The Spirit of Detroit and Christian Hope

Photo by the author

Statue informally known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” by Marshall Fredericks. The sculpture sits outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center at Woodward and Jefferson Aves. Photo by the author.

The Detroit city motto has become better known in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of books—about the city’s history, and, yes, about the ruins, by authors who live in the Metro Area and love the city—and of merchandise such as bookbags, t-shirts, postcards, and other items you might find at City Bird, the Detroit Merchantile Company, Pure Detroit, various Eastern Market vendors, pop-ups, or other local boutiques. Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus—We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes. These words were penned by Father Gabriel Richard, a Catholic priest and a major figure in Detroit and Michigan history, after fire destroyed the city in 1805.

What does it mean to “hope for better things”? Is it the same kind of hope as when children hope for a snow day, or when you hope your favorite team will win the game?

I think the fact that it was written by a priest in the context of city-wide disaster suggests that Fr. Richard was thinking more along the lines of Christian hope, which I would define as the confidence we have in virtue of our trust in God, whom we know to be trustworthy. That’s a very different kind of hope.

Which is well and good and quite encouraging, really, for Christians, and perhaps for other religious theists. But in today’s pluralistic context, even in a predominately Christian city like Detroit, I think it’s important to find where a similar kind of hope is accessible to all.

Confidence from trusting in that which is trustworthy—where can we find that today? Not in City Hall, not in Kevyn Orr or Gov. Rick Snyder, not in Dan Gilbert or the Ilich family; not in the economy, certainly not in the strength of the U.S. Dollar. Not even in the ideal of democracy, which is so clearly broken. I would suggest we find that secular version of confident hope in the people of Detroit: in its people of good will, whose civic identity and spirit, I think, is characterized by strength, loyalty, pride, and resilience. “Detroit hustles harder,” as they say.

The religious meaning of hope is, I think, primary; but it’s important even for those of us who consciously place our trust in God to also discriminate among those objectives vying for our hope in the world around us. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we place our trust in God, and also place it in an earthly savior, such as a corporate benefactor or a politician. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we “seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness” but also chase after economic security before all else. But for people of faith, hoping in God is always done in community, as community. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are people of covenant. We believe God calls peoples into covenant with Godself, and so we simply cannot fully trust in God without each other. To trust in the human spirit—in this case, the spirit of Detroit—requires civic engagement, concern for one’s neighbor, and holding virtues like charity, commitment, and forgiveness above the shiny distraction of money. It requires creativity, sharing, peacemaking, and hard work—but not just the individualistic hard work of earning one’s own living. It is entirely congruent, I think, with trust in God, because God’s dwelling is among the people. (If you don’t believe me, go read James Cone or Jim Perkinson, or any of the Liberation Theologians.) If we are to trust in one another, though, we must work, as a people, to be trustworthy—to be worthy of this confident hope. Thankfully, we bear this task together.What kind of city do we want to build? What Detroit do we want to be?

Official city seal. Photo by the author.

Official city seal, also at city hall (visible on the upper left in the image above). Photo by the author.

The LORD brings the will of the nations to naught;
he thwarts the designs of the peoples.

But the LORD’S will stands fast for ever,
and the designs of his heart from age to age.

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD!
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

The LORD looks down from heaven,
and beholds all the people in the world.

From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze
on all who dwell on the earth.

He fashions all the hearts of them
and understands all their works.

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

The horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him,
on those who wait upon his love,

To pluck their lives from death,
and to feed them in time of famine.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us,
as we have put our trust in you.

(Psalm 33:10-22, BCP)

Tasty treats from Michigan

This blog has been quiet for a while. I’m  a bit overwhelmed with a number of things right now—one of which is preparing to move back to Detroit in May!!!

I’m looking forward to being able to show you all more of Detroit—my Detroit, that is; everyone experiences it differently—once I’m living there again. And it will look different to me for having lived in a very different place the last eight years.

It’s an interesting thing, living away from home. You see your home in a new perspective—and often, you see quite sharply some things you had missed. For example, I lived for a year in Virginia Park (a neighborhood in Detroit off Rosa Parks and Virginia Park Street, just north of Grand Boulevard). In all my years in Michigan, in Detroit, and even within walking distance, I never visited the Motown Museum. I always liked the Motown sound enough, but it wasn’t the music of my own subculture. And besides, the museum was always there; I could visit it any time. So I never did…until one year while visiting home from California. Now I want to recommend it to everybody!

The same is true of most of these goodies. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of pride in Detroit and Michigan, and stores catering to Michigan-made items have flourished. In addition, locally based stores like Meijers (headquartered near Grand Rapids) have createdor expanded sections devoted to locally made goods. Eastern Market has long been a great source for food and other items from Michigan (and Ontario, Ohio, and Indiana). Here’s a sampling of the deliciousness I’ve discovered, during my annual trips home:

Berry Wines

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Click on the image for a Google search of “Michigan Water Blues.” True to the blues, there are a million different versions. Jelly Roll Morton’s version says that “Mississippi water tastes like turpentine, but Michigan water tastes like cherry wine!” I rather like Jeff Daniels’ version on his album, Keep It Right Here. (He has another version as well.)

 While I lived in Michigan, I never tried cherry wine. I’m not much of a wine drinker. But now that I live near Napa Valley, my Michigan pride made me want to find a wine that Northern California does not offer.

Turns out there’s raspberry wine, too!

The wines pictured above—two cherry and one raspberry—still represent the sum total of Michigan wines I’ve tried.

The Traverse Bay Winery cherry wine is my favorite so far. I’ve brought extra bottles back here to California and shared them with the natives—much to their delight! It’s a little stronger than your average grape wine, apparently (17% alcohol by volume). Not too sweet, but still suitable for a dessert wine. And, much like cherries, it tastes nothing like that fake cherry candy flavor. It has the flavor of Michigan tart cherries, exactly the flavor you want it to have. Plus alcohol.

The Leelanau Cellars raspberry wine, on the other hand, is really sweet. While it’s not cloying, it does taste just like candy, or like perfectly sweet raspberries.

The St. Julian Wine Co. cherry wine is disappointing. It’s OK, but not one to share with wine snobs Northern Californians. I ended up using it in baking (like brownies and homemade apple sauce).

As far as I know, these wines aren’t available outside of Michigan—unless some of them can be ordered online, I don’t know. (I do know that ordering wine online involves some complicated process to prove you’re of legal drinking age and all that.) You can get them, and others I have yet to try, at Meijer, or at Detroit’s new Whole Foods; I was impressed with the Michigan wines selection at both stores.

Preserves

And another way to get your daily servings of fruit, particularly if you don’t drink alcohol, is jam.

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Click on the image to visit Slow Jams’ facebook page.

I don’t know whether this brand, Slow Jams, existed when I moved in 2005, but I just discovered it this past summer (2013) at Eastern Market. You can purchase it in the market proper or at Rocky’s. The flavor I tried is rhubarb ginger—OMGOMGOMG it’s so delicious. “Homemade in small batches,” this jam hails from Grosse Pointe. There are plenty of other flavors to try, and if you find the booth on market day, you can sample them!

