Crossroads

crossroads

I find myself at another crossroad in my life. I used to think there was only one crossroad where the pivotal choice would make or break a life. While I see the gravity of that choice, I no longer think there is only one point on the path—I think there are several. I am at such a place in my life as I write this and my brain is completely rattled because of the stress and anxiety slicing my veins with their claws and pressing my head to pop like a bubble. I have been laid off from my previous position, and the loss of my employment had nothing to do with my attitude or how I conducted myself in the office; but I’m “not a good fit.” If any phrase could become a motto in my life due to frequency, “not a good fit” would be it; and it’s something I have heard since high school before I am directed to a menial task beneath my abilities and intelligence. After years of living like this, I became sick to my stomach by those incessant syllables. The implication is I am not to be more than assumed due to my stature because people who are 6”8 are not well read or academics. No, people who are 6”8 should play sports like basketball or football depending on their girth, and if they do nothing athletic then they have wasted their lives. They are fit for warehouse work or manual labor. I am not implying anything negative about warehouse work or manual labor, but telling me I am nothing more than a laborer because of my size—regardless of education—is an insult. I’ve been facing that insult when I’ve gone into interviews or rejected by temp agencies. I found myself at a low point when Spherion told me I needed all my work experience from high school. To them all the hard work I put in to earn my humanities degree in literature and religion were irrelevant.

I don’t know what Spherion is like in the rest of the country, but in Indianapolis, Spherion is the bottom of the barrel—an agency to go to when you have exhausted all other options and you need to have fancy things like shelter and food. When they rejected me and told me I was a “hard sell,” the weight pulled my head to the ground and everything went dark. What do you do when all your efforts are pushed aside and ignored? I returned to school because life had been on a constant negative cycle of one meaningless job after another, and I needed a change. The wake-up call came when my father died, and I watched him die as he lived: on his terms. His life was a hard life, but it was a life of his own choosing, and his departure alerted me to the patterns of my own life. My life went lower as my fiancé slandered me and cheated on me, convincing our church that I should be shown the door. As I went lower, I decided the best way to change the direction of my life revolved around finishing my education; and I enrolled in a local community college. After two years of the community college, I transferred to a private liberal arts college in central Illinois where I spent three years under the tutelage of three great scholars in literature, religion, and philosophy. I spent many pots of coffee and late hours researching for my academic projects while meeting with my academic adviser and meeting deadlines. I had been expected to do well under my workload, and I did by ending my academic career with a GPA of 3.415—almost a full point of being on the Dean’s List for the third time in that institution.

I met my wife while at school, and we were married a week after graduation. A week after our wedding we packed up our things into a rental and drove across the country to Portland, OR where my wife had friends–one of whom said we would quickly find work and an apartment . An arrangement had been made where we would stay at one of the friend’s house while we hustled for a place of our own and the income to pay the bills. Portland’s transit system is exceptional with buses and modern street cars running every fifteen minutes making a car unnecessary to get around town. Things began to dissipate in a little over a week when the three roommates of my wife’s friend were behaving with passive aggression towards us. To our knowledge we had done nothing to them, respected their space, and stayed out of their way while we took care of our errands. We asked one of the roommates, who was friendly towards us, if we had unknowingly slighted them. She shook her head and told us we had done nothing, but my wife’s friend did not tell them we were coming. Not only did she not tell them, but she had a habit of never communicating to her roommates, dropping things on them at the last minute, and expected them to be on board. That made sense to us, and I had empathy for the roommates’ situation because I would be just as hostile if I had a roommate who let people I didn’t know into my space for an indefinite period. Within a few days, my wife’s friend behaved the same way towards us, and kicked us out of the house. Fortunately, my father in law had bought us a used 2000 Dodge Minivan so we were able to pack our things, and go across the river into Vancouver, WA and stay at a motel for a week to figure out what to do next.

We decided to venture out of Portland to Eugene, and try our luck in a different town; but nothing happened there as it did in Portland. I became flummoxed, but my wife reminded me that we didn’t have to stay in Oregon. We had a little money from our wedding gift so we went back to Vancouver, packed up our things, returned the key, and left Oregon. We decided to go east with no destination in mind other than putting down roots in an area complementing our personalities. We drove through Northern California into Reno, NV because my wife had an uncle there who helped us on our trip by letting us use his points for hotels. We decided to stop by his place and thank him as we passed through, but he became belligerent, accusing us of looking for another handout. We were both dejected, and as we sat in a Del Taco looking up good deals on hotel rooms—which we found for $27—we decided to go to Lincoln, NE because the city advertised plentiful employment and affordable housing.

We stayed there for a year because of our lease, but I was fed up with Lincoln after three months. There are good jobs if you have a medical or financial background, but otherwise it’s NelNet lead by a Tea Party CEO who demonizes the poor as he chokes them out of their homes to expand his little pond. Most of the people there are bullies who are not used to people standing up to them. I come from a tougher background than many of these people, and in my neighborhood when somebody picks a fight you push back and prepare for anything. When I pushed back in Lincoln, the agitators were horrified and ran. The complacency of the culture infuriated me when people would complain but do nothing. Shrugged shoulders and a “what can you do?” attitude followed by more complaints. There were some good parts of Lincoln, though, like The Coffee House two blocks south of the University of Nebraska campus, Cultiva Coffee & Espresso, Meadowlark Coffeehouse, A Novel Idea Used Bookstore, and The Co-op; but these were not enough to stay, and when our lease expired we were on our way to Indianapolis. My wife’s job allowed her to transfer to the Indianapolis office, and a friend helped me find a position at his company in the help desk department. My employment lasted six months before I had been let go.

