Sunday, September 10, 2017

John

I would do almost anything to see you again
my beloved John, sharer of my name.

Fate took you from me far too soon
one a men's shelter bunk mate one bed away from me,
the other a professor with a lilt and lift in his step
entirely divorced from every expectation.

John M., you shared space with me in ways that few others have. We sat on the stoop of the RCC church together uninvited, sharing wounds and love neither was able to express publicly. Others thought we were gay but we weren't. We just loved each other deeply. You never called me by my name. You always called me the pacifist. I saw your tender side hidden by the hardness. The poisoned needle took you far too soon from me and all who loved you.

John Q., you were so odd, but in the best way. I loved tending your plants and fish for you when you traveled to conferences across the country. Your humor was always so inappropriate in class and in your Greek and Roman comedies at your house. Your triple entendre's never ceased to amaze me. I loved teaching your class that semester on those magical Fridays as your TA. Your helped me to love being a teacher to others.

The name John means to be beloved. These two men named John have helped me to understand that truth. Thank you both for that.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

I Ain't Lonesome By Myself Anymore

I have been a stranger to myself
Unfamiliar to my own skin
Desperate to identify myself
Not really knowing my kin


Heaven help me now.
Heaven help me now.
God, in your mercy, help me now.

Skin has been my game, for many a decade now.
A game with a capital name, explaining how
capitalism works, till it sucks us dry
with dregs in is wake, drag me out of the water now.

Rhyme or Reason

Musicians and magicians twerk the works of the things that irk us all, gyrating the ratings of the false paradings of those who would make fools of us all. Masquerading balls to the walls telling tales to walls too tall till the tallest walls end up becoming talismans to us alls. Perspectival explosions shout shrapnel of notions in all directions, leaving wounds across the "no man's land" of non either/or potions, sent as a healing balm to heal the bombs of intentional discontent. Percolating hatred is sated by placating the nascent self hatred which constantly protrudes outwardly towards those we most fear. We fear them mostly because we most recognize them in ourselves and see a glimpse of ourselves, even if as in a mirror darkly, we see them in ourselves.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Small Part of My Spiritual Autobigraphy

My introduction to the fundamentalist world began in earnest in my late teens and early twenties via Christian radio in NYC and NJ. I was listening to radio on a daily basis, since we didn't have a TV at the time being that we were pretty much dirt poor and always moving from apartment to apartment, generally one step ahead of being evicted. So while I enjoyed listening to music as much as any other teen, I also really enjoyed talk shows about public events, whether from a liberal or conservative perspective politically, or from different religious perspectives. I would listen to various Christian programs on the radio, but I'd also listen to some of the Jewish radio programming in NYC. At one point in my teens I considered converting to Judaism, since I found their ethical center to be very compelling to me morally. But I had been raised in a non-church-going but still officially Christian family, and so I was exposed from early childhood on to the bible and a little bit of religious writings, but not much else.

My earliest exposure to explicitly Christian preaching/teaching was through the Billy Graham Crusades on TV, which my mom always had me watch as a child. I didn't mind though, since his message was always delivered in a simple enough way that even I, a small child, could understand the basics of what it meant to be a Christian. I know that this was the case because at that time, when I was around six or seven years old, my parents had already split up and I saw my father Herbert only on the weekends when he had visitation rights. On one of those weekends we went for a walk down a wooded street a few blocks from our house and somehow the topic of Jesus came up. My father, who at that time lost the faith he was raised with, which had been a combination of Baptist (his father) and Lutheran (his mother), essentially told me that while Jesus was a good teacher, that's basically all he was. And I remember telling him no, that Jesus was much more than just a "good" teacher, that, in fact, he claimed to be much more and that he was actually God in the flesh. Now obviously I didn't really know what that meant in detail, since I was after all still a small child, but I had a true childlike faith in Jesus.

I also recall watching on a regular basis the wonderful Catholic program called Christopher Closeup hosted by the wonderfully gentle Father John Catoir, and each episode, which always aired early Sunday mornings, would offer up a morality play of sorts and would give dramatic presentations of difficult moral/ethical situations. The motto of The Christophers was "It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness" and that has always stuck with me even to this day.

