Posted in Beauty, Health

The Deep

This is one of the oldest, most natural and primitive of human fears. It is the tohu wa-bohu (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ‎) that was in “the deep” better translated as chaos than “formless and void” in the Genesis myth. It is why ancient myths predating that had gods carving up the world out of conquered sea monsters or serpents.

It is almost always true that when I am not writing as much as I would like on the interwebs, I have not been writing enough elsewhere: In that journal that sits by my bedside and in my poetry journal. I have a tendency to forget the importance of processing life as it happens. Really, it’s not so much that I forget. It’s more like I am afraid of what I’ll write. As a species, we humans have conquered the void. We’ve sailed to the “edges” of the earth. We can board a plane and sail on wings, high above the sea, and travel to another continent in a day. Most of us believe, we even put a man on the moon. What I think a lot of us are really afraid of – what I am really afraid of – is the sea of chaos that resides within: the anxiety, the fear, the painful memories, the wonder, the mystery, our great potential to both heal and destroy.

My eight years of academic training in religion primarily consisted of writing research papers on some topic of dispute in Christian circles. I was trained to do weeks of research and reading, weighing and considering three sides to every story, before I sat down to write. I would evaluate all of the possible data and opinions I could find. I would read twelve different translations of a single Bible passage or study multiple theological positions about everything from “predestination” to human sexuality. And then I would sit down to tentatively write a paper. Almost everything began with a title that hung my weeks’ of preparation, investigation and my hesitancy out for my professors and my peers to see. Everything was: Towards a Theology of… [fill in the blank with divisive theological or social issue].

I can’t fully blame the training. It only reinforced a fearful and hesitant predisposition. My professors always encouraged me to argue more, to take more of a stand on an “issue.” But when I did it seemed to get me in trouble. Like when I turned in an “extremely well written” final paper exploring the instructions for warfare in Deuteronomy 20. I contended, and still do, that there is no way a god of love would ever command “holy war” or instruct for women and young girls to be taken, listed right next to livestock, as spoils of war. My professor found me to be “treading into heretical waters” but still gave me an A for arguing clearly and concisely.

Fortunately and unfortunately for me, writing is the primary way I process life. And I have often approached life, and my writing about my life, the same way I approached those papers. I stopped writing when I met my ex-wife. I didn’t write through our engagement. I didn’t write about our wedding day on or remotely near the time it happened. Instead, I found myself 6 months after we had been married, cracking open my journal and writing about the events of the year and a half that had past. My children were each at least a year old before I reflected on their births in my writing. The same with my subsequent divorce. My lifelong friendship with Amanda, that blossomed into something new and beautiful, yet deep and rooted. My ordination. My 2 year struggle to find placement in a church. My expulsion from the first church I served. And deconstructing a lot of things I believed for the first 35 years of my life, about god, the world, and myself. Much of this showed up in series I wrote last year around this time. It’s no wonder that in much of my writing, I am still wrestling with the positive and negative impact of my mother’s life on me, nearly a decade and a half after her passing.

A few months ago, something in me snapped. In October, my daughter who had been expressing suicidal ideation since July expressed it for the first time in front of me. I came home and wrote about it that night. While my heart was broken (and still is), I think the change within me was less of a breaking and more of an autocorrect to a lifelong pattern of dealing with and processing my surroundings. In December we received the results of her extensive psychological evaluation. And I have sat on them more than long enough:

We have known since she was four years old that my daughter – like me – has the neurological disorder, Myoclonus Dystonia. This disorder primarily affects the muscles, causing sporadic twitches and muscles spasms. We have known for nearly as long that she has some sort of “mood disorder.” The severity of that has increased with time. Over the last several years, that has been complicated and exacerbated by divorce and living in between two households.

What we didn’t know – what I didn’t know for ten years – is that my daughter is on the Autism Spectrum. She is a High Functioning Autistic little girl, a “pattern consistent with Aspergers.” What we didn’t know – what I didn’t know – is that this whole time this has heightened and intensified her mood disorder. Or as the doctor who performed her evaluation informed me and my ex-wife, more likely, the Autism could be a primary driver for her anxiety and depression.

