I’m afraid for the lives of my students

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It has been less than 24 hours ago that police killed Alston Sterling and Philando Castile. It has been over the course of my shift that I started thinking how I am afraid for the lives of my students.

One young man, a kind demeanor, playful and articulate, this is what I’ll remember him for, but what if for some reason he gets singled out by the police and pump him full of lead? They don’t know him like I know him, they won’t have the reach that I do with him, are they going to “shoot first and ask questions later”?

What about another student of mine, a guy who wants to go to college, who wants to make a difference, who wants a wife and family some day. Doesn’t his life matter?

I used to be concerned about my students not adjusting to life in the community, or in a group home setting due to not taking their treatment and individual plans seriously, or just plain old learned helplessness. Now, if anything, I’m concerned that they might become another killed by a cop statistic!

I’m not fearful, police violence has always been around, but now with technology it is more at our front door than it was before. I don’t want to read about my former students shot by the police, especially when I know them and I know some of their families, that kind of hurt I’ll carry with me forever. God forbid they’re found to be innocent and the cops walk free.

The system isn’t successful, the system is corrupt, and no newly elected President will solve anything. Change starts from within, change starts at the grassroots level, and until those changes occur there will be no overarching change within our society.

No justice, no peace!
~ Nathanael~

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Being present to death as a spiritual exercise; day 23 of Ramadan

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There’s no avoiding it, it’s inescapable, it’s inevitable, and some day we all will…die.

This week one of my students informed me that somehow (and I think I know how) a frog got into his room, and croaked (mea culpa for the bad pun). So I made my way to his room, looked about, and found the dead frog in question. I picked it up, offered it last rites (it didn’t answer so I proceeded) and I took care of it. I washed my hands, and that was that, the dead frog was no more than a brief hoppy memory.

Still it begs the question; how prepared am I / are YOU / are WE when it comes to dying? Whether it’s our own death or the death of others, is it something that’s present in our mind or something we hide away in our mental closet only to remove it when needed be. Death, the big D, can be unnerving as it seems…mostly…that it happens when we least expect it and we’re either left with regret for what we should’ve said or done with the deceased individual or we’re filled with memories and nostalgia for our time spent with that person, and perhaps at times we feel both.

I personally am not worried about death, well except when I start thinking about what I haven’t done with my life and what I want to accomplish (mainly be a husband to my June and a father to Nathanael Danger Jr., Savannah Grace, Amalia Faith, and Mark Shalom).
Then and only do I worry about dying, but all the more it drives me to take life as it comes and make the most of the days / weeks / months / years I might have, because again, I don’t know when I’ll shuffle off this mortal coil.

Yet when it comes to those who have passed away, eh, I can be-or-miss in being present to death inasmuch being present to those faced with the loss of life. I was able to be present at the time one of my former clients passed away but I found it too difficult to be present with one of my former youth ministry student’s and his family as they mourned the passing of their brother and son respectively. I think sometimes what keeps me from coming to wakes and funerals is that I sometimes talk myself out of it, sometimes I dwell too much upon myself and how I’m handling and not enough on the individual who has passed and their loved ones, and so my selfishness and ego get in the way. Oh and if you’re someone I know in real life and I haven’t been there for you in this way, let me know, I owe you an apology in real life.

Death leaves us with many questions, answered as well as unanswered, and for some people the main question is about the passing from this life (“here”) with the expectation of an unknown destination (“there”). Now I personally don’t know what awaits us collectively when we pass away, and while I align myself with views along the lines of Red Letter Christ-centric Universalism my perspectives in regards to heaven and hell are held with an open handed nuanced I-could-be-wrong posture. Heaven ideally for me would be one of all of humanity reunited with God and one another, having fun and BEing together for all of eternity, enjoying [after] life with one another in dynamic non-static ways.

I also hold a view of conditional heaven, and by that I mean that I as an employed white male in the western world who has the means to pay his bills and still live quite comfortably does not need a heaven but I still would like to be in the presence of my creator and all of humanity, but if it doesn’t exist I am okay with that.
But consider the life of a 7 year old working in a sweatshop in China, a kid busting his butt to help his family make ends meet, he needs a better place than what he has, I would hope there’s a heaven for him because he needs it more than I do! This is why I also hold a conditional view of heaven. But with that being said I could be wrong, and I am okay with that.

When it comes to hell, I believe we create hells for ourselves and others, but none in the afterlife sense exist. I also don’t believe in the existence of the devil or demons for that matter. But I also hold an early church view that said the fires of hell didn’t burn people for all of eternity (consciously or unconsciously) but were part of the process of redeeming others, that it stripped away the dross of humanity until we got to a place where we could go to heaven…but again, even when it comes to my views of hell, I could be wrong.

Death doesn’t have to be scary, and personally speaking I rather be ready for it than be in a place that avoids it. So live the life you’re living and strive to be the best possible version of you that you can be! It’s never too late to start a new chapter, it’s never too late to go back to school, it’s never too late to open up the restaurant with the ideas cooked up inside your head, because this life is the only one you’ll get. Make the most of it, make choices, live with the mistakes you make and strive to try try again! Because time and this one life you’ve been given is a gift, so treat it with care and live as though you were dying because that day will come eventually. Let this life be your drive to make the most of every situation and not your burden. I believe in you and so does God!

