The People Who Walk in Darkness

The People Who Walk in Darkness
6th and San Pedro
Midnight Mission on the left. Central City Community Church of the Nazarene on the right.

I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’ piece in The New Yorker entitled, “Handel’s ‘Messiah’ On Skid Row.” I almost missed it. As is apt to happen with a relentless subscription to that weekly magazine, one day you set an issue by the reading chair with good intentions only to come home from work to find next week’s edition in the mailbox. This morning’s providence allowed me to pick up the January 1 edition rather than the January 15.

The article begins by telling the story of Brian Palmer, a formerly homeless man, who would sing “The People That Walked in Darkness” with the Street Symphony. The Street Symphony is a group of professional musicians who work with homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated people. They annually perform an abbreviated version of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah” at the Midnight Mission at 6th and San Pedro, on Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA.

The People That Walked in Darkness” is a bass aria from “The Messiah” named from a line in Isaiah. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” —Isaiah 9:2 (KJV)

Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend Karaoke Night at Central City Community Church of the Nazarene which meets directly across 6th Street from the Midnight Mission (see the photo above). I’ll not write much specifically about that experience here. I will say that it remains one of the 5 or 6 spiritual touchstones in my life continually returning to mind to anchor my journey and focus my call. (Watch this video about Karaoke Night. It’ll be the best thing you see all day. It might as well have been filmed on the night we visited. The memories of that evening nearly a decade ago all come flooding back to me when I watch it. I recognized many of the people featured.

Ross observes something we should all recognize in ourselves: “Spiritual homilies, whether in the form of venerable religious texts or recovery literature, have a way of seeming corny until a crisis arrives, at which point they take on the force of breaking news. That explains why line after line of “Messiah” felt especially acute on Skid Row.” Our world and the ways we engage with it form us to be cynical. Often, it’s our only defense mechanism. So if we hear something that sounds too sweet or perfect or warm, we often write it off as “corny.” But there are times when the still small voice of actual truth finds its way through the noise of our self-centered and overly protective cynicism. Our hearts melt when exposed to the living and breathing presence of God in a stranger. Epiphany! And it is difficult to unsee what we just saw or un-experience what just changed our lives.

Ross’ entire article is an account of such an epiphany. But it closes with lines that point to what I think to be a common and critical mistake. The writer confesses that “The spell dissolves when you leave the Midnight Mission. The people that walked in darkness are still there. Hard stares greet you as you proceed to your car. This feeling is, if anything, even worse than the one that hits you going in. The entire experience is at once exalting and crushing, luminous and bleak.” What Ross fails to recognize is that the residents of Skid Row aren’t the only ones walking in darkness. Ross seems to assume a return to the vehicle and the real world is a return to the light.

What had actually happened was that Ross stepped out of the darkness of routine, selective attention, and pretensions of enlightenment into the light shining forth at Midnight Mission in the heart of Skid Row. Suddenly Handel’s “Messiah” was transformed from a mere seasonal cliche into a glorious proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God sung by a heavenly choir. It was a light that dismissed the shadows of class and racism and addictions for a moment allowing human beings to see other human beings. And when we see each other, our natural inclination is to lift each other up. We are all in it together. Common good. Common humanity. Love.

I am fully aware of the real and complex problems we much confront in our fallen world. Addictions are debilitating whether they be chemical, physical, material, or emotional. Racism deforms all human beings: the victims and the racists. Darkness blinds us all regardless of our address or lack thereof.

On this day we’ve set aside to remember the work of Martin Luther King, its good to recognize that we are celebrating just such a proclamation of the news of God’s intentions for God’s creation. All of us who walked in darkness saw that great light in Dr. King’s prophetic announcements of justice and peace. And on this day, we can recognize just how easily and quickly we return to the darkness of injustice and inequality. This is a day to remind us of the great light and how quickly we turn away from it.

Vijay Gupta is a violinist with the LA Philharmonic and the founder of Street Symphony. He commented on Ross’ observation about how leaving felt worse than arriving. “We get to leave,” Gupta said. “That’s the source of our shame. The only way to deal with it is to go back.” The reason we celebrate a day like Martin Luther King day is for us to go back and remember. But its more than mere remembering. Its opportunity to see that great light again. And once we see it, we can choose to live in that light. It illuminates everything. It is, in fact, the place we were created to live.

