Monday, December 8, 2014

Black Lives Matter

It would be hard not to talk about racism right now. In the wake of "no indictment" decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner trials, thousands have taken to the streets in mass protests - and here in Berkeley, the word "riot" has been bandied about and added to the mix, thanks to violent misbehavior during what should have been peaceful, non-violent demonstrations. But cop cars and buildings are being vandalized, windows broken and (embarrassingly), stores looted in the midst of it all. And while yes, emotions are running high and people are frustrated, it sounds like the more disruptive elements of this are from small clusters of anarchists and others using the protests as a cover for their own desire to create chaos and do damage - not from the people, many or most of them students, who are standing (and sitting and lying down) to show solidarity and trying to shine a light on the ugliness of systemic racism. So shattered windows, looting and fire being set to things in the street are made to look like a product of the protest, and the media has jumped on "look how violent Berkeley protestors are". Truly, it's a mess.

Texting to us from Telegraph on Saturday night, my step-daughter related how police were in riot gear and respirators, throwing tear gas and flash grenades into crowds they intentionally boxed in on both sides and beating people with billy clubs - not trying to stop or contain the vandals and looters, but taking out their frustration on peaceful protesters holding signs that said "#BlackLivesMatter" and chanting, "I Can't Breathe".

Photo, taken on Dec. 7, 2014, by Pete Rosos
Photo by Pete Rosos via Berkeleyside
People, students near her... a few people away... were shoved to the ground, clubbed and sometimes stepped on as they tried to flee and couldn't get away in time. Reports flooded in through Twitter with photos and even video clips, as witness to what was going on (#BerkeleyProtests). Big armored vehicles rolled down University Avenue and across Shattuck, and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd... as thousands gathered to protest that our country's over-militarized police forces have become brutal and harmful to the citizens they are sworn to protect. This... is not helping. My husband and I sat up, not willing to go to bed until we knew for sure that our daughter was safe and home with most of the tear gas washed off her face and flushed out of her eyes. It was after midnight.

Let me back up a moment here and say that - raised by hippies and all - I am "pro-cop"; in order to be a civilized society (we can debate that later if you like... plenty of tinder to work with) we need laws and those who enforce them, and I'm not looking for an excuse to verbally abuse decent police officers who are just doing their jobs.  I believe that most of them are "good cops", defending the peace, acting in the interest of the common good and doing their best to keep our communities, streets and people safe. I know that they risk their own safety and even their lives every time they start a work shift, and I truly appreciate and honor (and am in awe of) that. These are not the officers I'm talking about. And lest one think I'm being particularly harsh on local law enforcement, many of those out in force this weekend were State Troopers, not just Berkeley PD. It would seem that we've come to a place where whole portions of a force - and the leadership at the head of it - are not "protecting and serving" the people in their communities; and much of that is spurred by deep racism and a misguided sense of privilege or even superiority based on skin color and race.
Embedded image permalink
Photo by John Zangas via Twitter

On Sunday night the protests continued, with police action escalating faster and huge clouds of teargas or smoke bombs seen migrating across streets, choking and stinging, as more than 300 - then 450 - then 600-plus marched in the streets, demanding justice and fair treatment. The police managed to escalate matters further and quickly, angering hundreds of people at a time and hurting many, while the media continued to share sensationalized stories with headlines like, "protests at UC Berkeley turn violent", reporting "a wild and destructive protest" with participants smashing in windows and looting stores... never mind that while a few hangers-on were admittedly doing just that, many more were trying to stop them, shouting, "peaceful protest!" and physically blocking access to stores and bank windows.  The chant had turned to "Eric Garner, Michael Brown - tear it down, tear it down" - which, while intended as a cry against a corrupt and violent system, didn't help in the light of damage being done. Concurrent protests and demonstrations across the country managed to remain peaceful, while Berkeley took on the guise of the L.A. riots; but we have to take this as a whole.

It has all and already gone too far.

I sat safe at home, watching escalating on-the-spot reports through Twitter, Berkeleyside and online news feeds, offering prayers for everyone's safety and sane conduct and wondering what else I can do. I changed my Facebook icon to "Black Lives Matter" in support, and received mostly tangible silence online. Yes I know - ALL lives matter; of course they do. And right now, being pale-skinned and privileged on account of birth, I don't think people who look like me are in particular need of defending, uplifting or understanding; high or low, we get that in due course because of the way the system is set up. So yes, ALL lives matter - and right now it's especially important to remind the world that that means people of color - any color. 

