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 must 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.

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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.

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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.

Assuming intimacy, dignity & beauty. 

Assuming intimacy, dignity & beauty. 

I ran across this article while digging deeper into a topic in a book I’m reading.  Krista Tippett, the author of the book, who had been living in Berlin for quite some time and whose job it was to keep her finger on the pulse of relationships on both sides of the wall, observed: “…it was possible to have freedom and plenty in the West and craft an empty life, it was possible to ‘have nothing’ in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.” While the politicians and bureaucrats had some influence, it was ultimately the people who assumed and acted upon their freedom that brought down the Iron Curtain. Giving politicians power is akin to turning a 3 year old loose with power tools. It is ultimately people assuming and claiming the lives of “intimacy, dignity and beauty” for which they had been created that brought down the wall. I fear we give the political process entirely too much credit. To believe the rhetoric and live our lives by it is foolish at best. It is toxic for us to allow the narrative by which we live our lives to be defined by 3 year olds fighting over the power tools.  It paints everything in a dualistic way that creates division and discord. We were created for so much more than that.

Us, Them & the Boogeyman

Us, Them & the Boogeyman

“…Whenever dissent is scattered and unfocused, and whenever mutual suspicion and hostility rule, the only way forward or back to communal solidarity…is to pick a joint enemy and to unite forces in an act of joint atrocity aimed at a common target.  It is solely the community of accomplices which provides (as long as it lasts) a guarantee against the crime being named a crime and being punished accordingly.  What the community will therefore not suffer lightly are such people as refuse to join the hue and cry, who by their refusal cast doubt on the righteousness of the act.”

Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics, p.15

Us-and-Them-by-Jeff-MacNelly
image by Jeff MacNelly

In just about every context I find myself of late, when the issue of politics comes up, my friends and I are for once in a long while united.  For the most part, people in my circles, be they conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, are decrying the rise of Donald Trump.  However, looking at his numbers and at the delegates he has apparently “won”, chances are many of my friends and acquaintances are choosing Trump as their mode of choice to “make America great again.”  Somebody, somewhere, is in fact voting for “The Donald”.

 

What was darkly humorous just a few short months ago has become a dawning awareness. A vulgar reality television personality whose accomplishments are nothing more than turning his name into a brand representing gaudy irresponsible opulence is about to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America.  How can this be?

This question sent me to my book shelf to retrieve Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics—a book I purchased several years ago as assigned reading for a course I was taking at Fuller Theological Seminary.  It has been a challenging read but also timely and helpful.  In a section of chapter one entitled, A Prowler Around the House, Bauman recounts the story of Sidney Cooke, a paedophile, who had been released from prison and was returning home.  He quotes a reporter from The Guardian who perceptively writes:

“If there’s one thing guaranteed to get people out on the streets today, it is the whispered arrival of a paedophile.  The helpfulness of such protests is increasingly being questioned.  What we haven’t asked, however, is whether these protests actually have anything to do with paedophiles.”

Bauman says that the reporter focuses on one particular town in which “the variegated crowd of grandmothers, teenagers, and businesswoman who had seldom, if ever, expressed any previous wish to engage in a public action had now laid protracted siege to the local police station, being not even sure that Cooke did indeed hide in the besieged building.  Their ignorance concerning the facts of the matter took second place only to their determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it; and their determination gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”

While there is no paedophile in this particular election, there is a strong perception by many, if not most, of the electorate that their government and the political process has failed them.  And while, in my humble opinion, most of what Trump throws up against the walls of public opinion is simply false, unworkable testosterone fueled bravado, he has tapped into this “unfocused and scattered” dissent and channeled it into a wave he is about to surf right down the center aisle of the Republican National Convention.