Advertisements

Misplaced Terror

Misplaced Terror

on the streetI saw a video on Facebook labeled: “Our youth…this video is truly terrifying.” After watching it, I deemed it worthy of a share. My re-post said, “yes…truly terrifying.” The video was a person-on-the-street type post with a young woman on the campus of a major university asking students seemingly obvious questions about American history: “Who won the civil war?”, “Who were the participants in the Civil War?”, “Who is the Vice President?”, Etc. The answers given were funny and utterly wrong.

Then the same students were asked about Jersey Shore; about who was currently married to Brad Pitt; about who Brad Pitt was married to before Angelina Jolie. Correct answers came immediately. Of course, the point of the whole bit was “these students are ignorant about important things like our history, but they know pop culture.” The editing of the video was such to accentuate their ignorance in important things and their obsessions with the inane.

As I read through the accumulating responses to my Facebook post it began to dawn on me that, much like the students in the video, I too had been manipulated. It happens all the time. It’s a simple hook, easy to set. This highly edited video was designed to evoke a response. The response desired was a “click.” The more clicks, the more traffic, the more advertising revenue. The video was easy comedy bait and for the most part harmless. It wasn’t terrifying at all.

So why had I labeled it as such? Well, I wanted some clicks on my Facebook post. It would allow me to jump on that bandwagon and ride. But there was something else going on here. I began to recognize the cynicism the post was dredging up. We were coloring a whole generation of people with a very broad brush. Quite frankly, I was posting fake news and benefitting from it.

I sat in on a lecture this week about “Millennials” and “Generation Z.” The “Boomer” presenters cited all the cliche’ traits that have made Millennials the brunt of so many late-night TV monologues and internet memes (just like the one I posted). But we, the boomers sitting in this class, were fortunate enough also to have a very accomplished millennial sitting in with us. And when he finally had heard enough, he spoke up, eloquently and truthfully, pointing out the inaccuracy of our generalizations.

This “kid” was not an outlier. In fact, we were sitting in a classroom on a university campus utterly filled with more millennials just like him. And there were a couple of universities just down the street also filled to the brim with more creativity and energy and productive naiveté ready to take on the new but very familiar old problems our world continually reframes and asks us to solve.

So, I guess the point of this observation is two-fold:

  • The video bit was funny but probably not terrifying.
  • The cynicism I was feeding is perhaps closer to being terrifying but usually not funny.

I’ll try to remember this before I post next time.

Create

I treated myself to an “Artist Date” last Saturday.  Please know that every manly fiber in my being protested that first sentence.  It has a very Oprah ring to it.  (It wasn’t Oprah…it’s Julia Cameron’s fault.) That first sentence tromps all over so many norms I’ve allowed to grow up around my life and work.

From very early on in our childhood, all of us have submitted something we have created to the harsh lights of the public.  A stick figure drawing shown to a friend.  A color book sheet submitted to the refrigerator exhibit in the kitchen of your childhood home.  Homework or exams turned in to the teacher seated in the front of the room.  _W6C8430

Some of those creations from our childhood days of naive confidence were received with encouragement and affirmation.  Some were ignored.  Some were ridiculed and pronounced as “dumb” or “you traced that!” or “what is that?”  Some were judged based on the harsh scale of a grading system.

And so, more and more we decided not to submit our “art” to the public.  We decided it wasn’t worth the risk.  But, what tends to happen is that much like a plant that is stored in a closet, the impulses begin to wither and die.  We assume that creative impulse is for someone else.  Very early on, we begin to reserve the term “artist” for those other people who can draw better than us or write better than us or sing better than us or play an instrument better than us.   And there is always someone better.

_W6C8434So, why an “Artist Date”?  A couple of personal reasons.  I rediscovered the first 5 words of my copy of the Old Testament the other day: “In the beginning, God created…” —Genesis 1:1.  And when I got on down to vs. 26, I read, “Let us create humankind in our own image…”.  It really seemed pretty obvious that if I’m created in the creator’s image I might just be creative too.  Simple to the point of simplistic, but it was a good place for me to start.

The next reason was I heard yet another “artist” I highly respect refer to some practices they discovered in a book that I’ve heard mentioned dozens of times by other artists I respect.  Through the magic of my Kindle and my purchase impulse, I downloaded “The Artist’s Wayimmediately.  The first two practices introduced very early in the book are Daily Pages and Artist Date.

