Posted in Poetry

Numbers 5

She stands behind a locked corridor
Frightened, not sure what she’s waiting for
The accusations come from one who swore
He’d be her shelter, when he bought her from her father
She once was somebody, or at least somebody’s daughter
The priest mixes dust now, with the “bitter water”
This is the right of any man who is suspicious
These are the Män som hatar kvinnor, malicious
This is the wrath of the almighty and capricious
These are the stories we choose to gloss over
Forced miscarriage of a child that she longed to shoulder
Would she have walked the corridor if anybody told her?
Did she scream? I wonder if anybody heard her
As I drive by the church sign that reads, “abortion is murder”

This is my attempt at a Blues Sonnet. National Poetry Month 2017. Day 12, Poem 10. It is was inspired by the Bible passage, Numbers 5:11-31.

Posted in Health

Lent 37

I sometimes miss Tenebrae. Tenebrae is a service is held during Holy Week. Most often, it has been observed tonight, on the eve of Maundy Thursday (the day of the Last Supper) or in the early hours of the morning on Thursday. Practices vary widely. But traditionally, the lights are gradually dimmed or candles extinguished until the room is completely dark, but for one candle. The “Christ candle.”

Holy Week is often a difficult time for students and pastors, devoting much of their life to the Bible. Sure it is one of the busiest weeks of the year. Yes, the whole week centers on Jesus betrayal by Judas and the passion narrative. But it also difficult for other reasons. For close readers of the text, it is natural to come to a point where you say what the hell happened? According to Matthew and Mark this is the night Jesus was anointed by an unnamed woman with expensive oil. On his head (Matthew, Mark)? On his feet (John)? According to John, the anointing was by Mary the sister of Martha (and Lazarus) the day before Palm Sunday. According to Luke the anointing was much earlier in Jesus ministry – unconnected to Holy Week – and done by “a woman who had been sinful all her life.” Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus visits Mary and Martha for dinner. The story is completely unrelated to Jesus’ anointing or Holy Week. Jesus uses it as a teaching moment to say Mary had “chosen what is better” by sitting, adoring Jesus instead of running around busting her ass to make a nice meal, like Martha.

It was a busy night! According to Matthew and Mark (and seemingly Luke) this is also the night that Judas agreed to betray Jesus. Poor Judas, Jesus said it would have been better for him had he not been born. I guess so. He might be the only person to ever commit suicide twice: Hanging himself (in Matthew) and and ‘falling headlong, and bursting open in the middle of his bowels’ (Acts).

And then of course, Jesus is tried and crucified on the day of preparation for Sabbath (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or was it on the day of preparation for Passover (John). Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus eating Passover with the disciples on Thursday, while John has Jesus washing feet and dying on a different day.

Even the joy of Easter day does not come without a few nagging questions. How many women went early in the morning and discovered the empty tomb? Was it just Mary Magdalene like John has it? How many angels were there? One or two?

Maybe you can see why a relaxing service with ever dimming lights and some low melodic singing or chanting was a welcomed reprieve during this week when I was a pastor in training, a budding theologian.

I cannot reconcile all of these accounts. I have no desire to. I have read some pretty silly attempts to do so. But neither do I think discrepancies alone invalidate the Christian claims about Easter or Jesus’ divinity. That is a complex “argument” that involves other messianic figures around the same time period, the omnipresence of evil and unspeakable tragedies and the long overdue delivery date of “the second coming.” What I can tell you is that the more I feel like an outsider looking in, it doesn’t necessarily lesson the anxiety of this week for me. Blame it on social conditioning, religious guilt, my anxiety disorder or some combination of all of the above. I don’t know.  Maybe I need to think a little less about god, Jesus the Bible and how it all seems to help some people become better versions of themselves, while in others it only seems to intensify the ugliness of their hearts. What I can say is that I find myself missing Tenebrae. I need to relax. Tonight I’ll settle for a whiskey & coke, taking a stab at a short poem and being in bed before 1.

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 36

“It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about.”

I’ve always loved that quote! If your familiar with the source, Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester in American Beauty, don’t worry, I am not about to embark on a midlife crisis. I have already had enough crises for one lifetime. But it is day 36! I have written everyday. I set a goal. I stuck to it. I am digging deep, evaluating, reflecting, offering up the heart that is usually on my sleeve to loved ones and strangers in cyberspace. In doing so, I am remembering things I have forgotten about myself. Chief among these things I am rediscovering is my tenacity.

