Join Our Co-op! It’s the Bee’s Knees!

We’ve had a very successful few months at the Meade Street Co-op. Our bees seem to be thriving and are very happily collecting a lot of pollen.

I’m happy to announce that we’re adding another bee hive to our co-op! It’s exact location is being finalized, but it would be great to involve some more investors! Shares are $25 and I’m selling 20 more shares. A share guarantees you a portion of the honey we will collect next year, should the bees survive the winter. Investors also are part owners of the hives and can come any time to see them and learn.

So, please share this with your friends! Shares can be paid in person, a check mailed, or by Paypal. Contact Brian Gorman at Brianjgorman [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

A Caged Bird No Longer

IMG_0775Today was Lester’s birthday. I met Lester on August 15, 2009. We moved into Cornerstone Community only a few days apart. I wrote about Lester and my first days with the guys right after moving in. Cornerstone was the home that Lester and I shared for almost two years, along with other homeless men working through recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. I had never known the hell of addiction; I lived at Cornerstone as a Community Builder, a staff member whose primary job was to build relationships with the men and support their recovery. Lester and I could not have been more different. He was black, in his late 50′s, had lived on the streets and in prison for much of his adult life, and had done hard drugs. I was a 23 year-old white kid, fresh off a year learning about community, hospitality, and prayer from friends at the Rutba House in Durham and Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. I wasn’t new to homelessness or addiction, but sharing life with people who had literally just begun to emerge from that world has profoundly changed my life.

From the beginning, Lester and I developed a pretty good relationship. He was always very laid back about most things, as I tend to be. He kept a lot to himself during the days, content to stay in his room and listen to music or sleep. He was an incredible pool shark. He could make all kinds of impossible bank shots. He’d never even finished high school, but when it came to pool, he knew his geometry and physics better than I’d ever known. I’m sure that shooting pool was how he’d earned a lot of his money at one point. He was a hustler, no doubt. He had this smile, kind of slick, when he knew he was playing you and you thought you had the better of him, whether it was pool or just about anything.

He liked telling stories. Sometimes he would recollect his youthful days, running the streets, getting in gang fights, messing with the cops. He told us one night, after dinner, of his harrowing experience at Attica State Prison, home of the famous prison riot in 1971. He’d been beaten, had his front teeth knocked out, and forced through an unrelenting, horrific nightmare. He described the way the police came in firing, and he saw people left and right being mowed down. Lester was later responsible for helping gather and move the dead bodies.

In 2011, Lester moved into his own apartment for the first time in his life. Soon after, he started working with me at Sitar Arts Center as a custodian. We became coworkers, which I think really tickled Lester. He got to experience a work culture that was fun and encouraging, that challenged him to work hard but supported and loved him. I don’t think he’d ever worked at a job consistently for as long as he was with Sitar, which was over 2 years.  He couldn’t carry a tune, but he loved to sing. He sang constantly, doo-wop songs, in his tenor, raspy voice. He loved the O’Jays and all kinds of music. Or he’d make up his own lyrics half the time.

I’ve tried to think about what I learned from Lester but it feels selfish. It feels too easy, like I can find one life lesson from him and carry it with me and forget the rest. Even as I started to write this, I tried to look for some dramatic imparting or wisdom that I’ve gained from him, or some easy story about how different we were and how unlikely our friendship was, but all I could find myself doing was saying who he was, what his life looked like in the time I knew him. Lester was my friend. He is the only person I’ve ever been close with, outside of family, who has died. He was a kind man who loved children, stylish clothes, and a perfectly arranged apartment. He enjoyed eating Frosted Flakes at all hours of the night. He loved to take pictures with disposable cameras, almost always at an angle. He was the kind of person to walk nearly two miles with you  so that you  did not have to walk home alone in the dark, and then turn around and walk the two miles back. On Thursday nights, as part of our weekly community meal and prayer, he was always nearly moved to tears with gratitude for the community and for his life. I never knew Lester-the-heroin-addict. I knew Lester-the-community-mate, Lester-the-friend.

