Thursday, December 22, 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Missing the Mark

Last month I heard the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright speak, and the experience engaged me on several levels. It is always inspiring to see a gifted person deliver a message on a topic he or she is passionate about. It was encouraging in this specific case to observe and listen to someone who has labored in the realm of ideas so long and so seriously.

A couple friends asked what the main take-away was for me, and in trying to answer them I kept returning to something Wright said about sin. During the question and answer time someone asked about how the church can maintain a proper focus on personal and societal sin. Wright responded like he does often in his writing—not by answering a question exactly, but by reframing it and thus addressing a more fundamental issue. He said that we ought to think of sin as “missing the mark,” like an arrow shot at a target but fallen short. At least one facet of sin can be described this way: it is the thing that keeps us from the mark of living fully as human beings. The way to not miss the mark is to worship the God who became incarnate on the earth, and in his life, death, and resurrection stands as the True Human.

I like this perspective because it brings clarity to some of our muddled constructs and terminology. If we always categorize sin into the personal kind and the societal kind, we start to think there are two different problems that we deal with in different ways. We enact some sort of cathartic private confession to deal with the first, and we attend big rallies or street protests to combat the second. But the idea of missing the mark doesn’t allow these distinctions to cut so deeply into the real theological issue. Rather, it places Jesus right at the center and orients everything on the spectrum toward him. This seems like a good posture to aim for in our scholarship and in the whole realm of our conduct (personal and collective). I am grateful to Dr. Wright for his insight.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

World-Shaping and the Love of Christ

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner-being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Having addressed the role of the gospel in transforming the individual’s life code and sphere of influence, I am tempted to jump into the romantic and high-profile kinds of world-shaping that arise so easily to dominate our thinking and guide our energy. To do so, however, would not do justice to the centrality of Christ’s love in our role as kingdom seekers and world-shapers.

The kind of love that we see in the Scriptures can be described in countless ways. It is steadfast to the point of inspiring terror. It is defined in essence by the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, separate yet one in loving union and harmony. It is Christ’s willingness to place himself below humanity so that humanity may be lifted up with him. In Hosea it is the deep pangs of rejection resonating through a forsaken spouse.

But more than anything the love of the gospel is characterized by self-emptying. It is willful suffering for the good of others in obedience to the Father. This is what defines Christ both in his death and in the example of his life on earth, and it is also what should define us as his followers.

The problem is that living a self-emptying life does not usually line up with our ambitions to shape the world, even if those ambitions are “Christian.” For example, how can I move forward with the time-consuming logistical plans to start an organic farming ministry for refugees if I am called before all else to practically lay down my life in the example of Christ for the people around me? (This is a real and pertinent question I’ve pondered over for a few years now).

And the problem is compounded by the fact that the standard paradigm for Christian ministry (in the Western world at least) involves a group of people or an individual person setting a goal and then living in service to that goal before anything else. The mission statement of any local church or ministry is another way of saying, “We will devote ourselves, our resources, and our energy to transforming our sphere of influence in such and such a way.”

If we make it the goal of our life or our ministry to see a particular vision actualized, then whatever grows up will have bad roots and we ourselves will be vulnerable to disease. We will be angry or ashamed when the vision doesn’t happen. We will cover up our deep frustration by saying piously, “We have to accept that for some reason the Lord closed that door.” We will be afraid of people or situations that threaten our vision. Our life energy will be lost—poured out in anxiety over our plans. Worse, we will find that even though we are pursuing a “Christian” goal, our life code has not been redefined by the love of Christ.

But if we willingly lose our lives in self-sacrifice to the people around us, then we will find the life of the gospel. We will have nothing of our own to protect. If we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ and make the enacting of that love unto the people around us our single goal, then we will bring about the life of the gospel in cooperation with the Spirit. The truth and the commands of Christ will be our life code. The love of Christ will be the thing that defines us; it will permeate our lives in such a way that it can be known by others—not known in the way that a student knows an answer on a test, but known in the way that the Israelites standing before flaming Mount Sinai knew that Yahweh is real and the gods of Egypt are not.

