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I ate figs this morning, chopped-up, warmed momentarily in the microwave—which gives them an extra gooey sweetness—and smothered in yogurt and granola. I’d like to think it was an act of resistance. Or maybe solidarity. But mostly, it was simply convenience, circumstance, seasonality, and what my taste buds (“I’d like that!”) and kitchen (“We’ve got that!”) colluded in providing.
Late summer August and September is fig season in New York City, which I find amazing. Having lived most of my life in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes states, I had never lived somewhere warm enough for figs to grow. Being accustomed to eating fruit in season, I don’t even ever recall having seen a fresh fig as a child; fig newtons, sure, but no actual figs… Aren’t figs something that comes from the Mediterranean or Middle East? I didn’t consider that they grew in NYC until I moved here and discovered a fig tree in the backyard! And not only in my backyard, but as this New York Times article relates, in many backyards. An inconspicuous and unscientific “survey” while walking my dog confirmed that roughly one out of every three backyards in my neighborhood contained a fig tree.
But here’s what’s cool about the one in my backyard, which is the church’s backyard: it technically isn’t ours. It was planted by the neighbor who lives in the house next door whose drive abuts the churchyard, basically planted right on the property line, but mostly growing over and onto “our” side of the yard. He planted it many decades ago, along with some grapes, probably shortly after they immigrated to this country from Yugoslavia.
Now, in my neighborhood there are many people from Yugoslavia, even many in my church. The ones in my congregation are German speaking and while they will tell you they came from Yugoslavia, they don’t identify as Slavic. Mostly, they’re Germans. There are also folks who identify as Romanian and Hungarian who came from Yugoslavia. Then there are those folks who are Croatian or Serbian in my neighborhood, some Bosnians, some Montenegrins, and quite a few Albanians. So many categories and places! When you throw in religion—which historically, has been thrown around quite a bit back in Yugoslavia—you come up with all sorts of other categories. For instance, most of my German Yugoslavian parishioners while growing up back over there worshipped in Protestant churches, mostly Lutheran and Reformed but also Methodist and Roman Catholic. Roman Catholic churches were common in other parts of Yugoslavia as well as Christian Orthodox congregations and the Muslim faith.
Which brings me back to the neighbor who planted the fig tree, he and his wife identify as Albanian Muslims from Montenegro. Many decades ago he planted a fig tree on the border with his Christian neighbors, the church, and we have coexisted rather pleasantly, even deliciously so. That gentleman has gone on to God, but his wife and I still occasionally chat, regularly wave hello to one another. I have observed her grandchildren getting older and she has laughed at my chickens. And together we share the figs from the tree that her husband planted.
Perhaps it’s sentimental, but I can’t help but to hear the words of the prophet Micah, especially during fig season here in New York, “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4) While I know the figs that I had for breakfast were mostly eaten because they were available to me and I like them and it was convenient and all of that. I can’t help but to also think that just maybe it is a continuation of an act of resistance and solidarity begun many years ago between Muslim and Christian neighbors; a little thing, yes, but an act nonetheless to not give into fear and polarization.
I heard on the news this morning that US Senators are arguing about the role of Libya in the recent embassy attack and deaths. The NPR report said, Senator “Lieberman quickly sided with her,” that is with Senator Collins. “Sided with.” The report was fine, and it is certainly understandable and important that the Senate does what it is doing. But something about that phrase, “sided with” really bums me out. It’s such a little thing I suppose. But in an environment that the election campaigning brings with it, the 47%, stupid movies, retaliation and violence, etc., the little things add up.
Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar and priest, has spoken of the need to move beyond the language of us/them and the dualism of sides. That part of spiritual maturation is learning that things are not merely all good or all bad.
When good things can also be recognized as bad things, then you have the spiritual gift of discernment. This will also allow you to see that many things which are good for you are also bad things for other people, the animals, or the earth. It forces you beyond “either/or” thinking toward “both/and,” or non-dual, thinking. Once you have learned to discern the disguised nature of evil, you will be able to recognize that both perfection and imperfection are everywhere—everything is broken and fallen: weak and poor, you and me, your marriage, your children, and, yes, America and the Church, too.
I find Father Rohr’s words challenging but instructive.
I also long for Micah’s words to be true, not only the fig verse but the one right before it, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Surely, eating figs for breakfast won’t make that so. But seeing our neighbors not as the enemy certainly won’t hurt either. Or making everything about two sides.