God As Jesus

God showed up as Jesus. But what does that even mean? The historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth was an obscure Jew from the hinterlands of the Roman Empire, a random rabbi who rabble roused disrespectful people against the lawful authorities. Is this the Jesus you know? Is this the Jesus who upset everyone around him, contradicting every expectation of what they thought a Messiah should look like?

This suspected bastard child of an unwed mother revolutionized a world known by patriarchy and hierarchy, unchallenged and wholly accepted.

Jesus constantly upset reality by resetting the reality in his midst. He accepted those who were not considered acceptable on a regular basis. He also rejected those who were the accepted norms in his time and place. Jesus was a Prophet with honor, especially because he was a prophet without honor. That's what prophets do. They tell the truth against all odds. They're constantly killed for telling the truth. True prophets are never loved. They're always hated. And true prophets are always martyrs, either physically or spiritually.

Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors and dirty fishermen. Outcasts all. And yet, this is who God casts out to constantly. I'm constantly reminded of the parable Jesus told about the "Good Samaritan," about how he reminded his devoutly Jewish audience that the "righteous" person was the half breed heretic who "did the right thing" when it counted.

My theology has been revolutionized by this parable.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Strange Staten Island Dream

So apparently a combination of sardines in a tin can and a jar of herring in wine sauce for dinner last night (my Anglo-German side clearly coming out), and a night of very much interrupted sleep, leads to some pretty epically strange dreams (which I'm wont to have anyway).

This dream occurred, appropriately enough, on Staten Island, the home of the brave and very strange. It started out in my old teenage West Brighton/Silver Lake neighborhood across the street from the gorgeous synagogue on Forest Avenue I lived across from. I spent a good part of my teenage years living there with my mom and my grandparents.

But in the dream I had last night I was on a wooden moving cart from GCTS and was rolling down the sidewalk past the synagogue across the street and then turned left behind the synagogue through their parking lot (I'm still a member through their FB page in real life) past Liz's house (the owner of the Book Nook, our favorite bookstore in the neighborhood on Forest Avenue), and then stopped at the cross road while chatting with several neighborhood friends of mine as traffic passed by, until a vehicle stopped, which allowed us all to pass over to the telephone building where I was able to gain a bit of speed and roll down the hill.

Eventually I rolled down the Forest Avenue sidewalk towards West Brighton into Port Richmond and finally close to Mariner's Harbor where I stopped at a park to rest. I was late in the day and it was unoccupied, so I thought it would be a safe place to rest.

It wasn't. A very attractive young woman who had blonde hair and was rather petite approached me and started asking me about terms I didn't understand. I was just sitting there wanted to rest from a long walk on the Island. She eventually explained to me that she was talking about drugs, especially marijuana (I think she was also a prostitute), and that she thought that I was interested in buying them at that park.

I was just tired and wanted to rest and enjoy the late afternoon. But a few other folks decided to join us, both family friendly folks and a few gang bangers, who decided to sit right next to me on the other side of this young woman. They sat on my right and immediately started to act against my interests, both physically and sexually, invading my space in both cases.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

West Virginia Hillbilly

I've been very impressed with JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, on the various talk shows he's appeared on lately. He speaks for a demographic which has been historically overlooked by both major parties. Since my own family background on my mother's side is straight up West Virginia Hillbilly, he speaks to my own kith and kin going back centuries. The good folks of Gassaway, West Virginia, a beautiful little town nestled in the hills of central WV, still have many of my relatives living there. My mom was born there, but my grandparents decided to leave town for NYC during the Great Depression so that they could start a new life and have opportunities that simply didn't exist in a small town hit hard by economic woes.

But it wasn't just economic issues which drove them to the big city. It was also cultural and very personal. They eloped because neither of their parents approved of their marriage (I have no idea why). West Virginians are very tight knit, but this also shows itself in splits and feuds which can last a very long time. And no, as far as I know, I don't have any Hatfield's or McCoy's in my family history! But I do have a distant cousin who was the 1924 Democratic nominee for President, John William Davis, who lost in an historic landslide. But the economy for the vast majority of West Virginians in the 1930's was grinding poverty, and sadly it's not a whole lot better even now all these decades later.

