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.

Forgiveness on the Horizon

Blue Like Jazz Book

Last night, I watched “Blue Like Jazz”—a film adaptation of Donald Miller’s book with the same name directed by Steve Taylor. I’ve read Blue Like Jazz quite a few times, and I can say it’s nothing like the book, but in a good way. “Blue Like Jazz” tells the story of Donald Miller’s move from his home in Texas to Reed College in Portland, OR, and the journey of faith he found himself taking. The movie focuses on the Miller’s external journey while the book is the internal process of unpacking an anxiety ridden, inconsistent belief in Jesus. I think the movie well done. The difference between the book and the movie is explained in Donald Miller’s other book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Steve Taylor brought in Miller to consult. When Miller told Taylor there were some events in his movie that didn’t happen, Taylor told him, “I know, but I want to get to the heart of your book and tell your story.” The first time I saw this film, I immediately connected it with my own journey—especially in the Donald Miller character’s confession of spending his first year at Reed College trying to ditch God. He had a traumatic experience at his church, and wanted nothing to do with the people in his church, Christianity in general, and God. I also saw the constant theme of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” album through the character of Miller’s father who says “Life is like jazz—it never resolves.” His father passes on Coltrane to him, and then Miller finds “A Love Supreme” in the vinyl collection of his friend, Penny.

Blue Like Jazz Film

In the first few scenes, Donald Miller realizes the youth pastor at his church is cheating on his wife with Miller’s mom. Miller is enraged, vandalizes the youth pastor’s car before he speeds off to Portland. Miller’s anger is stirred again when his mother calls him to say she’s pregnant with the youth pastor’s baby. When the youth pastor gets on the phone, Miller shouts at the youth pastor calling him an asshole and a hypocrite. The youth pastor’s arrogance is unfazed as he tells Miller that Reed has improved his vocabulary. At this point, Miller hangs up, gather’s his church things, and goes to the church across the street. His phone is ringing on his way to the church. His mother is calling back, but Miller is done. In the middle of the sermon, before the pastor and the congregation, Miller dumps the church objects on the floor and tells everyone he is finished with Christianity. On his way out, Miller throws his ringing phone into the holy water. I probably would have done the same thing, but I would have said a few choice words to the youth pastor for his comment on my vocabulary, “Fuck you! You cheated on your wife and got my mom pregnant, and you’re going to judge me?! Look to the fucking plank in your own goddamned eye, asshole!” There is some anger and hurt still in me, but this particular scene hit home because I dealt with a pastor in a similar manner at Horizon Christian Fellowship.

Horizon Christian Fellowship

Horizon Christian Fellowship is a church that came out of Calvary Chapel started by the late Chuck Smith in Costa Mesa California during the Jesus movement of the 1970s. The church holds to the cult of personality where the word of the pastor, in this case Bill Goodrich, is the word of God, and the other pastors repeat the same litany of submission pointing the people to the head of the church. The church loathes culture and holds to a mixed hermeneutic that takes the bible literally, but with the literalism that came out of the American frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. Calvary Chapel caters to the affluent middle class, and Horizon is no different. The church resembles a compound on the northeast tip of Indianapolis and borders on the wealthy suburb, Geist. That is most of the demographic of the church with some people coming from the North and East side. The church is predominantly white, and what I observed, willfully unread and ignorant. During one service, I sat behind a woman who said to her husband who said she hoped the rapture came before the tribulation because she didn’t want to go through torture and beheading. I rolled my eyes. For her and much of the church, they don’t want a faith that will cost them anything, but a faith that will get them all the cool toys if they say the right words to daddy.

I went to Horizon Christian Fellowship between 1996 and 1998 because I had many friends who went there—friends from my old punk rock crew. I found the church fun at first. I liked that the pastor went verse by verse, and explained how the bible “interprets itself.” But the church had a dark side to it that I saw first-hand and experienced myself. If people didn’t put the right toe on the right doctrinal line they were ostracized, and if they were in any kind of sin they were barred with gossip. For the most part this was true, but if a person were in Bill Goodrich’s good graces they could do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted without any consequences.