The patterns were repeating, but this time I have a person in my life who is directly affected by whatever I choose or by whatever happens. Needless to say, I was dejected, but she suggested I find an alternate means to make income. I had been trying the mainstream way of securing work and a paycheck, and I would have the job for a short amount of time before being terminated. I had to sit down and think about the strengths I had and how I needed to capitalize on them. I am a writer, and I am also well read. I’ve had blogs before, but I would write about wherever I happened to be, on religion, or on literature; but, the theme was never consistent. Blogs are a good tool to network and get noticed when used properly, and I decided to take the first few steps to have my writing noticed while I work on one novel and one piece of creative nonfiction. This blog will be used for my discussions of literature and reviewing books—current or past. Maintaining a professional blog such as this requires work and dedication—some sites I’ve researched called for posting three to five times a week with fifteen hundred to two thousand words at a time. The work sounds daunting, but, if you made it this far, you can see I will have no trouble keeping up on my site. Maybe this will turn into something, maybe not, but what I do know is that I need to own who I am and what I do–come what may.

Going to Church

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These last two weeks have been a tiring blur. I started my new job at a cigar bar, and I had to work every day except for Sunday. I had no time to recoup and reboot my brain. The last two Sundays were packed with busy activity as Ronnie and I went out looking for more things for the new apartment, or she had to work on a Sunday which meant, I had only three hours of sleep. Wednesdays, I didn’t work at the cigar bar because of my volunteer work at a fair trade store downtown. The reason for the workload was for training. There may be a time when I have to run a shift myself, and I will need to know how to make food on our tiny grill, or make different cocktails. Our grill is small because we are not that kind of a bar where people can fill up on fried food and beer, but, by list of priorities of our customers, we sell a large variety of quality cigars in various sizes, beer, whisky, gin, and rum. When you walk in twenty feet to your left there is a room, a humidor, that takes up half the space of the bar displaying all our cigars. At the back of the bar is a small selection of scotch, bourbon, rye whiskey, Japanese made whiskey, gin, rum, five levers for locally brewed draft beer, and behind the counter there is an assortment of canned and bottle beers that include domestics. The regulars that come in mostly get cigars, but they will also get a beer, a whiskey, a cocktail, coffee, or tea if they’re staying for a while.

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This past Saturday we were slow. All our regulars mentioned they would be at a friend’s home grilling and drinking beer to remember another friend of theirs, who was also a regular, who died three weeks ago from alcohol related issues. There were a few people coming in throughout the night to pick up cigars. Aside from those people we had two who were new to our bar come in for a beer and some pizza, and one regular. Around 6:30 two new guys walked in, and the most vocal of the two asked me for help finding a specific cigar. He couldn’t remember the name of the brand, but the style. The cigar was a Churchill, and had a small green wrapper. That sounded like an Arturo Fuente, and I took him to the Arturo’s, but we were out of the Churchills—the only cigars we had close to that length and gauge was a Hemingway. He thanked me for my help, and said he would look around some more. I went out and sat by the register to be ready for a sale.

He and his friend found a few cigars he liked, and he decided on the Hemingway style cigar. He noticed a tray on our counter with three different sized holes and a lever on the side. “What is that?”
“That’s a cutter for cigars.”
“Really?! I could cut one of these cigars, and sit at one of the tables and smoke.”
“You can. That’s what a lot of our regulars do. They come in, find their cigar, have a drink, save their cigar wrapper, smoke, and cash out when they’re ready to leave.” He looked over the room filled with wine red chairs and couches, but stopped at the large round table surrounded by tall rolling chairs—the kind you see in a CEO’s office. That’s the table many of our regulars will go to, and it’s also the table where people will make new friends—at least a friend for the night. Everyone is welcomed at the table. Most of the topics revolve around home life and work, but will occasionally shift to politics. Most of the time their conversations are about fishing and camping and how they have to sweat and work away the day before they can get some time away in nature. People new to the bar will ask if they can sit at one of the empty chairs, and the regulars will pause their conversation and insist the new people to join. That night one regular sat at the table who was there the night before. After I clocked out, I joined him and two of my friends for an after work cigar and scotch. The cigar I had was a Rocky Patel which paired quite well with a Highland single malt.

When the night is slow, my coworker and I will sit near the customers so if they need a drink we are able to immediately fill their glasses—sometimes we’re included in their conversations while other times I scribble away in my notebook. The new customers decided to include us into their conversation when one of them asked about a nearby church, Kingsway Christian Church. “Do you know what kind of church it is? Are they a cult? That’s what I heard.”
“Nah, they’re Evangelical.” Across the table his friend asked, “Oh, Evangelical like Jimmy Swaggart?”
“No. One of my roomates’ mom worked as a secretary for their school. They’re non-denominational and their ‘theology,’” I did air quotes with my hands, “Came out of the American frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. They’re quite conservative.”
“You seem to know a lot about religion.”
“I had to because of my father wouldn’t permit us to blindly accept what came from the pulpit. Informally I’ve spent the last twenty years reading the bible something like fourteen times, that I can remember, reading the church fathers, studying church history, learning Hebrew and Greek so I could be prepared to defend myself in a debate with my father. I went back to school and earned my degree in Literature and Religion where I studied the evolution of Christianity in America from the 1600s til now. I know what I said sounds over the top, but that is the length I went to intellectually defend myself at home.” After I finished, I lit up a small cigar I had just bought, and after I blew out a large puff of smoke, one of the guys looked at me, “So, is there a book that can simplify everything there is about the bible?” I puffed again, and as the smoke drifted towards the ceiling and the whirring ventilator, I answered, “There are couple verses in the bible summarizing everything.” I paraphrased Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the words of Jesus, “Love God and love other people. Kindness is the only thing that matters. That’s why I don’t care what people believe in just so long as their belief doesn’t make them dicks. Being kind to one another is difficult enough without the added expectations of dogma.”

