A Vision of Monday

Daryl Davis

 

I watched a video yesterday about a group of people who went to D.C. to hold a Trump Support rally. There was a woman from Chicago who talked about her reasons for attending the rally. She was afraid for losing her freedom of speech. She spoke of people who—after finding out she voted for Trump—did everything they could to take business away from her, and how she can’t speak openly for her support without any kind of backlash from her community. I don’t know the woman’s full story, and I have only heard her side. Without the full story it is easy for anyone to be sympathetic. After all who wants their constitutionally granted freedom of speech taken away from them? I know I don’t. I’m liberal, and as much as I loathe the rhetoric of the conservative side of politics, I do respect their right to speak. However, I draw the line when that speech incites hatred, marginalization, injuring, or killing a group of people based upon the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.

I am also filtering her sentiments through my own experiences as a bisexual male living in central Indiana—specifically, Indianapolis. Living downtown, and frequenting my old neighborhood in Irvington, and Broad Ripple, I do not risk any danger for being out and flamboyant. But outside of Irvington, Broad Ripple, and downtown I become susceptible to any form of bigotry.

While running an errand at Walmart off US 31 on Indianapolis’ south side, I was almost lynched by a group of white men in Jesus shirts. We got out quickly, and Ronnie took my hand to be my beard—to meet their arbitrary, and meaningless, criteria of masculinity.

While working at a cigar bar in Avon—a west side suburb—I was fired for being too flamboyant and too out. The customers did not like me because of who I am, and the manager was compelled, by popular opinion, to fire me.

What can be done about these two examples? Legally, nothing. Why? Because in Indiana any kind of discrimination or violence towards the LGBTQIA community is permitted. When Mike Pence was governor of Indiana he signed in the Religious Liberty Act permitting businesses to legally discriminate against anyone who wasn’t straight or cis-gender. Many businesses revolted against this hateful action, and placed signs in their windows telling any passerby that all are welcome. Because of public outrage, Mike Pence withdrew the act, but discrimination and violence still happens. Many Christians in Indy—some who I know personally—consider this persecution because Mike Pence, a professing Evangelical Christian, was not allowed to legislate his particular expression of faith.

That’s what I think of when I hear people like this Chicago business owner. I don’t hear someone’s freedom of speech being taken away. What I hear is bemoaning the response to her free speech. She doesn’t want to face the consequences for her right to speak freely.

With freedom and rights there comes a responsibility in exercise. You don’t get to go into a crowded theater, and yell “Fire!” causing mass panic and injury, and escape jail time. The consequences of arrest and imprisonment for putting people in danger are not a cessation of the right to speak freely. The same can be said for the speech inciting violence against those who are different than you.

In the United States we have the right to freely assemble, and we have the right to protest and rally over issues affecting us and our community. What we don’t have the right to do—regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum—is to kill and maim those on the other side. From what I have seen and read the people on the right are the ones maiming and killing those who disagree with them. Not everyone on the right is homophobic, racist, xenophobic, etc., but the ones who are violent have ties to the right.

I have compassion for this woman because she should be allowed to express her beliefs and political sentiments without being blackballed in her community. But I don’t know the full story, and dare not treat her pain unfairly because I, too, know what it’s like to be shut down for declaring an unpopular opinion in my immediate community. My assumption is, as a business owner, she targets people who are transgendered, have a different sexual orientation, and, quite frankly, are not white Christians. I might be correct, but I might not be, and I could be withholding compassion and lovingkindness from a decent human being who is acting out of fear. Who among us has done despicable things to another person because we were completely saturated by fear? I know I have. Without the fear, hatred has no life to distort our vision and decency.

I can say that I have genuine compassion for the woman in the video, but I won’t be disingenuous and say I did not feel any apprehension about her choice of words or the images or the images a group of people standing and worshipping the American flag. She’s afraid, I’m afraid, we’re all afraid, and our combined fear has created a powder keg in our culture with a short fuse. One little spark, and the right to speak freely will be the least of our worries.

The problem is not in the assumed differences in our political parties—there aren’t any—, the problem isn’t in our religious views, nor is our problem found in Trump. All these are symptoms of something greater that I—at the present moment—do not know. What I do know is pigeon holing people with our constrictive labels allows us to escape the work we have to do to improve the conditions of our world. If you have the courage to face another human being different than you, talk with them, get to know them, and find out you both want to be free from suffering and the root of all suffering and that you both want to be happy, would you be so willing to maim or kill them? I know I border on idealism with that question, but, based on my limited experience, I have met very few legitimately evil people. The rest are people doing evil things in an attempt to alleviate their own suffering and achieve their own happiness. I think the first step is to look outside ourselves in service to others ranging from a simple smile to standing with people of color at a Black Lives Matter Rally in St. Louis to protest injustice. The change begins when we hold our hands out to one another.

