Wednesday, April 16, 2014

in.just.ice

I just got out of a lecture by Doran Larson, a professor at Hamilton College (the lecture was at the University of Houston-Downtwon). He is promoting a new initiative, the American Prison Writing Archive. He has edited and published a book of prison writings, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America.

I purchased his book afterward and so I have no idea what I have in my hands now. He said the writings are a chronicle of life inside the largest prison system in the world, a system that has a population larger than Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States (hence the title of the book). This is not a book about innocence, but about human suffering. It is also, as he said, a chance for prisoners to be seen as something other than their crime.

It's a true and terrible thing that we tend to define people by the worse thing they ever did.

Believing in grace, I need these stories to remind me of the humanity behind every awful action we're capable of perpetrating. Perhaps you do, too.

The online archive is a site for the essays that couldn't fit in the book. As it's brand new, they're hoping for volunteers from across the nation to help transcribe the scanned essays, so the essays are searchable. Not that I need one more thing to do, but I hope I'll be able to help do at least a handful of essays. If you're interested, you might want to contact Dr. Larson, which you can do from the American Prison Writing Archive site.

This being Holy Week, of course, I flashed upon the arrest of Jesus---although sadly his incarceration was too brief for him to take up pen and write anything. But Paul did, when he was incarcerated. There are others. Last century saw some significant writings from the incarcerated Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a grand tradition among Christians (and other relgions) for writing from prison.

Of course, we tend to think of all those men as innocent. Again, this book is not a book of innocence, but of suffering. The American prison industry is huge, larger than any other nation on earth, much larger than other nations we tend to think of as being under a police state.

And we treat our prisoners poorly. The other reason Dr. Larson named this book Fourth City is because he said there was, across the nation, a similar culture exposed in each letter, a language with it's own idioms, an internal logic for how to move through the culture. Our prison system is, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate urban sprawl, spread sea to shining sea, a city of corruption and violence.

Did you know prison officers have a lie expectency of 59 years? They die young not from violence, but from hypertension and related disease. It's not only the prisoners who suffer.

It seemed fitting to hear this lecture on the Wednesday of Holy Week. It seemed fitting I pass a tiny bit of it on to you.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Breaking Into the Cycle



Jesus asks us to turn around, turn away from the patterns of the powers that be. It feels like it gets harder to do. We live in a world where it's increasinly hard to buy a shirt or shoes and know for certain that no one was exploited in the transaction. Slavery is alive and well, whether as domestic workers held hostage for lack of citizenship or sex workers shuttled about to gratify anyone with the cash and the urges no one taught them to control. We eat what we want and what we want is often junk.

And we enter these scenes, wearing the work of corporations-who-are-people, thinking we're free, thinking . . . someone has to do the dirty work . . .

This is the cycle and pattern and web of our sin.

Speaking out against these powers are what got Jesus killed. I'm certain of it. And those of use who have never been so much as threatened . . . perhaps we're complicit . . .

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday of Holy Week 2014

The underside of 59 South at Chimney Rock, Houston, TX. The very slim line in the middle is a sliver of night sky.
[

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Love and Hate in Jerusalem

People with power get nervous when there's a throng of people marching and not for them.

The people shouting "Hosanna!" were not the power players of the Empire. They were crying out to Jesus, whose reputation as the Messiah had preceded him, and it's likely that a good many of them were seeing Jesus as the warrior king who would come to Jerusalem, rally the troops, and get the Romans kicked out of the holy city.

If that's what they were hoping for, it was a false hope.

Ironically, the Empire saw Jesus for who he was. He was regarding the people who the Empire disregarded. He was talking up some kind of Reign of God that had nothing to do with the Emperor cult. He was saying that signs of this Reign were when the sick were healed, the naked clothed, the hungry fed.

How sad for Jesus to have people who didn't understand as his friends and those who understood as his enemies.

Look at these people crying out "Hosanna! Save us!" They are us, the believers, the followers of Jesus.

And when we find he isn't going to take up arms for us, isn't going to even save himself, we're going to step back, watch what happens, and shake our heads, disappointed in this alleged messiah. We may watch in horror, but we're going to watch, nonetheless. We won't even believe that we're the troops we had hoped Jesus would rally.

But the Empire, they saw the truth. They saw the subversion to the "natural order" that Jesus represented. Empire is almost always paranoid, and Empire has a way of making the paranoia justified.

You can't maintain power when the lowest of the low start learning they are children of God.

So the week begins.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Loving the Path You've Walked

Recently, as part of a Fieldwork workshop series, I was writing and telling stories from my life. Turning 50 has made me want to tell stories about my life.

Now, maybe because this was going on as winter was dragging on and this year I felt a little bluer than usual, this exercise took me down some less than happy trails. I found myself experiencing my own life less than inspirational, more like a cautionary tale.

False starts, abandoned goals, missed (or worse, ignored) opportunities . . . I've got 'em.

And so, somewhat ironically (given the above line), I abandoned this project and turned to something else, which actually pleased me pretty well so all's well that ends well, I guess.

But the fact that writing stories from my life made me a little sadder in my winter blues is troubling for me. Now that the days are longer and I get more sun, I wonder if I could revisit that material and feel differently about it now, and maybe I could and yet it's troubling. I would have rather found that writing about my life might have lifted me from winter blues rather than dragged me down into them even more.

Today is the first anniversary of my pancreas surgery. Or as I sometimes think of it, the day I had my scar installed. Or sometimes simply as "the cutting." That experience, for a few months, anyway, actually did buoy me up. It felt mysterious, mystical even. So much could have gone wrong and almost nothing did (if you get past the having-a-cyst-on-your-pancreas to begin with). I've tended to look on the experience as a positive.

