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Monday, February 8, 2021

An Open Letter to the Bishop and Dean of Washington, re. Max Lucado Sermon

Bakhita - Monastic (1947)


February 8th, 2021

The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean
The Cathedral Church of St. Peter & St. Paul
3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20016

Your Grace and Your Reverence:

With all due respect to your offices and the admiration I felt for your comportment over the past year, I felt compelled to join the chorus of bewilderment and dismay surrounding the decision to offer the pulpit at the Cathedral to Max Lucado.

I freely admit, that—like Bishop Robinson—I had never heard of this person before this controversy ensued. Almost twenty years after fleeing an intolerant denomination for one which purported to celebrate or at least respect people like me, I felt I could use my church leadership as an imprimatur to discern “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right” … whatever will keep me from feeling like God considered me a mistake. I thought I could assume, for example, that a man who likened my relationship to bestiality or incest would not be invited to preach at a Sunday Eucharist at what had felt, heretofore, like a safe place.

While I understand the somewhat unique role the Cathedral plays in the national conversation by nature of its location and appreciate the privilege this has given the wider church at various moments in history, I assert that it is still the Episcopal cathedral in that city, with a responsibility to the LGBTQ people, some of them horribly church-burned, who seek safety within its walls specifically because of that affiliation, and the spotlight it enjoys means decisions like this are seen far and wide and impact how the entire denomination is perceived, especially now.

I spent twelve years working to cajole, nudge, and in some cases beg this church towards actual LGBT (we never got to the Q) inclusion. After hearing countless painful stories, enduring some withering diatribes, and witnessing some quite un-Christian behavior, I eventually had to step away for my own well-being. While we have as an organization been congratulating ourselves for a long time on how inclusive we are, it appears today in a lot of eyes that we are not yet there.

As a denizen and frequent unofficial ambassador of the church on the social Internet, I am today watching LGBTQ people who were looking to us as a sanctuary now reconsider that choice. Arguments about diversity of opinion are ringing hollow with them: people who have been wounded by words like Lucado’s do not want to hear that we need to give him a turn.  And—as Jim Naughton pointed out—he is not some unknown prophet who needs the Episcopal Church’s help to be heard. My pointed question to you is: do we need his?

I am reading again the Isaiah passage from this morning and trying to decide what outcome to pray for here. I know from your public response that you are not unaware of how this decision has been received. I pray you find the wisdom and fortitude to repair this breach and make Wisconsin Avenue again feel like a safe street in which LGBTQ people can live.

In faith,

Christian Paolino
Former Stakeholders Council Chair, IntegrityUSA


EDIT: The following statements were issued since this was published:

Sunday, September 8, 2019

She Did It Her Way: Remembering My Grandmother

Grandma At 97
PHOTO CREDIT: Tammy Paolino

Firstly I want to thank you for taking the time to remember my grandmother with us today. She did love a gathering and some of her happiest moments were the birthday parties that we staged in her honor, especially in recent years.

It’s hard to imagine having had ninety-seven birthdays. For most of them, someone probably started the familiar chorus of Stolat! Stolat! Niech żyje, żyje nam.... ​May you live a hundred years. And she must have taken them seriously, because she came pretty darn close.

I feel very grateful to be a white-bearded old man myself--and though she couldn’t see too well by the end she never missed an opportunity to tell me to shave it off--before I had to say goodbye.

I lived in her house on two separate occasions, once when I was a toddler, and one of my earliest memories is eating Froot Loops with my cousin Diane in the apartment upstairs, an apartment that would later be my first home of my own. And in between we were always welcome at her table for ​pierogi​ or deep fried calzones or pot roast, or whatever was on the menu.

She wore many hats over the years: softball player, school lunch lady, master gardener. I remember countless trips to the mall in her series of Oldsmobiles, with a pack of Kools and a bingo stamp in permanent residence in the center console, and the pine tree hanging from the rear view mirror.

One of the main things she helped instill in me is a love of music. A progression of three parlor organs, each one grander and more complicated than the last, held a place of honor in the living room, and--though she never quite mastered what all the buttons did--playing, and the sheer fact that she could--​ brought her endless joy. The soundtrack of those years includes many a halting rendition of “Moonglow” or “Mack the Knife” or “Spanish Eyes”. Over the years there were a number of songs, from Sinatra, or Bobby Vinton, or Susan Boyle, or Clay Aiken, that she took on as a personal anthem for a season or longer. She encouraged me to stick with playing beyond childhood lessons and i know she was proud of my amateurish efforts even if they weren’t exactly her style.

