The American Self

•June 18, 2013 • Leave a Comment

American, Religion, faith, freedom, Christianity

Culture and context: they shape our epistemology. This shapes our way of knowing G-d. Our theology. Orthodoxy is not “right knowing” in the sense of pure theology, but a cultural construct of theology.

“The American self is a gnostic self, because it believes, on a deep and abiding level, that authenticity arises from independence, and independence that is at once natural, sovereign, and solitary. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that he had “sworn on the altar of God Almighty eternal hostility against all forms of

 tyranny over the minds of men,” he was articulating the structure of feeling and belief that informs the American self. . . .


We should take seriously Harold Bloom’s willfully heretical argument that the “American Religion” is not Christian, at least in the way that Europe was Christian, but is, rather, Gnostic. Whether finding his evidence in Mormonism, the Baptist Church, or the poetry of Emerson, Bloom describes the core of the American religion as the unshakable conviction that there is something in the self that preceded creation, and that, for all our Whtimanesque desire to merge with groups, we can never fully trust external social institutions to care for the the aboriginal freedom of the solitary spark, with its “personal relationship” to nature or a gnostic Jesus.” ~Erik Davis, Technosis



Memorial Day: Remembering Those Who’ve Traded Life For… “National Interests.”

•May 27, 2013 • 1 Comment
Memorial Day, a day of remembering soldiers who traded their lives for "national interests".

What is asked of American sons and daughters; what are they to die for?

As a recovering violent person who is trying to live out pacifism, this is a hard day. My grandfathers both survived WWII, and my dad and uncle were spared from Vietnam. My outcry of war and struggle with war and the American machine is not for an unappreciative stance of those that have gone into atrocities and given mind, body, and soul. In fact, I long for us to choose peace because we to ask our sons and daughters to become veterans to maintain a life of comfort (oil, privilege, “to buy the things we’d like/live the life we want”) that should not be traded in their lives. It does violence to us, them, and even moreso, those in other countries and cultures that we occupy.

I remember the lost today, because many (though not all) of their lives were traded for an American narrative of that does not care for them, but only the product of their work. May we strive for peace, and to live by a different story.

Made as Makers: At the Intersection of Christian Faith and Creativity

•May 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

When I attended a conference called Theology After Google, I didn’t know what it would do for my journey, my pursuit of a mysterious God. Nor did I know before going that I would meet some folks who would continue to be dialogue partners along the way. The Keefe-Perry’s have been a pair of those partners whom I remember with fondness and interact with from time-to-time on Twitter about food, parenting, God, faith, culture, context, etc.

Poetry: The Creativity of Everyone

Husband and new daddy Callid Keefe-Perry is a one of the most thoughtful/articulate people I’ve interacted with, while retaining a wonder, teachability and humbleness about him. He’s just finished a project documentary, Made as Makers, on creative reflections on faith, a poetic construction of others creative responses to some simple(!?) prompts: Tell me about God. Tell me about faith. Tell me about hope. Tell me how these things intersect with the church. He offers his interviewees creative license to respond viscerally, and with originality. Further, his interviewees are folks who go to conferences, work “day jobs”, and create on their own from time-to-time. Only a few would be ranked as pastors, theologians, etc., but do not seem to dominate his surveyed population.

What evolves is a small part of the poetry of a people of a YHWH faith, writing out their part of the prose to a divine cadence. The notes of their laughter, the sting of sorrowful tears, frustration from efforts to understand a corporate faith and their role, and the throw-your-hands-in-the-air feeling of following a mysterious God shape the greater body of this poem. You get a sense of the everyday-ness of people and their connection to YHWH, or at least the effort to know a creator grander, wiser, more playful then ourselves. The diversity in gender and culture Callid invited into the interview lend to a broader view of this creativity; some of the divergent thoughts and perceptions were from those with whom I do not share a cultural heritage. These voices in the prose were much appreciated. One man’s reflection on the corporate identity of a faith community, over and above the common individual reflections pulled my gaze from the self to the community, to the other. It was a needed, refreshing line in Callid’s piece.

Writing Your Faith Communities’ Poem

I know that Callid’s intention is to offer this back to the community as a gift, something to inspire a creative response in other faith communities. I echo his effort; your conversation around these simple(!?) prompts could open the way to directions not-yet thought of. It would be a risk, perhaps. But then, if you’ve ever created anything of your own you may resonate with the risk to share that with others: to expose yourself to critique or opinion when you’ve laid yourself bare in your efforts is a significant risk. Likewise, pursuing a creator God with all of ourselves requires the same risk. May Callid’s poem bring you to risk.

“I’m soooo hungry….”

