jews have long suffered at the hands of Christians, due to the misguided notion that they were responsible for Christ's death. They were expelled from Spain in 1492, were persecuted in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, and were exterminated by the millions in Nazi death camps during World War Two. The ideology of Zionism called for a homeland where Jews might be safe and, with the aid of guilty Europeans, settled on Palestine. They believe the land had been promised to them by God over two thousand years earlier. But Palestine was already occupied, by mostly Arab Palestinians, and they had lived there for many generations. Why should they leave? The Native Americans must have felt the same way when European colonists took over their land. My father long ago taught me that two wrongs don't make a right. The treatment of Palestinians is a crime that must be stopped.

Many observers of this tragedy, like historian Tony Judt, have called for a one-state solution to the problem: Jews and Arabs living together with equal rights. But this would mean the end of the religious state. And why not? There are many successful multi-ethnic states, the United States among them. Besides, there is not enough territory on the earth for every religion or every ethnicity to have a piece of the pie. Religious states, like Israel, or Iran, are inherently undemocratic, granting more rights to the dominant majority. The two-state solution, called for by the United Nations since the 1970s, and given lip service by the presidents of England and the U.S. (and occasionally Israel) is impossible without contiguous territory and a measure of administrative control on the part of both states. But the actions of Israel, in carving up the West Bank into separate enclaves, has made this impossible.

The world is slowly being sucked into a whirlpool of violence in the Middle East, war first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now threatened with Iran. The root of all this violence, as well as the terrorist attack of September 11th, is in Israel/Palestine. "Terrorism is a tactic, not an entity," Charley Reese wrote in a recent posting on, "and it is a tactic used by people who have a political grievance. Therefore, if you want to eliminate terrorism, you have to address the political problems that gave it birth."

After the fall of the World Trade Center towers, a few sane heads asked: "Why do they hate us so much?" But this window of opportunity was closed by President Bush when he argued that the terrorists "hate freedom," and was echoed by the malicious right. If we had given the question any thought, we might have realized that until there is justice for the Palestinians, there will be no justice in the Middle East.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Late Homer T

Dad was named Homer after his grandfather, and he hated it (Mom called him "Humpy," but that's another story). So when I was born he named me after a soap opera popular in the late 1930s, "Just Plain Bill." His grandfather's father had no doubt read the classics. But he failed to provide his son with a middle name. Young Homer, so the family story goes, decided to pick his own, and chose the T after a certain Mr. Taylor he liked. My dad became Homer T Yaryan II. And there the name ended.

The last time I celebrated Father's Day with him was when this picture was taken in Bayonet Point, Florida, north of St. Petersburg, not long before he died thirteen years ago. Mom had made two tee shirts for us and you can almost read the one I'm wearing. Other than "Father's," I don't remember what it said. But it was a nice touch. Because he was following the Chicago Cubs baseball games on TV, I got him the hat. I had flown from California to visit him with my then wife and two youngest kids, Molly and Nicki. Various ailments, from congestive heart failure to emphysema, were beginning to take their toll.

Dad was a fraternal twin, and he and Ted lost their father to tuberculosis at the age of two. Neither got along with their step-father and he sent them off to military school in New Mexico at a young age. Uncle Ted and Dad were like two halves of a whole person. Ted was skinny and unhealthy, as well as artistic and charming. Dad was muscular and physical, the strong, silent type; one of his first jobs was as a lifeguard. Ted became an actor and appeared in small roles on Broadway. Dad was a traveling salesman for much of his working life. He sold glue to make plywood for furniture. And he married and raised two boys, while Ted was a homosexual whose long-term partner was an alcoholic.

At the age of six I developed asthma and was unable to take part in most sports. Because Dad was an enthusiastic sports fan all his life, I felt like I had failed him. I compensated by learning to read early, and taking up the clarinet. But after his death, my mother told me that Dad had worried deeply about my ill health, and when I played in a band for dances in junior high school he was often in the back of the hall, listening.

I was a rebellious teenager and we fought often. Or rather, I was the one who argued about his rules; he was a man of few words and little outward emotion. When I was 15 I peroxided my hair against his wishes. My mother's only response was a tense: "Wait till your father gets home." He came into my room with a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut off my newly blond (it was kind of reddish) hair. Neither of us spoke. The next morning he took me to the barber to have the rough edges smoothed out into a butch, his favored look anyway because it was "clean cut." I had the last laugh, though. When I let my hair grow out into a long "duck tail," it was half blond and half black. But Dad had made his point.

