Last night a former student from my youth ministry days (back in 2000- 2003) called me. He has grown up to be a young man that I am quite proud of; and I am happy to have been a part of his spiritual journey. He invited me to an Easter Vigil at his parish as he is joining the Roman Catholic Church. He said he felt he has finally found his place.
He also said he felt compelled to share a passage of scripture with me, for me to meditate on. He said he had taken note the difficult time I have been going through and meant this as a word of encouragement. It was the last thing I read before I went to bed last night and I read it again this morning:
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:34-38).
Here is the context: Peter has just had his roof top vision of God’s inclusive mercy. Peter went up on a roof top to pray and he had become hungry. Then he had a vision of heaven opening up and a large sheet being lowered down full of all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air: read foods that were considered unkosher to eat. For Peter this metaphoric vision translates into a new understanding of the scope and depth of God’s Mercy and the wideness in God’s kingdom vision, as to include Jews and Gentiles and indeed in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right.
This morning another friend, a sista, a preacher and a wonderful seminary colleague inboxed me with a word, a word she once shared with another friend and ministry colleague whose time and ministry was cut short. She has now passed it on to me. As I read I felt as I imagine Elisha might have as he picked up the mantle of Elijah. She wrote:
God has a special place for you to live out your call. It’s a place where broken people want to be put back together, to feel strong, to feel proud. It’s a place where rejects remember but what it feels like to be accepted. Its a place where people who don’t even know how to love are able to receive love again. It was a place that only you would know how to pastor.
Placement. We all desire it. We all crave it. We all need it. We have invented a world of prime time television where we can live out this desire vicariously: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” We create sitcoms and dramas where the family dysfunction and banality of the work place that we all know so well becomes a place people are accepted and able to make familial, romantic or professional relationships work despite – and sometimes even because of – the flaws, quirks or idiosyncrasies of our favorite characters.
We also seek it out in virtual communities:Facebook, twitter, blogs, Pinterest or an online gaming alternative universe. And I do not want to diminish the power of social media to connect us, and even to be used to change us, or our world. But nothing, absolutely nothing beats the real thing: Entering into the messiness of real life human relationships and all of the dirt and conflict and mess that is inevitable if and when we so chose to open our hearts to love these other fleshy creatures who more often than not are more like ourselves than we would wish (probably the source of a lot of our conflict actually).
But if we can enter into those kind of relationships in an atmosphere permeated with grace, acceptance and unconditional love, well that truly is a piece of “Heaven on earth.” My story, unlike so many who I know have been so deeply wounded in the church is exactly that, one of finding a home. A place. When conflicts beyond my ability to cope with in my family of origin would arise (which was often) I ran to the church. I was literally taken in off of the streets by a youth pastor for well over a month when I had no place else to go. While it was never perfect, and there were times I felt I had to hide my imperfections, idiosyncrasies or true parts of my identity, it still somehow was enough. It was enough for me to develop a vision for ministry like the one described above. It was enough for me to develop a sense of place and a desire to work for a world were others never go without one.
After 8 years of school, denominational exams on top of that, and a lifetime of student debt to look forward to one can – as I did momentarily – develop a sense of self that says, ‘Okay, there you go, God, Church, World I have done all of this for you! Now provide me a place of ministry for me ASAP.’ Ahh, but that would be to easy and too contrary to the story I’ve known, the laments I have encountered and the vision I have been given. But the good news is that this last two years of feeling completely and utterly without place, without home have only strengthened my resolve to be in a place where I can partner with the right group of people in casting a vision of a place, a church, a home, a world where all are truly welcome; a place where grace permeates, where the oppressed are healed, and where there is a palpable sense that God is with us when we are with each other.
I am still trying to process the day. I drove out to Holland to go to church by myself this morning. It was good to see a few people whom I love dearly and to be reminded of their love for me. Then I got in the car and Supertramp’s “Take the Long way Home” came on. So I did what I felt I had to do. I drove a little over an hour south-east to Middleville, the town where I grew up (or at least the place where I spent my youth).
I drove through the old half circle drive in front of the blue and white double wide on N. M-37 Highway. The people who bought the place have it looking really nice these days. A new porch on the front of the trailer, some fresh color and the yard looks nice. I hope my slow drive through wasn’t too creepy for the people who live there now. It looked like they were home. Part of me really wanted to ask to see the inside of the house or see if I could go sit down by the old lilac tree tree where I used to spend hours praying and listening to Ice Cube (yes sometimes at the same time).
I then went to Mount Hope Cemetery. I spent some time at the resting places of two former youth group students, my Grandma on my Dad’s side, my Grandfather on my Mom’s side and of course my mom. I cried, I laughed, I apologized and I confronted.
