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Authority and Alasdair MacIntyre: What Learning to Fly Airplanes without Engines Reminds Me about the Moral Life

May 12, 2015

by Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens

I am learning to fly sail-planes. It is a fine hobby for someone who enjoys an adrenaline rush. I feel like a little kid, a 48 year old kid, when I am coming in on final approach, and know that there is no throttle which can be advanced, no engine upon which I might rely.  There is just gravity, and a glide path, and the energy stored up in height and velocity, the graceful lines of the sail-plane gliding toward the almost mile long grass strip at Puckett Field, Eagleville, Tennessee.

Sitting in the cockpit before our second or third tow one day, my instructor asked me to run through the check-list. He is a very fine instructor, and I come away every time having learned something. I was particularly pleased in the immediate flight prior to have learned how to do wing-overs, a marvelously graceful move in a sailplane, that makes a novice like myself feel all the sudden like I’m flying a fighter jet.

So I dutifully and quickly ran through the check-list. “Ready,” I said.

He simply replied, “There is one thing you’ve left untended that will kill us.”

I ran through the check-list again, and realized I had failed to lock the spoilers, devices which extend vertically from the top side of a wing for the purpose of “spoiling” the lift generated by a wing, typically used during a landing to assist the pilot in landing at the desired spot.  But try to take off with those things unlocked and they will pop out when you get a little ways down the runway—to ill and possibly deadly effect.

The non-judgmental, factual, non-shaming way my instructor said what he said—“There is one thing you’ve left untended that will kill us”—is an example, I do think, of rightful and good authority.

This experience reminded me of a beautiful autumn day on the Notre Dame campus, sitting alongside the reflecting pool which sits below the 14-story-high mosaic of Touchdown Jesus, re-reading some passages from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, when I came across one particular line that made that beautiful day memorable: we are all, he asserted, legalists in the modern era.

“Legalist” does not mean “conservative,” or even some mode of theologically oriented “works-righteousness.” Instead, MacIntyre was taking aim at the “legalist” who sees a rule as an end in and of itself. In modernity, as MacIntyre has famously argued time and again, we stopped thinking about life and morality having an end, a purpose, or a telos, to use the term the Greek philosophers employed. For the ancients—both biblical and Graeco-Romans—virtues were not merely timeless universal rules that simply had to be kept in order to be “moral.” Instead, virtues—skills, habits, dispositions—were always intended to help a practitioner move toward the desired end.

Also of significance: different communities and traditions, MacIntyre argued, have different sets of virtues because they have different conceptions of the end or telos for which life is being lived, or a given endeavor is being pursued. As one example, consider the different virtues embodied in the practices of soldiering or playing basketball; or consider the different virtues typically embodied among the Japanese as opposed to citizens of the United States. Those different virtues arise from different conceptions of what the purpose of life is, or the purpose of the particular endeavor.

In such a scenario, authority is then, not something to be avoided in principle. But for any good modernist, authority (and tradition) typify the great foe. For the modernist, autonomy—self-rule—is the gold standard. “’Have the courage to use your own reason.’ That is the motto of the Enlightenment,” said Immanuel Kant. Thus authority becomes increasingly suspicious, in and of itself, for the modernist. Any authority from outside oneself gets a nasty sounding name: heteronomy. Unless one wants to be an arcane pre-modern, then heteronomy is surely to be avoided.

But for MacIntyre, and for me in learning to fly sail-planes, and I am increasingly convinced, in learning to live a life worthy of the name, authority now sounds much less a foe in and of itself.

I am not advocating some sort of mindless “return to authority.” Instead, it is a more honest appreciation of the fact that, even in our assertions of “autonomy,” we are still living according to various forms of authority, various presuppositions shaped by varied traditions.

Instead, the question becomes whether it is good authority or bad authority; and this is a question that can typically be answered by considering the fruit of the life or community under consideration.

And often, such concerns may, in fact, be a matter of life or death, even when as simple as checking well the check-list prior to take off.

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Rattlesnakes, Friends, and Stand by Me

May 6, 2015

On Tuesday night we did a show in Malibu, and I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of hiking up on the Santa Monica mountains while here. Last time we were here with the family over spring break, one of the boys just stopped himself as he stuck his hand in a hand hold where lay a young rattlesnake.

I’d recently heard tale of two friends who had been hiking in such environs but many decades ago; one had been bitten right in the midst of his right butt cheek, and problematic symptoms began to manifest quickly. His friend said he would run into the village and get the doctor, while he should sit still and not move about much. Thus the friend ran quickly, found the doctor, who was unfortunately indisposed—due to the fact that one of the women in the village was in the midst of childbirth—and he could not leave. He gave directions though: go back quickly to your friend, take your pocket knife, cut an X-shaped incision over the bite, and suck out the venom, and tend to your friend until I can get there.

The friend hurried back, finding his snake-bitten friend now in rather dire straits, who asked immediately, “What did the doctor say?” Out of breath, he replied hesitantly, “The doctor said, he said that you are going to die.”