Billy Brandle was one such individual. He was an associate pastor at Horizon Christian Fellowship who liked to go to different places with a maxi mouse speaking to passers-by “If you were to die tonight where would you go?” I found him to be condescending, judgmental, and a horse’s ass to people, including myself, who were struggling with their faith or questioning it—he was also an adulterer, and an unapologetic one, I might add. Brandle had been caught cheating on his wife four times. Not only did his wife keep taking him back, but Bill Goodrich never told him to step down from his position as pastor. The adultery part never bothered me per se. Cheating happens because there is an issue in the relationship that has not been dealt with, and it sucks when it happens regardless of the reason. There were clearly issues within his marriage, but what bothered me is that he could cheat on his wife knowing it was wrong, but still have enough temerity to pass judgment on me and others in the church. Brandle lived in a glass house constantly throwing rocks because he believed Goodrich’s word protected him from any blowback.

One Tuesday evening, I attended a weekly service put on by the worship leader, John David Webster. He called it Koinonia from the Greek meaning “communion.” The meeting was in a small room, maybe 750 sq feet, filled with people who wanted to worship John David Webster, er, I mean, Jesus. He had to have a PA system so the whole room would turn into a concert hall, and, as one who dated and eventually married, Bill Goodrich’s daughter, Webster could do whatever he pleased. The worship was highly emotional with voices and hands raised till shoulders were popped out of their sockets, and words were broken by sobs. I’ve never been one to express my emotions, and being in the same room flooded with tears and whimpers makes me uncomfortable—I don’t know how to relate to that. I have always had a capacity for the intellectual, and I found the expression of faith too flimsy and too capricious. I found myself going into Reformed Christianity because the Calvinists employed rational thought and faith simultaneously. At the time I needed something that was concrete, and I thought Reformed Christianity was the way to go.

People talk, and because I lived with a few guys from the church including John David Webster, people whispered about my new found Calvinism. I didn’t help the situation any. Two of my roommates were going in a similar theological direction, and we browbeat our other roommates with our superior intellect and high end words written by dead white guys from England and Germany. The leadership in particular did not like this at all. Reformed Christianity is dialectally opposed to the Christianity expressed by Calvary Chapel, and is met with hostility. During such events the church’s leadership would make a surprise visit, and this particular evening it was Billy Brandle. During the hour long session of repeating a chorus with sways and moans, I stood there with a couple friends talking. Billy decided to interrupt us, and told me, “You’re not worshipping God enough.” I looked at him in the eye as I cocked my head, “Really? You want to judge me? You want to go down that road with me?” Billy’s eyes widened and his mouth was slightly parted. I looked him up and down with a smirk and returned to my conversation as he walked away dumbfounded.

This is why I loathe religious bullies of any stripe, and this is why I often slip on my informal and formal education like brass knuckles to crack the proverbial jaw of bullies. Yes, I agree, to an extent, they have it coming, but there are better, loving ways to offer a rebuke. My behavior and attitude reveals an old bitterness from an old wound festering instead of healing. As I write this, I still feel the pangs of those painful experiences at Horizon Christian Fellowship, and the memories are almost twenty years old. That’s a long time to be holding on to a wound, and the memory may not even be that accurate. These memories are based on my interpretation of events, and over time, different spins and embellishments are added to keep the bitterness nice and juicy. The bitterness has no place and infects my future relationships, and the first step of healing begins with a willingness to forgive, and to move away from that old anger that keeps me and Billy Brandle limited to a specific period of time.

John Coltrane

The  1998 Billy Brandle should have paid more attention keeping his dick in his pants and remembering his vows to his wife—who is still with him—instead of what level of emotion I should be expressing to Jesus in public worship. The 2017 Billy Brandle? I don’t know. I’ve a friend who is still friends with him, and tells me that Billy is a different person who takes his walk with God seriously nowadays. I don’t know about that either, but I do know it’s unfair for me to confine him to my past experience. We never stay the same. We’re either getting better or we’re getting worse, but we are by no means stagnant. This impermanence makes forgiveness simultaneously possible and difficult. Forgiveness frees us from the past, and frees us from living our past versions of ourselves. Forgiveness also frees the people in our lives to grow as we grow, and to have the faith that something larger than ourselves is at work in us constantly reshaping us and healing our wounds. We are all in process, and for me to condemn a man and a church who hurt me and insulted me twenty years ago is to deny the grace of God in their lives as well as my own. There is no resolution, only note changes, and if we follow the improvisations of the spirit the song will rise with Coltrane as we touch the face of God.

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.

