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…

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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.

 

 

Portland Cares

A few days ago, I was saddened to hear about the three stabbing victims on a Portland MAX(train), two of which died. Jeremy Joseph Christian, who is a white supremacist, attacked a woman in a hijab while three stood up to defend her. He told CNN he hoped his victims died and that Portland needs to wake up to free speech. My mind went all over the place, but kept hitting one point. The only time I have seen white supremacy flourish has been in areas where there are only white people. I saw it in Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, and Nebraska where such speech is not met with immediate consequences. Portland seems to be under that sway being 98% white, but there are many people who live there who will resist the hate and defend the victims. That’s a fair sight better than the places where I lived an walked: Indianapolis’ East Side, East St. Louis, and South Side Chicago. If anyone walked into those area shouting racist epitaphs and attacking people of color, those racist would quickly find themselves on the business end of a twelve gauge or a nine.

Warren Central

Two years after I graduated high school my brother was a Junior, and came across a Nazi skinhead–the only Nazi skinhead in Warren Central–who dressed the part with his shin high red doc martens with the white laces, tightly cuffed blue Levi’s, and a white shirt. In between classes this guy would stand in the hallway shouting “sieg heil!” My brother told him to knock it off or he might end up in the hospital. In the early to mid-90s when my brother and I went to Warren, white people were the minority–not by too much, though only 60/40. Racism existed, but racist comments, for the most part, were kept close to the chest. To utter such things would cause the same kind of riot that happened in my Junior year. The guy wouldn’t listen, and kept yelling out his Nazi sentiments.

During that time there was construction taking place on the tunnel connecting the school to Walker Career Center. Walker Career Center is something akin to a trade school where people can learn skills such as printing, typing, welding, electrical work, and mechanical work to prepare them for a job after graduation. Getting to class on time from the Career Center to the school, or vice versa was next to impossible–many people ran. Depending on the weather kids will walk through the tunnel or walk outside. There were many pieces and tools around the jobsite such as two by fours and lead pipes, and one afternoon, in between class, the Nazi was beaten to a pulp with fists, pieces of wood, and pipes. I never advocate violence of any kind, but when things like that happen, the attacking party has a legitimate grievance. Obviously, such a response does not curtail racism, but a racist will think twice before he or she will assert their stance. Three men stood up for the young lady in the hijab, and two gave their life so that a woman could live in safety. Today, people rallied together in downtown Portland to march against hate. This is the better response.

This is the Portland where I lived and loved.

Portland-Oregon

When Ronnie and I lived in Portland we were on the southeast side off Powell & SE Cesar Estrada Chavez. It’s a beautiful side of town a mile north of Reed College, and a ten minute bus ride from downtown. We didn’t have our little van at that point, and Ronnie and I got around Portland using the MAX and buses. Living in Portland, we didn’t need a car anyway—and neither did most of the residents. The people who did drive usually came from Vancouver, WA, fifteen minutes north, or from surrounding suburbs. Everyone else made use of bikes, electric bikes, longboards, or the mass transit system. Almost everyone had a rucksack of different shapes and sizes to store their computers, wallets, phones, food, water, and whatever else would be problematic to carry by hand. I did it when I lived in downtown Indy when I would ride my bike to the Ivy Tech campus or take the bus if the weather turned nasty. Rucksacks are as essential as Ford Prefect’s towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—always have your rucksack. Walking around Portland, I felt like I was living in Kerouac’s “rucksack revolution” as stated in The Dharma Bums. In the morning, Ronnie and I would pack our laptops, folders, books, water, and food, and take the bus to Southeast Grind to drink coffee while looking for jobs and apartments.

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There is a parking lot behind Southeast Grind, but it can only hold a few cars so most people take the bus or ride their bikes. Walking in to the coffee shop there is a waist high barrier on the right, and on the left is a cork message board at eye level—both sides are covered with local music events, art shows, rallies, etc. Walking up to the cash register to place our order there is a bar where people sat hunched over the computers writing and reading while talking to the barista. Behind them there are metal tables and chairs, couches, and cushy chairs, and outlets are numerous for phone chargers and computer plugs. Most of the people there are from the neighborhood, students from University of Portland and Reed, and they are typing away at their computers like a trumpet player clicking his keys while blowing to get the right chord. Many people sit there for hours and well into the night because Southeast Grind is a twenty-four coffee shop. Brilliant!

