BeBop Theology Part 2

It’s Not Pornography, It’s Just Love
Pornography? No! This is, after all, a God honoring blog that just might use the occasional shocking image to get a message across. While it may at first appear that the joyous woman in the center of the photo has forsaken her wardrobe, a closer examination reveals that she is only guilty of being very close to a friend with a generously sized arm.  A refreshed view allows us work past the pornographic illusion and witness the love expressed here.
Is this the only illusion where love has been mistaken for pornography? Think of how people, including Jesus’ disciples, viewed the Savior as he shared the good news of living waters with the scandalized Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4:1-42)
Millennial Practice may require us to look a bit more deeply before arriving at judgment. This could develop a skill in us, allowing for the discovery of God’s love in the midst of living portraits of apparent disgust. Are we willing then to despise shame and reach into the muck and smut of this world and extract precious gems of grace? Can we afford not to?

Admission – I’ve been seen paying a prostitute. As is the practice of many otherwise respectable middle age church attending married men, I have on several occasions reached into my pocket and handed a prostitute a ten or a twenty in exchange for a favor. Although I have felt ill-at-ease when doing this publicly, I have never felt a sense of shame about it; I actually wish Christians did more of this type of thing. My wife knows about these activities and, as you can imagine, she is not comfortable with this sort of thing but she is very understanding and ultimately affirms my actions. And some of you thought you knew me.
OK, before you start calling down heavenly fire down on me, let me explain. The woman in question, who we will call Daphne, has become a very important friend to me. I first met her at the church. I remember the disgust on the older folks’ faces and the frenzy of the children as we made our first encounter. Daphne and her husband/pimp had sought refuge in a covered stairwell which led to the lower level of our church. There they pulled out their kits and started injecting themselves with the liquid cocaine they had stolen from some local medical facility. Their choice of locations may have been wise but their timing was awful. Little did they know that this church used the back door to enter and exit Sunday Worship Service. Little did they know that they had made themselves comfortable right as the benediction was being passionately voiced? Little did they know benedictions, prayers, affirmations and other parts of the sacred liturgy usually wore off by the time most members of this church hit the door. On this Sunday, when the members hit the door and saw the couple, there went the "make you perfect in every good work" part of the benedictory blessing 
After comforting the grossed out kids and the angry saints, I made my way to the stairwell. Daphne and her hubby seemed a bit oblivious to the tempest they had stirred; after all, they had one purpose in mind, to escape the pain of being the kind people who would shoot up on church property. Reaching the two, I had little idea of what to say or do. Ministry in Camden prepares you for some of everything but some situations overwhelm strategy, experience and creativity. All I could do was ask permission to pray with the couple. Hubby quickly pushed back against the impending kairos moment by diverting to religion and responding, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. I believe that…”  I calmly interrupted, “Brother, you're shooting up on the church stairwell. Does your religion really matter right now?” Hubby bowed his head in defeat as Daphne lifted her head in desperation and immediately launched into grotesque candor. She poured out, in tears and sweat, a hideous biography: birth at her mother’s rehab center, abused again and again, teen mom, daughter taken by child welfare, streets, drugs, beatings, more drugs, hubby, prostitution and more drugs. Having become accustomed to the unparalleled lying expertise among addicts, I was neither prepared for Daphne’s shameless honesty nor her humble benedictory cry, “Please pray for us.” Undeterred by the noontime heat or the whispers of outraged church members wafting in the warm breezes behind us, we sat in the shade of the filthy little stairwell and invited God into this mess.
We prayed in the most appropriate of settings. While the stairwell seems to lead away from where the true action of the church takes place, it actually serves as the entrance to an unofficial neighborhood sanctuary. This is a church situated on a major thoroughfare near the dividing line between the city and its nearest suburb. An odd feature of the church is that its entrance offers an inviting, lushly appointed, tree laden path for anyone arriving from the suburban direction, yet its ample doors are offset and thus its entrance is obscured from the view of anyone approaching from the city side of the divide. Much to its designers’ delight, city dwellers are continually confused about how to enter the church. Believing that a church’s architecture is a reflection of its congregation’s spirituality, I’ve often commented that the people who had this church built in 1957 desired to have their faces toward the suburbs and their posteriors toward the city. Is there any wonder that so much of the community’s mess happens in this little stairwell on the business end of the church?
