Caffeine and Coltrane

Sunday morning. 6:00. Why am I up at this hour? I closed the bar and left five hours earlier, and didn’t get home until 1:30. I couldn’t get to sleep until 2:30. Two hours before I closed the bar, I bought a Rocky Patel cigar aged five years for a new friend at a church I go to on Indy’s west side. He had a little girl last month, and I missed it, but I wanted to make it up by getting him a quality cigar. This particular cigar is sold for $7.99, but with my 30% discount, I got it for $5.65. I cut the closed end of the cigar with a V-clip, put it in a bag with some matches, and a little humidor pack that would keep the cigar fresh for days. When the bar closed, I poured myself a 16 yr Lagavulin Islay single malt Scotch on the rocks, put on Miles Davis’ “The Complete Birth of the Cool” album, counted out the money, did an end of night batch on the credit card machine and the cash register, did some last minute dishes, and swept.

I was in a hurry to get out of the bar because I wanted to get up at 7:00 so I could go to the 8:00 mass at St. John’s downtown and say a prayer for a friend who was in the hospital recovering from heart attack, and I wanted to pray for his wife and daughters also. After I set the alarm, I realized I forgot my water bottle. I had sixty seconds to lock the door so I ran to the counter and grabbed the water bottle. The cigars was next to the bottle, and I forgot it. When I got on I-465, I remembered the cigar.

It was too late to go back so I decided I would come back to the bar and grab the cigar in the morning before mass. This meant I would have to get out of bed at 6:00 because the bar was in Avon—a west side suburb, and a forty minute drive one way from my apartment. Avon is also a pain in the ass to drive to because no matter what time of day or night there are people on Rockville Rd/US 36 who will drive five to ten miles an hour below the 45 mph speed limit. I’ve a friend who works at a church in Avon, but lives on the North East side in the Castleton area, and he told me he takes Morris—that turns into county road 100 after you pass Raceway Dr into Hendricks County. There are still a few people on this road but not as many as 36 where everyone is at a slow crawl. Even though it is early in the morning, I went on Morris anyway. The sun was coming up, but the moon was still visible and full, floating over the clouds made pink by the rising sun.

Like most cities when you leave them there is no subtle transition to a rural setting. House, house, house, then, BAM!!! Corn and barley fields, and the possibility of a deer leaping out in front of an unexpected driver. There is a slight warning in the roundabout at Raceway, but after you go west there is nothing but fields.

Coltrane

To keep myself awake and alert, I put on my Coltrane Extravaganza playlist. The playlist consists of six albums beginning with “A Love Supreme” and ending with a compilation “Six Original Albums.” The first song to play off “A Love Supreme” was “Part 1 – Acknowledgment”, and the intro feels like a sunrise with the crashing cymbals and winding saxophone. Coltrane doesn’t simply announce the sun coming over the horizon, but he is in the chariot with Apollo pulling out the sun with his sax as Apollo races across the sky. Coltrane sought God in his music, but he joined the pantheon of gods blessing all of us from his lofty height. The music shakes me from my borderline slumber, and gives me the necessary alertness to pass a driver on a double lined road who is going 30 mph on a 40 mph road, and there is no one else driving. He could be tired, or he could think Jesus gives a shit about how fast he drives. Either way I have much to accomplish this morning, and I don’t want to pause for a second lest I drift away and drive my little van off the side of the road.

Once I get to the bar and grab the cigar, I see Apple Bagels, two doors down, is open and the time is only 6:50—I have enough time to get a little something. Apple Bagels, I think, try too hard to be Einstein Bagels, and I can taste the maximum effort. The food is close, but nowhere near to Einstein’s level. If there were one close by, I would go to that because the bagels are better and the coffee doesn’t taste like it has been set out for a day, but I’m outside of Indy where something with a Jewish name would annoy the WASPs. At the moment, I need something in my stomach and I need some coffee. I get a cinnamon raisin bagel, and a chocolate flavored coffee. To take out the sting of bad taste, I pour in six creams and six raw sugars. The coffee isn’t much improved, but it’s still better than if I had left it black.

On my way downtown to mass, I’m listening to Coltrane’s “Blue Train” album while pouring the coffee down my throat. When I arrived to St. John’s the time is 7:35. I take out a few dollars to stuff down the collection bank to pay for the candles I am about to light, and say a prayer for my adopted family.

I consider myself very much a Catholic—albeit a liberal one, but a Catholic nonetheless—, but after the election, I rarely go to mass because most—not all—Catholic churches I have been to in Indy care more about toeing the line of the Republican Party than being an example of Jesus in the community. I also know that a conservative interpretation of Catholic teaching suggests missing mass is a mortal sin, and I understand that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2168-2185. I also understand the statement from 2181, “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” This is where I differ. In the section on defining sins and its varying degrees, 1850 points out a willful rejection of God’s will by anyone as sin, “[A] revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods.’” My refusal to attend mass as nothing to do with determining my own will in life, but a desire to have an encounter with Jesus. I think many churches—and not just the Catholic Church—in Indy, Jesus has left the building, or the people kicked him out because loving their neighbor became too much when he demanded the love of their Muslim neighbor. Nonetheless, I went because I wanted to light candles, and I know there are people who join in praying for whomever the candles are lit. I knelt in front of the statue of Mary taking in the artist’s depiction of her as the compassionate adopted mother to all who follow Jesus. I prayed and asked God to look out for my adopted family, and I asked The Blessed Mother to pray for all of us involved.