I don’t give up easily. I have a few times in life. I’ve had momentary lapses. But I certainly posses a strong ability to push on and persevere through perceived and sometimes very real barriers. I am reminded that with my familial history of anxiety and depression, it really is amazing how time and time again I have found the ability to pick up shattered pieces of myself and move on. My mom – despite her shortcomings – was an anchor in my life. When she died, only a year into that married life that is now behind me, I really wondered if I could go on. A decade after that, the divorce knocked my ass to the ground, left me feeling like Judas and Jesus at the same time. Trust was shattered on both sides. I had never felt so alone or betrayed. And I had never felt like so much of a failure, not only as a partner but as a human being. For a moment, I was left waiting with bated breath for life to destroy me. But here I am.

And there are the more positive instances of this tenacious spirit. I graduated high school with a C average. Right after high school, I was rejected from Cornerstone College when I applied for the youth ministry program. I entertained going to community college. But my mom was more overwhelmed and intimidated by the fucking paperwork for FAFSA than I was. So I spent the next 7 years, working in retail and trying to become a rock star. I probably didn’t try very hard. And I didn’t have the heart or voice for it. But people kept saying I could write.

After a long lull, I became the first in my family to go to college. At age 26, I did start at community college. Then I transferred to a small Bible college. Then I transferred to Calvin College for a more rigorous and academic study of religion. Then I went to seminary. People unfamiliar with seminary don’t always realize, it is still a freaking Master’s program. It may not be the hardest one. But difficult is still an understatement. 96 credit hours! Reading complicated Fourth Century Christian writers, Medieval mystics and often extremely dense contemporary theologians. It is not a 3 or 4 year Bible study with campfire songs. It is paper after paper and exams, while balancing an internship. And I did it in the midst of having two kids and life changing surgery. I kept on after the death of a close friend. I graduated with a high GPA.

Then I had to jump through all of the hoops of denominational examinations. You don’t just get a piece of paper and then start a church. You graduate and then still have to pass the church’s closest thing to a Bar Exam. And then you still – at least in the Reformed tradition – do not get ordained until you find your first “call” or job at a church. That took me another 2 & half years after seminary. While I am not in ministry anymore, I don’t regret any of it. While people find many ways to become many things – from ministers to co-founders and CEO’s of Fortune 500 technology giants – without a college degree, it was something I needed to do for me. I don’t give up or give in easily.

It is day 36 of Lent, day 36 of a writing series I wasn’t sure I would start, let alone finish. It is day 14,687 of my sometimes tumultuous, often nauseatingly dizzying, yet wonderfully dazzling journey. The journey is long and hard and marked by struggle and some real tragedy. But I see beauty all around me in the midst of it. I know I am not alone. And I may not necessarily be all that unique. But for any and all of us who have been able to pull off such a feat, it takes remarkable fortitude. It is day 36 of me rediscovering my voice and my ability to surprise myself while doing so… yet again.

Posted in Health

Lent 35

Holy Week has begun. Yesterday, churches around the world celebrated Palm Sunday. At many churches, children walked around sanctuaries waving palm branches. Devout believers (and people not so devout) sang songs proclaiming “Hosanna in the highest.”

I still have a few friends who are pastors and very connected to the church and the movements of the liturgical calendar. Throughout the week I saw several of them on social media asking questions and posting their reflections as they geared up to preach yet again on Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. The collective consciousness of these faithful friends is something like this: The story is ripe with startling juxtapositions to be observed. Jesus had just descended from the Mount of Olives. At the foot of the Mount of olives is the Garden of Gethsemane. Those familiar with the story know that by the end of this week, Jesus will be betrayed by one of his own disciples in that very place. It really is startling, people shouting, “Hosanna.. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” They are laying cloaks on the ground (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or waving Palm branches (John). Meanwhile, Jesus looks about as unstately as one can get. He is riding on a colt. It is a brilliant literary device, if nothing else.

And yesterday people – some of them whom I love deeply – preached sermons, expounding upon these startling contrasts. Some probably highlighted that Jesus wept over Jerusalem on his way into town (at least according to Luke). It is explained people just didn’t get it, this kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming. They wanted an “earthly king” but Jesus’ kingdom “was not of this world.”