Not only does the little stairwell occasionally serve as a public toilet, it is also a clandestine location from which drug addicts break in and steal quick sale items. I have witnessed the stairwell provide asylum for suburban addicts who hide there after encounters with drug dealers that have taken violent twists. The homeless sometimes find the stairwell to be a great place for a nap or a good night’s rest and others see it as a comfortable spot to simply drink a beer or smoke a Black and Mild in peace.  I’ve never been able to put the stairwell’s most haunting application into perspective. There is a tall skinny wide-eyed young redhead who descends into its depths, finding there a safe place to scream. I can only imagine what horrors drive her to the stairwell. She won’t discuss the details; she simply thanks me for allowing her the space to let loose. Strangely, I somehow find more abundance of the scared, the holy, the divine, and the anointing amongst the echoes of her agonizing wails than I have ever experienced in official sanctuary sitting one level above this grimy little sanctuary of the wounded. As far as I’m concerned, this anally situated haven on the city side of the church is where the real preaching takes place – only there, instead of us preaching to them, our community preaches to us.                 
Daphne seemed changed after her time with God in the stairwell. In accord with the typical irony of the Kingdom and of Camden, it took the dirtiest place in the neighborhood to facilitate a cleansing experience for Daphne - and for me. Daphne’s repentance was precious and rare. Her confession was instant and unfettered. She and hubby had almost exhausted $36,000 in law suit money, spending it on Oxycontin in the Philadelphia suburbs. They knew of Camden's reputation for having cheap, plenteous and potent heroin and decided crossing the Delaware River was a sensible option for users on such a reduced budget. Daphne was ashamed of this history and was ready to change. Hubby was cooperative and willing to accept the temporal assistance of a few days’ stay at a nearby motel and some food offered him, but he was not interested in revising his future history. In fact, after the prayer Daphne and Hubby fiercely argued over this issue. It seems that as we bowed our heads and closed our eyes to pray, hubby seized an opportunity to lift the couple's last twenty from Daphne's bag. She begged and pleaded with hubby to come clean about his theft and his desire to use the money to score some more dope. Resolute in his denials, hubby first threatened violence then, seeing that I was twice his size and ready to intervene, he resorted to professing his great love for her in an appeal for her to trust him. The trust was not forthcoming that afternoon, the violence would come later but Daphne seems to have held on to the ray of hope that slivered through on that shady little stairwell.   
In the years since that warm spring Sunday afternoon, Daphne and I have enjoyed a relationship of pure honesty. She tells me when she is using and when she is attempting to quit. She lets me know when she is getting beat-up by hubby and when she has beaten him up. She cries when discussing the negligible prospects of getting custody of her daughter. I once asked Daphne, after getting totally sick from taking Oxycodone for a knee injury, “How can you take this stuff?” Daphne matter-of-factly replied, “Yeah, you feel that way the first couple of times you use them but then you get into it.” I limped back into the house and flushed the pills down the toilet. Daphne and I enjoy the evolutionary fruits of symbiosis. Our relationship offers Daphne, through her tears, the healing waters of release and cleansing. These same waters fulfill my yearnings for belonging, authenticity and honest encounters with the Divine – so precious, uncommon and humbling amidst our mediated and hyper-controlled Christian bio-ecology.     
When I ask, Daphne tells me the truth. Like most working girls in Camden, Daphne lacks the luxuries of glitzy clothes, garish makeup and stiletto heels for her trade. She just hikes up her skirt or lifts the waistline of her pants to accentuate the curves of her silhouette. On seeing her in this state, already knowing the situation, I ask where she’s going. “Oh, you know, I gotta do like four” is her typical reply. At five dollars apiece, I know she has to bring home $20 for hubby to score some heroin and keep his fist away from her eyes. 
I’ve never possessed the evangelistic muscle that I have seen in friends, colleagues and family members. You know, the kind that in moments like these cripples the wayward with conviction and sends them running to the nearest alter of repentance. I don’t think this my gift or calling. I suspect I’ve been modestly equipped to just hang around with people who are doing or about to do dangerous, self-destructive things. Maybe my presence serves as a reminder that God neither blushes, nor does he turn his head in disgust. I’ve learned that such reminders are important for those trying to heal after dehumanizing bouts of self-demolition that seem to breach the farthest parameters of forgiveness. Thus, the only sermon, the only appeal, the only gospel I can offer Daphne on such chilly evenings is to reach into my pocket and proffer a crisp twenty. This sacred offering may not seem a fitting substitute for Daphne’s running to the altar, falling on her knees and confessing her every sin, but at least, for this night, she is spared the inhumanity of what usually occurs while on her knees.
Most of my Christian sisters and brothers seem to describe the anointing as some spirit/emotion/charisma amalgam. They usually connect this to a moment of prayer, song or preaching. While I love spirit, emotion, charisms, prayers, songs and good preaching, the anointing hits me during discomforting episodes. Believe me, when I talk with Daphne and reach into my pocket for a bill or two, I look both ways to see who may be scrutinizing my activities. Forsaking evangelical zeal and bravado, I approach such encounters with hesitation and reservation; I do worry about my reputation and $20 represents nearly 5% of my weekly income. Yet, awkwardly swimming among the testy waters of my aversions and apprehensions eventually transforms me and then thrusts me into vigorous waves of grace, leaving me embarrassingly drenched within floods of humble blessing. Yeah $20 spares Daphne a bruising at the hands of her husband but it goes so much further in healing my festering wounds.
Bebop Lesson: Triune Faith - Tritone Intervals  

