Monday, November 21, 2011

Prepare Ye The Way (Advent Awaits Us)

A reading from the Gospel According to Mark, verses 1 through 11. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is the word of the Lord

I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.

Let us pray: Lord God, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing unto you, in the name of the resurrected Christ who is our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The title of this sermon and this service is “Prepare Ye The Way” because….

According to my parents, my preaching and teaching career began at a very young age. We had gone to see the musical Godspell in the theater—you may be familiar with this 1970s rock n roll rendition of the gospel. As we sat in the audience that night, I was ready for the opening of this play, which involves John the Baptist coming forward for the invocation, the epic, beautiful refrain “Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord.”

As the people in the theater sat quiet and John the Baptist started to sing, an eager young child interrupted the proceedings and shouted at the top of his lungs, “That song is on our record.” And according to my Daddy’s retelling, the entire cast joined the audience in stunned laughter at my spontaneous disruption. Thus began my preaching career at age four.

Each Monday afternoon before I go to seminary at Vanderbilt, I drive about 80 minutes in the car from Cookeville, Tennessee down Interstate 40. I see John the Baptist in the billboard that stares down at me and asks, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?”  As I arrive at the exit ramp to Broadway, downtown Nashville, I see the same man every week, selling street sheet called The Contributor, and he’s harkening to us to “prepare ye the way” for new perspectives on homelessness and homeless folk.

All across American today, from California to New York to even little old Cookeville, ragtag bands of first-amendment thumpers continue to proclaim “Occupy” in the name of the poor and the unemployed and disenfranchised.  In their signs, in the placards, in their cement campgrounds, we see John the Baptist proclaiming “Prepare Ye The Way” for peace, “Prepare Ye The Way” for hope, “Prepare Ye The Way” for justice. Now more than ever, we need to “prepare ye the way” for the Lord of the Poor, the Prince of the Peasants who comes to town on a donkey to confront the powers that be in an Occupy Jerusalem parade.

If we quiet our hearts long enough to hear the world groaning and moaning for change, we can hear the voice of John the Baptist issuing an eloquent yet shrill call for collective and relational repentance from within the asphalt arteries and alienated cubicles of the American cultural wilderness. Jesus needs John the Baptist. We need John the Baptist. Mark tips us off to the revolutionary implications of the relationship between John and Jesus, Jesus and John. We don’t have a Christ—or a Christology—without first working through and with John the Baptist.

Marcus Borg suggests that John was a “teacher” and “mentor” to Jesus. Perhaps Christ followed John to a sort of wilderness training camp to have his call clarified, his mission honed, his ministry discerned. We don’t have a good God movement without a recruiter, without an instigator and an agitator. That’s the beatifically brash and rhetorically harsh harbinger we find in this passage with John the Baptist—the carnival barker of the Jesus movement. He is the wild man wearing the cloak of camel’s hair. He is the warning to the rich and powerful to repent.

Jesus needs John the Baptist. Jesus needs John the Baptist like the Beatles needs Elvis Presley. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Elvis Presley needs Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Eric Clapton needs Muddy Waters. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Martin Luther King needs Mahatma Gandhi. Jesus needs John the Baptist like Martin Luther King needs Rosa Parks. Every good movement needs instigators and agitators to energize, to prepare ye the way.

According to radical theologian Ched Myers, this passage is an induction ceremony into the movement for Jesus. This is not like our baptisms in some churches today, where baptism is like joining an elite country club of the frozen chosen. This is joining a movement of resistance and revolution; this is joining the rank and file of the God movement.

So, the story of Christ begins not with the cozy niceties of our Christmas cards, the scrubbed up nativity narratives of made-for-TV specials but with the beckoning baptizer, asking us to repent, repent meaning more than confess your dirty deeds that were done dirt cheap, but repent meaning change your heart and mind and turn your life around, repent meaning transform sin-consciousness into God consciousness, selfish consciousness into selfless consciousness. In other words, free your mind and the rest will follow. But not only does Christ’s baptism induct him into the revolutionary subculture of the God movement; Mark’s gospel marks Christ as one of us and embeds him in the fabric of all creation as card-carrying member of a cosmic community, the inclusive web of harmonic infinity. Jesus submitted to being more like us, and we need to submit to being more like Jesus.

