Punk Rock, the Prophetic Tradition, Anti-Racism, Faith Formation, Propagahndi, and More

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One of the first punk rock bands I got into was Propagahndi.  I remember rocking their shirt at like 14 years old. Eventually, I gravitated towards some obscure British stuff from the 70s, largely because it was what my friends were into, but some of those early messages shaped some of my emerging worldview.

Oddly enough punk music (not including the late 90s-2000s pop-punk and main stream derivatives), always had a sense that racism was not a thing of the past, but that these ideologies still need to be confronted.  Whether it be songs calling out Nazi‘s or White Supremacists, or the branding on buttons, patches, and shirts, the message was clear: punk rock stands against racism.

From a faith perspective, punk rock was meant to be prophetic; a hyperbolic and shocking a way to call out injustice and disrupt the system.  This spirit, though often lost in our pacified American Christianity,  is seen in Jesus who was a poor minority living in occupied territory, executed by the empire, and also in his earliest followers who were called to reject “Caesar” and any systems or beliefs that oppress or dehumanize.  So yes, Jesus was and is punk rock.

As a young lad I learned about things like genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda, secret US wars and their deadly consequences, oppression of the LGBT community, racism, political corruption and more all through the words of punk rock.  In light of recent events some of those memories and melodies have resurfaced in my psyche.

Below is an example of one such song from the Canadian Punk band I mentioned earlier, Propagahndi.  Warning: it contains some very crude language, but nothing more than what our current President is well known for.  Also, I do not condone in any way killing of other human beings, but I do support the death of racist ideologies and views.  So just in case you were wondering, that’s how I interpret the title of this song.

In our current historical moment, with our current “Ceasar”, I hope and pray for lots more great punk rock.

“Swastikas and Klan-robes
Sexists, racists, homophobes
Aryan-Nations and Hammerskins
You can wear my nuts on your Nazi chins

I love a man in uniform!

Just what exactly are the great historical accomplishments of your race that make you proud to be white? Capitalism? Slavery? Genocide? Sitcoms? This is your fucking white-history, my friend. So why don’t we start making a history worth being proud of and start fighting the real fucking enemy?

Swastikas and Klan-robes
Sexists, racists, homophobes
This one’s for the master race
My brown-power ass in your white-power face

Kill them all and let a Norse God sort ’em out!”

Dear Imposter

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A while back a friend of mine who’s also kind of a counselor, pastor, and mentor challenged me to do some writing and reflection around the part of myself that is and isn’t part of me.  Often we look at our bad habits, mistakes, and missteps as forgettable aspects of ourselves that we wish weren’t there.  Sometimes we even go so far as pretending they don’t exist.  While talking this through with my friend, he made a photo copy of a letter that an author named Brennan Manning wrote to this part of himself entitled “Dear Imposter”.  In the letter Manning addressed his imposter honestly and without shame, telling the truth on himself and an aspect of his life that is both a part of him, and not his true self.  All of this was a way of bringing to light that which is hiding in the deepest shadows of our selves, allowing those cold places to enter the warmth of light.

So here is my letter written to my own imposter.

Dear Imposter,

I’m not totally sure who you are, still trying to figure you out. What I do know is that you are part of me, and you’ve been with me for as long as I can remember. I’ve never really addressed you directly, you’ve been more like a secret friend that I hang out with from time to time. We’ve had some fun times together. You’ve been there for me in moments of pain and insecurity in ways that pretty much no one else has. When I felt the deepest sadness about my body to the point of shame filled tears, you provided me escape into a world where I was longed for. When as a child dread filled my soul in the locker rooms, playgrounds, pools, beaches, dance floors, and classrooms, you invited me into a world far away from the total and utter rejection that was hurled at me in those battlegrounds. When self doubt was so crippling that I could not move, you believed in me, though I’m learning that the me you believed in is not me at all, but maybe you, my dearest and oldest imposter friend.

Having you as a friend has had its benefits, though they’ve been tangled up with with other things like the way my headphone chords get knotted and twisted no matter what I do. I can’t be certain, but I think if it wasn’t for you, I would have acted out in my non-imposter life in ways that I may have regretted. You’ve taught me many things, and given me many highs, but you’ve also confused my eyes and left wanting my brain.

