Friday, September 30, 2011

A Joyful Cuisine

You'll find on these blog pages entries where I write of cultural and religious diversity. Such diversity can be soul enriching, but culinary diversity is out of this world! Good food is a great motivator. In fact, I think that the reason England lead the way across the globe during the days of colonization was that they realized that there was nothing good to eat at home! You didn't see the Greeks, Italians or Chinese establishing outposts throughout the world -- that's because their food was just fine, thank you very much.

Good food is the the major reason for this post today. This weekend is the 39th annual Greek Food Festival at Holy Cross-Holy Trinity Greek OrthodoxCathedral Church in downtown Birmingham. Since it is just a few blocks from where I work, I headed down there for lunch. In the past I have had the Greek chicken, last year I think I had Souvlakia, which is "marinated lamb skewered and grilled on an open fire."  Today, I had an abundant lunch of pasticho, spanakopita, tiropita, and a Greek salad. Pasticho is "a wonderful combination with layers of macaroni, ground beef in a Greek tomato sauce, topped with a layer of delicious cream bechamel sauce." Spanakopita and tiropita are both made from filo dough with wonderful ingredients baked inside (spinach, feta cheese, eggs,scallions).  It was total joy and comfort! I ate more than I am accustomed to having for lunch, but it was payday, and the Greek Festival only comes around once a year.

While taking my lunch there on the premises there was a live band performing traditional Greek music. Afterwards, I toured the "marketplace" and viewed all kinds of items, ranging from almond oil to coffee, to pottery and jewelry. The bookstore was a visual treat, with icons, Greek artwork, and Orthodox literature. Much of the artwork was appealing, especially one of an angel that looked like it was replicated from a religious fresco. What I really needed, however, was one more book. I found Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, by Father Lawrence Farley. The notes on the back promise to give the reader a deeper understanding of the Sunday morning liturgy. I have a fascination with liturgical forms, since I grew up as a Baptist with no understanding of liturgy. I discovered the richness of liturgy as an adult in the Episcopal and the Roman Catholic Churches. I have visited a couple of Orthodox services, and I thought it would be a good idea to spend a little time understanding that ancient rite a little better.

Primarily, I left Holy Cross Holy Trinity full and satisfied, having partaken of a wonderful meal. It is always beneficial to learn about other cultures and to get to know people from other traditions. Food is a great was to get there. All people everywhere can rejoice in the celebration of great cuisine. Head on down to the Greek Festival if you are near Birmingham. there is still one more day. A rewarding journey awaits you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Dharma

“In any gathering of people, with every so-called movement or public endeavor, some will find purpose, some will find meaning, some will find help, and some will get hurt.”

                Days of Awe; Days of Reconciliation

I am trying to learn from my varied cohorts and sojourning comrades within the multi-faith environment of today’s world.  This week I am listening especially to my Jewish friends while in the midst of reading about the beginnings of Buddhism in America. Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains that during the Jewish High Holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the custom is to approach people whom we interact with to ask forgiveness for any hurt we have caused.

Rosh Hashanah, on the Jewish calendar is a holy day known as the anniversary of creation, the birthday of the world. It signifies a time of new beginnings.  I decided that this year I would take some time on this day to try to dwell with that immense cosmic concept, that this day is the anniversary of the day it all began.  In eons past, this was the day that the earth was hung in space, the day when the Big Bang set the universe in motion, the day when the divine creator gave form to the formlessness that was within the dark recesses of the deep and watery abyss – or whatever image your mind chooses to focus upon as the beginning of existence.