The most fitting summary for all of this, I think, is to say that we are presented with a paradox. We are called to reshape the world as we seek the kingdom of God. But if we make too many plans about how to do that, we lose our lives to those plans instead of directly and intentionally laying our lives down for others in the example of Christ. We are to reshape the world not by our effort, but more so by existing in it as people who, by the power of the Spirit, are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

World-Shaping: Starting with the Life Code

The Life Code: Fear, Anger, and Shame
Every person has a code deep within that governs his behavior. I am calling it a life code. It is a set of principles and convictions about human existence. It forms the centering point to which all of a person’s actions and thoughts are anchored, the axis on which the wheel of one’s behavior turns. Often it is imbedded so deeply that he is unaware both of the code and the forces and experiences that led to its formation. Usually, he cannot see the code’s outworking in his own behavior.

Invariably, it is anger, fear, and shame in some form that mold every person’s life code. A couple years ago, for example, while trying to answer the perceptive questions of a friend and mentor, I realized the extent to which my decisions at the time were governed by fear. Fear was an obstacle in my life. It had been diverting me from trusting obedience. Because of it, I had put myself in a holding pattern for no good reason without even realizing it. How could this have happened? I had just finished Bible college, and the most common command in the Scriptures , after all, is “Do not fear.”

For others, anger rests behind their life code. The source of the anger takes many forms: broken or dysfunctional family relationships, a physical ailment, the death of a loved one, damaging experiences with Christians or Christian organizations, a failed career path, or physical or sexual abuse. People who harbor anger because of their suffering can talk however they want, but in the long run their behavior says, “The world and God and the people around me owe me because of what I’ve been through.”

Next is shame. The list of difficulties above can inspire shame as well as anger. Think of a divorced person, a parent with a rebellious child, a father who loses his job and cannot support his family, a child who grows up knowing her family is poorer than everyone else, an elderly person who can no longer control his body’s functions. People in such situations—and all of us in some way—deal with feelings of shame. It may even be an experience we had in our youth that weighed so heavily upon our person that we bear it the rest of our life. Shame is like a tender bruise that never goes away; we cover it so that no one can touch it and make us hurt. Shame leads us to believe, “I am not worthy because of this.”

Life Codes Set the Format for World-Shaping
A person’s life code drives his or her behavior, and behavior is a way of describing how someone tries to shape his or her world. More than anything, the life code reveals what kind of people make one feel threatened and what kind of people make one feel safe. For example:

A single woman in her thirties or forties may feel threatened by a younger married woman if she believes in her core that being connected to a man validates a woman’s existence. She will order her world in such a way that she can avoid the younger woman and others like her. An old man who cannot work may feel threatened by younger, healthy men if he believes in his core that a man’s worth lies in his work. He will order his world so that he does not have to be around the work he can no longer do or people who still can.

A young man may order his world to invite the companionship of foolish people and keep away those he sees as wise or virtuous if he believes in his core—perhaps because he has heard it since his youth—that he himself is a fool. A young woman may see a louse of a man as a prince only because he shows her attention; she may entrust herself to him if in her core she needs to feel like she belongs. If her friends and family do not like him, she will order her world in a way that distances them because they jeapordize the relationship that makes her feel affirmed.

Salvation and Life Codes
These core convictions—matters of worth, value, and belonging—are the true places where the gospel works in a person’s life. Christ himself comes to encounter the anger, fear, and shame deep within, and at those very places imparts the truth of the Father’s love story. The person’s code then begins to change. Divine love casts out fear. Shame is taken away by Christ. Anger becomes trustful suffering endured under the Father’s goodness.

