Once More, into Wilderness!

2014-09-10 13.42.33
A memory of my tent site in Yosemite last September–it will look very different this week in St. Mary’s Wildernness!

St. Mary’s Wilderness here I come!

It’s across the continent from Yosemite National Park, the vegetation and scenery are quite different, and the peaks are lower, but this 10,000 acres of eastern beauty in the George Washington National Forest is calling to me to repeat a little of the Vision Quest in that western gem I experienced one year ago.

This time, I will not have the onsite guiding hand of Tomas Pinkson, blessed shaman extraordinaire, but I remember much that he taught. And most of all, I remember his wisdom, and that of Gerald May and many others, about the power of wilderness to heal, empower, renew, and (re-)orient us. There is, as Tomas and the native peoples say, medicine here that Great Power has for me.

St. Mary's Wilderness sign
wanderingVirginia.com

On Tuesday, September 29, I will get in my car and drive into western Virginia, park my car in a designated parking area and hike a mile or two, I hope, or maybe more, seeing the sights, and finding a place to pitch my tent. I will be looking for a water source, too, although like any good wilderness hiker/camper, I will filter all water before using.

I am not on this adventure to hike as much as I am to find a spot in the wilderness for solitude, to sit and meditate, talk and listen to the trees and admire whatever may yet be blooming (probably not much) or beginning to show fall colors.

I go to reconnect with my siblings of the forest, wildlife yes (hopefully friendly) but mostly trees and other vegetation. I draw great strength and solace from the faithfulness of trees and shrubs and other plants who live without human aid.

St. Mary's Wilderness Liming_Sites_Map
csm.jmu.edu

Indeed, one of the complications about this is the need to be sure those of us who venture into these sacred grounds do not unduly disturb their living. The goal in the wilderness always is to leave no trace of our presence.

This brings to mind one essential spiritual practice, namely to listen and absorb without pressing our own agenda. When we walk and sit in the wild without having to make it ours we can learn that we are not the center of the universe. It is then we begin to receive the gifts that are there for us.

I discovered last year at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite that if I look with truly open eyes and listen with truly open ears I can learn much–about myself, yes, as well as about the world, and certainly about those whose space I was sharing. There is a richness, a depth to this learning that can only be grasped in the midst of wilderness; no book, nor even picture, can convey its integrity and power the way actual presence does.

trails.com
trails.com

It may seem strange to write about this seeking of solitude on a blog focused on building community. But for me, solitude is a re-charging of my batteries and a re-orientation to my soul, so that I have energy and clarity in community building work. It also is a reminder that community is more than human.

2014-09-11 14.56.57That reminds me of my “brother tree,” from Yosemite (pictured left), who said to me, “You do not need to see me, but you do need to remember me, to learn from me.” So I go into the national forest here to keep alive that memory and to learn from his siblings in the East (you can read about my brother here). I realize that this will most likely become an annual pilgrimage, not to Yosemite probably most years (expense and currently much fire damage) but to some part of wonderful wilderness to reconnect with my spiritual roots in God’s earth.

In the lush forest growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness I do not expect to see many specimens like my brother. He grew, like his neighbors, out of the hard mountain granite; some grew stronger and taller but many were stunted and twisted like him. That any survive let alone thrive still amazes me. The tenacity of spirit is a badge of honor and an example of courage for all of us.

St. Mary's Wilderness
An opening in the lush growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness everytrail.com

At the same time, not even this place of beauty is immune from the hardness, even harshness, of nature. Hurricane Isabel did much damage in St. Mary’s Wilderness in 2003, leaving reminders of how fragile the wholeness of nature is. And much of the area was the scene of heavy mining for iron ore and manganese into the 1960s. Fortunately, designation as a national wilderness area in 1984 is helping reverse, in nature’s own good time, these impacts. I hope my presence is healing, too, not just for me but for all who call this home.

I check my list of things to do before I leave and things to take with me, and try to fit everything neatly for a balanced pack. I remember that I am a pilgrim on journey on land where others move and have their being, and pray I will be open to all the gifts, all the wisdom, all the medicine that will bless me.

Flushing at Least Some of the C–p

counterpunch.org
counterpunch.org

Black Lives Matter, Palestine/Israel, the U.S. Presidential race, Syria, refugees, Native American Lives Matter, health care, immigration reform–all these and more capture my attention, and are deserving of yours. There is so much bad, or at least difficult, news…..some might even say c–p, every day (Donald Trump’s latest, whatever it might be, is in a category all by itself).

youtube.com (not our Cocoa!)
youtube.com (not our Cocoa!)

