“Take the Damn Knee”: Of Arhats and Bodhisattvas

Read this: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34

Now this: “Take the Damn Knee” by Arnold Adoff

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I want to tell you a story. But one that comes from outside my tradition. One that I have added on to, but a parable that began as a way to distinguish a difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist perspectives on how to approach life. For us to consider Joseph and his brothers, I feel like we have to begin with a different journey through the desert.

Picture four figures making their way across a barren wasteland. I like to imagine it like Thunderclap, but that’s just me. The Sahara works as well. Picture them with sand-cut skin; lips cracked and bleeding from dehydration; the last twenty miles have been covered without a break because stopping means certain death. Then, on the horizon, appears a vast wall. A wall that even Donald Trump would admit is a better wall than he could build. Even their exhausted minds can comprehend that a wall means that there’s something to protect.

Something is being kept in so others will stay out. 

The first of their number quickens the pace and arrives at the wall first. Energized by possibilities, they make their way up. Looking over, the solitary figure lets out a geshreeyeh and disappears from view. Two of the remaining three look at one and another and break into a run. Scaling the wall quickly, they let out their own 

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and jumped over. The final sojourner makes their way to the wall, slowly scales the face to the top, and looks over. There are lush, thick grasses for sleeping; trees bent with the weight of fruits; a cool pool of water fed by a bubbling creek; a hot spring on the other end with steam rising, all shaded by the canopy of lush trees. Smiling, the traveler removes the cloak, wads it up, and positions it under their head as they lie atop the wall. 

The other three, their tattered rags already shed so that they could dive into the pool before liberating the trees of a few of their fruits, pause long enough to notice their comrade. One calls up, “Friend! Are you not going to come in? It is paradise at last!”

The fourth turns to face them, smiles, and says: “No, friends. I am going to stay up here to see if anyone else comes along. If they do, I can shout encouragement to them and assure them that paradise awaits.” Turning away, the lone scout look out into the distance, scanning the horizon for sojourners making their way across the wasteland.

The three who enter the oasis are Arhats. They are enlightened beings who, in this world, assist others. But when they encounter nirvana, they jump. The idea is that there are some things one can do only on one’s own. The fourth who stays on the wall is a Bodhisattva. Upon encountering nirvana, they willfully reincarnate so as to help others. They delay their own encounter with parinibbana, “final nirvana,” to be of service to others.*

I used to think that one was clearly superior to the other. For me, it is all about the Bodhisattva approach; I’m not claiming to be enlightened–certainly not in the Buddhist sense of the word–but I do have a life philosophy that is largely based upon a desire to serve others. But I have learned, sometimes through great pain, that there are some things we just cannot do for someone else. Or ask others to do for us. It’s like the Woody Guthrie song: “You’ve got walk that lonesome valley; you’ve gotta walk it by yourself; there ain’t nobody go there for you; you’ve got to walk it for yourself.”  In truth, we really need to be both. Arhats and Bodhisattvas.

That’s the name of my Beastie Boys tribute band.

The parable, for how awesome it is, still does not account for everything that we must consider. Even if we unpack the metaphors, make allegorical the analogies, and plumb the subtext, we still don’t deal with a fundamental reality. The sun and wind and sand that rip upon our bodies might represents out expectations, childhood, and the force of culture, and the lack of water might signify the absence of worldly truth, but nothing in the parable lends itself to the greatest source of all pain.

People.

Jean-Paul Sartre writes in No Exit that hell is other people. Perhaps, but there are people and then there’s family. Don’t get me wrong, I love my quirky little family. I have lucked out with the whole genetic lottery thing, at least in terms of quality relationships and people. But let’s be honest. No one can hurt us quite like family, right? My dearly departed brother Stephen, of blessed memory, could cut me to the quick faster than anyone else on the planet. And I could do the same thing to him.

