26 July 2015

There are so many things I am thankful for in this life.  Parents that never divorced, something I value more and more the older I get.  Churches that sent me around the world before I even left home.  Growing up with music and books all around me.  Parents committed to justice and love.  A woman who loves me.  Babies who've kept me up walking and rocking and reading and singing to them, and thereby kept me out of trouble.

One of the things I am thankful for is a childhood with one foot in the black church.  When my dad worked at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Lincoln, PA, my parents had to bribe me to sing in the children's choir at the campus church with Matchbox cars after the performance.  I was the only white face in the choir.  When we moved back to a very racist appalachian Ohio, the Baptist church my dad pastored had a sister church from a couple villages over that was an African American church.  Let's just say that when their choir came to our church it was a lot more fun than when ours went to theirs. When I was in track in junior high we used to steal booze from this rich lawyer's kid in our class.  We took a bit, or more than a bit, of this and that from many bottles in a huge walk in liquor cabinet and poured it into a good sized mason jar.  We called this concoction our Funky Cold Medina, after one of the first popular hip-hop songs among whites, and drink it on the back of the bus when going to meets.  First time this happened, I was chided for sharing our Funky with the black kid who was the son of the preacher from that sister church (another PK looking for trouble).  How dare I share our booze with a nigger, I was told.  My fellow PK caught the drift of my chiding and broke out into Funky Cold Medina and the white guys were so impressed we had interracial junior high track team drinking for the rest of the season.  

Black culture was always in and around the home I grew up in.  Appropriation?  Sure.  Though not in the normal suburban ways.  My little brother Joe is the only white guy I know who was nominated for Student Council President by the Black Panthers group at his high school.  If there is one thing that my parents taught us, it is that we stand in solidarity and spiritual communion with our black brothers and sisters.  Something from that childhood constantly in company with black folk left its imprint on me.  I have never felt fully comfortable in white churches, but the black church always has felt like home to me.  When I lived in Memphis and went to weddings and funerals and prayer services with black coworkers, no matter where my ecclesial allegiances were, my existential bearings found a place to breathe.

There is that plaintive voice, that troupe of the broken, that taking in of the hopeless, that different measure of what failure is, that never ever ever giving up on the lost soul, that glorious elevator cadence that raises the dead heart, and my God, when you say you are needy or hurting in that company, they don't look around as if they don't know want to do.  I can't tell you the number of times I've been in a black church and an elder has said that we aren't leaving until there is enough money in the basket to take care of a given need - always a very specific need.  One time in north Mississippi it was a kid whose parents were dead, living with an auntie, who needed new glasses and clothes for school.  It was a poor Missionary Baptist church out in the middle of nowhere.  They kept singing and singing, and the pastor was clearly serious.  I took my last $20 out of my wallet (this was back when I still had money) and Lawrence, my coworker, standing next to me, tears in both of our eyes, said to me, "it ain't like you can't," and we both laughed.

I know a lot of intellectual Christians, in conservative Catholic and Orthodox and Magisterial Protestant camps, who make fun of and/or disparage revivalist Christianity.

I've written about this before, but 20 some years ago I read Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a decent enough book, but in one section where he is dealing with the environment he goes into a rant regarding the manner in which Evangelical eschatology lends itself to a lack on concern for the welfare of the planet.  In the course of this argument he particularly went after the hymn I'll Fly Away.  I took his point, but I was also angry, and when I first read it I was not quite sure why.  Upon reflection I thought of my grandfather, who worked hard appalachian hills in his childhood, saw hell in WWII, and then spent an adult life in the steel shops.  He wasn't inclined to claim Christ until his elderly years, but who had every reason, at damn near every point in his life, to want to fly away.  I thought of the poor folk I had known throughout my life, and, of course, I thought of the black church I had known since not much longer than I could remember, with its spirituality always sung in Jacob's wrestling plaintiveness.  Most of human experience has been such that any sane man, woman, or child would want to fly away.  Mark Noll has lived a very comfortable life, and by all accounts I could find, he has always been quite comfortable.

Yes, white American revivalist Christianity would end up with Left Behind novels and WWJD bracelets bought at Christian stores in malls by white kids going home in SUVs that cost 30k.  I can't grasp that level of banality.  I don't know that from the revivals of my youth.

I do know that there remain a lot suffering folk in this land.  White Christianity has become a largely middle class and up affair, but Christianity of color still brings in the working and poor classes.  I remain uncertain as to how a Christian milieu that is intrinsically linked to a patrimony of comfort is even possible, outside of the work of demons.

