Saint Barry of the Pilates

“But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?” —Pontius Pilate, “Trial Before Pilate,” Jesus Christ Superstar

I’ve written a lot about Jesus Christ Superstar. Our village recently experienced a second coming of Jesus—see what I did there—when we were visited by Ted Neeley, aka the Jesus who is easier to love than the one presented by the Church, at least for many people. The Little Art is the smallest venue to ever have hosted Superstar screenings with cast members present. And after this past weekend, Frank, the tour manager, told us that Yellow Springs is second only to Chicago for the total number of screenings. Ted and Frank assured us that they wish to return. They marvel at the welcome and friendliness they’ve experienced in our village.

When I spoke to Ted last in preparation for a pair of articles (click here and here) I wrote for the Yellow Springs News, Barry Dennen had just died owing to a tragic series of events. An intimacy developed in our conversation, and while I am readily aware that Ted could make a lamppost swoon from the charisma, we experienced a deep, authentic connection. It was like pastoring Jesus.

I was supposed to attend the Saturday night screening, but an incident in which my actions directly related to painful and panicky experiences for two persons I love deeply, I was devastated. I engaged in repentance and self-reflection, trying to gather myself for worship the next morning. We returned our tickets so that others could use them. I received messages from Gilah Pomeranz, who then went to Fort Wayne as the head roadie for Ted and Frank, Ted’s road manager. And I also received a message from Ted himself, expressing sympathy and regrets. Little did I realize, there were plans afoot that I had just monkeyed up.

Sure enough, when I walked into the church, there was Ted, waiting for me outside my office.

**

Did you know that Pontius Pilate is a saint in the Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches? There are reliefs on sarcophagi picturing Pilate at the Last Supper or observing the crucifixion with sadness and disdain. In one example, Pilate is represented as being akin to Abraham while Jesus is paired with Isaac. Augustine called him a convert. And in Jesus Christ Superstar, as played by Barry and Ted, Jesus and Pilate loved and felt sympathy for one another.

And now you know the rest of the story.

**

Last Sunday evening, after a worship in which Miriam and I sang “The Rose,” at least after it took me a good 45 seconds to find my note (because that’s what you want, right, when you’re singing in front of Ted Neeley and are already horribly self-conscious about your singing voice), we met Ted, Gilah, Shep, and Frank at Tokyo restaurant in Fairborn. Once we were all settled in, Frank said, “Well, we should get this out of the way.” Everyone was looking at me.

What is about to happen? Am I being committed? Is this a food intervention?  The bipolar mind boggles.

Frank went on to explain that they were leaving relics of Barry in each of the places they visit in which Barry visited previously. He then told me to look at Ted, who had an impish grin and pulled out a bag.

“It’s Barry’s hat,” Frank said.

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Me mustering every single bit of energy I have to not burst into tears; my lip looked like a dog’s cushion. 

These are the Pilate hats sold on tour, and Barry wore his for the duration of the VIP and screening the Little Art hosted in 2015. While the one gifted to me is not the one he wore in YS, it is the one he wore in the documentary film just released about the screening tours.

Here’s a better shot of it.

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They were going to give it to me in front of the crowd on Saturday, and I know that Ted was a little disappointed, although he was gracious beyond measure because that is who Ted is in his DNA. And while that would have been a great moment, it also would have been too overwhelming for me, and I wouldn’t have been able to contain my emotions.

If you read the blog, then you know all the details about why this is such a powerful gift. Barry said that it is a club one enters into having played Pilate in Superstar. For me, I studied every gesture, every breath, every vocal intonation. When I played the part, I less played Pilate and more played Barry Dennen playing Pilate. The director herself once yelled at me, “Lose the accent, Aaron, you’re not Barry Dennen.”

I haven’t posted about this on Facebook. I haven’t even told my parents because the gesture has struck me so deeply. Words fail, and I’ve been told I can turn a phrase. I have been so deeply impacted that it shut me up.

I know, right? I’m a talking and writing fool.