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On the Road to Redemption

 

Yesterday, I gave my religious story before the congregation of Lynhurst Baptist Church. I have been going there consistently since late June, but off and on since my return to Indy in August 2016. A few days after my story performance at Pull Up a Chair Indy, I told Bobby that my story would be posted on YouTube. He saw it, and enjoyed it, and then told me, “You need to talk to Ben and tell your story to the church.” I approached Ben before service, and told him what Bobby had said, and Ben was excited to get me behind the pulpit. We set up the date for September 17, and I went to work on my story.

Ben wants any story to be around twenty minutes—give or take a couple minutes—so the service does not exceed an hour. I thought this to be a challenge because my history with the church is not a pleasant one, nor is that history brief.

I don’t come from a stereotypically religious home, and that reason had to do with the cultures of my mother’s family and my father’s family, and their own conclusion on religious matters. I wrote out my mother’s family arrival from Scotland, Wales, and Germany to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and how they stayed within their respective cultures though my great-great grandparents had been dead since the 1940s. I grew up with snippets of German and Scots Gaelic—sometimes sworn at me—in a gravelly Highland accent my youngest great aunt maintained. These people had their fill of America by the early teens because of the ethnic backlash from World War I, and wanted to be left alone thank you very much. And if they were not left alone this part of my family had no qualms delivering an explanation on the matter, and go sing hymns to Jesus the following Sunday with a bounce in their step.

My father’s family was quite different. Most of his family arrived from County Cork, Ireland in the 1880s, and, Hoosier Hospitality being the same then as it is today, were told in no uncertain terms they could be Catholic or they could eat. On the surface they complied and didn’t go to Mass. Behind closed doors, though, they remained staunchly Irish Catholic. This cultural religion was passed down to the succeeding generations, and my father, though, hateful towards God for the hand he had been dealt, maintained that religious culture in his ethics that became my foundation for morality long before our shadows hit the church doors.

My mother is cynical towards organized religion because of the hypocrisy she observed in her family, but she’s cool with Jesus and God is alright. Their followers, on the other hand, had better stay away from her if they know what’s good for them. She thought the black and white points of view childish and beneath her, and did not shelter my brother or myself. In fact, she was the one who drove me to a hole in the wall Punk Rock record store in the Irvington neighborhood so I could buy Agnostic Front’s “Liberty and Justice For…” album along with The Crucified’s self-titled release. Pop didn’t care about the music per se. He was into Surf music, Johnny Cash, and other Outlaw Country. He hated the sound and would yell, “Goddamn it, boy! Turn that shit down!” But he never stooped so low as to equate morality or spirituality with a music style. For Pop, morality and spirituality were internal.

But those examples were too much for the story with regards to time. I also had other examples from different churches from all over Indianapolis. While these things are good for a written story such as a memoir, they exceeded the time constraints by twenty-five minutes. My first attempt at brevity was an eighteen page first draft.

I kept Ben and Eric in the loop with each step of writing and revision. Most of my story blew away Eric. Even though he has known me for twenty years he never knew the depths of my hellish religious background. I never brought them up because my story of religious abuse and walking away from God is an all too common story in the United States. The experience felt common, and I’ve also been told to be quiet about it. After all I’m bitter and ignoring the grace of God. God’s grace is true and keeps people close to God, but grace does not mean any kind of bad behavior is without consequence. As much as God is gracious, God is also about justice—restoration and balance—something that much of the church has forgotten as it wielded its heavy handed judgments.

When Ben and I met for coffee in the middle of August, I felt the need to address my concern towards telling my story. “You do realize my story is an indictment against the Christian religion and The Church?” He gulps his coffee and shakes his head, “Yes, but you need to tell it because The Church needs to hear it.” I shrugged my shoulders and continued on with the editing. I reduced the family and religious examples to one or two instances and focused on my particular journey from 2010-2017—my wandering years after my father died.

After a brief introduction from Eric, I got up behind the pulpit with my quart mug of green tea and honey, and began my story. There was some laughter here and there, but mostly dead silence. I was feeling a bit nervous myself. Not from speaking in front of people, but telling this particular story to people in a church. I don’t have the pleasant church experiences where there was a constant stream of love and safety. What has been consistent in my story is abuse, cover up, victim shaming, and dismissal from the church. Another reason for the apprehension I felt had to with this being the first time in my religious experience where church leadership wanted to hear my story and have the congregation hear my story.

I don’t know what I was expecting to happen after the end. I sat down in the pew, and Ben got up to speak. He told the congregation that The Church does not like to hear stories like mine because it makes every Christian uncomfortable, but my story is one of thousands—people walking away from God because they want to be free from of the violence people have done to them in God’s name. Ben admonished the church to take seriously stories like mine and to put in the effort to be Jesus outside the church walls. Not that Lynhurst Baptist needs much admonishing. The only reason I go there is I feel the reality of Jesus from the people I meet, and that is not something I have ever felt in a church. I also want to be like Jesus, and for me, Lynhurst Baptist is a place where Jesus lives next door—he goes to the bar with you.

