Living “What if?”


I met with a writer friend this past Friday to discuss my story idea I have based upon my negative experiences with Christianity. There is a church I attend where the pastor wants the congregation to hear what I have to say, and to put it online. I thought it a good idea, but I told the pastor that what I have to say is an indictment against Christianity and The Church. He agreed, but the story needs to be heard anyway because he wants to see The Church start behaving like The Church.

I sat down to write out the story, but looking at distinct points in my religious journey and religious experience and keeping the story brief. That brevity turned into eighteen pages. If I were to include every detail of the events, I could have a short non-fiction piece resembling the structure of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I think this a worthy piece, and I think this piece needs to be read by Christians and others from different faith expressions because negative religious experiences are not limited to Christianity. Unfortunately, where there are people there exists the potential of violence. Religion is not the cause, but it becomes a deadly tool in the wrong hands.

My friend is established in the local writing community enjoying  some well-earned success after twenty years of paying his dues. We were friends before I took seriously my ability to write, and the fact that he wants to help me improve my craft is something for which I am grateful.

We met for coffee on the Northwest side, and I told him my idea. He is privy to my last painful experience because he knows the people involved and he could speak into where I am. He told me about his writing which deals with his own experiences with race as a black man in Indianapolis, IN and in all of the United States. He has two types of stories that he writes. The one type is magical realism like Toni Morrison’s Beloved where he writes about violence from gangs and cops, poverty, and racism and how he navigates through all that social chaos. The other type is in his science fiction where he writes in his hopes for what society could be without the color distinction.

The color distinction he speaks of is found in the language when he refers to himself as a “black man” or a “person of color.” Both these descriptions are based off a white context where anything different is defined by the dominant group. When he writes his science fiction there is no dominant culture defining another culture. The people have distinct features that are not confined to race.  As he finished describing his stories, he leans over at me, eyeball to eyeball, “That’s how you define yourself. You define yourself based upon the abuse and oppression you have received from Christianity and The Church. I want to see something different in your writing. I’m going to ask you a question, but I don’t want you to answer it here. I want you to answer it in your writing. What would Ron look like today had he not be exposed to churches? What would he look like if Christianity had not been forced upon him?”

I’ve been answering that question in my head since Friday, but I’ve also added another question to the mix. What kind of person would Ron be had his parents stayed in Irvington and not moved in with his great grandmother and youngest great aunt?

I know my additional question creates a two part exploration into the nature of my personality and my outlook on my life, but they are worth considering. Had I not been exposed to The Church or been immersed into Christianity, I would still believe in God and would be a wandering mystic. Why is that? I had an intense mystical experience when I was four I still carry with me to this day.

I was in the backyard playing near the little swing set my father had put together. It was a late fall day with the brown leaves shaking and clapping with the emptying trees, and I was spinning and dancing with my arms out like wings catching the wind. Against the brick of the house, I “saw” God, and I sang with a beat set to laughter, “I love God. I love God.” God had stepped in and played with a little boy while his parents were inside relaxing in the living room.

I would have wandered the continental United States living out of my rucksack and whatever vehicle I had while praying and living simply. I think I would have eventually believed in Jesus because I like the Jesus I read in the Gospels. Jesus as God in the flesh came down the same way God came down to me as a small boy, and played with others as God played with me. It’s a fanciful idea, but it’s an idea rooted in love instead of fear because a certain point on the checklist had been forgotten. Wherever I would go I would speak of that love in my actions and smiles. There is no anxiety with people, and I can be free with my kind acts and kind words.

As I thought about all these possible things, I started to live my present life accordingly. I began to relax and there was no anger. I did not realize how much anger and resentment had spilled into other areas of my psyche, and how much hatred and judgment came out of me towards other people. I certainly do not blame Christianity or The Church for that struggle. I had years of abuse heaped upon me, and my body has stored those hateful memories. By releasing my attachment to that old life, and embracing a life that could be and can be, I could feel those destructive memories wash away from my body.

