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(The following meditation was shared at the Bluegrass Christmas service in Rocheport, Missouri on Saturday, December 2, 2017)

I have some good news and some bad news
Timothy L. Carson      Luke 1:46-55

Tonight we teeter on the edge of Advent, the First Sunday in Advent being tomorrow. Advent is the rich season of expectation, longing and hope for the coming of Christ into our midst. Of course, Christ is already here, but in terms of re-experiencing the Christian story this is the early chapter in which we prepare for the arrival of Christ into the world and our hearts. What better way to do that than to focus on the song of Mary, the Magnificat?

Once upon a time there was a peasant girl who lived in the corner of nowhere, an unremarkable Palestinian village where the citizens lived hand-to-mouth under the boot of a foreign occupation. In fact, an Imperial city was not too far from their town, a city that displayed elaborate public buildings and ostentatious wealth. That only reinforced just how unimportant her village was in the scheme of things. And how relatively unimportant she was.

As you can imagine, she attracted another peasant to whom she would be betrothed, a man who worked with his hands. He didn’t have any land so he was lower on the social ladder. But he had a trade as a craftsman. Somewhere in the middle of their engagement she had a mysterious visitor in the midst of – what could you call it – a dream, a vision, an apparition? And the voice said she was to carry a most special child in her womb. What would she make of this?

Just recently I was invited to conduct devotional services at the St. Francis House in Columbia, a residential house for the homeless.

There were about ten of us gathered in the living room of this modest older house, some guests and some volunteers. I asked them to imagine what I am asking you to imagine, a young peasant girl living in a small and very simple Palestinian village. And then I asked them to imagine what it would be like for that nobody from the sticks to be informed that she would carry the Messiah, the savior for the world.

Some in our group said that she would have been shocked. “Maybe you have the wrong house. Maybe you called the wrong number.”

Others noted the sense of humility that God would be working through someone like her, the weak and powerless, the marginalized, the underclass.

But then we took time to read Mary’s song, the Magnificat, a song of praise modeled after the song of another woman who lived centuries before her whose story is told in First Samuel: Hannah, the barren woman who prayed for the blessing of a child and promised God that she would give him to the temple if she was so blessed. Hannah sang a song that sounds very much like Mary’s, which is more or less a parallel of it:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has toppled the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

(Luke 1:46-55)

This is the dramatic prophesy of God’s downward mobility and the divine trickle-up economy, a whole different kind of repeal and replace. Here is the advent of God’s upside-down kingdom, where the playing field is leveled, the rich and powerful are swept down from their thrones and the poor and powerless are given justice.

I will never forget the look of astonishment on the face of a heavily tatted young man as he listened to Mary’s song and heard that this is how and where God’s work begins, at the margins. I think his attentive expression was some cross between disbelief and hope.

We closed our evening slowly reading these astounding words of Mary, words that turn this world upside down, liberating words that are good news for some and not so good for others.

One thing we know for sure and that is this: Mary’s song does not often show up on Hallmark Christmas cards. You don’t often see a little nativity scene and under it, “He has toppled the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Not too often do you see that.

Why then, at a moment like that, does Mary sound like a revolutionary? Let me set the stage for you and maybe that will help.

In first century Palestine the Jewish population was predominantly the peasant class, and they were far and away very poor. They were also in an occupied land and Roman oligarchs and military built elaborate Imperial cities and lived lavish lives. There really was no middle class to speak of, the merchant class being the closest to that. And the people were double taxed – by their Jewish ruling elites and also by the Romans.

So the situation of the ordinary working family – and they were all working families – is that their taxes supported their own leaders and the Roman Imperial machine – its elite ruling class, the public works projects and the military. All of the wealth was generated by the workers, trickling up to support everything else. All of this was rewarded with more taxes and more restriction.

This is the way that power and wealth works; it seldom trickles down, and rather trickles up and pools at the top.

Those peasants in Palestine never saw anything for their work and taxes; it was all consumed by those up the ladder. They were in effect supporting the machine that kept them oppressed. The language from the Temple cult and its high paid priests was that God loved them for supporting the temple. The language from the Roman government was that Caesar would be pleased with their loyalty and devotion; when the Empire wins everybody wins.