After we lost my grandfather 21 years ago, Jessie was on her own for the first time in her life. Like her mother, she was determined to maintain that independence for as long as she could, and she did, for a long time. As she gradually had to concede her autonomy and allow others to care for her, we filled the time and tried to distract her by sharing memories and getting her to talk about happier times.

One of my favorite stories was the time the family towed the camper down to Disney World. Grandma wisely elected to fly down and meet us rather than endure three days in Grandpa’s suburban with six other people. On the day she was supposed to arrive, it was discovered that--true to form--everybody thought someone ​else​ knew her flight information. In those pre-cell-phone days there was no easy way to find each other, and somehow grandma--in a strange city, without a solid idea exactly where we were--got herself to the campground and came marching up to us, suitcase in hand, madder than a hornet.

She didn’t think it was too funny at the time, but It was an example of the resourcefulness her immigrant, depression-surviving parents must have instilled in her as she navigated growing up in Greenpoint, returning to her native Bloomfield as a young bride and mother, and then to Little Falls as the eventual matriarch of an ever-growing family. She got such a proud gleam in her eyes when she recited how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren she had. While in some ways she was definitely a product of her generation, she was also surprisingly progressive at times, and gracefully accepted the changes and chances of this life, and the direction each of ours took. We... you... were her life’s work, and she would be not-so-secretly pleased to see you all here.

Though she wasn’t quite around physically for those hundred years, she’ll live on a lot longer than that in our memories and stories, a lady who truly did it ​her​ way.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany

Exodus 34:29-35
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43

I spent most of the past week in that slightly foggy state brought about by a cold. I’m not telling you this in a plea for sympathy, but it may give some context to the rest of what you’re going to hear. It definitely helped me identify with the followers in today’s readings, who were left trying to process events seemingly out of a fever dream. This is your brain. This is your brain on NyQuil.

I tend to fixate on strange details even while operating at 100%, and my preparation for this morning was no exception. With all the glowing faces and booming voices in today’s readings, the thing that caught my attention was that little veil that Moses kept playing with. Go in to talk to God… take off the veil. Come out to talk to the people… put on the veil.. What was that all about? The people of Israel are about to embark on a new covenant with God, with new rules for life, and here their leader is, having his own personal masquerade party.

Mardi Gras mask
"Mardi Gras Mask" by Caitlin Reagan
Used under Creative Commons License. Some Rights Reserved
Speaking of masquerade parties, Tuesday is Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday” has its roots in the church. It represented the last chance to use up ingredients like butter and eggs, back in the time when Christians abstained from not just meat but all rich foods throughout Lent, not just on Fridays. This rigorous dietary observance had a practical aspect as well: meat that they had stored away for winter was nearing the end of its usefulness, and there would be lean days ahead until spring produce was ready.

Mardi Gras marks the end of a season known as “Carnival” (literally “farewell to meat”) which may have been adapted from the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. In the Middle Ages, when Lent was a period of intense spiritual practice and self-discipline, people needed a good party first to get themselves in the right frame of mind.

As Europeans colonized various parts of the world, they brought these traditions with them, where they would get combined with and flavored by indigenous practices. Different cultures at various times in history have marked the period with more of a wild party atmosphere that would overtake a whole city, still true today particularly in New Orleans, Rio, and Sydney, to name but a few.

Even today there is a scattered practice across the various mainline churches to informally designate the last Sunday before Lent as Mardi Gras Sunday. Some churches will have special brass music at worship, cajun food or even a dance. In the Anglican church, pancakes became the symbolic food of choice, and I hope you will all join us for some on Tuesday night.

Masks, costumes, and other disguises have always figured strongly in the observance of Carnival. From the earliest days, it was an opportunity for commonfolk to put on rich regalia, sometimes poking fun at their wealthy neighbors or otherwise putting the social order on its head.

Venice specifically has a tradition of elaborate masks, which were allowed to be worn from the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26th) until Lent began as a temporary escape from the city’s rigid social hierarchy. This practice lasted from the 12th century until 1797, and was revived in 1979. Carnival of Venice, as the song goes, is again a major celebration and tourist attraction.

On my last trip to New Orleans, I visited a little museum in the Treme neighborhood that showcases the tradition of “Mardi Gras Indians”. These groups of African-Americans pay homage to the native american tribes around the city who once sheltered people escaping slavery, by creating elaborate beaded and feathered costumes. Each outfit takes six to nine months to make, weighs up to 100 pounds, and is generally worn once or only a few times.

