Advent Devotionals, 2015

I have been composing weekly Advent Devotionals for Peace Fellowship Church and thought I would share them here. They are meant as responsive/collaborative readings. Each was composed with a specific number of people in mind, but could be re-distributed.

The Scripture passages are taken from the lectionary reading for each week.

Week 1 Reading

Reader 1: A reading from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 33:14-16.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Reader 2:

The word “advent” means “the coming,” and it is the time in the Christian calendar when we wait expectantly. We celebrate the coming of the Christ child, what God has already done, and we wait for the full coming of God’s reign on earth and the return of Christ, what God will yet do.

Reader 1 (or 3) Advent is often marked with purple, signifying royalty. In earlier times, purple often marked the coming of the king or Caesar, and only royalty or their family were allowed to wear it. Many Christians celebrate advent by lighting a purple candle each week for the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas, and then lighting a “Christ candle” on Christmas Eve.

Reader 2 (or 4) This week, we light the candle of Hope, to remember that our only hope is in Christ. In a world where darkness and fear seem to prevail, our hope is that the light of Christ will come to be ever-present in our midst.

(A purple candle is lit).

Prayer (Whole Church)

Almighty God,

This Advent, as the darkness of war, violence, and hatred threaten to overwhelm us, we pray that your kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. Help us not to live in fear, but to put our trust and hope only in you. We remember your promise to Israel that the righteous Branch, whom we know is Jesus, will bring justice in our land. We pray for that justice to come quickly.

 

Week 2 Reading

Reader 1: A reading from the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 3:1-6.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Reader 2:

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

 

Reader 3: When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, they longed for the day when they would return home, but more importantly, that God himself would return to dwell in their midst in the temple. Yet, in Jesus’ day, though they had returned, it was clear that everything was not as it should be. The temple had been rebuilt by Herod, who everyone knew was not a real king since he did not come from David’s lineage. Even worse, a new oppressive country was now in charge: Rome. The pax Romana, Rome’s Peace, was the dominant force in the world, peace that had come through conquering and might, oppression and coercion.

Reader 4: Jews in Jesus’ day believed that when God’s presence came to reside permanently with them, the whole created order would be ripe with anticipation: valleys filled, mountains leveled, as the prophet Isaiah is quoted. All so that God’s deliverance might be made known. The oppressors would be thrown off, and a new king would be in charge, one whose reign would bring true peace to the whole world.

Reader 5: Our reading today sets the stage for John the Baptist’s proclamation by noting the reign of Pilate, the Roman governor, and Caiaphas, the High Priest: the power of Rome on the one hand, the guardians of the temple on the other. And in between these towering structures of the day, John the Baptist claims that God’s salvation is on its way, and the people had better prepare. It may not look like it, the text is saying, but deliverance is at hand.

Reader 6: Last week, we lit the candle of Hope, remind ourselves that the hope for the world is found in Jesus alone. (A purple candle is lit). This week, we light the candle of Peace, to acknowledge that the world, and often ourselves, wants the peace of Rome, through might and force, but that true peace in Jesus is the way of vulnerability and powerlessness. In the most vulnerable form, a baby, Jesus comes to be the bearer of God’s peace, God’s shalom. Let us pray.

God of peace,

We acknowledge our own temptation towards trusting in the peace the world offers. We confess our lack of faith in the ways of powerlessness. Teach us to pray and work for your kind of peace here on earth. This Advent, let every mountain be made low, and every crooked path straight, that the world might clearly see your deliverance in Jesus.

Amen.

 

 

Week 3

Reader 1: A reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 4:4-7.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Reader 2: With our modern ears, we can hear a passage like this from Paul and miss some of its subversive meanings. Philippi was a Roman colony in Greece at a time when a common slogan was “Caesar is lord,” and when celebration and rejoicing happened on the birthday of Caesar or other imperial holidays. The Peace of Rome, which we mentioned last week, kept a heavy hand on everyone living there, and in later years, many Christians were fed to lions for sport in Philippi. When Paul claims that Jesus is Lord, he is also saying that Caesar is not. It was this kind of loyalty to a different king that led to martyrdom for Christians in Philippi.

