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God’s Bias

Luke 6:17-26     

Recently I had the honor of attending the Unifying Our Communities in Response to Hate Conference at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

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This gathering brought together community stakeholders, government officials and law enforcement to discuss the “state of hate” and share ideas on how community members can respond to hate and bias. It featured: Rabbi Jeffery Myers from the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA; the Reverend Eric S.C Manning of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC; Attorney General Josh Shapiro; and Pardeep Singh Kaleka & Arno Michaelis, authors of Gift of Our Wounds, from Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I wish to focus on Pardeep and Arno, and their movement against hate.

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Some of you may remember Pardeep’s name. He is a member of the Sikh Gurdwara in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that was attacked on August 2012. Six people died at the hands of violence, the worst race-based attack in the U.S. since the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Pardeep lost his father in the attack. Since then, Mr. Singh Kaleka has been a voice for forgiveness and justice. 

In his own words:

I decided to respond to this tragedy with compassion. There is a saying in Sikhism, ‘Charhdi Kala’ which means ‘we move in relentless optimism’. Regardless of hardships in life, I’m optimistic about the future.

‘Charhdi Kala’ and compassion go hand in hand. Some people think of compassion as offering forgiveness and all is forgiven, but I think of it as a process, in other words I attach a purpose to what’s happening in life and appreciate the good things when they come.

On 5th August, there was a purpose to what happened. Someone came to our temple trying to divide us, saying that we didn’t belong and that we weren’t wanted in his country. With ‘Charhdi Kala’ the purpose of our response is to reach out, to include the other and say this will not happen again.

It was that attitude that led Pardeep to reach out to an extremely unlikely person: Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist who helped to start a gang back in the late 1980s that produced the August 5th Sikh Gurdwara shooter. Upon learning about Arno’s background and why he became a white supremacist, Pardeep was convinced that the two needed to work together. And so they have. The two co-authored the book The Gift of Our Wounds, sharing their stories and how such a hateful tragedy can lead to love, cooperation, and positive social change. Likewise, the two created the organization and movement Serve2Unite, a proven means of establishing a healthy sense of identity, purpose, and belonging that diverts young people from violent extremist ideologies, gun violence, school shootings, bullying, and substance abuse, along with other forms of self-harm.

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The organization has helped thousands of students from over 30 schools who have experienced human kinship while addressing a host of social issues, including homelessness, veterans’ issues, human trafficking, police-community relations, gun violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, Holocaust remembrance, and genocide prevention.

I mention this powerful story of hate leading to learning, compassion, and justice, because hate crimes are on the rise and sadly, many Christians do very little about it. And in some cases, Christians are even complicit in the hateful acts.

So allow me to ask two questions:

Who are the poor in spirit?

How do we respond to hate?

​See, here’s the thing. Jesus of Nazareth, in Luke’s Gospel, was healing people. Who was he healing? Those on the margins. Those who were called unclean. Those who felt left out, targeted, forgotten, abused. And Jesus got flack for it. It wasn’t religiously kosher. It wasn’t religious enough. But why? Why did people, including Jesus’ own colleagues, criticize the healings? Because the system itself was unjust. Because priests and scribes and politicians and rich people benefited from the system. And they didn’t want to lose power.

So you can imagine that these words were inflammatory:

Blessed are those who are poor, hungry, sad, hated, excluded, defamed.

Woe to you who are rich, abundant, privileged, included, spoken well of.

Yes, wrap your minds around THAT.

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Mind blowing for most. For Jesus though, this was justice.

The Sikhs and Jews and Black Christians and Muslims who are constantly attacked and targeted—they are blessed. The ones who are not—the U.S. White Christians, for example–woe to you.

This is Justice.

So who are the poor?

They are anyone on the outside—marginalized, oppressed, without food and basic necessities, forced out of their homes, refused work, abused, forced to deny their true selves, denied basic human services and rights, mistreated because of their gender, shunned because of who they love, ostracized because of their skin tones, defamed for simply how they look or how they live their lives. They are the poor in spirit.

And when they are attacked by hate and fear and ignorance, God always favors them. This is God’s bias. Because God is on the side of those on the margins.

And so, the second question. How do we respond to hate?

Well, for someone like me who is NOT the poor in spirit, my response is different. I have not had such horrific things happen to me because of the color of my skin, my religious background, sexuality, or gender. I am privileged. And so, my response to hate must look different. It is not enough for privileged people like to me to just not be hateful or to not participate in say, white supremacy or racism. No—I must do more. I must respond to hateful words and acts with compassionate words and acts—for those on the margins. I must stand with them when they are targeted, I must help them to pick up the pieces to heal when they are attacked. I must join hands with them to say: NOT IN MY TOWN!

I am moved by what Pardeep shared:

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“We may not choose what happens to us, but we surely choose how we respond.”

Yes. We do choose how we respond. So how will we respond to hate? We cannot be paralyzed by it; we cannot be silent; we cannot be apathetic. We must, as Pardeep and Arno did, unite together to work for justice and peace and compassion. To paraphrase Arno from The Gift of Our Wounds:

Hurt people do indeed hurt people. When suffering is not treated with compassion, it spreads; when fear isn’t met with courage, it lies to us and disconnects us from our humanity; when ignorance is not countered with wisdom and understanding, it grows and solidifies.

Hate is only overcome with long-term kindness.