Brothers throw each other into the cistern. It’s what we as humans do, especially when we’re young. Especially when we think that whole of life is made from being self-serving. Of having a twisted vision of what it means to be an Arhat. That we’re just in this for ourselves. So we act like Joseph’s brothers. We let our jealousy and misunderstanding and coveting fuel our behavior.

Before we bash the brothers, let’s be honest: Joseph is a bit of a snot. I mean, it is one thing to have a dream about ruling over your older siblings; most of us who are younger have had such fantasies. It is totally another thing to tell your brothers, “Y’all gonna be worshiping me like a king!” I know from experience, older brothers do not take kindly to such talk. Granted, planning to kill Joseph is a little over the top; luckily Reuben and Judah calm down a bit, but I think we all can agree that deciding to sell your brother into slavery should never really be a viable option. I mean, just as a family dynamic to have at play, I don’t think you’ll have really strong, trusting relationships result.

Let’s agree that there were mistakes made on all sides.

Honestly, though, I don’t have any interest in explicating the rest of the story. Because I don’t think as a society we have earned it. Not now. Not where we’re at with race relations, gun violence, policing issues, and notions of what it means to be patriotic. We don’t get to jump over the hard parts and get to the forgiveness. We’re not there because  there are far too many Josephs still in the cistern. That’s where I want to stop and throw down some roots. We’ve gotta live here before we can even think about a beloved reunion.

The cistern is filled with far too many Josephs. Black and Brown and Queer and Native and poor Josephs. We throw our brothers, our sisters, our siblings into the cistern because we’re afraid that someone might throw us in there is we don’t act fast. And maybe our cisterns aren’t the same. But we’re there. Once in the cistern, though, we listen to what is yelled from above: “It’s the fault of those in there with you that you are there in the first place,” they convince us. So we fight amongst ourselves.

Have gun will travel is the call of a man. 

There are too many American Arhats in the cistern. Too many who mistake money for wisdom, and societal success for an authentic life. Too many people clinging to their guns and their religion instead of to love and to community.

Too many who think that if they can just get out of the cistern that they will be happy.

We need more Bodhisattvas. More people willing to sacrifice in order to help others.

It’s like Arnold says in his poem. Take the damn knee. You know, in football, taking a knee resets the play clock, but the game clock keeps running. Across the NFL today massive numbers of players will be taking knees during the playing of the national anthem. The symbolism is potent. Palpable. As a nation, we need to take a knee. We need to say that we’re not going to keep playing the same game. We are not going to keep doing what we have been doing, not while there are people in the cistern. Not while there are people being shot and killed by the police; not while there is inadequate training and support for our police officers; not while firms like Halliburton continue to make millions, and 22 veterans a day commit suicide; not while thousands of First Nation persons try to protest their water and land; not while trans* persons continue to be targeted and victimized; not while there is the largest prisoner strike in American history not being covered by the media; not while Muslims are being attacked in the streets simply because of their faith tradition.

Take the damn knee.

*Please use the links provided to do your own research; I am greatly simplifying incredibly complex issues, and certainly do not want to misrepresent Buddhist beliefs and concepts by not pointing out the very loose definitions I am setting forth  to make a larger point. I know that I took great, great liberties with the use of these terms, but I do so with this understanding: we may not all be Buddhists, but we all are potential Buddhas. The concepts of the Arhats and Bodhisattvas, better than anything in my own tradition, helped me to connect images and stories. Again, sincere apologies to anyone who might be offended or feel I am appropriating. Feel free to comment or send me an email: revsaari@gmail.com      

Adam Sandler Tolerant

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I grew up listening to Adam Sandler comedy tapes. “The Severe Beating of a High School Spanish Teacher”was a favorite among my male friends and I. We were boys. Boys who played D&D, acted in plays, sang show tunes, and covered Nirvana songs. Adam Sandler’s moronic humor with a wink and a tinge of edgy social commentary was right up our alley.