I think of my own baptism as an infant in the inner city of Chicago at the Church of the Three Crosses in early 1968, just months before our clergy and lay leaders would take a large wooden cross from our sanctuary into the streets and over to Lincoln Park where they tried to prayerfully and peacefully mediate the conflict between police and protesters outside the Democratic National Convention. The preachers and laypeople were unsuccessful negotiating a peace between mostly unarmed yippies and well-armed cops. Our peace delegation was dispersed with the protesters, and the large wooden cross was lost in the process. While some church members criticized this action, many members of that congregation saw the cross symbolizing the sacred interrelating with the secular in the protests in the park as an extension of Sunday morning ritual into the streets.

Like 1968, religious folks are in the streets again, speaking like John the Baptist, joining the occupy movement. In the drastic economic differences between the 1% and the 99%—or as one commentator explained it the 99.8% and the .02%—it’s tempting for some of us to employ the prophetic voice as we join the protests, to redress and redistribute, to turn the tables on the moneychangers, to fill the 99% with good things and send the 1% away empty. But I expect that Christ’s unconditional and radically inclusive love might correct our math and see how God’s revolutionary reconciliation includes even the powers-that-be and the powerful that can’t see, making no percentage but 100%. Even the powerful can experience powerlessness in the presence of God and might be empowered by relinquishing the power that harms in favor of solidarity with the power that heals.

So we’re called to be John in order know Jesus. If we don’t prepare the way, we can’t bring the kingdom come. But admit it—some days we just don’t want to do the work. Lest we lose our first world creature comforts, we don’t want to go to the real or imagined wilderness and as Shane Claiborne suggests “purge ourselves of empire.” We don’t want to join John the Baptist at radical activist wilderness boot camp or hang out with men wearing wild clothing and living off foraged food.  Heck, many of us wouldn’t even want to take an Advent or Lenten fast from our Facebook accounts. But God, grant us the serenity to accept the fact that we might not change the world and the courage to try anyway. God, grant us the courage to Prepare Ye The Way.

Somewhere right now, addicts and alcoholics are getting clean and sober and are preparing the way to restoring their lives. Somewhere right now, divorcees are getting counseled and are preparing the way to reclaiming their lives. Somewhere right now, victims and veterans are getting comforted and are preparing the way to rebuilding their lives. Somewhere right now, underpaid and underemployed workers are getting organized and are preparing the way for fighting for their lives and livelihoods.

To be baptized is not to privatize your salvation. Don’t rationalize or believe the lies of the comfortably civilized! In the Godman Jesus, divinity gets democratized, and in Christ’s body the church, His work gets collectivized. To repent is to realize and accept God’s surprise. The redeemed will self-actualize and keep our eyes on the prize. Of course Jesus will submit to be baptized in the dirty water of the Jordan River. But From the water as from the tomb, he will also rise. And we will see Him with our very own eyes and hear a song: Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down.

Somewhere right now, someplace like right here, we’re experiencing a revival of the revolutionary spirit of the New Testament. When we submit to Jesus, we submit to others. When we empower the voice in the wilderness against power and for peace and economic justice, we invoke John the Baptist. When we repent, we change our attitude and use our gratitude to make a change in the lives of others. Advent awaits us. Are you ready? Prepare ye the way!

Friday, September 16, 2011

9.11.11 4 Peace @ C2G

We had a deeply moving worship experience on 9.11.11 as we remembered September 11th, as we prayed for, sang for, & preached about Peace.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Walking Home

The following short story was performed by Jonathan Frank at C2G's 'Liturgical Performance Festival'   on April 17, 2011. When we return to First Pres Cookeville on August 28, 2011, our first event will be an Open Mic For The Soul, & we invite everyone to come & anyone to perform. 

Justin West nervously drummed the pen on his desk as he sifted through a backlog of emails on his laptop. This one was from yet another student in the church facing an unplanned pregnancy. He grabbed the church pictorial directory and thumbed through the pages so he could put a face with the name on the email. There she was. He touched his hand to the page and whispered her name. The phone number for the crisis pregnancy center was written on a post-it note somewhere amid the piles of papers on his desk. Now if he could only find it.

