Saturday, August 28, 2010

In Praise of Samuel I. Berek

It was a big old frame building along the Union Pacific tracks on East Factory Street in Fremont, Nebraska. That was before Fremont had the ZIP Code 68025.

The building was painted a dark forest green although a bit dilapidated. Just below the eaves in big white letters was painted "JAKE BEREK IRON AND METALS".

Sam was the son who had taken over the scrap metal business from his father Jacob who had died before I ever got to go there. The office was dingy and littered, but there was a coal burning stove that kept it toasty warm in cold weather.

And inside near the window to the street was a big old stuffed chair of a color that defied description. On the one armrest of that chair sat an old round woman with gray hair. Jake's widow. Sam's mother. She said little. And when she spoke, it was with a heavy foreign accent.

Sam and his mother were Jews. My family, Lutheran to their DNA, had inherited much of Luther's animosity toward Jews. I won't attempt to describe it here. It wasn't overt, but I could sense it in my Father's speech and manner. That's the subject for another time.

And in our vernacular, we never called the Berek business a scrap metal business. The term "recycling" hadn't been invented yet. No, the Bereks ran the "junk yard". The scrap metal we sold them, old iron from obsolete farm machines, the guts of old cars scrapped out for the running gears to make farm wagons, old radiators and plumbing, water tanks, etc., that was all junk to us.

I liked going there and unloading the junk from the Ford pickup. We'd first pull onto the scale to get weighed, then unload. It was such fun to toss everything off and hear the clang as it landed on the pile with other people's junk. Then we'd get weighed again and go into the office to get paid. The Bereks always gave my brother Robert and me a candy bar, often a Baby Ruth bar. We liked that, of course, and said a shy "Thank you". Sam and his Mom always fawned over us as kids, almost more than relatives did.

I'm sure my Dad thought it was their way of making the stingy (in his eyes) prices for scrap metal more acceptable. Ingratiate the kids, chisel the parents. That's how everyone I knew regarded the modus operandi of Jews, be they jewelers, clothiers, furniture sellers, car dealers or junk dealers.

Sam always wore a top hat with a narrow rim. It was a way of keeping his head covered as a Jew that would not offend his entirely Christian customers had he worn a yarmulke. I didn't know that then. I didn't know about the Holocaust of Jews, the Showa, back then either.

World War II wasn't a decade behind us then, and I didn't know. Maybe it was because we were ethnic Germans. For that very reason, we should have known, even as little kids.

Sam was a community fixture in Fremont, and he did a bit of public speaking whenever he got the chance. He loved to talk to high school students and recognize them for academic achievement. Independence Day was one of his favorite days of the year. For decades, he organized the Fourth of July parade and fireworks display at the Moeller Field ballpark where the annual Fremont 4-H Fair was also held.

Sam loved to praise America for her freedoms. Sam saluted and respected the flag more fervently than anyone else I had ever met. To say that Sam was patriotic would be a gross understatement. For years I regarded Sam as a bit of an eccentric, somewhat of an extremist in his loyalty to America. He was in awe of this country but not the fanatic kind of flag waver I've since come to know in America.


I wasn't astute enough or informed enough to observe whether Sam had a serial number tattooed onto his forearm. Or whether his mother did. But one was certainly tattooed onto Sam's heart. He knew his people's history, the horrors of what my German blood relatives had done to his people, what Stalin and his Russian Communists had done. Sam knew he lived in a different place, a promised land of sorts, where he and his family had freedom and could never be treated this way.

And he thanked God for the soil he lived on, free of persecution and protected by the Constitution of the United States of America and its First Amendment. He wasn't ever going to take that for granted, and he would do his best to prevent his fellow Americans from ever doing so as well.

I think Sam, God rest his soul, would be appalled at the timidity, flawed vision and fear that Americans seem to exude today. He would be aggrieved at our lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution, the things we take for granted, the trust we have in weapons and lack of trust in the strength of our own freedoms. He would be mortified at our cynical attitude about voting, our indifference to human and civil rights.

And if he'd heard someone say "they hate our freedoms" as a justification for war, he would instantly have countered, "Perhaps they do hate our freedoms. But do we actually love them?"