We talked more throughout the night. They were professional truck drivers who had been all over the country, and we exchanged terrifying road stories. After three and half hours and four Scotches, the two men cashed out so they could go home. They bought more cigars and some empty boxes for the road, and we talked more. They really liked this bar, and they loved the atmosphere. The cigar bar is not a bar where people go to listen to live or loud music and overstimulated with flashing lights and a cacophony of different conversations. Comparatively speaking, we’re low key, and, I would argue, high class. There is a reverent ambiance, and people take their seats as if they were at church. Instead of being preached at, the customers can pull up a chair by themselves or sit with others while puffing away at their cigars until they regain their center. There is real community and friendship here, and Saturday night there was a real sense of church as we all talked about our different religious experiences, and how we have applied what we have learned to be good people—or, at the very least to be better than we were they day before. We’re all walking down similar paths, and when those paths cross we can get a glimpse of God in the other when they speak of grace in their own journey. By any other name, that’s church.

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Solitary Confinement? Yes, Please!

(For kicks and giggles, I decided to blog from my phone before work 😊👍)

I have heard people use “introversion” as a way to describe a loner, but that is a glib portrayal, and, I would suggest, made by an extrovert. Introversion, like extraversion, boils down to chemistry. How your brain is wired, and how it reboots determines your personality. I am stepping into unfamiliar territory with only a few scientific articles I’ve read, and the insight I have gained through meditation. Meaning, I am most likely incorrect or way out in left field with my assertion. 

My friends who are introverts require more alone time than me, but we share a similar love of staying put once we come home from work. I don’t know how they are when they don’t get their time to decompress and recharge, but I know how I am when I don’t get that time.

I started my new job this past week as a bartender in a cigar bar in a western suburb of Indianapolis. The person who runs the bar had everyone quit on him, and he was looking for full time or part time workers so he didn’t have to work open to close seven days a week. A mutual friend told me about the bar, and suggested I look into it. I’ve been looking for work the last six monts, so I told him I would give his friend a call. This friend has known me for over a decade, he knows my personality, and he knows where I’ll be a good fit. He told me the manager and I would get along, and the regulars are all about relaxing and smoking their cigars–some of them are baby boomers who hate Trump. 

When I went to the place to apply, I knew I was in over my head. I know next to nothing about cigars except that you light them with a match to keep the flavor. I know a little bit about alcohol, but only single malt scotches. The position requires me to make cocktails, but that didn’t bother me. I’m quite adept in any culinary setting, and I can make drinks by following the instructions. When I didn’t hear from him for a few days, I assumed he found someone who was a better fit. No worries. I went back to my writing and putting out my resumes.

Ten days later the manager calls me, and asked me what I’m looking for. I told him I was looking for something part time. He asked me what days I could work, and I told him I need Wednesdays off because of my volunteer work, and I need Sundays off so I can spend time with Ronnie. If he gave me the position, Sundays would be the only day we would have off together. I also told him I could only work til five ‘o’ clock Monday through Friday. Ronnie and I only have one car between us, and she currently works on the Southwest side. Because we are moving downtown, I had be focusing on finding work there. Indianapolis has a mediocre mass transit system that is slowly improving, but it is good if you live downtown. The manager agreed to my scheduling needs, and I started last Monday.

When you walk into the bar the ceiling is black tile, and, except for a few rugs, the floor is brown linoleum resembling hard wood. To the left that there is a long humidor featuring a variety of cigars, from a variety of companies, and with a variety of sizes. The air in the humidor, as in the bar area, is filled with the earthy smell of dried tobacco, but the lounge area also includes the faint smell of cigar smoke–like incense in a Buddhist or Christian monastery lifting up the prayers of the community. In the front of the room are wine colored couches and chairs, and towards the back is a round table surrounded by the big, black leather chairs fitted for the movers and shakers of business. People get their cigars and smoke their day chased with coffee, or sometimes beer. 

The regulars are friendly people with robust, smiling personalities. The energy they bring when they meet up with the other regulars is quite soothing, but it’s still people energy that taxes me.

This is my second week of training, and I’ve worked almost every day because my manager wants to make sure I am familiar enough with the food and drink menu before he leaves me to myself. Not to mention, more hours means more money in the bank for food, bills, and rent. I haven’t had any real time to myself since Friday. Saturday, I closed with a co-worker, and didn’t get home until 2:30 in the morning. I finally crashed at 3:30, and woke up at 6:38 to prepare Ronnie’s coffee, breakfast, and lunch. I took her to work, went to MoJoe’s to write and read, went to mass at St. Mary’s, went home to gather the laptop, go to Starbucks to write, and picked up Ronnie from work. I crashed at 7:30 that evening, and woke up to do it again.

This morning, as we were getting ready, Ronnie noticed how irritable I was. “Walk me through your thoughts–why are you so annoyed?” I thought about it, “I don’t know.” I went on to tell her how I won’t have a day off until Sunday before I go to my permanent part time schedule. She understood immediately that I’ve had no time to decompress. She offered to leave me to myself in the evenings, but her presence doesn’t drain me. Because she worked Sunday, she is off Friday. “How about I take you to work Friday so you can spend the morning in deep meditation and relaxation. It’s not much, but it should help.” Sounds good to me.

That’s the issue with introversion and how I live my life with my chemistry. If don’t get time to decompress and recharge, I am no good to anyone, especially myself. I filter every circumstance through my rattled brain, and I become miserable. I try to keep the misery to myself–moreso when I’m at work. If I don’t get the necessary reboot, I won’t be able to function at even the most rudimentary level.

Thankfully, my training is temporary, and I’m doing my little bits with mindfulness and tea to keep me steady in the moment.

St. Catherine

Proverbs 22: 6 reads, “Train children in the right way, and when old they will not stray (NRSV).” I often heard this proverb used to raise children in a particular brand of Christianity. While I agree there is a solid argument in raising children to be a specific kind of religious person, I think the interpretation too narrow. I think if you raise a child in a specific manner—for good or for ill—they will have difficulty parting from the teaching as adults.