But some of you, like me, have other more prosaic matters, other c–p, to deal with as well. Such as dog poop, AKA dog s–t (yes, I know, at times it seems like the label fits some of the big categories above, but that might be considered offensive by dogs).

A vital question is, what do we do with it?

Flush puppies doodie bagsJonathan and I have found what we think is simply the best solution for the dog . . . . er . . . version . . . . offered through an excellent product, “Flush Puppies Flushable & Certified Compostable Doodie Bags for Dogs.”

Here’s what the manufacturer says on their website:

Flush Puppies™ doodie bags are Certified Compostable in industrial compost facilities that accept pet waste, where they will disintegrate and biodegrade swiftly.*  (Sorry, home composters, they’re not suitable for backyard composting!)

Flush Puppies™ are flushable, too.  Yes, really…flushable.  Made from Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA) – a water-soluble alternative to regular plastic – Flush Puppies™ are specifically made to be flushed down the toilet along with your pet’s waste.  (It’s science – not voodoo!)  Unlike regular plastic bags or other so-called “biodegradable” poop bags, Flush Puppies™ actually break down in water.

freerepublic.com
freerepublic.com

What you do with the bags is completely up to you — compost ‘em, flush ‘em or trash ‘em.   But we call them FlushPuppies™ because we think there’s enough crap going on in the environment without adding more to landfills, where your dog’s “business” (and the bag it’s wrapped in) will likely mummify and not biodegrade for thousands of years, if ever.  (click here for more)

For us, it’s simple. No more filling the trash can with poop bags (either ones you buy or the newspaper delivery bag), knowing the bags and their contents will not decompose any time soon and will actually contaminate the ground. Now, we bring the bag home (meaning you have to carry it with you) and flush it down the toilet (you do have to leave the bag untied or untie before flushing). The wastewater treatment facility in our town takes it from there.

Pet Smart corporate logo
phx.corporate-ir.net

You can buy them online, and at Pet Smart, and other local stores (click here to find one near you).

When a product comes along that seems just about perfect, friends share the good news. No need to thank me. Just thank the folks at Pawsome Pet Products LLC.

Help question markI am thinking about writing them a letter–asking them to design a product so we can take some of the other c–p we face each day (e.g., pronouncements from some Presidential candidates) and flush it, too.

That would take c–p and its disposal to a whole new level!

Repent, and Celebrate

Jonathan acting head shot
My husband, Dr. Jonathan Lebolt

God has blessed me with the love of a Jewish man, and through him to connect in ways with Judaism that otherwise might never have happened (although the priest most influential in my adolescence and young adulthood was clearly most in love with the Hebrew Bible).

I worshiped in temple last week on both days of Rosh Hashanah and am doing so this week for Yom Kippur. These are very meaningful times of reflection and prayer for me, a declaration of the new year and an opportunity to let go of habits and attitudes and behaviors that get in the way of living the full life God has for me in this new year.

L'Shanah Tovah
Good New Year, sometimes with u’metuka (and Sweet). card-images.com

This sequence is so much more satisfying than the one I am used to as a U.S. Christian–beginning with Advent that portends (and even offers) great spiritual depth but is then overcome by secular Christmas and the hoopla of New Year’s Day and the well-meaning (but for me often ineffective) efforts of resolutions. Three years ago, at the first night of Rosh Hashanah, in a very crowded Jewish Community Center in Richmond, I received a holy message to change the focus of my life’s work. I have not been the same since.

biblia.com
biblia.com

Perhaps I find the Jewish practice more spiritually satisfying because it is not about marketing products and holding parties but rather about introspection, fasting, and self-change.

Self-change . . . the element missing from most of our public life, and probably private life, too.

Certainly, we don’t often hear national political candidates talk about self-change–either for themselves or for our nation. Instead, we hear them promising to make America great again. I just know that means someone else outside our nation is going to have to change. For us to stride the world, as in the time of Reagan for example, means someone else is going to have to stand down. We are the good guys, and you better get out of the way.

Many are critical, even dismissive, of President Obama, because to them he seems weak. He, in some modest but important ways, wants to run things in the rest of the world less and work more with others. I am grateful for that. It is certainly unusual in a U.S. leader.

