Friday, February 26, 2021

A Late Winter Pause

 It’s the quietest week of the year on the Vineyard.  February is always subdued.  Seasonal residents are still in warm sunny places. This week the schools are closed and families who can take advantage of the “down-time”  scoop up the kids and head “off the rock” for a few days of family time together - even with the various Covid restrictions.  So - no school busses  and virtually no traffic at all.  A time to pause.

Last year at this time, we had just celebrated Purim with all the fun and joy that attends the holiday.  It is hard to believe that was the last time the community was together face to face.  Within days of that celebration the island was in lock down.  The streets, normally quiet anyway in February and March, had the eerie feeling that came with some of the scenes in the long ago movie “On The Beach” - - no

cars at all - no sounds except the familiar one of  seagulls scavenging for their breakfast.   

I was in the midst of rehab post knee surgery.  In the Physical Therapy department at the hospital staff and patients kept asking many unanswered questions.  Have you heard….? What does this mean for us here on an island?  Will we be protected by the waters around us?  Can we finish the recommended course of PT? And then abruptly, all services were closed down except for emergency interventions.  

And we plunged into unknown territory - uncertain about how to protect ourselves.  Masks? No masks?  Wear protective gloves everywhere?  Disinfect grocery store purchases before bringing them into the house?  What about safety when traveling in a car with someone else?  Stock up on toilet paper? Hand sanitizer?  Grocery store shelves were unaccustomedly empty of many basics.  Finding flour and sugar became a challenge.  The meat eaters among us veered toward vegetarianism as the meat and poultry departments struggled to meet the demand when food supply chains were interrupted.

Our college age grandchildren were summoned home when their spring semester was just getting underway.  Students around the country struggled and continue to struggle with remote learning and the precious continuity of their education, regardless of their ages, has been seriously and detrimentally disrupted.

 And here we are, one year later.  Various earlier anxieties have been augmented by questions about when the vaccines will be universally available.  The unheard of speed in the development of vaccines is offset by production and distribution challenges.  Questionable equitable distribution, long waits for appointments, mistrust of the vaccines themselves all keep the fear levels high.

A new administration is gradually taking hold in Washington.  The news from Dr. Fauci is cautionary, but generally hopeful.  We understand more about transmission and we know better what effective precautions to take to protect ourselves.  Running routine errands seems less fraught with the earlier fears.  Conversations drift in a subdued but celebratory direction as people compare experiences with getting the vaccine.

The past year has witnessed so much tragedy and violence, sickness and death, divisiveness and destruction - and yet, here we are, hopefully headed toward wholeness and well being on so many levels - medically, socially, politically.  I like to think that humankind is wrestling with how to live out an expanded consciousness now.  What will we do with the greater clarity of  awareness about the terrible racial inequities fully exposed by the pandemic?  How will we build trust in our political systems in the midst of the ongoing anger and violence that color relationships in both houses of congress post insurrection?

Our local PBS channel has been running a quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  That seems to be where we stand - - challenged to face into all that has been revealed of our violence, our darkness, our mistrust, our unwillingness to sacrifice,  our lack of regard for one another in the midst of crisis…

Perhaps hope lies in the awareness that the pandemic has cast a spotlight on all our brokenness - and when light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it.    A quiet week on the Vineyard.  Time to pause and reflect.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 19, 2021

"Let them make me a sanctuary..."


 Some words from the past from the pen of Walter Lippman in The Good Society (1937): “For there is no longer a general understanding among civilized (men): they cannot fall upon a common allegiance to assuage their partisanship; they have no consensus of accepted ideas.  Yet these things they must have if they are to restore civilized order.  There are no end of fashionable opinions.  But as against the convictions of those who are ready to kill or be killed to achieve their ends, the civilized arguments are subtle, complicated and effete.  In the epochal crisis of our time the cause of civilization is being defended by men who possess a great tradition that has become softened by easy living, by men who have forgotten the necessities in which their principles were wrought.”  While Lippmann was writing during the dynamics of the 2nd World War, he could have been writing about our current situation in the USA.

In our weekly encounter with Torah this week, our little study group read about the building of the mishkan (sanctuary, tabernacle) described in Exodus 25 and following.  The Divine imperative was “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  (Exodus 25:8)  Our conversation around this short verse led us in many directions until one member of the group cited Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ (of blessed memory) book The Home We Build Together.  Rabbi Sacks reviewed the early history of Israel from the time of their exit from Egypt.  The Biblical texts portray the Israelites as “a querulous, almost ungovernable group.”  Under Moses’ leadership they leave the constraints of slavery behind and almost immediately begin to complain about the conditions they encounter in their new freedom.  Rabbi Sacks writes: “Putting all this together (ie the exodus from Egypt, the complaining and yearning for the familiar predictability of slavery, the yearning for a god the people could see, as in the Golden Calf) we arrive at the boldest of all Exodus’ political statements.  A nation - at least the kind of nation the Israelites were called upon to become - is created through the act of creation itself…in commanding Moses to get the people to make the tabernacle (sanctuary), God was, in effect saying: To turn a group of individuals into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.”