It is an immense gift to have those who will in fact stand by us when we are snake-bitten, and we were reminded this week of the artistic power of such fidelity, with the passing of Ben E. King, who famously sang the pop song “Stand By Me.” Less known is the beautiful old hymn by the same title by the pastor Charles Tindley, famed African-American Methodist pastor and hymn-writer. Tindley’s “Stand By Me” served as the fore-runner to the pop song. We performed the old hymn on our most recent show in Nashville. So, in honor of good friends, and in honor of the passing of Ben E. King, we share with you that performance here.

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Sex in Your 40s, Self- Loathing, and Cellulite: Why Nietzsche Was Often Right

May 1, 2015

by Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens

Critics are, well, so critical. But nonetheless much is to be learned from them, even if I say so begrudgingly. I do think that one of the finer parts of being raised Southern is our suspicion of those who speak in such (over) confident, (over) authoritative ways. The Southern pejorative use of “Yankee” is, in large part, a judgment upon such (over) esteem for one’s viewpoints. For all the foolishness of the Lost Cause mentality, there is something about that ethos that serves a constructive social function of questioning the powers.

So, as a Southerner, I have often enjoyed reading social critics, as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Reinhold Niebuhr, and even one of the greatest of modern haters of Christians, Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I first started reading as an undergraduate many years ago.  There are many supposedly cultured despisers of Christianity who, with condescension oozing from their blog comments, frankly don’t know what they’re talking about. But then there are people like Nietzsche who may not be dismissed so easily.

There is a discomfiting ring of truth in his insistence that Christianity appears to be a religion of “everything low and botched,” a religion for the slave class. He gets personal sometimes: “Whoever had the blood of theologians in his veins stands from the start in a false and dishonest position to all things.” Christians, he says, have a “deadly hostility to reality.” And then there’s this, one of the things that has often disgusted me too with the southern Christianity with which I have often crossed paths, and, forgive me God, have too often contributed to: that the Christian “turns the spirit of life into fear and suspicion, joy into self-loathing, passion into paranoia.”

Out of all this, Nietzsche will provide this sort of summary objection: “They will have to sing better songs before I believe in their redeemer.” (All quotes cited in Marsh, Welcoming Justice, 67-68).

Whatever those better songs sound like, I suspect that they will have to provide an anti-dote for the self-loathing that Bible Belt Christianity often fosters in good hearted men and women and children, that looks something like joy. Having recently come through a season of a great deal of depression that was often accompanied by self-loathing and self-hatred, I saw again the ways in which roots of much of that self-hatred had been fertilized by the theological pettiness I often saw parading as matters of great substance.

So I’ve been thinking a great deal more about “joy” and “happiness” and what that might look like. The Apostle Paul speaks of “joy” as one facet of the “fruit of the Spirit.” I find this metaphor of “fruit” fascinating because it holds together two loci often kept separate:  there is both the locus of “gift” (it’s from “the Spirit,” not something we manufacture) and it’s “fruit” (which is cultivated, something in which we must participate).

Somewhere I came across the snarky story about farmer Ben who did not much like church and church people, turned off by their incessant piety. He had a beautiful farm and excellent crops, well tended and carefully cultivated. The pastor went out for a visit, perusing the fields with Ben, and said in a pious tone, “The Lord sure has blessed you with a beautiful and bountiful crop.” To this farmer Ben replied, “You should have seen the place when the Lord had it all to himself.”

There is wisdom here: for those of us raised in the works-righteousness side of Christianity, we often focus upon petty concerns to the exclusion of large and broad and beautiful concerns, and, as in time it seems we get caught up in the self-hatred that comes from such legalism, such inability to keep all the rules we’ve made up for ourselves and others. When such works-righteousness does not work, we either quit the Christianity thing all together, or we discover that we are “saved by grace through faith,” but there then is given us no framework or way of life by which we receive and experience a graced existence to overcome our powerlessness, except “pray more,” “read your Bible more,” and such as this. That’s all fine advice so far as it goes, but is about as helpful in leading a joyous Christian life as it would be to say to a baseball player, simply, “pray more” and “read the Baseball rule-book more.”

Many of the medieval Christians, Aquinas for example, insisted first and foremost that Christian faith was about happiness; this itself seems shocking to many American Protestants, because we are so much like what Nietzsche said we were like. But Aquinas, drawing off numerous sources, one of whom was Aristotle, insisted that the end of life is to be happy. I like the fact that he liked to eat and drink; he saw such imbibing and enjoying the table not as in tension with his faith but as part and parcel of it.

Happiness ultimately comprised friendship with God. This “happiness” was not then mere indulgence. Instead, Aquinas held together in his notion of virtues both gift and work, grace and cultivation. To be happy, one needed to be schooled in, given the gift of, the cardinal virtues—temperance, justice, prudence, and courage or fortitude—along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These were the primary practices by which such happiness were cultivated.

As I’ve begun to observe a typology of happiness, or varied ways happiness or joy get defined, it seems there are at least three in wide spread usage: (1st) is that most typically meant of happiness, that is, the experience of pleasures or delights, whether carnal or intellectual, aesthetic or appetitive. (2nd) is “eudaimonia,” the term Aristotle used, a state of blessedness that is multi-faceted and related to one’s whole life, personal and communal, pertaining to both intellect and appetites. Some contemporary psychologists have suggested that this might be similar to what has been described as the “state of flow,” in which an individual is at one with the world in one’s work, calling, and passions, in which time almost seems to be irrelevant, a non-recognized reality in that moment. I have tasted such sweet moments in writing, teaching or lecturing, speaking or performing.  (3rd) is that altogether non-circumstantial joy which rises above difficult circumstances, a sort of irrational happiness in the face of daunting or even painful realities, even in the midst of suffering.

