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Blog of the Grateful Bear

ramblings of a freelance panentheist {"all things are in God, and God is in all things"} . . . musings on Emergent spirituality, powerlifting, LGBTQueer issues, contemplative prayer, mysticism, cats, music, healing, and more. I like my coffee and my existentialism dark-roasted.

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Location: Marietta, Georgia, United States

I'm an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), in private practice in Marietta, Georgia. My writings on queer spirituality have been published in Whosoever and several other magazines. I live in a house-in-the-woods (Bear's Hermitage) in Marietta with Leonidas (Lenny) and Guy, Mighty Warrior Cats, and way too many books.


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bear's Top 10 CD’s of 2006: #5 through #1

#5. Old Crow Medicine Show: Big Iron World (available at emusic)
This young traditional-style bluegrass group just gets better and better. This is an album full of fun songs and countryfied blues, but they do sneak in a song that makes your jaw drop with its lyrical and musical power. From the song “I Hear Them All”:

I hear the tender words from Zion, I hear Noah’s waterfall
Hear the gentle lamb of Judah sleeping at the feet of Buddha
And the prophets from Elijah to the old Paiute Wovoka
Take their places at the table when they’re called
I hear them all . . .

#4. Trev Diesel: The Parachute EP (also available on iTunes)
OK, I’ve sung the praises of this album several times on this blog already, most recently in my entry for November 7th. So I’ll just let The Parachute EP’s position on my list speak for itself. Do I really think Trev’s album is better than this year’s releases from Jack White, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Who, and The Indigo Girls? Yes.

#3. Bruce Cockburn: Life Short, Call Now
Bruce Cockburn has been my favorite singer/songwriter since I discovered him in college (1980), so it’s no surprise his latest album places so high on this list. This one is not as angry as some of his more politically-oriented albums, although there are several songs of social conscience included here. Bruce has returned to his more acoustic-oriented folk sound here, and the album as a whole is terrific. The highlight is Bruce’s song “Mystery.” Some snippets:

Stood before the shaman, I saw star-strewn space
Behind the eye holes in his face . . .

Infinity always gives me vertigo
And fills me up with grace . . .

Don’t tell me there is no mystery
It overflows my cup . . .

Come all you stumblers who believe love rules
Stand up and let it shine . . .

#2. Yusuf: An Other Cup
Cat Stevens is back and his voice sounds just like it did when he sang all those great songs for “Harold and Maude” (one of which, “I Think I See the Light,” is re-done for this album). Cat is now Yusuf Islam, and no, he isn’t a terrorist, and no, he did not support the call to kill Salman Rushdie. Given the way he has been repeatedly misrepresented in the press, it’s appropriate that one of the songs on his come-back album is a cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The songs here are sweetly melodic, most of them profoundly spiritual, including a brief recitation from the Sufi poet Rumi. Only once does Yusuf get preachy about his Islamic faith (“In the End”), but the song is really no more preachy than what you find on most Christian rock albums. His song about Muhammad (“The Beloved”) is lovely, both lyrically and musically, and can be appreciated, I think, even by those who don’t share Yusuf’s devotion to the Prophet. “An Other Cup” is a deeply moving album I found myself listening to over and over again. One of several highlights is the song “Maybe There’s a World”:

I have dreamt of an open world, borderless and wide
Where the people move from place to place and nobody’s taking sides
Maybe there’s a world that I’m still to find
Open up O world and let me in . . .

#1. Kris Kristofferson: This Old Road (available at emusic)
This acoustic album is mostly Kris and his guitar and his gravelly voice, radiating emotion and conviction. The songs here range from the introspective (the achingly beautiful “This Old Road”) to the political (Kris is definitely a liberal, so I’m sure this album will not get much airplay on most country radio stations) to the intimate and deeply spiritual.

This album was released back in March, when I was going through a personal crisis and having to make some major decisions about a long-standing friendship and about my career. This album helped me find my way through that dark time and to forgive someone who had been dishonest and had seriously misrepresented me. Forgiveness is a recurring theme on this album, particularly in the songs “The Burden of Freedom” and “Holy Creation” (The truth is a highway/Leading to freedom/All is forgiven/Love is to blame . . .)

