Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 40

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

I have stalled all day. I intended to have something written before noon. I finished my morning coffee. Late morning turned into early afternoon. Early afternoon turned into midday.

I thought I knew what I was going to write today. And I had it all wrong. I used to write for a Christian blog called, “That Reformed Blog.” Hell, I didn’t just write for it. I started it with a few friends. I wrote the “About” page. I spearheaded things, brainstorming with others, divvying out writing assignments, occasionally editing for others. I called upon a lovely band of misfits: LGBTQ affirming pastors and chaplains, women ministers in a tradition that has been anything but kind to women. I was trying to create an avenue for progressive theology, through the lens of the Reformed tradition that I was trying so hard to anchor myself in. But in retrospect, I realize it was my last ditch effort to try to change the way people think in hopes of changing the world, rather than changing myself, the way I lived and the way I approached the world.

Over the course of the last 40 days, I have revisited my last contribution to that site a few dozen times. At least half of those visits were today. It was a poem I wrote for this day, Holy Saturday 2015, called Where We Live. I still think it is a fine poem. I just can’t live there anymore: In that space where one hopes against hope that god did this thing once and is coming back to do it again.

Our lives are already a sometimes deafening cacophony of anguish and beauty. And millions of voices – some of them true sages, some of them charlatans, most of them a mixture of the two – are clamoring to be the clarifying voice of reason and truth above the noise. Trying to be the loudest voice at the party, never brought me any sort of inner peace. It did bring me occasional pats on the back for being being ‘loving, caring, or so open and accepting.’ Or it brought moments of temporary satisfaction when I won an argument with a “conservative” Christian that I saw as an opponent. But that satisfaction was fleeting. And living in that contradiction: self appointed spokesperson for a softer, gentler, more loving god and the need to make others see things the way I saw them nearly made me blind to all of the ways I needed to improve myself by becoming a softer, gentler, more loving me.

For me it obscured the tiny deaths and resurrections that happen all the time throughout the dizzying cycles of life on this planet. I don’t think it is necessarily the same for everyone. I can only speak for myself. I never really heard other people when I tried to speak for everyone, speak for god. Over the course of this last 40 days, I have recounted some of those tiny – yet not so tiny – resurrections. The change I have seen in my dad. The ways I have sought to become more loving and patient and break cycles of anxiety in my own parenting.

As I have looked back on my life and especially on the last two years – meditating on these things for more than a month – I guess I have looked at it all through the lens of Holy Saturday and that last poem I wrote as a spokesperson for god. It was enshrouded with genuine doubt and tremendous fear. Looking back now, is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Within a few months after writing that poem, I wrote my friend April, a fantastic and gracious human being, and passed the blog domain, passwords and spearheading onto her. I told her I couldn’t write in that space – within those limitations of orthodoxy – anymore because I didn’t believe in the resurrection anymore. What I didn’t realize was that was the beginning of my own resurrection.

It all had to happen! My becoming honest about my cognitive dissonance with orthodoxy. My coming out publicly about my own bisexuality. And yes, even the divorce. I was sucking the life from those around me by living in my own extended state of slumber, my own unending “Saturday.” I was shouting at the top of my proverbial lungs in cyberspace to get my atheist friends to believe in god, to get my conservative evangelical friends to believe in a more tolerant god, to get everyone to accept the LGBTQ community, to get everyone on board with women in ministry like they should have been hundreds of years ago. In doing so I wasn’t dealing my own projection of a tyrant, bloodthirsty god who was crushing me, my own internalized homophobia that was killing me, or my own misogynist and patriarchal tendencies that were sucking the life from those around me. I ignored my ex-wife. I ignored my children. I poured all of my energy – when I wasn’t punching the clock at the factory or the gas station – into trying to change the world instead of changing myself.

I look back at the person I was, and I want to hate him. But I can’t. That’s what got me to that state of constant anger and depression in the first place. I can only say, I forgive him; for he knew not what he was doing. After the series of excruciating death blows that came in church after church rejecting me, through my divorce, and finally – on a mattress on a floor in a rented room – through whispering, quietly to god and to myself “it is finished” maybe my Sunday has finally come.

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 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 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.

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 32

On my way outa work I was listening to the old people Best of 80’s, 90’s and Today station. I heard Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream followed by Rod’s Stewart’s Forever Young. I had to turn the station before I heard Jack and Diane.

What is with all of our fetishizing of youth? I can appreciate Alphaville and bob my head to the Jay-Z remake of that other Forever Young (and we still haven’t even tapped Dylan). So many songs with the same theme, same name for crying out loud!

I am sorry Bob Seger, but I’m glad I know now what I didn’t know then. I wish I could have learned a few of life’s hardest lessons by osmosis. But it simply doesn’t work that way. I want to take what I’ve learned about myself, about the world, life, trust and doubt, hate and love and wear it on my sleeve. I realize it still won’t cover my whole arm. I have so much yet to learn, so many areas in which to grow.

I was a handsome little guy. But there was no simpler time. Just simplistic understanding. I want to allow the world to continue to stretch my heart and imagination longer than Yao Ming’s wing span.