The Peace of God

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Pentecost 15C

meek.mildOn Wednesday, my church joined with other congregations at a local town park to pray and sing for peace and an end to violence and hate. It was a very, very good thing to do, even if we didn’t all agree on what “peace” meant. One participant wanted to sing the old Pepsi commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” Some thought we were talking about “inner peace.” Others thought, I think, that peace was a gift God could just give us if we prayed for it. What we did agree on was that it was important for us to come together and pray about it. So, we did.

In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah talks about peace in describing God’s dream for the world – to be made reality in the creation of Israel – to be a place of beauty and promise. A holy land where children could play without danger, where old people were safe from want, where the sick and the poor and the troubled were cared for. Where businesses were fair and honest and those who worked were paid a fair wage and treated fairly. Israel was to be the exemplar – a light to the nations. The people longed to be that and they confirmed their covenant with God. But, with one thing and another – when the plan became cumbersome –God’s people went back to covering their own individual bottoms. Shall I plant a garden or shall I keep those people over there from having any land at all? Oh, well. Sin stayed.

Israel was an incredible dream – originally and in its modern incarnation – brought about in 1948 when the United Nations carved land out of the greater Palestine area and gave it to be the nation of Israel. The necessity for having a Jewish homeland – especially on the ground named in Scripture as God’s gift to them – seemed warranted for people who had been oppressed for generations and subject to a powerful genocide movement in the last century. The complications to that decision are not our subject here. The worthy intent is. The New York Times published an article this Saturday on David Ben Gurion, a key founder of Israel, from a recently found 1968 interview. In it, Ben Gurion cited the prophet Jeremiah for his keen, though unpopular, understanding of politics, and said he, too, believed the state’s mission “was to fulfill the biblical concept of ‘an segulah,’ an exemplary nation of higher virtues, treasured by God.” “We wanted,” he said, “to create a new life, not the life that exists. I believed we had a right to this country. Not taking away from others, but recreating it.’”

The forebears of our own country had similar dreams, hoping to create the “city on a hill” described by St. Paul. And, for all the good and worthy plans that were set in motion, we fell as far afield as both biblical and modern Israel. We read about old Israel’s wars and infidelities in the Bible. We read from “new” Israel’s history the government’s immediate blocking of the dream when it refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return at the end of the 1948 war of Israel’s creation and when it placed all Arab citizens under military rule. We see in our own history, the almost immediate blow to the dream when our own founders agreed to permit slavery in the land as a quid pro quo for the support of the southern states.

We could go on, but our point here is not to discuss history, but to see where Jesus is coming from in today’s Gospel – working urgently to get his disciples and learners to understand the cost of committing to peace, of what it means to follow him in restoring God’s dream for the word. Listen again to what he says to us:

“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three.”

This is not exactly what anyone is hoping to hear – then or now. Peace is exactly what many of us want from our faith. Peace – in the dictionary definition: tranquility, quietude, freedom from disturbance and disquieting thoughts and emotions. Who doesn’t want that? Some of us have even been led to think that is the very purpose of religion. But here’s Jesus, being confusingly provocative in his talk, not of peace, but of fire and death and baptism and stress. Suggesting that the peace he offers is something other than tranquility and family harmony.

Here’s the deal. We don’t usually think of Jesus as controversial. We even have official hymns that refer to him as meek and mild. But Jesus, quite clearly, thinks of himself as controversial and so did the people who knew him the first time. They would say, along with the picture on today’s bulletin: “Jesus. Meek and mild. As if.” Jesus goes further – saying that if we are being faithful, we may find ourselves embroiled in controversy, too. Not because conflict is a good thing – but because if we are genuinely concerned with Jesus’ Gospel, we may find ourselves considered as subversive as he was. Dom Helder Camara, the former Roman Archbishop of Brazil, gave a perfect example of this: “When I give bread to the poor,” he said, “they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.” Or the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who found himself on trial or in prison more than once for disturbing society’s peace. He noted:

“If you want to be a Christian, you’d better look good on wood.”

