The Primaries, a reflection

A candidate who, broadly speaking, shares my values won the Democratic primary replacing Nita Lowey, my congresswoman. Of course, this is within the narrow Overton Window that is American Politics.

Almost all the primary candidates did. That said, they each would have also quickly encountered the same political constraints in practice so the claims of being “progressive” didn’t weigh too much on my consciousness. Several candidates were truly brilliant; a couple were remarkably sharp and incisive. One who I thought had the most emotional competence didn’t even get 600 votes as of this blog.

I’m concerned, however, by the way social media frames our decisions and nationalizes our discussions. In my view, local politics vets effective public leaders; it holds national politicians accountable. It teaches people what matters to the average voter. I would rather get to know someone slowly over years than in a media blitz. So in my book, competence > enthusiasm, and charisma ≠ character.

I hope that the amazing candidates who ran and lost continue to find ways to lead and be connected in their communities. We have housing issues; our county infrastructure is fragile. We have very tangible issues here in Westchester that require leaders.

Congratulations Mondaire Williams.

Monuments and Black Jesus

It’s been a bad few weeks for monuments.

I’m not overly concerned with whether many stay or go. There are a wide variety of buildings, or permanent structures, that represent our cultural values and aspirations. They become fixtures that we seek to be remembered by, or to force others to remember.

Some will last and some won’t.

I’m glad that the symbols of the confederacy are being removed.  Let the monuments be placed in cemeteries or museums. There is no need to memorialize the slaveholder rebellion. It was four years of history, and there are a bazillion other reasons to value southern culture. We can visit the images of the stars and bars in a book.

Other monuments are more complicated. I’m glad to see some fall, but I remain perplexed by the choices about whose monument gets to stand. I wonder why and then who decides what stands and what doesn’t.  Was there a committee meeting I missed when Grant was being decided?

Some monuments can be opportunities for us to think more complicated thoughts about our past. I remember how disappointed I was when my father shared with me a more complicated description about Lincoln.  I’d already at a young age come to terms that our founding wasn’t as pretty as the textbooks say. That knowledge helped me handle the complexity that any person brings to their context. Build a plaque for some and add some questions. Give a longer and broader retelling. Let us not be afraid of our history so much we must conceal it.

Similarly, there has been some conversation about the worship of monuments of white Jesus, and his presence in public spaces. First, it’s clear that there are no Nordic or European people in scripture. But the faith always comes inculturated – so we will often imagine Jesus (and Mary) in a fashion that is more like a mirror.  It’s similar to just as Shakespeare has become the property of all nations, scripture is important because it speaks to YOU.  When it doesn’t, then it is merely another book.

Some people have primarily experienced white representation of Jesus. In my view this is a diminished vision of God.  We need not dispense with it, expand our perception and vision of him. As we practice with a variety of images of who Jesus looks like for us now, we can better perceive the Christ in one another. If you have not done so, a practice of envisioning Black Jesus in your prayer life may be rewarding and edifying.

To end the monuments of racism in our minds, build new ones.

Bless the President

Bless the president;
Somewhere he heard on the TV
light would cure the plague.

Somehow the contagion
could be stopped by a simple spray,
an injection into the blood.

He got the mechanics wrong.
He mistook a surface for the soul.
We did not need to be injected
with light or a fluid
To learn we are radiant
and redeemed.

Within the waves from when time begun,
the waters of the earth,
the lamb’s costly blood, enough
to echo in the words of The Healer:

This was not meant to be magic,
but the ferociously gentle revelation,
that our salvation
is in our solidarity.

Quarantine Diary

I’m fascinated by the idea of military discipline in a life.

I don’t idealize it, especially the punitive, harsh, and exacting control of one person over the other. I admire the focus and the identification of what is important and what is not.

Because I do not often share that focus, and I sometimes wonder if a little more would be more liberating.

I made some phone calls today and scheduled on some of the platforms. Two meetings – one on the PPP, and the other on energy transformation. We’ve had some amazing success: first, Chase has been calling our churches back. And we’ve gotten some good press.

Second, we were able to negotiate free wifi with a new tower in the Bronx. This will give students staying at home one tool to stay on top of classes.

Third, the state pledged $10 million dollars to invest in energy transition, which will give a number of institutions the ability to take the first step and get off of carbon.

