Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day of Judgment, Day of Promise

What will resurrection day be like?

I think of the place where my body will someday rest, Maple Grove Cemetery.
What will happen on that little patch of land on the Day of Judgment, the day
when all are raised, some to eternal life and some to eternal punishment?

My ancestors and I, how will we come out of our coffins? How will we come up
through the earth? Will the ground explode with light? Will we look like zombies?

Those of us who are in Christ, will we waken peacefully, as from sleep,
to see our risen Jesus, the firstborn from among the dead?

That day will be our day of rest, as the Israelites finally had rest in the
land of promise. After a long and painful history since their birth as a
people under Abraham—400 years of slavery in Egypt, 40 years of
wandering and dying in the wilderness, repeated sin and failure and
breaching of the covenant, endless violence and struggle in warfare—after
all that, they had rest in the fulfilled promises of Yahweh.

How they must have longed for that day!

How deeply satisfied they must have been when it came:
the day when they lived on good land over which they did not
toil and ate from vineyards and olive groves they did not plant.

Oh Lord, stir in me a longing for the day of rest and wholeness,
the day when struggle ceases and the redeemed commune with You!

We will be with You resting in the peace of your promises as never before
and made certain, beyond all doubt, of your goodness and faithfulness.

Lord, stir our longing for that day! Waken our desire for those we
meet to share our hope of resurrection, of divine promises fulfilled.

Grant us the courage to speak, rightly and wisely, the good news of
Jesus the Nazarene. He is the Son of God who died and rose and will

Our hope rests in you, Jesus. Draw us ever closer to yourself.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Conversing with RRW

I've been posting on a site called Refugee Resettlement Watch. It's been a frustrating dialouge, but it's also helped me think through how my faith informs and shapes the work I do with refugees. Since I put a lot of time into my posts, I decided to put one here also. Go here to see the whole conversation.

From what I can tell, one of the ideals that drives this website is a belief that one culture can be superior to another. For example, in response to my April 15 post discussing refugees’ desire to preserve cultural identity, acorcoran said:

“Yes, they want to “preserve” their culture, but the difference is that I am not trying to “preserve” my culture in the midst of another country’s culture and expecting that country to change for me. And, frankly, I happen to think our American culture is superior to most, all!, of the cultures that are coming to the US and if that were not so, they would be staying in their part of the world and trying to improve it instead of beating down the door to get here.”

Also, RRW recently endorsed an opinion piece by John Press on Somali immigration. Discussing an immigration mechanism called the Diversity Lottery, he says:

“Somali immigration exemplifies the cultural and physical dangers of such a policy. It invites a foreign and hostile cultures onto our shores. We should, at very least, stop Somali immigration until their piracy of our ships stop. Such culturist immigration policies would remind us that we have a culture as well as a duty and right to protect it.

Multiculturalism is an unthinking philosophy. It blocks thought by asking us to celebrate all cultures. President Obama’s formulation says we must “respect” all cultures. This means that we have no judgment towards them. This limits the use of our reason. It means that considering values, in fact, becomes a thought crime as it might invoke choosing some and not others. Our immigration decisions should consider mores, language, and the cultural ability to honor our Founding Fathers and the principles for which they fought.”
Later, Press continues,

“We should ban all Somali immigration until the piracy stops. Then we should make a review of Somali culture, its compatibility with western culture and the progress towards assimilation of Somalis currently in the U.S. This would protect us and punish the Somali pirates. The multicultural idea of not noticing the Somali tendency towards piracy, attacks on U.S. interests and affinity for Jihadi warlords is dangerous. Not recognizing their polygamy, treatment of women, and female genital mutilation lends credence to the multicultural vision of diversity not being important. Not recognizing the enormous financial costs of caring for such a culture reifies the ignoring of economic realities in the name of ‘international rights.’

Banning Somali immigration would codify culturism. That is, it would legally acknowledge and privilege our western cultural identity. Symbolically it would restore the values and cultural touchstones of honor we have sought to emulate and protect. It would affirm a cultural base into which immigrants could strive to assimilate. It would also discourage their Somali’s brazen refusal to assimilate. It would end our multicultural confusion about our being an international entity on the order of the United Nations. Even if the immediate impact were not great, symbolically, culturist immigration policy would realign our relationship with the world, our immigrants and ourselves in a very healthy way.”

