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Dancing Jesus

  The School of Athens  by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael

When I was studying abroad in Germany in 2010-11, I got a chance to go to Rome between semesters. There certainly are many things to do and see in Rome, and certainly the Vatican was at the top. I spent a whole day slowly walking through both St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum. The most amazing thing about the Vatican is how much people are rushing ahead to see the famous things. At one point there was a literal crossroads- go right to see the Sistine Chapel, you know, the famous one painted by the non-pizza-eating, non-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtle Michelangelo. To the left however, just more paintings. I stood at that crossroads, going through what appeared to me to be a pretty standard gallery of pretty cool art. Until I came to it: perhaps the second most famous piece of art in the Vatican, The School of Athens by (also the non-pizza-eating, non-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtle) Raphael. 

 John Paul I, The Smiling Pope

John Paul I, The Smiling Pope

I of course saw the Sistine Chapel, which I am not going to put in a little image box next to this paragraph, because if you can't mentally imagine it at this point, I don't know that you deserve to see it here. However, the thing that I will always remember is seeing a little marker next to John Paul I's tomb deep in the crypt of St. Peter's Basillica, "The Smiling Pope." Well, never to be outdone, I now officially, publicly declare my intentions to be remembered thusly: Pastor Paul Richards-Kuan, "the Laughing Pastor."

Fr. Gregory Boyle, noted LA priest who founded Homeboy Industries, once gave an interview with Krista Tippet on her show "On Being." She began by asking him why he does what he does, his opening stuck with me, "I was educated by Jesuits, so I — for me, they were always sort of this combo burger of absolute hilarity and joy and the most fun people to be around. And they were prophetic. So, this was during the time of the Vietnam War. So we'd laugh a lot, and I'd go with them to protesting the war. So the combination of the prophetic and the hilarious — I loved that. So I thought, boy, I'll have what they're having, you know? So that's what I did. It's not very deep, but that's kind of — the reasons you join an organization like the Society of Jesus aren't the reasons you stay. But that kind of was my initial hook."

A combo burger of absolute hilarity and joy. What whimsical language. And yet, I might have to contest what Fr. Boyle said a little bit- is it shallow to see absolute joy and be attracted to it?

Another Jesuit, Fr. James Martin, wrote the book on faith and humor, Between Heaven and Mirth. There he writes, "Joy, humor, and laughter show one's faith in God. For Christians, an essentially hopeful outlook shows people that you believe in the Resurrection, in the power of life over death, and in the power of love over hatred. Don't you think that after the Resurrection Jesus's disciples were joyful? 'All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,' as the fourteenth-century mystic Blessed Julian of Norwich said. For believers in general, humor shows your trust in God, who will ultimately make all things well. Joy reveals faith."

One person who is constantly joking and laughing is somebody I work with- Bill Kerley. Bill is best known by the Houston Chronicle as one of the most dedicated submitters of terrible one line jokes. For Christmas he decided to really spread the laughter by giving us all solar-powered dancing Jesus figurines. I personally stuck mine on my car dash. Now, every time I get in I am reminded of a goofy dancing version of Jesus. People comment, "look at that Jesus go," or "Dance Jesus Dance!" but they also sometimes start following along the dance of Jesus, his hips swinging with the power of the sun.  

Now that Easter has come, now that we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection, are you dancing? Are you laughing and singing with joy? Do you live the kind of life that insists that you are full of joy?

Well if not, maybe you will be inspired by a dancing, wiggly, Jesus. 

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A Sober Prescription for Honoring MLK's Legacy

Why is there rioting? Why are we fighting so much? Whats going on in our country?

Some of the same questions we were asking 50 years ago we continue to ask today. Is it so clear that we are better off? 

 President Lyndon Baines Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Washington, D.C.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Washington, D.C.

A month before the death of MLK, the Kerner Report was released (If you want a refresher, read this beautiful illustrated story here). It sought to answer the above questions. It also gave some pretty difficult prescriptions to our society. I am struck by what I see as my own response when I am told to do something by a doctor. At my best, I react like my grandfather who upon suffering a heart attack took up a strict diet, began hiking and exercising rigorously, and totally changed his health outlook. At my worst, I become paralyzed by the daunting fear of trying to do so much with such little time. What I deeply hope I never become is the one who ignores or denounces the doctor's prescription. Sadly, this is exactly what we did with the Kerner Report. 