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Casting into the Deep Water

Luke 5:1-11   

As human beings, do we remember that we are part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space? We often forget. Instead, we often experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. And this delusion can be a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. So said Albert Einstein, the Physicist & Nobel Laureate. And he also said that our task then is to “free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

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This is what I would call a paradigm shift—a movement away from what society conditions us to believe about ourselves.

See, most of us are socially conditioned to believe that the family we are born into is where we belong and it defines who we are. We also are conditioned to view others who look different as the other—not related to us. And, as we grow older, our personal desires [or individualistic impulses] can dominate our thinking and living. We also tend to show the greatest care and affection for those who are in our small social circles—particularly those circles in which people look similar and behave in a similar manner. We may wade in the waters of diversity and difference a bit, so to speak, or dip our toes in the water, but we won’t actually dive in to immerse ourselves in difference or diversity.

Not if we buy into the identity that society assigns us.  

And this is where we are today, is it not? We live in a world [and society] in which people are afraid of other types of people. People have a different skin color—someone else fears them. People live out their sexuality or their gender identity or expression differently—someone fears them. People practice different religions or no religion at all—someone fears them. Rather than seeing all of these human beings as part of this thing we call the universe, of which we are also a part—we end up being afraid of each other and seek isolation in our small, homogeneous social groups. And by doing that we are unable to empathize with other’s feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. We only see, hear, and feel our own. And eventually, we de-humanize those who are different.

And in the process we de-humanize ourselves.

That is why Einstein’s words are completely relevant today, about widening our circles, embracing all living beings, and the whole of nature and its beauty. In essence, we need to go much further than just testing the water of diversity, but we need to immerse ourselves in it.

We need to venture out into the deep water.

Now consider an interesting fact about water. If a body of water is shallow, it’s loud. Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean? Well, you know that closer to shore it’s tough to swim. The waves are crashing again and again, tossing you about. It’s fun, of course, to ride those waves, but not great for swimming. But have you even ventured out a bit further? If you have, then you know that the deeper you go the less you are tossed about. In fact, I have been in some oceans where the water was calm. I could swim easily. I didn’t feel the undertow. I glided across the water. It was quiet.

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There is a well-known phrase which I’m sure you’ll remember.

Still waters run deep.

It originated as a Latin proverb and lives on in English as an idiom.

Do you know it?

Still waters run deep.

Simply put, it means a mild exterior manner (“still waters”) may hide a more passionate or dangerous internal nature (“run deep”). For example, it can mean that someone who is quiet still contains great wisdom or a deep understanding, or that someone who seems so passive and shy is instead plotting world domination.

What you see on the surface doesn’t tell the whole story, in other words. 

Stay with the mental imagery of a body of water that sinks to great depth—it shows no flowing movements on the surface. You don’t see it moving, but it’s deep.

Let’s stay in the water and invite Jesus into our conversation. Luke’s Gospel tells a story about Jesus and the lake of Gennesaret. By this point in the story, a crowd was pressing in on Jesus. Luckily, he was able to get on a boat that was on the shore of the lake. He used the boat as his podium to teach the crowds, asking a man named Simon to push out a bit from the shore. Distance from the crowds. Jesus needed space. And after he taught them, he then engaged the local fishermen in conversation. He asked Simon to cast out his nets into the deep water.

Simon wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea. They had already worked all night long but hadn’t caught any fish. Notice he didn’t say that they had cast out into the deep water yet. He just said that they hadn’t caught anything. But eventually, Simon agreed to give it a try.

So he cast his nets out into the deep water.

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And they caught so many fish that their nets started to rip. They had to call the other boat to come out and help them haul the fish in. Even so, the two boats were so full of fish that they started to sink. The people were amazed.

See, I know that oftentimes this story is used as some kind of evangelical tool. Go out and catch people. Convert them—that’s what Jesus was telling us.

Well, I’m not sure. What I see here instead is Jesus using extremely symbolic water as an invitation to a big paradigm shift.

Because society conditions us to stay on our side of the lake, to stay in our lanes, to not reach across lines of difference.

Don’t venture out to the deep water. The self-fulfilling prophecy we are given is that we should limit ourselves before we even try. We usually ask: what can or can’t I accomplish” meaning that we’ve already accepted the boxes we’ve been given. The fisherman only saw themselves as fisherman. And so they went through their routines and caught nothing. They assumed that this was their lot in life. This is who they were. But the paradigm shift came and they were challenged to cast their nets into the deep water, into places unknown, and to discover a part of themselves that was there all along but was never fully embraced. Jesus was pushing them to stop asking limiting questions like “what can we accomplish or not accomplish” and instead to ask “What do I want to accomplish?”

They moved from “I can’t catch any fish after a whole night’s work” to “I really want to catch fish so what avenues have we yet to explore, can we go deeper?”

Reaching Outside the Lines

Luke 4:21-30     

Dear Readers,

Quick question, and please be honest.

Are you hearing any prophetic words, seeing any prophetic justice-action these days that are reaching across lines of difference, welcoming the marginalized, and standing up to hate and injustice and privilege? Are you? If so, please share in the comments.

And now…Luke’s version of Jesus’ prophetic voice taking flight….

Jesus of Nazareth had just read from the Isaiah scroll, which said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because it has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. I’ve been sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then Jesus just sits down, drops the mic in the synagogue and says that this is fulfilled simply because the people heard it.

