Rev. Dread

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Twenty-two hours after I sat in Rusty Ace’s chair–well, twenty-two hours of work spread over three sessions–I was released. It has been about twelve hours since the last lock was blunted, but I am now a dreadhead. To be honest, I feel complete. Home. Like I’ve had a part of myself that was missing placed neatly into the space where once was emptiness. Seems kinda grandiose for a “hairstyle,” right?

The decision was a long time in coming, and fits into a larger trend in my life recently. People who have known me for more than two years, who either follow me on FB or see me in the real world (gasp!), may have noticed that my physical appearance has changed. A lot. It is not just the 40 lbs I’ve put on as a result of bipolar meds and the onset of middle-age (40 for me is in July), it is numerous tattoos where people can see them. It is a beard. A full (except for my upper cheeks, where not even a dusting of peach fuzz grows) beard. An undeniably wild beard. And not grown because I want to be a hipster. No one wants to see me in skinny jeans and I stopped using a typewriter when mom purchased a Videowriter and I penned a short story that was a not-so-subtle ripoff of Stephen King’s “The Body,” better known to most as Stand By Me. (Instead of a group of young boys going to find a dead body, my group of boys went to rope a wild stallion. The hero gets hit by a bus at the end. Yet, he somehow narrates the story. I was ten. What do you want?) I have grown my beard long and wild to stand in solidarity with my Muslim and Sikh brothers who are profiled. You’ll also notice that if I wear a buff over my dreads, it kinda look like I’m wearing a turban or a taqiyah. That adds to the effect. Profile them? Profile me.

But the decision for dreads was a large hurdle. Some people in the congregation have explicitly asked me not to do it. I heard that and thought about it, but it is my body. Period. My dreads, my journey, as Rusty often says. I did deep research to make certain I was not co-opting something sacred. I understand the significance of dreads in Rastafarianism, but I am not trying to be a Rasta. I couldn’t be, anyway, because it really is something you need to be born into unless you are lucky enough to be close to a teacher or a community. Dreadlocks appear throughout history, from the Egyptians to the Jews to the Celts to the Nordics. Locks are often associated with religious leaders and shamans, as well. My family ancestry includes Nordic (my father is full-blood Finn) and Celtic (John McCain is a very distant cousin) roots. I’ll be honest, though. Being in my teens and 20s in the 1990s, I was wary of the “white guy with dreads” phenomenon. When my good friend, music collaborator, and now Studio Brooklyn producer Amon Drum  got locked, I began to change my mind. Amon went to Africa to train on djimbe, and he’s a spiritual cat. His locks were totally tied up in his identity as a traditional African hand percussionist.That was really the start of my education and the evolution of my mindset.

The other reservation I had is the fact that I often write about Black culture and African American justice movements. I am an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement. I support the NAACP. And I am earning a doctoral degree in the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My mentor is African American. I am the only Caucasian in the group. To be honest, I’ve had the fear of being a wigger. I don’t want to appear the male Rachel Dolezal (no slam at her, just I absolutely identify as Caucasian because I am). The final decision came when I awoke for the third morning in a row and had to cut out huge knots in my hair. No matter the brush, the shampoo, the hair ties, the hats, or the myriad different things I tried to keep my thick, curly hair from knotting, I couldn’t stop the damage. I put a post on FB about locks, and that’s when Rusty–an incredible local artist and now, I’m happy to say, a dear friend–responded that she is one of two people in the tristate area who utilizes the crochet technique. After I looked it up and realized what it was, I was excited. Appointment booked.

Really, the sessions themselves are going to remain private. Ultimately because Rusty (along with her awesome partner Ryan and their Bodhisattva of a daughter, Presley) and I bonded. Hard core. And there were some incredibly synchronous moments, like when I realized two pieces of furniture that had been in my family for years but had been let go over the past decade were sitting in their house. There were so many signs that we were meant to come together and to do this project. She said several times, “Your hair wants to be dreaded. I’ve never worked on such easy hair.” She also said she had never worked with so much. That’s why it took twenty-two hours. (Incidentally, Rusty sent me some literature on the significance of twenty-two and it was further confirmation that something really powerful just happened.)

I write this today because I imagine that the change might come as a shock for some. I realize that I am in a profession in which we are advised to bring as little attention to ourselves physically as possible. We are to be a presence of comfort and assurance, and we should avoid things that make people uncomfortable. I have blown that out of the water with my religious tats, earrings in both ears, and now dreadlocks. I certainly get the objections, but I don’t agree with them.In many religious traditions, hair (facial and otherwise) can be an external sign of something internal. For me, the locks symbolize my being locked to my community of Yellow Springs; locked to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; locked to my dear wife; locked to my family; locked to the commitment of other relationships without an ulterior motive; locked to living a life of service, compassion, love, and justice. I have no doubt that when I die, I will have locks. I cannot imagine what would cause me to cut them (please, Lord Baby Jesus, don’t take that as a challenge).

So in advance, yes. You may touch them if you ask. Yes, I will wash my hair, just slightly less frequently than before (which was still only about twice a month because of the sheer volume of hair). And, yes. I have been deliberate in changing my “image.” I look the way I feel: Someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and is kinda wild in a John the Baptizer sort of way. I will have a crazy beard for at least the foreseeable future, until Muslims and Sikhs are treated better in this country. And, yes. My locks are for Jesus. They represent my commitment. And I believe that God brought Rusty, Ryan, Presley, Miriam, and me together into a significant relationship as a result of this process. For that I say, “Thanks be to God.”