As the code, the axis, changes, the behavior anchored to it changes, and the person begins to cooperate with the Spirit in the re-ordering of her life. Her world begins to resemble Christ’s kingdom. It becomes a domain where Christ rules and where he is present. The old world becomes new in the following ways:

An appetite for truth will take away deceptive and senseless speech, along with the attractiveness of those who speak it. A person’s possessions may simplify as covetousness is replaced by the ability to celebrate gifts without desiring ownership. Manipulative relationships will heal—or manipulative people find their way out—and loyalty will exist instead. Sexual lust will seem out of place, and those who use sexuality as a tool will no longer be enticing. Other people will no longer be regarded as threats and potential pieces of a self-validating plan. Instead they will be seen as children loved steadfastly by the Father. Routines of complacency will give way to self-sacrificing action. Busy schedules will make room for times of communion with the Father. Private spaces will open up to invite others in to the life of following Christ.

Altogether, faith, hope, love, and peace will come to characterize life as Christ dwells more fully in a person’s being and in his or her sphere of influence. This begins when the gospel enters in and deals with one’s existing life code founded on fear, anger, and shame.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Two Kinds of Worlds to Shape

First of all, there are two angles to the word “world”. The first is the most common sense of the word. The planet earth. The physical place created by God where all humans dwell. We exercise mastery over it. We alter its geography through construction, agriculture, and the extraction of natural resources. With governments and militaries and businesses we control the movement of people and resources over it. Through many other avenues, we determine what it feels like to live in the world for ourselves and for others. We shape the world, collectively as humans.

In another sense, every person lives in and exercises some degree of control over his own world. He has a sphere of influence that includes his immediate physical surroundings. For a child, this physical world might be a play area or a bedroom. For a rural property owner, it may be acreage with a yard, garden, and wooded areas. For a city-dweller, it may be the interior of a rented apartment or condo. To the extent that we are able, we shape these places in a way that suits us and therefore reflects what is within us.

In the same way, we practice the less obvious human habit of shaping our “people environment” in a way that suits us. I read a proverb once that said it well: “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are.” The bottom line is that, to the degree we are able, we surround ourselves with the kind of people who make us feel comfortable, desired, and unthreatened. When we cannot find such people, we isolate ourselves and call it loneliness. This is how a person sets the tone for the kind of relational patterns that characterize her world (and, undoubtedly, her own behavior). By observing such patterns in other people, we can start to answer the question, “What would it feel like to live in Danny’s world? Or Katie’s world? Or John’s world? ”

So there is the collective ordering of the world at large and the private ordering of an individual’s sphere of influence. We must have both concepts of world-shaping in place as a framework for understanding salvation and redemption in Christ, and also for understanding what it means to practice life in Christ. The next few posts will focus on one or the other of these aspects of world-shaping, but in reality they are intertwined.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

World-Shaping: Intro

I sat down with a friend recently and we exchanged ideas. He and his family are involved in community development and disciple-making in the diverse neighborhood in Chicago where I work. As our conversation unfolded, it became clear that we are both people who like to think about possibilities. I told him my daydreams about starting a business to provide agricultural jobs for refugees resettled in Chicago. He told me about plans to start an LLC that will provide alternative borrowing options to poor people who fall into cycles of debt though the pay-day loan system.

For he and I both, there was a kind of wonder and a kind of discontent. We shared a common hope in seeing the potential for wrongs to be righted, and a common restlessness because that has not yet happened. We could see all the resources, but had to imagine the connections.

The conversation inspired me to think freshly about the work of humans in shaping the world—and, more specifically, the work of Christ-followers in re-shaping the world as they pursue the Kingdom. In the next few posts (I don’t know how many it will be yet) I’ll set forth some thoughts about how world-shaping plays out in the life of the Body and in humankind in general.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Love and Fury

Lord, I envy the men of the Old Books
who You graced with clear tasks. I see
them in my mind. Bearded nomads and
warriors and agrarians—hard men given
completely to the movements needed for
life to continue under Your hand.

Build an ark.
Follow the pillar of fire.
Kill the Philistine with a stone.
March around the city seven times.
Lay with your wife and produce offspring.