Indeed, nations and their leaders are notoriously lacking in self-reflection and the desire to change themselves. First, they have to admit errors (but I don’t think President Obama is very good at this either).

jimmyong77.com
jimmyong77.com

As a nation, we have yet to really make amends to African people who were dragged here against their will and forced to do all sorts of things, or to Native Americans who were already here and were routinely pushed aside and even butchered so we could have our land. Both peoples still bear the scars and pay the price, as, of course, do the rest of us in other ways. This Yom Kippur, we could atone, but I doubt we will.

The United States is not alone in this. Europe still acts as if what various nations did in Africa, South America, and Asia was just fine.  Israel doesn’t seem to understand why Palestinians might be angry for being forced from their homes and land, in 1948, and now, too. Russia certainly is not over bullying behavior with neighbors, and Lebanon’s Arab neighbors do not hide their desire to maintain that nation as their fiefdom.

But what about us, you and me? Am I ready to change? Are you?

I will speak for myself (I hope you feel free to write and share your own thoughts for yourself, if that would help you).

My big change this year, now and over the next twelve months, needs to be in focusing–as in, I need to focus. I am accustomed to hard work but usually on agendas set by someone else or by society. Now, I need to take my own agenda, my own call and vocation, seriously enough to focus on it and move forward.

I am nowhere I am now here
mountainmovingmindset.com

This means learning to be organized, to set goals, to write regular hours, to listen and be alert to the prompts I receive from God (often through others), to invest in my vocation as a writer and teacher/workshop leader/ minister.

Pretty prosaic, huh? But life-changing nonetheless.

I repent of all the times I did not do this, when I was sloppy, disorganized, unfocused, distracted, not trusting God’s desire for me but living to get by without too much strain. And I ask God’s help to move forward in new ways, to learn new daily practices, to discern priorities better, to not say “yes” to every request, to be prepared to speak up with my truth and even gracefully to take some heat for it sometimes.

Of course, there is much else for me to repent–being rude to people, not caring enough about my loved ones, not always eating well, not getting enough exercise . . . oh my, the list goes on too long to bore you. One thing I really appreciate about Yom Kippur is its focus on ethical lapses, not about doing ritual things right in the synagogue but living right–and how it is about both the individual and the community).

Yom Kippur empty plate starting a good cleanse
blackgayjewish.com

The good news is that for Jews the ending of the ten Days of Awe, teshuvah (reflection, repentance, return), on Yom Kippur, while the holiest of days, is also a day of celebration–commemorating God’s forgiveness of the sin of the Golden Calf.

I repent of it all, and will celebrate at the end of the fast this evening a new, lighter (from carrying less remorse and guilt), more focused me. I also pray for repentance for our country (and how I have not always helped make us a better nation), and a true celebration of independence from all that holds us down as a people.

May you repent as is right for you, and also celebrate! Blessing to all! L’Shanah Tovah!

Thank You, Marvin Lebolt!

Eighteen years ago today, Jonathan Lebolt and I sat in the living room of his Chelsea (New York City) studio apartment, with his parents, Gladys and Marvin. We four had been out to dinner together, and then we came back so he could show them his new apartment.

I knew what was on my mind, but I did not know it was so obvious to others.

Marvin Lebolt
Jonathan’s father, Marvin, holding his first grandchild, Anna (daughter of Amy, Jonathan’s sister, and her husband, Michael)

Marvin knew, though, and he said, “Gladdy, we have to go now.” She said, “But Jonathan is making us some tea. We just got here.”

“Yes, I know, dear,” he said, “I’m just saying we will drink our tea quickly. They, Robin for sure, have things other than entertaining us on the agenda tonight.” With that, he looked at me, and winked.

So he knew, too! And after winking again, and making sure Gladys saw it, too, she understood as well. “Oh, okay,” she said, with her big smile.

Robin & Jonathan Sept 2015It was unlike my father-in-law (now dead 14 years) to be so assertive, but this time he played his part to the hilt. For once, he ran the show.

So, although I dedicate this day, September 21, to the great love of my life, I also give special thanks to a wonderful man, Marvin Lebolt, who knew love when he saw it. Thanks, Dad!

And most of all, thank you, Jonathan, for 18 wonderful years . . . here’s to many more!