In modern-day Belize, prominent community leaders cross-dress or wear decadent costumes while dancing for money and prizes in a traveling band known as a comparsa. Carnival in all its forms presents an opportunity to level the social playing field and escape the norms of behavior that are otherwise expected, and in some times and places brutally enforced.

.But let’s get back to Moses and that veil, shall we? Moses, unable to contain the glow his face took on after speaking to God, covers himself with a veil to soothe his frightened followers. Likewise in the Gospel, Jesus appears transformed into dazzling white before three of his disciples, accompanied by Moses and Elijah, which renders the sleep-deprived Peter incoherent.

Why do you suppose the followers in both these stories were so disturbed by the change they observed in their leader? Moses, surely somewhat enraptured from his one-on-one encounter with the Almighty, didn’t even notice his face had changed until it was pointed out to him. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit bad for him, like “Hey, P.S. I just spoke to God! But sorry if my suntan is freaking you out.” Likewise, I wonder if Jesus, bemused by Peter’s reaction, was tempted to tell his dumbfounded disciples “Fasten your seatbelts, kids. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

But yet we can identify with the followers in both these stories as well, can’t we? They were tired, maybe impatient. They’d already been asked to take extraordinary leaps of faith, giving up their familiar lives and wandering into a physical and spiritual unknown. We tend to like for the people we know to behave predictably, and I suspect they did too. But now, in both stories their leader was suddenly looking radically different and they were being told God was speaking through him with new, life-changing commandments for them to follow.. How much more could be expected of them?

I thought we would spend a few minutes on the kinds of masks we wear in our own lives.  Not actual masks, mind you, although that would make the office or the grocery store more entertaining. To mask or veil something, or ourselves, suggests deception. This isn’t always a literal or visual tactic. Sometimes it can be as simple as the details we include or leave out when telling a story. I think we all do this to ourselves and others by varying degrees, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes in self-defense, or to seem nice or smart or successful or normal. How often do we say or hear “how are you?” and the acceptable one-word response is “fine”?

But it can also be as profound as hiding a major aspect of our identity, like the people who live silently for decades with anxiety, illiteracy, addiction, or abuse; or who suppress feelings about their gender or sexual orientation out of fear they will be rejected by the people in their lives.

Then there are the physical masks we wear. We can say things about how we want to be perceived by others by the things we buy, where we go, and what we do, and we have a multibillion dollar marketing industry ready to help.

The online world introduced a whole new set of masks for us to play with. While we may think of social media as a way to present a more glamorous or exciting version of our lives to an online audience, it also allows people to tap into communities and exchange ideas that either cultural taboos, physical isolation or even political oppression would have made impossible ten years ago.

Anonymous screen names have allowed people to organize resistance movements or escape dangerous situations. However, like real masks which can allow anonymous injury to others, these online personas can have a dark side, too, like when they also allow us to spew vitriol at strangers that we’d likely never have the nerve to say to their faces.

It is not always with deceptive or malicious intent, however, that we embrace these masks.. Sometimes it’s because we don’t think the other person can handle the unshaded truth, and it’s easier or kinder to let them be with an alteration. Maybe Moses donned that veil to keep the people from being distracted while he tried to get them on board with what the covenant with God was going to mean for them, which was far more important, but Paul suggests he wasn’t doing them any favors, because instead of remembering the covenant, their minds went back to the veil.

But sometimes it’s because we’re afraid of how the “real” us would be received. Moses, you may recall, was a stutterer who was dragged reluctantly into a leadership role. When he obtained “that glow” after speaking to God, maybe he was just as uncomfortable with the attention to his appearance as his followers were seeing him in this different light. How often do we stifle our own needs or ideas for fear of sounding silly or presumptuous or “high-maintenance”? There’s an element of our culture that discourages thinking of yourself as too special, and thus we might take steps to “fit in” by dumbing down our dreams or putting them aside to be what is “appropriate” or convenient for those around us.

Yet when Moses went back in to consult with God, the mask comes off. And so it should be with us, as if God couldn’t see past it anyway! Paul tells us, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” How freeing indeed that we have a God who knows our frailties and selfish idiosyncrasies and loves us anyway?