My own times are far less definite. My land
is one of padded fingers clicking buttons. Unseen
figures turning unseen gears. I live among curls
of highway. Constant motion. I breathe a haze
of endless digital signals. Abstractions.
My ears are starved of silence, my eyes so
enlightened that all vision has grown dim.
Good and Evil, Virtue and Sin, Truth and Untruth—
they are only the dross, bubbling atop a few
centuries of rational thinking. And Lord,
obedience? A laugh and wave of the hand.

Ha! The absolute rulers are shut away in
history books, along with the miserable
crowds who endured their tyranny!

But late in the night I sit beneath a circle of
lamplight, fingering the fragile pages of the
old stories. It is here where I learn, as a man,
that greatness rests in those who believe
Your call still pierces with love and fury.

It is clear as the saving path through the Red Sea,
deafening as the blow of trumpets,
and deadly as the glinting swords
that cut down pagan armies.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Exploring the Urban Craft Fad: Work

1. There is a relational crisis in America.

America is in bad shape when it comes to human relationships. That is the presupposition underlying this post, and it comes from my own observation, reading, and talking with others who care deeply about understanding their distinct identity as Americans. Since this is a presupposition, I won’t take time here to articulate or to defend it, but I will summarize it with another insight from Allan Bloom.

Bloom explains that the fathers of modern thought replaced the virtuous man with the rational and productive man. In their movement away from religion and toward reason, away from duty and toward rights, they produced systems of thought that undermine traditional virtues. Virtue, of course, pertains directly to how human beings relate to one another; but reason and rationality direct a person inward. Thus, if America is best understood as a product of modernity (or an Enlightenment experiment, as some writers say), it makes sense that the groundwork for an individualistic, anti-relational society is set more firmly here than anywhere else in the world.

Over the course of the nation’s history, this individualism has fed itself and worked itself into our way of life more deeply than we can understand. The layouts of our housing developments, the way we introduce ourselves in conversation, the structure of our institutions, the language we use in politics and public discourse, the communication and media technology we develop—these things help to form the giant lens of modern, individualistic, rights-based thought through which Americans view the experience of human existence. Just like a contact lens, it affects everything we see, but we do not see the lens itself. One area in particular that diminishes people’s capacity for healthy relationships is the American workplace.

2. Our practice and understanding of work fuels an anti-relational lifestyle.

The workplace is more than simply the place where work is done. It is also a place where people receive instruction through their routines about the nature of life. What they learn depends on what kind of work they do. In a society based on information, industry, and consumer markets, the work environment is centered on principles that are contrary to both the natural order and the desire for relationship ingrained in human nature. For example, the unwritten code that governs the activity and rhythms most people experience at their job includes the following:

1). Waiting for a desired result is bad because it means we do not have control.
2). Success requires a network of people passing information quickly through communication technologies.
3). Results must be measured and recorded in order to validate the activity of the worker.
4). The primary judge of the worth of labor is the dollar.
5). Work and leisure are opposites and exist in separate spheres.

If a person used these concepts as a guide for how to relate to other human beings, he would quickly find himself in depressing and self-induced isolation. A healthy relationship, and by this I mean a relationship defined and guided by love, requires a grounding in principles opposite to those listed above. In parenthood, for example, a person must learn that they will never have complete control over their child’s development. They must wait for certain qualities or skills to form in their child, and the waiting is good because it teaches parents to love without condition. In marriage, a couple must learn that success requires a simple, direct, and intimate connection between human beings, and that their labor is worthwhile even though they may never be rewarded for it or see its result. Friendship also provides an avenue for a person to learn these lessons, all of which are doomed if relationships are understood as things that exist in the realm of leisure as opposed to the realm of work.

3. The kind of work characterized by the craft movement offers lessons that coincide with, rather than work against, the qualities needed for healthy human relationships.