Jerusalem Journal #3: Letting Go of Who Did What to Whom and Who Did It First

Jerusalem YMCA
YMCA, headquarters for the IAPSP Conference (author photo)

[Note: In October, 2014, I accompanied Jonathan on a trip to Jerusalem. He was going to the annual meeting of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology (IAPSP). He spent much time in meetings while I was free to travel, visiting sites within Jerusalem and beyond. I have posted two times already about this trip; you can see those postings by clicking on these dates: October 31, 2014 and January 5, 2015. I also posted on a related topic, namely an important book, The Lemon Tree. Click on the title to see that post.]

I had intended to write much more about my impressions from last October’s trip to Jerusalem, as well as to continue reflecting on this bedeviled conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Partly, preparations for moving, and the move, from Richmond, VA to Greenbelt, MD got in the way.

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nikkikubanminton.com

But more, I think, was my growing realization at how I despair over two things that must happen: that Israel will shift its mindset and strategy and the Palestinians will respond productively. Someone has to change, significantly, if this perpetual, and seemingly self-perpetuating, crisis is to shift from a deadening into a life-giving mode. I believe it is incumbent on Israel to engage in a major shift. I say that because it is my belief that it is usually, if not always, the more powerful party in any dispute–certainly one in which both parties have legitimate concerns and interests, as is true here–that has to move the most.

Just as disempowering as my despair was my fear that many of my Jewish friends in the United States–not to mention those Israeli (and other) Jews I met at the conference whom I admire greatly–would become angry at me, perhaps even cutting off our friendship, if they understood that and other points I feel compelled to make (I will reflect another time on my continuing struggle to stop being governed by my fears of what others will, or do, think).

Faults
hrringleader.com

But let me be clear. This is not a one-sided conflict. Both parties, all parties (certainly including the government of my country, and thus me), bear responsibility for the mess that now exists. There is more than enough blame to go around. Somehow, we have to get beyond the blame game.

This was brought home to me with great power during one part of the international conference. Prior to the formal sessions, I joined Jonathan and other conferees and spouses on a trip to Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, situated 15 Kilometers southeast of Tel-Aviv, near Ben-Gurion International Airport. According to the conference organizers, Lud, “despite the enormous potential of this ancient-contemporary city . . . has been plagued by a poor image for decades: its population of 75,000 people is constantly struggling with social, economical, multi-cultural and ethnic problems that make the city an example of the painful term – ‘social periphery.'” 

NY Times
NY Times

Indeed, the session was billed as “Self Psychology and Weakened Populations: A Tour of Lod.”  Weakened populations, as I understand the organizers, are places where all of us, not just the subject peoples, bear responsibility for deterioration. They are communities where empathy is required, but empathy that helps create concrete action for change. This action involves more than just the weakened group; it must include those who have been party to the weakening. To my way of thinking, this is the situation in the United States among white people, as we need to make concrete changes to lift our social boot off the backs of the still-weakened African American, and Native American, populations.

It is appropriate that IAPSP is involved in this new understanding, because at the heart of self psychology is empathy. The IAPSP tour organizers wanted us to see what will become the new headquarters of the Israel Association for self Psychology and the Study of Subjectivity (the Israeli affiliate organization which hosted the conference), and they also wanted us to hear from a diverse group of local people about the efforts to build a new society in Lod.

Houses in Lod www.haaretz.com
Houses in Lod http://www.haaretz.com

Included in the local people were the leader of a local program to teach agriculture to students, both Palestinian and Israeli, and a teacher in the program. Part of the goal is to teach the students how to share the land, how to treasure it together for the benefit of all.

Both educators were amazing in their ability to convey, despite language difficulties, a deep desire to create a truly multi-cultural community in Lod, and to help this ancient area recover from serious decline over the past several decades. The teacher, a woman, was the most articulate. During question time, I asked her, a Palestinian whose family lived for generations in that area, how she felt about the participation of Jewish people in this work, given that her family had been displaced by the Israelis more than once. She said, “We will never move forward until we choose to let go of who did what to whom and who did it first.”

I cry right now as I write about that moment–empathy at work in her, breathtaking in its simplicity and power.

seeing with the eyes of another
quotesgram.com

So often, people who speak in or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pronounce from one box or the other, talking past the people in the other box. Wisdom comes in refusing to be put in one box and learning what to believe and say from your own space (which contains parts of many boxes), and at the same time hear the other, with empathy and a desire to understand.

But it is not enough to speak and listen with care, vital though that is. That we must act on what we know seems clear, even as our actions must be laced with empathy and a desire to understand others.