Reader 3: We are not used to thinking of rejoicing as a revolutionary act. But in a world where darkness threatens to overwhelm us, where hatred, violence, and fear demand our allegiance, it is still revolutionary to rejoice. In the midst of this, Paul reminds us that it is God’s peace–not the violent, coercive, and fearful peace of Rome—that guards us. In the true Lord and King Jesus, God has won victory over enemies far more subtle and powerful than Rome. We can hail Jesus as Lord and King and boldly rejoice and share the news of this kingdom.

Reader 4: The first week of Advent, we lit the candle of hope (A candle is lit). Last week, we lit the candle of Peace (A candle is lit). This week, we light the candle of Joy (A candle is lit), and in lighting it we proclaim that in the midst of a dark world, the light of Christ causes us to rejoice. If Christ is Lord, then fear is not. If Christ is Lord, then death is not. And if Christ is Lord, then Caesar is not. Let us pray.

Joyful God,

We are surrounded by armies of hatred and violence in our world who keep peace through fear and demand our allegiance. We know that we worship a God whose perfect love drives out all fear, and whose son Jesus has conquered sin and death. We pray this Advent that we would be filled with a revolutionary joy and come to know more fully the peace that passes all of our understanding. May it guard our hearts and minds from the powers and temptations around us.

Amen.

 

Martyr

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kayla Mueller, who apparently was a close friend of family friends. In addition to her work in Syria, Kayla worked for peace in Palestine with International Solidarity Movement, an organization I got to know a bit during my time tKayla-Ashraf-posterhere with CPT. She’s a true martyr for peace, in the best tradition of the church. Read some of her beautiful words from Palestine on my birthday in 2010: http://bit.ly/1INJmMT

But like most martyrs, her death has quickly been used to as a point for propaganda. Israeli “news” sources, call her a terrorist: http://bit.ly/1zw60yk. What rubbish. In reality, she was a terrorist for peace, of which this world could use a few more. Jesus, MLK, and Gandhi were all terrorists for peace. They terrorized the reigning authorities, made them quake in their boots because they knew their violent grip on humanity was at stake.

The powers that be are always afraid of people of who die working tirelessly for justice because they know that there’s something compelling and convicting about the unjust death of peacemakers, and if it happens too often, people might re-question their allegiances. That’s why police brutality is condoned from the general population–police are usually hurting “bad guys.” The U.S. learned it’s lesson after the Civil Rights era–don’t kill the heroes, kill the villains. Kill the bin Ladens, the drug dealers, the kids high on pot. Give their communities drugs, poor schools, no jobs, and then turn them into the villains, so you can kill them. You can’t kill Martin Luther King any more, it’s too risky. So instead, turn the would-be Martin Luther Kings and Fannie Lou Hamers into something people love to hate.

I am suspicious of words of comfort and the pursuit of “justice” from President Obama after her death. Justice, for the powers that be, is simply code for killing. We will find the people who killed you and kill them, is what he means. That’s vengeance. Justice for Kayla would mean to question the U.S.’s unhinged support of an oppressive Israeli regime. Justice would mean questioning the U.S. foreign policies that led to to the creation of ISIS. Justice would mean taking a risk for love, as Kayla did. There can be no justice from the reigning authorities. In the Christian tradition, that’s what the kingdom of God means–a new reign of justice which can only be carried out by the one whose justice is self-sacrificial, loving, and redeeming.

Kayla’s death, ultimately, cannot be made right through vengeance,through the powers. It has already been made right because of its cruciform nature–she shared in the sufferings of the risen Lord, she became like him in life and in death. She died with him, that she might rise with him. I pray for more like her, that we would let the world have “all my everything” for peace.

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To Grow Spiritually

Not my words, but Killian Noe’s:

If we are to grow up spiritually, if we are to become who we were created to become, we need structures in our lives in which we are held accountable to that becoming. We need people in our lives who will hold us to the commitments that keep us in the process of growing spiritually. Again, spiritual practices like prayer, sharing of resources and being with the suffering and excluded have no power in themselves to heal and transform. These practices merely keep us in the process of growing up spiritually. Spiritual practices are what keep the doors of our hearts open to the power of the Spirit of God. That Spirit does the healing and transforming.

I don’t know that much else needs to be added to that.

