Thinking Through February

Well, folks, we’re officially 1/12 through 2015. Yesterday, that dastardly groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter, and Mother Nature delivered with harsher temperatures.  Surely, many of you have managed to break your New Year’s resolutions by now, but I would like to think that a few of you have remained strong, holding with fervor on to your newest devotions and routines. But, whether you’re right on track with your new diet or stuffing your face full of pizza and schnitzel, there’s no reason not to celebrate with The Front Porch this month– we’ve just got too many good folks coming around to miss any of it.

If you’ve made it to one of our more recent Parable events, you may have noticed a growing impatience for deeper conversation amongst our growing congregation. In response to this tension, we’ve invented a new position at The Front Porch– thinker-in-residence– and we’ve filled this position with one of our most beloved Parable guests from last year, Pittman McGehee. Priest, poet, Jungian analyst, and more, Pittman’s unique skill set should be innately ideal for him and for our Parable constituents as he guides us toward understanding our multidimensional, psycho-spiritual reality. Pittman will now be leading a second Parable gathering each and every month in efforts to take us on these next steps. Get excited, because it’s going to be a new, deeper, more dialogical approach to Parable that we’ve never tried before. Get in on this experiment on February 8th at Scholz Garten in the usual spot. There will be no music and no communion– this gathering is all about the conversation.

Of course, we wouldn’t cut you off from your regular Parable rush. We’re doubling down each month. While Pittman teaches his class on one Sunday a month, we will occupy another with our usual team of Steve Kinney, John Burnett, and Dave Madden’s band of friends. Our guest this month, Christine Albert, has more awards than we dare to list here. Visit the event to find out more about this amazing humanitarian/musician/producer/Grammy Award’s chairman, and why you won’t want to miss hearing about her nonprofit, Swan Songs, in her interview with John. Christine will join us on February 22nd for our usual Parable hullabaloo.

Walt Wilkins will be our artist for Unplugged on The Front Porch this February. If you’ve never heard Walt before, check out this video. You’ll understand what makes Walt Wilkins a staple contributor in the Austin music scene, and why you should be excited that he’ll be joining us at Unplugged on The Front Porch the third Thursday evening of the month, at 7PM in the sanctuary at All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

Side note about Unplugged and why it works: For me, Unplugged is special for two reasons. The first is that it offers true music appreciators the opportunity to respect the universal language of rhythm and intonation with the same sacred and mystical veneration we might offer the divine. The ambiance in the church inherently helps people understand spatially the power of what music does for us as human beings, together, sharing that moment in that expansive and ancient room. My second reason for loving Unplugged on The Front Porch lies in its ability to tap into an artists’ true motivations and perspectives on the world around them. Whether through the interview or the intimacy of the venue, it always seems like Unplugged turns the artists into real people before our eyes as the wax notions of celebrity and spatial division melt away in the humility of the Front Porch message. End side note.

February will also mark the beginning of our brand new series for Lent, which will focus on dialogically dissecting short films each Friday of the Lenten season. We are calling this series a “Film Church,” bringing in leading film experts to help us delve deeper in understanding this often underappreciated artistic medium. Lars Nilson of Austin Film Society will lead our first meetup on Friday, February 27th, at 7PM, where he will present and lead discussion over the film, The Karman Lane.” We hope you’ll come check this out as we explore a fantastic new idea. We’ll also be revamping our program for high schoolers, The Window, as the month closes out. We’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading my first update. More will surely come. I hope to see you on The Front Porch soon! Also, don’t forget to check out our Amplify Austin Campaign. It should be live in just a few days.

The Gift of Interruptions and Homelessness

We post below the latest musings from Christine Havens on last month’s Parable, The Front Porch’s Pub Church at Scholz Garten.

foundation communitiesADVENT, INTERRUPTED.  Don’t we love it when things come together? Maybe I should better say full circle, or come back around, though I really do not speak of an ending. Maybe a spiral works as a more apt image, but no, that’s not quite right either. I doodle spirals on a page, admiring how smoothly the line flows—I can draw one with no glaring hiccups, no lifting of the pencil off the page, as long as I’m not interrupted. And that’s the key, isn’t it? Do you envy the flow of a spiral on the page? Do you hope for a day or a life similar to that lovely, gently circling line on the paper?