The three projects I am currently engaged in are brewing beer, growing vegetables, and refinishing a rocking chair. I am an amateur in all areas, and two of the three endeavors have a high chance of failing miserably right now. Nonetheless, I am learning things, most importantly the relevance of the tasks themselves. What is the value of doing things by hand that do not have to be done that way? For many, the point is basically to feel cool and to impress other urban people with their old-fashioned knowledge. But there is a deeper and more genuine meaning as well. Working with natural things in a manner that requires knowledge about how those things work has better capacity to teach a person about the nature of life than doing work that is centered on information. This assertion, of course, hinges on the belief that there is an essential unity between the physical and spiritual spheres and that you can learn about the latter by observing the former. Many teachings in the Christian scriptures (and others as well, but I draw from this because it is my own background) re-enforce this unity as they draw examples from agriculture and nature to illustrate spiritual truth.

Here are some examples from my own crafty experiences about how this unity manifests itself. Brewing beer teaches that impatience results in loss. Tending a garden teaches that growth and success require elements beyond human control. Refinishing a chair teaches that labor and leisure can be one in the same. All three activities remind me that beauty cannot come about without sacrifice. These principles coincide with and nurture qualities required for healthy human relationships instead of contradicting and attacking those qualities. Unlike the principles that govern much of the work done in isolation from the natural realm, they could be carried over into the sphere of marriage, parenthood, and friendship without jeopardizing those relationships.

To close, I am not merely offering these ideas to say that everyone should brew beer, grow vegetables, and refinish rocking chairs. Nor am I asserting that every person who works with natural things is a healthier and more relational human being than her office-bound counterpart. I do hope to show that the patterns of thought and actions we engage in, particularly in our work environment because we spend so much time at work, contribute greatly to our formation as people. My generation’s interest in natural work suggests that we are drawn not only to the work itself, but to the lessons the work has to teach us. We have not learned these lessons in our families or our information-centered work places, but we believe the lessons are there and that they have something important to tell us about human existence.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Exploring the Urban Craft Fad: Family

A friend and mentor of mine who is in his mid-fifties often talks with me of the differences between his generation and mine, and we come inevitably to the peril of the modern (and post-modern) family. In his grade-school years it was a strange thing to have a classmate with divorced parents. There was stigma and shame attached to it. In my grade school days it was common; today, in many urban areas especially, single-parent homes of one kind or another are the default. Though a significant number of my close friends throughout high school and college had divorced parents, I have not thought much until recently about the weight that such a situation places on children and how they carry it into adulthood.

Divorce is a difficult subject to talk about because there is still shame attached to it even though it is commonplace. People who grew up in “broken homes” do not want to be stigmatized. They do not want to hear statistics about how likely they are to repeat their parents’ failures. They do not want to be psycho-analyzed. Understandably, they want to be seen as their own people with their own potential. As for the parents, they often face co-workers, fellow church-goers, neighbors, and extended family members who distance themselves out of disappointment, bewilderment or judgment. This is unfortunate because they need the opposite. If a father lacks the strength to stay committed to his family, he needs someone to come walk with him, take the time to find out why he lacks that strength, and encourage him toward good fatherhood from whatever point he is at with steadfast patience. Simply put, there are deep reasons behind each decision to divorce, and a long-stretching (but not defining) tenderness is imprinted on each child of divorce. Both of these call for intentional grace and love rather than detached analysis.

At the same time, the destruction of the family is a crisis, and people need to speak frankly about a crisis if they hope to address or define it in any meaningful manner. To this end, I enroll the insights of Alan Bloom. In his book The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom sets the stage for the current state of the family by explaining the anti-familial concepts at the heart of modern rights-based democracy. If legitimate relationships between human beings are formed on the basis of individuals choosing to enter into a social contract, he says, then even the bond between husband, wife, parent, and child will eventually disintegrate. Following this assertion, he has a few brief pages on divorce, largely drawn from observations of his students while he taught at top American and European universities for thirty years. His assertions are direct and harsh, but they reach into the heart of the problem to strum a somber chord that resonates with much greater force and truth than it did when he wrote the book in 1987. Bloom writes:

“Children may be told over and over again that their parents have a right to their own lives, that they will enjoy quality time instead of quantity time, that they are really loved by their parents even after divorce, but children do not believe any of this. They think they have a right to total attention and believe their parents must live for them. There is no explaining otherwise to them, and anything less inevitably produces indignation and an inextirpable sense of injustice. To children the voluntary separation of parents seems worse than their death precisely because it is voluntary. The capriciousness of wills, their lack of directedness to the common good, the fact that they could be otherwise but are not—these are the real source of the war against all. Children learn a fear of enslavement to the wills of others, along with a need to dominate those wills, in the context of the family, the one place where they are supposed to learn the opposite. Of course, many families are unhappy, but that is irrelevant. The important lesson that the family taught was the existence of the only unbreakable bond, for better or for worse, between human beings. The decomposition of this bond is surely America’s most urgent social problem.”

The “context of family,” Bloom speaks of is both a set of relationships and a place. Together these things form the home, and the concept of home provides the connection to the craft movement that I now suggest. Traditionally, the home is a place where one feels a sense of belonging because of the relational bonds that exist, have existed, and will exist in that place. Most importantly for our purposes, the home is also the place where the people who are unconditionally bound to each other do things together. Work, play, conversation, marital sex, preparation and consuming of meals, study, and discipline are some of the traditional activities of the home. As Bloom points out, even if a family is unhappy, its togetherness instills a child with a sense of permanence. The fact that a family remains together and does these kinds of things together throughout a child’s lifetime provides outward form to the fact that the familial bond is by nature unbreakable and undeniable. This implanted truth, in turn, gives that child hope that other human relationships have the capacity for loyalty and self-sacrifice.

What are the effects when people no longer have confidence in this truth because it has not been modeled for them? Logically, one result would be the attempt to create on their own what they have longed for but never experienced. I suspect that part of the draw to homesteading and homemaking activities is the hope that we really will be able to form a home around ourselves out of the lifelong landscape of disappointing and conditional relationships. The homebrew kit, the urban garden, the respect for place demonstrated when we purchase local produce—these are some of the tools we take up to construct an environment that embodies the sense of rightness we seek (which is the flipside of the “inextirpable sense of injustice” that Bloom describes). We have an appetite for these activities because they foster togetherness, they are marked by wholesome and nurturing productivity, and they require hard work and sacrifice performed for the benefit of others. These are the very elements missing in most separated or unhealthy families.

Of course I am not suggesting that every person who engages in a crafty hobby does so to fill a void in his or her soul. Some of us have experienced such activities in our homes or someplace else along the way. We learned also the spirit of love and simplicity which makes them truly meaningful. Seeing it and knowing that it was good, we picked up some habits with the genuine hope to share that goodness. And some of us just want to learn to brew our own beer because it looks fun and our friends are doing it!

Nonetheless, in an attempt to connect some of the dots on the panorama of the American experience in the 21st century, I have started to build a case that the deterioration of the family and the urban craft movement are linked at some deep level. The next post will explore the craft movement as it relates to other anti-relational forces in the postmodern United States.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Exploring the Urban Craft Fad: Introduction

What is the point of the urban craft fad? As a twenty-something living in Chicago, I am constantly meeting people who scrap for ways to re-involve themselves with processes that machines have been handling just fine for several decades now. I find myself surrounded by idealists who for some reason think that it is worth the trouble to roast your own coffee beans, brew your own beer, grow your own vegetables, fix your own bike, make your own yoghurt, keep your own bees, and even raise your own hens on the back half of a city lot.

Off the top of my head, I can think of friends and acquaintances who are involved in all of these things. In addition, I know someone who sought out a job at a riding stable so that he could learn about horses, someone who got a woodworking kit for Christmas so that he can start building his own furniture, someone who gets natural milk delivered from a farm in Indiana, and someone who works at a market that gets all of its products from local growers in a 200-mile radius.