Ben’s response caught me off guard, though. When he spoke, the reality of me telling my story in a church set in, and there was a leader who didn’t tell me to keep quiet and let the grace of God handle it. He never blamed me for what had happened. In fact, Ben validated me and my story before the congregation and to those who were watching the service online. My wounds had come full circle, and I could finally lay them to rest. A church and its pastor, my pastor, acknowledged my story without any defensiveness. The pain I had carried had been redeemed, and could be released. So I let go of the pain.

After service few came up and told me they enjoyed my story. However, I did not spend any time discussing my story or my church experience. There were two people who wanted to talk to me about Jack Kerouac and his book On the Road. I mention Kerouac as a stalwart companion, and both people told me the effect he has had on their lives and the lives of their kids. I spent an hour in the sanctuary discussing Kerouac and Buddhism, and when I left, Ben told me a couple people, inspired by my story, came up to him expressing their desire to tell their story.

Grace had come to me because of my telling, and when I spoke the last word, the final burden had been removed. I could sit around and discuss common joys with people I just met. Grace had also touched those two people sparking in them the courage and the desire to share also. Redemption and all things beautiful had manifested that Sunday morning, but that happens every week at Lynhurst Baptist, and I observed that manifestation from a different perspective.

 

A Story Maid Rite

I have roamed the continental United States –sometimes with nothing but a rucksack strapped across my shoulders. Like St. Paul, I know what it is to go hungry and what it is to be well fed. Those times I have been well fed were at the Mom and Pop diners off dusty highways in sleepy rural towns. The people who run these diners know how to feed a body to contentment with food that is sometimes from farm to table. And the further west you go the thicker the food and the generous the portions. If you chat up people and tell them a good story sometimes you might be fed. Like the wandering Druids of ancient Scotland, Ireland, and Wales who played music while singing their poetry, the quality of their food and board were determined by the quality of their storytelling.


This weekend, I went to Galesburg, IL with Ronnie to visit her parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Galesburg is forty miles west of Peoria on I-74, and is the last exit before I-74 becomes I-80 and takes you to Davenport, IA. The town is small and, from what I’m told by my father in law who grew up there, is slowly dying. Galesburg was a booming town due to the brick factory. However, like all businesses after economic globalization, the brick factory was moved to a different location where cheaper wages could be paid. Without this primary source of income the economy of Galesburg was wrecked. But the people of Galesburg are not going gentle into the night. The culture and history still lives at Maid Rite Diner.

Maid Rite is owned and operated by two ladies who have been there from the beginning. The diner is on the side of Highway 150, and the parking lot consists of loose gravel kicked up by the cars and trucks turning off the road. Ronnie has been going here since she was a child. Though they live in Bolingbrook, IL, her parents go to the Spoon River Drive Festival held every year in early October. Ronnie’s dad grew up eating here, and Maid Rite was the first stop on the way to the festival. Ronnie wanted me to try the diner, but worried I would hate it because of my aversion to rural areas due to who I am and how I dress. I had no such apprehension. I’m going to a diner I’ve never been too, and I was excited.


The area was small, but every inch was utilized to make the most out of the tiny space. The first third of the perimeter was outlined with tables for two, the second third was a counter with circular red stools bolted to the floor, and the final area was an island where the meat is steamed and sandwiches prepared. Before we sat down, Ronnie and I went up to one of the ladies to place our order.


On the walls are black and white photos from the late 19th century telling the story of Galesburg’s beginnings. In the corner on the far right is a bookshelf with yearbooks from Galesburg High School going as far back as 1923. Ronnie and I went through the yearbooks from the late 1940s to the early 1950s looking for her grandparents who were just as sassy and attractive in their late teens as they are in their eighties.

I noticed most of the patrons who pulled themselves up to the counter had thin, white hair whose words were wound in the rhythm of the constant turns off Highway 150. They kept mostly to themselves, and sometimes they would talk to the young guys who sat across from them.

Like any other place where people meet they spoke of what is happeing in their lives, and how they see the world compared to the stories their parents and grandparents told them. Ronnie told me this is what everyone in Galesburg does when they go to Maid Rite. I took in the conversations, the pictures on the wall, and the yearbook collection ranging ninety-four years. I looked at Ronnie, “So if I really want to know about Galesburg, I need to come here to talk to people and listen to their stories.” She shook her head, “Yes.”

But isn’t that anywhere, though? Sure, you can read books by historians or snippets from old newspapers, and you can get as close to the objective facts as you can. That objectivity is important, but the story is only half spoken. To feel the emotion of history you will have to ask people who were there. Their story is not the truth with a capital T, but it is their truth as they experience the changes in their community. Maid Rite isn’t a diner. It’s a piece of holy writ preserving the story of a community so future generations can understand their modern story in a historic context.

Christian Dialogue

SchoolOfAthens
(School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle in the center)

 

A few weeks ago after church, Eric and I sat in his office talking. A few days before—while on my early morning walk—I felt this pull to seminary, and I wanted his insight on the matter because I didn’t know if I had been “called” into some type of ministry. He leaned back in his chair, “Do you want the short answer or the long answer?”
“Go ahead and give me the short answer.”
“Yes.”
“Ok. What’s the long answer?” He went on to tell me how he has seen me grow in the last twenty years—especially the last year. Though we have different ideas on faith, I respect Eric’s opinion and friendship.