 

I’m Going to Set Your Flag on Fire

In Paris just a few weeks ago, a few men attacked employees of the controversial magazine Charlie Hebdo in response to mocking images of the Prophet Muhammad. The headlines in the following days largely defended the magazine’s work as an expression of freedom of speech. Another theme in the discourse following the attacks was criticisms of Islam and confusion when some Islamic communities in France did not come out in full condemnation of what had happened because the magazine had incited the violence with their offensive work. Charilie Hebdo had been warned. For many people, it’s hard to imagine why mocking images of Muhammad would be offensive enough to incite physical violence. Jesus is found in cartoons, T-shirts, dashboard ornaments, portrayed in offensive ways, yet Christians don’t make headlines for murdering the creators of this content. Same with other kinds of religious or important figures.

I tried to think of a parallel that Americans might understand.

  • Don’t let it touch the ground
  • It should never have any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind placed on it or attached to it.
  • It should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
  • It should never be used in advertising
  • It should not be used as a costume
  • It should not be turned upside down for display
  • It should not be bunched up
  • It should not be used to decorate or adorn
  • Don’t let it tear

To what do I refer? Old Glory. The Star Spangled Banner. The Stars and Stripes. The Grand Old Flag. The [U.S] American flag is the Prophet of American Civil Religion. Want to start a fight? Insult the flag. Refuse to pledge allegiance. Turn your back on the colors that don’t run. Interrupt the hymn (anthem) during church (sporting event). Question whether or not it belongs in your church’s sanctuary. I’ve seen how angry people get about their flag. It’s not hard to find examples.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: Remember “Pastor” Terry Jones and the Koran burning party he planned? Imagine instead he had planned a flag burning party. It doesn’t take much to convince me that there might have been violent responses to such a thing. I can easily imagine threats against his life, church, ministry, and more. Or if something did happen, it’s not hard to imagine interviews on the local news with people saying, “Well, it’s never good to hurt someone, but he was kind of asking for it by burning the flag.” People take the flag that seriously.

Americans and Muslims share a lot in common in the level of respect for their religious/civil religious figures. The vast majority, as strongly as they might object to offensive displays, would never hurt or kill another person over it. Some might. On the one hand, these parallels are simply interesting to note, and innocuous.

What is scary to me is that extremists in one of these groups of people have access to the largest military on earth and unchecked stores of nuclear weapons.

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Do you have a gun?

It’s a question I’ve only been asked twice in my life, that I can recall. The first time was after I was hit by what turned out to be a stolen motorcycle (I wrote about it here). The police started to search the other bystanders and I wouldn’t let them not search me, and in the process they asked if I had a gun. Come to think of it, that was probably the very first time in my life I had an encounter with the police that didn’t leave me feeling too enthusiastic about their role in my neighborhood. That was six years ago.

The second time was just over a week ago, on a Sunday. I was walking, around 9 PM, headed to a neighbor’s house. A police car passed me slowly, clearly taking a long look at me. It’s not the first time something like that has happened. I kind of stick out in my neighborhood a bit, and get some inquisitive looks from police from time to time. I felt a little annoyed, and so as the car drove off, gestured slightly with my hand, waving the car off with a bit of chip on my shoulder.

The car turns around at the next intersection and pulls up next to me and the car doors open. Two cops get out, one with his gun drawn, and I hear those accusatory words directed at me. “Sir, what do you have in your hand? Do you have a gun?”

I am, of course, shocked by the situation, and even more so when I see four more police cars pull up behind me and cops start getting out. “Sir, place your hands on the vehicle and spread your legs.”  I get patted down, my clothes adjusted, and am told that a call had come in reporting a “light skinned man with dreadlocks” walking around the neighborhood carrying a gun. Another office told me, multiple times (methinks the lady doth protest too much…) “This is for real. He’s not bullshitting you.” Though, the man in the description was wearing a white tank top, I’m told, so they ask me what is underneath my jacket, and sweater, and button down shirt, and even adjust some of my clothing to see better.

Eventually, they are satisfied that I probably don’t have a gun, and they leave without saying much.

Afterwards, I didn’t know exactly how to feel, but I could really feel a strong temptation towards something I knew to be wrong. I could feel every ounce of white guilt tempting me to say, Now I know what it’s like. Now, I too know what black men experience. I’ve arrived at the pinnacle of racial solidarity. 

Except the thing is, I didn’t experience what I’ve been told many black and brown men go through with police, and I knew it immediately. One important ingredient was missing: fear. In the entire ordeal, I was annoyed and frustrated that I was being viewed as a suspect in my own neighborhood, stopped while carrying a cell phone for what very well could have been a phony excuse. I was annoyed because I didn’t know what my rights were and whether or not I could have refused the search or parts of it. At one point an officer asked if he could move an article of my clothing, and the way he asked it, I honestly couldn’t tell if I had a choice, or what would have happened if I said “no.” It bothered me to realize that the cops could have said or asked in a similar way lots of other questions and that I would have been equally clueless as to whether I could choose not to answer without being arrested.

