Elements of Lent

Courtesy of Christopher Rodkey, palm burner.

Lent arrives with a sigh and the dust of snow. 
Is it time again, this eternal return? So soon?
The smoothing out of wrinkled parchment,
the reordering of our lives.
Or is it the notice that order is not what it once was?
What have I given up that I keep returning to Lent?
What have I abandoned to bow my head
to receive the soft smear of ash and oil.
I hear that from dust I was created and to dust I shall return.
The priest, she tells me this.
I heard this last year. And the year before.

It never ends. I am tired.
Ash and fronds and fire in the snow.
The bombed out bones of a Syrian city.
Leaden water in the veins of America.
Bile against the stranger
Bile against the woman
Bile against the different
Bile against the impure.

Ash and fronds and fire in the snow.
With ash on our heads
We are all these people
And none of them.
Blessed are the ashen
For theirs is
the mark of origins and ends
Made known to all and none
Woe to the ashen
For theirs is
Knowledge of good and evil
Burnt from long dead trees

Easter bears a promise that never quite yet blooms
And ash and snow will blow and dry away
And so shall each of us.
Easter bears a promise that never quite yet blooms

Courtesy of Christopher Rodkey, palm burner

The Eternal Return

Nietzsche MurrayThe heaviest burden: “What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’ If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

(The Gay Science, s. 341, Friedrich Nietzsche)

MLK and the White Church’s Memory Hole

MLK mug shot

Today marks the annual federal recognition of the life, work, and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  For many Americans, this will be our only explicit nod to not just the man, but what many of us consider a positive face of race relations. It is hard not to be caught up in the vision and passion as King preaches his “I Have A Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. He stirs the heart, mind, and soul as he speaks as a prophet, a prophet that will be shot dead five years later. We like this dream, we Americans. It makes us feel good. It is good to dream. It takes little effort.

Less remembered is King’s more uncomfortable words, his prophetic convictions of both Church and State. And the simple reason is that we don’t want to deal with embracing the unfamiliar. And to compensate for that we toss the truths down the Memory Hole.

On Meet the Press, he indicts our Sunday mornings at eleven o’clock as the most segregated hour in America.

Not much has changed in fifty years and what has changed has come slowly.

From a Birmingham prison cell, he takes clergy to task for saying that his actions are inappropriate and extreme:

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Ferguson. Baltimore. New York City. Chicago. City after city. These are but the most visible places where racial injustice appear. The systems of injustice continue to function: gentrification, economic disparity, health care, voting rights, education and vocational opportunities, an unjust legal system with an incarceration industry, et cetera, et cetera.

And where is the Church? Not just the Church on the front lines and barricades among the flash points. Where is the church, the mainline and evangelical; rural, suburban, and urban congregations who read about atrocities and protests and tensions online and on the news? We have chosen to forget the more unsettling and challenging work and words of MLK that sought to dismantle these uncomfortable truths. We continue to rewrite our narratives for ourselves and for others about race in America.

1984‘s Memory Hole disposes of historical documents and inconvenient truths that do not fit within Big Brother’s current message for the people. It is a rewriting of history. And by only focusing on the “I Have A Dream” speech, we throw the majority of MLK’s legacy down the Memory Hole. And what we don’t, we tend to only take it off the shelf once a year.

An October 2015 WaPo article comparing Black Lives Matter to the Civil Rights Movement that states how much white people distrusted and disliked MLK in his day:

Most people, including Northerners, opposed King’s March on Washington, fearing that it was a call to uprising. A Gallup poll conducted in May 1963, the same month as the Children’s Crusade, found that 46 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of King. The only public figure more disliked in the poll was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. By 1966, more than two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of the civil rights leader.

We have engaged in our own memory hole. MLK’s economic activism and anti-war criticism are still as valid today as sixty years ago. We don’t want to remember MLK for who he was and is. And I mean the Church doesn’t want to remember. Because we must remember our own legacy, our legacies of White Flight, of housing and voting and education and job discrimination all for the sake of the “safety” and “integrity” of our communities and our kind of America.