Hearing is an intimate thing.  You gotta lean in. You gotta pay attention. You have to notice body language and expression. The words you hear literally come all the way inside your body where they are then “processed” and understood through your neural connections. If your language is ASL you hear just as intimately, by noticing so much more than words, but intention.

So the crowds of people hearing this were amazed. Wasn’t this Jesus bar Joseph from Nazareth? Wasn’t he the same kid from their small town?

But Jesus wasn’t fooled by their amazement. They wanted Jesus to do some miracles or something—prove that he was magic or could do the stuff they had heard about him. More importantly, they wanted their own personal blessing—for the families, for their town, for Jesus’ hometown. Hey Jesus, homeboy, spread the love to us!

Jesus knew his hometown fans were definitely fairweather fans.

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They could turn on him at any moment, especially if they found out that this justice and freedom and acceptance wasn’t specifically for them, but was for all those who were oppressed, imprisoned, poor, or marginalized.

Jesus then provides two examples, well-known in Israel, of the prophet coming to the aid of outsiders:  the Zarephath widow and Elijah, and Elisha and Namaan the Syrian (1 Kgs 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5: 1-19).  In both cases, a prophet came to the aid of a gentile when other people in Israel could have also used the help. 

Luke’s author wants us the readers to know that the widow was on the margins of society and undoubtedly poor.  Naaman, though powerful as an army commander, suffered from leprosy, so he was unclean. 

In both cases, a prophet reached out to them on the margins [Elijah and Elisha]. See, Jesus was being prophetic by telling his hometown that they weren’t going to get special treatment.

This of course didn’t go over well. The people of Jesus’ hometown turned on him. Not only did they want to throw him out of town, they wanted to throw him off a cliff! Yeah, that’s not good. But somehow, in Luke’s version of this story, Jesus is able to get out alive, without the people getting to him, thus recalling to mind the scene from A Christmas Story when the leg lamp is broken and Ralphie’s father heads out to the store to get some glue to try to fix it and in his frustration, he can only utter: “Not a finger!!!” Yeah, they couldn’t lay a finger on Jesus.


But I digress.

This story is pretty clear, especially in today’s context. Look, I’ll be frank. Christians [especially the U.S. brand] deserve all the bad press they get. Honestly, American Christians have earned the bad reputation. I’ve been in rooms, halls, sanctuaries and in public spaces with self-proclaimed Christians who quote all manner of scripture they claim is holy and the word of God, but do they hear any of it? Because after they read it they say horrific things about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and then deny the existence of transgender people. Then, they call immigrants “Isis” and Muslims “anti-Christian” and “against Jesus.” They camp out in the alleyways of Planned Parenthood near the back door so they can heckle doctors, social workers, and any women who receive services. They hold up incredibly triggering and hateful signs using words I won’t utter here [and not because I’m PC, but because they are hateful words]. They say they know who’s going to hell [not them of course] and who Jesus loves and who Jesus hates. They say they are “hearers” and “doers” of God’s Word, and well, I [and most of the rest of the world] call BS.

They are chasing Jesus out of his own town, hoping to throw him off a cliff.

Because Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t bless them like they want to be blessed. Jesus doesn’t favor them. Jesus sees their privilege and their hate and their greediness. Jesus reads from the justice prophet, Isaiah, and the Christians don’t listen or hear or care. They have their own agendas. And anyone outside of those agendas either is against them or doesn’t exist.

And this, my friends, is why Jesus of Nazareth gathered people to his side who would follow him to do justice and to love those on the margins. This is why Jesus even rejected his own town and his own religion so that he could be part of something good in the world. This is what we are prophetically asked to do. Religion has failed us. It’s okay to admit it, because we don’t need to be loyal to a religion.

The way of justice and love is not tied to a religion, a country, or even a sacred book.

Doing justice and loving others across lines of difference is a choice we make. It is a difficult, but I argue, a compassionate and wonderful choice. And yes, sometimes this means we’ll have to leave behind religious ideology or traditions that keep us from doing justice and loving others.

As a general rule, I look at any religious practice or ideology and ask: does it exclude people, separate them out, marginalize them? Then it doesn’t come from anything sacred.

Then I ask: does it reach out to those who are hurting, on the margins, oppressed? Does it take no issue with their nationality, orientation, gender, language, or color of skin? If not, then it’s worthwhile, it’s sacred, it’s useful, it’s prophetic.

So I ask you: how will we listen to the prophetic voices and be inspired to do justice and to love people as they are, to reach outside of boundaries and borders and differences? And how will we be prophetic in our words and actions?

Intimate Hearing, Radical Living

Luke 4:14-21  

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Echo [Ronin], a deaf superhero

Hearing is one of our senses, along with seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching.

Now, let me ask—how many of you are deaf or have a close family member or friend who is deaf?

As a hearing person, I am amazed at how in tune deaf people are with their surroundings and also, how well they communicate with others across a wide range of cultures and languages.

Case in point–my Grandpa M. He was deaf for most of his life. He read lips. I remember as a kid that when we talked with Grandpa, we needed to make eye contact, to face each other. I also remember reading the closed captioning on the TV and thinking that was cool. But to be honest, I never felt hindered in my conversations with him. In fact, to this day I still feel that my Grandpa sometimes communicated more effectively than we did. My grandpa used body language and facial expressions to communicate, as well as his words.

