2,000 Dead

This morning, the first of many emails arrived in my inbox. It was the first of several of my activist emails that I am too quick to delete these days. It was the first to announce that the death toll of American troops had reached 2,000. While rain storms the city, 2,000 American women, men and children are dead today. Dead in a war that some of us never wanted. Dead in a war that I don't know how to deal with. Dead, like Rosa Parks. May they all rest in God's peace.

Does this mean it's the end of an era? Is the civil rights movement really over with the death of this courageous woman? Do 2,000 more need to die in the name of terrorism and freedom for us to realize the injustice? Is this really only the beginning of the end?

Tonight, I gathered with four of my fellow students and sang about hope. Perhaps out of season. Perhaps just a little too early. We lifted our voices to the God among us singing "Come O Come Emmanuel". The last verse of this hymn (rewritten by Henry Sloane Coffin) speaks the words on my heart:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
Fill all the world with heaven's peace

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.


Gospel Celebration?

Greeted by signs to validate parking and security rope at the entrance of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, I can’t help but wonder about sacred space. As I wonder up the stairs to the balcony of this theatre, I notice the murals on the walls. A black man baptizing a white child in a river is the first to strike my eye. Next t it, a white preacher preaches to a large auditorium. Walking through the doors, I realize that we are in an auditorium. This is truly a theatre. And again, I wonder about sacred space?

We were pushed (or guided?) to the far right of upper balcony to allow worship participants to fill in the space closer to the door. No matter how much I urge people to the front rows of the chapel to create that same space, I’m hurt by this weird sense of welcoming. I feel like I should be looking at my ticket for the right seat.

But, it seems that I should have a ticket. I would need one to be on the inside of this gathering. I would need a ticket to know that I’m in the right place. With the purchase of this ticket, I would know what I was getting into. I would be prepared for this kind of experience. My wanderings about sacred space are only compounded by a forced notion of praise. I had a wonderful morning, the kind of morning that makes me sing in celebration of the vocation that has chosen me. But, as I enter this space, I wonder about what would happen if I was having a bad day. What if I wasn’t ready to praise? What if I needed to lament? There was no space for this in the midst of the singing.

But then, I saw why. As the pastor introduced a couple that had lost their daughter last week to a brutal murder, there was only praise. There was only hope that this woman was with God. There was no space for these parents – or the deceased woman’s children – to feel any other human emotion. Grief was skipped over. Sadness was obliterated in joyous singing.

“How can I keep from singing?” This was a hymn that I heard played during the Introit at worship this morning. It is a song of joy and praise, unlike the songs that I heard belted from the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Perhaps music has the power to transcend words, but I don’t believe this to be true. As the choir sang, I felt explosions. I felt the bombs of spiritual warfare explode in my face. And I knew that I could keep from signing. I felt numb. As this music overwhelmed my mortal frame, I felt nothing but weakness. I wanted to curl up into a fetal position. I wanted to retreat.

But, as I looked around me, I saw the rest of the congregation singing along. I saw these worshippers lifting their hands to reach toward a God that is ever separate from their experience. I saw this congregation participate in the charade. And I couldn’t help but wonder, why? When I want to retreat from this place of intense spiritual violation, why are these people relishing in the experience? Or am I missing something? Do I lack the ability to be wrapped into the presence of the Holy Spirit in this place?

Or was the Holy Spirit even there? Was this anything more than a theatrical spectacular? The pastor referred to the congregation as an “audience.” He requested that the musician “play some music to divert attention from the noise on the steps” as the choir descended from the stage. The lights raised and lowered to focus our attention on certain aspects of the service. The pastor waited impatiently filling time with empty words “before we go to black,” while the choir returned to their seats. Like a spotlight directing our attention, the entire worship experience was oriented around providing us the proper guidance as to what we should be paying attention to in this space.

If music is what carries this congregation, then why can’t they keep from signing? What lifts their voices to be able to sign these terrible songs filled with brutal images of blood and empty images of Heaven? Does this music offer a saving experience or does it manipulate the congregation? Interspersed with film clips about saving stories about Born-Again Christians, these songs sing of a certain kind of faith. These explosive songs of Christian soldiers sing of a faith that is without any area of grey. These violent songs manipulate the emotional state of the congregation to create a particular response. Is this worship? Or is this theatre? Or is this just plain spiritual violation?


