Sunday, September 23, 2007

icarus time, or my amazing portrero hill adventure

they're selling incense on the corner, the sweet smell fills the air
the Krishna punks are dancing and ringing the bells down on Tompkins Square
the beautiful and the broken, the ramshackle and the rakehell
I'm drinking down on 11th and A with all my favorite wastrels

We are the city, we are its pulse and its beat
We are the city, see us tramp the street

remember the story of daedalus and icarus? i think about it a lot, partly because of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I read at a formative stage of highschool, and because of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's annual Daedalus Project, an AIDS benefit. daedalus and icarus, father and son, are imprisoned in a high tower, and daedalus creates wings for them of wax and feathers. they need the wings to escape. they also want to fly.

icarus is so excited by his flying ability that, ignoring his father's warnings, he flies higher and higher until the sun melts the wax in his wings and he crashes to the earth and dies. so daedalus and icarus represent two ways of being an artist: icarus crashes and burns (picture
janis joplin), and daedalus is careful of his craft, and doesn't fly as high because he takes fewer risks.

the lyrics above are by Casey Neill, a song that i love for its icarus energy. the exhiliration of twentysomethings with the world before us, sailing and swimming and splashing in the best and the worst of our social/cultural stream:

steam rises from the iron grates, the smoke it fills my lungs
you can hear the sounds of all the world sung in a thousand tongues
the subway mariachi, the arias dying strains
and the busker in the station singing of escapades out on the D train

We are the city, in all its joy and pain
We are the city, our sins washed away in the rain

Gotham, Gomorrah

most of the time i squelch and dismiss my inner icarus, but sometimes he comes out when i'm traveling. this morning i took an hour-plus urban hike, racing against the clock to get to the 22nd street caltrain station under highway 280. i don't have one of those nifty SF bicycle coalition maps to help me plan a route from point A to point B that avoids steep hills. so i walked the length of 22nd st, through SF General Hospital. i was propelled by a power not entirely my own, and i was gambling my ability to get some exercise and get to work on time. i discovered a foot bridge over 101 right where i needed it. it was not on my map.

it occurred to me it would not be wise to travel this way if i were responsible for anyone else. just yesterday i took a group of twelve young adult pilgrims from the Camino gathering through SoMa, and failed to find them lunch until well into the afternoon. i'm used to traveling by myself, so i was on icarus time. being a good leader requires some daedalus, for leading everyone together is more important than reaching too high and failing them. and if you crash and burn, there's no next time.

this morning, by myself again, i was joyfully in icarus time. i climbed, with coffee and map in hand, all the way to the top of 23rd st. i looked back over noe valley and the mission and it took my breath away. then i rounded the hill and saw the bay, container ships from china at their anchorages south of the bay bridge, and the cranes at the shipyards. i saw clothes on clotheslines in the foreground, in the aparment buildings on missouri st. (i wondered how those folks get to work or the store). i was captivated by the san francisco-ness of it all, what writers call "sense of place."

good storytelling, good art, and good mission require that you know the ground on which you stand and with whom you share it. that's why i love, even though it's about a different city, Casey Neill in this song calling NYC both "Gotham" and "Gomorrah." he knows the city deeply, he's tramped the streets in joy and sorrow, and he sings boths its gotham-ness (mysterious and foggy and technological) and gomorrah-ness (sinful almost beyond hope):

We are the stars dead but still shining, we are the constellations
high above the rush hour crowd down at the station
the lunatic asylum on Roosevelt Island, GO in the park in Chinatown
and the Loisaida poet, Molloch he's calling it down

We are the City, it all its joy and sorrow
We are the City, a prayer for all tomorrow

Gotham, Gomorrah

Friday, September 14, 2007

inspiring ourselves

i was thinking on my 0.6 mile walk back from the laundromat with my laundry about how we use our words. Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements, says "be impeccable with your word." that's part of my definition of integrity. another teacher put it this way: "honor your word as your self."

i'm discussing this passage, James 3:2-8, with my youth groups this week:
1-2 Don't be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you'd have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

3-5 A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can't tame a tongue—it's never been done. The tongue runs wild, a crazy killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!

our word is certainly part of our self, and one of the primary ways we commmunicate that self.
yesterday i had lunch with a friend who's preparing for a presentation on a very impotant topic to a huge group of people. the audience is a powerful group of folks, and he doesn't know very many of them. i wondered about what i would do in his shoes. i was struck by how, in our casual conversation, we both spoke with a "yeah yeah, i know all about it, it's all someone else's problem" attitude about life-and-death stuff.