_W6C8450The Daily pages are 3 hand written pages of stream of consciousness thoughts for no ones else’s consumption.  Technically, not even my own.  Its sort of a written form of meditation.  I’m about 30 pages into that practice and it is challenging but very rewarding.  The Artist’s Date is something I haven’t fully wrapped my head around yet.   It’s a block of time set aside each week to nurture one’s “inner artist”.  (The Oprah gag reflex is rising up again…but I’m holding it together!)

_W6C8451So one Saturday, a  week into my reading of this book, I packed up my journal and my camera, got on my motorcycle and rode up to Sewanee via Roark’s Cove road for my first Artist date.  I took photos of the cars on the way up.  I stopped at the Blue Chair Cafe for a bowl of oatmeal and some coffee, and then continued to the Sewanee Natural Bridge  with a stop by the cemetery and a short visit to Mr. Garner’s grave.

I humbly present some of my photographs from that day as well as these reflections to the harsh judgement of the internet.  But I also am indirectly submitting the creativity of those who informed my little artist date:  the artist who installed our small version of the “Cadillac Ranch” on Roark’s Cove Road; the graffiti artists who did their thing on those cars; the creativity of the Blue Chair Cafe offering up great food and atmosphere for all who enter; Mr. Garner who someone recognized as “the best damn moonshiner who ever lived” and all the creativity involved to earn such a title; the stone carver who created the monument commemorating Mr. Garner’s art; the person who created the cherub perched on top of the neighboring marker; and finally the great Creator who provided the Sewanee Natural bridge and the trail I was able to hike and contemplate the other natural art on display.

_W6C8457I would also like to challenge all of you to nurture your own inner artists.  Creativity is what moves us forward in the world.  It provides fresh perspectives on everyday things we tend to take for granted.  Exercising those impulses strengthens muscles that we need in our everyday lives.  And having the courage to share your creativity boosts all of our courage to do the same.

Create something strictly for your eyes only.  Or, How are you going to reach that kid that isn’t interested in school? How can you increase the efficiency of this jet engine your team has been tasked to design? What’s made your lawn mower difficult to start? How could you make that birthday cake reflect that little girl’s personality? What’s the win/win solution to the conflict you are having with your friend/spouse/coworker/democrat/republican?  Etc.

All of these questions are answered through creativity.  And all of the human beings involved have been made creative by their Creator.  Go get ‘um.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Coffee For Lent?!?!

Coffee For Lent?!?!

59284097I gave up coffee for Lent this year. A little context…I have 2 Keurig machines. One at home and one 2 steps from my chair beside my desk at work. On an average day I drink 5 large cups of black dark roast coffee. I prefer French roast or Italian roast. No added cream or sugar…that would be unhealthy.

I say that not to pat myself on the back or for you to think of me as some sort of sainted spiritual ascetic. It’s more of an acknowledgment of the first of the 12 steps…I admit that I am powerless over caffeine. Who knew there were actual withdrawal symptoms?!? Irritability? Insomnia? Depression? Leg pains? Check. Check. Check. Check.

I’m getting past these. A couple of Aleve and a sleep aid tablet the second night of my little adventure got me 8+ hours of sleep and I’ve been almost back to normal since. It’s more the habit I miss anyway. Well…that and the taste…and the smell…the warm cup in my hand…the steam rising from the rim on a cool morning on my porch…STEP 2! STEP2!

This Lent thing wasn’t part of my small town, conservative Southern Baptist tradition growing up. But it has become an important part of my faith. Each morning, I walk into the kitchen by the light of the coffee maker that has switched on in anticipation of my first cup of the day. For the next few weeks, rather than stick in a coffee pod, I switch off the machine, grab a glass of juice and head out to the screen porch and think about this practice.

I would love to have something profound to write here in this place. God parting the caffeine free fog with some glorious Lenten wisdom. Not yet. Still waiting. That is probably the point. Waiting. Trusting. Anticipating. The God who made all of this is meeting me here in this spot each and every morning. In silence. I’m wondering if that in itself might be point.