Their facebook page lists the following flavors:  Spiced Apple, Blueberry Lavender, Blueberry Peppercorn Sage, Blueberry Cardamom, Cran-Cherry, Cranberry Red Onion, Tart Cherry, Cherry Thyme, Peach, Peach Rosemary, Peach Cilantro, Peach Basil, Raspberry, Raspberry Jalapeno, Raspberry Lemon Verbena, Raspberry Basil, Strawberry, Strawberry Bomb, Strawberry Balsamic Peppercorn, Strawberry Vanilla, Rhubarb Ginger, Sweet Pepper, Blackberry, Blackberry Ginger, Tomato, Green Tomato.

Peach basil sounds interesting! I’ll try that when I get back home.

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Click on the image to link to their website, which includes all their products, recipes, and more.

Here’s another that’s become a staple for me in recent years, a treat to pick up whenever I’m back home: Food for Thought’s Organic Michigan Tart Cherry Preserves.

There are whole and half cherries in there (sans pits, of course), with just enough jelly as well. Spread it on a Belgian waffle, and every nook will have a cherry in it. I find it also makes a nice pairing with Nutella for a new spin on PB&J. (I use whole wheat bread, ‘cause something has to be healthy in there.) Meijer sells this one, as do various stores specializing in Michigan products, such as Heart of Michigan in Howell.

Mustards

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Click on the image to go directly to their online store, where you can buy all sorts of blueberry products—stuff you’d never imagined, like this mustard, or the basics, like preserves and syrup.

Here’s a strange taste sensation: blueberry mustard. I still can’t decide whether or not I actually like it. It’s not repulsive, though. More adventurous eaters than myself will probably know what to do with it. I bought it from Heart of Michigan’s website. The Blueberry Store makes all kinds of blueberry products, though. I feel like I’ve had their preserves, but I don’t have any on hand.

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This time clicking on the image will take you directly to their online store. They really have an interesting array of products!

Food for Thought’s Organic Cherry Honey Mustard sounds like such a wonderful idea. It’s good, but you can’t really taste the cherry much, so that was disappointing. Maybe I got an off batch. Use it anywhere you’d use honey mustard. When you do taste the cherry, it does harmonize; they use tart cherries.

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Click on the image for the website of Sansonetti Sauces, a family-owned business that makes mustards, vinaigrettes, barbeque sauces, and more. I’ve only tried this one, so far.

Sansonetti’s Roasted Red Pepper Mustard is quite good—and not too hot, which I can promise you, because I (a “supertaster” very sensitive to heat) can enjoy it. Also, roasted red peppers are never all that hot. Just delicious! It is indeed a Michigan product, despite the “Napa Valley Gold Medal” on the label (which means it won the Gold Medal at the 2010 Napa Valley World Wide Mustard Festival, their website explains). If you want heat, layer it with other hot ingredients in your sandwich, and spread it on thick. I find it quite delicious on a veggie burger or on a sandwich with crisp veggies (like spinach and onions).

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Click on the image for their website, offering “artisanal fruit preserves and condiments.”

Once you get past the strange disconnect of your mustard looking like some kind of berry jam (well, not exactly; it looks like you mixed mustard into your jam), this cranberry mustard will delight you. It’s the perfect blend of tangy and sweet – but not too sweet. Both the mustard and the cranberry flavors come through nicely. I’m a vegetarian, so I would use this on a sandwich with lots of fresh, crisp veggies;  but I imagine it would be perfection on a turkey sandwich—especially, next November, on those Thanksgiving leftovers.

Sweets

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That’s olive oil in the background on the right. Bad photography. Oh well. Still, you can click on the image to link to the Sanders website, where their famous dessert toppings are just a fraction of what you can break your diet (or Lenten fast in a month or so) with.

OK, I’m bending my own rules a bit. You know this is one I had tried while in Michigan! I grew up with the stuff. I’m just including it here because Sanders.

You can buy this in many places—Meijer, your local grocery store (in Michigan, anyway), and many sweets shops and specialty stores, such as Heart of Michigan, Rocky’s, and RJ Hirt DeVries and Co.  You can also order it, and any of their products, from their website.

What I’d never tried before, because it’s so expensive, is Sanders’ candy. A coworker ordered me some for Christmas the year before last, knowing how much I love Sanders. He bought me the peppermint bark, which I can honestly say is the best peppermint bark I’ve ever had, and the salted caramels. The salted caramels were also the best of any I’ve ever tried. They were so good, even this chocolate addict could eat just one piece per day and be satisfied with it. I’d never experienced that in a chocolate before!

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Click the image to visit their website!

A friend sent this to me along with other goodies this past Christmas. She probably got it at Rocky’s or somewhere in Eastern Market.

You can’t see the actual honey very well in this photograph, but it’s honey, and you know what that looks like. This honey is a rich amber color. The flavor is bolder than most honey you might buy at the grocery store, so if you prefer mild honey, it might take some getting used to. But it’s perfect for spreading on bread with butter (which is my main use for honey). I’m not a tea drinker, but I imagine it might be better in some teas than in others, given its strong flavor.

The label you see here is the only labeling on the jar. However, their website indicates that their honey is raw. Even cooler: “We take care of 100 beehives in the backyards, schools and community gardens of Detroit and suburbs. We provide you with raw honey and pure beeswax candles.” They also say you can buy their honey at Avalon Bakery, where (if you’re in Detroit) you can pick up some great bread to enjoy with the honey!

Sources, and other stuff I haven’t personally tried:

I didn’t include any products by Cherry Republic above, but as you would expect from the name, they make various cherry products. I’ve tried their cherry salsa, and at first I liked it, but then got sick of it pretty quickly. I think it was too sweet for my taste in salsa.

Traverse Bay Winery‘s home page, should you wish to browse their products. Theirs is the cherry wine I highly recommend, and which met the enthusiastic approval of the NorCal folks who sampled it.

Leelanau Cellars, who make the raspberry wine above, make a wide variety of wines, which you can check out at this link.

And, should you not trust my judgment, you can check out St. Julian’s cherry wine here, or look at their other selections, which might be tasty for all I know. Maybe the label design should’ve been a giveaway.

To purchase these products and more: In addition to all the links from images above, you can visit the following stores in person or online.

Heart of Michigan, located in Howell.

Rocky Peanut Co., located in the Eastern Market Historic District in Detroit.

DeVries and Co., formerly R.J. Hirt (but still in the family), is located at Eastern Market. They don’t appear to have a website/online store, but are on facebook.

Eastern Market, where Detroiters have been getting good local food since 1891.

Meijer, Michigan’s answer to Walmart. Located throughout the state, and a few places in some adjoining states.

Some Michigan/Detroit based foods can also be found at other shops like Pure Detroit (which seems to always have Sanders sauces, and blends from the Detroit Spice Company), even though they’re primarily a clothing/attire brand.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Detroit Bold coffee, although I’m not a coffee drinker (and have never tried Detroit Bold. I don’t like coffee, so the fact that I wouldn’t like it shouldn’t reflect on them.) It’s a great story, though, and founder A.J. O’Neil is a great guy, very supportive of his hometown, Highland Park. Check it out on facebook, too.

“Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500” by Drew Philip (on BuzzFeed)

“Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500” by Drew Philip (on BuzzFeed)

This article (click the redundancy under the blog post’s headline) tells the story of the author’s experience moving to Detroit, purchasing—and making habitable—a house that had been abandoned for a decade.

