Sunday, March 8, 2015

Wanda's Picks Radio Show

Last Wednesday on March 4, I was interviewed by my good friend Wanda Sabir on her Wanda's Picks Radio Show. I don't listen to interviews of me because I'm far too critical of myself, but I had a great time during the interview, and have heard good things from people who've listened. So feel free to click here and listen if you'd like. Gratitude, Peace, and Blessings

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mary Had a Baby

The following post comes from the text of a reflection paper on nativity narratives in December of 2014 for a class in African American Biblical Hermeneutics at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California:

Upon first reading the nativity account in the in an English translation of the Qu’ran (The Koran Interpreted by A.J. Arberry) a little over three decades ago, I was totally blown away. I literally still remember the moment, sitting in a small meditation room in a cedar house, deep in a cedar swamp in rural Wisconsin, on the other side of Green Bay from the city that bears that name. I was totally blown away. Arberry had prefaced his translation by saying that it was not really possible to translate the Qur’an into English, so he wouldn’t try (he was right not to). I wasn’t Muslim at the time, but had been introduced to Sufism, which was what piqued my interest.

I was blown away because the story was so beautiful, I felt as if someone was finally telling me the rest of it. I was 30 years old at the time and for the first half of my life, I had been Protestant. For the second half I had been Catholic. So the relationship with Jesus had always been strong. The relationship with Mary became particularly strong as a Roman Catholic: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.” That is one of those prayers that penetrates concrete walls. But until I read the Qur’anic account of the nativity, I really hadn’t begun, from my perspective anyway, to grasp the significance.

This is what I was strongly reminded of upon reading the commentary on the Biblical nativity narratives in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, and then also reading the Biblical narratives themselves. I actually approached this assignment with the Islamic narrative in mind, as well as the ancient Egyptian narrative of the immaculate conception of Heru by Aset (Isis), and will say more on the latter later. But I start this reflection paper with a reference to the Islamic version because I didn’t expect the contrast to be as stark as it turned out to be.

Michael Joseph Brown’s commentary in True to Our Native Land, besides mentioning the lack of nativity imagery in Matthew, focuses on the silence Mary. The story seems to be all about the confluence of great bloodlines to accomplish great things. So an angel appears to inform Joseph that just being a nice guy and divorcing Mary quietly is not enough. Joseph is given the opportunity instead to adopt the son of God, which he accepts. Brown’s commentary leading up to this point provides invaluable insight into the fact that the supposedly pure lineage of Jesus is not quite as sterling as it is claimed to be. He uses that to further question the whole lineage nonsense about needing to be descended from kings and queens to be of worth in life. Those of us who grew up within New York City limits on Long Island (in the counties of Kings and Queens) should know better than to take that stuff seriously. It was refreshing to read some clear air on it in Brown’s commentary for general consumption.

Stephanie Buckhannon Crowder’s commentary in True to Our Native Land on the nativity in Luke highlights Mary’s much more active role, which begins to approach the “spiritual enchantment” (my characterization) of the narrative in the Qur’an. In Luke, one finds the intimate connection between the birth of Jesus and the birth of John, and between the two families as well. Mary asks the obvious question, “How can a virgin have a baby?” and then submits as the faithful doule (Greek for female slave) that she is in this religious context. Mary even sings a song of praise in Luke, which she does not do in the Qur’an. The account in Luke describes Mary giving birth in the stable for lack of room in the inn and also describes the shepherds who came to witness and spread the news at the behest of the angels.

In reading this story again after so many years, I realize that most of the details I originally thought were Biblical had actually come from popular and in-church embellishments and re-tellings—the modern-day orality. Crowder’s commentary also provides valuable insight into the politics behind the narration of Luke, in terms of situating the impoverished birth of Jesus within the nexus of imperial power. Crowder’s revelation that the tax levy that supposedly sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the birth didn’t take place until several years after the birth is quite powerful. For now, that thought is just filed away for future consideration, or perhaps for the appearance of relevant contextual connections. Crowder closes with powerful words from Sojourner Truth to underline the importance of Luke’s narration for bringing women into the forefront. And that’s where my reflection returns to the other nativity accounts previously mentioned.

The Qur’anic nativity does not mention Joseph. The only mention of Joseph in the Qur’an refers to the son of Israel who was sold by his brothers into Egyptian slavery. So the nativity in the Qur’an is all about Mary. Although she is not given the divine status that she receives in the version of the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer I quoted previously, she is presented essentially as a holy woman and prophet in her own right who speaks just as eloquently with her body as she does verbally. In the Qur’anic narrative, she is depicted as a young woman under the guardianship of her cousin Zachariah, who is also a prophet. There is a beautifully poetic sequence prior to the annunciation, in which every time Zachariah comes in to bring her sustenance or ask if she has any needs, Mary replies that all of her needs have already been met by God.

