Friday, September 30, 2011

I face a difficult decision, whether I want to move to Mott Haven, an area of the South Bronx, with some Christians who appear to be very alive, very focused in their energy towards reforming the world in Christian love, or stay here, in an area that is comfortable, that is easier and more convenient, for many of my activities.  I know exactly what I am called to do in my faith.  The only caveats would be that I am not very much interested in having a windowless room, or a room that others are going to be walking through.  The only way I could imagine it could work is if indeed my room was the living room area, and we created some kind of curtain or divider so that it was my private space.

Even doing this, I fear I'd be unhappy after a short time.  I fear that I'd grow resentful and angry towards my roommates' intrusions, when I was trying to concentrate, or something like that.  Then again, I also know that I get my energy from being around others, so perhaps there'd be a way to make that work.

I am honestly very divided on this; I would want to be able to make it last at least a while.  And if it didn't, I guess I fear that I'd have to go somewhere that was even less appealing than what I have now.

Is there a way to be amongst these people more often without moving there for now?  Hmm.  Their Bible study times, and their prayer times in the early morning, are accessible if I want to do it--  I need some time to think it over.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


The God who is before me, who looks at me, calls out to me. God raises me up, so that I can become truly myself, the one I am meant to be. ‘I have called you by your name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 47:1). Now, in that calling, there is also God’s challenge to me: the challenge to emerge from shadows and darkness, to enter more fully into truthfulness, and live in the light. The holiness and truth of the God of love challenges me in this way. The prophet Ezechiel realised this especially. At a time of destruction in Jerusalem and ensuing exile, Ezechiel was called to absorb the burning word of God, and speak to the devastated people, to raise them up, and bring them back to a renewed living of faith. He saw himself therefore as a sentry or watchman to the House of Israel (Ezechiel 3:17-21; 33: 7-9). And so it is today. We are called forth to live in the light, to abide by the truth – the light and truth of God. So whenever I hear someone calling out prophetically in this way, then their challenge is also a blessing for me. And in my own heart, in my prayer, the Lord who is present before me also calls me forth, to live with integrity, and truth, and love. Indeed, the whole course of my life, and the challenges facing me in it, might be summed up by those words inscribed on the memorial tablet of Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-90), ‘Ex umbris et imaginibus in Veritatem.’ - ‘Out of the shadows and images and into the Truth’.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is the Tree of Life a "religious" film?

RELIGION- a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies...

A few nights ago, I was at an East Village bar with some friends and we started giving our take on Terrence Malick's love-it or hate-it epic The Tree of Life. When someone mentioned that it depicts the creation of the universe, Sharon, a young photographer, asked, "Is it a religious film?"  her friend Mike immediately said, "No" as if that very idea would be insulting.  "No no," Mike said, "Malick's background is in philosophy, guys like Heidegger and all that. He's into asking metaphysical questions."

I now think that Mike was way off, and that the Tree of Life is an intensely religious film.  It's just not necessarily a very Christian film, or at least what one might expect of that label.

"The Tree of Life" is about a Christian family in the 1950s, as remembered by their eldest son Jack (played by Hunter McCracken.)  Christianity is a huge part of the family's life, though each parent emphasizes different aspects of religion . Mother (Jessica Chastain) raises her sons to live with grace, love and selflessness, while The Father (Brad Pitt) demands discipline and obedience and teaches them to be suspicious of the evil in the world.  That conflict brews confusion and resentment in the children, over how they ought live.

Above all this is the central question hovering over the film, which is the question at the heart of every religion.  It's the question we ask when we go to church, synagogue or mosque, when we kneel down to pray, or when burdens fall on us-"Where is God?"

This is the question that haunts Jack as he grows up in a home supposedly infused by Christianity but filled with violence and fear.  It's what his mother demands to know when one of her sons dies.   It's what his father fears to ask as he watches his dreams start to crumble. 

Where the film loses its Christian thread is when Malick tries to answer the question.  Instead of somehow making a case for Christianity, Malick argues that God is all around us, in creation.  To make the point, he starts the film with a graphic showing God's words to Job:
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?..When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?" JOB 38:4-7
He then follows this with a film version of the beginning of the Genesis story: 25 minutes showing the creation of the cosmos, set to a background of hyms and requiems.
However just like God's response to Job, Malick's answer is unsatisfying.  Showing the divinity of creation doesn't answer WHY God allows us to suffer, why he allows evil in the world and good people to be punished.  And when Malick tries to go further, showing images of an "Earth Mother" reaching out to The Mother in grief, or a beach where all people from all time meet, his images become as vague and frustrating as they are beautiful. 

In the end, the Tree of Life works best as a coming-of-age story, as Jack struggles to grow from both his father's fearful discipline and his mother's selfless grace.  His bigger questions about the presence of God are definitely worth asking, but Malick's answers seem so far outside the lives of his characters that they ring untrue to the story. 

