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

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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.

Leaping with Kierkegaard

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Today’s post will be a short one. I met up with my brother last night to discuss the relevance of faith and belief over coffee. It was a good discussion, and his contention is similar to my own: the old answers are no longer good enough. He’s an adult with adult issues, and the childish answers insult his intelligence. Not that he dismisses faith outright, but he’s trying to figure out if the God we were raised with, the supposed God of the bible, is indeed the one true God. I told him the bible is a collection of stories on how a particular culture experienced God, and while people can use those stories as a starting point, they commit an error when those ancient, personal experiences are treated as something current–God must work like this. The same thing is found in the Gospels. The authors believed that Jesus was the messiah, and had come from God, but as the telling increased by the end of the first century, the author of John’s gospel realized that Jesus could have been God in the flesh; and made a strong, mystical argument to support that claim. By the time these writers sat down to pen Jesus’ message to their respective communities they had to translate Jesus into something their audience could understand. Jesus came from a remote part of Judea and made use of rural imagery to tell people about God and the Kingdom of Heaven. The gospels’ audience, however were urban Jews and Greeks, and would not know how to relate to Jesus’ rural imagery. It would be like Jesus coming out of the hills of Kentucky, and explaining his good news to somebody living on 30th & Wells on Chicago’s South Side using rural, Kentucky imagery.

My brother’s current annoyance, though is coming from Norman Geisler, a Christian apologist with a Evangelical bent.  I don’t care too much for Evangelical Christianity generally speaking because I find the thinking quite lazy. That is not my opinion of individual Evangelical Christians–people vary, and I’ve met some Evangelical Christians who care enough about their faith to do some real struggle with the things they don’t understand. My opinion comes out of my study of Evangelical Christianity in America and how the movement evolved from its inception on the American Frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. Out of that form of Christianity came a suspicion of scholarship, highly emotional, and completely anti-intellectual. To be fair, these Evangelical leaders felt that Christianity had become too sterile and lost in the ivory tower. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, and these Evangelicals thought the erudite leaders depleted the fullness Jesus offered. A valid argument, but this group exchanged one extreme for another, and watered down a rich faith–they became just as imbalanced as their intellectual counterparts. Unfortunately, this imbalance did not produce the deep faith Evangelical Christianity desired, but something akin to an adult shaking a rattle at an infant while doing baby talk. My brother wanted to know if God is real, and Norman Geisler said God is real because the bible is real–the very text he is questioning. Shake. Shake. Ga Ga. Goo Goo.

My brother is asking the questions I ask, you ask, or anyone asks who is looking for real answers on faith, and how that faith is expressed in individual lives. He is in a real existential crisis because he fears where his questioning will take him. If this God is nothing more than a mere fairy tale then this familiar story needs to be dropped. Easier said than done. For him, he has tied his identity to this particular expression of faith–it’s his “normal”. He equated this struggle with me coming out as bisexual because I had to be honest with who I am and come to peace with that even though that honesty put me in unknown territory as I navigated through a faith that speaks love to me with words but hate me in their actions. That honesty is a come to Jesus moment. Coming to Jesus without the doctrines, without the preconceived notions, and experiences of other people. In the 14th century, Meister Eckhart prayed, “God, I pray that I am quit of God that I may see God.” He wanted to experience God without the distractions of opinions. The author of the Gospel of John told his audience to “come and see.” A person’s experience is not a good substitute for your own, God is revealed according to an individuals personality, experiences, and paradigm. If what is seen is not liked, or it doesn’t feel true, then it’s ok to move on to something else that does feel true. My understanding from the books I have studied and the papers I have written with regard to what I have gleaned from many readings of the bible, I think God prefers honesty in a person’s path. I don’t think my brother will lose his identity, but find his real identity, and a God that is his and not our father’s.

I bought him a copy of a book that has been beneficial to me when I took Philosophy of Religion at Ivy Tech and Blackburn College. God, edited by Timothy Robinson, and is a collection of excerpts from Agnostics, Atheists, and Christians concerning the existence of God supported by their arguments instead of the bible. My brother’s initial question is philosophical in nature, and these writings could point him in the “right” direction–meaning he may find a perspective that will give him some new insight on matters of God and faith. There is no correct answer, per se, but what feels true. That’s what William James referred to when he wrote about the various kinds of religious experience. He argued that no one comes to any kind of belief based on rational arguments, but believes in something because it feels true. After the person has decided then they make the rational arguments to support their choice. My brother may come out on the other side of his path with a relationship to God that is his own, but he could also come out as an Agnostic or an Atheist. The point is that the faith imposed upon us as children was never our faith but an act of compliance to survive a volatile home life. The wilderness my brother is venturing into is horrifying because it is unknown, but, speaking as one who is currently wandering in the wilderness, the terrain is honest. Regardless of the outcome, my brother will have something that belongs to him.