Religiously speaking, Eric and I disagree down the middle as he takes a more conservative view of Christian practice and the scriptures while I hold a liberal view. But over the years we figured out our disagreements are peripheral because at the core of our issues there is agreement.

One example is Eric is pro-life and I am pro-choice.

We talked about those differing views and he told me he holds to a quality of life view beginning at conception and ending at death. It’s not enough that someone is born, but they also deserve to eat consistently and healthy, a quality education, decent health care, etc. Eric isn’t pro-birth—which is what many pro-life people are—but he is consistently pro-life. As he told me his stance, Eric cited philosophical arguments to support his point of view. I was impressed. “God! Thank you for supporting your pro-life position with a philosophical argument rather than mindlessly quoting Jeremiah and Psalm 139.”
“I do see a place for these ideas in how I read the bible.”
“Right! But you didn’t behave like a lazy parrot, and I appreciate that.”

Where Eric and I disagree is when life begins. I do not think life begins at conception, but there are philosophical and scientific grounds to argue for the beginning of life six days after conception. I also think the longer a pregnancy goes there needs to be stronger arguments made by both pro-life and pro-choice. I also disagree with the Right’s willingness to control women and their reproductive rights, and, as far as I am concerned, if you don’t have a uterus you don’t have a say.

I have friends who have had abortions and from what they have told me, and what I have observed is abortion is the last resort. There is no support system because family and/or a particular religious community shunned these women, and they are put in a desperate position. These women do not have the resources to provide for themselves let alone a baby, and they have to face angry protesters who hold signs and shout rather than adopt her baby. It’s not enough the baby is born, but what kind of life can it have? This is where Eric and I agree. A quality of life is of the upmost importance.

Granted abortion is a hot button issue, and has been since the Moral Majority created the platform to galvanize Conservative Evangelicals in the early 1980s, but abortion is one of many topics where Eric and I fundamentally disagree. How we handle disagreement over the issue serves as an example to the Conservative Evangelicals who go on social media and start imposing their particular doctrine on other people, and use poor argumentation and logical fallacies in the process. When Eric and I debate we do not force the other into a particular narrative so there can be a win. That’s not a debate. That’s a quarrel. We also ask questions and answer honestly.

I think the art of dialogue is lost among modern American Christians—particularly Conservative Evangelical Christians. This group offers nothing but shouting, condescension, and dismissal of those who disagree with their point of view including other Christians. I am of the opinion Conservative Evangelicals, generally speaking, are still at the adolescent stage of development where everything is black and white, and their point of view—though limited in perspective and experience—is the correct view. I also think Conservative Evangelicals are scared children who are insecure about their beliefs.

I understand how what I said can come off pompous, but that is far from the truth. When life is overwhelming and unstable a black and white view of the world grants the illusion of stability. I completely empathize with that because I was the same way in my late adolescence and early twenties. I come from a violent background where “God” was treated like a blunt instrument that bruised me and broke my bones and where my great aunts and great grandmother dehumanized me for not being masculine enough to their liking. They knew my orientation before I did, and hated me for it. This black and white faith I held to granted me something solid in an otherwise chaotic world. But as I wandered across the continental United States, I broke my teeth on the territory and realized the black and white paradigm is a delusion of safety for people too scared to live.

I saw this fear unfold as I watched friends having kids, going through divorce, and watching their fathers die. Life became too real too quick, and they regressed into their adolescent faith. I don’t blame them, and I have nothing but compassion for them, but there is no more relationship because what they espouse and state communicates to me they don’t think I am fit to live. To be fair, though, if I confronted them about their views towards me they would deny any hate, and I would believe them. They’re not contradicting themselves, but trying to find some sense in a life that went from zero to absurd at a break neck speed. This dichotomy, I think is what fuels their insecurity.

I think, on a rational level, my Conservative Evangelical friends understand how their paradigm is immature and cruel in its expectations. These friends are unable to measure up to what their doctrine demands, and lead a life full of guilt, self-loathing, and sometimes hate. Hatred for God is out of the question, but they also think God has a low opinion of them so they fortify with outward appearances and slogans. That’s why the Christians who have the worst behavior are the ones with the Christian bumper stickers, the ones who decorate their desk at work with bible verses and Christian kitsch, and vocally proclaim themselves a person of God. They’re not hypocrites in the strictest sense of the word, but I do think they are dishonest. These friends want a world a certain way, but the world as it is does not coincide with their safe doctrines, and blame themselves instead of their doctrines—and won’t even dare to wrestle with God.