Yet the one thing I wasn’t feeling was fearful for my life. It didn’t even cross my mind that the cop with the gun pointed at me might decide to shoot me if I moved too quickly. I didn’t put my hands up. I knew I didn’t have a gun and I was certain that the cops would realize that and move on. Of course it would be arrogant for me to assume that every black man stopped by the police is necessarily fearful for his life, but my parents never had to tell me what to do when I was stopped by the police. As we’ve seen far too often recently in this country, the presumption of wrong doing is often enough to result in deadly conflict with the police, yet I didn’t even entertain the notion that anything but my swift release would occur. Friends of mine have told me about being stopped by the police when they weren’t speeding, and how their parents counseled them how to avoid being killed by the police when it happens.

I’m not trying to make more of this situation than is there. I wasn’t even sure I’d write about it, because I don’t want to run the risk of it sounding like me saying, “See, it happens to white people too!” I don’t want to confuse my experience with experiences of racial profiling, abuse, and injustice. I am not a victim.

But tonight, as I drove home, I passed a car that had just been pulled over by the police, and as I drove by slowly, I watched a black man in the driver’s seat (with the cop still in the police car) reach both hands out of the window into the air with his license in his right hand, as if to say, “I don’t have a gun.” I nearly started to cry when I saw this, because it reminded me of thousands of people on Saturday in D.C., and tens of thousands in New York City, marching through the streets with their hands in the air saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” It’s not a slogan for a campaign, it’s an earnest plea.

That’s racism: a world where I can be stopped and frisked with nary a worry even with a gun pointed at me, while a black man sitting in his car has his hands in the air with the police safely in theirs 25 feet away. Lord, have mercy.

Dear Fellow White People

To My Fellow White Americans,

In the last two days, a lot has been said about Mike Brown, Officer Wilson, racism, and so much more. I’ve noticed that many of my white acquaintances on Facebook or other places have said or posted some pretty terrible things, perhaps not realizing it. So, here’s a short guide for my fellow white people about how to publicly engage in this situation.

  • When in doubt, shut up. If it crosses your mind that it might be perceived as offensive, racist, antagonizing, or “honest,” just keep it to yourself. If you describe your post as, “Some people might get mad, but this is true…” you’ve already gone too far. Delete it.
  • Racism is not “over.” You, as a white person, might be inclined to think that the Civil Rights struggle ended what we call institutionalized racism. You might think that because you have black friends, because your school has black students in it, because a black person can vote, racism is officially over. But racism is not like a football game. It is not over because someone in charge declared one team the winner, and we all move on and accept that team’s victory. Racism is more like capitalism. It’s been a part of this country’s societal fabric since before day one, and like capitalism, it cannot be voted away. Every time goods and services are exchanged in the U.S., capitalism is happening, even if you are a socialist. Likewise, whether or not Officer Wilson is consciously racist, or his actions were consciously racially motivated, his actions are a result of the racism inherent to American society, where black people, in particular black men, are regularly killed by the police.
  • Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to hear you say that white people are victims of racism too. If your response to the overwhelming number of black men who are mistreated by police is to say, “It happens to white people too,” don’t say it or post it. Anybody can be racist, it’s true. But racism in the U.S. is about the system, a system which is designed to benefit white people. Therefore, you, as a white person, cannot be a victim of racism. You can be mistreated because of your skin, yes, but you are not a victim of the system.
  • Just shut up about the people in Ferguson you call “rioters” or “looters.” We all know that destroying property is not going to help the situation, but we don’t need you to tell us, and if that was your first reaction to the verdict, you should be concerned. You have no authority to tell protesters that this kind of behavior is the problem. No, the problem is what is causing the riots, and you should be more concerned about that. Let leaders within the black community and in Ferguson deal with the best way to protest.
  • Not being a “racist” does not qualify you to comment on how black people should dress, talk, or act. Just stop. Really. Mike Brown was not killed because some people sag their pants. Trayvon Martin was not a thug because he wore a hoodie.
  • If you are tempted to comment on the details of the case, choose to listen first. You might have something meaningful to say. You might have something blatantly ignorant to say. Wait. You might not be able to tell the difference. Let other voices who are not white speak first, and learn from them how to react. Chances are good that your gut reaction has been influenced by racism, so learn what the people most affected by the racist system have to say first.

