A Nation That Prays Together

I was delighted that Rev. Joseph Lowery, Methodist pastor and co-founder with Rev. Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was asked by Prez Obama to lead the benediction at the Inauguration. I was SO delighted in fact that I wrote to Rev. Lowery and asked him to tell Sojourners how he felt about the honor. He responded:

Like most Americans of a particular age, I never thought I’d live to see the day…. At an entirely different level, I’m engaged in a spiritual experience like nothing I have ever been exposed to—at any point in my life. And this comes from one who shared in the revjosephloweryDream my friend and colleague Martin Luther King Jr. taught the nation about one hot August afternoon 45 years ago. It comes from one who fought for the Voting Rights Act, for a Civil Rights Bill, and to free South Africa and liberate Nelson Mandela from 27 years of confinement as a political prisoner. But, there’s something much greater at work here. I first sensed it in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire where I saw the ruddy, frozen cheeks of white college students standing in snowdrifts up to their knees in support of the candidacy of Barack Obama. I saw it as I watched a new generation text-messaging and using their iPods to spread the word about this extraordinary man. … Read the full response here.

I was less than delighted with Obama tapping Rev. Rick Warren to offer the opening prayer at the Inauguration. Warren is trying to represents the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing new face of conservative American evangelical Christianity. I’m disturbed (to say the least) by his public support of Prop. 8 in California. (Bad move, bro.) But I can verify that he has a very kick-butt wife and that always gives me a glimmer of hope.

Despite the Warren controversy, I’m glad to see that Prez Obama has liturgically fenced-out Warren by surrounding him with worship leaders with a more biblically-grounded understanding of God’s love, generosity, and liberation. Rev. Lowery for one.

Additionally, Rev. Sharon Watkins, head of the Disciples of Christ, is the first woman to take the prominent position of preacher at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Also, Episcopal bishop Gene V. Robinson will lead the prayer at the “National Inaugural Concert” on Sunday. When Robinson was confirmed as a bishop he had to wear body-armor under his pastoral robes at the liturgy because there’d been so many death threats against him, his children, and his partner Mark Andrew.

I was also very glad to see that Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, is taking a prominent role at the National Prayer Breakfast. She’s director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and a professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary.

Despite our differences, I’ll fall back on the old adage–when it looks as diverse as this crowd, I think it’s true: A nation that prays together, stays together.

“Be Still and Know” contemplative prayer video

One of the great things about working at Sojourners is always getting to do something new. Here’s a video made by our assistant editor Jeannie Choi and our interactive media producer Matt Hildreth interviewing me about contemplative prayer.

I had just come back from accompanying a friend at “Divorce Court” when I made this video – so the chance to “breath in and breath out” was greatly appreciated! Hope you like it. (Read Ruth Haley Barton’s article on contemplative prayer here.)

Military Empire Requires Religious Blessing

“What will be God’s if all things are Caesar’s?”–Tertullian (160–220 AD), De Idolatria

“In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of evil—they are too often caught up in complicated webs of political power, economic interests, cultural clashes, and nationalist dreams. The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, and for the people of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience. But God has not given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much less to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national interests. To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do, is a serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.”–Jim Wallis, Dangerous Religion (Sojourners, September-October 2003)

Contact the GI Hotline if you are or someone you know:

*is in the U.S. military and wants to get out

*is considering joining the U.S. military

*is being pursued by an army recruiter.

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Mark Up the Bail-Out Budget Yourself

Congress is moving rapidly to enact a gigantic taxpayer bailout of the financial sector, with a potential cost of $700 billion or more than $2000 per American citizen. The folks at PublicMarkup.org believe, as Justice Brandeis said, that “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” and that all legislation ought to be open to public comment and consideration in real-time, not just after the fact.

So, as a public service, they’ve posted for public comment the 44-page proposal currently in front of Congress from Senator Chris Dodd (Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs) and the eight-page text of the “Legislative Proposal from Treasury Department for Authority to Buy Mortgage-Related Assets.”

Section 8 of the Treasury Department documents states: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

Isn’t it this lack of oversight and “just trust me” attitude that got us into this mess? “Budgets are moral documents” as we say at Sojourners, repeating the Hebrew prophets..

