Thursday, January 18, 2007

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

I was quite pleased to hear that Barack Obama had formally declared his intentions to wade into the 2008 Presidential race. These are early days yet, and of course the race is still wide open, but I've been an admirer of Mr Obama since his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (transcript), in which he rousingly proclaimed "Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead."

It would be great if he eventually did win the presidency, but more importantly, regardless of outcome, I do hope that he conducts himself with humility and grace, especially given his open profession of his faith. In a wonderful speech about the role of religion and politics in society, he speaks of how he came to this faith. (Slate magazine notes that Obama "doesn't recount the story of his conversion in order to establish his religious bona fides; he does it in the service of a broader argument ... for a 'deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country'".)

I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

And if it weren't for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship -- the grounding of faith in struggle -- that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Crowd or the Cross

This is a fantastic little video. I first saw it at a friend's church's Easter service in New York and it's stuck in my mind ever since. The graphics are great and it lays out very succintly the choice that we all must make - so who will we follow?

The lyrics to the song in the video can be found here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Movie of My Life

I feel like I'm living in a movie of my life
Someone else is playing me
someone I don't really like
I am just an extra and I don't have many lines
I'm just standing in the shadows of the
Corners of my mind

While the scene goes on
And the story rolls along

I'm just watching me and my life
I'm just watching my days go by
Can't I stop this action for a while
And find out "who am I supposed to be?"

I feel like I'm sleeping and the dream that I've dreaming
Is the nightmare I'm afraid I just might live when I'm awake
Will I miss my only line?
Will I miss my time to shine?

While the scene goes on
And the story rolls along

I'm just watching me and my life
I'm just watching my days go by
Can't I stop this action for a while
And find out "who am I supposed to be?"
Cuz that don't look like me

If I lose myself in life
Would you remind me please
To play my part as I'm assigned
And you'll direct the scene

by Justin McRoberts
from the album Intersections

I first heard this song when I was in New York, and it is one that always speaks so powerfully to me. I love everything about this song - the words, the music, his voice. For whenever I feel lost, disconnected, afraid... I find myself coming back, again and again, to the same unchanging truth.

A man's steps are directed by the LORD.

How then can anyone understand his own way?
Proverbs 20:24

Show me your ways, O LORD,
teach me your paths;
guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Saviour,
and my hope is in you all day long.
Psalm 25:4-5

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tell me the truth about love

It has just occurred to me that I have a penchant for admiring the work of writers who attended Oxford, struggled with their homosexuality all their lives, and eventually returned to Christianity. Actually, I only have in mind two writers but then they are both great favourites of mine. When it comes to favourites, there is another writer who could be mentioned alongside the first two, but then he went to Cambridge, swung every which way sexually, and, as far as anyone can tell, never returned to Christianity. The first two writers are Oscar Wilde and W. H. Auden, and the third, Lord Byron. Though Wilde and Auden were publicly villified for their homosexuality (Wilde more so than Auden), I think that they both recognised in Christianity something that the more extreme elements of the Religious Right are often loathe to remember: that we are all sinners who stand on equal ground before the cross of Christ.

Auden saw in Christianity "a radical levelling principle that eliminated hierarchies and distinctions between people—smart and stupid, even good and bad—and left them all sinners in a single boat." He wrote: The Catholic faith [i.e., the ideal Christian faith], while it condemns no temperament as incapable of salvation, flatters none as being less in peril than any other. In the same way [a Christian] has to make his public confession of belief in a church which is not confined to his sort, to those with whom by nature he feels at home, for in it there is neither Jew nor German, East nor West, boy nor girl, smart nor dumb, boss nor worker, Bohemian nor bourgeois, no elite of any kind [and in a sense no "gay" or "straight", either] ; indeed there are not even Christians there, for Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.

In a time where ethnic and tribal divisions were everything (perhaps they still are), the apostle Paul's words were absolutely revolutionary (and Auden almost certainly had this in mind when he wrote the previous paragraph): Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Colossians 3:11-14

Which brings me back to the question that I often ask myself, one that Auden clearly asked himself too -

So what is love?

(I love this poem, by the way.)

Some say that love's a little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer house;
It wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greetings be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
January 1938
XII, Twelve Songs
W. H. Auden