And so, here is Mary, a peasant girl with nothing, engaged to a man who had little to nothing, surrounded by power structures beyond their control, and she sings a song: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has toppled the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

If God can work through me, the humblest delivery system imaginable, then God can reform and transform the whole world from the bottom up. This upside down kingdom of God will see the tyrants fall from their proud thrones and justice will roll down like mighty waters.

It’s not a new theme that Mary’s song contains. We hear it all through the prophets who preceded her. Take Isaiah 10:1-4, for example:

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

Again, not the popular choice for a Hallmark card or a Christmas carol, but it carries the tone of Mary’s song: God is awesome and wondrous; God’s using even me; if God can do that, heads will roll and justice will come. Maybe we’ve simply mischaracterized Mary, created her into someone and something she wasn’t, the mild and meek Mary.

After all, the nut didn’t fall from that tree; Jesus sounds a lot like his mother. It was with those peasants that he spent most of his time – preaching, healing, teaching, having meal fellowship with the outcasts, gathering a no-star cast of disciples to follow him.

It wasn’t until he made his way to the halls of power in Jerusalem, the city that stones the prophets, and challenged the temple elites and Roman elites that he was nailed to the tree.

Mary brought forth a son such as that. And we love her and him for it. In the story of God’s big reversal Mary’s song is just a preview of coming attractions.

Since the St. Francis house is run by the Catholic Worker community, some of them were in the room during my meditation. And as I was preparing to leave one of them spoke up and he said, “I’m amazed that a Protestant minister would come to us and actually talk about Mary!”

Hey, Mary belongs to all of us. Granted, I’m not praying through Mary. But she is our lady. Don’t you know that when her son came off the cross and she bathed his wounds with her tears she knew the real cost of God’s work in the world.


Cracks of Hope

Posted: November 25, 2017 in Uncategorized
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For you, my friends, I pass on to you this free electronic travel journal of Michael McCray entitled Cracks of Hope: Stories and Snapshots from Divided Lands. His semester long journey took him to the people and places of Israel, Northern Ireland and South Africa. It is a journey worth taking with him.


Posted: November 6, 2017 in Uncategorized
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To date in 2017 we have had 307 mass shootings (four or more victims) in the United States. These are overwhelmingly citizen on citizen violence, not perpetrated by radicalized Muslims or gang members who crossed over the southern border. The most recent shooting of church people at worship in Texas was committed by a young white man dishonorably discharged from the Airforce, court marshaled for beating his wife and child, held in detention for over a year.  He lived in a barn beside his parent’s house. Neighbors characterize him as an ordinary kind of guy except they heard lots of gun fire across the street at his place at night.

When he burst through the door of the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas he was dressed in Ninja black, wearing tactical gear and sporting the mass shooter weapon of choice, an AR-15 assault rifle.  All of the recent slaughters have been executed with AR-15s. Las Vegas, for instance. Add a bump stock and you’re good.

Nothing is going to be done by those who could because they are on the payroll of the gun lobby. They are owned and compromised. Our President received over $900,000 from them. My US Senator, Roy Blunt, received nearly $50,000. My Missouri State Senator, Caleb Rowden, received $5,000.

Here is what you will hear politicos say after each and every gun massacre: This is evil, this is a mental health issue, thank you to our courageous first responders, and our prayers are with you.

By the way, the present administration just rolled back limitations placed on those with mental illness and their ability to get their hands on guns. And much of the mental health money is getting rolled back in the first wave of proposed federal budget cuts. Yes, I know, it is conspicuous hypocrisy.

We have a gun problem. No one is talking about taking hunters’ shotguns away. We are talking about the glut of military style assault rifles and all their accessories. If more guns would make us safer our gun violence problem would have been solved long ago because we have more guns flooding our society than any other in the world. But the truth is we have more gun-related fatalities per capita than any other nation on earth.