And last, the governor said he was willing to work with churches to provide testing. It was a great shout out, because we’ve been telling him we want to help.

I was able to get to the laundromat. It’s closing early these days, but I want to still support our local businesses. I also like that they fold the clothes for me. It’s a small price to pay.

Found a correct size bolt for my iphone tripod. I’m glad I did because I didn’t want to have to get another on the way to becoming an influencer or vlogger.

My brother, his wife and I shared dinner over facebook. He made a lamb ragu; I ate my leftover vindaloo.

Tomorrow my goal is to go for a walk, stretch and swing the kettlebell around. I don’t know what time I will do it, but perhaps I will first imagine myself as a soldier, doing the work to prepare for whatever war awaits.

Quarantine

Third Sunday in Easter. Two services. Sixteen people Zoomed.

A few were regular members for whom this was their first time joining. One, a woman who has been suffering from dementia, looked happy to see faces. I’d spent several hours over the last few weeks trying to connect her to zoom before finally reaching one of her children.

And there she was, brightly smiling.  I’d run into her yesterday in front of the church. She said, “I’ll see you tomorrow at church” but I wasn’t sure if she would be hooked up. I was worried she’d actually walk over.

Luis, who has been helping me with the power point we would use for the service, said we avoided a zoombombing attempt.  I wonder if it was a parishioner who has been living in Florida and calling from her phone rather than using the app. “It was a lot of numbers” he said. She’d called me five minutes before the service trying to get in.

I forgot the small circular light that allows me to be visible. The computer camera isn’t adequate, but most laptop cameras are now sold out because of the pandemic. There simply aren’t any more $70 Logitech cameras out there, except for the ones being sold for $200 on ebay.

Fucking gougers.

That and hair clippers. Tempted to just shave the head, and stop shaving the beard.

Was going to bring some AAA batteries home, but the remaining sixteen ones in my desk had clearly expired, some kind of fuzz accumulating at the very end. Looked online to purchase some rechargable ones and then proceeded to buy Amazon ones, because they’re cheap, and I felt guilty because it’s Amazon.

My housemates were on a cleaning tear, so the kitchen and shared bathroom got mopped. Because of the virus, I’ve been sending small amounts to the cleaner until this passes.

I’ve been wanting to create a video of making chicken Vindaloo, but I’ve run out of onions. So after my two hour nap, I went to H-Mart, the large Korean Chain which has been taking this seriously for a long time. Everyone who enters is given a spritz of hand sanitizer, a disinfectant wipe and gloves. I didn’t see anyone without a mask.

H-mart has some unusual choices. They have one egg brand that sells brown and blue eggs, and the yoke is one of the deepest amber oranges I’ve ever seen. They have some British and Finnish butters. And of course, they have marinated meats and kim chi. Kim chi has become and essential, in part because I find it livens up eggs and soups. I picked up one quart, along with some mild Korean red pepper and some fermented pepper paste. My plan is to make this Korean dish named Dokk Dori Tang in the near future. It’s essentially a braised chicken stew with potatoes, carrots and peppers.

I filmed my making of the chicken vindaloo, but it will be fundamentally unhelpful. But who actually watches cooking videos to follow?

Some emails about applying for the PPP.

My legs feel tight and achey. I could blame it on the virus, but mainly its because I haven’t been stretching or lifting.

The dishes are finished. Good cooking is mainly about putting everything in place, and then doing the dishes.

Only after you’ve mastered the art of preparation and clean up will cooking seem like a joy.

 

Quarantine Diary

The sun is out and it is warm and breezy.  Families are riding their bikes.

Yesterday I put together a compost bin. The nuts and lugs required grease and muscle, but I used just enough to make it stable. Today I emptied the refrigerator of expired food and placed it in a bowl with the coffee grounds from this morning. I browse the internet for worms.

Went to church and stood in front while people drove by. A few parishioners visited and we all stood apart, with our masks and related quarantine stories. I didn’t know exactly what to say when people asked me what I was doing. But he new heating system is on, it feels comfortable, and people were impressed as they went in . There is no dampness anymore.

I peruse FB.  People are disposing of food and killing hogs. A friend of mine is dancing and wearing glitter and bringing joy and health but I waited too long to start with them and my body seems slightly achey.

