Thanksgiving at the Ryman on the Radio
November 22, 2016
Much joy to you and yours,
A Dispatch from Southern California
September 29, 2016
Gathered with a number of academics and pastors from around the country, on Catalina Island, at the generosity of Fuller Seminary’s Science and Theology in Emerging Adult Ministries, or STEAM.
There are some occasional indulgent perks of academic life, and getting to visit Catalina I now count among them: a beautiful island, even though it continues to suffer a severe drought. Home of the Cubs spring training and clubhouse from the early 20th century, the marks of Wrigley’s ambition and largesse are still prominent.
But more interesting to me is the gathering of people: a community of scholars (mostly scientists in this case) alongside many in various ministerial roles, who are convinced that there exists a great deficit in sufficient integration of science and theology. And, that this deficit is leading many unnecessarily to leave Christian faith when they encounter the plain consensus on numerous issues of the scientific community, because that deficit failed to give them sufficient resources to think through these apparent challenges. It’s been a joy to sit around the dinner table discussing trans-humanism, organizational psychology, cosmology, and reflecting theologically upon such questions.
I am also increasingly convinced that this sort of unnecessary dichotomy between “science” and “faith” is a result much more of (also unnecessary) polarized socio-political divides, as we explored in our Tokens Show in Dayton, Tennessee two summers ago. And on that score, we are most pleased to announce that both STEAM and the John Templeton Foundation have made it possible to distribute that particular episode nationally on public television. More on that soon.
But this morning, listening to the president of Fuller Seminary, who says that his father was not a Christian, and in fact had “a special set of neck veins which would pop out when the discussion of religion arose.” His father – and he later discovered, that Jesus too – grew immensely frustrated with the manner in which religious people had a tendency to take big and great things and make them small, to reduce that which is full of wonder and make it trivial.
The “kingdom of God,” instead, is meant to expand our vision into the fullness of life and the cosmos, its beauty and wonder. “The sucking force of smallness,” on the other hand – of petty purposes, of trivial concerns, or small questions – is so immense, that there is a great need for expansiveness of heart and mind.
The cornerstone of the human project is that the God of all the universe pays attention to us; and the human seeks to pay attention to God. The growth of our human life depends upon the possibility of paying attention to the God who pays attention to us: with the most minute and the most cosmic care. Science, thus, is one of the most basic of human practices: the work of careful, sustained attentiveness.
And in Q & A, he reminds us of this quote from CS Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Well said, I think.
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Use of Deadly Force on Black Bodies
September 21, 2016
by Preston Shipp
In the wake of yet another apparently unnecessary killing of an unarmed black man by a police officer, this time forty-year-old Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there seems to be a gross misunderstanding of when law enforcement officers are authorized by law to use deadly force. People defend police officers by pointing out when the victim of the shooting was not innocent of all wrongdoing. Perhaps he was in possession of drugs, had a criminal history, or had treated the law enforcement officers disrespectfully or even failed to obey their commands. These factors, while not irrelevant, do not by themselves justify the use of deadly force by a police officer. As a former criminal prosecutor deeply saddened by the epidemic of violence against black bodies, I think it is terribly important to seek clarity on these matters.
Police officers may only employ lethal force after all other reasonable means of apprehension have been exhausted or are unavailable, and where the officer has probable cause to believe that the individual poses a threat of serious bodily injury to the officer or others. Some of this language comes straight from my home state of Tennessee’s statute on law enforcement use of lethal force, which is fairly standard. So if the officer does not have probable cause to believe that lives are in danger, essentially, then lethal force may not be used.
Refusing to follow a police officer’s orders is NOT tantamount to putting the officer’s life in danger, as any good cop will tell you. People refuse to obey orders all of the time. Dealing with it with patience and respect is really tough, but it’s part of the job, as any good cop will tell you. For example, if a police officer comes up to me out of the blue while I’m walking down the street and wants to see my identification, I can refuse that order. Unfortunately, many people have no idea which orders are lawful and must be followed and which are not, and there are some police officers who lack understanding in this area as well.