The fire, the passion Jesus wants to kindle us with is the kind that stirs us from our comfort with things as they are and makes us willing to care in big and little ways about what’s going on in the world around us – the wars that do unbearable damage to infants and children, the hunger and sickness of those who live under greedy governments that siphon off aid to their own bank accounts and leave their people to starve, the huge numbers of black men who occupy our prisons for non-major crimes, the crimes against the environment, for heaven’s sake, all the people and creatures who are utterly dependent upon our willingness to care about them. And he asks us to not care that other people or the authorities will be angry or not promote us or invite us or our children to their parties.

The peace of Jesus doesn’t always look like peace – any more than God’s justice and compassion and hope always look like our visions of them. It has occurred to me that the only way we’ll know for sure that we’re doing it right is if conflict reaches out for us. But by the same token, it’s been noted how many folks run around thinking they’re being prophetic when they’re just being annoying. Our job is not to go out and be controversial. Our charge is to go out and be faithful. Where has God already started a fire? On days when we feel tepid and unadventurous, our job is to go stand next to the flame and let it warm us. On other, stronger days, our job is to fan the flame and spread it. And on days when worst has come to worst and maybe this week, our job is to let the Gospel of Jesus Christ light a fire under us. And follow in the dream of building the holy land of beauty and promise, an segulah, a light to the nations chosen by God, without boundaries, where kindness and mercy reign, and meanness and injustice have no standing. Taking the tiny steps of peace.

I ask you to join me in turning to Hymn 661 in the 1982 Hymnal. And pray with me verse 4:

“The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed on the sod.

Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”

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Hope and Growing Edges (as witnessed in today’s NY Times)…

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In my church, we agreed to a Summer Proposal by which we would consciously pay attention to the tiny cracks in our world where signs of hope and good had shown themselves: little snapshots of, maybe, God’s Kingdom sneaking in with due stealth.

We decided to take pictures, draw pictures, paint pictures, and clip pictures and articles that witnessed such possibilities. We asked other, differently oriented, people to write poems or essay or thought balloons that pointed to observed points of hope and goodness arising. We invited still others to use whatever expressive media appealed to them.

The idea is that — at the end of the summer — we will have a tapestry of some sort to show the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and activity in our midst. A kind of banner depicting hope and joy and changed lives – things we saw or heard or felt or smelled or tasted our very own selves.

Do not just tell your priest about major rights anniversaries: Juneteenth (which we missed) or the Stonewall Riots that led to Gay Pride Month (which we are in) – tell your fellow congregants about them and what has grown from them. Then bring your plan for the church to mark or celebrate them to your priest.

So far, I’ve not taken any pictures or written any poems or choreographed a dance or produced a film for the Summer Proposal – though, hey, you never know… But here’s what I do daily anyway: slowly read the New York Times – and sometimes, the Wall Street Journal -in a spirit of openness and prayer, reading between the lines and from different perspectives.

Here’s what I’ve got today in the Good News category:

NIKKI HALEY CALLS FOR SOUTH CAROLINA TO TAKE DOWN THE CONFEDERATE FLAG FROM IN FRONT OF THE STATE HOUSE BUILDING 

TakeItDown

This looks like a done deal and it’s about time. The Confederate Flag was the emblem of the southern states that allied themselves to preserve the system of slavery in the United States. It belongs in a museum, as suggested by President Obama, and not flying as a continuing symbol of values this country long ago repudiated as hateful.
See at A1

 

THANKS TO OBAMACARE, FEWER PEOPLE ARE HAVING TROUBLE PAYING MEDICAL BILLS.  And the rate of uninsured poor continues to decline. 🙂 See at A3

FULL PAGE AD CALLING FOR DRUGSTORES AND PHARMACIES TO QUIT SELLING TOBACCO  Tobaccofreenys.org’s full-page newspaper ads are becoming more prominent and likely to have an effect in limiting the number of places that can sell tobacco products. See at A5