Here is how Rabbi Rami puts it:

Rosh haShanah, the first of the Days of Awe, is the anniversary of creation, and our time to honor God, the Source of Creation. (This year Rosh haShanah begins at sundown on September 28th) For me God is the Source and Substance of all reality, and Rosh haShanah is the time when I remember that all life is a unique yet temporary manifestation of God the way each ray of sunlight is a unique and temporary manifestation of the sun. I use Rosh haShanah as a time to realign my life with creation so that my living is in service to all life.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (At-One-ment, October 7th at sundown) is the culmination of all this effort. We have made peace with our neighbor, peace with nature, and now it is time to make peace with God.  (From “Jewish Fall Holy Days” at Beyond Religion with Rabbi Rami) 
Practicing Compassion

In my reading of Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Downing, I learned that the first precept of Buddhism, like the first precept of medicine, is “do no harm.” In Downing's narrative, the Japanese Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, once observed that any time we try to do anything, we end up hurting someone. He said the best way to do no harm is to just sit – that is, sit in meditation.  I can understand the appeal, for I have felt the frustration of trying to do some good deed only to bring about some mishap or offense. If my actions cause hurt in any way, maybe I’ll just retreat and sit things out. Maybe meditation will provide me with the personal integration and grounding I need – if not, at least it will keep me out of the way.
I can only go so far with that line, however, before it seems like a narcissistic retreat from reality, except that I know that compassion is central to Buddhism. I also know that Buddhist practice, like any faith practice, is a process of moving outward as well as moving inward. There is an ebb and flow from meditative practice to doing good in the world in order to ease suffering. Suzuki himself did not simply withdraw in meditation, he continued in his acts of compassion according to Buddha’s teaching. 

All of this shows me that there is really no way I can get around it: I am indeed my brother’s keeper, as Torah indicates in that early story from the Garden of Eden. I should strive to do no harm and I should try to do some good in the world. I must also realize that it is inevitable that with human interactions, people get hurt. In any gathering of people, with every so-called movement or public endeavor, some will find purpose, some will find meaning, some will find help, and some will get hurt.

A Page From the Prayer Book

In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, there is the public confession in the Penitential Order:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

The salient points in that confession for me are: (1) "by what we have done, and by what we have left undone,"  (2) "we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves," and (3) “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” The truth is that there will always be things we realize in hindsight that should have been done, and there will always be mistakes we make in the process of our doing – which is why I like the concept of my Jewish cohorts in their Days of Awe, which begin today.  A special time of reflection is set aside so that we can make amends with our friends, family, and colleagues. Likewise, I appreciate my Buddhists friends’ practice of inward meditation and outward acts of compassion.

When the Earth Shuddered  

Though the Buddhists do not celebrate the birthday of the world, they do honor the beginning of enlightenment. I am reminded of the cosmic implications of Siddhartha’s transformation as told by Sophy Burnham in The Ecstatic Journey: The Transforming Power of Mystical Experience:

"At that sacred moment [of his enlightenment],” writes Sogyal Rinpoche in  The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying, “the earth itself shuddered as if drunk with bliss.” At that moment no one was angry, ill, sad, or proud, or performed any malicious acts. Everything stopped, resting in utter quiet. In the mind of Buddah.”  (page 124)

We need that balance, that cycle of inward reflection and outward involvement in the world. On this day we can celebrate both the Torah and the Dharma.  We can begin anew, as on the first day of creation, to repair the world for the greater good. We can also call to mind that hope when the earth shuddered, and all rested in the mind of the Buddha.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saint Bogey?

What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.”
“I will not,” he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, “I will, sir,” but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?
 “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
                                                                                  Matthew 21: 28-31 (NIV)

Today in the homily, our priest was commenting on the gospel passage above. By way of an example, he talked about how in the recently past century (I've got to get used to that -- the 20th century was last century, wasn't it?) actor Humphrey Bogart often played movie characters who gave no pretense of having any redeeming qualities, but who in the end would do the right thing. All of us can appreciate, I'm sure, that our actions ultimately carry more weight than empty words. 

I'm not sure what the priest said after that. My mind began imagining a stained glass window in church with Humphrey Bogart off in the lower left panel. Then I imagined if by some time warp, what if Michelangelo had had the opportunity to know Bogey? I'm sure we would be able to find him standing somewhere in the background of that Sistine Chapel painting.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Liminal Space, Sacred Time, and the Public Reading of Poetry

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen,meaning "a threshold") is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the "threshold" of or between two different existential planes.
Psychologists call "liminal space" a place where boundaries dissolve a little and we stand there, on the threshold, getting ourselves ready to move across the limits of what we were into what we are to be. 