Much more so than the heart disease thing. But that's another story.

I tend to talk a lot about working with God to redeem things that haven't gone the way we want them to. In a way, it's taking the shit that life gives us and turning it into manure for the time we have left.

Well, as a former farm boy, that image works for me.

All of which to say---the path we've walked to get here may not have been everything we'd hoped for. It may have been much worse than that. But in these waning days of lent, it feels like there's more energy to be put into loving all that and, more, getting to work redeeming it. In my heart of hearts, I'm sure God would have our lives redeemed. We just have to stop working against the redemption, work more with it.

And it's seldom easy.

But I'm making plans for Easter . . .

Monday, April 7, 2014

Loving Those We Don't Understand

Many years ago, I was active on an email mailing list for Whosoever Magazine. During its heyday, it was a very active list of LGBT Christians and their supporters. I made friends there that have carried over to Facebook.

One Whosoeveran I've lost track of is a woman named Angela. She was active for a while and I enjoyed her posts immensely. She had a wit I appreciated, but she also had a depth that came through in her posts.

She was a trans woman, probably my first real interaction with a trans person. One day, in my typically clumsy manner, said something like, "Ang, I'm so glad to know you. I don't pretend to understand transgender issues, but I'm glad to get to know you. You're helping me understand some."

I suppose because we had fun together on the list, she took what may have felt like a risk to contact me off-list. She told me to ask her anything and she'd try to answer. I guess we both felt safe with each other, at least over the internet.

So we had a fruitful exchange off the main Whosoever list. I like to think our mutual respect grew in that exchange. Maybe it was just my respect for her. I certainly grew to love her more. I even got to meet her in person once.

I don't remember what we talked about, exactly, and I don't know that she answered all my questions.

I'm probably still clumsy in my interactions with trans people. I hope I'm less so. To the extent that I do understand trans issues, a great deal of credit goes to Angela. It was not her responsibility to educate me, but she took it on and I'm very grateful.

We lost contact over the years. I checked with some of the other Whosoeverans and it seems we've all lost contact. I hope she's well, happy, and living a life without the burden of educating people like me. I hope I take on some of her burden to educate, however clumsily I do so.

I reflect on my relationship with Ang from time to time, particularly when I read stories of violence against trans folk (or anyone, really, but trans people are statistically at higher risk for violent attack). How do parents turn out children? How do people make off-handed cruel remarks? How does whatever unease one feels when encountering what one doesn't understand escalate so quickly to harm?

I think we've made a mistake, in the last decades, emphasizing how alike we all are. We've used that argument to talk about why racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia . . . all our prejudices have been attacked with the plea, "we're really all alike underneath."

I don't think that's true. I'm pretty sure it's not true.

If we are made in the Image of God, as I hold foundational of my understanding of all of us, then there is something that will always be something a little mysterious, unsettling, even frightening about one another. There are reasons why people, when they encounter the Holy, they fall to the ground and hide their face. God isn't like us, we just bear God's Image.

It may be that what the thing we don't understand about another person is a part of the Imago Dei we need to meet. I grow more sure this is true. I don't say that like it's easy. I say that because I think it's true. It challenges me daily.

As always, it takes humility, risk, patience, love. Wherever Angela is tonight, I hope she knows somehow just how much she taught me, and maybe others, some small measure of all these things.

May these small measures increase within me. May you join me in the learning. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Loving the Haters

I don't know what to add to what's already been said about the death of Fred Phelps. There have been many eloquent words written----and some not so eloquent.

I've mused that his vitriol was so over the top that surely he was a performance artist, using his life to show the logical conclusion of excluding any group of people. Of course, I don't believe it. There are too many other examples of this sort of hatred, both currently and from history, to really believe it.

But he did show us what hate looks like, how ridiculous it could be. Luckily, he never achieved any power to take it beyond his picketing nonsense (which was hurtful enough). Current conditions of LGBT people in Uganda and Russia (to name two places) shows a less ridiculous logical end of hating people.


Still, I do think he helped LGBT folk in the United States. All his effort and money thrown at us LGBT folk created more sympathy for us than anything else. I think people who were on the fence about LGBT folk decided they did not want to look like Phelps. So in a backhanded sort of way, we have a debt of gratitude to pay.

That doesn't change the fact that his name goes down in history as a petty, mean man who got way more publicity than he deserved. He joins the likes of Roy Cohn and Anita Bryant in the books on LGBT rights.

Which is, really, a pretty good definition of a wasted life.

Still, I don't rejoice in his death. Some have and do, and I can understand the impulse, but I do believe my faith must look at the man and search for the Image of God that he carried. I grieve, in some small measure, that he apparently didn't ever know the loving God I encounter in the same scriptures he misused.

Do I love him? Or his surviving family, who carries on his hate? Or the people in Uganda who set gay men on fire or the bullies in Russia who beat gay men until their faces are barely recognized as human? (I'm focusing on LGBT people in this post for obvious, personal reasons, but there are certainly other subsets of humanity in similar dire straits around the world.)

If I say I love these people, I simultaneously that it's a cheap love. It's a love I proclaim because I think I should, but it's a love without cost to me. I don't have to spend time with any of them, personally.

So, I don't know what to do with Fred Phelps. I don't know what he did that I might speak well of him. Everything I know of him denies all attempts at sympathy for him.

I will say I don't believe there's a literal hell. I don't think he's in hell. Whatever happens after we die, I feel he is going to be, at the very least, offered grace and redemption and reconciliation.

For all the venom he spewed in his hating life, I still believe he's been surprised by a joy that none of us can understand until we join him.