Southeast Grind 2

A coffee shop opened all day and all night, and filled with artists and students does cultivate a warm energy, but that is not why we liked going there. Portland is extremely affluent, and the economic disparity is blatant. Portland has one of the highest homeless rates in the country with something close to 2,000 people sleeping on the streets. When Ronnie and I would go downtown to the farmer’s market we saw people sleeping on the benches in dirty clothes as people walked by. We saw the same thing at a Buddhist festival in a park near the Willamette River. Driving around downtown at four in the morning, we also two homeless guys beating each other for a corner. Because of gentrification rent is extremely high—over $1,000 for a studio apartment no bigger than a bedroom, and employment opportunities are slim to none. It’s not fun to be poor and struggling in Portland, but what I noticed is no one struggles alone.

As Ronnie and I sat on our computers in Southeast Grind, I noticed a homeless guy walk in with a guy in a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. They sat at the bar, and the guy in sandals ordered them both a coffee drink and the homeless guy a sandwich. I caught the conversation, and was surprised to learn that Sandalman didn’t know the homeless guy. Sandalman saw the homeless guy on the street and offered to buy him some coffee and a sandwich because the homeless guy was a fellow human being. Sandalman’s attitude is a common thing in Portland. That is one of many acts of kindness I have seen throughout Portland, and when Ronnie and went to regular services at Shambhala Center the people there were fully accepting of us—I even met some guys who were friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There is genuine compassion and a genuine desire to help others because what I saw from Portland is we are all in this together. Portland is called the “Rose City” because of its environmental beauty, but the beauty of the people are what constantly blooms regardless of the season and weather.

Mom

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At 5”3 ½, she is tiny with thick, long black hair sprinkled with some gray. She wears glasses, her voice squeaks like a mouse, and a laugh that bubbles like The White River on a quiet day. Don’t let her small, innocent demeanor fool you. She has strong convictions, and she will never budge from them, but only for the sake of loving people. This is my mother in law, but I call her Mom. She also possesses a natural sass that is deliberate and endearing. I do the laundry, dishes, cooking, and general cleaning—most of the time. I have been on my own for quite a few years before I met Ronnie, and I like cleaning by myself. I also get a little testy when she comes into the kitchen while I’m cooking. Yesterday, as we were gathering laundry, Mom asked Ronnie why she didn’t do laundry, “Don’t you live here?” I couldn’t help but laugh.

Mom is a Christian whose sole ethic is based on loving God and loving other people, and that love overrides any doctrinal opinions. I have only recently called her mom in the two years Ronnie and I have been married, but that had to do with my own wrecked relationship with my mother. The relationship didn’t end because of anything I did, I think, but since my return to Indianapolis, my mother has told me that I was a mistake, and I am the reason that she had a miserable life married to an unstable man. I finally realized why our relationship had always been volatile, and I am finally at a place in my life where I need to make some vital changes. That side of the family is mean, bitter, hostile, and narrow minded. My brother and I are nothing like them, but I can see if I continue holding on to my old wounds instead of healing, I will become them. I don’t want that life. I want to have joy, peace, and love instead of treating people as excuses to be nasty. That’s why I love my mother in law, it’s why I like her, and it’s why I call her mom. She’s all about love even in the face of opposition, and I want those people in my life.

To some degree my mother in law had to work on being loving because she had bit of a temper when Ronnie and her sister were young girls. Parenthood can make anyone crazy—even the nice ones. My father in law saw his wife raise her hand at Ronnie and her sister, and said he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his kids alone with her. That was a wake-up call to her, and she started making changes. At her heart she is kind and patient, and her love for her children is second only to God. She’s not abusive in any way shape or form, and nowhere close to the level of anger and physical punishment I received from my father and the rest of my family. I’m not a parent, and the closest I have to an opinion on being a parent is watching my friends with their kids. I knew them and traveled around the country with them before the serious consideration of kids, and I saw how they adapted to life with kids. The evolution is an interesting one as they went from diaper changing, to first days at school, to prom, college, and now talks of marriage. I’ve a good friend who will be a grandfather this September. I do the typical old guy thing and remark how I remember when these “kids” came up to my knee, or how I could fit their entire body into my hand.