And Sam would not stand for America's rush to judgment of the Islamic Center planned for New York City. Sam would see that hysteria as the thing long visited on his people now taking root here.

He would not stand for it. And he would wave the Stars and Stripes, read the Constitution aloud on street corners, and send fireworks into the night sky until America awoke.

Thank you, Sam. Thank God for you. I'm proud to have met you and heard you speak. Thanks you for all you did there in Fremont, Nebraska. I will never forget. Never. Nie wieder (never again).



Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bar Hopping... Or, What's Church For, Anyway?

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and sid to her, "Woman, you are freed from your disability." Luke 13:12

Jean and I often go for walks in Portland's West Hills. The area is a bit unique and intriguing because of all the public stairways. There are plenty of private ones that lead from the street or the tiny garages carved like grottos in the rocky hillsides. But many are public, put there so that residents have a much more direct way to get downhill. Or uphill.

Sometimes the stairs are elevated for a portion before coming donw to earth, like the upper landing of this one on SW Vista Drive.

At one time, it probably served as a place for teenagers to go and drink, smoke and make out. In fact, a girl nicknamed Priscy signed her name in lipstick along with a heart to state that she and Roger loved each other.

I wonder how long ago that's been and how it's gone for them since.

Probably long after Priscy and Roger exchanged passionate kisses under this concrete shelter, somebody thought it looked like a more permanent one and started camping or living there. That would be when the neighbors said "No way!" and ordered the City of PDX to have custom made bars installed.

Bars can either keep us locked in or locked out. Sometimes, they aren't even made of steel.

Jesus was teaching in the temple. His teachings were often refreshing and not infrequently stirred the pot of the establishment in uncomfortable (to the official dudes) ways.

That's when he saw the hunched over, crippled woman. She didn't get in Jesus' face and demand a miracle. He called her over and set her free from her disability. She could stand up straight for the first time in 18 years. Maybe she was no older than that. We don't know.

The ensuing ruckus turns around healing on the Sabbath, something the higher-ups in the Jerusalem Temple considered work. The rules prohibited work of most types on the Sabbath. There were exceptions. Domestic livestock could be untied and led to water. That would involve less "work", fewer steps, than carrying the water to the animals. Hence, closer living within the law.

A miracle, a sign of God's power, was accomplished, no question. The woman could stand up straight. But Jesus knew there was more to the story. So he set the woman free.

It seems like a minor nit-picking detail until we consider this. She would need to change how she saw herself. If, though able to stand straight and tall, she continued to see herself as stooped over and crippled, she would never see herself and never live as someone not disabled.

More to come.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Setting Fire to the World

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! Luke 12:49-51

Jesus said he wanted to set fire to the world. Burn this stinkin' place down. Or maybe burn it up. Never could figure out which way that should go. It's like going downtown. Once you get there, are you really uptown?

What? Was Jesus some kind of pyromaniac? Wanting to put a torch to creation, set the earth on fire?

I thought God had made everything and pronounced it "Tov!" (very good).

Even the stuff we humans have stuck onto the surface is at times unable to get in the way of the beauty and wonder of God's creation.

Maybe Jesus didn't really want to physically set the earth ablaze. Maybe he wanted to do what my Uncle Obert used to say some of the neighbores needed with their farm work. They needed some fire in the pants.

That is, they needed to get something done.

Jesus said that kind of thing wouldn't sit well with everybody. In fact, it might split families down the middle. Might turn fathers and sons against each other. Might set the women to a-hair pullin' cat fight. Even the in-laws would bust up over it.

Considering what we bright, intelligent humans with all our satellite and space station diagnostic tools, all our climate data, all our computing power already know about what lies ahead for us in the way of consumption spikes, extinction spikes, greenhouse gas spikes and population spikes, you'd think we'd actually be burning the candle at both ends to get something moving to help head off the damage.

We aren't doing that. At all. Seems like we're still looking for the Jesus that's like a big novacaine shot. Or maybe a big general anesthetic.

We're afraid we won't all get along anymore if we actually get to work doing what we are supposed to do: love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. That would sorta include future generations as well as the people who right today are impacted by the consumption we consider to be our right. Our right and privilege as Americans. Because we are the good guys.