(For those interested in hiring Rusty, contact me and I’ll facilitate a connection. She is incredibly talented, so she also is in demand. You might have to wait a little bit for an appointment, but she’s worth it. Totally worth it.)

Exclusively Inclusive

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I sometimes wish that we did not have to modify the word “Christian.” Orthodox Christian. Catholic Christian. Protestant Christian. Conservative Christian. Progressive Christian. Those of us in the club know what questions to ask to make quick determinations? Oh, you’re Lutheran? Which Synod? We know what ONA, More Light, Reconciling Ministry, Opus Dei, SBC, and other ingredients in the alphabet soup signify. My home denomination, the United Church of Christ, was formed with the goal of fulfilling Jesus’ words in John, “That they may all be one.”

Alas, that has not come to pass. So it was in such a context that our lovely church secretary Tina answered the phone today to be told, “We googled ‘conservative Christian churches’ and yours popped up!” Tina had to go on to explain that we are More Light, which means we affirm the GLBT community without reservation. The conversation quickly ended. Tina burst into laughter and told me the story. I immediately laughed and put the story on Facebook, as I am wont to do.

The thread unfolded much as one would expect with my diverse, intelligent, and snarky group of friends. There were jokes about how Tina should have said, “Our pastor is finishing getting his hair dreadlocked today because yesterday he had to bless a transgender girl, but I can have him call you when he gets back into the office.” It was riotous, clean, good-natured fun. Then someone posted, “Inclusive means everyone.” I immediately liked the comment and nodded; I completely understood what she meant and decided that it is an important message to unpack.

I had a hard experience early in my preaching career (long before I can to First Presby). I made an overtly political reference to a named candidate; it was not quite enough to violate the law, but it was toeing the line. The person who objected was not who I might have expected (because, assumptions) as she is trans* but is politically quite conservative. There were a few other people who objected, and one who still refuses to ever hear me preach. I did the hard work of introspection, apology, and reflection. Through the mentoring of my pastor, I internalized an important mantra: “Would a conservative Republican Evangelical feel spiritually nourished by my sermon?” One does not have to agree with what is said to be spiritually challenged; and my job is to preach the gospel, not political opinions. Sometimes the gospel helps me form my political opinions, and I certainly call people to action through my sermons. But as the pastoral leader of the church, am I being invitational with everything I say and do?

But here’s the rub. I feel called to pay particular attention to those left out and abandoned by most churches. I feel called to enter into relationship with people who are hurt by religion, and with those who are even downright hostile to it. I do not seek to convert them. I do not seek to save their souls. I seek to invite them to investigate a community in which they are affirmed for their intrinsic personhood, where they are provided opportunities to volunteer, lead, and to express their gifts in ways that are authentic and loving. I do this because that is the gospel, at least to me. For me. It was that invitation that helped me get through the death of my brother. It is that invitation that helps me get through my mental illness. I believe that I am loved, even when I feel unworthy of it.

So, yes. You are welcome to come and worship with us if you are a conservative Christian. But you will not be able to come into the community and begin commenting on other people’s relationships and perceived sins. We don’t do that; we don’t hold others up for ridicule. We hold up others for love. Period. And if you think that I am doing the wrong thing as a spiritual leader, you are welcome to tell me. Tell my bosses. Tell the denomination. But you will not be able to intentionally hurt or judge one person who comes to the church I pastor. That will not happen. Not on my watch.

This does not mean that we have to agree on theology, scripture, tradition, or liturgy. If you want to be part of the community because you feel challenged and believe it is important for you to be here to offer a differing view, that’s great. Come on in. I love vigorous discussions and I am comfortable with positive tension. But there is no room for the agitator who simply wants to disrupt the wayward Christians who love the wrong people and refuse to declare any of God’s creations to be “abominations” for simply being who they are. There is not room for the person who believes that trans* persons, gay persons, and child molesters are somehow the same. That they set forth equal arguments for why they should be allowed to be themselves.

I absolutely agree with the person who posted “Inclusive means everyone.” Yes, it does. And part of our role at FPCYS is including those who are refused at most other houses of worship. Our preferential option for these types of persons does not somehow infringe upon the rest of the population. You are welcome here, all of you; but there are requirements. If you are unable to love and affirm someone else as being no more or less sinful and worthy of grace than are you, then you are not being inclusive in the way we are, and there is probably a better church for you down the road a piece.

Blessing Zay

In case you don’t know her, this is Zay. Click here for a short film The Cincinnati Enquirer did on her and the family last year. Knowing her story is pretty important to understanding this blog.

I met Zay when she still went by her birth name and responded to male pronouns. She was full of energy and in the cast of The Three Penny Opera, a show that also featured my wife. I thought that it was really cool that her parents supported a gender-fluid child. Over the coming months I–like many of us lucky enough to be in her life–understood that Zay is a girl. She is not a boy who likes to wear dresses; she is not confused or experimenting or trying to be cool. She is trying to survive. She is trying to be who she knows herself to be.