Barry’s hat will find its home on a very special shelf next to Stephen’s ashes with his hat on top, Guinness’ ashes with her color on top. There will Barry’s hat will reside, until Ted and Frank return again. Then I will don the crown in honor of St. Barry of the Pilates.

 

Sermon—Hearing “Me, too” in the Bible

bathsheba1.jpgFor those of us who spend time on social media, we might have noticed the frequent appearance of two words, “Me, too.” Across age, race, religion, sexual orientation, and cultural background, women throughout the country have been making public their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. To add potency to this organic effort, dozens of women have spoken out publicly about their violations at the hands of one extremely powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

I’m here today to shine a light on another voice, another woman, one who was abused by King David, an extremely powerful figure in our history: Bathsheba.

Like so many other examples of abusers throughout time and history, we have to make our way through the minefield of, “But he’s a really good guy.” No doubt. David was and is an important figure without whom, at least according to the biblical witness we have, Judaism would not have survived and then thrived.

First, he is God’s anointed. Today’s passage shows us Samuel, the Moses for a new age, still mourning the fact that God has withdrawn his favor and is selecting a new king who will rise to rival Saul. Samuel is led to the house of Jesse, who has eight sons. Together, Samuel, Jesse, and seven of the sons engage in a ritual sacrifice and purification. God gives specific instructions not to use human standards when speculating about who will be anointed. One by one, the older and physically impressive sons are set aside. Finally, God tells Samuel to have Jesse send for the youngest child who is tending sheep, our David. He is anointed, and thus begins the David cycle of stories.

Second, God forms a covenant with David and the “line of Jesse” in 2 Samuel 7 in which there is an everlasting covenant between the God and this new royal house. This shapes a new theology and a new sense of community hierarchy. We’ll talk more about this next week.

Third, David did some incredible things. He moved the Hebrews away from the loose tribal confederacy. He put national identity over tribal identity by developing a small town run by the Jebusites called Jerusalem as a political and religious capital. The Sanhedrin, the highest court of Jewish law was tethered to Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant, which had been captured by the Philistines, was brought to Jerusalem, where it remained until lost to history. The Hebrews became Israelites, a vital development in what we now understand as Judaism.

Finally, David secured peace that his son Solomon was able to enjoy and undertake a massive building campaign. He did this through warfare and strategic marriage, taking wives and concubines as the nascent empire grew into power. Women were currency, and David cashed in.

The best example of this comes with Bathsheba. According to biblical witness of 2 Samuel 11, David spies Bathsheba on her roof. Most English translations render this in rather benign terms: Bathsheba is bathing. But Bathsheba is engaged in bathing to become ritually clean after her menstrual cycle. With no mikvah in her house, she goes to the roof, strips nude, and is subsequently viewed by a voyeur who sends for her so that he may possess her.

Here is where disagreement most often gets heated. Was the sex consensual? The scripture simply reports that Bathsheba lay with David, and subsequently becomes pregnant. But we must ask ourselves, could she have declined? David knew that she was married; further, he knew she was married to one of his military leaders. Her objections on these fronts would not have been heeded. David knew what he was doing when he sent for her. Even in the case of genuine mutual attraction, there is not mutual parity. There is no equality in this situation. David sent for her so that he may lay with her. Bathsheba had very little choice.

Let us address the most common objection: cultural context. “Well, that’s just the way things were,” we hear. I argue that we should accept such claims from persons in history to the same degree that we accept it from ourselves. David was king. He could have led by example, at the very least, treating the women around him as more than chattel and incubators. Further, let us stop accepting the idea that men have the right to summon women at will and demand that they submit to sexual acts. If it’s problematic in Hollywood, it’s problematic in Jerusalem.

The biblical story, as many of us know, becomes even more horrific. Bathsheba is pregnant; when she tells David, he unfolds a winding scheme that results in launching a military attack designed simply to get Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed. God causes Bathsheba to have a miscarriage and requires her to marry David. God and Samuel spend a good deal of time showing for David his sins against God. David repents and shows true remorse…to God. Not to Bathsheba. There is no sign that he made any attempts to atone for his horrific actions. Sadly, powerful men seldom do.

