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Monday, November 16, 2015

Reflections on Paris...and Beirut...and Baghdad


Hard to think about anything else today. Stayed up until 2 AM rewriting a sermon because the world had changed.

We start the service by singing Sanctuary, the song which used to open all our services. That gave its name to Jane’s congregation which shared our space a few years. That made its way to our neighbor West End and then to the Jewish congregation Romemu that shares it’s space.  And Andre’s voice was there to give it depth.

We begin our scriptures with the gospel, Mark’s little apocalypse, 13: 1-8.  Followed by
 1 Samuel 1: 4-20, another barren woman miracle story, thus time, Hannah. As a reflection on that rading, Jeremy plays his new Jam with a new heartbeat, recorded with a sample of his unborn son’s heartbeat. (
Jeremy sings his Jam...

And then, the song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, the song on which Mary’s Lucan Magnificat is based.  So to reflect on that, Jeremy and I sing Paul McCartney’s rewrite of the Mary’s song, Let it be. And then our reflection….

Sometimes you have one thing planned and the world intervenes and I have to go a different direction. It’s that kind of week.  In Paris on Friday, 129 killed and 352 injured. In all the focus on Paris, today was a national day of mourning in Lebanon where 40 were killed and 250 injured on Thursday. And not mentioned at all are the 21-25 dead and 40-50 wounded in Baghdad yesterday. I in no way criticize the identification and anguish with Paris. We’ve been there. But our circle of concern and compassion needs to extend to those in Baghdad and Beirut…. murdered Muslims by the same forces…ISIS has killed more Muslims than any other people.
So I turn to the Gospel of Mark, which I did not in tend to reference today.  It’s a section called the little apocalypse. It’s fitting to do so because the ISIS attackers are acting out their own apocalyptic vision, seeking through their actions the day of the Mahdi, or Messiah, who will establish a world wide Muslim paradise under Shariah law. Jesus will return as the Mahdi’s lieutenant to force all non-Muslims to convert or die.
It’s easy when experiencing these attacks and seeing them around the world to feel a sense of the apocalyptic. On All Souls night, some of us gathered to read together the book of Revelation, as it was originally intended, a letter of visionary solace for a community enduring violent repression.  Written in metaphoric code to get past any lingering authorities. It was written as a word of encouragement, describing what the community was living through then, NOT as a spooky prediction of what would come at the end of the world.
Apocalypse is popular, even more so since 9-11. Every Sunday night you can turn onto The Walking Dead, one of TV’s most popular shows. The idea of zombie apoclaypse has become almost accepted wisdom among a portion of our younger population. Or you can watch the Leftovers  which tells the tale of how the world responds to a day when 2% of global population just vanishes. BUT Paris, Baghdad, Beirut make it agonizingly real.
Mark’s words are pretty scary…
Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
But of you look closely, what do you see? These words are written in late 60’s Jerusalem. The  final battle with the Roman empire is approaching. It feels like the apocalypse is near. Mark his community NOT to follow the rebel recruiters who are trying to enlist freedom fighters for the final conflict, which will hopefully draw a conquering warrior messiah into the battle. He is saying don’t go there. These are the birth pangs. Of a new world to come…..
 (Interestingly, the same background informs Islamic apocalyptic vision…as it spreads death throughout Paris, it says it will defeat Rome, and portrays the US (and Israel as its partner) the modern day Rome….)

The Jesus of Mark warns us not to get sucked into apocalyptic Messianism. Do not see our struggle in terms of warrior messianism. Jesus proclaims a messianic age that rejects redemptive violence…(Interestingly a theme on this season of Walking Dead, is there another way to combat evil or is redemptive violence the only way out?)
                  What else do we see? As a side note, I originally wanted to speak to how early the Holiday season---and the annual charge of war on Christmas…hello Starbucks!...and Donald Trump’s promise that if he’s elected we’ll all say Merry Christmas, like it or not…and that this season’s pre Advent scripture passages are all pointing to Advent and Christmas as previews of coming attractions…

Take Hannah’s song, for example…the song that Mary rewrites and makes her own…
4The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.7The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and on them he has set the world.
9"He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed."
Apocalyptic in its own way….but with a reversal…the poor lifted up….because every Old Testament prophet saw the failure to care for the society’s poor what would tear apart a society’s social fabric and  make it vulnerable to crumbling under pressure….

