Jude

The year I spent in Texas was pretty much the worst year of my life.

Reed Junior High School had an Eighth Grade class of over 500 students – the school I moved away from had 20 – and I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of it, confused as well by a Texas culture that made no sense to me and upset that my parents would willfully uproot our family and bring us to this outlandish place.

We settled in Duncanville, a sprawling southern suburb of Dallas, in a rancher on Peach Street, part of a 1960s development with small but pleasant enough houses, rentals mostly.  The walk to school took about twenty minutes and brought me up to Vinyard Road at the edge of the neighbourhood – yes, Vinyard, not Vineyard – a street with a mystery to its name and characterized by larger lots and older, not always well-maintained, properties.

I don’t recall the first time I met Jude; it was his dogs who befriended me.

As I passed his run-down house early one September morning, the dogs, resting on the front porch, raised their old greying heads to eyeball me, then got their stiff legs under them enough to come padding slowly down the overgrown lawn, huffing and wagging their friendly greeting.  They were mongrels, of course, old and rotund, looking as if they might have some Lab and German Shepherd in their lineage.  They licked my hands, happily grunting and smiling, circling around until, as if by some secret signal or pre-determined agreement, in unison they abruptly ended the ceremony and headed back to the porch, throwing themselves down in their respective places and nodding off again, tired already from the social exertion.

Their names, as I learned later from Jude, were Obesitas and Katastrophe.

“Obi! Kati!” Jude would yell, himself barely visible in the darkened room behind the screen door, “Saviour Christ Almighty, git y’r asses back up here on the porch and leave that poor kid alone!”  Then the door would fly open and out he would come, maneuvering his wheelchair across the porch with remarkable speed and agility.

Jude’s legs were amputated above the knee.  He wore faded denim vests over white T-shirts, wire-rimmed glasses, and had long grey hair which he pulled back in a pony-tail. He was almost always surrounded by a sweet, grassy fragrance, something I only later in life came to recognize as weed.  It was impossible for me to tell his age, the wrinkles of his face being contradicted by his lean, strong arms.

It wasn’t long before the pattern of my homeward afternoon treks became punctuated with stops at Jude’s house, sitting on the top step of the porch with Obesitas and Katastrophe, Jude – having learned my preferences – fetching me a can of Mountain Dew from his fridge, pairing it with a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as he educated me in all things Texas.  Many times, though, the house was quiet when I passed by, and occasionally there was a bright red pick-up truck parked out front.  From the front room came the deep, resonant voice of an unknown man in conversation with Jude.

The red pick-up was there again when, on a crisp February day, pulling the collar of my leather fleece jacket closer to my neck, I turned the corner and saw the flashing lights of paramedics parked outside Jude’s house.  I crossed the street to stand on the far side, not wanting to be in the way, not wanting to be too close to what was happening, appreciating that no-one else knew Jude was my friend.

There was a dark sedan there too, and another pick-up parked alongside, a white one with a canopy and meshed wire doors at the back.  Through the lattice, watching me in sad silence, I saw the long faces of Obi and Kati.  The whole scene was eerily quiet: four vehicles cluttered at the edge of the lawn, one with flashing white lights, and not a living soul to be seen, except the two dogs, heads bowed in dreadful, knowing expectation as they took it all in.

Presently the front door creaked open and a paramedic emerged pulling a stretcher, helped by a colleague on the other end, and carrying what must have been Jude’s remains, covered by a light blanket.  They expertly loaded the gurney into the ambulance, slammed the doors shut and drove away silently, the flashing lights switching off half-way down the block.

Another man emerged, this one wearing a tan khaki shirt and dark jacket with a City of Duncanville badge embroidered on the front.  Just as silently, he got in the white pick-up and drove away in the opposite direction.  I watched until he reached the intersection and the dogs disappeared from sight.

I wasn’t sure what to do now.  I wanted to go home, felt I should, but at the same time knew that doing so would somehow be a betrayal of the budding friendship I had with Jude.

Before long the two remaining men made their way outside, the older one pausing to lock the door behind them before they stood together for a moment taking their leave, the younger man in dress clothes finally initiating a handshake, then marching to the dark sedan and speeding off.  What remained was the shiny red pick-up truck and an older man.  He looked as big and strong as a bear.

He saw me across the street and stopped, considering.  Then, his mind made up, he came to me, exuding an air of authority that made it impossible for me to move.