After high school, I didn't spend much more time at home. I was anxious to spread my wings, and I didn't think my father would appreciate my career choices. He forbid me from taking acting lessons because he thought my friend who had recommended the teacher was gay. My early career involved frequent job changes, of which he disapproved. Dad felt loyalty to an employer was important (an idea whose time has passed). He and my mother and brother returned to North Carolina from California, and I worked in New York, Pasadena, San Francisco and London. I married and we gave him a grandson, then another. Visits were few and phone calls irregular. I realize now that for many years I did not share myself openly with my Dad, fearing or imagining his disapproval.

In his later years, Dad mellowed considerably. He was a total wimp as a grandfather, letting his three grandsons and granddaughter, when they were small, do anything, from crawling all over him to eating up the refrigerator's supply of ice cream. He became pure love, and all his judgments melted away. I wished I'd known that man when I was small.

The father I remember growing up with was never sick. Even when it was obvious that he was ill, he would deny it and muscle through. Dad was the epitome of a macho man. But after two heart attacks, his attitude changed. During the last couple of years he was surrounded by pills. And he was a very good patient, doing everything the doctor prescribed. He loved the hardware store and the mall where he walked and talked with other men his age. Until he no longer had the strength.

After his death, my mother, brother and I presided over a memorial service in their home in Florida. The room was full of Dad's former golf and bridge partners and all of them had wonderful stories to tell about his friendliness, kindness and generosity. The next day we stood on a boat dock on Tampa Bay and I dropped his ashes into the waters where Dad had sailed as a boy.

On this day, when I wait for my distant children to phone, I am thinking about you Homer T and remembering what a wonderful father you were. I miss you.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Lust & Death

When I was a young man, the thought of elderly people having sex filled me with repulsion. My grandparents! My parents, even! But that was long ago. The libido, I thought, would run out, like hair and smooth skin. But now that I have wrinkles, hemorrhoids, and even prostate cancer, my libido runs on like an Eveready Energizer bunny that just won’t give out.

The poet Dylan Thomas wrote:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
While I never intended to totter gently off this mortal coil, it never occurred to me that raging against death would take the form of relentless, unrequited lust. And a lust that was more intellectual than physical, a lingering mental erection inspired by the passing parade of beautiful women, young and old, large and small. As long as that spark of desire remains, I feel alive, I am not dead.

So it has been easy to identify with the aging wounded heroes of Philip Roth’s fiction, and in particular the men in his recent novels, the just released Everyman and Sabbath’s Theater, published in 1995. The mad arthritic lecher, Mickey Sabbath, and the slowly dying, unnamed, Everyman both desperately fan the embers of their libidos because, for Roth and for some of us seniors, impotency equals death. Unfortunately, in his novels there is no hope for transcendence of the body. It’s all down hill.

“Passion doesn’t change with age,” Roth told a Danish journalist last year, “but you change – you become older. The thirst for women becomes more poignant. And there is a power in the pathos of sex that it didn’t have before. The pathos of the female body becomes more insistent. The sexual passion is always deep, but it becomes deeper.”

Roth’s character, Mickey Sabbath, in his 60s like the author at the time that book was published, wants to believe that there is “still a chance for the old juicy way of life to make one big last thumping stand against the inescapable rectitude, not to mention the boredom, of death.” Everyman, in his 70s like Roth today, takes walks along the Jersey shore and notices that “nothing any longer kindled his curiosity or answered his needs… except the young women who jogged by him on the boardwalk in the morning. My God, he thought, the man I once was! The life that surrounded me! The force that was mine! No 'otherness' to be felt anywhere! Once upon a time I was a full human being.” Flirting with one young jogger, Everyman feels himself
growing hard in his pants, unbelievably, magically quickly, as though he were fifteen. And feeling, too, that sharp sense of individualization, of sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter ot love affair and that is the opposite of the deadening depersonalization of serious illness.
Everyman takes its title from a 15th century morality play in which the main character is visited by death. “Oh death,” he responds, “thou comest when I had thee least in mind.” And the characters in Roth’s novels also seem chagrined, to say the least, to find their faculties failing and death a distinct possibility. In the medieval play, however, the theme is Christian salvation. Be good and go to heaven; be bad and, well, you know what happens. Roth, a secular Jew, will have no otherworldly consolation. “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life,” his mouthpiece Everyman thinks, “and he found all religions offensive,”
considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, both to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.
Everyman is a retired advertising artist who calls his series of abstract paintings “The Life and Death of a Male Body,” an alternate title perhaps for Roth’s book.