After mass there were coffee, orange juice, and doughnuts on the tables in the narthex. I needed to leave for a friend’s church, and I didn’t have time to wait in line for coffee. I grabbed an orange juice, slammed it, got into my van, and left. I only drove west on the interstate for a few minutes before I got off the exit at Holt Rd. There was a McDonald’s at the corner, and I pulled in to get a large coffee to take with me to the church. I pull into the church parking lot with Coltrane’s “Black Pearls” album blaring and walk in with bloodshot eyes and coffee breath. The reason I’m at the church is not just to drop off a cigar, but also to attend a new Sunday School class that my new friend just started and leading. His approach isn’t to have a set curriculum nor is his class about pulling from the bible and parroting specific doctrinal interpretations. The bible is a collection of stories of people and how they experienced God—that’s their story. Our story will vary. The point is to share what life has been like the previous week, good or bad, and look for what Jesus is doing. My new friend comes from a hard life. He was a gangbanger in Mars Hill, a white ghetto on Indy’s southwest side, and I come from the east side. Though, I have never been involved in gangs or been approached by gangs, my neighborhood was a mixture of gangbangers and retired cops. Nothing terrible ever went down in the neighborhood, but I would hear about gang activity from my neighborhood friends. We discussed racism and the difference in how racial slurs are used in an urban setting versus a rural setting.

As we talked one of the ladies got up and left the classroom saying she needed some sugar and caffeine from Mt. Dew to stay awake, but that was dishonest, and I think this lady was dishonest because she was afraid to say something to us. My new friend’s wife passed her in the hallway and was told, “I came here to listen to the bible, and not to any of this gang shit. I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” While were talking about how our past lives still affect us today, and how we’re seeking Jesus even when we fall, another lady comes in to the classroom. She shares about her life and her frustrations with her son. Her son is twelve and stealing. He always steals, has been arrested, released, and repeats. She’s at her wits end because she has tried everything with her son to get him to stop stealing. We all agreed something is going on, the boy doesn’t know how to process all the negative things in his life and acts out, but his mom and her husband give him a safe place—and a stable place. We’re not about the clean and fair life, though that would be nice, but that isn’t our world. That’s not where we live. We speak to each other in prayers and continue to pray for one another while doing something tangible in the moment to offer a slight reprieve.

The class ended at 10:15, but I had to cut out to go pick up Ronnie and go to the hospital to see one of the members of our adopted family who had a heart attack on Friday. He was being released that day, and would go home to recover. As I pull in to my apartment complex, my playlist is at a close. The coffee cup is empty. The prayers are not resolved nor does Coltrane conclude his thought. There is no conclusion to Coltrane’s music. What some would call an ending he calls a pause in thought. Thankfully, I found a pause in mass and a pause in the Sunday School class, and we all had a comforting pause when we saw our guy come out of his room all smiles and walking like he never had a heart attack. Somewhere in the swirling harmony of my coffee, prayers, and Coltrane, God blew in some grace. God seemed to have granted our guy’s wife and daughters a little more time with him. In between breaths and gasps, the time between a tear forming in the eye and falling into the ground there is mercy. There is a reminder we are not alone even when we sit solitary in a waiting room. There in that frozen second split in two there is a song that will never quite finish as Coltrane decides on the next chord taking the sun to different horizons.

Going to Church

19495929_10212155329252261_813786811_o

These last two weeks have been a tiring blur. I started my new job at a cigar bar, and I had to work every day except for Sunday. I had no time to recoup and reboot my brain. The last two Sundays were packed with busy activity as Ronnie and I went out looking for more things for the new apartment, or she had to work on a Sunday which meant, I had only three hours of sleep. Wednesdays, I didn’t work at the cigar bar because of my volunteer work at a fair trade store downtown. The reason for the workload was for training. There may be a time when I have to run a shift myself, and I will need to know how to make food on our tiny grill, or make different cocktails. Our grill is small because we are not that kind of a bar where people can fill up on fried food and beer, but, by list of priorities of our customers, we sell a large variety of quality cigars in various sizes, beer, whisky, gin, and rum. When you walk in twenty feet to your left there is a room, a humidor, that takes up half the space of the bar displaying all our cigars. At the back of the bar is a small selection of scotch, bourbon, rye whiskey, Japanese made whiskey, gin, rum, five levers for locally brewed draft beer, and behind the counter there is an assortment of canned and bottle beers that include domestics. The regulars that come in mostly get cigars, but they will also get a beer, a whiskey, a cocktail, coffee, or tea if they’re staying for a while.

19496136_10212155332692347_482797002_o

This past Saturday we were slow. All our regulars mentioned they would be at a friend’s home grilling and drinking beer to remember another friend of theirs, who was also a regular, who died three weeks ago from alcohol related issues. There were a few people coming in throughout the night to pick up cigars. Aside from those people we had two who were new to our bar come in for a beer and some pizza, and one regular. Around 6:30 two new guys walked in, and the most vocal of the two asked me for help finding a specific cigar. He couldn’t remember the name of the brand, but the style. The cigar was a Churchill, and had a small green wrapper. That sounded like an Arturo Fuente, and I took him to the Arturo’s, but we were out of the Churchills—the only cigars we had close to that length and gauge was a Hemingway. He thanked me for my help, and said he would look around some more. I went out and sat by the register to be ready for a sale.