“Hi, son,” he said, “you’re the young man who’s been stopping in to see Jude, am I right?”  Yes, it was that deep voice I had heard before, coming from Jude’s front room.

He knew he was right, but I confirmed it anyway: “Yessir,” I replied, adding eagerly, “I didn’t mean to pry, I just…wondered what was happening.”

“Rex,” he said, extending a baseball mitt sized hand.  I shook it, feeling even smaller than my 13 years, and told him my name.

“Well, son, it’s a sorry business, but I suspect you’ve figured it out by now.  Comes a day when we all have to meet our maker.  Did you know Jude well?”

“He was nice,” I said, not knowing how to answer. “The nicest person in the neighbourhood, if you ask me.”

Rex looked down at me; I could see he was deliberating about what should come next.

“That’s good of you to say,” he said, lowering his voice.  “I thought so too, though I reckon there are mighty few folk around here who would agree with you.”

“How do you mean?” I countered.  I couldn’t imagine anyone having anything bad to say about Jude and his two friendly dogs.

“Son, why don’t you hop in my truck for a bit, get out of the cold, and I’ll tell you all about our man Jude; probably best if you know the rest of the story.”

Jude, it seems, had in his early years been a particularly successful Dallas businessman.  He had it all, as they say – a high-powered job, a glamorous wife, a mansion of a house and a fleet of fast cars.  Then his wife became ill with a mysterious ailment, the doctors were at a loss, and ultimately she was left paralyzed below the waist.  She became depressed and weary of life, losing her sparkling personality and gaining much weight.  Jude couldn’t handle it; he despised who she had become.  He divorced her, the settlement making provision for her to be cared for in a home.

“And about six months later Jude and I met for the first time,” said Rex.  “Not really ideal circumstances, you could say.  You see, son, I’m the former Fire Chief of this city – retired now – and one day a call came in for a Corvette that had crashed and flipped out on Highway 67, threatening to burst into flames.  It was Jude.  Drunk and going way too fast.  Both his legs were caught when the engine block got pushed back into the footwell and in the end there was just no saving them.  Double amputation, the very next day.”

Obesitas and Katastrophe.  I kept my thoughts to myself.

“Anyway,” Rex sighed, “I fell into visiting Jude in the hospital, kind of felt sorry for him in spite of his shortcomings, and the visits never stopped. Well, until now, I guess.”  He went silent, staring out the windshield.

“What about the dogs?” I whispered, more to myself than to him.

Rex stirred.  “They’ll be put down,” he said, as gently as he could.  “Hell, they were in the pound waiting to be put down when Jude rescued them in the first place.  He loved them back to life and happiness, gave ’em a few extra years they couldn’t rightly expect to have, but there ain’t nobody gonna want two old hounds like that, ‘specially with such odd-ball names.  There comes a time when a stream has run its course, when the story comes to its proper end.  But I’m pretty sure, now everything is said and done, they will all finally rest in peace.”

 

Lampoon

There was another procession into Jerusalem that Spring, one that escaped the pen, but certainly not the notice, of the Gospel writers and their early readers.

As the city geared up for the festival season, its population swelling five-fold until every spare room, every nook and cranny, was filled with valuable rent-paying, weary and contented pilgrims, there was at least one person arriving among the throng who didn’t have to worry his head about where he would be laying it that evening: Pontius Pilate.

Pilate, half-way through what ultimately would be his ten-year term as Prefect, brutal enforcer of imperial Roman power, ‘our man in Judaea’ for Tiberius Caesar, had come to Jerusalem as well.  But this was no pleasure trip.  His task was as simple to describe as it was oh-so-difficult to achieve: to keep a lid on the always unpredictable public, the teeming city, as it turned its attention and desire to the apex of Jewish identity: the Passover, that centuries old celebration and remembrance of the first time the people of Israel had wrested their freedom from a brutal dictator.  Political opportunists, seizing the moment to awaken the longing for national self-determination, had made the most of the festival before, turning an already agitated crowd into a rebellious mob which Rome, in its turn, had parried more than once with overwhelming force and much bloodshed.

And so, Pilate, in the days before Passover, knowing his own head was on the block if things got out of hand, left his comfortable estate on the coast in Caesarea, and accompanied by as much of the Roman garrison as he could safely take with him, marched his way to Jerusalem, probably muttering to himself all along the way about what a massive bother this was, and praying earnestly to his gods that he might handle effectively whatever came his way.