Christian Atheism or Christian Maturity?

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Holy Week is upon us, and I have taken it upon myself to re-read Peter Rollins’ The Divine Magician. The book is a correction of Thomas Alitzer’s argument in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, but not for the argument’s lack of strength. Altizer takes a romantic view of humanity as divinized by the death of God through Jesus on the cross. Though, Rollins espouses Altizer’s radical theology, he takes the application to the everyday life. In talks, Rollins has said he denies the resurrection when he doesn’t love his neighbor as himself or withholds compassion from others. Likewise, he affirms the resurrection when he embraces the other while lifting them to their feet. How Rollins communicates his ideas in his book is nothing new—Christians over the centuries have done it as they moved throughout Europe and in the east: he translates the gospel of Jesus into the language of the culture. In the twenty-first century west the language of sacrifices and a moody God do not communicate the love of God for the world—in fact, it is quite the opposite. If we here in the west took the bible literally without any knowledge of the world that produced the bible, we would find God, at the very least a monster. God is a parent who had a child by mistake, but is more annoyed when the child misbehaves. Rather than take out all “his” hate on the mistake, “he” finds an innocent to take the blame. The innocent has to be willing so God can point to the sacrifice while yelling at the child, “If it weren’t for him, it would be you gutted and pinned to the tree.” Why would anyone want to believe in a God like that? The Eastern Orthodox Church shares that sentiment, and concluded that God, in Jesus, showed how far “he” was willing to love the world while the world beat “him” and killed “him.” The love of God is not tarnished by the language of violent culture, nor is that love contradicted.

I agree with Rollins’ assertion that people make things, ideas, and people an extension of their deepest desires or darkest fantasies like the totems of Freud or Jung’s archetypes. Jesus becomes God in the flesh sacrificed for the world because everyone of us desires redemption in our own lives regardless if we believe in a deity or not. Jesus becomes another symbol of humanity’s yearning for atonement. The empty tomb is comparable to the empty Holy of Holies after Jesus’ death, and the vacant room the Roman General, Tacitus observed as he pulled away the veil after he entered Jerusalem. There is nothing there. The space is void because such ideas as “God” or “Jesus” are neutral. Take away our ideas and our desires there exists no-thing. The question of God becomes a question to us, and wants to know what we’re seeking. Did God die on the cross as Altizer states, and the resurrection became a symbol of a divinized humanity carrying on the message of reconciliation in each other? Was God merely a symbol, like a rattle to an infant, to draw us out of ourselves, and when we finally matured we realized there was no rattle—like Neo in “The Matrix” when he understood there was no spoon? God is just a word and redemption is the cry of a child doubled over in guilt and self-loathing.

Rollins’ change in the Christian narrative has been long overdue because for too long the church—denominations aside—has responded to the world with milk, rattles, and spoons when necessity demands meat and an honest dialogue; however, a mature practice was hinted in the gospel of John, and argued blatantly by St. Paul. The author of John’s gospel wrote to a community about the tangibility of God and the Kingdom of Heaven being inside them using the fleshy metaphors of Jesus embodying the word of God. The author goes one step further in the sixth chapter when Jesus says to the people they must eat of his flesh and drink of his blood to be a part of him and the work of God. Even at the time of its writing (the end of the first century), there were people in the community who took such ideas as literal, and found the teaching reprehensible. The teaching the author wishes to pass on is the work of God is not found in the temples or scrolls, or the Rabbinic interpretations found in the Talmud, but in the heart of each person. St. Paul argues in a similar manner in the first two chapters of Romans as he says that the Gentiles who did not have God’s law in their culture had God’s law inscribed in their heart. Forty years before Jesus, one of the greatest Rabbis, Hillel (the teacher of Gamaliel who taught St. Paul) was approached by a Greek man who desired to convert to Judaism. The man wanted Hillel to treat the law as a philosophical exercise and asked him to recite all 613 commandments while standing on one foot. Hillel didn’t need to. He replied to the man, “That which is harmful to you do not do to your neighbor—the rest is just commentary. Now go study.” No one needed the Torah to understand that loving your neighbor as yourself, or treating others as you want to be treated is good way to get along in life. The man understood something valid in the teachings of Judaism, but assumed he had to adopt a Jewish narrative to live the life of God.