He and his friend found a few cigars he liked, and he decided on the Hemingway style cigar. He noticed a tray on our counter with three different sized holes and a lever on the side. “What is that?”
“That’s a cutter for cigars.”
“Really?! I could cut one of these cigars, and sit at one of the tables and smoke.”
“You can. That’s what a lot of our regulars do. They come in, find their cigar, have a drink, save their cigar wrapper, smoke, and cash out when they’re ready to leave.” He looked over the room filled with wine red chairs and couches, but stopped at the large round table surrounded by tall rolling chairs—the kind you see in a CEO’s office. That’s the table many of our regulars will go to, and it’s also the table where people will make new friends—at least a friend for the night. Everyone is welcomed at the table. Most of the topics revolve around home life and work, but will occasionally shift to politics. Most of the time their conversations are about fishing and camping and how they have to sweat and work away the day before they can get some time away in nature. People new to the bar will ask if they can sit at one of the empty chairs, and the regulars will pause their conversation and insist the new people to join. That night one regular sat at the table who was there the night before. After I clocked out, I joined him and two of my friends for an after work cigar and scotch. The cigar I had was a Rocky Patel which paired quite well with a Highland single malt.

When the night is slow, my coworker and I will sit near the customers so if they need a drink we are able to immediately fill their glasses—sometimes we’re included in their conversations while other times I scribble away in my notebook. The new customers decided to include us into their conversation when one of them asked about a nearby church, Kingsway Christian Church. “Do you know what kind of church it is? Are they a cult? That’s what I heard.”
“Nah, they’re Evangelical.” Across the table his friend asked, “Oh, Evangelical like Jimmy Swaggart?”
“No. One of my roomates’ mom worked as a secretary for their school. They’re non-denominational and their ‘theology,’” I did air quotes with my hands, “Came out of the American frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. They’re quite conservative.”
“You seem to know a lot about religion.”
“I had to because of my father wouldn’t permit us to blindly accept what came from the pulpit. Informally I’ve spent the last twenty years reading the bible something like fourteen times, that I can remember, reading the church fathers, studying church history, learning Hebrew and Greek so I could be prepared to defend myself in a debate with my father. I went back to school and earned my degree in Literature and Religion where I studied the evolution of Christianity in America from the 1600s til now. I know what I said sounds over the top, but that is the length I went to intellectually defend myself at home.” After I finished, I lit up a small cigar I had just bought, and after I blew out a large puff of smoke, one of the guys looked at me, “So, is there a book that can simplify everything there is about the bible?” I puffed again, and as the smoke drifted towards the ceiling and the whirring ventilator, I answered, “There are couple verses in the bible summarizing everything.” I paraphrased Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the words of Jesus, “Love God and love other people. Kindness is the only thing that matters. That’s why I don’t care what people believe in just so long as their belief doesn’t make them dicks. Being kind to one another is difficult enough without the added expectations of dogma.”

We talked more throughout the night. They were professional truck drivers who had been all over the country, and we exchanged terrifying road stories. After three and half hours and four Scotches, the two men cashed out so they could go home. They bought more cigars and some empty boxes for the road, and we talked more. They really liked this bar, and they loved the atmosphere. The cigar bar is not a bar where people go to listen to live or loud music and overstimulated with flashing lights and a cacophony of different conversations. Comparatively speaking, we’re low key, and, I would argue, high class. There is a reverent ambiance, and people take their seats as if they were at church. Instead of being preached at, the customers can pull up a chair by themselves or sit with others while puffing away at their cigars until they regain their center. There is real community and friendship here, and Saturday night there was a real sense of church as we all talked about our different religious experiences, and how we have applied what we have learned to be good people—or, at the very least to be better than we were they day before. We’re all walking down similar paths, and when those paths cross we can get a glimpse of God in the other when they speak of grace in their own journey. By any other name, that’s church.

.

Love is the Law

black and white world
This is from one of my favorite bands in the 90s who wrote the song, “Love is the Law” I’ve posted below.

A friend read my post yesterday, and asked if I believed God was a Democrat or if God leaned a little left. He believed I communicated something that is anti-Republican or I broadly demonized all Republicans. I revisited the post, and I agreed with his assessment. What I had communicated with my choice of words was something I did not intend. I don’t think God is aligned to any party or easily boxed in to one particular paradigm. I implied that God is on my side and the side of those who agree with me, but the truth of the matter is, God is on the side of God. My desire—all of our desires—should be on God’s side. God’s side, to put it glibly, is that of love, but even that statement is ambiguous because the statement implies a complete knowledge of God. I agree with the Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky in his work, In the Image and Likeness of God when he argued that the best approach is apophatic—we define God by what God is not. We can’t say that God is love, but we can say that God is not hate. We can’t say God is light, but we can say God is not dark. We can’t say God is life, but we can say God is not death. We eliminate what we know God is not to make a leap of faith on what God is; but even then we are still infants gurgling and sputtering in our attempt to form words.

