Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Beatitude on Bellydancing

Dancing days are here again

As the summer evening grows

You are my flower, you are my power

You are my woman who knows

(Led Zeppelin, “Dancing Days,” from Houses of the Holy, 1972)

My friends Ciona and Jennifer have a hobby that is not very common in our western culture: bellydancing. Recently they invited me to see them and some friends put on a show, and I, along with everyone else in the packed 12th and Porter Nightclub in Nashville where mesmerized.

The ancient Greeks worshipped the female form in Venus de Milo. The Egyptians of three millennia ago looked up to the goddess Hathor. Solomon paid homage to Woman with his languid sonnets in The Song of Songs. Hindus still honor Lakshmi for her beauty and wealth (what a great combo!). The Aztec feminine deity Tlazolteotl (kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) was extolled for her dominion over physical love, lust, fertility, sexual guilt, and death (quite a progression, huh?). Throughout our history, humans—both men and women—have recognized the beauty, symmetry, and grace of the feminine form. And even though sculptors, painters, poets, photographers, and more have passionately tried to capture the essence, I believe that the Oryantal Dansi, as the Turks call it, tops them all.

Moving to the rounded reverberations of talking drums and sitar swirls what I saw was nothing short of feminine finesse at its very best. The ever-rising boleros and bells with finger cymbals ringing nimbly helped convey the siren song…the mysterious intoxication that allures all.

Weaving and bending air currents with artistic limbs, the arc of an arm posed the question and the languid hands further refined the riddle. Ethereal yet earthy. Sacred yet scintillating. A sensual grace like Janis Joplin singing the Psalms. With the artistry of a long-winged gull hovering on a wind current, or a weeping willow swaying in a sultry breeze, these women could beckon and even bend the will of all in the room to their wiles.

The night I saw her dancing

She moved in liquid music

Like every song that moved us

Was the music of her soul

Whether the dancers were big-hipped or thin, statuesque or petite, it mattered not. Some had heaving bosoms, and others had, as the French would say, the perfect breasts that would each fit in palm-shaped champagne glasses.

Some had flowing cascades of hair, others closely trimmed—further accentuating their ears and eyes. One looked to be of northern European descent, one from the Mediterranean rim, another from the Orient, several perhaps from Persian bloodlines, Jennifer looks like she may be from a Russian background, and Ciona has her exquisite African comeliness. But these sizes, shapes, and sources did not define the dance…it was the circular motion of those midriffs. The navel, what was once the conduit for Life, now reverberates, insinuates, and celebrates it. Hebrew tradition tells us that the belly is the seat of all emotions, and all the sensuous delights that make up the maidenly form are in orbit around that waist and those undulating moves. Rising and falling, swaying and swerving like Caspian Sea swells.

When she danced

She knew the music

Like the waving of a wheat field

Gives the hidden wind away

With supple fabric draped perfectly, flowing over and around every winsome curve, the abdominal gestures center all the signals. I was bemused as to how skirts wrapped and slung so low around the pelvis while vibrating to manic beats could stay moored. One would think so much shimmy and shake could lead to surprise disclosures. Well placed scarves, babushkas, shawls, capes, and boas were all employed to further accentuate the enchantment, revealing and demurely hiding various areas when needed.

Just as important as the toned stomach and dimples of the lower back are the dancer’s eyes. Whether tempting with come-hither glances, sparkling in playfulness, or lilting in rapturous release…they invite us inward. Indeed, they are the windows to the soul, and must be free to flash both fair and vixenish, both ladylike and luscious. Never concealed—they confess as much of the mood as do the hips.

This was not bawdy burlesque, nor effete flitting about, and much more than just a bodacious boogie-woogie…this Danse Du Ventre was a celebration and invitation to all that was charming and lovely in these women through the soulful interpretation of their bodies.

