Fish Guts & Other Liminal Spaces

On October 24th, I shared the third sermon in the series entitled, “Contemplation.” You can watch it here. If you don’t have time for the entire worship service, the sermon begins at 31:25.

What I Learned This Week

I’m thinking this might be a weekly tradition where I briefly share what I’ve learned this week. Here goes.

Audio Learning

I’m starting to listen to the Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam. Here’s what I learned listening to the October 12 and 19 episodes.

  • Agronomist Norman Borlaug is my new hero. Because of his pioneering and arduous work in creating genetically modified wheat for Mexico in the 1960’s, he is credited with saving tens of millions of lives and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Doomscrolling. v., def.: When you thumb through your social media or newsfeed to find out what horrible news has happened.
  • Moral certainty creates moral blinders. When you are certain in your own mind about what is right and what is wrong, no amount of data, evidence or relational influence will be able to change your mind. In fact, you only look for information that reinforces your convictions. Psychologist Linda Skitka provides evidence that our world, to its detriment, is now, more than ever, driven by conviction instead of evidence; too little humility and too much hutzpah.
  • 200 years ago, 90% of the world was in extreme poverty. Today only 9% of the world is in extreme poverty. And 75% of the reduction took place in the last 30 years. –Steven Pinker, psychologist, Harvard University
  • The world, by most measurements is getting better and better. Why don’t most of us believe it? Steven Pinker says that bad can happen quickly and good usually happens slowly. When news coverage is focused on what’s, well, new, most information will be negative. While people are dying in war today, there are fewer wars taking place than any previous time in earth’s history. While people are dying from COVID-19, the average lifespan of humans is longer than any previous time in earth’s history.

Television Learning

  • With all his flaws, I’ve always been a David Letterman fan. His new season of interviews entitled My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, was dropped yesterday on Netflix. In the first episode, I learned that you can become a lawyer without going to law school, just like Kim Kardashian. There’s a legal way to do it via an apprenticeship. But yes, you still have to take the bar.
  • Ted Lasso, the Apple TV+ sitcom starring Jason Sudeikis, is a delightfully sweet show. Everything about the show, including Sudeikis himself would tell you it’s trite and contrived. And yet, it’s lovely. You can’t convince me otherwise because I have a moral conviction about it, and as you’ve already learned, your arguments against it will fail.

Clergy Still Say Good Stuff

  • Father Vazken Movsessian. My deep thanks to Vazken for helping me get a primer on the attack on Armenians in Artsakh by Azerbaijan and the resulting humanitarian crisis. The quote that sticks with me from my time with him: “Azerbaijan wants to finish what Turkey started in 1915.” I’m praying for peace in Artsakh. Watch for info on a Glendale community prayer vigil in early November.
  • Reverend Galen Goben. From his sermon last Sunday reminding his listeners that they are hidden in God: “Your heart, the place that God invites you to, is the place where God commands the universe.”
  • From a Well-Respected Pastor Who Shall Remain Nameless. “You haven’t truly experienced the beauty of Huntington Library and Gardens until you’ve toured them high.”

Timing on Tasers

At the September 1st Glendale City Council meeting, the police department requested a new five-year contract on taser equipment. In a time where the council and police were being asked to thoughtfully review their approach to community policing in light of the nationwide calls for reform and Glendale’s own racist history, I appealed to the council to table the request until a full evaluation on use of force approaches could be made.

My letter, which was included in a September 3 article by the Crescenta Valley Weekly newspaper, reads:

Mr. Mayor, Council Members and Chief Povilaitis,

I am writing to ask the council to table the police department’s request to enter into a five year agreement to purchase tasers for its officers. There are number of reasons, but I’ll focus on the most important one.

In a moment when our city’s people of color, Black and Brown, are pleading for police reform, this action of adding more tools to enforce law and order will communicate that Glendale is still Glendale. The symbolism is clear.

I ask you as our city’s leaders to not approve another item that is used to keep people in line until the police department, city manager’s office and concerned citizens, like those on the Coalition for an Anti-Racist Glendale start discussing ways to improve community care which will not only reduce violence but increase citizen happiness.

If, after initiating new approaches to community peace and well-being, the use of tasers needs to be explored again, that will be the time to do so.

Thanks you for prioritizing a forward-thinking approach to governance and law enforcement.

Unfortunately, my letter’s argument, while appreciated by a couple council members and lumped into the category of an anti-police rant by another, carried no influence with any. The new contract was approved 5-0.

While tasers are a less violent alternative, we as community members need to rethink everything about policing in order to protect and serve all of our citizens and reduce the dangers and stress loads that our men and women in blue experience.