Hip Hop Church

Tonight, I went to a worship service outside of my own context. It's a different tradition. It's a different environment. It's just plain different on many levels. And perhaps what was most different about this service was the music -- hip hop. I'm surprised (and I must admit a tad disappointed) that this church is the only one in Harlem that is "brave enough" to welcome children and youth into its doors to play with worship. Kids were rapping. Kids were moving about in the space. Kids were talking about what God really means to them. It was real. It was worship should be about -- especially with our children.

I think the music was great. It's not what play on my iPod. But, I think it's great. What I don't like is our differences. I know that we do not have the same theology. But, there is something about this that truly bothers me. But before I begin whining about this difference, let's start with the Word. As the preacher said (and I really liked this), This is the Word of God for the People of God that we might not hear the Word but that we might do the Word. But, in this case, read and I will do my bit:

This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.
John 15:12-15, KJV

The preacher focused on that middle bit about friendship. We all have someone that we can count on. We have someone that will be there through thick and thin. Great, I hope that we are all that lucky because that is truly a blessing. And Lord knows that true friendships are rare and precious. Then, he jumps into this thing about if that loyal and trusting friend would die for you. Now, my boy Martin Luther King Jr. once said that you haven't found a reason to live if you haven't found something to die for. I struggle with this. While it elevates the precious gift that life truly is, doesn't it also affirm all that terrible atonement stuff? Aren't we falling back into this mode of needing to be a good Christian? This is that self-sacrificing stuff. We are supposed to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. This faith teaches that we are supposed to offer our own lives to follow the will of God. I just have to ask: how can you be so certain?

When women stay in abusive marriages because they are doing the right thing by Christ, how can you be so sure? When a child never hears an affirming word from a parent, how can you be so sure? When a woman is raped but believes it was the will of God because she was in that place and that time, how can you be so sure? The permutations are endless. The abuse doesn't stop. The violence only increases. How in the world can you be so sure?

And if you are sure, then why is offering one's life the only mark of friendship? What about how Jesus healed? What about the love that Jesus offered before the cross? What about the sharing of food? What about all of that other stuff? When we spend time to reflect on the kind of friend that Jesus was... to Mary, to the Beloved Disciple, to Peter, to John... do we find no other alternative than self sacrificing love? Is there another way that Jesus demonstrated his vast and awesome love for humankind? If we think about this kind of love -- where Jesus washed feet, shared what he had and kept the party going in Cana -- isn't there another kind of friendship? Isn't this what that last verse is really about? Or is it tied up in this will of God that you nor I can define simply because we are not God.


Conversations until 5 am

Every once in a while, you have one of those conversations. They are the kind of conversations that charactertize college. You know the ones. Where you hang on every word and share talk about... well, everything. Every once in a while, they happen in seminary. But it seems that these amazing conversations that last until the wee hours of the morning usually happen with college friends.

So I got the honor of one of these conversations with my old friend Brent last night. I met Brent ten years ago (which surprised us both last night) when he was my RA at a summer art program at the college we both attended -- though I would not enroll until after he graduated. We don't see each other very often but like good friends -- time and distance doesn't really affect friendship. You just pick up where you left off.

Smoking cloves, we started to talk about what really matters. We talked until 5 am. Though it's messed up my day and I won't get most of the things that I should have gotten done today, I'm so glad that I got to talk to my old friend Brent. I'm so excited that I got to spend that time with him.


Hear my prayer?

A friend of mine introduced me to Amos Lee when she burned me his one and only CD. It has been my favorite soundtrack for easing my anxiety in the midst of subway congestion (as every moment has its own unique soundtrack). But, of course, this soundtrack on my iPod is nothing compared to hearing this young man croon from the stage of a packed concert hall. Lee has this intensely humble presence on the stage, which may be simply because of his newness in this business. In this humble man, I was most touched by his sincere and deep love for the music. You could hear it in his voice with each note he sang. You could see it when he turned away from the audience to relish in the sound like a teenager in a garage band. You could feel his intense love and passion for this music. And dare I say, it was contagious.

It was contagious without all of the bells and whistles. Lee’s melodies did not need all of the flashing lights. What is it with flashing lights at concerts? In fact, why do some churches recreate this sort of experience in worship? What in the world does it say about our God or the people of God? Do we need all of this flashy nonsense to discover who we are in God’s image? That just seems silly. I think the same is true for Lee. He only needed one spotlight – one simple spotlight – that would wander from Lee to the other dynamic members of his band. When one’s sound is that contagious, you don’t need more than a spotlight.