When she danced

The music knew her

Like the instruments were listening

To the motion that she played

(three verses from David Wilcox, “Grateful For Her Beauty,” from Vista, 2006)

I trust I haven’t come across as some leering pervert…like Jethro Tull’s Aqualung “sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent.” But I can’t help being filled with wonder, even thankfulness, over the alluring beauty of the feminine form when fully articulating and utilizing all of her best assets while sinuously imbibing in what the Arabs call the Raqs Sharqi. As my friend Devlin will say upon seeing a striking woman, “Let’s just pause for a moment to praise God for His creation…”

I love to watch a woman dance

She bows her head and lifts her hands

Her hips begin to circle slowly

Her eyes have closed; her face is holy

She holds the whole world in trance

I love to watch a woman dance

(Eagles, “I Love To Watch a Woman Dance” from Long Road Out of Eden, 2007, composed by Larry John McNally)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

More Letters About "Embracing the Gray"

I have received many thoughtful letters, notes, and messages about my first book, Embracing the Gray: A Wing, A Prayer, and A Doubter’s Resolve. Here is another round of excerpts:

So I just finished a very difficult visit with a family here at the hospital long term care unite, thought I would regroup by reading the your book, just finished the chapter “Checkers,” it was just like the visit I just had with the family.... I had a bit of a cry for you, the family I was just with and for my self for knowing both of your stories.

Then I pick up the book again and laughed my butt off in the chapter “Sleeping With Marc Wozniak” office door was open and its right across from the chapel, so I had to get up and close the door. Thanks so very much. -P.S.

As I was telling my boss (The GM of a well known Christian radio station) that he would really enjoy your book, he asked me “How would you summarize it?” I paused and said. “This is a big boy book…lots of hard questions and tough experiences that cause you to wrestle with some heavy stuff.” Thanks for writing this, it has been a great source of encouragement for me. -M.Z.

Your book has meant so much to me. I've cried, laughed and fallen into so many puddles of emotions and visited some of my own contemplative places. Thank you for sharing your life and thoughts. -B.V.

It's great to hear, but not at all surprising, that your writing is resonating with many readers. You have a gift for that type of honest, clear communication. -D.S.

Your book has inspired me to do more for Compassion. You’ve done an incredible job of “laying it all out there.” I’ve been touched, encouraged and a bit refocused. You have a real comfortable writing style that just flows in the reading. You’ve got quite an accomplishment there!

I thought the chapter on your father’s death was beautifully done, very sensitive and faith centered. You have done a terrific job of opening your heart, which I’m sure will bless and challenge those who read it. -J.R.

Your book is drawing some lines between different parts of my life and I think even now I wonder if God really hears me. I have a sense that he does because there are smallish things that he does that let me know He hears. -S.E.

Wow, Mark, thanks for writing this important work! 

I read it in one day, not because I am a particularly great reader or the content was elementary in form, but because you have put down in written form many of my struggles. Deep stuff here. Thanks for the beautiful and brutal honesty. -J.B.

I just finished your book and I loved and can relate to it. Your faith journey and struggles mirror mine. It's reassuring that I wasn't the only one experiencing this. Thank for being real about yourself. Isn't that what God wants us to be…real and honest??? -A.P.

On my way to work this morning I was talking to God as I usually do. This morning I was telling Him that I didn’t understand “something.” At lunchtime I was reading chapter 20 “The Eternal Now.” And the answer to “something” was there…between pages 132 and 136. Your book has answers, but you probably knew that already. Chapter 21, “Checkers,” made me cry (touched my heart in many ways). Chapter 23, “Sleeping with Marc Wozniak,” made me laugh (out loud, in the coffee shop…a little embarrassing). And Chapter 22 “Cold Cuts and Knifing Winds” as well as many other chapters tells me your name is Compassion (interesting that you work for an organization using your name.) I’ve got one more chapter left to read, but I don't want to read it, cause then it will be over and, well...I’ve enjoyed it so much, I don't want it to end. I hope you are working on a sequel. -F.T.

While reading your book, we laughed, we cried, we reminisced about our own challenging childhoods, rethought some of our past and present positions on matters of life and death, and in general, found enlightenment and enrichment along the way. Thank you - we needed to do this.