•November 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Thanksgiving Sunday

I continue to be changed by the stories of others at Valley View Presbyterian Church, a predominately African American community. And its no small irony that the most significant community gathering times in story-telling are those when parishoners are invited to share of themselves at length.  It was a Sunday of thanksgiving and ‘testimony’, where we shared the places we could identify the fingerprints of God, his orchestrated movement in our lives. I was struck again by the strength of a community of people who have been systematically oppressed, and landscape of their stories. And, yet again, was moved to tears listening to the character of those who shared, their reliance on God, and their faith and resilience of character in the midst of adversity. The stories are that much more poignant to me in this context.

The last woman who shared some of her story read this passage of Isaiah 58. It’s one for me that has a great deal of history; it reveals the heart of YHWH that beats for the justice and love for the oppressed, the unjust.

Fasting For “Me”

Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family. . . with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

“Well, here’s why:

Continue reading ‘“I’m soooo hungry….”’

‘What Language Do You Speak?’

•August 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday, one of my 11 year old neighbors caught me off guard. He’s American born, of African descent and raised in the city.

J: Where you from?
Me: Hershey, near Harrisburg.
J: [blank stare]
Me: Know the chocolate bar? I lived in the town where they’re made.
J: [recognition] Oh. [pause] What language do you speak?
Me: [blank stare] huh?
J: What do you speak?
Me: [confused] As in language?
J: Yeah.
Me: [Suppressing Smile] English.
J: Do you speak Latin?
Me: [Pause. Blank Stare. More Pause.] No.
J: [Confused look] Oh, cause you talk funny when you’re mad. Like this [uses nasely impersonation]
Me: [surprise at his reference to my anger, and recognition of his line of questioning] Oh, I have an accent. Right. Didn’t know that.

The white man accent, nasal included. I am the other. And so transition happily continues…

Lord Voldemort and (an)Other: Naming, Power and Street Basketball

•August 9, 2011 • 1 Comment

In my continuing urban education, my street wisdom comes in bits and pieces. As I’ve written before, I’ve been immersed in another story. I’ve learned that there’s compassion and grace needed like never before; I need it from those who are host to me, my family, our story. We come from a culture that writes its story differently, with different characters, structure, literary cues, expectations, behaviors, and plot lines. I’ve felt the friction of my projecting my own story on my hosts, which has been a significant source of stress in my life. Culture shock, in other circles.

Accio, Basketball!

One of the most difficult places has been our very home. Well, at least our corner. We moved in after some folks who partied. A LOT. As in, SWAT teams 3 times in 1.5 years. They’ve still got some close family members in 3 houses in direct vicinity of our corner, some in our  row. (We live in a row house.) Over their time in our  place, and the months it stood empty for reclamation, people came to understand it as the place to be. Folk of all ages knew this as the place to be. We’ve had folks we don’t know hanging out on our porch, leaning against our car, letting basketballs repeatedly strike the side of our house. It’s been tough; its still a busy corner.

However, its calmed down quite a bit; folks don’t congregate on our porch like they used to, the car is less a butt rest, and the ball isn’t is active as a hammer on our siding. However, the basketball continues to be a part of my education. Somehow, the aforementioned still-local family members acquired a mobile basketball hoop. (These are ubiquitous to youth life in Pittsburgh.) About a month or so ago, some elder teens moved it from the  alley on the other side of our row-house row, and walked it through the narrow sidewalk behind our homes to our street. They played the first game, setting the precedent as the place for street b-ball. (They haven’t been back since.) The tweens took over, and now don’t bother taking it back to the yard it belongs too. It’s a permanent fixture on the street across from middle of our row house, where they play to (and past, sometimes) midnight. Grrrr. (The physics of a basketball bouncing between two row houses amplifies the noise to ultra annoying levels.)

He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named: Darkness, Naming, and IdentityLord Voldemort

Here’s a confession: the basketball has become traumatic for me. The moment I hear it bouncing on the street at our corner, cortisol flushes my veins. I may never get over this; it makes me sad to think so. It’s associated with curb ball, a simple game of even the littlest ones in our neighborhood, and often the source of bumps and bangs as the ball endlessly hits the side of the house. I also would find my stress remaining elevated as they continued to play curb ball, or basketball for that matter. I felt like a caged animal in our house, waiting for something to happen. (Part of this stress is connected to the stories our neighbors told of their own experiences with both the family and the corner, and the not-so-innocent presence of folk on our corner. According to them, these kids push the envelope to see what they can get away with. This is true, to a point, but unfortunately maybe a bit more overspoken than is for a majority of them.)

