Reading Luke with Dr. Thurman: When God Sees You, Look Back

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The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a pastor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurman was a pastor to King in every sense of the word, but today I want to talk about his influence as a pastoral theologian. A theologian whose thought animates as a pastor, gives the sense of a lived faith, a directional ministry, a spiritual connection to both God and humanity that becomes a raison d’etre. A reason for living. Perhaps even more than his own father, Rev. Martin Sr., or Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was King’s closest ministry partner from the Montgomery Bus Boycott on and pastored in Cincinnati at Revelation Baptist Church; perhaps even more than them was the influence of Howard Thurman on Dr. King. Thurman was the first ever African-American Dean of Rankin Chapel at Boston University. In 1944 he left a tenured position at Howard University to start the first truly multifaith, multiracial, intentional community, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which is still open today. Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited inspired those like Dr. James Cone to develop what is now called Black Liberation Theology. Howard Thurman, the grandson of slaves, who helped Dr. King see Jesus as being bigger than Jim Crow. Howard Thurman, who spoke often of how he learned the truth about God from his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who learned it from a minister, who like her, was enslaved.

It was rare that enslaved preachers were allowed to preach in the open. Most often the Bible was controlled and interpreted by the landowner, or a local white preacher who was brought it. The message was always one of submission, of divinely-ordained bondage Reading the Bible on their own, or hearing it as told by another slave was considered dangerous; Christianity was used by slaveholders as a tool of oppression, but it was turned through righteous rebellion into a source of strength. Negro spirituals are the original texts of Black liberation theology, songs about deliverance at the hands of a faithful God. Religion can sometimes be a surreptitious act. Every now and again an enslaved preacher would get to take the pulpit publicly. This could put the preacher in danger if the wrong people heard God’s Word, if they actual heard it and understood that it was an indictment of them; they couldn’t punish God but they could punish God’s messenger. In the pulpit could be danger, but take the pulpit these preachers did. Miss Ambrose, years later, with young Howard at her feet and snapping beans, told him about one time when a minister said to us, You are not a slave. That is not who you are; you are a child of God. Thurman writes later in his life, “it gave to them a sense of roots that were watered by the underground river of existence.”

This unknown minister, in about a dozen words, was able to cut through the mental chains and provide a viable identity to rival the one constructed by the oppressor: You are not a slave; you are God’s child. I imagine this minister, who could not have known that these words would plant themselves inside the soul of the greatest pastoral theologian since Martin Luther, learned the revolutionary truth by listening to the stories of Jesus.

Once again Jesus is teaching in parables. Two men. One wealthy, dressed in the finery of purple robes. The other, clad in rags held together by pus from purple sores. One tended to in life by servants, the other by dogs. But then, the great equalizer. Death. Angels come not for the rich man, but for poor Lazarus who goes to be with Abraham. The wealthy man does not fare so well. To the underworld he goes, tormented and in agony. He calls across the divide to Abraham, asking for mercy, when he sees Lazarus. Lowly Lazarus. The rich man begs for help, but none can be forthcoming; not because Lazarus is unwilling, but because the actions of the wealthy man have fixed a chasm that cannot be bridged or traversed. His alienation is of his own doing; desperately wanting to save his affluent family members from the distresses, the moneyed man requests a messenger be dispatched by Abraham as a herald. Alas, the patriarch declines. God has sent more warnings that we can count, and it never does any good.

Imagine in the time of Jesus, being poor and hearing this parable. Yes, it might give a feeling of giddy satisfaction that bullies eventually get a comeuppance. Yes, it might help you feel that suffering does not have the final word. But underneath that, there is a profound message: God sees you. God does not see you as a mass of sores or one without two coins to rub together: God sees you are one to be carried away by angels. You are not a slave; you are a God’s child.

This parable often is interpreted as being about the afterlife; a continuation of the ideas expressed in Job and Daniel. A shining example that one reaps what one sows. And perhaps it is; there is certainly ample evidence for that being the case. But I think Howard Thurman would want us to see the underlying theology. First, it was the greed and selfishness of the wealthy man that contributed to and compounded Lazarus’ suffering. Each day one experienced plenty and the other want. Second, wealth and poverty did not prevent the men from dying. Nothing we do here can thwart our demises. Three, there should be no confusion about how to live. The wealthy man cannot claim ignorance, and neither can we. Moses and the prophets, understood here both as historical figures and also as metaphors for parts of the Hebrew scriptures, are available to all. We know that God requires mercy, kindness, compassion, and love. We know that we are our siblings’ keeper.

