Archive for October, 2013

The Holy Ones: St. Your Name Here

// October 26th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

One thing I love about Church in the Cliff is that the conversational format allows for dissent and dialogue.  As soon as we began our series on saints, questions were raised:  “Isn’t canonization really a political process?”  “Is anyone really a saint?”  “Aren’t we all saints?”  Another thing I love about Church in the Cliff is that everyone came along for the ride.  We raise questions, talk about them, and then see where it takes us.  In this case, it seems to have taken us, completely unplanned by Genny and I, back to the beginning.

We began by adopting the Catholic definition of sainthood – dead, miracles – but the New Testament doesn’t seem to support that understanding.  The word translated as saint (hagios) simply means “holy one.”  It usually refers to believers, Christians.  It is a standard component of the greeting in most of the Pauline letters, e.g., “To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints.”  There is much discussion of the needs of the saints, the care of the saints, and support of the saints throughout the NT.  There is even a little discussion of what it might mean to be a saint.

One clue is that root word meaning “holy.”  When the text refers to “the holy ones” it is translated as saint.  However, the same word is used to refer to Jesus, to God, to the Holy Spirit, to the city of Jerusalem, to the interior of the temple – to anything that is set aside for God.  It is contrasted with koinos, which often means “profane.”  These interpretations set up a binary in which it is hard to locate ourselves.  The holy is the exalted realm of the wholly other; the profane is queers and booze and musicians.  (So maybe it’s not so hard to locate ourselves.)  But there is another way to understand koinos that might open up a little space: it is the common, the everyday, that which we share together.  The holy stands apart from the everyday, not because it is better or more real, but because we experience it as set apart, as something different that acts on us and changes us.  It is not an end-point, but an opening, a crack in the everyday through which we see ourselves and world differently.  What does that mean for us, then, the holy ones?

Well, it can mean a lot of things.  In traditional theological terms, it might mean that we are counted as holy even though we are clearly not.  That can be good news for many of us, but I think there is more to it.  For my mind, this marks it too much a position of favor and privilege.  Instead, the holy ones are not those who have arrived, but those who have committed to a kind of open space in which we might encounter the other – and the Other.  In that space we are transformed, little by little, as are those we encounter there.  We become that open space where others can meet themselves and God.  The holy ones, the saints, are those who open themselves up to the world and to God, to “abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess. 3:12).

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about the call of sainthood, the priesthood of all believers, and the responsibilities that come with calling ourselves holy.

Grace and Peace,

A Hoping Machine, a Working Machine: St. Woody Guthrie

// October 18th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

If Bayard Rustin is the architect of the progressive movement in America, perhaps Woody Guthrie is the soundtrack.  He seems to be rediscovered as each generation finds itself, once again, in lean times.  Then he is forgotten when people forget that hard times can happen to them, too.  Woody always remembered because he lived it.  Although he started life in a comfortable home with some wealth, by his teenage years his family was fragmented and destitute, the victims of one tragedy after another.  By the time the ground fell out from under the U.S. economy in 1929, no one was in a better position to be the voice of that generation.  More importantly, despite success as a radio star, musician, and writer, he never forgot suffering because he constantly put himself alongside those whose lives had taken a turn for the worse.

In the 1930s, Woody headed west.  As he travelled, he met thousands like him, driven by terrible drought that had turned the middle of the country to dust.  Massive storms buried whole towns in dirt.  There was no food, no water, and no work.  They left Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas because their farms and homes had been repossessed.  California was said to be a land of plenty where everyone could get a fresh start.  However, when they arrived, they discovered that they were unwanted.  The L.A. Police Chief went so far as to send 125 policemen to the border to turn back undesirables.  Refugees were told that there was “nothing for them” in California.  One man responded, “Well you ought to see what they got where I come from!”  Woody heard their stories and turned them into songs, saying: “I cannot help but learn the most from you who count yourself least.”  WWJD, indeed.

Woody is not a religious figure, so it might seem odd to canonize him as a saint.  However, embodied in his songs is a theology, certainly unsystematic, but absolutely clear.  In 1940, “God Bless America” was a hit song.  He hated it.  Saccharine sweet and, in his estimation, completely untrue.  He looked at America over the previous ten years and saw a battered people.  If that was God’s blessing, he wanted no part of it.  He sat down and penned “This Land is Your Land.”  If America was to be blessed, it was because its people loved it and worked for a common good.  He once described the human race as “a hoping machine, a working machine.”  America – and humanity – is best when it remains hopeful and works toward that hope for the flourishing of the whole.  That hope and working toward justice is Woody’s God.  I hope that it is ours as well.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss the life and theology of Saint Woody Guthrie.  Be prepared to sing!