During an equally poetic description of the annunciation, Mary asks the same question as she does in Luke and makes the same submission. As a matter of fact, an entire chapter of the Qu’ran is named after Mary, from which the annunciation and nativity narrative below (verses 16-26) from The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad are excerpted:
AND CALL to mind, through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place and kept herself in seclusion from them, whereupon We sent unto her Our angel of revelation, who appeared to her in the shape of a well-made human being. She exclaimed: “Verily, I seek refuge from thee with the Most Gracious! [Approach me not] if thou art conscious of Him!” [The angel] answered: “I am but a messenger of thy Sustainer, [who says,] ‘I shall bestow upon thee the gift of a son endowed with purity.’” Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – for never have I been a loose woman!” [The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but] thy Sustainer says, ‘This is easy for Me; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from Us.’”

And it was a thing decreed [by God]: and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place. And [when] the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree, she exclaimed: “Oh, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!” Thereupon [a voice] called out to her from beneath that [palm-tree]: “Grieve not! Thy Sustainer has provided a rivulet [running] beneath thee; and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee. Eat, then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened! And if thou shouldst see any human being, convey this unto him: ‘Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed unto the Most Gracious; hence, I may not speak today to any mortal.’”

So there is no stable, no shepherds, no Rome, just Mary, God, and the baby. The poetry of the moment of birth expressed through Mary’s intimate relation with the divine as communicated not only verbally, but through what I now also recognize as a sacred river and tree, was perhaps the aspect, in retrospect, that moved me the most, particularly in light of the reality of giving birth--which I realize in retrospect was accentuated by me having a pregnant wife in the house at the time, and that I came to appreciate more upon becoming the number one assistant at the home births of three of my children. So by bringing the actual pangs of childbirth into the scripture, the Qur’anic account brings not only the woman’s voice into the picture, but her entire body as well. It reminds me of the Negro spiritual: “Mary Had a Baby.”

Since that time, I have also encountered the ancient Egyptian myth of Asar and Aset, in which Aset is the main character throughout. Her consort Asar is sealed in a coffin and set adrift on the river. So Aset goes and finds his body encased in the trunk of a tree, which she returns to Egypt and keeps concealed. The body is then found by the original murderer, dismembered, and scattered to the four winds. Aset then goes out, searches for, and finds all of the parts but the phallus. In this myth Aset not only immaculately conceives a child who set things aright and becomes the king, she also brings about a resurrection of the deceased and dismembered god and father of her child. Now if that ain’t the archetype of a black American woman dealing with archetypal black American problem, I don’t know what is.

Quite seriously, I read this myth now and read the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America, the betrayed, crucified, dismembered and even emasculated African heritage coming into a new creation through none other than the enslaved black women often forced to submit to the “supreme” power of white enslavers. The imagery becomes overwhelmingly powerful, particularly upon turning attention to the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical horrors from which such women desired often in vain to protect their own offspring.

Mary had a baby, oh, Lord,
Mary had a baby, oh my Lord,
Mary had a baby, oh Lord,
People keep a-comin' an' the train done gone.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why I Make Music

The more I learn about so-called civilization, the more I am gripped with a profound sadness—a bottomless, life-sapping grief. It is not despair or hopelessness however because of something I call faith. I used to think faith had to do with religion, and in a way it does. I have practiced many religions, loved them all dearly, and still do practice and cherish religion—but from a much different perspective than I once did. The yearning that comes of my grieving and sadness is far too great for religion. My yearning is massive and hungry, like a raging blast furnace, like literally wide-open, roaring and blazing jaws of hell—a fiercely ravenous, brutal, and savage yearning that nothing can quench save the actual breeze of heaven itself. Not just a light breeze, but eternally sustained, gale-force winds.

This is why I make music. Music is my hurricane of rock-solid hope—the irresistible force of a million hurricanes delivered with the inflexibility, weight, and hardness of a million mountainously massive granite slabs in a million simultaneous thunder-clapping landslides, of and from which no abstract idea of hope could even begin to conceive much less survive or emerge. Music is also my hurricane of defiance that, after thoroughly obliterating even the most savage of roaring yearnings, roars a million times more savagely with the force and fury of billions of volcanic explosions, ripping trillions of peaks off of quadrillions of miles-high mountains, and vomiting quintillions of miles-higher geysers of steaming, bubbling, and hotter-than-white-hot lava to instantly and completely consume all that is oppressive, tyrannical, and despoiling, without so much as the hint of a burp and the consequent opportunity for a polite “excuse me.” And music is also my hurricane of love: raging flood waters spilling over the banks of continental rivers—Nile, Amazon, Mississippi—healing, fertilizing, and bringing new life. Music obliterates the crassly bill-boarded storefront of civil-eyes… (excuse me) commercial-eyes-zation and reconnects me to both the power of nature and the promise of humanity. But in order to connect, the music must be shared and there’s the rub.