HILLARY CLINTON: PASSION AND CANDOR ON RACE RELATIONS
are helping define her campaign and being met with popularity by black leaders and the liberal voting population. Why is this hopeful? Anyone who can ally people of good faith to talk and act together to address racial inequalities and discrimination in this country is very, very good news for all of us.      See at A13

crossed-fingers-28409538ROBERTS COURT MOVING LEFT
Not a lot, but enough to make a difference. “Liberals are having a pretty good run so far this term.” Hugely important decisions await: same-sex marriage, subsidies for health care coverage under Obamacare, and just what drugs, if any, may be constitutionally used for lethal injection. Pray.

CITY REACHES DEAL FOR REFORMS AT RIKERS
Last year’s report from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan described “a place with almost medieval levels of violence, meted out with startling ferocity by guards and their superiors.” An extraordinary amount of the abuse described was directed at teenage inmates, especially the imposition of punitive solitary confinement.

Under the settlement concluded with the US Attorney’s Office, the City is required to appoint a federal monitor, create a stronger policy on the of use of force by guards, install thousands of surveillance cameras, and end the use of solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 18 and teenagers with mental illnesses.
It doesn’t solve all the problems nor does it do anything about the use of solitary confinement for any inmate for long periods of time, but it moves us toward a more humane institution. See at A19

Suicide of Former Teen Incarcerated at Rikers

WHAT ELSE? DAVID BROOKS’ OP-ED “FRACKING AND THE FRANCISCANS”
All of us who count ourselves “environmentalists” have been thrilled with the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si. David Brooks has now written an essay that lauds the Pope, but criticizes the encyclical, saying that it contains a share of “1970’s style doom-mongering about technological civilization” and implying that any “human relationships based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.” Along the way, Brooks concludes that “Francis doesn’t have practical strategies for a fallen world.”

So why is Brook’s Op-Ed in the “hope” column? Because David Brooks’ sharp, critical thinking can lead to intelligent conversation about how to deal morally with an enormously complex problem. He takes no cheap shots and he uses no jargon in pointing out that programs “based on the purity of the heart backfire.” Brooks thinks it clear, if ironic, that ‘the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivation of people as they actually are.”

What I find ironic is that Brooks, who writes frequently on virtue, character, and what makes for meaning in human life may be missing the fact that Laudato Si is not a faulty scientific/economic/political primer on the environmental crisis. As advertised, the Pope has written a theological primer on how Christians and others should approach the environmental crisis as sacred creation care and a form of stewardship — not resources to be exploited.

I would submit that Francis is not naive. Rather than produce a book of proposed answers to the world’s problems, I think he has set out the principles by which decision-makers — all of us — should approach component issues, from fracking to technology, from energy production to how to do the least collateral damage while “cleaning” the environment” and building economies.

Francis is advocating, I believe, the critical thinking David Brooks so prizes in applying the understandings of the Christian faith to practical on-the-ground problems. No one, probably, gets to have wholly clean hands (or a wholly pure heart) because every action we take is taken in the real world, with previous and future consequences, and what Brooks himself calls “low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.” See Brooks’Op Ed at A23. Read or download Laudato Si here.

Prophets in Ordinary Time: Checking In

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hoseaimagesThose of us lucky enough to have been introduced to the writings of the Hebrew prophets through the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel are elated that the lectionary readings at Sunday Eucharists — from now to the end of the year — include major snippets from those writings.  From Amos’ “Hear this, you who trample on the needy‚” to Hosea’s “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” we hear words of judgment on the deeds of the nations and the people’s apathy as they sit back and let it all happen.  And in the midst of judgment, we hear God’s words of passionate love and comfort, a promise of redemption and the rebuilding of the cities of our lives.

