Reparation of Church and Hate

I wear around my neck a wooden rosary hand made in Palestine, and I bought it at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Batavia, IL.  In June of 2016 Ronnie and I were there attending her friend’s wedding, and I absolutely adore her friend—I refer to her as my patron saint of happiness. It was a beautiful Catholic wedding, but what impressed me was the inclusiveness of the priest officiating the wedding. He knew there were many non-Catholic and non-Christians in the sanctuary, and took the time to explain parts of the liturgy.

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At the time of the Eucharist, the priest described the meaning behind the hosts, and told the congregation they could come up during the procession, but only Catholics could receive the host. He went on to say all are welcomed before the altar, and those who are unable to receive the Eucharist could receive a blessing. Many people went up and before I received the host—and after—I saw quite a few people take up the priest on his offer to bless them. After the wedding, I went up to the priest and thanked him for being so hospitable during the Mass. I gave him a brief history of my negative religious experiences. He was sympathetic, and before we parted, he told me, “If you find yourself in Batavia again, you are more than welcomed here.” I smiled, shook his hand, and wished him wished him well. Next to one of the doors, I saw the  rosaries. They were seven dollars so I dropped the money into the coffer, took the rosary, and wore it. I consider myself—in many ways—to be Post-Catholic, but this rosary reminds me there are some churches and church leaders who really do care about being Jesus in their community.

This past Sunday, Ben gave one of the best sermons I have ever heard or read from a pastor because he wanted to engage the racism and violence in Charlottesville, VA. We had a conversation earlier that week on the matter as I expressed my disgust with Nazis, White Supremacists, White Nationalists, and the Christians who make excuses for them. I told him people have been outing these racists on the internet, and many have lost their jobs or been kicked out of school. While he understands we are never free from the consequences of our free speech, Ben does not believe in redemptive violence—whether that violence is physical, verbal, written, or from social media—he doesn’t believe in the Just War Theory. I agree with him that responding with violence is not going to solve the issue except providing a momentary catharsis for the oppressed, but something has to be done to counteract the violent actions and rhetoric of these hate groups.

I asked him, “How would Jesus engage the systemic racism, homophobia, violence, and prejudice in our culture? What is the Christian response?” He shook his head, “That is the question I am struggling with because at the moment, I don’t know.” This past Sunday, however, he decided to unpack the question.

Ben pointed out the cause of this violence is sin, but he did not limit himself to such a cliché statement. He pointed out that everyone one of us—human beings—have contributed to or have been complicit to the hate we see in this world. He went further to say that sin begins with fear, fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hatred—he went full on Buddhist and George Lucas in his presentation. Ben then went beyond people and addressed The Church’s responsibility for the tragedies such as Charlottesville. Granted, not every Christian or Clergy condones the violence because there were Christians and Clergy protesting these racists groups, but, generally speaking, The Church in America has been a willing participant in the genocide of Native Americans, Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, oppressing and marginalizing the poor, excluding the LGBTQ community while excusing their actions with scripture. He concluded that The Church needs to quit pointing the finger at the other and start pointing the finger at itself. We as The Church are to blame, and we as The Church are responsible. So how can we as The Church make reparations?

Ben put it simply: Love. Love of God and love of neighbor made in the image of God—the neighbor of color, the homosexual neighbor, the transgender neighbor, the immigrant neighbor, the poor neighbor, and even the racist neighbor. Love sounds easy enough, but in practice is quite difficult.

Ben pointed to the example of Darryl Davis who, as a black man, went to the KKK and befriended them. Because of his friendship and grace many people have left the KKK. His premise is, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Davis’ example put me in my place for hateful feelings I have expressed—or kept to myself—concerning much of Christianity, Trump supporters, and the racists who are emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric. But Davis went to people who hated him for his color and communicated genuine friendship and grace. People don’t stop believing in their hate when they are thrashed about, but will reconsider when they are shown love and understanding. As I’ve written earlier in this post, this violence comes out of fear. Fear makes everyone do hateful things, but are they truly hateful people? I think there are very few people who are legitimately evil, but the rest of us are just scared children who feel their security and existence threatened. This does not excuse the hateful actions and people will have to face the consequences of their brash choices, but they’re not as vile as they are made out to be. Context is the first step to understanding why people do what they do

Daryl Davis.