What do we do in the face of what we confront? First I want to say this … though theologically informed, the violence of these days is essentially nihilist. Deconstructing the world. Death and suffering for its own sake. That’s what I felt after 9-11….as I toured the still smoldering 17 acres,  that awakened in me the thought that in such a world, creation and creativity are acts of resistance, the act of creating is intrinsically connected to the creator, of and to its self. That’s why want so deeply a church where ethics and esthetics, beauty and justice are partners in our witness to the God we follow.

Lastly, Hannah is another of those barren women … her child, too, Samuel, will be a sign. And my parenthetic word to Jeremy…and my own son, the decision to have a child is a courageous act of creation…a vote of confidence of a better world to come of which we are seeing only the birth pangs….and our call is to work for the messianic era Jesus calls us to, a day to be ushered in by militant non-violent followers creating communities of love and justice, places where we can already experience what we work to create….my God, to have a church like that…can you imagine it?

At the end of my reflection, I feel moved to play and sing Blowin’ in the wind, still…and sadly…appropriate…with a few changed lyrics:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people resist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can we all turn our head
Pretending that we just don’t  see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

How many times must we all look up
Before we can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears do we need to have
Before we can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till we know
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

We lead into our prayers by chanting Bless the Lord, my soul…from Taize. And for our offertory, Andre sings a powerful Great is Thy Faithfulness.
Andre sings Great is Thy Faithfulness

Today, we have the joyous opportunity to welcome Russ, Berik, Jeremy and Dion into full membership in the church,
New members Russ, Dion, Berik and Jeremy
followed by the singing of the traditional Blest be the Tie that Binds..As we gather in our circle, we bless Jeremy and Priska as they travel to Switzerland to prepare for the birth of their son. 

Jeremy leads us in singing Lean on  Me...
Priska, Andre and Jeremy

I ask my friend Father Clyde, visiting today to add his blessing to the circle, and Andre leads us all in Amen.

Friday, November 6, 2015

VERITAS: The Representatives


Veritas cast

(Eli again….)

Veritas, currently presented by the Representatives at St. George’s church, may be the strongest production yet by this adventurous…and prolific…young company. The play is an exploration of Harvard’s  infamous Secret Court of 1920, which brutally sought to purge the campus of homosexuals. Ironically, given the subject matter, this may be one of the straightest of recent productions, at least in terms of story telling. Although, as a Stan Richardson play, the third act can’t resist a step into post modern magical realism and a self directed poke at meta-theatrics.

Part of what makes Reps’ productions so effective is their critical attention to detail, shaping your whole experience.  From the moment you enter into the church basement, you are drawn into a world. Nooks and crannies are carefully decorated, framed photographs of the young men of the play fill niches and are carefully placed on tables. You could easily be in a Gothic dorm at Harvard or a period sitting room.

As you are led to the holding area, you are handed a card with a photo of one of the characters and handed a cup of wine. By the time your character leads you to your seat in the room where the play begins, and enters into brief conversation, you have been led into a specific place and time, a unique subculture, a world has been created for these characters to live in, complete with music. As well as Stan usually captures the textures and nuances of contemporary New York City, he has done so with 1920’s Cambridge.

It would be pointless to try and single out any cast member in a well realized ensemble where each has his own moment to shine and where each creates a character you can believe in and care about. You very easily pick up the fear and anxiety that fills their lives as the potential reality, loss of their special status as Harvard men, and perhaps loss of any status whatsoever begins to sink in.

As important as it is to lift up this moment in Harvard’s history, I began to experience a deeper feeling during the interrogation sequences. The emotions of these students, the pressure to confess, to possibly indict others in the desperate hope of saving oneself, could just as easily be people called to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Occupiers called in to Homeland Security or even Palestinians brought in for questioning by the Shin Bet.  It’s a sign of art well done to take you through the specific to the more universal.