There are not many people I will say I admire; respect? Yes. Love? Yes? Appreciate? Yes. But admire? That’s a high bar. Zay’s parents, Chass and Jason, are two people I admire. Because as hard as it was for Zay to give voice to herself, it was equally hard for them to understand what was going on, what they needed to do, and how they could go about doing it. I have marveled at their tenacious dedication to let love and compassion overpower fear and uncertainty. Having held the hands of trans* persons as they recounted horrific tales of unspeakable violence by their own family members, I know (as well as a cisgender person can) how incredibly important family support is when coming out and transitioning, and how lucky Zay is to be facilitating transition as she goes through puberty. This community is not unfamiliar with trans* persons; we already helped produce the inimitable Trace Lysett (although I speak with no authority on Trace’s transition or experiences), but we are by no means a perfect community. There is trans* phobia here, and transitioning can be rough. Zay’s parents have done an incredible thing for their daughter, while all the while mourning the loss of a son. It is a tough dynamic.

I’ve been on the organizing committee for Yellow Springs Pride for the past several years, and that is really how I go to know Zay and Chass the best. The year I was the featured speaker, Zay was crowned Pride Queen. She led the parade and the village rallied around her. I’ll be honest and say that I only ever see Zay smiling, but I know there have been difficult times. I know that being who she is takes a toll on her, on her family, on the dynamics they face each day. I wish it were different, but it is not. As wonderfully supportive as family and friends are, fear and uncertainty make people behave badly and there is no avoiding it. That’s why days like today are so important.

I was asked several weeks ago to put together a blessing service for Zay on the day that her name becomes legal. Friends and family gathered at the county courthouse before packing into a small courtroom to witness the historic event. The guards, court officials, and magistrate were lovely. Absolutely lovely. They recognized this as a huge event and were nothing but cheerful, enthusiastic, and helpful. As nonbinary people continued to join our ranks, there was no snide remarks, no persons pointing, no untoward questions about genitals. It was an amazing moment when the magistrate declared that “Zay Irene Crawford” is now one step closer to being her legal name recognized on all documents. We clapped and cheered and laughed and hugged and cried. It was beautiful.

After, we gathered together at a local park to break bread and share stories. Zay flitted around and fed the ducks, danced, and greeted her admirers. It came time for me to give the blessing, which I did–and you can read it below–while trying not to cry. Zay stood next to me as everyone encircled us, a physical representation of our spiritual commitment to surround Zay with love all of her days.

In many Christian denominations, I would be defrocked for what I did today. The fact that I am so open about my support of the GLBT community–a community to which I belong–means that many churches and many Christians won’t have me as a member or as a pastor. But I feel that today I followed Christ in one of the most significant acts I could do: affirming the idea that Zay is not an abomination, not an affront to God, not a boy who thinks he is a girl, but rather a wonderfully made, radically loved miracle. I was able to be a vehicle to communicate God’s love and compassion, to express that God’s wondrous creation is so much more intricate and beautiful than the binary spectrum reflects.

This, friends. This is why I went to seminary. This is why I seek to serve. I am invited into the most powerful, intimate moments of people’s lives as a symbol of God’s presence, as a reminder of our undeniable connection to one another. I may have delivered the blessing today, but Zay IS the blessing.

The Ceremony 

William Shakespeare famously queried, “What’s in a name?” The ancients believed a lot. Abram, the founder of the three great monotheistic faiths, became Abraham as a testimony of his transformation; Sarai, his beloved and the matriarch, became Sarah. Millennia later, a passionate Jew named Saul was so overcome with a sense of God, be changed his name to Paul and helped bring forth a new revelation. Around the world, Jews and Christians take religious names at bar and bat mitzvahs, christenings and confirmations. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are named in honor of their prophet and revered figures. What’s in a name, indeed.

Names are highly symbolic within the vast variety of Native American tribes and nations. The blood of Native ancestors runs through Zay’s veins, and while today is not an official naming ceremony in a Native tradition, the spirit of such a hallmark event is present in this moment. Zay—in ways that most of us cannot imagine at her age—understands central aspects of herself, an understanding that transcends years on earth. She has a deep, intrinsic knowledge of who she is, and she has spent most of her life explaining that to others. In her bones, in her body, in her mind, in her soul, and in her heart Zay Irene Crawford understands that she is a young woman meant to grow more fully into her identity. Today, we recognize that; we recognize her strength and beauty as a child of God.

I now ask that Zay’s family come forward. Please repeat after me.

On this special day, we surround you with love. We affirm who you are, and embrace you on your journey. We will walk in solidarity as you continue your path, and we pledge our unwavering support. In this family, you are a daughter, a sister, a niece, a granddaughter, a beloved of our own. As long as we are with you, you will never be alone.

Zay, please repeat after me.

I, Zay Irene Crawford, do proclaim that this is my name. It identifies who I am called to be. I take the name of my grandmother, Irene, which means “peace,” and the name of my family. I am to you a daughter and a sister, niece and granddaughter, and you are beloved to me. As long as you are with me, I will never be alone. 

In every tradition, a community gathers around a new name. A community that pledges to love, to seek justice, to extend compassion, and to be present in the wonders and mysteries of life. Will those present who feel so moved, affirm their continued support of Zay and her family by repeating after me: As long as you are together, we will be here.

In the Love of the Creator, the Source of All Things, the Unnamable Spirit, we lift up our hearts and present to the world, Zay Irene Crawford.

What If They’re Right? A Progressive Pastor’s Fears Laid Bare

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I was not raised in the Church. I came to faith via a long and winding road and a tremendous amount of study. Like most highly educated pastors, I have thought through my theology. Deeply. And I do not separate my faith from any area of my life. It is all-encompassing. Grace is a wonderful thing, as I am broken. Wonderfully made and radically love, yes, but broken nonetheless.