However, it’s a much bigger story than that, because he sets it in the current and historic circumstances of the city and of his particular neighborhood in Poletown, with lots of photos that illustrate this look at the wider context.

But it also gives good insight into the mixed feelings associated with moving into the city as a young, college-educated white person who may be perceived as part of the current wave of gentrification. I think it’s pretty clear from the author’s actions (like rebuilding a broken house with very few resources), interactions with neighbors, and location of choice that he’s not part of any gentrification. But he nuances the whole thing really well.

And the article makes me homesick. I want to get back to Detroit soon!

Favorite Christmas albums

Happy New Year!

We’re still in the midst of the Christmas season (those 12 days many know only from the song), so there’s still time to enjoy this wonderful music outside of the context of shopping malls and people trying to induce you to buy stuff.

Having just said that, I’m going to link to amazon.com for each of these. Maybe you’ll want to buy an album here, but the reason is really just to provide you with more information, and amazon does a pretty good job of that. Often they have samples to listen to as well.

1. The Chieftains—The Bells of Dublin

Album cover, The Bells of Dublin

This album is always the first Christmas album I listen to each year. It’s the Chieftains doing what they do so well—collaborating with musicians from a variety of different styles and genres. I love that it opens with church bells, which is a great way to start the Christmas music. But the album also has so many classic Christmas hymns and carols, along with a couple modern offerings, such as Elvis Costello’s “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” and Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.” The album has several movements (of a sort), including a few carol medleys, and ending with what feels like an abbreviated Lessons and Carols service (beginning with the boy chorister’s solo on the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”). Much of the album just feels like a rollicking good party, while other portions are remarkably reverential.

Highlights: “Il Est Né/Ca Berger” sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle; “O Holy Night” sung by Rickie Lee Jones (my sister once commented that she sounds as if she’s just seen an angel); and “Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil,” first narrated in English by Burgess Meredith and then sung in Irish by the Chieftains’ own Kevin Conneff.

2. Bruce Cockburn—Christmas

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I always listen to this album second. If you don’t know Bruce Cockburn’s work, this is as good a place as any to jump in (and it’s one with samples to listen to on the amazon page). He is himself an excellent musician, and also manages to surround himself with excellent musicians. While T-Bone Burnett didn’t produce this album (Cockburn did), he did turn up in the studio to hum on “I Saw Three Ships,” apparently. Burnett’s then-wife, the incredibly talented singer/songwriter Sam Phillips, also joins Cockburn on a track (see “Highlights” below). The range on this album is more than you might expect from a folk-rock singer/songwriter: traditional, spiritual, and an original composition; songs in English, French, and Huron (all of which fit nicely with the fact that Cockburn is Canadian).

Highlights: “Riu Riu Chiu,” which is given a deliciously rich folk treatment here; “Down in Yon Forest,” of which Cockburn says in the liner notes, “If there were a contest for the title of spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down”; “Iesus Ahatonnia,” a.k.a. “The Huron Carol,” which he sings in the Huron language; and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which was arranged, in a minor key, by Sam Phillips, who also provides backing vocals. Cockburn writes, “Her clever and simple devise of shifting the song to a minor key enhanced the poignantly thoughtful words in away that made me wish I’d thought of it. The next best thing was to sing it that way—so here it is.” Alsoa highlight: Bruce’s liner notes! He comments like that on every song.

3. Annie Lennox—A Christmas Cornucopia

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Here’s a rather new album, after those two early-’90s offerings. But it’s quickly become a favorite of mine. Even if I can’t stand the cover art (sorry…maybe it’s just the photo of her, the dress maybe? or is it the pose?). Like several of the ’80s alternative pop stars whose Christmas albums feature here, she opens the liner notes with an I-don’t-actually-believe-this-of-course disclaimer: “While I don’t personally subscribe to any specific religion, I do believe that the heart of all religious faith has to be rooted in love and compassion, otherwise it serves no purpose. … Through listening to a Christmas Cornucopia, I hope that people will discover a fresh perspective.” No matter. I believe this stuff, and I enjoy this album tremendously. It’s Annie Lennox! She can sing.

Highlights: “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” which she sings to the tune (“Gloria”) most US Americans know for “Angels We Have Heard on High.” But it’s such a great hymn, with great theology; “See Amid the Winter’s Snow”—she sings this song with such gusto and passion you can’t help but be transported when the chorus comes ’round: “Hail, thou ever-blessed morn! Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!”; “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)”—This one she sings with an appropriate harshness, given its subject matter, even though “By by lullay lullay” is supposed to be just that—a lullaby; “As Joseph Was a Walking (The Cherry Tree Carol),” which is actually not the Cherry Tree Carol. It’s a strange carol I didn’t know, though, and has the amusing verse, “He neither shall be christened / In white wine nor in red /But in the fair spring water / With which we’re christened.” Anyway, I like how she sings it.

One of the reviewers on amazon calls it “the ANGRIEST Christmas album” they’d ever heard. It really does kinda come across that way, at least on the first few songs. I would love to put “Il Est Né” in the highlights, but even though I love the brashness of her arrangement, her pronunciation and scansion of the French annoys me. On balance, still an enjoyable track, though. Her obligatory original track, “Universal Child,” is rather uninteresting in my opinion.

4. Sting—If On a Winter’s Night…

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What? If on a winter’s night, what? Never mind, it’s a gorgeous album for Christmas and the winter season. It’s also another with samples on the amazon page.

The back of the CD carton (it’s one of those paperboard deals rather than a jewel case) there’s a little blurb calling winter Sting’s favorite season. The album, it says, “takes traditional music from the British Isles as its starting point and evolves into a compelling and personal journey with music spanning over five centuries (including two of Sting’s own songs).” Even if you’re not particularly a Sting fan, though, give this one a listen. It’s also fairly new (2009), but quickly became a favorite of mine, one that’s fourth in line in my 100-disc changer (stop laughing; I know that’s so last century,but it hasn’t broken yet, why replace it with a docked iPod?).

Highlights: “Gabriel’s Message”—that wonderful carol about the annunciation. I first heard a version of this from some Christmas special that Sting participated in; a coworker of mine had it on her mp3 player and shared it with me. This version is a little different, but just as magical; “There is No Rose of Such Virtue,” which is a favorite Christmas hymn of mine, and Sting sings it beautifully; ditto with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”; “Balulalow,” which is Peter Warlock’s setting of the traditional carol—a contender in Cockburn’s imaginary creepiest Christmas song contest; and “Cherry Tree Carol,” which actually is the Cherry Tree Carol, in which Joseph snaps at Mary to “let the father of your baby gather cherries for you” and the cherry tree miraculously bows to the Virgin so she can pick its fruit. Sting’s rendition is about as good as it gets.

5. and 6. Various Artists (Projekt Records)—Excelsis: A Dark Noel and Excelsis vol. 2: A Winter’s Song

Album cover (Vol. 1) Album cover, Vol. 2

If you like your Christmas music on the darker side, darkwave label Projekt has (had? Not sure if they’re still in print) a couple albums you will love. I’m including both in one listing, for some reason that’s not entirely clear to me either. While the second album is titled “Volume 2,” the first was not. Presumably, the second album only materialized because the first was a success. I’m going to refer to them as “volume 1” and “volume 2” anyway.