Finally, there was one moment when two men on the edge of becoming lovers are slowly surrounded by the rest of the cast, circling, while singing the number one hit of 1919, 'Til We Meet Again... in  harmony, accompanied by ukulele, guitar and banjo. Circling in ever increasing intensity. That one moment may have been the single best realized moment of theatre I have seen this year by any company in any production. The audience must have felt that way as well as it burst into spontaneous applause at it’s conclusion, the only time that happened.

Of all Stan Richardson’s plays, Veritas may have the best possibility of being produced by university or resident theatre companies.

Congratulations,  Representatives. Can’t wait to see what happens next….

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

From other steps: Chicago, reflections in urban ministry


Our task force

From other steps: Chicago
Reflections on Urban Ministry

From around the country we have gathered at McCormick Seminary on the campus of the University of Chicago in the tawny Hyde Park neighborhood of the city's  southside.  It was the the apocalyptic situation in  Detroit that had inspired the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to call for a new study. (
committee begins its work, Ruth explains the church

The last one was in 1995. Our chair, Phil, just having left the Obama administration, and myself are the only people left from that ’95 group. And I may be the he only one who goes back to 1980,(though I was not actually a member  of the task force, I contributed…) I’ve been thinking about urban ministry for a long time.

First, to talk about urban, what is that? Phil’s preferred definition is if it feels urban, it is urban. It’s not about geography or political boundaries, it’s about an ethos, a way of understanding oneself in the world.

There is, of course, a long anti-urban bias in the church. It was Cain, after all, who built the first city.  Perhaps the most challenging Bible scholar out there today may be Wes Howard-Brook who basically sees the city as hubris and rebellion against God.  Cities lead to walls to protect an empire. It is in the open and vulnerable where we experience ourselves as  completely dependent upon God. On the other hand, as someone else said, the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.
Kevin makes a pont

So looking back, what do I see? When we first started, the basic issue was white flight and would the cities survive. New York City had the feeling of a dystopian sci- fi movie. And as Howard Cosell informed us, ladies and gentlemen , the Bronx is burning. The high minded experiments of the Model Cities  Program  had resulted in rebellion and smoldering fires.

In Tulsa when  I arrived there in 1976, the south and eastern boundaries of the  city kept expanding. To be supportive of downtown development was to be a liberal and  anyone white living in the once grand north Tulsa neighborhoods was considered eccentric or hopelessly romantic.

By the time we wrote our 1995 report, a paradigm shift had occurred. In a rust belt city like Pittsburgh, the industrial core which fed a solid organized middle working class. was gone forever.  My best friend went from organizing steel workers to organizing unemployed.  And a diaspora spread across the US.

Urban/suburban splits became more meaningless as near in suburbs began to change and most of the southern suburban coast of Long Island began  to undergo dramatic shifts in population.  A town like Freeport went from the home of Guy Lombardo’s boat to a place that would produce Lou Reed and Public Enemy. Meanwhile the beginning s of gentrification and yuppifcation had begun.

Gentrification has become rampant as expanding  white protected communities shove the working class further out. Latino members  of my church,who grew up in NYC’s successful projects, head to Jersey and even the Poconos to own property. Bloomberg’s luxury city expands daily while the income disparity hits new heights.  I like the  Yankee Stadium analogy: when I attended a game in 1973 the ratio from most expensive to bleacher seats was 4 to 1. When the new stadium opened in April 2009, the ratio had expanded to 500 to 1. And now a moat around the most expensive boxes ensured the rich that no commoner would ever get too close to them by moving down.

Meanwhile the slaughter of black men and women by an occupying army and  mass incarceration has grown at shocking levels and homelessness has hit an all time high under progressive mayor Di Blasio. 

As barriers fall for the lgbtq community, the lingering challenge of race and class will be more visible. Those who got their liberal bona fides by supporting gays will face a new set of realities and many lgbtq folk will be all too happy to join the  empire.

Occupy Wall Street comes and goes and Black Lives Matter hits the streets, some of the same people staying, continuing  the fight. Queer kids right up front with the New York Justice League in leading the charge.   For the first time in a long time, the whole system itself is being questioned.  Occupy changed the public discourse on disparity with the  idea of the 1%.  Marchers chant indict, convict send those killer cops to jail, the whole damned system is guilty as hell. And more and more realize that stop n frisk, mass incarceration and gentrification are all tied together.