Borg and Crossan, in their book “The Last Week”, describe for us Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem: “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city.  A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”*

Don’t think for a minute that Jesus didn’t know what he was doing when, a short time later, he entered Jerusalem from the other side, from the East and the rising sun, mounted not on a war horse equal to Pilate’s impressive steed, but on the back of a humble donkey, the people’s faithful companion in their toil of agrarian survival.

This was planned.  It was thought through.  And it was a lampoon of the empty claims of authority by the world’s leading power.

Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World, God from God, Divine, God Incarnate, Liberator and Redeemer.”  Whose titles were these?  Any first-century Roman knew.  (And it wasn’t the person you, poor mis-informed Christian, call to mind.)  The rightful owner of these titles in the Roman world was Caesar.  Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus (“the illustrious one”) had first claimed these accolades for himself, and his successors were only too happy to appropriate them.  The crowd had only to take a silver denarius out of their purses and look at it: glinting in the spring sunshine was Caesar’s bust with the words “Son of God” stamped alongside.

Jesus’ thoughtful and provocative protest made mockery of such overwrought bombast, such presumptive arrogance.  And before the week was out Rome, Pilate, would crush him for it, returning like for like with his own lampoon of Jewish aspirations for justice: “King of the Jews” was scribbled over Jesus’ violently broken body.  See what comes to those who challenge us?

On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the power of an alternative narrative.  We celebrate the audacity of humility and self sacrifice, of giving oneself up for a vision of humanity that raises the meaning of our existence above the crass machinations of ‘might makes right’ or he-who-has-the-most-marbles-wins.  Life, as it was intended at our creation and lived to its fullest, is one guided and marked by love of God and neighbour, one identified by our American friends in a rare flash of eloquence as being in society “under God, with liberty and justice for all”.

Rome, whether in history, in the scriptures, or in our hearts, stands for the antithesis to the way of God.  It is the pretender to the throne, the claimant to the authority in our lives that rightly belongs to God alone.  We would do well, like Jesus, to call it out, to mock the spurious claims, to turn from the false god and follow instead the pattern of the one who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2.8,9).

 

 

* The Last Week; What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem; Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006.

Random II

Uxbridge bus station exchange: Three women animatedly speaking Polish. A young man has had enough and approaches them: “Speak f*cking English!” he says loudly. The women stop, quietly sizing him up together. Then they turn back to each other and one says to the others, but loud enough for all to hear: “F*cking English.” They have a laugh and continue on their merry Polish way.  I guess he asked for it.

***

Last week a young couple checked themselves out of their flight and called the ambulance services. The concern? On changing the diaper of their baby boy they discovered his ‘crown jewels’ to be smaller than normal. The ambulance crew, eyes rolling, pointed out that the weather was considerably cooler than it has been till now and their little bundle of joy wasn’t quite dressed warmly enough. Flight missed; parenting skills improved. Another day at the airport.

***

After clearing my head with a walk out to Terminal 2B, having a cup of coffee and a think, I headed back toward the main terminal and my desk at the Chapel office. Taking a staff elevator, pressing my ID pass against the keypad, I descended from Departures to Arrivals, and turned the corner into the long underground corridor leading toward Immigration and Baggage Reclaim. And then I remembered: as I was finishing my coffee I had seen an Egyptair 777 pulling up to its stand.

The corridor was packed with Middle Eastern travellers, many clad, appropriately, in various forms of robes, kaftans, and long loose dresses. Pilgrims perhaps, heading home after the festivities. I joined the throng, choosing to walk on the tile floor rather than be carried along on the “travelator”, the motorized walkway beside. Soon I was caught up behind a slower moving elderly woman. I slowed my pace, in no real hurry to get back.

Following along behind her, my eye caught sight of a man farther ahead, also elderly and in white robes, walking slowly on the travelator: now and then he would turn to check the progress of the woman in front of me, his weathered face bright with an enthusiastic grin. At one point he gave her a reassuring wave and a toothy smile, careful not to lose his balance as he turned.

I understood: No doubt when the option of automated Walkway or No Walkway had presented itself to this elderly couple, Abu had enthusiastically embraced the motorized opportunity, whereas Um had steered decidedly clear of the innovative contraption.

Never mind; as I looked ahead again, the man had reached the end of the first walkway and paused in the space before the next one, waiting for the woman to catch up. Eventually we caught up, him smiling, her shaking her head, smiling inwardly at his boyish enthusiasm.

And then ever so discreetly and fleetingly, as they turned to walk on, he reached out to hold her hand, for just a few steps, and let go again. As we approached the beginning of the next section, he veritably skipped onto the travelator, smiling broadly, glancing behind him again as he sped ahead and as she continued to gently shake her head.