First of all, I’ll assume that by “culture,” acorcoran and Professor Press both refer, more or less, to a set of collective values and the formal or informal traditions by which a group of people live out those values and thus form a communal identity.

To claim that one’s own culture is superior to another is not only myopic, but also illogical. Every culture is deep, complex, and multifaceted. Every culture has virtues and vices.

For example, our nation was founded with the assertion that all men are created equal and endowed by God with the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All Americans should be grateful for that conviction of our founding fathers. Indeed, the very notion of accepting refugees for resettlement is consistent with this ideal, if America really believes that these rights belong to all men and women. These are American virtues. But it only takes a bit of honest investigating to see the longstanding flaws in our national character, or culture. The genocide of Native Americans and the institution of slavery are two symptoms of a sickness called greed that has infected us since Jamestown. Today our greed is manifested in materialism and combines with a hyper-individualized lifestyle to slowly destroy our communities, families, and the environment.

The point is that it is unfair to speak only about the beauty of your own culture and only about the ugliness of another. This is what RRW does when it has hundreds of headlines and links that say things like this: Somali Jihadist Recruitment; reluctance to assimilate; getting into the US by lying; terrorist training camps; Somali gangs; polygamy; Somalis still arriving in Greeley, looking for work; defending Somali rapists; Omar Jamal headed to New York to help Somali Pirate; Somali Cyanide Death Case.

This also is what Professor Press does when he rattles off a list of “polygamy, treatment of women, and female genital mutilation.” With or without intention, he paints millions of individual people the same nasty color with one stripe, with a single sentence.

I’ve spent a good deal of time with Somali Bantu refugees who are far from being terrorists, rapists, polygamists, or pirates. They are not hostile; they are hospitable, generous, persistent, and loyal.

Professor Press and RRW, when you pin labels on Somali culture, you pin labels on my friends—Ali, Halima, Said, Abdi, Hassan, Fatuma, Mako, and others.

I can assure you, acorcoran, that they did not leave “their part of the world” and “beat down the door” to get to America because they love our unhealthy food, our crass media industry, our obsession with personal property, our disregard for the elderly, our impatience, or our industrial waste.

They came to America because prejudice people who believe their own culture is superior to Bantu culture killed their family members and chased my friends away from their homes. Then somebody offered them a chance to start a new life in a place where people believe that all men and women are created equal with the God-given right to pursue liberty and happiness. They did what you would have done if your part of the world was a war zone and you fled for your life.

Inform your readers, RRW, but please be careful with your language. We can guard our heritage and culture without promoting the belief that others are inferior. The fact is, whether everybody likes it or not, a lot of refugees are here to stay. So take issue with policies, but don’t stir up negative sentiment against entire people groups.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The still, quiet emptiness of an urban cemetery always grips me. Today, I passed by St. James on my bicycle, and, being native to a still and quiet patch of farmland, I was drawn to the solace the graveyard offered. So I locked up my bike and sat for a while with the dead, soaking in the wild contrasts of the scene the tombstones look upon hour after hour.

I sat silently and motionless and penned this proverb:

Our eyes look ever forward
Making plans for days to come
Our calendars, PDA’s, and cell phones
Are the instruments with which we severe
Our ties to those in the grave

Having done so, we are left without them
In our ignorance
And the city’s constant motion
Beats into us the lie that movement
And sound will never cease
And that someday our mouths
Will go on jabbering
Beneath the soil

O dead ones who can no longer speak
Teach us to listen to your silence

O dead ones who can no longer move
Teach us to be still

For we are your children
And soon we will join you

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I feel a deep connection with much of Wendell Berry’s articulate and pointed writing. Though born in vastly different times and regions, he and I are both the descendents of farmers, and we both have been stirred by a vague but deeply personal sense of debt to the past and to the earth. Because of these allegiances, I have felt the same frustration and sadness over people’s wastefulness and neglect—what Berry calls the tragic manifestations of our “national character.” In general, Berry uses language to flesh out concepts that I have pondered for much of my life without attempting to articulate. Following is one example.

My first job was washing dishes at the Cracker Barrel restaurant when I was seventeen. Each night when we closed, my Hispanic co-workers and I poured pounds of “extra” food into garbage cans, which we then hauled to a dumpster and laboriously lifted and dumped. The senselessness of it sickened me. I remember the drab shades of the dish room and what it felt like to dump gallons of hot gravy over steaming mashed potatoes plopped into the bottom of an industrial sized trash can. Following the gravy and potatoes were biscuits, green beans, and any other hot sides that could not be kept overnight. The logic behind this sickly ritual was simple: the food was unable to be sold and therefore had no value. So we were ordered, by other “corporate underlings (69)” and upon condition of receiving our paychecks, to send it in bags to a landfill.