Sabbath (the name is telling), describes himself as “whoremonger, seducer, sodomist, abuser of women, destroyer of morals, ensnarer of youth,” and he pursues sexual pleasure with an athletic single-mindedness.
The core of seduction is persistence. Persistence, the Jesuit ideal. Eighty percent of women will yield if the pressure is persistent. You must devote yourself to fucking the way a monk devotes himself to God. Most men have to fit fucking in around the edges of what they define as the more pressing concerns: the pursuit of money, power, politics, fashion. Christ knows what it might be – skiing. But Sabbath had simplified his life and fit the other concerns in around fucking.
Sabbath and Everyman, raging against the dying of the light by means of sexual excess, real or imagined, are both sad figures. The point in Roth’s fiction seems to be that death, and the manifold ways we humans invent to avoid the inevitable, is the central fact of our lives. He does not appear to advocate sexual license. A friend, whose kindness Sabbath has mocked cruelly, tells the aging lothario:
Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism. To be out with that belly of yours, championing pornography and flying the flag of your prick. What a a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath.
Roth was similarly insulted, although not in such crude terms, by his ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, in her bitter memoir of their nearly 20 years together, Leaving a Doll’s House.

Novelist Nadine Gordimer, in her review of Everyman in the New York Times, wrote that for Roth, “the violent upsurge of sexual desire in the face of old age is the opposition of man to his own creation, death.” His theme is “the phenomenon presented as similar to that of adolescence – of late sexual desire. The last demanding exuberance in the slowly denuded body…[and] the doubt that comes about the unquestioned superiority of the rewards of the intellect.” The protagonist in Roth’s The Dying Animal “claims the phenomenon as the undeniable assertion of ‘erotic birthright’.”

I wonder if women also experience the phenomenon of late sexual desire? In my observation, gender differences (sex plus its social construction) make for two very different paths. Many women find their fulfillment in giving birth and nurturing life into adulthood. Men tend to make their mark in the world, finding their fulfillment through deeds. Aging is probably even harder on women then it is on men because of cultural standards of beauty. And finally, not a few older women I know live through their grandchildren. As Everyman puts it, the residents in his retirement home “were able not merely to construct whole conversations that revolved around their grandchildren but to find sufficient grounds for existence in the existence of their grandchildren.”

But old men, and I now count myself among them, are more content to sit on a bench and watch the joggers pass by, thanking the gods and goddesses for whoever invented the popular bare midriff look. Lust keeps the fires of life burning. Unlike Philip Roth, however, I do not equate health with potency. Sex also can be a spectator sport for those who find beauty a constant delight but have no desire for conquest.

Roth’s spiritless vision of anguished bodies in motion, permanently erased by death, holds no appeal for me. I suspect that even lust, in the form of passionate love for others, will not die but will transcend this limited time-space continuum to permeate the universe forever.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Al Gore's Convenient Truth

If Al Gore, the former "next president of the United States," has been so concerned about climate change since the 1960s -- as we're told in the new documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" -- then why was so little progress made in slowing or stopping global warning during the eight years he was in power as vice president during the Clinton administration?

That nagging thought made it difficult for me to appreciate director Davis Guggenheim's (director of episodes of Alias and 24) dramatic film version of the Power Point presentation that Gore has given thousands of times around the world since his defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court. That, and the adoring portrayal of Gore that makes him out to be a prophet, or rock star. While the clips of natural disasters and the rising roller coaster representations of statistics make an imressive and persuasive case for the devastating consequences of global warming, the documentary's primary focus is Al Gore and his future more than the environmental message he's bringing.