Love, tenderness, companionship, enjoyment of one’s partner: the same in every land.

Of Brexit, Trump and Kings of Old

Were they kings, the men who followed the star from the East to honour the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  Or were they merely a rabble of starry-eyed astrologers?  The Gospel of Matthew marks them down as ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’; obscure, yes, but with status or exotic qualities enough to win them temporary fame in all Jerusalem and an audience with the king.

This Gospel story comes to us from the synagogue period of Christian history when followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus were, in the provinces of Palestine at least, primarily Jews.  These Jewish Christians, still members of their local non-Christian congregations, began to see the scriptures with new eyes, discerning in them a presumed meta-narrative, one that transcended the multiple authors, genres, and eras of the various manuscripts, a plot line which tied the canon of scripture together as one.  Hidden in the texts they found hints and fleeting glimpses of a figure whom they recognized as having been personified in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the story of the Magi they heard echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60.1-6).  Solomon too had predicted, “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts; all kings shall fall down before him , all nations shall do him service.  For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper.  He shall have pity on the weak and the poor” (Psalm 72.10-13).

The meta-narrative, the over arching story that bound together their heritage and their new-found faith in Christ continued its development in the later writings of the new testament, most especially in the visions of Paul and John and, as they understood it, went something like this: From one man, Adam, God created a family of diverse peoples among whom a Chosen People – a nation primus inter pares – whose history and society was meant to reveal the character and purposes of God; now – in a new age – through one man, Jesus Christ, God was gathering the complex identities of humanity together into a new society, a community of peoples whose diversity was fitted together like a multi-faceted jewel, the individual shape and angle of each facet adding to the brilliance of the whole.  On offer was an attractive alternative, an opposing vision to the Pax Romana, the world as they knew it, united by the blunt instruments of military conquest and unrelenting suppression.

And so, the Twelve Days of Christmas find their conclusion at the Feast of the Epiphany when the Church remembers the journey of the Three Kings and celebrates the manifestation, in baby Jesus, of the Christ, the long-awaited saviour for a world rent by division and lost in despair.  In the Christ child we look for the fulfillment of the ancient oracles.  We may quibble about whether the accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life are historically accurate or rather, on the other hand, the Gospels contain not only the parables of Jesus but also parables about him, but either way his central role in the story remains.

St Paul writes to the churches: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles) have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise…so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3.9-10). And in the very last pages of our scriptures we find St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, of which he says, “The nations (lit. ‘ethnicities’) will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21.24,26).

So here we are, two thousand years removed from the proclamation of the new age of Christ.  Our forebears, those who have gone before us in the faith, have not always succeeded in making this glorious vision a reality.  The Way of Jesus became Christianity and soon enough Christendom; what began as a counter-cultural movement of inclusion quickly morphed into the mainstream and gathered to itself both the selectivity and accoutrements of political power.  Converts, if one can call them that, came at times by the threat of the sword, entire peoples subjugated or colonized under the banner of Christian dominion, forced to give up the gifts their people had to bring to our new community, cultures lost forever on account of the false supposition that “to make disciples” meant to form them in our own image, not necessarily that of Christ.

Maria Pascua, an aboriginal of the Makah people who inhabit the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States writes: “I am a Christian; I am not sorry the missionaries came.  But I wish they had known how to let their news change peoples’ lives from the inside, without imposing their culture over our ways.  We have lost so much.”  (Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491; National Geographic Magazine, October 1991).

Not in all places, but in many, we find that the vision was lost of a Church composed of the beautiful diversity of humanity.

Which brings us to Anno Domini 2016; to Brexit, Trump and the year gone by.

Much has been made of the “protest vote” aspect of these surprising poll results.  Whether we can rightly attribute them to protest or not, the result is that many of the liberalizing policies of the last few decennia have suddenly and broadly been called to a halt.  Roger Cohen, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times concludes: “It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance [as delivered by Brexit and the US elections] cannot be met by more of the same.”

Thankfully the path of Christ allows for great liberty in the way we order our lives, both individually and in society; a genuine Christian faith can be lived at most points across the political spectrum.  What it does not allow is for us to abandon humility, compassion and sacrificial love for our neighbours, no matter what the colour of their skin or the language they speak at home. To be proud of our own people, to seek to protect our livelihoods and cultural heritage, insofar as these things bring honour to God, is good and right; the uniqueness of our people too is a blessing from God’s hand.  But to raise our own interests so high as to exclude those of others, to make love of nation the sole guiding light for our actions, ignoring the yet purer light of the Gospel – which is to love God first and to love our neighbours as ourselves – this is not the Way of Christ.