Some brief observations about this typology, which might contribute to the “better songs” to which Nietzsche calls us.

In my experience, Christians too quickly claim that (3) is the “Christian joy,” discounting the others. Such a rush to a sort of unhappy happiness as the meaning of Christian joy gives too much fodder for Nietzsche’s critique. So let us pause a bit, and think about the first two types of happiness.

It may be that with regard to category (1)—the happiness arising from delights and pleasures—requires a great deal of maturity and human development to really get these delights. It takes a lot of human development, for example, to get really good at enjoying sex. I’m much better at sex, and my wife is too, in our 40s than either of us were in our 20s. For example, in his book Passionate Marriage, the psycho-therapist David Schnarch says there is a correlation between (more) age and (better) sex. (He actually says there is a correlation between better sex and more cellulite, but that’s harder for me to, well, envision or wish for.) Good sex as a virtue around enjoying pleasure might be thought of this way: We can all get a mere orgasm on our own. But to get good at sex with one’s spouse requires growth as a human being, a sort of basic human maturity in facing one’s own fears, learning to practice open communication, which in turn requires overcoming our fear of judgment; it requires, too, dealing with the self-hatred and shame with which our Christian tradition too often belabors us, especially around sex and bodies; and, somewhat like a contact sport, good sex is often made better by getting and staying fit physically as well. And so forth. The point here is simply that “happiness” as it relates to pleasure is, in fact, a very legitimate Christian endeavor, for being a Christian is about becoming fully human, fully alive, with the most joyous expression of our capacities known and experienced.

One more example: We are quickly losing the art of eating, in our fast-food consumerist world. But to learn to eat good food around well appointed tables adorned with good conversation, hospitality and temperance, patience and provocation to love and good deeds: this is a beautiful art, which requires numerous skills, and some of the greatest joys I have known are around good tables with good friends where we’ve talked long into the night, imbibed temperately, and done all things lovingly and hospitably.

So, to enjoy delights and pleasures well is, in fact, a learned gift, a cultivated grace.   Similarly with regard to category (2) above, it may be that in our varied squelching of passion in life, we forget that we were created out of divine love and creativity, and that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” said Irenaeus. I like the story supposedly from the Talmud about Akiba, who on his death-bed, confessed to the rabbi his sense of failure, that he was fearful of facing the judgment of God, confessing that he had not lived as did Moses. He began to weep. The rabbi leaned in and whispered in a kind way: “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”

There is a sort of liberty and freedom in that story that occasions a deep sort of joy, akin to that of which Frederick Buechner speaks when he insisted that one’s vocation is where one’s deep gladness and the world’s great need meet. To experience such “flow” is not some indulgence, which needs be squelched in some pious rejection of passion in life, but may, I think it more likely, be part and parcel of what it means to be a child of God.

So, perhaps one lesson learned from Nietzsche: let us give ourselves a break from our indulgent self-loathing, loosen up, live a little, and learn how to grow up by tasting a bit of joy.

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Gardening and the Sophistication of Life

April 12, 2015

Today, our social media editor Craig Katzenmiller shares some thoughts inspired by his small, 64-square-feet farm.

My spouse and I relocated to Knoxville in mid-March, into our first home. Suddenly the strange  pools of water in the garage, the door that won’t close all the way, the out-of-place gutter drain are our responsibility. Gone are the assurances of having a landlord. Likewise, though, gone also are the fetters of having a landlord. And so, this past week, I bought six 2x8x8 pieces of lumber and turned the soil over in two 8×4 patches. Then I constructed two 8×4 boxes with the aforementioned lumber, filled them with garden soil and seeds and compost. I sowed my first garden.

Growing up, my father always had a garden. One of my fondest memories of his many gardens is the year, long ago when I was perhaps 10 or 12 years old, we finished planting and were left with various varieties of many extra bean seeds. Dad quickly made a final row in the bean section and we haphazardly sowed all the seeds together in that row. And, several months later, we had a crowded row of many different kinds of beans—all growing together in harmony.

Those were the proverbial good old days. Somewhere along the way though I got a little too big for those britches.

Will Campbell, the much revered Southern preacher and contrarian, speaks of entering his “sophisticated period” when he went off to Yale Divinity School. After leaving Yale, and returning to the South, he learned that much of the stuff he learned in Yale Divinity School didn’t communicate in rural churches. So he had to become unsophisticated again. Somewhere in his writings, he mentions gluing his “ordination papers”—the handwritten document his church drew up when he was a youngster, complete with typos, that said he was a minister in God’s church—over his degree from Yale. One of my friends who used to visit Will reports having seen those ordination papers glued over Will’s Yale degree. Through the years, Will learned how to be thoughtful without being “an Eastern shit”—a term Stanley Hauerwas uses when narrating his own story of gaining sophistication, incidentally, after attending Yale Divinity School.