Not all the songs are Christmas songs; Projekt founder Sam Rosenthal’s band, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, offers “Chanukkah, Oh Chanukkah” (volume 1), and Faith and the Muse bring “A Winter Wassail.”

Highlights, Volume 1: Arcanta’s “Carol of the Bells”—well, anything that guy sings is going to be phenomenal; FuchiKachis Etbu, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”; and the two end tracks, back to back: Autopsia’s “Stille Nacht (g)RAVE remix” and Attrition’s “Silent Night.” Those last two blend together seamlessly, it, um, seems.

Highlights, Volume 2: El Duende’s “Gaudete, Gaudete,” a favorite Christmas song of mine; The Crüxshadows’ “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” sung like they really mean it; Unto Ashes’ “Lord of the Dance,” the chorus of which is to a different tune than you’d be expecting (not “Simple Gifts”); Faith & Disease’s “Silver and Gold,” which shimmers; Thanatos’ “Silent Night”—his rendition of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” might have you expecting a strange twist to this traditional carol, but it’s just his usual stripped-bare style; Lycia’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (I love everything they do, together and individually); and Human Drama’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.”

Runner up for the highlights: On Volume 1, Eva O contributes a strangely beautiful goth version of O Holy Night, but it’s irreparably marred by her, and her backing vocalists, singing “pinning” instead of “pining” in the first verse. And apparently no one involved—none of the musicians, recordists, producers, etc.—caught it. It’s mind boggling. I still enjoy the track, but wince at that point every time. Or laugh. Sometimes it strikes me as funny.

I’m sorry there aren’t samples on the amazon pages for these, but maybe you can find some on youtube or something. Don’t be put off by the bands’ names…

PS: It appears Projekt has also released a “best of” version of these two CDs, with 4 unique tracks, confusingly titled A Dark Noel. It seems to be in print, though. The others you can probably find used—online being your best bet.

7. Loreena McKennitt—A Winter Garden

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Now we’re into territory where I’m not really numbering in order of my favorites. To be honest, this one is slipping in my favorites list, but I still love it. Getting the link for amazon, I see she has other Christmas albums, too. I should check those out.

Highlights: There are only 5 songs on the album, so not a lot to choose from. “Coventry Carol,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Good King Wenceslas” are brilliant.

8. Sarah McLachlan—Wintersong

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It opens with “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and then includes Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which isn’t actually a Christmas song (just because it mentions the holiday doesn’t make it a Christmas song) but there are plenty of standards too. I actually like hearing “River,” though, and she sings it well. I just want someone to give her a stole or jacket in that photo! Brrr!

Highlights: “What Child is This? (Greensleeves)” is, contrary to her title, not sung to the tune of Greensleeves, although that tune is buried in there somewhere; “The First Noel/Mary, Mary”—I love her take on The First Noel; “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”; and “Silent Night.”

9. Various Artists—The Edge of Christmas

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With a 1995 release date (according to the back cover, anyway), this compilation has been around a while, and no doubt you know some of the tracks, if not the collection itself.

Highlights: Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas”—I never knew I liked a Queen song, until I checked the back of this CD to see who was singing this first track on the album; David Bowie/Bing Crosby, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”—one you probably know. It’s a very interesting duet; The Cocteau Twins’ “Winter Wonderland,” which you probably hear on the canned music in the mall, but I love it. Really these tracks are enough reason to own this CD.

10. Over the Rhine—The Darkest Night of the Year

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Another with samples on amazon!

OTR has at least one other Christmas CD out (which I have), but this one is far better. They bring their typical charm and expertise to many standard Christmas classics with and without vocals, with a few original songs as well (including a couple more instrumental pieces). The album art is fun, too. (Their album art is usually more artsy-fartsy, in a good way, and always high quality.) The album is perfect for a quiet evening with a few friends, maybe some good wine…just keep the lighting dim.

Highlights: “Silent Night,” which is set to an original arrangement (which may come as a relief to those sick of that particular hymn) and almost book-ends the album (tracks 2 and 10 out of 13); “Coal Train,” a moody little instrumental piece written by Ric Hordinski; “Mary’s Waltz,” a sad song that really shows off Karen’s vocal abilities; and “Amelia’s Last,” another original piece, another sad song, with a lovely tune. The instrumental work on this album is what makes it so perfect for a dark and quiet evening in December or early January.

11. She & Him—A Very She & Him Christmas

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Another new addition, released in 2011. She & Him are M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel (you don’t have to be a hipster to like them), who make a fantastic duo for 20th century Christmas standards. You won’t hear anything devotional on this album, but that’s OK. If you want to hear some of the songs I’ve highlighted below sung by someone who’s not a member of the Rat Pack (or Elvis), you will be very pleased—just check out the samples on amazon. M. Ward keeps his guitar playing relatively simple but interesting, and Zooey Deschanel’s voice has just a hint of reverb and the perfect amount of cheer. There’s alsopiano, organ, uke, and percussion, but it’s all used sparsely. The CD insert is designed like a Christmas card, and is in a little envelope glued inside the (cardstock) cover. Along with the appropriately-mid-century record cover design, it’s a nice touch.

Highlights: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas;” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”; “Silver Bells” (she plays the ukelele on this track); “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with the typical vocal duet; and “Blue Christmas.”

12. Douglas Nelson—Our Hopes and Our Fears

Album cover

I know this guy! He’s and his wife volunteer on the Altar Guild I direct. I can vouch for the fact that he means every word he sings here. You can hear samples on amazon, but can’t buy it there.

Highlights: “Do You Hear What I Hear”; “Away in a Manger,” which isn’t in the least bit twee here (as it so often is); “Chasing the Bethlehem Star,” an original composition from which the album title is taken; “What Child Is This”; and a punk take on “Silent Night”!

13. Fernando Ortega—Christmas Songs

Album cover

This is a gorgeous album. Just gorgeous. I’d never heard of this artist, who’s apparently a Christian musician. The amazon link describes him as a “classically trained…pianistbut also steeped in the Hispanic tradition of his New Mexico homeland.” That’s a good way to communicate the style. Anyway, I found the CD in a bin in a used CD store, and was attracted to the artwork. I’ve discovered a lot of great music that way, actually. But when I saw the track listing, I was sold.

Highlights: “Carol of the Birds”; “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”—the hymn, which isn’t exactly a Christmas song, but it does speak of Christ taking flesh. This is a stunning version which you could enjoy year ’round if you put it on your mp3 player; and “Angels We Have Heard On High,” which has an interesting rhythm.

14. African Christmas: Christmas Favorites with an African Beat

Album cover

It’s not clear to me whether this is an ensemble that got together for this record, or whether it’s a “various artists” compilation. The back cover says, “A collection of holiday favorites featuring some of South Africa’s finest talents—including Bongani Masuku, Mandisa Dlanga, Max Mthambo & Vernon Abdul—in vibrant Zulu-flavored renditions of some of the season’s best-loved Christmas carols.” I like this album, but I prefer it in a mix rather than listening to straight through, and I could do without “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” YMMV.

