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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Performance and Sacred: a living exploration of community and practice (in other words, what we do every day...)

Myrto, Bob, Mario and Katherine

We finally sit down and talk with the reGroup theatre folks to try and finalize their contract. There have been some bumpy places but I still have respect for what they are doing in trying to reclaim the legacy of the original Group theatre and I am anxious for them to have  a good run for their  Texas  Trilogy, which I haven’t seen since my Tulsa days.( There is enough shared culture on both sides of the Red River to have made a real connection with the Tulsa theatre community.

People from the Work Center are arriving and setting to work for tonight’s open conversation on the intersection between performance and spirituality.

Last night while they were singing, a couple wandered in and asked what was going on. I told them it was an open choir singing songs from the old southern black church tradition. They listen awhile, see the bare feet and the dancing circle and look as if they’re not quite sure.

Pat O in for our weekly meeting. We have to get Danielle’s job replacement description finalized. And keep moving towards finalizing our construction manager contract. And doing whatever’s necessary to expedite getting the stop work order lifted. But underneath it all, there is progress. We are moving forward.

Starting off with music
A crowd is gathering in Mc Alpin Hall for Performance and the Sacred: a living exploration of community and practice. The event begins with a round if singing. People drawn up and into the moving circles.  Jeremy G gives us an overall introduction and I set the context for West-Park as a sacred space.

There’s a lot to talk about beginning with the theme for the evening.
* I remember when we were working with the accordionist extraordinaire Bill Schimmel ( every Sunday. Other of our house musicians complained and said that it felt more like performance than worship. Katherine responded that all worship is performance,  it’s a matter of what kind of performance. So I argue that  there is no distinction between performance and sacred. 
Jeremy G welcomes us
* Jeremy M argues that for himself as a recoding artist, performer and church musician, for him there is a difference.
* Katherine says that ultimately it’s an issue of intention.
* The issue of repetition comes up. Mario talks about working on some pieces for 10 years before they are ready. I say that repetition can be an effort to recreate an experience. To do it so many times that it becomes embedded. Like a recipe. You may need to do it 10 times before you know it well enough to take it off in another direction. It’s when the word  is fully incarnated that the door to the deeper place opens.
* There are folks here from St. Augustine, a Roman Catholic Church with garifono members, women in African print and turbans. All you need for your church to grow, says one woman, is good music. One good singer. And feed the people good food.
Mario tells us about the Work Center
* We have good food, donated by our neighbor Barney Greengrass, arroz y habichuelas from Flor de Mayo, Mario’s favorite spot, and a giant pan of shepherd’s pie from our home base, the Gate.  Generous neighbors...enough to feed us all and more...
* There are people from the Manhattan Church of Christ, an evangelical break away from the Disciples. They have a strong program with the homeless. But what is their theology? Where are they vis a vis lgbtq? Women? That is important to me.
* The question of context comes up. The music Mario uses is from the American south. African-American Christian music. Some of the seed group members are Buddhist. Jewish. Hindu. Secular. They are wrestling with what does to mean to sing words they don’t believe and still feel moved? Is thee something inherent that in the music that has meaning deeper than the words?
* I press the context discussion in an other direction. The music they sing comes form a  context of struggle, From a project of creating liberated space in the midst of slavery. Oppression. That sustained people in the struggle to make that liberation concrete. What does it mean to remove that music from that context?
Myrto makes a point
* Mario suggests that we are all involved in some level of struggle, even if personal and internal. That’s not enough for me. We live in the midst of the agony of Gaza. Of tens of thousands of children crossing the US-Mexico border. Of a black man on Staten Island choked to death for selling loose cigarettes. Does this experience of singing and/or performance challenge one to engage? I recall that Thomas Merton said that when one begins in true meditation, one ends in revolution.
* Also at stake is community. At last week’s Petefest, in honor of Pete Seeger, I finally got it. When I was an early folk-singer, I hated sing-alongs. I wanted to slay you with my songs. But I realized that Pete had an intention. (That word again) to create a sustaining community of struggle through shared song. That his sing-alongs, the very act of communal singing, had concrete political content.
Katherine does too
* And I pushed the community question further. As I see it there are two agendas. One, the relationship with St. Augustine, the Manhattan Church of Christ, existing faith communities, is dialogical and dialectic in nature. The other has to do with creating new communities. To ask those who have been attracted to the weekly practice of singing what the next step would  be. What would it taken to make a commitment of mutual accountability to each other? To become  a community that would reach out in service, in struggle? I offer to assist that process for anyone willing  to undertake it.
* For me, I now that the church as I have known  it is over. Something new must be born. I want to help midwife that new reality. Is something here part of that new birth? Is there a new community waiting to be born? We’ll review it all next week before Mario returns to Italy.