I’m going to explore these ways further. This piece is a bit of an introduction to start my journey into actual healing and a different direction in my writing. I think I am a decent person overall who enjoys people and wants the best for everyone. Because of the abuses I’ve experienced, I put on a protective angry shell with the appearance of thickness. My compassion is filtered through my desire for justice and vengeance. When I see a religious bully come at me or people near me, I slip on my intellectual brass knuckles  with each point emphasizing a different piece of scholarship. Remove the defenses, and what do I have? A person who cares about others and wants to work towards a better world for everyone. That’s the Ron, I’m going to explore and become with each new decision.


Deus Volt


I have not posted on this blog in the last couple weeks partly because I had been working on a story that I would be presenting at a local storytelling group. It was a blast. Ronnie said I killed it, and a new friend who is also a writer told me I did so well. I’ve posted a link below should you want to watch and listen. The length of time is thirteen minutes and some change.


The morning after I told this story, I told Bobby—the leader of our Sunday School class—and he said I needed to talk to the pastor about telling my story to the church. Not the story posted above, but my religious story. The pastor encourages all the people in the congregation to get up and tell their stories because he believes that God works and speaks differently to each individual while remaining the same. He also views the bible as a collection of individual stories and how God moved upon these people, and while we look to their example, we do not confine our life story to that ancient story. It’s like some modern religious Jews. The Hebrew Canon is still open because times and locations change, and the prevailing question is “How is this ancient story expressed in my modern story?” Good question, and one many Christians foolishly ignored when they closed the canon in the mid fourth century.

In between the class and service, I went up to the pastor and told him what Bobby had suggested, and he was for telling my story. The next day, I sat down and started to write beginning with my first exposure to church at the age of nine. I had told this story several times, but I decided to write with unflinching honesty, and when I did that I awoke the hive of demons that laid dormant in my brain. The shrieks and howls, and the clouded perception became maddening. I kept writing until every last scream was exhausted by a lacerated throat, but a realization occurred.

In my writings and in my conversations, I have foul words for my experiences with the church of various denominational branches, and I also have foul words for Christianity and the church. What I discovered is the church had become a scapegoat. The hatred I have for the church and for Christianity is really a hatred I have for my father. Something was unresolved. I thought I had all the hard conversations with my father and we had come to a moment of complete reconciliation and forgiveness on both sides. I even went so far as to tell him, “Because of you I associate violence and brutality with Christianity.” It killed me inside to tell him this because the man who received those words was no longer the man who bruised me and broke my bones in the name of God and St. Paul. But I needed to say it. I didn’t want him to die without my having a chance to be completely honest with him.

That’s why I never addressed the hatred I’ve had since I was a boy. As I became older, I went out on the road to wander, and I met various kinds of people. I met fathers who did not care one whit about the moral integrity and personal development of their children, but ran around on their wives and drinking their paychecks. I started to see my father as a man, and, because I knew a little of the abuse he endured as a child and how he worked on his anger, I felt my hatred was misguided and therefore unnecessary. I didn’t put it aside or repress it, but I let the anger dissipate. I thought I was finished with hatred, but my body and my brain were not. As I felt my brain rattle and my shoulders tighten, I decided to pursue my hatred for the church with complete transparency. I would not pull any punches with myself, and I would let whatever happen, happen.

I blamed the church for my father. Before we went my father was a peaceable man who liked to spend time with work friends at a local bar or with my godparents during camping trips. After church happened, I saw my father transform into a snarling monster. While raging and spitting he would beat me with his bible(figuratively) while citing chapter and verse justifying the bruises on my body and crooked fingers. The people at church knew what was happening at home. They even witnessed my beatings and told me, like my father, I had it coming because I was such a bad kid. Jesus was on their side condoning my treatment. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties when my pop got all confessional about the rape and beatings he experienced from his uncle and father in Jesus’ name that I realized I wasn’t a bad kid. The church wasn’t to blame for my dad, though they did exacerbate the situation, but the monster had been created by my father’s father doing unspeakable things to him in Jesus’ name. That kind of religious exposure leaves a mark. My father believed and came to faith on his own, but I am cold and indifferent to the idea God and Jesus.