So with all that being said, being present to death were my keywords on the 23rd day of Ramadan. Thanks be to God, The Giver of Life, who puts our life in motion but lets us make our own choices. May we embrace this life we’re given, moving forward but not being opposed to going backward if needed be, may we live life to the fullest but being mindful of others and helping to move others into their own direction of fulfillment.

Salaam alaikum be yours now and always,
Nathanael

I am torn between grief and rage

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Last week at the small group I attend I found out from a guy who serves at the soup kitchen I used to that one of the regulars was murdered. He was shot down in cold blood.
This guy was no stranger to me, for he was a regular. He was hearing impaired, and so we’d communicate by writing notes to each other. As we got to know each other better, I found out that he loved birds (he once brought in a photo album of his budgies). He also had a sister that he did a lot of activities with.

It grieves me that he has passed away & it fills me with rage given the circumstances of his passing. I’ve both emotions under control but I admit it has taken a bit out of me because he didn’t deserve to leave this life like that. When our time is up, that’s that, but really? Gunning someone down in cold blood? It bothers the hell out of me when people take the lives of others; whether in times of war or 1:1 scenarios like these I can’t shrug it off easily.

I’m going to have to wrestle this one out with God, she and I need to talk it out…strongly and honestly…with one another. I hope I get some peace from this tragedy, I hope his family gets some peace as well.

~Nathanael~

My road out of martyrdumb

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(St. Bartholomew/Nathanael holding up his skin)

A bit more about me…

When I was younger so much younger than today, I was interested in martyrs. Martyrs by definition means “a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause” (dictionary.com). Growing up I heard about martyrs, primarily followers of Christ who, as written in Hebrews 11:37, “They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” So the martyrs and martyrdom I knew came from my religious upbringing.

It’s no easy read, and some parts of it aren’t for those who are squeamish. I read this book, but eventually I was given a more contemporary book of the same nature, Jesus Freaks by dc Talk:

Once again I learned more about martyrs and what led to their martyrdom, and eventually this got [too far] into my head and I started thinking about living for God by way of dying for God. *disclaimer* – I do not think that intentionally setting yourself up for death is martyrdom, such as suicide bombers and related, so this was my fucked up mindset at the time.

I did not put myself and my life in harm’s way where martyrdom could be achieved, but there’s something very messed up to thinking about dying in such a way. I wasn’t thinking “all I have to go where *insert group of people who don’t like Christians* and then I’ll be martyr!” It was more of a dwelling on it and thinking of acclaim that I would get, postmortem of course. When you get so wrapped up into thinking about death and not the day-to-day, that in and of itself is a kind of death, and it’s a depressing and sad place to be. If you’re caught up in the hereafter and not focused on what’s going on around you life can and will slip by.

So what changed exactly that brought me back to living? What motivated me to put my strength and energy into something better than self-imposed martyrdom (which completely conflicts with what martyrdom is)? Life. Life got better, I became more open to those I trusted with real life shit that was going on in my life, and I stopped reading those books because it did no good to dwell on it. They’re a good read, don’t get me wrong, but reality checks and balances need to come into place when you’re still developing intellectually. Plus the people who have died for their beliefs did not set themselves up for martyrdom, that is, they weren’t doing it for kudos and accolades.

I am glad to be alive, and those days were some of my darkest. God has been good and keeps putting awesome people in my path. People I want to share life and community with, people I want to trust with my darkest deepest secrets. It is in living and desiring to follow God and serve others while I am alive got me back on track and away from the self-imposed road to martyrdumb.

~Nathanael~

In memory of Arlene

The other day was the day that I help out with the local soup kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church in my hometown of Aurora Illinois (which I love). I was excited to see that the church that was helping us was that of one of my favorite people I’ve gotten to know through that soup kitchen, Arlene (a photo of her and I is below).

As I stepped inside Trinity and started prepping for serving others, I asked the guy who normally takes Arlene how she was doing and he informed me that she passed away in her sleep 3 weeks ago. That hit me hard, I asked a few questions pertaining to the service and then I stepped outside to be alone with my thoughts and emotions. I didn’t cry, but the tears might come later, but anger rose to the top of me because no one let me know that she passed away and some people who know me and my interaction with me could have called me. I would have wanted to pay my last respects to Arlene by being there, so I guess this’ll have to do because that opportunity is not afforded to me, so here it goes…

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I met Arlene a few years ago and instantly I knew this old[er] lady had spunk. Arlene was of Irish decent, and it didn’t take long for her to let other people know this; There are two types of people in the world – those who are Irish and those who wish they were she’d tell others. It was essentially “love at first fight” with Arlene, she had torts, I had retorts, and she had reretorts…but it was good natured and nothing she said hurt me and vice-versa. I would occasionally help her outside of Trinity and spend time with her as she’d smoke cigarettes, telling me tidbits of her life and her family, she really loved her grandsons and was proud to tell me of their latest accomplishments in life. Arlene had a lot of stories, it was interesting to hear about the days of Alaska before it was Alaska (The Yukon Territory). There were times I sensed that her family, though local, kept themselves busy with their lives and didn’t spend as much time as she would’ve liked with her. She wasn’t lonely, but she was one who appreciated family and just wanted to be there for them where she could.