Let us hear Bathsheba say, “me, too.” Let us not use her actions after the rape to somehow mollify ourselves, “Oh, she was fine. I mean, her son became KING; she was a manipulator who used royal power to secure the place of her son.” These details are not relevant to the trauma inflicted upon her by a man lionized in popular religious imaginations. Let us not say, “Well, it wasn’t rape-rape,” as though there are only a set number of incidents that deserve the acknowledgment of being bestial violations of human persons made in God’s image.

And God does not get off easy here, either. God causes a miscarriage. God’s law requires victims to wed their rapists. And I don’t have some slick interpretation or word study to do to change the bright light that shines on this part of our sacred tradition. This view of God is the perfect example of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. All that matters is the man. It is his redemption that matters. It is his sin against God, not against the ones he violated, that matter. God’s endless covenant is with a line containing sexual abusers.

This matters in the course of religious history. There are billions of women throughout history crying out “me, too.” There are women sitting in pews or reading this online with their own, “me, too” stories. I see the irony of a man speaking about women’s experiences with righteous indignation; it is most certainly not lost on me. But one response to the “me, too” men can have is, “I was him.” I was him who engaged in misogynistic thinking; I was him who enjoyed the patriarchy while comparing to Nazis feminists who sought to dismantle it. I was him who did not heed the first no. There are so many ways.

Sometimes all we can content ourselves with is playing the role of Israel, meant literally as “one who wrestles with God.” As for my own efforts, I am no longer erring on the side of interpreting David with, “Oh, that’s awful, but really he’s a great guy, so I bet he didn’t mean it.” Seldomly do we hold up sexual abuse without trying to explain it away, victim shame, make accusations about the timing of reports or the manner in which they were reported. Let us wrestle with God, constantly hearing the “me, toos” that surround. We must never stop wrestling.

 

When no one shows up

cute-puppy-pictures-nobody-came-birt.jpgI’m going to keep this brief, as I don’t want to write something I’ll regret.

No one showed up to the event today. The social justice director of the BCP arrived in time to console me. We had lovely hugs and she is my BFF.

But I’m devastated and tired and I frankly don’t want to do this anymore.

Of course, I don’t really mean that; I do, but just for right now. I feel like a fucking idiot. I have poured much time and money into this project, the programming of which was based on numerous conversations and promises of collaboration, and now I have to pivot and prepare myself for the possibility that no one really wants to do this work.

I understand everyone is busy. I get it. But of all the areas in which I do work, the fact that not a single person from Antioch, the church, or the community was there is difficult to swallow.

Just in case you’re thinking of writing a response: I know. It is a Saturday. There are lots of things going on. People are tired. I know, as there are lots of things I miss that I want to attend because life is complicated and filled. I know that this isn’t personal but it feels that way.

For right now, I just need to feel bummed and a little hurt. I’ll get over it. I believe in a God who doesn’t allow overly-long pity parties. But I need to process this before I try to write tomorrow’s sermon.

I’m going to go off Facebook until…I dunno. For the rest of the day, at least.

I’ll catch y’all on the flip-flop/.

 

“What if no one shows up?” On priorities and planning

We’re less than twenty-four hours away from the first of three events that have been years in the making. I’ve written a lot about the “Refugee 101” event in various publications. I imagine you might be a little sick of me at this point.

When I first started the work that eventually resulted in the Beloved Community Project (BCP), I far too often gauged “success” by the number of people who attended an action or event. Anyone who has done organizing and planning work has to get out of that mindset pretty quickly, especially within a community like Yellow Springs in which there are almost always happenings, especially on Saturdays.

But don’t get me wrong, though: I am terrified that no one will show up! Alas, I now release the event into the universe and trust that those who are meant to participate will be present.

If you are not able to make the event, you can still fill out a NEW survey.