Knowing some of the characters you wrote about made it more personal. We will highly recommend this book to everyone, from our teenagers, to A’s 84 year old mother, to my siblings, and very special Mom and Dad.

Also we feel it is timely for the general public as it's experiences and lessons shared are of the common human experience which God ordains for each of us...and somehow shows us a way through.

Thank you for writing the book, Mark, for sharing parts of your journey with us. We wish you continued courage to believe in Love along this unforgettable bittersweet sacred adventure we are all on until we stand in God's loving presence...finally fully awake to the truth of Love. -D.A.R.

I continue to be humbled by these thoughtful words. And equally excited that the book is connecting with so many others. If you would like to read more reviews, or write one of your own, or order a copy (now available in Kindle format as well) go to:



Contact me directly if you would like to purchase a signed copy. : )

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Some Folks' World

The plight of millions in Somalia has me pondering this Mark Heard song from 1982...

Some folks' world is war-torn

Some folks' world is fine

This planet makes no sense to the untrained mind

Some folks hope for fortune

Some folks hope to die

Each man sees his fate through his own two eyes

And when it's day to me it's night to someone

And when it's night you might not want to go on

Some folks eat what flies leave

They get what they can take

Hunger has no heart and it will not wait

Rain can ruin your weekend

Or rain can spare your life

Depending on who you are and what your thirst is like

And when it's day to me it's night to someone

And when it's night you might not want to go on

All folks' days are numbered

But most folks do not care

And no man calls his coin when it's in the air

Some folks taste of Heaven

Some folks taste of Hell

Some folks lose their taste and they cannot tell

And when it's day to me it's night to someone

And when it's night you might not want to go on

Written by Mark Heard © 1982 Bug 'n Bear Music ASCAP

Listen to the song:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why I'm a Steelers Fan

With the Steelers about to embark on their seventy-eighth NFL season with their game against the hated Baltimore Ravens this coming Sunday, it is time to wax nostalgic. Allow me to step in my “Wayback Machine” and ponder just how my devotion to Blitzburgh came to pass.

I think I was about to celebrate my tenth birthday when I became a Steelers fan. Like the baseball Pirates, I more or less inherited this status from my dad. It was easier rooting for the Battlin’ Bucs in those days since they had won the World Series in ’60, and fielded a pretty competitive team in the following decade with the likes of Clemente, Stargell, and Mazeroski on the roster.

But the Steelers….hoo -boy…that was another matter.

Because the men in Black and Gold have consistently been a winner over the past thirty-nine years, most people don’t remember that they were the laughing stock of the NFL for their first thirty nine years of existence. And I decided I was going to start supporting them at the depth of their fourth consecutive shameful decade.

It was 1965, and the Steelers were p-a-thetic. A final record of 2-12, scoring only 202 points and allowing 397. Starting quarterback Bill Nelson threw just 44% completions, including just eight for touchdowns and more than twice as many interceptions. In their more recent history, the Steelers are known for the Hall of Fame linebackers. But in ’65, the middle of the defense was led by the likes of Myron Pottios, Johnny Campbell, and Gene Breen. Their names even sound wimpy in retrospect.

But I was loyal. That’s something Pops always modeled with me. And maybe it was the uniforms that fed my true-heartedness. This was the era when they started wearing the black helmets with the U.S. Steel logo on just one side, and the same gold, black, and white color schemes of my beloved Bucs in baseball. Of course, since we had a black and white TV, I had to imagine what the gold looked like, and the occasional visit to my Aunt Reba in Cincinnati, who owned a color TV, would allow me to see them in all their glory. Or at least until they started getting the ever-lovin’ stuffin’ beaten out of them on the field.

