June 11, 2021

Weekend Listening: Pharoah Sanders, et al - Movement 1

Composed by Sam Shepherd and backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders have offered a meditative, soundscape of a jazz record that is unlike anything I've heard for a long time on Promises and I love it. This weekend will be full with loading boxes into shipping containers. Sanders will keep things chill. Take a listen:

So, now you know what I'll be listening to this weekend. What will you be listening to?

Support musicians! A great way to do this is on Bandcamp. Take a look at what I'm discovering there. You can find all my weekend listening tracks on the playlists I've created on Spotify and YouTube.

June 10, 2021

What Will I Miss?

As mentioned in last week's music post, I've been thinking about those people and places I will miss in Houston, TX. The residents of this state present a state pride that, in my experience, is unmatched across the country. And yet that pride is often fragile; I've never met people so easily wounded by detractors of their state pride. So, one has to respond carefully to the often asked question of those leaving the state, "What are you going to miss most?"

I tend to agree with chef David Chang's assertion of Houston from an episode of his show Ugly Delicious, "I hate the weather. I hate the way it looks but the city of Houston is sort of perfectly set for people to take a chance on the new.” I prefer Chang's frank summary of Houston over the effusive enthusiasm of sociologist Stephen Klineberg at Rice University who is fond of saying that as Houston goes, so goes the nation. In many respects, I hope Klineberg's wrong—although, I'd support political leadership like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo all the way to the White House.

What I will miss are the chances taken on new and creative endeavors in niches across the city. Like many southwest American metropolitan cities, Houston is a sprawling network of neighborhoods and communities. Mega-cities akin to Houston are almost by accident, an afterthought (the infrastructure here is a dead giveaway of that). Highways string together developments that were intentionally far flung from each other as the region has always been composed of independent-minded residents who crave their own space. Slowly, year after year, decade after decade development has grown more dense until what you have is a patch work of communities that now bump up next to each other to create a massive city. The beauty of this it is difficult to see at first. You have to turn off the use of highways on your map app and use surface streets. As you walk, ride or drive through neighborhoods you would otherwise have no reason to be in you discover in Houston an exploration of the American, entrepreneurial spirit that is quirky. Unfettered by coastal American vanity and bolstered by Texan's "I-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want" mentality, Houstonians meld together the strangest of things and some times it works!

What will I miss? Lentil soup.

I know that a week after I leave, I will find myself craving the lentil soup made at the back of a liquor store in my Houston neighborhood and served in styrofoam cups. Down the block from a bar—which hosted some great punk shows before the pandemic—sits a liquor store with a crumbling parking lot that has melded together Mediterranean and Mexican food in a way that should not work and yet is magical. I will miss their lentil soup, their fajita fries (akin to the strange but delicious San Diego taco shop amalgamation, carne asada fries, but different), spicy potatoes and cauliflower.

I won't miss country music or brisket or Gov. Abbott. I know that Texas prides itself in the big and bombastic and it's "come-and-get-it-ness" but these have never impressed me. Rather, it has been the new and weird and small chances people take on doing something that is honest and representative of themselves, using whatever resources they have at hand, that won me over time and again.

That's what I'll miss most.

Austin went straight. Keep it weird, Houston.

June 8, 2021

The Way of Love (redux): Prayer + Worship

Note: You might first want to read this and this.

This is the third in a series reflecting on Bishop Curry's Way of Love as a model for starting new faith communities. In my mind, there are 3 stages for making this useful: pre-engagement, engagement, gathering. The first stage, which I'm calling "pre-engagement" is designated as such because this applies 4 of Curry's practices before engaging the context in which a new community will be started. In this stage, a small group of people who will start a new faith community together begin gathering. Last time I talked about the practices "turn" and "learn." Here I'm writing about "pray" and "worship."

Pray - Dwell intentionally with God

Whenever I think of prayer, I think of the film Gravity and one of Sandra Bullock's lines, "Will you say a prayer for me? Or is it too late... ah, I mean I'd say one for myself but I've never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how..." Teaching people to pray is one of our duties in a day and age when an increasing number of those around us share the sentiment of Bullock's character. This is one of the gifts of the Book of Common Prayer; it is a guide to prayer not the limits of prayer. 

The work of prayer is the re-framing of how we engage the world; not being bound by how the state or marketplace marks time but instead marking time with periods of prayer. In my tradition—the Episcopal Church, prayer is not bound by my will or emotional state but by the shared commitment to prayer with countless Christians around the globe who at the same time stop and pray, often sharing the same words as mine. It has less to do with how we feel compelled to say but about signaling to God and others that time, along with all of creation is in the hands of the Creator. This is not to say that prayer should not incorporate our feelings and desires. It is just that, for those within the Anglican tradition, it is not driven by this.

