Sailing On

So, I won! Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check out my last post. I started this blog with hopes of adding reflections on ministry, life and faith at least once a week. That hasn’t happened yet, but, I found a bit of motivation with a new, free designer theme by Brian Gardner. Of course, the free theme means I had to setup my own self hosted WordPress installation, which cost a little bit, which should, in turn, give me more motivation to stick to writing — sort of like how paying $50 a month to walk on the treadmill at the gym is supposed to get in you better shape than walking on the sidewalk for free. I think. I’m not big on exercise.

Anyways, so check out my new blog at http://davidthepirate.com. If you’ve subscribed to this blog on wordpress.com, then your subscription will be moved over automatically.

Thanks for reading.

The Medium is (almost as important as) the Message

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of good design. I love it when things just click and work. I love it even more when a designer goes a step beyond and incorporates an aesthetic of beauty into a product that transcends basic functionality, regardless of if the product is a razor, a vehicle, a computer, or even something more mundane like a traffic cone or a pencil. It’s why I love to visit historic lighthouses, with intricate brickwork and wrought-iron railings that, for all an architect knew, would be seen only by hurried light keepers and frantic coast guardsmen. Every single product we see and use and touch in daily life was designed by someone. Why not strive for beauty in the process?

That attention to detail is what web designer Brian Gardner has done with his Wintersong theme for his personal blog. The theme is being given away to ten lucky fans next week, and I hope to be one of them. I appreciate the minimalist design that focus attention on content. The static header (similar to the one I’ve been using on WordPress.com’s Hum theme)  makes it easy for readers to navigate pages or connect via social media at any point in browsing. The font family, “Roboto Slab,” is similar to, though a bit more readable than the “American Typewriter” which has long been my creative font type of choice for personal letters. Brian’s attention to detail shines through, from carrying over his custom typography into the comments box on the theme so that readers can experience the pleasure of pressing out vintage copy, to his pervasive yet subtle use of Starbucks Green in navigation, links, and icons (highlight text on his blog to see how far this gets carried out). The theme isn’t without quirks. When using an iPad, if the page is loaded in portrait orientation and then shifted to landscape, there is some weird overflow between the header and content containers; and the minimalist menu widget disappears altogether on my iPod. But good designers know perfection, while often just within reach, is never truly attainable or desirable. What comes after perfection? What would be left to do?

Enough drooling, though. I’d like to win a copy of the theme because I want to put it to good use. I first started blogging back in 2009 when I was still working as local journalist and looking for an outlet to write more creatively and stretch my photography skills. I dropped out of blogging about halfway through grad school, partly because I no longer had time, and partly because the process of grad school and simultaneously navigating my first job as a minister in a congregation edged me into be more cautious and reserved in what I had to say. Expressing fresh ideas became a source of anxiety rather than a well of creative energy. With graduation behind me and life before me, I want that to change.

I hope to get back into blogging at least once a week as a way to keep me in conversation with others and as a way to push me out of my shell and risk some transparency, honesty, and perhaps even some half-baked ideas — things I think ministers don’t practice nearly enough. My previous attempts at blogging lacked topical focus. While I will likely continue to post occasional pictures of family vacations and the antics of my Samuel growing up, I want the primary focus of this blog to be about the connections between ministry and life. I hope to offer occasional reflections on scripture, toss around some theological ideas for conversation, and share stories (as appropriate, of course) from daily ministry that most people don’t get to experience — all in an attempt to help connect the dots between a life of faith and just plain old ordinary life. After all, it’s all life. It’s all real. It all matters. And this is my part for now.

Having an amazing theme to blog from would just make the process that much more fun.

You may not know…

If you’re living in poverty, chances are most of the people you know are pretty poor too. This means that, while you still have friends and family and relationships that are valuable and give your life meaning, you don’t necessarily have a strong support network to fall back on in the event things move from bad to worse.

If my house were damaged in a fire — like my neighbor’s home was last week — my family and I may go stay at my mom’s place for a while. It’d be uncomfortable on the air mattress, but we would make it until things got squared away. If Kristen finally reached a breaking point with my vintage-motorcycle-forum addiction and she changed the locks on the door, I know I could go stay with my friend Jonathan or Craig for a few days until things cooled off — not a likely scenario, but it’s nice to have options.