Embedded image permalink Photo, taken on Dec. 7, 2014, by Kelly Owen
Photos by MattLukas1968 via Twitter & by Kelly Owen via Berkeleyside

I am a woman of faith living in a representative government and right now I am even more conscious than usual of "the sins done on our behalf" by people in power. Will the protests be heard, will changes be made in a system that has gone so far corrupt it needs many people at the top extracted like bad teeth? I don't know. But I have to hope that change is in the air, that justice held in abeyance and disregarded will be brought to bear, that the systemic, intrinsic racism my country runs on will be purged and damage begun to be repaired, lives healed. This is not a collection of misguided angry mobs that need to be quieted - it's a voice of thousands, a cry of injustice that needs to be heard and heeded. How can we bring healing and peace to our nation and the world? What can we do - in community, as church, as the hands and voice of Christ in the world; as individuals; as white people representing the majority in this country (though not for long, thankfully) - what can any or all of us do, here and now, to create the change that needs so desperately to happen in our world?

I don't have the answers - but I'm willing to ask the questions and see where they lead.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sitting at the Master's Feet (Let them eat parables)

I love reading the parables. Not just the stories themselves - though I definitely have favorites there and can probably go on about one or two at some point - but I love reading about Jesus' more intimate teaching moments with his disciples. He spoke to crowds, sometimes huge crowds of people, and when he taught them it was in parables - allegorical stories with lessons embedded in them, meanings to be found between the lines. He said things that made people think, mull over his words, take home concepts to ponder; and then the crowds would dissipate and most folks went back to their homes or jobs. But there were some - more than a few it sounds like - who stayed to hear more.

I picture Jesus sitting cross-legged on the ground or on a large rock perhaps, with a smaller group of people who have stayed behind, eager to hear more. Maybe they have questions about what their teacher has just been saying, or want to go off on tangents that tickled at their brains while he was speaking... maybe they know that once the crowd leaves, the rabbi will continue with a deeper teaching for those who stay to hear it. So we have Jesus in front and others gathered around, sitting on the ground, on rocks or fallen tree limbs, on the sand by the Sea of Galilee... or maybe indoors at someone's house with everyone gathered on the floor and in whatever chairs were available... what matters isn't the location... this is the group that stayed - those "with ears to hear", who wanted to know more and sought to truly understand. Teaching in this way is a time-honored practice with spiritual leaders in many traditions, including some that I have been a part of prior to becoming a Christian.

Teaching the Disciples Under an Olive Tree - Painting by James Tissot

For many years I practiced Vedanta*, a Hindu philosophy based on the Vedas - ancient scriptures of India. As a child I would go to the pujas, (a word used to describe both worship and the religious festivals around it), and later I sat in temple services with my father, my step-mom and sometimes my little brother. You would leave your shoes at the door, come forward to prostrate in front of the shrine if you're able, find a seat and attend a service that in many ways is similar to a Jewish or Christian service - worship, a sermon or lesson, stand in a receiving line to greet the swami or take the dust of his feet, and then sharing prasad - food (often sweets or fruit) that has been offered to God and then shared amongst the devotees. We didn't go often, and I loved opportunities to be there. The best times to me were after or sometimes before services, when a small group might have the good fortune to accompany one of the swamis on a walk through the gardens or in a smaller chapel. This was a time of darshan, blessings or grace that come from being near holy people or places. Sometimes it would be a quiet, companionable walk and other times the swami would address us, to answer questions or share thoughts that weren't spoken to the larger, more public crowd. These times were magical for me, and I absorbed as much as I could.

[Puja in Mother's shrine - Portland]
When I became older I went to study with the teacher I had chosen - a very old guru at the Vedanta Center in Portland, Oregon named Swami Aseshananda, and became an initiate. I stayed in one of the "Women's Houses" with other devotees a couple of times, which I loved. These were cooperative intentional living spaces near the temple (there were places for men to stay as well), and the permanent residents lived as "lay monastics" with a Rule of Life, but no formal ordination.

We did service at the Center, helping to prepare food and setting up chairs and such before Sunday services or special gatherings, but the "real stuff" happened when there were only ten to twenty devotees there. We would walk with him** or sit in the small chapel while our teacher did the daily worship and sometimes we'd meditate or sing or just observe, as he bid us.

