Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Storm Without Rain

Photo Credit: Gene Blevins/Daily News
God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth."     Genesis 9:12-16
     Driving home through the San Fernando Valley today, I saw two rainbows spanning the sky.  Traffic slowed, and it didn't bother me at all.  Odd, I thought, a rainbow, but with no sign of rain, no ensuing flood.  I began to ponder the promise God made to our father Noah.  Thinking about Noah, I remember talking about the flood story in one of my religion and literature classes - we talked about what separated Noah from the rest of humanity.  Why should God choose this one man from all the rest to save?   Was it random grace?  Was Noah a better man than the rest?  What made him so lucky?
     We finally settled on the conclusion God chose him because "Noah walked with God." Genesis 6:9.  That is to say, Noah was friends with God in a way that the rest of humanity was not.  They spent time together; they walked together, and God's promise not to destroy the world grows out of that relationship.  The rainbow reminds us to strive to walk with God every day, to trust that He will never let the flood drown us.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Turn of the Century

     John Steinbeck has a way of writing about American culture unlike other American authors.  In both Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, he includes interchapters, breaks in the plotline, that reflect ideas relevant to wider society.  Chapter 12 of East of Eden completely breaks away from any sort of plot advancement or character building and in stead meditates on the turn of the century in American culture. 
     Steinbeck does this with full knowledge, and he allows readers in on the break too: "You can see this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900."  Just as one section of the book has come to a close, so, too, does a section of American history.  Beautiful technique, Mr. Steinbeck.  In two short pages he recalls the sordid events of the 19th century, and bids them not a fond farewell but rather good riddance.  "To hell with that rotten century!... New chapter, new life." 
     Do we always need these type of bookends?  When we look back on history, or on our lives, what are the chapter dividers that make life nice and neat?  What events lead one part of our lives to a close and another to a new beginning?  What is it about the idea of a clean slate, a fresh start that is so enticing? 
     Maybe it's just an eaiser way for our brains to organize information.  I have a sneaking suspicion that dear Johnny is aware of this.  He knows that despite whatever distinctions we want to impose on one "era" and the next, there will always be carryover.  Our memories, both individual and communal, cannot be erased quite so easily as the 1800s, despite the ease with which Steinbeck's narrator would do away with them.  Boundaries always blur.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Death Be Not Proud

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull...    John Donne

     We are going to kill a man on Wednesday.  All of us.  You.  Me.  Anyone who can legally vote in the United States is an accomplice.  Whether you voted in the last election or not, the fact is that our government allows for the death penalty, and the state of California is all set to execute a man on Wednesday.  What is the government but the voice of the people, and here in the United States we quietly proclaim that we have the power and authority to extinguish a life.
     It's not that I feel that crime should go unpunished.  Justice is important, but so is his sister.  Mercy.  Gandhi said it best: "An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind."  Last year the United States dispatched 52 lives; this year we have already squelched 38 as we stealthily plot our next killing. 
     Beyond the moral responsibility we take on for capital punishment, here's another charming factoid to consider:
The California death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life. Taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each of the state’s executions. (L.A. Times, March 6, 2005)
When will we learn?
     The one sliver of hope that I found in the New York Times article that I linked above was in the last sentences.  California evidently has the largest backlog of prisoners on death row.  That gives me at least some hope that this state tries as hard as it can not to proceed with executions.  Maybe somewhere, in the deep places of their hearts, Californians feel a twinge of humility when considering the implications of capital punishment.  I wonder when we, as a country that still claims to be united under God (for better or worse), will humble ourselves and act with mercy toward our own.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Way of the Wilderness

     It rained today in Southern California - which, I learned, is an event so atypical as to throw many people out of whack and into near hysteria.  It's easy to forget that this thriving metropolis is in the middle of the desert.  According to the National Weather Service, the average annual rainfall for Los Angeles is a mere 15 inches, and some years can be as low as 6 or 7 inches (a far cry from Boston's annual 42 inch deluge).
      I had almost forgotten that I chose to live in the middle of a desert for a year, but somehow it seems fitting.  I set this year aside as one to grow into a deeper connection with God, and what better place to do it than in the desert?  Maybe that sounds a little crazy, but isn't it into the desert that God led the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt and into the Promised Land?  Isn't it into the desert that Jesus must go before he embarks on his ministry?  How fitting then that I should throw my life into the desert to train myself to hear God's voice.
      It can be difficult.  I sometimes forget why I am here; sometimes wonder where this journey will lead me, and, for that matter, sometimes forget that I am indeed being led.  It would be easier if the road were straight and didn't wind around the mountains.  Have you ever driven on a straight road?  I mean a really straight, flat road.  You can see for miles and miles and miles exactly where you're going.  You can see exactly where the traffic is up ahead, where you can speed up, and where you need to slow down.  To some extent this can all be pretty comforting (especially if you've just learned to drive a stick shift).
     But after a while, driving on a straight road gets boring.  You don't really get to do much.  You get the car in gear and sit back.  A windy road, on the other hand, is much more exciting.  It calls for more active participation.  You've got to be alert because you never know what's going to be around the next bend.
     Every morning I get to drive through the Santa Monica mountains and up to stunning views of the Angeles National Forest shortly after the sun has risen over the eastern peaks.  What spectacular views come when the road winds along the sides of the mountains!  I've had to remind myself when I begin to wonder why I'm here, or why my path doesn't seem clear, that the bends in the road make the journey more beautiful and thrilling, and that God leads us in such a way that we can more actively participate in the ride.  He wants us to be able to deepen that relationship. 
So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness.     Exodus 13:18
Here I am in the middle of the desert wilderness, driving the windy roads of life, grumbling just as the Israelites did for God's nearness.  