As the 60s progressed into the early 70s and my fandom became more sophisticated, I began to realize what a bunch of losers the Steelers had been since their beginnings. Living in central Ohio at the time, I was surrounded by Cleveland Browns fans, and they were merciless in their taunting, just as their team was in thrashing the black and gold into a muddy paste twice a year. From the time the Browns came into the league in 1950 until 1971, they had a record of 33-11 over the hapless boys from the Steel City. But I gritted my young teeth and that ridicule only deepened my resolve to pull for my guys.

Those were oft-dark autumn Sundays as I assessed my plight. Entering the fledgling National Football League in 1933 (originally with the same moniker as the baseball club), owner Art Rooney consistently fielded the worst team. Most football fans shake their head in amazement when they realize that from ’33 to ’71, the Steelers were 173-284-16, for a winning percentage of just 37%. In those thirty-nine years, only seven of them were winning seasons. They made a whopping TWO playoff appearances (going 0-2). But it wasn’t that they just lost, they normally were near the bottom of every statistical category you could summon. Ten of those seasons they won two games or less. Eighteen seasons were four wins or less. In 174 of those games they scored ten or fewer points (shut out thirty-five times), and in 111 of those games they gave up thirty or more points.

It was tough watching Frank Gifford on the CBS broadcasts of NFL Today give the grim results, and even worse highlights (more like lowlights) each Sunday, or listening to Howard Cosell berate and bemoan the “utter ineptitude of those bumblers from the ‘Burgh.” There was no getting around it…they were an embarrassment. And Art Rooney was considered the worst owner in all of professional sports.

Even after bringing in one of the youngest coaches in NFL history, Chuck Noll (at age thirty-nine), following a 2-11-1 season in ’68, they proceeded to go 1-13 in ’69. But I liked his theory of building the team through the draft. Over the next two seasons they averaged five wins each, but transformed the lovable loser mentality to one of youth, grit, and competiveness. There were fewer blowouts, and they were usually within striking distance in the fourth quarter.

By 1972, the core of youngsters was gelling. Future household names like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Roy Gerela, Jon Kolb, and Ray Mansfield led the offense. And the infamous “Steel Curtain” defense began shutting opponents down when the likes of “Mean” Joe Green, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mel Blount, and Mike Wagner started putting the hurt on teams that used to take Pittsburgh for granted.

That year, the Steelers went a remarkable 11-3, making the post-season for the first time in a quarter of a century. They defeated the Oakland Raiders on the infamous “Immaculate Reception” touchdown to Franco Harris with timing running out on the clock for their first playoff victory EVER.

Thirty-nine humiliating seasons were washed away. The euphoria in Pittsburgh and amongst what few fans they had scattered around the country was immeasurable. And that is when the “Steeler Nation” had its first stirrings.

Those of us who had been rooting for them when they were hapless could not believe it during the next seven seasons the Men in Black and Gold went to the AFC Championship Game five times, advanced to the Super Bowl in four of them, and won all four. I don’t think a more unlikely script could’ve ever been written.

And somehow, Art Rooney was transformed in the media and amongst the faithful from the despised, dim-witted old man to the beloved patriarch of pro football. Funny how championships change things.

And the winning tradition has maintained since then. Just as the Steelers were the joke of the NFL for the first half of their history, they have become the standard-bearer of excellence since then. From ’72 to 2011, their record has been 372-230-2 for a winning percentage of 62%. They have had a winning record thirty of those years, with twenty-five playoff appearances, going 33-19 in the post season, with two more world championship trophies in their case. That total of six Super Bowl victories and is unmatched by any other team.

And the Steelers have become much more than just a strong presence in Western Pennsylvania (although it is amazing to walk around that part of the state in the fall and see 40 to 50% of every man, woman, and child wearing Steelers colors at just about every turn). They have become arguably the most popular team in the NFL, and yearly merchandise sales worldwide back that up. Often times when the Steelers play at other teams’ stadia, the gold colors and Steeler chants overwhelm the local faithful.

As for the Cleveland Browns…well, the Steelers are 49-23 against them since ’72, and the Browns have never made it to a Super Bowl. All those kids who heckled me back in ‘the 60’s can sit on it and take a spin. As they say in football, revenge is best served on the cold gridiron.