The above link to amazon has samples to listen to, but when I tried it just now, it was playing the wrong tracks. However, my internet’s acting kinda funny at the moment…

Highlights: “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” the opening track; “When a Child is Born”; and “African Christmas Acappella.” [sic] These will run through your head, as will “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

15. Various Artists—Christmas: The World Rejoices (National Geographic Music Series)

Album cover

This is another CD that’s particularly nice in a mix. It features songs from various geographic and national areas (listed thus on the CD): Spain, Venezuela, Russia, Brazil, Norway, Andes, Cuba, France, India, Caribbean, Hawaii, Bulgaria, USA, and England. The songs range from folk tunes to classical, but all are exuberantly performed. The CD also includes a pull-out, folded map showing those regions (for the geographically challenged), which also describes some of the Christmas traditions from those areas and lists holy days from 1 Advent through Candlemas (for the liturgically challenged). It also seems to have been packaged a bit differently and under the slightly different name, Around the World Christmas: The World Rejoices.

Highlights: I’m not going to do highlights for this one. I’d have to list almost every track. There’s just so much variety here!

Now, this is about 1/5th of my Christmas CD collection, which also includes several recordings of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and several other classics, like Johnny Cash, a couple Motown collections, that sort of thing.

What are your favorite Christmas albums? And, seeing what I really like, what do you recommend I try to pick up by next Christmas?

Christmas and Martyrdom: St. Stephen’s Day

Happy second day of Christmas! And happy St. Stephen’s Day.

Icon of St. Stephen.

Icon of St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also a deacon, one of seven chosen and ordained by the twelve Apostles to serve those in need. He also preached and “worked wonders,” which made him some very powerful enemies. Accused of blasphemy, he was stoned to death. You can read his full story in Acts chapters 6-7. Today, the Church commemorates him, and, in particular, his violent end.

It’s the day after Christmas, the second of the twelve days of Christmas. We’ve just welcomed the Christ child, marveled at the mystery of God becoming human. Most of us have domestic messes to clean up—dishes, gift wrap, laundry, and so forth—and are tired but happy, full of good food, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and magi. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the memory of violent death: not of the babies slaughtered by Herod (that’s the day after tomorrow), but of the martyrdom of a Christian who preached Christ crucified and resurrected, and who saw, just before he died, a vision of Jesus seated at God’s right hand. That’s quite a leap in the story! It seems a strange juxtaposition.

But it’s actually what Christmas is about. Mary’s “Magnificat” had predicted that the birth of her son would turn the world upside down. The world, however, doesn’t turn upside down without a fight.

God appearing among us, in our flesh, participating in our birth and in our death, is an invitation for us to be reborn into Christ and to participate in his death. Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to face martyrdom; but we are invited to die to our selves and to our own ambitions because we are called to something better. When St. Stephen had his vision of Christ enthroned, he was seeing the end result of the Incarnation: human nature, and with it, all creation, taken into the very heart of the Triune God. In the baby Jesus, the Word of God became human. He has never stopped being human. What he is—what St. Stephen saw—is God’s design for us all: to dwell intimately with God in perfect union, not dissolved into an impersonal oneness or reabsorbed into our source, but joined to our maker in the most beautiful unity-in-diversity.

That was, in fact, the goal all along. In the Incarnation, we see that God created the cosmos in order to dwell in it and to unite it to Godself in love. The Incarnation was no “Plan B” resulting from human sin. It was God’s intention all along, the very purpose of creation. Knowing that frees us from our own little lives that end with our individual, self-shattering deaths. That freedom allowed St. Stephen not only to accept death, but to forgive those who participated in his murder in any way (among them, the future St. Paul, who guarded the coats of those doing the actual stoning).

Holy Stephen, pray for us, that we may share your vision of Christ exalted, and so gain the freedom to die to our small selves and receive with you the life of the one whose birth we continue to celebrate these twelve days of Christmas.

A brief Advent reflection

Advent’s just begun.

Ordinary Time closed with a celebration of Christ the King; now we’re waiting for that King to be born…while at the same time, looking for him to “come again in glory.” Even while Christmas preparations must be done, we hold those celebrations at bay during this strange season of remembering the eschaton and anticipating Christ’s birth 2,000-some years ago, all while continuing to meet his Real Presence in the Sacrament at every Mass we attend. Advent is “timey-wimey,” as the Doctor might put it:

Well, in the Church, we usually use the phrase, “already and not yet,” but it’s a similar idea.

The entire Church year, in fact, is like this—not just Advent. When we walk the Way of the Cross with Christ during Holy Week, we’re also busy preparing for Easter celebrations, while celebrating the Eucharist before, on, and after Maundy Thursday. We know that Christ was born, lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, but we mark the days of our year in ways that combine memory, anticipation, presence, longing, and participation in ways that allow us to find, afresh, our own place in the story, year after year. We sound the depths of the traditions, which have accrued and continue to grow through the centuries, and find that they echo back our own longing, fear, joy, pain, faith, doubt—whatever we might be experiencing right now. We have the opportunity to put our lives as they are this year in conversation with that story which is both historic and eternal, the story of the One who was, and is, and will be.

Blessed Advent. May the mysteries we ponder with Mary resonate in our lives throughout the coming year.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

PS: I’d be remiss not to mention that today, Detroit’s application for bankruptcy protection was approved by a judge. I ask for your prayers for the city and its residents, as well as the surrounding region, and for wisdom and a spirit of servanthood in the leaders who will be hashing out a plan going forward. For more information:

USA Today’s report, which gives a general overview of today’s news on the subject.

Huffington Post’s report centering on the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collections.

The Nation’s report, which considers the really bad precedent(s) that could come out of this.

Christ the King

In 1925, Pope Pius XI introduced the feast of Christ the King, which was meant as a reminder, amid the encroachments of secularization, that Christ is our Sovereign, reigning over all peoples in all places and all times—indeed, over all creation.

Such a small vision, really.

True, it’s a step beyond the old nationalistic thinking—prevalent in antiquity (according to the biblical record, at least)—that pits one people’s god against another people’s god to see which god wins. The winning god, of course, is determined through the spilling of human blood.

But with several millennia of monotheism under our belt, we know better than to think there are different gods backing different peoples and prodding them into war. We’re a little better than that. A little. The confession that Christ is King ought to help us see our unity under the one and only Lord, but instead, we want to test which of us the one Lord really favors. We want to use Christ the King to conquer our enemies and to put others in their place. If Christ is King the way human kings are king, then he might be swayed by our deference, our flattery, our lip-service, or even our genuine loyalty and obedience. As God, he’s the biggest, baddest king of them all, so we know we’re on the winning side, if we tactfully side with him:

Such a tiny, tiny vision.

Many today are uncomfortable with the language of saying that Christ is “King” or Jesus is “Lord,” and with good reason. Those words represent the kind of earthly power that Christians are being called to relinquish. Calling Jesus “King” or “Lord” can easily be misused to re-shape Christ into the image of Caesar. It has historically been used to justify social hierarchies in which the rich dominated the poor, men dominated women, clerics dominated the laity, and whites dominated people of color. These dominations and others, as we know, are still going on.

But the Gospel writers intended a much more revolutionary meaning when they said, “Jesus is Lord”—even more than the simple fact that if Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t. John, in particular, spelled out the insane Christian claim that the Cross of Christ is his throne, that true power is seen in self-emptying. Jesus wasn’t going to take over Caesar’s office, but rather to reveal that office’s inadequacy—irrelevancy, even. This is one of those radical reversals we find throughout Scripture. What on earth would Jesus even do with Caesar’s supposed power? It would be like a surgical nurse handing a neurosurgeon an AK-47. Or a fish.