I have made decisions about my understanding of community. I can give biblical justifications for why I support women’s ordination, the full inclusion of GLBT persons into community and religious life, and do not think that Jesus is the only way to God. Some fundamentalists stick around to hear my explanations, some do not. Some are fine with agreeing to disagree, and finding areas in which we have crossover to use that shared belief to propel us into relationship and meaningful collaboration to do God’s work. Some refuse to acknowledge my ordination and believe that I am leading a congregation to hell. In fact, the two denominations with whom I am intimately tied, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are two of the most liberal denominations. Add onto that the fact that the congregation I serve aligns with the More Light Presbyterian movement, and I am about as “Progressive” (meant in the categorical sense) a Christian as you can get.

To me, though, the most important word in that descriptor is Christian. I take the gospel seriously. I emphasize the things I believe Jesus told us humans to emphasize: compassion, justice, mercy, solidarity, and love. I leave to God the task of judgment and the state of a person’s soul. I take the bible seriously, but not necessarily literally. I have deep, abiding respect for the long tradition of our faith, but I think there have been many, many mistakes. I find that too often I have to spend a lot of time explaining those mistakes to people who are not necessarily resistant to the view of God my faith espouses, but who are so damaged, so wary, so weary of the Christianity that judges and casts stones, they are hesitant to even think about trying church.

But here’s the rub. Mainline, liberal congregations across the country are struggling. There are myriad reasons for this and if you want to learn more, just pick up any issue of The Christian Century from the past ten years and you are likely to find at least one article about it. Our detractors say it is because we have polluted the gospel. We have acceded to the culture and abandoned Christ. I have written many times about my view of the gospel and I feel absolutely fine claiming that I follow Jesus. However, non-denominational mega churches, which often have a blood atonement theology, a charismatic preacher at the helm who dispenses advice masked as scripture, and a financial statement that can rival those of entire denominations, are thriving. Growth may be slowing down, but the communities are sticking. People are leaving traditional denominations and are going to these churches. For years, we educated and discerning Christians (to our own minds) joked that offering designer coffee and house bands would not be enough to keep people. We misjudged what it was that sent people to churches such as these. The truth is, non-denominational mega churches might be the future of Protestant Christianity. And while they are not for me, for a wide variety of reasons, I am not interested in badmouthing another part of the Body of Christ. Not for addressing what certain people want and need. I know I couldn’t do it, but I don’t deny that there is serious commitment to Christ that emerges in these communities. I don’t agree with their vision of Christ, oftentimes, but the discipleship is real. That’s important.

So, here’s the deal. All the people who said that they’d come back to church if denominations were open to the GLBT community; people who said they would be part of a thinking church, a church that allows for questions; people who said that they want to be able to be in a space where their experiences and even admiration of other religious traditions would be respected; all of those people who motivated so many of us to push within our denominations, to be vocal and visible in social justice fights, we need you. Now. We need you in order to help congregations that are aging, that are struggling financially because they are trying to upkeep ancient buildings. We need you–even if you don’t come to worship proper–to offer to work with us, to help us staff committees, throw community events, create spiritual spaces that are utilized and respected.

Because we could die. And maybe that needs to happen. Maybe our vision of the Gospel is not correct. I reject that claim with every fiber of my being, but I need people to understand the stakes. I have so many passionate, talented, spirit-filled friends who went to seminary, accrued major debt, and are tasked with leading aging and financially-challenged communities and we’re frightened about what we face. Most of us will never be full-time pastors.  For me, the fear is not monetary; it is the prospect that a community that has been continuous since 1860, that has pushed the boundaries and been vital to village life, might end. On my watch. It would be a loss, not just to the Church but to the community as well. I imagine that many of you reading this who do not live in Yellow Springs probably have a few churches in your area that fit this description.

This will be my last doom and gloom blog. I am focused on solutions. I am focused on community. But I wanted to be clear about what drives and motivates me, and what is at stake. I’m looking to try new things and to gather people together in ways that are authentic and meaningful, but also in line with the gospel that is at the center of my heart, sinner that I am.

Community Concerns

 

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When Dr. King graduated from Boston University, he had opportunities to pastor churches or even teach up North. He and Coretta prayed on it fervently, and concluded that they were called to return to their native Southland. History would have been much different had they not gone first to Montgomery, and then Atlanta.

Lewis V. Baldwin, in his seminal work There is a Balm in Gilead, traces the intellectual and cultural influences of Dr. King’s life, from the South to the Black Church. King’s father and mother were both educated and deeply rooted in the church, so he knew no other life than one centered in Christianity, community, solidarity, and suffering. He knew the language and the rhythms, the traditions and the concerns. He was invested in the larger community because he understood the connection between secular systems and the ability to follow God; if laws or culture keeps you oppressed, your religion of justice cannot be practiced. King was a disciple of Jesus Christ first, a civil rights activist second. The two just happened to overlap quite a bit. We often forget that in our watering-down of King’s radical work.

It is always dangerous whenever a minister, especially a White one, starts talking about Dr. King. I’m not comparing my own path to his; that would be asinine. But I do understand what it means to be so closely attached to the place where you serve. Yellow Springs has been my home for nearly all my life. There were years in which I lived elsewhere, but my family home has been here for 30 years. I grew up playing in Glen Helen. I am a product of the schools. A big part of my sense of self is wrapped up in this place.