As I process what Bauman has written, I recognize that our biggest enemy in this election isn’t Donald Trump.  And it isn’t Bernie Sanders. Or Ted Cruse.  Or Hillary Clinton.  And it isn’t congress.  Or Barack Obama.  Yes, those ARE the enemies we all perceive to be “hiding in the besieged building”.  Those are the ones we have all labeled as the prowlers around our neighborhoods.  These political figures have all of us, regardless of party affiliation, riled up and angry and active.  And, to paraphrase Bauman, our “ignorance concerning the facts of the matter [take] second place only to [our] determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it [mostly on our social media feeds]; and [our] determination [has] gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”  

I’m starting to suspect that what’s hiding in the buildings we have all besieged is actually a figment of our imaginations.  What’s actually hiding in the building is our caricatures of the people we deem to represent all of our fears.  We’ve reduced ourselves to labeling “the other” as “the problem” rather than placing the actual problem on the table between us and examining it with all of the tools we have available.  Rather than solving anything, we have resorted to creating a boogeyman, and then we take to the streets (or our social media feeds) to call it names.  I’m just beginning to read what I’m finding to be a profound book by Dr. David Dark, a professor at Belmont University in Nashville.  Of labels, he says:

“When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully.   …Calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words.  It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it speaks in shorthand.  When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body.  In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.”  —David Dark, from Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

Some of the most useful and powerful tools at our disposal to tackle the huge problems we face in our world today might very well be the perspective of someone other than ourselves.  The tools at our disposal include all of us.  All of our values.  All of our beliefs.  All of our perspectives.  All of our creativity.  I’m reminded of a great line from an Indigo Girls song: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”  A little collective humility might be just what the doctor ordered.

Would some of these tools be more effective in solving our problem than others?  Absolutely.   Do I disagree with some of the propositions being proposed?  Adamantly!  I’m NOT simplistically saying, “It’s all good.”   But what I am saying is that we’re all human beings.  And the God I attempt to follow values all of these human beings — in fact my understanding of God holds they are ALL created in God’s image.

As I continue into the dark and cynical hole that is this election season, I’m going to attempt to ask a couple of things of myself:

  • To recognize that I’m not a cold, objective (and correct) observer.  I have a bias.
  • To give myself and others a break.  For the most part, we’re all trying to make sense of something extremely complicated that no one really understands.  We’re all doing the best we can.
  • To, with the best of my ability, lean into the space between myself and others with grace and peace…with love.

Can I be so bold as to ask the same of you?  I don’t mean to preach.  I just happen to think the boogeyman is actually a collective “us”.  While there are a lot of things out of our control, we actually do have choices.  We can decide how we respond to our neighbors.  We can decide the words we use.  We can decide that a label doesn’t define anyone any more that it defines me.  And ultimately, WE can solve these problems we’re facing. We have before.  I’m confident we will again.  Seems to be a better way to live than being afraid of the boogeyman.  Especially when the boogeyman has probably been me the whole time.

Suggestions for Riding a Bus

Suggestions for Riding a Bus
Rosa Parks On Bus
Rosa Parks seated toward the front of the bus, Montgomery, Alabama, 1956. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

The picture below is of an amazing document. It is “Integrated Bus Suggestions” provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association which was an organization established to help guide the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December of 1956 in the wake of the arrest of Rosa Parks. It is an amazing document to read.

My pastor posted the picture on his Facebook page this morning with the comment, “We have no idea.” And we truly do not. But on this Martin Luther King day, I would like for you to place yourself on that bus. Pick a role. You can be the African American entering the bus. Be the bus driver, just wanting punch the clock and make it through the day to return home to your family. Be one of the other passengers, recognizing or maybe not recognizing, the sea change that is occurring right before your eyes. If you are in a city with public transportation, take a bus ride and bring a copy of these suggestions and be transported back to a time not to distant when a document such as this was necessary.

As you read this document, imagine stepping onto a bus with these “suggestions” seared into your memory. The jolt of adrenaline and fear and nervousness that wells up as the door opens and you mount the first step. As you reach the top step, what does it feel like to see the seat you are to occupy and feel the all the eyes on the bus wielding looks that communicate the full gamut of possible emotions. There is hate in some of those eyes…but there is also hope in others. There is anger but there are others illuminated with the dawning recognition of what is right. There is fear but also determination.

I discovered a quote by Dr. King yesterday:

 

Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?

But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

I would encourage and challenge you to think about what metaphorical bus you need to step into. What difference could you make if you allowed courage to spawn creativity and change?  Allow your conscience to ask the question, “What is right?” and then step on that bus armed with these suggestions. They are still just as valid as they were in 1955.

Peace.

Suggestions for Riding a bus

Integrated Bus Suggestions Provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association for the bus boycotts.