To me, the highlight of the album is definitely the song “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Some snippets:

I want justice, but I'll settle for some mercy
On this Holy Road through the Universal Mind . . .

I'd be crazy not to wonder if I'm worthy
Of the part I play in this dream that's coming true . . .

and the chorus, which became my personal theme song during my time of crisis:

Am I young enough to believe in revolution
Am I strong enough to get down on my knees and pray
Am I high enough on the chain of evolution
To respect myself, and my brother and my sister
And perfect myself in my own peculiar way

This album, and the song “Pilgrim’s Progress” in particular, was one of my sources of strength that helped me believe I could fulfill a life-long dream and open my own counseling practice – which I did, back in May. When I opened my office, I wanted it to be a place of healing, and I feel incredibly fortunate that it has indeed been such a place. So has my second office, which I opened on Marietta Square in September. I have been deeply, deeply blessed.

Now, as the new year begins, I find myself humming this Kris Kristofferson song again, wondering what other dreams can be actualized, wondering what part I can play in the larger “dream that’s coming true” as I journey down “this Holy Road through the Universal Mind.” I have a novel I want to write, and a book on “healing the gay soul.” Maybe 2007 will be the year one of those books becomes a reality.

Happy New Year ~
Hamza

Friday, December 29, 2006

Bear’s Top 10 CD’s of 2006: #10 to #6

The countdown begins:

#10. Honkeytonk Homeslice (available at emusic)
A beautiful slice of countryfied Americana from Honkeytonk Homeslice, an acoustic trio featuring Bill Nershi (from The String Cheese Incident), mandolin/guitar player Scott Law, and Bill’s wife Jillian Nershi, who sounds just like Emmylou Harris.

#9. Ashley Cleveland: Before the Daylight’s Shot
(from iTunes or AshleyCleveland.com)
This is the only album on my list that also appears on Christianity Today’s list of Best Christian Albums of 2006 (at #10). It’s a fantastic blues/rock album from a singer with a wonderful “blues-y” voice, a voice CT describes as “a brassy and gutsy wail that’s also tender and emotional.” Highlight: “Queen of Soul,” about the biblical woman at the well as well as the woman at the tomb (Mary Magdalene): “Queen of Soul/there’s a woman in the room/in the fullness of her power.”

#8. The Indigo Girls: Despite Our Differences
Another great release from the gals, opening with the topical “Pendulum Swinger” (referencing gnostic gospels, The Da Vinci Code, and the patriarchy of the church). This one covers all the bases, from passion to painful exclusion (“They Won’t Have Me”), from Amy’s driving rock (“Rock and Roll Heaven’s Gate,” with background vocals by Pink) to Emily’s heartwarming balladry – including my favorite track on the album, “I Believe in Love,” a bittersweet look back at a relationship that morphed from passion into friendship.

#7. Bob Dylan: Modern Times
This album will probably show up on most Top 10 lists for 2006, and deservedly so. This is Dylan doing what he does best: folk/rock with a heavy blues vibe. As Sojourners magazine recently said about this album, Dylan has “ended up right back where he began – with those mysterious old songs of death, love, and redemption that floated up from the holiness churches, railroad gangs, and prison farms of 19th- and early 20th-century America.” Kato, my cat, does not like this album (he meows loudly at the speakers till I turn it off or put on some jazz), but he and I disagree on this one.

#6. The Who: Endless Wire
The Who is now basically just Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry with backup musicians, but that’s enough. This is their first studio album of new material in 24 years. It includes a “mini-opera” called Wire & Glass, along with nine songs that sound like classic Who while also being postmodern-relevant. Pete wrote two of the songs in response to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” including “A Man in a Purple Dress,” a biting indictment of “priests, mullahs, popes, and rabbis” who claim to speak for God. (Pete’s comment on the song: “It is the idea that men need to dress up in order to represent God that appalls me. If I wanted to be as insane as to attempt to represent God I’d just go ahead and do it, I wouldn’t dress up like a drag-queen.”)