Harry Potter knew something that many of his peers -and elders- didn’t: unnamed fear/s breed more fear. We create a reality around our perceptions, for lack of truth or awareness of the other. It blinds us to our stereotypes, and jails us into something that is based on limited interactions and imaginary creation. The mystery feeds the darkness and demonization, perpetuating the created false story of the other. Encouraging violence, our self-told stories fail to engage with the true fear, only fighting the created ones. Although Voldemort embodied some of the most violent and ugliest of fears, Harry knew when we failed to name them they only became mythical, epic, unreal. When you can name your fears, you can begin to release them. Continue reading ‘Lord Voldemort and (an)Other: Naming, Power and Street Basketball’

(an)Other’s Story: Education Without A School Room

•July 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

My posts, lately, have been heavier on the cultural side. Fueled by our recent immersion in a new neighborhood where our story is not the dominant one told (but still in power), my story has run up against another story. This has brought on all the caution, joy, unsurity, friction, tension, and wonder of hearing new stories while living among them. My recent vignettes have largely been with children actors/actresses, and this one is no different. Likewise, it follows the sub-theme of violence that has run through some of my recent posts.

Rubbing Shoulders: Life in Suburbia

Sunday evening we took our little’s to a neighborhood park to get the last minute energy burned off a mostly-inside day. The playground wasn’t bristling, but it was comfortably populated. Enough room for all the kids to play, but interaction without rubbing elbows was impossible. While our sons shared the swings with other children, we heard fireworks in the distance. Our three year old asked (as he often does) “what was that?” “Small fireworks”, came my reply. Another child, no more than six, was swinging next to us in the “big girl” swings. Of African American descent, she told us matter-of-factly: “It wasn’t gunshots. Don’t worry. It wasn’t gunshots.”

Culture, oppression, racism, African American, White

My wife and I exchanged incredulous, sad looks. How is one so young to have such knowledge, recognition, awareness? Even typing this, I realize it’s not the fact that she is able to tell the difference: it’s how; It’s why. At six years of age, I could have likely done the same, coming from a family background deeply tied to the outdoor “sports”: hunting, fishing, and the like. But my story is told from the perspective of the shooting range or the woods. Not from the streets. It’s out of my contextual understanding -hence the shared disbelief and sorrow of me and Megan- to believe a six year old not in contact with hunting could have that ability. She knows what she knows because those who pulled the trigger did so with intent to hurt, kill. Having posted about this elsewhere, its possible that her knowledge is due to personal experience with gun violence against her family. This is her context, her story. Because it’s not mine, I can only shake my head, and pray.

Life Together: What Does This All Mean?

I’m so in the thick of other stories, I can’t process it all. Culture shock. The reeling from it and merely grappling with it makes it difficult not to hyper self-oriented. (Oh, the irony is thick here, yes? My struggle with learning the others story has me struggling more with not getting sucked into my own stereotypes, walls, real/perceived safety, etc. The escape from selfishness is a life long, difficult process.) It’s difficult to think about the religious institution I called home for most of my life, and see the lack of work  of reconciliation and learning stories has been limited to a homogeneous metanarrative. Let’s call it what it is; Christianity has failed in this place. The oft quoted “most segregated hour of the week is Sunday at 11am” reveals this as well.

I’m not ranting here, or even angry as I post this. I feel its more a sharing of what I’ve experienced as real on my corner (and playground), and the lack of any worthwhile theology that engages with this story. Western, U.S., White Christianity -my story- has fallen victim to only telling, learning, and retelling its own version of the story. I’ve got nothin’ to use, here on Hays and Mellon, given the majority of my theological background. Some exceptions are there, but very few and far between. Most of them have come from interactions with others stories.  No small irony.

The Longing for Sabbath Rest

I am tired, though. The work my family has before us is vast, and we need to be connected to the greater story of YHWH as we share stories with our neighbors. YHWH’s story is not above or bigger than my cultural story, nor that of my neighbors, but rather told through it. And there’s the rub: the friction of contact can be exhausting. Lord, Have Mercy. Christ Have Mercy. Lord Have Mercy.

The Stories of (an)Other: Unfolding Narratives

•July 7, 2011 • 7 Comments

The Integration of Stories

Over the last ten days, I wrote of our personal experience in a church where gun violence had been a tragically accepted part of life. The tragedy of lost loved ones -mostly youth- was a sobering listen to the door opening on an others story. Only two days after I posted a reflection on the church’s effort towards mission, this story penetrated our families reality. It is the story of people we know. Sean was a the father of an unborn child, a child who lost his young dad to the violence of the streets.