You may find yourself instead having a less than smooth day, as in the story Fr. Steve Kinney told as introduction to Parable on December 14—he’d had an upheaval-ous day of sorts when unexpectedly having to help his daughter, who herself was suffering from the interruption of a feral cat bite. “The whole day was shot,” for both of them. No smooth spiral day; instead, an engendering of frustration.

And all I could do was smile, as Steve spoke of interruptions “as God’s way of getting in” and as he “invited us to be interrupted” with each other in the Parable space. His words took me back to my time as a parish secretary, which was my first true experience of church, Episcopal or otherwise—the beginning of an important stage in my life. My boss, Fr. Mitch, had developed a “theology of interruption” because of all the, well, interruptions in parish office life—rarely did we have an easily drawn spiral day. Mitch’s thought was that most of these breaks, disruptions, stoppages, intervals were Spirit-driven.

Steve’s story serves as an example of a big interruption, but what of those smaller interruptions? What about our drives around Austin—we’re on the way to work or home from work, or off to the mall or running errands and we just want a smooth spiral or circuit or circle. We had a good day and we want to keep that feeling of success or accomplishment. And then—we’re idling at a stoplight, listening to music that we’re enjoying, and a homeless person breaks into our consciousness, standing at the corner with a brown cardboard sign, or even worse, heading over with a squeegee to wash our car window whether we want them to or not—jolting us into frustration quite frequently or shame or sorrow or pity or desire to help. Whatever the feeling provoked, we’ve been interrupted.

Our guest this evening—midway through Advent—was Walter Moreau of the Austin nonprofit, Foundation Communities, the most lauded affordable housing in the country, as John Burnett said as he introduced Walter. The newly built Capital Studios on 11th & Trinity is the first affordable housing in downtown Austin in 45 years! In a city, where sometimes 4,000 “rough sleepers,” to use the British euphemism (the British also gave us the euphemisms “white meat” and “dark meat” as the Victorians couldn’t use “breast” or “leg” to even describe food), are living their interrupted lives, the Foundation Communities serves as a stepping stone for many. Walter brought Leslie Davis, a single mother, who broke into our lives and hearts with her experience in life and how Foundation Communities is helping her with the big interruption in her life—her husband, a drug dealer, whose murder left her homeless.

I could spiral on and on, talking of the evening, but I need to break in on my musings. I am way past my deadline. . .

Just one last thought: perhaps it’s that our lives are really a series of interruptions—dots on a page, so closely placed together that they’re indiscernible as anything but a line as we journey. Just sometimes the Holy Spirit breaks through and things come together.

Michael Morton, Forgiveness, and Developing Daring Culture

225_anunrealdreamOn Martin Luther King Day, January 19th, The Front Porch will host the screening of “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story” at the Alamo Drafthouse Village, as part of its Elephant in the Room symposia. Michael himself will be there to lead a conversation following the film that will take those of us lucky enough to attend into the deep places where we come face to face with our humanity in all its glory and limitation. (NOTE: in addition to the 7pm screening, KUT’s Ben Philpott will interview Michael in Studio 1A at noon on January 19th.) 

In 1986 Michael Morton’s wife Christine is brutally murdered in front of their only child, and Michael is convicted of the crime.  Locked away in Texas prisons for a quarter century, estranged from his son, he has years to ponder questions of justice and innocence, truth and fate.  Though he is virtually invisible to society, the Innocence Project and Michael’s pro bono attorney spend years fighting for the right to test DNA evidence found at the murder scene.  Their discoveries ultimately reveal that the price of a wrongful conviction goes well beyond one man’s loss of freedom.

Director Al Reinert is a two-time Academy Award nominee, as a documentary filmmaker (For All Mankind, which won the documentary Jury and Audience Awards when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989) and as a screenwriter (Apollo 13).

What a privilege it will be to be with Michael, whose story touches on the miscarriage of justice, resentment, prison culture, human rights, and, most of all, forgiveness. His transformative story transforms all who hear it.