I would ask this - if you are inclined to disparage revivalist Christianity on the whole, and you have never seen a group of elders in a Missionary Baptist church in north Mississippi sing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in the above manner, well friend, I'm sorry, but consider that perhaps you don't know what the hell you are talking about.  The Spirit goes where He wills, and He wills the company of those who pray in desperate tones.

24 July 2015

wisconsin friday night lights

I'm not sure what to make of this life, so many quick vapors and lost breaths.

Lace in the corner of a field, setting sun.  I hope that God in His poverty gleans these for His kingdom.

23 July 2015

stone of help

a heart.
this one a charles bukowski going forward at a tent revival sort of heart,
cursing every step and everybody,
drunk crybaby faced,
walking to grace,
or from it, 
hard to say,
every third step looking backward and forward 
unable to measure the easier route,
but then you see some grandma smile
then they sing here I raise my ebenezer
and you think fine, I don't drink on ice but I'll take life on the rocks over no life at all.

Are there two mes?
probably not.
but that answer might be hopeful.

dad always said he was a baptist existentialist.
kierkegaardian altar calls
Jesus every moment
there is mercy now
not yesterday.  we all know how that went.
tomorrow is a pipe dream at best
what you flirt with putting off will never be consummated.
 you take to the dead now.
you follow Christ now.
hung dead on a tree of His now,
and on our yesterdays and tomorrows which cursed Him.
these old ladies won’t be here again
this is theirs and your only moment
the tree outside blooms today.

so stumble up 
and answer him when he asks
why have you come forward son
so you say it, 
i need to be saved
you pray the ritual, line after line you follow the preacher,
through the wordly token,
sacrament of the sacramentless. 
well, that is not true, 
now is the sacrament,
but light empty, not heavy, so that’s nice.
then the hymn ends.
preacher says this man has come forward to be saved
old ladies pull out handkerchiefs.
soon as the music ends you are thinking about drinks at
the jack'sstop tomorrow night and jenny’s legs, maybe tonight. 
what the hell kind of saved man are you you ask yourself?
preacher whispers back,
the only kind there is.
oh. you said that out loud.
mornings after an all-nighter with tommy don’t make for safe repentances.
you look at him.
he looks at you.
alright then, 
you guess.

you eat the fried chicken and leftover funeral potatoes and mud cake downstairs.
drink two cups of percolator coffee in a styrofoam cup
look down at the black inside white and hope God isn’t trying to make some point.
people smile and shake your hand
prodding with eyes a mix of surprised and not sure.
talk about the weather and friday’s high school football game 
and the the millers’ place getting tee-peed last night.

after church you help old llewelyn change a tire on his truck.
he pays you with a can of snuff,
already opened.
you listen to some radio.
old mrs. branson calls
tells you how blessed her heart was this morning,
and can you look to her hot water heater tomorrow?
yes ma’am.
you read a few lines.
can’t write.
the dog is restless.
you sit and watch the brown of pine needles carpet the back corner of the yard.
the wind is hot.
you’re on your second reading of
four gospel fingers into a fifth of cutty
when jenny comes over after the end of her shift.
she talks too much and her prime was a half dozen years ago but she’ll do.
you don’t seem to enjoy sin any less.
she does raise an eyebrow and half smile
as you say the word marriage 
of your own accord
having ascetically avoided it for months.

is this all saved is?
a little bit better?
a step better than yesterday?
well, yesterday did go....
so say two and a half steps better.

jenny leaves.
you fall on the couch
the dog jumps up and licks your feet
you remember Jesus and His feet perfumed by a whore
though you owe the dog as much as he owes you so bad analogy,
plus you hope you're not about to be killed,
you pray,
Jesus, you NotBastard,
You come from Somewhere
You’re going Somewhere
i’m barely here.  
i can't say for sure where i've been,
and if things go as they have, 
where i end up is the bounce of dice in a crap-shoot I will lose as usual.

19 June 2015

tonight's sky at the pond

*that brick phallus you see is the most upright remains of the old hemp mill.  The windmill is on the little island in the pond; it runs the aerater in the pond so that the fire department can pull water from the pond as needed in the winter.

I would say happy Juneteenth, but this one seems a more somber one.

