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.

Don’t Call it Jazz, Man

jazz

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.

Caffeine and Coltrane

Sunday morning. 6:00. Why am I up at this hour? I closed the bar and left five hours earlier, and didn’t get home until 1:30. I couldn’t get to sleep until 2:30. Two hours before I closed the bar, I bought a Rocky Patel cigar aged five years for a new friend at a church I go to on Indy’s west side. He had a little girl last month, and I missed it, but I wanted to make it up by getting him a quality cigar. This particular cigar is sold for $7.99, but with my 30% discount, I got it for $5.65. I cut the closed end of the cigar with a V-clip, put it in a bag with some matches, and a little humidor pack that would keep the cigar fresh for days. When the bar closed, I poured myself a 16 yr Lagavulin Islay single malt Scotch on the rocks, put on Miles Davis’ “The Complete Birth of the Cool” album, counted out the money, did an end of night batch on the credit card machine and the cash register, did some last minute dishes, and swept.

I was in a hurry to get out of the bar because I wanted to get up at 7:00 so I could go to the 8:00 mass at St. John’s downtown and say a prayer for a friend who was in the hospital recovering from heart attack, and I wanted to pray for his wife and daughters also. After I set the alarm, I realized I forgot my water bottle. I had sixty seconds to lock the door so I ran to the counter and grabbed the water bottle. The cigars was next to the bottle, and I forgot it. When I got on I-465, I remembered the cigar.

It was too late to go back so I decided I would come back to the bar and grab the cigar in the morning before mass. This meant I would have to get out of bed at 6:00 because the bar was in Avon—a west side suburb, and a forty minute drive one way from my apartment. Avon is also a pain in the ass to drive to because no matter what time of day or night there are people on Rockville Rd/US 36 who will drive five to ten miles an hour below the 45 mph speed limit. I’ve a friend who works at a church in Avon, but lives on the North East side in the Castleton area, and he told me he takes Morris—that turns into county road 100 after you pass Raceway Dr into Hendricks County. There are still a few people on this road but not as many as 36 where everyone is at a slow crawl. Even though it is early in the morning, I went on Morris anyway. The sun was coming up, but the moon was still visible and full, floating over the clouds made pink by the rising sun.

Like most cities when you leave them there is no subtle transition to a rural setting. House, house, house, then, BAM!!! Corn and barley fields, and the possibility of a deer leaping out in front of an unexpected driver. There is a slight warning in the roundabout at Raceway, but after you go west there is nothing but fields.

Coltrane

To keep myself awake and alert, I put on my Coltrane Extravaganza playlist. The playlist consists of six albums beginning with “A Love Supreme” and ending with a compilation “Six Original Albums.” The first song to play off “A Love Supreme” was “Part 1 – Acknowledgment”, and the intro feels like a sunrise with the crashing cymbals and winding saxophone. Coltrane doesn’t simply announce the sun coming over the horizon, but he is in the chariot with Apollo pulling out the sun with his sax as Apollo races across the sky. Coltrane sought God in his music, but he joined the pantheon of gods blessing all of us from his lofty height. The music shakes me from my borderline slumber, and gives me the necessary alertness to pass a driver on a double lined road who is going 30 mph on a 40 mph road, and there is no one else driving. He could be tired, or he could think Jesus gives a shit about how fast he drives. Either way I have much to accomplish this morning, and I don’t want to pause for a second lest I drift away and drive my little van off the side of the road.

Once I get to the bar and grab the cigar, I see Apple Bagels, two doors down, is open and the time is only 6:50—I have enough time to get a little something. Apple Bagels, I think, try too hard to be Einstein Bagels, and I can taste the maximum effort. The food is close, but nowhere near to Einstein’s level. If there were one close by, I would go to that because the bagels are better and the coffee doesn’t taste like it has been set out for a day, but I’m outside of Indy where something with a Jewish name would annoy the WASPs. At the moment, I need something in my stomach and I need some coffee. I get a cinnamon raisin bagel, and a chocolate flavored coffee. To take out the sting of bad taste, I pour in six creams and six raw sugars. The coffee isn’t much improved, but it’s still better than if I had left it black.

On my way downtown to mass, I’m listening to Coltrane’s “Blue Train” album while pouring the coffee down my throat. When I arrived to St. John’s the time is 7:35. I take out a few dollars to stuff down the collection bank to pay for the candles I am about to light, and say a prayer for my adopted family.

