My preaching professor in seminary once told us never to use images that might distract people from your message and lead them down unhelpful roads. As in saying, “When I was in the shower this morning….” Don’t ever ask your listeners to imagine something like that. Don’t do it.
So I will tell you instead what happened when I got OUT of the shower this morning.
Our house, which we have been living in since this past March, had been extensively renovated, and this included all the bathrooms, which happen to be on the top floor. But over the past several months we’ve been discovering imperfections. This includes ominous drips through the ceiling where the washer and dryer live, downstairs. Ominous drips on the cement floor, coming from above, from somewhere.
I called American Home Shield for help. Send someone. The plumber who eventually came was a guy called Lenny, originally from Ukraine, and he was big around and jolly. Good guy. I shared my suspicion with him, that the leak originated from somewhere in my wife Laura’s bathroom. We turned on her shower, then went downstairs. No leak. As if it was playing hard to get, or was shy. Maddening! The plumber did point out, though, that the seam between the tub and floor needed sealing with silicon, so perhaps that was it—water on the floor seeping into the seam, dribbling down into the floorboards, down into the washer/dryer room. With this, the plumber left, and soon afterwards I spread silicon in every crease and seam I could find. Following that, the leak disappeared.
Or at least seemed to. Until this past week, when I went downstairs to do a load of towels and saw some significant drippage on the washer/dryer floor. Now what is going on?
At which point lightning struck. “Laura,” I called out. “Come here, and bring a broom with you!” When she got there, I asked her to take the broom and reach up with it, thump the part of the ceiling where the drip marks were clearest, and I’d go upstairs and listen for where the sound was loudest. Settle this once and for all. Don’t know why we hadn’t done this earlier.
Upstairs, I heard the thumping in her bathroom, but not as sharply as I thought it would be. Then I went to my bathroom, a couple rooms over. The pounding was sharp, crisp. The culprit all along had been MY bathroom, MY shower! All along…. But how? I got out my trusty tube of silicon, and smeared it over everything, even if it had already been siliconed. I really wanted that drippage to go away. Not being able to locate a clear source for it was driving me crazy.
Which brings us to today, this day of a new year, this birthday of the world. Rosh Hashanah. I get out of the shower, dress, gather up my things, get ready to go to work. Almost out the door, until I decide to check how things are looking in the washer/dryer room. You guessed it. Even more drippage than before!
A moment ago we said it together: “As the new year begins, our spirits rise in grateful song.” It’s true, and yet … we will inevitably carry old problems into the new. In the ten days before us, up till Yom Kippur, we will closely examine ourselves, as the tradition enjoins us; we will reflect and repent and seek restoration. And yet, no matter how hard we work, no matter how much silicon we spread over everything, some of our problems will persist. Ones that are perhaps like my mysterious leak. Ones that symbolize the cracks and flaws in the basic plumbing of our lives, which are so hard to see clearly. Easy to see the drips, the splashes, the mess—but not so easy to see the source.
Definitely one problem that follows us into the new year is bigotry. Bigotry makes a big splash on the floors of our collective lives. In particular I’m thinking about the “Burn a Quran” day planned for this Saturday in Gainesville Florida. It’s planned by the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center church, pastored by Terry Jones, who says that he has a right to burn Islam’s sacred book because “it is full of lies.” “I have no experience with it whatsoever,” he continues. “I only know what the Bible says.”
It’s a tremendous mess upon the floor of America. Bigotry splashing down.
And, says the New York Times, “To the growing pile of discouragement, add this: A New York Times poll of New York City residents that found that even this city, the country’s most diverse and cosmopolitan, is not immune to suspicion and to a sadly wary misunderstanding of Muslim-Americans. The poll found considerable distrust of Muslim-Americans and robust disapproval of the mosque proposal. Asked whether they thought Muslim-Americans were ‘more sympathetic to terrorists’ than other citizens, 33 percent said yes, a discouraging figure, roughly consistent with polls taken since Sept. 11, 2001. Thirty-one percent said they didn’t know any Muslims; 39 percent said they knew Muslims but not as close friends.”