Though it is the safer of my two relationships with women who have worked the streets, my relationship with Daphne is enough to make one squirm. Squirming seems to be a standard feature of any theology lived among the distorted stanzas of the human song. My friends within the Street Psalms Community have identified such an approach to reflecting on our faith as the practice of Jazz Theology. As a true bebopper would do, I’ve taken the notion a step further and have called it Bebop Theology. I do so because Bebop’s name is derived from chords of pain, specifically the flatted or diminished fifth, which became the core tone of this Jazz genre. Like my relationship with Daphne, the flatted fifth is an awkward offering when served up as a Christian metaphor. The flatted fifth is a triton interval or what the church had designated as diabolus in musica (the devil in music). Not only was its use forbidden in the medieval church, it was also unheard of in popular American musical forms such as swing and the blues. It took the working stiffs, the band members of jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong to rebel against their masters and form a new expression of the music which would include both its joys and its pains. As jazz historian Piero Scaruffi suggests, innovators such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Dexter Gordon became musical poets and philosophers instead of mere entertainers. He goes on to say these Bebop titans “were former slaves who, once liberated, turned their back to their masters and migrated to distant virgin lands.” 
The Tritone: Listen to the Flatted Fifth
Be it in music, art or human relations, liberation sounds good to me. Our times call for liberating adventures that free us to migrate to distant islands of grace. I wish this world’s Daphnes could find such measures of grace right at the doorsteps of the local churches and ministries that flood our avenues. Instead, overly scripted traditions, attitudes, practices and standards seem to clog supply lines of peace and block the merciful flow God has ordained for our streets and dwellings.
Amadi (pictured here at age 7) loves music but isn't feeling the flatted fifth.
As refreshing as the liberating qualities of Bebop Theology may feel and sound within the relative safety of the blogosphere, the practice of living among its polytonal dissonance will by no means enhance ones chances of becoming the next American Idol. Bebop often has an initial off-putting effect. I recently sat with my 13 year old daughter Amadi and listened to Thelonious Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie. Amadi is a trained violinist who hates the tritone. “It just sounds so wrong,” Amadi says. Monk's Bebop masterpiece is heavy on flatted fifths and features them quite early in the piece. It takes the average Bebop initiate several listening session before resonating with the distorted tones and blending them with the bounty of melodic ones. Once initiated, one is equipped to enter into the tensions of eternal love and ephemeral emotion, abiding companionship and fear of abandonment, fidelity and insecurity, all resident in Monk’s ode to enjoying the twilight with his soul mate. I trust that, as the years pass and her allegiance to Justin Bieber wanes, Amadi will give Monk a chance.         
As with Bebop, gospel notes belted out from the context of street-born urban pain often require good measures of abiding patience before listeners may enjoy the resident beauty lodged between dissonant theological intervals. Those deeply ensconced in the cult of tradition, restriction and the insider language of christianese will generally miss or misinterpret such sacred chords and regard such notes as scandalous or even pornographic. Such was the experience of Jesus – scandalized, rebuked and rejected as he liberated disreputable women (John 4, John 8:1-11), a social pariah (Luke 19:1-10) and countless victims of blindness and disease (John 9). Like Bebop, Jesus confronts humanity’s painful notes and weaves them into redemption’s lyric. His lived theology, complete with love of enemies and suffering for and with sinners, is a total rejection of the notion of diabolus in musica. If we assign the notes of pain and discomfort to Satan, then what do we do with the cross - the ultimate symbol of agony and distress. What do we do with the one who suffered there - living, loving and dying with scandalous women, corrupt tax collectors and five dollar prostitutes working Camden’s streets? How do we put his agonizing wails from the cross, the ultimate tritone, into perspective? In the once dead and now living Christ, dwells the affirmation that Daphne’s song, as scary sounding and dis-harmonic as it may initially sound, is nonetheless an essential Kingdom song. It is a tune that must gain resonance within our ears if we are to truly enjoy the transforming melodies of the Divine.
Personally, I feel that the tritone, when sung at length as harmony by a group of meditators, will take singers and listeners to a place where they will be in touch with Divinity. Perhaps this is a reason why it was so threatening in ages past.
Kay Gardner, Sounding the Inner Landscape

