So, I Think I was Legit Attacked by Demons (And It’s Taken Three Years to Admit It)

 

I’d like to open a discussion, but I have a some requests (requirements) if you would like to partake (which I hope that you will!). I sprinkle those in throughout the prompt. 

Demonology is a vast and complicated field. I admit to my own troubled relationship; it is largely sloppy theology when we hear mentions of demons. I have long held that demon language functions in three co-equal ways: 

1. To account for physical and mental phenomena that could not yet be described scientifically, i.e. epilepsy, schizophrenia. See, for example, the story of Legion in Mark 5.

2. To account for the innate, perhaps intrinsic darkness that attenuates the human experience. 

3. To describe the pain and irrational decision making that can come with damaging behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse; I have come to understand that this manifestation of evil is expressed on a continuum that includes domestic and sexual violence, and other such disturbing and opprobrious behavior. 

Keep in mind each of these references is rooted in understanding the origins as internal; I certainly appreciate the Buddhist notions of seeds of mindfulness and seeds of affliction: which ones do we water? 

Most of my life has been spent exploring and affirming these varous explanations/interpretations, but notice that is leaves out a HUGE concept: evil/demons being external, volitional, and capable of attack/haunting. I’ve generally regarded that as superstition or sloppy thinking. I absolutely affirm that my own long history with mental illness, both in my family (both sides) and in myself, has made me hostile and resistant. Demon talk reminds me of the members of my historic community who were put in cages and lobotomized in the name of my religion. 

My beautiful, fucked-up, damaging, liberating, horrid, transcendent religion.    

Deep breath. I’m really putting it out there. And here’s the caveat, I need y’all to be kind and really think before responding on this aspect. I’m nervous because this is…yeah.


I believe that I was attacked by demons about three years ago; I was asleep when I felt the sheet pull off of me. Miriam was not in the room. I felt something move across my body, I froze up and then, well, I was attacked. I was no longer asleep, at least not in the conventional sense. Almost as though I knew in my bones–in the Greek sense of gnosis–I started fighting the demon with scripture verses, and (here’s where it gets kinda embarrassing), I was yelling “the power of Christ compels you!” Like, legit big old preacher voice yelling (Mimi would say she could hear me across the house and over the TV but knew that waking me up would be bad; it would, I might have hit her unintentionally, of course, but mental illness is real, yo). This kept up for what seemed like hours, but probably was much less than that; I can’t conjecture, my sense of time was completely cattywampus. Suddenly, the presence was gone, my eyes shot open, and I was covered in sweat but my skin was clammy, almost frigid. The sheets were soaked. I was exhausted, but felt a power coursing through me. Not human power. Not controlling power. I can’ quite describe it. I think I, for a moment, glimpsed totality. Like I felt the big bang.

After that night began the journey of which most of you have seen the manifest fruits. The diagnosis. The breakdown. THe tats, the beard, the hair; a friend today said–I don’t know if I agree, but I deeply respect her and she don’t play with ish like dis–that she feels like I have deconstructed the ego in advanced and authentic ways. Meh. I sometimes feel consumed with myself, but that is another rabbit hole. 

It has been three years. I have only told one other person this story, and I feel moved now to start talking about it. I legit believe I was attacked by demons, and ever since then I have felt increasingly closer to God. I can honestly say that I submit completely to Christ, at least I earnestly try to; there is not one area of my life that does not bear the mark of Jesus. Not saying I’m holy or anything like that, but I am saying that I encountered something that seemed to come from the very sourse of evil, and because I have been marked by good (God) I was able to endure. It is an experience that both repels and fascinates me.  The emotional memories are complicated, too. But that is too personal. Yes, there actually are things I don’t write about ūüėČ  

I know this sounds nuts. I know. And I know that I am nuts–it’s okay, it’s my personal n-word–and this was back when I still drank and there are numerous possible explanations other than some beasts from another world decided to come and play footsie with me.

But it is my truth. The facts may be wrong, but it is my truth. I’ve always dismissed notions of otherworldly occurrences or appeals to demons as lazy theology. I’ve held back telling this story because I was embarassed, even ashamed; however, it is a part of my journey I need to own and I feel strongly God requires I lay this bare and ask for your loving, but honest feedback. What do you think?  
  

Safety Pin Safe


When I was coming up, safety pins were all the rage to wear through the ears or all over jackets, like real punk rockers. Safety pins are remarkably difficult to get through an ear, by the way. Even an already pierced one. 