Even if I fail to obey a lawful order, such as exiting my car during a traffic stop, it does not follow that the officer may then kill me. Resisting arrest is a misdemeanor, a crime punishable by less than one year in prison. So the next time you hear someone say, “If he didn’t want to get shot, he should have done what the cop said,” feel free to respond, “Actually, the penalty for resisting arrest is less than one year in jail, not the death penalty.” People can refuse to raise their hands, open car doors, and on and on, and they do every day, but this does not give rise to the officer killing the person. Mere disobedience is not the same as threatening serious bodily injury, and law enforcement officers should know this. Officers are expected to be trained in de-escalation of conflict, and deadly force is seldom a lawful option. It should always be an absolute last resort after everything else has been tried, as any good cop will tell you. What many of these videos are showing us is officers not adhering to their training, rushing to use deadly force, and attempting to justify it later. This must stop, and people of conscience, black and white, cops and ordinary citizens, must not be silent.
I believe that the longstanding justification for the kind of violence we see in the case of Terence Crutcher and others has little to do with the officer’s life actually being in jeopardy. Rather, the perceived threat is based on the blackness of the subject’s skin. Black people are perceived as inherently more dangerous. This is nothing new, as a cursory study of American history and religion will reveal. Under these circumstances, virtually anything can lead to a black person being killed, as we have seen time and time again.
On the other hand, we tend to think of police departments as sacrosanct. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out that many of us are more devoted to the preservation of order than to the promotion of justice. We therefore are willfully blind when systemic racism persists among the people we trust to protect and serve us, despite the findings by the Department of Justice regarding cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. We desperately need to flip the script, stand with the black community and insist on accountability in our police departments.
As someone who tries to be a Christian, it grieves me to see my fellow white Christians failing now the way our forebears failed in the 50s and 60s. Instead of standing in solidarity with our black sisters and brothers, we vilify people who peacefully protest by not standing when the national anthem is played. Instead of adding our voices to the chorus demanding justice for all people regardless of skin color, we cast aspersions on protestors who offend our sensibilities as we attempt to pretend things really aren’t as bad as the highway-blocking activists are making it out to be. We will speak out on a whole host of issues, but we are silent on this one. Or we glibly say “All Lives Matter” when clearly they do not. Or we become more incensed at the destruction of property or bottles being thrown at police officers in riot gear than we do the repeated unnecessary loss of black life. It seems that although we are called by our scriptures and Sunday school lessons to love our neighbors, all of them, as we love ourselves, many of us are unmoved by all of these people whose names have become hashtags.
At this point, the fact that black people are calling for justice and not revenge for centuries of subjugation and brutality in the forms of slavery, lynchings, political disenfranchisement, and mass incarceration is, in my mind, a testament to the inherent goodness of black people. I question whether I would be so gracious if the tables were turned.
For several years, Preston Shipp served as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. While serving as a religious volunteer and teaching college classes in Tennessee prisons, he became good friends with many people who were incarcerated, one of whom he had actually prosecuted. These relationships caused Preston to wake up to the many injustices that are present in the American system of mass incarceration. Preston felt increasing conflict between his faith in Jesus, who was executed as a criminal, and his role as a prosecutor, which required him to argue for the punishment of people he did not know. Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as a prosecutor in 2008. Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. Preston lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.
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Fall with the Tokens Show
September 8, 2016
We’re delighted to have two most outstanding shows coming up this fall. On October 4, we return to the Mother Maybelle Carter Memorial Stage at Lipscomb University with special guest Michael Gungor. At the traditionally appointed starting time of 7.30 p.m., we shall gather together and explore the apophatic. And though you may not know that word, nonetheless, be not dismayed, and neither shalt thou be put off, intimidated nor otherwise hindered. You shall soon know, if you do gather with us. Tickets available now, here.
Then we return, November 20, to the Mother Church of Country Music with our seventh annual Sunday-night-prior-to-Thanksgiving-at-the-Ryman show, always a stellar and most wonderful evening, full of much joy and beauty. We are working on our guest list… It will be, as usual, most outstanding. Tickets available now here.
We are grateful for our 2016 sponsors, who make this good work possible:
Look forward to seeing you on both October 4 and November 20.
Tokens Show Heads to Lake Junaluska, NC.
July 8, 2016
Tokens Show will be visiting the Stuart Auditorium at beautiful Lake Junaluska, NC, on August 24th, 2016 at 7:00 pm. Special guests include Buddy Greene, Odessa Settles, Jenny Littleton, and, for her first Tokens Show appearance, Ms. Sierra Hull.