I don’t regret not having kids, and one of the reasons I don’t want them came from what I experienced from my father and mother, and what I learned the year before my father died. I knew my father was abused maliciously by his father, and in one of those incidents, my father’s lower back was broken by his father’s steel toed boot. Why? What did he do? My father was fourteen and he worked on a farm with his father. At four in the morning my father had a hard time getting out of bed because he would get home from school, resume farm work, and go until as late as nine in the evening. Adults have a difficult enough time doing that let alone fourteen year old boys. His father lost his temper, and started kicking until the snap of bones echoed throughout the room. Did his father care? Absolutely not. Nobody in church or the community did anything either. People have remarked that in that time and place nobody intruded on another’s family. I understand that, but even practical sentiments have limits. Nobody can abide a battered child. The community and the church were scared of my dad’s father. He was a bull of a man born in 1911, stood at 6”4, thick arms, barrel chest, square jaw, and tossed 150 lb. bales of hay with one arm like you and I toss a wad of paper. He also had a vicious temper he knowingly hid at church to play the part of good man and good Christian. Everyone saw through it of course, but no one could take him, and no one wanted to end up in the hospital. My father suffered that alone. When his father died, he realized he was free to be his own man.

We didn’t go to church until I was nine. My mother was and still is cynical and dismissive of organized religion, and my father wanted nothing to do with God because of the life he had been dealt. For the most part my father was a peaceable man towards us kids, and he had a laugh that would crack like a whip especially when we spent time with my godparents. They would tell stories in their gravelly tones, blow out punchlines with their smoke, and wash them down with beer. Those were fun times, and the only time I saw my father come close to physical violence was defending me and my aunt. My aunt’s second husband physically battered her, and when my mom saw the marks she didn’t ask questions, “You’re moving in with us.” Nevermind that my mother and aunt were daughters of a cop, nevermind that my mother knew how to use a knife, and nevermind that all my family towered over this man with wide chests and broad shoulders. Apparently, he never paid attention to our family dynamic. His name was Joe, but I called him Tosser, and he earned that name. When I was eight he tried to muscle his way through the front door while I was in the living room playing with my trucks and watching cartoons. My father, with one hand around Tosser’s neck, picked him up, and threw him into the bushes. No roars and no bellowing, but a calm tone, “She doesn’t want to talk to you. Now get off my property.” We never saw him again, and when he saw my dad twenty years later, Tosser was still scared.

Things changed after we started going to church. The change wasn’t gradual but an instantaneous snap, and my father crushed us with his iron fist. My father put upon us bruises and broken bones in the name of God and St. Paul, or so I thought at the time. As I got older, and wandered around the states meeting different people, I understood my father as a flawed human being—a good person, but a flawed person nonetheless. I knew of my father’s physical abuse, and how church triggered my father’s anger because he was beaten down in God’s name. My experience was only a shadow of what my father endured. Where he walked through life with a permanently damaged back, I walk through life with a permanently bent ring finger on my right hand when I blocked a blow to my head. As my father sat on Death’s doorstep, he became confessional. He told my mom that he had been sexually abused by his uncle, his father knew about the abuse, and didn’t care. My mom was dumbfounded, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was less of a man.” My brother and I were in our thirties, and in the other room. Our mother looks at us, “Delman, I’ve got a pretty good idea you’re a man.” After hearing this, all those years, I finally realized my father was a walking time bomb from his PTSD. To his credit, though, the only substances my father abused were coffee (six pots a day), and cigarettes (five packs of Kool Filter Kings until I was thirteen when he became an elder).  Considering the life my father had, he was better than he should have been. What brought out the anger of my father was having kids and church. Outside of my father, I observed similar things with my friends who had kids. They aren’t mean or abusive, but their kids bring their psychological baggage to the surface, and press that baggage against their eyeballs.

Mom didn’t grow up like I did, or like my dad. She was a PK (preacher’s kid), but she was a good one—the first good one I ever met, and I’m an elder’s kid who ran in those leadership circles. Her life was the American life as advertised in “Leave it to Beaver” and other shows from the 1950s, but far from the norm in real life. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister who, through the course of Mom’s childhood, pastored churches in Iowa, South Dakota, Michigan, and retiring in Minnesota; and his home was legitimately peaceful. People talked, people prayed, and people got along with each other without yelling or explosive expressions of anger. Mom’s parents had the traditional gender roles, but the impression I had from the telling is those roles were never imposed upon by either of her parents. She came from an environment where love was the rule, but like anyone who has kids, that saint like love can evaporate at a moment’s notice. That doesn’t make her lovingkindness a pretense to buy off God or please daddy when he’s looking, but it does mean that she tries to love when she does slip into anger. When my father in law confronted Mom about her temper, she knew exactly what she needed to do to regain that lost peace. She had a good foundation. I’m jealous of that, but I don’t wallow in the envy. I’ve a mom who shows me what love and peace looks like. At present, I do not know what work I need for my unlearning and reeducation, but I know I want what she has, and I’m lucky I get to call her mom—luckier still, she likes being my mom.