My hope for this Lent is that we can all examine the masks we wear, the limits we put on ourselves and others, that are born of fear and doubt; That we challenge ourselves and those we encounter to be transfigured by God’s presence, and not hide but embrace the irrepressible glow that comes from God’s love for us. We have only to listen to to the words and model the actions of his son, whose covenant with us requires only love, pure and unmasked, for God, one another, and ourselves, just as we are. And what a celebration that would be. Amen.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

I'm No Hero; That's Understood | All the Redemption I Can Offer is Beneath This Dirty Hood

Charles de Foucald - Monastic & Martyr (1916)

This week I read an interview in Esquire with Bruce Springsteen, in which the iconic rocker describes his mental health journey as well as his lifelong struggle to process his complex relationship with his father. A remote, hard-edged drinker, the elder Springsteen was enraged by what he saw as the weaker facets of his son's character.  It wasn't until he was near death that he tacitly, sparingly acknowledged Bruce's better points, saying only "You've been good to us."
“All I do know is as we age, the weight of our unsorted baggage becomes heavier . . . much heavier. With each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher. . . . Long ago, the defenses I built to withstand the stress of my childhood, to save what I had of myself, outlived their usefulness, and I’ve become an abuser of their once lifesaving powers. I relied on them wrongly to isolate myself, seal my alienation, cut me off from life, control others, and contain my emotions to a damaging degree. Now the bill collector is knocking, and his payment’ll be in tears.”
That constant, unfulfilled quest for validation took its toll, and the rocker described two breakdowns, the more recent just ten years ago, and credited decades of therapy and the unwavering support of wife Patty Scafila with his survival.
Springsteen on Broadway
I could say more about that, but the interview tells it far better than I could, and you could find more detail in his autobiography.  Later this month, his Broadway stage show, an abridged version of the book interspersed with a dozen or so of his songs, will air on Netflix.  

Having learned these things about him, a man whose music has contributed so much of the soundtrack of my own life, brought back many of the same feelings I wrote about earlier this year. 

As an ardent music fan, I've realized I have a tendency to fill in the blanks in what I know about artists' lives; their characters get shaped in my mind by their lyrics, their stage banter, and whatever they choose to share with the media.  When they do or say something that departs from who I've decided they are, it's jarring.  The rash of premature deaths in the past year notwithstanding, this happens in smaller ways more often by the occasional revelation, misplaced statement, or decision.

Something like this happened this week.  I learned something about another artist whose music I love, which suggests that we'd be in a pretty fundamental conflict on certain social issues if we actually knew each other, which we clearly don't.

And I don't know what to do about it. Unlike some artists, this person's convictions are not widely known, and thus I have little to go on other than scant facts and assumptions you can draw by association. I don't know enough about the situation to decide if it changes how I feel about this individual as a person. If it did, it would change my relationship to the music, which felt yesterday like a house that had been robbed. That would have a follow-on effect on how and with whom I spend my time, especially over the past year.

Part of me wants to go hardcore, only because of the time I spent fighting on this particular issue and in this particular space.  On the flip, I'm reminding myself that no promises were made or broken here.  We are not friends; I do not have the right to expect my values to be shared or my allegiance to be reciprocated.  The music is out there, take it or leave it; anthems by flawed heroes for flawed fans, maybe that much sweeter because of the wrinkles and scars we can compare to our own.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant


Yesterday a lot of people were introduced to the Episcopal Church, the American* cousins of the Church of England, when our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry preached at the wedding of Prince Harry, now also titled the Duke of Sussex, to actress Meghan Markle, herself a descendant of King Edward III.

This break from tradition caused Episcopalians the U.S. to watch news of the wedding with more-than-typical interest, although--truth be told--anything with roots in antiquity that also involves funny hats is likely to get our attention.  In our increasingly unchurched culture, the folderol of Anglican worship must have looked to many viewers like Downton Abbey Goes to Hogwart's.  I joked yesterday that we should start a rumor that Episcopalians wear those hats to church every week, and then sit back and watch what happens.

I would like to believe that would have gotten a chuckle out of my friend Paul Lane, who--although raised a Roman Catholic like me--found a home many years ago in the Episcopal Church. Under normal circumstances, he would have had more than a passing interest in the goings-on in London this week. Well-versed in his own family's history in Europe going back generations, Paul spent a good deal of time in France and Spain, taking the sun and soaking up culture. Like many Episcopalians I've met from all backgrounds, he shared that common gene which manifested itself with an appreciation for arcane historical detail.