I took in everything, but the day was not over after service.

The following evening Ronnie and I decided to get pizza at Bazbeaux’s in Broadripple. A large group of White Evangelicals were seated next to us. How did we know they were Evangelicals? They said it repeatedly. They were carrying on about Coney Island hot dogs being better than Chicago hot dogs. Much like their faith, they have no idea what they are talking about because Chicago dogs are where it’s at—anything else comes from the evil one. Then they went on to talk about California and the Northwest coast referring to those places as liberal as if being liberal were a bad thing. I’ve lived there, and while the West coast and Northwest coast has some unfriendly elements, I found the people to be friendly, compassionate, and hospitable—my own native Indiana could learn a thing or twenty in hospitality from Washington, Oregon, and California. But then it became offensive concerning immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ—of which I belong to the latter. The breaking point came when one of the people said for everyone to hear, “If you eat the chicken there [California] you’ll turn gay. ” We asked our server if we could move because they were so vulgar. As we walked away from those hateful asses, I made sure they got a good look at my bag.

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After we moved we told our server what happened, and what type of people they were. I even threw a little shade, “Unfortunately, they may live up to the stereotype and tip poorly.” She shook her head and told us that was fine. She wasn’t a fan already because of how they were treating her and resolved to do bare minimum to get them out as soon as possible.

The point of being a Christian is to become more like Jesus, and those of us who call ourselves Christians live, move, and have our being in him, and go out in his name. When Christians are willfully reprehensible in their behavior and speech they commit blasphemy and use the Lord’s name in vain. Also they add to the work of those us who are trying to be like Jesus by cleaning up their mess—especially with apologetic introductions, “Ok, that’s them, but that’s not me.”

This sentiment I have is why my struggle with hatred was towards that particular group and not with all of Christianity. I learned this sentiment by being around Ben and Eric who are both pastors of the church I attend, and the spiritual community who have accepted me as part of their spiritual family. I watch how both my friends preach the gospel and apply the gospel in their neighborhood. I also watch how real people get in our Sunday School class and how they give me the space to be just as real. They resemble the Jesus in the gospels. I like that Jesus. That’s the Jesus I want to follow and know. Instead of broad brushing all of Christianity, I held my rosary, and I remembered my church and how grateful I am that—while they will slip—they care about being Jesus inside and outside the church.

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Living “What if?”

Bodhidharma

I met with a writer friend this past Friday to discuss my story idea I have based upon my negative experiences with Christianity. There is a church I attend where the pastor wants the congregation to hear what I have to say, and to put it online. I thought it a good idea, but I told the pastor that what I have to say is an indictment against Christianity and The Church. He agreed, but the story needs to be heard anyway because he wants to see The Church start behaving like The Church.

I sat down to write out the story, but looking at distinct points in my religious journey and religious experience and keeping the story brief. That brevity turned into eighteen pages. If I were to include every detail of the events, I could have a short non-fiction piece resembling the structure of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I think this a worthy piece, and I think this piece needs to be read by Christians and others from different faith expressions because negative religious experiences are not limited to Christianity. Unfortunately, where there are people there exists the potential of violence. Religion is not the cause, but it becomes a deadly tool in the wrong hands.

My friend is established in the local writing community enjoying  some well-earned success after twenty years of paying his dues. We were friends before I took seriously my ability to write, and the fact that he wants to help me improve my craft is something for which I am grateful.

We met for coffee on the Northwest side, and I told him my idea. He is privy to my last painful experience because he knows the people involved and he could speak into where I am. He told me about his writing which deals with his own experiences with race as a black man in Indianapolis, IN and in all of the United States. He has two types of stories that he writes. The one type is magical realism like Toni Morrison’s Beloved where he writes about violence from gangs and cops, poverty, and racism and how he navigates through all that social chaos. The other type is in his science fiction where he writes in his hopes for what society could be without the color distinction.