Meanwhile, the church as a structure and institution continues into the postlude. Our new urban ministry efforts will have to begin with networks created at the grassroots level. That’s part of why we’ve come together, to plan regional consultations to hear each others’ stories and make the connections at the grassroots level.

Presidential candidates range from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders who is making the word socialist acceptable in public discourse  at long last. 

Looking back, I’ll say this as well…when we began, urban ministry, to be honest, was largely (not exclusively) a white man’s project.  Equal parts  selfless giving of oneself for the city and its people and unrealized paternalism.  We drank too much, smoked too much and unless our wives were committed to our ministry as their ministry, got divorced all too often, like our comrades the community organizers. This time around, the leaders are women …and men…of color.  They are taking needs  like sabbath and self care seriously. Luckily Phil has located some  younger leaders as well, though they’re hard to find, we have not been as good as those who found and encouraged us to find and engage the net generation.  We’ll be looking at expressions of church we haven’t even  imagined yet.

On the flight home, I read the Church & Society Magazine I edited for the November/December 1995 issue.( ). Exactly 20 years ago, I was fresh and new at West-Park.  It’s interesting…and sad…to see what I wrote then. The hope that was  there.  I was actually pretty prescient. But knowing what was coning down didn't mean I was ready or able to deal with it.  There’s a lot of sadness in that awareness, of the losses of those years.
wrapping it up.....

Phil and I realize that we went from being young turks to graybeards as our mentor Warren Dennis described it. It's strange having others look to us as we looked to who  inspired us, the Ray Swartzbachs and  Clarence Mc Crackens. (And for me, George Todd, Philip Newell, Rodney Martin..that’s why we still do this…we owe it to them….) God bless this work,  May we be faithful still.

Press release for upcoming interfaith Thanksgiving event


A Rabbi and Reverend singer-song writers to orchestrate global Thanks Giving

 On Friday, November 20, two New York spiritual leaders will conduct an interfaith online music service to celebrate the bounty of our earth, give shared thanks for our blessings and connect citizens worldwide as a step towards peace.

In 1620 the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in search of religious freedom, traveling for sixty five days with bibles to practice their faith without persecution. On November 20, Sim Shalom founder, Rabbi Steven Blane, and the West Park Presbyterian Reverend Robert Brashear, although not donning Pilgrim hats, will join together for an online Thanks Giving music and prayer service to inspire gratitude for the earth's abundance and celebrate diversity of
spirit with a message of acceptance and pluralism.  Unlike the Mayflower voyage the program seeks to bridge connections rather then escape from them and no travel is required. Congregants of all faiths and citizens from around the world can simply join in for the free event and participate via the live chat by clicking on at at 7:00 pm EST.

Creating uplifting music has been an integral part of Rabbi Blane's and Reverend Brashear's work both within the pulpit and in less traditional settings such as jazz clubs. West Park Presbyterian Church has build a dialogue of interfaith harmony with its authentic mutual conversation outreach program. Sim Shalom the world's only virtual Synagogue has connected individuals around the world with its weekly online service platform.  According to Rabbi Blane " Combining our musical voices and experiences to build universal discourse rooted in mutual respect and compassion is a  perfect vehicle to elevate the conversation. Music transcends languages. Loving they neighbor, starts on the local level and grows exponentially. "
Reverend Brashear has years of experience in spiritual policy development in Mexico, Central America and the Middle East, and locally as a founding member as Westsiders for Peace and Justice located in New York City. He is the Chair of the Interfaith Assembly for Homelessness and Housing. The reverend sings and plays the ............................... and has performed with a variety of artists. His recordings include the Movement Music Project of the Peace poets.  

Rabbi Blane, who is also a Cantor, has dedicated his work towards a vision of inclusion. Most recently he spearheaded a new movement of Jewish Universalism that embodies the principles of non judgement acceptance.  Rabbi Blane has performed in iconic venues including The Bitter End in Greenwich Village and performs regularly in jazz clubs as a singer and piano player. He has released several CD's including "Live Jazz High Holidays".

This event brings full circle the rabbi and the reverend's music collaboration. They have performed together in the Home ( Away ) Band.