Finally, watch this and marvel how easy it is to use iMovie.

Locating the Gratitude: When Music Finds Us

dearcompanion-smA few years ago, a congregant named Gilah, who has made appearances on the blog several times, gave me an album called “In the Cool of the Day” by Daniel Martin Moore. It is an eleven song masterpiece, offering some of the most inventive, yet respectful arrangements of hymns that should be in any bluegrass artist’s repertoire. If you can’t play the blue, you don’t get the grass.  I have listened to this album nearly every day for three years.

I believe music finds us. I believe this as a musician who is primarily a picker and a singer. It has sometimes taken me 20 years to really learn a song because I simply wasn’t there yet to do anything but imitate someone else’s version. As an aficionado, I believe music finds us. I had to get to Art Blakey though Theolonius Monk. It couldn’t have happened any other way. And I believe music finds us as a minister, as a follower of Jesus, as a servant of love. The purity of music, stripped away from the business that tries to co-opt and codify it, is akin to the first breath of oxygen we take extra-womb. It is new, exciting, frightening,  life-giving.

I spend a lot of time in front of a computer. A lot. Music has to be part of the writing process, in no small part because of my tinnitus. And there is lots of music that will not work. But a few weeks ago I purchased DMM’s album Golden Age. I had the same reaction to it as I did to Sufjan Steven’s album Carrie and Lowell. It overtook my life. Granted, having bee-dee means that I pretty easily become obsessed with things. But this experience is different. You know, how albums become in your mind a representative of a time in your life? A song comes on, and you start to tell a story? Or you are with friends you’ve had for decades, and the mere singing of a songline gets everyone laughing and singing along? Those kinds of albums.

But only for yourself. Albums that have touched you so intimately that only you can really understand what it means.

Today, the blessing, the gift has been two-fold. All the amazing messages from all of you who are thinking of me as I mark the 15-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide. The second, the album “Dear Companion” by Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore.

Sollee is a cellist, as is my dear, dear friend Matt, who named his eldest son after me. So there is emotional connection already, and I’m clearly a fan of DMM. But this album has really helped me today. I can’t go any deeper than that right now–it has been a long day on an already taxing anniversary–but from the opening song, I’ve felt less lonely. Less displaced.

I’m seeing the blessings today, even amidst the pain. Only music has that instantaneous power.

Fifteen Years Gone: On Life After Suicide

IMG_0773.JPGI don’t think I’ve ever really dealt with my brother Stephen’s suicide. This may seem like an odd thing for me to say, given the volume of writing I have done on the subject of suicide, often invoking the memories of my uncle and brother. I’ve been with more people than I can count sharing stories of what it is like to have your life rocked in the way that only suicide can provide.

I’ve given advice that I first received with disdain and incredulity. The real grief will sneak up on you when you least expect it. No, it won’t, I said. It’ll be the seemingly smallest details that crush your heart. Nah, I’m over that, I responded in the initial years of grief, not yet understanding.

It takes years to understand. At least it has for me. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of mentioning Stephen, lecturing on suicide and the Bible, working with survivors and trying to help others get help before they take a step they can’t do over.  It takes years to understand that while your loved one may be gone in body, your relationship continues. Only you can keep it stuck in a rut.

I realized today, while processing with my therapist, that I have a ticking time bomb inside of me. I only share the “intimate stories” that I’ve carefully selected for public consumption. There is no duplicity. I don’t leave things out or embellish, at least no more so than our tricky minds rearrange things in the light of trauma.

The pictures of Stephen have largely been stored away, but not because I am ashamed of him. Rather, because I’m afraid that if I see one of these pictures it will trigger unaccessed memories.

I’m terrified to listen to the dozens of cassette tapes I have of our band/comedy team, “The Experimentals.” It will suck me into a time warp, back to the room that is now piled with clothes, books, and cat litter but was my bedroom. Was the place where we recorded hundreds of hours of teenage shenanigans.

