Thursday, August 25, 2016

Remembering Bennett, Remembering Cuba

On Tuesday, I drove out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a memorial service celebrating the life of a wonderful human being named Bennett Lamond. It has been almost a decade since I graduated from Washington College and moved out of Chestertown, but somehow, driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge still feels like going home. It was a perfect Chestertown day: blue skies, sun sparkling off the water as I crossed the Chester River bridge, a bit of a breeze. A good day for remembering Professor Lamond.

I did not ever have the opportunity to take a class with Professor Lamond. I can not claim him as a close friend, or even really as a mentor, except in the sense that he seemed to be able to befriend and mentor everyone he met with his affectionate smile, sparkling eyes, rich laugh, encouraging words, and just the right story for the occasion, told in his inimitable voice. While I never had a class with him, I did have the privilege to travel with him to Cuba. It was the summer after my freshman year -- 2004 -- and with the exception of a high school ski trip to Canada, it was my first time leaving the United States.

That trip changed the trajectory of my life, or at least clarified a change that had already begun. Up until that point, I still had, at least in the back of my head, the idea of majoring in English, or at least picking up a Creative Writing minor, one of the reasons I'd chosen Washington College to begin with. After Cuba -- a trip led by Dr. Christine Wade, who would eventually advise my senior thesis -- I gave in and declared an International Studies major. I was a young progressive, convinced of my own rightness, a walking embodiment of the tongue-in-cheek-truism that "nobody knows more than a college freshman." The U.S. had invaded Iraq the year before. I went to Cuba eager to hear political critique, to study the revolution 50 years later -- a revolution, so many of the Cubans we spoke with insisted, that was ongoing. I soaked up the alternative viewpoints we heard, voices that turned on their head U.S.-centric impressions of the island. Afterwards, I wrote what must have been a stunningly inexpert research paper on propaganda and ideology.

And yet, there with us in Cuba was Bennett Lamond, the poet and beloved professor of literature. To remember my time in Cuba is to remember Bennett, to be reminded of the beauty of the place, its poetry.

I wish, now, that I would have spent more time asking Professor Lamond what he thought of it all, and just listening. Remembering Bennett there makes me imagine seeing the place and the people through his lively, twinkling eyes. I remember him, and I remember the stunningly clear blueness of the water, the spray of waves on the Malecón, the taste of mangoes cut fresh from a tree. I remember conversations with the bartender in one of our hotels; the long bus ride across the island. Making children laugh by trying to dance salsa in the streets of Trinidad. Ernest Hemingway's house. I remember the artists, the authors. I remember misunderstanding and under-appreciating an architectural tour.

I wish I could go back and see it again, with Professor Lamond's eyes. To see and to hear it all as a story, as a poem.

Bennett Lamond had the soul of a poet, not only the profession. In the Hebrew Bible, the term we translate into English as "soul" is nfesh. The Hebrew word does not mean some incorporeal aspect of a person -- the Hebrews had little patience for the disembodied or the immaterial, for the escapist, perhaps unlike the medievalists whose work Bennett taught. Rather nfesh means the deepest part of one's being, or the whole of it -- the embodiment and more-than-embodiment, the fullness of it. Professor Lamond had the soul, the nfesh, of a poet.

He was kind, funny, whimsical but in no way shallow. He loved students and was a mentor for so many, students and faculty alike, at Washington College. The priest's homily at his memorial service referenced 1 John 3:18 -- "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth." It was a beautiful tribute to his life and the way he truly loved, but -- I thought -- the scriptural reference was ever-so-slightly misplaced. For while Professor Lamond surely loved in deed and in truth, he also surely loved words, and loved in words. For the poet, the professor of literature, there is no such easy separation between word, and tongue, and deed, and truth. The words, the tongues, reflect and generate and give life to the deed. They reveal the truth.

The memorial service was held at Emmanuel Church in downtown Chestertown, on Cross Street. Emmanuel -- another Hebrew word -- means "God with us." For Christians, the term evokes the announcement of Jesus' birth in Matthew's gospel. The term is of course much older than that, from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and bears with it the promise of freedom and return from Exile.

I associate the word with all of the people and places which remind me of God's presence in our midst, which help me remember -- in the words of one of Professor Lamond's favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins -- that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

The people and places which help me remember that there is something beautiful, something more, right there in front of our eyes.