My training, and engagement, in Christian liberation theologies, feminism, and political theory, as well as my understanding of Judaism, lead me to act based not only on ethical perspectives but also to engage in power analysis to aid in promoting productive action. In future posts, I shall explore more of this trip, as well as reflect on new learnings, with the goal of contributing to a dialogue for peaceful, life-enhancing change in the haunted land of Israel and Palestine.

For now, let us remember empathy, indeed, let us be empathic.

A New Name for this Blog: Make Love. Build Community.

I started blogging in 2009, wanting to share with the church community I was serving as well as any others in the wider public who might be interested in the musings of a pastor, theologian, and social activist in Richmond, Virginia.

faithAt the time, I used my longtime signature closing, “In faith and hope,” as the name of the blog. Six years later, no longer pastoring but still theologizing and engaging in activism, and now claiming my vocation as a writer, I want to put a different label on these reflections.

hope sproutI have come to see the great problem in the United States, and throughout the world, as the failure of community. We are, the human race, a much-ravaged people in most every corner of the world. There are bright spots, of course, places and communities where people work and live together for the greater good, but I see a quickening, widening, and deepening trend of being torn apart.

don't shoot I want to grow up

The signs are everywhere: increasing violence in the Middle East as well as on our streets; wars in the name (often falsely labeled) of religion on the rise; the failure to overcome historic oppression to constructively engage and build the power of Africa as well as African Americans; the widening gap between rich and poor people as well as among first, second, and third world nations; the failure of the justice system to really deal with problems it probably cannot solve even as we keep tasking it with that work; the weakness of international structures to make any real difference; the continuing resurgence of totalitarianisms all over the globe; public officials in our nation self-righteously defying the law to deny rights to others and politicians vying to be the most insulting to groups of voters. This is by far only a partial list; one more, though: the failure of our national political system to address serious issues at home and abroad.

Palestinian boys dressed in uniforms of Palestinian security forces and holding plastic toy guns

The failure of community is directly traceable to our failure to grasp and use the power of love. I share the view of Teilhard deChardin that the physical structure of the universe is love, indeed it is the entire structure, meaning that there is an underlying desire for union among all beings. But with a terrifying perversity, we are laying waste to that promise. Just as we are despoiling the ecology we call nature, we are destroying the deeper ecology of love. These two movements are inextricably intertwined, both cause and effect.

IDF soldier and Palestinian woman and children

Ironically, it is love that will save us. The very thing we misuse, under use and abuse is the solution.

Thus, I have decided to rename this blog to more directly embrace the great task before us. We have to make more love in order to build more and better community.

Making love is usually a polite way of saying we are “having sex,” or being sexual, with another person. Sadly, this way of speaking limits love to the encounter between two (or occasionally more) people, usually in private behind closed doors involving intimate touch and genitals.

Image only for on-line viewing. Please do not copy, download, or print image. Please contact for reproduction, usage permission, and/or print purchases.

But the love we desperately need more of is out in the open, in groups, in whole nations, between and among communities. We as individuals have to be committed to making love everywhere we can–sharing our deepest humanity and care and nurture and compassion and kindness not only with partners but with siblings and parents and children, neighbors, co-workers, strangers, opponents, even enemies, perhaps most with those with whom we disagree. And we have to include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick in our definition of making love.

There already is more than enough love in the world. The problem is that we are not using it. We have locked most of it away, for safe-keeping I guess, or maybe because we are afraid to really let it loose in the world. Too much might change if love really guided us.

Make-Love-Give_Design_final_fullcolor_04We might have to share some of what we have so that everyone, including ourselves, could have more. That is really how love works. The more you share the more you have. But it confounds our limited human understanding; we think about love the way we think about money. If we give too much away, we won’t have enough.

I am choosing to challenge this stingy view of love. I want to make lots of love, and I want to do it with you, my readers. I am a witness for love. But more than that, I am a lover. I want to be your lover, and for you to be mine.

Make love to Uncle SamOh, I am not divorcing my wonderful husband of 18 years. And I am a monogamous kind of guy when it comes to sex. But I am an advocate for free love.

It is not that love is free exactly. It does come with a price. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that in order for love to grow we have to spend it, and trust that more comes.

But it is free in that it is available to all, for the asking, for the taking you might say. But that implies that you have to be aggressive and grab it. The reality is that it comes to you. But you have to be open, you have to want love. You have to, as the ancient mystic Julian of Norwich said of God, “allow” it into yourself.