Next: My but You've Gotten Fat! 

Coming Soon: Reflection and the Rhythms of BeBop

Life After King: Many a Priest but Nary a Prophet

Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout! Tell my people what's wrong with their lives… (Isaiah 58:1)
Homage to Martin on the 43rd Anniversary of His Martyrdom

When was the last time you went to church and enjoyed a sermon or choral selection or even a responsive reading that addressed the plight of the poor or lent hope to the world’s oppressed? When was the last time your minister encouraged you to live in a way that provided release, relief and comfort to the least, last and lost? Which “open prison doors and set the captives free” messages come from your pulpit? I’m not talking about the ecclesiastical tendency to hyper-spiritualize such concepts and morph them into issues of middleclass individualism and materialism. I’m not talking about the Jaguar driving pastor I met in Baltimore whose approach was to “get em saved” and then all their social issues will work themselves out. And I am not talking about taming the scriptural texts pertaining to the poor with the stock copout “People can have money and still be spiritually poor.” Yeah that might be true but that’s not what Jesus is saying to our age, of 1.8 billion people living in abject poverty, when he said “Blessed are the Poor” (Luke 6:20 vs Matthew 5:3). It is clearly not what his mother Mary is saying when she proclaims the works of the true father of her son, “Those who had no food he made full of good things; the men of wealth he sent away with nothing in their hands…” (Luke 1:53).
When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning….  The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately that you die on… And that’s the way I’ve decided to go.             Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. May 22, 1967, Penn Community Center, Frogmore, South Carolina
 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forsook the promises of material prosperity inherent with becoming pastor of an important African American Baptist Church. With is oratory prowess and theological depth, he could have easily surpassed the Eddie Longs, TD Jakes, Joyce Myers and Fred Prices in popularity and prosperity. While the aforementioned chose the path of palatial mansions, private aircraft and luxury vehicles, King instead chose the prophetic path of the cross. In his own words, he proclaimed that he couldn’t worry about such things; he only wanted to do God’s will (I’ve Been Over the Mountain Speech). 