Deafness, unfortunately, is often viewed by hearing people as a deficiency rather than a separate linguistic context, worldview and culture, which people of the deaf community would like us to know that it is.

I asked my friend Jamie Lynn Hill, a freelance ASL interpreter, about her years of working with the deaf community. This is what she shared:


Body language and facial expressions are heavily integrated in their language and in the signs themselves so they’re used to REALLY looking at someone when they speak. Both because they HAVE TO (they can’t hear them) and because sometimes the sign alone doesn’t convey the full feeling, so you have to pay attention to the whole thing. And, as a side note, because you have to LOOK AT ONE ANOTHER to talk, you can’t be on the phone, or watching TV, or surfing Facebook and just be nodding and “uh-huh”ing. And I think that that also makes them better communicators and closer to one another. They always have each other’s full attention. 
Secondly, they really say what they mean. The double speak we use in English doesn’t translate into ASL the same way. It translates into a much more direct and clear statement. You are never left wondering how a deaf person “really feels about you”. Their community is unique in that they are very quick to let you in and share their lives but they can also be very passionate and very protective of themselves and their community. It almost seems like they went so long without having people to communicate easily with that they don’t have time to waste playing games. They want to talk, and share, and be involved in each other’s lives and if you’re willing to be a part of it, great, and if you’re not, fine.

In their history they spent a lot of time not being allowed to sign. Being in families that didn’t learn it, or allow them to learn it. Being shipped off to places for “disabled people” and it’s only in the last couple generations that they’ve been treated remotely like the rest of society. And I think as a result, they really value that communication with one another
And still I know, sadly, of a lot of people who are deaf–kids I’ve worked with, whose families don’t sign at home, and who therefore don’t have the same access to the everyday “how was school, how are you feeling” mundane conversation we take for granted. So when they find themselves surrounded by people they can fully express themselves to and understand back, they just don’t take it for granted.

Thanks, Jamie. What catches my attention is how deaf people have this ability to really listen.

Actually, did you know that research shows that only 7 percent of our personal messages are conveyed by words, 38 percent by tone of voice and 55 percent by facial expressions and body language? That is why nonverbal communication is so important.

See, we can get caught up in the 5 senses [especially hearing and seeing] and then look at others who are deaf or blind as having a disability. But if we do that, we are missing something. They are gifted. And they are often more in tune with their senses than we are. Our senses are miracles—especially when we pay attention to them. Those who are deaf can see more than we can imagine. Those who are blind can hear beyond what we think. Our senses are miracles when we use them.

So I want to try something. I’m going to say [write] less, and then let’s allow for our senses to be heightened, let’s be present in this very moment, and then let’s see what happens.

In Luke’s Gospel story, Jesus of Nazareth has become a teacher–his new profession. Jesus returned home to Nazareth, his home town to do some of that teaching just as he was doing in other synagogues outside of Nazareth. So Jesus read from one of the prophetic scrolls, this time Isaiah. He read famous words that everyone would have known—about an age of jubilee when justice would reign, and marginalized people would be welcomed back and healing would occur for many. Prisons would be emptied. People without sight would see, oppressed people would have freedom. He read from the scroll, rolled it back up, gave it to the synagogue attendant, and sat down.

Silence. People stared at him. Their body language anxious, curious, wondering. What would he say? How should they react?

Silence.

Until—just a few words.
“Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
By simply hearing it—fulfillment.

But what does it mean to truly hear and see it fulfilled in action, in living?

Is it enough to just hear, or do we need to lean in, make eye contact, read lips, facial expression, body language, gestures?

Is intimate hearing actually active listening? Not just using our ears to hear, but our eyes to see, our tongues to taste, our hands to touch, and our noses to smell? To take it all in—to truly sense and be present. So that, in the act of being fully present, and aware and awake, we process what was said/expressed, and then it changes us.

May we learn from all the gifted, incredible people in the deaf community. May we recognize our lack of listening skills. May we put down our phones and turn off our devices. May we look each other in the eyes or read lips, or notice body language and facial expressions.

May we actively listen to each other.

Any time of jubilee and justice–an era during which the marginalized are welcomed and balance is restored will only happen if we listen to each other.

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Saving the Best for Last?

John 2:1-11     

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Winemaking was a practice in the ancient world we now call the Middle East and parts of Africa. Wine was made in the triangle of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee—consider eastern Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. Then the vines made their way to Egypt. There wine’s importance was first documented. The vines also passed through Canaan and ancient Israel. After that, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans brought the vines to what is now Western Europe and North Africa and then the Spanish brought it to the Americas.

Wine figures prominently in the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments. Prophets like Isaiah use wine frequently as imagery in prophecy. Prominent characters like King David, Moses, and many others were wine drinkers. Noah was the first recorded vine grower. He planted his vineyard where the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. Back in Jesus’ day, people drank a lot of wine because it was often safer than water. Wine was also a disinfectant for wounds, an agent for dying, a digestion aid, and an instrument for religious ritual.

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Making wine was a family enterprise. Everyone would have a role in the harvest. People carried grapes in baskets and then put them on the floor of the winepress and then they pressed the grapes with their bare feet. Finally, though wine was stored in pottery jars–

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When people traveled, they would put the wine in animal hides [often goat]. These wineskin flasks allowed for the wine to keep fermenting while it was stored.

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So fast forward to Jesus of Nazareth, and let’s be honest—Jesus was a typical Nazarene Jew who enjoyed wine. He was referred to as the one “who came eating and drinking, a gluttonous man and wino, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Sounds like my kinda dude.