So I think today, April 4th, 2018, the best way to heed the legacy of Martin Luther King is to follow the spirit of the recommendations of the Kerner Report. We need investment in our Black, Brown, and Native communities. We need more affordable housing. We need better paying jobs. We need greater investments in our schools. We need healthcare that works for all people. 

Are we ready to listen to the doctor's prescription and swallow the hard pill to take? 

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Evensong, Portal to Another Dimension

 St. Paul's choir in action

St. Paul's choir in action

Whenever I hear the word "evensong" I immediately am trying to both make a pun out of it and simultaneously trying to figure out where it comes from. Even...ing Song? Or maybe an answer to the question, can we praise God with song? Even with song! Evensong! I imagine the origins of the name are rather mundane. However, evensong itself is by no means mundane. 

Last night I experienced once again the St. Paul's Choir lead evensong for this Lenten time. They once again did not disappoint. 

If you have never experienced evensong, it is merely evening prayer led by a choir. Some of it is participation in singing and praying, other times you simply follow along listening to the choir sing the psalm or a canticle. Beyond those mechanical explanations, evensong is actually a portal to another dimension. 

Evensong, at its height, transports the participant to a world outside their experience. Time slows waaaay down. Your heart rate slows too. Your brain begins to feast on the word in a way unlike any other time. The praise of God tricks your brain into thinking you are indeed entering a heavenly realm. You truly ascend. 

Perhaps that description is absurd. But spiritual practices are never meant for the rational brain. Spiritual practices are not built on facts or figures, but an encounter with something outside the physical reality. In any spiritual practice you are transported. But also, you become more human. You understand yourself better and come to a fuller awareness of God. 

Next week you will hear about a specific spiritual practice we are practicing together in the East End. Until then, what are you doing to become more aware of the presence of God in your life? 

Paul

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How I work

Before I started this journey in the East End, my biggest question was, how do church planter types spend their time? Do they just wander around trying to bother poor unsuspecting people at coffee shops? 

Well, my friend Joseph Yoo is currently running a blog series about how people work. I am still not convinced that he isn't secretly just trying to answer the same question I had: how on earth do these people spend their time? 

Check it out!

More questions? More concerns? Rebukes? Let me know! prichards-kuan@stpaulshouston.org

 Stereotypical "I'm working" instagram post featuring my journal, coffee, pen, and laptop. Just so cliche I can't handle myself  

Stereotypical "I'm working" instagram post featuring my journal, coffee, pen, and laptop. Just so cliche I can't handle myself  

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Are You Called to Live in an Intentional Christian Community?

There is a serious crisis that has been slow and ongoing in our society. Perhaps it is so slow because it can be so hard to realize. How do you really know if you are not being supported by a great community around you? So often, we realize that we are isolated after far too long of trying to make it by ourselves. And besides, often the problems are so much bigger than us. We have moved far away from support systems because of jobs. We have been forced to move because of increased rent or property values. We can no longer live in our homes by ourselves anymore. And so we cry out to the world- where are my people!? Why am I so alone?!

Changing Our Lives by Changing our Housing

cohousing.jpg

Many have begun confronting this problem in new ways in the last fifty years. Perhaps I shouldn't say "new ways" because really these ways are just new thinking about old ways of making community. Take a look at "cohousing." What strikes you as new and different? What is genuinely "old fashioned?"

Now maybe you are really scared because what it feels like is the dreaded "c" word. You know what I mean: commune. Commune has become a code word for something resembling a cult. A group of hippies or those who are disaffected by society. Or maybe if you have a positive view of communes, this is what comes to mind:

Maybe something about a commune is attractive to you- there is something so beautifully idealistic about relying on each other. Or about sharing duties that allow some to work in ways that may not be as financially sustainable on their own but help the good of the whole. If you are like me, the scary part is giving up all your money through a common purse. Sure, the group gets to have a little savings account for after life in the community, but giving up so much control is scary!

Christian Community in the East End

"How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!"
-Psalm 133:1

I am currently working towards creating a Christian community on the East End of Houston. Is it cohousing? Well kinda. Is it a commune? well kinda, depending on what you mean. An intentional Christian community is like cohousing in that it is built on the idea that we all need each other. That we should be eating together regularly and sharing life together. A commune is built on the idea that we have a shared mindset. We agree a covenant and shared rhythm of life. What if we could combine the sense of connectedness without losing our own identity and independence?  