So I come by my Steeler fandom the hard way: I didn’t jump on some bandwagon in the mid-70s when the Super Bowl wins were piling up. And that is what has made it all the sweeter. It has been an amazing ride. But should they go in the tank--just like my beloved baseball Pirates have for the past nineteen straight losing seasons--I will remain allegiant. I suspect I’ll be waiving a dark yellow Terrible Towel until they rip it from my clenched, arthritic, dead fingers.

Here we go Steelers, here we go!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Part 2 of Honolulu, Whores, and a Hallowed Moment: Whatever Became of Agnes?

This is the conclusion to the story from my previous blog about Tony Campolo throwing a birthday party for a prostitute at a diner in Hawaii...

A lot of people want to know what happened to Agnes?

Tony became friends with Harry and Jan from that night forward, and keeps in touch with them and whenever he returns to Hawaii.

Campolo continues: “Agnes gave up the streetwalking life shortly after that time. She ended up going to work at that diner. And she, Harry and Jan have turned that diner into a place where people come for help day and night. The word is around town: if you’re in trouble, go to that little restaurant…the people there will listen to you, talk with you, and help you if they can.

After that event, I was at Linfield College, a conservative Baptist college that’s related to Jesus somehow in Oregon to speak at their spiritual emphasis week—you know…“Be Kind to God Week.” It was Feb. 25th—easy to remember the date because it’s my birthday. The place was decorated with balloons, streamers, banners, and there was a sign that said:

“Happy Birthday, Tony!”

-Agnes (your friend from Honolulu)

She had somehow found out when my birthday was, where I would be on that date, and contacted some officials and students at the college and set this up for me.

This account says a lot of good things. First of all, it says something about prostitutes. It says you can’t judge people superficially. Agnes is one of the good people…kind, caring, and thoughtful. When all the other prostitutes show up it’s because she’s been so good and kind. And when I prayed I asked that God would deliver her from what dirty, filthy men had done to her…making another point that all sociologists knows: that generally every prostitute is somebody who got messed over at the age of ten, eleven, or twelve. When I share this story I always make it clear that Agnes was not an evil person, but she was a victim.

When I tell the story and I say, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning” and people laugh, it sets me up for the line: “that’s exactly the kind of church that Jesus came to create.” And I always add, “I don’t know where we got this other one that is half country club.” Down deep inside everybody knows that’s true.

The reason why this story clicks is very simple—it does what Jesus does. It takes Christianity outside of a religious institution—we’re outside of the church—outside of the stranglehold of the religious environment. Once you get the truth of God out of the church, and come up with its bare realities, its impact of loving care rings true to people.

I find that people don’t reject Jesus—they reject the religious institution that is presenting Jesus. If we can just get Jesus out of the institution and into the real world situations, if we can just get rid of the trappings, it comes alive for all of us. That’s what Jesus did in his day. He took the truths of the Torah, most everything that He taught was already in the Jewish Bible—but He takes all of that stuff out of the religious institution and puts it on the street where people live. When that happens, everyone says, “Yes!” Because they agree with the truth. They do not agree with these structures that have hidden the truth, or smothered the truth--that are into a lot of money-making on many occasions. They just don’t seem valid valid. But remove Jesus from “the church,” and people are drawn to Him.

I go to the book of First John—this cuts it down to the bottom line: “God is love.” We all know that verse. I don’t think many people know the verse that comes right after that. “And whoever loves is born of God.” And there is a sense in Agnes’s story that all those prostitutes who showed up that night, and Harry and Jan who ran the diner—that they all were expressing the love of God. Some will ask, “Well do they theologically agree and believe this doctrine, or live by these creeds, or confess in such and such way?” My response is to point to those verses: “God is love, and whoever loves is born of God,” and that’s what I want people to carry away from this story.

This true story was adapted into a short film called The Least of These, which won 27 film festival awards. The link on how to find out more about it is below.