Sunday, August 30, 2015

open space and conversation


Four days into dealing with the pain of three broken ribs….

Back at the church to prepare for tomorrow’s worship. And meet again with Jason and another friend, this time Babatunde from Nigeria. Knew each other back in the day in Boston. Reconnect through Facebook. Concerned about some of the same issues. Baba coming from a place of passion for design and fashion.

While I work on the service, Jason takes his friend on a tour of the building. They are sitting in the Papp theatre talking when I catch up with them. I make sure that they have a tour of the whole pigeon tower, which in the vision is the light tower both metaphor and concrete reality of the conversation and space Jason wants to create.

Jason’s been down a/this road before with success in his Massachusetts Crush project. Seen a burgeoning movement brought down by unchecked self-interest. There are questions of political satire and free speech versus shared values (why I never ever will say pig in relation to police..if you make your opponent non-human you can’t hold them humanly accountable…) versus a maoist letting a thousand flowers bloom…No immediate clear answers.

But there is clarity that the next wave of lgbtq+++ (ie, queer ) issues are waiting to be raised along with class and race issues. The same issues being explored by Stephanie and Love Songs for the rest of us And the peace poets. . And that this intersects with arts and creativity. And that light tower, waiting to be lighted..

Space and conversation. Open space and conversation.

There must continue to be space here for what could be...

One step at a time. One conversation at a time.,

Saturday, August 29, 2015

It is our hearts that define us, not our technological achievements.


So tonight we, Marsha, Russ, Steve, Leila  and I gather to continue our adventures through Genesis beginning at the end of chapter 19 with hapless Lot again.  Even though he wanted to settle on the little town Zoar, for some reason he wants to become the first official caveman in Genesis so takes his daughters and moves into a cave with his (now ) unpartnered daughters.

Concerned that they have no other way to carry on their family, assuming there’s no other men around, and as perhaps payback for Lot’s previously offering them up to the aggressive Sodom mob, they get him drunk and get him to have sex with them. The resulting children, Moab and Ammon, are good negative backstories to explain the general disdain for Moabites and Ammonites. As she was reading the story, Marsha drew a breath because she could see what was coming. But then she expressed her admiration for their willingness to cross boundaries to keep their line going, to do what was necessary regardless of  moral strictures.

Next (20) as Abraham and Sarah go to Gerar, we get a replay of their previous experience with pharaoh in Egypt. Once again, Abraham presents Sarah as his sister. Once again, God alerts the ruler, in this case, Abimelech, as to what’s going on and once again, Abraham goes off with oxen, sheep, slaves, land and silver. Considering how well this hustle continues to go for Abraham, no wonder he keeps doing it.

A couple of notes though. When God speaks to Abimelech and refers to Abraham as a Prophet, that is the first time he is referred to in that way. And perhaps because of Abraham’s power, granted by God, to bless and curse, regardless of Abraham’s courage or integrity at any given moment. So God leaves this in Abraham’s hands and when Abraham prays for Anbimelech, he is blessed. And perhaps that is the only ultimate point of this story, the complete dependability of God’s keeping God’ s side of God’s covenant. Steve points out how different this is than a contract, which is always conditional.

Next we come to the birth of Isaac. (20) So in honor of the significance of laughter in his conception story, he is named Isaac. And his circumcision at 8 days marks the beginning of the tradition of the bris. History’s first. Now Sarah’s laughter is of joy, not derision, but pure laughter.

Isaac and Ishmael are being raised together and Sarah seeing Ishmael playing with Isaac leads her to demand that the two be put out.  Howard-Brook raises various possible  meanings of the word playing (metzacheq) ranging from normal play to mocking to sexual connotations. (Steve sees all that as unnecessary…Sarah is is solely concerned about inheritance. )

Abraham loves and cares for both his boys and is deeply troubled until God promises to take care of Ishmael as well. He too, will be a nation, though apparently not as blessed as Isaac’s progeny. (The Muslims, of course, have a different version of this story…) About to perish in the desert, Hagar places her child under a bush. (Obviously the teller of this tale at this point  doesn’t see Ishmael as a teenager) She prays, God responds, water is provided.  They live in Paran and Ishmael gets an Egyptian wife.  Here we see that God’s care and concern is universal, just as a woman from another culture and people has faith equal to Abraham and Sarah. (This story in Islam becomes a connection to Mecca…)

Finally, Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech over a disputed well. (Beersheba) And then Abimelech returns to the land of the Philsitines, or as we know them, Palestinians. Our stories and identities rooted in myth as well as history, and in scripture, they are one and the same.

Beyond any theology or ideology or mythology, what strikes me most about these stories is the insight into humanity. The written versions of these stories are at least 2500 years old, in oral form even longer. But I am taken by Abraham’s anxiety around power, his love for his children. Sarah’s anxiety for her child, Hagar’s intense love for Ishmael. Our technology has grown exponentially. The hearts of those who use that technology are unchanged.  The human heart remains a work in progress, constant and unfinished. It is our hearts that define us, not our technological achievements. The telling of stories to explain our adventure in living is the same never ending story. Ours to continue.



Late in the day. I step outside. Again, a half-naked person asleep on the steps. And this time I recognize him….it is Edward, the only person to have been permanently banned from our steps. (Due to all the times I had to clean up after him.) I try to wake him. Tell him he knows he’s not supposed to be here.  He semi nods, waves his hand.  He’s pretty far gone. Next time I come out, I try shaking his foot. He semi nods, still doesn’t move. As I'm leaving the building, I notice a trail of urine from Edward all the way down to the sidewalk. As I get on the bus, I call Leila to tell her the police will have to be called.  Later she texts me to tell me they had to take him away. E very so often, he returns into my life. He returns to the steps.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Living in the Spirit: Prepared for struggle

First day back from vacation.  Our main scripture  for reflection today is EPHESIANS 6:10-20

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

I want to begin with a reading from  Ti-Neshi Coates “Letter to my son” from  Between the world and me.