This is why my brother and I have such irreverence and criticism when it comes to religion. Growing up, our father had religion forced down his throat by his boor of a sperm donor, Horace Eugene Smith. I won’t say “father,” though. The way my dad described Horace, and the way my great grandmother and mother described him, Horace procreated for the sole purpose of producing a farmhand he was not obligated to pay or treat humanely. Horace had no paternal love towards my father. When my father was fourteen, Horace broke his back with a steel toed boots, he would beat my father with planks of wood or barbed wire, and turned a willfully blind eye to his brother sexually abusing his son. Nothing was said or done by anyone in the community, and they knew what was happening. What I was told by my mother and her family is in those days people didn’t interfere with another family’s child rearing no matter how vicious. Even if the times were different, nobody would have stepped up out of fear of Horace. In the 1950’s, Horace stood at 6”4 with broad shoulders and a barrel chest, and overwhelmingly strong. While his wife would drive the tractor to pull the trailer for hay, Horace would toss—with one arm—150 lb. bales on to the trailer one after another like you and I would toss a succession of paper wads into the trash can.  Horace was also mean spirited and had no qualms whatsoever about throwing the first swing at whoever crossed him. He played the part of the amicable, good Christian elder at church, but the people saw through the farce. At home, he would choke my father with his narrow religion that created a vengeful God who was deaf to his son’s cries and did not hold him accountable for his many abuses. The only person who wasn’t afraid of Horace was my great grandmother Hansing–my mother’s grandmother. Over the phone she told Horace he was an awful man who had no right to beat my father as he did, and said my father would be better off with her. Horace threatened to come after her and put her in her place. My great grandmother told him to bring it. He knew where she lived, and she would wait. Horace never followed through with his threat. You know what’s more fierce than a giant, foul tempered, Irishman? A stubborn Scots-Irish woman with a mean streak a mile wide.

Horace died when my father was twenty-one. After the funeral, Pop made a vow to himself that he could read and think on his own, and no one was going to tell him what to believe without question. So when his ten year old son defends his argument with “Pastor said…” you can imagine the amount of rage and fury going towards the boy that was meant for the sperm donor. He was doing his damnedest to not have the home he endured. He struggled the break the cycle of anger, he read and thought on his own, and, by God, that’s what his sons would do. From where did that desire come? How did my father know there was a better way, and it was worth all the struggle and scraped knees to break that cycle. Pop didn’t speak up about his sexual abuse until the last year he was alive. He carried that pain for fifty-five years—almost fifty-eight. After I was told about the sexual abuse, I understood why my father was so full of rage when I or my brother would get out of line, and by rights, his behavior should have been worse. Statistically speaking, people who go through the years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse my father went through they struggle with fits of rage, and are strung out from various substances. The only substances my father would abuse was nicotine and caffeine smoking five packs of Kool Filter Kings with six pots of coffee a day. He quit smoking when I was thirteen, and cut back his coffee consumption to two pots a day until he was diagnosed with cancer. In truth, he should have ended up as a transient dependent on alcohol and heroin, but he wasn’t. The anger was there when we were kids, but in an attempt to have a different home, he would make us read the book of Proverbs. After we finished the entire reading, we would tell him what we learned, and if there were reparations to be made like a face to face apology or some kind of manual labor, we would do it. Friends, later, would ask what it was like to be punished by the bible. I’d laugh. That wasn’t punishment. Punishment was a right cross on the jaw that knocked you to the floor. Over and done with in two seconds. With the reading of proverbs we were disciplined, and the quickest I have seen this discipline last was three days. Both my brother and I agree, we would rather take the hits and move on with life than spend hours or days in our own private furnace of Purgatory. How did my father receive such grace into his life that he was able to make alterations in his mind to be different than his father? Two words: his grandmother.

Catherine Williams was born in Lebanon, IN in 1885 to parents who came from County Cork, Ireland a generation after the potato famine, and died in Lebanon in 1983. She once quipped that the reason she had such a long life is because the Lord had a lot of work to do, and was gracious enough to grant her the time to do it. She married Horace’s father, Roy who was a womanizer, a drunk, a gambler, and would beat the shit out of his wife and Horace. He walked out on them when Horace was twelve for a woman of ill repute, or so says my family. Catherine never sought a divorce and neither did Roy. Horace never forgave the man, nor did he forget. The only good thing Horace did was resolve to never touch alcohol—a vow he kept till the day he died. Roy came around in the 1930s when my great grandmother Catherine was in her late forties, and that resulted in her having twins. Today, women becoming pregnant in their late forties is simultaneously risky for the mother and the child because of the high risk for birth defects. Catherine’s twins were no exception. One twin was diagnosed with schizophrenia and the other, who molested my father, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During her tough times she read her bible constantly. When there was trouble, of which she had many, she turned to the bible. She became a mystic who had tremendous compassion for  my father, and favored him more than the other grandchildren because my father needed it. I saw a picture of her at a Smith family reunion. I was only two months old, but everyone, including my father, averaged out to be 6”3, broad shouldered and well-muscled surrounding their matriarch, Catherine. She sat in a peaceful pose with a strong jaw and a cleft chin. Her eyes smiled, and you would never know the years of sadness she carried. My brother and I owe a great deal to her. Without her influence, our father would have been a monster twice the son of Hell Horace was.

Our father struggled and stumbled constantly trying to free himself from the violence given to him by Horace and Roy. He died believing he failed, but I disagree. My brother and I still wrestle with our minute to minute existential crises. We read and think about belief and faith, and daily, we strive to be a little better than we were yesterday.