How gorgeous was my brother? Seriously. Seeing this picture has brought up a lot of memories and I’m not sure how to deal with them. So long have I held them down so that they don’t pop up, like his body, and bump against the shore.

It has been fifteen years since I heard Stephen’s voice, and I easily could. In the corner of my office, hidden behind a set of bells, is a red case. It is my Pulp Fiction; in it is held treasure, but death surrounds it. In that case are tapes of us doing our characters: Billy Bob Joe Frank and Cleetus, two good ole boys we subconsciously knew we were only two generations removed from being; Chester and Leonard, two old men disillusioned with the world; Jimmy and Billy, created a decade before Cartman, two ruthless obese teenagers, with voices very similar to the aforementioned character, who headed the local mob knocking over Entenmann’s trucks.

On there are the recordings of my start as a guitarist trying to be cool like his brother. I’m sure that on there are many examples of me having a meltdown. Bipolar doesn’t just start overnight, yo’. It grows in ya’. Schizophrenia, too. So I think I imagine that I’m afraid to hear what is there to be heard. We could both be incredibly mean. Mental illness will do that.

In the back of my mind, I knew that October 12 was coming up. And I have known that it is the 15th year.But in many ways I really forgot. I didn’t access the information with my soul. That seems significant to me. I was walking out the door, having almost forgotten my therapy appointment, when it suddenly slapped me in the face. Tomorrow is the day. THE day.

Fifteen years.

The number matters, yes.  But it is what will happen in the coming year. I promised Stephen in my heart and in my head that I would complete a terminal degree. We’ll never have the houses side-by-side, cousins playing with one another as we competed to see who could become the greater literary success, but I’ll earn a doctorate for both of us. 

What do I do then? That’s the question that I’ve been wrestling with.  

It is never lost on me that while I love the life I have and can never imagine doing anything other than being a loving servant, the first footfall in this direction came in the microseconds after learning that Stephen’s body had been found washed up outside a riverboat restaurant on the Newport side of the Ohio River.

Stephen would find it absolutely amusing that I have become a devout believer in God and a minister as a result of his death. Stephen was an atheist. He’d probably say, “Aaron, you always did have a penchant for the dramatic.” But those hoped-for lives of over twenty-five years ago were not lives. They were hopes that we could be better than the pain and anguish of living inside of minds that are both brilliant and prisons.

I haven’t dealt with Stephen’s death because I only integrate him into my life in ways that are safe, that keep me from accessing the depth of pain and despair that has not lessened one bit. It means accepting that this pressure I have placed on myself has really been a form of avoidance. And I just can’t do that anymore.

I have to work in terms of projects. It is simply how I am wired. And I do want people to know him, to show why when I think of safety and love I think of being on the back of his motorcycle, throttle wide open, with him yelling at me “You’re all clear kid!”

I have purchased a cassette player that has an MP3 converter. I have a digital camera, and I will slowly start going through the pictures. And by the time next year rolls around, I will have made a tribute film to our relationship.

After fifteen years, it is time to start grieving properly so Stephen and I can move on to the next phase of our relationship.  To honor him tomorrow, I will spend the day helping others.

Cloudy with a chance of manna

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Exodus is a matter of perspective.

Slavery in the ancient world was not based on race. It was based on the notion that the gods control what happens here, so one’s fate is decided by the stars.

That did not make slavery any less brutal or more humane. It’s just important to know that these religious understandings cannot be gauged through the lens of modern race theory. It takes white supremacy culture to do that.

So imagine if a man with an Egyptian name meaning “drawn from the water” and his brother named mountain put on a spectacular water and lights show, all the while freaking out the earthly representative of Ra, the mightiest god in the known world. And then these two guys say, stop what you’re doin’ ’cause God’s about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to.

Everything you’ve known has been upended in a flash. Can you imagine the emotions? How do you think you’d be feeling as you pulled the bread from the oven before it had a chance to rise? Excited? Would you be confused as you threw what you could on your back and started walking forth? Hopeful? Scared? Uncertain? Tired?