How to build communityBut even this is not quite right–because our entire being, each one of us, all of us, has more than enough love inside. So in some ways, we have to allow it out, we have to open ourselves not only to receive the love “out there,” but also to share the love “in here.”

This is more introduction than I planned. So I had best stop. There are many blog posts ahead in which to say more.

For now, let me say this: I am here, writing regularly, to help us to Make Love. And to Build Community.

Make Love. Build Community. The life you save may be your own, and surely if we do it together we can save each other, and the whole world.

Make Love. Build Community. Say it a few times.

Then go do it. Wherever, and whenever, and with whomever, and however, you can.

Taking the Plunge

[This continues the meditations from December 9, December 10, and December 12, 2014, and January 9 and January 21, 2015. reflecting on moments during a Vision Quest in September 2014 at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park. If you want to receive the full gift of this one, I suggest you read the earlier ones. Clicking on the date will take you there. But you can, I think and hope, enjoy this post without reading the others.]

2014-09-10 17.44.31It was one year ago today–September 11, 2014–when I took the plunge. Literally. I waded a short way into Lower Cathedral Lake, naked, and as I felt the bottom drop down, I dove in.

Shock! The coldest water I have ever felt. I lived in Maine for several years, and went swimming in very cold small spring-fed lakes and in the Atlantic Ocean, but this water was cold, C-O-L-D! Actually, beyond mere cold.

I think I lost consciousness for a moment or two. I felt myself sink. I am not a good, or strong, swimmer. I panicked. But I had enough sense to turn around and begin to paddle furiously. After what seemed like eternity but probably was well less than a minute, I felt the bottom. Relief.

Naked Man Underwater 007-largeI stood up. There was applause on shore. “You made it,” shouted a friendly voice. “You discovered just how cold it is!” I nodded and waved, not able to find my voice as I clambered through the water to shore (later I thanked God those day hikers stayed long enough to be sure I got out).

I remembered that I came to the water to swim naked, to stand up naked going in and going out, in response to awareness of body shame. In this moment, I was so cold, I only knew I wanted to expose myself fully to the sun (I had not thought to pack a towel for the Quest, so air drying was it). Forget shame. Get warm, be “skyclad” as the Wiccans say, and feel the sun.

dive naked everything looks bigger underwaterToday, I still fight the shame. Parts of my body are not the way I want them. I wish I could say the plunge into Lower Cathedral Lake cured me. It did not.

But it set me on a journey that continues today. I am making friends with my body. [Note, it is a peculiarity of English, I think, that we can write about our own body as if it is somehow an entity apart from ourselves.]  I am exercising much more, and I am letting myself be visibly naked in the locker room at the gym sometimes. I can even admire myself sometimes.

And the plunge into the icy water? Today, I understand it as being about more than overcoming shame.

It is a metaphor, perhaps more than a metaphor, for living.

naked art Spencer TunickIt is good to dive in sometimes. Perhaps often. Don’t hang back. Dive in. Splash around. Make waves–even if sometimes they are due to panic.

It may not be good to get in over your head regularly, but on occasion it can be very instructive (like embarking on a Vision, or Soul, Quest when you have never gone wilderness backpacking or camping). How else will you have the satisfaction of righting yourself, or learning something new, or receive the gift of being rescued?

As to bodies, we are each one. Together, we make a larger body and/or bodies. Every body is different. And beautiful, each in their own way.

On this anniversary, I honor mine. I hope you honor yours.

The “Naked Saint”–A Model for the “Protestant” Pope

Pope Francis is doing something radical in the Roman Catholic Church: he is encouraging people to have conversations about formerly taboo topics.

Pope Francis thumbs upBy and large, the media focuses on what he says–and what he might be thinking–e.g., will he support same-sex marriage (unlikely any time soon) or change church teaching about divorce or abortion (also unlikely)–rather than what seems to me to be the most important thing he is doing, namely engaging laity to think for themselves. He may be the most Protestant Pope we have ever had!

Of course, theological and ecclesial conservatives are alarmed. They see “confusion” where before there was order.

I have long believed there are two kinds of models for church. They are in some ways polar opposites of each other, and all churches fall somewhere along the continuum between the two ends.

rules must followOne is the church as an ideological institution in which the church, and its leadership, promulgate and enforce doctrines and behaviors. I call this the Rule Church. The other is is church as a gathering place for people who want to receive and share the unfolding truth and love of God. I call this the Free Church. You probably can tell my bias.

feeding-5000
Feeding the 5,000–a model for the Free Church?