I was well trained from youth that children should look but not touch and be seen but not heard. Yet making and particularly sharing music requires that I break all of the rules—that I touch and allow myself to be touched, that I hear and allow myself to be heard, not with the gravity and propriety of an adult, but with the playful abandon of a child, even from the depths of tragedy and grief. The earthy rhythms and heavenly harmonies that give life demand no less, and do not yield to the stuttering whine and clunk of even graphically pubescent prose, such as these periodic concessions to the limitations and insecurities of my imaginary adult—or perhaps they are attempts to communicate with my fellow imaginary adults. Be that as it may. Much more can, and later perhaps will, be said about both the source of the sadness and the restoration of our collective soul (to paraphrase the Biblical Psalmist). The point of all of this—what I have not been able to say in the previous few hundred words or to find in the philosophies, theologies, sciences, or ideologies of the civilized world—is why I make music. I make music because music (for me anyway) is the manifestation of divine spirit that turns what civilization calls religion back into the everyday life that it always was and always will be—turns the churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues back into farmers’ markets.

Yes, there is a specific piece of music associated with the foregoing pile of verbiage. You can listen and read the lyrics on the "sound cloud" at https://soundcloud.com/boundless-gratitude/farmers-markets. Please feel free to play and sing along. Abiding peace, abundant blessings, one love.

Monday, May 6, 2013

There Was A Young Cowboy

The National Day of Prayer just passed here in the U.S. a few days ago, and I originally published the piece below just after the National Day of Prayer fourteen years ago. Interestingly, the title of this blog "Boundless Gratitude" is how I started introducing myself several years later, after waking up from a dream in which I spoke with the friend who this piece is about. This essay was also the signature piece for my "Imagine Peace" web pages back then. Let's just say that I'm starting to feel some insight into this unusual burst of activity from a guy who normally manages to post a new blog entry about twice a year, maybe. :-)

“There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range,
His horse and his cattle are his only companions.
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons,
Waiting for summer his pastures to change.”
- from "Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor.

One of my closest friends died yesterday. He collapsed on a sidewalk in California right about the time that people in Washington, D.C. were gathering to observe the National Day of Prayer. He was on his way to work. The cause of death was probably the chronic high blood pressure that my friend struggled with for many years and that also presents a severe health risk factor for African-American men.

There’s plenty of grist here for a strident column of stirring social commentary. A quick mental check of books that I own with relevant story lines turns up titles such as, The Overworked American; America: What Went Wrong; and The Souls of Black Folk. But as I sit here at dawn writing thoughtfully, I realize that the real story is less about a departed soul than it is about a great and ever-present spirit.

Perhaps I feel this way because just about every time my friend and I got together, we prayed. For a number of years, he and I worked about a block away from each other in downtown San Francisco and we would meet at lunchtime to pray in his office or in mine. And on Fridays at midday, we would often travel together to and from the congregational prayer service. Our sons were also in the same Boy Scout Troop, so I have memories of all of us praying together amidst tall trees, overlooking a breath-taking vista, at a simple roadside stop, or just at someone’s house during a meeting.

From the above it may sound as if he and I were pillars of the religious community. Far from it. I’m pretty sure that nobody thought of either one of us as particularly religious. For the two of us I think it was a matter of seeking a constructive approach to our own imperfections. What I call, “the prayer of the drunken sailor” comes to mind: “Dear God, if you please get me out of this one, I promise to try and get myself out of the next one.” Neither one of us made it to as many community religious gatherings as we might have liked. To me it seemed as if the press of making a living and raising a family consumed all of the time that was available, and more energy than was available. My friend, however, while working longer hours than I would have thought humanly possible, still managed to maintain energetic and perpetual motion as a full-time community servant.

He was an active Boy Scout leader who also donated many long and devoted hours of his own work skills in the field of audio-visual and computer technology to community events. A number of young men, including my sons, would assist my friend during these events. They would sleep over at his house on Friday evening in order to get up before dawn on Saturday morning and work almost non-stop through Sunday evening. You kind of have to be there to really understand what all of this means… like last night when a strong, bright and confident young man whose voice has changed and who has grown taller than his father burst into tears upon hearing the news. You just have to be there.

So last night after my family heard the news, we prayed. And then after we prayed, we sang. We sang cultural songs, religious songs, blues songs and folk songs. And for some reason, I decided that the words from the song quoted at the beginning of this column provided a fitting close to the evening. These words were also on my mind this morning as I awoke. Perhaps it’s because of the times that my friend and I spent camping together. Perhaps it’s because when he and I met for the last time, for lunch and prayer at his work place, we talked about life on the trail – the wear and tear of seemingly endless stress and how he was hoping for an early retirement. Perhaps its fitting that Sabree, the Islamic name that many people knew him by means “patient perseverance.”

During our last meeting, he and I also talked about religious rituals in life as not just things that you do, but things that you become. We talked about the prophets of the great religions as people who struggled with life, underwent deep spiritual transformations and then shared what they learned with other people. The point was that rather than just imitate what those great prophets did after their own transformations, somehow each of us has to enter our own individual transformation process. In that context, our religious rituals become reminders of the crucial tasks that we need to perform, rather than being mistaken for the tasks themselves.

Seen in this light, the many different religious and ethical systems that people espouse throughout the world also become sources of unity as opposed to conflict. They are all the songs that we sing while working, watching and waiting for our change of season. Each soul may have a different song, but in spirit, all of the songs are one. Imagine what the world would be like if each of us could realize and practice this.

Imagine Peace.