How many times have you ever considered that Jesus may have been really fun to hang out with? Hmmmm….

Anyway, we find ourselves in a John Gospel story that is often referred to as the first miracle story. But let’s bring it back down to earth. Jesus and his fam and some of his followers are at a wedding in nearby Cana of Galilee. It’s a party. Now at some point, they ran out of wine. And that’s bad news for a wedding reception. How are grandma and grandpa going to do the electric slide without wine?

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So Jesus’ mom tells Jesus as much: “There’s no wine.”

At first Jesus seems a little put off. I mean, is it really his problem that the hosts ran out of wine? But Jesus’ mom knows what she’s doing. She’s savvy. She’s in on the joke, you see. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. Then we get some important details. There are 6 stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification. Aha! Let’s explore this. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people had developed water purification rituals before entering the temple or other religious rites. They would submerge themselves in a mikveh, a collection of water similar to a pool.

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So those 20-30 gallon jars were for purification purposes. You sensing where this is going yet? I don’t need to fill in the blanks, right?

Consider that Jesus of Nazareth had recently met up with crazy John the baptizer at the River Jordan to be submerged in the water, baptized. It was a ritual cleansing for “reorienting” [repenting]. So now Jesus has the people fill those empty purification jars with water. What was supposed to hold “holy” water would now be party juice. They do it and then they draw some out for the chief steward. He takes one drink and is like: “What is this? It’s gooood…” See, usually you serve the good wine at the beginning of the reception and then people’s taste buds get numb so that at the end of the night you can serve the bleh or meh wine.

But the opposite was true—the best wine for last.

So let’s review the opposites at play here:
-best wine served last, not first
-religious, ritual jars filled with secular juice
-divine to profane
-clean to unclean

There is so much to say about this story. What stands out to me is the interplay of water as a purifying, cleansing, blessing agent and wine as coming from that water and bringing about joy, and existing in the everyday lives of ordinary people, and quite frankly, reminding us that all our religious rules and rites can blow up at any moment.

And it’s a world of opposite possibilities:

Exclusion to Inclusion
Division to togetherness
Walls to open spaces and welcome mats
Hatred to Compassion
Judgement to Acceptance

It’s a world of possibilities and the world of incarnation—of the divine and human coexisting just like water and wine coexist. It’s a world that exists in each one of us, the possibility to make change. You know, Martin Luther King once said:

Image result for mlk always time to do the right thing

There will be resistance to us turning water into wine, friends. There will be people with red baseball hats that call certain others unclean and shout hateful and harmful rhetoric about making things great again, but we’ve learned from this story, haven’t we? Being great isn’t about power or sovereignty or control. We don’t get to say who is clean or unclean. At any moment, things can flip.

See, greatness is about serving others in love.

For if our actions are generated by love, we will make change. We will change water into wine. We will turn the tables in ourselves and in the world. Salud!

Interview with Lucas Mangum, Author

I recently had a conversation with my friend, Lucas Mangum, the author of FLESH AND FIRE, MANIA, ENGINES OF RUIN, GODS OF THE DARK WEB, and WE ARE THE ACCUSED. The collection, Engines of Ruin, was just released in paperback on January 5 (the Kindle edition has been out since December).

Lucas’ newest novel We Are the Accused was released on January 15th.

You can find the rest of his books on Amazon and you can also follow his blog Cranky but Cultured.

[Our conversation was transcribed and not edited so as to capture the true spirit of it]

JOSH:
Lucas, I’m curious to know if there is a book that you can remember—not necessarily the first one you read, but a book that definitely made you cry.

LUCAS:
I will mention two—I don’t remember if I actually cried but I do remember being deeply affected by first The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and also by another called Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn. First, O’Dell’s book I think primarily affected me because of the violence and because it was my first exposure to real tragedy and stuff like that. Stepping on the Cracks was a book that really affected me because it was the first time I really experienced the magic of storytelling, the way she sets things up. There are these expectations early on this book and then she kind of turns them on their head, but it doesn’t happen in a way that makes it seem like it comes out of nowhere. She surprised me, but it makes sense.  

JOSH:
I’m wondering–I’m not a writer but I’m an actor and a performer and so, I know for me that when I’m doing stage work it definitely energizes me. So I’m wondering if for you the writing practice gives you energy or, when you’re finished writing, are you exhausted?

LUCAS:
You know, lately it’s been doing nothing but energizing me. It’s weird, but now I want to write more. I don’t know if it’s because I finally like got my voice or hit my stride or whatever you want to call it; it’s been like this for the last 6 months. I’ve been very, very productive always wanting to continue doing things. For example, I started doing this new thing just after I finished another piece. I’m ready to move on to another one and I’ve never done that before; I’m just compelled to do it.

JOSH:
So this is the first time that you have felt that type of energy when you finish a project, i.e. you are ready for another.

LUCAS:
Yeah, before I would get this temporary high, but I would definitely have crashes as well. But this doesn’t feel like that now, it’s different.

JOSH:
Your writing obviously crosses over some genres. How did you get to that point? When you started writing, were you attracted to horror typically or was it just kind of writing in general?