[Swami teaching after services]
Often after Sunday services, Swami Aseshananda would retire to a sitting room off of the main hall. He would settle into a chair and those of us who had stayed would gather around, sitting on chairs, cushions, or the rug. His sermons  involved anecdotes, stories and sometimes parables (or even jokes - he had a wonderful sense of humor), and during this more private time he would take questions about things he had said, answering and going into greater depth; he explained the day's lesson, subtle meanings, translations of passages that he had spoken in Hindi - (his native tongue, which he had a tendency to slip into) - things he wanted to be sure we understood.We listened and hoped we had ears to truly hear.

[With love & humor - Boston]
So as I read about Jesus teaching the parables and then explaining about them to a smaller group of devotees who stayed behind to catch whatever words he cared to share - I see myself there. I imagine I'm sitting on the ground, surrounded by others who want to be closer to him, and to discuss and understand the deeper meanings of things; sitting at his feet and feeding on his words, being nourished within and filled with the joy of his presence.

 I try to be in this place as often as I can when I'm reading scripture; but it's especially easy with the parables, when Jesus' disciples gathered around after the crowds had gone to hear what's really been said and to gather the darshan of sitting at the master's feet.

* As a note - even after becoming a Christian, I still tend to view things through a Vedantic lens, especially in seeing all the major world religions as different paths to the same end. Happy to expound on that as asked.
** I found this footage online; Swami Aseshananda in the rose garden at the Portland Center, c.1980. Video credit: Mondaymedia (YouTube)
*** Photo credits (in order): Vedanta Society of Portland, Mother's Trust Ashram Michigan, Vedanta Society of St. Louis. The caption behind Swami in the Boston photo is from the Rig Veda: "God is one. Men call Him by different names".


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Jesus was an Introvert

I've been studying the Book of Mark over the last couple of weeks (NRSV, with the KJV for comparison), and one thing that jumped out at me was that Jesus was an introvert. Not in the sense of being shy or withdrawn around others, (which from all accounts, he wasn't), but by the definition I've become more familiar and agree with: one who needs to "recharge" alone and is usually uncomfortable in large crowds. In this context, an extrovert is one who recharges in a group, who is nourished by the energy of a gathering of people. While I think most folks are somewhere on a spectrum in-between the two poles, I have known and lived with some true introverts - and by the same set of explanations, would define myself as more of an extrovert; but ok, I digress - other than to say that it puts me "on the outside, looking in", (ooh, for ten points - name that band!), which makes introverts somewhat of an enigma to me.

In Mark 1:34-35, after Jesus heals the many who have gathered around him in Capernaum (a city in Galilee which seems to have been his home), we read:
"Rising up a great while before day, he went out and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed." (King James Version - because I like the poetic feel of it. The NRSV says, "while it was still very dark" and, "a deserted place" - take your pick).
In and of itself, this could just be what it sounds like - a man who gets up very early in the morning to pray to his God in private. Not a bad idea and not an indicator of personality, so much as preference. When his companions come to find him and say that "everyone is searching" for Jesus, he tells them it's time to leave and go to other towns, to help people there. Not fleeing the crowd, just doing (in his own words), what he came to do.

In the beginning of Mark 2 we're back in Capernaum and another crowd has gathered around. After healing as many as he can reach, including a paralyzed man whose friends tore a hole in the roof of Jesus' house and lowered him down on a bed (!), he went out to walk by the sea (one of my favorite places to recharge) but was soon followed by a crowd, so began to teach them there while he walked. In the context of what follows in the next chapter (and in other books of the New Testament), I get the feeling that the rabbi was attempting to have some time to himself to re-group after doing so much with and for so many people, to get back some of the energy he had expended and regain some equilibrium.

Arial view of Capernaum - credit:
So what follows?

I offer you the book of Mark, Chapter 3. Again Jesus leaves the town to go walk by the sea with his disciples and teach them. A "great multitude" follows him, and the rabbi asks his students to have a boat ready so that he can teach from a safer location where he won't end up being crushed by a well-meaning crowd. Did he literally fear being crushed - or was he just feeling anxiety, having so many people surrounding him?

When he went back home, the crowd followed him and thronged around him so that he couldn't get inside his own house to have dinner with his family (friends in the KJV). It is then stated that his family or friends,
"went out to restrain him, for people were saying, 'he has gone out of his mind'"
Interestingly and as a side note, this is one of those passages that Biblical historians point to as making the argument for authenticity (not necessarily of the text verbatim, but more as a testament to the incident related). Why? They postulate that if a writer was making up tales to "glorify" someone or prove that person's import or gravitas, stories about the subject seeming to go mad so that parents and friends need to restrain him - would not likely be included. You wouldn't want this revered teacher to look unstable, so the editors would have edited and the redactors would have redacted. Hence, many feel that the fact that stories like this were left in the canon lends a bit of credence to the telling.