I’m sure most of us have heard about the safty pin campaign, in which a person can identify him- or herself as safe by wearing it in a conspicuous place. This has been ridiculed on one side and embraced on another, with serious criticisms and concerns throughout the pithy middle. The immediate concerns from margianlized persons make sense: it is not enough; wearing a pin to mark yourself as safe doesn’t actually make you safe; this is once again dominant culture determining how oppressed persons should react or act in situations that indicate violence or abuse. I am not linking essays here because there are too many good pieces out there that I don’t want to rank them; they are available for anyone who has mastered the Google. 

I get these concerns and critiques. My words are not meant as a refutation in any way, but rather as a contextualization for why, despite the requests of several friends who  do not think the campaign is worthy of energy, I am continuing to move forward. 

First, the safety pin allowed me to talk to the kids in church about what it means to be an ally. This is not a hip accessory that we can wear to make ourselves look cool and enlightened. It is an external symbol of internal work. What does it mean to be an ally? What kind of privilege do each of us have? What sort of situations might arise? How do we know that we won’t be putting other people in danger? How do we respond when we are outnumbered? Of course, I did not provide answers. I have 3-5 minutes and ages ranging from 5-17 years old. But I left the kids with this: what do we need to do so that we are wearing the pins on the inside? So that our actions will show others that we are safe?

Second, when I see other white persons with the pin I will strike up a conversation. I will seek to find out if they are doing any work in the community; ask what the pin means to them; pose questions about how things are where they live; and cogitate on any other issues as they arise that will help us to network. White persons are often told that we need to have conversations with one another in our own spaces, and this is one way to have that happen; I understand this is not the original intent of the safety pin, but it is one that can be added on. I too am concerned about people who will just put the pin on and then not think about what elese they need or could be doing. The safety pin can be a great starting point for these difficult conversations, and can provide an opportunity to introduce poeple to groups or organizations that will help them in their process of getting woke, as the kids say. 

Third, it is a good way for me as a pastor to discuss fears and concerns that don’t cut across generations. In a multigenerational church, it can sometimes be difficult to communicate the needs and concerns of persons separated by two generations. Something as simple as the safety pin allows a concrete way to initiate talks that can bridge the divide. 

The answer is not to shame on either side. People who object to the safety pins need to be heard and not have their objections swept away; that defeats the whole point of the pin in the first place. How can we offer  ourselves as safe if we don’t listen to the persons to whom we are trying to communicate our safeness? On the other side, though, don’t dismiss the small steps that can help persons travel further down the road of awareness. The pin itself is meaningless unless we attach meaning and action. Let’s give the symbol a chance to define itself through the advocacy work that people like myself and others are doing in this new, terrifying reality many of us are seeing. I get that for many, nothing has changed except more people are talking about reality now, but that does not mitigate the fact that for some people the unabashed hatred is new and overwhelming. I know it can be inconvenient to accept the need for white people to process when there are such pressing needs across the board to make changes for people who have been struggling for lifetimes, but in a tough world it is important to have soft spaces. Supremacy culture is a bitch to undo. It is important to know that you can’t do everything and because you never stop encountering your own prejudice while also dealing with that of those all around us, sometimes you have to give yourself permission to be overwhelmed and confused. 

This is the fact: in order for us to achieve justice, we need to accept that two people may be crying over the same incident for two very different reasons. Both need to be able to express their emotions, to go on their journies, so that they can play their part. The safety pin is a way to facilitate such a journey, at least from my perspective. If it doesn’t work for you, fine. And if you need to express a critique, please do: these are important to hear. But please, for the sake of community and expanding the movement, let’s make room for sojourners on all points of the path. 

 

  

The BCP of YS: Bringing the “I” So that “They” May Become “We”

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All photos taken by Kate Hamilton 

I’m a Creationist. I believe in creation. I believe that we have stardust in us. I believe that each one of us were present at the moment of inception, of genesis, of getting it started in here. We were there, and I believe we were there because of God. I get that others don’t. Their beliefs don’t threaten me, but I know the specter of a “white,”¬†Christian man talking about creationism is sufficient reason to shift uncomfortably in one’s seat. Sadly, Christian beliefs too often are things of which to be afraid.

I don’t believe in six literal days of creation. I don’t think that the Bible is a physics dissertation: just as I go to Stephen Hawking when I want to (pretend I) understand the astrophysics that hold together the unknowable vastness of all things, so too do I go to the Bible when I want to understand what it¬†means.

I believe in creation. As an act. As a way of life. As a way of pushing back against the ugliness and helplessness we feel; creation is defiant. Creation says that we will not be brought down by the darkness. Creation says that we are willing to be vulnerable in order to find our power, and to be humble in order to find our immortality. Creation is the great I am.

Last night I gathered with people who create. Who want to create together. To create a community, to create a connection with one another not¬†despite¬†our differences but¬†because¬†of our differences. To play in the proverbial dust and to blow our collective breathes into something new. Fragile. To say, “I bring the I so that they may become we.”