Unfortunately this prophetic course has been steadily reversed since the time of King’s death. It has sadly been replaced with the theology of material abundance, which has left storehouses of morality, ethics, righteousness and justice practically empty. Somehow issues such as the new American slavery, also known as the prison system, the crises in education, health and housing among people of color and poor whites, the persecution and prosecution of certain southern hemisphere brown aliens, and the continued neo-colonial/neo-liberal destruction of the African continent and its people cannot hold court in the face is the issues of already overly blessed middle-class and affluent Christians, who instead of crying out for Sudan, cry out from their late model German and Japanese luxury sedans, for more blessings and increased territory.
The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.  To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 17, 1963, National Conference on Religion and Race, Chicago, Illinois
Dr. King was thrust into a context which afforded few luxuries – not only of the material variety but also of the theological sort. He could not afford to spend time justifying his adherence to or departure from orthodoxy and tradition. Instead, Martin provided orthopraxticly authentic contexts for the sacraments of our faith. He was anointed with sacred chrism, only not from the hand of a bishop but by the voice of oppressed people crying out for justice and human dignity. He contextualized baptism, not by immersion or sprinkling but by fire hoses on steaming evil Southern streets. On the balcony of a second rate Memphis motel, he lived out the Eucharist, not with wafer and wine but with his body – broken for the sake of righteousness and his blood - spilled for the sins of the world. Unlike the leading priest/pastors of our day – living life within the safe confines of finely appointed sanctuaries, amour bearers, robust retirement plans and the trappings of conspicuous consumption, King opted for the dangerous authenticity of the Christian faith. He clung to a Jesus-faith that thought it Satanic to forsake God-righteousness for man-safety. (Matthew 16: 21-23) 

Our age, our society and our culture is marked by an incredible level of wealth and prosperity and an equally incredible dominance of abusive injustice, violent iniquity and oppressive unrighteousness. Such an age calls for the agitation of dangerously discomforting prophetic voices. Prophetic voices who seek not to achieve favor among the powerful and elite but to speak God’s peaceful and righteous truth to them: the truth that God wills our prison population to decrease and not to increase for the sake of corporate gain, the truth that our world’s massive wealth is best spent in creating health and harmony and not on making excuses to fight wars in the name of controlling natural resources, the truth that God wills the powerful the treat their workers with fairness and equity and not to push them back into serfdom by denying them the right to bargain for a fair deal, and the truth that while the poor are blessed, those who willfully create the conditions that trap children in poverty are truly cursed. Thus I dream with Martin for the day when our sermons, our television evangelists, our conferences,  our gospel concerts and our popular Christian book selections reflect God-righteousness - the likes of which Isaiah assures will cause God to answer when we call.

I'll tell you what it really means to worship the LORD. Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused! Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need; don't turn away your relatives. Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed. Your honesty will protect you as you advance, and the glory of the LORD will defend you from behind. When you beg the LORD for help, he will answer, "Here I am!" Don't mistreat others or falsely accuse them or say something cruel. Give your food to the hungry and care for the homeless. Then your light will shine in the dark; your darkest hour will be like the noonday sun.          (Isaiah  58:6-10)

~ Agreeing on BeBop - Part 1 ~

Jesus continued, "Now to what can I compare the people of this day? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace. One group shouts to the other, 'We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn't dance! We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn't cry!' (Luke 7:31-32)

How could one ever resist loving the innocent eyes through which Lou saw the world? Fifteen and vulnerable, he never seemed to let circumstances dissuade him from his conviction that everything would turn out fine. I remember politely reserving my laughter as Lou told of being stopped by police while driving through a neighboring township. “You actually thought they pulled you over for having an air freshener hanging from your mirror,” I half chuckled. “Yeah, that’s what they said,” he naively replied. “You’re saying there was another reason?” Lou shyly inquired. His classic Mayan face registered pure shock as I suggested that he was pulled over because he was driving while loaded down with Mexicans on his way through a quiet South Jersey suburb. I felt a little guilty bursting Lou’s bubble – the one that had him believe that America would actually judge him on either content or character – but, for the sake of his future survival, I had to reveal certain truths every undocumented immigrant should know.