I was reminded through several conversations today just how fortunate I am to have those options. It’s true that many of the guests at our church who lack stable housing also lack stable relationships. They don’t have anyone to call for a place to stay in a bind because they’ve burned out those connections. For those who do have friends and family who want to help and are willing to share of their own limited resources, they often find their hands are bound by the rules of poverty our society uses to prevent social mobility between economic classes.

We hold those without money to a higher standard than those with money.

Today I shared a cup of coffee with Deanna. Deanna has lived in Raleigh for many years, and has been employed for most of them, though the gaps in between jobs are just big enough to guarantee she is often in a state of crisis. If she isn’t low on food for the week, then she probably doesn’t have money to buy gas to get to work the next. Come what may, though, Deanna is never late on her rent. Having a roof over her head and a door that locks are her top priorities. A few months ago, when Deanna’s mother mustered the courage to walk away from an abusive husband who threatened her life as much as he crippled her spirit, Deanna was eager to offer what hospitality she could to her mother as she worked to regain her center. The move from New England to North Carolina had left her penniless, and the separation from her husband had left Deanna’s mother with only the clothes on her back and no connections to speak of, save her daughter. She has a long road ahead of her to make a new start in North Carolina.

Deanna doesn’t have much to share; mainly just the security of a one-bedroom apartment and the small comforts of home, which she gladly opens up to her mother — for two nights. Two nights is all Deanna’s landlord allows guests to stay, no exceptions. The older woman can’t be added to the lease because a portion of Deanna’s rent is paid for with a housing voucher, and the voucher is only for adults and their dependent children. So while Deanna wants to help her mother with this most basic need — shelter — she knows that opening up her home puts her at risk of losing her home.

How disempowering is it to say to someone, “You can’t open your home to another – even your own kin. You aren’t allowed to be generous with what you have, because we don’t think you have enough.” How dehumanizing it must be to be told who you can and can’t welcome into your own home. I’m sure these guidelines make good sense on paper, but they don’t live well.

Being poor in the United States means you have to follow extra rules that don’t apply to people with more money. It means you don’t have a support network to fall back on, and if you try to find solutions to your problems outside of the established system, you are cut off.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

–Matt. 23:4

Why I Stayed

I’ve had a lot of memorable “firsts” in my life.

I remember my first dance. My first kiss. My first car. My first car crash. My first time snowboarding. My first open water dive. My first ride on a motorcycle. My first time swimming in the crater of an active volcano.

Having  graduated from divinity school less than a month ago, I have spent some time reflecting on other important “firsts” I have experienced over the past three and a half years: The first time I felt affirmed in reading the Bible against the grain of popular interpretation. The first time I was able to see the God-breathed beauty of the messiness that is our sacred scripture, and our living tradition. The first time I felt my bones crushed by the responsibility of speaking a faithful word from the pulpit. The first time I spent the night in a hospital room, holding a woman’s hand as her beloved spouse passed completely into God’s care.

This week I added a new “first” to my memory. Like the dip in a West Javan volcano, it was an experience I never would have expected or gone looking for had the Spirit not brought me to the point where all I could do was jump in.

“Why did you decide to get arrested?” was the common refrain in the cafeteria under the North Carolina Legislative Building Monday night. The basement dinning room had been converted into a temporary holding area for most of the 151 alleged trespassers who had entered the atrium of the legislative building to pray, to stand together, and to speak out in opposition to the immoral policies being crafted — or at least rubber-stamped — under the roof of 16 W. Jones Street.

My reason for risking arrest by standing five-minutes too long in the stone lobby of our state house begins with the assertion that I am a Christian. Because I believe that Jesus Christ is the fullest expression of the character of God, I am convinced that God stands on the side of the poor, oppressed and marginalized. To say God stands on the side of the poor doesn’t mean God takes sides, but that in the process of realizing mishpat — justice which ensures every human has his or her needs met, is given freedom and opportunity, and is treated with the dignity deserved of a beloved child of God — the Holy Spirit blows from the ground up. God cares for and supports the oppressed and marginalized in such a deep and sacred way that Jesus says nations will be judged on the basis of how they treat the hungry, the thirsty, the migrants, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. There are no qualifiers here. “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” Jesus said, “You have done it for me.”