Today I remember my old childhood friend Nathan Burroughs, who is somewhere out there in the world, and the times we picked and ate crab apples in front of the Langston Hughes Memorial Library at Lincoln University. Our dads both worked at Lincoln. When I moved away (after my first attempt at 4th grade) from there Nathan and I promised that we would get back together after we turned 40, if we were still alive, so I had better get on that.

It was after I moved away from Lincoln, in my second attempt at 4th grade, this time in small town Ohio, that I encountered my first (that I can remember) acts of racism. There was a black boy at my new school who had the honor/misfortune of having red hair. To my shame, I cannot remember his name. His mom must have loved his red hair because he had a big afro. He was teased relentlessly and without mercy, called Freckle Nigger (he also had freckles on his face) and Raggedy Sambo. The first time I experienced this I at first thought it was some kind of inside joke, but then I saw that it wasn't. It was completely disorienting. That kid remained stoic through it all. I went to the bathroom and closed the stall door and weeped, lonely in a world that I did not understand, and missing Nathan.

I still don't understand.

28 May 2015

With each of my children (four of them now), I have had this epiphany, never rote or old hat despite it happening each time - holding them between 6 and 12 months, and struck with being acutely aware that I never knew that I could love this much.

It's not that I have loved the newest one more than the previous.  It's that with each one, the topography of much has changed.

22 May 2015

Arkansans, oh, my poor people.

- photo from Mt. Nebo Arkansas, taken in 2012.

So, the Duggar boy.

Because I work at a psychiatric hospital, I spend time with kids who have been victims of sexual abuse. And with kids who have been perpetrators of sexual abuse. All of them have had awful things happen to them in life. This may surprise some, but I worry for Josh Duggar. Suicide must have crossed his mind in the last couple of days. I fear for him, for his wife, and especially for his kids. Josh Duggar was a minor when what we know to have happened occurred. I am glad that the Duggars will no longer have a show about their family. That is a good thing that has come from these public revelations. But I am not comfortable with the media publicizing the mistakes that a child made. This strikes me as a very dangerous thing, and cruel.

Josh Duggar grew up in a home that was close to Bill Gothard. Gothard had to resign from his ministry because he fondled at least 32 girls. The Duggars were also connected with Doug Phillips, who was forced from his ministry after being outed as a sexual predator. The pastor of the Duggars' church, the man who gave Mrs. Duggar her Mother of the Year award, resigned after a sex scandal. The highway patrolman, a family friend and an elder in a church connected to the Duggars' religious circles, who was the first law enforcement person Jim Bob Duggar reported Josh's issues to, is now serving a 56 year prison sentence for child porn. Josh Duggar grew up in a home that revered men in leadership who have turned out to be sexual abusers. One way or another, Josh Duggar did to his sisters what he knew (intuitively or directly) to do.

Anyone who assumes that sexual abuse in the Duggar household begins and ends with Josh is living in a TLCesque unreality world. I hope that Josh Duggar may see his life as full of worth and wonder, found safe in God (but not the god of the Duggars), with some thread of dignity that can get through this unbelievable humiliation. And God protect the children living in the various Duggar households.

This sin is disgusting. All sin is disgusting. Josh Duggar isn't any more disgusting than you or me. He's no different than the kids I eat my meals with at work, who also come from very messed up families. I would hate to see any of them become the laughingstock of the world, and a "proof" of everything we hate about their kind of people. I think we might do well to offer kind words to and about Josh Duggar. This world is dirty, messy, hateful, unfair, and brutal. What the boy did was in keeping with the world around him, as he had experienced it. Let's not kick a person who is down.

If we are to point fingers, I would start with those who profited by upholding his family to the public as exemplary and worthy of attention. I would then turn to Josh Duggar's parents, who agreed to that public life, to that money, and who embraced a perverse religion, a contemptible patriarchy, and lord only knows how many lies and cover-ups.

17 May 2015

untitled poem, IV

I looked square at the red winged blackbird.
His dark was rest in the hollow worked by the musclewood tree.
He looked back at me.
We watched each other’s chests rise and fall.
Then I told him, “ain’t no way this horse is gonna win the Triple Crown,
cuz every horse I ever laid money on’s lost.”
The wind off the marsh I had to lean into.

“This won’t be no different,” I sighed. Shook my head.

He told me, “every time I take air or ground it’s a gamble, friend.
My only rest is in a tree.”
I looked at reverent cattails and we listened to the wind.
The whole world bent.
Whitecaps rebelled,
pointing upward in channels of water cleft between tall grasses.
“Yeah,” I said. “You got that right about the tree.”
He let his head fall, and he flew away.