Now in these days where the weight of our beautiful and messy congregation rests partially on my body, soul, and mind, your company has risen to the occasion in the midst of the loneliness of leadership and being a pastor. Whether or not I should, I feel like I carry peoples pain, peoples stories, and even people’s hope. And in my own pain and secondary trauma, you stayed faithful. You’ve given me hours upon hours of escape, alone, just you and me, riled up on pixels and spirits. You’ve grown nearer in these last few months, and our time together has grown longer and more often. We’ve toasted our glasses on many nights, enjoyed countless films, feasted often, and disappeared together through the digital threshold in the palm of my hand into that old, new, and ever expanding universe of fantasy.

Old friend, whoever you are, it’s been real. But today, as I type on the dinning table of my still young family’s condo here in a city where we have created home and ministry, I need to say goodbye. I can’t keep you in my life anymore. I know that you’ve been there for me, but you’ve also, over time, molded me in a direction that I can’t keep going.

I hurt.

Deep down.

I’m sad.

And our old hi-jinks are making it worse, not better.

And so in the words of a man who had a friend just like you, I have a goodbye gift for you. I want to take you to where deep down, in the unsearchable depths of your being you’ve been yearning to be, “into the presence of Jesus”, that some how was there all along. I know that you might get jealous and miss the times where it was just the two of us alone, but this is what I want, this is what I need. I don’t know exactly how this is going to work, especially because I don’t know exactly who you are, but I’m going to use that ancient, messy, and misunderstood word here- faith. I’m going to have faith that the words of Brennan Manning to his imposter friend can be real for us. That, “the longer you spend time in the presence of Jesus, the more accustomed you grow to His face, the less adulation you will need because you will have discovered for yourself that He is Enough. And in that Presence, you will delight in the discovery of what it means to live by grace and not performance.”

Your old friend, 

Chris

 

In These Rooms: A Reflection on the First Step in the Search for Health

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There is this saying in recovery communities that captures something special about the  nature of trust and vulnerability that is unique to groups of people whose commonality is that they’ve all come in their ends and are looking for health.  The saying is,  “in these rooms” and it’s often used when referring to the safety and types of stories that are told at meetings.

In these rooms everyone equal and each story matters.
In these rooms you don’t need to fake it any longer, you can let our guard down.
In these rooms you won’t find judgement, just fellow pilgrims on the journey of recovery.
In these rooms you can share your failures and your successes freely.
In these rooms we’re together.

Those three words signify to many a space where we can be truly honest about our struggles, and it’s in this place of brutal honesty and confession that healing begins.

As a pastor I’ve been drawn to this concept because I think it’s an idea we all need, addicts, sinners, saints and all.  In some traditions this space was cultivated in the practice of confession and absolution, but for most of us, our lives are completely void of anything resembling these rooms.

Here is what’s tragic about this, it’s been my experience that every one of us needs this space.  We all know that we’re unhealthy and we long to tell the truth about it to another.  Our list of struggles is legion.  For some it’s addictions, others self doubt or loneliness, and others exhaustion and depression.   As I sit with people and listen, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have something along these lines, and often I become these rooms to others.   

See, I think we’re all trying to get healthy, but we don’t know where to begin.  Intuitively, we know that we’re walking through life with a limp when we could be running freely.   And so we go to things that promise health or distract us altogether, but leave us more tired and sick in the end.  We’re looking for something that will bring us life and nourishment but we end up consuming more junk food and empty practices.  In our search for health we usually try to do more when maybe we must need to be more.   Instead of faking it, we need a place where we can take off our bandages and just be the hurting, tired, and broken people we are.

This is what I think we can learn from our recovery friends, that the first step in the journey towards health is admitting we’re sick and finding a space to share this with others as they share with us.   As we become these rooms to others, we create a space for people to move towards health and subsequently where we can too.

Let’s stop pretending that we’re not sick.  Because it’s this act that actually keeps us from wholeness,  Let’s be a space place for others and also be courageous enough to be vulnerable with our own life.   Whether it’s with a friend, spouse, counselor, church, or recovery meeting, being and finding this space this is a step worth taking.

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The Totally Unmarketable Yet Universal Dark Night of the Soul. And Lent.