I suspect that Gore is positioning himself to compete with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008. If that's so, then this adulatory video is convenient way for him to return to the political stage. But will it save the world from destruction at the hands of global corporate thugs? I doubt it. Certainly Gore offers no particular political strategy, and the suggestions, along with the film's closing credits, that individual choices will make a difference is insulting to intelligent environmentalists who know that only large corporations and courageous politicians can save us this time. Curbside recycling is a drop in the bucket; closing down large-scale polluters and finding a substitute for the use of oil might help.

In the first place, there is little information that is new in "An Inconvenient Truth." The rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels has led to an overall rise in temperature which has resulted in the melting of polar ice and glaciers, the prediction of an eventual (perhaps catastrophic) rise in sea levels, and the production of more hurricanes and tornadoes (which are stronger and more fierce). Only the ideological right (which includes our current government) remains unconvinced by the scientific evidence, and they'll never see this film. Glenn Beck, host of CNN Radio's Headline News, accused Gore of mixing untruth with truth, just like the Nazis. The documentary will undoubtedly find a comfortable audience only among the already converted.

So will Al Gore as president save us? Here the evidence is not persuasive. Gore is the scion of an illustrious family of wealthy politicians. His father was also a senator from Tennessee. Progressive curmudgeon Gore Vidal is a distant cousin of Albert, and is not very fond of his kin. "I've always thought he was absolutely pointless as a politician. He's just another conservative Southerner," according to Vidal. For much of his political career, Gore has been pro-life and anti-abortion. He was also openly anti-gay, calling homosexuality "abnormal" and "wrong," and he was a strong supporter of the gun lobby. Vidal described his relative as "another border-state, southern lover of the Pentagon...there was never anything the Pentagon asked for that Cousin Albert wasn't down there giving it to them; he voted for the first war in the gulf," one of only ten Democrats to break with the party.

In 1988, Gore made an unsuccessful run for the presidency. In 1992 he published Earth in the Balance, which summed up his environmental ideas and made a strong case for protection of the environment. We learn in the documentary that Gore, as a Harvard undergraduate, had studied with Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to predict that rising levels of human-produced emissions would lead to climate change. That same year he was nominated for the Democratic ticket with Bill Clinton and after their election many people expected him to be able to turn his ideas into action at the federal level.

But little changed, and why that is so is absent from "An Inconvenient Truth." Politics and corporate interests got in the way. In Al Gore: A User's Manual, written in 2000 by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, the authors skewer Gore for his hypocrisy and for his ties to moneyed interests.
Like a street mountebank fluttering a handkerchief to distract attention from his sleights of hand, Gore has always used his proficiency with the language of liberalism to mask an agenda utterly in concert with the Money Power.

Nowhere is this truer than in his supposed environmentalism, which nicely symbolizes the chasm that has always separated Gore's professions from his performance. He denounces the rape of nature, yet has connived at the strip-mining of Appalachia and, indeed, of terrain abutting one of Tennessee's most popular state parks.
Cockburn and St. Clair claim Gore denounces vouchers while sending his kids to private schools, argues against the nuclear arms race while supporting the MX missile, praises civil liberties while turning a blind eye to censorship, smoked dope when younger but later advocated harsh penalties for marijuana use. Others have argued that Gore is beholden to Occidental Petroleum and helped secure oil drilling rights for that firm in the Elk Hills National Petroleum Reserve near Bakersfield, the largest turnover of public lands to a private corporation in American history. Despite protests from native peoples, many archaeological sites were destroyed. In 2000, Gore defended Occidental's plan to drill for oil near the sacred grounds of the U'wa tribe in Colombia.

Johann Hari, columnist for the Independent in London, says that Gore's speeches on global warming "are terrifying, true -- and contain a hole bigger than the old Ozone hole he spent decades warning against."
When Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in the White House, their environmental record was abysmal. They pushed through NAFTA, a free trade area for the Americas, which defined environmental regulation as an illegal "market distortion" which must be struck down by the courts. They allowed dioxin dumping in the oceans. They were the main international drivers between the World Bank and IMF, which have systematically smothered tentative environmental regulations in the developing world. They oversaw the largest slashing of publicly owned timber in US history. I could go on. And on.
The problem, Hari says, is that the fossil fuel industry pays the bills for politicians in America, Democrats as well as Republicans. And without that money, you can't get elected. Twenty-eight gas and oil companies gave to Gore's failed election campaign. "These companies own the American political process," according to Hari, and if Gore wants to run for president again in 2008 "he will have to plunge back into the petrol tank to grab some campaign funds." The only solution to this impasse, according to Hari, "is for the American people to reclaim their political parties from corporations and start paying for their parties themselves, out of general taxation." But this idea is about as popular as one nationalizing the banks, or the oil companies.