It was not until later in life, later in my raising of consciousness that I realized Adam Sandler’s movies are a perfect example of white supremacy culture. To be sure, I am not calling Adam Sandler a white supremacist. Despite the fact that he has made some horrible, horrible movies of late, he has made some outstanding ones too. And I’m not just talking about the classics: Happy, Billy, Water, and Wedding. I’m talking Big Daddy, Fifty First DatesSpanglish and Punch Drunk Love. He can keep making crap, and I’ll always love him for making me feel good literally hundreds of times.

But the fact is, Adam Sandler represents one of the problems with Gen X men and their attitudes toward race, gender, sexuality, and rape culture. One can engage in it, as long as one vehemently decries it in others. Think of Big Daddy: Sonny’s best friends from law school are gay, but the homophobic jokes don’t stop. Same with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Chuck and Larry make all kinds of gay jokes–and the supporting gay characters are all played as one-dimensional, effeminate queens–but they beat up people who use slurs towards them (the cis, straight, white guys using GLBT legal progress to benefit themselves, perfect symbols for whom the system was built). Almost every film has some sort of ethnic stereotype, but often with poor whites used almost as a way to point and say, “See!? See?! We make fun of our own, too.” As though that will make up for the horribly racist characters played by Rob Schneider. Almost each movie has some resolution with the underdogs being victorious because the white guys exposed the hypocrisy, but not enough to face their own.

Sandler also has a way of casting incredibly beautiful women–Jessica Biel, Joey Lauren Adams–as accomplished women, but manages to either reduce them to essentially sex objects, or to once again use the existence of a strong woman to justify misogyny and sexist jokes.

Again, not casting stones at Adam. But I am saying that it is a perfect example of many attitudes I encounter. White men who are so casual and insistent with their own racism and various phobias, but who don a “lighten up, I was just kidding” attitude whenever anyone calls them out. Often, these guys (and women too, I guess, but I’m kinda writing toward the white dudes here) are good, intelligent, well-meaning guys. They really don’t think they are racist, and they really don’t want anyone to be hurt. Yet, they feel that they have done enough of the internal work to be sufficiently enlightened, that everyone else needs to accept that, and they should be the final arbiters of what is racist, sexist, homophobic.

You get my point.

It really is the epitome of the White, male privilege many of my contemporaries just don’t get. They genuinely believe that if everyone just lightened up, treated each other well, and had a sense of humor, everything would be fine. They don’t understand that generations of oppression is literally written into DNA. They can’t see, won’t see, that it is not up to them (us) to decide what is racist and what is not. It is not up to us to decide what methods of protest are acceptable and which are not. It is not up to us to finally draw the line and say enough is enough. Sadly, though, it will take us doing just that for things to change.

Fellas, we don’t get to be Adam Sandler. There’s no cool, hip, well-meaning, unhurtful racism. There’s no way to jokingly treat women like less, but still be feminists. There are not acceptable Muslim jokes. We cannot be so casual about things that are literally deadly serious. And, Adam. You gotta do better, man. Seriously. It just isn’t funny.

We can’t tell people to lighten up. We’re gotta be as heavy as the times.

White Words, White Inaction

It is not my pain to own, this pain that arises from racism. Mine is a secondary experience. Even tertiary. Mine a bullet that grazes the skin before plunging into a darker-skinned body. My exhaustion and ache and anger don’t matter. This is not sarcasm. This is the truth. It is not mine and I don’t write to claim that it is. I just need that to be clear.

Tyre King. Terence Crutcher. Keith Lamont Scott. I fear the list will grow before I hit publish on this post.

White men on the talking picture box keep talking about how angry they are at athletes who take a knee during the national anthem, a racist screed, to protest police violence. They shriek and condemn–which they do no matter how people protest racism–and take to Twitter to show their patriotism, which (shock) looks a helluva lot like plain, good ole fashion racism to me. (Seriously, click on this link and look at how Google tried to reroute my search from “racist act aimed at protesting players” to “racist act aimed at protecting players”). They get so upset about a cultural custom that has only been around since 2009, but there are crickets when innocent black bodies are in the streets and a cop who has shot an innocent man is consoled. It happens more than you might think.