The color distinction he speaks of is found in the language when he refers to himself as a “black man” or a “person of color.” Both these descriptions are based off a white context where anything different is defined by the dominant group. When he writes his science fiction there is no dominant culture defining another culture. The people have distinct features that are not confined to race.  As he finished describing his stories, he leans over at me, eyeball to eyeball, “That’s how you define yourself. You define yourself based upon the abuse and oppression you have received from Christianity and The Church. I want to see something different in your writing. I’m going to ask you a question, but I don’t want you to answer it here. I want you to answer it in your writing. What would Ron look like today had he not be exposed to churches? What would he look like if Christianity had not been forced upon him?”

I’ve been answering that question in my head since Friday, but I’ve also added another question to the mix. What kind of person would Ron be had his parents stayed in Irvington and not moved in with his great grandmother and youngest great aunt?

I know my additional question creates a two part exploration into the nature of my personality and my outlook on my life, but they are worth considering. Had I not been exposed to The Church or been immersed into Christianity, I would still believe in God and would be a wandering mystic. Why is that? I had an intense mystical experience when I was four I still carry with me to this day.

I was in the backyard playing near the little swing set my father had put together. It was a late fall day with the brown leaves shaking and clapping with the emptying trees, and I was spinning and dancing with my arms out like wings catching the wind. Against the brick of the house, I “saw” God, and I sang with a beat set to laughter, “I love God. I love God.” God had stepped in and played with a little boy while his parents were inside relaxing in the living room.

I would have wandered the continental United States living out of my rucksack and whatever vehicle I had while praying and living simply. I think I would have eventually believed in Jesus because I like the Jesus I read in the Gospels. Jesus as God in the flesh came down the same way God came down to me as a small boy, and played with others as God played with me. It’s a fanciful idea, but it’s an idea rooted in love instead of fear because a certain point on the checklist had been forgotten. Wherever I would go I would speak of that love in my actions and smiles. There is no anxiety with people, and I can be free with my kind acts and kind words.

As I thought about all these possible things, I started to live my present life accordingly. I began to relax and there was no anger. I did not realize how much anger and resentment had spilled into other areas of my psyche, and how much hatred and judgment came out of me towards other people. I certainly do not blame Christianity or The Church for that struggle. I had years of abuse heaped upon me, and my body has stored those hateful memories. By releasing my attachment to that old life, and embracing a life that could be and can be, I could feel those destructive memories wash away from my body.

I’m going to explore these ways further. This piece is a bit of an introduction to start my journey into actual healing and a different direction in my writing. I think I am a decent person overall who enjoys people and wants the best for everyone. Because of the abuses I’ve experienced, I put on a protective angry shell with the appearance of thickness. My compassion is filtered through my desire for justice and vengeance. When I see a religious bully come at me or people near me, I slip on my intellectual brass knuckles  with each point emphasizing a different piece of scholarship. Remove the defenses, and what do I have? A person who cares about others and wants to work towards a better world for everyone. That’s the Ron, I’m going to explore and become with each new decision.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Clean

I began my day at 6:09 this morning. Ronnie has to work the occasional Sunday, and I got out of bed to shower and shave, and prepare our breakfast and her lunch. The plan was to drop her off at work,  get gas, go to Mo’Joes write over my sandwiches and coffee, and go to church. The rain sprinkled off and on as I exited I-70 on the West St. exit, and drove past Lucas Oil Stadium towards Mo’Joe’s.  The gray, drizzly weather is perfect for dark roast coffee, sketching out a prospective piece, and read Ellis Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. The work is good thus far, but I’ve a high opinion on writers like Amburn, Joyce Johnson, and Ann Charters who write about Jack Kerouac based on their scholarly research and their relationship with him. I spent nearly ninety minutes writing out a first draft on my desire to heal and take life case by case, and went right into Amburn’s book. All the while, I’m listening to my writing playlist of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. That’s my normal music for writing, but sometimes I will throw in the occasional Thelonious Monk.