At any rate, after those good old days mentioned above I entered my sophisticated period in college and grad school. I was not deemed smart enough to enter Yale Divinity School nor did I move eastward. But in my own way, I became an Eastern shit. Regrettably, I looked down my nose on many things—perceived lesser theologies, perceived lesser vocations, etc.

Thankfully, I met people like Lee Camp and Richard Goode while in that sophisticated phase, and they introduced me to people who recognized their so-called sophistication and abandoned it—the Will Campbells, the Stanley Hauerwases, the Zooey Glasses. Through introducing me to various authors as well as to the men who I now count among my friends at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, I was able to identify and abandon my pretense to sophistication—or at least, in my better moments I’m able to abandon that pretense.

And so, my tiny little garden out back. Gardening was one of those things I once thought myself too evolved for. I had Tyson chickens and Walmarts after all. All I needed to do was drive a couple of miles and pay for that stuff. Why go to the hassle of growing it? Well, I have since evolved to see that that consumeristic tendency is plain toxic.

So, having given up the pretense to being above it, I dug my hands into the dirt and buried some seeds. It is indeed a practice that is and will be good for me. Gardening, in a most concrete way, teaches the virtue of humility (for I cannot control the outcomes here) and it leads me to what Ragan Sutterfield calls “the agrarian mind” (Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, 31–35). According to Sutterfield, the agrarian mind has two components: first, becoming aware of the many dependencies we have—everything from grocery shopping to fuel consumption to clothes buying—and second, ridding ourselves of as many of those dependencies as we can. So we might sew together clothes instead of buying them; or we might ride our bicycles to nearby places instead of driving; or we might grow what’s needed for nourishment instead of relying on overly processed foods. These alternatives are, for Sutterfield, practices that inform virtues. As Sutterfield puts it, following Alisdair MacIntyre, “[W]e do not learn virtues through abstractions but through the concrete discipline and work of practices within a community and tradition. The intricate work of table-making is a better instructor in patience than a classroom dialogue and the discipline of a sport is a better instructor in self-denial than an abstract lesson in ‘virtue education’” (19). Sewing, cycling, and gardening are such community-based and tradition-involved practices.

Sutterfield goes on to identify gardening as a spiritual discipline precisely because it teaches us the virtue of humility, “the only sure path toward being fully human” (21), and forces us to slow down and to be aware of the gifts of God—for example, the gift of fallen leaves, which are ideal for composting. “We will have to beat the trash trucks through suburban neighborhoods to pick up bags of leaves we know are beyond value,” notes Sutterfield (39). “Gardens get in the way of progress. They start people thinking that maybe God gave us the means to feed ourselves without Tyson and Walmart getting in the mix.” And that bit of subversion initiates the defeat of the “forces who are working against the arrival of something abundant and healthy in a world that thrives on scarcity and disease” (38).

Gardening, then, allows us the time and space to grow and to become more deeply rooted to our place in the world.

Gardening allows us time and space to reflect on the fact that just as plants come from the graced nothingness of seeds, so we humans come from the graced nothingness of seeds.

And gardening allows us the time and space to be what God created us to be, namely, co-creators with God of new life around tables where there is food for all.

Craig “Dusty” Katzenmiller is social media editor at Tokens and is a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.

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January 25 Show Re-scheduled

January 21, 2015

 

The Nashville Choir’s show scheduled at the Schermerhorn January 25 featuring the Tokens Show and friends has been re-scheduled for Sunday evening October 4, 2015.  For more information on the 2015 Tokens Show schedule, please visit www.TokensShow.com/shows.  Our first show in Nashville this year will be April 14, 2015, featuring special guest David Crowder.  Season tickets for four shows, plus a special patron-only show, are still available starting at the Most Outstanding Discounted price of $97.50.  Click here for season ticket information.

Schermerhorn - Nashville

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Dispatches
From the Buckle – 071

December 15, 2014

Play

This week’s podcast features host Lee C. Camp’s reflections upon the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 1864, fought in Lee’s neighborhood, and then concludes with some segments from the Tokens Show entitled “Singing Down the Pain,” recorded in the Downtown Presbyterian Church which was used as a hospital following the battle. For more pictures on the trip, visit the Facebook album here, and to get the CD from the show, visit here.

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Greetings my friends: a blessed Advent to you.

We have taken too long a hiatus from our podcasting; and I shall not promise that we shall be back on a good regular schedule. But I had a few things I wanted to say on this beautiful Monday morning in Nashville, December 15, 2014: early this morning, early dawn, I could make out the heavy mist that lay upon us here in Nashville, and I had time to make a fire in the fireplace to warm up the house when it was still quiet before the boys were up getting ready for school, and I looked out upon the sun beginning to peek through the gray in the south east, the barren trees bearing witness to 150 years ago: most of the trees in our yard our hackberrys, which local lore has it at least, are not native to middle Tennessee. Hackberry seeds were brought here, so some say, in the feed wagons of the Union Army during the Civil War: and it is appropriate that here in our neighborhood there are many hackberrys, for it was precisely 150 years ago today that the Battle of Nashville was waged, 5000 or more killed.

Soon this morning the sun soon burned off the mist, and now it’s a beautiful, clear, cold December day. It seems so odd that thousands of people were killed here around my house, in my neighborhood, and so little to be said about it.