After writing about my father and becoming honest about my hatred towards him, I realized I didn’t have that much anger towards Christianity or the church. Granted, I still have my points of contention, and I still think Christianity, as a religion is bullshit, but the hatred is no longer there. Without those distracting unresolved emotions, I can look at God and Jesus with improved objectivity. At the moment of this writing, I am still indifferent to Jesus. If he were sit down next to me at this table in my apartment and ask me, “Who do you say that I am?” I would shrug, “The fuck, if I know.” It’s not that I don’t want to believe, but my negative experiences of Christianity and the church have been rather consistent with the few exceptions I have met and befriended on my way. But those exceptions are not enough for me to even desire to believe. Those exceptions, however, are enough for me to listen to what they have to say. That’s why I go to this church. That’s why I have a friendship with the associate pastor, and beginning a new friendship with the Senior Pastor and Bobby. They practice and own their faith, and I will listen to Christians like that.

I finished the rough draft, and I sent it to the pastor. I asked him if he could meet for coffee the next day because I needed to talk to him about my story. He agreed to it and we met at Thirsty Scholar downtown. I told him that I was brief in my sketches, but that brevity produced eighteen pages and if I went into more detail, I would have enough for a short book. I also told him the story he wants me to tell, and the story I am writing, is an indictment against Christianity and the church. He agreed, but he still wants me to tell it. “Your story will make people uncomfortable, but your story needs to be heard.” This caught me off guard. Every other pastor I have met would dismiss me as bitter and patronize me with, “Well no one is perfect. That’s why we have grace.” Right, but understanding your own imperfections and using grace is not a license to behave like an entitled asshole. Will my story inspire a change? I hope so, but that is not my goal. Neither do I want people to come up to me and make apologies on behalf of the church. The whole point of my story is if you’re a Christian and you skillfully apply 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’ (NRSV).”  I presume that Christians holding other Christians accountable there will be fewer people like me who are burned out with hostility, or, worse yet, indifference  The point of my story is to inspire Christians to own their faith and take their faith seriously.

Black Coffee Howl

One of the few hardcore bands I like is ASD from Indianapolis, and the guy who does vocals, Shawn, is a friend. One thing I like about ASD is they have not embraced that chest pounding, hyper-masculinity that is so prevalent in recent hardcore bands. That posturing overcompensates for insecurities and takes away whatever the band has to say. The other thing I like about ASD is they are rooted in The Blues. Strip away the technology and listen to the chord progression you will see what I mean.

ASD, when Shawn started, came from a song he wrote, “All Seasons Die”, and that remained until last year when Shawn chaged it to All Suckas Die. The direction of the band has not changed, but with each song, Shawn is digging deeper. The new album has not yet dropped, but ASD released a new song last week, “Running These Streets.”

When I listened to this song, I became excited. The way this song is mixed the bass speaks goes beyond that place the vocals are unable to touch. The drums and bass take the words to another level. I do speak with some bias because Shawn is my friend, but that is not why I like the music. Shawn and I came up in similar neighborhoods on the east side, and like many people on the east side, we had to learn how to navigate through some tough situations.

When I first took Ronnie through my neighborhood and the streets I used to walk she looked at the condition of the road, buildings, and people. She was nervous. “Is this a bad neighborhood?” I shook my head,   “No, this is a tough neighborhood.” She cocked her head, “What’s the difference?”

“People here focus all their energies on surviving moment to moment. No one has time to go after other people. In the truest sense of the word they’re beat. However, if you bother them they will unleash all their desperate rage upon you. If you mind your own business here and show respect, people leave you alone.” Now there are areas on the east side where people will gut you for the few dollars in your pocket, but that’s not where I grew up, and neither did Shawn.