The beans in the instapot have finished. A sermon must be written for the teleprompter. I read of blood clots and think of survival.

Visiting Israel

A few months ago I was invited on a trip.

The American Jewish Committee (also called the AJC), who has been holding various interfaith events in Westchester for nearly two decades, also invites leaders from throughout the country to experience Israel.

I’ve never been, and I haven’t had the resources to go. I also knew, from a few friends, that this would be a well crafted tour.  I’d go with about ten other Christians – pastors, human rights activists, academics, and interfaith leaders – to learn about various dimensions of Israeli society.

I’d arrived in Tel Aviv Saturday evening after a nine hour flight. I couldn’t sleep much on the plane, but used the time to catch up on a few films: the latest final Star Wars Movie (Fun!), Bombshell (timely!), and Queen and Slim (provocative!), so by the time I got to the hotel I was pretty exhausted. Fortunately, there was nothing on the agenda: we’d gather, introduce ourselves to each other, and be able to head to bed.

They set us up in a lovely hotel called the Carlton while we were here. The breakfasts, in particular, were luxurious. Plenty of different sorts of fish, various cheeses, Jewish foods from throughout the world, as a variety of pastries. I chose smoked mackerel, a baked egg dish of some kind, with a few tapenades. And the fruit was spectacular.

Of course, we’ve been getting an overview ranging from the theoretical to the practical. The first talk, a well respected political science professor, a moderate who advises Avi Lieberman, gave a whirlwind talk lifting up the religious and historic political tensions within israel. AFter visiting churches, we visited the house of a proud Palestinian Arab Christian Israeli who used the opportunity to sell us coffee.

We then toured each the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and the Yitzhak Rabin center each a paean to their particular subjects. The first praised Israel’s culture of innovation, funded by the government. The tour guide of the center, a thin recent graduate with glasses, noted there were more than 60,000 start-ups in Israel, and was proud to tell us that 98% failed. Only to fail is to succeed he noted, which is helpful when you have money willing to take that risk. And the tour of Rabin’s center highlighted the tensions within Israeli society, even before he was assassinated.

Our personal guide, a dynamic and fashionable former attorney from Tel Aviv, mentioned that his assassination was as intense for Israeli society as the JFK or MLK assassinations were. They remained seared in Israeli society.

It’s been a broad trip so far. Questions of land and commerce; of shifting identities; of security come up over and over. The perceptions we form over the media contrast strongly with the everyday experience of most people. And then there is the backdrop of religion and commerce, each of which seem dependent upon the other.

Hospitality and the Budget

I think churches underfund their hospitality budgets.

And it’s one of the most important responsibilities of the church.

Hospitality isn’t a substitute for outreach or social justice. It precedes them.

By hospitality I include funding a priest to take out parishioners and new members. Dinners that welcome seekers. providing cookies and coffee to organizations that use the parish hall. Ensuring that the coffee is wonderful. Buying gifts for volunteers and new pledgers, or high quality birthday or condolence cards.

One obstacle is that we think reaching out must be sacrificial or burdensome, so funding dinners, parties, or beauty seems excessive or wasteful.

But the direction of the gospel is that our resources should be directed toward caring for others, even if it’s an expensive jar of perfume.

Hospitality is one of those practices that works, however, because it builds and deepens relationships over time. A priest who can take out a member of the parish and their family, who can host without breaking their bank account, and who can express gratitude through gifts, will build strong relationships.

Psychologists and sociologists call these practices commitment mechanisms. They strengthen relationships and help deepen the attachments that people have with other people.

I would put in the parochial report a line item asking parishes how much they spend on hospitality and seek how it tracks with church growth. Include every penny the priest spends on other people, on gifts, on swag, on making people at home, and see what the consequences are.

The Church: a Hub for Communities

We need a new way of explaining our institutions to people unconvinced about church.

For some, a church as a monolithic organization with very clearly defined membership boundaries. In some communities you are a member, for example, if you are baptized and confirmed in a congregation, you show up on Easter and or pay $50 in five installments. In other congregations the rules are more rigorous – membership means tithing, membership in a small group, and signing on to a political agenda.

Membership rules can provide a clear direction for an institution and help harness a community’s energy. It’s a lot of work to be out in an indifferent world; it’s easier to coordinate people who have identified an affection for the church.