In a sense Conservative Evangelicals need to grow up and face the world as it is, and accepting the world as it is without any judgment. Instead of dismissing people who don’t fit in their narrow view, I think Conservative Evangelicals would do well to put aside their opinions, realize at best they have a good idea like everyone else, and listen to people who do not believe as they do. They don’t have to change their beliefs, but they do need to approach their faith with humility. They also need to approach others with humility. The savage and childish behavior of Conservative Evangelicals—historically and recently—keeps a few of my Atheist friends at bay. They can tell you why they are an Atheist, but they will also go into great detail why they reject the Christianity preached by Conservative Evangelicals. They don’t hate God, but they are angry at arrogant theists who presume their opinions as facts and fiercely impose these presumptions on non-Christians and Christians alike. Jesus was humble and approached people in humility. Conservative Christians would do well if they listened to Jesus instead of their fears.

Reparation of Church and Hate

I wear around my neck a wooden rosary hand made in Palestine, and I bought it at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Batavia, IL.  In June of 2016 Ronnie and I were there attending her friend’s wedding, and I absolutely adore her friend—I refer to her as my patron saint of happiness. It was a beautiful Catholic wedding, but what impressed me was the inclusiveness of the priest officiating the wedding. He knew there were many non-Catholic and non-Christians in the sanctuary, and took the time to explain parts of the liturgy.

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At the time of the Eucharist, the priest described the meaning behind the hosts, and told the congregation they could come up during the procession, but only Catholics could receive the host. He went on to say all are welcomed before the altar, and those who are unable to receive the Eucharist could receive a blessing. Many people went up and before I received the host—and after—I saw quite a few people take up the priest on his offer to bless them. After the wedding, I went up to the priest and thanked him for being so hospitable during the Mass. I gave him a brief history of my negative religious experiences. He was sympathetic, and before we parted, he told me, “If you find yourself in Batavia again, you are more than welcomed here.” I smiled, shook his hand, and wished him wished him well. Next to one of the doors, I saw the  rosaries. They were seven dollars so I dropped the money into the coffer, took the rosary, and wore it. I consider myself—in many ways—to be Post-Catholic, but this rosary reminds me there are some churches and church leaders who really do care about being Jesus in their community.

This past Sunday, Ben gave one of the best sermons I have ever heard or read from a pastor because he wanted to engage the racism and violence in Charlottesville, VA. We had a conversation earlier that week on the matter as I expressed my disgust with Nazis, White Supremacists, White Nationalists, and the Christians who make excuses for them. I told him people have been outing these racists on the internet, and many have lost their jobs or been kicked out of school. While he understands we are never free from the consequences of our free speech, Ben does not believe in redemptive violence—whether that violence is physical, verbal, written, or from social media—he doesn’t believe in the Just War Theory. I agree with him that responding with violence is not going to solve the issue except providing a momentary catharsis for the oppressed, but something has to be done to counteract the violent actions and rhetoric of these hate groups.

I asked him, “How would Jesus engage the systemic racism, homophobia, violence, and prejudice in our culture? What is the Christian response?” He shook his head, “That is the question I am struggling with because at the moment, I don’t know.” This past Sunday, however, he decided to unpack the question.

Ben pointed out the cause of this violence is sin, but he did not limit himself to such a cliché statement. He pointed out that everyone one of us—human beings—have contributed to or have been complicit to the hate we see in this world. He went further to say that sin begins with fear, fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hatred—he went full on Buddhist and George Lucas in his presentation. Ben then went beyond people and addressed The Church’s responsibility for the tragedies such as Charlottesville. Granted, not every Christian or Clergy condones the violence because there were Christians and Clergy protesting these racists groups, but, generally speaking, The Church in America has been a willing participant in the genocide of Native Americans, Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, oppressing and marginalizing the poor, excluding the LGBTQ community while excusing their actions with scripture. He concluded that The Church needs to quit pointing the finger at the other and start pointing the finger at itself. We as The Church are to blame, and we as The Church are responsible. So how can we as The Church make reparations?

Ben put it simply: Love. Love of God and love of neighbor made in the image of God—the neighbor of color, the homosexual neighbor, the transgender neighbor, the immigrant neighbor, the poor neighbor, and even the racist neighbor. Love sounds easy enough, but in practice is quite difficult.

Ben pointed to the example of Darryl Davis who, as a black man, went to the KKK and befriended them. Because of his friendship and grace many people have left the KKK. His premise is, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Davis’ example put me in my place for hateful feelings I have expressed—or kept to myself—concerning much of Christianity, Trump supporters, and the racists who are emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric. But Davis went to people who hated him for his color and communicated genuine friendship and grace. People don’t stop believing in their hate when they are thrashed about, but will reconsider when they are shown love and understanding. As I’ve written earlier in this post, this violence comes out of fear. Fear makes everyone do hateful things, but are they truly hateful people? I think there are very few people who are legitimately evil, but the rest of us are just scared children who feel their security and existence threatened. This does not excuse the hateful actions and people will have to face the consequences of their brash choices, but they’re not as vile as they are made out to be. Context is the first step to understanding why people do what they do

Daryl Davis.

I took in everything, but the day was not over after service.