Shawn pulls from that life, and, though he is agnostic, he also pulls from that faith. Not faith in divine intervention, but faith that things will be as they will be while he puts in the work. He believes life is simultaneously difficult and beautiful, and that’s what he roars into the void of beats and guitar riffs. This is the essence of The Blues. Naming that which eats at your soul and bring you to tears, singing it out, and after that release there is freedom. ASD joins in chorus with The Psalmist, with Jesus on the cross, and Allen Ginsberg’s “Eli! Eli! Lama sabachthani!” howling for the hope in resurrection. ASD has restored my faith in hardcore and returned to the music’s foundation in The Blues.

Barroom Sketches 7/13/17

Like any morning before work, Ronnie drops me off at the bar three hours before I have to open, and then she goes to work. This time I have is one of complete solitude where I can play the Sun Ra Channel on Pandora and get in some writing. I get myself situated on the comfy red lounge chairs and tap away on my phone while bathed in the natural light of morning. I go for two and a half hours, come to a stopping point, put up my things, and begin the process of opening the bar. All opening entails is putting down the chairs and stools, counting out the money, and waiting until ten. At ten, I unlock the door, put out the specials board on the sidewalk, and flip on the open sign.

Thursday mornings are slow with only a couple people trickling in every now and then to buy cigars while on break from work, or on their way to the liquor store next door. There are retired regulars that come in during the day, but they don’t usually come in until Friday, and there are a few who will come in to work while taking in a cigar. So it’s dead. As I write this the time is 11:24 a.m., we’ve been open since 10:00 a.m., and only two people have come in—and they came in at 10:45. I enjoy the solitude far more than some would consider healthy, but I can get in a lot of writing and some reading. Some of my most productive moments in the week are Thursdays and Fridays before work, and sometimes my whole shift on Thursdays.

The bar where I work, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is located in Avon, IN and is one of the most affluent west side suburbs in Indianapolis. The affluence of Avon is rivaled by the northern burbs of Noblesville, Westfield, Carmel, Fishers, and Geist. The striking differences between the northern burbs and Avon is a drawl in the accent and Reagan worship that is synonymous with Jesus worship—there is even a Ronald Reagan Parkway running north and south through Avon.
As with any affluent burb there is a culture of entitlement. Not everyone in Avon is like this, but in a bar selling cigars, and is also a cigar lounge, some of the people waltzing in throughout the day are deluded by their own privilege. If their balls are not properly fondled in the name of Jesus and Donald Trump they will throw a tantrum. This morning the first customer, a stocky man in shorts and a gray beard in his fifties, informed me that we had better have a certain style of Arturo Fuente cigars. He pursed his lips and glared at me to intimidate me into placating him. I was having none of it. I looked him in the eye, and with a stern voice, I replied, “If we have them they arrived Tuesday. I don’t place the orders.” He sniffed and disappeared into the humidor. This guy was behaving like an asshole and a spoiled brat, and I hoped he would quickly find what he what he was looking for. He did. Prayers answered! He came out with twelve cigars totaling $109.42
Think about that for a moment. This guy, who is in his fifties, was about to lose his shit and make a scene like a child over burning his money—literally—on a specific style of cigar. I don’t make any judgments on how people spend their money. Regardless of our socioeconomic statuses we all enjoy a little frivolity, but frivolity is not the same as a necessity, and getting angry over something that won’t nurture your body and mind is a tad ludicrous—and I will offer a string of well worded judgments. I grew up on next to nothing, and had it not been for my great grandmother we all would have gone hungry living on the street. So fuck him and fuck his money. But I was outwardly civil to the man child because I wanted him out of the bar as quickly as possible.
Later on, at 5:00, my coworker, who relieves me at the end of my shift has an issue with being on time, was late. I called her, and after four rings, she picks up, “I’m on my way.” Click. I have to leave as soon as Ronnie gets here because we live on the other side of Indy, and traffic on the west end of 465 is always a cluster fuck. We’re still packing, and, on the days I have to work, the alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning. So we have little time to decompress before we have to go to bed. One of the regulars said I should look into Uber. I told him I don’t have that kind of money to spend, but he insisted the cost is next to nothing. So I researched Uber rates in Indy and the surrounding burbs. Uber would cost me anywhere between $15 and $60 depending on the travel plan, and there is the additional charge by the minute .15-.50 per minute. If there were no traffic issues it would take thirty-five minutes to get to my apartment. On a good day, there would be an additional 5.25 – 17.50 charge increasing the price range between $20 and almost $80. But I get off work Thursday and Friday at 5:00, and when Ronnie picks me up we have an hour drive because of traffic. If I took an Uber, depending on the plan, I would have an additional $9.00 to $30.00 travel cost–a one way trip that could cost me $90. The regular who insisted on the cheapness of Uber lives in the six figure income bracket and takes Uber around Avon–where he lives. He knows I live on the Southeast side, and still tells me it’s cost effective to use Uber. What kind of disposable income does he think I have? Not everyone has the extra income to be driven around like a Feudal lord overlooking his serfs.