It might be argued that the theology here is straightforward: we should do nice things for others so we don’t go to hell. Again, maybe. But I think the message is more profound: we must be aware of the ways in which our behaviors might cause others to suffer. All of us, on some level, contribute to the suffering of others. That is just the nature of human experience. The question is, are we aware of it? Do we do it knowingly? Willingly? And how do we discern God’s presence in our lives? Or evaluate whether we are living authentically? Do we look at the wrong things and declare that we have God’s favor? Do we mistake temporary, material wealth with knowing that God sees us and we see God back? Because that chasm is ours to build. And while I don’t think hell is at the center of the earth and we go there after we die, I do believe that hell is very real. I believe that we create it here and now, and we do so with our words, thoughts, and actions; hell, as St. Augustine said, is distance from God. It means not being seen; it means believing lies about yourself and others. It means believing that you are a slave.

I don’t think that fearing hell helps us see God. Maybe it does for you, and if so that’s great. It doesn’t help me and I know that it doesn’t help a lot of others, and Jesus is in the business of helping people. I think that each one of us wants to feel valued. Understood. Loved. Most of us desire peace, comfort, adequate food, and a safe place to live surrounded by those we love. God helps us see that if this is our desire for ourselves, we must work in this world to make it possible for others. Wealth and poverty only exist in relationship with one another; we cannot get rid of one without addressing the other. And while the Bible is not a textbook on economics, it does contain truth about the dangers of greed and serving mammon. And these dangers have long-lasting effects that go on after our bodily deaths. God tells us this not so that we will fear, but so that we will love. Fully. Radically. Unabashedly. For that is the only way to cancel a chasm. Amen.

A Anno ad Bibendum

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Regular readers of the blog will know that I have a history of being very confessional in this space. Some unfortunate incidents over the past year culminated in my making a very public (and perhaps overly-dramatic) declaration that I was taking time to reconsider how much I share. Ditto on Facebook. I pulled back.

What I now share is the most personal thing I’ve offered since then: today is my one-year alcohol sobriety anniversary.

So, an asterisk before I move forward. I don’t actually know when my “true” sobriety date is, which is actually a really good thing. Two years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and after years of trying I finally found the absolutely perfect therapist. I know projection onto your psychologist is not a good thing, but I love him. He is one of the most significant relationships in my life and I am able to write this today in no small part because of him. He is adamant that I not share his name, so I won’t. In the first 6-9 months, we focused on meds and sorting out the disorder. It then because obvious I had to quit because we spent almost every session talking about drinking because I was bringing it up.  My first attempt, I had about four months without drinking when I arrogantly thought that I could just have “one or two.” After a three day bender, I stopped again but refused to start counting the days. By the time I was encouraged to by others, I honestly couldn’t remember. So I picked this date as being the most logical knowing that the only count that ever is matters is that I never, ever have another day one.

I don’t really want to write too much about my drinking. I’ll share this: while it is now abundantly clear to me that an overwhelming reason for my history of substance abuse is my mental illnesses, I certainly lived fully into reckless behavior. I also have amazing memories that heavily feature alcohol; some of my favorite moments in life are with Mimi, in our favorite bars, pumping $30 into the jukebox, and hanging out all day. I miss that, and sometimes it is the hardest part; Mimi would NEVER ask me to break my sobriety. She has been awesome, and I have absolutely no problem being around her or others when they drink. But it is those memories that tug at me. Really, really good times. I sometimes lament that I’ll never have another one.

But that’s the disease talking. Let me be frank, I was a drunk. Again, it is not that I am dishonest about what I did and how I behaved, it is just I’m not at the point where I can joke about it. I can’t say I’m thrilled about many of the things I did when I was drinking, and I’m working on that stuff in therapy. I just can’t share it. It would be too much to have out there given the fact I pretty regularly have people who simply go off on me online; my darkest secrets will be shown light in other ways. However, I’ll say that I needed to quit drinking, and I know there are more than a few people in my life who are genuinely glad to see me one year without alcohol. I was always a lover when I got drunk, not a fighter. Except to myself. A depressive with a drinking problem is a depressive looking to die. At least, that how it was for me. My uncle committed suicide. So did my brother. I was just doing it more slowly.

I don’t go to AA. I don’t offer to be a mentor for anyone in their sobriety. At the encouragement of a few friends on Facebook, I wrote this just in case there is some reading who is looking for their last day one. Or someone who has some days behind them and are wondering if they can do it. Yes, you can. But I didn’t do it alone. I joined an online AA support group and read way more than I posted (actually, today I marked my anniversary, which was my first post since my introductory past nearly a year ago); I saw my therapist and didn’t lie or avoid; I had myself put on a medication that will likely cause seizures if I drink. The med is for my bipolar, but I sought out a specific side effect as a motivator. I told the bartenders at my local to not let anyone buy me drinks; to a key few, I asked them to grill me if I ever asked for a drink. I didn’t want to put it upon them to refuse me; I just wanted to give them permission to look me in the eye and say, “What’s up, Aaron? I know you don’t want to do this, so tell me what’s going on. Can I call Mimi?” I made them accountability partners.