We, and all peoples, are equally invited to bring our gifts – the glory and honour of all nations – and bow our knee in worship before the Christ.

 

Gaudete in Domino semper

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

From time to time, if we are able to see through the aura of accumulated holiness hanging thick around the heroes of the Bible, the saints and the prophets, we find in them a remarkable ignorance.  They so often have no clue about how the circumstances of their lives actually fit into the movement of God in their time.  John the Baptist, for example, seems so average here.  It’s as if he is conscious of being carried along by a stream, but is not entirely sure of where the stream is going.

David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity writes:

The Principle of Delayed Understanding…states that you cannot understand what is going on while it is going on….consciousness always lags behind reality. Here is proof: How many of you are still trying to figure out things that happened in your childhood, twenty, forty years ago? The best you can hope for is to minimize the length of time it takes to catch on….When you think you understand what is going on while it is going on, you are most likely delusional. This is simply a statement of reality and frees us from the need to pretend, to beat ourselves up for not knowing the right words or actions. Don’t worry about not knowing the answer immediately. Don’t confuse yourself with Google.

Half the battle of being a person of faith is learning to live with ambiguity, of accepting uncertainty; the other half is learning how to live with it, of not allowing our ignorance to paralyze us with anxiety or diminish our hope.

Consider the rabbinical story, found in various tellings, commonly known as Elijah and the Cow:

Rabbi Jachanan went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and when evening came they arrived at the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. This poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, greeting the strangers and welcoming them in for the night.  They offered them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in their humble circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were given plenty of the cow’s milk, and butter, yoghurt and cheeses.  Satisfied, they were put to sleep in the only bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire.

But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.  The Rabbi looked at Elijah, but he was silent.

Again, they walked all the next day, and came in the evening to the house of an extremely wealthy man. This man, however, was cold hearted and inhospitable, and all that he would do for Elijah and the Rabbi was to lodge them in his cowshed and feed them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for his hospitality, and – noting that one of the walls in the shed was falling down – sent for a man to repair it, paying the bill himself.  Finally, Elijah and the Rabbi were on their way again.

Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, exasperated with Elijah, begged the holy man to explain himself and the way he had treated the two hosts. 

‘In regard to the poor man and his wife who received us so hospitably,’ replied Elijah, ‘it was decreed that the wife was to die that night.  However, knowing how much the man loves his wife, I pleaded with the angel of death – who never leaves empty handed – that he should take the cow instead.’

‘And with regard to the inhospitable rich man, I repaired his wall because I noticed a jar of gold coins concealed in it, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure, something for which he is not worthy.  So, say not to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’

Perhaps you remember how someone else once famously put it: “There are things we know we know; things we know we don’t know; and things we don’t know we don’t know.”  Personally I prefer the sentiment as expressed by the American rock band 4 Non Blondes, in their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?‘:

And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs:
What’s going on?!

It’s Gaudete Sunday this week, the Sunday that takes its name from the first word of the introit to the Mass: Rejoice!   On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we are invited to lighten up, to Rejoice in the Lord always, to raise our heads and look for the dawning of a new age marked by the promise of healing and restoration.

This is that half of faith that says: even if I don’t understand, I will trust.  The half that led the disciples up the mountainside where “they worshipped him, even though they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

Faith is never going to make perfect sense; that’s why it’s called faith.  Thank goodness.  Because in order for faith to make perfect sense it would have to be constrained by a world where everything can be measured and explained and knowable, a world without mystery or profound beauty or unbounded hope.

It is not, and neither are we.

When the Commies Came to Play

The year, I’m guessing, was 1973.  And it must have been late in the year because I remember the threat of rain throughout the day; Brasilia’s dry season had come and gone.

At the Summer Olympics the year before, the USA men’s basketball team had suffered a controversial and ignominious defeat at the hands of the USSR during the final match in Munich.  The Soviet players went home with gold medals and the Americans went home with…nothing: they refused to attend the medal ceremony or even accept their silver medals which, nearly 45 years later, are still being held by the International Olympic Committee, awaiting a change of heart by Team USA.

But the early 1970s was also the height of détente, the slow thawing of Cold War relationships, chief among them those nations which held nuclear arsenals.  Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and US President Richard Nixon met in Washington in June 1973, one of the high-water marks of the process.