There are a very limited number of tickets left for this event. One way to be guaranteed a seat is to make a tax-deductible donation to the Front Porch’s Indiegogo campaign and claim one of the perks that offers tickets. Not only will you be able to join us that night, but you’ll also help us to reach our $30,000 goal. Right now, with 12 days left in the campaign, we’ve raised over $21,000, which is 72%. This money helps The Front Porch continue to offer inspiring events that create daring culture, to coin Brene Brown’s phrase, in which people feel the spiritual connection that comes from being open to and learning from others. 

 

A Place Where We Can Be Our Best Selves

There’s a view of the world out there that doesn’t get a lot of press — which is the view not based on scarcity but based on abundance. In an abundance economy, we have things, but the thing we don’t have enough of is connection. And we don’t have enough time. And if people can offer us connection and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves — yes, we will seek that out.                                                (From Seth Godin’s Dec. 4, 2014 interview with Krista Tippet) 

THE FRONT PORCH SEEKS TO OFFER SUCH A PLACE.   So far, we’ve built a good-enough brand that enables us to connect with lots of interesting people. Our vision for engaging different people in dialogue in a way that builds community is catching on. And our track record to date is at least impressive: we’ve got a monthly pub church that packs Scholz Garten each month, a packed concert series every third Thursday of the month that brings great Austin artists to life, a signature quarterly symposia that focuses attention on matters that affect all of us, and a newly created youth gathering that we are very excited about.

BUT…we’ve got to take this mission to the next level! We need to broaden our grass-roots support. We need to expand our staff. We need to develop better infrastructure–i.e., a more sophisticated approach to getting the word out and producing our numerous events. And we need to raise some dough. The point is this: we’re getting close! We have so much to build upon! We’re getting traction!

We’re in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign, which is a crowdfunding approach to help us raise $30,000 in 50 days. Right now, with 27 more days to go, we’ve reached 30% of our goal. Please consider making a year-end, tax-deductible contribution to help us take this mission to another level. You can go to indiegogo.com and search for “The Front Porch” or go directly there by using this link: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-front-porch-2015-season/x/2974017. THANK YOU.

PARABLE: Religion, Shakespeare, Beer, Jung, and Faith

rose imageOur dear friend, Christine Havens, reflects on her experience of Parable, the Front Porch’s pub church on November 23, 2014:

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare’s Juliet says in her monologue, as Romeo listens, hidden. Juliet’s lament over Romeo’s name, denoting, or perhaps connoting, his membership in a family with whom Juliet’s family is in blood feud resonates still within twenty-first-century Western culture and narrative. Does she feel shame and guilt at being a Capulet who loves an enemy, who loves a Montague? If nothing else, Juliet feels conflicted.

Speak the name “religion” and many postmodern Christians (or are we post-Christendom Christians? secular twenty-first century Christians? emergent Christians?) stand on a similar balcony, unsure or maybe defiant, conflicted about that name and its connotations and reverberations throughout our history—

During the conversation with noted author, Jungian psychoanalyst, and former dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, J. Pittman McGehee, when he joined Parable on November 23 for a discussion of spirituality and religion, I felt myself on a balcony. The buzz of conversation gradually muted as I moved into my own thoughts and experiences, trying to name my agitation as others around me nodded and murmured approval as he named issues associated with that—well—name, “religion.”

(John Burnett, our chorus, our narrator, along with Fr. Steve Kinney, was spot on as he introduced our guest, saying in a giddy manner that a conversation with this man was “like sipping from a fire hydrant.”)

McGehee spoke to us of how he draws on Jung’s “psycho-spiritual worldview” and his attempts to remarry (interesting word here) psychiatry and religion, wanting to ensure that religion brought “health and wholeness” rather than serving as an “instrument of shame and guilt.” And at one point he named one etymology of the word: “making things whole; putting back together.”