Something has changed for me. I’m still committed to nonviolence, but I’m also committed to confrontation. I’m committed to confronting these evils, of refusing the notion that there are two sides to this story, at least two equal sides. One side is demanding that police officers stop killing citizens, especially POC. The other said is saying, “Well, it’s more complicated than that and…” Nope. It isn’t. Not really. I mean, I get that there are a lot of moving pieces and there is not a magic bullet (yeah, I went there) that will take care of everything. But it is as simple as making this issue a top national priority, and not for Congress. Fuck them. Fuck them and their corrupted bullshit. It is time for the people who experience this treatment to be given prominent seats at the table, are able to make and implement real, substantive changes on the local and national level, and that the traditional power brokers be locked out of the process. Fuck the NRA. Fuck the FOP, and their endorsement of Trump.   And if you think this is an unpastoral thing to say, lemme ask you: have you read the New Testament? Jesus’ whole message is essentially, “Fuck Rome.”

So, yeah. Fuck Rome. And fuck White words and White inaction. Read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and then you’ll see why I am using the language I am using and why I am trying hard not to give in to rage.

This. Must. Fucking. Stop. img_0138

I Stopped, I Didn’t Quit

In seminary we are taught that with a church assignment comes distinct expectations: prophetic, priestly, pastoral. professorial. Prophetic: we must speak on what we believe God is doing in the congregation and the direction ministry should go. Priestly: to perform the rites and rituals of life (marriage, confirmation), administer the sacraments, bury the dead. Pastoral: providing care, prayer, confidentiality. Professorial: teaching the Word, history, theology, or any other relevant subjects. We’re taught, but not really prepared. Not that such is the failure of a seminary; rather, it is the purview of experience.

Here’s where things get sticky. I’m writing about my work, and everyone knows where I work, and I have to be careful not to write anything that reflects poorly on the congregation or in any way violates confidentiality or the Book of Order. I speak for myself. I am writing about myself as a pastor of a church that exists in space and time and a very simple Google search will reveal very clearly where I work.

But I remain a human person who has thoughts and ideas, goals and aspirations. My job is one in which I literally cannot clock out. I cannot put on my “at home” personality. My faith is my life, my life is my faith. I think about God and justice and love and Jesus pretty much nonstop.

I have been gobsmacked by some of the things that are said to me in the course of my job; being a pastor for 18 hours a week does not give anyone control over how I spend my other hours, as long as I am not living an unchristian life. And you can call me many things, but unchristian is not one of them. Love me or hate me, I’m a pretty transparent person. Some people claim too transparent, but it’s my hot spirituality I’ll do what I want.

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I know that I can be a bit much. I’m big. I’m loud. I get really excited quickly. I hug a lot. I’ll just call you up and tell you I love you because I believe God put it on my heart. I get how for some people it can seem like I’m really self-involved or that I want to be the center of attention. I get that because at different times those were truths. If I’m not careful, they’ll be truths again. Believe me, whatever bad thing you might have thought about me, I have thought much, much worse about myself. And I’m trying to stop that kind of living.

Six months ago, I stopped drinking.

I don’t know if I will write about this again, as this is one area where I am kind of guarded because, to be honest, there are some people who really don’t like me. I think there are some who would be happy if I weren’t where I am. That’s fine. I can’t control them. But I can be careful about what I let out there. Believe it or not, I don’t write about everything that comes into my head. Well, I do write about most stuff but I write more than I post, which is hard to believe I know because, seriously, I post a lot.