It was my Christian convictions which lead me to enter the General Assembly building Monday afternoon. I don’t mean to imply that all Christians need join me in the journey to the Wake County Detention Center. And I certainly am not seeking to exclude followers of other faith traditions, or no-faith, from continuing to be a vital part of this movement in North Carolina. I am saying that my worldview is fundamentally shaped by the belief that, through Jesus, God is at work bringing reconciliation and healing to the world. This means I understand working for reconciliation through justice as my calling, and I have tried — feebly, half-heartedly at times — to orient every aspect of my life around this conviction. I realize not everyone is interested in pursuing the common good, though. If you have a worldview that does not regard all people as inherently valuable, of infinite worth, and made in the very image of God, then what I did may not ever make sense in your eyes. I hope we can still be friends.

I entered the General Assembly as a citizen of North Carolina. I have spent most of my life in North Carolina. I love this state, this land, and these people. I would consider it a joy to raise my son in North Carolina. It grieves me, then, to see the officials elected to represent the people of our state passing laws which are designed to funnel more and more wealth to the very richest in society, while bleeding the working poor and middle class residents of the state to the point of delirium.

I entered the General Assembly building as the husband of a school teacher who has sacrificed to work in impoverished neighborhoods, giving hope to children who see little to hope for. I have grown tired of seeing teachers denigrated and mocked time and time again by the leaders of our state, who had the audacity to not only further cut teachers’ wages, but to call this pay cut a pay raise and assume the good people of North Carolina are too easily distracted to notice the difference. North Carolina continues to move closer to the very bottom of the barrel in per-student spending on public education. Bills are being passed now to pay teachers according to the test performance of their students — further penalizing teachers who chose to work in schools with little or no parent involvement and high frequencies of discipline issues, and discouraging middle and high school teachers from allowing under-performing students to participate in challenging but inspiring elective classes where they may have an opportunity to engage education in new, creative ways for the first time. In conjunction with this policy of adding unprecedented standards for evaluating the performance of public school teachers, legislators are trying to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools where teachers are not required to be certified or evaluated, nor even to have earned a college degree. There seems to be no consistency to the legislative agenda, until one recognizes that this shuffle of public money to private schools intentionally creates a special loophole for big businesses to drastically reduce their corporate income tax.

I entered the General Assembly building as the father of a 3-year-old who I hope comes of age in a society that doesn’t have the highest income inequality in the developed world — where special laws have been passed to reduce the taxes of the 23 wealthiest citizens of our state, and then compensate for the drop in revenue by slapping an eight percent tax on food, taxing prescription drugs, and hurting consumers and small-business owners by taxing basic services like haircuts and oil changes which were previously untaxed. As Rev. Barber said before we went in, “This isn’t my granddaddy’s Republican Party.”

While my convictions put me looking for the movement of God’s Spirit among the poor and excluded, it seems very clear that lawmakers in my state are working hard to guarantee the privileged remain privileged, the rich grow richer, and small business owners, middle class Americans, the working poor and poorer continue to prop up the opulence of the empire. So I went to be heard.

I attended the organizing meeting at Martin Street Baptist Church, where the few hesitancies I still held on to were washed away. The first speaker to address those gathered offered a prayer and reminded us that while we must protest unjust policies and immoral actions, we were not gathered to attack people or demonize those who disagree with us. “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness and spiritual powers of evil…” The government leaders pushing for these changes we are willing to go to jail to oppose are themselves beloved children of God; ones with whom we ultimately desire reconciliation, but not without justice.

We moved into the legislative building, two-by-two, and gathered around the central atrium that serves as a foyer to the house and senate chambers. Palatial brass doors on either side of the atrium that lead into the respective chambers were shut tight, so we circled the room to wait. A prayer was offered, and we began to address our grievances with any who would listen. One speaker was given the floor at a time, and asked to keep remarks to around a minute and a half to allow as many people as possible an opportunity to speak. Between each address, a different clergy person offered a prayer, then the next speaker took the stand and began. This continued for about 30 minutes, at which point General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver announced that we had five minutes to disperse or face arrest. Some left. I decided to stay, as I hadn’t yet had an opportunity to share my concerns.

The arrest process was painless — except for my shoulders, which began to throb after three hours with my arms bound behind my back. Officers were professional and courteous. Some even offered us blessings as we were escorted to the cafeteria to await transport to the jail. I was in the last bus to leave, and among the last to be released. I had a wonderful time getting to know some of the people who had come together to take a stand for justice. There were college professors, retired school teachers, doctors, nurses, business owners, farmers, Christian and Jewish clergy and laity, atheists, grandmas and grandpas. Nearly everyone I met was being arrested for the very first time. These are not die-hard activist moving from cause to cause. These are proud North Carolinians who are shocked and dismayed at what is happening to the state they love, and who couldn’t sit on the sidelines any more.