Back in the Spring of 2004 I drove from Holland, Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina to consider attending Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary at their Charlotte campus. On the way back to Michigan that Monday I decided, last minute, to take a detour and drive up to Gassaway, West Virginia to visit my mom's home town. As I drove along the highway and stopped just before the appropriate exit, my lights shorted out, so I knew I'd have to stop at a repair shop in order to drive the rest of the way home to Michigan. So I drove into town and noticed along the side of the road election signs to my left and right with local candidates running for various offices and I also couldn't help but notice that many of the names on the signs were old family names that my mom and grandmother had told me about many times over. There were Bosley's, there were Lee's, there were Davis's, there were Dennison's, all names that I had been told about by my family, so I knew that I was driving into and through family, even though I'd never been there before.

When I finally got into town it looked like it hadn't changed in at least fifty years. I stopped at a little food mart and asked the young woman if they had a repair shop in town and she told me that they did and it was the only one. Thankfully it was a Pontiac repair shop and dealer, since that's what I was driving back then. So I dropped my car off and asked if the town had a library, and the receptionist, in her thick Hillbilly twang, told me that it was just down the road a bit, maybe a five minute walk. And so that's what I did during lunch when my car was being worked on. I visited the town library and did research on my family history going back to the Civil War. It turns out that family members fought on both sides of the Civil War. In fact, several family members were drafted by the Union Army at the beginning of the war but deserted and fought for the Confederacy. Bad move. There's a reason why the only hotel (long since closed and abandoned) in town is called the Lincoln Hotel and not the Davis Hotel.

In Gassaway, West Virginia, there's not many career options available for the people living there. At least back in my grandparent's day you could either be a coal miner, a lumberjack (two of my great grandfathers died doing that), a railroad man (my beloved grandfather Harry Goff Bosley was one), or a moonshiner (I'm sure some of my kin did that too!). And no matter which of these you did, you were damned proud of it. That's part of the Hillbilly way too. Pride in your heritage is part and parcel of what it means to be a "Red Neck" or a Hillbilly. My grandmother Ruth was Scotch-Irish through and through. But she was also a woman of the modern world who worked independently as a seamstress and dress maker while my grandpa worked for the NYC subway system.

But back to my car problems. I finished researching my family history in the town library and walked back to the repair shop wondering how much they were gonna get me for. I mean, I'm a Yankee from NYC after all in the middle of hillbilly country! I won't lie. I have my deep seated prejudices too. I could see, in my minds eye, some blind kid playing a banjo as I drove into town. But when I walked back into the shop and started chatting with the receptionist about my family ties with Gassaway, the owner of the shop walked in and asked me about my family. And when I started mentioned the names, he immediately said that many of those folks still lived in Gassaway. But when I mentioned the family name of Dennison, he looked at me in shock and said: "You're a Dennison?" I affirmed that yes, through my grandmother, that I am indeed a Dennison. He then laughed and said that the guy who repaired my car was a Dennison! He's a cousin of mine! I didn't even pay for the labor, only the fuse that was needed to get my lights working again.

I was kin!

Obviously I love telling this story to any and all friends of mine, since it shows how small our world can be if we dig deep enough. But my West Virginia Hillbilly heritage has its dark side too. Addiction is a major, multi-generational, problem throughout Appalachia. My family isn't exempt from that curse. I won't go into too many personal details here simply out of respect to many of my family members who have struggled with addiction and other mental health issues. But suffice it to say that these issues have run replete throughout my family going back many generations.

Monday, May 30, 2016

My last name is Brandkamp.

On this Memorial Day I can't help but wonder about the etymology of my ancestral surname. My father and I used to joke about what our family name meant, jesting that it might have meant that our long lost ancestors were pirates on the North Sea (our ancestors were indeed sailors along the coast of northwest Germany for many generations), even to the point of me saying that my last name meant "the pillagers of the villagers" since the first part of our name is "Brand" and could mean either a burning torch or a sword, and the last part "Kamp" which could mean either a military encampment or, more notoriously, a struggle.

