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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The imam and the Ramadan fast

On Saturday night, I visited the Islamic Center of Mid-Manhattan looking to learn more about the fast of Ramadan, a month-long fast that goes on daily from sunrise to sundown.

As someone who's never fasted for longer than a day, the Ramadan fast fascinates me. Putting aside food, water, and any kind of nutrition between sunrise and sundown for a month already seems a difficult task. Add to that the heat of New York in August and the demanding work schedules of so many in the city and it seems an insufferable one. I imagine many Muslims working two jobs to get by, taxi drivers, parking attendants, having to take up this cross, so to speak, and I wonder how they get by.

I contacted Sheikh Amed Dewidar, imam of the Islamic Center, and he agreed to meet me on Saturday evening at the center. It's a 5-floor mosque nestled into a narrow space on E. 55th Street. You could easily pass it by without noticing, as it's sandwiched between a parking garage and restaurants. The sign above the doors is plain and unobtrusive, without any awnings or artwork.

I entered and walked down a long green and white-tiled hallway, while a speaker system sent out a soothing adhan, the Muslim prayer song. Instantly I felt transported off the windy Manhattan streets into something far warmer.

Sheikh Ahmed, a tall dark-haired Egyptian with a wide smile and well-groomed beard, told me that the Ramadan fast is a way for Muslims to strengthen their self-discipline and resolve against temptation and deprivation. People can get used to having easy access to food, water and other needs, he told me, but they must be prepared in case they lose these provisions.

He illustrated his point with a parable: a wealthy prince decides he wants to go for a hunt in the wild. However, he has absolutely no previous experience roughing it and fending for himself. So he makes sure to equip Land Rovers with food and water and an ambulance with supplies should he find himself suffering at all.

The prince goes out into the desert on his own for the hunt, but soon after he enters the wilderness, a sandstorm comes along and he loses contact with all his support vehicles. Soon he is all alone in the wild, with no food, water or support. If he has had no training for this moment, how is he to cope? In that moment, he must rely on his own discipline and faith, which is what Ramadan is meant to strengthen.

I asked about whether Ramadan is more difficult here in the States than in Muslim countries, since Muslims will encounter many here who are not taking part in their fast. The imam suggested that on the contrary, the sight of others not taking part in the fast could strengthen a Muslim's resolve. "It reminds you of the uniqueness of what you're doing," he said, "that you are doing something special for Allah."

After our discussion , the imam invited me to join him and his colleagues for Iftar, the breaking of the fast after sundown. First an appetizer of dates and milk, and then a filling dinner of cubed beef, rice pilaf and salad, with mango nectar. Certainly a nice way to end the Saturday fast, but I wonder about those people who again are going between two different jobs or hardly have time to prepare such a meal. How do they make sure they can sustain themselves through the month?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A conflict between therapy and faith

The new book I'm reading "Anger: How to Live With It and Without It" presents many good ideas about how to deal with an old and lingering problem in my life, the presence of anger that at times gives way to rage, especially when I see someone getting away with breaking rules or bullying people.

However, one of the concepts in the book is that in order to get rid of one's anger, one has to get rid of the "shoulds" in life. People who do bad things "should" be punished. I "should" have a better job and kids, or I "deserve" the best because I work hard. These are what psychologist Albert Ellis calls Irrational Beliefs, or IB's for short that we had better to dissolve if we are going to be able to work with our anger.

Ellis claims that for Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT to work, you need to believe that you "absolutely should" do NOTHING. "You have only to exist as you do and live your life as best you can. If you can learn to accept yourself unconditionally, with your handicaps and your other problems, and if you can learn to live with difficulties when you cannot improve them, you may consider yourself well-adjusted."

The idea of NO SHOULDS in life though is a tough one for me as a Christian. I feel I've been raised with so many "shoulds" about the kind of student I SHOULD be, the kind of Christian God wants me to be, the behavior I should follow, that Ellis' more morally relative commandment is a bit difficult.