To be completely fair, I am giving only a sampling of a specific demographic in Avon that comes through the bar when I’m here. The experiences are mixed and I would say about thirty percent of the people I interact with outside of the regulars can pass for decent people. The other seventy percent, I meet with a firm tone to remind them I am not from the burbs, and no amount of privilege gives them the right to treat people poorly so they should behave with courtesy. But overall, I do have a relaxing time here, and I do enjoy the regulars and the camaraderie they have for one another–and the kindness they show me. 

Hermeneutical Bopping

One morning, on her way to class, my sister in law noticed a car in the parking lot with a bumper sticker,”Religion is for people who are afraid of Hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve been through it.” She took the picture and sent it to me because the message reminded her of me and my story. I also think it a true statement that can be applied across the board beyond any denominational ties. Personally, I’ve friends who, when life became too real with divorce and the death of a parent, lost themselves in a prepackaged, conservative Christianity. The illusion of a black and white life and a relgion that comes with a check list is quite comforting like heroin. The salty, asprin drip in the back of the throat and vomiting are ignored while the body is doused in warm butter and slipped into a floating nirvana–until the devastating come down. But that is of no concern. The pushers are available with their get-your-most-out-of-God-in-thirty-days plan, and life can float by with narcotic ease–but for the right price. I’ve sympathy and empathy for these people, I really do. In my adolesence and early adulthood my life was completely unstable, and I dived head first into that empty concrete pool.
After a few years of wandering and breaking my teeth on the frontier, the black and white religion did not offer any satisfactory answers for me. I wanted something different.

In “Miles Ahead,” Mile Davis is sitting at his piano talking to a writer from Rolling Stone about his music. The genius of Davis is realized when he describes listening to and analyzing Stravinski. Once Davis learned the composer’s rules, he broke them, and that breaking brought us such albums as “Sketches of Spain,” “Boplicity,” and “The Complete Birth of Cool.” Davis’ opinion of Stravinski wasn’t lessened as he explored his own music. Stravinski was a teacher, and like all teacher/student relationships they must end so the student can leave and grow in applying the knowledge.

This is the nature of hymns, and Jazz and Blues. 

I am a sucker for those old hymns especially the ones written by Charles Wesley. I can hear the joy he has in his faith, and I can feel his love for God. Because the music is easy to sing, I am of the opinion Wesley wrote his hymns in such a way that he wanted everyone to participate regardless of their singing abilities. But the hymns are structured and liturgical, and they are an expression of his story and how he relates to God. Relying on another’s spiritual experience will not give life to your own spirituality.