Even with its imperfections, though, The Tree Of Life remains one of the most visually stunning and affecting films I've ever seen.  It absolutely will leave you frustrated with unanswered questions about the nature of God and the universe, but the very fact that I could leave the film in that state is proof of its power.

I have walked out of church on Sunday on many occasions, feeling numb, my mind on brunch or the afternoon's activities.  Many pastors spend a lifetime trying to get their congregations to leave their doors with an impassioned curiosity about God and humanity.  Malick has accomplished that here, along with creating a visual masterpiece. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Spirit moves at the Wild Goose festival

This weekend, I traveled with my house church, Transmission, to the Wild Goose Festival, a Christian social justice and arts event in North Carolina near Raleigh. I didn’t know what to expect: I was mostly going to get away from New York and enjoy some nature. I was astounded by what I received. Over 3 days, some 50 hours of total programming, there were at least three to five different events happening at every waking hour.

I slept little with all the activity, yet amazingly, no matter how sleep-deprived, sweaty or exhausted I got, I was never cranky. By the end of the first talk I attended on Friday, I could feel a quiet energy, a kind of spiritual adrenaline, coursing through me. I found myself feeling like a freshman student, eager to soak in all the experience I could, and Wild Goose was eager to feed me.

The festival offered new energy for my spiritual and political beliefs, along with intellectual challenges, great conversation, and awesome music. All within the beautiful Shakori Hills farm, where blue skies and starry nights made for a gorgeous weekend.

The farm was divided into several different spots: a large main stage and lawn for concerts, several big tents for popular speakers, a coffeehouse or “coffee barn” for poetry readings and small group discussion, and smaller tents for art and writing workshops, and various Christian causes looking to recruit volunteers. My favorite spaces were the Social Justice Gazebo discussion space, and the Spiritual Direction Trolley Car. That one was supposedly a spot for individual counseling, but it spent most of the weekend as a jungle gym for the little kids.

The festival attracted a wide swath of personalities: teenagers, college kids, families with newborns, elderly couples, straight, gay and trans, and plenty of tattoos and piercings along with Bibles and crosses. However, the turnout was also rather racially uniform, aside from a few speakers from minority races.

It was harder to tell if those present represented the country’s variety of political views: all I know for sure is the presentations sure didn’t. The talks all had a progressive bent, looking at HOW to move on the agenda, rather than what our agenda ought to be in the first place. At one point, my friend Isaac remarked that if we were truly being all-inclusive that there would be at least one talk on whether homosexuality was a sin to match all the talks on LGBT equality.

However, I needed the nourishment the festival offered, even in its uniformly progressive tone. As the saying goes, you may be preaching to the choir, but sometimes the choir needs to hear some good preaching!

It was great to see firebrands like Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo and Jim Forbes stirring up the crowds, calling for a reflection on our nation’s and our churches’ priorities. I also discovered new voices like Mark Scandrette and Carl McColman, who preached respectively on how small group experiments and contemplation can fuel our justice efforts.

Among the mostly comforting and energizing talks, there were only a few truly provocative moments. Brandon Sipes gave a challenging talk about avoiding adversarial relationships even with those we consider oppressors; he discussed the difficulties of reaching out to American military members even when angered by their actions. I was impressed by how grounded Sipes was in experiencing the shades of grey of modern politics, and how difficult it can be to label who our enemies are.

The most provocative and contentious discussion was led by Tony Jones, a radical Christian apologist, who hosted a talk called “Why Pray?” Jones argued that our usual motives for praying to God - either changing God’s mind or trying to effect changes in ourselves -- don’t hold up under scrutiny. The first doesn’t seem to work in daily life (prayers go unanswered all the time) and the second isn’t in line what Jesus taught.

Jones managed to both challenge and somewhat annoy just about everyone present by insisting on the need for a rational apologist argument for prayer. Among the many challenges to his claims, there was one I loved. An older gentleman said that Jones’ question reminded him of when his young daughter had once asked the purpose of he and his wife making love. He replied, “There’s no reason. We just do it because we love each other.” And so with prayer.

Unlike other big moments in my spiritual life, I didn’t have any one great spiritual high at Wild Goose, no one discernible moment where I heard God speak to me. However, what I experienced here was just as important: the miraculous power of the spirit moving his people gathered together. All of us hungry, all of us open, all eager to find better ways to love and love deeply our God and neighbor.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A good challenge