Courtesy of CBS Pittsburgh

Sean Thompson, Father to Be

PITTSBURGH — Channel 11 News has learned a 34-year-old man who was killed after being shot in

Lawrenceville early Thursday morning was a father-to-be.Police said Sean Thompson was shot along Keystone Street shortly after 1 a.m.

He was taken to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, where he later died.Channel 11 News learned Thompson’s fiancee lives in the neighborhood and is pregnant with the couple’s first child.“It’s sad. No one deserves this,” one neighbor said.

Nearby residents said they heard the shots fired and ran outside to see what happened.”I’ve never been around violence like this before,” one neighbor said. “Maybe 12 to 16 shots were fired. We came outside and the guy was lying on the ground. He was still bleeding.

“Thompson was an employee at a car dealership on McKnight Road. His co-workers said he was a good man and a hard worker.

Stories Sittin’ on the Front Porch

Where is this world we live, when problems are solved with hand-held power of life and death, triggered by emotion? Continue reading ‘The Stories of (an)Other: Unfolding Narratives’

Postlogue to The Story of (an)Other: Urban Faith and An Education

•July 1, 2011 • 1 Comment

The (White) Church, Systemic Racism (?) and Mission

As a brief shift of focus from this story, it became apparent to me that in some of our church conversations mission is a topic of dialogue is rooted very much in our own story. The white, evangelical (or formerly so, perhaps) conversations fueled by the emerging/emergent conversation push for “missional” foci for churches. However for a church like Valley View, the missional part of their participation in God’s work of reconciliation to creation, others, and self is always before them: they are in mission, or they do not survive. Literally, in this case. Could it be that the comfort of some of us in the missional conversation from an Anglo background are missing the places of work alongside YHWH? The search goes on, and yet for some the missio Dei carries a gun, taking lives of a group of people. Where are we looking for participation?

I don’t mean to make a poster child out of this church community we’ve become attached to, nor paint a picture for furthering our “white wo/man’s burden” phenomenon. I wish to offer, for dialogue, how the white church -those in systemic power- talk about mission, how we struggle at times with it, and how it seems we know little of the “other’s” story enough to see where God desires freedom from the oppression of Smith and Wesson, poverty and systemic racism. We discuss from/within a position of power. My friend, Drew, wrote eloquently of this. I don’t have it all figured out, for sure. My ignorance about life from my suburban upbringing and that of my urban peers, I hope, reveals this. I desire fodder for the conversation; hence, my thoughts found here.

What does it mean for the church to love the other? How does it shape mission? How do we live outside of ourselves, learn someone else’s story, if we continue to only talk amongst ourselves? How do we begin to give up power, especially if we continue living and pursuing YHWH in homogenous communities?

The Story of (an)Other: Urban Faith and An Education

•June 30, 2011 • 3 Comments

Suburban Beginnings

I grew up in a suburban community in South Central PA where I attended school in a township with one of the highest tax brackets in the state. My dad was an avid hunter and fisherman, and he invited us into his joy of the dance with nature, the hunter and hunted. Likewise, my socio-demographic background was made up of folk very much like myself: German, Austrian (often culturally Mennonite) or Anglo; diversity was limited to infrequent trips to the closest urban geography. Harrisburg is not that big, but culturally, was nearly 100% more diverse than my home town: African descent, Latin descent, Asian descent, etc., whereas less than 1% of my suburban home-town was non-white.

Urban Life With Others, 101

About 2 months ago, we attended church at Valley View Presbyterian Church in Garfield, Pittsburgh. Our family just moved into the East Liberty neighborhood, and had begun the search for a community to commit to. (Since this story, we’ve begun attending regularly.) A friend of ours is pastor there, while another has just finished interning here for his Masters of Divinity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS). It was one of about four churches we attended. We happened to be there during a month long conversation about gun violence, gun control, and its effects on the neighborhood, residents, and parishioners of the East End. The church, when regular attenders are all there at the same time, is a beautiful picture of diversity of mostly Black and White folk. Our new commitment has yet to give us the opportunity to enjoy this, but we look forward to seeing it.

During the service, our friend Pastor Chad invited those present to share the names of those affected by gun violence. That is, to honor and remember those who had been killed by a gun. It was a hotter Sunday morning, and there were about 50 people in the sanctuary. At Chad’s invitation, one by one people began to share of sons, cousins, close friends, popular or respected members of local neighborhoods, etc. Quietly, but with firmness, they shared: To be remembered. Some were sad, but most spoke with a matter of fact-ness that I found hard to process. These fallen ones were almost all youth, and many were the innocent victims of cross fire. Unintended victims of others use of firearms. Out of those 50 present, about 12 people spoke in memory of around 15 loved ones lost.

Continue reading ‘The Story of (an)Other: Urban Faith and An Education’