Professor Bennett Lamond was one of those people who reminded me -- who reminded so many people -- of something beautiful, something more.

To which the only proper response is gratitude.

Thank you, Bennett.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fooling with Scripture podcast, Ep 4 -- Spooky Jesus

Check out the fourth episode of the Fooling with Scripture podcast (or find it on iTunes!), in which I talk about "Spooky Jesus" and the surprising, rather than spectacular, aspects of Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14:22-33.

This is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament, for many of the reasons I discuss in the podcast -- I love all of the surprising elements of the story. And I love Peter's reaction to Jesus as a model for a disciple's prayer: "Jesus, if that's you, call me out on the water."

Matthew is actually my favorite of the gospel narratives, largely for personal reasons. While I was studying abroad in Morocco, my chaplain and pastor, Karen, suggested we read through the whole of Matthew's gospel with an eye to its narrative elements, understanding it as a story. I stayed up all night to do it, and it was a powerful experience for me -- it was the first time I understood myself, not as held up against an abstract set of laws and moral guidelines, but rather as part of a story, a story which includes me but which is vastly prior to me and is much, much bigger than me.

My favorite commentary on Matthew's gospel is from a book that isn't actually about Matthew, or even about scripture specifically. David Bosch's Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission has a section on New Testament models of mission which includes a chapter on Matthew's gospel. It's been very helpful for me in understanding the text in its context and with its narrative purpose in view. Bosch also points out that Matthew is the only gospel writer to use the term ekklesia, which we translate as "church"; the story in this week's podcast is one of many in Matthew's gospel that is very open to interpretation as a model for church (or at least for ekklesia, which could also be translated as an "assembly" or a group that is called out to serve), which is how I ended my reflections this week.

I mention that Matthew is the first book in the New Testament, but it's not the oldest -- it's predated by the gospel of Mark and by Paul's letters. So by the time it's being written, there's already an ekklesia -- some sort of established community of Jesus-followers -- out of which the particular features of gospel emerge. On a surface level, Matthew's gospel is a story about Jesus; on a deeper level, its a story about this particular community; on an even deeper level, the story of Jesus and the story of community are united in a way that invites all of us, centuries later, into the story.


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Monday, August 15, 2016

Fooling with Scripture podcast, Ep 3 -- Angry Praying

Check out episode 3 of the Fooling with Scripture podcast. This one is called "Angry Praying," and it's a follow-up on a concept I played with last week, "the revelation is in the distraction."

In this episode, we'll be taking a look one of my favorite psalms, Psalm 139. If you're not familiar with it, you can read it in full by clicking here. I could say a lot about the psalms -- they are one of my favorite things to talk about! For now, though, here are a few resources if you want to read more.

The modern classic in Psalm interpretation is Walter Brueggemann's The Message of the Psalms (Fortress Press, 1985), in which he introduces the concept of psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. Unsurprisingly, though, my favorite resource for understanding the psalms is a book by my professor Denise Dombkowski Hopkins called Journey Through the Psalms (Chalice Press, 2002), which includes creative ways to engage with the texts. She's also coming out with a new commentary on the psalms which re-imagines them as prayers of women from the Hebrew Bible

Which reminds me...

I realized as I was listening back over the recording that I kept referring to the author/speaker of the psalm as "he." I think it's because I was purposefully projecting my own experience, including my gender, into the psalm. But, while it's probably true that the composers of the texts were mainly men, the psalms are supposed to represent the full voice of the gathered community. So you could just as easily say "she" or "they" or any other pronoun you choose, and (I would argue) be on point theologically. Whoever you are, the voice of the psalms includes and reflects you.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

"I Wished for a War" -- Hamilton the Musical and America's conflicted relationship with violence

"As a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war
 I knew that I was poor
 I knew it was the only way to --
 Rise up" -- "Right Hand Man," from the Broadway musical Hamilton

I love the Hamilton soundtrack. I say this enthusiastically and unironically. I love Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrics and his portrayal of the musical's mercurial namesake. I love the rhythms, the pace. I love that Miranda chose to write "a story about America then, told by America now," intentionally casting black and brown actors to play the white (and often overtly, slave-holding-ly racist) historical characters the show revolves around, messing with perceptions of race and subverting our USAmerican tendency to whitewash history.

I was listening to the soundtrack on a plane the other day, and -- this is literally true -- I had to put on a pair of sunglasses so my seatmates wouldn't be freaked out by me getting all weepy.