Justin could feel himself becoming numb to these scenarios. This was, after all, pretty standard fare for a youth pastor in a large church. For him, it was another day at work, but somewhere a scared, 16-year-old girl’s world was coming undone.

The weight of everyone else’s problems had depleted Justin of the strength he needed to face his own. The very nature of the job seemingly disallowed being real. He had to always be “on,” always be strong, project a certain image and message. And whenever he needed a cigarette, as he did right now, he had to walk to the far corner of the parking lot, behind the shed, lest he cause anyone to stumble . . . or worse, the senior pastor find out.

“Why did I ever become a youth pastor anyway?” Justin wondered in silence. He wanted to help people. He so desired to be an honest, vulnerable human being, sharing openly about his imperfections and weaknesses, and reaching out to those hurting people, disenfranchised with religion and tired of trying to be good enough. Instead he was pushed into the insulated, Christian bubble. He was tired of the game, the pious religious power brokers, the hypocrisy, the arbitrary human scale of sins that welcomed, if not encouraged, the gluttons and gossips but assigned scarlet letters to the homosexuals and divorcĂ©es, and the deacons that successfully lobbied to end the homeless ministry out of concern for its possible effects on the newly reupholstered pews.

Justin’s mind flashed back to the present, where a handful of new emails had suddenly emerged in his inbox. He didn’t have time to think about his grievances. Not today. As soon as he was done solving everyone else’s problems, he figured he should try to make an appearance at home and work on some of the many simmering there.

Then the phone rang and everything else in the world stopped. Justin’s past had decided to come back for a visit.

“I’m calling about your friend, Kurt,” came the voice on the other end of the line. She identified herself as a nurse at the General Hospital across town. “He’s very sick and he would really like to see you before . . . ” her voice trailed off. She didn’t want to finish her thought and she didn’t have to. Justin knew what she meant.

Justin clenched his teeth and then finally let out a deep breath. Memories he had spent years trying to block out quickly came flooding back. Kurt was one of Justin’s best friends growing up, but life would take them in very different directions. While Justin faced his own private battles and rebelled in his own ways, Kurt threw himself headfirst into the trappings of the young adult world, and Justin had resented him deeply for it. So many phone calls had gone unanswered. So many times when he needed the support of his old friend he was left feeling alone. He wanted someone to stand alongside him, to join him in his efforts to escape the years of life with some shred of innocence left and to help him be strong in the face of so many other shiny distractions. Without ever knowing it or even meaning to, Kurt had refused to be that person in Justin’s life.

Just as Kurt was emerging from the muddied haze that was his youth and starting to reassemble the pieces of his life into something that made sense, Kurt received devastating news. He tested HIV positive.

Kurt successfully hid his condition from everyone around him for years, but the truth was forced out of him on the day of his car wreck. He walked away from the scene of the accident, but was a bloodied mess. An acquaintance that saw the accident unfold pulled his car over and ran to Kurt to offer assistance. “Don’t touch me,” Kurt pleaded as the man approached him. “You can’t.”

News travels fast in a small town. Stereotypes were made, assumptions abounded, and one by one the church doors quickly shut to this modern day leper.

“I have children and I do not feel like explaining this to them!” exclaimed one of the deacons at Justin’s church during a conversation about the newly discovered social pariah’s involvement in their congregation. “I want someone keeping a close eye on him,” added the children’s pastor. Normally Justin would feel compelled to speak out, but many wounds had yet to heal, and though he knew his church’s rejection of Kurt was wrong, he couldn’t bring himself to say anything in his defense. He never expressed agreement with the decision that was made, but instead sat by in silence, which ultimately had the very same effect.

That was fifteen years ago, and that is exactly where Justin wished to leave those memories. But with news of Kurt’s deteriorating condition, a Pandora’s box was opened and every painful remembrance reentered his mind. The ways that Kurt had betrayed him, and worse—the ways that he had betrayed Kurt, were thrown back in his face. Could he really revisit that world?

“Sir, are you still there?” asked the voice on the phone. “Yes, yes. I’m sorry,” said Justin, his mind shifting back to reality. “I’ll be glad to come see him sometime soon.”