But the center of my life is my identity as a Christian. As a Jesus follower. As a servant. As a person committed to being in relationship with anyone who seeks me. A person who is not that concerned with rules regarding who gets Communion and I don’t believe I have the ability to save a soul. Frankly, that doesn’t even make my list of top 500 things I think being a pastor is about.

This village, historically, has been intimately concerned about justice. I think that is still there, but it is being pushed to the periphery. Our demographics have changed and our median income has risen, pushing out some of the weird, creative, passionate people that once found refuge here. I look around and I think that there is a need for a spiritual place that provides sanctuary and freedom simultaneously; a place that is safe but encouraging of questions. Of skepticism. Of a desire to push deeper to bring our words in line with our actions. A place that is hospitable and invitational, but is also radical and on fire. A place where art, theater, music, and spirituality find expression inside and outside of worship. A community that comes together in commitment and trust, exploration and sharing; a community that dares to believe that God is too big for labels, but that traditions can give us purpose, direction, power, and peace.

But people have to want it. They have to see the need and feel that this place is worth the risk. The time. The vulnerability. The messiness of relationships and community. I will do everything I can to continue the invitation; the congregation will continue to be welcoming; we will try to show our love in the things we do and the words we say. We hold on to the prayer, If you love them, they will come. 

I love this village, and I love the Church. I fear for both. I fear that if we do not pay attention to the needs and concerns of people we will fail in our charge to pass on the legacies to a new generation. If we do not commit ourselves to taking risks, to allowing for the possibility that change can bring about new life, to caring enough to reach out to our neighbors and invite them along on the journey, we may see something beautiful slip away. If we do not remember who and what we have been in the past, but strive toward the future, we will see our opportunity slip away. If we don’t talk seriously about our declining non-White population and our growing economic divide, we could see the chance for authentic diversity die. If we don’t listen to the concerns that people have about the practice of Christianity, if we don’t affirm the hurt of those who have been pushed away by organized religion, if we don’t stop to think that maybe God is calling us to a new form of ministry we’ll be staring at a corpse that cannot be raised.

Luckily for us, we have a resurrection hope.

 

Why We Need Non-Christians to Save the Church

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I preached a hard sermon today. A sermon that was not meant to make people feel comfortable. It was a sermon born of frustration and prophecy; a sermon meant to inspire and shock. A sermon that took Acts 11:1-18 and made it personal. A sermon tasking people with breaking the rules, pushing the envelope violating polity. A sermon meant to honor the lesson that Prince taught my generation, which is to get through this thing called life. To embrace your place in the world, even when you are grasping to hold on, and to tell your story. Like Peter to the Jerusalem assembly. Here is why I am doing things differently, and why you should, too.

I wrote honestly last time about how I fear the congregation I serve could die within a generation. I spoke that aloud today, the pews filled with members and visitors, faithful and questioning. I put out a call that we are going to have to do more, try new things, dare to believe that God is okay with us making mistakes in the pursuit of relationships and connections. This is not about building up membership. This is about emerging as a brave, vital community that is comfortable enough in its own identity that it does not need to determine how others approach their spirituality. It means that we fling open our doors and actively go out into the community, not to proselytize but to listen. To hear the needs of God’s people and to use our resources to create space that allows for healing, for questioning, for reflection, for sharing, for a sense of belonging, and for a respect that there are infinite paths one may walk. We use a particular religious language and lens to express ourselves, but we are not frightened of other methods.

In truth, I’m looking for non-Christians. I find that the Christianity they reject is one I reject as well; my atheist friends largely reject belief in a God to whom I also cannot accede. We don’t honor God by being scared of others; we don’t honor God by allowing rules to keep up out of relationship. I am not arguing that “anything goes,” but when I read the gospel accounts, I encounter a Jesus who was in the muck and mire, who pushed the boundaries of clean and unclean, who was fearless and dogged in his pursuit to bring love to those who needed it most. That is what I yearn to do. To push the boundaries and to be engaged with people who ask questions, who push back against tradition, who demand that justice and equality be more than buzz words. We need those who are resistant; and I think that we have a lot to offer as well. A Jesus-centered commitment to life and relationships that demand action and attention. A community that lives the faith more than for an hour on Sunday.

I think it would be easier for me if I didn’t believe in God so deeply, so profoundly, that I cannot turn my back on what Christ calls me to do. I am not trying to talk myself up or present myself as some holy figure. I am broken; I am a blessed mess of contradictions and passions and desires that swirl around inside me, but the one constant is my sincere commitment to follow Jesus. Just, follow him. I’ll talk about him if you want. But I’m more interested in doing what he did. Being present. Loving. Standing up for justice. Centering on God. And listening to others. I can’t turn my back on that call. I don’t care if someone is a Christian or not. If they want to be in relationship with me, that is enough. If they need me and ask, I am going to go. I can do nothing less.

I really want to hear–especially for those in YS–what would make you consider stepping through the doors to have a chat, to share a meal, to complete a project, to form a relationship. Don’t think of this as church, think of it as a spiritual center where an invitation is being extended. Come share. Come exist. Come discover things about your self and your community and what it means to be an embodied spiritual being.

Because, dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

The Calling: Sometimes

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It is a strange thing we pastors do. We claim that not only is there a God, but also that this God has somehow called us to service. Many of us–at least, those who do it right–make incredible sacrifices in terms of earning potential, personal lives, and family relationships. We voluntarily take vows that require us to withhold information from our spouses; we accept people speaking to us with great disrespect, either because they are not believers or because they somehow think that we do not retain feelings when we put on the clerical collar. We open up ourselves to public conversations about our bodies, our tattoos, our hairstyles, where we go on vacation, and a whole host of other factors.