But I suppose that if I had to name one thing that comes close to describing Lester’s life, I would say that Lester was always torn between freedom and captivity, and toward the end of his life he was finally coming to a place where the nourishment of freedom was taking hold. Maya Angelou’s poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings occurred to me as possibly the most apt summary of his life.

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

I am blessed to have been a witness to Lester’s song of freedom.

EDIT: I would also like to include here a wonderful poem by my sister, Amy Caruso, that she wrote for Lester’s memorial service last June.  I think it fits nicely.

In Memory: A Place for Lester

When the scrapbook is put together many years from now,
and my child ventures to open it one summer lazy afternoon
I want him to find a picture of Lester.
“Why Lester?” Oliver will ask.
Why? Because, when you were little, he would peak curiously at you, fast asleep in the baby carrier.
Why? Because, while we sang and danced in your baby music class, he swept, took out the trash, and cleaned the bathrooms.
Why? Because he had the friendliest “Hello” and a big heart.
Why? Because he was a friend to your Uncle Brian.
There are those reasons and many more, dear child.
Our story and his story are bound together.
His freedom and our freedom, one and the same.
His humanity and our humanity, inextricably linked.
For that, a photo.
For that, a place for Lester
in our scrapbook and
in our hearts.

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Actually, God Does Still Want You to Give Up Chocolate for Lent

It’s Lent again, and like every other Christian holiday or tradition,it brings with it a slew of opinions or non-opinions about the best way to celebrate it in a way that honors God. Not every part of Christian tradition partakes in Lent, but I think it’s a good practice. Like Advent, it’s a cyclical season that interrupts the rest of life and helps us re-focus on Christ’s resurrection and return, as well as our own participation in the redemption of the world. I’ve written before about the significance of Lent and especially how that came alive for me through John Milton’s Paradise Regained. 

Whether it’s coffee or T.V. or social media, it has been commonplace to stop doing something that is not necessarily bad for the 40 days of Lent in order to identify better with the notion of fasting and preparation for Easter. What seems to be in vogue currently is a questioning of the practice of “giving something up” for Lent. There was even an NPR piece about it. I’ve read numerous blogs and had several conversations with people who wonder whether or not the practice of giving something up cheapens Lent, that people use it as a pseudo-New Year’s Resolution, giving up a vice or a addiction, and that giving up chocolate, for instance, does not actually bring us closer to God if it is not accompanied by a change of attitude, devotion, etc. Fasting is meant to bring us closer to God, and giving up something trivial does not inherently do so. Furthermore, Lent specifically recalls Jesus’ time of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, and it is a poor and pathetic attempt to identify with his temptation if we give up something that has little real value to us. Actual fasting is what will help us understand giving up bread. Substituting good works–Isaiah 52–is the kind of fast God desires, specifically those which free the oppressed and declare the kingdom of God is at hand. Certainly Jesus’ fast in the desert is an Isaiah 52 fast.

I have to admit that I agree with some of the sentiment here. Absolutely, God desires more from us than giving up sweets. But I also think people often take what they perceive to be worn-out traditions that have lost meaning and shake things up a bit, in part for the sake of saying something different or new. It’s much more hip to not give up something for Lent, or to give up God for Lent. Yet, some of the people who have influenced my life the most have engaged in this small-yet-meaningful discipline faithfully each year, and I think they’re better for it. Here’s why I think God still wants you to give up chocolate for Lent.

At least part of the point of a fast is to recognize the hold that things have on our lives that don’t matter as much as God’s provision. We are to learn to live on the word of God, the true Bread of Life. What better to demonstrate how small we actually are and how prone to dependence on earthly things than our feeble (and failed) attempts to refrain from something as small as sugar for just 40 days! If you’re like me, you find yourself unknowingly reaching for that cupcake or brownie without a second thought, and then halfway through someone says, “Didn’t you give up sweets for Lent?” Or worse, nobody does and it hits you on your own. Fasting asks the question: What do you actually need in your life to work for the kingdom of God? Surprisingly (or maybe not) very little. We don’t need social media (though some push back that it’s more like the telephone these days, to which I say, I don’t recall a telephone being a prerequisite for discipleship), computers, cars. But let’s be honest–most of us can’t do those bigger things. We are too weak. We might be able to squeeze in 40 days without Netflix..

