Why UFOs Tickle my Fancy

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Earlier this week I had a conversation with some friends about the recent New York Times story that detailed a US Government program which tracked UFO encounters with military personal.  The report was, to my knowledge, the first time any admission of this kind had been made by our government and even included videos of fighter pilots tracking some of these mysterious objects.  When I brought this story up with my friends, their reactions varied from mild curiosity to indifference, which is also the way this article was reported by the media.  For some reason this surprised me.

Maybe it’s because I watched the X-Files a lot as a kid, but doesn’t the possibility of “something” outside of our realm of understanding have significant implications on our lives and the way we see reality?  If we’re being visited by beings from another dimension or planet, does that re-frame our global politics?  Does the stress of our jobs or our course work seem less significant, or at least different, in light of cosmic events?  If there was something beyond our lives and our planet, would we change the way we live?

As someone who vocationally thinks about existential things, the UFO story caught my interest because it presented the opportunity, at least for a moment, to ponder our place in the cosmos in ways that were not compartmentalized to a particular tribe, party, or religion.

For most of us, we hardly have time to wonder about the big questions, and I would argue that wrestling with these things is not only a gift, but a fundamental part being human.  When we’re confronted by “something” from “somewhere”, we’re invited to do something that our culture is very much deprived of, to look up at the stars and marvel at it all – marvel at the infinite and the miracle of our simple existence.    In my study of us homo-sapiens, these questions are somewhat unique in our planet’s living taxonomies, and almost always lingering below the surface of our lives waiting for an opportunity to be uncovered.

I guess it’s not about Aliens for me, but rather the reminder they present, that we are, relatively speaking, incredibly finite when compared to what’s happening all around us all the time.  As Sagan reminded us, you don’t have to travel far from Earth to be humbled by the vastness of existence, that all of our problems and struggles exist on a “Pale Blue Dot”.

So, when was the last time you wondered at it all?

What if there was more to life than being a set of accidental atoms floating though endless space on a planet perfectly positioned for you to read this blog post?

What makes you ask the big questions?

But then again, this could just be a government plant to get us distracted from the new tax code………..

Only the cigarette smoking man knows.

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Body

These lines are the scars I bear
I’ve had them since I was 13 or so
They run along my sides and chest like a freight train pulling earth
And I’ve carried this burden of longing every night
Wishing I carried less
Praying to be a narrower, harder

My hands never built more than the words of faith and friendships
If only they measured up to a warriors grip
Then I’d feel ok
No more hiding

I’m soft, I’m ashamed
Cotton cloth reveals all my sides
But hide the grief of inadequacy

I never like the way I looked
I’m always at war
The battle lines are so hard to hold
And deep inside I know I’ll eventually suffer defeat

Scars born of boundaries crossed and discipline lost can’t be undone
Terrified of exposure but safe in hiding

A mans grief held in a body
Alone in the fear of falling short
Confronts me in the mirror
Skin and form and shame

Irish, Scottish, and Nordic genes
Didn’t bestow a vikings form
And a love of sports doesn’t translate to inherent prowess

But what a gift this body is
Allows my soul to receive the senses
Invites my imagination to observe beauties presence
And lays bare, naked, and exposed, the lessons of pain

As much as I hate this freckled solitary cell
It’s taught me that these scares are also of shame turned to love

Like an oceans embrace I carry your burden too
All surrounding I hold you up
You stay afloat on the waves of my changing shape
Your pain in my heart

In calm or stormy seas
These scars carry
Rising and resting my body doesn’t impose or threaten
It feels

These lines are the scars of love
Of life love, but held loosely
They’ve taught me this love
Solidarity, terrifying and vulnerable
Always aware, never confident or comfortable

This is how I am in a world of perfect objects without lines or round sides
Under the surface- shame and fear
But an essence formed along the way by the resilient tenderness of mercy beyond

Safe, near, seeing, and feeling
These lines are the scars I bear
Not only of my corporeal grief
But of love still learning how to be loved

What’s the thing?

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We were a bakers dozen or so.  A beautifully eclectic bunch of folks gathered in our living room last night.  Our quirky and lovable fluff-monster was there too, usually on the brick red carpet that centered our group.

The intent for our gathering was informative.  We had invited newcomers to our church over in order to share the story of our faith community, offer ways to get connected, and answer any questions that people may have had with regards to the church or faith.