Their visions are poetic and dramatic and often startling.  They throw at us the “parade of horribles” that follow human collusion with corruption or indifference: wars, environmental degradation, damage to lives and loss of hope.  They also show us glimpses of beauty and relationship that are expansive beyond the limits of our own imaginations.  And they tell us that nothing is preordained, that God does new things.  Heschel said once that there are no proofs for God, only witnesses.   The prophets are such witnesses, and for Christians, the first to convey the powerful and living image of the incarnational God we know as the Christ.  Not surprisingly, it is they Jesus cited most often in describing the meaning of God’s kingdom.

If, as the prophets say, God is the One who hears the cries of the suffering and acts, we, clearly, are meant to do the same.  As the prophet Micah put it: do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  We are meant to be the people who live by God’s values.

Have a blessed week.

Theology of Weegee: Quick Share

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God’s in His Heaven:  Theological Thoughts on Two Exhibits

Stromholm jacky

Stromholm: Nana, Jacky and Adèle Chanel, 1961

“God’s in his Heaven — All’s right with the world.
[Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, 1841]

Not.

And not by a long chalk. And some people choose an interpretation of meaninglessness. And some redefine the meaning of “all right.” And still others simply ignore the gap between religious claim and reality. But none of those are adequate for those of us who need “a faith that can encompass tragedy without reducing it to a meaningless episode….” 1

This seems particularly true on a weekend in which the whole country is mourning the specific tragedy of the mad shooting of the crowd watching “Batman” at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. There is no way to gloss over such evil with reassurances of a fundamentally good world. And yet.

I’ve had occasion of late to reflect on art that speaks to the incarnational sense of God’s presence in the things which are “not all right,” the bits about death and war and cruelty that provoke us all to look to God for some sort of accounting as we simultaneously point a finger at each other. There are two exhibitions currently on display at the International Center of Photography that reflect such a theology. The main attraction is “Murder is My Business,” which carefully curates the crime and calamity photos taken in New York between 1935 and 1946 by photojournalist Arthur Fellig, better known as “Weegee.” The second, “Les Amies de Place Blanche,” shares Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm’s photos of the community of transexual prostitutes he befriended and lived among in 1960’s Paris. Both shows are artistically stunning. But, as important, the photographers convey the sad and harrowing realities of particular worlds without dictating despair. Between the two of them, they create a grammar that negotiates what Patrick Miller once called (in another context entirely) “the very thin line between the redemptive and the demonic possibilities for life on this planet.”2

Weegee tenement fire

Tenement fire, Harlem, 1942

Mother and daughter looking up at the top floor, where another daughter and her baby are trapped

Weegee and Strömholm share a humanity, but what bends their work, I think, to a artistic theology that matters is their ability to uncover flashes of connection in a world of only sometimes mitigated tragedy. Weegee’s work here seems harshest because it is wholly unvarnished. He shows us horrible, catastrophic things, people bloodied and savaged, senselessly killed, and in anguish over the death of a husband or brother. He shows it all without cheapness or sentimentality or any effort to invoke sympathy or opinion. Like a good war photographer, Weegee shows us exactly what happened and how, and what everybody looked like when it went down. What he shows us is beautiful, though it is beauty “infiltrated” by as-yet-unredeemed reality.3

CRI 208183

Weegee: My Man, 1941

One striking thing is that virtually none of Weegee’s pictures would be likely to appear in any major newspaper of our own time. They are just too lurid, too graphic, too invasive. Worse, the crowds that gather at a crime scene in Weegee’s photos are far from innocent bystanders. They are entertained. No matter what has happened — a fire, a murder, a tragic accident — the crowds stand there looking on with interest: men, women, and children. They are as fascinated as motorists crawling past the scene of an accident hoping to see something horrible.

Weegeemurder4

For all that, Weegee’s photos also leave his subjects — pretty much all of them — with their innate dignity. A series of shots of men under arrest for cross-dressing on one wall was particularly impressive. The arresting officers mock them, but the men themselves (labelled “boys dressing as women” on the photo margins) do not look either shamed or ridiculous.