Because of the individual expression, Jazz and Blues came out of the plantations. African-Americans were never treated with dignity or even as human in our culture, and their voice cries out to God through horns, keys, guitars, beats, and wails seeking justice. Jazz became the hearts unspeakable, broken groans. The Jazz that could be spoken became Gospel music, and out of Gospel music Blues branched out to explore the deeper pain and be free through its expression.

Hymns are in church dictating an already commodified spirituality. One size fits all. That works for an hour or two inside the church walls, but breaks with the struggles of Monday morning. God, faith, and belief cannot be contained in a dogmatic formula. The formulas do serve a purpose. Hymns inside church introduce us to God, but Jazz and Blues is us running out the church doors to catch up with God.

Once Charles Wesley taught me everything he could, I found John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Then I found Victor Wooten, Chris Potter, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra & His Arkestra. These guys haven’t caught God, but they have touched those divine heals. Except for Sun Ra. While everyone else is covered in God’s dust and shadow, Sun Ra is playing poker with God over a fifth of a 14yr Oban. Their spiritual teaching isn’t safe, but dangerous, smokey, and bloody. But that is the difference between hymns and Jazz, between religion and spirituality, between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus was beaten and killed, rose again with his scars intact. My friends, out of fear, hid in religion–hid in the illusion of safety. But there is no resurrection in safety, and there is no growth. Like Jazz, resurrection has no resolution, and keeps pushing the limits to break the barriers and find the arms of God.

Don’t Call it Jazz, Man


My introduction to Jazz was only in passing as a boy when I watched Charlie Brown and heard the theme music—but I didn’t know what to call it. My first real love, though was punk rock when I saw The Clash and The Ramones on MTV, and I drew comparisons to the Outlaw Country and Surf music my father listened to along with Motown from the 1960s my mother enjoyed. My mother blames a punk rock friend of mine I met in high school for my love of the fast beats and three chords, but she and my father laid down my musical foundation with twangy, soulful moans rocking back and forth with the ocean. She wouldn’t hear any of it. To acknowledge my points would cause her to face her own narrow mindedness. The point of all that back and forth was my love of all kinds of music while favoring specific styles, but I didn’t know the origins until I was in eighth grade.

In junior high my school offered a class called The History of American Music.  I instantly signed up for it because I am a sucker for origin stories. I thought the class would start with the birth of rock n roll in the 1950s, but I did not expect the class to begin on the plantations of the American South in the mid-19th century. My teacher made the argument, we read the books, and then watched videos. I knew enough about spirituals to know these were mournful prayers for deliverance and served as code for runaway slaves passing through to freedom. What I didn’t know was sixteen years after The Civil War in New Orleans, white musicians took the rhythm of the spirituals and the beats of the drums used by slaves, and created Jazz, but made it clear that no black man would ever play this music. These musicians disregarded the origins of their music and paid their rent with exploitation. This was the point of Langston Hughes in the 1920s when he brought up the amount of white people who danced to Jazz and played Jazz. He didn’t care so much that white people were part of Jazz, but they did nothing to solve the injustice inspiring Jazz.

We moved to the beginnings of Blues in the 1920s as a way of naming and singing the pain to be free from pain, the beginnings of Country and Western in the 1930s, and Bop in the 1940s. What blew away my mind, though, was the creation of rock n roll. Bill Haley synthesized Country & Western and Rhythm & Blues to create the song “Rock Around the Clock.”

I saw the creation of sub-genres like surf, Motown, Punk, and Hip Hop. The music I enjoyed and loved connected me to the sorrow of back breaking labor and marginalization. The same anger and contempt I heard in my Punk Rock, I could hear in Hip Hop, and a voice of many calling out in the urban wilderness for jubilee and justice. God didn’t go silent after the ascension of Jesus nor did the canon of God’s word close in the mid -4th century, but shrieked in my 20th century American concrete sprawl.