As a start up community, we’re always experimenting with ways to build community and for people to hear one another’s stories.   We started hosting these newcomers desserts about a year ago and I’ve been consistently captivated by the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the folks who hang with our church.  People from various faith traditions or no faith background, from a range of careers and regions, and all with a unique expression of personality and perspective.  Getting to know people is absolutely one of the gifts of my job.

After introductions I shared our church’s story and offered some ways to get connected.  Towards the end of our time together we open up the floor for questions or comments.  There were several comments and a few questions, but one question stuck with me.

Quick disclaimer.  I’m writing this the morning after, so I’m paraphrasing to the best of my memory. 

The question was something like this:  “It seems like the church is has a sense of its values and what’s important to it.  But what’s important to you personally?  What do you care most about with the church?”

Once the question was asked I did my best to restate it to make sure I was hearing it.

“When it comes to our still young and forming church, what’s the thing I care about the most?”

It was a great question, and one I was thankful to be asked.  Often people direct questions to me about our community that are more institutional or abstract in nature, so the concern for my personal experience felt nice.

As my mind bounced around in that moment considering a reply, a few different thought kernels popped open.

Is it involvement that I hope for the most? Like, for people to actually be a part of the work of the church rather than just being attendees?  For people to move from spectators to participants?

Yeah, that’s important but that’s not the thing.

Is it for our church to make an impact in our community?  For folks to be an expression of justice in a world of so much injustice?

Gosh, that’s up there, but that only feels like part of it.

What’s the thing?

What’s the deepest hope I have for the people who engage with our church community?

Over the last few months and even years our community has grown into an established and somewhat stable church, and much of my energy and focus has gone towards establishing teams and systems that get us closer to sustainability.  Because of this, I don’t think about the thing as much as I used to.

So, here it goes. My attempt to restate what I said last night and also put some more thought into it in ways I couldn’t flesh out in the moment.

For me, the deepest hope I have for our church, a work I’ve consumed myself with, is that people encounter Jesus.

For me, the Jesus story, and the experience of life tangled up with that story, with its reality and with its mystery, has been everything.

It’s formed me and shaped me towards love and empathy more than anything else.

It’s been the biggest source of comfort, strength, and hope in my entire life, and even beyond.

It’s invited me to offer and receive grace at the most vulnerable levels.

Encountering, following, learning from, wrestling with, and discovering the love of Jesus has made me who I am.

It’s in a very real sense rescued me.

It’s subverted my worldview an upended my politics.

It’s transformed the ways I see other people.

It’s sent me into homeless camps, high-rise corner offices, jungle prayer circles, holy slums, wedding altars, hospital bedsides, mountain top monasteries, sacred cemeteries, pub-theater congregations, and a increasing list of incarnate contexts that my memory can’t fully hold.

Its forced me to confront my own darkness and the darkness of the world and illuminated the ways of freedom through repentance and forgiveness.

Its a story that has been wed to my soul at the deepest level and unveiled the infinite orbits in the universe of Love.  And it’s this love that I’m still learning.

Because of my following Christ I care about justice, am learning to love my enemies, and believe in Resurrection; that new life really can happen in this world.

Jesus Christ, in all of the complexity and mystery surrounding those two identifying words, has been life, hope, nourishment, healing, transformation, joy, joyful-sorrow, peace, and more.

Jesus has been everything to me.

And if there was a word I could use to say everything that didn’t feel like an understatement, I’d use that word.

Jesus hasn’t given me all the answers or cleared up all the deep questions of my life or of our world, but Jesus has always been near.

In tears, ecstasy and everything in between, there has consistently been a presence of solidarity, hope, and still small love that has haunted me in the best of ways.  No accomplishment, possession, or experience has ever come close to comparing to the immensely rich sense that lives somewhere deep inside my being of Jesus’ love for me.

That’s the thing.

That’s the thing I hope our church can reflect and that people can catch a glimpse of.  Involvement, attendance, membership, activism, charity, and even theology- all those things are distant seconds.

To be honest it’s not that important to me if people label themselves as Christian, share my political positions, give to our church, behave in ways that match my morality, or volunteer in the community.  Those things have their urgent importance and are part of the equation, but hyperbolically speaking, those things don’t compare.  My very real experience is that those things will be transformed as people encounter Jesus and begin to walk, step by step, day by day, meal by meal, purchase by purchase, vote by vote, conversation by conversation, and encounter by encounter with the personification of divine love found in Jesus.