I worked for a year as a social worker with at-risk teens, struggling with depression anxiety and suicidal or violent tendencies, when the search for ministry placement wasn’t going anywhere. After my short time serving as a pastor, I work another two years, serving adults with developmental disabilities, many of them on the Autism spectrum. And yet I felt utterly ill-equipped and unprepared for this diagnosis.

But, I have spent more than enough time in my own “deep” battling the monsters and serpents that have reared their ugly heads and have raged within me. I have spent hundreds of hours in therapy recounting and learning coping mechanisms for my own crippling social anxiety. I have spent the better part of the last four years boxing with my own demons publically in the arena of spoken word performances.

Last year during Lent, I aired out a lot of that struggle and triumph in this space. The theme that I explored that I come back to most often, is the concept of the ripples. I never want to underestimate the impact of my own words and actions on the world around me, especially those closest to me. I have undoubtedly – and often unknowingly – fucked up. I have yelled, cried, begged and pleaded with my daughter to tell me why she is feeling a certain way when she literally cannot do so. I have often thought she was being willful and obstinant when she was rather frozen by going into a social situation with family she doesn’t often see or making a transition that from her mother’s house to mine or back, that her neurotypical brother seems to (in relatively little time) learned to do with ease.

Yet, I am not utterly ill-equipped and unprepared. I have those years working with troubled teens and adults with cognitive and emotional disabilities. More recently, and perhaps more importantly, several young adults on the Autism spectrum have found a home in the open mic community that I have the privilege to facilitate and host each week. I am learning from the fearless public performances of these brave souls and in private conversations, what to say and do and what not to say and do, when it comes to dealing with a child on the Autism spectrum. One friend and amazing poet who is on the spectrum, upon learning of my daughter’s diagnosis sent me several helpful websites and gifted me with a book for Christmas: What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew. With each passing day and week, I am learning a little bit more about “life on the spectrum.”

We often don’t like to see in others – especially those we love – things that remind us of our own “deep,” the monsters we fight, the things we don’t like about ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to project my own inner world on those people, and thus fail to see them. I want to see my daughter. Her deep is not mine. Her parents did divorce. But her father is not largely absent from the equation like mine was during my most formative years. I know about my own anxiety and depression, that developed in a dysfunctional home and was compounded by a lot of toxic by religiosity.  But everything I am learning about Autism is from doctors, books, websites, and most importantly from the friends dealing with it that the universe has brought my way. I need to be careful and more mindful of the ripples I send out. But I am also deeply and profoundly thankful for the ripples the universe has sent my way, preparing me for this, for the beautiful yet complicated gift that is my daughter.

Posted in Health

Lent 9

 

It has been quite the week. There have been two sick kiddos going back & forth all week between here and their mother’s house, thinking they are all better, then going back to school only to get sick again. I took two additional days off from work this week and even canceled the open mic I host last night. It was my first time doing that in two years. But I needed a mental and physical health day after spending all day Wednesday trying to nurse two kids back to health. And last night, my little man needed me.

Still during all the craziness this week, I did manage to get back to Lake Michigan. Amanda and I drove out to South Haven beach. The air was cold, the waves were high. We froze our asses off. But I threw my stone into the lake and heaved a big rock into the Black River for good measure. This Lenten writing exercise has been so good for me. And we are only about 1/4 of the way through Lent. I am setting writing goals and meeting them. And I am actualizing things I have wanted to do for some time, but could never “find the time.”

I am continuing to think about things we do and say and the way every word and action ripples out. I wanted to tell you the story of how nearly a decade ago, I was up late on YouTube looking to discover Michigan based Hip Hop artists, and I discovered a great one. That one comment I left late one night led to a private conversation, a free CD that contains a track that has got me through some of the toughest days and nights since. Through a network of connections that developed, I dove much deeper into West Michigan’s music scene, and discovered the thriving open mic and spoken word scene. And now I host a show. And perhaps I will tell you that story in more detail another day.

But today I am meditating on an encouraging and challenging word I received a few days ago from a pastor I deeply admire and respect. She was my mentor for a year in seminary and she presided at my ordination. After reading one of these posts about the ripples, she left a comment on the Facebook link to the post: “Perhaps you should reflect on the ripples you have left and how you have influenced other people, because you have.”