I drove slowly through town, past the some of the places that haunt me most: my old high school, the elementary school. There are people who are still living who are like ghosts to me. They haunt my dreams more than those who are resting. Those 12 formative years of free lunch, government cheese and being called fat everyday as if it were some sort of revelation that I had somehow missed when I looked in the mirror, they were the worst years of my life.
This past year I have often felt lost, lonely and out of place trying to find a church to serve, doing endless interviews and having my seminary expectations severely challenged, if not shattered. But the truth is – while times might be scary and money might be tight – I know something I did not know then: myself. And though we are now living with Erin’s parents and I have no place to call my own, I feel with Erin, Rena and Liam something I never quite felt in Middleville: at home. It only took about 35 years. But sometimes we have to take the long way home.
This is probably the hardest Mothers Day for me since the first one after my mom died in September of 2004. My siblings and I are the first in our family on either side to go to college. Last year at this time we celebrated my little brother finishing a BA in graphic design. My baby sister is currently working on a degree in education. I am so proud of them both. Tomorrow I graduate from Seminary. Mom would be proud of us all.
The final step of completing my M.Div was writing an autobiographical statement of faith called “Credo.” For me this turned out to be a 57 page document in 5 chapters (to put things into perspective that is a little over 20,000 words or about 80 pages in a typical non-fiction book at 250 words/page). The following is an excerpt from my first chapter. Happy mothers day Mom:
My mother modeled a deep faith for me most of my life. She was raised Roman Catholic but quit the church for a number of years. In my early childhood she began taking me and my younger brother and sister to worship every Sunday, whether my father went or not. It was a decisive breaking with her Catholic upbringing. We attended a variety of congregations, but always in a Protestant and decidedly revivalist tradition. My mom taught Sunday school, worked in the church nursery and attended Bible studies. She also suffered from depression and traumatic memories. She wrestled with God every day; sometimes just waking up was a struggle. I didn’t know it growing up but I actually come from a long line of folks who have wrestled with God.
I am part of a deep and wide family of faith that encompasses the Roman Catholic Church that my mother rejected as well as the revivalists and evangelical communities from which I have inherited my piecemeal faith. This faith family traces their lineage all the way back to the Patriarch Abraham of the Hebrew scriptures. At our worst this family is like any family at their worst – like my family of origin, like Abraham’s family – full of discord and rife with infighting. At our best we find ourselves – like Abraham’s descendent Jacob at the river Jabbok- wrestling, with no one less than the God of the universe in a front-headlock and the divine hand on our hip socket. We find ourselves pleading, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” In that process we like Jacob, come away limping. But, with a blessing and our identities altered, we limp towards a better future.
That’s me as Ebenezer Scrooge in the film version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
Okay, that’s not really me it’s Alastair Sim in the 1951 film version (I actually much prefer the the 1984 tv production with the incomparable George C. Scott).
But it is who I aspire to be to my family and friends this Christmas. I fear I have increasingly become a “Scrooge” this time of year the last five years or so.
I watched Jim Carrey and Disney’s rendition of A Christmas Carol with my daughter the other day and a number of things occurred to me for the first time. It was the first time I realized that Dicken’s tale has a lot in common with Jesus’ parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus, namely warnings from beyond the grave to miserly loved ones to change their ways.
It was also the first time I really took note how much the Ghost of Christmas past is showing Ebenezer about the formation of his unfortunate way of life and his aversion to Christmas. It wasn’t that his friend and business partner Jacob Marley died on Christmas Eve one year and Ebenezer then became a miser over night. The ghost of Christmas past shows a window into a world of a young Ebenezer who was abandoned by his father and withdrawn from his classmates with only his sister as an interested family member and friend. The wall of self protection and fortress of wealth he tries to build around himself loses him the love of his fiancée Belle, at Christmas time of course. There was the death of his sister. And finally, the death of Marley.
I have not reproached anybody with “Bah, humbug” or insisted that “anybody who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on their lips should be boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stick of holly through their heart;” but I have not really kept Christmas in my heart very well for some time now. I have went to most of the Christmas dinners, parties and gift exchanges I have been invited to by family and friends. But I have not decorated my own home or (gulp) even bought anything for my wife in several years.
Making a conscious decision to be different this year has had me doing a lot of self examination as to where and when my own aversion to Christmas started. The closest and most obvious things of course occurred to me first. My mom passed away in September of 2004. Her birthday is two days before Christmas and Christmas has not been the same since. This coupled with a (semi)legitimate complaint about the capitalist, Hallmark exploitation of the Holiday with Advent being almost entirely swallowed up in that, has been my excuse. But protesting Christmas on moral or religious grounds only finds me sharing much more in common than I would ever wish with the fundamentalist spirit that it is part of my life’s mission to avoid.