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This week I was talking with a mentor of mine about a workshop he’s preparing.  The topic is “The Dark Night of the Soul”.  This concept originates from the classic poem written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic who crafted his words as a way to depict a necessary and normal part of the spiritual journey.  This field of spirituality, namely exploring our darkness, is actually a deep and wide area of Christian tradition and a consistent theme of scripture.

As we discussed what the workshop would include my mentor commented on how he wasn’t expecting a big turn out.  He said something like, “The Dark Night is not very sexy”.  Essentially, talking about our deepest secrets, doubts, insecurities, and darkness is not something most of us are likely to get excited about.

At some point in the conversation we reflected on this reality in our own lives and within the churches we’ve been a part of and the following concept came up:

“If you want a church to grow, then just give people what they want”

Yuck, right?

Unfortunately, I think the mentality captured in those words is often true.   After many decades of decline, this revealing and gag-inducing quote is sadly at the heart of many modern church communities who are struggling to keep people coming back.  So many have gone after what’s most marketable and glamorous, what’s attractive, and what puts butts in the seats.  Flashy lights, polished lectures, hip branding, slick coffee bars, the coolest music, and triumphalism. That’s what sells, right?

Ironically, in my time in ministry, what I’ve found people to be most deeply craving is a space to be honest about their darkness, scars, doubts, struggles, and brokenness.   When I sit down with folks to talk about life or faith, we almost never talk about the Sunday production.  What does come up with consistent regularity is darkness.  Addictions to porn, struggles with marriage, confusion about God, deeply held insecurities, sadness, loneliness, and depression.  It’s universal in many ways, we’ve all got these areas of our lives, and we’re all longing for people to be honest with about them.  Unfortunately, many churches don’t know how to market this stuff.

Thankfully, deep within the collective subconscious of Christianity are images, stories, metaphors, concepts, traditions, and places that invite us to break our addiction to the marketable warm-fuzzies of faith, and step into the spaces of our darkness.  Lent is one of those.  It’s a season where we recognize the brokenness of our lives and the world.  As we remember Jesus’ time alone in the desert, confronted by temptation and evil itself, we go with him into this place of isolation, stripping ourselves bare of the noise and distractions that usually hide our darkness.  In the desert we go without, and it’s just us.  We stop pretending like our dark nights don’t exist, and we instead allow them to be.  In the process we see that the divine does not require us to be marketable, but embraces us wholly as we are- dark nights and all.  And in the distance we see the glimmers of Easter Sunday’s light.

It’s this lived experience that I’ve found to be pretty much universal.  So many of us have felt like we’re alone and abnormal in our dark night and as we’ve encountered this space we’ve thought something is wrong with us.  But we’re not alone and nothing is wrong with us.  This is part of the journey.  Just because faith communities have given us “what we want” in terms of triumphalism and flashy marketing, doesn’t mean that this is the whole story.  We’ve all got scars, struggles, and sins.  And it’s only when we can acknowledge the depth of our darkness that we can even begin to experience the infinity of Love’s light.

The Dark Night of the Soul

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

A Theology of Animal-love

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A few years back we added a third member to our family, Sonny Gray Scott.  He’s a twenty pound albino and hearing impaired poodle-mix, named after one of the best players on our favorite baseball team, and he’s taught me a lot about love and life.

Maybe the idea of a dog teaching us about love and life sounds silly or sophomoric to you, but hang with me for a moment because I think our connections to other living things might actually be graduate level theology.

Within the ancient creation stories of Judeo-Christian tradition is an important framework for how humanity might have originally related to non-human creation.  In Genesis 2:15 we read that humanity (Adam, a derivation of the Hebrew word Adamah  meaning earth) is given the task of working and taking care of its surroundings.  The Hebrew words here are shamar (guard) and abad (keep) both of which could be translated with a nurturing and protecting connotation.   In fact, it isn’t until after the flood story that we’re told humanity began eating other animals (Gen 9:3).  So it could be inferred from these stories that in our original design, our connection to other created beings was one much more benevolent than our current relationship with the planet and its other inhabitants.

Thankfully, this sense of connectedness and love for other creatures has been resurrected countless times throughout the history of our faith traditions.  Here are a few examples:

-Notable sixteenth century Jewish teacher, Maharsha, describes dogs as animals of love, reminding us that the Hebrew name for a dog is “kelev” which is etymologically derived from the words “kulo lev” or “all heart”.  This takes on an even deeper meaning if we remember that it was Adam’s job to name the animals.