It starts with whisper.

 

It starts with an idea, a conversation between two, then three, then five, then thirty. At least, that’s how the BCP started. Me saying to Anna, “what do you think of this?” Of us presenting it to Ryan, and him saying, “Well, what about this?” It started with a willingness to say that true community must begin with equality. We can’t do it in the world. Not yet. But we can do it here. Now. Moving forward.

That’s what we did last night. Not just the three of us, but all of the thirty who were present. And we hope that more will come next time and the time after that and the time after that.

These are our hopes, friends. To launch the nonprofit in January, with 6 months of programming around 6 different themes. Each month will feature 1-2 educational components, facilitated and designed by members of the community. Each month will culminate in a¬†liturgia, again with new artists, musicians, writers, dancers, and facilitators each month. We will also have a list of action items that we hope will arise from the month’s work. We are going to put boots on our prayers. To our energy. To our intentions. And we’re going to do so without privileging one tradition over another. We are not going to shy away from the raw and difficult emotions that come with being spiritual persons, of being people with free will and reason, persons who might think differently from one another in profound ways. We’re not going to walk away. We’re not going to shut out. We’re not going to take the easy way out because too often that means injustice.

Even if you did not make the liturgia, please consider filling out our survey. It will help us as we move forward, as we make room, as we listen to what the spirit is saying to each one of us.

It is a critical time in our nation’s history. Are we going to buy in to the fear? Are we going to shy away from real conversations and action? Or are we going to trust ourselves and others enough to bring the whole of ourselves and say, “Here I am, and I can be no other”?

The Beloved Community Project of Yellow Springs is : 

Anna Burke, Artistic Director
Ryan Stinson, Musical Director
Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari, Spirituality and Education Director
Christian Fox, Managing Director 

AND YOU?

 

 

“Take the Damn Knee”: Of Arhats and Bodhisattvas

Read this: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34

Now this: “Take the Damn Knee” by Arnold Adoff

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I want to tell you a story. But one that comes from outside my tradition. One that I have added on to, but a parable that began as a way to distinguish a difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist perspectives on how to approach life. For us to consider Joseph and his brothers, I feel like we have to begin with a different journey through the desert.

Picture four figures making their way across a barren wasteland. I like to imagine it like Thunderclap, but that’s just me. The Sahara works as well. Picture them with sand-cut skin; lips cracked and bleeding from dehydration; the last twenty miles have been covered without a break because stopping means certain death. Then, on the horizon, appears a vast wall. A wall that even Donald Trump would admit is a better wall than he could build. Even their exhausted minds can comprehend that a wall means that there’s something to protect.

Something is being kept in so others will stay out. 

The first of their number quickens the pace and arrives at the wall first. Energized by possibilities, they make their way up. Looking over, the solitary figure lets out a geshreeyeh and disappears from view. Two of the remaining three look at one and another and break into a run. Scaling the wall quickly, they let out their own 

homer

and jumped over. The final sojourner makes their way to the wall, slowly scales the face to the top, and looks over. There are lush, thick grasses for sleeping; trees bent with the weight of fruits; a cool pool of water fed by a bubbling creek; a hot spring on the other end with steam rising, all shaded by the canopy of lush trees. Smiling, the traveler removes the cloak, wads it up, and positions it under their head as they lie atop the wall. 

The other three, their tattered rags already shed so that they could dive into the pool before liberating the trees of a few of their fruits, pause long enough to notice their comrade. One calls up, “Friend! Are you not going to come in? It is paradise at last!”

The fourth turns to face them, smiles, and says: “No, friends. I am going to stay up here to see if anyone else comes along. If they do, I can shout encouragement to them and assure them that paradise awaits.” Turning away, the lone scout look out into the distance, scanning the horizon for sojourners making their way across the wasteland.

The three who enter the oasis are Arhats. They are enlightened beings who, in this world, assist others. But when they encounter nirvana, they jump. The idea is that there are some things one can do only on one’s own. The fourth who stays on the wall is a Bodhisattva. Upon encountering nirvana, they willfully reincarnate so as to help others. They delay their own encounter with parinibbana, “final nirvana,” to be of service to others.*

I used to think that one was clearly superior to the other. For me, it is all about the Bodhisattva approach; I’m not claiming to be enlightened–certainly not in the Buddhist sense of the word–but I do have a life philosophy that is largely based upon a desire to serve others. But I have learned, sometimes through great pain, that there are some things we just cannot do for someone else. Or ask others to do for us. It’s like the Woody Guthrie song: “You’ve got walk that lonesome valley; you’ve gotta walk it by yourself; there ain’t nobody go there for you; you’ve got to walk it for yourself.” ¬†In truth, we really need to be both. Arhats and Bodhisattvas.