To assert that Christ is King, or that Jesus is Lord, is to say that Kingship looks like Christ, not the other way around. Lordship looks like Jesus: it is cruciform. It takes the form of a servant. True power lays down its life and welcomes vulnerability. In the video clip above, the character of Jesus in the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, tells the crowd of his followers (in the Twitter sense—fans, really) that they don’t know what power is; that true power comes through death. Or, as the Book of Common Prayer words it, Christ has “made the way of the Cross to be the way of life.”

This is liberating news for the downtrodden and marginalized, but it is terrible news for those who hold worldly power—something most of us enjoy to some degree, if we live in the developed world. Christ’s Kingship should, for most of us (think the “99%”) be both comforting and unsettling: comforting, because we know that the powers of this world, which too often subjugate us, cannot claim ultimate victory; but unsettling, because in order to be fit for the reign of Christ, we will need to unlearn many habits. Habits that we like very much.

Habits like acquiring cheap consumer goods, the production of which most likely polluted the earth and quite possibly enslaved some worker somewhere (maybe even a child). Habits like demanding our own rights but neglecting the rights of others, or holding on to privileges we obtained through no real fault of our own. Habits like putting ourselves, or our own families, ahead of others and their families. Habits like judging others, and justifying ourselves. In other words, pretty much every habit we inherited from our pre-human ancestry. Even our good habits aren’t good enough, or they’re wrong-headed, motivated by self-interest. Christ’s self-emptying might make him seem harmless, especially when we look at a crucifix and see him nailed down where he can’t do any harm, head bowed in submission to the Father. But that self-emptying is the radical reversal of the self-interest that seems to have been one of evolution’s primary engines. Christ the King threatens to unravel everything we know and trust.

The good news, though, is that Christ is King: no other power will ultimately stand against him, not even the powers that bind us in our bad habits and keep us from reaching our full human potential. Because Christ is King, we are liberated from ourselves and toward each other. Our King has conquered death, by showing us that the path through death is the way to life—so that the fears and struggles for survival that shaped us as a species and as individuals ultimately hold no true power.

In the Gospel lection this year, one of the two “thieves” (read: political troublemakers, threats to worldly “power”) who is crucified with Jesus recognizes the truth we celebrate this last Sunday before Advent. He asks Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a strange thing for one dying man to ask another! Especially when their deaths, according to Rome, would expose them as frauds, whose aspirations to power had been thwarted by the great power of Rome that ruled the whole world!

Yeah, no. Rome had it entirely wrong.

Worldly power rewards those who worship it and punishes those who work against it. If we imagine that Jesus is aspiring to the kind of power we humans, cousins to bonobos and chimpanzees, find alluring—the power, e.g., that destroys its enemies, rewards its cronies, and makes a name for itself—then we’re trying to shoehorn Christ the King into the worthless role of Caesar. Even worse, when we aspire to that kind of power, we are swearing our allegiance to Caesar, not Christ.

And that is such a myopic vision.

Good thing Christ is King, and we aren’t.

 

Meeting Jesus on the Street (Costs More than Taking the Bus)

Tonight, I walked home from the train station—just under a mile, in the dark—to save $2.10 on bus fare. I’m counting pennies, sorta. I’m admittedly rather lousy with money, and, according to my math, my earnings over the next year won’t…quite…cover my expenses, which are pared down as much as they can be. So I feel the need to hang onto any money I can…except that on another level, I don’t really feel it. This is the time of year I earn the most. I feel like I have the amount I actually have in the bank, not like I have to squirrel away whatever I can for when it’s needed in a few months.

So I walked home in the dark to save $2.10 bus fare, because I discovered (while doing the aforementioned math) that I spend a lot more on transit than I’d realized – more than the $85 in pre-tax transit dollars I purchase each month.

But on that walk, just under a mile, I wound up giving away all $9 I had left on me to three different beggars.

Oops.

Except, not oops. These were beautiful people made in God’s image who asked me for help. How could I say no? Sure, spread out over the course of a year, I don’t have enough to be giving money away. But right now I do, and right now, that woman was standing in front of me, wrapped in a blanket, asking for help. Or that man, hauling off something he said he would be selling tomorrow (it looked like just a wooden crate to me)—he wanted a burrito. He was the first, and I regretted giving him only $2 when I saw the real gratitude in his eyes. He sped off with his crate before I could change my mind. He was in a really good mood, I could tell.

See, the thing is, I take it seriously when I hear Jesus, in the Gospels, saying things like, “Do not refuse anyone who begs from you,” or “What you have done for the least of these, you did for me.”

Except I don’t, really, do I? If I took those sayings completely to heart, I’d be on the street begging myself, having given away the resources I do have. It might be just me, but it seems like the line between “Yes, I can afford this,” and “No, I can’t afford this” is pretty arbitrary sometimes. When I set out walking tonight, instead of springing for bus fare, I honestly felt it was a matter of what I could not afford. How, then, did I have $9 in my pocket, and how was I able to hand it to strangers on the street? Will I ever miss that $9? Would I have missed the $2.10?

I really don’t have an answer to such questions. I’m not sure I want answers. Sometimes I think struggling with these questions keeps us more honest. It would be easy to fabricate answers that would satisfy me one way or the other – most likely to allow me to say “No” to the stranger while maintaining a clean conscience. What is a comfortable answer worth, anyway? $9? $2.10? Enough to make rent in a lean month?

Knowing my penchant for saying “Yes” to the stranger who begs, I guess I should’ve known that spending the bus fare was actually the more fiscally “responsible” thing to do.

But I also get quite an emotional and spiritual lift from these encounters, that I think goes beyond just the happiness you get when you give. I’ve been struggling with depression quite a bit lately, which is part of the reason this blog has been pretty quiet. But I’ve had some very graced encounters during this time.

One was with a woman named Mac. I was walking from work to the train station—in a very depressed mood—and noticed her from half a block away. She was busy sorting through cardboard in a recycling bin, as if looking for just the right piece for such and such purpose. I felt drawn to her, so I slowed my steps until we could make eye contact. I smiled and said hi, she smiled and said hi, and at some point she asked for some money.

I had a $10 bill on me, so I gave it to her. Immediately, she started into an explanation that she was only going to spend it on food and shelter, nothing else. I told her it was none of my business what she spent it on. We proceeded to have a lovely conversation, during which she thanked me several times, told me her name, complimented my haircut (!), and at one point, kissed my hand. But we did have a real conversation about stuff (including where she goes for free haircuts), and that was what I needed: a genuine interaction with another human being. As we parted, she gave me her blessing, which I commented later that night had to be worth at least a thousand blessings from a bishop or priest. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” the Psalmist assures us. If that’s the case, then her blessing carries an awful lot of weight. In return—as if an exchange of precious gifts—I continue to hold her in my prayers.

A couple weeks ago or three, I was feeling so down, that as I left work and walked to the train station, I couldn’t stop crying. (This actually happens more than I’d like to admit.) In typical San Francisco fashion, or—let’s give the natives the benefit of the doubt—perhaps in typical tourist fashion,  my fellow pedestrians only ever looked through or past me, even if I managed to give them a smile or nod. There were two exceptions. One beggar tried to engage me in his cheerful sales pitch, as if he didn’t notice I was crying. I have to confess, I said no that time. Maybe that was unfair, but it had nothing to do with him, really. I needed to keep moving in order to not completely lose it in public. But I did notice that he was putting on an act that had nothing to do with the person he was speaking to. Despite the fact that he was clearly addressing me, he too looked right through or past me. I don’t hold it against him, though. He’s got a tough gig.