The calling is sometimes a great burden. And one of the problems is that sometimes people do not want to hear us gripe. Sometimes we’re told to keep it in because we are charged with being leaders, and congregations should not know of our pain, our struggles, our desires, our frustrations. Those outside the congregation don’t want to hear a pastor complain, either. Get over it, they might say. Everybody has problems.

Let me be clear. I love the people in the church I serve. I cherish the relationships and I respect the people in the community. I also understand that this is their church, not mine. I am to serve to the best of my ability, and to do so with a humble, grateful, and loving heart. Most of the time, that is very easy to do.

But there comes a time (at least one), I think, in every pastor’s career when she/he/they believes that God is speaking. If not speaking, revealing possibilities. If we’re doing it right, we pastors believe very deeply in God and seek out the signs and symbols that can help us lead a community. And maybe that sets us up for pain when others don’t share our vision, or tell us to slow down, or say that what we want to do cannot be done. It is hard to be a pastor who feels like the past is an albatross because everything has been tried before or has been done better than it can be done by us.

Here’s a hard truth. Churches like the one I serve could die within a generation. Our numbers are down. Our membership is older. The burdens of caring for a beautiful, but old building are weighing upon a congregation that has very little money to spare. Our identity as followers of Jesus Christ has been subsumed by our identity as building superintendents. And I didn’t go to seminary to be a building manager.

It is a strange thing I do. I harness my talents and my passion toward a story. A myth. A collection of doctrines and dogma that don’t always make sense. I voluntarily eschew money and career advancement to do what I believe I am meant to do. No one forced me, and I am so blessed to have the opportunity to do this, especially in my hometown. But I feel charged with continuing a legacy that was started in 1855, and I fear that without bold and hopeful action this legacy will die. The congregation will cease to exist, and the building will no longer house a community committed to following Jesus Christ. I will have failed.

Sometimes the calling is hard.

 

Beyond a Dissertation: My Pledge to YS

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There is something special about having come up in Yellow Springs during a certain time. I cannot claim to be a native; my Dad was hired at Antioch PR Director at the tail end of the Birnbaum administration; and the coming of Al Guskin also meant the coming of the Saaris from Cincinnati. Dad and me first; Mom after Steve graduated from Walnut Hills. So 2016 marks my 30 year anniversary as a resident of this place.

It is easy to paint YS as the idyllic Shire; a place with unlocked doors and families that have known each other back to Wheeling Gaunt’s day. The truth is, YS has an incredible history that I am learning in deep detail as I research and write my dissertation. Technically, we are not supposed to call a D.Min project a dissertation, but you know what? I have completed 132 graduate credits between my three masters degrees, so I’m calling the 250-300 page document a dissertation. Deal with it.

Two parts of our history are in serious danger of disappearing. The first is our ethnic and economic diversity. In the 1930s, YS was more racially diverse that it is now. Many of the multi-generation families of color I grew up with in the 80s and 90s, families that went back several generations, are gone. When I moved here our police chief was black, as were all the principals at the public schools. We had African-American owned businesses. In my class there were several families that had settled after fleeing from the Iranian Revolution. And we can argue about the economic realities that have impacted a vast majority of communities in the United States, and we can look at systemic issues that arose as the result of vanished jobs from Vernay, Antioch Publishing, and other industries that sustained the village for years. We can look at all of this and draw fair conclusions. But these factors cannot account for the entire phenomenon. We have trended whiter and wealthier, and with it has come the disappearance of a village that once was. Yes, change happens. Some of us, though, are alarmed.

The second thing that is gone is a meaningful town/gown relationship, a relationship with the Antioch students that pulls them into village life and provides them investment in this place outside of the college. We should think of how positively our community has been touched and blessed by students, faculty, and staff of Antioch College. Over the past several months as I’ve been doing research and taking residence up in Scott Sander’s office (not really, but I do talk to him frequently), I’ve spoken to Antioch students. Today I spoke to several, and to a person they say that they are yearning for a connection to the village and also to a spiritual life. As part of the official recommendations of the Symposium, I had included a renewed relationship between First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs and Antioch College. This, I believe, is what God is calling me to do for my town, my alma mater*, and the church I serve.

I put the call out to start investigating a path forward for bringing refugees to YS. The next major step is going to be at FPCYS on May 26 at 7pm. It will be an information session and fundraiser for Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley. We will be led through our various options by Michael Murphy, the director of relocation services and placement (or some such impressive title). He’s amazing, knows the system in and out, and will be a great asset for us. I’ll write more about it, and please help me get the word out.

But here is what is most important to me moving forward. I am glad that I put the call out regarding refugees because it has caused me to do some deep research and some deep praying. The goal of a community is to make people feel included, not welcomed. Welcoming is great, but that’s what you do for a guest. To provide refugees a sense that their lives are not continually in transition, there have to be things that bring comfort, familiarity, and a sense of belonging. We cannot seek to bring two or three people, we need to think in terms of multiple families. That requires time, money, talent, and dedication. I am all for it if the village buys in, and while I do not want to continue to lead the efforts beyond a certain point, I do believe in the cause. We have to engage in serious conversations about what it means to welcome in resettling refugees when so many people of color have fled.