Keeping an Eye on Things

When I want to see live gospel stories, I go to the Amoco station at 14th and Euclid in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

One Saturday morning I stopped at the gas station for a cup of coffee. I was standing at the front door lowering my lips to a steaming Styrofoam cup when the Wonder Bread truck pulled up to unload the weekend deliveries. The driver opened the cargo bay doors and began off-loading flats of bread.

Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
Roadside Pictures/Creative Commons 3.0

Across the parking lot, a woman in her late 40s saw the truck full of bread and made directly for it. She was thin. Her clothes were not clean. Her face was drawn with cold.

The driver seemed nervous to leave her standing next to his open bay doors as he wheeled the deliveries into the store. He glanced at me as if to say, “Keep an eye on things.” She did indeed appear to be weighing whether she could grab a couple of loaves and run. She didn’t.

When the driver returned, she asked him very politely, but with a certain level of desperation, if she could have some bread.

“Sister,” he said, “it’s not mine to give.” She asked again, for just one loaf. With some anguish, he turned his back on her, saying again, “It’s not mine to give.” She walked away.

The driver looked at me, embarrassed. He seemed genuinely ashamed that he didn’t give bread to a sister in need.

The driver was correct in saying that the bread was not his to give. There are inventories to be filled and every item must be accounted for, lest he be accused of stealing. In one sense, the bread is “owned” by Interstate Bakeries Corp. In another sense, a more human sense, bread is to be shared.

In the crisp morning air, Jesus’ question in Luke’s gospel was stretched like a spiritual tension wire between the delivery driver and myself—Who among you, when your child asks for bread, would give a stone?

LAST AUTUMN, another scene unfolded at that same intersection. I attended an impromptu prayer service on the sidewalk across from the gas station. A young man, Erlin, had been killed there in a gang altercation two nights earlier. The word went through the neighborhood that his mother wanted to pray.

Twenty people were crowded around a scrawny maple tree. Someone had taped Erlin’s picture to the trunk. His elementary-school-age nieces and nephews held votive candles purchased at the dollar store.

Erlin’s buddies from his “crew” were there too. They lined up behind his mother, forming a kind of honor guard. They wore dark glasses. A few had guns shoved down the front of their nylon running pants. Some, out of respect for his mother, had put their weapons—thick chains and baseball bats with nails hammered into the ends—behind the dumpster a few yards away.

A woman from Erlin’s church led prayers. The little kids said they hoped “Uncle Erlin” was in heaven. Local activists pleaded for an end to the violence, begging his crew not to retaliate.

Finally, his mother asked to speak. In her soft Jamaican accent, she said how much she loved her son. She said he struggled to do the right thing, and that watching him struggle had broken her heart.

Then she turned to his friends—his fellow gang members—and said the most amazing thing. “He was my son,” she said. “You were his brothers. Now you are my sons and I am your mother. Now we are family. This is the way it is.” She expected his “brothers” to be at her table for jerk chicken and potatoes any time they were hungry. She expected them to help her fix things around the apartment. They must come to her with their problems, and she would pray for each of them every day.

In the gathering dark, I heard the line from John’s gospel echo and twist. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing by, he said, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

There is nothing at the intersection of 14th and Euclid to mark the miraculous moment when the kinship model of Erlin’s family shifted. Nothing to mark his mother’s blunt and radical understanding of what makes a family. But the plain prayers of children and ordinary people have soaked the dusty ground. The blood of a young man, who struggled to do the right thing, anoints the place—like on a sacrificial altar.

Ownership vs. kinship. Bread alongside blood. Where do you go to see the gospel unfold?

Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (800) 714-7474, www.sojo.net.

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Labor of Love

Vicky Kemper is a former editor at Sojourners magazine. She wrote much of that magazine’s ground-breaking Central America coverage when she began work there in January 1985. Now she’s a United Church of Christ pastor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In her Labor Day 2008 sermon, she reflects on the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.– where Sojourners community was based–and where I still live. She examines how the radical good news of Jesus challenges, chastises, and cajoles the economically comfortable, while also offering justice and liberation to the economically uncomfortable.