So I wanted to say something about it: to remember that there were many men of virtue and courage who nonetheless killed and murdered that day, and were killed and murdered that day. They gave themselves to something they believed in; and they were willing to die, and to kill, for what they believed in. They obviously had immense courage. And in a day in which we are so deeply fashioned by fear, it is worth honoring men of courage.

But to say such does not mean that we do not also have something to say about war-making; about those who lead well meaning people into war; or about the fetish Americans continue to have with war-making, with violence and slaughter. The American Civil war has been heralded by historians of war-making as an epic event in modern warfare: it gave us the rise of so-called “total war,” in which civilian populations become targets for war, in which industrialized mechanization becomes the means for mass slaughter: some 600,000 would be slaughtered in that war.

To honor the courage of men killed around me does not mean we do not also have something to say about the way in which the Gospel was pre-empted by sectarian allegiances. We have, it seems to me, completely missed the point of so-called “separation of church and state” when we then proceed falsely to assert that “the Gospel is not political.” Well meaning people mean by that, of course, that they do not want Christianity co-opted into any partisan political agenda, like Republican, Democrat, Tea-Party or Socialist; and on that score, I am in full agreement.

But that is an altogether different claim than to say “the Gospel is not political.” The Gospel IS undoubtedly political: it is a claim about the Kingdom of God. It is not that the Gospel is not political; it is that we, that I, remain so stubbornly opposed to the political claims that the Gospel makes. Namely, we do not want to love our enemies; we do not want to forgive seventy times seven; we do not want to pray for the good of those who spitefully use us. Instead, we want to see them vanquished, defeated, even humiliated. We want to win, because we think (we always think) we are the good guys, and that God is on our side, and that we ought therefore to win.

But the Gospel proclaims that victory comes not through vanquishing or killing one’s enemies; instead, the Gospel claims that victory comes through suffering love; that baptism trumps any and all other pledges of allegiance; that even if our enemies kill us, that the resurrection of Jesus is the down payment ensuring that we too shall be resurrected unto life.

I re-iterate: it is a falsehood that such claims are “not political.” It is that we, that I, do not like that sort of political ethic, because it scares us to no end. That is one reason I can say today, on this cold December 15 morning, 150 years after those days in which numerous men were slaughtered here in our neighborhood, that I honor the courage of soldiers: for it is never easy to place oneself in the space of suffering, in the space that one may be killed. I pray to have the courage that soldiers have. And I pray to have the courage that does not take up arms, and I pray to have the courage that can enable me to be willing to love those whom I hate.

We gathered a few years ago for a Tokens Show in the Downtown Presbyterian Church, used as a hospital 150 years ago today and tomorrow, following the Battle of Nashville. We share here some segments from that show.

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Remember, you can subscribe to Dispatches from the Buckle on ITUNES. And be sure to follow DISPATCHES ON TWITTER for all the latest.

Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of WWW.TOKENSSHOW.COM and the Dispatches from the Buckle Podcast, and the author of WHO IS MY ENEMY?

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From the mouths of babes

December 4, 2014

Here in the Bible Belt I hear a few white men (mostly, and occasionally white women) appearing to question the reality of white privilege, and speaking in terms that seem to assume that the fundamental locus of moral questions is the individual, rather than the more complex, and I think more realistic vision of the New Testament: that, indeed, individuals must accept or reject a call to live according to a vision of the good and liberating and rightly ordered will of God; but that there are also, in fact, great powers of deception and lies and injustice woven into the very fabric of human existence, of our communities, and policies, and institutions; and no less important, woven into the stories we tell.

I came today, looking through old journals, upon disturbing stories I had long forgotten, from when I was a younger man, still a boy in many ways, and Laura and I were living in Nairobi, Kenya. The country was relatively new to independence, the marks of western colonialism still manifest in numerous social realities, of language and commerce and cultural morays. Laura and I were working at a school in a slum. My friends Sammy and Francis would take me out into the streets, and we would visit a particular group of street boys, boys who lived on the streets, who ate out of the trash piles, who survived literally trash-pile to hand to mouth. They slept and took refuge in a wretched alley, each end of the alley way blocked by immense piles of garbage, garbage that would ooze a yellowish filth over my shoes as I would try to ease my way up and over, trying to get to their little street-boy village hidden away behind those piles, the smell of that refuse searing the nostrils, staying with one for days, long after the yellowish muck had been washed from one’s shoes.

One day—April 6, 1994—we went to visit, and began to discuss Bible stories. These African boys began to discuss the origin of the black man. “Obviously,” one said, in my own paraphrase, “the black man was the result of something going wrong with the white man—after all, we know Adam and Eve were white, because we’ve seen them on movies.”

Then another street boy told the story of Noah: when Noah was building his ark, he grew weary, and so took a rest. While he was resting, some people came and started using the ark as a toilet. It was used to such an extent as a toilet, that it was filled with shit. As the people who had just used the ark as a toilet departed, their skin contracted an awful disease. They approached Moses to ask what they should do to cleanse themselves from the disease. They were told to go back to the ark, and cover themselves with the shit found there, and they would be healed. They did so, finally emptying the ark of the human waste, covering themselves in it. Such, so this young African said, was the origin of the black man.