We’d be honored by your company. There are two ways to purchase tickets:
Option 1: Tickets available online for $5.00 + small transaction fee using this link: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2569808
Option 2: Tickets available for $5.00 at Bethea Welcome Center at 91 N. Lakeshore Drive, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745 (phone: 1-800-222-4930).
Tokens Show is from Nashville, TN and is recognized for its “grass-kicking,” “genre-bending creativity.” The Tennessean calls it “one of a kind” and a “virtuoso ensemble.” “They integrate music, humor and scholarship into something so seamlessly entertaining,” says Peter Cooper, Nashville music critic. You will sing, laugh, and be entertained for the evening.
It’s a wonderful show open to the public. We look forward to seeing you all there. Tell your friends!
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In Remembrance of a Friend
March 29, 2016
We were saddened by the death of our friend Mr. Pete Huttlinger in January. Pete was a friend, a brilliant guitarist, a gentleman; one who bore more than his fair share of difficulties and did so with gratitude and gentleness; who cared about the genuine good of others, his community, and his friends; and who sought to live life well and beautifully.
We watched Pete courageously face his health difficulties, and come back again and again without complaint, always a self-effacing joke, and an ever present and gentle smile. One such moving moment was at our first Tokens Show at the Ryman Auditorium, November of 2010. Pete had a stroke two weeks prior to the show; and was not only at the show, but on stage, and had the opening guitar strains in what I, to this day, think was one of the most beautiful instrumental performances in our eight years of shows. You can listen to it below.
Pete was a regular in the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys on the Tokens Show from the very first episode in 2008. It was a privilege to watch him work and hear him make his magic. We have grieved with Pete’s wife and our friend, Erin Morris.
We do, and will continue, to miss Pete.
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December 10, 2015
by Tokens host Lee C. Camp
A friend recently told me about a spot on the Cumberland Plateau I had never visited, called Collins Gulf; it was a gorgeous Tennessee winter day, not a soul in site for 4 1/2 hours. The Collins river and the tributary creeks up on the sides of the gulf all full of water from recent rains. So for today, a poem I wrote, and some pictures I took, along the way.
The laurel hums the beauty
The water sings the praise
The gulf sits quiet, undaunted
Humility from countless days.
The cypress like Pentecostals,
Arms thrown, to the skies
Branches broken, blown aside
No pity, no queries why.
The moss, it kneels in silence
Mute, but, shouting glory
The river runs white and heedless
Its path long trod and hoary.
Day to day still pours forth speech,
Boulder, and winter smell of pine,
The precipice weeps, the limestone laughs,
And all for joy, for–joy.
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This Land Is (Not!) Your Land, This Land is My Land: Thanksgiving, Advent, and the Fleeing Christ
December 4, 2015
by Michael T. McRay
“I find it ironic on this Thanksgiving Day—a day of sharing, hospitality, and welcome—that our nation is divided as to whether we should extend hospitality to those seeking refuge in our borders.” Such was my dad’s opening remark as he welcomed dozens of family and friends into my parents’ home in Murfreesboro. Thanksgiving is indeed a peculiar holiday, with more than one irony—and too much convenient collective forgetfulness.
While pausing amidst busyness to remember that for which we should be grateful is an important—even essential—exercise, the national myth surrounding Thanksgiving is deeply problematic, and terribly ironic. Schoolchildren decorate crafts of European pilgrims and Native Americans celebrating the first Thanksgiving, with smiles as plentiful as the food. We preserve a lovely story of friendly meetings between pilgrims and natives, where pleasant conversation must surely have accompanied laughter and sharing. Perhaps we tell ourselves that the native peoples of North America then graciously relocated to make room for the light-skinned foreigners arriving on ships.
But that isn’t true—the European invaders killed them. They chased them, burned them, beat them, raped them, evangelized them, tortured them, and displaced them. Many natives call Thanksgiving “Thankskilling” or “Thankstaking,” and indeed, they’ve remembered that era of American history far more accurately.
Consider the Pequot Massacre of 1637. Five time Plymouth County Governor William Bradford had this to say about it:
Those [natives] that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the Europeans] gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.