He also knew a thing or two about liturgy done with care, which is probably why he--despite living in Jersey City--made St. Luke in-the-Fields in the West Village his spiritual home.  Worship at St. Luke's leaves very little to chance: from the choir to the incense-bearer, people go about their roles with what looks from the pews like easy precision, although I have been to enough post-Eucharist brunches at the bar formerly known as Dublin 6 to hear that making the service look that effortless was no mean feat indeed.

While Bishop Curry is very at home behind a pulpit or microphone, Paul's ministry was more behind-the-scenes, but no less effective. Besides his work at St. Luke's, Paul was the driving force of the LGBT Concerns committee for the Diocese of New York.  His principal responsibility there was coordinating the Episcopal presence at the NYC Pride March, which takes place every June. Under Paul's tutelage, people from more than a dozen parishes on both sides of the Hudson River--an entire city block full of people--makes its way down Fifth Avenue leading a giant float proclaiming The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. 

Imagine how many LGBT people saw that small army and that float over the years, and thought, Wait, what?  A church wants me? All I've ever heard from church people was what an abomination I am. Be they a teenager scared to come out to hir parents, or an older person who finally came to grips with a lifelong secret, this witness affected people on the sidelines: I know, because I was part of that march many times, and they told me, sometimes with tears in their eyes.

Paul made that happen, through cajoling, negotiating... maybe some vague threats, he did grow up in Trenton, after all.  But most of all through his own quiet example. This was his gift to the church, and the treasure it yielded can't be counted.

We lost him today, with little warning. Just weeks before the March, on the Day of Witness, he was taken from us. I cannot begin to guess how we will fill his shoes, as organizer, mentor and friend.

The Presiding Bishop's wedding sermon was focused on the overwhelming power and importance of love, without which the most carefully-executed expression of piety assails the ears of the Almighty like a blaring kazoo chorus. Instead, the prophet Amos tells us:

"let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

In a few weeks, when we again line up to deliver that message of love and invitation to the city and the world, may our steps be guided by his voice and our feet propelled forward by his example.

Let's roll.

NOTE: Besides the United States, the Episcopal Church has a presence in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Taiwan, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Don't Die; Don't Disappear. I Swear to God We Need You Here

I started to write this when Chris Cornell died.  I tried again when Chester Bennington died. Ultimately I realized that I didn't have anything relevant or specific to say about those two gifted but deeply troubled artists that hadn't been more adroitly expressed by others who knew them better. Now again I'm hearing friends express loss about an artist (Scott Hutchison of the Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit) whom I didn't get the chance to appreciate while they were alive. And I'm realizing these stories are coming out at alarming intervals.

The thing that each of these deaths brought out for me is a sense of threat for a community that I've been blessed to stumble into, probably later in life than most people would think is normal, beginning with a concert in Philadelphia in the summer of 2010.  I attended to see a band called Chamberlain which had reunited briefly after a long hiatus to tour with The Gaslight Anthem. I only knew the latter's radio hits going in, but I came away a fan of both them and pre-opener Tim Barry, and have since been drawn into a community of their fans, a core group of which I have come to know as friends.

I have found myself spending more and more time at shows by a handful of bands whose fans seem to overlap quite a bit. Gaslight and their lead singer Brian Fallon are at the nexus, but I've checked out new bands just based on the t-shirts of the people around me and rarely been disappointed.  Thus I've come to be familiar with the music of The Bouncing Souls, The Menzingers, Hot Water Music, The Loved Ones, Lucero, and others.

This is a little bit of a different experience than following an act like Bruce Springsteen who can sell out Giants Stadium for multiple nights (or a Broadway theater five nights a week for six months).  That is a great atmosphere, but a fairly anonymous one; you only interact for the most part with the people who came with you and maybe the tall guy who keeps blocking your view. The likelihood of seeing them again is pretty much nil.

Rather than stadiums, these gigs tend to be in smaller theaters and even bars. You start to see familiar faces, and become one yourself. I made friends with the tall guy at a subsequent show and he made sure I could see. And in between shows, you can go online and quote lyrics, brag over autographs, answer endless polls, and generally bond with your fellow fans. To my surprise, my age and general awkwardness didn't set me apart

The artists in venues like Crossroads in Garwood, The Saint in Asbury Park, and any of a dozen clubs in downtown NYC are often a few yards away, and some, like Chuck Ragan and Dave Hause, come out and talk to fans before and after.  The up-and-coming acts that open for them frequently staff their own merch tables and carry their own gear in and out, and sometimes look to you for help. Sometimes they stay for a drink or four, and you have the opportunity to actually interact as, if not "friends" exactly, still more than just performer and fan. You might catch a glimmer of recognition in their eyes (it helps if you have something unique like my friend Beth's cool boombox purse) and you exist, if even for just a few seconds, as something beyond the aggregate of ticket sales and chart positions.