It is hard for those of us who think of ourselves as politically liberal, socially progressive and theologically cutting-edge to admit that when it comes to economics—things like wages and profits and taxes and immigration policies—our views sometimes have more to do with our material perspective—where we live and how much we have—than our spiritual faith.

Vicki reminds us that it’s the uncomfortable area of economics that most often gets Jesus into trouble.

After all, the Roman authorities did not execute Jesus for talking about religion; they put him to death on a cross because his teachings threatened to turn upside down the very political and economic values and structures on which both the Roman empire and the Jewish temple were based.

But while the Word is hard for those of us who are wealthy by the world’s standards, God’s love is profligate, wasteful, excessive, overabundant, and poured out for us when we let our hearts be cracked open against the hard edges of the daily lives of the poor.

Thanks, Vicki! Keep that pulpit hot! Read her whole sermon here..

1-900-PHONE-PRAYER

So I’m answering phones at work over lunch…(It’s one of those egalitarian things that everyone at my work shares, in case the world falls apart while we are taking a break and we don’t know about it.) Mostly I’m doing my best impression of a Dial-M-for-Murder operator from the 1940s … “What extension please? I’m sooo sorry. She’s away from her desk right now or perhaps downtown destabilizing the International Monetary Fund. Would you like to leave a message on her voice mail?” And, even though we are a magazine, I for one am not at all capable of handling a simple subscription question, so I leave the real receptionist something under 100,000 renewal requests on small sticky notes casually plastered across her desktop.

So this time at lunch…with the handset already warm and sweaty, I yank it off the cradle and hear a broken down man’s voice saying, “Is this Sojourners? I need you to pray for me.” Then the line went dead.

Even though I am Catholic and there’s probably something in the rule book against “laying hands on” inanimate objects, I put both hands on the phone and prayed with all my might.

Where ever you are sir, may the angels escort you..

Tracking Jesus Inside the Empire

I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1986 for a nine month internship with Sojourners community. Twenty-two years later, I still live in D.C. I’ve lived in three different houses, all in the same neighborhood of Columbia Heights, all within four blocks of each other.

Rooftops in Columbia Heights
Rooftops in Columbia Heights

I still work for Sojourners. Over the 22 years, I’ve had five different jobs for which I was more or less paid: peace ministry intern, director of the internship program, assistant editor, associate editor, and poetry editor. (On the side, I also freelanced as a pastor/worship leader; had a few horticultural gigs working at the greenhouse and herbarium on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and a landscaping job for a military retirement home; taught poetry classes; led retreats; and proctored the tests for those taking the GREs.) I live six blocks from where I work.

Even though I live in the capital city of the most militarily powerful country on the globe, my “world” has remained relatively small and contained. I didn’t intend to stay in one place for so long. My desire was to be much more itinerant—owning little, moving frequently, living in the moment. A “bird of the air,” a “lily of the field.” More along the lines of a free-wheeling St. Francis, rather than a cloistered St. Clare.

But, it turned out to be “otherwise,” as poet Jane Kenyon puts it. And I’m extremely grateful for the “otherwise.” I realize now that this accidental vow of stability has rooted me in a neighborhood and given me a perspective on events that I might have missed … otherwise.

It’s given me a perspective on empire and Pax Americana from the vantage point of those who live 20 blocks from the White House, in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood that has had a 30% poverty rate and 11% unemployment rate all the years I’ve lived here.

This experience now leads me now to explore a “theology of place” in urban America from the vantage point of my 100-year-old row house in Columbia Heights.

That’s what you’ll find on this blog … questions about place, people, transition, rootedness, dispossession, owning, stewardship, urban biophilia, green cities, blocks abandoned by empire, oral histories, cracks in the architecture of despair, city planning, urban ministry, city theology, the art of the unexpected, indigenous urban worship, beauty breeding hope, poetry, murals, magical urbanism, guerilla gardening, bible-busting, and tracking Jesus through the back alleys and side streets of “the most important city in the world,” as an obnoxious advertisement for Riggs Bank used to say.

I’m hoping it’ll be the most amazing pilgrimage one can take without ever leaving home.

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