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.

It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity

Portland-Oregon

It’s hot, but heat is relative to where you live—and heat varies depending on the region. When I complain of the heat, I am speaking  as one who lives in Central Indiana next to the White River. What makes the heat unbearable to me is the humidity. Ninety degrees  isn’t just ninety degrees, but an additional twenty to thirty degrees from a towel soaked in hot water placed on my head, wrapped around my face, and covering my body. This effect produces an oily, squishy feeling in every crease of my body—sloshing and spattering  with every movement I make at work or walking to my shift as a volunteer. What I inhale stays in my nose caking and becoming gelatinous. The experience is complete misery. So you can imagine the relief I felt walking around Portland, OR in the summer.

In Portland, OR ninety degrees is hot, but the temperature is simply ninety degrees. Don’t misunderstand , I still felt discomfort, but one of the beautiful things about Portland in the summer is the Pacific Ocean. I assumed living next to the Willamette River would have the same effect as living next to the White River in Indiana, but such was not the case to my surprise. When I talked to some of the people at the Shambhala Center they told me the Pacific Ocean—only an hour away—knocked out the humidity in Portland. Though the sun beat upon my head and arms, and the streets toasted the soles of my feet through my rope sandals, I wasn’t a slimy, oily mess. While Ronnie and I waited for the bus at 52nd & Gladstone we chit chatted with a woman who told us that day was the hottest Portland had been in decades.  I chuckled and motioned my hand downwards, “Oh, honey, I don’t mean to one up you, but I’m from Indianapolis, and we have to deal with the weight of humidity in addition to the heat. Compared to what I am used to, this is lovely.” We laughed and talked more. When we got on the bus, we breathed easier because of the air conditioning. Ronnie and I took off our rucksacks, sat down, and gave our knees and backs some much needed rest until our next stop.

Warren Central

Bullying has had the same effect on me. I know, it’s surprising that someone who is 6”8, and has always been a head taller than his classmates, was the object of bullying. Beginning in elementary school, I was expected to always act older by the teachers because I looked like I was twelve when I was eight. How many eight year olds do you know that are 5”6? That was a terrible inconvenience, but nothing compared to the treatment I received in high school when I skyrocketed to 6”4. Because of my size, I should have played football, but I loathe any organized sport, and wanted nothing to do with such things. I preferred going to shows, reading, and getting my hands on any punk rock or hardcore. Aside from the condescension and resentment teachers gave me, the students took it upon myself to come after me and make my life a living hell. Beating on a giant improved street credibility, and would have meant something had I wanted to fight back. I’m not fighter. I’m not really hardcore. By the strictest, current, arbitrary definition, I am not masculine—though I tried to be to the derisive amusement of my classmates. Things became worse when, in American Lit, we read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I began to be taunted as Lenny, and treated as stupid—even my teachers joined in with the ridicule. There was no safe space for me to go to. At home, I faced scorn from my great grandmother and my great aunt, resentment from my mother because I was a mistake, and my father’s fist when he lost his temper. At church, I was expected to take everything that was dealt to me, and when I spoke up, I was threatened by one of the pastor’s sons. In response, I shut down whatever emotion remained, and retreated into my mind.

Horizon Christian Fellowship

In my mind, I could tear apart books, devour the knowledge, and defend myself. I learned from the best at home, and I had no lines other than my personal survival. I became the intellectual equivalent of a little man going into the gym and going to BJJ classes because he has a chip on his shoulder and has something to prove. Nothing to prove to the people in his life, but to the demons that remained long after home, school, and church vanished. Unfortunately, how that translates into the present is something volatile, something destructive, and set on a hair trigger. But that is not with everything. Nowadays, it’s only limited to Christianity.