However, I know part of my current anger and dissatisfaction in life is due to a belief that I DESERVE better than to suffer the slings and arrows of frequent back pain, psychological problems, boring household chores, long trips on subways, and years worth of school debt. I DESERVE better because I am a better man, and I SHOULD be doing better than this. And then I begin looking for where it went wrong, what I did wrong.

To abandon the word "deserve" is a big step. If a "child of God" deserves nothing, in essence, then what's the point of following the rules? The only solution is that in the Christian lifestyle is a formula for living my life as best I can, but that lifestyle still seems to create so many "shoulds" that Ellis' therapeutic guidance and my faith seem like they're going to clash.

Any ideas?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Too much God better than too little

Tonight's service was another example of the frustrations and strange wonders of Calvary Episcopal. I arrived worn out and wanting to just sit down and rest, and at first, the music seemed overdone. Then Rev. Brewer's sermon on the Gospel reading about "those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall save them." Brewer talked about the death of self as what God is demanding of us, to bring us into a greater relationship with him.
Actually, I think even Rev. Jacob realized that Brewer's words were too much and added afterwards, "Along with the demand for death is the promise of resurrection in Him, and new life."

I felt a bit overpowered by the sermon, as usual, but still something about the church spoke to me tonight as it has been for a long time. When I stand in that church, and raise my head to look into the buttresses in the ceilings, I find myself LISTENING to the quiet. In the silence, where previously I might have found myself looking for sound and noise, instead I find myself listening to the silence, longing for it, because I feel there is something calling me there.

Likewise, I felt called to be prayed for after taking communion, yet I had no idea what I wanted to say, and in fact didn't really have anything to say at all. I just bowed my head and asked for a blessing, which Katie, one of the church members, gave freely and wonderfully.

And I left church smiling like the cat that found the...wait what's that expression? Well, I left smiling. Listening to the night on 5th Avenue, my head lifted, taking it in. It's a powerful thing to actually feel like you're being called, and I'm doing my best to listen.

So yet again, in spite of my own frustrations and occasional wondering of what brings me there, Calvary has caught me once more. Something is calling me there and speaking to me, and I am enraptured by whatever it is. And that state is so rare these days, that sense of wonder and awe. I consider it a gift. And I thank God for it.

The song tonight that struck me most was "Here in Your Presence," for obvious reasons. You can find the song by New Life Worship here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Back from God knows where

Tonight I decided to return to Calvary Episcopal. After a good month or so of either St. Lydia's or nothing, I returned. St. Lydia's was for the most part a pretty tame service, and by that I mean that it had little effect other than a sense of comfort and a little conversation.

Calvary has done something different. I am singing louder and deeper than I have at any service in months. These songs, largely in a more evangelical style where a projection screen displays the lyrics behind the musician, and songs that are relatively easy to pick up off just a few chords, are bringing something to the surface for me. It begins with some sense of trying to follow the words, then eventually I begin to find the emotion within the music. And in each song, the theme is the exact same: love and the power and glory of God. And the words are so simple.

This morning at Patrick's church in Astoria, the wording of the Nicene Creed seemed so stiff and formal: "He rose again in accordance with the scriptures." Umm, sounds like you're talking about a biology experiment, rather than the resurrection of God! And the songs are often so much more high-mass style.

Will high-mass style ever die out?

During communion, I went and was prayed for by a gentleman named C.J. I told him that a relationship I was in had recently ended, and the desperation I felt afterwards had shown me the lack of a foundation I had in my faith. He prayed for me, getting louder as the music got louder, and I felt overwhelmed. As I went back to my site, I was nearly in tears and as the end of the service came, I choked back tears.

I think there are times at which I've felt this church's message of God's love, and the need to surrender to Christ to at times be a bit of a mental assault, that it was too demanding in all its talk of Christ's blood, the visceralness of the words. Yet at the same time, I have felt God more consistently here, had that encounter in more than almost any church I've visited, perhaps more so than in Transmission as well at times. (I haven't yet come away from Transmission crying, but that day may come...)