In Racism and the Economy, Berry points out the similarities between industrial society and the institution of slavery. In short, he asserts that modern consumer culture exploits power and misuses people just as slaveholders did. There is hard, physical work to be done, and the wealthy don’t want to do it. So they purchase human labor to build a personal enterprise. Though this system does not violate human rights as blatantly as its predecessor, it makes a mockery of the dignity of human labor by assigning workers to degrading tasks like throwing away perfectly good food. Such tasks have no value aside from the need to clean up the muck left behind by profit-driven businesses.

As a high school junior trying to make some summer money, I lacked the intellectual and spiritual capacity to understand societal sin, but I felt the guilt of participating in it. Complacently, but not without unease, I sold my body and my labor to an irreverent and destructive force controlled by greed. It sobers me to think that the nightly taking-out of trash at the Cracker Barrel is a case study of similar misdeeds committed a million times over each day across the world.

(quote taken from The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Sacrificial Giver

Leaving a store one November day, he gave his scarf to a begging crack addict. He felt good about it, because Jesus tells us to care for the dirty ones. All week, he thought of the smelly man sitting and begging with a warm scarf wrapped around his twisty beard. He felt like a good Christian.

But soon the temperatures turned sub-zero, and the giver lost his other scarf. He walked around the city with deadly wind slashing his face and drying out his skin. He imagined the feel of fleece on his cheeks; he longed for the soft fabric moistened by his warm breath.

One icy day he stood waiting for a bus. The roads were covered in snow, and his normal ten-minute wait had extended to half a hour. He paced. He bounced up and down. With numb fingers, he held the collar of his coat close to his mouth and breathed into it. The cold wind cut through his jeans, and is mind whirred with vicious thoughts.

"That irresponsible goon," he whispered sharply through his cracked lips. "He probably lost my scarf already. Passed out drunk on the train and some other druggie stole it. I hate crack addicts."

Soon the warm bus came and carried him to work.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Maple Grove

This is a new tune I wrote but have yet to record. It's based on a cemetery about a mile from my house where many of my ancestors are burried.

I have tended Maple Grove for thirty-nine years
Quiet cemetery in the fields northeast of town
Many hours I have labored in sunny silence
Many friends and neighbors I've laid into their graves

Alice Smith, Edgar Jones, old Ray Stevenson
Whose bones filled up with cancer
When he was fifty-nine
Mildred May, her husband Robbie, Jim Evans
Good heavens, has it really been ten years
Since you passed, old Jim?
I remember when you and Betty Anne were married
and bought the farmhouse
out on Old Chicago Road
Now as I cut the grass and pull the weeds
And trim the trees I pray you're pleased
With the way the living world remembers you

Old friend, you rest now beneath the soil
This land's produce filled the bellies of our ancestors
It seems like only days ago
When you were standing next to me

I have tended Maple Grove since I was young and strong
Back when the railroad still came run'n through our town
Now cars go speed'n by out on the highway
While silent headstones whisper wisdom to my ear

They say, "You can burn and bury your dead
Time and time and time again, but that don't mean
They're through with you
The elders of your clan joined us long ago
I hope you listened to them well
Or you may not know just who you are."

And they tell me, "Old man, you stand now upon the soil
And this land's produce filled the bellies of your ancestors.
It may be only days away when the earth receives you back
and you lie below with them."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thanksgiving and Supplication

Lord, thank you for your profound and mysterious love. Thank you for your faithfulness and for the promises you’ve made to mankind since creation. Thank you for your patience and your justice and for the means of grace you have secured in our lives—your word, your saints, the avenue of prayer, the ability to use our gifts and our bodies.

Guide me today, gracious Lord. Hold me near and grant me courage to walk as you have walked, Jesus: to share your truth, to love my enemies, to be pure inside and out, to act compassionately and decisively, to touch the untouched, to empty myself unconsciously for the sake of others, to maintain faith in the Father and in his will in the face of uncertainties.

Forever faithful God, humble me! Save me from self-obsession, arrogance, and judgmentalism. Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil in all of its forms. Grant me the grace to remain in you, that I may be transformed.