For God so liked the world…

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While volunteering at Global Gifts last Thursday, I found myself in a quick conversation concerning the Catholic Church—maybe  two responses a piece before a customer walked through the door. The weather was pleasant. No humidity, the temperature was near seventy degrees, and a gentle breeze caused the plants and leaves to sway near the sidewalk. One block away on New Jersey, I heard the hourly bells from St. Mary’s Catholic Church ringing, and the sound reminds me of Dropkick Murphys’ song, “Famous For Nothing.” At the end of the chorus, they sing “And the bells of St. Mary’s were ringin’.” I mentioned the song to my co-volunteer, and she suggested I visit St. Mary’s because it’s a good church. I became sheepish and said I probably wouldn’t be welcomed there, and that I felt displaced since the election. The big push out the door came from St. Jude’s when the priest told the packed sanctuary how persecuted we Catholics were, and how we should respond with a militant faith—going so far as to say we should impose the Church’s interpretation of morality on our neighbors. I couldn’t get out of the church fast enough. The priest’s attitude was so far removed from Jesus. When I went to mass at St. John’s after the election, Fr. Nagel said we all needed to get along with Trump and his supporters. I felt betrayed by the church where I had been confirmed. I heard nothing of a rebuke towards those Catholics who voted for Trump or how they supported the anti-humane policies of the Republican Party. So I stopped going to mass. I felt Jesus had already left the building, and I went out to find him.

I ruminated on my co-volunteer’s suggestion. After my shift, I sat on a brick median under a few trees outside of Starbucks and Bru Burgers a few doors down from Global Gifts, and read Henri Nouwen’s Can You Drink This Cup? The title came from Jesus’ question to James and John who asked to be seated on his right and left hand. Nouwen equates Jesus’ cup to the cup of human suffering we all drink. Jesus also drank from this cup. I thought about my own suffering and the abuse I received from my family and church, and my clinging to the past. I decided, I would visit St. Mary’s, but I needed to go to confession before I attended mass. I didn’t think God cared one way or another, but I wanted to be honest with myself. The next day, I went to St. John’s.

The experience was painful, but that had nothing to do with the sacrament. Confession, or the rite of reconciliation, is about getting right with God by owning your behavior, thoughts, and words that causes separation between you and God. Confession is also about getting right with the Church because unskillful behavior, thoughts, and words can damage The Church’s reputation. The Church is Jesus’ body on earth, and to hurt that image, in my opinion, is nothing short of blasphemy. Something all Christians need to consider regardless of their denomination. My experience was painful because the priest was an asshole.

I didn’t catch his name because he isn’t a regular, but he was older with a pointed nose and sharp chin that lacked mercy. When I went into the room, the air was stuffy. There was no ventilation, and the red carpet and yellowish off-white walls pressed against my windpipe causing this penitent to gasp his confession in quick breaths. I told the priest I had not been to mass since the election, and I still struggled with anger and hatred with Trump and his supporters.  The priest snapped that I should “just get over it,” and that I should go to mass regularly to avoid these moral pitfalls. It took all I had within me to not dull his sharp chin with a right cross through the mesh screen while responding, “Fuck you! What if The Church is the problem?!” I didn’t. I reminded myself that my being there had nothing to do with this prick, or my feelings towards this situation. I was still in the presence of God receiving grace. If Fr. Nagel had taken my confession he and I would have had a chat while offering me the necessary tools to overcome my hostility. Fr. Nagel is like that with everyone, though, because he is compassionate, and genuinely cares for whoever comes across his path. He is a good priest.

After I made my penance, I drove to St. Mary’s for their daily mass, and yesterday, I attended the mass celebrating The Holy Trinity. The first thing I noticed was the sign outside the church stating in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

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When I walked in, I saw a wide range of age, skin color, and nationality. I also witnessed the genuine care people had for one another as well as visitors. For the homily, Fr. Carlton said that we need to reexamine how we view God. God is not angry or wrathful, but loves his/her people regardless as stated in Exodus 34. The role of Jesus was to demonstrate that God is in the flesh calling us all into the divine dance between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I smiled for the entire mass, and almost giggled and clapped when Fr. Carlton held up the host and chalice saying, “Receive what you are, become what you receive.” After the Eucharist the announcements called for donations to support radical hospitality and acceptance, and standing against policies marginalizing people for any reason. After I genuflected, I saw my co-volunteer in the aisle, “What did you think?”
“This is the first time I’ve been to mass, and left really understanding that God likes me.” We’ve all heard that God loves us, but it’s a wholly different thing to know that God likes us. We all know how that works when we’re around family during the holidays. God liking us is such a powerful movement of the soul opening the heart to give and receive love. That is the point of The Church. Instead of striving to be Republican why not be like Jesus and proclaim the good to everyone that God loves them, and then treat people with such compassion so they know God likes them.

Slouching Towards…

slouching towards bethlehem

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Beat to Keep

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.