Someone asked me, after I mentioned seeing Jared Hart of The Scandals perform live for probably the tenth time, how I can see the same act over and over (particularly if they are fairly new and have a limited catalog from which to build a setlist). I had to think about that, and the truth is that the repetition doesn't bother me. Every show is different, with a different energy and banter, and there is even something comforting in the ritual of hearing your favorites again.

On that note, I had an epiphany during a recent set by Tim Barry, who opened that show in Philly: these shows are, in a sense, a similar experience to church when it's at its best. Whether it's shout-singing the lyrics of your favorites or the chaotic society of the mosh pit, I wondered if the a generation growing up in an increasingly irreligious time finds at these shows some of the community and energy a faith community might have otherwise provided. At a time when the pews have become somewhat of a no-man's land for me, I know I certainly do. While there is little in the way of "preaching" I've been relieved to discover by following them on Twitter and Instagram that I can feel good about being associated with them based on the worldview they put out there.

Thus when these guys share, either through lyrics or between-songs banter, anything that suggests they are struggling, it is unsettling. As much as you think they "get" you, you don't really know what's going on in there, and feel like you can't really help. Fallon in particular keeps a pretty solid barrier between his work and his personal life, probably wisely.  But when you've trusted someone to contribute to the soundtrack of your life, it's hard not to feel at least a little protective in those moments. I won't pretend to understand what drives so many creative people to these dark nights of the soul: maybe it is a heightened perception of this troubled world that seems like too much to bear. And, perhaps selfishly, I worry for the fragile sense of togetherness these fandoms provide.

So even though I've never been in the crowd at an Avicii or Frightened Rabbit show, I mourn with their fans tonight. I can keenly imagine what they're feeling. I never want to hear the news they got this week.

The title of this post is from "I Just Died (Like an Aviator)" by Matthew Ryan, another of my musical finds.  That is my message to the artists, both the ones whose work I love and referenced here, and the ones who are just as important to someone else. We need you here.

In the wake of Bennington's death, Music Minds Matter was launched in the UK. The group offers 24/7 mental health services to not only artists, but anyone involved in the music industry, with a 24-hour helpline. By using this link to listen to Tyni's song "Fighter", fans can contribute to the organization. I pray that any artist who is struggling finds the help they need.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Are We There Yet? - A Sermon for Independence Day

One from the archives... this sermon was given at Evening Prayer on Independence Day 2004.  Startling how little has changed in 13 years.

There’s nothing like a good famine to put things in perspective.

On Tuesday, Andrew Natsios, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Aid, said matter-of-factly of the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, "If nothing changes we will have one million casualties. If things improve we can get it down to about 300,000 deaths.” 1.2 million black Africans have been driven from their homes by years of fighting, and are living on the run, constantly menaced by hunger, disease, and the marauding Arab militias that roam the country unchecked, and sometimes encouraged, by the Sudanese government.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Christians in the richest country in the world, where the food wasted in one day could probably save those million people, have other things on their minds.

At the most recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church (equivalent to our General Convention), homosexuality was determined to be the top issue facing the church, taking priority over war and violence, poverty, racism, and that denomination’s double-digit decline in membership.

Catholic priests and bishops around the country are not only refusing Communion to politicians whose positions are not in step with that of the Vatican, but discouraging those who vote for them from receiving it as well.

Ronald Reagan was praised by his son for not wearing his religion on his sleeve, in a none-to-subtle jab at how fashionable it has become among politicians to do just that. The “WWJD” crowd wears Jesus like a logo, many with little understanding of who He was or what He stood – and died -- for.

And within our own Episcopal family, people are leaving churches they and their families have attended for generations, because they choose to narrowly interpret some seven verses of Scripture while ignoring dozens of others, and refuse to break bread with anyone who doesn’t share their interpretation.

What makes this all the more frustrating for me is knowing that I’m just as guilty of getting caught up in the partisan bickering as anybody else. Last week, I heard that 36 members of a parish in New Hampshire left because they don’t accept the authority of Bishop Gene Robinson, leaving just three people to keep the parish going. The following Sunday, when I heard there were nearly a hundred people in the church, the small wave of glee I experienced was not exactly charitable.
It’s a small wonder that a common mantra of the un-churched is “Sure I love Jesus, it’s His followers I can’t stand!” None of this dirty laundry escapes the drama-hungry press, and outsiders must scratch their heads and wonder which liturgical season it is when we take a break from finger-pointing and actually pray.