And well, I guess I could say a Ghost of Christmas past has showed me that my ambivalence towards Christmas started for me – like it did for Ebenezer Scrooge – as a young boy. When I was a little boy my mom made sure almost every year that there was an incredibly ridiculous abundance of gifts wrapped up in pretty paper beneath our Christmas tree. Of course as a small child I really liked this. I didn’t like the one Christmas I can remember when my mom couldn’t get much and the church we were members of brought us each one Christmas gift. But the following year it was business as usual: a new stereo, new head phones, a stocking full of candy and cassette tapes for the new stereo.
As each year my mother’s religious convictions about the meaning of Christmas became more and more my own convictions, I noticed a great conflict between the homeless infant we declared the meaning of the season and excessive materialism in the way we celebrated it. I also noticed more and more that it was not that we were broke just that one Christmas when the church brought us our gifts. We were always broke. We lived on school free lunch and government cheese for goodness sake. It was just that most Christmases my mom chose to max out credit cards and/or overdraft the checking account to get us all of the increasingly expensive things on the Christmas lists of three children. As time went on I realized a few more things. My dad never really celebrated Christmas with buying gifts. My mom usually bought herself a couple of things and designated my dad as the giver of the gifts. And finally, my parents biggest fights, periods of separation and my father’s biggest alcoholic binges usually began in January (right before my birthday) with a quarrel over money spent on Christmas presents.
In addition to all of this, I have been a full time student since the fall of 2003 (a year before my mom died). And this has usually helped guaranty two things each Christmas: As a one-income family we are usually broke by the time we buy gifts for three different family gatherings. And secondly, each year I would wear down my body with stress, lack of sleep and overnighters, cramming for finals and writing papers every year the week before Christmas and almost certainly be sick the week of Christmas.
So, the mourning of my mom and my disgust over exploitation of the holiday have been only partial explanation for my lack of yuletide spirit. But as I said, I am really trying to be different this year. I wish I could say I am not sick and I am not broke this Christmas. But that would be untrue. And I guess that would be an insufficient test of my resolve to be more graceful, patient and kind this Christmas. I want to be full of the exuberance and joy I knew as a child. But for now I am happy to not be so angry.
Last year on my mom’s birthday, two days before Christmas, I watched a dear friend of mine who lived with a great deal of heartache and anger stumble out the door in a drunken stupor. He refused my couch as a place to crash and sober up. He died a couple of days after Christmas. He drank himself to death. In many ways he is like my Jacob Marley. Except for, unlike Marley, I believe he is finally at peace. Nonetheless, his life, death and visits in my dreams have all beckoned me to deal with my pain and my anger differently, constructively and to allow myself to love and be loved in return.
So here is to trying. This year Christmas dinner is at my house (for the first time ever in my adult life). Stockings are hung, the tree is decorated. I even managed to set aside a little something for a gift for my wife before the annual, inevitable Christmas bankruptcy set in. I can’t wait to see the faces of my two small children this year as they open up their gifts for the fist time at home on Christmas morning. I am resolved to be more communicative to my in-laws this holiday. I hope my mother-in-law who has been the sole motherly presence in my life for the last five years knows how much I appreciate all she does for us. And I hope I can conduct myself with more tact and grace this year in the presence of my siblings, my father and his wife.
Most of all, I just want them all to know that, despite often failing in communicating it, I do love them dearly. I am slowly but surly learning to love myself. And, I hope and pray to “lean into” the peace on earth and goodwill toward all that is the true gift of this holiday season, and keep it in my heart beyond the season.
God bless us, everyone.
Happy birthday to my dad and Jay-Z. My dad hates rap. But he does like the Beatles a little bit; so in his honor here is the Danger Mouse remix of Jay’s “December 4″
[If you don't have The Grey Album (the Danger Mouse mash up of Beatles' White Album and Jay's Black Album) you can check it out here.]
Almost all of my best memories of my dad have to do with music. He passed his love for sad country songs and classic rock down to me and I am forever grateful for it. I think he also inadvertently contributed to my love for hip hop by being largely absent the first 14 years or so of my life. It was the genre’s general esteem for mothers and low regard for fathers that first turned me on. I played 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” and “Papa’z Song” so many times growing up; I was the cliché of the sad white boy in the double wide who thought he could relate more than he really could.
But my dad is really not a bad guy. I understand that now. Half of the time that he wasn’t there, he was out on the road traveling up and down the state of MI working road construction to support his family. The other half he was getting drunk in attempt to kill the demons he had from a childhood far worse than the one I had. He saw darkness in his day that he made damn sure my siblings and I would not see. And for all of this I respect the hell out of him.
And well, I love him. He is after all my dad. I suppose none of this is really unique or revelatory. But it is all stuff that has been really real to me, my pain, my confusion, my shit to sort out. And part of my healing and my growth is to care more about his current happiness and well being than the pain of my past. And I do. And I want to make sure he knows that before he fades to black. So happy Birthday dad. And happy Birthday Shawn Carter.
“And if you can’t respect that your whole perspective is wack.”