But then as I reached the station, there was this other man—the same man who’s been out there begging or selling the Street Sheet for all eight years I’ve been out here, but whose name I don’t know. I don’t remember if we’ve ever formally introduced ourselves; I’m not good with names, so I might have forgotten. Anyway, a couple years ago, I had a small surplus of money (more than I needed), so I gave a lot of it to him. Every time I saw him, I gave him a $5, $10, or $20—whatever I had on me. We’d have brief conversations, enough so that I know he lives in an SRO and is out begging to cover his rent and some food, and that he’s been hospitalized a few times (sometimes that’s what he tells me after he’s been missing for a while).

But this night, the night where I couldn’t stop crying, he noticed. A look of genuine concern came over his face, and he asked, “Are you alright?” He didn’t ask me for money. He just asked if I was alright, God bless him. I only managed to say, “I will be,” and walk on into the station. But his response to me meant so much, and carried me through that night. When I saw him again a week or two later, I told him how much it had meant to me, that he had seen me, and expressed concern. He needed to know that. I felt like I’d been rude just walking on like I did, so I had to be sure to tell him. We then had a conversation about stuff, as you do—about my struggling with depression lately, about his trying to move to Oakland to get away from some of the problems in “the City.” He mentioned some people who were getting violent, and he was afraid of getting beaten up. I didn’t fully understand what he was trying to say about that, but I heard the same thing from another guy last night.

The man I came across last night looked terrible. He had small scabs all over his face and neck, and his hands were black with dirt. I made eye contact and smiled, as I do with everyone I pass in the street, and he asked me for money. I gave him some. He asked then if I could, perhaps, also buy him some food. He acknowledged that it was a strange thing to ask, and offered to give back the money I’d just given him if that was an issue, and asked if I was on my way to eat dinner. “No, I’m headed to Oakland,” I said. So he asked if he could walk with me a block or two. I said yes, and we continued in conversation. I realized then that he didn’t want me to just buy him food—he wanted some companionship.

So we chatted about all kinds of things for a couple of blocks, and then stood and chatted some more. At one point, he asked my name; I told him, and asked him his, but he didn’t tell me. He said he’d shake my hand, except he had “bugs”—I’m guessing fleas or lice or something. It was considerate of him to want to protect me from catching anything. And it explained all those little scabs, probably. But he too mentioned wanting to get away from people who were violent and causing trouble. I noticed he had a bruise on one side of his face. I didn’t ask questions, I just listened. He skipped around from topic to topic, and sometimes I couldn’t figure out how he got from point A to point B, but overall, I enjoyed our conversation. I think he did too.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of all the encounters of this sort that I’ve had. It’s just some recent ones. I could go on quite a bit, with stories from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Detroit, Ann Arbor… I’ve had a few mildly bad encounters, such as a very early experience in Ann Arbor, in college, when I was chased by a guy until I found a shop to duck into, or another man on State Street who, when I didn’t buy incense sticks from him, yelled very grumpy things at me. I’ve also had amusing encounters. There’s the fact that twice—once in Detroit, and once in San Francisco—I’ve had panhandlers ask me why I’m so pigeon-toed! Or the fact that I’m often called “Sir” by women in particular. But I’ve also been mugged at gunpoint, and, frankly, sometimes I’ve given a beggar cash in gratitude that they’re not demanding it from me! And isn’t this what it’s all about, the gifts we freely give each other? God’s economy is a gift economy, where everything given is received in gratitude, and everyone is gift, giftee, and giver. “Freely you have received; freely give”—that’s another thing Jesus says in the Gospel.

But we’re stuck, for now, in an economy of human devising: consumer capitalism. We’re supposed to be stingy with our cash, except when purchasing gifts, perhaps. We’re supposed to want to possess things. But not everyone can participate. The rules of the game have to exclude some in order for others to get rich. I see far too many people out begging in what is supposed to be a “land of opportunity,” and far too many people refusing to share their little bit of the American Dream. The common rhetoric tends to accuse the poor of all sorts of things, from laziness to fraud to addiction, as if we would all spend our days begging if we could, but no, “we” have compunctions. The truth is that poverty is criminalized in this country, in so many ways. These folks I meet are working hard to get by in a society that is very hostile toward them.

So I give. It’s not much. It’s nowhere what they need. They’ll continue struggling, and making do, and so will I, except I have it a lot easier, however little I may have. They are poor; I’m working class. To me, it’s about solidarity, and trying, failing, and trying again to live according to the economy of the Kingdom of God which is “already and not yet” here among us.

Among us. Not inside each of us individuals, much less possessed by us, but among us, in the synapses that connect us. If we’re ever to live fully into God’s reign, we’ve got to stick together. But it costs so much.

Wrestling with angels

Eugène Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Eugène Delacroix,  Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

This past Sunday (October 20), many of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary heard the wonderful story of Jacob wrestling with the “angel”:

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32.22-31, NRSV)

It’s a great story, with many possible readings. For example, I learned today that one rather ancient Rabbinic interpretation is that Jacob was wrestling with himself—his own inner demons, you might say, or his own past, or his hopes for the future. Do listen to the homily at that link; I won’t rehearse the whole thing here. But it’s intriguing to re-read the text with that interpretation in mind. “Why is it that you ask my name?” asks the mysterious man. We might imagine him continuing, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m your very self!” And it could be a therapeutic, spiritual exercise to reflect on what it might mean to not only wrestle with, but to bless oneself, and to receive that blessing.

But I’m going to go in another direction—one no more nor less valid, I think. We’re fortunate to have the ancient stories in Scripture precisely because they are so rich with meaning. Not only is there no one “right” meaning, there’s no one “right” way to approach the text. So actually, I’m going to go in two related directions. Let me get the shorter of the two out of the way first.

Some years ago, while working on my master of arts in theology, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a course called Gender, Sexuality, and the Bible. As you can imagine, one of the “angels” we wrestled with was the traditional response to Scripture readings in Church: “The Word of the Lord.” For many, even among those who love the Scriptures, calling the Bible “the Word of God” or “The Word of the Lord” is problematic, because, well, frankly, so much in Scripture is problematic. That’s another thing I don’t really need to rehearse here, I should think. But we discussed whether there might be ways to reconcile that appellation with our discomfort with so much contained in the Bible. I suggested this passage as an image: perhaps “the Word of the Lord” is that inheritance—birthright, you might say—we continue to wrestle with both while it wounds us and until it blesses us. And, as so much in life is rather messy, it may be hard to parse out what is the wound and what is the blessing. Either way, we emerge with a new name.

My second reading of this text is not unlike the first. Jacob is told that he has “striven with God and with humans, and [has] prevailed.” And he himself stammers that he has seen God face to face—and lived to tell about it. So, what if we suppose that it’s God Jacob is wrestling with here? Why would God injure a man God is about to bless? Why would Jacob be left with that injury, left to walk off with a (likely permanent) limp?