Monday, September 20, 2010

America the beautiful

East or West.  Which do you love best?
I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east.  Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias.  It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.     John Steinbeck, East of Eden
When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle south-west, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction... The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side... I turn round and round irresolute sometimes for a quarter of an hour, until I decide for the thousandth time, that I will walk into the south-west or west. Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.     Henry David Thoreau, Walking
For say what I will about the West -- Missouri, and Illinois with its enchanted rivers, Indiana and Ohio, and New York State & New England, & all the South...represent the soft, sweet East of this world, as distinguished from the wild and arid west -- and to make a choice between the two is like tearing out & examining the foundations of one's heart, where all ideas about life are stored.  Shall it be the soft, sweet life of the Idyl? ... or the wild & thirsty life?  The life enclosed by horizons, the life of the sweet trees -- or the life of vast, yearning plains.     Jack Kerouac, Journals
I'm still trying to figure this one out myself.  The question is up for debate.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Building a Great School, or A Great School Building

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida, The New York Times
     This past Monday, September 13th, students first set foot in the Los Angeles Unified School District's newest school complex - a gargantuan 24-acre complex dedicated to the memory of Robert F. Kennedy.  If you haven't heard about it, as I hadn't until this week, the price tag on the construction was $578 million, roughly $140,000 per student.  Despite the fact that the money for the construction came from a $20 million bond passed by voters last year, the opening of the school comes at a time when LAUSD has a deficit of roughly $600 million, has just laid off over 2,000 teachers, and has shortened the school year by a full week.
     There are mixed reviews of course.  It seems outrageous to spend so much money on a building when the entire district is in debt, but for years students from the area were being bussed to schools several miles away and crowded onto campuses that had to run year round to accommodate the influx of students.  A new school needed to be built.  That much is plain.
     But why the preposterous cost?  The complex is designed as a monument to preserve the site where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.  It includes huge murals dedicated to his life, a reconstruction of the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub for the auditorium, and a faculty lounge that replicates the Ambassador Hotel's coffee shop.  Necessary?  Probably not.  Especially in light of the fact that the school district as a whole is known not to offer quality education to its students - why not put more money into hiring teachers and reducing classroom size? 
     The New York Times article has the best coverage I've found so far, and in it Adam Nagourney includes the voice of a parent:
Benjamin Austin, a member of the California Board of Education and head of Parent Revolution, an organization of school parents, said, “The best way to memorialize Robert Kennedy is to build a great school, not a great building.”

Here are links to the articles from the New York Times, the LA Times, and NBCLA.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Becoming a Child

     Working with 6th graders for most of the day has taught me a lot about patience.  They're all at a brand new school, and they have brand new teachers.  They don't know most of the protocol at the school - no talking in the hallways, raise your hand if you want to speak, no running down the stairs, no put downs. 
     They mess up a lot.  They run in the building and talk out of turn.  They call each other names.  And despite the incessant corrections from teachers and adults (somehow I'm one or both of those now), they forget and mess up over and over, day after day.  It's easy to get frustrated with them.  It's easy to get irritated.  Why can't they remember what they were told?  Why don't they realize that the rules are there for their benefit and for their safety?  Why don't they recognize that "no running down the stairs" is a rule so that they don't fall and hurt themselves?
     It makes me think about how God must see me.  Constantly falling, constantly running in the hallways of my life, constantly talking when it's my turn to listen.  Yet, He doesn't get angry; His patience is unending.  In imitating God, then, especially now, I find myself called to have the same type of patience - one that acts with a firm, yet gentle hand.
     I think there's another lesson though.  I don't think that the constant failings are what Jesus referred to when he said that
unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.     Matthew 18:3
The always-stunning realization that I have every day when working with middle school students is their willingness to take correction.  Despite the fact that they might make the same mistakes over and over, their minds and their hearts are open to instruction.  They want insatiably to learn, to grow, to succeed.  I think that's the aspect of being child-like that God wants for us.  He knows we'll mess up.  He knows we'll run when we should walk, we'll call names, we'll talk when it's not our turn.  We just need to remember to have hearts open to His advice, open to His Words, and willing to trust that He knows what is best for us better than we could ever know it ourselves.  