Right. Back to the scene in front of Jesus' house. I think I can see it pretty clearly - anxiety turns to panic, panic turns to a full-blown freak-out, so people think he's gone crazy - and all he wants is some quiet time around a family table. He is feeling drained and needs to recharge. Does he fear or hate the crowd that surrounds him? No; when told that his mother and brothers are trying to reach him, Jesus tells the crowd that they - his fellow believers and followers - are all his family, his "mother and brothers and sisters". He loves them - but he needs time away, space to breath, room to pray, meditate and be renewed.

I have made note of this theme in episodes throughout the New Testament where Jesus seeks a place of solitude up a mountain, in the woods or down by the sea, sometimes rising long before others and "sneaking away" as it were, to ensure he gets a little privacy and quiet.  Luke 5:16 may sum it up best:
"... he withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed"... 

Jesus was an introvert.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Bible as Journal

It occurred to me this morning to look at the Bible as a series of journal entries.  I was originally going to qualify that as "parts of the Bible that aren't letters" - but haven't you ever recorded a letter you'd written in your journal, so that you'd have it to look at later?  Or written a letter you'd like to send, but didn't? So - the Bible as Journal.

I began thinking about this this morning. I was reading Mark 2:2-28 and hearing three distinct stories or entries: a recollection of Jesus at home in Capernaum with so many people there to listen to him that there wasn't even standing room left out in front of the house; one of Jesus going out to the seaside and teaching as he went; and a story about going through the grain fields on the sabbath.

I think one of the troubles people get into with the Bible - let's single out the New Testament for this - is trying to reconcile all the books into one coherent storyline; as if told in one piece, in chronological order and sometimes as having been written by only five authors - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John & Paul. Biblical scholars have long since debunked the 5-author theory - there are just too many "voices" in each area to have been written by one person alone, and too much evidence that many of the stories were written before or after certain events - testifying to their authorship a hundred or more years after their occurrence. We also know that the hands - and opinions - of many editors and redactors touched each story and sometimes corrected or changed the translation, an interpretation - or in places completely re-wrote or added their own thoughts. The canon has been gathered and selected from scrolls and papyri, with many stories and even entire books left out, such as the books of the Apocrypha, a collection known as the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, and the Dead Sea Scrolls; but I'll leave canonical selection for another time. For now, lets look at the stories and letters that made it into the Official Book, and see if we can view it from a new angle. Again - the Bible as journal.

There is a book I've read (at least in part... I like to think "mostly" but probably not), called, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. It's a collection of diary entries by a disciple who sat at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna (who I believe I've mentioned before) and recorded whatever he'd heard and seen each day and night. So it's a verified personal account of someone who was there and wrote it all down - who journaled his experiences. And there are photographs in it - photography was young but good enough to capture the guru and his disciples. Can you imagine? To sit at the feet of Ramakrishna - or the Buddha - or Jesus. To watch, listen and absorb everything you can and then write it down in your journal each night before going to sleep. And to see photographs - photographs of Jesus, teaching his followers! How amazing it would have been.

When I read the gospels, Acts, non-canonical books, I can imagine the author scribbling in a diary or on a piece of papyrus or cloth after a day of listening to Jesus - or many years later, to one who followed Him... or a student of that person, years or even generations down the line... attempting to capture as much as s/he heard or witnessed, so that others who weren't there could learn of and from what happened, so many more years later. But what it really does is give me a way to imagine myself sitting at Jesus' feet on a quiet hillside or following behind him in a crowd trying to catch up, as he walks and teaches by the Sea of Galilee... to be one of the people trying to remember all that is said and done, and to commit it to writing for those who come after me. What an amazing thing.