Not only did the European invaders wreak havoc on the natives of this land, those invaders often attributed their victories to God and gave thanks. Thus, the more accurate (though still admittedly simplistic) narrative might sound quite similar to our current fears: Immigrants with strange tongues and strange beliefs arrived from across the sea, many with fervent religious ideologies, and then conducted genocide. Before Columbus arrived, the Native population living in now-U.S. territories is estimated to have been around 10 million; by 1900, it was 300,000.
This Thanksgiving, it is indeed ironic then that so many people this country fear the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees, claiming that ISIS may have infiltrated their ranks and could bring religiously-motivated terror to this country. But to paraphrase John Oliver, only once in American history has a group of immigrants arrived on these shores and wiped out the current residents—and we celebrated that last Thursday.
For those of us who claim Christianity, our resistance to welcoming refugees presents theological problems. According to biblical text, after Moses leads the Hebrew people out of Egypt and they arrive to Canaan, God consistently reminds them to be kind and fair to the stranger and foreigner among them, “for you were once foreigners in Egypt.” Jesus talked later about doing to others as we would want others to do to us. A great many people in our history came here looking for opportunity, freedom, and new lives. Then, a great many of them killed the people they found here and kidnapped and enslaved darker-skinned folks from Africa to do their labor for free. It seems we might be wise, even if only in penance for our unspeakable national sins, to extend a welcoming embrace to those seeking the same refuge here that we believe our predecessors sought. The engraved poem on the Statue of Liberty boasts these words: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / … Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Perhaps, to match popular sentiments today, we should chisel in “unless they are brown, Muslim, and from the Middle East.”
But we are now in Advent season, the beginning of the Christian year. We are awaiting the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God With Us. Not long after this brown-skinned Christ is born into an occupied land in the Middle East, his life is in danger, and his family flees, traveling across borders to find refuge in Egypt. The significance of this narrative must not be lost. If we proclaim Jesus as the incarnation of God—God with skin on—then we must also proclaim that God was a Middle Eastern refugee.
Advent is not just about anticipation; it’s about preparation. We don’t just wait; we get ready. This season, let’s remember that the brown-skinned, Middle-Eastern refugee Christ is arriving soon.
Are we ready?
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the new Community Outreach Coordinator at the Tennessee Justice Center, founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Paris, Syria, and the Pursuit of Terror: Saying No to Xenophobia
November 24, 2015
by Craig D. Katzenmiller
“Are you all right?”
“Of course, are you all right? It’s the middle of the night there.”
“Yes, we’re fine, but we wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Well I’m all right. Why are you calling?”
“Terrorists just bombed the Tube.”
Such was the exchange I had with my mother, who called me early in the morning on July 7, 2005. Terrorists had indeed bombed four trains in the London Underground as well as a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. My workmates and I—I was serving an internship in an archive in Westminster—found out about the attack only because an American audience found out about it immediately.
And the American media immediately began calling that attack “London’s 9/11.” Fearsome stuff for American audiences.
Back in London though, I was struck by how ho-hum everyone was about it. We turned the TV in the archive’s conference room to the BBC and watched the updates coming in in real time. And, unlike the small group of us nervously huddled around the TV in my high school library on 9/11, everyone just calmly watched.
“It’s certainly not the Blitz, is it?” said one of the archivists there.
And that comparison immediately contextualized the events for me. To Americans, lives of innocent thousands were in harm’s way, as they were on 9/11; to Englanders, it was a small event, unlikely to repeat itself daily for months and months on end, as the Blitz had done a generation earlier.
We Americans now, for better or worse, view everything though the lens of 9/11, thinking that that event somehow changed things.
Our 9/11 lens has thus tinted the way we view the most recent Paris attacks—most notably, in the days since, in the way we view asylum seekers.
Donald Trump, one party’s current front-runner presidential candidate, said, as reported by the New Yorker, that if he’s elected, these asylum seekers are “going back.” He continued, “They could be ISIS, I don’t know.…This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A two-hundred-thousand-man army, maybe. Or if they sent fifty thousand, or eighty thousand, or a hundred thousand, we got problems, and that could be possible. I don’t know that it is, but it could be possible, so they’re going back. They’re going back.” It is important to note, as the article points out, he decided not “to cite a source” for his numbers.