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At 9:50, I packed up my books and notebook, and went outside to a pouring rain battering the buildings and the pavement at an angle. In the fifty feet it took to get to  my van, I was soaked. I heard the pounding on the roof of the van, the thud on the windshield, the dull rub of the wipers as they moved in time to remove the water. Visibility was nonexistent,  the sounds of the rain and car, and the smell of my coffee inspired me to play Thelonious Monk’s “Monk the Transformer” Album. The piano playing is slow and deliberate, but the percussion of the falling water caused Monk’s music to throb with a forceful urgency calculated and executed patiently. As I drove south on West St dodging the many tour buses stopping at the hotels to drop off patrons who are here on business or the race, I saw myself as Moses, bearded and weary, passing through divided waters.  When I entered I-70 West going toward Lynhust, the rain subsided leaving behind a drenched urban sprawl.

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As I entered the church, I had already been set off by one of the greeters who called me, “Big Guy.” I hate that. I’ve had that since high school, and the nickname was based off Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One of the main characters is Lenny who is a large man, and quite stupid. Because of that book, I was taunted with the name of “Lenny” and bullied all the more when I dared to rise above the intellectual limits my classmates set for me. As I entered my twenties, people would respond angrily to me when I told them I preferred to read and write poetry instead of playing football as if I owed people athletic prowess because I’m 6”8 and quite well read. Everything rises up in me, the person in front of me is transformed into those adolescent images. “I’m educated! I’ve a degree in religion and literature! I’m an intellectual! Do you see me?! I’m not my fucking size, you ass!” I give him a quick no, and withhold eye contact as he offers me a bulletin for the service.

I go up the stairs, I walk into the sanctuary, and see bells set up for the bell choir, but I don’t see the member of the bell choir. The last time they played in the service they sat in front of me, and were quite rude to me. When Ben called for the greeting they stuck out their hand, “Aren’t you going to shake my hand?”
“No. You were rude to me, why should I deign myself to take your hand?” One gave me an angry glare and a curled lip, but said nothing. I continue, “What? You’re not laughing? You mean my countering you doesn’t cause you to laugh? You thought your rudeness towards me was funny!” They weren’t in the place I usually sit, and I thought they were in another part of the sanctuary. As I began my writing before the service, I thought I left my headlights on so I put down my notebook, and went outside to check. The headlights were off and I returned to the building. As I went in one of the ladies in the bell choir stopped right in front of me and I waited for her to move so I could sit. She stares at my bag, and proceeds to sit on my bag. As I move my bag, she offers no apology when I speak of her lack of consideration towards my space. Within a few minutes, I am lost in my thought as I scribble out another piece on the Indy 500, and another bell choir member plops next to me grazing my leg. I stop, take a breath, and return. She kept shifting, and pushing me until, I belted, “For the love of God would you sit still, I am trying to write!” Nothing. No apologies. Other choir members proceed to flank me, and I am at my wit’s end. I am not above causing a scene and shaming folk, who are old enough to know better, with a lecture on manners. I’ve been working on how I express my agitation peacefully, but I am not at that place where I can be calm, so, in the middle of service, before God and all the congregation, I get up with my bag in tow, and move to the pew behind me. I found out later, the children’s ministry leader was pissed at the bell choir’s behavior towards me. I stretch out my legs, and continue to write.

I don’t write to escape anything, but to make sense of the thoughts that race through my head, and when I find a rhythm, I blow until everything is out and I set aside the writing for future editing. After the editing, I put out the piece for the benefit of others. If I am interrupted any time before the final exhale, I become curt with short hostile syllables so I can be left to myself. Because I was already agitated from the “big guy” comment and the behavior of the bell choir, I was in no mood to take shake hands with the man who shoved his his open hand toward my face, “So glad you keep coming back.” At a quick glance, I see it’s the guy who made the comment to me outside the church doors. “I’m writing.” then I return to my thought. As I jot the final word on the paper, the sermon begins, but it is not the usual sermon.