Today’s lessons neatly summarize what it is God expects from us. In Deuteronomy, “You shall … love the stranger, for you were strangers.” And in the Gospel reading, we are told “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven; for He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”

In other words, none among us is equipped to decide who is deserving of God’s love, or who deserves to be in God’s house. God is capable of figuring that out without our help, and the time we use to judge one another takes us away from the task with which we were entrusted. Christ made it clear that God’s love is universal, and demonstrated that by always surrounding himself by the marginalized, unpopular, “hard-to-love” types who cause us to get self-righteous or crack jokes or divert our path. Christ asked us to be His hands, He expects us to get those hands dirty, and give those people who take us outside our comfort zone the same dignity that He would. If we concentrated on that, we’d be far too busy to notice one another’s imperfections.

In the reading from Hebrews, Paul talks about Abraham and Sarah and their kin, who had little more than their faith to sustain them when they lived in tents in a foreign country, waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Fast-forward to 2004, and Abrahams and Sarah’s are all around us, as many as the stars of heaven, in refugee camps and homeless shelters, in detention centers and on street corners, barely daring to dream of a heavenly city of their own design. It’s easier for us to insulate ourselves in our own cares, blame others for the world’s problems and pretend they’re not our responsibility, but if we each tried just that little bit harder to get past the rhetoric and focus on WWJ really D, then – brick by brick -- that city would be reality, instead of something millions of people die dreaming about.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

God, Gays & Guns, Redux: Connor Stephens Arrives Off-Broadway

Cornelius Hill - Priest & Chief Among the Oneida (1907)

“Oh, Jesus, I have to stop you right now. I love you dearly: You're a smart and sweet man, but you are so wrong about what matters and where the eyes should visit. The things you find so important--the attention, the prizes, the approval--yes, they matter, and never so much than when they disappear. But I'm old now, and I've walked a long and rocky road, and what really mattered, what should matter most to you, is the rare and gorgeous experience of reaching out through your work and your actions and connecting to others. A message in the bottle thrown toward another frightened, loveless queer; a confused mother; a recently dejected man who can't see his way home. We get people home; we let them know that we're here for them. This is what art can do. Art should be the arm and the shoulder and the kind eyes--all of which let others know you deserve to live and to be loved. That is what matters, baby. Bringing people home.”

Last night we had the privilege of attending the opening night of The Crusade of Connor Stephens at its new off-Broadway home in the Jerry Orbach Theater, once-home of the record-breaking The Fantasticks.  You may recall that I reviewed this show when it was included in the Midtown International Theatre Festival last summer, so I won't tell you the whole plot again.  Sufficient to say, it felt even more timely the second time around here in the Drumpfpocalypse, post Pulse Nightclub massacre, when mass shootings are a near-daily occurrence and demonizing one another with half-truths is what subsists for news.

Almost the entire cast* returned for this new production, which says something about their commitment to this important story and their devotion to writer-producer Dewey Moss. At this point I could not in good faith accept a paid gig to write something unbiased about the show because in the year since I have gotten to know Dewey and Jacques Mitchell (Bobby) and consider them friends.  However I will still say the show was just as gripping and cathartic the second time around, especially for anyone who has been church-burned or lived under the thumb of a controlling narcissist (well that would be the whole country at the moment, would it not?) as so skillfully portrayed by James Kiberd (Big Jim).

Episcopal Journal, June 2017
I did, however, write a brief interview of Ben Curtis (Jim, Junior) which appeared in the June edition of the Episcopal Journal. We discovered when we met in 2015 that we're both "PK's" (preacher's kids); my dad being a Roman Catholic deacon and his a now-retired Episcopal priest. I thought that would make an interesting angle for a story, given the contrast between his fundamentalist on-stage father and his real-life dad's progressive stance.  The text of my interview is below:

God, gays, and guns collide in The Crusade of Connor Stephens, a play written and produced by Dewey Moss which has its off-Broadway premiere later this month after an award-winning workshop run last summer. I caught up with former Dell computer pitchman Ben Curtis, who will reprise his role as Jim, Jr., a gay man whose adopted daughter's death puts him at odds with his firebrand minister father "Big Jim" and thrusts the family into the media spotlight. Ben hails from Chattanooga, Tenn, where his father was Rector of Grace Church from 1979-1994. Besides acting, he operates a yoga and wellness practice with his fiancee and performs in a variety of musical groups.