Let the white men and women who have ears to hear, hear.

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Thanks to Our Presenting Sponsor – AGAPE

November 22, 2014

We at Tokens are very grateful to share the following information about our Presenting Sponsor for Sunday night’s Tokens at the RymanAGAPE.

For 48 years, AGAPE has been a trusted source for building strong families.
Adoption, foster care, and family preservation have been the cornerstones of their existence since 1967. They are also one of the largest Christian professional counseling and psychological services organization in Tennessee, providing children, adolescents, and adults with guidance through many difficult life circumstances.

Professional Counseling and Psychological Services
AGAPE’s counseling department has grown significantly in the past 35 years and consists of Christian professionals licensed as psychologists, psychological examiners, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, and professional counselors.
From preschool children to mature adults, we address life issues such as relationship problems and grief, to more serious clinical issues like depression, anxiety, ADHD, or eating disorders. We are also a source for support groups for children and adults. Counseling offices can be found all across Middle Tennessee.

Crisis Foster Care
Sometimes, parents may be faced with the critical choice of how to care for their children due to substance abuse rehabilitation, need of medical or psychiatric care, job loss, or homelessness. Knowing that children are being cared for and nurtured is vital to recovery and that is how AGAPE can help. We provide temporary, out-of-home placement for children with fully trained and approved foster parents who are backed by our staff of professional social workers. A stable home for children and temporary assistance with parenting may be the best step toward restoring families.

Adoption Services
With the belief and conviction that every child deserves a family, AGAPE provides homes for newborn infants as well as older children. More than 85% of our adoptions are children who are older, have siblings or are of minority race; some are physically or mentally handicapped. A “forever family” is our goal for each of them.

Maternity Counseling
We provide a safe, caring place for an expectant mothers to turn to when facing an unplanned pregnancy. Our professional staff works closely with each mother, helping to make a life plan for the child, whether through parenting or adoption.

Statistics
In addition to the information above, it is important to note that in its history, AGAPE has served over 5,000 children in placement services. Over 1,000 have been adopted into forever homes.  In 2013 alone, AGAPE conducted over 13,000 counseling sessions serving more than 1,700 counseling clients.

Location and More Information
AGAPE’s main campus is located at 4555 Trousdale Drive, Nashville, Tennessee 37204 (615-781-3000). Information about all their services, as well as contact information, can be found on their website, AGAPENASHVILLE.ORG.

Their missions statement sums it up well: AGAPE exists to serve the needs of families, children, and adults in Middle Tennessee with an unconditional agape love through Professional Counseling and Psychological Services, Adoption Services, Crisis Foster Care, and Maternity Counseling

We at Tokens are mighty thankful for the wonderful work and ministry performed by the most outstanding folks at AGAPE. And we encourage you to seek more information if they can be of service to you or someone you love.

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The Welcome Table: A Thanksgiving Reflection – Revisited

November 19, 2014

This is a revised version of a piece Michael McRay wrote after attending the 2010 Thanksgiving Tokens Show “The Welcome Table.”

For some, tolerance is a noble endeavor. Many speak of the need to tolerate other religions, other viewpoints, other orientations, other cultures, or maybe even simply other denominations. But for others, and hopefully for Christians, tolerance does not go far enough. Tolerance merely allows the other to speak without actually taking the time to listen and understand. Tolerance says the other can stay but just so long as we don’t have to genuinely engage one another. Tolerance, itself, is not a Christian discipline. Christianity teaches hospitality.

Hospitality takes tolerance to the next level. It is inviting, welcoming, and gracious. Hospitality encourages the other to speak, and then listens, and engages the other in their story. Tolerance says, ‘You may stay, but on your side of town.’ Hospitality, though, is an open door. It means inviting the Muslim, the Arab, the enemy, the poor immigrant, the former prisoner, the stranger, the friend to come inside and be at home. Hospitality invites everyone to the welcome table, to break bread and fellowship.

Since the creation of the Church, eating together has been a central component of Christian practice. The book of Acts tell us that the disciples met in each other’s houses for the ‘breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously’ (2:42). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is constantly seen participating in meals, eating with those that mainstream society claimed should not be welcome at the table: tax collectors, debtors, prostitutes; in short, the ‘other.’ Many of the parables Jesus told describing God’s kingdom centered around the image of a feast table where the poor and outcast are ushered in off the street to share in the King’s celebration meal. The Gospels record Jesus performing two miracles pertaining to food: the feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000. For some scholars, particularly referring to the Gospel of Mark, the miraculous nature (or at least emphasis) of these stories is not the multiplication of the food, but rather the fact that there was enough for everyone. This is God’s kingdom. All of people’s basic needs are met. No one has more than he or she needs, and no one has less. There is simply enough. The meal was a microcosm of this reality, but the disciples translated this ethic into all areas of their lives, sharing all they had so that all were provided for. As Ched Myers writes, the disciples, in keeping with the example set by Jesus, created an economy of enough within a cosmology of grace.

At the welcome table, everyone is disarmed, and society’s classes are destroyed. As ethicist and theologian John Howard Yoder notes, equality is present at the table as the meal provides the space for the ‘condemnation of economic segregation’ (Body Politics, 22). At the table, host and guest are made one as everyone eats together. Power structures do not exist at the welcome table, only relationship and fellowship. The powerful are dethroned, and the poor are exalted – all by the sharing of a meal.