“I’d hurry,” said the nurse. And with that she hung up the phone. Justin let out another deep breath and then he cried. It was time for that cigarette.

The following afternoon, Justin got in his car and headed to he hospital. Upon arriving there, he said his first prayer in a long time that was not spoken while standing behind a microphone. He gripped the steering wheel of his car and looked to the sky, searching for words. “God, you see the real, broken person behind the mask I wear. I am not good, strong or pure, but you are. I can’t pretend right now. I don’t have words to offer. I am hurting, but I need to bring something sacred, something of worth to a person who is hurting so much more. Help me.” And then he got out of his car and walked in, repeating the last words of his prayer under his breath the whole time.

As he saw that he was getting closer to Kurt’s room, Justin’s footsteps became slower and softer, and his heart began to beat louder and faster. What would he say? His mind had gone totally blank. And then he saw him. If his heart was racing before, it had now all but stopped as he peered through the narrow, glass window on the door. There he was, sitting alone in a sterile, white room, his only company an IV drip and a series of monitors and machines humming along. His body was wasting away. He didn’t have a hair on his head and his face was weak and drained of color. Kurt knew that he didn’t have much time left. His glazed, tired eyes told the story. He understood that AIDS would soon claim his life. In many ways, it already had.

Justin slowly opened the door and walked into the room. Suddenly emerging from his comatose state and aware of his surroundings again, Kurt turned to look towards the door and their eyes met. Justin ran to the bed and clasped Kurt’s frail hand in his. “I’m here,” he whispered. Kurt began to sob. Justin turned towards the nurse that had just entered the room with a look of concern. She gave a knowing half-smile. “You’re okay,” she said. “It’s just that this is the first time anyone that didn’t work here has touched him.” The realization of Kurt’s loneliness and isolation broke Justin’s heart wide open. He buried his head in the side of the bed, crying alongside his friend.

“I’m sorry,” began Justin, wiping away tears. “I’m sorry for the things they said. For the way they hurt you; for the way I hurt you. We walked away when you needed us the most. When you needed love, we only offered judgment. You were never meant to walk this road alone. I’m here now, and I’ll walk with you.”

Kurt strained to speak. Slowly, the words came out in a hoarse whisper. “Where am I going?” Kurt asked, managing a feeble grin. Justin gazed out the open window of the hospital room as the sunlight streamed in on a warm September day. He looked back at Kurt and returned the smile. “Home,” he said.

“I’m scared,” said Kurt, through labored breaths. Justin looked his friend in the eye, and once again took his hand. “Kurt, if only you could only see the roads I’ve snuck down, the shame I’ve known, the dark places I hid. I threw stones, pretending that my mistakes were somehow lesser than yours. But now I see that we’re just the same: imperfect people in need of grace. And God is always ready to offer that, even when Christians aren’t. When everyone else walked away, someone still loved you. He sang over you, he stood beside you, he carried you when you couldn’t stand, and he caught every tear you cried. You are not alone, and you are not unloved. Don’t be afraid.”

Kurt smiled and nodded. He tried to speak, but no sound was made. He had already spoken his last. Justin could see the life behind his eyes starting to fade, and then they closed. Kurt mustered up all of the energy in his body to squeeze Justin’s hand one last time. Moments later the heart monitor beside Kurt’s bed switched from short, pulsating beeps, to one long, steady tone. A lifeless body remained on the hospital bed, but Kurt was no longer there.

Kurt had held on for so long, afraid of what would come next if he finally let go and allowed himself to embrace the mystery of his acceptance and fall on the grace and love of someone bigger and stronger than him. With Justin’s gentle words of truth, Kurt could finally let go. He had made it home, freed from the prison walls of his illness and dancing alongside the one who had loved him all along.

“Save a place for me,” whispered Justin. “I’ll be there soon.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easter Parade & Potluck Picnic!