That’s THE thing. 

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Vocation

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I’ve been the hands of God
I’ve been the voice of love
Brought the healing balm
To wounded soldiers and children

I’ve sung with the canonized
Marched with the glorified
And broken bread with third world angels

I’ve encountered the holy under freeways
Enjoyed the artistry of homeless prodigies
And pontificated on the nature of reality with belly laughs

I’ve told the story of hope more times than my brain can hold
Proclaimed freedom for addicts every Sunday
And laid bare a million healed wounds

I’ve been an instrument of mercy in a holy symphony
Sat bedside with the injured and dying
Stood before family and critics
And preached grace for all

I’ve apologized for the sins of my forefathers
Repented for the crimes of my skin’s color
And witnessed divine orchestration on an incomprehensible scale

I’ve heard from the prophets
Seen the power of apostles
And walked with disciples

I’ve read the books
I’ve prayed the prayers
And mastered divinity

And the whole time I’ve felt like an imposter midwife as
Congregations were birthed
Organizations were forged
And a kingdom advanced

But I’m still me
Victories haven’t changed my insides
I still haven’t figured out how to be good
How to be whole

I’m caught in between the mystery
Of timeless sainthood and daily darkness
Of imago dei and a garden’s eaten apple
Of ecstatic communion and devastating isolation

I’ve been told that a hero is not those of heroic wall art
But those who endure
Thankless and nameless

Enduring not the trials of the world
Nor the work of accomplishment
But the truth of who they are
Broken yet beautiful

There is the fertile crescent of a spiritual genesis
The courage to embrace naked truth
To be let in and to let love in
To let go and open hearts

My salvation is not found in religious conquest
But in the Presence ever near
In the loneliest leadership, furthest falls, and sleepless nights.

It’s there the voice echos against the walls of a bare soul
“An imposter midwife is who I’ve made you to be”

“Prudence is not passivity, and caution is not cowardice”

“The future of Christianity belongs to the Thomas Merton kind of Christian, not the heirs of Jerry Falwell.”
-Brian Zahnd

If you’re familiar with the two individuals named above you’re likely aware of the opposite poles captured in this dichotomous quote.  On one hand Falwell represents the fore bearers of modern American ‘Christian” discourse, filled with nationalism and knee jerk righteousness that’s centered on perceived American family values.  On the other side of the spectrum is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who emphasized contemplation and thoughtful civic engagement.  As much as I’d love for Zahnd’s prediction to be right, I think we’re currently seeing something quite the opposite.  Consider this quote from Merton, penned in 1962, in the height of an imminent nuclear war.

“Here we have an issue of supreme importance in which the most vital facts are secret and in which crucial developments are rarely presented to the public in a clear, unbiased form. 

This brings us to one more grave problem.  The Christian who is misinformed; who is subject to the demagoguery of extremists in the press, on the radio or on TV, and who is perhaps to some extent temperamentally inclined to associate himself with fanatical groups in politics, can do an enormous amount of harm to society, to the Church and to himself.  With sincere intentions of serving the cause of Christ he may cooperate in follies and injustices of disastrous magnitude.

It is therefore vitally important for the Christian to control his zeal and moderate his enthusiasm for particular causes, until he can accurately estimate where these tendencies may ultimately lead.  Prudence is not passivity, and caution is not cowardice.  Impetuous and violent action must not be regarded as ipso facto heroic.  We must learn to cultivate a sound judgment in affairs that affect the very destiny of the human race. (Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, 143,144, emphasis added)

Essentially, Merton is arguing for people, especially people of faith, to develop an ability to think through the many dimensions of their current predicaments rather than be fueled by a momentary and self righteous zeal.  Unfortunately, this is not what we see today.  Instead of calculated and thoughtful engagement, we have hashtags and twitter rants.  We’ve exchanged our nuanced mental and spiritual filters for surface layer, endorphin-laden call-outs that feel good in the moment but are found lacking when it comes to bringing about actually substantive change.   I’ve seen this in myself, I’ve seen this in my community, and I’ve seen this in our government.  To make things worse, when we see others not engaging in our collective flow of finger pointing, we projectively assume that they are complicit in a perceived offense.