-Saint Francis of Assissi is said to have taken the mandate of Jesus to proclaim the good news to all of creation quite literally, leading him to preach sermons to both his human and his animal audience.  He’s quoted as saying, “Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission — to be of service to them wherever they require it.”

-C.S. Lewis was a dog owner/lover and argued against animal cruelty.

-The British institution known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which would later inspire the American Humane Society, was founded by devout Christians William Wilberforce and Reverend Arthur Broome based on their faith ethics.

Keep in mind that these ideas actually come up against much of Western and Enlightenment values which often seek to commodify the planet and its inhabitants. Even Descartes claimed animals could not suffer nor feel pleasure.   So, I think it’s safe to say that connecting with animals in a loving way is deeply rooted in our faith traditions and even countercultural.

Alright, enough with the history lesson, let’s get back to current times and this fluffball.

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In the years I’ve hung out with Sonny I’ve been surprised by just how much I feel for him.  I know it sounds cliche, but his condition-less affection for both Alie and me is such a gift.  He’s always happy to see us and sad to see us leave.

As I’ve grown in my fondness of him and his presence, it’s increased my heart for other animals too.  Interestingly enough, it feels like my overall ability to love has grown.  Some might think that if I’m giving attention to my dog, I might have less attention to give to others, but I’ve found the opposite to be true.  Love seems to be one of the few things that only grows the more it’s given and received- and it never actually runs out.  Sonny reminds me of this.

Since he’s almost deaf, we’ve had to learn communication in a slightly different way.  It’s hard to explain but I think I can sense his feelings and I’m pretty sure he can sense mine too.  When I get worked up about something, so does Sonny.  And when he starts barking about some one walking passed our window, I can sense his stress.  It’s like there is an energy between us and it makes me wonder at just how connected we are to each other and to our planet.

Sonny relieves stress and brings me back down to earth.  His patient and unconditional affection seems truer and more noble than many of the accomplishments and vanity projects our culture seems to value.  Rabbi Levi Welton notes this saying, “the Almighty created animals before humans on the sixth day of creation to teach humans humility”.

So yeah, I’d argue that animal love is good, divine, and theologically sound.  When we care for animals in any fashion, we’re caring for vessels of the miraculous reality of life and evidences of divine creativity.  They can teach us faithfulness, humility, playfulness, and more.  And the fact that we can communicate, relate to, and even share love with them is beyond my understanding, but is something I both cannot deny and am immensely grateful for.

Here’s to you Sonny.

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What we need now

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Part of what I get paid to do as a pastor is hang out with people.  Now, there might be a more theologically formal set of words that describes this part of my work week, and a lot more going on than just leisure, but a good chunk of my time is spent sipping coffee or beer listening to peoples stories.  I usually don’t have that much to say in terms of profound spiritual truths, but I’ve learned that I am not awful at listening and processing with people.

As I’ve hung out with folks and been let into their stories, I’ve noticed a couple things.  The first is that we’re all scattered and spread thin, and we’re all longing for a life that goes deeper than the trappings of our modern consumeristic culture.  The second is that we’re in desperate need of an antidote for our addiction to oversimplified us-verses-them binaries and judgement.  Both of these tendencies result in our own shallowness and inability to move beyond knee jerk and reactionary living.   We’re caught up an endless loop of external conflicts and surface layer trappings which are symptoms of a deeper ailment.  We think we’ll fix ourselves and the world with more activity and consumption but maybe what we really need is internal transformation that expands our capacity towards empathy, compassion, and love.

For a while now I’ve been drawn to the monastics and contemplatives.  I think part of the reason for this is because my natural disposition is just as shallow as everyone else.  The monastics and contemplatives seem to move against this cultural current and offer us a different way.  And so reading their prayers, listening to their wisdom, and learning their stories feels like the times in my life after I’ve indulged in too much junk food and finally get to eat something nourishing and healthy.  They feel deep, restful, and true.

As foreign as monastic living might seem to us civilized and high-tech moderns, I believe their underlying impulse is something desperately needed in our times, namely the impulse to be internally or spiritually transformed.   Their wisdom suggests that it’s only after we’ve been transformed on the inside that we’ll be able to engage a shallow world in deep and loving ways.