Pete Townshend’s mysticism (he is a student of Meher Baba) shows through in many of the songs, including “God Speaks of Marty Robbins” (Pete: “Very simple song. God is asleep, before Creation – before the Big Bang – and gets the whim to wake, and decides it could be worth going through it all in order to be able to hear some music, and most of all, one of his best creations, Marty Robbins”). My favorite song on the disc is the opener, “Fragments” (which Kato likes, too):

Are we breathing out
or breathing in
Are we leaving life
or moving in
Exploding out
Imploding in
Ingrained in good
or stained in sin

Are we the parts
Are we the whole
Are we the thoughts
Are we the soul
The parts of me
and this is true
The parts of me
belong to you
and you
and you
and you . . .

Coming Soon: #5 through #1.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Best Music of 2006: The Runners-Up

I’ve composed a list of “Bear’s Top 10 CD’s of 2006,” but there were quite a few albums left over when I finished the list. So here, below, are the runners-up, my “honorable mentions” for 2006, in no particular order. Some of these albums are downloadable at emusic (30 song downloads per month for $9.99, or 50 for $14.99).

Jam Music

Phil Lesh & Friends: Live at the Warfield
Not the Dead, but a great jam band nonetheless, especially since one of the “friends” is the always-soulful Joan Osborne. (available at emusic)

Zilla: all iZ
Extended drum-based jams from Michael Travis (from The String Cheese Incident). Sounds like Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum with a touch of electronica. (available at emusic)

Rock

The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers
Jack White’s new garage-rock band – not as quirky as his White Stripes stuff, but still great. (available at emusic)

Bonnie Raitt & Friends Live
A great blues/rock concert. Highlights: the defiant “[Let’s Give ‘em] Something to Talk About” and the earthy/spiritual “God Was in the Water” (God was in the water that day/casting out a line/but no one was biting).

Pop/Rock

Elton John: The Captain and the Kid
Sir Elton returns to his pop/rock roots. It’s amazing how beautifully he plays the piano, even when he’s singing a song about Richard Nixon.

The Beatles: Love
An extended 78-minute mix developed for Cirque de Soleil. Not quite seamless (there’s no way to segue smoothly into “Revolution”!), it covers the range of Beatles classics, from their early pop years to their psychedelic/spiritual songs like “Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Roots/Americana

Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways
The last album recorded by the Man in Black before his death. I’m glad they didn’t “pretty it up” but left it raw, so you can hear the emotion in his aged voice.

Nickel Creek: Reasons Why (The Very Best)
A great collection. Buy the CD, which includes a DVD of seven Nickel Creek videos.

Jonah Smith
Debut recording from a talented singer/songwriter on the “blues-y” end of the Roots/Americana spectrum. (available at emusic)

Christian

Randy Stonehill: Edge of the World
Brings back memories of my teenage years. Stonehill gets better, the older he gets. Highlights: “That’s the Way it Goes,” a duet with Phil Keaggy, and “We Were All So Young,” a trip down memory lane featuring several “Jesus Music” pioneers: Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, Russ Taff, Barry McGuire, Noel Paul Stookey, Anne Herring, and Love Song. (available at emusic)

David Crowder Band: B Collision
An acoustic-oriented followup to last year’s “A Collision” from the most quirky and talented singer/songwriter in Christian music today. Get it at iTunes so you can get the bonus track, “Do Not Move.”

Soundtracks

The Da Vinci Code
OK, so the movie was a let-down after all the hype, but hey, it was still a good movie and it had a good soundtrack. Highlight: the hauntingly beautiful “Kyrie for the Magdalene.”

A Prairie Home Companion
I was blown away at how beautifully Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin can sing! I got the soundtrack long before I saw the movie because I knew the movie would make me cry. I was right.