In that spirit, with the Americans still bruised and sulking about a basketball game, and yet both nations looking for opportunities for gestures of good will, someone at the US Embassy in Brasilia came up with the idea of challenging the Soviet Embassy to a friendly basketball game.  A rematch.  Our embassy staff against yours.

Surprisingly, the offer was engaged.

The capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, was largely built in the 1960s, and among its planned oddities – a city of half a million people laid out in the pattern of a giant airplane and having no traffic lights? – was the fact that the embassies were allocated space based on the perceived importance of each nation to the people of Brazil.  So the closest embassy to the centre of government is that of the Vatican.  The second closest is Portugal, the mother country.  Third and fourth are toss-ups:  the USA and USSR.  It would have been easy enough for the one group of diplomats to walk to the other embassy after work – the embassies are literally just across the street from each other – but of course that would mean playing the game on partisan soil.  What was needed was a neutral venue that came with a decent basketball court.

And so it was that the compound of SIL – the Summer Institute of Linguistics, where my father had his print shop and where we lived – came to host the USSR v USA Basketball Rematch, Diplomats Edition.

The Americans arrived first, mid-afternoon, filling up the parking lot with their Chevy Suburbans and spilling onto the lawns around the basketball court.  Their team was far from the pencil-pushers we had generally expected; instead, it seemed populated almost entirely with young US Marines, no doubt the security detachment at the embassy, led by a particularly tough and foul-mouthed officer.  They warmed-up with the regimental discipline so typical of American sports teams, doing exercises and drills in unison, looking for all the world like winners.

Time ticked on.  The USSR didn’t show, and the Americans grew both impatient and undiplomatic.  “Those Ruskies, they ain’t nothing but no-good, lying chickens; make a gesture of good will with them and see where it gets you….”  (These are only the more polite of the many comments which were vented.)

In the end the Commies did come.  Late in the afternoon, I and some of the other neighbourhood boys acting as scouts as we stood with our feet on the bottom strand of the wire fence at the edge of the compound, spied a single ZiL limousine stopped on the street below.  Soon a long line of similar ZiLs eased slowly up the street, pulling in behind the first car, and parking where they stood.  Up the pathway came the Soviet team and their supporters, and what was immediately obvious to all was that their security detachment had been left at home; to a man, these men really were middle-aged pencil-pushing diplomats.

The game was a farce. In no time the young American team was winning by double digits, running circles around their Soviet opponents.  But even in winning the Americans could not help but let the unsettled score of the Olympics goad them on to bad behaviour, the brash Marine officer repeatedly picking fights for no apparent reason, glad to have an excuse to let loose another stream of expletives.  One by one, red-faced, huffing and puffing, the Soviet diplomats allowed themselves to be substituted by the SIL men who stood watching from the sidelines, my father – an American – included.

The teams shook hands at the end, the Americans exulting in their victory, high-fiving each other enthusiastically as they threw their gear into the Suburbans, driving off with horns honking in triumph.  The Soviets waited until the Americans were gone, thanked their hosts, and withdrew to their ZiLs, going as they came, disappearing around the corner in a long, dark uniform rank.

Really? Thy kingdom come?

Do you believe in an afterlife?  Heaven?  Paradise?  Something like that?  A place where you will live with your loved ones in happiness?

Tell me about  that afterlife you imagine.  Does it include violence?  War?  Weapons?  Abuse of women and children?  A society where some have far too much and others not enough?  Destruction and degradation of the natural world?

Probably not.  In fact, the opposite.  I’m guessing you imagine a place of peace and contentment, a place where the wrongs so familiar in this present existence are finally righted.

And when you pray, Christian, do you earnestly say, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven‘?

Hypocrite.  Like me, you hopefully pray that the ideals of heaven will invade the present one.  And yet you readily resign yourself to the brokenness of this world, you won’t lift a finger to undo it; worse, you are part of the problem, you contribute to it.  You celebrate warfare and violence.  You accept the preeminence of money above righteousness in the businesses you support, the choices of the governments you elect, in the lifestyle you live.

“Oh, well, I’ll just get through life as comfortably as I can and slip peacefully into eternal bliss…”  To hell with thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Really?  So you believe those things that cannot survive into eternity should enjoy our present support, our quiet complicity?

This is not the way of Jesus about which I read in the Gospels.  Maybe we should look for a new religion.

Or maybe we already have one.