i want to encourage myself and my friends to inspire ourselves with our speech. how do we find the right tone and syntax to communicate oppression and the call to work for justice, suffering and the "how" of hope?

i have two thoughts:
  • one is how important it is, as i keep being reminded, to pay attention and be on our toes. if what you're saying doesn't seem to be getting acros: pause and evaluate, look for clues in the listener, and try a new tack.
  • the other is that we speak with energy and heart behind our words. i was inspired in my study of voice by telling myself "i have a message for the king." so if i'm speaking about climate change or racism, even with my friends i'll practice paying attention and investing "i have a message for the king" energy in my words. then my voice itself will be a powerful ally. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagan, historian and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock says that no one should graduate from college without the ability to (and habit of) command the attention of a room with the power of your voice. Not necessarily volume, but breath/spirit/intention power.
we are the ones we've been waiting for.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11 in my hometown

i'll admit to not having thought much about commemmorating 9/11 for most of the day, despite hearing an amazing list on Saturday at the Power to the Peaceful festival from Amy "the only real journalist in America" Goodman of Democracy Now! of September 11th-s past, including:

September 9-13, 1971
Attica uprising at the NY state prison. "Responding to rumors of the impending torture of a prisoner, about one thousand of the prison's approximately 2,200 inmates rioted and seized control of the prison, taking thirty-three guards hostage." (wikipedia)
September 11, 1973 military junta in Chile led by Pinochet overthrows Socialist president Salvador Allende. His niece, the author Isabel Allende, says that when her phone rang on the morning 9/11/01, she at first thought it was to mark 'their' 9/11 tragedy. This is the one where thousands of dissidents were piled into the Chile Stadium (recently renamed the Victor Jara stadium) and many were tortured.

anyway, to the extent that i thought of 9/11 today, i thought of those things. i planned to join a prayer service organized by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice at the Palo Alto Friends meeting house. i was going mostly to support a friend who helped organize it. i noticed that i was being--ornery at the clergy potluck dinner before the service. i hadn't joined forces with this group, so i was insistent on putting them down in my head and in snide comments to my friend.

then, right at the end of the meal/meeting, the tide turned. i spoke about how it's difficult (sometimes prohibited) to talk about peace and justice issues in my parish. we have people with different viewpoints and commiments, so we social justice types do a lot of sitting on our hands. i said i wanted to work on ways for our congregations to create a "climate of moral dialogue." if we can't hash out moral decisions and speak the truth and disagree with love within the church which is a "circle of care," where the heck can we? how might we start that conversation? (quotes are from an amazing talk i heard last week from Alexa Salvatierra, director of CLUE-CA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice). one of the UU ministers said, "yes, our closing off from each other in fear is useful to abusive systems of empire, since we're easily manipulated when we're alone and afraid." now i was invested.

we headed over to the meeting house proper. i liked the space, and appreciated the gathering music and the muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer. i was opening up. the Quaker host explained how the 15 minutes of silent worship "in the manner of Friends" would work. you sit in silence to better listen to your inner voice. when moved, you may stand and share your thoughts. he said that we were to leave silence "before you speak, after you speak, and speak what is given to you (in inspiration) and no more." he was so clear, and the practice is so clear, i thought "i should do this more often!"

a leader of the local jewish community spoke. i travelled back in my mind to 2001. the evening of september 11 i joined an impromptu service at the jewish house on campus at Vassar. i was over there a lot after that. tonight i felt some nostalgia for that community and for jewish ritual in general, since i haven't done any in a long time.

one of the key leaders of MVPJ is Samina Faheem Sundas, an amazing woman who runs an organization called American Muslim Voice. She spoke about how she was in Costco on 9/11 when she first heard the news, and she was crying. someone (a white person) asked her why she was crying. the questioner had already put her in the 'enemy' category, and honestly couldn't understand why she would cry at the suffering of someone from the other camp. Samina is about to receive the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

during silent worship the first person to speak was the leader guy who had introduced us to the practice earlier. i liked what he had to say. i was reeling from listening to Samina, whose words had given me the shivers. my internal dialogue after he spoke was pretty predictable:
"should i say something?"
"no, no one else is, the point is mostly to be silent and listen. you're not listening very well."
"what would i say if i did say something?"
"you don't want to be one of the talkative people. you'd just be doing it for the attention."
"but i am thinking about A20..."
i was remembering the A20 mobilization, my introduction to what i then thought was a more or less unified thing i called simply 'the movement,' a big rally and march organized by ANSWER and others, in DC in the spring of '02.

suddenly i'm standing and i'm saying, "a few months after 9/11, i went to a big protest. it was my introduction to the movement which i feel is very important and which i feel part of tonight. the next morning, the first school day/work day after i got home, i wrote this in my journal:

i don't get up in the morning because i'm tired of sleeping. i get up because i have something to do, something i value above sleeping.