It's time for bed, but I feel like I'm ending on a high note what started out as a tough weekend. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I skipped church tonight. I was tired of Reverend Brewer's tone and I felt I would go in and be annoyed again tonight. However, a funny thing happened. In going to the gym and staying at home tonight, I feel a bit of a vacuum within me, a lack. Even though I have felt anger at my pastor's sermons recently, there remains something important to the act of going in and sharing in communal worship that I have missed this week.
I truly believe in doing God's work, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, that God is in the lowly people and our job is to care for the needy and work for justice. No wonder I feel so far off-course: I spend my day in a corporate job, am not doing any volunteer work and my preoccupations are with the debt that I've accrued myself, rather than the needs of others.
Lord, I pray that though I harbor anger or pain sometimes at how some profess their faith, that that anger may never get in the way of my seeking you out. I've heard it written, "You would never have sought me had you not already found me," and it's true. I have experienced enough of your grace that I continue to seek you out. Let me not become complacent in a life absent of you, but rather walk on seeking to do your work and live in your sacred communities, whether it is a church, a friendship, or simply that moment where I have an exchange with a homeless man on the corner asking for change.

Friday, January 1, 2010


"Cafeteria Catholic" was a nickname I often heard as a kid for more liberal Catholics. It meant people who obeyed only the Catholic rules they liked and ignored the others, like students on a cafeteria line picking out lunch. Inherent in the derisive term was the notion that an ideal Catholic, or Christian for that matter, should listen and obey all of Jesus' teachings.

However, as I get older, I realize that almost all of us are "Cafeteria Christians." Most of us do not consider it adultery for couples to divorce and marry others. We don't see it a sin for a widow to remarry. We see the complexity of relationships and the difficulties in them, the fact that sometimes they don't work. We don't expect the woman to completely submit in a relationship either.

We don't automatically condemn the wealthy to hell, even though we've heard Jesus say plainly that it'd be harder for a camel to pass through a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.

There are those who say we must follow the Bible to the letter, but even they usually decide how much of the Gospel to adhere to based on their values.

I think most Christians today have a somewhat tense relationship with Jesus' advice : on the one hand we revere Jesus as the son of God, but we, and I think everyone, have times when his words put us ill at ease. So we practice selective obedience.

Do we betray our faith by not following it to the letter?

Have we sworn an oath to obey every word?

I think of the words that I speak in every mass, which include believing in Jesus Christ as the son of God, and God himself. And that God is first and foremost my Father. But do I swear allegiance to his every word? No. I swear humility and reverence to the words, but never complete obedience.

As children, we are advised to listen to our parents' advice and learn from it, as the words of those who want the best for us. However, as we mature, we combine that advice with other realities, other experiences, and we go our own course. We build our own beautiful lives, and we disobey, not out of hatred, but out of our natural need to determine our own destiny. Chalk it up to original sin, if you want, but it is in our nature to seek our own truth.

So what am I saying? I'm saying that I don't think being Christian means I need to aspire to complete obedience of every one of my Father's edicts.

Instead, I ask my Father to understand, as a loving father would, that every child must become an adult and pave his own way, taking their creator's advice with thanks, considering it seriously, with love and respect, and applying it as best we see fit in the lives we live.
This manner of acting isn't always encouraged in our church: sometimes I feel like the clergy do not acknowledge the maturity of the laity. It often seems like we are talked to more like infants, and if we would just shut up and suck on our Father's bosom, everything will be fine.

That kind of treatment can only work for so long. When I visit my father's house, I hope to find love, comfort and encouragement, and give the same. I will always be proud to be God's child, but I would hope he would no longer expect the mindless love of an infant.

So yes, I am a cafeteria Christian. I pick and choose the advice I take with me on my way forward, with love and reverence, but not always agreement. I would hope my Father wishes me well on my journey, and that like the Prodigal son, in the end I well be welcomed back home.