Now maybe all this surname guessing is all nonsense. I admit that's a real possibility. But I do know enough about the German side of my family history to know about our religious history, and that's where it gets interesting. My grandmother's maiden name was Noormann and she was from Lehr, Germany in Ost Friesland (East Friesland in English) just next to the Dutch border. She could walk to the Netherlands in a few minutes from her B&B house where she grew up. She apparently fell in love or maybe lust with a boy my great grandparents didn't approve of, so they sent her off to America in the late 1800's to makes sure she didn't get into a relationship with him. She always bragged that she didn't arrive in America at Ellis Island like the rest of the "immigrants". She arrived on Long Island and simply overstayed her tourist visa! She was such a proud woman!

Sadly, my only memories of her are from my earliest childhood and were of her dark home in Old Town, Staten Island and how she wasn't a very nice person. My mom only half jokingly said that she always knew when it was time to leave grandma Brandkamp's house when she'd start talking about pure Aryan blood. It's still heartbreaking to me that she bought into the Nazi ideology of her earlier years. She did have a very cool lava lamp though that I always thought was super cool! Talk about a strange juxtaposition!

My German grandfather, on the other hand, died several decades before my birth. I own his Plymouth Brethren hymnal which my father, Herbert, gave me many years ago. It has his signature in it. He had the most perfect penmanship and his first name was Fred, the short American version of his German first name of Friedrich. I also have a picture of him sitting on a stoop somewhere in New Jersey (I believe at an aunt's house). He has a short stogie cigar in his hand and has the most beautifully gentle eyes and definitely had the typical Brandkamp furrowed brow. I wish I could have known him in person. My father had only good things to say about him. He was a very godly man who even preached on occasion. Strangely enough, I'm glad he died before Hitler's rise saw its awful fruit come to its deadly genocidal conclusion. I'm grateful he was spared that awful spectacle.

My German grandfather Fred was also born in the same part of Germany as my German grandmother Marie, in a similar sounding town nearby, but they only met years later in NYC at a German Lutheran church in Brooklyn, NY. after his first wife had died. I don't know anything about his first wife, or much about my aunt from that wife, except that she was much older than my father and his other siblings. But I believe they all got on quite well. My father joked about how my grandfather carried his Scofield Study Bible tightly and thought that Scofield's notes were only "slightly" less inspired than the original text! Bless his heart (if you're Southern, you'll see what I just did there)!

Anyway, he was a good man from everything I know of him. What I find especially interesting about his past in coming to America is that he came over as a child and was raised by German Mennonites in Kansas (I have no idea which port he came in through) and only later came to NYC and fell in love with the big city and the bright lights (most likely gas lamps back then!). Here was this German country boy, mostly familiar with farm life both in Germany and Kansas, speaking Plattdeutsch/Low German and halting English in NYC!

In fact, my favorite story from my father is of him meeting a West African man, skin black as coal, who emigrated from a German owned part of Africa, who he happened to meet in the Lower West Side of Manhattan. He asked my grandfather for directions in his language, and my grandfather understood everything he said! They had a wonderful conversation as two expats in a truly strange and wonderful land! Their common Plattdeutsch dialect united them!

But I digress...

I meant to speak about Memorial Day.

It seems my last name is strange. Brandkamp is a strangely militaristic name, bespeaking a familial history of military exploits. And yet my grandfather's family was thoroughly Mennonite and Anabaptist, thoroughly pacifist traditions. How could a name so associated with such a militaristic history be pacifist? I do know that my great grandfather and his elders all signed the "nonconformist papers" in Lutheran Germany in the 19th century. This allowed them to avoid paying the state tax for the Lutheran church, but it also barred them from any public service. This had real world consequences for these signers. They were shunned and seen as enemies of the state and state church. I'm not sure, but I think a long distant relative had a "come to Jesus" moment a few centuries ago and decided to leave his life of warfare for the state and decided to engage in warfare of a more spiritual sort with different kinds of swords.