And yet, packed in with all of these other people, it seems that it was not enough. We have this tendency to need to create things bigger and better. But, I found myself sharing Lee’s frustration in this hullabaloo. With every frustrated glance he gave to the eager teenagers singing along, I found myself wanting nothing more than to dive deeper into the music. I wanted to swim into the sound that his band created. I wanted to be immersed in whatever this weird energy was. It’s not the toe-tapping kind of music that makes one want to dance. But, nor was it music that you want to roll down the windows of the car to sing along with on a hot summer day. Instead, it’s the kind of sound that transports you to another place. And yet, I have no idea what that place was.

Wherever this place may be, it is most definitely a place of protest. It is a place of dissent. Maybe it will be a place like Qum’ran, where people gather out of frustration with what is or was to create something that will be. This would be a place where the set list would be followed, as requests need not be made with the gentle and humble leadership of the cantor. And Amos Lee would be just that cantor. He would sing about our frustration and anger. He would call out injustices. He would name them with the words that we failed to find in ordinary speech. He would sing them as he did in his second to last song,

Anybody out there?
Hear my prayer?

With these words, Lee invited us to pray – just as a cantor leads the people to reach toward God. While my parallels to Qum’ran may tarnish the authenticity of this moment, I was truly moved by the power of this call to prayer. I wanted there to be more. I didn’t want this mantra-like chant to end. I was truly caught in the power of prayer. But, as with most secular settings, moments of prayer get lost just as easily as intelligent lyrics about how Jesus would not pay taxes or support the troops fade into the beautiful harmonies.

As a future minister who even today struggles to teach children songs that might sing their faith, I am left with the question of how do we continue this spirit? Without the silly lights and glitz of the stage, how do we capture that powerful action of song in a way that transports us to an idealized place like our own Qum’ran? Couldn’t the church be just like that?


Blessing All Creation

This morning, I went to the Blessing of the Animals at St. John the Divine. It's one of those services -- or rather events -- in New York City that people say you MUST see while living in the city. Now, it's a worship service in the Christian tradition in all actuality. And yet, sitting in this packed Cathedral, I was disappointed with the lack of the holy. To bring animals into a worship space and celebrate God's creation is a wonderful, important and prophetic action. St. John the Divine has been said to do it best. And yet, how do we claim a sacred space? I mean, let's really celebrate all creation. Great. But, don't silence the congregation in doing so! Dogs are welcomed to bark and yap while children are hushed. Animals process down the aisle in all their glory while the congregation is not called forth into any procession. How do we cherish our own sacred creation when we are not invited to sing, dance and pray from our own hearts and with our own voices? To celebrate God's creation is to celebrate all of these noises and awkward movements. Are we really supposed to sit idle and lame while the clergy and dancers do all the action for us? Doesn't this come awfully damn close to something that should be found in the Theatre District rather than God's house?

The Dean of the Cathedral preached about evolution. While I appreciate his stand on including the value of scientific exploration within a practice of faith, I squirm with this lack of concern about the federal government's role in this divide. We cannot be prophetic without criticizing the forms of power that oppress God's people and creatures from relishing in divine glory. To speak of President Bush without questioning his place in this is pure bullshit.

This is unique day that we celebrate St. Francis where the people from all over the city (and animals from Westchester) arrive at the doors of St. John the Divine. This is day that we should be talking about how we relate to this created world and each other, right? At least, that's what I thought. Perhaps we should even dwell on the Scripture in Matthew 6 (though perhaps an exegetical sermon is too much to ask). How can we not worry about clothing or food? How can we not worry about tomorrow when our world faces destruction? When levies have broken, tsunamis have flooded, rainforests are destroyed and our air is filled with toxins, how can we not worry about tomorrow? Where in God's name is the the realm of God in this mess? How can we only worry about today's worries? Perhaps we need to stay with this question a little longer. It should be part of our search toward wholeness -- not something limited to academia and its ivory towers. To commune with nature and realize our place within it's blessed creation doesn't require my study of John Cobb, Sallie MacFague or Larry Rasmussen. It comes when I pet a neighbor's dog. It happens when I smell a flower. It happens in a Farmer's Market on 116th Street. It comes when we step outside and realize that we are all a part of God's wonderful make and creation. This is what we should have celebrated this morning in the middle of this performance at St. John the Divine. Or should I say, this is what we should begin to celebrate at St. John the Divine and continue outside its regal doors.

God forgive us.