One of the most well known voices from this stream of humanity is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton who’s pictured above.  Consider a couple of his thoughts and imagine a world in which this type of self-work and condition-less love might exist:

“I go to the hermitage to deepen my consciousness.”

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

Both of these quotes and the impulse behind them are as counter-cultural as Sid Vicious in 1977.  Consciousness deepening and judgment free love?  I can’t say I’ve heard those concepts anywhere lately, and they probably won’t sell products, but I think they are exactly what we need right now.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all sell our possessions and move to monasteries, though maybe some of us should.  What I’m suggesting is that our world needs the monastic impulse more than ever.  We desperately need to reject the sound bite addicted, binary trapped consumerism of our current society and begin the work of internal transformation that increases our capacity to love our neighbors.

What would like if we could all spend a small portion of our day in contemplation and reflection around deepening ourselves and increasing our capacity to love?

What if we spent less time eating the fast food of social media feeds or cable news yelling-matches and started to feast on the deep and nourishing wisdom of the contemplatives and monastics?

Whether we’re activists or office workers, students or retirees, I’m convinced that our world desperately needs some of what folks like Merton had- the impulse to be transformed and deepened.

If you’d like to start a journey of hanging out with some of these folks, I’d recommend starting with Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen.

And if you’d like to integrate some of your social media with contemplative reflection, our church recently started a daily common prayer facebook group based on Christian liturgy that might be worth checking out.

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Stop trying to be right

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With all the current chatter about “alternative facts” and fake news, it’s becoming increasingly clear, as if it wasn’t already, just how insanely divided we are.  In so many political/social conversations it seems that we’re totally incapable of seeing things from another perspective.  Our biologically driven tribalism which has programed us to see the world in dichotomies of “us verses them” has been hijacked by marketing, religion, and politics much the same way they use our need for sex, food, and love to sell products and heard us like cattle.   We’re pitted against one another, blind to our absolutism and personal biases that keep us from seeing nuance or finding common ground.   We’ve been divided and conquered.

In all of this, we’re convinced that our side is right and those guys are wrong.  We post videos, articles, and studies that back up just how wrong they are and prove just how right we are.  Our rightness of position, belief, and perspective seems so clear to us.

But what if we were chasing the wrong idea?

What if the impulse to be right is actually what’s wrong with us?

What if our hyperbolic generalization of the “other” has actually made things worse?

What if trying to be right isn’t the best way?

There is a different ethic I’ve been mulling over in light of our current predicament that I think we must consider.  It comes from some ancient writing between a faith leader and a community of people that he helped lead.  In this context, there were fierce divisions between folks from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender demographics.  Whether or not you consider yourself a person of faith, I think these words are worth heeding:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20, emphasis added)

Part of the Christian proposal is that the deepest divisions between humanity and the Divine have been reconciled, and because of this, humanity is then invited to become agents of reconciliation.  Reconciliation comes from Latin and means to bring back together broken things.

This is quite different than the ethic of our current predicament which implores us to be agents of rightness.

I wonder what would happen if our highest call, virtue, value, or ethic shifted from trying to be right all of the time on any given issue towards trying to be reconciled with our neighbor, Facebook friend, and world.

What would it look like if reconciliation became our first impulse rather than trying to tell “them” why they’re wrong?

How can we call out injustice while emphasizing reconciliation? 

That seems like a question worth wrestling with.

So wherever you are at politically or spiritually, experiment with this.   What practical ways can this be played out? Here are a few ideas, but I’d love to add to this list:

-Begin to see people on the other side as an extension of yourself rather than the enemy.
-Recognize that you are limited in your own bias.
-Ask lots of questions.
-Try not to speak hyperbolically in ways that vilify the other side.
-Find common ground.
-Be quick to apologize and concede when necessary.
-Don’t generalize entire groups of people.
-Think about what your end game is- is it to convince the other person they are wrong, or to walk the path of love?  Be honest about this, but also willing to adjust depending on new information, relational capital, or a changed heart.

My bottom line is this: I think that reconciliation is a higher calling than being right.  How this gets fleshed out is something that may take a lifetime to work through, but I think it’s worth it- just look at where our attempts to be on the right side of things have gotten us this far.

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