“Resurrection Now! Out of the churches & into the streets & parks!”
C2G Presents an Easter Parade & Potluck Picnic 4.24.11 @ 5pm
Gather at the TTU Quad
Walk Together to Dogwood Park for Picnic Supper & Communion!
Dress Festive! Bring Musical Instruments!
(In case of rain, we will meet in the First Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

“A Kind of Holy Lightning”: A Sermon About Jack Kerouac

The Spirituality Of Jack Kerouac & the Tragedy of Addiction

~Andrew William Smith, 30 January 2011, Backdoor Playhouse

“I want you to get out there & walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands.” –Paul, early in Ephesians 4 (from The Message, itals mine)

“Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are.” –Paul, Ephesians 5:11 (from The Message)

“He commissioned them to preach the news of God's kingdom and heal the sick. He said, "Don't load yourselves up with equipment. Keep it simple; you are the equipment. And no luxury inns—get a modest place and be content there until you leave. If you're not welcomed, leave town. Don't make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and move on." Commissioned, they left. They traveled from town to town telling the latest news of God, the Message, and curing people everywhere they went.” –Luke 9:1-6 (from The Message)

‎"Once in a while you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right" –Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias”

Since I was in my late teens, I’ve been drawn to the spiritual lessons of poems & novels & literary movements, especially the sizzling insights & buzzing beatitudes of the writers & thinkers known as the Beat Generation. Many writers have remarked on the importance of literary movements—what I’d call the magic of community & call to collaboration—&the Beats were deeply influential on our popular imaginations the way great groups are, in a properly mythic manner, too, like Robin Hood & his Merry Men, like King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table, like Jesus and his 12 disciples.

Tonight, I’m deeply indebted to the 21st century insight, scholarship, & reflection of Nance M. Grace from the College of Wooster who shows us that the complete works of Kerouac—often called the “Duluoz Legend”—comprise a contemporary “wisdom literature,” sacred texts of a sympathetically American, broadly Buddhist, & distinctly Christian nature, embodying “the voice of the prophet, sage, teacher, & seer expressed as a classical pastiche of sermon, analogy, proverb, aphorism, song, parable, prayer, catechism, & confession to create a personal cosmology.”

In The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spirit Guides, the Rev. Stephen D. Edington sees the collected Beat works as sacred literature as well, calling it “the gospel of an alternative spirituality and an alternative religion” where spiritual rebels or misfits seek after the “Life Force” or “Torch of Life,” occasionally getting too close to the light & burning up & flaming out too soon.

Grace & Edington nail with a deeper eloquence & precision what I intuitively imagined was always already going on with Kerouac & Ginsberg & their peers—it’s all about the adventure, the quest, the pilgrimage, the seeking after God. With the Beats, with Kerouac & Ginsberg especially, it’s always about God even when they pretend it’s not about God—either through nontheistic rants or a preoccupation with what’s in one’s pants.

The strictly dualistic & more fundamentalist among us might protest: how could it possibly be all about God when it so obviously was all about sin? Even when the harsh critics of the Beat Generation complained that it could never be about God because it was obviously about cars, sex, booze, weed, & anti-American communism—even and especially then, it was definitely about God, because it was about a deeply human yearning, a seemingly insatiable hunger & thirst—a hunger for thrills, kicks, & chills, yes, but also for salvation, righteousness, & revelation.

Studying Kerouac & Ginsberg through a distinctly spiritual lens at a grassroots Christian fellowship taps into & plays out one of the primary premises of Come ToGather’s mission—that’s it possible to follow Jesus as our friend, teacher, & savior & deepen our appreciation of the Jesus teachings as we travel down the road of life with an awareness of religious diversity & an honest questioning, which for some of us includes an interspiritual perspective. As we tentatively explore the spiritual Kerouac through a brief look at his life & his works, & the relationship of his Buddhism to his Christianity, we can be aware that mixing Christianity with other religions has a long legacy, a wide & vast worldwide history of holy hybrids, the many Christian syncretics who still claim Jesus as Lord.

From reading Nancy M. Grace’s excellent interpretation of how Kerouac’s Christianity & Buddhism interweave, it’s clear to me I’m not currently qualified or inclined to make an extended exposition on the many layers & intricacies of this particular American Buddhist Christianity. Put plainly though, my novice reading of nontheistic Buddhism reveals concepts entirely compatible with Christianity: egolessness & emptiness, acceptance of impermanence & suffering, freedom through humble & harmonic acts of simplicity & generosity, grounded in practicing daily meditation & finding mysticism & the marvelous in even the most mundane aspects of everyday life.