Some years ago, in fact, I heard a preacher ask the question, Why Jacob’s hip? Personally, I actually get that. Our bodies are not incidental to our identities. Jacob’s body has changed along with his name, his identity. But why his hip? It’s precisely the limp: it’s a new gait to go with the new name. Jacob—er, Israel—can no longer walk through his life the same way, figuratively or literally. Alejandro García-Rivera named that kind of experience “a wounded innocence.” Innocence, García-Rivera writes, is not an ignorance we lose, not a pristine perfection that can only be marred, but rather a virtue we gain. Given the world we live in, we usually, if not always, gain it through struggle. Even Jesus, risen from the dead and seated at God’s right hand, still bears the scars of his awful death. And in the Resurrection, perhaps Israel ( Jacob) will still have his limp.

For the Christian, “the Word of God” is not, properly speaking, the Bible. It’s Jesus, God made flesh, the primary revelation of God to us humans. Through transitive logic, we could liken Jacob’s rough night at Peniel to our own encounter with Christ. That Christ offers us his blessing is something we easily accept. But Jesus also told his disciples, rather frequently, that life would not be easy for them—that sometimes they would suffer because of their discipleship. But he also challenged others around him (“challenged” is putting it mildly, if you ask the moneychangers in the Temple, e.g.) to give up their privilege, to “take up [their] cross” and follow him. He said horribly inconvenient things, like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18.25, NRSV).

What I am getting at, rather clumsily, I admit, is that once you meet Jesus, you wind up with a blessing and a limp. The rich young man who was told by Jesus to sell all he had and give it to the poor—he walked away sadly, but presumably, with an unchanged gait. Had he resolved to do as Jesus said, he would have been set free, but into a curious kind of freedom: any life-changing encounter with God in Christ will leave you unable to walk in the world in the way you did before.

It might mean a life of self-giving sacrifice. It might mean the renunciation of privilege—economic, racial, sex, whatever. I believe it should mean you can no longer acquiesce to the way things are, to the power and money and the “logic” of the market that (seemingly) make the world go round, or the various –isms that offer comfortable certainties, often at the expense of others. It probably means wrestling with yourself, like Jacob/Israel did. It will definitely mean no longer living for yourself, but rather being broken open to God, to all humans, and in fact to all creatures.

So, let us go limping. That awful, dull ache or sharp pain can be transformed: it’s a reminder of our new identity in Christ. A sort of stigmata, really. Own it or wrestle with it until it gives you insight, a new way of seeing, of being in the world.

On what road are you currently limping along?

Buildings and Bodies

Since I don’t seem to have the time right now to sort through and edit, in order to share, my Detroit photos, I thought I’d at least stop in and post something. This is a bit of a flashback—I published it as a facebook note on May 24, 2011.

I’m not normally one to argue with a bishop (although a facebook note is hardly arguing), but the sermon we heard on Sunday for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s building has gotten me thinking, and talking, quite a bit. That’s good—that’s what a sermon should do. And I don’t totally disagree with what the Bishop said, I just want to nuance it a bit, or maybe just deepen part of it with further reflections. At any rate, his sermon is the occasion for me writing some thoughts I’ve been having anyway here in this note.

Bishop Wendell Gibbs (Diocese of Michigan) remarked in his sermon that buildings are a curse: they require so much effort and so many resources for upkeep, and they can lock us into certain styles of worship (in the case of a church) rather than allowing flexibility and adaptation. Bishop Gibbs’ primary concern in this regard is mission, and he’s absolutely right that there is a danger both of becoming complacent inside a lovely building during worship hours rather than going out into the streets and into the world and being the Church there; and of draining our resources on the building’s upkeep so that not enough is left for growth and ministry. And that was his primary focus: the “living stones” that should not merely be contained inside stone buildings. It wasn’t a sermon about architecture.

However, when he said that “buildings are a curse,” after chuckling knowingly a bit, I instantly thought, “so are bodies!” I don’t know about you, but my body requires a lot of upkeep, especially the older I get. I have to devote a lot of time to sleeping, eating, grooming, working for a living, and so forth; I have to spend a lot of money on food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and health care—and despite all of this expenditure, my body still disappoints me constantly! It’s quite a bit bigger than I would like; it’s not terribly flexible; it burdens me with health issues from eczema to bipolar disorder. It limits me to whiteness, femaleness, a certain height, and having to be in only one place at a time. It is weighted down by gravity and worn out by use and by the elements.

And yet my body is precisely my means of being in the world. Without my body and all of its draining requirements, I can’t interact with others, enjoy tastes and smells and sights and sounds, or even know anything at all, since all of our knowledge is mediated by our senses.

Buildings, in fact, are very much like the human body. Buildings and bodies enjoy a certain connaturality. Buildings are built precisely to house human bodies and activities. Because of this, much of what we can say about buildings can also be said about our bodies, and vice-versa.

Our buildings are how we as communities exist in the world. We build grandiose civic buildings not (primarily) to display wealth and privilege but to use wealth in the service of facilitating and celebrating the civic project—our common life. We build homes as dwelling places and decorate them to celebrate family (however configured) and to situate us in a neighborhood, as well as to accommodate all the provisions we need. We build houses of worship to not only serve as a meeting place for like-minded people, but to celebrate and exemplify our common faith, our love of God, God’s love for us, and the community God has made of us.

Furthermore, houses of worship serve sacramentally as visible and tangible reminders of the “cloud of witnesses” St. Paul talks about—all the saints, known to us and unknown, who have gone before. In a church, for example, windows and fixtures have been given by members in the past (who have or had lots of money, and whose names are usually inscribed on the gifts), but these fixtures have been used and cared for by those who have gone before us as well as those currently in our midst, and we will pass them all on to others. You can touch the back or end of a pew and know that others have done the same over the years, and that many dedicated individuals—sextons, vergers, clerks of the works, Altar Guild volunteers, or whoever—have lovingly cleaned, polished, restored, and protected them. These objects witness to our bonds given in baptism, nourished in the Eucharist, and deepened by common worship and life.

They do drain our resources, but they can also serve as signs of the risen Christ in our midst, since without him, none of these things, these material objects, would have been put together and used as they have been. And his Incarnation, which comes with death attached (as our own incarnations do) and his Resurrection have hallowed all created matter so that materiality has been taken into the very Godhead. “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon with our hands concerns the Word of life,” writes St. John in his first epistle, “for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us… [NAB].” God who is beyond all space and time, who revealed Godself as the God of Israel, could not be contained in a physical dwelling; but in Jesus God ate and slept, suffered death, sloughed off dead skin and excreted waste, and was limited in every way all human beings are. This was his way of being in the world. It is the “scandal of particularity,” from which neither we nor our buildings are exempt.

Our buildings are our means of being in our communities, and they help to form us in the faith. Even—or perhaps especially—when we bruise ourselves against the walls trying to make the building fit whatever we want to do in it (as liturgies change, e.g.), our buildings also remind us of our own particularity, with all the limitations and mortality our creatureliness entails. Like us, buildings adapt to new situations with mixed success. Like us, our buildings show their years, and, if we have the spiritual senses to perceive it, they get better with age. Wear comes from use, and years of prayer deepen the sacredness the church building already had upon its dedication, just as the years that show in our bodies’ wrinkles and scars have deepened the christliness we received in our baptism.

Burden, yes. Curse, yes. Blessing—yes, yes, yes!