During my time serving as a volunteer chaplain at Riverbend maximum security prison—before the warden banned me—I often shared a meal with those working in the chaplain’s department. Prison at its very core is a place of segregation, physically, relationally, visually, etc. Prisoners all wear the same attire, always with a white stripe down the leg that reads, “Department of Corrections.” One Friday, before a chapel service that night, a few other inside friends joined the chaplain’s department for dinner. We all gathered in the office and handed out plates of rice, salad, and enchiladas, compliments of the head chaplain, Jeannie Alexander. Some of us sat on bookshelves, others in chairs, others on tables, and still others stood. There was laughter; there was conversation; there was silence; and there were second helpings—but there were no stripes. There were no insiders and outsiders. There was just “us.”

The night before Jesus was killed by the powers of his day, he broke bread with those closest to him, those with whom he had shared his life of ministry: essentially, his community. The welcome table is the lifeblood of true community. We come together with those among whom we live and work so that we might encourage and strengthen one another in our vocations. The meal provides the opportunity for everyone to break from life’s hectic routines (except for maybe the cooks!) and be reminded of the presence of God and the vitality of community. During the holidays, the meal is often the central point of the seasons’ events. For many families, the meal is a chance to regroup and reconnect after a long day, or for extended families at the holidays, after many months. The meal is a place to be renewed and rejuvenated, and perhaps even to reconcile offenses. In my family, the table has always provided the occasion for laughter, tears, and storytelling. Some of the most important lessons and conversations of my life have occurred around the meal table.

Hospitality and the welcome table are central components of many cultures. Within Islam, for example, one of the names for God is hospitality. In Palestine, many families, especially the poorer ones, share a meal sitting in a circle, whether at the table or on the floor, and everyone eats from a single dish laid at the center of the circle. Here there is equality. No one sits above or below anyone else, and no one has greater access to more food. Everyone is the same. If inequality exists at all, then it is in favor of the guest, who is honored and cherished.

Jesus describes and incarnates God’s kingdom as such an event. All are provided for, all are welcome, and no leaves wanting. There is enough for everyone. Today, regardless of the origins or transformation of this holiday, this community of generosity and jubilee can be celebrated. As we gather as family and friends, we both rejoice in the hospitality and fellowship that we experience but also are mindful of those who are alone. As Dickens so profoundly notes in A Christmas Carol, this season of the year is one where ‘want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.’ May we always and in all ways extend the welcome table to those who so intensely feel this want and are left in the cold of despair and involuntary isolation. And may we also celebrate this economy of enough, fellowshipping in the breaking of bread, as we both literally and paradigmatically participate in God’s beloved community.

Michael McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is adjunct professor at Lipscomb University, lecturing in forgiveness and reconciliation, international conflict resolution, storytelling, et al. He is the co-founder of No Exceptions Prison Collective, organizer and host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness and Transformation in the Lives of the Incarcerated (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.

As of the time of this post, tickets are available for the Tokens at the Ryman 2014. Visit our Tickets page for details.

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Eulogy for Grandmother Camp

October 23, 2014

Digging around in some old archives I was pleased to discover this eulogy for my dear grandmother Camp, who died at age 97, on 24 October 2004. May she rest in peace.

Eulogy for Grandmother Camp, 26 October 2004, Talladega, Alabama. Died 24 October 2004.

1 Thes. 4:9-11: “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters…. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.”

Foremost among my memories of my grandmother is her front, screened in porch, at the house on Highland Circle. It was above the door-sill on that porch where Grandmother and Granddaddy kept the key, a symbol of the hospitality they extended to all. It was that porch to which I would run as a small child to see the trains when they would pass by, down at the bottom of the hill. It was on the porch I recall her teaching me to tie my shoe laces, and there where I recall her reading to me on summer afternoons.

There was a quietness and a security about that screened-in-porch. The quietness was not due to the squeaky aluminum frame furniture, but to Grandmother’s presence. And there on that porch I shall always remember her reading to me the story of the “Little Engine That Could.” Without preachy commentary, she read the story a great number of times, emphasizing with an approving tone of voice the little engine’s determination as he faced the hurdle before him, “I think I can, I think I can,” and almost celebrating with the little engine as it rolled ever more quickly down the back of the mountain, “I knew I could, I knew I could.”

This was, in so many ways, the philosophy of her life: she faced life with quiet determination. In my recollection she never complained, ever, and moved ahead, trusting that what would be needed would be provided. This was true even, perhaps, to a fault; so eager never to complain, it seems, she found it difficult to discuss the hardships of life; she found it difficult to draw near, emotionally, to the burdens and hills and challenges she had faced in her own life. I had no idea, as that child who loved his grandmother, what those hills were that she had faced. I did not know that she and Granddaddy had married the last year of the Great Depression, and the economic hardships that her generation faced. I did not know then that her father had taken his own life; that she had had three sons, not two, that third son having died at birth in their home. It was a source of great sorrow to me that dear Grandmother still thought “every day,” she told both my brother Conrad and me at different times in the last two years, about her father’s death, wondering what it meant, wondering what guilt she bore, wondering why he did it.