Jack Kerouac

I didn’t begin to appreciate Jazz or immerse myself into the music until I discovered the books of Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s writing was influenced by the Bop created by Charlie Parker. The reason Parker created Bop had to do with making beats so complicated that none of the white swing people could copy and commodify his music. Kerouac wanted to write like Parker blew. First thought, best thought which is the core of his Bop spontaneity, and the driving force behind On the Road. But I must point out that Kerouac romanticized Jazz and the hard life of the African-American trying to survive in a culture that hated them. James Baldwin had more than a few terse words regarding Kerouac’s treatment of African-Americans in his monumental work. African-Americans are not the child-like, magical saviors for disaffected, bored white people looking for kicks. That being said, though, Kerouac was searching for something more, but echoed the systemic racism of the country. For me, I knew enough to know I don’t understand, and I, like Kerouac, will say something unintentionally prejudiced, but I want to know. I want to join with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker to look for IT. To look for that divine source where all answers hum a benevolent truth granting shelter to the weary seeker.

miles ahead

My recent Jazz experience was in an AMC connected to a mall in Omaha, NE. It was April of 2016, and Don Cheadle’s mystical biopic of Miles Davis “Miles Ahead” was playing. The movie was brilliant and solidified my opinion of Cheadle’s talent in acting and directing. Ronnie and I bought our tickets at five ‘o’ clock for the seven ‘o’ clock showing, and went to the Half Price Books to look over some Beat literature of which they had plenty, but the store also had a tremendous Jazz selection. In the brief time we had, I purchased a box set of Miles Davis, and went to the theater. We were the only ones in the theater, and in the darkness I heard Miles Davis through Don Cheadle sitting with his back against a car door, “Don’t call it Jazz, man. That’s some made up word—it’s social music.” The movie ended with Miles Davis playing to a 21st century audience wearing a vest, and on the back of the vest, “#socialmusic.” The argument of the film is what Miles Davis said in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s still said something today. The social situation had not changed when Davis first picked up his horn, but the language did, and the rage could be felt in the modern expressions of hip hop and punk. Jazz, at its core, gives words to the indecipherable groaning of the broken heart. Jazz still speaks because hearts have not healed, but when hearts finally heal Jazz will not cease. The music will evolve and continue to be the rumbling human search for the divine.

Faith in the Absurd

This morning was like any morning. I woke up at quarter after six to make coffee, and prepare Ronnie’s breakfast and lunch for the day. Sunday through Tuesday, I don’t work so I use the van to go downtown and walk the canal. After I dropped her off the sky had that half and half effect where one side was a midnight blue and the other side a yellowish white as the sun shouted from the covering of the overcast blanket. There were a couple sprinkles, but that isn’t enough to stay inside. As I crawled north on West St towards New York with the rest of the morning traffic the sky had become completely dark, but there were still sprinkles–and it was still the same when I parked by MoJoe’s. After I used the restroom and ordered my tea for the walk I saw the purple flash of lightning. I turned around to see rain pouring over the asphalt and strong winds blowing the splattering drops transforming the corner of Michigan & Senate into a little ocean. The ebb and flow of the traffic has not slowed, and the cyclists zipping by were prepared with their bright rain coats on their back.

The weather this morning was a sticky 76 degrees with a high humidity. One would think the rain would bring relief, but this is Central Indiana in mid July. After the rain stops the humidity will rise with the temperature making the rest of the day oily and slick with all the sweat pouring off every body who has to be out in this mess. The weather is not permanent. Eventually the rain will stop, and before we know it the days will pass into Autumn, and the humidity will fall with the orange and brown leaves while the crisp air passes through them. Changing back and forth, but always making way for something new.

I think similarly when it comes to matters of faith. A member of my adopted family died for a couple seconds because of a heart attack, was brought back, and is now spending the next month or so recovering. He is a devout Catholic, and I so much want to here his perspective on faith now that he has faced death and lived to tell the tale. I won’t ask him anytime soon, though, but at some point I would like to sit with him and take notes while he talks.