I don’t say I got sober. I don’t say that I quit drinking (sometimes I slip and say it, but I try to correct myself). I stopped. I finally accepted God’s free gift of grace. I look now at why and how I got to the point where stopping was necessary and I realize I never want to go back. I can’t go back. Some of this–most of this?–is a result of being on good meds, therapy, prayer, and living a live filled with purpose. And it is only six months. If I let it happen, alcohol could be a problem again. I’m not calling myself an alcoholic, I’m calling myself someone living with bipolar who has mental and emotional pain; that is a heavy cross to bear. I have fallen down before. I fell. I will fall again.

What I do for a living is what I do in order to be able to live. I don’t mean that in just a financial sense. I mean it literally. If I don’t follow Christ, if I don’t do everything I can for justice, community, love, and compassion, I will not know how to live. I don’t know who I am outside of Christ, and God has made it clear to me that I am to be a servant. Here. In this place where I grew up and continue to grow.

I have fears that the prophetic nature of the call is already resulting in strife. I pray each and every day to make sure that I am not trying to promote myself, that I am not attempting to use God as an excuse to advance my own agenda. But I think I have done the work to such an extent that God’s agenda is my agenda: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.” Justice is providing a place where all who want to come are welcomed. Righteousness is adhering to continued calls for justice, even when others call you divisive. Confrontational. Controversial.

Getting drunk on God is just as dangerous, if not more so, than being blasted on alcohol. I mean, there’s a reason they’re called spirits. Hey-oh!

I’ve stopped drinking. I’m living more. I don’t assume that I’m always going to feel this strong, this called, this blessed, this in touch with God. And that’s part of the reason why I write as I do, friends. I imagine that many of you have similar stories. You’re just not as stupid or needy as I am to write everything and hit publish. Heh.

I do it for you. For me. To check in. To inspire. To be certain that if people dislike me, at least let them dislike me for being myself. If I’m going to run people away, at least I can do it as authentically or genuinely as I can.

The prophetic part of my call means that I’m not going to stop talking about racism. I will not be deliberately hurtful, but I also will not pretend that certain positions are legitimate. Because many of the arguments used to sidetrack real discussions on race have been refuted and answered so many times, I no longer have patience for people who willfully refuse to see but continue to call me names.

If I stop talking about race, I might as well quit being a pastor. I might as well hang up the collar and do something else. Because the gospel requires of me a total and complete dedication to doing what I can when I can for as long as I can with whomever I can.

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All Beginnings are Hard: Genesis, Potok, and Why Choices are Good

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“All beginnings are hard.”

The opening line to the novel In the Beginning by Chaim Potok, perhaps my favorite author. Like several of Potok’s novels, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy coming of age in Brooklyn during  the first half of the twentieth century. David Lurie must discover for himself who and what God is amidst growing questions regarding the nature of suffering, a poignant query during the era of the Depression. As the plot unfolds, young David finds himself diverging from his orthodox father, Max. All beginnings are hard, David realizes, for all beginnings are also endings.

The study of religion often begins with examining creation stories. The Sumerian Eridu. The Babylonian Enuma Elish. Egyptian myths of creation out of nothing. And myths of creator parents too numerous to name. Studying religion involves studying where we began. But in almost every myth, birth requires death. Chaos must give way to order. Water is pushed away by land, yet cuts mountains to pebbles. Birth can be traced to the sexual act, but death? That’s elusive. Enigmatic. It comes in so many ways, sometimes fast other times excruciatingly slow. It baffles us. Discombobulates our sense of stasis. In fact, scientists have studied whether a fear of death has an impact on one’s religiosity.

Our sacred scriptures have two creation accounts. One that does not support misogyny, one that does. So the crafters of the Narrative Lectionary have rightly cut out the rib malarkey from the preaching text. It is time to stop the notion that somehow women are created for the benefit of men; we can continue to debate why the account is part of scripture and we can certainly wrestle with the text as scholars, but as preachers? As teachers? As presenters of the Word to congregations? It is time to end that message. It is time to bury those things that are not life-affirming and encouraging of each and every person of each and every gender identification to know that they are created in the image of God. So today, we focus on something other than a foolish notion that Eve brought down Adam. It’s a myth, folks. We’re allowed to critique it. We’re allowed to withhold our consent, to refuse to let misogyny touch our souls. To influence our girls. Our boys. All our gendered children.