This apophatic approach is what I have used concerning the inhumane policies of the Republican Party many of whom are professing Evangelicals and Catholics. Before the election the party supported their terrible treatment of women, transgender, LGBT, people of color, Muslims, and immigrants with their understanding of the bible; but they focused on the Old Testament. The theological irony, I think, is lost on them as they cite a woman’s place, homosexuality, and their xenophobia from the point of view of Near Eastern Bronze Age people. The example, as Christians, is to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus was/is the messiah sent to bring us all back to God as argued by the author of The Gospel According to Luke in the genealogy—in the third chapter. Going all the way back to Adam, the author went beyond the ethnocentric view of The Gospel According to Matthew. By stating these Christians should follow the example of Jesus does not mean I nullify all of the bible, but I lean on what is said in the Talmud about the Messiah. The contributors did not believe Jesus was the messiah, but they did say that when “Messiah comes he will explain the Torah perfectly.” In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (NRSV).” Also in Matthew 22:37-39 when Jesus was asked which commandment of the law was the greatest he responded, “’You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (NRSV).” The first commandment is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and the second commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18. Writing to the church in Rome, Paul simplified the message of Jesus when wrote, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (13:9-10 NRSV).”

Before I get to caught up in building upon my side of the argument, I want to look at how Christian leaders justify their policies when they legislate their interpretation of the bible—primarily from the Old Testament. I do not think they believe they are deviating from their Christian conscience when they speak out against Planned Parenthood, homosexuality, transgender, Islam, or feminism. I do not think these leaders are willfully evil, but I think they are blinded by the view of their “rightness.” That aside, and for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are right in what they do, and women should be subservient, homosexuals should undergo painful torture to reorient themselves to heterosexuality, and Muslims are dangerous. Their point of view comes mostly from the Old Testament with some New Testament support in the epistles. Based upon a conservative approach to the bible, I understand that these leaders believe they are right. Like me, these leaders can cite scholarship to support their hermeneutic, and, like me, these leaders have studied their side voraciously and can cite chapter and verse supporting their view. These leaders are modern day Pharisees. The word “Pharisee” has negative connotations nowadays, but that displays a cultural and theological ignorance.

The Pharisees came out of the Post-Exile era of the Jewish exile in Babylon between the late fifth century b.c.e. and the early sixth century b.c.e. They knew, as a people, they were in exile punished by God because they forsook “his” commandments. The Pharisees developed a strict devotion to The Torah and The Prophets, and taught the people  so they would not find themselves in exile again. To avoid any accidental pitfalls, the Pharisees created other rules and traditions that reduced God’s commandments to mere behavioral modification, and without the love and mercy of God mentioned throughout the Old Testament. It is of interest that Jesus never condemned these traditions and rules, but the hypocrisy the tradition and rules created. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23 NRSV).” According to their study of the scriptures the Pharisees were right to condemn prostitution, usury, tax collectors, breaking of the Sabbath, etc., but they neglected mercy and love when they didn’t see people as God sees them. The Pharisees watered God down to a coldhearted lawgiver worthy of contempt. That’s the God the Pharisees created, that’s the God Republican leaders have created, and that’s the God I have created.

But there is one crucial element missing in our arguments: Jesus. We Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, “Whoever has seen me as seen the Father (John 14:9 NRSV).”  Throughout the Old Testament, once you get pass the cultural imagery and understanding, God is a god of mercy, compassion, and love. Exodus 34 describes God as patient and full of lovingkindness, Isaiah depicts God with the love of a mother, and Jesus displayed the love of God when he ate with the people the Pharisees condemned. I will not presume to know what I think God wants or what God is for, but I think love is a good place to begin no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum. This takes a degree of mindfulness and self-examination to make sure what you or I do is similar to what Jesus did. I don’t mean take the examples literally, but how would Jesus respond to homosexuals, transgender, people of color, immigrants, Republican leaders who cut billions from cancer treatment for children, conservative Christians who condemn homosexuals, etc.? I think he would eat and drink with them, and speak into their lives and how they can show love to one another, and to the ones who mistreat them. The side of God is the side of love. So let us love and fulfill the law and our responsibility to each other.

Slouching Towards…

slouching towards bethlehem

This week my sense of equilibrium gave way as I read the news of violence from downtown Portland with Left and Right Wing groups clashing together with weapons and angry words. Last week, two men were killed defending a woman in a Hijab from a white supremacist who spoke of his free speech and right to violence–going so far as to say he hoped his victims died. A couple days later, a similar incident occurred on the MAX with another Right Wing individual screaming for his freedom of speech while beating the conductor. People on the train subdued the man and released him to the cops when they arrived. I understand why the Left responded with violence. I understand that the Right believes they are being marginalized while marginalizing people on the Left. People on the Left have legitimate fear because people on the Right do carry out their hatred. I live in that fear on the Southside of Indianapolis where people such as myself can be accosted in Jesus’ name without any consequence. I grew to hate them. I grew to hate Trump. I grew to hate anyone under the name of Christian and/or Republican because that’s who beat me and ostracize me. I roared. I flashed my education. I humiliated them with my scholarship. I felt powerful as I browbeat my oppressors. For the moment, I felt that warm feeling of catharsis sliding down my bones. The feeling was like the bliss of heroin after the asprin drip in the back of the throat had dissipated, but then there was the rush of pain after the come down. Trump was still in control. Straight, white Christians were still in power, and nothing changed. In my mind, I always had Portland. My return to the northwest is in the works. Nothing soon. A few years, maybe. I want to return because I remember the feelings of peace and acceptance. When I read the news all my illusions were exposed as childish fantasies, and I realized I am in the middle of a W.B. Yeats poem.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

When Yeats penned these words he saw the effects of World War I. The old ways of God and country  mixed with technology unleashed a cruelty never before imagined by anyone. Machine guns ripped apart bodies on smokey European fields, and soldiers doubled over in a fetal position as they wretched their last breath from mustard gas. There was no glory, there was no honor, and if God were there “he” already skipped town because we were too much to handle. In those dangerous days people thought, from their literal understanding of biblical prophecy, that Jesus’ return was imminent. That he would descend upon his white horse to slay the wicked with the sword pouring out his mouth. For Yeats that would have been a double tragedy. Twenty centuries of Christianity brought about The Great War, and now the image of the problem is the solution? That is too much to handle.