I did something similar with my Pop two months before he died. It was a bright October day. I sat with my back to the patio door and Pop sat next to the television. It was Sunday, and The Colts were playing, but we weren’t paying attention. Pop had a consistently hard life with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. His life stayed difficult after he married my mom. Finances were a main thing, and Pop struggled to keep all his issues at bay. He never told anyone what he went through so when he became angry, people around him saw a foul tempered ass. At home my brother and I saw a raging demon frothing at the mouth as he used my head for a punching bag. Later on, and to his credit, he asked forgiveness but never brought up his abuses to excuse his behavior. He constantly  struggled and failed to break the violent cycle within himself–but he kept getting up and trying anyway. Now his life was ending hard. I was going through my own difficulties as well, and they were straining my relationships. Like my Pop, I struggled and failed constantly. He was sitting at Death’s door so I asked him, “Pop, does it get any easier?” He leaned back with his arms crossed over his chest and inhales the answer, “No. It gets harder. Besides, no one learned nothing from an easy life. I heard this preacher–I can’t remember his name–and he said if you’re going through life without any difficulties or worries then you need to stop and ask what it is you’re doing wrong.” I shook my head. It was a tough answer. I knew my father well enough to know he will always speak the truth as he understands truth. You may not like what he says, but he comes from a place of honesty. I recounted this to a friend  from church and she was taken aback, “Oh my god what a cynical answer!” Maybe, but she was living the cushy, corporate America life and had not faced any real tragedy at that point in time. Perhaps she regarded my father’s answer as cynical because she was doing something wrong.

Going beyond her, I think that is one of my main issues with Christianity. Difficulties are paid a cursory glance, and the stories of constant adversity are put aside for the stories of blessing. I’ve heard stories in churches where people talk about their lives before Jesus as down and out turning tricks for a fix downtown, but after Jesus they have a multimillion dollar house in the burbs with the spouse of their dreams, and they can cruise through life with hardly any bumps. Clap. Clap. Clap. Good for you, but what about many of us who don’t have those middle class connections and we have to struggle to keep our wits and faith in tact? Stories of difficulty do not sell the gospel even though Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33, NKJV).” Jesus’ ministry ended with him beaten and crucified. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said Jesus went through all this without the guarantee of resurrection, but had faith it would happen. I think this insight applicable. Just because you come to Jesus doesn’t mean he owes you any material blessing, but count yourself lucky should you reap material wealth.

Because of this failure within Christianity–and to be clear, I don’t mean Jesus–, I don’t see how the faith can handle the tragic moments. Sure it works when you have organic food in the fridge, and can travel wherever at a moment’s notice, but what about those times where you’ve lost everything, and the only thing you have is whatever is in your bag? In my opinion, faith lacks substance when it hasn’t been seasoned with fire. That’s why I got this book this past Sunday.

I’ve read Brad Warner’s books starting with Hardcore Zen. We’re close in age and were part of the hardcore music in the 1980s Midwest. Warner is quite conservative in his practice and how he lives as a Zen monk outside the monastery walls. He went through a series of tragedies that included his own marriage ending. What does practice and faith look like within the context of all that upheaval? Every person is different, we all have different thresholds for pain, and we also don’t express suffering in the same way. When I read or listen to people who suffer or have gone through suffering, I am not looking for the ultimate answer but a different perspective because the current perspective I have isn’t working. As my professor, Dr. Meyer said often, “I don’t want my pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, but my pound on the ground here and now.” Faith means nothing if it hasn’t fallen on the asphalt while beaten by the rain.

But that faith does not end in beathing. As I finish writing this the rain has stopped, the sky is lighter, and the trees are greener.

Faith doesn’t grant us the life of ease, but helps us to appreciate the good things because it has been stretched to the point of tearing after being cut by a lightning strike. Faith–Christian or Buddhist–is done a disservice when we try to sell it with privilege while ignoring the adversity. Faith brings joy and meaning in an otherwise absurd existence