At any rate, that’s simple fearmongering, playing off post-9/11 fears so as to stoke his own candidacy on the one hand and our desire for security on the other.
Surely, goes Trump’s “logic,” these brown-skinned Syrian refugees are likely terrorists just like the 9/11 brown-skinned terrorists were terrorists. After all, brown-skinned folks, whether Mexican, Syrian, or American, are the greatest threat to a certain portion of the voting-public’s xenophobic version of the American Dream.
It’s no wonder Trump’s so popular among such a voting-public.
Fear then, the great underwriter of xenophobia, makes mass deportations sound reasonable. And in the fearsome wake of 9/11, Americans are all too happy to allow a threat to be exaggerated. Yet while the notion of mass deportations in the name of security, in the name of safety, is gaining popularly, the blind eye has been turned to the deadly violence already in our midst (to gun violence, for example). It’s easier simply to scapegoat.
And so the notion of deportation, the notion of exclusion, the notion of sacrificing the scapegoat.
That scapegoats would be sacrificed for personal security perhaps betrays the fact that there is a deep idolatry at play here also.
For us Christians, especially, the plight of refugees must seize our attention. We must attentively remember our spiritual roots and how God cared for the alien Israelites in Egypt and how God demanded that Israel likewise, after the Exodus, care for aliens, orphans, and widows. We must be attentive to the flight that the Holy Family took centuries later back to Egypt, fleeing the murderous conditions in their homeland. We must be attentive to the Fathers and Mothers of the Church who, in the very earliest centuries, defended Jesus’s messiahship—the notion that in his role as messiah, Jesus united all peoples and turned the powers’ swords into ploughshares—by showing how Christians did not recognize political boundaries, nor did they fight in the empire’s wars. We must be attentive to the fact that ever since St. Benedict penned his Regula in the sixth century, monastic folks have been going to bed every night having just uttered the phrase from Psalm 4 which claims that “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.”
But more than merely giving our attention to these things, we must live into them. We must name the xenophobic rhetoric of safety and security as idolatrous; we must bear witness to Jesus’s lordship over our lives by rejecting the myth that nationality divides humanity; we must reject wars; and we must care for the widow, orphan, and alien in our midst. Like Egypt welcomed the Holy Family, we must welcome refugees fleeing from a very real threat of death.
All of this, of course, requires that we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable. Nonviolence and hospitality require that we rid ourselves of the desire for safety. Being a new father myself, this for me is difficult to imagine at times, but we have to take seriously the notion that our safety comes from God, not fences and so-called smart bombs. We have to take seriously Matthew’s counsel: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” There are other planes of fear to which we are beholden: “rather,” Matthew continues, “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Such rightly ordered fear demands that we reorient our lives, that we repent. Therefore, to the sin of scapegoating, we must repent; to the sin of xenophobia, we must repent; to the sin of deportation, we must repent; to the sin of inhospitality, we must repent.
And we must turn to the God whose fearsome identity is in fact love and rest in the security such Love gives. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
Being freed from fear of the stranger and, moreover, from the fear of death, we are enabled to offer welcome even to the brown-skinned stranger, trusting that he who is Love will draw both self and stranger into the cruciform bond of precisely that Love.
In the end, we must rid ourselves of the lens that 9/11 presents our eyes. For, as Stanley Hauerwas so rightly said immediately after 9/11, “Our response is to continue living in a manner that witnesses to our belief that the world was not changed on September 11, 2001. The world was changed during the celebration of Passover in AD 33.”
Craig “Dusty” Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor at Tokens and a newly ordained stay-at-home dad.
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God of the When
November 19, 2015
by Jeannie Alexander
My mind and heart are still raw from the day. Do I try to speak of the little ecstasies, the hunt I have been on, or do I choose to let the events and the images of the day steep in my mind, to stain my perceptions and memories like tea, and only then to write? We are taught that God is all powerful, but what fragile momentary beauty our encounters with the holy. The day moved in slow motion, and even now in the breeze I hear the bones of a horse clattering in the tree softly outside my window, a presence drifting across the land, touching the dreams of boys. These bones, long driftwood ribs lost by the horse, and then found again many years later in a grove by a woman searching.