This is the part of my spiritual heritage I'm most interested in investigating.

Soldier on friends, soldier on.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Razor Wire Smile

I can't take my razor wire smile
as it cuts me to the quick
the border patrol mile after mile
of my mind makes me sick.

Xenophobic sensibilities
evacuate my soul
hating other ethnicities
ultimately takes its toll.

Ethnic cities sound a lot like
a cacophonous parader
of raucous performances unlike
a monolingual nadir.

Open my eyes that I might see
someone else not quite like us
so that these differences won't be
negatives but a plus.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Gwenn

I loved you.
You loved me.
We loved each other.
We both dreamed.
We both dreamed of love.
We both dreamed of loving into the future.
We talked about children.
We talked about coming off of medication so that children could be safely born.
We talked about being with each other several times.
We were, but not ultimately or intimately.
Sometimes life falls apart.
Sometimes dreams don't come true.
But for that far too short season
You had me and I had you.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ferguson Through Two Lenses: How Your Cultural Background Shapes How You See Race and Crime in America

Over the last few months since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, I've read innumerable essays from black writers, white writers, Asian writers, Latino writers, conservative writers, liberal writers, radical writers, and so on, about this incident. One of the things that has begun to become clear to me, even if the facts of this particular case are anything but clear, is that different communities are literally seeing completely different realities when it comes to what happened this summer in Ferguson, Missouri. And it's becoming clearer than ever that this isn't an isolated incident. Your demographic background deeply shapes, and more often than not, distorts your perception of reality when it comes to these two issues of race and crime.

In my title to this essay I use the image of two lenses to describe how folks might view the events of this summer in Ferguson. These two lenses I'm talking about are this: micro-cosmically and macro-cosmically, or to put it another way, individualistically or corporately/systemically. And what's fascinating to me as a concerned bystander is how these two perspectives play out demographically. We see it played out to a very large degree ethnically in that white folks tend, on average, to view these kinds of events individualistically, whereas black folks tend, on average, to see these kinds of events corporately/systemically. But it's also complicated by the factor of what ideological and religious background a person has. For instance, if you're religious background is that of a conservative white evangelical, then you're much more likely to view these events through an individualistic lens, often neglecting the larger narrative of systemic racism throughout American history. But if your religious background is shaped by the black church experience here in America, then you're much more likely to view these events corporately/systemically.

Why is that?

One major reason is that many black Americans, at least those descended from slaves, see themselves through the biblical lens of Moses and the Exodus from Egyptian slavery into the land of freedom. There's a reason why so many black churches include the name Zion in their church names! Zion is synonymous with freedom! In this sense then African American Christians are very "Jewish" in their thinking and self identity, whereas White American Christians are very "Greek" in their thinking and self identity. I'm deeply indebted to the seminal work of Marvin Wilson in his essential book Our Father Abraham, where he makes the very important point about how Greek thinking is very abstract and tends towards individualism and Jewish thinking is more concrete and is also deeply corporate/communal. So, in that light, most American blacks are very Jewish in their self conception and most American whites are very Greek in their self conception.

Consider if you will popular evangelical pietist and revivalist Christianity. The salvation narrative is inherently individualistic, focusing on one person's "spiritual" salvation from this doomed and damned world of sin so that they can die safely in the arms of Jesus, swept away from this world of corruption into the sweet by and by. By the way, this vision of salvation is also a deeply gnostic vision of the world, but that's another debate which would only serve to distract from my focus today, though it does have an impact on the issues we're talking about here.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Abolition of Man

I'm rereading C.S. Lewis's amazing but little known book The Abolition of Man once again this evening (I can't count how many times I've read it over the years) and I'm once again reminded of how incredibly insightful and downright prophetic this little book was when he wrote it so many years ago. And in reading it aloud to myself I'm struck by the utter brilliance of his eloquence and literary acumen.

There's a reason why it continues to occupy my permanent top ten list of essential books to read. I highly recommend it to everyone I know. But be warned, it's not an easy read at first glance. It's helpful if not essential to understand the cultural milieu in which he lived before you open to the first page. Otherwise it very quickly descends into a morass of incomprehensible verbiage so foreign to our post-modern language that you'll possibly be tempted to toss it into the trash bin halfway through the first chapter.