The image in Genesis 2 is that of a breathing earth. There’s a flatline and then a pulse. Water is absorbed in soil like air in lungs, so deeply that dust has been created,, and then expelled until streams begin running over the surface of the earth. There is a steady pulse of creation now not a flat line. But notice that it is not from the wetness that God creates the human person. Human is of the dust. Both water and dryness play a role. Both are necessary ingredients for creation to spring forth. But it is God’s breath–the ruach— that ultimately bestows life. In the Jewish understanding, the ruach is akin to the neshema, our soul. It is an eternal reminder that present within us are particles from the moment of celestial inception. As Carl Sagan used to say, we have stardust in us. With the birth of life comes the cessation of unlife. No longer is there a world in which life does not exist. That fact is written into our very existences. 

How we explain death says much about how we regard life. In the creation stories of Genesis–in fact, in the whole of Genesis 1-11–we encounter human beings who are not content with their limits. Think about it. The expulsion from the garden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Cain killing Abel out of jealousy? God flooding the earth because humans are so awful to one another? It’s us being too big for our britches. Discontented. The Tower of Babel is about us trying to reach heaven to make gods out of ourselves, and one need only look at a current presidential candidate and the number of yuge buildings he’s plastered with his moniker to see that God’s Word remains relevant. 

Genesis 1-11 is about us not really understanding what this life is all about, and about the great mystery of death that we hope to unlock before we find out from the other side.

Or just fall into blackness.

All beginnings are hard. They often require a death of some sort. An ending. A turning of the page. The adding of another chapter. But we humans all write in the same book. We face fundamental questions about who we are, what we do, how we love, where we live. There are many things we can’t control. If we are lucky, there are a few key things we can.

We get to make decisions.

So Eve eats of the apple. We can applaud her fortitude, perhaps. Her curiosity. Her determination to learn things on her own. These exegetics have been set forth by better scholars and thinkers than I, most notably Phyllis Trible. But if we look at the story without resorting to literalism, we can see the truth at play: every birth is followed by life; every life reaches its zenith, however that might be played out, before it begins its fall that results in death. For those who gather around the myth of Genesis 2-3, what brings death and suffering into the world is our knowledge of good and evil. For that, we are tossed out of Eden and must make our way in the world.

Why do we think of this as a death? Why is being cast out of the garden a negative? While we should be careful of not slipping into binding binaries, I think we can all agree on some level that our understanding of joy is deepened when we understand sorrow. Our emotions grow and adapt based upon our experiences, and through that we too gain a knowledge of good and evil. The tree does not give Adam and Eve an awareness of good and evil. It gives them the knowledge of good and evil. Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for knowledge is well-known in our culture because of a certain Seinfeld episode. Tri yada. It is like the Greek word gnosis; an understanding that is beyond book learning. A mixture of study and experience. It is the highway upon which you travel to wisdom. It is a beginning.

The story of Genesis 2-3 tells us that the ability to do both good and evil exists within each one of us. And we should not think that any person is strictly one or another. To be sure, there are those who hang out on the extreme poles, but a vast majority of us are within the pithy middle. We are not monsters, we are not saints. But we have within each one of us the possibility to behave like either.

Our Abrahamic spiritual story begins with a simple declaration. There are parameters to life. We’re going to die. Sometimes that is a good thing, sometimes that is an evil thing. We’re going to have a life, but we don’t know how long it will last. We have no guarantees. We almost always have a choice, though. We can orientate ourselves toward good, or we can point the ship toward evil.

Each day, each moment we have beginnings. Deaths. Things that rise, things that converge. Things that come into being, things that cease to exist.

All beginnings are hard. That’s why God gives us one another. Amen.