Maybe the simplest way to explain prayer is as a conversation. A conversation requires as much listening as it does talking. I grew up in the evangelical environment where prayers were most often extemporaneous. Prayers were not read or prepared ahead of time. Rather, prayers were the thoughts and expressions of the person praying at that moment. I learned to talk to God by listening to others talk to God in prayer. Scripture establishes that we are each seen and known by God. The Christian faith is relational and in any relationship there are certain things that ought to be expressed time and again. Affection. Apology when required. Gratitude. Asking for help. The fact that I tell my wife every day, “I love you” the exact same way at the same time doesn’t make it any less meaningful. The ritual of this expression of my love for her is part of what sturdies our relationship–even when we fight. What I have found is that both types of prayer–the written and my own immediate expression–are equally as important. Either of these forms stops us in our tracks and acknowledges God's presence in the world.

Worship - Gather in community to thank, praise, and dwell with God

For Episcopalians, a conversation about "prayer" and "worship" may seem natural. This is not necessarily the case for Christians of other traditions. In the Episcopal Church the two terms are almost synonymous with each other. Similarly in evangelical traditions, terms such as “music” and “worship” become interchangeable. As my friend Mike Angell once responded when I posed this distinction to him, worship in our tradition is the "public dimension" of prayer. But what is happening in worship? I've found it helpful to think of worship as the act of people coming together to acknowledge God at work in the world together. We do so by setting aside time to do so. Yet, rather than separated from "normal time" this sacred moment tethers the events and occurrences of the week past to the one coming. I think of it in 3 phases:

Memory: remembering (being reminded of) why we do this
In the first phase, we read Scriptures that remind us who we are and why we are gathered together. We confess where we've messed up in the prior week and lift our concerns and celebrations to God collectively. We are reminded that God’s story is the story we are living out in the rest of our lives.

Community: reuniting (and reconciling) with God and each other
In the second we find the “peak” of our time together. In most Episcopal congregations on any Sunday morning you can be certain that the gravity of the service is around the Eucharist table, not the pulpit. This is significantly different than many reformed and evangelical traditions where the sermon is the central point of the service. I was drawn to this because it demonstrated a central value in what it means to be the church: it is not disparate people fixated on an individual, it is a community gathering around a common meal where each participates equally. We are reminded that we are not alone; that we go about life with each other and with God. During this time we offer reconciliation with God and each other, and celebrate the Lord’s Table–we feed on the Word through the bread and wine, through the reflection of Scripture... together.

Mission: re-engaging with our world
In the third, we begin to ease our way back out into the world. It’s when we remember that this “separate” activity is done publicly and for the purpose of our lives--that are lived “out loud”, or in public.

I offer these explanations rather than a step-by-step approach merely because I think we have enough of that in the Book of Common Prayer. It is more important that we recognize why these rhythms of prayer and worship exist; what they are for. When we understand the purpose of these forms then we can begin to riff on them, making them fit better for the context we intend to serve in. This is why I recommend that small group of those intending to start a new community begin to live into these routines before they gather those from the context they serve. Prayer and worship isn't performative. It's a practice, a routine and rhythm that will shape how we go about our work of reaching out to others.

More to come.

June 7, 2021

Wonder and Opportunity

If you attend a church that follows the lectionary, you will know that one of the readings on Sunday was out of 2 Corinthians. The passage conveys to us that there are forces at work around us beyond the physical world. I doubt you needed a Bible verse to tell you this. One has only to look at the wonder in a child’s eyes, stand in awe of a beautiful landscape or experience the collective power of people coming together from across various backgrounds to know that there is something spiritual about our existence. 

Jesus points to this in the Gospel reading from Sunday. When beckoned by his family and friends, Jesus turns to those listening to him speak of God’s dream for the world and says, “these are my people.” He does not do so to deny his love for his actual friends and family. Rather, he is expanding the circle. Jesus is expanding the idea of who we love, who we are connected to beyond blood and geography. He is saying that whoever participates in God’s dream for the world are our family—are our friends.

It is human nature to distinguish ourselves from others. We are inclined to associate with those that are like us, agree with us; to associate with those we feel safe with. It offers certainty, security. It is absent of wonder and curiosity. This kind of certainty is exactly what the people of Israel hoped for in asking for a king in second Samuel. They wanted a leader that would define them. And yet, the enmity for those different than us—our propensity to separate ourselves—does not come from a godly place. As Genesis 3 demonstrates, the human instinct to separate and create divisions by blood and geography are part of our broken nature, not God’s hope for us. 

What Jesus calls us to risky. It is not safe. He calls us to love those that others would call us to fear. He calls us to hope for a different future, not matter what history may tell us about divisions. He asks us to continue expanding the circle, rather than excluding others. This is risky because it requires us to be brave and trust that God will meet us in the face of others. But that is why each of us who call ourselves Christian can do so; at some point in the past, someone invited in you or a family member—years ago, or generations ago. Someone was brave enough to welcome another into the circle.

Some will frame the gospel around who it excludes. This is misguided. Our inclination to divide by blood and geography, those we are to fear and despise is not the point of the gospel. The gospel taps into something deeper than blood, something spiritual. At its root it is a message of an ever-expanding invitation to work with God for the redemption of creation. We can remain divided by blood and geography or bound together by wonder and opportunity.