"that weekend the world outside my ivory towers touched me for the first time, and i learned i had something to say and to do about it."

we sang some more and Samina summoned me to help hand out candles, and stand with her at the center of the vigil.
i am so grateful.

Monday, September 10, 2007

the turning

Here's my sermon from September 2 at St. Mark's, Palo Alto:

At age 10, I auditioned for my first play at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre. It was one of the Hotdog Suppertime Shows, notoriously campy, especially back then before they had built the fancy outdoor stage. It was called “The King’s Creampuffs,” and I assumed, because my mother had raised me to have faith in myself and I grew up as an only child, that I was in the running for the role of the princess. I don’t remember feeling anxious as the director began to read the cast list. I do remember being shocked that my name was one of the first read, in the list of “ladies in waiting.”

I was devastated, and I was angry. I clearly remember lying on my stomach and pounding the floor in tears when I got home. My mom and my piano teacher, who had arrived for my lesson, coaxed me up off the floor. Once we got to the piano, my teacher Mr. Michael told me a story. He had been in the Navy. He said that when he first arrived on his ship all the new recruits were set at knot-tying tasks, which seemed boring and pointless. Many of them complained. But, Mr. Michael said, it was the ones who applied themselves cheerfully to the knot-tying and mastered it who were promoted to more interesting and challenging jobs.

Now, I see what he meant; I’ve lived his parable over and over in my life since then. When I picture the Pharisee’s dinner party in today’s gospel I think of Mr. Michael in the navy. The guests come in, there’s probably an awkward pause for a minute as they wait to see whether the host has plans for who is to sit where. When the host is silent, they choose for themselves. Watching their movements, Jesus tells them always to choose the last place. If you sit at the place of honor you may be disgraced if someone more important than you arrives later and you have to move. But if you sit at the lowest place, you may be honored by being asked to move up higher. Jesus says “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Notice that, at least at a dinner party or on a Navy vessel, the feedback loop is pretty short. The point is not that the humble will get into heaven, though that may be true as well. The point is that humility puts us in a better place immediately.

But wait a second. Speaking of heavenly dinner parties, aren’t we told that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father? Aren’t we to aspire to that? I stick with the boat analogy—it's okay to want to be captain someday, but you become a good sailor by paying attention to what's in front of you. Preacher and writer Barbara Crafton wrestled with how to balance ambition and humility in a recent blog post. She says:

My parishioners want to advance in their companies and become more and more successful, and everyone admires their initiative, a priest told me recently. But if a priest admits that he wants to become a cardinal rector, he's criticized as being too ambitious, as if it were a bad thing.

A cardinal rector. Cardinal meaning "central" -- literally, one upon whom other things hinge. One of the priests in a diocese with whom a bishop had better consult if he or she wants a project to succeed there. One whose church is large, wealthy in comparison with other parishes and has been both of those things for a long time.

There won't be dozens of cardinal rectors in a diocese -- everybody can't be central. The rest will lead churches more modest in size, or challenged in different ways. Perhaps, if they are effective in leading these churches, they will become cardinal rectors someday.

But they won't be effective leaders of their smaller parishes if their chief ambition is to leave them. The primary difference between worldly ambition and spiritual fidelity is the willingness to center one's energy in the place in which one finds oneself, and to spend the sum of one's faithfulness on the community gathered in that place. If you can do that, it will be enough, and the future will take care of itself.

Faithfulness and stability. Ambition is harmful partly because it leads us away from the present moment. I think Crafton hits the nail on the head—we know we're on the wrong track when our ambition is to leave and move on to something “better.” Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who keeps looking behind and beyond you, searching for someone else to talk to, someone more important than you? I ran across a letter dating from eighth grade, in which a friend first pointed out to me that I'm sometimes guilty of that kind of disrespect and thoughtlessness. Her letter said, “you have certain special people (like my favorite teachers) and you'll run away from whoever you're talking to to go talk to these special people.” She was right—I would dash across the quad without so much as a “hold that thought.” It seemed more important to get an extra few seconds with the favorite teacher, who could confer status, validation and approval, than to be present to my friends and actively care about them.