How tragic that our American Muslim neighbors are not known, or not known better. For if the Terry Jones of the world actually tried to do better on this, or the majority of Americans in general, the suspicions would ease up tremendously. You know what the vision of the proposed New York City mosque—called Cordoba House—is? Listen to what the leader of Cordoba House has to say about this, Feisal Abdul Rauf: “Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.” That’s what Feisal Abdul Rauf says. That’s the vision. No wonder religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the American Muslim community is one of the most important assets in the fight against terrorism, especially because it proves beyond a doubt to the entire world that that you can be a faithful Muslim and a faithful American at the same time. But if Americans keep on defining Islam by what extremists do, then Muslims here are gonna end up feeling like no matter how hard they try, it’s a losing battle. And we can’t afford to let that happen.
Definitely one of the main things people need to know is that Islam is not a monolithic entity. There is no one person or one viewpoint that defines correct Islam. You have some politically-activist extremists who aim to re-establish the Golden Age of Islam based on a strictly literalistic reading of the Koran and purified of all Western secularist influences. Then you have the vast majority of Muslims who are not politically activist but, rather, conservative—cautious and suspicious of radical movements for sudden change. To these two groups, add a third one: progressives who argue for a fresh interpretation of Islamic scripture in light of changing needs. They encourage the blending of all that is best in Islam with all that is best in modern culture. Then there is a fourth style, which centers around charismatic leadership, so, for example, if the leader is a political activist (like the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran), then you have political activism. Four different styles of doing Islam, not just one. It’s just entirely unfair to equate Islam as a whole to the excesses of any one individual or group. That’s like equating Christianity to the craziness of Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida.
Bigotry splashing down, messing things up.
But now, what about its mysterious source? What is the hard-to-see crack in the basic plumbing of our lives? The answer I’ll venture is this: fear. Fear is where the hatred drips through and sometimes surges through. So hard to see because what gets all the attention is the hatred. Hatred is loud and noisy. Fear stays in the background, unnoticed.
There’s an excellent article about this by Times writer Nicholas Kristof, entitled “America’s History of Fear.” “The starting point,” he writes, “is fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don’t share their values, don’t believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.” He goes on to say, “Perhaps the closest parallel to today’s hysteria about Islam is the 19th-century fear spread by the Know Nothing movement about ‘the Catholic menace.’ One book warned that Catholicism was ‘the primary source’ of all of America’s misfortunes, and there were whispering campaigns that presidents including Martin Van Buren and William McKinley were secretly working with the pope.” Nicholas Kristof continues, “In the 19th century, fears were stoked by books written by people who supposedly had ‘escaped’ Catholicism. These books luridly recounted orgies between priests and nuns, girls kidnapped and held in secret dungeons, and networks of tunnels at convents to allow priests to rape nuns. One woman claiming to have been a priest’s sex slave wrote a ‘memoir’ asserting that Catholics killed boys and ground them into sausage for sale.” Doesn’t all this ring a bell? All of the unholy things way too many Americans imagine neighbor Muslims to be doing? But now here is the key point: “Most Americans stayed on the sidelines during these spasms of bigotry, and only a small number of hoodlums killed or tormented Catholics [or others]. But the assaults were possible because so many middle-of-the-road Americans were ambivalent.” That’s the key point. Fear in US—middle-of-the-road good guys—allowing bigots to get away with murder. Not standing up to them saying, “Not in my country. We don’t treat each other like that in America.” Standing up to Quran burning. Standing up to unethical politicians stirring things up in order to grab the spotlight.
Fear is a hard thing to see clearly, especially when it is our fear. Hard to know where to smear the silicon, to prevent the leak. Not sure it could ever be done once and for all, in fact. America’s history of fear extends way back to touch Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, immigrants, Jews, the Chinese, the Japanese, Mormons, gays and lesbians, feminists, and on and on. No doubt the fear will extend way forwards. Human nature loves a scapegoat.
Yet the renewal Rosh Hashanah is all about does not ask us to do the impossible. God does not ask such a thing from us. God knows we are human; and we need to know that as well. True renewal is about becoming clearer about the just thing that is within our imperfect power to do, and then to do it. Living this clarity into the future. Doing what you can. The leak won’t ever be permanently sealed. But we’ll never stop looking for it, never stop doing the work of tikkun olam, never stop repairing the world. Never stop.