LUCAS:
I guess it was always writing in general, though I definitely was into the spookier things in life. I actually recently chronicled my long-standing relationship with horror in a poem called Halloween Poem and it was featured on the Heavy Feather Review last October. tI’ve definitely been expanding to other genres and I recently wrote a romance novel. I’ve been trying my hand with a few other genres like short story form as well, but horror is definitely something I come back to.

JOSH:
You get this question a lot but it’s worth mentioning: who are some strong influences for you?

LUCAS:
So I guess you know Stephen King would be the obvious one of course, but there’s this movie from the eighties called Killer Klowns from Outer Space and it made me incredibly happy. I actually just recently re-watched it and I still absolutely love it.

JOSH:
That reveals a lot about you, Lucas [laughter].

LUCAS:
There is a lot of stuff that I like that isn’t, you know, spooky. I also like stuff that has a sense of humor as well. I’ve only recently started to incorporate more of a sense of humor into my work. Indeed, a lot of my stuff tends more towards the bleak side of things but some of the last few pieces I’ve done have been–I don’t want to say lighter–but definitely there has been a bit more humor providing some comic relief.  

JOSH:
So all your different writings, are they pretty much stand-alone pieces or are there connections between the stuff you’ve written?

LUCAS:
You know I often toy with the idea of tying them all together but the idea of trying to compile an expansive work like the Labyrinth stories or JRR Tolkien’s work is really intimidating for me. But I kind of end up doing it on the subconscious level anyway you know, coming from my head of course these stories exist in some sort of connected way I would imagine.

JOSH:
So you don’t intentionally do that.

LUCAS:
No, not really, no.

JOSH:
Now that you’re older [you’re still young], but if you could think back as far as you can when you first started writing, what would you tell that younger Lucas about writing?

LUCAS:
I’m tempted to tell him to get a bit more serious about learning the craft a little earlier but at the same time I don’t think I really regret anything. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll leave time traveling to the guy from Quantum Leap then.

JOSH:
So you’re probably more of a process-oriented person. And having no regrets is also a good thing.

LUCAS:
I don’t recommend some of the choices I made but I don’t regret them either.

JOSH:
After your first work was published, did that change things for you in terms of the way that you carried out your process?

LUCAS:
You know, after my first publication, Flesh and Fire–

After that I started second-guessing myself a little bit more. I thought it was a pretty good novel but I sort of built it up in my mind so much that I started thinking that I’d never be able to repeat that success.

JOSH:
What is one of the novels that people should know about?

LUCAS:
That’s easy. Come Closer by Sara Gran is absolutely frightening. It’s about a woman who may be possessed, and it’s all told in first-person from her point of view. You kind of get the impression that there’s a chance she might not be possessed and that she is just kind of losing her mind. I don’t know the author managed to capture that in such a visceral way but it had an impact on me.

JOSH:
How do you balance asking the reader to do something and also caring for the reader? How does that factor into your process?

LUCAS:
I mean it definitely used to. I guess when you’re a new writer you really do get concerned about  the notes you have to hit in this particular genre. I don’t know, now I kind of feel like if I’m having fun running with a piece, regardless of what I do with the genre’s tropes, I think that will show through and hopefully the reader will have fun in turn.

JOSH:
Now that you are a published author, obviously you are hitting a different stride. How do you define success? I mean, success is such a weird word, because there is such a thing as commercial success or monetary success. But as a writer in general, how do you view success? Is it about your own personal satisfaction?

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean I certainly would like to make a lot more money. I figure people in every profession kind of feel that way. But really, if I take a step back, I have to appreciate the fact that I’ve done a lot. Come Tuesday my 5th book will be published. I’ve done lots of public readings and I’ve done two panels at Austin Comic-Con. I don’t know, I mean kind of just have to appreciate each degree of success, I think

JOSH:
When you write, do you do research at all, and if you do, how much time would you say you spend on that?

LUCAS:
Yeah, I mean I guess it really depends on the project. If I’m writing an intense, personal piece then all the research I need is already there in my life experiences. But if I’m doing something in another time period or something that involves, I don’t know, police work or something, I’ll have to do some actual research. I guess the short answer is it really depends on the project.

JOSH:
Has most of your work been more personal and so it doesn’t require as much research?

LUCAS:
For someone my age I think I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of things. I’ve got this well that I can draw from without doing a tremendous amount of research.

JOSH:
Now, you mentioned that you do have this really strong energy to write. On average, how many hours a day are you writing?

LUCAS:
You know, I don’t usually count in hours. I shoot for a minimum of 800 words a day but usually I end up doing anywhere from 1500 to 2500 words a day.

JOSH:
Looking over the synopsis of some of your short stories and other stuff you done, I’m intrigued by whether you tend to focus on different periods in life, like childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.  

LUCAS:
A lot of times I do end up focusing on the present, though I’ve definitely written all over the place; I have kind of been all over the map as far as stages of life go. I haven’t done much about the elderly, so maybe that’s my next novel.

JOSH:
Those of us with interesting vocations like writing or acting or religious work tend to be less commercially successful in many ways, though we put a lot of work, energy, and passion and love into it. Do you think that writing for you is a spiritual practice? And I give you full freedom to define spiritual however you wish.

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean, at the risk of sounding corny or something like that, I really don’t think ideas come out of thin air. I think all artists are definitely channeling something. I don’t know if that’s humanity’s collective unconscious or chaos or something else. I don’t really think that is for me to say. But I think you would imagine a story is coming from somewhere and life experiences are only a piece of the puzzle. You’re in a type of zone when you write and you almost kind of have to hypnotize yourself into getting into that place because otherwise you know you’re worried about making a mistake or doing the dishes or paying your rent or whatever. And if you’re focused on something like that then you’re not going to be able to bring it and put it on the page.