When I returned to school, I went into religious studies so I could have the academic equivalent of brass knuckles to break the jaw of any Christian who felt justified in attacking me or people in my life. During my academic career, I realized I was right to reject the religion that had been presented to me, and that should have been a turning point in letting go. It wasn’t. Because I had greater intellectual resources, I publicly shamed the bullies and backed them into a corner where they responded with ad homiem attacks or they were humiliated into silence.  When one person used their brand of Christianity to insult a friend of mine, I jumped in and educated them on their doctrinal history, and citing sources while I pointed out the errors of their stance. I ended with, “Before you make another comment could you please do some further research into Church history and theology so as to spare yourself some embarrassment? Thanks.” I write this to my shame.

Moby Dick

I can spin this into a noble reason of triumph over ignorance and heresy, but the truth of the matter is, and I hate to admit it, I still hate Christianity for the wounds I have received in its name. I have become Ishmael crippled and blinded by an irrational desire to hunt down Moby Dick, and slay that whale for taking my leg. We all know how that story ends. The ship is obliterated, and all but the narrator of the story have perished. Is it worth killing myself over a machine that has been operating since the mid-4th century? I would say, no. I do get some kind of juicy pleasure when I write and name names, or when I intellectually stick it to people from churches that hurt me. But I get no justice. Vengeance feels good like a shot of rye whiskey, but offers no balance. My desire for revenge has turned me into those bullies who made my life a living hell. I’m continuing the cycle while destroying myself in the process.

Nietzsche said, “In order to fight the monsters you must act like the monster, but be careful to not become the monster—you stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back into you.” I had become the monster. The abyss had filled me, and I didn’t even realize it. I’ve studied Buddhist meditation, and I’ve been to counseling, but more work needs to be done. I have tasted the ocean air and felt the freedom of peace of other people who go about their lives avoiding conflict and embracing compassion, but I can barely breathe through this soaked towel and my vision is clouded—I see men as trees walking. I want that freedom, though, and I want that peace and I want to feel compassion. I want to care. There is much to unlearn and to learn. In no way do I blame my current psychological struggles on my family, high school, or the church. At some point we make a choice, and the consequences are our own, but sometimes we need help with our learning process. Sometimes we need to be shown how to unwrap the towel so we can see our path. The heat is never the problem. It’s the humidity, and sometimes we need to make that move away from our present climate to feel the world as is without the masks and filters feeding our insecurities.

Portland Cares

A few days ago, I was saddened to hear about the three stabbing victims on a Portland MAX(train), two of which died. Jeremy Joseph Christian, who is a white supremacist, attacked a woman in a hijab while three stood up to defend her. He told CNN he hoped his victims died and that Portland needs to wake up to free speech. My mind went all over the place, but kept hitting one point. The only time I have seen white supremacy flourish has been in areas where there are only white people. I saw it in Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, and Nebraska where such speech is not met with immediate consequences. Portland seems to be under that sway being 98% white, but there are many people who live there who will resist the hate and defend the victims. That’s a fair sight better than the places where I lived an walked: Indianapolis’ East Side, East St. Louis, and South Side Chicago. If anyone walked into those area shouting racist epitaphs and attacking people of color, those racist would quickly find themselves on the business end of a twelve gauge or a nine.

Warren Central

Two years after I graduated high school my brother was a Junior, and came across a Nazi skinhead–the only Nazi skinhead in Warren Central–who dressed the part with his shin high red doc martens with the white laces, tightly cuffed blue Levi’s, and a white shirt. In between classes this guy would stand in the hallway shouting “sieg heil!” My brother told him to knock it off or he might end up in the hospital. In the early to mid-90s when my brother and I went to Warren, white people were the minority–not by too much, though only 60/40. Racism existed, but racist comments, for the most part, were kept close to the chest. To utter such things would cause the same kind of riot that happened in my Junior year. The guy wouldn’t listen, and kept yelling out his Nazi sentiments.