Monday, September 13, 2010

On Wildness

     Words of wisdom learned on the banks of Walden Pond:
     Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wildness, -to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.  At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.  We can never have enough of Nature.  We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets.  We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.     Walden, Henry David Thoreau
     If you haven't read Walden, do yourself a favor and run, do not walk, to the nearest bookstore or library and pick up a copy.  It drags in parts, but Henry's precious gems of wisdom are sprinkled throughout.  If you don't have the patience to sit through the entire piece, at the very least, you must read the conclusion.  A paltry five or six pages, but in them dear Henry has written some of his most wonderful idea(l)s concerning American life, and life more generally.
     I'm moving on to John Steinbeck this week, but I'll leave two more of Henry's quotables:
     If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.   Walden, Henry David Thoreau
      Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men.  But what is that to the purpose?  A living dog is better than a dead lion.  Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can?  Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.     Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, September 11, 2010

When You're a Jet

     The closest I've ever come to gang violence is when my high school did a production of West Side Story when I was in 8th grade.  It was great!  Of course, all the girls will tell you that the senior who played Tony was just dreamy.  We were busier contemplating Tony's stunning cheekbones than the effects of gang violence.  In fact, I'm not sure there was ever even discussion of gang related crime after the show.  You can be sure that our teachers talked about how West Side Story relates to Romeo and Juliet, but we never really talked about what it meant to be a Shark or a Jet.  We never talked about how one killing leads to three more in the course of the two hour play.  We never talked about how gangs can take the place of families when families are broken.
When you're a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You're a family man!
It all went right over our heads because we didn't know what gangs were.  Not that I'm criticising my teachers - why should we have known what gangs were, growing up in a pretty peaceful suburb of a small-ish city?
     Two days ago I was teaching a lesson on poetry to some 7th graders.  As part of the lesson, I asked the students to write about their hometowns or countries (a lot of my students are from Mexico or El Salvador).  At the end of class I asked if anyone wanted to share.  One particularly overzealous student raised his hand and nearly jumped out of his seat.  He came to the front of the class and read his work.  "If you're not from Pacoima, you don't know murder.  People steal stuff here.... Brothers get shot... Don't ever come to Pacoima."  Nervously, I thanked him for sharing. 
     According to the LAPD, there are over 250 active gangs in Los Angeles.  It's a tragic reality in this city.  In the neighborhood of my school alone there are three well-known gangs.  The students in my afterschool program can't go home at the end of the day for fear of getting into trouble on the streets.  Their parents would rather keep them on the fenced-in grounds of the school for as long as possible.  I learned this last week when I met with the principal for the first time, but it was another thing entirely to hear a 7th grader talk about murder and robbery as an everyday occurrence.  He's 12 years old. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

You Humble Me, Lord

     Leaving aside the fact that I stole my title from the lyrics to a Norah Jones song, those particular words have never felt more true than during this last week.  I've faced some pretty interesting challenges.  The arduous part of the adventure has finally set in after the initial adrenaline rush of excitement.  I went to work for the first time today, and am more exhausted than I've been in a long time.
     I'm also learning to drive a stick shift.  In Los Angeles.  Talk about being humbled.  It's not the easiest thing to do in the first place, especially if you've spent the last five years driving an automatic.  On top of that add the ridiculous LA freeways.  Now, I'm not one to scare easily.  I'm actually not afraid of much (with the exception of bees).  I've gone to foreign countries; I'm perfectly fine speaking in front of large groups; I've held snakes; I've jumped out of a plane; and I recently conquered my fear of needles (nothing weird, just ask me about that later if you're interested).  But driving a stick shift in the ridiculous traffic on the freeway genuinely scares me, hard to admit as that is for me.  But there it is.  I don't like admitting it - I have a tendency to take pride in being fearless. 
     Must be God reminding me of my place in the world.  How many people live in this city and don't have access to a car at all?  Or don't have the money to pay for the buses?  Just needed that little spiritual kick in the butt to remind me to be grateful for all the things I do have. 
You humble me Lord
Humble me Lord
I'm on me knees empty
You humble me Lord
You humble me Lord
Please, please, please forgive me      Norah Jones

Monday, September 6, 2010


Surface meets surface.  When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip.  We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not.  In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and dependently to the post office.  You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.     Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle
Part of me agrees with dear Henry on this (he's got a point about using social relationships to live an unexamined life), but part of me recognizes that this is probably some bit of self-defense on his part (jealous much? - that he wasn't receiving more letters than anyone else).  Cynical old bastard.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bioprocess Engineering