Even a minor fast also points us to how habitually unintentional our lives are. We take a lot of time to engage in behaviors without hesitation: eating, dressing, talking, driving, watching TV. I imagine our lives would change dramatically if we actually acted with intention. It would change what we eat and where the food comes from; it would change how often we drive, what clothes we wear. If we actually stopped and thought before acting, we might actually act with more compassion. Most people have an automatic response to begging by homeless folk on street corners, which is to keep walking or to claim not to have money. Could it be that pausing to act with intention would change our response? I think giving up something mundane that we use or indulge in without thinking is an exceptionally useful way to begin this process.

Lastly, fasting is what I would call an outward sign of an inward reality as well as an inward sign of an outward reality. Forgoing food or pleasure of some kind, in any amount, is a representation of hopefully an inward life that is trying to clean out the trash and make room for God. We simply cannot hear God with too much junk in the way. The outward sign says to our peers, our community, I’m trying to be about our Father’s business, so hold me to it! So even a “little” fast of sweets can be enough to get us going on the right path. Simultaneously, fasting is also an inward sign of an outward reality. So much of our world is broken by disparity between the wealthy and poor. The emptying of our inner selves can be a reminder of the stark reality of so many who go hungry for other kinds of bread.

In Matthew 6, Jesus tells those listening that there is no point in worrying, that God clothes and feeds even the least of these. But when we look at the world, sometimes it does not feel this way. Right in the middle of this passage on worry, Jesus says the eye is the lamp of the body, which I take to mean that how we perceive the world to be at work changes how we will act in it. Fasting helps light that lamp. It helps us see the world through a better lens. We cultivate this inner lens when we consciously abstain from our indulgences. With attention, it can be a path to a renewed vigor for both God and humanity, to enact justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

So don’t be discouraged from giving up the small things for Lent. Yes, consider what else God is calling for you out of this Lent, but don’t let others trivialize a journey which can lead to the light at Easter.

Cheese Wiz and Christmas

I ate cheese out of a can and Ritz crackers tonight at 11 pm while sipping a glass of Coca Cola because that’s what I did nearly every year on Christmas Eve with my grandfather until last year. The routine was nearly identical each time. Show up, deposit coats on a dining room table chair, smile at the very notion that cheese can come out of a can, and then be “polite” by eating several crackers with that oozing, orange oddity that somehow still appears on grocery store shelves. The FDA would probably ban it they knew it still existed

I find it amusing that my cherished Christmas memories

Grandpa and I, Christmas Eve 2011 (Cheese Wiz not pictured)

Grandpa and I, Christmas Eve 2011 (Cheese Wiz not pictured)

revolve around the stuff. Christmas couldn’t begin until we ate some. We couldn’t exchange presents until the ritual had been observed. After a couple of crackers coated with it, you’d need a swig of Coke to wash it down. I’d stand in the kitchen, looking out at the backs of Christmas cards that covered the bar, enjoying the handful of Christmas knick-knacks around the condo. The plastic street scene that would light up and snow when you flipped a switch, the thin artificial Christmas tree with tinsel hung and ornaments scattered about. The background music changed over the years. At one point it was Reader’s Digest Christmas LP’s playing on the record player that now sits in my living room. Eventually, Grandpa had a DVD player hooked up to the TV, and I think it really tickled him that he could play CD’s on it and make music come out of the television.

Grandpa died on Christmas Day. It’s hard to think about death at Christmas. On the one hand, it draws the meaning of the incarnation much closer to home, that death isn’t the last word for us. But when everything else around screams that we should be jumping up and down, making so much commotion at this time of year, the silence of death is disconcerting. Christmas is anything but silent most of the time. For some of us.