The following evening Ronnie and I decided to get pizza at Bazbeaux’s in Broadripple. A large group of White Evangelicals were seated next to us. How did we know they were Evangelicals? They said it repeatedly. They were carrying on about Coney Island hot dogs being better than Chicago hot dogs. Much like their faith, they have no idea what they are talking about because Chicago dogs are where it’s at—anything else comes from the evil one. Then they went on to talk about California and the Northwest coast referring to those places as liberal as if being liberal were a bad thing. I’ve lived there, and while the West coast and Northwest coast has some unfriendly elements, I found the people to be friendly, compassionate, and hospitable—my own native Indiana could learn a thing or twenty in hospitality from Washington, Oregon, and California. But then it became offensive concerning immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ—of which I belong to the latter. The breaking point came when one of the people said for everyone to hear, “If you eat the chicken there [California] you’ll turn gay. ” We asked our server if we could move because they were so vulgar. As we walked away from those hateful asses, I made sure they got a good look at my bag.

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After we moved we told our server what happened, and what type of people they were. I even threw a little shade, “Unfortunately, they may live up to the stereotype and tip poorly.” She shook her head and told us that was fine. She wasn’t a fan already because of how they were treating her and resolved to do bare minimum to get them out as soon as possible.

The point of being a Christian is to become more like Jesus, and those of us who call ourselves Christians live, move, and have our being in him, and go out in his name. When Christians are willfully reprehensible in their behavior and speech they commit blasphemy and use the Lord’s name in vain. Also they add to the work of those us who are trying to be like Jesus by cleaning up their mess—especially with apologetic introductions, “Ok, that’s them, but that’s not me.”

This sentiment I have is why my struggle with hatred was towards that particular group and not with all of Christianity. I learned this sentiment by being around Ben and Eric who are both pastors of the church I attend, and the spiritual community who have accepted me as part of their spiritual family. I watch how both my friends preach the gospel and apply the gospel in their neighborhood. I also watch how real people get in our Sunday School class and how they give me the space to be just as real. They resemble the Jesus in the gospels. I like that Jesus. That’s the Jesus I want to follow and know. Instead of broad brushing all of Christianity, I held my rosary, and I remembered my church and how grateful I am that—while they will slip—they care about being Jesus inside and outside the church.

The Futility of Resistance

Borg

I went to the dentist yesterday. I am in the beginning stages of gum disease, and I have seven cavities spread out on both sides of my mouth—top and bottom. The dentist told me he could break up the procedures into two or four parts, but he declined to do four because he thought it would be too much for me. I opted for two procedures so we could finish them sooner, and before the insurance runs out on us. The upside for us is Ronnie signed up for a card where a little bit of money would be taken out of her paycheck to put towards this card that functions as a debit card for medical bills. Thankfully, what we have on the card is just enough to take care of my deep cleanings and fillings.

The procedure took two and a half hours and would begin with a deep cleaning. Before the dentist could start the cleaning the main dentist came in and gave me three shots of anesthesia. I have had my tongue pierced and stretched it out  to a 2g, and thought I could handle a needle going into my gums. The pain felt eternal , my body became tense, and my eyes watered.  After a few minutes the numbness took over and the dentist had me keep my mouth propped open as she went in with what sounded like a drill and a tube to suck up all the bone dust flying in and out of my mouth. Consciously, I was unbothered and quite peaceful, but from the neck down my body was tense while my hands shook. There was something obviously going on so I closed my eyes and met my fear in the cacophony of the dentist’s vibrating instruments.

As I faced my fear, I recalled the mantra I read and heard in Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear
Fear is the mind killer
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing

Only I will remain

 

I know it sounds funny to do that while going through dental work, but the mantra has helped me before and, along with the Jesus Prayer, enables me to face my fears and go through them. Occasionally, the dentist would stop to ask if I was doing alright. I couldn’t speak so I gave her a thumbs up, and after an hour the dentist stopped and propped up my chair. I thought the whole procedure was finished. Nope. What I went through was the deep cleaning to prepare me for the drills, clamps, and fillings.

I think what triggered that fear is how both rooms were set up. I was set on a long chair with little trays and tables on each side of me with drills, vacuums, and scrapers. I had a bib hooked around my neck, and above me was a moving lamp that could move up and down, and it’s brightness strained my eyes wringing out the very last drop of sight I had. My jaw was open constantly and wide to the point I thought the strain would cause a dislocation. Clamps were placed around my teeth while drills went deep into my throat getting the second to last tooth on the bottom part of my jaw. Early on in the procedure, I asked my dentist if she ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and/or the franchise’s movies. She shook her head, and I went on to explain about The Borg, their parasitic existence fed by assimilating different beings, and how they would do it on an operating table. Once the victim was laid down the tiny, whirring machines would remove parts of the body to be replaced by cybernetics, and the entire body was conformed to the image of The Borg. Any trace of individuality dissipated, and the cybernetic being was a only a pale shadow of its former self. Rationally, I understand that it’s not the same, but when I had skin grafting surgery at Community North in early 2009, the operating table bore a suspicious resemblance to The Borg’s operating table. My body remembers that fear and trembled accordingly.