We walked through the horse pasture, let to grow wild with rabbit tobacco, sweet annie, and burr. I had just taught my future nephews, 8 and 10, that an ankle length skirt is no impediment to scaling a fence and hopping a gate. A horse approached us, deep brown like the velvet peat waters of the lake, breathing her hay breath into our noses and open mouths the pneuma of the fields. Beneath the reflection of a cataract sun, we walked through the copse of trees, now christened “Bone Grove” (little boys continue Adam’s work of naming and renaming all of creation) and followed the horse trail into the shadows until we came upon the bones I had left sleeping a year ago still slumbering now. The boys excited to a high pitched chatter began to gather up the thick stout leg bones, and we built a temporary cairn of them. Deeper we walked through a low tree tunnel, where we found fresh evidence of a recent horse’s sojourn to the trickle creek. I looked for the slave graves my beloved spoke to me of, but aside from an intentional piling of stones at the base of a tree I found no other indication of a possible place of rest.
The boys are mad about creeks, and I am mad for their love of each other and the inevitable competition between the two set in their own bones from birth. We follow the creek for a bit until I refuse to cross through the tunnel under the road. Isiah waits by my side as his brother, pretending to be just slightly braver, walks another 20 feet ahead. I turn to go back and the youngest pleads for me not to leave his brother, I look into his serious brown eyes and promise never to leave either of them. The three of us walk back to the cairn and carry out more of the horse whose ribs sing in the dogwood now. Isaac complains briefly that he will get dirty, and I tell him of course he will, he’s carrying great green bones caked with mud and bugs, and what does he think water is for anyway? We approach the gate and toss our bones over and ready ourselves to climb, but first I break off a branch of rust brown sweet annie and tell them to smell. I tell them that this is one of my favorite smells and that their uncle loves it dearly. The elder brother focused and about the business of life already, sniffs quickly and he is over the fence.
And then it happens, and I am there watching God pause and emerge before me, breaking through as the clouds part and golden light seeks out the curves of Isiah’s face as he inhales deeply, eyes closed, and replies, “I love this, this is one of my favorite smells.” Oh child you have now participated in a memory, the haze of a haunting, and the continuation of the sacred knowing of a particular land by a particular people. You will remember but perhaps for a long time you will not know why.
Later driving back to Nashville, I talk with Dean for an hour, Dean with whom I share a soul of common substance, Dean who never struck out violently against another human and yet has completed 18 years of exile in the desert wasteland of Tennessee prisons serving an impossible three life sentences without possibility of parole. As if the machine of prison death could take his future lives when it cannot even own his heart and mind in this one. We share the familiar greeting now: “How are you?” “Somewhat dying.” and laugh easily in each other’s presence. I tell Dean that a gallery has recently taken three pieces of my art and he understands my anxiety at letting the pieces go.
Each photograph a scrambling, fleeting, flailing effort to interpret and project a sacred blink of suspended desire and fulfillment before paradise is lost again. And if I let these images go, do I let the moment go, must I surround myself with such totems? Forgive my idolatry, I was only chasing you.
Dean too is an artist, my twin soul chasing God’s ecstasy. Because that’s just it for freaks like us, chasing the addiction of that moment when you first felt the Presence moving inside of you. We build our walls and listen as Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God, when the whole time we should have been stripping naked in the field.
Aquinas asked God “when?” and God opened God’s arms, and Aquinas having learned compassion said he allowed himself to stay. But don’t believe it. We do not exist in such moments for prolonged periods of time. It’s too much; the intensity is too much. And so we look away and release the embrace, just as Aquinas did. At best we can commit to staying raw, naked, and awake; waiting for God to come in punctuated events like a slippery eel in cold waters that we can only grab long enough for the shock to knock us on our ass, gleeful to suck in the water and drown again. God would be a constant lover if only we could stand in the moment and truth of the “when?” What would the world do with such mad men and women, stepping into ourselves, stepping into God, locked in the embrace, and releasing the grief and fear? What would such men and women do with the world, and how long could we burn?
Rev. Jeannie Alexander is the co-founder and director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, a legal and educational advocacy organization on behalf of prisoners and their families, aimed at dismantling the reality of mass incarceration in TN. She served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.
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