Nuanced readers, pastors and commentators may even express some sympathy for the crowd. Some even find some sympathy for the villain of the story, Judas who has a bigger part, later in the week. Jesus was subverting (or changing?) the expectations of faithful Jews. Folks had been waiting for the day that Isaiah and other prophets had proclaimed: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” Jews had no disembodied notion of Heaven. They were waiting for the vindication of their god, their people, their beliefs. They were waiting for the day that they would be the epicenter of religion and spirituality for the whole world. But it is said that Jesus thwarted those expectations. He turned the other cheek when insulted by Pharisees and Roman soldiers and died to usher in some new sort of kingdom.

People got it all wrong! That is what some of my friends preached yesterday. Now let’s set aside for a minute minor discrepancies, history mythologized or mythology historicized. For a moment, let’s suspend any speculation or doubt. Let’s say it happened just like the best synthesis we can make of the various accounts say it did.

My pastor friends say that the hopes of faithful Jews were stretched near the breaking point for those first Jewish Christians who would proclaim that Jesus was the hope of Israel fulfilled. They had to have a “reorientation” to what god reigning upon the earth and being adored by the nations might mean. Where does that leave folks waiting for Jesus’ triumphal return?

From the earliest Christians, to the present day, faithful believers have waited for Jesus to come back with a sword in his mouth and judge the earth. From the most sectarian groups who believe very few will be accepted into Christ’s kingdom, to the universalist who hopes “all of the earth will be restored in Christ.” Everyone is waiting for the day of an earthly kingdom: some form of vindication or perhaps unification, where god reigns on earth.

Does this make the difference between yesterday’s sermons and the present hope of the many faithful the most startling juxtaposition? Whether shaming the crowds, disciples and Pharisees or finding some sympathies for them, the consensus is, “they didn’t get it… Jesus preached a different kind of kingdom!” But how different is it really if people are still waiting for “the great and terrible day of the Lord”?

Let me make it much more personal. I stood up and proclaimed for years, the return and reign of a triumphant Jesus, an earthly king. As an evangelical, it was more about warning people of the fires of hell. As a progressive pastor in the Reformed tradition, it was more about hope of god’s power and might, reigning on earth, restoring the cosmos. The means to an end – submission onto death and resurrection – may have been different than ancient Jews anticipated. But was the end result any different? What if Jesus was actually right when he said ‘the kingdom of god is among you, the kingdom is in you.’ What if we really are supposed to be the ‘his hands and his feet’? Does that make me, with my proclamations of a coming king, a present day Judas?

What if the faithful and the non-believer alike started to live like no god was ever coming back to save us? What if we lived like it was up to us to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? What if, rather than waging war or passively watching war and destruction on all sides, and waiting for god to clean it up, we resisted, protested, waged peace like we were earth’s only hope? I wonder if we all lived that way, and suddenly the sky did part, and the trumpet did sound, if Jesus might be a little more pleased with what he found?

Posted in Poetry

There’s Gotta Be Another Way

It was the last time we burnt down that bridge
The one we had resurrected so many times before
The rains forced us to take shelter on the ridge
All the past we’d tried to bury was washed ashore

We each tried to phone our gods, no more reception
Warned by the old guards of Harvard and Oxbridge
And the lunatic fringe, since our very inception
It was the last time we burnt down that bridge

We called in the cavalry, in the name of Calvary
Never knowing we were starting the last great war
Some never gave up on phoning the god of Galilee
The one we had resurrected so many times before

Soon there will be no one left to tell it
No matter, history is always redacted and abridged
We tried to whisper, in vain we tried to yell it
The rains forced us to take shelter on the ridge

No one could hear below the echo of rain and gunfire
I’ll keep whispering, Keep keeping, until we are no more
A faith in us that breaks my heart and makes my guts tire
Until all the past we’ve tried to bury is washed ashore

Cascades don’t always rhyme. This one does. Deal with it. And it’s imperfect because I slightly altered the final repetition for effect. This one was inspired by trying to bring together two different writing prompts, in a writer’s group I am in. One was to write about political unrest without resorting to tired rhetoric or propaganda. The other was based on a friend’s dream about collapsing bridges, a storm and a world in which we could talk to gods on cellphones. This is my 8th installment for National poetry month. I am still one day behind. But I am still aiming for 30 new poems in thirty days