I love it.

And also. I'm fascinated by what my love of Hamilton -- and it ain't just me -- says about my conflicted relationship with violence. About this country's conflicted nation with violence.

"As I kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war," Miranda's Hamilton riffs in "Right Hand Man," a song which also features Christopher Jackson's George Washington pounding out: "Sh-boom goes the cannon, watch the blood and the shit spray."

(As an entirely unrelated aside, Jackson was at this year's commencement at my alma mater, Washington College, where he presented the George Washington Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the school. So that's cool.)

I cheer on the Hamilton cast as they make names for themselves in a violent uprising against the British monarchy.

And then I turn to news of state violence: another unarmed black person killed by police. Another bombing of civilians by this state's military or another's. Or of threats of violence: a presidential candidate suggesting that the "2nd Amendment people" could do something about his opponent -- "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" -- a comment that would be less scary if our national comfort with guns wasn't so deeply ensconced. Or the duty to honor violence: the supposedly liberal party in this country leaning on a narrative of national military strength and wearing connections to soldiers and veterans as a political badge.

Violence is woven into our national narrative. It's easier to believe African American and Latino actors as Founding Fathers then it would be to pretend they weren't men who knew how to kill people.

And yet, fear of violence perpetrated by the other, particularly by people of color, is also deeply woven into our (white) national consciousness. Guns in the home -- ostensibly to protect us from the tyranny of the state -- and in the hands of police officers -- representatives of the state -- we barely bat an eye at.

But burn a CVS or smash a car window in a protest, and you're considered too violent, too radical, a criminal. Certainly outside of the mainstream discourse.

We cheer on the black and brown actors in Hamilton, but the truth is, most of the folks loving the musical would be at least a bit uncomfortable with a group of black and brown people calling for the violent overthrow of the national government. Which is literally the plot of the entire first act.

The second act is all lead up to Leslie Odom, Jr.'s Aaron Burr shooting Miranda's Hamilton.

I've been reflecting on this as I have dug into the Movement for Black Lives recently released policy platform. (Yesterday, the organization I serve as board chair, Friends of Sabeel-North America, endorsed the platform).The platform has received criticism for its characterization of Israeli actions against Palestinians as "apartheid" and "genocide." Its call for reparations has, already, been dismissed out of hand as unrealistic, as too radical, too outside of mainstream discourse.

We are comfortable with the violence of our heroes. We are uncomfortable with demands for freedom, justice, economic equity. Those voices should be more patient, less angry, less radical.

"As a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war," Alexander Hamilton raps.

"As a kid in Gaza I wished for a war."
"As a kid in Baltimore I wished for a war."

That musical might not get the same level of popular acclaim.

I am a person who believes, because of my faith and because of some of my experiences, in the power of nonviolence. And so I am fascinated by what my love of Hamilton has to say about me, about my inconsistencies, my prejudices. I am fascinated by what it has to say about our country.

I'm going to go and listen to the soundtrack again, now.

And, as ineffectual and silly as it seems, I'm going to keep wishing, and praying, for peace.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Fooling with Scripture podcast, Ep 2 -- Dreaming of Bacon

Check out the second episode of the Fooling with Scripture podcast. This one is called "Dreaming of Bacon":

In this episode, we're looking at the story of Peter and Cornelius from Acts 10, which you can read in full by clicking here.

This story, and its broader implications in the book of Acts, is an important text for those who believe that the church should be a place of inclusion. It's not only Cornelius and his household who have a conversion experience in this story -- it's also Peter, and eventually the whole church, who undergo a conversion to include people who previously would have been excluded from the community. And importantly, as I try to highlight in this podcast, this only happens because Peter actually journeys with and converses with Gentiles -- with those who previously would have been excluded. We can't interpret texts and discuss issues of inclusion without being in conversation, and sharing the journey, with those who are being "talked about." People's stories are central to our communal task of interpretation.

There are a lot of great examples of interpretive work on this story. One that's been very meaningful to me comes from the very first chapter of James Alison's excellent and accessible book, On Being Liked (Crossroad Publishing, 2004).