It’s funny how the mind can move past traumatic events, but the body will stay rooted in that fight or flight energy until it can finally wash away and rest. At least that is how it has been for me. Having my teeth drilled and repaired with fillings caused my body to shake increasing the dentist’s difficulty in cleaning and fixing my teeth, but I stayed vigilant. I remained in my breath, I stayed with the fear my body held, I recited the fear mantra from Dune, and I recited the Jesus Prayer while staying with my body. Prayer and meditation are not meant as an escape from fear, but they gave me the tools to face fear and let it dissipate in the passing.

My body holds on to things from the past. When I am touched a certain way my body flinches, my hands tighten, and I swing. At what? There is no planned destination. My body sends signals to my brain, my brain releases a chemical, and the memories of my father’s beating or my great aunt’s and great grandmother’s biting derision cascade before my mind’s eye, and that is all I see.  I live out those painful scenarios like a waking dream, but I am conscious of my size, strength, and education. In that moment my life becomes a smoky shadow. I fight back, and when I come too I have increased my brokenness and I have destroyed another relationship.

I know the right thing to do, but I am powerless against my own body as it seizes me and dredges up old memories. This has happened in the last month as I sat down to write my story for the church. All those demons woke up just like my body woke up in the dentist’s chair. I am aware enough of what is happening, but I exist as a spectator when those memories consume me. I feel like St. Paul when he scribbles in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (NRSV)?” Praying is all I can do in those moments seeking rescue from myself and old memories, but I’ve also opted to start attending a twelve step program for anyone with any kind of addiction or hang ups. It was either that or go to a Zen Monastery in Northern California. Ronnie’s idea. She love me and doesn’t want me to go, but she knows I need to heal. Before I knew of the program, I was making plans to go out after we moved. I think this a better option. I’m around three people I know, and two of them have already gone through the program.

Before I started the program, I knew I had taken the first steps towards recovery when I began to live out the challenge a writer friend posited to me. I started living my life as if I had never gone through the trauma of Church and Christianity, and I noticed how much of my hatred and condescension were attached to my wounds. I slip, but there was noticeable progress and I felt my body unclenching just as I unclenched in the dentist chair and sat  with my pain as part of my body was repaired. And I can speak with hope, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:25, NRSV)!”

Surrender

dharma bum

As I write this, I am sitting in the pastor’s office of my church while he leads a chapel service. The office is quite comforting to me with its dark green carpeting, cushy chairs and a love seat that are a darker shade of green than the floor, wooden table where this computer sits, the pastor’s wooden desk, and the soft, ambient glow of lamps surrounding the rows of bookshelves like halos. Before the pastor left for chapel, he put on some Coltrane for me and offered me some pleasantly strong coffee made by one of the gentlemen who works in the office next to the pastor. If I were a pastor this is how I would be keep an office—a little sanctuary where there would be nothing but Coltrane, Davis, Parker, and Sun Ra pointing me to God’s resting place.

Given my previous entries on this post why am I sitting in a church let alone in the pastor’s office writing and drinking coffee?

It’s been a rough couple weeks for me since I was approached to tell my story to the church. Being a writer who sits at the feet of Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and Ann Lamott and takes their advice to write so honestly the reader can see my bare bones, I will—on many occasions—wake up those sleeping demons. Writing, editing, and rehearsing my story, I had to face the honest truth about my hatred of Christianity, The Church, and my father. Those demons put me in a right state, and I became unbearable to everyone around me as I relived everything. Once everything was out on paper, I could look over my journey and decide where I am. One of the truths I came across is that I am burned out with Christianity, and have been for many years. I didn’t go to church or read the bible because Christianity felt true, I went to church and read the bible because Christianity felt expected. Conditioned might be a better word. Jesus wasn’t salvation, he was a force of habit.

But that doesn’t answer the question why I’m sitting here in a church does it? No.

I had been going to this church off and on because I’ve a friend of twenty something years who is an associate pastor of the church. I respect the work he does in the church’s neighborhood and bringing a real healing from Jesus without the pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. Not saying the latter isn’t a thing in the message, but people who are suffering want to know about their pound on the ground in the here and now. I also listened to some of the stories people in the church would get up and tell, and I began to notice there were people like me.

Yeah, they’re from the hood, but they’re also burned out with the Christianity that had been put upon them and the Jesus they were shown was a clean cut, affluent jerk who suffered and died so wealthy suburbanites could have a new Bentley. The Jesus I see at this church is the Jesus I read in the Gospels. He eats with the poor, he brings wine to a party after people have already had too much to drink, and he doesn’t dismiss marginalized groups of people like women and Samaritans. To understand Jesus as God in the flesh is to see a god who sits and blesses the lowest of us.