Weegee  man arrested

Weegee  man arrested 2

By contrast, Christer Strömholm’s much smaller show aims to do more than document. Strömholm, the “father of Swedish photography” (who knew?) can be read as raising “issues about identity, sexuality, and gender,”4 but the impact of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” is much broader than that. In his foreword to the book of the same name, Strömholm described the work, in part, as about “insecurity… humiliation…, the quest for self-identity, … the right to live, … the right to own and control one’s own body… [but also] about friendship.”5

At bottom, Strömholm claims this body of photos as “about friendship.” And that friendship is not only his own. The women he records have befriended each other and Strömholm documents their creation of a community.

Stromholm  Jacky 1961

Strömholm, Jacky, 1961

A rough kindness infuses the entire series. Strömholm’s shots are honest and ineluctably dissonant, but he also seems protective of his subjects. There is such a huge gap between their hopes and their prospects, and he catches their yearning as almost palpably beautiful. He paints the beauty of their wounds. And, in fact, his final judgment is of beauty.

Neither of them presents a Thomas Kincaid sort of world for the solace of anyone. But by presenting worlds we know to be true, they honor us and communicate the place of the divine in what seems most broken. Both shows are on through the summer.
_________
1 Gregory Wolfe, “The Tragic Sense of Life” in Image, Issue #61 (Spring 2009)
2 Patrick Miller, “Poetry and Theology, Theology Today (speaking of Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
3 In*The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism* 57. no. 1 (1999): 7 in @101, Peg Zeglin Brand speaks of “Beauty infiltrated by the dangerous, transgressive, bizarre, grotesque and the horrible.”
4 Christopher Harrity, Advocate.Com/Artist Spotlight, 5/29/12
5 Christer Strômholm,Les Amies de la Place Blanche, Reprint of the 1983 edition, Arman Iman Éditions, Dewi Lewis Publishing (March 13, 2012)

The Beholding of Beauty: Bill Cunningham and Fashion

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First theological musings on the documentary: Bill Cunningham New York  (Richard Press, Zeitgeist Films, 2011). 

Bill Cunningham is an 83-year-old man who rides around New York City (and sometimes Paris) on his bicycle, chronicling what fashionable people wear.  His photos grace the Sunday edition of virtually every New York Times I’ve ever seen.  He is the paper‘s style and fashion photographer and has apparently been doing some variation on this for the last 50 years.  You are likely to have seen him yourself — depending upon the circles in which you travel — lurking near Bergdorf’s or eying outrageously flamboyant people – indoors and out – men and women — from Soho to Harlem.

When Bill Cunningham New York opened at the International Film Center this past Spring, it was well-reviewed.   And I was staunchly unimpressed and uninterested in seeing it.  Why?  Well, because Cunningham is a style and fashion photographer for the New York Times and I assumed, somehow, that a movie about him would be arty, superficial, arch, or merely of specialized interest to the same people who actually read the annual fashion issues of major New York magazines — of which I am not one.  Only out of boredom did I finally get around to seeing his documentary this weekend.

And oh, was I wrong, and wrong-headed in my snobbery.   This documentary  is not nearly so much about what people wear as it is about beauty and discernment, educated taste, and a lifetimes’ devotion to seeing what is supremely important in very ordinary things.  In fact, to see Bill Cunningham is to understand why the Metropolitan Museum of Art  has had a Costume Institute since 1989.  And to understand why, perhaps, the late designer Alexander McQueen’s exhibit this summer  — “Savage Beauty” —  was such a blockbuster for the Met. New Yorkers and others stood in line for hours to see it.  And were glad.  Because, as it turns out, the beauty on display in the McQueen “fashion” show was  every bit as vivid and valid as the artwork in the Monet or Frans Hals exhibits.

Bill Cunningham’s artistic credentials (and energy!) are everywhere on display in this film.  He is astonishing to watch: uptown, downtown, in society and in street scrums, he brazenly turns and focuses on whatever and whomever he wants, turning modestly away from what strikes him as unoriginal.  Designers and fashion editors and collectors treat him as royalty.  In one recorded scene, when Cunningham is temporarily blocked by bouncers at the annual Paris show, a designer’s assistant glides out and explains that Cunningham is “the most important person on earth” — despite the fact, as Bill Cunningham New York makes clear, that he has no wealth or power beyond his photography and artistic credibility.