This is a reassuring, even if if somewhat daunting challenge in thought experimentation and in self love: evaluate and assess some of the positive ripples I may have made in the world. I don’t know if it is the best writing exercise. And I am not sure she meant it to be. It is one thing to write about the positive influence I hope to be in the lives of my children. It is another thing altogether to say look over here, here is something good I have done. So I will land on here are a few things I hope have made a difference:

At a group examination of fresh candidates for ministry, shortly before my ordination, I was asked how I would apply passages in scripture (such as 1 Timothy 2) that say horrific things about women. I pretty clearly said I disagreed  with the plain reading of such texts. I suggested that perhaps, they should even anger us and invite us to see the patriarchy and misogyny that exists in our own hearts. It was a really bold statement. I was in a room where not every pastor examining me was happy that there were progressives and worse women being examined for ordination. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. Somehow, I passed inspection. And it is a moment I still wonder about to this day.

The sermon I was fired for. It was the week George Zimmerman was declared “not guilty.” I was preaching on the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge. I declared that justice had not been served, that in fact a tragic miscarriage of justice had happened before our eyes. And I compared the continued faith of Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother) to the widow in our parable. Over the course of the few months following that sermon and leading up to my expulsion, I heard it all “Americans have a right to stand their ground” and “that kid was high and using cough syrup” and much worse. As the long standing racial tensions in the American Zeitgeist have become increasingly obvious over the last few years, I have often wondered if I made a difference. But I have never once regretted my words or wondered if I picked the wrong hill to die on.

After the murder of Michael Brown by police officers, I wore my clergy shirt and collar and joined a group of concerned citizens who filled up the Grand Rapids City Commission to demand body cameras for Grand Rapids police officers. With fear and trembling, I spoke out boldly, pleading my case. I talked about the reality of implicit bias and shared a study on the subject. I insisted that regardless of religion or politics, black bodies were under attack by some law enforcement who had lost their way.

Every single time I perform my piece Heroes, I hope it might make a difference if anyone in the room is struggling with his or her own sexuality, with depression or with making sense of their religious upbringing or pieces of their socialization that may have been a voice of oppression in their lives.

I hope to someday look back and believe this blog series – laying my heart bare about my struggles with my religious background, my wildly harmful image of god, my own depression and efforts to better love myself and those around me – might have made a difference to one person.

Posted in Health

Lent 6

 

I am still thinking about the ripples. That is, the concept that the things we say and do today can have a far reaching impact on those around us, even those who come after us. There is a sense in which we are all an amalgamation of the influences around us.

Allow me to mix metaphors. I am reminded of President Obama’s remarks on the campaign trail in 2012, “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen… When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” Obama was talking about people who build businesses or have financial success, and interdependence between individuals and economic and social systems. While it became a controversial talking point in the 2012 election campaign, the sentiments didn’t originate with President Obama or Elizabeth Warren before him. And I don’t think the concept is applicable exclusively or even primarily to business and economy.

This doesn’t rob anyone of us of our own personhood. In fact, it is a key part of what makes each and everyone of us unique. Hundreds of people in the town I grew up in have had Mrs. Davidson for their high school English teacher. But not all of them took her encouragement to form a regular writing habit so seriously. My brother and my sister grew up with the same mom and dad that I did. But I picked up very little of my dad’s knack for being a handyman. My brother on the other hand, has remolded several houses. My sister My sister is the spitting image of our mom when she was young. But I see that she picked up more of my dad’s upbeat optimism than my brother and I did. And while all three of us have a “spiritual journey” that starts with the influence of my mom’s deep faith, I seem to have picked up the most on my mom’s penchant for framing every single thing I talk about in religious terms.

In a very real way, for better and for worse, I am the product of Sonny and Maria, Jim and Brenda, Mrs. Davidson, various pastors and professors, friends who were in my life for only a season and those few I have managed to keep in contact with for a lifetime. I am a product of my first heartbreak, my first marriage and my beautiful partnership with Amanda. I am the music I have listened to, the poets I have read, the ones I have heard perform live, the kids who picked on me in high school and peers I stayed up all night drinking beer and talking with in seminary. And I am also, so much more.

I want to glean the absolute best stuff that I can from this wide and varied  stream of influence. And I want to what I can to be the best me that I can be for my son and my daughter. I want to do my small part to leave this world a better place than I found it.

I don’t think I am done yet, reflecting on the ripples.