I began to mildly chide Lou because, at 15, he was below New Jersey’s legal driving age of 17. He respectfully absorbed my moralizing and, with characteristic respect, explained why he was driving through the suburbs early on a Tuesday morning. Having no papers, Lou’s parents were not eligible to obtain drivers licenses. Most low level industrial jobs that depend on undocumented help are located outside of the city. Someone had to drive the family to work and back. As is sometimes the case, Lou’s entire working aged family labored at the same facility. Lou figured there would be less serious consequences to the family if he were the one caught driving without a license. He was convinced that either of his parents would be deported if they were caught in such a fix. He relied on the kindness of America to cut him a break if he was caught and if not, his deportation would be less injurious to his family. My respect and admiration for Lou grew with every word that proceeded from his mouth as he fearlessly and unhesitatingly explained his role as the family’s sacrificial lamb. Those trapped in the unrighteous belief that immigrants, documented or not, are liabilities to America’s future, have obviously not encountered a treasure like Lou.

Lou has certainly been a blessing to our community and to me personally. Working past the fears and stigmas attached to arms stretched out toward strangers, revels everyday blessings and facilitates powerful collisions with unimaginable grace that come through encounters with the Lous among us.

Encounters with Lou and his like are especially important for guys like me, who have lost meaningful connection with the endless platitudes, grandiose assumptions and comforting clich├ęs of Christian culture. Some of us need constant contact with the least, last and the lost for concepts such as life in Christ and right relationship with God to actually make sense. While this might work to buttress my faith, it doesn’t seem to work for some other Christians around me. Some find it outrageous that we offer sanctuary to undocumented families being pursued by immigration authorities. Others abhor the fact that we have found ways to circumvent policies in order to gain college admission for undocumented residents. Such people accuse that I should be cooperating with those in authority, who they believe are God appointed. It is not my intention here to defend against such critics, but only to say that while I understand their views, I do not agree. While they tend to have what they believe to be a Pauline view of the believer’s relationship to governmental authority, I tend to have a view more in line with the Magi, who aided and abetted the divine Christ child, the enemy of the state. On these issues I’ll agree to disagree and continue to work with those of opposite persuasions as we all love and affirm the work of God within us. What does bug me however is the nagging accusation that suggests what I do in relationship to Lou and others like him has nothing to do with the gospel. I am accused of preaching and practicing a social gospel.

The social gospel was the exact critique my father offered after being forced to sit through my first sermon. “That was a good social gospel,” is the only comment he has ever given me concerning my preaching. I remember standing there for a moment, attempting to discern whether the comment was laud or disapproval. I’ve decided it was neither. Like many God loving, holy living, Christ serving Evangelicals, my father seemed to be numbered among those who see the social gospel as some form of innocuous pseudo-gospel. In other words, it’s pretty harmless and acceptable if preached on rare occasion, as long as you don’t have a bunch of South America Marxists waiting for a signals to revolt hidden in your every word. Somehow though, for my father’s crew, this social gospel is something short of the real gospel or what they would consider the gospel that gets people saved.

My father is a blindingly brilliant man of beautiful contradictions. I’ve completed an article exploring his unique body of teaching, which joins Fundamentalist Pre-millennial Dispensationalism with Black Radical Theology. I’ll post it as soon as I muster the courage to publish something he would so vehemently oppose. Dad suggests that liberals like me are headless bodies with outstretched hands. Conversely, he views conservative Christians as bodies complete with heads but lacking arms and hands. In his view, liberal Christians tend to focus largely on the issues of society while neglecting the deeper and more important doctrinal concerns. He would contend that conservatives do better on sound doctrine but do so to the neglect of those in need. His version of an authentic Gospel is one of both heads and hands involved in well-reasoned charity and clear focus on the need of saving souls more so than filling bellies and handing out warm coats.

Regardless of his theological perspectives, my father has lived the social gospel. Ours was the house where strangers came to eat. He was one of the first pastors in our area to use computer training as a way of preparing poor people and displaced workers for employment in a new technology driven world. He was mentoring neighborhood kids before the word mentoring even appeared in the standard dictionary. Joining this life-evidence with his staunch belief that one’s lifestyle trumps whatever they say or profess, I have to place my father near the pinnacle of social gospel champions. Sorry Pops but you earned it.