Where was the redemption promised? Where was that abundant life Jesus spoke about to his disciples? Almost a century after Yeats, and I can point out the effects of those promises as executed by the political leaders who look to Jesus as their example. Children deprived of education, the poor deprived of food stamps so they can eat, Flint, MI and the contaminated water, attacking Muslims, attacking immigrants of color, attacking LGBT, attacking transgender, oppressing women, Rich men creating wars so the poor can die to increase their bank accounts, and so on and so forth. There are Christians who will say these leaders who promote such ideas are not real Christians, but these people read from the same bible. Doctrine is not about following the example of Jesus but a healthy mixture of money and charisma. What is sad is these examples aren’t new today, nor were they new a century ago. Yes, right now the end of the world feels imminent because Donald Trump and his colleagues seem hell bent on destroying the world so they can be comfortable in the few years they have remaining, and I hear Christians calling out “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” The body of Christ here on earth has already done considerable damage. What improvement would the head bring?

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Though, I feel the same trepidation as Yeats, I am weary. Violence and insults come from both sides hurled towards the other, and I have done more than my fair share contributing to the violence in the world. I have not shown love, but fear, loathing, condescension, and smugness towards those on the Right. In the beginning I had a good reason. While they felt threatened by my presence and my questions, I never struck them or slandered them while justifying myself with God’s grace. Had they never hit me–figuratively and literally–I would not have felt the desire to retaliate. My response is not on them. I made the choice to sneer and belittle, but they are not completely innocent in the matter. While the Right introduced suffering to me from their words and actions, I exacerbated my suffering and theirs when I responded likewise. Though the Right is motivated by their understanding of Jesus, I take that understanding of Jesus and spit upon their faith as savage and childish. An eye for an eye until the whole world is blind. Looking to myself as one example, I see a similar patterns occurring between the Right and the Left in Portland and the rest of the country. No one group is better than the other no matter how they spin their rhetoric. Both sides perpetuate the violence, and somebody, regardless of who, needs to stop and say, “The violence ends with me.”
Is there something new imminent, or will the coming of Jesus only make matters worse? If that is the case, he can stay in Heaven because whatever this is, that he started, isn’t working. The magi crawled under the bright conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter proclaiming the arrival of the messiah to the people of God in Jerusalem. All of Jerusalem shook with fear, and their nerves were calmed with the blood of children Herod slaughtered to protect his throne. Today we don’t have Herod, we have Trump who has the support of Evangelical leaders, Catholic leaders, and more than half of their respective churches. The religious establishment that killed toddlers for political stability had Moses and The Prophets, but today the religious establishment destroys the innocent in the name of Jesus. Something isn’t working. Is it Jesus, is it the church, or is it both? If, indeed, the end is upon us, I shudder to think what will be born. For the time being each one of us, on both sides of the cultural spectrum, can, at the very least, stop responding with hate. We’re wearing ourselves out slouching towards whatever end awaits us.

 

 

Going North

unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-season-3-review-spoilers

In the ninth episode of the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Goes to Church,” Kimmy had been burned by the new church she went to with Titus, and vented about the manipulation and control within religion. Kimmy had hoped for something different other than the religious abuse she endured from her days confined to a bunker. She decides to go to the church, and interrupts the service to call out the church for its hypocrisy. I have often dreamed of doing this at any church I’ve been to, but never had the reaction she received. The people took in her words and saw Kimmy as a prophet from the Old Testament calling for the repentance of God’s people. The congregation understood that moment as a time of confession. One man stood up and confessed he was cheating on his wife, the pastor says that from time to time she smoked “the devil’s weed,” and the person doing the scripture reading confessed she was a gossip and a scold but trying every day. The pastor concluded the thought that “when we know better we do better.” Kimmy gets it, and understands that religion had to do with realizing we are all flawed and we come together to learn from each other to become better. I nodded my head in agreement, but Ronnie vocalized what I thought, “Yeah, but that don’t happen in real life.” Wouldn’t it be great, though, if that were the case. My anger with the church doesn’t have to do with the character flaws of the individuals who meet under the stable, but the denial. Instead of taking responsibility for negative actions that harm people in the church or outside the church, the perpetrators claim righteousness because of grace. To make it worse, people in the community and the leadership reinforce that notion of grace and blame the victims. Yes, there is grace, and, according to what is written in the Old Testament by the author of Ezra, we are not punished as our sins deserve, but we do not escape the consequences of our choices. We all fuck up, but, before we know better to do better, we need to own what we do. I’m not angry with Christianity, but at the Christians who refuse to accept the responsibility of their faith or the responsibility of holding other Christians accountable as is set down St. Paul 1 Corinthians 5. I am angry at the injustice that could be so easily rectified.