Tonight I visited with the Community of Communities, a network of small groups and interdenominational progressive churches in the city. The meeting tonight was to plan social justice activities around Lent, the idea being that we would take certain themes for the six weeks, like poverty, education, immigration reform, sex trafficking, or health issues, and try to pray, reflect and take some kind of action on those issues each week.
In truth, I felt like there were some good ideas, but overall I was tired by it, especially the introduction where each of us was asked to think about an injustice we were witnessing in the city. Maybe it was just because I hadn't eaten much dinner, but somehow hearing 30 people each talk about the injustice they were seeing was exhausting to me. I felt like there was little inspiration in what I heard.
There was one gentleman, James Macklin, a preacher and worker with the Bowery Mission, who I found inspiring. He spoke about coming out of homelessness himself, and about how homelessness can best be fought, one person at a time, one soul at a time making it whole. And I was struck by him, his attitude and conviction.
At times, the meeting scared me a bit also in how convinced people were about the power of Christ to make a difference. I know that sounds bizarre, but I guess some part of me is incredibly suspicious or guarded these days about people speaking of the power of Christ in our lives. I don't know what I'm expecting them to do, but as soon as the topic turned to abortion, I knew I was expecting for people to be saying abortions should be illegal.
Yet within the audience there were clearly those who knew that abortion was a sensitive topic for people, and they made it clear that the first priority was building bridges rather than burning them.

What was most disturbing though for me happened during the closing. As we did our closing prayers, the people praying started using that ecstatic tone that I fear. That "Father God we just open our hearts father God to you Lord yes Jesus we need you Father God to lead us Father God to the true way Lord Jesus..."that repetition, that pounding out, that emphatic pulsating rhythm that for some people is a great way to come into the spirit of the Lord, but for me leads to panic. My heart starts beating fast and I feel like I can't breathe. I've felt the same way since the first times I experienced it back in college: I can't explain why, but it's in me. I guess next time I'll just have to be ready for it if it happens again. (Or leave before they start.)

I pray that God will help me see the cynicism and jadedness within me and begin to melt it. Even though sometimes these things seem like survival skills for life in the city, I know they are tools, just like any emotional tool, that have their place, but that also must be put away at times. And I pray that God will help me sit with those whose style of prayer is so much different than mine, and who indeed scare me with their fervency. I pray that I might better understand that they are indeed looking for very much the same connection I'd like, but only seeking it in a very different way.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Amid the many questions emerging after the tragedy in Arizona, there's only one that keeps on coming back to me: how can someone who was told he could not return to his school until he'd had a mental health evaluation have the legal ability to then go and purchase a Glock 9 mm semiautomatic, let alone any kind of gun?

I do not oppose gun rights. In fact, one of the men who helped tackle Jared Loughner, Joe Zamudio, said his handgun made him feel more confident to go back into the mall and help stop Loughner. But the complete lack of background checks for mental health or flags from police or the local community before purchasing an assault weapon is to me astounding.

When asked about whether he'd favor stricter gun control laws after the incident, Mitch McConnell said in Kentucky that Loughner would have gone ahead with his violence regardless of the weapon. However, it seems obvious that the amount of lives lost and injuries done, as well as the potential violence that didn't happen, would have been far lessened if this man had been checked and logically barred from purchasing assault weapons.

Loughner in my mind is now a poster child for a thorough background check before the sale of assault weapons. I would hope those who believe in gun rights also see that public safety is best served by having people's background checked before such purchases. Given the power of these weapons to easily take so many lives, it seems a reasonable request of the public.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Given what’s going on in the world today, I feel compelled to say that Marx had a lot of things right. It seems ever more evident that we are dividing here into the haves and the have nots, and those classes are at war. Not all the haves are fighting the have nots, but there are enough out there doing so, fighting for their own good, that the have nots are losing out.

As I hear about Haiti losing its industries because of pressure to buy cheaper exports from abroad, and the same thing happening in the US, killing many of our industries with the influx of Chinese products, I think to myself that with globalization, international inherited debt, unregulated speculation, and tax favoritism towards the wealthy, we are creating a world where the wealthy will survive while the middle class will work either till death or until they are no longer able to work. And the poor will turn to violence, while struggling with disease, ignorance, bad health, imprisonment, drugs, teen pregnancy, pollution of every form, and the rest of us will try to avoid them as best we can, cordon ourselves off from them. And the chief measure of wealth will be whether one is truly able to cordon themselves off from poverty or not.

Do I sound hopeless? I am relatively hopeless, after what I’ve seen. Jon Stewart said in that book forum that life has improved so much for many of us, in no longer “drinking from the water we once shitted in” and such. And yes, many things have improved. There is no longer child labor in the United States. There is public education. Our police are relatively reliable. Women can vote. All people can vote. And I can walk down the street with a black girlfriend and marry a black woman, without starting a riot. And we have elected a black man for the first time to an office that used to be all white.

There have been some improvements, and many of them have trickled down to the poor. Maybe part of my cynicism comes in comparing our current America not so much to the America that Stewart spoke of the early 1900s, but to the America of the 1950s, where there was a strong middle class base. Is the cup half empty or full? For the unemployed person without health insurance or a pension, I’d say it’s completely empty. And the philosophical approach that Mr. Stewart can afford to take is justifiable in one sense, but unhelpful to that unemployed worker who’s wondering what happened to the American Dream- work hard, get a pension, retire and watch your grandchildren grow up.