Posted in Health

Lent 4

Amanda always tells me to trust the ripples. With this simple phrase, she daily reminds me not to underestimate the impact of our words and actions on the world around us. It may take the course of a lifetime to see the effect we have had, for better or for worse, in the lives of others. I am aiming for better. But the reality is I may never know the impact of one simple action or word on my children’s children. This reality is heightened by an ever-shrinking world. I could write a blog post on a lazy Saturday. You could compose a Facebook status, release a YouTube video or write a song and release it on Bandcamp or Spotify. And we might never know how the positive outgrowth or negative ramifications of these seemingly mundane actions on someone 5 or 5,000 miles away.

Sometimes this simple concept causes me some despair. What if my children pick up more of my negative self-talk than they do all of my efforts to encourage them to be the best versions of themselves that they can be? What if they pass this on to my grand children and great grandchildren long after my ashes have been scattered? Sometimes this concept fills me with hope. What if my pleading with my son ad nauseum for hours to do his 20 minute writing assignment contributes to him not giving up on his dreams later in life? What if the satisfaction he feels when he is done becomes part of his muscle memory that later helps him finish that college midterm paper? What if a poem I share on a Thursday night emboldens someone else to write their own story? What if they share that story over a cup of coffee or in a song and it touches a friend or a stranger wrestling with suicidal thoughts and encourages them to stay?

This is the same mix of despair and wonderment I have when I get out to Lake Michigan or the few chances I’ve had to stare at or swim in the ocean. I feel my finitude and my significance all at once. I am but a minuscule drop in an infinite ocean of time and space. I am a conscious being that is 60% water staring out or plunging headlong into a relatively small section of water, on a planet that’s surface is 71% water. On the other hand, I am part of something so much bigger than me. I may not get to decide the significance of my contribution. Our children, family, friends, fans, enemies, time, and unfairly written history they play a large part in that. But I do get to decide daily what my contribution will be.

I get to decide if I will sit and wallow with the words of my mother: often bleak, self doubting, skeptical of others, fearful of god and people. Or if I will follow her shining example of getting up each day and striving to make the world a better place, despite the fact that she was abused as a child, struggled with severe depression and often felt neglected by my dad. She still raised three kick ass children, taught Sunday School, ran a home day care, cleaned houses for poor and mentally ill people in our church that other congregants too often ignored. She was a rock star. She was an afflicted rock star and I picked up some of her negative traits, more than I would wish. But she also taught me to persevere and love vigorously. I want to pick that up. I want to leave the rest on the floor and run with that.

I don’t want to get into an extended reflection on the significance of water in the Bible. But this is part of series inspired by Lenten practices. I’ll try to make it brief. And hopefully it ties together for you. Nearly all ancient near eastern creation myths relied heavily on beliefs about water. To the ancient mind, the water was once full of great monsters and God or the gods brought some semblance of peace and balance to the chaos that once ruled the earth. It makes sense, when people took to the water for their livelihood to exchange goods or catch fish, the water was full of great peril: beasts of the water, storms and great waves. This mindset is the backdrop for “the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the deep” in Genesis. Walking on water, calming storms on the raging sea, or calling Peter to walk on the water are some of the most significant ways the first generation of Christians assigned divine status to Jesus. So it makes sense that later writers like John and Paul (and subsequent generations of Christians) put Jesus present at the very creation of the world.

The world is in chaos around me: a babbling buffoon as POTUS, peaceful protests turning violent, school bullies seem omnipresent, xenophobia appears to be around every corner. And in the midst of it, I still need to meet deadlines and hit sales quotas to maintain gainful employment, raise two children and hope they grow to be able to love themselves and others well, and find meaningful ways to use the one voice that I have to make the world a better place.

I want to be calm. I need to be centered. I don’t want to sleep my way through life. But I do want to be at peace and as confident as Jesus when his disciples woke him to say, ‘We’re all going to drown.’ I want to refuse to give into the panic as the storm rages. I want to visit Lake Michigan again soon to remind myself of how small and significant my life is all at once. I want to cast a single stone into the water and watch the ripple effect to remind myself of the interconnectedness of us all. I need to remember, maybe you need to remember that what we say and do today can have a potentially enormous and far reaching impact even if we might only ever see the smallest of the ripples.