I have had several conversations with Christians concerning  what I observed, and the response centered around no one being perfect as if I spent my adult life in a naive bubble. I grew up with the bible and the doctrines surrounding that book shoved down my throat to justify anything they did to me. These people, who were often leaders, cited the bible to justify what they said, and how they acted. There were verses I used to counter their justifications, and they responded with the back of their hand across my jaw. I think I can speak for others outside of myself who have been on the business end of Christian righteousness when I say we are tired of the excuses. I took the chance at a church in Romeoville, IL.

Ronnie and I drove from Lincoln, NE for her sister’s wedding. The wedding was being held at the church where Ronnie grew up, Bible Baptist Church in Romeoville, IL. Her parents still go there, and say it’s a good church, but Ronnie’s experience differs. For her, the people, including the pastor, are vile, manipulative, and judgmental. As we drove down there she told me not to let her opinions shape mine. I resolved not to, but I was having a hard enough time keeping my cynicism out of the way because of all the negative things I experienced in various churches. On top of that, we were going into an affluent church where the parking lot is full of the latest SUVs and white people. I walked into the school side of the church wearing my rope sandals, shirt, and chinos to deal with the heat. Ronnie’s sister and her mom were in the fellowship area. All I could see were white linoleum on the floors, white tables, white walls, and white ceiling. The space felt sterile, and the only nonwhite fixture of the room were the brown doors with long rectangular windows. As the people came in, they gave me sneers, but I wasn’t here for them. Ronnie’s mom wanted me to meet everyone, and started with the school’s principal. He looked me up and down while dismissing me until he found out I’m a writer with a B.A. in Literature and Religion. After that, he touched my shoulder laughing and talking to me like we were equals.

When I get annoyed, I slip into one of  my two accents: hood or Scottish Highlands, and the one I use determines my level annoyance. When I’m irate, my words rise up and down with the waves crashing against the boulders of the northwestern Scottish coast where my mom’s side of the family hails. I grew up hearing that while living with my great aunt who would break our ears with her anger. The hood accent, though, is something I picked up living on the Eastside, and comes out when I’m mildly annoyed. I found the principal annoying. I stopped him in mid-sentence, “You talkin’ like we equal. Nah, man, we ain’t equal.” I walked away to find some coffee, and sit with my mother in law and sister in law. I sat down and breathed out the painful conversation I just had, and went on about similar and worse experiences with church leaders. My mother in law and sister in law took turns saying that no one is perfect and I shouldn’t look to imperfect people. “Yeah, yeah. I know people aren’t perfect. I’ve been hearing that from every church I went to where I received the left hand of rejection. Your own bible tells you to hold your own fellow Christians accountable. What you’re telling me does not address the real problem that is in the church. When you, and others, tell me about grace and the imperfection of people, you make yourself culpable—you share in the responsibility.” Ronnie’s sister stopped with her mouth open. She did not expect such an encounter. This is what happens when a naïve Christian comes face to face with the hard truth of responsibility in their professed faith, and realized they live a professed blasphemy.

This is where the anger has to stop. This is where I take responsibility how I feel now, and how I want to feel in the future. I want a happy life. I want to heal, and walk into life with new eyes. What’s standing in my way isn’t the church, or the attitudes of several Christians, but me. I thought about this yesterday as I laid in bed. One of my favorite American writers from the 19th century, Frederick Douglas, who wrote about his life as a slave in his autobiography, captured they hypocrisy of the Christianity of his masters. I would not dare imply any connection with Frederick Douglas, but how he wrote about his masters is how I want to address my Christian experience. Douglas could have stopped his narrative and offered a thing or two about what it means to be a Christian, and explode into well deserved judgment upon his masters. But he didn’t. Douglas wrote his biography describing his life in great detail, and left it to the reader to make their own judgment. What I went through comes nowhere close to what Douglas went through, and he was able to move on into a life of service and love. That’s what I want. Douglas escaped his masters and escaped the South in to a new life as a writer and speaker for the Abolitionist movement. Douglas didn’t stay in hate, but channeled his energy into justice. I’ve no reason to stay in hate, and I’ve no reason to stay where I am. Constantly engaging Christianity keeps me stuck in this self-destructive cycle, and I constantly confront Christianity because, like Ahab, I need to kill that whale, and look how he ended. To save myself, I need to head north and leave that ship behind.

The Beat to Keep

I decided to take a different approach to my writing in this post. Normally when I write, I like to put on some Jazz from the 1940s and 1950s. Cats like, Parker, Monk, Davis, and Coltrane who tore apart this material realm because their bodies were cramped. They needed to breathe. Playing their music helps me to tap into their spirit so I can ride upon their coat tails into the heavenly realm. Like Jean Valjean who saw the abbess kneel at her window for her nightly prayers. He knelt too hoping God would hear him in her shadow. Today’s musical choice came from the Jazzual Suspects song. Some acid jazz with Kerouac doing his spoken word–his voice popping like Charlie bopped.

This is another one that Steve Allen and Jack Kerouac did. Allen played his jazz piano while Kerouac rapped.

Listen to these at your leisure. They’re worth the time spent, but the reason I posted these two links is to give you, the reader, a sense of rhythm to what I have written. It pops and bops with a form of blues and hip hop like the smoke of incense rising to the feet of God. I also applied Kerouac’s approach to writing: first thought best thought–but I did some editing. Enjoy.