Of course, it is easy to overstate the tides of cultural trends, especially for those caught up in them. So far, all I have actually asserted is that I hang out with a certain crowd. This is not the first time a green wave rolled over a portion of the young generation. I only need to look at college pictures of my parents and their friends to remember that very short cut-off jeans, mustaches, and “earthiness” were all cool at least once before. In addition, there are plenty of people outside my small world of the young, urban, middle-class. These folks often embody the kind of authenticity that we seek, and ironically they do not give a damn about sustainable methods, environmental awareness, or cage-free eggs. For them, trying to grow your own vegetables on a porch railing planter is nothing but an emasculating waste of time. Fair enough.

Still, I cannot help but to be intrigued by this openness toward the authentic that I see in many of my peers and that I feel in myself. In the same spirit as an eight year old boy who peeks in the closet to gaze at his father’s rifle, we find ourselves drawn to anything with a close connection to the natural and to simple human labor. The next few posts will set forth a few ideas about what it is within my generation that the urban craft fad points to.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Her Sound is Also an Asking Sound

The quips and quacks of a
slow-moving duck. Dark eyes
on the sides of her clicking
head. Paddle feet circling in
the black water of the North
Branch. And a broad concrete
pillar rising to the dirty underside
of Foster Avenue. In the water
she feels the vibrations of cars,
trucks, and buses—a stream
of grumbling humans
trying to get home.

Perhaps this is what prompts
her to announce in her matter-
of-fact animal language, and
to nothing in particular,
"This is how it is."

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Salvation is the churning cloud
that covers the sun for two days.

Salvation is the snow that comes down
in quiet fury and mounds in white
across the sidewalks and streets.

Salvation is the clear sunlight
of the third morning after the
blizzard. In the waking day
purple smoke wisps from the
tops of skinny chimneys. Below
them we move slowly in boots
and damp work pants, searching
for a different path.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Looking Out the Window of Café Brauer

It’s a weekend evening in Chicago. It’s
December and it snows heavy but the city
refuses to be calm. I am setting tables in
my black bistro uniform, placing the shining
salad fork below the little spoon about

two-hundred times as I circle round
the flowered tables spread across the
hardwood floor of Café Brauer. The DJ, the
bar-tenders, the hip young bearded man
hanging giant snowflakes from the ceiling,
the cooks, the party-supply delivery staff. We
are all rushing, all at work to construct a perfect
evening for a well-to-do bride and groom.

They must be rich because the venue is historic
and I work for an esteemed company. They’re
handsome, I know, because I saw the picture
on the sign by the door. Jessica and Thomas,
December 11, 2010.

Now I’m looking out the window, at the real
snowflakes and the coldness and I’m feeling like
I’m part of a movie set. I’m thinking about an
email from a friend the day before. She lives
in Caracas; she went there to find Jesus
in the world’s forgotten ones. She was talking

about sixty thousand people made homeless
by rainfall. Some of them were her barrio

a certain group of human beings.

The world has offered them only an eroding
mountainside to sink some planks into and call
home, she said. They must have known that
eventually the mud would give way and take
their tin and plywood houses down the hill, but

I suppose they didn’t have many options. At least
before it happened they had time to pull out
their refrigerators and their stereos and put
them in my friend’s apartment. They sit there
now, I imagine, unplugged and open and waiting
for their owners to come back. But the whole
neighborhood is in a shelter, she said, waiting
in shame for some kind of government aid.

I’m clearing tables, and my black tie is spotted
with uneaten wedding cake. Candles still burn
on a high ledge; the waving flames light
a tile mural of curving tree branches and
sea-blue sky. The night’s formalities have passed
and young aristocrats dance close together in
front of the giant speakers. They look at one
another and bounce and shout Tonight’s Gonna
Be a Good Night.

One guy is going crazy. He shifts his
hips like a broken robot, shoots his
elbows here and there, spins on his heel and
glares into the videographer's light. She’s
shouldering the camera and bending her body
and capturing his intoxicated performance
just the way she wants it. The crowd around
them is white teeth and clapping hands and
make-up and cocktail glasses all glued together
and pulsing with the party bass and Lord knows

I am looking hard for his grace in the big
warm room and in the movement of the
dancers. I turn again to the window
and I see frost creeping inward
from the edges of the glass.