Ben teaches the word of God is not limited to the bible, nor do we confine our experiences to how the people in the bible experience God, but God is writing new stories in individual lives. The new stories differ from the bible because of culture, but there is a consistency in God’s character. Because of this, Ben lets people from the congregation get up and tell the congregation how God is moving in their life. I’ve heard some good stories during my time at Lynhurst, and I see God relating to these different people in different ways. These people speak honest stories that are not the pretty, beige ceiling advertisement of suburban spirituality, but stories out of brokenness and desperation involving drugs, alcohol, weapons, and promiscuity. They aren’t juicy tidbits, though, told with feigned regret. The people at Lynhurst who tell their stories wish to God they didn’t go through their experiences, but are grateful for God delivering them and saving their lives. Their theology is “I was lost, but now I’m found,” and, “Come and see.” That’s a spirituality worth considering because it’s not out to sell a particular brand of God.

That’s the story Stephanie told this morning. She grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, and went through a painful hell. She had body image issues, and developed an eating disorder that she wrestled with, and when that pain became too much she self-medicated further with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and unhealthy relationships. The self-medication deepened when a good friend of hers committed suicide. She is drained and spent like Bilbo’s butter thinning over too much bread. She has to take several pauses throughout her telling to collect herself because the pain is still close to her heart. She is sobbing. She apologizes for the long pauses. I hear from the pews, “It’s ok. Take your time.” She is free to let her vulnerability show, and I feel the love of this congregation towards her. She is safe even as she is reliving her sorrow. When she ended, Stephanie told the church she wanted to sing a song for them to summarize her story, but hesitated, “I don’t want to break the song with my voice.” In my head, I’m shouting, “Oh, girl, no! Those are the best songs to sing! That’s how Ellen Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Patsy Cline sang. They sang their sorrows, and reached down to the depths pulling out their pain buried under the rubble of their broken hearts! You sing that song with all the ferocity of your sorrow!” That’s the blues. Naming what has spent you to lift up as a prayer to the universe, to God, or whatever name you want to apply. Releasing the pain brings freedom, and, after she sang, Stephanie walked away clean. Not only was she clean, but her story and song redeemed the agitation I felt from the bell choir’s rudeness and the unintended insult outside the church doors. The world receives salvation when you sing your grief.

 

 

 

Consolation of Shifting Perspectives

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Sunday morning was slow and muddled as my mother in law showered and dressed, Ronnie putting on her clothes and eating her toast, and me looking for my misplaced wallet and keys. Church started at 10:30, and I liked to leave early so I can say hi to Eric and Ben before everything starts. The drive itself takes twenty minutes so leaving at 10:00 is no big deal, but I don’t like being late to anything. Yes, there was a ten minute cushion, but I might as well be ten minutes late. Welcome to my mess of clowns and candy wrappers cluttering my brain. The sky was bright with little clouds, and crisp air grazed across my chin like a razor calming me as we got into the van and drove to church. We got there in enough time, and I spent a few minutes talking to Eric and Veronica while Ronnie and Mom talked to each other. The sermon that Ben gave came out of Philemon, and he centered his hermeneutic on social justice and how to follow Jesus in the face of oppression. He hints at the Anti-Christian rhetoric and behavior of the Republican party and many Christians who join in with their inhumane practices, but never says anything blatant. The church is a poor church, but there are many across the political, social, and religious spectrum. Making blatant political statements would divide and alienate, and Ben wants people to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to talk about their differences to realize their shared spiritual goals.

Ben doesn’t really preach anything new, per se, but he does not offer the usual diatribe I have often heard from the pulpit which is complete compliance to the Republican Party. I would often hear how revolutionary the message of Jesus was, but the pastor would make following Jesus and being a “good” American citizen synonymous. Jesus’ message turned the religious, national, and economic systems on their head. He said nothing about going with the flow of the state or organized religion. Ben’s message transcends party affiliation, and looks to the example of Jesus in the gospels. His message, though, put him in danger when an ultraconservative Trump disciple physically assaulted him in his office. Both Ben and Eric believe the best way to preach Jesus to everyone isn’t through words but radical hospitality. Everyone from different faiths, social backgrounds, skin colors, and philosophies are welcome by them. The point of this hospitality isn’t to sell their version of Jesus or get people to convert to their brand of Christianity, but to be an icon of God’s love to everyone. “Everywhere you go preach the gospel, and if necessary use words” as is attributed to St. Francis. This guy did not abide by that, but gave into fear and hatred. Eric and Ben stood their ground, and through Veronica’s calm demeanor the man left. Ben still preaches that Jesus from the pulpit, and while it’s something I agree with because of my own studies, I’ve never heard that Jesus from the pulpit.