     I was playing in the dirt yesterday.  Generally not something I'd recommend doing anywhere in Los Angeles.  But here at St. Stephen's, I was asked to start some Fall seeds for our community garden.  What fun!  Here I was a bit overwhelmed by the endless concrete roads and sprawling urban undergrowth, and they asked me to rekindle my green thumb!
Soon to be yummy vegetables.
     Of course, all of this got me thinking.  As I sat there filling my little cups with dirt and carefully pushing some brussel sprout seeds into each one, I felt kind of powerful... Weird?  Maybe.  But the effort that I put in yesterday (I planted about 75 cups with easily over 100 seeds of different yummy vegetables) will allow those lifeless seeds to grow.  And some day soon, provided I don't kill the poor things between now and then, someone's hunger will be satisfied by those yummy vegetables.  It's as close to creation as I'm singlehandedly likely to get.
     Then the thought of creation opened a whole other can of worms in my brain.  Having more than a few close friends in the field of biological engineering, though admittedly most of them are biomedical and not bioprocess or agricultural engineers, I began thinking about the implications of bioprocess engineering.  Maybe not thoughts you'd expect me to have in the middle of a city, but with all sorts of controversy about the value of small organic farms run by immigrant workers in contrast to wholesale supergiants like Whole Foods, farming is maybe more an issue in Southern California than anyone wants to think.  It has been for a number of years - think John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.
     The issue seems to be the overmechinization of farming practices which, yes, leads to lower prices, but also to all sorts of problems - food that isn't well cared for and not high in quality, lower wages and fewer jobs for farmhands, and (you can argue with me about whether this is a problem or not) a fundamental disconnect with the land itself.  So what's the socially responsible thing to do?  I think it's to remember our relationship with each other, to support our neighbors in their efforts, and to prize that over saving a few extra cents at the chain grocery store.  Chew on this for a while:
Material goods and the way we are developing the use of them should be seen as God's gifts to us. They are meant to bring out in each one of us the image of God. We must never lose sight of how we have been created: from the earth and from the breath of God. In this way we are related to the rest of creation,  and we are asked to use creation according to the will of God, to whom we are related too.      On Social Concern, Pope John Paul II 1987
It's about our relationship to one another.  And isn't that what got me thinking in the first place?  I was planting those tiny little seeds, and, yes, I was moved because I was helping life to grow, but more moved because it would eventually nourish another person.  These goofy little thoughts of mine, however, probably wouldn't have been inspired if it hadn't taken me a few hours to do all the work, if I had used some sort of mechanical process to inject the seeds into prepackaged potters. 
The fact is that most farmland requires close care to be used well. That is the agricultural justification for the small holding. It permits close care in a way that large holdings farmed by hired people or even owners on large machines can’t be farmed well. The moral benefit of independent small farmers is that it broadens the connection of the whole society to the land, and it increases the number of self-employed people.     An Interview with Wendell Berry
 Hmm... all of this from planting a few seeds.  Maybe Thoreau was onto something after all...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Knowing where to look

The view from my window.
     It can be an interesting task to try to see where God resides amid the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.  The buildings are huge and terribly famous.  Billboards and tourists abound, and every day a new movie set crops up in the neighborhood.  People come, and people go.  We don't look at each other - most of us are too busy staring at the ground, looking at the names of all of the celebrities who were fortunate enough to have their names etched into a star on the sidewalk, secretly envisioning our own names on those few blank stars that we pass day to day.
Some day... my name will be... right there.
     It's a handy way to ignore each other. Staring at the ground. We never have to recognize or interact with those around us. This morning I woke up early to take LA public transit, to the terror of many of my friends, out to the Valley. In the two blocks that I walked from my door to the Metro station I passed no less than ten homeless men and women. It occured to me that if I had been in a car, I would never have really had to look at them. That's probably how this city functions as it does. Half of its residents own mansions in the Hills with more bedrooms than they can fill, and the other half can't pay for a roof for one night. We ignore each other and go on with our lives. It's definitely difficult to see where God is in all of that.
And hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.  Mark 2:17 
It's not that I think this is a city full of sinners, not at all in fact.  It just seems to me that this is exaclty where God wants to work the most.  I was a little overwhelmed at first because it has always been so easy for me to see where and how God works, and it's not so easy here in plastic-covered, bronzer-drenched Los Angeles.  There are a lot of great things about this city - the sunshine, the relaxed atmosphere (what a break from the East coast!), the Mexican food...  but all told, it seems like the City of Angels could use a few more angels, willing to look into the eyes of those around them, and a few less people caught up in the fabricated superfluity of Southern California.  And a few less Lakers fans, but that's neither here nor there.  The point is God does live in this city; it's just a matter of knowing where to look.