JOSH:
Certain elements of isolation can be good if we were able to break free from some of those day-to-day routines and get into that creative space, one many people have compared to meditation in other spiritual practices.

LUCAS:
Definitely. I usually spend a tremendous amount of time meditating on what I want my first line to be because for some reason that first line is like a doorway. Once I get that first line down I can pretty much just go. It is interesting, but that’s how I used to write song lyrics back in my early twenties and then I kind of got away from that practice when I started writing prose. But then about 6 months ago I started reincorporating that practice into my prose and it’s actually worked out really well. I did something like a hundred and fifty thousand words during last year.

JOSH:
Let’s talk about Engines of Ruin, the collection of stories.

They all look really interesting. Were there particular stories in that group that really just came easy for you?

LUCAS:
Yeah, Occupy Babylon was probably the easiest one. And, in the case of Ghost Music, I got the idea, I had a title in my head for a while, I didn’t really have a story. Once I got a story idea I was actually writing it on my phone. At the time I was walking to class and I just basically wrote the whole thing on the phone, during these trips to class. So there there was an immediacy to it—to get the idea to the page quickly instead of filing it away in my brain, which you know can be hazardous because if you file it away like that by the time you sit down and write it you may not see it as that exciting to you anymore. I’ve got to get it on the page, even if it’s just a few sentences or just a general outline of the idea. This seems to further my enthusiasm for the project, so I can maintain it over the course of writing.

JOSH:
Were there other stories in this collection that were actually more of a slow burn, you know, in terms of getting them done?

LUCAS:
Video Inferno, I guess. I wrote the first draft in about a week and then it took me four years of really poking at it to get it into the form that it is now. I went through so many revisions. It’s a very surreal story, so when you’re playing with the surrealism, on the surface what you know is happening might not make sense. That requires a little bit more calculation and attention to detail.

JOSH:
What were some of your favorite characters in these stories?

LUCAS:
Definitely the rock star. I mean, I’ve entertained becoming a rock star at least once in my life. Also, the bartending preacher. Actually, this came out of a conversation I had with somebody. She was somebody I used to work with at a previous job. She was like a fundamentalist or whatever and she said it would be a total fall from grace if a preacher were you know, to quit his job and start bartending. I actually disagreed with her because I thought, you know, being a bartender is almost like being a preacher.

JOSH:
You mention that The Last Easy Rider is more of a manifesto than a story?

LUCAS:
That goes back to the spiritual question you asked earlier. Basically, the main character is a version of me who is driving in this beat up camper van, you know, across the American highways, and encountering ghosts and demons and other shady characters. I thought it was essentially an interesting metaphor for me navigating my subconscious, even down to the van.

JOSH:
Let’s shift to your new book, We Are the Accused.

Image result for we are the accused lucas mangum

I was reading through the synopsis and wow–there’s some interesting stuff there. I also wonder what didn’t make the final manuscript. Were there certain things you had to edit out?

LUCAS:
Yeah, it just had a lot of characters and a subplot to glue together in the initial draft. Then I got further along and I didn’t think that they fit together as much as I would have liked them to. So I ended up deleting 20,000 words, more or less, in the original work.

JOSH:
How do you feel when you delete that much?

LUCAS:
It was difficult. I mean, there’s definitely a sense of loss or a grieving process involved. But I should say that I deleted it from the manuscript but I still have the text available; I didn’t destroy them forever.

JOSH:
How do you select names for characters?

LUCAS:
Usually friends. Specifically for this one I just went through my Facebook friends and picked out names I thought were interesting. I would take some person’s first name and another person’s last name and combine them for one character.

JOSH:
Any significance to the setting, Blue Brook, Pennsylvania?

LUCAS:
Yes, it’s basically Bristol Township and Bensalem with a little bit of Levittown, but all is one town. I think even Doylestown gets a mention in this book.

JOSH:
Do you have any hidden secrets that only a few people will catch?

LUCAS:
Of course, yeah, definitely. I’ll put stuff in there that will be there for people to catch. There’s this character in Gods of the Dark Web, and one of my friends called me immediately after reading it as and was just like: “Oh, thanks for turning me into a [devious character] in the book.” Sorry.

JOSH:
I’m sure that was a great phone call.
So how long did it take you to write this novel?

LUCAS:
The first half of the novel took me a ridiculously long time, like I’m talking a year-and-a-half just writing the first half. It was because I was going back and rewriting and fixing things as I went along. And because I was able to write the first half in this way, the second half was quick and pretty much set up for me; I didn’t really need to second-guess myself at all.  

JOSH:
What do you hope the readers will experience when they read this and what type of journey do you hope they go on?

LUCAS:
I hope they have fun, first and foremost. I hope that some readers will maybe, you know, look a little deeper into it and hopefully notice the spiritual questions raised in the book and the social ones as well. I think if you know what you’re looking for you’ll find it and I would hope that people would kind of read beyond the surface.

JOSH:
In your work you often include a sense that each individual has a darkness inside, for lack of a better term, and that this darkness manifests itself outside. It’s a universal idea, right? We have the sort of Yin and Yang thing inside of us: light and dark. Do your characters tend to constantly live in that struggle or is there any sort of resolution, or better said, a realization of that struggle?