One night, I sat at the foot of my father’s bed as he rested. The chemo took away all of his energy, and he spent most days asleep—one week he was awake for a total of twelve hours, and they were not twelve continuous hours. When he was awake, his mind was sharp, and he was social. While my mom and girlfriend sat in the dining room to talk, I approached my father as a penitent coming to a priest for confession. “Pop, I mean no disrespect, but I want to succeed as a man where you failed.” I heard him inhale as he took in my words. The directness of the words is something common in our family. Delivery style is irrelevant. As my mother put it to one of my girlfriends whose passive-aggression annoyed her to no end, “We spit it out, we duke it out, we work it out, and then we move on.” Still, though, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. Pop has always been too familiar with his temper, and he constantly failed in being better only to get up and try again. He never made excuses, but went back to the work of improvement. He could either get pissed and tell me to get the fuck out of the room, or we could have a discussion. Those few seconds in between breaths were stretched out and pressed by lead weights to the point of suffocation, and the light streaming through the cracked door was the distant echo of a star that died long ago and far away. At last he exhaled, “I don’t take it as disrespect, I take it as you paying attention.” That’s our father’s success. That’s the grace of our great grandmother Catherine who is the patron saint of the Smiths and intercedes for us when we don’t know what to pray. We keep going forward with the grace that is stronger than a potato blight and solid enough to weather the deepest betrayal. We are broken, but we are not shattered, and we can still walk even with a limp.

Good Enough

Pop

I read the daily Catholic bible readings to keep myself mindful of the bible. I’ve been reading the book since I was nine years old when it was thrown into my lap, “Here, boy! Figure it out!” After the age of ten my bible reading intensified when I made the mistake responding to my father with, “Well, Pastor said…” to support what I thought of the pastor’s sermon. My father bellowed as he pounded the table and the walls shook with each howling vowel, “Goddamn it, boy! God gave you a fuckin’ brain! You take that fuckin’ bible and read it for your goddamned self because no man in a suit with a title behind the pulpit is going to tell you how to fucking think!” To avoid another ear breaking rebuke, I read the bible—I read everything—to be ready to defend myself in a debate with my father. He never cared when I disagreed with him, but he did care if I read books, chewed on the ideas, and made my own conclusions. I am unable to recall how many times I have read the bible cover to cover between the ages of ten and twenty-two, but I know between twenty-two and now (forty-three), I have read the bible fourteen times, different translations,  and different versions such as NASB, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, NLT, ESV, and CEB. I also devoured church history, read the Church Fathers and Doctors, and Protestant theologians and thinkers. This list isn’t to impress anyone but to illustrate how much effort I put in to my intellectual survival at home. My father did not suffer fools kindly. Especially in his own home.

Two of my father’s favorite verses were Acts 17:11,”These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures everyday to see whether these things were so (NRSV),” and 1 Peter 3:15, “[B]ut in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (NRSV).” For my father faith wasn’t an emotional longing resembling a child’s longing for a blanket—though, faith can have that beginning—but faith also had an intellectual component to the practice. Faith wasn’t to be accepted blindly and without question, but to be constantly challenged and critiqued. My father was never afraid where his questions and criticisms took him, but would approach his faith from a different perspective when life took him to unfamiliar territory. He faced the theological struggles with the racism of his hometown and his family, homosexuality within the church, and the goodness of God in light of his own cancer.

My father, Delman Earl Smith, was born and raised in Cambridge City, IN about an hour east of Indianapolis off I-70, and close to the Ohio state line. It’s a quaint town with old style brick buildings on the strip, and has a coffee shop, Main Street Sweets Café. The café has real hard wood floors, homemade candy and pastries, and an eclectic coffee and tea selection. For the most part, people are friendly, but there is an undercurrent of tension. Pull away the cover, and Cambridge City is unwelcoming to people who are different in their skin color, sexuality, or religion. That difference of religion can be outside Christianity or that difference can be a Christianity outside of Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. Ronnie and I would go to Cambridge City because that was the closest location of US Bank. Before the election, Trump signs and Confederate Flags decorated the lawns and houses around town. Driving through there I would be slightly apprehensive because my Buddhist Prayer Flags were visible in the rear window. This was Autumn of 2016, and not much has changed since my father grew up there in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I don’t think he adopted the culture. After he married my mother in the 70s they moved to the Irvington neighborhood on Indy’s East side because that is where my mother’s family lived. My father adapted quickly to the culture, and if you talked to him you would never know he had a rural background.

In the first few months of living in Indy, my father experienced culture shock because he had never been around so many people of color. The only people of color he saw were the migrant workers who came from Mexico and worked near his farm. He would tell me he never got a chance to know the migrant workers because they kept to themselves. How my father described his family and the people in Cambridge City, I think the workers kept to themselves for safety. My father’s family had low, but firm, opinions about any person who wasn’t white and didn’t speak English. Such a vulgar irony because, in the 1880s, my father’s great grandparents came to Lebanon, IN from County Cork, Ireland, and they were told they could be Catholic or they could eat—Hoosier hospitality at its finest.

One Sunday afternoon, after church, my father and I sat in his truck waiting for my mother and brother. On the side of the building a door opened, and out came an interracial couple—a black man holding the hand of his very pregnant, white wife. My father knew his family’s opinions on such relationships, but he never met, let alone saw, an interracial couple. He nudged me, and nodded in their direction, “Hey, boy what do you think of that?” I looked over, and I remembered the story I read in Genesis about Abraham looking for a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham didn’t want his son to marry any of the women in the land they occupied because they did not follow YHWH so he went to the people of his home country. My ten year old mind reasoned, “They’re both Christians so it’s ok.” My father, satisfied with my answer, nodded, “That’s good enough for me.”