During that time there was construction taking place on the tunnel connecting the school to Walker Career Center. Walker Career Center is something akin to a trade school where people can learn skills such as printing, typing, welding, electrical work, and mechanical work to prepare them for a job after graduation. Getting to class on time from the Career Center to the school, or vice versa was next to impossible–many people ran. Depending on the weather kids will walk through the tunnel or walk outside. There were many pieces and tools around the jobsite such as two by fours and lead pipes, and one afternoon, in between class, the Nazi was beaten to a pulp with fists, pieces of wood, and pipes. I never advocate violence of any kind, but when things like that happen, the attacking party has a legitimate grievance. Obviously, such a response does not curtail racism, but a racist will think twice before he or she will assert their stance. Three men stood up for the young lady in the hijab, and two gave their life so that a woman could live in safety. Today, people rallied together in downtown Portland to march against hate. This is the better response.

This is the Portland where I lived and loved.

Portland-Oregon

When Ronnie and I lived in Portland we were on the southeast side off Powell & SE Cesar Estrada Chavez. It’s a beautiful side of town a mile north of Reed College, and a ten minute bus ride from downtown. We didn’t have our little van at that point, and Ronnie and I got around Portland using the MAX and buses. Living in Portland, we didn’t need a car anyway—and neither did most of the residents. The people who did drive usually came from Vancouver, WA, fifteen minutes north, or from surrounding suburbs. Everyone else made use of bikes, electric bikes, longboards, or the mass transit system. Almost everyone had a rucksack of different shapes and sizes to store their computers, wallets, phones, food, water, and whatever else would be problematic to carry by hand. I did it when I lived in downtown Indy when I would ride my bike to the Ivy Tech campus or take the bus if the weather turned nasty. Rucksacks are as essential as Ford Prefect’s towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—always have your rucksack. Walking around Portland, I felt like I was living in Kerouac’s “rucksack revolution” as stated in The Dharma Bums. In the morning, Ronnie and I would pack our laptops, folders, books, water, and food, and take the bus to Southeast Grind to drink coffee while looking for jobs and apartments.

Southeast Grind 1

There is a parking lot behind Southeast Grind, but it can only hold a few cars so most people take the bus or ride their bikes. Walking in to the coffee shop there is a waist high barrier on the right, and on the left is a cork message board at eye level—both sides are covered with local music events, art shows, rallies, etc. Walking up to the cash register to place our order there is a bar where people sat hunched over the computers writing and reading while talking to the barista. Behind them there are metal tables and chairs, couches, and cushy chairs, and outlets are numerous for phone chargers and computer plugs. Most of the people there are from the neighborhood, students from University of Portland and Reed, and they are typing away at their computers like a trumpet player clicking his keys while blowing to get the right chord. Many people sit there for hours and well into the night because Southeast Grind is a twenty-four coffee shop. Brilliant!

Southeast Grind 2

A coffee shop opened all day and all night, and filled with artists and students does cultivate a warm energy, but that is not why we liked going there. Portland is extremely affluent, and the economic disparity is blatant. Portland has one of the highest homeless rates in the country with something close to 2,000 people sleeping on the streets. When Ronnie and I would go downtown to the farmer’s market we saw people sleeping on the benches in dirty clothes as people walked by. We saw the same thing at a Buddhist festival in a park near the Willamette River. Driving around downtown at four in the morning, we also two homeless guys beating each other for a corner. Because of gentrification rent is extremely high—over $1,000 for a studio apartment no bigger than a bedroom, and employment opportunities are slim to none. It’s not fun to be poor and struggling in Portland, but what I noticed is no one struggles alone.

As Ronnie and I sat on our computers in Southeast Grind, I noticed a homeless guy walk in with a guy in a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. They sat at the bar, and the guy in sandals ordered them both a coffee drink and the homeless guy a sandwich. I caught the conversation, and was surprised to learn that Sandalman didn’t know the homeless guy. Sandalman saw the homeless guy on the street and offered to buy him some coffee and a sandwich because the homeless guy was a fellow human being. Sandalman’s attitude is a common thing in Portland. That is one of many acts of kindness I have seen throughout Portland, and when Ronnie and went to regular services at Shambhala Center the people there were fully accepting of us—I even met some guys who were friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There is genuine compassion and a genuine desire to help others because what I saw from Portland is we are all in this together. Portland is called the “Rose City” because of its environmental beauty, but the beauty of the people are what constantly blooms regardless of the season and weather.