I think about the 26 families that lost children or loved ones last year at Sandy Hook and the silence that those families probably had at Christmas. I think about Palestinian families I met this year and heard about whose young boys are arrested and shot frequently, some just recently in Bethlehem, steps from where Jesus was born. I think about Allan and Jean Howe, a couple I’ve met a few times from Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago, lost their son to gun violence last month when some robbers shot him on the front porch in a struggle when they tried to force entry into his home (see their inspiring response here). I think about Jesus’s birth and Herod ordering the killing of all young boys under age 2, which today would include my own nephew.

In fact, silence is always part of Christmas. Death has always been part of Christmas. It does not sell well as a Christmas card at Hallmark, but it is there whether we like to admit it or not. I think death at Christmas is especially difficult because it throws back a question at us: what do you really believe about the power of death? Do you really believe what the Incarnation points to? I have asked myself this question almost daily for a year.

My grandfather inspired me to go to Palestine to do peacemaking work. I listen to records on his record player. I sit in his rocking chair. I drink water out of glasses and cups that belonged to him. I use tools and a toolbox that were his. I sleep in sheets that he owned on the mattress and box springs that belonged to him and my grandmother. I put loose change in empty Peanut Butter jars because that’s what he did. I use a chest of drawers he bought for my dad as a kid. And he is the reason that I will eat cheese from a can once per year on a Ritz cracker. My life is richer now than it was a year ago because of Grandpa, and if this is any indication of how much power death actually has over life, than Christmas is more joyous and true than ever.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

The Peace of Christ be With You

imagesCAQWZYAGMany churches keep the tradition of “passing the peace” at a certain point in the service. In the Catholic Mass, it is done as part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The priest reminds the congregation of Jesus’ words, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you,” from John 14 and then asks everyone to extend the sign of Christ’s peace to one another. This usually consists of a few greetings,  a cursory handshake, maybe a hug or two, depending on the church. In some churches it’s a lot more enthusiastic, but that’s the basic gist of most Catholic churches I’ve attended.

In Protestant churches, “passing the peace” sometimes comes during communion, but is often somewhat arbitrarily interjected at the end of the opening hymns or the call to worship. It tends to function similarly, again depending on the church, rather reserved handshakes, a chance to meet a visitor. More often than not, the words “peace be with you” are not actually spoken, it is mostly a social time. In more charismatic churches, such as more traditional black churches, the call to exchange signs with peace is like a bell being set off at a family reunion. Everyone greets everyone, old and new. Tell your neighbor “Jesus loves you and so do I,” is what the pastor of my church in Durham used to say. My church here in D.C. does something similar. Passing the peace means saying hello to the rest of the community.

I don’t think this is bad, exactly. But something is missing. Part of the reason why “passing the peace” is part of the Liturgy of Eucharist is to give us the space to be reconciled to one another before partaking of the Holy Sacrament. It wasn’t meant to be a catchy phrase to turn and say hello to each other, but was actually meant to encourage the church to seek out those whom they had conflict with and be reconciled. This is why it has to be Christ’s peace that we pass to one another, not simply “peace.” Christ’s peace is a reconciling peace, a resurrection peace. It is a peace that declares that the kingdom of God is coming.

I do my best to always say “peace be with you” in church even if I also say something else.

But there’s a catch. If actually extending peace and reconciliation becomes a part of what you have in mind when you greet those around you, it makes you especially aware of those you don’t greet. Those who are physically near you who you don’t intentionally extend peace to. Or, those who you know you have conflict with, who you know that you are not fully reconciled to. Will you offer a true sign of peace? Will I?

On days when I really, truly believe in Christ’s resurrection, I can offer peace to my neighbor. But, I am equally conscious that by choosing not to offer peace, it is on those days, in those moments where I confess my doubt that the resurrection is true and that Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom on earth.

Each Sunday offers us the chance to choose: today, do I believe that the resurrection is true and that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken? Or do I confess that I don’t believe it today, and pass on offering peace to my brother or sister?