No church in existence, or in history, is precisely one or the other. Rule Churches include gatherings of people which at least look somewhat like the Free Church. And the Free Churches have rules and people to enforce, or at least articulate, them.

Right now, the Rule Church known as the Roman Catholic Church is being challenged, not just by lay people and a few unruly dissident priests. Now it is the Pope himself (so far, it must always be a “him”) who is raising questions about the rules and their enforcement (and sometimes the enforcers).

Pope Francis blessing bikers
Pope Francis blessing a group of Harley Davidson bikers

One response to this untidiness is to invoke the historic doctrines, or rules, of the church, and to remind the Pope, and others who support him, that “The pope does not have the power to change teaching [or] doctrine.” That is the voice of Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Wisconsin-born prelate recently demoted by Pope Francis.

St. Francis renouncing worldly goods by Giotti Di Bondone
St. Francis renouncing worldly goods by Giotti Di Bondone

Francis. The name is a clue. This is the saint who gave up worldly wealth and power, stripped off all his stylish clothes and became a Christian ascetic. He got along with those in high authority but at the same time he built the order he founded the way he wanted. He did not seek high office, never becoming a priest. He lived by a few rules, and told others in the order to do so as well. Mostly, they focused on serving the poor and outcast.

In his emphasis on humility and service and love, as well as his willingness to break with authority and custom when it denies life to others, St. Francis seems to me to be the most Jesus-like of all the saints.

Unlike many of his critics, Pope Francis seems to believe the rules exist to serve the people. Perhaps he, like his saintly forebearer, is less interested in power and rules and more interested in service and love.

That sounds a lot like Jesus to me.

Sex Is Good. Why Is It Illegal?

August 25 is a day that sent shock waves through parts of the LGBT community–the day of the federal raid on the offices of RentBoy.com in New York. In case you didn’t know, RentBoy is a global male escort service with over 10,500 workers.

Rentboy.comThat’s right. Workers. Sex workers to be exact. We used to call them prostitutes. But then seemingly we have become a little more sophisticated. But not too sophisticated.

The Federales are out to protect all of us from the likes of these . . . . . people. Here’s what acting Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie said, “Rentboy.com attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution.”

gun-violenceThis is the priority of the Department of Justice, when we are experiencing a crisis of illegal guns and violence against the Black community?

Prostitution is illegal. Yes. But should it be? And why go after RentBoy? And why does this raid seem to have had more news coverage than similar raids on online services that provide the escort and sexual services of women? Is it because the lives of women sex workers actually matter less?

Bottom line for me is pretty simple. We have to stop criminalizing sex among adults. Protect children of course–throw the book at those who sexually abuse children (and also get help for them). And prosecute rape and sexual abuse. But consenting adults?

sex for moneyWhy can’t adults make their own choices about sex? Sex workers want to earn money, and they are willing to share their bodies with customers. Customers want sex, and are willing to share their funds and their bodies with workers to get it.

Other than the fact that folks take their clothes off–presumably–and touch each other in intimate places, this doesn’t seem all that different to me than going to your local florist to buy flowers or the Safeway to buy bread.

anti-gay-minister-begs-his-rent-boy-to-shut-upWhy do we think we need laws to punish those who offer sex for pay (and rarely punish those who seek it)? Who does it protect? And has it ever really worked? Has sex for pay ever been stopped? Or is this just a shaming device that helps keep some folks in line? And also keeps the sex workers hiding out? And what about the “Christian” ministers and others who rail against homosexuality and then hire . . . .  rent boys? Is it possible that decriminalization would help overcome some of the hypocrisy? Maybe then these religious types could enjoy sex the way God creates it…..not to be a nasty secret but instead an occasion of joy.

Indeed, many believe that if we decriminalized sex work, we could more effectively communicate to workers about safer sex and other health concerns, as well as potentially help them gain education and advancement. We might even put some mean and nasty pimps out of business, and put a dent in organized crime.

the joy of sexIn other words, if we understood that these  men and women are workers, often supporting families not to mention elderly parents, etc., we could treat them with dignity. Perhaps then they could become more productive citizens, which would be good for all of us.

the joy of gay sexI am not a lawyer, so I don’t know what legal defense would work to toss this case out of court–sadly, under our system there may not be one. These workers could be cast back to local pimps and others to keep going, which is potentially far more harmful for them than working for RentBoy.com. If I were the judge in the case, I would be the joy of lesbian sexlooking pretty hard to see if I could find a statute or constitutional principle on which I could ground a decision to dismiss.