I suggest there is a way to harness those who have an affection for the church but have not decided about the church’s religious language. While the worshiping congregation is still the apostolic core, the boundaries within that core do not exhaust the church’s work. Churches are not clubs, but networks of relationships and have access to the world in a number of different ways. We should focus on studying the networks we inhabit and how we can enhance them.

A “network” sounds technical, but it more accurately conveys the way people think of themselves as individuals connecting with others. Group membership has become a lot weaker and individuals are less willing to commit to a group of people or an institution. Given that many people are allergic to the costs of commitment, the church will have to find a way to reframe its work in this challenging, ever-shifting environment.

One way is to remember that the physical plant is the hub of other networks. It is also a geographic hub where other networks of people happen. They are also networks of free information and financial  exchange: newsletters, bulletin boards, thrift shops and tag sales. Individuals themselves are networked and participate in a variety of institutions.

Churches as networks clarifies about how the church is relatively effective even in an age of decline. While our membership might diminish, churches still harness the power within their networks to remain effective.  By continuing to be a publicly engaged place, the community may decide to support it in small ways.

This idea should be studied. The theory is focusing on Sunday attendance will not be the only way of analyzing effectiveness. Numbers and quality of connections, and group involvement should also be analyzed.  One of the major strengths as a hub is that Churches provide a physicality, a structure that makes other kinds of connection easier.

It works in way that social media does not. Physicality is one of the central anchors of the theology of church catholic. By its nature, social media is to be used mainly as a tool to enhance and amplify the central work of the church – which is to provide a physical place for people to connect.

For example: the priest, through his/her work embodies a hub in a series of networks: they serve on boards and committees in the community; they meet with other leaders; they challenge their public officials. This is to recognize that this is a central aspect of the priest’s work. A priest is, in some ways, a public consultant for a variety of institutions.

A priest is also in an unusual occupation where s/he is in part a blank figure upon which other people transfer their own emotional needs. Priests who have some emotional resilience can be effective in bridging a wider variety of communities. One role they have is to coach and counsel others to do the same. The priest becomes a model that encourages other people to do their own connecting in the world. They themselves embody the hub of a network.

This should not seem particularly easy, but it should give us some hope. We have plenty of resources – both in the quality of our leadership and our physical wealth. However, there is a skill and strategy to building networks that our inclusive theology conceals. Just telling people they are loved can seem meaningless, weak, and insincere. Saying we are accepting isn’t the same as being accepting. Being accepting takes place in physical environments that people share. It takes a reframing of the daily work of clergy and the ministers of the church to practice this effectively.

My own congregation, for example, has the networks of people who rent the building – which include yoga teachers, dancers, Buddhists and ethnic groups. We are behind an elementary school. We are two blocks from a Methodist center. We have two parks a couple blocks away. In our city there are at least three private universities. How might a congregation strategize to merely connect with those institutions in order to simply learn about their work – not just the institutions, but the people who make their lives in those institutions? The connections we have made have ensured that we are vibrant, even if our numbers have grown only modestly.

It is congruent with the church’s theology in a number of ways. If God is a sort of information that relates to people, then connecting – physically – might just be what the church does.  What we do remains important, and the skills are available. The question is whether we can readjust our behavior and do the work. How do we hold ourselves accountable to make the connections with our local institutions and become a more effective hub of reconciliation, or relationship, of hope?

The Benedict Option and a Boisterous, Noisy, Generous, Faith

Generous. Boisterous. Noisy.

That’s the description Giles Fraser used when writing about what was lost in the English Reformation.

Rod Dreher learned the wrong lesson from Benedict.

Dreher’s Benedictine option rightly critiques the consumerism inherent both in modern religiosity and in American culture, but he supplants it with his own rigorous, protestant, self-righteous, judgmental moralism that could not be farther than the world the Benedictines inhabited.

“A religion of inwardness, devoid of external pegs or props. Sitting in an empty room, mid the ruins of smashed statues, in silence, doing nothing.” Except judging gay people and women, Inwardly sanctified and horrifyingly self abusive and judgmental.

Or an ordered and practical Christianity, built on the liturgical rhythms of the church and centred on the Mass— inclusive, noisy, generous and non-judgmental. “boisterous God-infused praxis,”

I’ll take the noisy, generous Benedict. Not the imaginary, self-righteous one.