What I am pledging myself to is developing a relationship with Antioch that includes a co-op here in Yellow Springs which will focus on issues of racial, economic, and ethnic equity, and a commitment to work with other faith, volunteer, and cultural groups in the village who want to join in a coalition to organically support a local culture that is inviting and appealing to larger swaths of the American demographic than are represented in our current citizenry. This is important to me, and I think it should be important to all of us.

Let me conclude by saying that I still believe that YS is a special place. Street after street is filled with people I know and love, people who enrich my life and the lives of everyone who engages in village culture. I am not trying to force some artificial quota system upon us and suggesting that we should try to woo non-Whites in a plot to assuage my own guilt. Not at all. Diversity for the sake of diversity doesn’t work. But it is very significant that there are disproportionately less persons of color in this place than there were a generation ago. Why? It is not just economic; I know this from anecdotal evidence, but my dissertation is going to focus on gathering the scientific data. And then the rest of my life in this village is going to be dedicated to being a loving but insistent voice that we do more than just talk about it, but that we figure out and implement solutions.

More later.

*Technically, I cannot claim to have graduated from the college. However, I was in one of the final graduating classes from Antioch University Midwest (nee McGregor) that attended all semesters on the original campus. I don’t know what the abomination at the edge of town is (no offense to anyone who works there, as I did for five years; my father was a founding faculty member; my mother taught there), but I am an Antiochian. I am invested in the college.

Aching Anakin

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Star Wars The Phantom Menace star Jake Lloyd has been transferred from a jail facility to a psychiatric facility after a recent diagnosis of schizophrenia.His family members report that there is already an improvement to his condition.

As a Star Wars geek, suicide survivor, and a person who battles bipolar disorder, I am genuinely happy for Jake. I cannot imagine wrestling with mental illness while being an almost reviled figure  simply for (arguably) being miscast as the iconic Anakin Skywalker in Episode I of the saga; schizophrenia, which I know from my own brother’s experience and abundant reading, manifests itself in the mid- to late-twenties, so Jake’s major negative experiences with fans (let us remember that the word derives from fanatics) were before the full onset of his disorder. But I don’t doubt that there are triggers galore, like I wrote about yesterday, around the film(s) for him. Sadly, though, these barbs and jabs about a fictional character are nothing compared to the reality of mental illness.

Jake Lloyd has done some illegal things, that’s not under debate. But what should flat out piss us off is that he was in jail for ten months. I am fresh from a hell of bipolar’s making, and I cannot imagine having to try to deal with it while in prison. And while I don’t know the details, I do know that we who have mental illnesses give off plenty of signs that trained professionals can detect. Here’s the rub, though: those professionals have to be given access to us. Access and time. Access and time and resources, something that we as a society don’t place as a priority for public money any more. Thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s policies, mental health care (which has always been problematic) has declined precipitously in the last 30 years. More ill people and fewer psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and social workers has created backlog and an impossible caseload, or mentally ill persons need to have great financial resources to be able to to seek treatment and good places in which to estivate when things turn bad.

I could wax philosophical about how Jake’s public diagnosis can spark a more honest conversation about mental illness, but it won’t. I look on message boards now and already see the jokes; I don’t believe people mean any harm, but mental illness is so greatly understood (toughen up; do yoga; eat organics; take your meds and all will be fine) laughter at an individual who has it, or a connection between a lackluster acting effort and a mental disorder, just contribute to the dismissive attitude. Mental illness is an easy culprit, but a difficult subject.

After each mass shooting I hear people talk about the need for more mental health care. I always think, Is that what it takes? People dying? And are we in the mental illness community the bearers of that brunt? That our societal use of violence is the result of simply being “crazy”? Let’s talk about mental illness now. Jake was in jail for ten months. Ten. Months. Why did it take so long? And how was he treated when he was inside? How was he finally able to be diagnosed? How did his fame impact or not impact current final diagnosis? I don’t expect Jake to do a damn thing other than work on getting better, and I don’t want his privacy to be violated. But I do hope that we can lovingly look at his situation and ask ourselves how many other people with seriously undiagnosed conditions are toiling away in jails and prisons?

Jake, I know you won’t read this, but I mean it with every fiber of my being: May the Force be with you.

Pulling the Triggers: Bipolar Cinema

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[Trigger warning: Discussion of triggers.]

“Have you seen Silver Linings Playbook?” people have asked since my diagnosis. I would always answer no. I hadn’t. And until last night, I thought I would never see it. The reasons are complex, but for really simple influences. First, I decide just about every year or so there is a film I simply will not watch. And I don’t. Ever. The Bodyguard?  Never seen it. Chicago?  Are you kidding me? Avatar. Nope. And there’s really no rationale behind the decision. It is one of the quirks of my bipolar; I dig my heels in and refuse to relent, regardless of others trying to persuade me. I think one of the reasons I chose films is that, ultimately, they don’t matter; digging in my heels on other issues–God, marriage, family, friends, work, school–causes great damage. Painful damage. So I choose films.

Second, I know some films are going to cause me a heavy emotional reaction. Sometimes this is good, like when I watch Rent. I can guarantee there are three scenes that will, without fail, cause me to weep. Not cry, full-on weep. And I have seen this film dozens and dozens of times. But others, like Kids, The Hours, and Punch Drunk Love, I have seen once and will never see again. Great films. Important films. But films that triggered me big, big, big time when I saw them, and all for seemingly different reasons, but each triggering event relating in some significant way to the life and suicide of my schizophrenic brother, Stephen (for whom Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love is a near dead-ringer).