What is sad, truly sad about the latest mass shooting in our country is that it won’t be our last. And it won’t be our last because our leaders are owned by powerful monied organizations who profit from the sale of guns and more guns. They will never stop because it is making them rich. And if the spilling of blood is the price we must pay in order to make them rich, they are good with that.

One of the shocking observations by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion is how the present polarization between different tribes has turned from disagreement into raw contempt. Disagreement and difference of opinion are always to be expected in societies large and small. But that disagreement and polarization has turned toxic; people have come to not only desire to debate opponents but instead to destroy them. This is reflected in our choice of language. And civility is always shaped by choice of language which is intertwined with attitudes, emotions and ideas.

Most of us have felt this growing tide of antagonism and opposition in our daily life, not only in national political discourse but in the kinds of transactions we experience in ordinary experience. A spirit of rancor has floated to the surface. The reptilian brain has reemerged. Some of us fuel the flames while others are just troubled and baffled by it, not knowing how to move forward differently.

Just recently good friend Heather Hargrove was sharing a heart-to-heart discussion about this troubling development with some of her friends and colleagues. They all were experiencing the same tension. And though they couldn’t pretend to solve the problem with a simple formula they did agree that the answer has something to do with the restoration of certain virtues that we are willing to practice and model. What they came up with was a cluster of four guiding principles that if followed and shared could make a difference:

Challenge everyone with these four words:  compassion, empathy, respect, and honesty.
Compassion and empathy – for you never know what your friend (or enemy) is going through and what battles they are fighting.
Respect for others, period.  Whether it be a difference of opinion or belief or a way of life…whatever it is, be respectful.
And most important, honesty.  No one gains in a relationship or organization without honesty as the foundation.
It can be rather easy to make assumptions and pass judgment.  So the challenge is: How will you find ways to employ compassion, empathy, respect, and honesty each and every day?

This past week, just on the heels of the massacre in Las Vegas, I attended the regular meeting of the service club to which I belong. Like in most places where people have been collectively impacted by a tragedy the mood was pensive, uncertain, reflective.  When we inhabit the ambiguous liminal space on the other side of some unthinkable threshold we live somewhere between here and there, a somewhere that is often nowhere.

What struck me was the inability of normally articulate people to say a word that made any sense.  Rather than naming the elephant in the room, the president made an oblong reference to the past week and then proceeded to tell some jokes he hoped would lighten the mood. He is a really fine person. I admire him in many ways. Then, during an announcement about a forthcoming event, another person promoted the occasion by saying that with all that has transpired it will be good for us to get together make merry. After all, she continued, this just means our work at building relationships is not done.

No breakfast conversation at my table actually reflected on the tragedy at hand. There was no collective action that addressed it. We left the meeting in the same fog through which we entered. It occurred to me that that they were utterly unequipped to deal with a tragedy and deal with it together. They had no language for such a thing.

I contrast this with a mid-week prayer service our congregation provides in which we prayed for brokenness, unspeakable loss and the strength and power to overcome evil.  I think of the difference between the vacuum of my service club with a Saturday night Bluegrass worship service in which we talked about the hypocrisy of praying for the families of those affected by the shooting but not pursuing a courageous solution that would stop this plague of gun violence in our land. I compare my service club to worship yesterday morning and the direct ways that we named the tragedy, provided for expressing sorrow, told stories of hope, and even suggested that creating beauty is the right response to hate and ugliness.

In the tradition of the church we have an advantage, admittedly so. We actually reflect on suffering and death. And we have a very specific response to suffering, loss and tragedy. It is called lament. We carve out space to outwardly lament, give voice to our sorrow, fear, bewilderment and disillusionment. Lament is scattered all over the Psalms. It is found on the lips of Jesus on the cross as he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Those same Psalms and Christian scriptures combine lament with hope. We sorrow but not as those without hope.  It is scattered through our hymnody. The season of Lent and Holy Week major in it. People often say, “Oh, Lent is just too depressing.” It can be heavy. It looks sin, violence to others, suffering and death right in the eye without blinking. Which is exactly why it is so important. This language, these clear and unflinching truths about life, are exactly what prepare us for Las Vegas and anything like it. We have a language, a narrative and symbol system for this.