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 34

I finally made it back to Spring Park in Middleville with my kids today. It wasn’t as epic as I wanted  it to be in my head. Last spring we had the park to ourselves. Today there was another family there with several kids. My two are always a little bit bashful and shy in such situations. Then after about 30 minutes, my daughter was “bored” and wanted to leave. Last year it was this whole thing! We spent a couple of hours there. Then we went to “downtown” Middleville and looked at the river, walked the boardwalk and concluded with going to Mount Hope Cemetery and visited my mother’s grave. Daddy was looking for another deep, cathartic experience today. But kids were just being kids. And they were more than a little eager to get to their Uncle’s house to have an Easter egg hunt with cousins.

Conversely, I was really nervous about my time with my family today. But it was a really great time! I woke up with a bit of a vulnerability hangover after yesterday’s post. This morning I was doing some self-interrogation about about sharing things that make some of my family members uncomfortable the night before I am going to spend the day with them. I had these ideas in my head about how bad conversations might go. You see, while my brother and sister know about the whole bisexual thing, my dad still has no clue. It was hard enough for him when, as a pastor, I told him I was accepting of LGBTQ people in all of their beautiful variety. That conversation went really bad. Really, really bad.

Other conversations have been difficult since I stopped pastoring, and eventually stopped going to church. He calls to tell me he is praying for me and worried about me. He says things like, “You think you’re fine now; but when you die…”

There was none of that today. He did start to talk about Trump (he is a supporter) and Syria. My brother and I (who agree on a lot of things socially if not “theologically”) just ignored it and moved on. My dad and Stepmom are really excited about a weekend trip to a log cabin resort next weekend, that we all chipped in and got them for Christmas. They are going on the one year anniversary of the car accident that my dad survived last year. So we talked about that. We watched the kids play. My brother shared some music with me that has been inspiring him. It was a nice time.

I am still working on not having those preemptive conversations in my head that make actual flesh & blood conversations more difficult. Sometimes we have to just be present in the moment, not in our heads about the way we think things could or should be.

Posted in Poetry

To Forgive

I forgive you for hating me
I forgive you for having harder stares
Than my dad when I ate second and third
Helpings of sweet, buttery confections
I forgive you for saying worse,
Much, much worse
Than any underclassman
Who bullied or shamed me
In grade school
I forgive you for forcing me
To go to reparative therapy
Where a charlatan with a BS in Bible
Posed as a shrink
Eager to hear my confessions
Always asking me
To shut the door when I leave
I forgive you
For pushing me down
For never giving me any grace
When I legitimately and gracelessly fell
On my face
Like that night outside of Rumors
When I never should have drove home
I forgive you for living dangerously
For always telling me
That my soul was in danger
Until body, mind and whole self was there
I forgive you for a lifetime
Of sucking the life from me
And cutting all of my lifelines
I forgive you for pushing others away
With the same magnitude, used
To force me to my knees to pray
I forgive you for hating me
Without reason
Naked, weaving
In and out of rhyme,
And I’ll look you in the eye
And tell you to your face
Next time
I catch your eye
And your hard stare
From the corner of the mirror

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 33

There are certain musical artists whose music left such an indelible mark upon me in my youth, that I can only listen to them on rare occasion. The music takes me back, sometimes too far back. Besides church and my Mead Composition notebook (where I poured my heart out to Jesus and wrote poetry) music was my only other place of escape from anxiety and depression, which was was seriously exacerbated by dysfunction at home, being picked on at school and generally scared of the world. Many (but not all) of these artists who still have the ability to take me to a different time, place and state of mind are dead. Kurt Cobain is one of them. Tupac Shakur is another.

There was a time when I always turned the radio up in my car as loud as it could go if Smells Like Teen Spirit or California Love came on over the FM airwaves. Now I almost always turn the radio station. I’d rather listen to anything from Nirvana’s Unplugged or Tupac’s Me Against the World anyway. I always have been – and still am – a bit of a sucker for the softer side of “hard” artists.