Those are the runners-up. I’ll post the Top 10 in a couple of days. What are your favorites for 2006?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Three Wise Men, One Wise Cat



Top: Nativity scene on Marietta Square (life-size figures cast in marble-based resin, hand-painted by artisans from the House of Fontanini, Bagni di Lucca, Italy)

Bottom: Kato, curled up on my bed (which he thinks is his), following the Christmas carol’s advice to “sleep in heavenly peace”
~
“Christmas Bells”
(The original poem, complete with all seven stanzas, written during the American Civil War by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Top 5 Christmas Songs


Friend and fellow blogger Celeste has tagged me to do a list of my 5 favorite Christmas songs. Here they are:

5. “Christmas Time is Here” from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas

4. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” – Bruce Cockburn’s cover of Sam Phillips’ minor-key arrangement

3. Several very moving and beautiful songs from John Michael Talbot’s Christmas CD, The Birth of Jesus: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” and his medley of “What Child is This” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel”

2. “Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel” from George Winston’s wintry classic, December

1. “O Holy Night” – my all-time favorite

I love the history of this 1847 song (the first Christmas carol to be broadcast on radio, in 1906), a song that was initially rejected by many churches because its lyricist was a “free-thinker” wine merchant, its composer was Jewish, and its third verse was decidedly anti-slavery:

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Sadly, most recorded versions of “O Holy Night” leave out that third verse. A recent one that doesn’t is from the new Christmas Offerings CD by Third Day, one of my favorite Christian rock groups. Their version is contemporary but still reverent – a good rendition of my all-time favorite Christmas carol, which has a somewhat-gnostic bent in its first verse: equating “sin” with “error” (rather than disobedience or transgression) and describing the appearance of the Christ child as the time when “the soul felt its worth.”

Blessed Yule ~
Hamza

Sunday, December 17, 2006

“One Punk Under God”


Jay Bakker, son of PTL Club founders Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner, is all over the news because of the new TV documentary series about him, “One Punk Under God” (on the Sundance Channel). CNN.com recently ran a profile about Jay and the TV series, as well as a commentary co-written by Jay and a member of his church, “What the Hell Happened to Christianity?” As far as editorials go, it’s pretty basic, but it raises some good questions.

I watched the first episode of “One Punk Under God” and quickly became engrossed in it. I was a member of the PTL Club back in the 1980’s, when I was still a closeted Pentecostal zombie, and it was sad to watch Jay tour the grounds of Heritage USA, which are now decayed and weed-strewn. I wonder why no developer has bought the land and torn down all the rotting buildings. Of course, it may be a legal issue as to who actually owns the land. Jerry Falwell and his minions ended up with the satellite network, which is now nothing more than one of dozens of “Christian” networks on digital cable. (I resent the fact that I have to subscribe to all those channels in order to get the ones I want, like National Geographic, Logo, Sundance, BBC America, etc.)

The saddest part, though, was his father Jim Bakker’s estrangement from Jay, and Jim’s unwillingness to reconcile with his son or even return Jay’s phone calls. That’s not the case, of course, with Jay’s mother, Tammy Faye, who in recent years has become a gay icon, speaking and singing at Gay Pride events and fund-raisers for HIV-related charities. (Sadly, Tammy Faye is now in a hospice with cancer.)

Jay himself has come out as a gay-affirming minister, a decision which led to a conservative foundation (unnamed in the CNN news story) pulling thousands of dollars in funding for Jay’s ministry, Revolution. Jay Bakker rode in this year’s Gay Pride parade in Atlanta, distributing Revolution stickers (I still have mine) that read, “As Christians, we’re sorry for being such self-righteous, judgmental bastards.”

If the only thing Jay Bakker accomplishes is making people aware that there are other forms of Christianity besides the homophobic version espoused by James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and the Bush administration, then his ministry is well worth our support.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Celebration of Rumi


Tomorrow, December 17, is the Urs of Rumi – the anniversary of the death of the Sufi poet Rumi – which is observed by Sufis in much the same way a “feast day” is observed in liturgical Christian churches. (Sufis sometimes refer to one’s death day as a “wedding day” when one is reunited with the Divine Beloved.)

Tomorrow afternoon, some of us in the Atlanta Sufi community will gather to celebrate the Urs of Rumi by sharing poems, writings, prayers, and dances based on his writings. In going through some of Rumi’s many beautiful poems, I came across the following gems which I plan to share at the celebration tomorrow:


People of the Path
who know
the secret of meaning
are hidden from the eyes
of the narrow-minded.

Ironically, though,
everyone who comes to know
the divine Reality
possesses the purest faith –
but is labeled an “unbeliever”
by the pious.