And this is where I went out on the balcony because I had just begun reading Terry Eagleton’s book, Culture and the Death of God, within which he brings forth Peter Harrison’s “claim that the concept of religion as a system of social practices is itself a product of the Enlightenment.” Eagleton says that “traditionally, and certainly in medieval times, the relevant term was not ‘religion’ but ‘faith’.” Accordingly, the Enlightenment name of “religion” meant a system that begged for study, something to be held, observed, and taken apart, compared to other systems for its usefulness, or lack thereof. Maybe remolded, reformed. Not to say that the word, the name, did not exist prior to the Enlightenment, but we all walk that balcony in conflict, our relationship to “religion” perhaps tinged with shame and guilt, or discomfort. Do we feel more comfortable with the name, “faith?” Can we or should we abjure the name of religion, especially as an increasing secular society keeps turning the screws, disapproving of displays of love and affection toward religion.

As I walk my balcony in consideration of these questions, all I hear is Romeo’s response as he listens, as yet unseen, to Juliet: “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d”

Religious observance is not, if I understand the Gospel, about appeasing a potentate God on some celestial throne. If I understand the Gospel, God is most pleased by the health and well being of people.

 

Thank YOU Indiegogo Donors!

indiegogo logoWe are celebrating those of you who have given to our crowdfunding campaign! We are raising $30,000 in 50 days to fund next year’s community building programs on the Front Porch. In just five days, as of today, we’ve raised $4273, thanks to the following funders:

Jim and Karla Man, Cissy Warner, Barry Barksdale, Matt Dow, Mark Winter, Dan Renner, Patricia Boyce, Mimi Parris, Martha Randolph, and Katy Harris.

Please consider joining this pantheon of great souls who support our mission to foster communion between people in the secular, public square through a variety of inspiring programs. Please Contribute now. Thank you. Your year end, tax-deductible donation will mean more than you know!

Here’s the deal with the Indiegogo Campaign

The Front Porch wants to make a positive difference in Austin. How? By showcasing beautiful people and giving voice to inspiring ideas, by hosting interesting conversations that bring people together to talk across their divides, and–with your support–by creating a pub, cafe, and event space in Austin that enables us to do this every day of the week. This would be like a postmodern church in the public square for secular people who don’t like to be boxed in by dogma or like-mindedness. This would be a gospel-happening in a pluralistic culture to engage people of every religious, political, or cultural persuasion. As we like to say, our differences must become enriching rather than dividing. This is not some sort of utopian idealism or sloppy inclusivism–frankly, it takes lots of love to welcome different perspectives and others to the table for dialogical engagement.

So far, we’ve built a good-enough brand that enables us to connect with lots of interesting people–kind of a blank check that gives us credibility and access. Our vision for providing a model to engage different people in dialogue in a way that builds community (usually one conversation at a time) is catching on. And our track record to date is at least impressive: we’ve got a monthly pub church that packs Scholz Garten each month, a packed concert series every third Thursday of the month that brings great Austin artists to life, a signature quarterly symposia that focuses attention on matters that affect all of us, and a newly created youth gathering that we are very excited about.

BUT…we’ve got to take this mission to the next level! We need to broaden our grass-roots support. We need to expand our staff. We need to develop better infrastructure–i.e., a more sophisticated approach to getting the word out and producing our numerous events. And we need to raise some dough. The point is this: we’re getting close! We have so much to build upon! We’re getting traction!

Can you see such a place in Austin? Will you help us build it? If you want to dip your toe in our waters, please go to this link and make a contribution to our Indiegogo campaign! We are trying to raise $30,000 in 50 days to keep our programming alive and well until we can reach the critical mass that pushes us to build the space itself.

Torn Between Pride and Despair

balance-canstockphoto3567006The great 20th century philosopher Hanna Arendt wrote a famous book entitled The Human Condition. You may have read it in college. Philosophers, theologians, and essayists of all sorts make mention of “the human condition” from time to time. It can sound pretentious when we talk about it at a cocktail party, and maybe it is, sometimes. But it is an idea we can’t get along without: all of us and every society presuppose some background picture of the human condition within which we struggle toward goals or make our peace with failures and limits, one way or another.