What moved me to the point of agitation was Eric’s final hymn, the hymn that is sung before Ben gives the congregation a blessing and everyone leaves. The song was a prayer calling for Jesus to return quickly. Eric prefaced this song with three kids from our alma mater, Warren Central, who were shot the night before on West 38th St over shoes, and one died. Nothing has changed in that area. When I graduated in 1992, I knew of people in the school who were shooting or being shot over the original Air Jordans, coats with a sports team a particular gang called their own, or cocking their ball cap certain way that affiliated with a gang. Same story, different day. Indianapolis is a violent city, and many of us are weary of it, and Eric poured out his weariness in the hymn. It was a desperate psalm calling for God to come down, otherwise we’re going to kill ourselves, and there will be nothing that can be saved. I feel the same, but things are still getting worse. After Ben gave the blessing, and everyone went downstairs to eat, I went up to Eric.

What I like about going to this church is Ben and Eric make room for me to engage them with real questions and real language, and don’t flinch when my questions cut to the bone and drain the marrow. They understand my contentiousness with Christianity are a mixture of academic and personal issues, and the barriers I face because of my personal issues. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, but Christian-ish to borrow from Anne Lamott. I’m not really anything, but when I sit down to the table, I’m with Buddha and Jesus. I like both teachers, and the teachings of the Buddha aided me with my academic career to make sense of the Christianity that had been forced down my throat, and the Jesus that motivated such abuses. Something can strike me during the week, or like Sunday, a word or a song will get under my skin, and I need to discuss it in that moment. Both Eric and Ben accommodate my urgency, and I’m grateful for it because, as an elder’s kid, I understand the scattered brained busyness inherent in church leadership.

I was exasperated with Eric saying, “Lord Jesus, come quickly.” People have been speaking of Jesus’ return since the time of the apostles, and those same apostles had to tweak some of their teaching because Jesus was not returning as quickly as they assumed. Instead of returning and restoring, Jesus is absent and many of his followers are set to destroy the rest of us and the world for a quick buck. “I’m not like the people mentioned in 2 Peter ridiculing the followers of Jesus by dismissing the return saying the world has been going, and will continue to keep going. If his return is literal then where the fuck is he? It seems to me that all he did at his first coming was to give us a different flavor of opiate.” To Eric’s credit he knows when I’m antagonistic and picking a theological or philosophical quarrel, and when I’m speaking out of disillusionment. Eric offered his insight on the matter. He believes in a literal second coming of Jesus, but he also believes that the church is the body of Christ on earth—a preface to the actual return. In his own life, he becomes a second coming in his neighborhood, the people he meets when he’s out running errands, when he has dinner with his wife, or when he’s talking to friends such as myself. He’s presenting Jesus until Jesus presents himself.

I took in his words, and I came to the conclusion that I have approached the idea of Jesus returning from an immature perspective. I was looking for a deity to come in and solve the problems I created–like the pampered pet mentioned by Boethius in his “Consolation of Philosophy” instead of an adult owning the consequences of their choices and how those consequences affect the world around them. I’m not taking responsibility for being the second coming in my own home, in my own community, or when I’m behind the wheel raging at other drivers. How can I be the shadow of restoration that is to come? How can God establish salvation when I hinder the process with my arrogance, condescension, and broad brushing? I’m speaking for myself, but there are other people who also thwart the process. The reason this world continues to get worse is because of you and because of me, and it gets better when you and I take the little moments given to us to love. I am reminded of something G.K. Chesterton wrote in response to a question in a newspaper. The writer asked, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton wrote his response, “Dear, Sir. I am.” When we love, God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven, and God’s justice flows like a river. The author of Psalm 8 says human beings are a little lower than God, and our divinity shines when we own our world and become the answers to our prayers.