"Other than his alleged environmental convictions," writes author Joshua Frank, "Gore was politically timid when push came to shove in Washington." During the 1992 campaign, he promised supporters in Ohio that Clinton's EPA would never approve a hazardous waste incinerator near an elementary school. Three months after Clinton took office the incinerator was approved; its owner was one of the top campaign contributors to the Clinton/Gore campaign. Under Clinton/Gore, the Interior Department approved a destructive deal with sugar corporations in Florida which doomed vast portions of the Everglades. Gore's successful efforts to secure an Endangered Species Act waiver for the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River paved the way for the gutting of the act, according to the late David Brower. A "salvage rider" bill pushed by the timber industry directed the Forest Service to cut old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest. The administration, under Gore's watch, eliminated a regulation that had prohibited cancer-causing pesticides to be put in our foods, and cut a deal for the use of Methyl Bromide despite its reported contribution to ozone depletion.

While vice president, Gore did little stop global warming. The administration made it easy for Bush and Cheney to back out of the Kyoto Protocol by undermining the agreement in the late 1990s. Gore championed a "pollution credits" system at the Kyoto conference in 1997. But he opposed the watered down version of the Protocol, despite loopholes that would allow corporations to continue business as usual, because he feared alienating labor organizations that worried new environmental standards would shift jobs to developing nations with weaker regulations. "So while Al Gore flies a polluting jet around the country and overseas to preach to the masses about the dangerous effects of global warming and its inherent threat to life on earth," writes Frank, "you may want to ask yourself whether the hypocritical Gores of the world are more a part of the problem than a solution to the dire climate that surrounds us all."

Even if a U.S. government with a backbone solved the global warming problem by restricting corporate abuses and developing new systems of energy, the environmental crisis would be far from over. Out-of-control climate change is only one issue, albeit a crucial one. There are many others. For example, since World War Two a proliferation of chemicals in the environment (over 75,000 new compounds, at one count) parallels a drastic rise in cancer and other environmentally caused diseases. On a graph the huge jump in chemicals and cancer is remarkably similar to the jump in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures. Wherever you look, humans are fouling their nest. Liberal optimists like Gore believe there is no conflict between the public welfare and corporate welfare. They see science as our savior and believe that technology can solve the very problems that it created in the first place.

But just as the United States seems unable to clean up the mess it made in Iraq, American science and industry may never be able to keep up with the unfortunate unintended consequences of technological innovation. This is nothing new. Goethe wrote about it in Faust and Walt Disney portrayed it in The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

What's in a Name?

Communion Reflection on 2 Timothy 3:10-17 and Mark 12:35-37

What difference does it make what we call Jesus, or what title we give him?

In today’s Gospel from Mark, Jesus appears to question the title “son of David,” which is given to him in the very first verse of Matthew.

David, the most famous king of ancient Israel, was a poet who is believed to have authored or edited many of the Psalms. He prepared for the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem, which was eventually built by his son, Solomon. In the Davidic Covenant, told in the book of Second Samuel, God promised that David's royal dynasty would last forever, and that David's son would be God's Son.

The Jews in the time of Jesus, therefore, expected that the Messiah would come from the house of David. He would restore the lost glory of Israel and would rescue her people from oppression. The son of David, the anointed one of God, would be a king, a political savior. Even today Jews continue to pray for the coming of the Messiah, the son of David, who would build the third temple in Jerusalem.

Genealogies in Matthew and Luke identify Jesus as a descendant of David, by adoption through Joseph and by blood through Mary. When the angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife, he is addressed as “son of David.” King David was born in Bethlehem, and so the Gospel writers identify this city as the birthplace of Jesus.

The Gospels record that Jesus was called by many names during his earthly life: rabbi, prophet, teacher, and also: the good shepherd, the true vine, the bread of life. Followers impressed by his authority would call him “my Lord,” a title often given to rabbis. The title “son of David” is not that common in the New Testament. In Mark and Luke, the phrase seems to refer not to royal power, but rather to the magical/ healing power for which Solomon was famous. Only Matthew uses this more often and more clearly as a messianic title with royal connotations.