Cpt Article 1

It seems rather appropriate that the May 2013 CPT delegation to Palestine began in the days between Pentecost and Holy Trinity Sunday. Pentecost, on the one hand, shows us that God comes to us in community, uniting us in our diversity of nations. Holy Trinity Sunday, on the other, shows us that God is, in essence, a community, and that we are invited to experience God as the mysterious dance of three-in-one. Our delegation of thirteen, from the U.S., Canada, Scotland, and Romania, has dwelt in both of these mysteries together as we’ve felt God uniting us despite various religious and national differences.

image      For most of us on the delegation, this is our first time here. We come with our own stories of settlement and racism from our ancestors in other lands and so our primary task here is to learn the stories of the oppressed people groups here, to let their stories inform ours. Story has been a common theme. The stories of Palestinian families whose children have no birth certificates because one parent is from the West Bank and the other is a resident of Jerusalem, mere kilometers apart. Stories of women in labor being detained at checkpoints and having to give birth in vehicles. Stories of the Bedouin, a traditionally more nomadic population of desert farmers and herders, who face home demolition at a rate of 1000 homes per year simultaneously being forced from their land into towns, destroying their way of life. Stories of the village of Lifta, the first of over five hundred villages emptied and destroyed by the Israeli army in 1948.
     There are also competing stories that reveal the cognitive dissonance and denial that many people here and around the world live with. In visiting Yad Veshem (the Holocaust Museum), we struggled when we heard other tour guides speak to “Birthright” tour groups, furthering the narrative of the Jewish right to occupy the land, justified by the horrors of the Holocaust. We met with an Israeli settler, hearing the contradiction between his expressed desire for the wall to come down and his need to carry a gun, between his hope for peace and his life of fear. As a team, we’ve been challenged to even think of the violence here as a war, the story often depicted in the media, because the concept of war implies a balanced clash between two sides. But the reality here is a one-sided, strategic, U.S.-funded obliteration of Palestinian and Bedouin land and human rights. These stories are forming the lens with which we will see the conflict firsthand these coming days in the West Bank.
   But we’re also thankful for stories from places like Sabeel, a Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology center that is working to correct the Zionist narratives that have garnered so much support from Christians around the world.
 We have been “dancing” with God as we visit the land Jesus once called home, weeping with him over the city of Jerusalem, that to this day still does not know the things that make for peace. And we pray daily for the Holy Spirit to enliven and empower everyone here, regardless of religion or race, to work for that peace, to help us all beat swords into plowshares.

Are we just chasing after the wind?

Earlier this week, I read the lead article from the newest issue of Consp!re Magazine, by David Hilfiker (you can read it on the Conspire website, conspiremagazine.com). The gist of the article is that significant, deadly, climate change is no longer an “if,” or a potentiality, but a nearly unavoidable inevitability. A 2 degrees Celcius increase in global temperature is considered the point of no return–currently we are at .8 degrees increase. Basically, Hilfiker says that the amount of popular, governmental, and corporate radical change of lifestyle and practice needed to avoid such an increase by 2050 is pretty much impossible at this point. The best we can do is prepare to help those most vulnerable to the types of catastrophic effects that this change is likely to have. Droughts, famine, severe weather events–people with wealth will have the ability to distance themselves from some of these effects, but those at the margins, and many developing countries, will suffer enormously.

I’ve met David a handful of times, and I know from his own testimony and from that of others that he has struggled with depression. He may be the sort who is always more likely to see the glass half empty (or in this case, 2/3 empty), but something about his article reminded me of the writer of Ecclesiastes.

18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.

If you’re not careful, you can read an article like David’s and feel completely despairing. That may be a necessary step, to sit in the reality of just how far we’ve gone. For me, it makes me understand Ecclesiastes a little better–how much of our lives are just a chasing after the wind? How much time do we waste on the meaningless–accumulating wealth, the attainment of prestige, buying loads and loads of junk.

Here are some other words from Ecclesiastes that seem particularly apropos:

Chapter 4:
4 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
2 And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
3 But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.

Chapter 5:
8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.

10 Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
11 As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
12 The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
13 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
14 or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
15 Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.

I know that it’s not helpful to dwell forever in hopelessness. But maybe one of the problems in our current situation is that too few people have wrestled with the consequences of our chasing after the wind. David’s article was a wake-up call for me–not that I wasn’t conscious before, but now I feel a greater sense of urgency. I can only pray that others feel such an urgency.

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