In the podcast, I mention a Henri Nouwen quote, about solitude and monkey brain. That quote is from a book called The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (HarperOne, 1981). Here's a bit more of that quote, from pg. 27-28, about the many distractions that arise whenever we try to sit in solitude and prayer, which I think is quite relevant to Peter's dreams of bacon and our own struggles with prayer:
In order to understand the meaning of solitude, we must first unmask the ways in which the idea of solitude has been distorted by our world. We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives. What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it may be. For us, solitude most often means privacy....[But]....As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive -- or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.
Questions or comments about this week's episode, or about fooling with scripture in general? Send me an email by clicking here.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

I am him.

There's a memory that's been scrolling through my mind recently.

Not a story, exactly -- more an image, or a series of images, a few moments caught in time that reveal something about me, and this country that we live in, and how we all might be doing our best but sometimes our best still hurts.

I'm in a CVS, in Silver Spring. There's a long line at the pharmacy. Everybody's frustrated. Nobody loves picking up their meds from the CVS pharmacy.

There's a man ahead of me. He's white, middle aged. Something has gone wrong with his prescription. It got filled at the wrong pharmacy, or he had the address wrong, or something. He is upset. Red in the face. Yelling at the people behind the counter, things like, "My time is valuable!" and "I demand an answer!" and "You're liars!"

The people behind the counter avoid eye contact with him and with the rest of us. They are all young. None of them are white. They don't have an answer for this man. His complaint is not going to get resolved. Somebody made a mistake -- maybe it was him. Maybe it was them. Maybe it was a faceless company that nobody there had any say in. Doesn't matter. A mistake was made. This man is frustrated. There is little or nothing the people behind the counter can do.

I hold this memory, this short film, up in front of my face. Turn it. Look at it from different angles.

From one, a snapshot of privilege. A white man, probably relatively affluent, yelling at people of color behind a counter. They, in a service industry, forced to take the stream of verbal abuse. The rest of us, forced to wait while this plays out. Power, unveiled, unhinged.

From another angle, I recognize that man. I see my face -- red, angry, yelling at people who I know, rationally, are not to blame for the faceless juggernaut of the U.S. health care system; and yet who, in the emotional distortion of my frustration and illness, are standing in for a system that is unjust, that is unfair, that does not care about my time, or about my health, or about me. Suddenly slammed up against a wall of powerlessness, of hopelessness.

I am him. He is me.

The ineffectual rage, the inability or unwillingness to lose the fight, the situation that could be calmed with just a few deep breaths but instead it's getting harder and harder to breathe. I am on the phone with the insurance company, on hold for 45 minutes, again. Or with the hospital, trying to figure out why they keep telling me I haven't paid bills I've paid already. Red in the face. Angry. Yelling at people whose fault this is not. But when will I ever get to speak to the people whose fault it may very well be?

I've been thinking about that man a lot recently. About how I am him, and he is me.

Ecce homo. I behold the man.

As I read, reluctantly, another article about the current political situation, or watch a snippet of horrifying words or violence at a rally, I think about his face.

I see my face.

I remember that it starts with me, because it has to, because that is the only place I can begin.

I remember -- I hope I remember -- to breathe.


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Monday, August 1, 2016

Fooling with Scripture podcast, Ep 1 -- Divine Foolishness

Hey folks! Posting my first experiment with podcasting. I'm calling this project "Fooling with Scripture." If you're curious why, then have a listen:

The plan is to post an episode on Monday morning each week. In each episode I'll "fool with" a different text, to see if I can dig up any surprising inspiration and challenge for today's world.

On the blog, I'll also post some additional resources if you're interested in digging into the week's text a little deeper.

This week, we're looking at the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, particularly verses 18-29, which you can read in full here.

If you read the full section, you can see clearly some of the divisions in this early Christian community. Paul's generalizations about "Jews" and "Greeks" sound a bit jarring to modern ears, but he's addressing head-on a very present conflict between different groups in the Corinthian community. In their commentary in the New Interpreter's Bible, J. Paul Sampley summarizes it like this: "Paul has abandoned the former divisions of humanity into Jews and Greeks because he recognizes that God has called both Jews and Greeks." (see Volume X of The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Nashville: Abingdon, 2002).

Another great resource on the Corinthian community, if you really want get your hands dirty, is The First Urban Christians by Wayne Meeks (Yale University, 2003).

And if you really want to get into the philosophical weeds, you can take a crack at The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, by Jack Caputo (Indiana University, 2006). I can't make heads or tails of the thing, but maybe you can.

Questions? Comments? Email me here.
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