The books of the Bible - and the letters as well - were written, re-written and collected over many hundred years; they've been sorted, re-organized and winnowed, translated, edited and re-translated... and then stitched into something like a coherent story, to try and patch together an experience of being there with Jesus when he spoke and healed and worked miracles. How much has gotten lost in translation or hasn't even been discovered? And yet, how amazing it is to have this collection... a gathering of writings, letters and stories recorded over the years and through different generations... that tries to bring us closer to a man who was a mystery and a miracle himself. Are there errors? Of course - some of these stories were recorded by disciples and students of students of Jesus, in an attempt to record a story they'd heard about what the Rabbi might have been trying to say. Have things been left out? How not, when the oldest books are nearly 2,000 years old and much was passed down through oral tradition? But think of it as diary entries recording what Jesus taught, preached and did, passed down from those who were there to others, in the hope of imparting wisdom, of reaching down through the centuries to share what it was like. A collection from so many journals, stitched together to bring the Word of God - the story of Love, Charity, Sacrifice, of Healing, Justice and Hope - here and now to our ears. /11/19/14

Friday, November 14, 2014

Becoming John

I have always had an affinity for John the Baptist - or John the baptizer, as the NRSV Bible refers to him, which I have come to prefer (after all, "The Baptist" was never John's last name, any more than "Christ" was Jesus' - but that's a blog for another time). So - I have always had an affinity for John the baptizer. I say "always" because when I was very young, maybe 6 or 7, my mother was in the musical Godspell, and I would hear her rehearsing her songs and listening to the score. I loved musicals and singing, and was usually drawn to one character more than others (a few years later, when Jesus Christ Superstar came out, I wanted to be Jesus - but I digress), and the part I wanted to play was the opening voice, the prophet who shouts, "Preeee-pare ye the way of the Lord!"... and that would be John.

At age 20, when I read the Bible for the first time, I got excited to see that the Book of Matthew was where Godspell had drawn its text (yes, it is listed on the play bill, but at 6 or 7 I didn't notice such things). So this book, that was something of an enigma to an un-churched (and Pagan) younger me, was already familiar to me - or at least had parts that were, which at the time was plenty encouraging. And there it was, that invitation: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! I heard the music in my head as I read much of Matthew, beginning with that beautifully-intoned first line, and in places I couldn't help singing along.

I met with our rector, Phil, a few days ago to discuss my feeling of being called (again, really) to ordained ministry. One of the earlier things he said to me in our one-and-a-half-hour conversation was that we all have and are drawn to roles and ways of ministering that vary widely - and that I am: an Evangelist. And a Teacher, but we'll leave that for now. An evangelist (see, I can lower that first "e", even). That surprised me - isn't that "The E-word" in our church, the thing we all agree to at baptism but usually conveniently forget and tuck away in our spiritual closets somewhere, hoping it never demands to see the light of day? I mean sure, as Christians we're called upon to ev... to do that thing... but many, especially us Progressives, tend to get embarrassed by the mere thought and certainly prefer not to use or hear the word come up in polite conversation. Just setting the stage here.

But if I strip away the stigma of the word and the (to me) hateful way it's been abused by some Christian groups and individuals (who are, unfortunately, the loud and often-heard voice of Christianity in America), I realize he's right: in a (sometimes) quieter, and (hopefully) invitational way, I suppose I do evangelize - I like to share my own experiences and the things that have brought me to where I am (when I'm happy and doing well), or away and out of it (when I'm not), and I do get enthusiastic about it - because it matters to me. I can't help but comment on Facebook posts or in conversations, to try and correct people's perceptions when they post or say, "Well, The Christians are at it again", or, "Christians say that...(insert inane broad generalization here)"... because that's as accurate as saying, "(All) People with blue eyes say that..." or some such. Point being, some (perhaps many) people I know and encounter have a tendency to make sweeping categorical statements, as if all people who call themselves Christian believe and behave in exactly the same way - making all Christians accountable for the opinions and sometimes bad behavior of (once again) a publicly loud minority.

I try to live in a way that feels authentic to me and on a path that's always striving towards God. And so here I am, in the role I wanted to play, raising my voice to say, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord" - make a path for God (or if you prefer, for Love and Grace) in your heart and in your life - to any who will hear. It's not surprising, then, that the subject I chose to make an icon of (no, not one of those - think Eastern Orthodox paintings) was St. John the Baptist as an angel - wings and all. Christians - most Christians or those who hold themselves to the baptismal vows as a guideline - make it a goal to live their lives "as Jesus did" or as "the hands of Jesus in the world" - WWJD, is indeed not a bad qualifier. Perhaps my role within that is to live more as John lived - or at least to reach out as he did, to invite and draw others to or back to a path and remind them that they are still - and always - beloved of God.

It's what has worked for me, in various patterns and under different names, so it's the most precious thing I have to share. /11/14/14