 

The Gospel at First Presby

I was eight, maybe nine when my mother introduced me to Gospel at Colonus. That might seem odd, but remember that I was born in the ’70s. I grew up watching The Electric Company. I knew about Morgan Freeman before Lean on MeAnd that voice just captivated me, as it does to so many of us. Mom pulled out a vinyl record and sat me in front of our hi-fi, a spot where I would come to discover Synchronicity I, Born in the USA, and News of the World. But that is another story.

Gospel at Colonus became an obsession.

Faithful Reader will know that I grew up as an atheist, but my parents were not militant. I think at times I painted it that way to make my conversion more dramatic. Any militancy that I had in my own atheism came from me and my decisions. My parents were not hostile to the concept of God, they were simply disgusted with the realities of religion. So when I asked for a Bible, I got one. When I wanted to go to church, they would arrange it (although I didn’t go for the first time until I was 19, but again that is another story). Gospel at Colonus, which is a dramatic reading of Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles with gospel music interspersed, introduced me to the cadences of the Black Church; the use of call and response; the singsong delivery of spoken word. Morgan Freeman plays The Messenger. James Earl Jones makes an appearance as well. It is, simply put, a work of genius.

From Gospel I went to Mahalia Jackson. Again, still an atheist, but in love with gospel music. And not just Black gospel; Bluegrass gospel as well. That, Jesus Christ Superstar, an obsession with Judas, and studying the historical Jesus provided the foundation of my conversion

Last night at First Presby we hosted the African American Culture Works (AACW) Gospel Fest. Liturgical dancers from Jeraldyne’s School of Dance,members of the Central State University Gospel Ensemble, and preaching by Rev. Joshua Ward of Omega Baptist Church filled our stately sanctuary. The crowd could have been bigger, but those who were there allowed themselves to be moved and inspired. We paid homage to Miss Faith Patterson, a matriarch and inspiration to so many. She is having her homegoing this weekend, though she went to be with the Lord almost a year ago.

She was a queen.

I sometimes get side-eyes for how rooted I seem to be in the Black church. My influences are genuine; my experiences growing up, and the emphasis on race consciousness that was central to my education at Yellow Springs High School, have combined with my preference to be in worship situations in which we are demonstrative. Where we get up, we shout, we sing, we dance, we hug, we call out exclamations. Where we let the preacher know we agree by vocal acclamation. But I respect that such is not really the kind of congregation I serve. That’s cool. It is not my place to try to make something artificial. But when I get the chance to do something authentic? Wooooo doggy, you best believe I’m going to be all over that like gravy on biscuits.

On my left arm, I have tattooed three scripture references, each inside a multicolored ichthus. One of those scriptures is Galatians 3:28

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“There is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free; we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Unity in the Body of Christ does not mean that we ignore one another’s differences. In fact, being a Christian, I think, should make one more appreciative and aware of the wonderful diversity God has provided. If we want to understand who God is, we have to look into the eyes of others. We have to permit ourselves to be vulnerable, to prioritize others over ourselves when we are able, to affirm differences as part of what makes community so powerful.

The Associate Dean at United Theological Seminary, the wonderful Dr. Harold Hudson, and I were speaking a few weeks ago. I asked Dr. Hudson, “You gonna come to the Gospel Festival in Yellow Springs?” “I didn’t know you joined the AME Church,” he responded. “I didn’t,” I replied. “Are you a Baptist now?” he inquired. “Nope,” I assured him. “I’m still at the Presbyterian Church.” Wide-eyed, he asked: “Gospel? At the Presbyterian Church?!” I smiled, “that’s just how we roll at First Presby, Dr. Hudson. That’s just how we roll.”

There are times when we are able to stop being the White Church or the Black Church. Baptists or Presbyterians. And while a worship style may not be endemic to a particular denomination that does not mean that such worship cannot be had, authentically and joyfully, if God so wills it. If God so causes it to happen.

Gospel at First Presby.