In fact, that's how I came to own my copy of The Abolition of Man. My old boss at Hope College had tried reading it, and it was so saturated with terminology and cultural references which were so foreign to him, that he literally tossed it into the trash bin, disgusted with the book. And this isn't because my boss was some nitwit. He was incredibly smart and we had many spirited conversations about almost everything under the sun. But his area of knowledge and expertise was scientific and mechanical, not literary and educational.

In any case though, it's a book that can easily be read in a sitting. But you'll want to read through it slowly, because, like a fine meal of exquisite cuisine, you'll want to digest the richness slowly, enjoying the delightful morsels of wisdom interspersed throughout this marvelous tome.

Revisioning the norm which norms every other norm. AKA, gender, sexuality, disability and race revisited.

Wow. This list is amazing and eye opening. And it reminds me that I could easily substitute gender with race, abilism (contra the term disability), or sexuality as far as the "norm" is concerned.

As a white male fully abled (by some standards) heterosexual, I KNOW that the deck is inherently stacked in my favor from the get go.

My life experience has taught me that I get to be the "chameleon" in social settings just by my status. In other words, I can "fit in" in other social settings simply because of my station in life.

But if we're to live out the true Christian witness, which is self sacrificial, yet at the same time acknowledging our inherent self worth as divine image bearers, we MUST own "otherness" as our own identity, precisely because God, through Christ Jesus, entered into our VERY "other" reality in the incarnation.

http://millennialpastor.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/12-reasons-why-being-a-male-pastor-is-better/

Saturday, June 29, 2013

My First Kiss

I remember the moment well. He ran up to me in the hall of IS 61, Morris Intermediate School. This was a very good school in the West Brighton neighborhood of Staten Island, where I lived at the time. He ran up to me and kissed me on the lips in the hallway, my first official "lip" kiss as a teen. Then he ran away, ashamed of what he did. Needless to say I was a bit astonished. But I wasn't offended. I was just surprised. At the time I saw it as a one time "one off" experience. I already KNEW where my sexual loyalties laid back then, and even to this day. I AM, after all, a FLAMING heterosexual! I've known from Day One which team I'm gonna play with!

But this boy was attracted to me, and he felt the deep need to express that personally. I remember the moment well. I was in the hall of IS 61, between classes. I just wanted to get to my next class. But the fact that he then ran away upon kissing me tells me quite a bit a bit about him and our common cultural context. His "running away" told me about the common culture we both inhabited, a culture which said same sex attraction was inherently bad and a result of the fall.

I "used" to belong to that culture. I no longer do. I "used" to believe that. I no longer do.

And yet I STILL hold to traditional church teachings... Go figure...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Freeing Ourselves From Our Educational Captivity

It was good just now to chat with my close brother from Myanmar/Burma about education in general and Christian education in particular and how we need to move forward towards a more sustainable way of educating our future daughters and sons. The current system of education is well suited for a post WWII period but completely inadequate and even positively harmful for this generation and the generations to come.

We MUST find a new educational paradigm for our youth and adults in the church or else we're consigning ourselves to the dustbin of history. Telling our youth that they must be educated (a good thing), but then forcing them to become enslaved by debt for the rest of their working lives, in order to get that education, so that they can never truly serve their calling, isn't just nonsensical, it's unjust and wicked. And besides, it ends up perpetuating a system of injustice instead of confronting it at its source.

The Western church has become captive to a paradigm of education which is hyper hierarchical, completely pragmatic, consumeristic beyond belief, and totally dependent upon an economic model which is unsustainable and ultimately enslaving, not just financially, but also intellectually, and spiritually.

Think outside the industrial schoolroom box with its ringing bells telling you when to think and when to eat and when to get back to the factory. We've allowed ourselves to be imprisoned by the culture which surrounds us. But remember friends, we are culture too, and we can think and do differently if only we dare.

Let the kingdom of God liberate us from our Egyptian bondage.