To me, its about worker’s rights, which should always be protected, and the joy of sex–which should never be illegal.

Rosenwald!

Sometimes a film screening can feel like a worship service.

Rosenwald schools film photoJonathan and I shared that experience last evening, at the Old Greenbelt Theater screening of Rosenwald, the new documentary about the legendary (but not all that well known) 19th and 20th Century philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald of Chicago.

If you are an African American of a certain age, you may well know about Rosenwald Schools, either because you attended one yourself, or your mama or daddy did, or someone in your family did, or perhaps even was a teacher in one of the more than 5,300 schools built between 1913 and 1932.

Rosenwald School in Louisiana
A Rosenwald School in Louisiana

Many of us probably know about Carnegie libraries, built all over the country, and we are grateful. But the Rosenwald Schools were not, strictly speaking, for the entire country (although our entire nation benefited from them). Instead, they were to provide education for African American youngsters in Southern States where schools to serve the Black population’s youth, particularly in rural areas, were either non-existent or in such deplorable condition as to be almost, if not truly, useless.

Rosenwald, who rose from being the child of first-generation Jewish German immigrants to become the leader of Sears, Roebuck & Company, seems an unlikely benefactor. However, even a keen businessman, as surely Rosenwald was, can have or develop a social conscience.

Julius Rosenwald
Julius Rosenwald was, according to many, an informal, approachable man, whom many called, simply, JR.

According to the film, Rosenwald was influenced to engage in philanthropy directly engaging the needs of the African American community by several factors. First, he was acutely aware of pogroms against Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. Second, he read Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, and connected what he learned about Washington’s struggles, and those of other Blacks, with the anti-Semitism of Europe. He was aided in this by Rabbi Emil Hirsch, the widely acclaimed reform rabbi of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation. Rabbi Hirsch preached widely and continually on the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam, to heal the world, and especially of people with much to do much to promote that healing.

Finally, there is the undeniable influence of Booker T. Washington, who became a friend and mentor. Rosenwald served on the Board of Trustees at Tuskegee Institute and responded favorably to Washington’s request that he build a YMCA for “colored young men.” Rosenwald provided challenge funds to build the first one, in Chicago, and then went on to provide the impetus and initial funding for 26 others around the nation.

Booker T Washington
Booker T. Washington

Then came the schools–first a half-dozen near Tuskegee and then more and then more until the South, especially the rural south, was dotted with them. If you want to see the schools in your part of the South, click here for a link to an online database.

The number of schools is undeniably impressive, but so is the list of African American leaders and others who were students in them. Add to that list the names of eminent African American artists–musicians, writers, painters and sculptors–who received important, sometimes life-saving, grants from the Rosenwald Fund. Two well-known African Americans, both students at the school in their area–Julian Bond and Maya Angelou–speaking extensively on film on what Rosenwald did.

Rosenwald Schools map
Map showing 5,295 schools completed by July 1, 1931

Rosenwald did more than any other white man in the first 40 years of the 20th Century to help the African American community get itself ready to topple Jim Crow and move assertively forward to press the case for full civil rights. Yes, he had more money than almost everyone else, and he gave it generously.

But he did something else. He only gave what we would call challenge grants. He promised to pay one-third of the cost of building a school if the local African American community came up with a third, and got the white community (often the State Department of Education, as well as local benefactors) to contribute one-third. This empowered the local Black community to come together to build and maintain its own school, which usually became not only the school but also the community center.

In this way, his philanthropy was of the best kind–helping people meet an immediate need as well as helping them build something more, pride in themselves and organization for the future, a better future.

Charleston massacre
Praying outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

I urge you to see this film wherever you can (check here for a list of upcoming showings) and watch for it on DVD. The filmmaker, Aviva Kempner, wants to be sure this is seen all over the nation–and certainly in schools and other community venues. She has done a superb job–it is a lively, entertaining, and hugely informative film, bringing together many strands of history from Rosenwald’s youth in Springfield, Illinois all the way to his death in 1932 and the work of the fund beyond. We really see the sweep of his vision.

If you do not come away from your viewing with a desire to go out and do something for civil rights (still imperiled in our nation), or for some other deeply cherished cause to heal the world, then I fear for your sanity, your serenity, your heart, even your soul.

See this film. Be inspired by JR. And do likewise, heal the world in your own way.