Grace & Peace,

Vote on Genny’s Ordination

The board has voted to recommend Genny Rowley for ordination by Church in the Cliff.  I enthusiastically support this nomination!  Genny has tremendous gifts for ministry and it has been a pleasure to see her find her voice and place in this church.  We are not sure where she is headed after her residency ends, but CitC would be fortunate to have our name attached to her future endeavors.  If you would like to join us in supporting her ordination, please do so by voting via email to or in person at the community meeting on November 3.  Her ordination service is tentatively scheduled for November 10.

Changing Change: Saint Bayard Rustin

// October 12th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Today, as I write this, it is National Coming Out Day.  It is fitting, then, that this week we will canonize Bayard Rustin.  He was, in many ways, the architect of the 20th century American protest movement.  In 1942, thirteen years before Rosa Parks, he refused to move to the back of a Louisville-to-Nashville bus.  He was arrested and beaten, but he did not fight back.  Instead, he tried to communicate to his attackers a message of peace rooted in the fertile ground of his Quaker faith and his Ghandhian training.  So, when Rosa Parks was arrested and the Montgomery boycott began, it was only natural that he go there to teach nonviolence to the flock of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

A funny thing happened when he arrived, however.  He thought he would show up and teach people the philosophy of pacifism and then action would arise out of that.  But the boycott was already a month in and things were afoot.  The white citizens of Montgomery had already promised violence in leaflets distributed at a rally opposed to the boycott: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead n—–s.” Rustin tells of visiting King’s apartment for the first time to find guns lying around everywhere.  It was a movement for change, a movement rooted in the African American church, but not a movement of nonviolence.  Fortunately, for us, for King, and for the civil rights movement, Rustin had seen for more than a decade that pacifism was not just opposition to war, but a way of being that erases division while resisting injustice.  If equality was to be won, it could not be at the end of a gun barrel.  Rustin shifted gears and taught the lessons of nonviolence in the midst of active protest.

Unfortunately, a not-so-funny thing happened to Bayard Rustin a few years before his trip to Montgomery.  He was gay, somewhat openly, at a time when it was illegal everywhere.  A gay man could be arrested for looking at another man wrong.  While in Pasadena on a tour sponsored by a Quaker pacifist organization, he was caught with two white men.  He was arrested and spent sixty days in jail.  At a time when everyone agreed that gay was not good, it made him toxic.  His opponents knew they could shame him, even arrest him at any time.  His friends and supporters in the movement shunned him, fearing guilt by association.  Coming to Montgomery was a redemption of sorts, an opportunity he would not have had if he had not been precisely who he was: a black man of faith who lived a life of nonviolent resistance.  There was no one else in America at the time who could speak of nonviolence to a black church filled with people so tired and angry and beaten down, that they were willing to do anything to get justice.  If not for Bayard Rustin, the history of civil rights in America would be quite different, but because of his sexuality, he has been virtually erased from our history, shoved back in the closet.

Although Rustin was not killed like Martin and Malcolm, he was still martyred.  He was never ashamed of his sexuality, but he was painfully aware of what it cost him.  I imagine a little part of him died each time his possibilities were curtailed.  He fought for justice across lines of race and class and international borders, but he never really imagined justice for that part of who he was until the final years of his life as the gay rights movement gained some traction in the 1980s.  Even then, he declined to identify himself as a leader of the movement, regretting his inability to come out on his own terms.  His final message: “Prejudice is of a single bit.”

There is much to be discussed in the life and career of Bayard Rustin.  For me, his status as a saint rests somehow on his sense of himself and his place in his world.  Rustin was a hybrid – a particular intersection of race and class and sexuality.  This posture of standing in multiple worlds allowed him to see the world as it really was, but also to see what might be.  The Christian notion of calling can be problematic, but Rustin seemed to know from an early age that he was destined for something and that something had to do with who he was particularly.  He overcame steep obstacles and never lost his integrity.  By committing himself to a way of being, he changed the way we think about change.  If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about this very modern saint.

Grace and Peace,