 My father’s sentiments on well-reasoned social responsibility are not uncommon or groundbreaking. In fact his is a very rational point of view, and therein lays my disagreement with it. We respect and honor St. Francis of Assisi now but if we were with him back in the 13th century would we have encouraged him to exchange his worldly opportunities and goods for a life lived among lepers and society’s throwaways. Would we truly have advised young Martin Luther King Jr. to forsake the middle-class comforts that accompany being a pastor of a prestigious African-American Baptist church and instead opt for a life of struggle ending in death on the balcony of a second rate motel. It must have been flawed reasoning that led Harriet Tubman, after securing her own freedom, to risk life and limb to go back and lead others to liberty. I suspect that it is a bunch of good rational reasoning that seems to continue to tie the hands of rich gifted Christians and prevent them from fulfilling the gospel in society. Instead, mainstream Christianity seems stuck in a default mode of a well-reasoned but antisocial gospel.

If I were a better reasoned person I would have never met Lou. Our encounter was facilitated by a poorly reasoned commitment during a time of crisis. I made this commitment in the midst of a meeting with the Latino leadership alliance. My friend, brother and co-laborer Angel Cordero invited me to hear the distressed voices of Latino parents. Concluding that local high schools were much more proficient at serving up physical assaults and verbal abuse than they were at delivering any academic tools, the parents had decided not to send their children to public schools anymore. Their children were the most vulnerable of victims. Mostly Dominicans, they were the city’s newer Latino immigrants. There were language and dialect barriers between them and the other students. Many held immigration statuses that prohibited them from going to the authorities to report incidents of violence and abuse. Realizing they had few options and no other affordable educational choices I volunteered our church to serve as an education center for the students and others who had slipped between the cracks of the public education system. Lou enrolled with our first class of students.

Come on let's face it, 
a ghetto education's basic
A most a the youths them waste it
And when them waste it, 
that's when them take da guns and replace it
Then them don't stand a chance at all.     

A commitment to reach out to Lou and his classmates was certainly not based on anyone’s rational or skillful reasoning. We lurched forward with insufficient funds, staff, and resources and insufficient security systems to prevent the theft of our computers. I wish I could report that God was able to provide and protect in ways that relieved us from worry, but the truth is that it has been a daily struggle. We planned our program for 18 students but were immediately overwhelmed with numbers that far exceeded our capacity. Prospective supporters have been quick to extend accolades and pats on the back but painfully reluctant to write checks. Our computers, on which we greatly rely, have been constant targets for burglars. Installing an alarm system has not even slowed their assaults (I guess you don’t stay on top of the Most Dangerous Cities list if your thugs don’t have considerable skills).  And while we have yet to properly resource this effort, we have helped with hope, opportunity, and advancement for 2,500 students who have graduated from the program over the last four years. I cannot report on how many of these students have been saved. We have saved all of them from the violence and the abuse of their former schools. Others have been saved from The Crips, The Bloods and The Latin Kings. Some have been redeemed from drug abuse and prostitution and others from sheer hopelessness. I don’t know how many of them have professed faith in Jesus Christ and I  suppose this would lead some to believe that our social gospel just doesn’t get the job done. There are those in the community who have taken a hands-off approach to us because instead of teaching formal Bible lessons or forcing attendance at an authentic church service, we simply offer daily blessings, sympathetic ears, sturdy shoulders to cry on, and a chance for great kids like Lou to pursue dreams. 

I’m not suggesting here that Christians are to go off half-cocked and venture into foolishness in the name of the gospel. Christians should instead be well acquainted with the gospel, deeply immersed in its rhythms and intricately familiar with its notes and chords. Such intimacy with the words, spirit and bio-ecology of the gospel frees the believer to venture into the deep and lush woods of God’s grace and discover marvelous treasures delicately and serendipitously arranged there. It’s the freedom to embrace lepers, knowing this somehow fits into the rhythm of Jesus' ministry. It is the intrinsic knowledge that insures us that helping Lou is somehow connected to the divine anointing of bringing good news to the poor, even if it risks compromising official conventions. While many argue that such rhythmically wild practices are out of sync with the gospel, I argue they are the metaphorical equivalent of virtuoso jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon inserting a quote from Pop Goes the Weasel into the middle of Our Love is Here to Stay. Thinking about it may seem odd but hearing it confirms its standing among the great performances - truly music, truly jazz, certain genius and pure beauty. Welcome to Bebop Theology..........To Be Continued