Arlene was a sweet older woman who would let me know, “Despite what everyone has to say, I think you’re something special!” I would quip, what everyone has to say? I don’t believe you! and she would quip “I don’t believe me either!”
It was sad to see her fraility at times, her slow gait and her frustration with it all, but she was good at what she did; primarily she would work at the end of the soup kitchen line and hand out cookies and fresh fruit to whomever wanted it. I was quick to replenish her supply as it went quickly, and she was pleased that I did this, telling others I was her guardian angel…she knew how to make me blush in this circumstances, I was just glad to serve her as she served others.

Hot summer days kept her away from Trinity, cold winter days did too, which made autumn ideal and I was hoping to see her again but that didn’t happen this year. It was her time to go and God wanted her home, I can’t be stingy about it nor can I complain, she had a good run and I’m glad to have known her.

RIP Arlene, I hope you’re not causing too much trouble in Heaven for God and others 🙂


~Nathanael~

16/30 – Momento Mori

According to Wikipedia “Memento mori is a Latin phrase translated as “Remember your mortality”, “Remember you must die” or “Remember you will die” with that being said I sometimes go to local cemeteries to take photos and think over my own life.

I am not a morbid person, at times I have a morbid sense of humor, but there’s something about reading over detailed tombstones of  a person’s life that makes me wonder of the legacy I am leaving behind. Yet some of the tombstones I’ve read over the years haven’t been descriptive in that way, some are blank apart from a year, and some are so faded I cannot tell who lies six feet beneath me.

With the time I waste online, you’d think that I have forgotten that my life has an expiration date or that I think I’m immortal, but no to both I haven’t forgotten. Yet lately I can rationalize to some extent this part of my life, the job called looking for a job, so it hasn’t be a total waste of time.

Waste of time is a perplexing phrase to me at times, simply because the span of my life’s time is all there is, why would I waste some of it? I do what I can to make the most of my time, and there are times where I recognize what I’m doing isn’t so much as spending time but investing time; I mostly invest my time with the students I serve in a youth ministry setting, time invested in building rapport and aiding in their spiritual journeys, things of this nature matter here but to some degree on the other side of eternity.

I do keep myself busy at times, and I’m okay with that, yet sometimes I just need some “me time” apart from everyone else, to catch my breath before I go back to whatever tasks are required of me.

This is all the time you or I will have, make it count, Momento Mori.

~Nathanael~

Reaching melancholic transcendence; Life and Death in community

2 Thursdays ago I was helping out at the local soup kitchen, to my surprise my most favorite helper was there! Arlene’s an older Irish lassie whom I and care for deeply, our relationship is one of lovingly putting each other down in a playful manner, our words aren’t aimed at one another in a mean way, we just thrive at being kinda snarky and clever word-wise to one another.

Being an older woman, she has a hard time getting around, and winters in IL aren’t good for her and so when it gets cold out I hardly see her during this time of the year. She and I talked casually/snarky to one another for a while, but then she dropped the ball; due to a lot of doctor appointments, blood tests, et al. she may have cancer…and due to how old she is, it doesn’t seem like it’s a battle she wants to fight and she’s ready to go.

We continued laughing and enjoying one another company, but in my mind and in my heart I recognized the impermanence of our time together, and I thought about there will come a time when Arlene’s no longer here and I will cry alone…

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Recognizing community, and being in community, and living in community, I have re-realized that death is also a part of living in community. Every individual and spectrum of life in community needs to be honored as needed be, and there needs to be honor even in the death of those who live among us. Arlene has a good support system of 2 kids and 5 grandsons who live rather close to her, so I know that if it is her time to go she will be taken care of.

She’s had a good and rich life, I am simply enamored by her stories and her willingness to serve others in a loving manner. She hasn’t revealed every facet of her life, but I sense her compassion for the homeless and downtrodden comes from some place personal, I don’t know for sure but I know that some of the best volunteers seem to understand it better than those who may consider (or at least reflect an attitude) the people who come in week after week as “freeloaders” or “they’re abusing the system”.
These homeless and downtrodden people are my friends, and some of them I’ve gotten to know really well and we don’t bullshit each other, we’re intentional in our words and quite honest with our circumstances…I get it and Arlene does as well.

I am blessed to know Arlene, and I am glad she gave me her digits before she left so I can check up on her, she tells me I’m her angel, and if that’s what I am in loving on this woman, so be it, I will be her angel.

I will enjoy her life while she’s still here, and when her time comes I will celebrate her life in her death, and honor her, and I think that’s the best thing I can do given my circumstances living in community.

~Nathanael~