LUCAS:
I mean, my work does sometimes end on a hopeful note, though the more recent book might be considered a tragedy, but there are certainly moments of revelation.

JOSH:
Thanks, Lucas, this had been great. Anything else to add about We Are the Accused?

LUCAS:
It’s out on January 15th and on Kindle as well. I believe the paperback will be along shortly after that.

Interested in checking out Lucas’ new novel? Click HERE.

The Power of Love: a Different Joy

Zephaniah 3:16-17; 19-20a

Resultado de imagen para no mud no lotus

You know it must be Advent if on the in later December we’re reading from another minor Hebrew prophet, in this case Zephaniah. It would be a stretch to say that many people know the book of Zephaniah well [Jewish or Christian alike].

Though, come on–I mean, he was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, born in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah—and no, I didn’t make up those names, and yes, it sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, and sure, some of us who went to Divinity school memorized that.

Resultado de imagen para lord of the rings characters

But all kidding aside, as with other Hebrew prophets of ages long past, I do think good ol’ Zephy has something to say to us today.

A little context please? Okay, yes.

The cliff notes version of what scholars say about this prophetic book: when was it written? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 698 BCE-586 BCE, depending on who you talk to. Where was it written? Jerusalem. What was going on? Well, lots. First off, the Israelites were being bad, apparently; they weren’t obeying Yahweh’s commands as they were supposed to. Maybe they were just settling back in after a few generations of exile? Whatever the case, Zephaniah’s author called attention to the Israelite’s behavior as making Yahweh mad. So the book’s tone is ticked off, and it’s spelled out with these sections: the coming judgement of Judah, the great day of the Lord, judgement on enemies, wickedness of Jerusalem, and the punishment of nations. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.

Resultado de imagen para let me think about it...no
But Zephaniah ends differently. The book closes out with God/Yahweh being much nicer, less angry, and dare I say—loving and gentle? Yahweh is present, protective of Israel, and happy to welcome people back. Apparently, Yahweh has a lovely singing voice too and will be showing off the holy pipes.

Resultado de imagen para jesus singing karaoke
More important than the Holy Karaoke, people will be healed, the homeless will find places to live. People who were hated will now be accepted. Everyone comes home. It’s a celebration of great joy! Now that’s more like it, Zephy…

And that’s what brings me to why I think this minor prophet still has something prophetic to say to us today so many years later.

See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.

Some of us have been exiled and know what it feels like to be marginalized or excluded. Some of us have lived though times of great suffering, loneliness, and despair. Some of us are going through that right now. Still others find very few reasons to live any longer. And many today are just tired—tired of a depressing and heavy news cycle that continues to make us aware of the great pain, suffering, and injustice in the world. A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala dies simply because she can’t get enough water to drink while detained by U.S. immigration enforcement. Large groups of humans sprawled out on top of steam vents all across Philadelphia, just to stay warm. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and others specifically targeted by violent people. Individuals still left out, refused jobs, discriminated against in hospitals and other public spaces, simply because of who they love or how they identify or express gender. The Christian religion on the whole, has become known more as a perpetrator of hateful rhetoric and alliance with political leaders and lobbying monies and ignorance of child abuse and discrimination than it is known for love, peacemaking, and service to others.

Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.

Yahweh might as well be the same kinda angry at Western Christianity and at society in general. We’re not really fulfilling our part of the bargain—to heal the sick, give homes to the homeless, gather in the outcasts, and love each other.

Sure, we can put up pretty lights and sing carols and talk about joy, but I would argue we can’t. Not until we admit where we are, in Zephaniah’s world, in this world. Not until we recognize the deep suffering going on. Not until we are incensed by the injustice in our world. Not until we talk about our own feelings of despair, heaviness, and apathy. We have to go there, if we truly want to get to the joy part.

Rumi, the brilliant Islamic poet, wrote of sorrow being the prerequisite for joy. Sorrow makes space for joy to enter in. Old roots are pulled up within us and new growth takes place. Only then will joy flow through us like a river.

We’ve been talking the last two weeks about the promise of inclusion, about what it looks like/feels like to be excluded and then finally accepted and invited in. And that this promise of inclusion is a powerful promise to believe in, because if we do, we will seek inclusion for those we see on the margins.

See, it’s a decision to believe in the promise of inclusion. And it’s a decision to think about joy as rising out of sorrow and suffering.

And I think what bends us towards those decisions is an understanding that love itself is not an emotion, but an active choice as well.

In the world of Zephaniah, Yahweh made a love-deal with the Israelites. But the moment they started mistreating each other and oppressing people and manipulating, there was no more Mr. Nice Yahweh. Because love for Yahweh and for the Israelites has to be an active choice, not just a feeling.

And this is why love has tremendous power to create a better world—in ourselves, and on this planet. There is great power in sitting with someone in their grief, with loving patience and a loving ear with loving acceptance. There is power in standing side by side with someone who feels pushed down, choosing to love by standing with them. There is power in treating newcomers with loving hospitality, power in lovingly learning about someone’s culture or religion; power in mentoring children and youth with loving patience; power in lovingly lifting up or even carrying those who are experiencing extreme mental or physical challenges; there is power in choosing to lovingly care for the earth, the animals, trees, and ecosystems. Love as an action is powerful.

And this is what brings true joy into our lives.

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