I live on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Cape Cod.  Travel in almost any direction on the mainland involves crossing over the Cape Cod Canal via either the Bourne Bridge or the Sagamore Bridge - sister bridges built by the WPA circa 1935.  The Bourne Bridge is iconic for me.  When I am leaving the Cape, it rises out of the misty canal, visible a mile or so before I actually get there. To me it means access to “America” on my infrequent trips off island.  On the return trip, approaching the canal from the mainland, the Bourne Bridge comes into view with a great sigh of relief - - "I’m almost home."   It is ceaselessly amazing to me that this steel and concrete and asphalt structure, so often clogged with vehicular traffic that makes a trip daunting, can, nonetheless evoke powerful emotional responses.

The two bridges, Bourne and Sagamore, rose up to dominate the horizon on the Cape Cod Canal as a result of the labors of the WPA - - a product of the New Deal era in the run-up to WW 2.  At one time it employed as many as 8 million people working on infrastructure projects around the country.   The goal was to supply meaningful and well paid work for “the family breadwinner who had been out of work for a long period of time” - - work that would benefit the whole.
As our little group kept chewing on the the text from Exodus and Rabbi Sack’s commentary flung alongside the words of Walter Lippmann, we began to envision a country where, under enlightened leadership, we might collectively put our shoulders to the wheel and construct, build, create together an infrastructure that would draw us, as a nation, into a more harmonious identity - one built on productivity and creativity in the service of all.  Something we could all take pride in because we helped make it happen.

If, in our diverse culture, we are to be able to learn to live together with all our differences, politically, ideologically, spiritually, economically, perhaps we need a sense of common purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of making an important contribution that comes with working through the process of creating something good and beautiful and useful to the whole.  

“…that I may dwell among them” - carries within a few words the inspiration of a vast vision - - a culture, a society, perhaps a world, in which the divine attributes of compassion and grace, kindness and faithfulness and forgiveness dwell in a spacious hospitality among us in a society that truly permits the Holy to  dwell among us.   

Can we, as diverse and “querulous and ungovernable” as we are, can we actually create and co-create by working together to rebuild the crumbling structures that bind us together?

 Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 12, 2021

Side By Side

 While reading Krista Tippett’s book Speaking of Faith recently, I became reacquainted with Bruce Feiler’s book Walking The Bible.  Feiler’s narrative about his visit to Hebron brought back my own memories of walking one of the streets of that city perhaps 13 years ago.  My husband and I were with a study group under the leadership of Rabbis For Human Rights. (The organization’s name has since been changed to T’ruah )

Hebron is the traditional site of the burial place of the biblical patriarch, Abraham and his wife, Sarah.  It is a site revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  It is also the site of some of the most hotly contested issues between Israel and Palestine.  We felt fortunate to be able to visit Hebron as tour groups are often directed away from the city because of hostilities.  The threat of violence was ever present and we were escorted by Israeli police who outnumbered our group by at least two to one. Our attempt to visit Machpelah, the ancient tomb of the patriarch, was aborted when our group was “invited” to re-board our bus and leave or risk arrest.  We never did get to view the tomb.

Feiler describes Machpelah this way: It’s this giant building that looks like a cross between a gymnasium and a castle…And I go into this tiny little room between Abraham and Sarah’s tomb.  All three faiths agree that this is where they’re buried. There’s a ramshackle synagogue with a chandelier hanging down with half the bulbs out, and it’s there that Abraham, at age 175, dies.

The great patriarch’s family was not without its pain and dysfunction.  Early on, Abraham at Sarah’s behest, turns his first born son, Ishmael, along with his slave mother, Hagar, out into the wilderness.  The family’s early traumas make it impossible for Isaac, the firstborn of Sarah, Abraham’s legitimate wife, and Ishmael ever to grow up as brothers.  They go their separate ways, each with a Divine promise that they will engender “a people.”

Feiler writes:In one of the most haunting and overlooked passages in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 25:9)…Ishmael and Isaac - rivals since before they were born, estranged since childhood, leaders of opposing nations - come to stand side by side and bury their father.
 For a short space in time, Ishmael and Isaac are not rivals, not enemies. They are brothers, standing side by side doing the difficult work of honoring their father and laying him to rest.

Feiler continues:What I think is relevant here is that this (Machpelah) is also a Muslim shrine; it’s been a Muslim shrine for hundreds of years.  Muslims and Jews now divide the shrine.  In some ways the shrine is an awkward but really practical model for how you can get along…It ain’t pretty.  Jews and Muslims, they split the shrine and ten days each year each side gets unlimited access to it.  It ain’t pretty, but it does work. And maybe that’s the model here. But what’s important about the Biblical moment is that they stand side by side.  It doesn’t say they hugged.  It doesn’t say they had dinner.  It doesn’t say they moved in and sat down and said, you know, “Let’s forgive.”  And, remember, Abraham had tried to kill each of them.  To me, that is the  model.  And, again, the text seems to understand - predict, almost - where we’re going to be so many thousands of years later.  So the destination here is not some Esperanto mumbo jumbo of a giant religion. It’s standing side by side and respecting coexistence.