In the early 2000s a new church was started near Broad Ripple on 56th & Keystone called Jesus Metropolitan Church. This was not only affirming, but it was a church for the LGBT community. They welcomed everyone. Nowadays they are called Life Journey. When the church first appeared they advertised in signs and flyers, “Would Jesus Discriminate?” The church also rented billboards throughout the city citing verses depicting homosexuality in the bible. The signs briefly unpacked the cultural idioms to support their claim, and also cited scholarship countering the stringent interpretations of Leviticus, the epistles of Paul, and the epistles written in the name of Paul. Jesus Metropolitan was met with hate, and there were people who made the effort to paint slurs on the billboards. The billboards near our home on 30th & Franklin and near my father’s work at 54th & Keystone were no exception. Both the signs and the slurs bothered my father. One Saturday afternoon, I was visiting with him, and he asked me what I thought of the signs. I told him that if the church had done its job loving and accepting people as Jesus did there wouldn’t be a need for a church such as Jesus Metropolitan. “Alright, that’s good enough for me.”

With all his flaws and issues, my father wanted to be like Jesus. For him, Jesus was the end of the disputes over doctrine and interpretation. That being said, how would he have responded to me coming out as a bisexual who favored men over women? I know it wouldn’t be easy for him concerning the love he had for his son and the love he had for scripture. It’s one thing for him to accept Jesus Metropolitan Church as brothers and sisters in the faith, but the issue would be at his table eyeball to eyeball when I visited. I think the process would be similar to the debates we had when I started getting tattoos. He and I would debate the bible, we would swear and roar our scholarship because that is our thing, we would take a break, he would research my position and I would research his position, and we would finally come to an agreement. But I chose to get tattoos. In the end, it’s all about Jesus. If Jesus would never reject me, then neither would he.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer it was too late. The cancer began in the prostate and went to the bones. When the doctors caught it, the cancer was already at stage four and metastasized in his legs, lower back, ribs, and the back of his skull. His belief and faith had been knocked to the flow now that he faced a painful death. He began to question if he ever truly believed or if God was simply an accessory to make life a little tolerable. My father decided he needed to time to think. He put away his bibles and stopped going to church. He wanted to make sure what believed was real, and if he gave my brother and I something real—and he didn’t want any distractions. He didn’t set any time limit. He knew his time was extremely short, but, if necessary, he would go to the grave questioning. He knew if he saw God or if there were nothing, he would have his answer. This period lasted three months, and he walked away from that period with a faith that had substance and was his alone. I thought there was something commendable in what he did. During a crisis such as cancer people will run to religious belief because of the fear of death, the fear of annihilation. There is nothing lesser or greater in running to something out of fear. It’s human. We all do that. My father wrestled with the idea of never again existing, but the thought never discouraged him. Regardless, if he saw God or ceased to be, my father would leave this life honest.

During his final months we had some real discussions that would start with my questions. One particular question I had pulled no punches. I sat on his side of the bed while he put away his clothes in the closet. “Hey, Pop. Are you afraid to die?” I heard the click of the hanger as it rested on the bar. My father exhaled, “Well, I don’t want to leave you kids behind.” I chuckled. We’re in our thirties, and he still called us kids. “I get that, but I want to know if you’re afraid to die.”
“Ah, well, no, I’m not.” He went back to hanging up his clothes, and I wondered when my time comes if I would have the same level of courage.

I have been on and off the road since I was nineteen, and I met many different people all over the United States, but I have not met anyone who comes close to the same level of integrity, faith, and resolution as my father—and I’ve met some good people. We had a rocky relationship most of my life, but reparation began in my late twenties when I began to see my father as a person full of complexities and nuances, and the last three years of his life our relationship was good. Talking to so many people all over the country, I realized how lucky I was to have Delman Earl Smith as a father, and on December 9, 2009 the world felt the loss I still carry.

 

Refugee

Alexandria Shooting

I am facing overwhelming emotions concerning the shooting yesterday in Alexandria, VA, and the response I read in The Washington Post. James Hodgkinson from Belleville, IL opened fire at a Republican baseball practice for an annual charity game against Democratic Senators. According to one of the people who left the stadium, Hodgkinson asked him what party the players belonged to, and when he had been told they were Republicans, Hodgkinson walked away. Sometime later, Hodgkinson returned and began shooting people. Besides four other people, Senator Scalise was shot in the hip, and was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Hodgkinson died later from gunshot wounds sustained from a shootout he had with the police.

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He was a Democrat who supported Bernie Sanders, and he would send angry letters to his senator exclaiming Trump’s betrayal of the United States.  The media, along with some members of the Republican Party, spun Hodgkinson as a left wing extremist. Rodney Davis, R-ILL, referred to the shooting as an act of terrorism, and Chris Collins, a representative of New York said the Democrats, “need to tone down their rhetoric.” Did they forget the words of Donald Trump during his campaign, and how he offered to pay for the lawyers to represent his supporters who attacked protesters (New York Times March 13, 2016)? Did they forget the veiled threat Trump made should Hillary Clinton be elected? “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know (New York Times Aug. 9, 2016).” And a final example out of many when Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Ave. and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters (CNN January 24, 2016).” Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and LGBT has emboldened many people in the United States to attack these groups without consequence.

Is the Republican Party trying to be ironic? The terrorism the United States has faced before 9/11 and after 9/11 has been, mostly, from white, Christian, right-wing extremists. Where is the crackdown on the extremism from the Right concerning the violent behavior of their constituents? From my perspective, I call bullshit, and I call hypocrisy. One side cannot do consistent acts of violence, get away with their crimes, and cry foul when the opposing side responds in a similar manner. Violence is reprehensible no matter who does it, and the issue isn’t simply political. Besides the shooting in Alexandria, VA on June 14 there was also a shooting in San Francisco at UPS where four people died.

San Francisco Shooting

As I write this there have been 154 mass shootings in the United States this year. It’s June 15, 166 days into the year.  The statistic is similar to what it was in 2016 where there seemed to be a mass shooting everyday.  Like Trump and the polarization of the United States, I think the mass shootings are symptoms of a deeper sickness. Generally speaking, people don’t pick up a gun to kill people and themselves without some kind of grievance. Instead of looking within, they will strike outside themselves to find a form of healing they will never have. They are ignorant of what to do. We are ignorant of what to do.