 

The beat. The beat to keep. The beat upon my head. Angry blows syncopating an ancient family rhythm in Jesus’ name. Their symbol is the cross, and I carry their salvation in a defunct olfactory system and a bent ring finger. What do you do? What would you do? You’re thirteen. At home you are burned by your father’s PTSD. Sexual abuse and physical abuse he won’t mention for another twenty-three years. On his death bed. Making peace with everyone before he faces God. Next door. The other side of the double where your great grandmother and great aunt lives. Where they degrade your lack of masculinity. They tell you real men have beards. Real men drink their whisky straight. Real men only do single malt from the highlands. They don’t do that to your great uncles. They don’t do that to your brother. They do it to you because you’re a “little light in the loafers.” You’re a fairy. You’re a faggot. You’re a little girl who shamefully stole a penis, and degrading masculinity with your offensive feminine nature. You’re a boy. Act like it. You go to school, and hear all your male classmates talk about that weekend’s football game, basketball game, or baseball game depending on the time of year. You don’t care about sports, but you’re told only a real man likes sports. All you want to do is read your books, and write your poetry to The Clash or Run DMC. You’re 6”4, and your intellect and interests are an insult to the jocks who envy your size, but spit upon you wasting what you’re given. You were never asked for your body type. You don’t control the genetics you’re given, but you’re dismissed as another queer whose presence questions their manhood. Work is no different. You are put aside because you don’t connect. Some of the people look out for you, but you’re a burden. You’re a little girl, and you’re not allowed to mourn for your friend who committed suicide two days before. He hung himself with a friend’s scarf. We’re all stunned, but you can’t cry without being reminded how you’re  supposed to act. You overcompensate and try to flirt with girls to appear straight, but you’re more comfortable with your male friends. You have an ease of intimacy with them, but you don’t know why. Closeness is something that can’t be felt, and you don’t understand what these feelings are until you’re forty-two sitting on a bench with your wife people watching, and you notice a tall man, lean, trim. V-shape torso, clean shaven, and running. You get a tingle, and you risk telling her. She already knew. She’s always known. Yes, you’re bi, you’re in a relationship with a woman, but you’re attracted more to men. She helps and protects. She holds your hand in areas where white Christians believe it’s their duty to beat and kill those who deviate in Old Testament commands, though their faith is based on New Testament expositions. They think they offer a service to God every time they starve a poor person, kill a person of color, kill a Muslim, or kill a homosexual. Constant fear. Constant tension and crying out for Christ’s return. You may not be welcomed, but at least these assholes won’t be here.

The tension is only made worse when Christian leaders condone Christian violence. “It’s the slow work of God. It’s the grace of God. You had it coming. You frustrate him with your questions and lifestyle. You need to move on. You’re no longer welcomed at our church.” Then they lie to your friends and say you left of your own free will. Lies and dismissals are the norm. You know it because it’s not the first time this happened. Nor the second, the third, fourth, or fifth time. You lost track after all your fingers and toes. You remember another distinct time when you were thirteen. The youth leader at the church. She knew your father beat you. She knew the treatment you received from your great grandmother and great aunt. She knows you were a mistake, and that your mom blames you for trapping her in such a desolate life. You’ve had enough of her attitude towards you, and you tell her to get stuffed. In the dimly lit sanctuary, on top of the stage, the light glows around her, and the cross hovers over her, “With a mouth like that you deserve every bruise and broken bone your father gives you.” The cross is empty. There is no Jesus. There is no God. They won’t defend you, but they protect people like her. With their silence they have rejected you and take her side. You have no place of comfort. The lord is not your shepherd, “he” is their shepherd, and the sooner you disappear to another part of the world, or burn in hell, the sooner they can get back to their unquestioned lives where everything is nice, straight, and white. What of it? Who cares? If God hates you and prefers people like her, then so what? Move on. Enjoy your life. Love and kiss who you want. But you can’t. You’ve read the bible cover to cover how many times? You lost count after twenty, but you never forgot about Jesus. The Jesus you read about in the gospels sounds like a guy who would hang out with you. Give you a drink, give you a hug, and wants nothing in return. You understand, through scholarship, how people assumed he was God in the flesh. If that is so, then you have no problems believing this god would like you. He spent time drinking and eating with whores, hustlers, rough men, thieves, murderers, and skeptics. He chastised the religious elite who dismissed them because they spoke for God, but God gave them the finger, and they killed that God. That God came back three days still calling for the weary and disenfranchised whistling through the holes in his hands. It’s the trumpet sound. You have a place, and those people who beat you and your friends with the cross will have to answer for the blasphemy. After the exhale, the heart is shriveled, dried, and cracked, and you pray after Jesus is done chastising your abusers he has time to heal you. You want that rest and abundant life he promised, and hope you too can be included in the promise. You too can be saved. Maybe, but you wait nonetheless.