By the time I was in seminary, I had already over-cultivated the practice of avoiding the music that took me back. I avoided a lot of emotions back then. After a friend of mine died, something in me snapped. I am still putting it some of those pieces back together. He took too many prescribed pills and swallowed way too much whiskey on December 27, 2009. He wore his broken heart on his sleeve, where it was colorfully represented by a tattoo rendition of Jakob von Steinle’s “Jacob Wrestles with Angel.” He struggled with anxiety and depression too. He had also struggled with his weight and body image. We both had bariatric surgery. And he didn’t like to talk about his, at least with me. In his final year or so of life, he abused copious amounts of alcohol. Being gay and feeling rejected by the church that he loved and longed to serve wasn’t his only struggle, to be sure. But it certainly fanned the flames of his depression exponentially.

After he died, something in me began a long slow and painful death. It was my internalized homophobia. I didn’t become an overnight activist. But I did slowly start to tell more and more people about my own bisexuality, my “experience” with that older boy at youth group when I was a teenager. And little by little my theology shifted from closeted and “concerned” to “open and affirming.” It would still be nearly another 6 years before I would “come out” publicly in cyberspace and on local public radio.

In retrospect, little about my slow, painful and increasingly vocal transition was “fair” to many of those around me, not least of which was my ex-wife. She had married a man who was theologically conservative, closeted and a willing participant in reparative therapy. She wasn’t the bigot it is sometime easier to believe she was. She simply didn’t recognize me anymore.

I didn’t do much to help that. I dove headlong into my shallow pool of depression. I wasn’t drinking a lot back then, in seminary. It was a weekend thing. It was an almost every weekend thing. I threw the best parties on seminary campus. But most nights, I settled to immersed myself in my adolescent place of escape. Over the shared high speed WiFi connection on campus, I went to the torrents and downloaded the complete discographies of Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone), the genius Shannon Hoon (Lyricist and vocalist for Blind Mellon and author of the quote across the top of my blog), Biggie and of course Tupac.

I became a bit obsessed with dead artists who had sad stories. And while I sat alone with my headphones on, I added the new habit of swimming in articles and books about their sad lives, the sometimes mysterious circumstances and conspiracy theories that surrounded their deaths and helped form the mythologies that enshroud their legacies. In between watching Tupac Resurrection and Nick Broomfield documentaries, I was reading contradictory theories about how Tupac was killed by the Illuminati because he refused to have sex with his sometimes girlfriend’s father, Quincy Jones, how the US government had orchestrated both Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.’s deaths or how Suge Knight was behind it all (I think some of these might have more validity than others). One of the songs I listened to a lot on repeat back then was Tupac’s Runnin’ from the Police.

Tonight I listened to for the first time in a few years. On it’s own it is a sad and rightfully angry song about police brutality against the black community. But when you add to it the fact that it is the only song Pac and Biggie ever recorded together before they became bitter enemies, it makes it a tougher listen. When you start dwelling on the fact that four of the artists on the song – 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Yaki Kadafi (then known as Young Hollywood) and Stretch – have all since been murdered, well holy shit it is can be a really depressing listen. Start reading around the inter-webs the various theories about how all of the deaths were connected by gang members or police or the FBI or all of the above working together and it can be a recipe for a tailspin. It was for me.

But it was a headtrip that I sought out. I was doing anything I could to avoid my own thoughts. If the world and the church hated my friend for being gay, then they hated a part of me. Harder still, I hated that part of me. Also, pieces of the great mysteries and myths that had marked my whole life (and to some extent still do) were beginning to crumble: god becoming a man, the devil hiding out in the basement. It was easier to think about the sad death of a celebrity than process the death of my friend. Believe it or not it was less disconcerting at the time to think about crooked law enforcement officials and gang members in collusion to kill some antihero rap stars than it was to think that the devil was literally all around me, trying to entice me to masturbate, or drink heavy, or eat too much.

Please do not misunderstand my intentions with this series of Lenten inspired posts. I am trying to write – better and more often – and in doing so finding much healing for myself. I am doing what I was born to do, even if for now, it is just pouring myself out for a few eyes who give me 5 minutes of their time on a busy internet where every story is sensational. What I am not trying to do is co-opt Lent to convert others to some sort of agnosticism with a deep sense of wonder and deep sympathies for religious faith (in particular Christianity) and atheism alike. I have spent way too much of my life as an apologist, trying to convert everyone to believe what I believed about the the world, about the divine and about myself.

Because I was so deeply afraid I was wrong! Now, I am just trying to avoid joining Tupac and my old friend in the ether before living as long and loving as much and as deeply as I possibly can.