Grace describes this Kerouacian relationship between Buddha & Jesus affectionately & intimately, in terms of fusion & embrace, finally finding “a religion in which an individual values one’s own gifts & talents, believes in the inherent goodness of life, frees oneself from dogmatic dualism, seeks a better life, & retains faith in the words of the sage. As such, Kerouac’s Christian Buddhism is distinctly American, the human presence embodied in the words ‘Jesus’ & ‘Buddha’ rooting wisdom, progress, & divinity in the individual who resides in a New World where the vision of human goodness flourishes & seeds itself.”

Like Kerouac (& enhanced by Grace’s reading of Kerouac), I see the nondogmatic depth of Buddhist insight as a sympathetic supplement to my theistic side that seeks a compassion & forgiveness via a cosmic Creator & a personal Jesus. Put simply, Buddhism and Christianity can be experienced in a complementary manner, and for the Buddhist-Christian, a Buddhist practice like walking meditation does not contradict a faith rooted in a relationship with Jesus. I like the way Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it: “When you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist.”

Kerouac’s true classic, a coming-of-age & rite-of-passage breakout novel called On The Road has been called “the bible of the Beat Generation,” & I choose to read it mythopoetically with a sympathetic biblical lens. (If anyone is unversed in this kind of reading strategy, you might be more familiar how we do this all the time with films like Star Wars —or with films based on books like Harry Potter & Lord Of the Rings.)

Borrowing again from & adding to what I got from reading Nancy Grace’s Kerouac analysis, it’s possible to frame On The Road as Buddy “Bookmovie” meets Sacred American-Christian-Buddhist Vision Quest. On this adventure, where the protagonists go everywhere & noplace, it really is, as clichĂ© as it sounds, more about the journey than it is about the destination. Many purposes, though, to this reckless partying & pathblazing emerge; it’s the universal human search of & after: A Social Consciousness of celebration & repudiation; Individualism of the maligned & self-reliant; Psychic Wholeness (vs. questions, alienation, emptiness); Spiritual Enlightenment.

The book portrays real-life pilgrims Jack Kerouac & Neal Cassady as Sal Paradise & Dean Moriarity. Although my lit-crit training teaches me not to do this, my reading of Kerouac’s life leads me to speak of the characters that inhabit the novels & the persons they represent rather interchangeably. With Sal as apprentice & Dean as Master, I conjure the notion of a cosmically commissioned but controversial bond not unlike Sam & Frodo, Anakin & Obi Wan, Judas & Jesus.

For Jack & the entire Beat Generation & for many of the hippies that would come after, Neal Cassady was the muse, the mythic man, the unofficial leader, the disrespected teacher, the priestly hedonist, the sensuous sage. On the opening page of On The Road, Kerouac notes that “Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he was actually born on the road.” His parents were passing through Salt Lake City like Mary & Joseph were passing through Bethlemen, & Sal will end up following Dean like disciples follow Jesus.

It’s as if the holy scripture simply said, “Blessed are the crazy fools. Blessed are the criminals on parole. Blessed are the pool sharks. Blessed are the people who spend their whole day in the public library.” Just as Cassady admires Kerouac the writer, Kerouac admires Cassady the man. The unschooled intellectual Kerouac wants to be the over-the-top outlaw intellectual Cassady with his perfect shining mind. When they hit the road, they become the prophets of horsepower, high priests of the gas pedal, pirates of the automobile era.

The Bible of the Beat Generation preaches “Drop Out & Follow Me,” renouncing the middle-class world of American post-war conformity, taking up the cross of pleasure-principled, counterculture rebellion, & spreading the news of a sentimental, romantic, sympathetic, nomadic, naturalistic, earthy American authenticity—the allure of which still teases, taunts, tempts, & attracts young people, especially those stuck on the nonstop trajectory from school-to-work without taking a moment’s pause to contemplate the meaning of life, see the world, & find themselves.