My wife and I had a wonderful evening last night as we listened to 16 people from various walks in life read their favorite poem. The event was co-sponsored by the Birmingham Arts Journal and the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Local TV newsman Mike Royer was on hand as emcee, and did an outstanding job introducing each reader and helping the event to flow smoothly.

I have long considered poetry to be a sacred process and poems make available to us a body of sacred writing. It is a canon which has never been closed and which continuously arises to speak to the human condition. To sit and read a poem is to be open to a sacred time where life and mystery is celebrated. Even more important is the public nature of poetry.  Long before human communities were even literate, people gathered in public spaces and around fires to hear the sounds and the rhythms of that unique language of poetry.

Last night was such a time and I am grateful to Jim and Liz Reed of the Birmingham Arts Journal and to ASFA for creating that public arena for the reciting of poetry. I am also grateful to each of the readers who stood before us to read their favorite poem.

We heard stories of humanity that echoed the joys and sorrows, the struggles and triumphs of life.  There were light-hearted moments, there were occasions for laughter, and there were moments of somber reflection. We heard stories of war time, poverty, and family. We heard from poets who affirmed every aspect of life, each in his or her own unique style.

After the readings, there was a grand reception hosted by ASFA’s Creative Writing Department. Off to the side was the school’s art gallery which was open with installments from the Visual Arts students. My wife and I took the time to walk through the gallery to see the exhibits. Our daughter graduated from ASFA with a specialty in Visual Art, so we enjoyed seeing once again the creations of those high school students. As always, I was amazed at the creativity expressed in the sculptures and paintings within the gallery. It was yet another occasion to walk within that liminal space that gives us cause for wonder and hope.

All in all, the evening was a great celebration of creativity, life, love, longing, and community. It was a reminder of the importance of bringing people together to publicly set aside sacred time and liminal space to celebrate life together as we navigate this hopeful but unsure path.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Magic of John Coltrane

I write this not as a jazz aficionado or as an expert on John Coltrane.  I am simply speaking as one who has recently enjoyed the saxophonist's music. For years, I have heard of about the recording,  A Love Supreme. Often it has been on my list of things to hear some day. Last month I decided that it was time to hear that composition.  I was at the downtown public library and decided to look for the CD. A Love Supreme was nowhere to be found, but I did find Blue Train. I figured that was better than nothing, and it would give me a sample of Coltrane’s music until I could find the other legendary recording. While I was searching through CD recordings, I found Windham Hill’s Summer Solstice sampler and picked that up to listen to as I drove around town. Blue Train would go on the shelf until I could sit down to appreciate it.

A few days later, I discovered while looking online that another library branch had a copy of A Love Supreme. I immediately headed out for the other library location, since I had decided that now is the time to hear that classic work of jazz.  Happily, I found the CD, checked it out and put it in the CD player of my Ford Ranger as I headed back home.  A quick look at the liner notes had indicated to me that this was a testimony of searching and gratitude to a higher power. Listening to that CD allowed me to hear that testimony in the language of jazz.  I enjoyed the opportunity to finally hear the music I had heard about off and on for so many years.

Three weeks later, I spotted the Blue Train CD on the shelf. I had not yet put that one in the player to listen to it.  Knowing that it had been some time since I checked it out, I went online to verify the due date.  The CD was due that very day! “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just renew it to give me time to listen hear it.” When I tried to renew it online, however, I got a red-lettered message that renewal was not possible, the CD was on hold, requested by another patron. That was serious. I could not deny someone else the joy of Coltrane. I had to get to the library right away. I had some other errands to run, so I decided to pop Blue Train into the CD player of my truck while I ran about town. I would make the library my last stop.

When the strains of Blue Train came across the speakers, the day became lighter and more joyful. As I said earlier, I cannot claim to be an expert on jazz, but this was yet another exceptional recording! In many ways it was easier to listen to that A Love Supreme.  When I finished all my errands, I headed downtown to the library where I would return the CD for the next patron to enjoy.  You may not believe it, but at the exact moment that I pulled into the parking space at the library, the last bars of the final track on that CD were complete! I was truly in the Tao! The music and the travel ended simultaneously. That was one more tribute to the magic of John Coltrane.