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On Turning Forty: Back in

There’s a peace that comes with surrendering. Believe me, I’ve pushed back on that idea for most of my life. Everything I had been taught pushed me to question. To demand evidence. To require definitive answers. Theology is the wrong subject to go into if you simply want to be an academic. If you don’t want your soul or your emotions involved in what you do for a living, don’t pick theology. You can’t hide.

In the past fifteen years, I have completed three masters degrees and started three doctorates. I have taught at four universities/colleges and worked as a youth pastor, a pulpit supply, and a stated supply (Presbyterian for “permanent but paid like the help”). I have applied to ten doctoral programs, and been accepted to six. I don’t state this as a matter of pride. Not at all. Look at the hot mess that is that CV. I’m like whiny Luke in the Degoba System. “All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was… what he was doing.”

I left the classroom two years ago. My Visiting Professorship was up; I was feeling wounded and pouty about having to return to adjuncting, and frankly, I was burned out. There is a certain type of madness that comes with adjuncting at two univiersities teaching five classes total while finishing a graduate degree. I did it twice. By the time I was finishing up my M.Div., I had not updated my class materials in nearly three years because I was so burned out trying to get a leg up to get into a PhD program that would pay for itself, I sacrificed just about everything. The last semester I taught I was awful. I was also having problems in my family relationships. My health was suffering. My sanity was slipping.

Bipolar does some amazing things. If I can harness a mania, I’m a beast of productivity. But bipolar will kill you. Legit, no playin’, fuck you up kill you. Leaving teaching was the first sign, in retrospect, that I was on an unsustainable path.

I tried a new identity as a campus minister and I met some amazing people who I value and cherish, but it was not my calling. That was tough to take. I believed in the mission and I was inspired by the educators. But it just didn’t work. And my brain finally had enough. Full system shut down commenced. I had a nervous breakdown. I was able to get to the church on Sundays, but the rest of the week I was in bed. I was broken. I quit my campus ministry position. With it, I committed us to financial poverty.

For the second time in my life, God was revealed to me through difficult circumstances. The first, of course, was Stephen’s death; the second, my own dance with madness. Had I lived at another time; if I did not have a certain security net provided by my family; if I had not won the genetic lottery in terms of when and where and how I was brought to this earth, I don’t know if I would have recovered from that experience.

I surrendered. I said, God, I am tired of making plans that blow up in my face.

“So don’t.”

This doesn’t mean that I am passive, or that I do not have goals and aspirations. Not at all. Spend five minutes with me and you’ll learn that I am a go-getter and I like to try to make things better. But I don’t have to go out looking for problems or places to serve. God is presenting them to me in good time and for good reasons. Sure, I fret about money but thankfully Jesus said a whole lot about that and I have his words to assure me. I am following God’s lead.

I was back in the classroom this week.

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I’m no longer an academic. Not the way that I imagined myself. I’m a preacher and teacher of the Word. I am a teacher of history and religion; a pastoral theologian and a servant to God’s people. And if you’re wondering if you’re God’s people, let me assure you that you are. And I can’t know God fully without getting to know you. I think that’s pretty cool.

I’m back up to full speed and I know that there are some nervous people. I get it. I really do. I know that there is a danger of overloading myself. Believe me, I have contingency plans. I always have a plan. It is what I do. But I can tell you this: I don’t dread waking up in the morning. I am not having anxiety attacks about upcoming events, and even when I have full days, I pretty much go at a pace that works for me, and right now it also gets stuff done.

I can’t explain why I have been able to come back from the brink and others have not. I can also safely say that there are people who go through much, much more than do I and they bear it all and continue to be reliable, strong people. I don’t always understand how grace works in other people’s lives, but I see it so clearly in my own. In the end, that is all I can affirm. I’m not making this stuff up. At least, I don’t think so. If I am, that’s okay, too. I like me having surrendered completely to God. This feeling that I will be shown what I am meant to do is working thus far. For that, I am grateful. And let the people of the Church say,