Every morning I wake up and decide that I am not going to drink today. I might drink tomorrow, but not today.

Someone on the FB page gave me the best blessing: “Here’s to a life filled with 24 hours in which you decide not to drink.”

 

The Other Logan

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I am one of those guys who loves Gilmore Girls. And not just because Lauren Graham is almost completely and totally my “type.” She’s skinnier and taller than I generally date, but that wit and smile just melt me. After the fourth season, I distinctly disliked her character Lorelai, but it didn’t matter because there was Sookie. And Paris. And Lane. There was the whole town–very White town, to be sure–filled with people I’d love to sit and have tea with once a week. Plus, the troubadour is Grant-Lee Phillips and for ’90s indie rock geeks like me, this is gold, Jerry, gold!

And there was Rory. Rory with her books and her snark, her confidence that belied a deep hurt. Rory who was obsessed with coffee and food, and had the best repartee. Rory who was caught between a grandmother and mother who lobbed pithy, brilliant insults like water balloons. Rory who had a sweet first boyfriend Dean who did all the wrong stuff I did as well: get clingy, possessive, and give ultimatums. Made the relationship about him, not her. Rory then fell in love with the bad boy Jess, who I wanted to hate but just couldn’t because his mix of James Dean and Hunter S. Thompson made me want to be as cool, even though I am not.

Then there was Logan. I really, really dislike Logan.

Let me stop and say I know this is ridiculous. These are fictional characters. This is a world that is so far removed from what is really going on, it seems a waste of time and energy to even be writing this. I have a dissertation to write, and I am already stretching an extension farther than it should go. What I am writing is stupid and trivial, but somehow it feels important. My friend Shannon wrote a letter to Rory upon learning that there may be another “Year in the Life” episode. I’ll let you read that one for plot details. I love what Shannon wrote, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, “If she’s really pregnant by Logan, I have some words for him.” Shannon said I should write it, so I am.

Again, I know how trivial this is so if it irritates you, maybe stop reading? I’m not really in the mood for responses about how this is privilege or insignificant. I get it. But I can’t focus on the ugliness of the world all the time. Cool? Cool.

Logan,

I don’t like you and have said so for years. I imagine that you would have little use for me. I think the Life and Death Brigade is the epitome of rich people thinking they can throw money at anything, or that true adventure means being cultural tourists of the worst sort. You are entitled, arrogant, aloof, and a snob. I understand that your Dad is an ass. While my father is certainly not Mitchum Huntzberger, I know what it is like to have heavy expectations. Now, my Dad loves me and while I doubted it as a teenager, that was my baggage, not his. My heart does go out to you in some regards; your life has not fully been your own, so your acting out makes sense. But dude, you’re in your 30s. It is time to grow up.

I am a sober alcoholic and I have a sordid history with drugs. I share this because I don’t think that I am better than you, and I know what it is like to have lots of inner turmoil.

But you are a user of people. You use your money to get what you want; you use your troubles with Daddy to justify reckless and selfish behavior. You’re not deep, dude.You’re an ass. While you arguably are the one person who completely accepted Rory as she was through college and adulthood, you enabled her to avoid responsibility. You helped her to have an inflated sense of self-importance because you have one as well. You now are engaged to be married and Rory has a boyfriend she treats worse than I’ve seen in junior high relationships, yet you share a bed. I am not a sexual prude. I’m a pansexual pastor, brother. I like sex, what I don’t like is a complete and total disregard for others. Are you both so important, so deep, so misunderstood that you can be horrible to others and not face consequences?

Because there have not been consequences for either of you. Not really. And while you can continue to hide behind your money and your privilege, while you can continue to surround yourself with vapid, sycophantic people, you will not live a life worth telling. You, good sir, will have to accept that you played a big part in being another man who has sabotaged a smart woman. Rory is responsible for Rory, yes; but real relationships are about bringing out the best in one another, not pushing one another toward mediocrity. Your self-hatred and fear have disguised themselves as love, and I wish that Richard were still alive because he would put you in your place.

You are about to be a father, it looks like. You have helped actualize Lorelai’s worst fear, and I think you’ll end up being Christopher without the charm. You don’t have to be, though. You can break off your engagement. I’m not saying marry Rory, I’d honestly prefer if you didn’t but that isn’t my call. What I am saying is that you are unfit to be a husband or a father right now. And while very few people are ever really ready, you are starting with more deficiencies than most. You have shown again and again that you will put yourself first in every situation. You should know that money doesn’t buy love. It also doesn’t buy common sense or a moral compass.

Take this or leave this. I don’t know if I will watch the next season because I don’t really like any of you anymore. You seem so White. So removed. So self-involved that in my few hours of escape, I don’t want to see your world. We all love a good redemption story, though. Perhaps there is still a chance.

With really no affection,

Aaron