Saying goodnight after a great conversation


Open mic starts late out of  courtesy for the discussion going on upstairs. There’s at least one new singer-songwriter named Jesse.
I do a late set after Joel, Pat O and Mandola. But the real moment of the night is Alex,
back again. Getting ready to head back to northwest Arkansas, territory  knew well in my Tulsa days, to record her first EP in Kansas City. She wants to play some songs. Get some video. For her kick-starter campaign. I’m elected to take the video, which I do until her battery runs out. There is something raw and untouched in her voice. I look forward to us being  a community of support as she ventures out. We’ll publicize the campaign as soon as it is on. RL invites her to join him on Stay Awhile. And she does. Smiling all the while.

Stay Awhile 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Open Choir ...and questions


Open Choir

Jeremy G and Lloyd are in working out details for tonight’s  Open Choir and screening.

I’m having a conversation with Thomas B who conducted the orchestra for Milica’s Composers’ Concordance ( festival last year at West-Park. He’s coming  back to the city, looking for work, community. Another outlaw musician as it were. I wish I had a large enough congregation or….I’ll think about this. Must be a way to work him into this.

TK is working with Marc on sound for the Hiroshima event. RL’s asking questions, looking for answers. Too much going on at the same time.

The Open Center’s Open Choir is in session. At least 40 people in a circle, singing songs from the African-American church tradition. It is Christian music, but non –sectarian, the singing transcending boundaries. Katherine calls it a contained ecstatic experience without context, but nevertheless, something is happening.

There is a screening of Action at Aya Irini, a performance by Mario and the Work Center outside of Istanbul in an abandoned basilica. An extended performance of a text from the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic, which they translated themselves. Dance, song, theatre, performance.

The music is set to a sampling of these texts:.
1. And he said, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death."
2. Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]"
3. Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty."
4. Jesus said, "The person old in days won't hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live.
For many of the first will be last, and will become a single one."
5. Jesus said, "Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.
For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. [And there is nothing buried that will not be raised.]"
After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."
Jesus said, "Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is.
Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death."
19. Jesus said, "Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being.
22. Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, "These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father's) kingdom."
They said to him, "Then shall we enter the (Father's) kingdom as babies?"
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]."
But meanwhile they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, then they will change their ways."
They said, "Otherwise he can't do it."
106. Jesus said, "When you make the two into one, you will become children of Adam, and when you say, 'Mountain, move from here!' it will move."

That Thomas again, coming from that other place. The other Christianity we are only now discovering. It’s a moving film. Except that the projector keeps overheating and stopping.
But I keep pondering. What is the connection? How does this work connect to building a new church? How does this become a community of mutual commitment? Accountability? Service? Maybe we’ll get close to that tomorrow night in our conversation. Bug the question continues to burn inside of me.

Visit RL to hear about a hard week. Talk turns to Fred Neil. Songwriter. Lover of dolphins. Best known for Everybody’s Talkin at Me from Midnight Cowboy. RL introduces me to A little bit of rain…(

As I leave, Marc is in the sanctuary screening  an old movie about Frank Sinatra…projector seems fine….

Thursday, July 24, 2014

From Climate change to Palestine


Summer Israel-Palestine reading series

Time at the office sandwiched between two events. An early morning clergy  breakfast at the Ethical Culture Society to plan a September 21st People’s Climate March. The goal is to equal the million 1982 march against nuclear proliferation (planned at West-Park) that drew over a million people to the city. Rabbi Michael of the Labor-Religion Coalition invited me and it’s one of the most diverse groups of clergy I’ve seen in awhile. Our speakers include Black Pentecostal, Buddhist and of course, Judson Memorial. We are reminded that climate change has its greatest impact on the vulnerable poor and communities of color. Think asthma in Harlem and the South Bronx. Katrina and Sandy. I’m impressed by the level of organization already. I feel like I/we can commit to this action. There is criticism of having a major national march on  a Sunday morning, or on anyone’s Sabbath. Or on the day of the annual African-American heritage parade. And almost boos when it is said that the NYPD would not grant a permit for a march that would interfere with Broadway matinees. It is said that sometimes we need to be prepared to, as Heschel said in reference to Selma,  worship and pray with our feet . I think of what Russ said about maybe some Sunday mornings, that marching is our worship and begin to think about how to make that happen.

To read more about it, go to

I have just enough time to run down to Chelsea and retrieve my laptop from Tekserve before heading to Advent for another in our summer series of readings from Israel-Palestine. Tonight’s book, Faith in the face of Empire: Reading the Bible through Palestinian Eyes by Mitri  Raheb. I remember a visit with Pastor Raheb several months ago at pastor Heidi’s church. It’s interesting to compare his book to Naim Ateek’s. Both are done with the current discourse on empire. Mitri sees today’s Palestinian Christians as the direct descendants of historic Biblical Israel and makes his case. Whereas Naim focuses mainly on right wing Christian Zionists, Pastor Raheb takes on liberals as well. Pastor Heidi sees the book sometimes coming dangerously close to supersessionism or replacement theology, the idea that Christians have replaced Jews in God’s salvation story.

She does see that this can be a corrective to the traditional evangelical narrative that the Jews must possess the holy land in order for Jesus to come back again.  She has recently discovered her own Jewish family background and has been exploring that reality theologically. She also fears that the book’s argument denies any connection to the land whatsoever.