To break this down, all of us want to be happy, we all want to be free of suffering, and we all want to live in peace. Regardless of our various political stances, philosophies, religions, or socioeconomic status we all want fulfilling lives. To paraphrase The Buddha, all life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, we can be free from suffering, and that freedom from suffering comes through right mind, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. What I said was a mouthful, but I think the teachings applicable for the first steps towards a solution. To stop the violence we see in our world, we need to stop the violence in ourselves. We begin the changes by taking a few minutes to focus on our breath, to let our thoughts be, to realize we are not our thoughts, and that we are all interconnected. In these breaths we take refuge  in our own Buddha nature, or whatever holy nature that resonates with you. We take refuge in the Dharma, the teaching directing us to our true selves. We take refuge in the Sangha, or community because that is what we are. All living beings are completely interdependent to one another, and when one suffers, we all suffer.

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One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Jack Kornfield told the story of one of his teachers who was an abbot of a monastery in Viet Nam during the war. There were Christian missionaries who found themselves caught in the crossfire between the Viet Cong and American troops. These missionaries were granted sanctuary by the abbot. The missionaries observed the monks’ constant meditation, and one missionary became so angry he confronted the abbot, “There’s a war going on out there! People are dying, and all you and your monks do is sit here and do nothing!” The abbot nodded and pointed to his heart, “If I don’t stop the war in my heart, I will never stop the war outside these walls.” The missionary took in the words of the abbot, and soon the Christian missionaries were participating in the monastery until they left.  Meditation and breathing seem overly simple, but they seem to work with those who live and serve in violent areas. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand change begins within ourselves. Not only do we need to live the change we want to see, but we need to change our hearts and minds to see. The only thing we have to lose is our knee jerk trust in violence.

 

Love is the Law

black and white world
This is from one of my favorite bands in the 90s who wrote the song, “Love is the Law” I’ve posted below.

A friend read my post yesterday, and asked if I believed God was a Democrat or if God leaned a little left. He believed I communicated something that is anti-Republican or I broadly demonized all Republicans. I revisited the post, and I agreed with his assessment. What I had communicated with my choice of words was something I did not intend. I don’t think God is aligned to any party or easily boxed in to one particular paradigm. I implied that God is on my side and the side of those who agree with me, but the truth of the matter is, God is on the side of God. My desire—all of our desires—should be on God’s side. God’s side, to put it glibly, is that of love, but even that statement is ambiguous because the statement implies a complete knowledge of God. I agree with the Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky in his work, In the Image and Likeness of God when he argued that the best approach is apophatic—we define God by what God is not. We can’t say that God is love, but we can say that God is not hate. We can’t say God is light, but we can say God is not dark. We can’t say God is life, but we can say God is not death. We eliminate what we know God is not to make a leap of faith on what God is; but even then we are still infants gurgling and sputtering in our attempt to form words.

This apophatic approach is what I have used concerning the inhumane policies of the Republican Party many of whom are professing Evangelicals and Catholics. Before the election the party supported their terrible treatment of women, transgender, LGBT, people of color, Muslims, and immigrants with their understanding of the bible; but they focused on the Old Testament. The theological irony, I think, is lost on them as they cite a woman’s place, homosexuality, and their xenophobia from the point of view of Near Eastern Bronze Age people. The example, as Christians, is to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus was/is the messiah sent to bring us all back to God as argued by the author of The Gospel According to Luke in the genealogy—in the third chapter. Going all the way back to Adam, the author went beyond the ethnocentric view of The Gospel According to Matthew. By stating these Christians should follow the example of Jesus does not mean I nullify all of the bible, but I lean on what is said in the Talmud about the Messiah. The contributors did not believe Jesus was the messiah, but they did say that when “Messiah comes he will explain the Torah perfectly.” In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (NRSV).” Also in Matthew 22:37-39 when Jesus was asked which commandment of the law was the greatest he responded, “’You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (NRSV).” The first commandment is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and the second commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18. Writing to the church in Rome, Paul simplified the message of Jesus when wrote, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (13:9-10 NRSV).”

Before I get to caught up in building upon my side of the argument, I want to look at how Christian leaders justify their policies when they legislate their interpretation of the bible—primarily from the Old Testament. I do not think they believe they are deviating from their Christian conscience when they speak out against Planned Parenthood, homosexuality, transgender, Islam, or feminism. I do not think these leaders are willfully evil, but I think they are blinded by the view of their “rightness.” That aside, and for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are right in what they do, and women should be subservient, homosexuals should undergo painful torture to reorient themselves to heterosexuality, and Muslims are dangerous. Their point of view comes mostly from the Old Testament with some New Testament support in the epistles. Based upon a conservative approach to the bible, I understand that these leaders believe they are right. Like me, these leaders can cite scholarship to support their hermeneutic, and, like me, these leaders have studied their side voraciously and can cite chapter and verse supporting their view. These leaders are modern day Pharisees. The word “Pharisee” has negative connotations nowadays, but that displays a cultural and theological ignorance.

The Pharisees came out of the Post-Exile era of the Jewish exile in Babylon between the late fifth century b.c.e. and the early sixth century b.c.e. They knew, as a people, they were in exile punished by God because they forsook “his” commandments. The Pharisees developed a strict devotion to The Torah and The Prophets, and taught the people  so they would not find themselves in exile again. To avoid any accidental pitfalls, the Pharisees created other rules and traditions that reduced God’s commandments to mere behavioral modification, and without the love and mercy of God mentioned throughout the Old Testament. It is of interest that Jesus never condemned these traditions and rules, but the hypocrisy the tradition and rules created. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23 NRSV).” According to their study of the scriptures the Pharisees were right to condemn prostitution, usury, tax collectors, breaking of the Sabbath, etc., but they neglected mercy and love when they didn’t see people as God sees them. The Pharisees watered God down to a coldhearted lawgiver worthy of contempt. That’s the God the Pharisees created, that’s the God Republican leaders have created, and that’s the God I have created.