There is some tension in the Gospels between the messiah as the “son of David,” a political or royal figure, and the messiah as the “son of Man (or Adam),” a heavenly figure. Some expected that Jesus would become King of the Jews, and they were disappointed.

In the reading for today, Jesus suggests, by quoting Psalm 110, that the Messiah actually pre-exists David and is superior to him, and therefore cannot be his son. In this way, he renounces the claim of a kingly messiah.

What's in a name, anyway?

According to Shakespeare, “That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet."

We can call Jesus “the Messiah, the son of the living God,” as Peter did. Or we can call him brother, for he told us that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."

Best of all, we can call him friend, for Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel: “I no longer speak of you as slaves, for a slave does not know what his master is about. Instead, I call you friends.”

On the question of the relevance of names, I can’t resist quoting here the lyrics of a song by that famous convert from Judaism to Christianity, Bob Dylan, In “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he sings:
You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy,
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy,
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray,
You may call me anything but no matter what you say,

You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
And this service, I might add, is terminal…unto death. In the first reading from Second Timothy today we heard that “all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

After allowing us to think of ourselves as his friend, Jesus tells us: “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We can easily come up with a long list of names of those who gave their life for the Gospel, from the early martyrs of the Church to Bishop Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King in our time.

It doesn’t matter what name or title we’re called. It’s what we do that counts.

* * *

After spending at least a week in preparing the above reflection, I awoke this morning to discover that I had based it on the readings for yesterday, not today's. I suddenly felt like the man in the garden of Gethsemane, who, when Jesus was arrested, ran away naked. In Paul's letter to Timothy, in the readings today, he says "proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient." Without my well-crafted words to read, presiding at communion today would certainly be inconvenient!

Providentially, the "real" Gospel for June 10 is the Widow's Mite. The scribes "have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood." As a perfectionist with words, terrified at the thought of speaking extemporaneously (despite my debate training long ago), I can certainly identify with the scribes who thrive on admiration and respect, and who "recite lengthy prayers."

So I stood at the ambo and tore up my speech. I recalled that Fr. Cyprian, who led the retreat I attended last week at Mission San Antonio, is found of saying, with St. Paul, that "the love of God has been poured into our hearts." Certainly in the week after Pentecost, that gift of the Holy Spirit is on our minds. What a revelation: We have God within us! The Indian sages are fond of speaking of the "cave of the heart." The Spirit dwells in that cave, speaking in a still small voice. What stands between us and the experience of God within is, precisely, us, the selfishness and self-preoccupations and obsessions about the world that make us deaf to that voice. In contemplative prayer we sit silently before the cave, while the constant chatter of our egos, our selves with a little "s," rattles on endlessly. If that background noise of the self were to stop, we would be face to face with God.

The widow's utter poverty enables her to hear God speak. She is an example to all us scribes who feel naked without our fine speeches and fancy prayers. May we all be naked!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Madison, WI: Cows, Cheese Curds & Brats

June is Dairy Month in Wisconsin and during my first visit to Madison last weekend the cows were on display. It was the 27th annual Cows on the Concourse around Capitol Square and there were 101 of them in the "CowParade" in artsy disguises like the one above.

I knew little about Madison before my visit last weekend, except that it was an exceptional college town, on a par with Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Cambridge. And I knew Wisconsin weather was something to be feared. After it had hailed several times here last winter, the local paper headlined: “Wisconsin Weather Comes to Santa Cruz.” But June is different. Madison was sunny and warm and delightful.

I got a fine view of the Capitol flying into the airport. The stately white building is surrounded by the downtown business district on a narrow isthmus between two beautiful lakes, Mendota and Menona. On the ground, Madison is straight streets, green trees, two-storey brick houses and the University of Wisconsin with its 40,000 students and the unending construction of new buildings.

Kay, my hostess with the mostess, wisked me off to the University’s Memorial Union Terrace on Lake Mendota where a large crowd was listening to Ben Sidran’s group on the opening evening of the free Isthmus Jazz Festival. Dinner for me was a glass of the local beer and an infamous Wisconsin brat which looked suspiciously like a fat hot dog with a German accent. Pleasure boats lined the waterfront within listening distance.