I have since gone online to learn more about the artist. I took a brief look at the John Coltrane official website and found a Wikipedia article about him.  Like many artists and musicians, Coltrane had his struggles. I learned that the inspiration for A Love Supreme came after a near fatal drug overdose in the late 1950s. Apparently that experience solidified his resolve to embrace his spirituality. So many poets and artists seem to write from the extreme edges of life, and they declare to the rest of us from those extremes the beauty and grandeur of life. Gratitude becomes the best response to life,  showing us how to live with a joyful celebration, even in the midst of pain and struggle.

He was only 40 when he died from liver cancer, but he left quite  legacy in his short life. As I read further about Coltrane, I learned that he was canonized as a saint by the African Orthodox Church in 1982, and that the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco uses Coltrane’s music and lyrics in its liturgy and prayers -- further tribute to the creative expression the man gave to the world in his music. I’ve only lately come to experience some of his music. I look forward to hearing more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Death Takes a Bow at Republican Presidential Debates

On Monday night at the Tea Party Republican Presidential debate, which aired on CNN, there were cheers from the audience and shouts of “let him die,” when a hypothetical question was posed about how to handle the care of a man in his thirties who opts out of buying health insurance because he is in good health, but winds up injured and in a coma at the hospital. Those cheers erupted from the Tampa, Florida audience. It had been just a week earlier that death got a similar round of applause at the mention of 234 executions in Texas. That was when the Republicans were debating in California at the Reagan Presidential Library.

I found it odd that the party most associated with the right-to-life movement would be so gleeful about gruesome incidents of death.  I also was surprised that the Tea Party, which was appalled at the (false) notion of “death panels” in the healthcare bill, had people in its audience advocating that someone without insurance should die.

In another way, however, the cheers and applause we heard makes sense. The Tea Party advocates individual and personal responsibility and looks down upon any kind of government handout.  It’s an attitude of, “I work hard for what I earn, I want to keep it, if someone else wants a job and healthcare, let them earn it themselves.” Now that I’ve got that all worked out in my head, it sounds a lot like “survival of the fittest.”  And that makes me confused again, aren’t these the people who hate Darwin’s ideas?

At any rate, I get a little nervous when groups of people get so cavalier and even gleeful about the deaths of others. Does anyone remember reading "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson?


Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11: Ten Years Later

[Note: this was first posted on 9/11/2010. I am repeating it here for the 10th anniversary of that day]

Living Through the Grief and the Loss and the Terror

I will never forget that morning on September 11, 2001. My wife called me from work to tell me to turn on CNN. All of us across the country felt the shock and the numbness. All of us felt the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

I had friends in New York City, Taylor and Susan Field. Taylor directs Graffitti Ministries which is on East 7th Street. I tried to call to see if they were alright, but of course, getting through to New York by phone was impossible for several days. I did send an email - it felt almost like tossing out a message in a bottle - I only hoped that there would be someone to read it and respond. It was weeks before I knew for sure that they were okay. Taylor later wrote a book about his ministry in New York called Mercy Streets: Seeing Grace on the Streets of New York. In it he included a very moving chapter about that day on 9/11.

I heard comments about this tragic event being the first time that terrorism had impacted upon our own land here at home. Like everyone else in the country, I watched the news each day and hoped for some resolution, some return to normalcy. Even as I was feeling the shock and the sorrow, I knew that this was not the first experience of terrorism on our shores.

On the first anniversary of 9/11, I wrote the following poem as a way to bring my thoughts and feelings together to commemorate the day. The poem is written in two voices. I have itallicized every other stanza to help keep the two voices separate while at the same time blending those voices together in a search for where to go from here.

When Towers Collapse
by Charles Kinnaird

It was an invasion
Of stealth, arrogance and deceit
That brought the two towers down
And inflicted a wound that would not heal.

                                                                                       When the steel and concrete gave way
                                                                                       Something inside gave way
                                                                                       As if the soul could drop to Sheol
                                                                                       While the body still finds its breath.

“From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,”
Chief Joseph told us.
There is the urge to fight back,
But fighting will not rebuild the towers.
Killing will not heal our wounds.
Our songs may remember the two towers
But the towers will never be replaced.