But what if the most rebellious thing we can do in this moment is nothing?  Nothing in the sense that we first think and calculate before we respond?  What if we had the discipline, self control, and inner peace required to not be baited by the offense-traps circulated by social and news media?

As much as Zahnd’s prediction has yet to come to pass, I’m still hopeful that some day it will, at least in my own heart.

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When feelings fade & we’re worn out; faith.

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So many of us are exhausted by the endless breaking news cycle filled with catastrophe after scandal after disaster.  When we look around our cities we see homelessness, potholes, pollution, and displacement.  When we survey our own lives, most of us  aren’t where we want to be in life.  And so our feelings evolve into cynicism, defeatism, fatigue, and apathy.   We used to care, but that didn’t seem to get us anywhere.  Things don’t seem to change for the good.  So we just stop “feeling like it”, turning to distractions that make us feel something better, and we insulate ourselves from being emotionally jaded and exhausted, settling for rhythms of life that keep us feeling good.

Our feelings and moods are pretty powerful stuff.  They can move into action or paralyze us altogether.   They are one of the most significant forces in how we make choices: “I felt like doing _______”, or “I wanted to go to _______”, or “I loved the way that he/she made me feel so I _______”.

When we’re saddened by global events we often feel like doing something about it.

When we’re angered by an injustice our mood can often drive us to speak out.

When we feel challenged by ambition and a perceived goal, we ramp up our efforts.

When we’re scared we often look for ways to minimize risk.

For better or worse our feelings and moods directly affect how we live and move in our world.   But what do we do when they’re all dried up?  What do we do when we don’t feel much anymore?  What do we do when we’re worn out?

I’ve talked to so many people who’ve entered this terrain.  They used to care more about their relationships, their careers, their faith, and the problems of the world.  But after years of going back to their feelings as a source of energy, the well has been emptied.

For those in the helping profession this might be called compassion fatigue, but I think this is more common than one category of careers, I think this is an essential part of our journeys, especially in a time when we’re bombarded daily by tragic headlines.

As I’ve wrestled through my own fatigue of feelings, reflecting back on times in my life where I was more ambitious, more inclined towards action, I’ve come to see that in many ways, I’ve lost touch with some of those early feelings, for better or worse.  Some might argue that this is a necessary part of growing up and maturing through youthful idealism, but maybe it’s not.  Maybe our feelings were never meant to carry us through the entirety of our life’s commitments and endeavors?  Maybe there comes a time when need something else to keep us going?

I recently spent time with a friend who regularly surrounds himself with the suffering of the others in some of the most dire circumstances on earth.  He’s been at it for decades.  What keeps him going is the hope of faith, something that’s hard to put into words but is an orientation of his soul around the belief that things can change.

In our world, I think we all need something outside of our feelings and moods in order to avoid apathy and lives of endless distractions.  There are dark things going on in our world, and we have the miraculous opportunity to engage them in real ways, but our feelings will never be enough.    If we rely on our feelings and moods to inform who we are than when those feelings fade we run the risk of defaulting to the norms of contemporary society.  These normative cultural currents include things like leisure, entertainment, comfort, materialism, security, and vanity.

For me, this has actually become one of the better “cases for faith”.  I need some set of values, a hope, an ethic, a story that reorients me from despair to victory and keeps me from being absorbed into the path of least resistance.  It’s not always something I feel, but it’s something that I have to choose.

In my faith tradition, this is the essence of faith, “being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see”.  Essentially in the midst of all that is wrong with the world, faith is the choice to believe in a better outcome.  Rather than avoidance or fatigue, faith is the decision to look straight into the darkest depths and believe that light will eventually shine.

In many ways choosing faith is not about having all the answers or being filled with spiritual emotions.  Faith is what moves us forward in the absence of all those things. Much like marriage vows during times of relational stress or a soldiers muscle memory on the battle field, faith happens when we align ourselves with a narrative outside our finite existence compelling us towards hope.  Deep in our subconscious we choose to live in a dimension where love wins and this choice subverts the ways we view and move in our life.

So today, with all the storms swirling around us, I choose faith even if at times I don’t feel it, even if there are many unsolved mysteries, and in spite of my human tendency towards personal comfort and security.

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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!”