On Friday, after hiking through Parfrey’s Glen (we took the wrong trail and missed the scenic spot), relaxing on the grass by Devil’s Lake (alongside overweight, bikini-clad teenagers, until a rain shower sent us packing) and climbing to the top of Gibralter Rock with its incredible views of the pastoral countryside, we stopped for the traditional Friday fish fry at a local country club. I’m sorry to report that the fish was not local and had seen better days. Wisconsin is farming country and I saw cows, sheep and pigs, and fields planted with young corn plants. I also saw indoor and outdoor silos filled with corn for animals, and learned that the fumes from silos can be lethal.

On Saturday we strolled through the Dane County Farmer’s Market on Capitol Square and I was introduced to cheese curds. Where have they been all my life? The best curds, I was told, squeak when eaten. But they must be at room temperature. I took a pack of them with me, and, now that the airlines no longer provide meals, they kept my strength up on the long flight home. Lunch at the Market was a grilled cheese sandwich from a booth where they were fried by the hundreds, for $1 each.

The streets around the fair were lined with food stalls and one of them, “Loose Juice,” which serves organic juices, is owned by Karl Armstrong. He was one of the radicals protesting the Vietnam War who were responsible for the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall, which housed the Army Mathematics Research Center. A young scientist was killed. After two years on the run, Armstrong was caught and served seven years in prison. Now he’s an entrepreneur.

Not far from the Capitol is the burnt out shell of St. Raphael Cathedral. The fire last year was started by a homeless man with a history of mental problems who broke into the church, stole a bottle of communion wine, and then apparently lit some matches. Madison’s bishop, Robert Morlino, is on the board of the School of the Americas, a training ground for government terrorists. Bad karma, I think.

Also a stone’s throw from the Capitola is the Monona Terrace Convention Center which was originally designed in 1937 by Frank Lloyd Wright for the city and county offices, but eventually completed in 1997 by a student of Wright’s. Wright was born in Wisconsin and studied at the University in Madison. We stood on the outdoor rooftop of the Center and watched the boats and water skiers on Lake Menona.

On my first night in town we passed up ice cream in the Union because the line was too long, but the next night, driven by desire, we waited in an even longer line. I got “blue moon,” a delectable flavor. The ice cream is made at the University, and on Monday we visited the Dairy Store in Babcock Hall where I got the “sundae of the day” which featured “lumberjack” ice cream , caramel syrup and nuts. Yum.

The long weekend was filled with fun: riding bikes through the University, past the Indian mound, and along the waterfront (next time I’ll wear padded underpants), watching the bears and the sad-looking buffalo (which once roamed free in the Midwest) at the Henry Vilas Zoo, kayaking on Lake Wingra, eating a Bob’s Bad Breath Burger at the Weary Traveler Free House, attending Josh’s graduation party in his parents’ house on a hill near the Swiss village of New Glarus, and going to mass at St. Mary of Lourdes in the rural community of Belleville where the recipients of intercessory prayers included “family farmers.” The church is presided over by the affable Fr. Ken Klink who specializes in short, pithy homilies about social justice that would make Jesus proud.

My hostess was anxious to show me Wisconsin wildlife and mentioned a Great Blue Heron she had frequently encountered on the road to Belleville. It was there in a farmer’s pond when we passed by, so we stopped to talk with the landowner. He informed us that the heron was plastic and that he had put it there to keep real herons from eating his fish. Aside from various road kill, including two dead deer, the only wildlife I saw outside of the zoo were birds – red-winged blackbirds and a variety of raptors and gulls – and the chipmunk and mice (or moles) in Kay's basement.

I’ve learned that Madison was named after President James Madison who died in 1836, the year the town was founded. It’s the home of Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the few remaining liberals in Washington, and everywhere I saw bumper stickers and signs on lawns that made abundantly clear the citizens’ dim views of Bush and his misguided war in Iraq. Kay’s neighbor advertised his liberal sentiments in stickers covering his car. But I particularly liked his front lawn which included a number of golf clubs upside down among the flowers. I feel the same way about that so-called sport.

If I didn't live in the greatest town around, I might consider moving to Madison, which I will ever hereafter think of as the "Santa Cruz of the Midwest." We'll give her our strawberries and she can send us her cheese curds.