Sincerely,

Brian Gorman

War is Abortion: Why Pro-Life Christians Should Care About Gaza

If there is one thing that most Christians of all denominations agree on, it is abortion. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 54% of American Catholics and 57% of Protestants/Others consider themselves “pro-life.” Every presidential election, we hear of prominent pastors raising questions about a candidate’s position on abortion. And while organizations such as Sojourners have tried to emphasize additional issues which ought to concern Christians as they go to the polls, the reality is that abortion is still a central issue for many people. This is not altogether a bad thing; since the earliest days of Christianity, the church has always had a special concern for unborn and abandoned children, taking them in and caring for them when others do not. These days, however, whether or not it is an accurate portrayal, “pro-life” Christians are more associated with picketing abortion clinics, hanging pictures of dead fetuses in public places, and gathering for the March for Life than welcoming such children into their homes.

But why should the term “abortion” apply only to medical procedures done in sterile offices? Is not the killing of pregnant women and would-be mothers also a kind of abortion? Is not the ending of a child’s life through violence also abortion?

With such vocal concern for the unborn across the spectrum of Christian perspectives, it should be concerning to us all how silent these 57% have been about the recent violence in Gaza. In 27 days of bombings and ground combat in Gaza, over 1000 Palestinians have been killed. One-third of them have been children, and many others have been women. Some of these women have even been pregnant. No matter anyone’s political leanings, this reality should make us sick. But where are the outraged masses of pro-life Christians when mother and child are being killed by the Israeli military? Are the children of Palestinians less valuable than others? Are pregnant women in Gaza not carrying a sacred life? It disturbs me that often the most vehement spokespeople against legalized abortions are the most vehement defenders of Israel, and I am amazed at the spiritual gymnastics people will do to justify an otherwise abominable practice of killing children.

Pastors are often no better at pointing out this contradiction. Instead of challenging their congregations to vocally oppose the U.S.’s unconditional support of Israel and the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli forces, my experience is that pastors in the U.S. either ignore the ongoing conflict out of ignorance or fear of dividing their congregations, or they endorse Israel’s actions in the name of a biblical mandate to care for God’s “chosen people” in Israel.  Neither response is sufficient.

I can sympathize with feeling uneducated about the conflict. It was not until I participated in a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation to Palestine last May that I saw firsthand how Palestinians suffer at the hand of Israeli policies. Children, yes children, are imprisoned without cause on a regular basis. Homes are demolished by Israeli Caterpillar-brand bulldozers. Women give birth at checkpoints because they are detained on their way to the hospital. But it is not enough acknowledge our ignorance, we must address it. If more pastors and church members would commit to experiencing Palestine firsthand as part of their pilgrimage to the Holy Land in Israel, it would be impossible to stay silent. Churches could take advantages of resources from Sabeel, an ecumenical theology center based in Jerusalem which attempts to engage churches in more healthy interpretation of Scripture related to Israel.

Unfortunately, It is not only the conflict in Gaza which illustrates this sad disconnect between an earnest concern for unborn children and supporting indiscriminate killing. When U.S. drone strikes destroy homes and kill children in other parts of the Middle East, we find American Christians equally passive at best. We are quite willing to sacrifice the children of other countries and religions for our own sense of safety from terrorists. It has become too easy for us to look the other way while the U.S. government carries out abortions in our name and with our blessing.

We have to do better. As the church, as Christ’s body which extends beyond borders, we cannot ignore the cry of children in Palestine, Afghanistan, Mexico, Pakistan, Iraq, and beyond, any more than we can ignore the children in Chicago, New York, or Washington, D.C. If we cannot, as people of the church, find ourselves loudly calling and acting for an end to violence, especially when children are involved, then we can no longer call ourselves pro-life. War is abortion. It ends life unnaturally through violence, life that has not reached full term. It destroys the emotional, spiritual, and psychological fabric of those who commit it and those who are victims of it. We, who follow a God who was born amid the slaughter of children, must cry out in deep anguish for forgiveness for allowing the Massacre of the Innocents to happen over and over. Let us pray for the courage to be truly pro-life.

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.