But there is one crucial element missing in our arguments: Jesus. We Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, “Whoever has seen me as seen the Father (John 14:9 NRSV).”  Throughout the Old Testament, once you get pass the cultural imagery and understanding, God is a god of mercy, compassion, and love. Exodus 34 describes God as patient and full of lovingkindness, Isaiah depicts God with the love of a mother, and Jesus displayed the love of God when he ate with the people the Pharisees condemned. I will not presume to know what I think God wants or what God is for, but I think love is a good place to begin no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum. This takes a degree of mindfulness and self-examination to make sure what you or I do is similar to what Jesus did. I don’t mean take the examples literally, but how would Jesus respond to homosexuals, transgender, people of color, immigrants, Republican leaders who cut billions from cancer treatment for children, conservative Christians who condemn homosexuals, etc.? I think he would eat and drink with them, and speak into their lives and how they can show love to one another, and to the ones who mistreat them. The side of God is the side of love. So let us love and fulfill the law and our responsibility to each other.

For God so liked the world…

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While volunteering at Global Gifts last Thursday, I found myself in a quick conversation concerning the Catholic Church—maybe  two responses a piece before a customer walked through the door. The weather was pleasant. No humidity, the temperature was near seventy degrees, and a gentle breeze caused the plants and leaves to sway near the sidewalk. One block away on New Jersey, I heard the hourly bells from St. Mary’s Catholic Church ringing, and the sound reminds me of Dropkick Murphys’ song, “Famous For Nothing.” At the end of the chorus, they sing “And the bells of St. Mary’s were ringin’.” I mentioned the song to my co-volunteer, and she suggested I visit St. Mary’s because it’s a good church. I became sheepish and said I probably wouldn’t be welcomed there, and that I felt displaced since the election. The big push out the door came from St. Jude’s when the priest told the packed sanctuary how persecuted we Catholics were, and how we should respond with a militant faith—going so far as to say we should impose the Church’s interpretation of morality on our neighbors. I couldn’t get out of the church fast enough. The priest’s attitude was so far removed from Jesus. When I went to mass at St. John’s after the election, Fr. Nagel said we all needed to get along with Trump and his supporters. I felt betrayed by the church where I had been confirmed. I heard nothing of a rebuke towards those Catholics who voted for Trump or how they supported the anti-humane policies of the Republican Party. So I stopped going to mass. I felt Jesus had already left the building, and I went out to find him.

I ruminated on my co-volunteer’s suggestion. After my shift, I sat on a brick median under a few trees outside of Starbucks and Bru Burgers a few doors down from Global Gifts, and read Henri Nouwen’s Can You Drink This Cup? The title came from Jesus’ question to James and John who asked to be seated on his right and left hand. Nouwen equates Jesus’ cup to the cup of human suffering we all drink. Jesus also drank from this cup. I thought about my own suffering and the abuse I received from my family and church, and my clinging to the past. I decided, I would visit St. Mary’s, but I needed to go to confession before I attended mass. I didn’t think God cared one way or another, but I wanted to be honest with myself. The next day, I went to St. John’s.

The experience was painful, but that had nothing to do with the sacrament. Confession, or the rite of reconciliation, is about getting right with God by owning your behavior, thoughts, and words that causes separation between you and God. Confession is also about getting right with the Church because unskillful behavior, thoughts, and words can damage The Church’s reputation. The Church is Jesus’ body on earth, and to hurt that image, in my opinion, is nothing short of blasphemy. Something all Christians need to consider regardless of their denomination. My experience was painful because the priest was an asshole.

I didn’t catch his name because he isn’t a regular, but he was older with a pointed nose and sharp chin that lacked mercy. When I went into the room, the air was stuffy. There was no ventilation, and the red carpet and yellowish off-white walls pressed against my windpipe causing this penitent to gasp his confession in quick breaths. I told the priest I had not been to mass since the election, and I still struggled with anger and hatred with Trump and his supporters.  The priest snapped that I should “just get over it,” and that I should go to mass regularly to avoid these moral pitfalls. It took all I had within me to not dull his sharp chin with a right cross through the mesh screen while responding, “Fuck you! What if The Church is the problem?!” I didn’t. I reminded myself that my being there had nothing to do with this prick, or my feelings towards this situation. I was still in the presence of God receiving grace. If Fr. Nagel had taken my confession he and I would have had a chat while offering me the necessary tools to overcome my hostility. Fr. Nagel is like that with everyone, though, because he is compassionate, and genuinely cares for whoever comes across his path. He is a good priest.

After I made my penance, I drove to St. Mary’s for their daily mass, and yesterday, I attended the mass celebrating The Holy Trinity. The first thing I noticed was the sign outside the church stating in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

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When I walked in, I saw a wide range of age, skin color, and nationality. I also witnessed the genuine care people had for one another as well as visitors. For the homily, Fr. Carlton said that we need to reexamine how we view God. God is not angry or wrathful, but loves his/her people regardless as stated in Exodus 34. The role of Jesus was to demonstrate that God is in the flesh calling us all into the divine dance between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I smiled for the entire mass, and almost giggled and clapped when Fr. Carlton held up the host and chalice saying, “Receive what you are, become what you receive.” After the Eucharist the announcements called for donations to support radical hospitality and acceptance, and standing against policies marginalizing people for any reason. After I genuflected, I saw my co-volunteer in the aisle, “What did you think?”
“This is the first time I’ve been to mass, and left really understanding that God likes me.” We’ve all heard that God loves us, but it’s a wholly different thing to know that God likes us. We all know how that works when we’re around family during the holidays. God liking us is such a powerful movement of the soul opening the heart to give and receive love. That is the point of The Church. Instead of striving to be Republican why not be like Jesus and proclaim the good to everyone that God loves them, and then treat people with such compassion so they know God likes them.