Rather than just serving & loving the least of these—which Kerouac as “everyman” so passionately & eloquently does—he becomes one of the least of these. One of my favorite sections in On The Road comes in skid row Detroit at an all-night movie theater, where Kerouac catalogs the dregs of Detroit as if they’d been dumped there to give Kerouac his litany of the modern-day “least of these”: “Beat Negroes who’d come up from Alabama to work in car factories on a rumor; old white bums; young longhaired hipsters who’d reached the end of the road & were drinking wine; whores, ordinary couples, & housewives with nothing to do, nowhere to go, nobody to believe in. If you sifted all Detroit in a wire basket the beater solid core of dregs couldn’t be better gathered.”

But On The Road isn’t all about the dowlow on the lowdown: its ecstasies & epiphanies are too many to name, but one worth mentioning is the tribute to the African-American music scene, to its new song, its new tune, its new way to “raise men’s souls to joy.” It’s in On The Road’s innocent & optimistic appraisal of American-open-endedness typified by the vastness of our landscape & the vision of our musicians —as in his writer’s teachings on the importance of spontaneity as “belief & technique”—that we see Kerouac’s best. His “List of Essentials” includes thirty jewels of aphorism & advice, such as

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

4. Be in love with yr life

16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye

19. Accept loss forever

20. Believe in the holy contour of life

23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning

29. You're a Genius all the time

30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

When looking at the complete Kerouac against the backdrop of his life, the problem of these problematic texts as prophetic-teaching texts is their “don’t-try-this-at-home-element,” their elements of slumming & bumming, of sexism & substance abuse.

In preaching the Beat gospel, Rev. Edington addresses both the blessings & excesses of the simultaneously divine & demonic Cassady Christ. First, in our Holy Goof, we can honor his be-here-now “mystical madness of the moment”; Edington explains it this way: “But for Neal the madness of the moment doesn’t need to lead anywhere. The madness of the moment yield timelessness, & that was the state Neal was reaching for.”

Kerouac celebrates Neal in biblical prosody, sainting him “Western Kinsmen of The Sun,” a lighthearted lover who learned his lessons from the lilies of the field, an embodied emissary of the wisdom teachings of Ecclesiastes who hungers for nothing more than bread & love.

But Cassady’s contagious beauty begs a dark side, too. Edington elaborates, “In this man’s life & way of being we see both the divine & the demonic, as well as the glorious & the desperate, dimensions of living in the Now.”

Sadly, history recounts what happens the Super Sage of On The Road. He leaves the wife & kids & joins the Merry Pranksters. For a while, he tutors—& is tutored by the likes of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, & The Grateful Dead—all true Professors of Profuse Insight & Indulgence, of Intense & Incessant 1960s Prodigality. Like many addicts, Neal Cassady bought suicide on the installment plan—imbibing & ingesting his way to the other side. In early February 1968, days shy of his 42nd birthday, the former railroad worker & living legend of the modern nomads Neal Cassady collapsed on some traintracks in Mexico, traveling by foot the night after a wedding party from one town to the next. He was found in a coma and taken to the hospital where he died. While the exact cause of Cassady’s death is unknown & much legend & speculation have accumulated around it, overdose from the combination of barbituates and alcohol is one of the many possibilities.

About a year before his death, Cassady apparently told a young friend “Don't do what I have done.” Edington accurately assesses the “awe & wonder on the one hand” & the “disgust & anger on the other” that society brings to its holy fools, concluding his remarks about Cassady with a tone of both reverence & warning: “In living the life that he did Neal Cassady made himself the target for both sets of reactions. He died for our fantasies as well as for our self-righteousness. We yearn to be like him & righteously thank God we’re not like him all in the same thought or sensation.”

For better and for worse, Cassady’s free spirit, immortalized in lyrics by the Grateful Dead a “child of countless trees” & a “child of boundless seas,” attains a mythic & messianic quality in relation to the hippy counterculture of the 1960s. To speak of Cassady the man in Christ-like terms is largely a poetic gesture of allegiance to the uncommon life-force that resonated from him. Because of his countless walks on the wild side, Neal Cassady learned of the historical Jesus Christ’s greatest gifts the hard way.