Raising it to awareness is where things get really interesting, so far as the examined life is concerned. Most writers on the subject seem to agree that the main feature of the human condition is finitude. Finitude refers not just to human limitations but to human possibilities, as well. Being finite, as the Greeks put it, means being a little higher than the animals but less than gods–being bound to embrace those aspirations we care about, and yet also remembering our mortality, the limits of our knowledge and wisdom, inescapable suffering of some sort, and death. Another way to put it is that we are saddled with the difficult task of finding a middle path between hubris and despair.

Here is story that might help bring to life these abstract notions of finitude and the human condition. Stories have a way of doing that!

On his 55th birthday, he felt the walls starting to close in on him. Nate was a sociology professor with tenure at a state university. He had published enough articles to get promoted, received periodic raises, and had job security with a satisfactory retirement program in the works. He had edited a volume of essays in his specialty area and had co-authored an introduction to sociology book that got a few nice reviews but only sold a few thousand copies and now seemed to have disappeared into the dustbin of history. He received good teacher evaluations and got along well with his little group of Master’s and Ph.D. graduate student advisees.

 He had survived and was well liked, but suddenly felt like a failure and a nobody. He now realized he would never reach his youthful ambition to become a leader in his field speaking to the sociological issues of the day. He would never be that scholar with a mention or article in the New York Times. Not that Nate didn’t know exactly what that looked like. Two of his colleagues had achieved that kind of prominence and notoriety. One had written a best-selling sociological treatise on “cultures of poverty” and had appeared on several national political talk shows. Nate could see the lift in his colleague’s step around the office; he could only swallow and try to hide a growing sense of insignificance and ignominy. He once caught himself flirting mildly with the colleague’s wife at a department social event. No one noticed, and he went home feeling pitiful.

 Nate also found himself living with a low-grade jealousy of his only brother, a Washington D.C. attorney who had achieved both considerable financial success and the attention of politicians and socialites. He loved his brother, but this envy chipped away at their relationship and widened a gap between them. One night, however, after his brother got broadsided by someone barreling through a stop sign, things were put back into some perspective. The car was totaled after tumbling into a ditch where it turned over twice and ended upside down. His brother survived with only a couple of bruises.

 They talked about it on the phone the next day. His brother remarked that instead of relief he felt gloomy and depressed. The accident brought it home how everyone’s life hangs on a thread and could be snuffed out in a moment. That is a disturbing thought, his brother said–it makes you wonder what life is all about. Both boxing fans, they recalled Mohammed Ali’s comment after being struck with Parkinson’s disease: “We’re all just flies in a room.” And, you could be swatted at any moment! They shared a bitter laugh, commiserated for a while, and said goodbye.

 The conversation darkened Nate, already at a low point. In a sleepless night, he thought, “Man oh man. I’m a failed hack academic and now I have my nose rubbed in my insignificant little life–a speck of light in the dark, soon to go out.” He flashed on the idea that everyone was in the same boat, winners and losers alike. He imagined most of his friends and acquaintances came to the same realization from time to time. But that didn’t make him feel any better.

 Nate had a son in college with whom he got along well. They had many common interests and enjoyed talking sports and politics. He did not feel as close to his daughter, a senior in high school. She had been standoffish and minimally communicative for several years. Until recently she’d hung out with a boy from school he really didn’t like, though Nate bit his tongue, wisely he thought. The guy was a “C” student with a bright red streak in his hair. He dressed shoddily and was rumored to sell dope to other students. His daughter had been the apple of his eye as a young child, and he earnestly hoped for a better relationship with her someday.

 The day after talking with his brother, Nate was sitting alone on the couch in his study at home, staring at the wall. His daughter walked by, looked in, paused in the doorway, and said to him, “My God, Dad, what’s wrong! I don’t think I have ever seen you look so grim.” He was a little shocked to hear himself blurt: “Oh, not too much, I’m just sitting here contemplating my mediocre career and cosmic insignificance, about which I can do not a cotton-picking thing. That’s about it.”