And then, the greatest miracle: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, with the waters crashing down on the Egyptians, not upon the people whom this new god had saved by besting Ra.

Those two men, Moses and Aaron, along with their sister, Miriam, sing songs to God’s glory. The first night you sleep with a full belly, feeling exhilarated and filled with anticipation as to what comes next.

Now imagine it is a month to the day later. The optimism, like the hearty food, is long gone. You’re wandering. You’ve lost faith in water and mountain, and in the god they proclaim. You’re angry. You feel deceived. Forgotten. Without a place in the order of things. Despite the brutality of the enslaved condition, you start to remember the good things. Consistent food and a place to sleep. A sense of place within the cosmos. Hope.

Exodus is a matter of perspective. The idea of being delivered is powerful, but sometimes the process is brutal. The road to wholeness most often is paved with pain.

I’ve personally had some terrifying depressions that came after a blissful mania. Well, blissful until it wasn’t. This was before being put on medications. It was those experiences that propelled me toward treatment. Some of those walks in the valley of the shadow of death were horrific.

But I have also had horrendous experiences with medications. So bad that I was actually nostalgic about the darkness of my depressions. Why? Because it is a hell I know to survive. I don’t have much control, but I have some. With the wayward meds, I often have no control over my body functions or my mind.

I imagine we all have it in us to a certain extent, a fear of the unknown that can become so stark that we actually prefer slavery or madness to an uncertain tomorrow. I imagine there are not many hearing this who do not have their own version.

Maybe it was or is a job you stay(ed) at because of the benefits, the salary, the flexibility; some reason that you continue to use as justification for doing something that does little more than speed up your journey toward death? Maybe it is a relationship, or a substance, or food? We forget almost everything bad about it, convincing ourselves that this time will be different.

**

Murmuring in the desert is natural. Life is difficult when you need a snack and a nap and none are to be found.

mannaToday’s passage features the famous “manna from heaven.” The word comes first from Aramaic (mān hû); in Hebrew, it translates to “what is that?” Our English word comes from the Greek μάννα. Like the Hebrews, though, we wanna know. What is that?

There are two general hypotheses based upon the biblical descriptions. First, the “fine, flakelike frost” like a coriander seed, white of color and tasting like honey points to one or more variety of flowering trees such as Alhagi maurorum (Sinai manna), Tamarisk gallica, or Fraxinus ornus (flowering ash). Each of these has a gum resin.

Which leads us to the second explanation. The Cocidae, insects indigenous to the Sinai desert often called tree louse, secrete a rough, white substance that changes to a yellowish-brown color, becoming sweet with the passage of time. The Bedouins refer to it as “manna from heaven.”

To this day, they rise early in the morning and collect it before the ants wake and the sun melts it. During rainy seasons, one Bedouin can collect three pounds, which is kept in a sealed jar. It can then be made into cakes, bread, porridge, and a variety of other dishes.*

Using mythopoetic language, the author(s) of Exodus describes this as a miracle from God in response to the people’s murmuring. I am not here to deny that; I believe in daily, minute-to-minute miracles.

But I prefer the definition provided by the Dalai Lama: “a miracle is something unexpected.” What is unexpected here? That the Hebrews do not need Egyptian taskmasters to provide them with bounty. God has done it through the natural world. This story, in my opinion, is likely rooted in the historical experience of eureka: “I HAVE FOUND!”

They go from “what is that?” to “I have found.” The act of discovery that one need not go back to those conditions that deny us of our humanity. The realization that many of the solutions to our issues are around us, from the natural world to the people whom God sends.

What God demands is an attitude of gratitude. Toward God, yes. But also toward one another. God tells us to cook and bake and boil for six days, and on the seventh to rest. To be with one another. To connect with God. To appreciate the natural world and the miracle of being an embodied spirit.

God liberates us from that which enslaves our hearts, minds, and souls. May we look around and see what the manna from heaven is within our own lives, and when we find it, let us say “thanks be to God.” Amen.


*Information gathered from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary and the Lexham Bible Dictionary