The book of letters he wrote while in prison in the late 1950s on a marijuana bust was published under the pithy & perfect title Grace Beats Karma. In her foreward to the published version of this book, Carolyn Cassidy comments at some length about Neal’s connection to Jesus “as the last in a long line of gurus to enlighten the planet” who brings us closer to the spirit & love available to all. Carolyn suggests that the spirit “cannot judge, condemn, punish, or play favorites,” suggesting that most of our misery is of our making. “Heaven & hell are within us,” she writes.

Sadly, Sal Paradise did not fare much better than Dean Moriarty. In On The Road, Kerouac already fears fame, writing “anonymity in the world of men is better than fame in heaven.” By the time On The Road makes Kerouac famous—the unofficial spokesman for the Beat Generation—he’s already tumbling quickly towards death as he drowns himself in alcohol. Facing the intersection of fame & full-blown alcoholism, his early 1960s book Big Sur is both beautiful & ugly, both hopeful & utterly heartbreaking.

Throughout Big Sur, Jesus & Buddha were always right there, somehow inside Kerouac but always out of reach. We know that a deep spirituality is one of the best known treatments for alcoholism, but Kerouac proves that spiritual inclinations alone are not enough to propel some to recovery. In Big Sur in particular but throughout the 1960s, Kerouac heads toward his final bottom but never gets there, living perpetually in Step Zero, the moment of clearly acknowledging a problem with drugs or alcohol but not taking that next leap into recovery.

Kerouac drank when he said he wouldn’t drink, when talking about not drinking was still talking about drinking: & the drinking thinking as thinking drinking permeated the art of his prose. In drinking, Kerouac drowned his desperation but also his mysticism, until drunk felt more real than not-drunk, where drunk obliterated & obviated the obvious truth that anything other than drunk ever existed. Kerouac drunk was morning drunk, evening drunk, always drunk, delicate drunk, manslut drunk.

At the beginning of Big Sur, Kerouac heads west to dry out but gets stuck in San Fran before finding his way to Ferlinghetti’s cabin at Big Sur. Although the book is filled with lapses into relief & possibility of a spiritual nature, the tender tone tells of defeat. The early pages of the novel describe an entirely desperate man:

“Wow, I’ve hit the end of the trail & cant even drag my body any more”;

“Drunken visitors puking in my study . . . Me drunk practically all the time” (& this is what he came to California to escape);

“There I am almost 40 years old, bored & jaded”;

“I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song. . .mingling with the . . . cries of a Salvation Army meeting. . . ‘Satan is the cause of your alcoholism’. . .”;

“ ‘One fast move or I’m, gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you can’t learn in school . . .”

By the end of the 60s, Kerouac’s drinking caught up with him, & the disease finally killed him.

Many have argued that alcoholism is an occupational hazard of certain careers including rock stars & lawyers, but most definitely writers, spawning studies like Dr. Donald W. Goodwin’s Alcohol & the Writer.

In many ways, Jack Kerouac & Neal Cassady show us the light, but they also get burned by it. On The Road speaks of “a kind of holy lightning” that strikes Neal Cassady in his visions, but it also strikes us down in the consequences for what those visions might bring. Addiction arises from a spiritual hunger that goes back to Adam & Eve in the garden; no fruit, no matter how wise or succulent, can take the place of God in our lives.

Recovering addict and legendary rock star David Crosby, looking back on the late 1960s counterculture, reflects, “We were right about a lot of things: the war, the environment, civil rights & women’s issues. But we were wrong about the drugs.”

Kerouac & Cassady were right about living in the moment, about rejecting the ways of the world, about the complementary teachings of Jesus & Buddha, about the spirituality of everything & the everyman & everyday life, even & especially about the spiritual aspects of travel, of an itinerant lifestyle on the road. Jesus & Paul & many Disciples & Early Church Movement Folk certainly lived “on the road.” But Kerouac & Cassady were wrong about alcohol & drugs & how to treat women.

Jack Kerouac’s response to the madness of the world was to become one with “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.” Like Kerouac, let our cups overflow with life, with conversation, with saving grace. But let’s not admire the least of these so much that we become prisoners of our own desires; let’s not get too close to light & burnout but rather hold our candles high, pointing to a light that only comes from God & that always already returns to God.