I make the following points:
* Any statement has to be looked a from the perspective of who has the power to do what to whom when. The same words/analysis has a very different meaning when  spoken by a European or American Christian in a situation when Jews are in a vulnerable minority than when made by a Palestinian Christian under Israeli occupation. How can they not see themselves in the role of Christ and the Israelis in the role of Rome?
* American Christians have little theology of land. It was in Central America I learned the expression, la tierra es la vida: the land is life. We cannot deny the mythic role of Israel over millenia on Jewish self-identity. Each year, Passover ends with the words, next year in Jerusalem.
* Wink, Brueggeman and others have wrestled with a theology of land. It has been said that the Jewish people needed land in order to reenter history, it takes land to be incarnated.
* BUT, living on, in, the land does not necessarily have  equate to sovereignty in a modern political nation state.And ultimately the idea of a Jewish democratic state is an inherent contradiction. It can be one or the other, not both.

It is extremely difficult to have this discussion in the context of the ongoing daily terror and trauma of the siege on Gaza.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Creation (still) groaning: god wrestling


Ready to hit the road

A busy and full day.

It took the Collection until 4:30AM to find a place where they could park their van and trailer. Some place in the Village. So they’re a bit sleepy. I want to give them a socio-religious overview of where they are. How the religious and social history of this place connects with the new reality  they are creating. 

Tricia is the director who has begun readings of her take on Othello, coming up in the fall. She was here last night and blown away by the energy and activity. Jeremy G’s seed group. The reGroup theatre rehearsal. The Collection family getting ready for their gig. It felt magical to her. Inspirational.

Berik is in to get his stuff out of the old medical room, my old office, so that it can become a green room. 

Deacon James back looking for Danielle again and again we’ve got a full house. 

While I was talking with the Collection, a very (successful, by certain standards), evangelical Christian group was in looking at the space.  They’re interested in the whole show. I will hand it to them, they do celebrate multiculturalism…and service…and discipline and commitment…BUT..there is a triumphalism, a rejection of women’s leadership and don’t even mention LGBTQ issues…I don’t understand why young adults are drawn to this at all. 

Jeremy G is in with Danielle finalizing plans for this weekend’s conversation. 

While I’m hard at work, Don stops in. He’s got some extra staff time this week. Can they help us with web site? Yes, of course. How do we make that concrete? That’s one of our biggest needs  right now. We’re one foot into a new site with lots of blank spaces. 

Russ stops in. I’m hoping he can at least meet David Wimbush, given his work at Wild Goose. He’s well known as the guy with the white hat….Everyone is still waiting for David to return. We wait for awhile but decide to head out for conversation. I try to explain what’s inside of me. How I look at the celebration of the life of Pete Seeger last Sunday. The thousands who came out. How I finally learned the subversive power of what he was trying to do with all of his sing alongs. The sustaining power. Like the black church and it’s creation of liberated space within  the context of life  denying slavery and oppression. My Harlem neighbor, First Corinthian Baptist, is living  that out whether they know it or not. I know that a community with mutual accountability, with disciplines of worship and prayer, stewardship, study and witness, could be a powerful presence. And  wonder again if I can do it. Somewhere between the intensity of the Open Center folks, the power of sung song in the Seeger tradition. As I looked around at the septuagenarians and octogenarians in the audience, I thought that what was most visible was hope. As Jim  Wallis said, Hope is believing inspite of the evidence and having the courage to work to make the evidence change.

 And I look at David’s Collection, these young Christians (in a post Christendom sense), with their combination of self-protection, who really wants to open up their soul to vulnerability and get hurt? and passionate, existential ahistorical wrestling with Jesus, like Jacob with the angel, somewhere in that gritty mix is the new church, or new Christianity being born.

The real dialectic is plain to see. The historic mainline church is irrelevant to this moment. Yes, they have  enough money to continue into the future perhaps indefinitely. But their power to shape what Christianity means is over. The dialectic is between the god wrestling, paradigm breaking grassroots radical discipleship on the one hand and the rapidly growing disciplined Muslim brotherhood style of conservative Christianity on the other. I know that new community can come into being. Is coming  into being. I want desperately for us to help bring it into being. But I don’t see all the how. That’s why my heart burns. That’s what Russ and I talk about. Is he down for that struggle? Everything about  him seems to say yes.

David Wimbush and Bob
When I get back, David and Mira are on the steps. Still waiting for the van. Stuck in rush hour traffic in the village. We talk about some of this. Inside, folks are getting bored. Instruments are coming  out. People trying out their own songs. Some Johnny Cash. Folsom prison. That  kind of thing. David comes back, opens up his violin. I’m about to get my own guitar. See if RL wants to come down. But just about then, the van shows up. And it’s the VW clown scene in reverse. How much can you put into that van? Soon enough, they’re ready to head out to Philadelphia. Leaving me pondering. Burning. I wave goodbye. Just like any rock band. But some serious Jesus wrestling going on in there. Keep struggling.
Waiting for the van to come

Spend some time with RL. Allow him to rail at me regarding how I accomplish my mission. Again. Knowing he does this because he cares.