This is a hard sermon to preach. This is hard sermon to digest. But our churches remain segregated and our hearts remain segregated. The Jesus, a marginalized Jew in a hostile Empire, a radical who embraces the Syro-Phoenician woman and teaches about the Good Samaritan teaches us who our neighbor is. He speaks truth to power. And we parse our neighbor. Not the immigrant, not the refugee, not the poor, not the queer. Just neighbors like us. We drop Jesus into our ecclesiological memory hole, too. To remember and believe in a sanitized, white, gentrified Jesus cheapens our faith and cheapens the Church.

To acknowledge and embrace only the MLK that makes us feel better about ourselves is to ignore him and his God. If white people are to be the Church as so many claim to be, then we must receive the words of Jesus and King as they are to be received: unsettling, unsafe, and radical. We cannot be allies unless we first listen and not only act in solidarity, but be bold and open in our activism and faith. If Martin Luther King, Jr. Day matters and matters only for one day, then it means little. If this single day is the only day a single black life matters – and only matters as far as we choose it to be, then we continue to our ignorance, our injustice, and our sin against our neighbor. Our memory hole continues, then, to be our grave and our tomb from which there can be no resurrection.

David Bowie, our Lazarus and Apollo

After receiving his prognosis, I can only wonder if Bowie sat alone in a quiet, dark room and listened for a long, dark time to Joy Division, that bitter salve for mortal dread and imminent collapse, that band that he himself inspired. “Lazarus” opens as if he had. Stark and high bass notes clip from “She’s Lost Control.” The drums are ghostly echoes of “The Day of the Lords.” But then Bowie’s telltale mournful horns warm this bleak landscape and he urges us to look up here, he’s in Heaven. He’s got invisible scars. It’s bad, really bad, but don’t worry. He’s got nothing left to lose. And everything that happens to him, ain’t that just like David Bowie?

Of course, it is. That’s why we are all devastated so.

It came like a shot in the ice clear dawn to me, the death of this Apollo. As I came bleary-eyed out of our bedroom, my wife, herself in shock, simply said, “Go read the internet.” Because that’s how massive was the news. Ashes to ashes, indeed.

David Bowie has been a constant since I started actively listening to music. I entered Bowie’s work with Let’s Dance in 1983 and worked through his 70s releases as I found myself increasingly alienated in rural Texas. By the end of adolescence, he was canon. The more I learned about what he was doing, this constant re-creation and observation of life, society, and celebrity (“and the papers want to know whose shirts you wear”), I realized his creative genius.

Only after his passing have I been startled to realize how I quietly let him express what I could not while growing up. From “Major Tom” through “Boys Keep Swinging” to “Ashes to Ashes” and later Low, David Bowie carried the weight for me. And how many other songs and personae of his carried us, those who dared not yet reveal our unconventional aspects?

I’ve never considered Bowie remarkable for theological analysis and I think he’d preferred that, too. But for me, Bowie is myth, he is Apollo, that god of light and music. There is precision and craft and inspiration. He is a beacon for creativity and that is why “Sound and Vision” often brings me to tears.

I will sit right down
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude
Over my head

He’s alone in Berlin, empty and in a creative rut, trying to kick his coke habit. And he waits for inspiration to strike.

Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision?

Don’t you wonder? What is the mechanism of art and letters? What is creativity? Our Apollo is empty. He has nothing. His light has dimmed and he is surrounded by blue, blue, electric blue. That’s the color of his room. And he is waiting. How often are we waiting, this advent and eschatology of the creative spirit? This spirit that then paralyzes us in doubt and frustration. But not David Bowie. He found his sound and vision. He mastered it.

The radical boldness and sheer creativity of David Bowie will continue to inspire me and countless others. And in our acts of mournful and joyful remembrance and creativity and inspiration, we will continue to raise our Lazarus. Ain’t that just like him? Let’s dance. Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight.

Coda

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