After I left her the day she told me that, I cried. I cried because I wanted her to know, deep in her soul, that of course she bore no guilt, and that she could allow herself to be free of such guilt; and that she did not have to bear that heavy burden alone, that there were many around her who would help her carry that burden, if she would allow them. This was her only weakness I knew—to carry these burdens alone, unable to talk about the things that caused her discomfort, without asking for help. It was not part of her consciousness to realize that the little engine with determination—“I think I can, I think I can”—can be all the greater when hooked together with others, so that the chorus becomes, “we think we can, we think we can,” by God’s help and power.

But in the way she knew how, in the way taught to her generation, she faced the hurdles before her, and she did so in an incredible way. Her sorrow never became self-pity; her life-long questions never gave way to self-obsession. Instead, she set a course of life that was, in so many ways, the embodiment of the apostle’s instructions to the believers at Thessalonica: she minded her own business; worked hard throughout her life; she quietly and simply lived and loved. (I should qualify: she minded her own business with two exceptions—guts and facial hair. She was not unknown to pat someone’s belly and remark, “you’re getting a little gut,” or in response to one of us having grown a beard, “have you lost your razor?”)

When I asked Daddy what remarkable memory stood out in his mind, he said that she was simply what anyone could ever want in a mother: she always put their interests first, loved them, and let them pursue their dreams and interests. It would seem a psychologists wonder, it seems to me, that this woman who had experienced tragic loss of a father, brother, and child, could still let her sons do all of the things they did, wandering unaccompanied and unsupervised through the hills and creeks of Munford, the caves around Cheaha mountain, hunting, playing, and roaming in a way that gave way to [my uncle] Bill’s getting run over by a car on one occasion, and receiving a shotgun blast to his abdomen on another—that anything of fun and play her sons wanted to do, she allowed, with the exception of Daddy’s request to go camping by himself somewhere up on Cheaha.

Her life with Granddaddy was one of rhythm and quietness, a rhythm that had place for work and play, productivity and entertainment, spiritual disciplines and naps. Granddaddy’s work ethic was undisputed, and Grandmother always sought to be helpful alongside him, howsoever she could. And yet alongside that work ethic was a joy in life that gave rise to their particular way of taking vacations: that when we would ask them, “where are you going,” they typically responded, “we don’t know.” And so they would take off with bro. and sr. Fields, with bro. Kermit driving, wheresoever the mood or the Spirit led them; or Granddaddy would drive Grandmother with many of the women in her family—Faye, Thalia, Jewell, Rene and Snook—to see the fall foliage Grandmother loved, or wherever the women wanted to go.

This kind of characteristic joy in life was undergirded by a quiet rhythm—lunch was always followed by some quiet time reading or just being still in their living room; and [my cousin] Jeffrey recalls how, no matter how late to bed, that the mornings had time before breakfast for Bible reading, which typically took the shape of listening to recordings of scripture on 78’s. Every Thursday was highlighted by fried Chicken Day at Tebo’s, every Saturday night was marked by Lawrence Welk, and every Sunday and Wednesday characterized by church attendance. Many afternoons gave opportunity for Grandmother to watch her “shows,” and time for Scrabble or Dominos. (It is a dear memory, which I wish every boy could know: me taking a nap on the sofa after we had eaten fried chicken for Thursday lunch, while Grandmother watched her “shows,” the sofa where I dozed next to her rocking recliner; the grandmother holding the hand of the boy, the boy waking sometime later to play Dominos, or read a book, with his grandmother.) And every Christmas was characterized by ambrosia, sausage balls, fudge, the “money tree,” and the old bell that hung from the dining room door-way, playing “Silent Night” at the pull of the string.

Grandmother worked not only at the office but at home; there were so many wonderful family meals at the dining room table, with Jeffrey, Conrad and [my other cousin] Andrew often throwing Grandmother’s parkerhouse rolls across the table to anyone who said “please pass the rolls.” Their home was a place of great hospitality, whether for meals or for spending the night, so that Grandmother said she often would not know how many boys might come up from the basement on a Saturday morning, never knowing how many friends [my father] Jim and [uncle] Bill had invited to spend the night. And before the preachers for the Gospel Meetings would be housed in motels, they would often be housed at Grandmother and Granddaddy’s.

As they loved their children, so they loved their daughters-in-law, Gayle and Betty-Lou, and their grandchildren. Their white Datsun was always at the ball games or tennis matches; Conrad recalls them honking their horn whenever he would make a hit or field a ball. They were always in the stands at Jeffrey and Andrew’s football games. And they were always present to [my sister] Kathryn’s and mine piano recitals, with that sole granddaughter having a special place in their hearts, which showed itself simply in the cinammon toast that Grandmother always made at Kathryn’s request for breakfast. And Grandmother had the opportunity of loving many great-grandchildren. And as Conrad put it last night, “you know you’ve lived a good, full life when, at age 97, you can play Dominoes with your great-grandchildren—competitively!”

Grandmother’s life was a job and joy well-done. We will miss her immensely. But our lives will always carry her with us, for we are, in so many ways, who we are because of who she was. We give God thanks for the gift of her life to our lives.

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