My understanding of intentional Christian community is based on three concepts: prayer, hospitality, and justice. Elaine Heath beautifully explains these three ideas. In the East End, prayer is foundational to what we do. We eat abundantly with each other and we celebrate communion. Through hospitality we welcome our neighbors and we also go out and throw parties with our neighbors. In bringing about a more just neighborhood, we serve as community connectors and help magnify the good justice work that is being done already in the neighborhood. 

So. Is your heart pitter patting? Is this something you have been dreaming about for some time or something you have been waiting for without even realizing it? Are you super confused and want to know what my problem is? Let's chat! I'd love to get coffee. Email me at prichards-kuan@stpaulshouston.org. Carrier pigeon also works. Smoke signals are a little less reliable for me unfortunately. 

Want to know more? Keep watching some more videos on intentional community and cohousing. 

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Church and Society

 Clearly I talk with my hands a little too aggressively 

Clearly I talk with my hands a little too aggressively 

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prohibitionists were not messing around

notice the progress of a drunkard is to suicide...

Most people look back at the temperance movement and remember it as a funny time in our nation's history where momentarily we were really boring stiffs. But for Methodist's especially, temperance was seen as a grave moral cause that was necessary for the upkeep of a good society. As one Methodist historian once told me, "the last thing Methodists got done in this country was prohibition!" So important was the cause of prohibition, the Methodist Church had a Board of Temperance and Public Morals. When the Rev. Dr. Clarence True Wilson, executive director, saw a lot next to the U.S. capitol for sale, he immediately went to work to build the property we now know as "the United Methodist Building." We are no longer advocating for prohibition, but we still advocate for a just society right across the street from the nation's capitol.

A couple weeks I got a chance to be a part of a young clergy forum learning about and discussing the work of Methodists on Capitol Hill. We advocate for our Social Principles as well as working with United Methodists around the world through community building efforts led by Church and Society. Some people are excited that we have such an advocacy group right in the middle of US political power. Others are less enthused. But one effort that has resounded from Church and Society was the call for a more humane approach to immigration reform. Particularly the public art and rallies caused quite the stir.

While I was in D.C., we had a chance to meet with the chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, as well as eat in the Senate cafeteria. While cafeteria's are the same everywhere, not every cafeteria includes a surprise appearance by Bill Nye, the science guy.

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Bill Nye was very gracious as we shouted "BILL NYE" from across the room

On that Tuesday the day began to stretch a little long and we began to grow tired. As soon as we were released for dinner, we relished in the opportunity to grab a spot to watch the State of the Union Address. Earlier that week we had heard people excitedly talking about how certain restaurants have lots of bureaucrats who give you their real opinions on the speech. Being in D.C. for the State of the Union made me feel like a little kid in the big city. We were minding our business as we noticed a television crew setting up. When a reporter approached us and asked for a comment from our table, I begrudgingly agreed to represent the big table of clergy. Then a weird thing happened.  

 

This experience was one of the scariest of my life. My heart was beating quickly and I worried about my ability to represent the gospel well. Thankfully, I had a whole table praying for me and encouraging me. 

As I reflect on the time spent in D.C. with Church and Society, it was clear to me how many wonderful caring people are advocating for morality in a city that is often derided as being amoral. But I am also emboldened to go back to my local community and advocate for the neighborhood. At the end of the day, the real way that you make a big difference in the lives of people is in the local community, within the neighborhood. 

Let me hear from you: how do you advocate for moral issues you believe in? What are some of the most pressing social issues in your neighborhood? 

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Thanks to the generosity of the Texas Annual Conference, this year I was able to go to Church and Society's Young Clergy Forum. Church and Society is a general board of the United Methodist Church and sits next to the Supreme Court on Capital Hill in Washington D.C. 

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Do we suffer together?

 Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Graphic art by Daniel James Rarela.

Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Graphic art by Daniel James Rarela.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and a lot of bad history will inevitably be going around the news and social media. Or perhaps a lot of well-meaning white people will call for a day of unity. Unity is good principle to have in the abstract. All people should understand that we hold to a common bond as members of the same species. Theologically, we were all created by the same creator. The apostle Paul also deeply cared about unity of the church. In one passage he memorably describes the church as the “body of Christ” and continues to use this image of the body throughout an extended portion of 1 Corinthians. In one portion, Paul writes “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1Corinthians 12:26a, CEB). So, at least one thing that Paul says about the church, is that we suffer together.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear though, the white church was not feeling the pain and suffering of the black community. As a white clergyperson in a majority white church, it stings to realize that we have not lived up to the call of the church to be united in suffering together.

Over the last few years, every MLK day the same images seem to keep popping up. One graphic designer created a series of images to go with quotes from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Often when we imagine MLK at his apex: on the steps of the Lincoln Monument describing his dream. We adore the way he idealistically describes what the U.S. could be. Much less often do we dig in to the letter he wrote to white moderate clergy in Alabama.

In an interview with Mic, Daniel James Rarela says, "As a graphic designer, I wanted to shatter this false image of a Martin Luther King who everyone loved, never got arrested, was universally popular and made zero privileged people feel uncomfortable or angry enough to want to kill him." MLK faced lots of vitriol, but what is often forgotten is the white mainline church that passively agreed with MLK but disagreed with his actions or refused to act.

Often on MLK Day we hear calls for learning. Learn the history. Wake up to the social injustices that are around you. This is a good idea. But is it enough? What if we in the white church went beyond that and instead went to solidarity. What if we began to feel the hurt of the black community and stood next to them. What if we deeply felt kinship bonds and so would do anything to stop the injustices of the world?

Talking with a friend who is a black woman and deeply involved in the movement for black lives, she asked me if that was really that important. She asked if it was true that white people won’t do anything until they feel a sense of solidarity and pain? She began to explain that for black and brown people, there is already a strong sense of belonging to each other and people feel in solidarity without having to do the work of developing friendships and family bonds. It became clear that the white church in particular struggles because we don’t have enough social connection to black and brown communities to even feel the pain.

In the East End, the struggle is similar to the majority black communities in Houston. Beyond all the problems of poverty, there is deep fear of loss. A worry that the community will be changed and the residents who have lived there for generations will be displaced and broken off from the community that has given them life. The need in the East End is to band together. To be overtaken for love for our community and all those who reside in it. We need to be in solidarity to face the challenges of the neighborhood. Only then will we truly fulfill the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Dreaming big

dreaming-big.png

This group got together on Thursday, January 11 to imagine an East End neighborhood that could maintain its identity in the face of development and change.

We talked about helping maintain communities, building up trust as you start a new thing in the neighborhood, and all the challenges of getting a neighborhood initiative off the ground. We chose to have a potluck because we wanted to get to know each other a little better and to really build community.

Here is to many more parties like this one!

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A king who cares for the poor

 King Solomon, the wise king of Israel

King Solomon, the wise king of Israel

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Psalm 72:1-4

I was teaching a Bible Study on Epiphany. This was one of the most dedicated and consistent groups of people studying the Bible I have seen. Every week for decades they have come together to read the selected scriptures for the upcoming Sunday. Most weeks they just skip over the psalms. How much theological depth do we really get from just a praise song?

This week Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 was on the lectionary. This was a royal psalm, a psalm that was written for the king. Even more important, this was a psalm that was used for coronation day as well as the anniversaries of that day. If you read the passage, the message is clear: a good king is one that cares for the poor and oppressed. This is a strong reminder that every king of Israel had a duty to care for those that had no power in society.

One gentleman asked a question, “Where does this idea come from that a good king is supposed to care for the poor?” The first thing that came to my mind was the fact that kings in Israel were supposed to be close to the heart of God. They were people who were supposed to care about the things that God cares about. And God deeply cares about the poor and the oppressed. I think that was a faithful answer. But it caused me to keep thinking and coming back to society in the United States.

The U.S. is not a theocracy as Israel was. However, we are certainly a very religious country, one where most leaders are religious themselves. What do we demand of these leaders? Do we demand that they “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor,” as verse 4 implores?

Perhaps the call of the people of God who live in a secular democracy is to make sure our rulers have the most important things at the heart of what they do: care and defending the poor, oppressed, and needy. What a sacred duty we have.

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