Q. I was proud to hear you identify as an Episcopalian in your recent interview with ESPN. Given your work helping others with their own health and spiritual journeys, how does the church fit into who you are and what you believe?

Well it certainly formed  some of my earliest beliefs as a Christian and my roots in spirituality. The church provided education, structure and community that I needed as a young wild rebellious PK (preacher's kid). It also helped me develop my early ideas of faith. Our parish and the Episcopal Church in general is so open-minded and accepting of all people, so that really instilled my core feelings as a child that all people are equal and all are loved by God. I still believe that today, and my father, while he was the rector of our parish, walked the walk.

Q. Like your character, you grew up as a "preacher's kid". How did that experience help you portray Jim, Jr.?

Well, it certainly helped me understand the pressures of being in the spotlight of the church. I was a satisfied customer of the Episcopal Church, so I was involved as an acolyte or in the choir. Nevertheless, if I made a mistake or got in trouble, you can be certain that everyone knew about it. However, unlike Jim, Jr., my father did not force me to think one way nor tell me that I was going to hell if I thought a different way.

Q. The Episcopal Church has been vocal about LGBT justice, as well as gun violence, both themes which the play explores. How did being an Episcopalian help shape how you see these issues?  

I feel blessed to have grown up in a church very different from the one that Jim, Jr., did, which sounds very oppressive. I have friends who grew up in churches like that and who were put in conversion therapy, which of course is never effective.

I am very grateful to have grown up in such an accepting environment that allowed me to form my own ideas of God and spirituality. I feel sorry for people who are told by their church or pastor that being a Christian is black and white: “you're either saved or you ain't.” I believe our God is a loving God and Jesus was a great prophet. We can learn a lot from his stories and how he treated other people, ESPECIALLY the outcasts or those “different” from him.

Q. How do you relate believably to an on-stage "family" whose values contrast so starkly with your character's?

It's not hard. I don't believe in their “Christian morals” as a person so it's fairly easy to be disgusted by them on stage. Furthermore, they're brilliant actors, so the tension on stage is quite palpable. That and when your stakes and intentions are clear as an actor, the rest tends to work itself out.

Q. If Dewey told you that you had to play Big Jim tomorrow, could you do it? What would you do to get into that character?

Absolutely! I've played lots of “complicated” and “awful” characters. Each character wants something. If you know what yours wants, then that's your job on stage: to listen and to get what you want, or at least try. This script is also well-crafted so the words guide you. No matter what kind of character I play, I always find and play the truth and the humanity. Even Big Jim is quite human.

Opening night of The Crusade of Connor Stephens
Playbill for The Crusade of Connor Stephens.

Top row, from left, Clifton Samuels (Dean), James Kiberd (Big Jim), Katherine Leask (Marianne), Julie Campbell (Kimmy), Jacques Mitchell (Bobby). Front row, from left, Kathleen Huber (Viv'in), Alec Shaw (Kris), Ben Curtis (Jim, Jr.).
 Opening night of The Crusade of Connor Stephens 
 The Fantasticks this is not. A makeshift memorial as you enter the theater sets the tone for this gripping and cathartic play. 

Curtain Call 
Writer-Producer Dewey Moss hugs James Kiberd (Big Jim) during the curtain call on opening night of The Crusade of Connor Stephens. From left, Jacques Mitchell (Bobby), Julie Campbell (Kimmy), Ben Curtis (Jim, Jr.), Alec Shaw (Kris). At right, Katherine Leask (Marianne), Clifton Samuels (Dean).
 Opening night of The Crusade of Connor Stephens 
The man of the hour. Writer-producer Dewey Moss beams as the audience shows some love. From left, Jacques Mitchell (Bobby), Julie Campbell (Kimmy), Ben Curtis (Jim, Jr.), Alec Shaw (Kris). At right, James Kiberd (Big Jim), Katherine Leask (Marianne), Clifton Samuels (Dean). 
 Opening night of The Crusade of Connor Stephens 
Ben Curtis (Jim, Jr.) and yours truly on the red carpet.
NOTE: James Padric, who portrayed Kris in the workshop run, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer shortly after the production.  He is doing well but could still use your support in the face of hefty medical bills.  Thank you!