This whole notion of triggering is complicated for me. My bipolar was diagnosed a year ago, and it has been a shitstorm. For faithful readers of the blog, you know the major movements. It has been a discovery for me that I have been triggered in the past, and that I need to be mindful of situations–particularly as they relate to film, television, music, and literature–that might set me off. As I present mainly as a depressive with manic tendencies (who cycles very rapidly, but remains depressed much longer than manic), it is very rare that I can point to a specific incident and say, “This, right here, is why I am losing it. This is why the demons are coming.” Generally, the tide turns slowly and culminates in a  wildly manic evening and then the precipitous drop. Before I started taking meds, I subconsciously would schedule around anticipated depressions.

But the single, triggering event? That is relatively new for me. And it has gotten me rethinking how I approach the use (overuse?) of “triggering” in our quotidian conversations. I am loathe to place myself in a situation where I somehow present myself as the arbiter of what is triggering and what is not. Sexual assault victims, PTSD sufferers, domestic violence victims, trans* persons, mentally ill; all of these “groups” might experience triggers differently, and then there is wide variance within corresponding subgroup. And of course my little list is not definitive. I bring this up just so that I am clear: triggering is very real, and we as a public should talk about it, and be mindful of the very real, very serious consequences for human lives that can occur when people intentionally place triggers in the paths of others. But what constitutes a trigger is not uniform.

I also think that there is sometimes a co-opting of “triggering” language used by people in the same way that they will misappropriate something like a Native spirit animal. They take something real and use it incorrectly; or they use it as a vehicle to raise a ruckus and don’t actually talk to people who might really be triggered. It is a hard call because, like I wrote above, I didn’t really know what things will necessarily  trigger me and I have never thought that someone else was responsible (except when I was asked to watch The Hours, in which the person knew very well that my brother had drowned himself and I had a total “WTF?!” reaction; in fairness, though, I should have known as it is based on a true story, and I hold an M.A. in English Literature). I just fear that “trigger warnings” could be co-opted by people for the wrong reasons and could result in the opposite of what is good about having the discussion: an honest exchange regarding how we set-up and regulate our public, shared, and private spaces. How can we be mindful without being fearful? And that requires those of us who can be triggered to speak up, but to also know that sometimes we might have to miss out on certain things and that is okay. But that it is not a reason to ask other people to not have a specific experience.

Let me be specific.

The single event that set me off on this last journey into the hellscape was watching Are You Here with Zach Galifianakis, whom I normally enjoy. I knew that the film featured a bipolar character, and I was intellectually curious about how the disorder would be handled. Here is where it gets weird. I don’t really remember much at all about the film because I got so upset; all I can say is that if felt wrong. Like, really wrong. Like somehow a part of me was being elevated and ridiculed and used as evidence that somehow I am less of a man and am an incomplete person. The issue of mental illness was introduced and then solved with Galifinakis’ character shaving his beard. Bye-bye, bipolar. Perhaps it is the fact that I am a chubby, affable, long-haired, big old beard guy that I felt like I was the butt of the joke, but I did. And I was not laughing.

Ridiculous? Without question. Asinine. But still very fucking real.

So I descended into the Pit. And when I started to come out, I made a bold decision. I decided to watch Silver Linings Playbook, by myself and without telling anyone. (See my post about pulling back from Facebook.) I generally like Bradley Cooper (American Sniper is a film I have arbitrarily decided not to see), and I adore Jennifer Lawrence. I’m imagining that you have seen the film–so, spoiler alert on a movie four years old–and remember the basic plot. Guy gets out of the institution and moves back in with his quirky family; guy is obsessed with getting his wife back, whom he has hurt in untold ways; he is set up by friends with mentally ill girl, who has hurt and been hurt in untold ways, and they fall in love. The silver lining is there even for people like us. We are deserving of love, too. Yay.

I don’t mean to indicate that I didn’t like the film, I did. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to look at Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for two hours? That is almost as much beauty as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Throw in Robert DeNiro as the gambling-addicted, OCD father and you’ve got Hollywood gold. But that was my problem with it, I guess. It was the tired old, “Hey, you have a mental illness?! I have a mental illness! We can be mentally ill together!” It was the last shot of Jennifer curling into Bradley’s lap and sucking his gorgeous face as the credits begin to roll. Yeah! mental illness can be cured by shaving a beard or getting two people with compatible crazy to make out!

I wish I had been there at the screening. Like, how do two people with serious issues make it work when one takes meds and the other does not? Why do both of them become violent (at least toward things, although also with people) when they are manic, when a vast majority of bipolars do not manifest this way? While it is great that they found one another, is the message that mentally ill people can only be with one another? The only other mentally ill character is portrayed by Chris Tucker, and he’s a clown; he is the comedic relief. We laugh at his shenanigans. So, is that it? Mental illness is either to be solved or to be laughed at?

Look, I get that it is a film based on a novel (and that the film made a lot of changes). And I agree that there is something really powerful about the idea that two people who have been damaging to others can be healed together. If I did not believe in healing and recovery, I would not be a pastor and I would not be so open about my own bipolar. I do believe in both. But the reality of mental illness is much messier, much more difficult, and much more nuanced than what we seem to get. With a haircut and a sexy hot crazy partner, you’ll be all better, too.

So, faithful readers (if you are there). Chime in. What should I see? What should I avoid? What movies do you appreciate that feature a person with mental illness, and which ones left you angry/raw/disappointed/triggered?