Oh, don't worry. I'm not leaving out our all-out opposition to sin, death and the Devil. That's 'cause I haven't forgotten that Jesus has already handed us the victory there.

V-I-C-T-O-R-Y! That's what life is to be lived in the knowledge and the power of.

So why do we trust in war and weapons to deliver the goods?

Why do we trust in fear? Still...


Jesus would say, "For God's sake, open your eyes! Get to work! Get moving! Stop standing there dying and get busy living!"

Forget the fear.

Oh, and last time I checked, mothers and daughters-in-law and fathers/sons don't always get along so hot as it is.

Only thing that needs a match put to it is our reluctance, our fear, our foot-dragging, our blindness.

Take a look around. God didn't give us this to destroy but to give glory through life, not through ashes.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

When Mountains Cover and Hills Fall...

The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed.Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars.
They shall say to the mountains, "Cover us,"
and to the hills, "Fall on us." Hosea 10:8

In Luke's account of Jesus' death march to Golgotha, Jesus quotes Hosea and directs the weeping women to turn their thoughts to what may lie ahead for them, not for him.

What does lie ahead? Something to ponder on a level that has less to do with the apocalyptic and eschatological than with the practical.

Here in N. America and elsewhere around
the globe, wheat prices are going up. Russia has banned wheat exports for the remainder of 2010. They are experiencing the worst heat wave on record. Heat and drought have brought massive forest fires. Worst on record.
The drought and heat may further stress forests, bring insect infestations that kill whole forests--inevitably leading to more fires, more drought, more heat. It's a feedback loop that can and will accelerate.

Oh, by the way, the wheat crop got hit hard by the same conditions. Some of it literally burned.

In Pakistan, always ripe for a disaster due to the poverty, population density, tribalism and corrupt government, the monsoon rains have been the worst on record. Self-sufficient communities in the north of the country have been completely wiped out, bereft of food, water, shelter, roads, bridges and the means to support themselves.

At last report yesterday, 12 million people were directly affected by the rains and floods. The only way to get in any relief was by helicopter--and yet more rains had made it too dangerous to fly.

So far, 2010 is shaping up to be the warmest year on record. Climate change deniers continue to deny. Response from the developed world, the part of the world with actual choices and actual power, has been far too meager to qualify as anything but an insult and a charade.

I sometimes think of it as ripping creation's gifts right out of God's hands and spitting back in his face.

In Luke's quotation from Hosea (Luke 23:30-31), Jesus follows it up with this observation:

For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?

People experience a snowy winter in one region of the US and use it to deny climate change, anthropogenic climate change, specifically. Never mind years of average temperatures for the whole planet, averages that have been trending up.

OK, so we can't completely make the case for global shifts out of the record heat in Russia or the record monsoons in Pakistan. But we can't fool the melting point of ice and the nearly universal retreat of the world's glacier systems.

So if the disasters in Russia and Pakistan are "normal" and not the result of changes wrought to the climate system by human activity, then you really wouldn't want to see what REAL CLIMATE CHANGE would produce, now would you?

What is REAL CLIMATE CHANGE? I define that as what even Republicans can't deny because it has cost them their homes, their land, their jobs, their drinking water, their food, their paycheck, their politcal power, their talk show, their tea party, their family members, their money.

I define is as when even Republicans are forced to ask the mountains and hills to bury them, to give them an escape from the consequences of thier actions. Or lack of it.

That goes for Democrats, too, and for all of us you's and me's out there.

If what we are seeing this year ain't the real stuff, then we surely don't want to see the real stuff.

Might be worth considering this: God does not recognize private property or private property rights. God gave and gives to the whole of creation and calls the whole of creation to steward for the good of the whole, aka to the glory of God.

Whatever else we believe, perhaps we could agree on this: Never has the planet been in the grand experiment of supporting nearly 7 billion of us. Seven billions warring and using and consuming like there is no tomorrow.

Time to get moving. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

And putting the finishing touches on the gilded invitations to the mountains and the hills... Not much God glory in that.

I like what Joseph Sittler wrote years ago. Talking about this is not stepping away from grave theological issues. It is stepping right into the middle of them.

Theology always lives between the rocks and the hard places. Otherwise, what good would it be? That's where all the God glory is.