lenten journal: upside down


    My schedule has made it difficult to find much time to read these past few days, so I took some time this morning to listen to Parker Palmer and Madeleine L’Engle, two names you are quite familiar with by now. Palmer was talking about the temptations of Jesus as a way of looking at the temptations of an active life. He named three (borrowing from Henri Nouwen): the temptation to be relevant, to be powerful, and to be spectacular – each one tempting us to act for some other reason than answering the truth within us. All three temptations of the strong ego, Palmer said, are kith and kin to the temptation of the weak ego: to be inadequate.

    [All] destroy our capacity for right action because both proceed from the same mistaken premise: the assumption that effective action requires us to be relevant, powerful, and spectacular, that only be being so can we have a real impact on the world. (114)

    As Bush and the Boys babble on three years after inflicting “Shock and Awe” on both the Iraqis and us, they are living proof that nothing much is solved by shows of power, attempts at relevance, or spectacular acts for their own sake.

    L’Engle was talking about some of the same stuff (at least to me), but with an artist’s eye. For her, turning the world upside down is not the same thing as looking at the world upside down.

    Another oddity of the brain is that our eyes see upside-down, and then our brain has to turn things right side up (and, maybe, left side up). I don’t understand why we see upside down; I know that nobody has been able to make a camera that doesn’t see upside down, and maybe there’s a message for us in that. Maybe the job of the artist is to see through all of this strangeness to what really is, and that takes a lot of courage, and a strong faith in the validity of the artistic vision even if there is not a conscious faith in God.

    My son-in-law, Alan, says in his book, Journey into Christ, “Our identity is hidden, even from ourselves. . . . the doctrine that we are made after the image of God proclaims that the human being is fundamentally a mystery, a free spirit. The creative artist is one who carries with him the wound of transcendence. He is the sign that human beings are more than they are.”

    And, as St. Augustine of Hippo says, “If you think you understand, it isn’t God.” (128-9)

    First of all, you have to love anyone who has the word “hippo” in his name. They’re my favorite animals. I wonder how you get to put “Hippo” in your name. Can you just add it on?

    Milty of Hippo. I like it.

    The upside down view for me starts with friends who are in pain. Just before I started writing this morning, I got word that my friend’s father was taken off of life support. All the family can do now is wait. We wait and pray with them.

    The other person I want to mention is a kid named Thomas Bickle. Thomas is little guy who is fighting a big fight against brain cancer. His parents are also waging a battle with our inadequate health care system. A bunch of his parents’ friends organized a blog-a-thon to help raise money to help his family deal with the financial weight of life as they are living it. (You can also hit the button in the sidebar.)

    The view of the world we are most fed is top down, big picture, as if history is really about bombs and press conferences to explain them. As I thought about young Thomas (who in his stocking cap looks like he could be a rapper – I want to call him T-Dawg), I thought of something I wrote in my Lenten Journal as the US invasion began three years ago:

    Somewhere in Iraq there is a man like me.

    He is in his mid-forties and carrying more weight than he should. Though Ginger and I have chosen not to have children, I think he and his wife have a couple — perhaps teenage boys about my nephews’ ages. They live in a small two bedroom house in Baghdad. He works as a cook in a small cafe. I know nothing about Iraqi cooking, but I imagine he is much more familiar with spices like cumin and cardamon, tamarind and z’arat, just as I know more about jalapenos. We would both share a love of good olive oil, and cinnamon. He probably knows more recipes that use dates than I do. He makes one tenth of my paycheck.

    He does not drive to work because he has no car. He does not come home at night and turn on the television or the computer because he has neither. He brings home what food he can because the sanctions have left the grocery shelves empty.

    His house is dangerously close to a military installation, just as mine is in the flash zone of the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant in Plymouth. He knew that, but never let it bother him until the bombs began falling a week ago. The windows in his house have been broken out by the force of the explosions, leaving him to try and keep out the dust and the black smoke from burning oil with pieces of cardboard and wood.

    His youngest son is frightened by the war and the impending “Battle of Baghdad.” The drone of voices coming from loudspeakers calling people to arms in support of their president has become more frequent than the calls to prayer. The boy flinches when he hears them. He has not gone outside for days. The eldest son is angry and ready to strike out. He disappears during the afternoon, and sometimes at night, leaving his father and mother to fear that he is making plans to join in the fight against the invading forces. If he fights, the man thinks, he will be killed. I am not going to fight, he follows, and I may also die.

    Near his cafe is a coffee shop with a television. He has been stopping by there after work to see what is happening. The only news on the screen is about the war, as it is on mine. We do not see the same images, however. He sees pictures of the places that have been bombed, of the women and children who have been killed and wounded, of the hospital wards packed with wounded civilians. I see images of American troops moving confidently across the desert, Iraqi soldiers surrendering, Kurdish people embracing American soldiers in thanksgiving. He hears his president proclaim stiff-necked resolve in much the same way that my president does. He sees images of dead and captured American soldiers designed to make him think his government has the situation under control. I am shown different pictures by my government for the same purpose. Neither one of us has access to the other’s point of view.

    He is a religious man: a Muslim. He prays during the day according to Islamic ritual, stopping in the midst of preparing meals to roll out his mat and kneel toward Mecca. His heart aches when he hears the names of the cities and towns being chewed up by the war, places whose names he first learned from the Qu’ran. He knows, as I do, that the One he calls Allah is the One those who are Christian and Jew refer to as God. He is bothered that Muslims and Christians and Jews are invoking the name of Allah when they justify their violence toward one another. He has never met a Christian or a Jew and he wonders if they are all as angry as they seem in the pictures he is shown.

    Each day as he has gone to work he has seen more and more businesses shuttered up. This morning the owner of his cafe told him the restaurant was closing. The Americans are too close. He would do well to take some food from the cafe and stay with his family. He took some bread, some cheese, some yogurt, and some coffee. He heard and felt three giant explosions in the city today. News came that one of the bombs had missed its military target and landed in a marketplace. When he got home his wife was inconsolable. The eldest boy had gone after the first explosion. Someone, he said, had to fight.

    Each day, he is waking to more sand, more smoke, more fear and uncertainty. I will wake in uncertainly as well, but I can say unequivocally that I will never know the level of fear and despair that he knows on a daily basis. I am an observer and he is a participant; both parts have been cast according to our addresses.

    Somewhere in Iraq there is a man like me and he is a casualty of war. I think he is prpbably going to die. I will choose to let that break my heart over and over again.

    Peace never rides in on a bullet or a bomb.



    1. Beautifully written. That last line is very poetic. I especially liked L’Engles quote. And yes, you can just add hippo to your name. Now you will be refered to has Milty the Hippo.



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