And yet I am still afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my West Baltimore neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length furcollared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T- shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired. I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana’s home in Philadelphia. You never knew her. I barely knew her, but what I remember is her hard manner, her rough voice. And I knew that my father’s father was dead and that my Uncle Oscar was dead and that my Uncle David was dead and that each of these instances was unnatural. And I saw it in my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. It was said that these lost girls were sweet as honey and would not hurt a fly. It was said that these lost boys had just received a GED and had begun to turn their lives around. And now they were gone, and their legacy was a great fear.

Sometimes, I start out with a clear idea of where I want to go in my reflection and then  something  takes me in a slightly different direction. I started out thinking about evil. And what it was Paul having us prepare ourselves for. But I couldn’t get Ti-Neshi Coates out of my head. Thinking about fear. What it would be like to live with fear all the time. What that would do to you. And for African-Americans, what it’s like on a daily basis. Especially in this year. Most of us don’t live with that kind of fear. We begin with a basic sense of safety and security in the world. We worry about money. Or relationships. Coates makes us wrestle with how the experience in this culture, this socio-political system, has beren a direct assault on the bodies of black people and continues to be so. How does our seeking to live out an incarnational faith commitment relate to this reality? How do we respond to one who has rejected our faith tradition as one which seems to accept the disrespect for and abuse of black bodies?

Then there are these words:

12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 

The most dramatic  time I heard these words was in Guatemala. In the 1980’s. I remember speaking  with our missionary friend there, in a hotel room, the radio turned up to block the bugs. Many of our Presbyterian friends were indigenous people of various tribes. Whole villages were disappearing. Tribes that had existed 1000’s of years wiped out. Under the presidency of Efrain Rios Montt, el Viejo, the old man.  The darling of other missionaries and  North American Christians because he was a born again Christian from an American based group, el verbo, the word. (And the Reagan administration, obviously.)

So we went to El Verbo headquarters. Chain linked fence with razor wire on top. Barking German shepherds. Their spokesperson, Kurt Meyer, in his black leather jacket. After listening for awhile, I interrupted his lecture on saving power of Jesus to ask about genocide. And this passage was his response. The indigenous, and other enemies weren’t people, they were earthly minions of the forces of cosmic evil. Therefore, their deaths were justified. I knew then there would be little dialogue between us.

So back to my original thoughts. Yes, there is evil in the world. But mostly it is done by people. People just like us. And if we separate ourselves from that, or if we see those we disagree with as not being people, all is lost. And violence, sometimes unspeakable,  is done to others.

While I was gone, there was the 70th anniversary of  the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We hosted here at West-Park a photography exhibit of survivors and the screening of an important film. We know now that it was not as my father believed, that this bombing had saved him form being sent to Japan. It’s clear now that Japan was ready to surrender. And that the offering up of over a quarter of a million Japanese (mainly) civilians, and the sewing of their land with atomic salt like Sodom and Gomorrah was more to send a message to the Soviets.

What does Paul see? The location for Paul of evil was  The Roman empire and its corrupting influence on its collaborators. The armor we need for protection in the struggle against empire is:
TRUTH….there IS truth…we must move beyond the relativism of our liberal elite power structure and must be willing to speak it. There is truth. As when Jesus says, I am the way, the TRUTH and the life…
RIGHTEOUSNESS….which is all about right relationships. How we treat each other. How we begin to create a new reality even within the shell of the old, as Dorothy Day expressed it.
All towards Proclamation, speaking this new reality more than in our words but in our actions.
To understand that to  say Jesus is lord is a powerful political statement for there can be no other. 
FAITH… stake our lives on this truth and in this HOPE.
This seems to me to be the ultimate  word of God… the sword of the Spirit, that WORD of creation that expresses the SPIRIT that has been there from the start, the SPIRIT that sustains us still.

Let’s listen again:
13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

It is not TRUMP. It is not even Bernie. What we’re called for is not reform of a system that can never fulfill the full will of God’s intention but the creation of a whole new way of  living. Liberated zones.  Safe spaces….where our SPIRITS and our bodies can be safe and free.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.

And so we share our prayers, we sing our hymns, share our peace and go put into the summer day. It is good to be back.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The open mic returns


Our host RL

One of those night when the Open Mic just attracts an amazing array of  very skilled people. I walk in as a singer-song writer Diana Feldman is singing originals with a pedal steel guitar player, Michael Pfeiffer.
Diana and Michael
Pedal steel being one of my favorite instruments. Diana finishes with an original on piano. She’s getting herself ready for a gig coming up in Rhinebeck. 
Diana at the piano

Paul Mills
Paul Mills
weaves captivating tales lead us on intense journeys with quasi spoken word pieces accompanied by  a piano that paints in dark and rich colors. John Holland’s original Second Avenue has just been chosen for a movie and his Chelsea Hotel song has us all singing along.  Stephen Bea, the stand up comedian, we discover is a school teacher.
Stephen bea

I fulfill a long time fantasy by getting to try out my new original accompanied by a pedal steel guitar. And then I turn my Adam and Eve song into an Irish trad song and finish with Blue Eyes cryin’ in the rain, with Michael again. He is a true master of the pedal steel.

David Lyons
David Lyons, back from Australia and New Zealand, breaks back in a with a country set.  Dion, a stand up guy in every way, has one of his best sets, perhaps because his lady is there to cheer him on. As are an interesting number of other stayers, as RL calls those who only come to listen.

As always, RL closes us out with Stay Awhile, moved by the way the night has fulfilled his love of live music where people don’t jam but collaborate and help one another out. It’s been a great night and its good to 
be back.