He pays attention to trends and styles as they appear, without concern for prestige, beyond, of course, his focus on people who are original and “hope to be beautiful,” as he puts it.  Until recently (when he was evicted along with all other tenants), he lived in a tiny studio at Carnegie Hall — filled mainly with the file cabinets of his carefully organized negatives throughout the years — and a camp cot on which he seems to have slept.

Cunningham still rides his bicycle around New York, keenly observing his surroundings and taking streams of pictures.  He ONLY rides his bicycle and it is his 29th one.  All the others have been stolen (and I, for one, wondered how he has managed to avoid being hit by other vehicles as he weaves through traffic lanes). He wears the blue smock of a Parisian sanitation worker (purchased in Paris for $15) because he expects anything he wears to be destroyed by the cameras and lenses he wears dangling from his neck.  He seems to have an elderly formal suit which he wears to galas.

He attends charity functions on behalf of the Times, but chooses which ones and decided long ago that he would accept neither food nor drink, nor so much as a “glass of water,” from their sponsors.   “I’m there to take pictures,” he explains, noting that “I sit down and have dinner before I go.”  Except for the Times, Cunningham accepts no compensation from any source because he wants to be utterly independent.  His mantra is:  “If they don’t pay you, they can’t tell you what to do.”

Nothing in the entire documentary suggests that Cunningham has any life or relationships apart from his art, and, by all appearances, the man lives like a monk.  He doesn’t seem to need very much.   Still, he plainly loves what he does and he loves the honors he receives on its account.  The only other activity he mentions is going to church.  He goes  every Sunday — for the music and, he adds, “I go and repent.”  It’s hard to know of what he is repenting.

But there it is at last, my question.  What is the Gospel for Bill Cunningham?   What’s his good news?   As an officially religious person, I look at this man — who has lived his life with all the integrity he can manage — and I wonder, sacrilegiously, about his life’s value according to our usual definitions.  Bill Cunningham has not devoted his life to feeding the poor or housing the homeless.  He has not worked to heal lepers.  He has not even lived “for others,” as we say.  When he dies, his obituary will not read like Mother Teresa’s or Jimmy Carter’s.

So how about it?  Can anyone doubt that this artist’s life has mattered?  Though he suggests to his interviewer that he is a gay man (“well,” he answers, “that’s probably why the family wanted to separate me from the fashion industry”), he also acknowledges that he has never, in his entire life, had a love relationship.   While that is a very sad claim, there is much in this film to contradict it.  Cunningham may not acknowledge it, but  it is clear that he has both experienced and given love.

To watch him, e.g., with the young photographers he mentors or with the elderly ladies who almost, but not quite, seem lost in their wigs and illusions, is to see a hugely kind and open man.  He is the only person, one journalist observes, to whom fashion arbiter Anna Wintour has never condescended — which is saying something. More to the point, Cunningham’s life and passion for his work, as depicted here, have a clarity and a purity that nurtures everyone with whom he comes into contact.  The image the documentary conveys is of a human being who loves what is beautiful and original and uses all his art to help us see what he (and I suspect, God) sees. If there is such a thing as an “inclusivity of discernment,” I’d say Bill Cunningham  has it.

No one I know would call Cunningham a “holy” or a “saintly” man.  And yet, here is a man who has lived his adult life as a seeker of beauty and its human and vulnerable incarnations.  Such beauty is, by its nature, holy and of God.  Bill Cunningham is not the first poet to point out that the one “who seeks beauty will find it.” And when you see the human and flawed beauty he uncovers — as an artist — you, too, may think of Augustine’s prayerful lament: “Late have I loved Thee, Beauty so ancient and so new….”  IMHO.

See the movie.