Contemplation: from Circumference to Center

On September 27th, I began a new sermon series based on the book Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Richard Rohr. In this sermon, I look at chapter 1 and talk about the need to engage with the life from the center of ourselves, the center of God, the center of Love.

You can view Glendale City Church’s worship here. The sermon begins at 27:10.

The Inescapable Network of Mutuality

On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. found himself in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.  He and his Southern Christian Leadership Coalition had joined other civil rights groups in non-violent protests against racial segregation, racist laws and racial violence in the city.  Government officials convinced a judge to issue a blanket injunction against all types of demonstrations in an attempt to stop their efforts.  Because they refused to obey the order, Dr. King and other leaders were arrested.  

That same day, an open letter from eight prominent clergy was published in a local paper.  In the letter King was condemned as one of the “outsiders” that were causing unnecessary turmoil in their city.  These religious leaders said that Birmingham could handle its issues on its own.  Ironically entitled “A Call to Unity,” the letter was actually a call for the visiting protesters, especially King, to leave.  

Dr. King immediately began to write a response on any piece of paper he could find. These collective scraps would come to be known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Among the many powerful lines in his letter are these words:

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

Over the course of my life, I’ve increasingly realized how true these words are. As a natural introvert, I don’t seek out new relationships with people I don’t know.  But because of the many gracious individuals who invited me into their lives, I discovered that I needed those who were “outsiders” to me.  I am forever grateful for these friends who helped me do away with my “us vs. them” and “in vs. out” mentality.  Can I share my thank-you notes to some of those who helped me understand humanity’s mutuality and shared destiny?

Thank you, Keith Wood and Tom Jessup for inviting me to join the leadership of the predominately black Buckhead Community Fellowship in Atlanta in 2007.  You hoped that I, as one of the pastors, could help create a more diverse congregation by drawing in more people who looked like me. While I’m sorry that during my time there, I drove the remaining six white people out, I’m so grateful that I was given the privilege and challenge of doing church life where I was the minority.  I’m thankful that this time with you exposed some prejudice within me that I had yet to deal with. And I am honored beyond words that many in our congregation grew to accept and trust me as a brother.  

Thank you, Joe and Mary Green, for making me an adopted adult son in your home, so that I could get to know and love your daughter Sherry, her wife and her daughter.  I had been wrestling for some time with what I had been taught in my Adventist upbringing and what I was coming to understand about the troubling experiences of individuals who identify as LGBTQ, especially those born and raised in families of devout faith. Seeing Sherry’s ordinary yet magnificent family and your pride in them settled the issue in my mind.  Because you, Joe and Mary, opened the door to your family, I have been welcomed with open arms into so many more families. And the LGBTQ relatives in my own family now know my door will always be open to them, and that they will always have a seat at my table and a guest room waiting for them.  

Thank you, Dr. Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, anthropology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, fellow pastor at Glendale City Church and dear friend, for helping me better understand the frustrations of being a scholar of color but only celebrated for being energetic and entertaining.  While beloved by your students, you were rarely appreciated for your intellectual brilliance and prodigious scholarship.  Because of your gracious confrontation of my similar stereotyping behavior, I have learned how to better love you and how to love and respect others in your field who share your experience.   

Thank you, Mary Khayat, Anoosh KeshishzadeDr. Armine Zambre, Father Vazken Movsesian and so many Americans of Armenian descent for embracing me as a friend since I moved to Glendale nine years ago. Before arriving, I had almost no knowledge of Armenia, the diaspora or its history and had no idea what it would mean to live in a city with almost 100,000 people of Armenian heritage—whether they were born in the US, Lebanon, Iran, Russia or Armenia.  Because each of you have taken the time to sit with me–over a cup of American or Armenian coffee, or in your home eating your “simple” refreshments, which in my home, would be equivalent to the amount of food we serve for Thanksgiving Dinner—because you shared the joys, sorrows, triumphs and tragedies and allowed me to ask a lot of questions, I now know that my identity and my destiny will be forever connected to each one of you.  That it would be extremely important for me in 2019 to finally see the House and Senate pass resolutions that assigned the term “genocide” to the atrocities that began in 1915, speaks to how important our friendship has become over the years.  

And thank you, Martin Luther King, for modeling a way of life that awakened our nation to the reality of our mutuality and interconnectedness.  May I continue to believe in and work for your dream for our world.  

This article is adapted from a presentation made at the City of Glendale’s Martin Luther King Togetherhood Breakfast, January 16, 2020, at Dignity Health Glendale Memorial Hospital. The article was published in the February 2020 edition of Intersections, the magazine of Glendale City Church.