Taking for Granted

Taking for Granted

file-feb-10-8-07-58-amWe take stuff for granted every day.  We flip the light switch and expect the darkness to disappear.  We turn the faucet and water comes out of the tap.  We turn the key and the car starts.

It hit me this morning how much I take my parents for granted.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It speaks to their love and character.  It speaks to their presence.  It speaks to the family they raised.  It speaks to their marriage.

Yesterday was a busy day here for me and my family.  All of us ran out the door in the morning off to jobs or school.  We came home and ate something quickly and then were out the door for meetings, chaperoning a middle school dance, and band practice.  I slipped into my bed at 11pm and tried to rest so I could get up and do it all again this morning.

Meanwhile, yesterday, my parents quietly celebrated 60 years of marriage.  60 years!  It completely slipped my mind.  Completely taken for granted.  I’m more than a little ashamed that I didn’t call them yesterday (I did talk to them this morning…but…).  An anniversary is a time to stop and count one’s blessings.  And I’m am so insanely blessed to have hit the birth lottery and to have been born the son of Dick and Enola Young.

Love you mom and dad.

What’s your text?

What’s your text?

“Everything’s wrong says he. That’s a big text. But does he want to make everything right? Not he. He’d lose his text.”
—George Eliot, from Felix Holt

biblical-text-verse-new-testament-golden-verse-49688382What’s my text? What’s yours?

It’s not a question I ask myself very often…maybe never. But I’m asking it today and I’ll throw it out there for you to consider if you will.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing a particular text being thrown around: some form of, “they are wrong…they are scary”. Much is due to our current emersion in partisan politics and a very contentious election between two extremely polarizing figures. There could only be one winner.

Having come out of that election with a “winner”, it’s obvious that nothing really has been settled. We are still a country divided. Neither side claims the other side’s President as their own. Both sides have protested something. However, it seems when distilled down to the common denominator, each side is operating from a very similar text: “they are wrong…they are scary.” At least we have some common ground. (Insert darkly ironic sarcasm here.)

I’m not talking about individual policies or issues. On that there is much diversity. Much passion. Much thought. Many many words written and talks given. Much scholarship and study, and prayer on behalf of both sides. I’m not trying to deny those differences. I have my own positions on those issues that I hold passionately and thoughtfully. And quiet frankly, I’m right! (Roll your eyes…snicker if you like, but you feel the same way about your positions on “the issues”.)

But what I AM writing about here is the common text we seem to have devolved into following: “they (the other side) are wrong…they are scary”. I’ll not hear anyone try to tell me that their side doesn’t do that. All sides are doing it. But is that all there is to our text. Is that really the only option? The other side is all wrong? Really? Is that all we got?

George Eliot points out the reason this text has become so dominant. In an odd way, seeing the world through this dualistic (and extremely simplistic) text relieves the tension. We don’t have to solve any problem as long as we can demonize the other side and rest comfortably in our little nest of “answers”. But, meanwhile, we are all on the verge of “unfriending” people we have loved all our lives and calling people names we know probably do not fully apply.

I think we have many more options than that. And I’m not about to let the polititians and the “news industry” determine my “text.” In his book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit“, Parker Palmer suggests 5 “Habits of the Heart” that I know would be a wonderful alternative text for you to try. (if you don’t know who Parker Palmer is, find out…pick a book…any book he’s written. I’ll suggest “Let Your Life Speak” as a good start.) By “Habits of the Heart”, Palmer means the filters we habitually use to interpret our experiences. They are habits that we filter everything we experience through. They are:

  • We understand that we are in this together.
  • We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”.
  • We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  • We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  • We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

I’m not going to elaborate on these. I think they are obviously superior to the divisive “THEY are wrong…THEY are scary.” So…I dare you. Get a new text. Practice it. I dare you.

My Jesus Question

My Jesus Question

jesus-question-copy So…I’m considering this question.  I work at a church and there are a lot of things a church might be about.  But in my mind one of those things, maybe the most important thing…but maybe not (I’ll grant that possibility to someone that might have a better answer)…is to better follow Jesus.

I’m submitting this question to whomever might choose to read this little post.  I’m not necessarily looking for public comments (although they are welcome).  I’m not interested in laying a guilt trip on anyone.  I’m not wanting to convert anyone on this post.  I’m simply asking this question of myself and inviting others to consider it as well.  Grace and peace.