As I am writing, the impeachment trial is unfolding in the senate.  It seems, at least at the moment, that an acquittal is a foregone conclusion.  At the end of the day all the enmities will continue to exist as accusations about the success or failure of the Senate trial and its subsequent meaning continue to be parsed and argued.  It will be challenging to move on and for the Senate to be about the business of government when there is so much acrimony threaded through so many fractured relationships.  

I wonder if the story of Ishmael’s and Isaac’s brief reunion for the purpose of completing the most sacred task of their lives -that of attending to their father’s death and burial - might have any meaning for the people charged with governing this country.  I wonder if there is even a remote possibility that the gravity of the work that is ahead of us might cause any of the members of the House and Senate to at least come to the point of being able to stand side by side - - to come to some (even if grudging) respecting of coexistence.

As a father, Abraham was unskilled when it came to wise parenting.  His choices and decisions fed into the devastating rivalry between his two sons - a rivalry that exists today in the enmity between Palestine and Israel.  As a nation, we, too, have been subjected to unskillful leadership. It has fed our already existing divisions and played them into the full blown drama that unfolded in the Capitol on January 6.  It ain’t pretty.

I envision a beautiful poster decorating the halls of Congress - perhaps an image of  Ishmael and Isaac at Abraham’s graveside captioned this way:  Beloved, you don’t have to hug.  You don’t have to sit down to dinner with each other.  You don’t even have to say “Let’s forgive.”  Just stand side by side to face together the work at hand, honor one another’s right to exist and get to work.

It seems so basic, so fundamental - -simply mutual acknowledgement of the other’s right to exist - a foundation, perhaps, on which to build and re-build a functioning government that we might once again view with confidence and pride.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 5, 2021

 Stanford University is the home of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. A volume of his letters and papers the University published has been sitting on my book shelf for several years. There are memorable pieces in it.

One of my favorite letters is one King writes home to his father during the summer of 1944. This is during his first excursion to the North, where he worked in the tobacco fields of Connecticut. Here he had his first experience of an integrated society and an integrated church. You can hear the surprise in his voice as he writes, "We go to any place we want to and sit any where we want to." King later traces his call to the ministry to this summer experience, when he was still a junior in high school and felt an "inescapable urge to serve society."

A later paper in this volume is one he wrote in Seminary on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Knowing what we know now about Kings' life, and death, the paper is hauntingly prescient. He writes, "What is society's reaction to such men (prophets like Jeremiah)? It has reacted, and always will react, in the only way open to it. It destroys such men. Jeremiah died a martyr."

King preached six different times at the Riverside Church in New York City. Those recordings have recently been released by the Church and Stanford. It was a trip back in time for me to listen again to "A Knock at Midnight," a sermon I heard King give there in 1964, while I was a Seminary student across the street at Union Theological Seminary and working in the Riverside Youth Department.

In the parable a man is seeking three loaves of bread from his neighbor to feed an unexpected guest. The problem is he is knocking on the door at midnight and the neighbor is already in bed. For King, 1964 was midnight in the social order. He believed we needed to get out of bed and address the three social evils of the time: militarism (especially nuclear weapons and soon the war in Vietnam); racial dignity and racial justice; and materialism with its consequent poverty. With respect to the latter, he even believed: “We are saying that something is wrong with capitalism … there must be a better distribution of wealth in this country for all of God’s children and maybe America must move toward democratic socialism.” That conviction and broadcasting it, will surely make you a target in 2021 as well.

The loaves of bread King wanted were faith; faith in God, the neighbor and the future; hope and love. He worried that it was late, midnight, in the social order, the psychological and the moral order. He looked and prayed for the day when the neighbor would wake up, get out of bed, and provide the sustenance needed. He was especially hopeful the community that offered the "bread of life" every week, would lead the way.   Sitting in the first few rows with the Youth Department on that Sunday morning, gave us first chance to shake his hand after the service. I know for many of those young people it was a memorable and inspiring day. I needed to be reminded of the sermon content after all these years, but remember well his presence.

The A.J. Muste Memorial Institute publishes an Essay Series of Kings' work. It includes the sermon "Loving Your Enemies," his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and his "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam," the latter speech also given at Riverside Church. Copies will be distributed to my Peace and Justice class this semester. They would be good reading for everyone on a holiday that bears Kings' name. The Governor might want to add   the booklet to the history curriculum she's proposing.

Kings' last speech before his assassination in Memphis is available on the internet. He wasn't feeling well that day and didn't intend to address the gathering. But his colleagues convinced him the gathered crowd wouldn't leave till they heard him and told him he had to go to the auditorium. As always, his speech was laced with Biblical illustrations and allusions. Once again, he seemed prescient. He seemed to know his future. He said he'd been to the mountain top, seen the promised land, knew he might not get there himself, but that was enough. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." He had to be helped to his seat as the speech concluded. The next day he was dead!

King gets one day a year, a national holiday. Another prophet gets one day every week, plus a national holiday. One could hope that the prophet people worship every Sunday would help them multiply Kings' message and work by a hundred-fold, so they too might be able to see the glory of the coming of the Lord.


Carl Kline