I do not harbor any kind of contempt for my friends in my service club. They were simply out of their depth. They had no language or even ideas to deal well with something that terrible. Expecting them to be fluent with suffering in a moment like that would be like me expecting a non-Spanish speaker to translate events in Spanish.

There actually is a language we may speak following events like Las Vegas. This language has a grammar, syntax and vocabulary. It includes words like evil, suffering, sin, hope, restoration, redemption, healing and justice. It is a sturdy language, sturdy enough to speak after the shooting has stopped. It is insistent on ways to prevent such inhumanity. And in the end it is a language that we, the ritual makers, use to walk the path of life in a particular way.

For those who are interested, this way involves a person named Jesus who was and is the way, the truth and the life. You should get to know him. He’ll teach you how to understand and speak a new language.


Beatle Bob at the 2017 Roots and Blues Festival

As I made the long walk from parking to Stephens Park for the recent Roots and Blues Festival in Columbia, Missouri who should be walking directly in front of me other than the now iconic Beatle Bob (Robert Matonis, b. 1953). This well-known fixture at scores of concerts dresses in a retro Beatle wig and coat and is reported to have seen over 10,000 bands in the last decade. He attends at least one concert a day somewhere in an unbroken chain of concerts.

Bob is so well known that he gets shout outs from the on-stage performers who immediately recognize him stage side. Grooving and moving through the whole performance, Bob is a part of the whole experience. What is it like to be permanently in attendance at concert after concert, life as one long performance?

Of course, for Beatle Bob it is a matter of identity; he has cultivated a specific persona through decades of being the true fan. He is known by and has a place for this identity. Others regard him so. In terms of belonging his position is secure, part of the social concert landscape. He has become this character and more than simply accepting his eccentricity people welcome it. They say what I say, “Look – it’s Beatle Bob!”

In Liminal studies we would say that a concert is liminoid space, a space between the ordinary structures of life. This is artificially designed space at the edge, the border, the margin of life. Different kinds of things manifest there. You have the freedom to become something else. Insight, feeling and experience may be revealed in unique ways.  In this regard, attending a concert in today’s highly technical production provides a temporary alternative reality, a Liminal space and time. In this regard a concert can parallel church, without the doctrine, prayer and communion. It holds multiple rituals, togetherness, and moves the emotions from one place to another.

Liminal space, however, is occupied differently depending on who is doing the occupying.  For Bob his life is defined by permanent liminality – a continuous habitation of liminal space. Like the other great traditions of the permanently liminal – monastic life, the wandering vagrant itinerant, people living at the edge of society – Bob lives in the permanent liminal space which has become his primary space. He does so voluntarily, unlike the liminality of prison, for instance, which is involuntary permanent liminality.

Bob reminds me how our reality is so very much determined by the kinds of spaces we inhabit. Landscapes provide the boundaries, safety or confinement that make them and us what we are. When we  dare step outside the structure of the ordinary or are pushed out of that space by unexpected circumstance, we discover what it is like to become a liminal person. For most of us that is usually a temporary state of being. But for some, like Beatle Bob, it is ongoing and permanent. Though Bob and I stood a mere ten feet from one another at the foot of the stage we were actually in very different space; I was passing through and he was there to stay.  Which is why two people can inhabit the same location but be in very different dimensions at the same time.

Look! It’s Beatle Bob!


Gun laws in Nevada

Posted: October 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

Nevada state law does not require the registration of firearms. Following the passage of SB 175, handgun registration (or registration of any kind), is no longer required in Clark County or anywhere in the state of Nevada for handguns or long-arms (which already did not require registration). Governor Brian Sandoval signed this bill into law on June 2, 2015.[25]

Nevada is a traditional open carry state with complete state preemption of firearms laws. Effective June 2, 2016 SB 175[22] and SB 240[23] (duplicate provisions) is legislation that prohibits counties, cities, and towns from enacting ordinances more restrictive than state law. The legislature reserves for itself the right to legislate all areas of firearm law except unsafe discharge of firearms.