As it was in the time of Hillel, so it is today. Many churches I have attended still rely on the mixed narratives of Roman culture and Jewish religion from the first and second century of the common era—most notably in ethics and understanding redemption through Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice. For the ancient Romans and Jews there were no contradictions in a benevolent deity who required sacrifices, nor were these two groups the only cultures to live in a sacrificial system littered with totems and divine hierarchies. The gods demanded sacrifice to communicate with humanity or redeem it when a heinous act had been committed.  A deity who would otherwise unleash his/her wrath unless people appeased it with a live sacrifice of some sort was accepted. Nowadays, we can look upon that as a psychological pacification for the pain of guilt over mistakes of the past—the infantile need for a blanket to cover up the shame for existing and keep warm in a universe cold and uncaring to the plight of living. The authors of the gospels, along with St. Paul, made use of this sacrificial language to communicate God, in the form of Jesus, loving the world and redeeming it as one of us so we did not have to endure “his” wrath. This narrative was good for the audience of the time, but even that narrative had to be changed from the original to meet their needs.

The gospels were not historic accounts as we understand history, but a story of what Jesus said and did, and why the authors believed he was the messiah and, later, as God in the flesh. The first thirty years after Jesus’ death and possible resurrection, his followers went everywhere in Judea and throughout the empire to spread Jesus’ message. Jesus lived in the backwoods of Judea, and spoke of the love of God with the imagery rural people could understand and apply to their own lives. By the early to mid 60s many of the listeners were either urban Jews or Greeks who had no connection whatsoever with the religious and cultural life of a rural countryside. Raymond Brown, a noted Catholic scholar in the 1990s, argued the writers retained the core tenants of Jesus’ gospel but changed the language so the new listeners could understand this good news. The same thing happened as the gospel spread and the followers of Jesus became Roman venturing into the most distant regions of the empire with the gospel. Roman imagery of Jesus, let alone the Jewish imagery, were lost on the tribes outside Roman borders. These ancient missionaries took the practices and language of the pagan tribes, and talked about the love of God in terms these tribes could understand. To accuse the ancient church of stealing or copying pagan rituals reveals a misunderstanding of the methods of these Christians. They saw God communicating to the pagans in their language, and saw Jesus as a fulfillment of what the pagans desired—Grace perfecting nature. By adapting Jesus to the pagan imagery, these tribes could have a clear understanding of what they were accepting or rejecting.

I think a change in the gospel’s narrative is beyond necessary for today. Theologians like Paul Tillich and philosophers like the Niebuhr brothers called for a change in how we relate to God in a post-nuclear context. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world changed because humanity could now destroy itself with a wild hair and a button. Men like Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Bishop Fulton Sheen wanted to go back to a world before the atomic bomb, a world they thought could be recreated with shallow doctrines and positive thinking—and that was a mere band-aid to treat a gunshot wound—a golden age fallacy. Evangelicals and Catholics in the 1950s reverted to the old narratives that satisfied a post-enlightenment America set in the rural frontier; but America became more urban, and had to deal with the world full of problems the old narratives could not answer. That is still the issue today as many Evangelicals and Catholics still rely on first and second century views of Jesus, and are put in the position of political leadership. How can the gospel be rescued from the likes of Paul Ryan and the Trump Administration hell bent on inciting another world war so their literal approach to biblical prophecy can be realized as Russia is mobilizing against the United States? The narrative needs to be changed to accommodate the issues we, as a species, now face. The infantile approach, thus far, has not worked and only oppresses people to an early death—literal and figurative. God, if God indeed exists, is not bound to a book or a culture’s interpretation of a book. The authors of Isaiah spoke of God never changing and always doing a new thing. This God, Christians claim to be theirs, did not stop doing a new thing when the New Testament canon was closed in the fourth century. How does this God speak to us today? How do Jesus’ words translate into our issues? How does the cross speak to the twenty-first century west? The old interpretations cause more harm than good, and Rollins’ approach to the gospel’s message is a good example so we Christians can take Jesus away from the kid’s table to have a conversation with grown ups.