I wonder about the relationships present at the Pharisee’s party. Did this group of people know and like each other? Or was the gathering stiff and formal among strangers, where each guest played his status card as a way of claiming power in the group? My sense is that who had which place at the table wouldn't be very important if they were friends. Biology says that organisms are more likely to cooperate with each other when they expect to interact again in the future. You're more likely to compromise with your spouse than with the stranger who wants the same parking spot, or place in line at the bank or grocery store. The relationhip with the stranger, our instincts tell us, isn't as important as getting our errands done faster. Those instincts are the beginning of preoccupation with status, of the sin of not paying attention, of pride.

Our first reading today, from the book of Sirach, says “the beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” What does this mean? For me it's a reminder that I am not an island. I am best able to be humble and generous (and effective) when I feel I'm in the presence of the divine. When I'm not, when my heart is somehow withdrawn from itself and from connection to God, I can hurt those I love.

Today's gospel challenges me to live my life in such a way that I encounter fewer “strangers” (those whom I can justifiably dismiss or disrespect because they're not important), more brothers and sisters, and more friends. Jesus asks me to put everyone in the category of the friend to whom I must listen, and take joy in listening. I think this was one of St. Benedict's reasons for creating a fourth central vow for monks in his community: along with poverty, chastity, and obedience, he asked them to make a vow of stability. Stability means enduring relationships, it means exactly what Barbara Crafton meant about “centering one's energy in the place in which one finds oneself.” Bishop Marc said earlier this year that “unparalleled mobility in terms of ... transportation, the rapidity of job changes, address changes, etc. may mean that stability is more important now than it ever has been.” He says the challenges ahead of us in our ratrace, globalized world will require “the virtue of stability to be something for which we pray.”

Taking the last seat at the table, though, is only half of the instruction we get in today's gospel, and it's the easy half. Jesus also says we are to invite to our tables those who cannot invite us to theirs: “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Maybe you hear this, as I do, and squirm a little and glance up at the ceiling and hope this second part can be someone else's job. It's similar to hearing in the letter to the Hebrews, “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

I think our squirming is exactly what Jesus our redeemer and brother had in mind. The gospel of Luke has been called the “gospel of the great reversal,” meaning that according to Luke the intention of Christ and Christianity was to turn the world upside down. Such a turning cannot be accomplished, and will not be satisfied, by a rearranging of dinner party chairs. In Luke, Jesus' prophetic word begins before his birth, with Mary's song we call the Magnificat. A Celtic version of the Magnificat, The Canticle of the Turning, captures the magnificent hope of the gospel:

Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be.

Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn,

You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.

How does the turning happen? God's mercy is what lets us face our sins, our pride, and lift them up to be transformed. Since our own lives are part of an organic whole, all the communities in which we stand, our transformation depends upon the transformation of the world. Healing ourselves and healing the world can only happen if they happen simultaneously. The gospel cycle is one in which power keeps moving, those who humble themselves will be exalted and vice versa. The gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Last year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I attended a community forum in East Palo Alto. Community leaders were asked which issues they felt the most passionate about, which issues are to us what integration was to King and civil rights leaders? Everyone spoke about youth, how the youth of a community will always be a force for change, and which direction that change points depends on the community's priorities. One panel member challenged the audience: he said if everyone present made one or two highschool-aged friends, and invited them to their house regularly, East Palo Alto could be transformed before their eyes. A world with fewer strangers.A world that Jesus envisioned.

Our sacred stories today advise us on how to act at the dinner table. They also ask us to stay mindful of who's at the table and who's not. We each have an individual Christian journey in which our lives get turned around over and over, like following the twisting path on the labyrinth. We also have a collective Christian journey. On both paths, we are continually called to take part in the gospel cycle. We are called to be both powerful and humble. At the dinner table and at the policy table, we are called to step up when we've been quiet and step back when we've been dominating, and encourage others to do the same.

A friend of mine says if being a Christian is easy for you, you're not doing it right. We've set ourselves a huge task in the healing of ourselves and our world. We must hold on to each other as we travel, to the promise that the kingdom is coming, and to all that lifts our hearts. Another verse of the Celtic magnificat promises:

Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound,

'Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.

Glory to God, source of all being, incarnate word, and holy spirit. Amen.