~ from Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition,
translated from the Persian by David and Sabrineh Fideler


Love is here; it is the blood in my veins, my skin.
I am destroyed; He has filled me with Passion.
His fire has flooded the nerves of my body.
Who am I? Just my name; the rest is Him.

~ from Perfume of the Desert, ed. by Andrew Harvey & Eryk Hanuk


“We came whirling out of nothingness scattering stars like dust. The stars made a circle and in the middle we dance. Turning, and turning it sunders all attachment. Every atom turns bewildered – and it is only God circling Himself.”

~ from In Search of the Hidden Treasure,
by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Christmas Lizard

This morning Kato the mystical cat awakened me around 5:00 AM, complaining that his bowls were empty, a state of affairs that caused him to walk around on top of me repeatedly as I tried to continue sleeping, then to head-butt me from the side several times, trying to roll me out of bed. When at last I got up and filled his bowls, Kato proceeded to scratch at the blinds on the sliding glass doors, asking to go outside. I let him out, leaving the door open so he could come back in when he pleased. He did so, bearing a Christmas gift for me, a live lizard, which of course scurried underneath the sofa when it dropped from Kato’s jaws. A wonderful way to begin the day (before coffee) – being bossed around by an eleven-pound cat, then trying to catch a lizard and put it back outdoors where it belongs, while the cat looks on disapprovingly, indignant at the waste of a perfectly good lizard.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Holiday Strangeness, Part 3: “Convert or Die”


Liberal and progressive Christian groups say a new computer game [Left Behind: Eternal Forces] in which players must either convert or kill non-Christians is the wrong gift to give this holiday season and that Wal-Mart, a major video game retailer, should yank it off its shelves.

. . . The Rev. Tim Simpson, a Jacksonville, Fla., Presbyterian minister and president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, added: “So, under the Christmas tree this year for little Johnny is this allegedly Christian video game teaching Johnny to hate and kill?”

The news story, from the San Francisco Chronicle:
‘Convert or Die’ Game Divides Christians

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ellen Burstyn: “a spirit opening to the truth...”


Beliefnet.com has an interview with Ellen Burstyn, about her new autobiography, Lessons in Becoming Myself (which I highly recommend), as well as her involvement in the Sufi Order International (the order in which I am ordained). Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

When I was on top of the Alps and Pir Vilayat did the Universal Worship ceremony, I was so moved by it because here we were on an Alpine peak facing Mont Blanc, and there was an altar, and Pir lit a candle to each of the major religions of the world, and then read from the sacred books of those religions.

And the idea that we didn’t have to say, “I am a Christian” or, “I am a Buddhist” or, “I am a Muslim,” but, “I am a spirit opening to the truth that lives in all of these religions,” brings you into a place where you see that the differences are in the dogma, and the essence is very, very similar.

The truth is there spread out and speaking. For instance, Jesus says that if someone strikes you to turn the other cheek and the Buddha says that “Hatred cannot be fought with hatred – hatred can only be fought with love. This is a law eternal.” Well, they’re saying the same thing there. And you find that consistently. So, I knew when I came upon that that I had found what was, for me, a doorway into spirit.

Here’s the interview:
Ellen Burstyn’s True Face

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Beatitudes

Our New Testament reading for today in the online Open Heart Bible Reading Group includes the Beatitudes, one of the most sublime passages ever written. Here are the words of Jesus, in the New Jerusalem Bible translation (Matthew 5:1-12):

Seeing the crowds, he went onto the mountain. And when he was seated his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak. This is what he taught them:

How blessed are the poor in spirit:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Blessed are the gentle:
they shall have the earth as inheritance.
Blessed are those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness:
they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown them.
Blessed are the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers:
they shall be recognised as children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you.

~

Several times in this blog I have cited John Updike: when discussing Robert Alter’s translation of The Five Books of Moses, or when quoting Updike’s beautiful poem Seven Stanzas at Easter. Now, in discussing the Beatitudes, I cite an even higher literary authority, Kurt Vonnegut:

How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
And so on.

Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

~ from “Cold Turkey” by Kurt Vonnegut,
In These Times, May 10, 2004

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

realizations

beauty is more important than theology
poetry is more important than dogma