I’ve also been going to the Sunday School class lead by one of the people in the church who lived a rough life before coming to Jesus, and he makes it clear that his class is about being real in how we feel, in how we talk, and how we can hope. It’s not uncommon to hear it said, “Man, this week really fucking sucked. I don’t see how God is working in this shit.” We also read scripture, give each other support, and pray for each other before we head off to service. I don’t know about you, but I’ve only been to one other church in the continental United States with that same level of authenticity, and that is Federated Church in Carlinville, IL.  The spiritual path isn’t about perfection, but about authenticity. The doctrines and dogmas are irrelevant, but it’s authenticity that draws people in to listen.

What turned me around to returning to following Jesus is how the pastor addressed the violence in Charlotteville, VA that claimed the life of a young teacher who was there to protest the rally of Nazis and White Nationalists. Before the congregation and to any who would listen online, he said:

In Charlottesville, Virginia a crowd gathered with torches in response to the city taking down a Confederate monument. 
Hoods and hats of KKK, Alt Right, White Supremacy and other terror groups claimed their American right to assemble. A crowd with torches that were lit aflame, ignited with the hate that burns in their rhetoric, ideology, and their hearts. This hate is not a misunderstanding. This crowd was not remembering history, or fighting for rights. This crowd operated out of fear which gave birth to hate. This hate is not a limited source found in a few, but it has delved into the heart of our nation. It is a spirit that is grounded in fear, rooted is darkness, watered with lies. It is a hate that seethes from the teeth like a rabid dog overtaken by a sickness that will claim its life.
It is not new. This hate has been growing and spreading like a weed. It has been in our words, in our policies, and in our justice systems, in our elections, in our leaders, in our orthodoxy, and our prayers. We thought these words meant very little, but it turns out they gave birth to a world in which hate is claimed a right. Over a half century ago we changed some laws but we never changed ourselves. And true to hate it has blinded us so that we don’t even see it until it picks up a torch. By any other faith, by any other race, by any other countryman this would be claimed an act of terror. Terror that is not bred from oversees in foreign lands and foreign faiths, but a terror that is bred in our own hearts.
It is a Spirit that has a name that echoes back from ancient times, it a spirit labeled within the scriptures so clearly, it is the Spirit of evil. This spirit of evil opposes community, opposes justice, opposes good, opposes hope, opposes forgiveness, opposes love, it opposes the God that made us and loves us.
This act of evil is nothing but a broken branch destined to burn. There is no life in it, no hope, no fruit. The people here on the west side must oppose such hate. We must not let a word, a thought, or a bias enter our own hearts. We must silence it, overcome it, and rise above it.
And yet we do not respond with hate, for that only gives the evil what evil wants. We don’t clench our fist, we don’t shake our head, we don’t scream at politicians or blame political parties. We also don’t look to more laws, or more policies. We now look to God, we now pray, we n
ow confess, and we now ask forgiveness.
God help us recognize and overcome such evil.
God forgive us our hate, our racism, and our willingness to wear the spirit of evil and hate.
Forgive us when we have acted with hate.
Heal us of hate, and pull us closer to each other in unity and diversity.

 

When I heard this from the pulpit, I was shocked. Never in my dealings with churches have I ever seen a pastor speak against the racism that is systemic and blatant in our culture. After he spoke, he told everyone to greet each other. I went up to him, “You are my friend who is a pastor, but after you said that you have become my pastor.” He hugged me, and after service, I spent an hour talking to a mother and daughter who were just as burned out as me with faith because of their background in The Catholic Church, but found their souls revived coming to this church. The expression of an authentic faith bringing a tangible message to the people in the neighborhood. When I found others in the community with a similar background and weariness, I listened to them

The following Monday, the pastor was faced with a person who comes to the church who has assaulted him before because the pastor believes in radical hospitality and will show the same love and acceptance to the Muslim as he would to an unbeliever. That was a few months ago. Monday he came into the church under false pretenses and told the pastor how it’s a scientific fact that white people are superior to any race. He told him to leave the church and to never return unless he had truly repented of his hatred. I messaged him and told him that while I’m not saying he should be happy doing that to the guy, I was happy that the right people are getting excommunicated from the church. Some 1 Corinthians 5. Then my friend, the associate pastor, went live on facebook condemning racism and hatred in The Church and how tired he was of hateful people hijacking his faith. Many of the people in the church who have been quiet started to speak up and share the same sentiments as the senior pastor and the associate pastor.

I have been around too many negative examples of Christian practice and because of that consistent negative exposure I developed the opinion that Christianity was a hateful religion. However, based on the criteria of what a Christian is, I was correct to reject those hateful examples. Where I erred, though, was broad brushing all of Christianity into the hateful box I had been given. I had been overwhelmed in the last few days with several examples of authentic Christianity that I could not ignore or brush under the rug with my cynicism. I was seeing real faith. I was seeing a faith worth listening to and a faith worth living. That’s the kind of person I want to be. The kind of person who is honest about their own brokenness, doubts, and hang ups, but still clinging to the grace of Jesus who heals others as he is healing me. This is why I surrendered myself, and this is why I have returned to following Jesus. I don’t know where this will take me, but I know I am in a good place.