I consider myself very much a Catholic—albeit a liberal one, but a Catholic nonetheless—, but after the election, I rarely go to mass because most—not all—Catholic churches I have been to in Indy care more about toeing the line of the Republican Party than being an example of Jesus in the community. I also know that a conservative interpretation of Catholic teaching suggests missing mass is a mortal sin, and I understand that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2168-2185. I also understand the statement from 2181, “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” This is where I differ. In the section on defining sins and its varying degrees, 1850 points out a willful rejection of God’s will by anyone as sin, “[A] revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods.’” My refusal to attend mass as nothing to do with determining my own will in life, but a desire to have an encounter with Jesus. I think many churches—and not just the Catholic Church—in Indy, Jesus has left the building, or the people kicked him out because loving their neighbor became too much when he demanded the love of their Muslim neighbor. Nonetheless, I went because I wanted to light candles, and I know there are people who join in praying for whomever the candles are lit. I knelt in front of the statue of Mary taking in the artist’s depiction of her as the compassionate adopted mother to all who follow Jesus. I prayed and asked God to look out for my adopted family, and I asked The Blessed Mother to pray for all of us involved.

After mass there were coffee, orange juice, and doughnuts on the tables in the narthex. I needed to leave for a friend’s church, and I didn’t have time to wait in line for coffee. I grabbed an orange juice, slammed it, got into my van, and left. I only drove west on the interstate for a few minutes before I got off the exit at Holt Rd. There was a McDonald’s at the corner, and I pulled in to get a large coffee to take with me to the church. I pull into the church parking lot with Coltrane’s “Black Pearls” album blaring and walk in with bloodshot eyes and coffee breath. The reason I’m at the church is not just to drop off a cigar, but also to attend a new Sunday School class that my new friend just started and leading. His approach isn’t to have a set curriculum nor is his class about pulling from the bible and parroting specific doctrinal interpretations. The bible is a collection of stories of people and how they experienced God—that’s their story. Our story will vary. The point is to share what life has been like the previous week, good or bad, and look for what Jesus is doing. My new friend comes from a hard life. He was a gangbanger in Mars Hill, a white ghetto on Indy’s southwest side, and I come from the east side. Though, I have never been involved in gangs or been approached by gangs, my neighborhood was a mixture of gangbangers and retired cops. Nothing terrible ever went down in the neighborhood, but I would hear about gang activity from my neighborhood friends. We discussed racism and the difference in how racial slurs are used in an urban setting versus a rural setting.

As we talked one of the ladies got up and left the classroom saying she needed some sugar and caffeine from Mt. Dew to stay awake, but that was dishonest, and I think this lady was dishonest because she was afraid to say something to us. My new friend’s wife passed her in the hallway and was told, “I came here to listen to the bible, and not to any of this gang shit. I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” While were talking about how our past lives still affect us today, and how we’re seeking Jesus even when we fall, another lady comes in to the classroom. She shares about her life and her frustrations with her son. Her son is twelve and stealing. He always steals, has been arrested, released, and repeats. She’s at her wits end because she has tried everything with her son to get him to stop stealing. We all agreed something is going on, the boy doesn’t know how to process all the negative things in his life and acts out, but his mom and her husband give him a safe place—and a stable place. We’re not about the clean and fair life, though that would be nice, but that isn’t our world. That’s not where we live. We speak to each other in prayers and continue to pray for one another while doing something tangible in the moment to offer a slight reprieve.

The class ended at 10:15, but I had to cut out to go pick up Ronnie and go to the hospital to see one of the members of our adopted family who had a heart attack on Friday. He was being released that day, and would go home to recover. As I pull in to my apartment complex, my playlist is at a close. The coffee cup is empty. The prayers are not resolved nor does Coltrane conclude his thought. There is no conclusion to Coltrane’s music. What some would call an ending he calls a pause in thought. Thankfully, I found a pause in mass and a pause in the Sunday School class, and we all had a comforting pause when we saw our guy come out of his room all smiles and walking like he never had a heart attack. Somewhere in the swirling harmony of my coffee, prayers, and Coltrane, God blew in some grace. God seemed to have granted our guy’s wife and daughters a little more time with him. In between breaths and gasps, the time between a tear forming in the eye and falling into the ground there is mercy. There is a reminder we are not alone even when we sit solitary in a waiting room. There in that frozen second split in two there is a song that will never quite finish as Coltrane decides on the next chord taking the sun to different horizons.