In the opening chapters of the book of Isaiah, the prophet addresses the leaders of his society who have neglected their special calling to care for those on the margins. “Stop bringing worthless offerings…Your hands are stained with blood!” the prophet cries out. But it is not too late to change. Isaiah keeps hope alive, for a time, and continues:

“Learn to do good.
Seek justice:
Help the oppressed;
Defend the orphan;
Plead for the widow.”

Isaiah’s message, like so many prophet’s, fell largely on deaf ears. In North Carolina today, too many are held in the oppressive snares of generational poverty by unjust economic policies which ensure the rich get wealthier while the poor get tired. Too many children are orphaned by the big business of mass-incarceration which keeps poor men, especially men of color, in a revolving door path into jail, out into a world where they have no opportunities, and back in again. Too many are being kept on the margins of society by a bleeding education system which doesn’t have resources to help students realize any vision of life beyond their crime-ridden neighborhood. You wouldn’t believe how many adolescents and teenagers in Eastern North Carolina have never seen the Atlantic Ocean with their own eyes. A panorama of the sea is as impossible to comprehend without first-hand experience as a vision of life where education leads to success, children don’t go to bed hungry and parents don’t spend as much time in jail as at home.

“Your hands are stained with blood.
Wash! Be Clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil; Learn to do good.
Seek justice: Help the oppressed; Defend the orphan; Plead for the widow.

Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.
Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.”

One Heart

It is late afternoon and I have just returned from
the longer version of my walk nobody knows
about. For the first time in nearly a month, and
everything changed. It is the end of March, once
more I have lived. This morning a young woman
described what it’s like shooting coke with a baby
in your arms. The astonishing windy and altering light
and clouds and water were, at certain moments,
You.

There is only one heart in my body, have mercy
on me.

The brown leaves buried all winter creatureless feet
running over dead grass beginning to green, the first scent-
less violet here and there, returned, the first star noticed all
at once as one stands staring into the black water.

Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the
sane; thank You for letting me know what this is
like. Thank You for letting me look at your frightening
blue sky without fear, and your terrible world without
terror, and your loveless psychotic and hopelessly lost
with this love

—Franz Wright
Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Birthday Dinner

After a failed attempt at a date two weeks ago, an out-of-town wedding last weekend, and a church conference the wrapped up earlier today, Kristen and I finally managed to find a few hours to get out of the house together and relax. All of our usual spots were overcrowded with Saint Patrick’s Day revelers, so we stopped at Moe’s on Hargett Street for the first time. The weather was the inviting and the food was exquisite, but the real treat was the time together.

date 1

date 4

date 3

date 2

Snow Day: A Photograph

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I’ve been contemplating a return to blogging for a while. The big question that kept delaying me was, “What should I post? How do I start?” I thought of exploring big picture theological topics such as Christology, the Trinity or ecclesiology. I could reflect on my experience of congregational ministry over the past 18 months, or vocational goals now that graduation is in sight. I could wade into the murky waters of politics and consider the social ills that blight our society all levels. I thought of writing a book review.

Then it started snowing. As the quarter-sized lumps of air-whipped ice began to swirl around the house this morning, the answer to my question became quite clear.

Produced in Stereophonic Sound

Sixteenth century Venetian churchgoers may have been the first to appreciate music heard in stereo, according to an article in National Geographic Magazine. Architectural analyses reveal that the Basilica of San Marco may have been designed with an eye towards acoustics that rival modern concert halls. The church’s galleries seem to have been intentionally built to capture and reverberate distinct harmonies from musicians and choirs performing in different areas of the church. Stereo sound — a favorite tool used by film produces for decades to immerse audience members in movie action — works by projecting audio waves from two distinct points of reference, giving listeners a sense of depth and movement in music that is absent when all of the sound originates from a single source, whether it be a speaker or a 16th century venetian choir.

Interestingly, researchers say the effect at San Marco has gone largely unnoticed because the church is rarely full during religious celebrations as it would have been 400 years ago. Without the full participation of the congregation harmonizing with the choir, the stereo effect loses its power. I wonder how many churches today are failing to live up to their potential because they are unable to harness the gifts of their entire congregations? Even with a full house, it takes the blending of voices with different perspectives to create a rich atmosphere of worship that fully honors the Architect’s design of what a living church could be like.