Sunday Story

17623088_10211295724562681_1499191249_o

 

This past Sunday I attended Lynhurst Baptist Church on the near west side of Indianapolis. I go there off and on because a friend of mine is an associate pastor and a worship leader, but he is not the usual type of pastor I meet, nor is the head pastor—they like to get their hands dirty by being part of the neighborhood. The church’s location is a poor neighborhood, and like any poor neighborhood, families struggle with gangs, violence, alcoholism, drugs, single parent homes, and desperation. My friend and head pastor do not come in preaching the gospel of the affluent, middle class, white SUV Jesus who rewards new believers with six figure incomes and a nice house upon reciting a prayer of acceptance. There are plenty of churches who come from the suburbs and preach that Jesus downtown, and those are the churches who share in the responsibility for gentrification and displacement of the poor. The pastors of Lynhurst Baptist Church live in the neighborhood and face similar struggles as the residents, and have earned the right to speak into the life of their community. For my friend, he came up on the Indy’s east side like I have, and we grew up in similar neighborhoods as his church’s neighborhood. We are all too familiar with gang violence, violence in general, racism, but we never got caught up in that. The gospel my friend and pastor teach is a Jesus who is part of the family, lives next door, and wants to find people who have lost their way; and he does it without toeing the doctrinal line—Lynhurst Baptist Church is Baptist in name only.

The focus is on the stories of the individual people who walk in the door and their context in the ancient story of the cross. The mission of the church is not about conforming people into the image of a Bronze Age Hebrew or a second century Roman Christian, but in the image of a God who meets people at their level. Sure God worked a certain way with the people who contributed to the Bible, but many churches have made the mistake of presuming that is how God works. The same God who said, “Behold!  I am doing a new thing.” did not stop doing new things in people’s lives after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This is what the pastor thinks, and has put aside his preaching on some Sundays so the people in the congregation can share their stories on what their lives were like before they came to Jesus, and what their life is like after choosing to follow Jesus. Because of the language, the content, and the lack of a “positive” spin, these would offend the masses of the hip, polished downtown churches as well as the WASP nests in the suburbs. I find this strangely odd because the people whom God called in the Old Testament as well as the people Jesus called to follow him were not the upper crust of society. Political and religious extremists, murderers, adulterers, brawlers, thieves, ill-tempered, and swore just a little too much for the comfort of religious people. Granted, these people did not remain as they were after God called them, but those are the people God wants. They know they are lost, but they have no clue how to find themselves again; and they know they need help.

I think churches, in general, have done a disservice to God by only catering to the privileged while ignoring and victimizing those whose lives have become a disaster through bad choices or circumstances out of their control.  Not until I talked with the head pastor after the Sunday Service did I understand the role of the church in the middle class. He and I discussed different books and authors and their impact on the culture. I brought up my disgust with books by the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren because what they said resonated with me, and when I went to the churches influenced by these authors, I was still ostracized. I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s books anyway because I’ve noticed a sort of theological plagiarism, but that is for another conversation. When I brought up my contentions with these particular churches, and the treatment I received, the pastor told me those books are written for the middle class because that’s where the money is. This Jesus belongs to them, but the people who would benefit from this Jesus—the ones who need him the most—do not have the money to purchase these books; and once again the poor are dismissed so nice, white people can bring a quasi-mysticism to lives dulled by complacency. From a business standpoint this what you do to make money off of fluffy, evangelical jargon that pushes against theological views taken for granted; but those outside the target demographic are dismissed. Giving space to those who would otherwise be forgotten, and permitting them to tell their stories allows for the change in the dynamic surrounding the gospel. The poor may not be academics or even have a high school diploma, but they know they were lost, who found them, and how their lives have changed.

Sunday’s service did not have the pastor preaching, instead one of the members had the opportunity to get behind the pulpit and tell his story. He grew up in Mars Hill, a poor, white ghetto on Indianapolis’ southwest side, and lived the life of a gangbanger just to survive. He drank, he did drugs, and he was also the muscle when someone owed money. He did not put a delicious spin to entice the congregation, but talked openly of how he hurt people, and how he hurt himself—all the while noting how God kept him from dying or making a deadly mistake. I resonated with the story because I had friends who lived a similar life, and some of them did not make it, but his story stood out to me nonetheless. He did not censor his language, but he did not go out of his way to swear incessantly. He used a couple “damns” and when talking about the time he first met his wife referred to her as “a piece of ass.” He said that only to communicate his mentality at the moment he first saw her. He was comfortable as he said these words, and when I looked around at the congregation, I did not see anyone wince.  The people in the church accepted this person, and, because of their acceptance, he felt comfortable to be authentic. If I could give a title to this sermon, and it was a sermon, I would say “Here’s How Jesus Saved Me.”

The most simple and soul opening stories I have heard have come out of a heart that has been broken by tragedy praying to a God whose existence is uncertain. Theology and apologetics dissipate with the opening: “Here’s how it happened to me”. It’s the story that draws our attention, and connects us with our hopes that our lives can also be found and redeemed. That’s the Bible: a book full of stories from people and how they experienced God in their lives, and how that God was expressed in that culture. That’s also the gospel. The four gospels were written thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection because his followers went out and preached Jesus’ message to whomever. After a few decades the followers of Jesus consisted of urban Jews and Greeks who could not relate to the rural imagery of Jesus’ parables so the authors took the message of Jesus and translated it into language of the growing church. The original message was never lost but evolved and adapted to the different people meeting Jesus for the first time. The gospel was never intended to be limited to a book in a specific time, but ever changing because God is always changing to meet people where they are. The gospels were never written on paper but on the heart of the speaker. The point of the church is to go out and tell people about Jesus and allow them to experience Jesus in their own way, and Lynhurst Baptist Church lives up to that point.