                                                                                    How will thousands of bodies ever be found?
                                                                                    How will each soul be remembered?
                                                                                    How will the hole be filled?
                                                                                    Too many empty spaces
                                                                                    Where fathers, mothers, sisters and sons once sat.
                                                                                    So many empty places in too many beds,
                                                                                    All vacated with the passing of a single day.

Your twin towers collapsed.
We had our own towers, so to speak.
There was the Land
And there was our Culture –
Those were the strong towers
That held our lives
And nurtured our spirits.
Our land was taken
And our culture collapsed over time
After a systematic campaign of terror.
Where is the monument that could hold our grief?
Where is the house that can contain our sorrow?

                                                                                    There is the instinct to reciprocate,
                                                                                    To lash back at the enemy.
                                                                                    Let them taste their own bitter tears.
                                                                                    Visit hate with hate.

We lived with devastation and heartache
With a wound that would not heal.
Our names still echo throughout the land:
Tallapoosa, Wetumpka, Sylacauga,
Notasulga, Tuscaloosa, Weogufka,
Why could our daughters and sons not grow
In the lands that bear our names?

                                                                                  May we never forget those whose lives were taken.
                                                                                  We must learn to walk with sorrow and wisdom,
                                                                                  Celebration and sadness.
                                                                                  We must learn to live with grief for what was,
                                                                                  Joy for what will be,
                                                                                  And gratitude for what remains.

Chippewa, Tallahassee,
Chattanooga, Ouachita,
Our names continue to call out
Like too many empty beds.
Like so many empty homes
Our names call out.
We must learn to live with the pain
From the wound that will not heal
While we reach for the balm
That comes from living
In the hoop of the world.

                                                                                Today we walk on bloodstained ground.
                                                                                Both the blood of our forebears
                                                                                And the stain of our own doing.
                                                                                We see times of collapse
                                                                                And times of building up.
                                                                                Some days, we will fight.
                                                                                One day, we will fight no more forever.

The hawk rises
But our wound will not heal.
We may know joy
But we cannot hide our grief.
We may live with wisdom,
But we cannot erase the sorrow.
We will not erase the sorrow.

Monday, September 5, 2011

More on Labor Day from E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne has a probing commentary about Labor Day on Commonweal's Web Exclusive:

Labor Lost
How workers vanished from our national consciousness
By E. J. Dionne Jr.

Let's get it over with and rename the holiday "Capital Day." We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil -- the phrase itself seems antique -- as worthy of genuine respect.

Read more of Dionne’s column here.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Labor Day: Remembering the Hard-Won Gains

Labor Day weekend is upon us.  Many will be taking that last outing, that last trip to the beach, or some other way to enjoy that three day weekend that marks the end of summer. Some cities will have Labor Day parades. How many of us stop to consider the significance of the holiday?

It was organized labor that brought about many of the things that made for a viable middle class in this country: the 40 hour work week, humane working conditions, pension plans, health insurance, paid vacation and sick leave.  In the 1950’s 40% of the workforce belonged to labor unions. Today, the influence of organized labor has waned with only 14% of the workforce being unionized.

I grew up in a southern mill town in a part of the country which was mostly non-union. The populace was largely convinced that unions were troublemakers and that we should all just be grateful for the magnanimity of the textile mill owners in providing jobs. It was a world very realistically portrayed in the film, Norma Rae.  My wife, on the other hand, grew up in steel mill territory. Unions were big, and workers appreciated the gains that had been made on their behalf.  They knew that without a strong organized voice from labor, owners and management would give heed mainly to the dollar and not to the workers who made those dollars possible.

For much of the 20th century, workers (whether unionized or not) benefitted from the struggle on the part of labor unions to bring laws into effect which would improve the lot of the working class.  Today with these early steps into the 21st century, even though there are 25 million people either unemployed or working without benefits, I am seeing more of the “let’s just be thankful for the magnanimity of the industry owners” attitude, and less of a will on the part of the people to organize on their own behalf.  A friend sent me the following video presentation which does a powerful job in reminding us about what the labor movement has accomplished for us in this country.

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For more information on the history of Labor Day, check out these websites:

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