 To his surprise, his daughter sat down and put her arm around him. She said, “You know, I’ve just been thinking how much I admire you, Dad. I’ve been meaning to say that to you.” “Well, that’s really nice,” Nate replied. She went on, “I really appreciate you being so tolerant of my hanging out with Jerry the Jerk for a while. I’m lucky that I didn’t get into trouble. I don’t know what the hell I was rebelling against. But I know I got over it more quickly because of your patience with me. You know, you really are a good guy. You are kind and steady, you don’t brag or complain very much. You’re great with your grad students, and I know they appreciate it. You always try to be honest. You’re a great Dad.” “I don’t know,” said Nate.

 “Listen!” his daughter said. “You don’t realize. A lot of my friends don’t have anyone like you to rely on. Some have to fend off uncles and even fathers who hit on them. Don’t take yourself for granted. You should be proud of yourself. I doubt I’ll ever get a Ph.D. in sociology, but I do think I’ll know how to be a really good parent someday. That means a lot to me.” They both began to weep a little and just sat there quietly for a minute, in a hug.

 Later that day, Nate thought he could see a number of times in his life when, if he had it do over, he would choose a different path. There was a lot he did not know then and the future was always cloudy. He and his colleagues sometimes joked about publishing articles to be read by a dozen or two people in the English speaking world. Maybe I should have gone into agricultural economics and helped do something about hunger around the world, he thought. But there is no way to know if that would have worked out any better. And now, of course, his options were few and getting fewer. But today, after the conversation with his daughter, he felt less trapped, with less regret. He just felt like he had, well, a life, the smallness and limitations of which he wasn’t sure mattered that much. Anyway, he thought, just what do limitations and insignificance mean when everyone is plagued by them? Obviously, he reflected, a lot of us are fuzzy, at best, about what makes for a significant life.

One of the conditions of our common humanity is the fact of finitude. We learn to live within our limits lest we fall into a self-destructive hubris. On The Front Porch, we like to think that such human limitation can be a plus, especially when we’re trying to learn from one another in dialogue. For those who imagine they have a “bird’s-eye view” of things, whether through religion or science, dialogue is tedious and cumbersome. For the rest of us, dialogue—the back and forthness of call and response—grows community, one conversation at a time.   –FR

Monday, July 28th

Happy Monday, Front Porchers, and happy birthday to the Kennewick Man; it’s either his eighteenth or his nine thousand seven hundredth-ish, depending on how you look at it. Anyways, thanks to everyone who came out to Parable last week to hear Evan Smith and John Burnett’s conversation. We sure enjoyed it, and we hope yall did too, even with the crowds. We’re doing it again next month with screenwriter, actor, and generally awesome guy Turk Pipkin.

But what else is happening on the Front Porch? Well might you ask. We’re continuing our evaluation of all of our programs over the past year. We’ve got big changes planned for Unplugged, Parable, and Elephant in the Room. We’re not striking out in an entirely new direction, but we’re adjusting our sails and testing the wind to see where we can go next.

On a more personal note, my time at the Front Porch is nearly spent. After joining on as an intern last August, I became a full-time employee in October. Starting on the first of August, I’ll step down as the Project Manager and instead work for the Porch as a contractor. As the Front Porch tessellates into ever more fascinating iterations, it’s become increasingly clear to Steve and to me that it’s time for me to step back. I’ve really enjoyed building this project and interacting with all you lovely people, and I can’t wait to see how all of our work on the Porch turns out. So thanks, everyone, for helping me over this past year, and here’s to an ever-expanding and improving Front Porch.

Monday, July 21st

Happy Monday, Front Porchers, and happy 115th birthday to Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway. While it’s pretty astonishing that two of the modernist movement’s greatest writers were born on the same day, it’s not so surprising that a lot of you made it to Parable yesterday (how’s that for a segue?), where we heard real wisdom about hope and despair from Evan Smith; check out TWC News’ video for one of many viewpoints. Don’t forget that Parable is on for next month with Turk Pipkin, too.

We’ve also got some big news here on the Porch, but I’m under strict orders not to disclose it. Suffice it to say that, after a semi-aestivation in which we’ve entered a cocoon of self-examination and planning, we’re getting closer and closer to emerging and spreading our wings as something a little bit different. Stick around, and stay attuned to metamorphosis, both in the Front Porch and in the universe at large.