That’s the name of my Beastie Boys tribute band.

The parable, for how awesome it is, still does not account for everything that we must consider. Even if we unpack the metaphors, make allegorical the analogies, and plumb the subtext, we still don’t deal with a fundamental reality. The sun and wind and sand that rip upon our bodies might represents out expectations, childhood, and the force of culture, and the lack of water might signify the absence of worldly truth, but nothing in the parable lends itself to the greatest source of all pain.

People.

Jean-Paul Sartre writes in¬†No Exit¬†that hell is other people. Perhaps, but there are people and then there’s family. Don’t get me wrong, I love my quirky little family. I have lucked out with the whole genetic lottery thing, at least in terms of quality relationships and people. But let’s be honest. No one can hurt us quite like family, right? My dearly departed brother Stephen, of blessed memory, could cut me to the quick faster than anyone else on the planet. And I could do the same thing to him.

Brothers throw each other into the cistern. It’s what we as humans do, especially when we’re young. Especially when we think that whole of life is made from being self-serving. Of having a twisted vision of what it means to be an Arhat. That we’re just in this for ourselves. So we act like Joseph’s brothers. We let our jealousy and misunderstanding and coveting fuel our behavior.

Before we bash the brothers, let’s be honest: Joseph is a bit of a snot. I mean, it is one thing to have a dream about ruling over your older siblings; most of us who are younger have had such fantasies. It is totally another thing to tell your brothers, “Y’all gonna be worshiping me like a king!” I know from experience, older brothers do not take kindly to such talk. Granted, planning to kill Joseph is a little over the top; luckily Reuben and Judah calm down a bit, but I think we all can agree that deciding to sell your brother into slavery should never really be a viable option. I mean, just as a family dynamic to have at play, I don’t think you’ll have really strong, trusting relationships result.

Let’s agree that there were mistakes made on all sides.

Honestly, though, I don’t have any interest in explicating the rest of the story. Because I don’t think as a society we have earned it. Not now. Not where we’re at with race relations, gun violence, policing issues, and notions of what it means to be patriotic. We don’t get to jump over the hard parts and get to the forgiveness. We’re not there because ¬†there are far too many Josephs still in the cistern. That’s where I want to stop and throw down some roots. We’ve gotta live here before we can even think about a beloved reunion.

The cistern is filled with far too many Josephs. Black and Brown and Queer and Native and poor Josephs. We throw our brothers, our sisters, our siblings into the cistern because we’re afraid that someone might throw us in there is we don’t act fast. And maybe our cisterns aren’t the same. But we’re there. Once in the cistern, though, we listen to what is yelled from above: “It’s the fault of those in there with you that you are there in the first place,” they convince us. So we fight amongst ourselves.

Have gun will travel is the call of a man. 

There are too many American Arhats in the cistern. Too many who mistake money for wisdom, and societal success for an authentic life. Too many people clinging to their guns and their religion instead of to love and to community.

Too many who think that if they can just get out of the cistern that they will be happy.

We need more Bodhisattvas. More people willing to sacrifice in order to help others.

It’s like Arnold says in his poem. Take the damn knee. You know, in football, taking a knee resets the play clock, but the game clock keeps running. Across the NFL today massive numbers of players will be taking knees during the playing of the national anthem. The symbolism is potent. Palpable. As a nation, we need to take a knee. We need to say that we’re not going to keep playing the same game. We are not going to keep doing what we have been doing, not while there are people in the cistern. Not while there are people being shot and killed by the police; not while there is inadequate training and support for our police officers; not while firms like Halliburton continue to make millions, and 22 veterans a day commit suicide; not while thousands of First Nation persons try to protest their water and land; not while trans* persons continue to be targeted and victimized; not while there is the largest prisoner strike in American history not being covered by the media; not while Muslims are being attacked in the streets simply because of their faith tradition.

Take the damn knee.

*Please use the links provided to do your own research; I am greatly simplifying incredibly complex issues, and certainly do not want to misrepresent Buddhist beliefs and concepts by not pointing out the very loose definitions I am setting forth  to make a larger point. I know that I took great, great liberties with the use of these terms, but I do so with this understanding: we may not all be Buddhists, but we all are potential Buddhas. The concepts of the Arhats and Bodhisattvas, better than anything in my own tradition, helped me to connect images and stories. Again, sincere apologies to anyone who might be offended or feel I am appropriating. Feel free to comment or send me an email: revsaari@gmail.com      

Adam Sandler Tolerant

casual racism.jpg

I grew up listening to Adam Sandler comedy tapes. “The Severe Beating of a High School Spanish Teacher”was a favorite among my male friends and I. We were boys. Boys who played D&D, acted in plays, sang show tunes, and covered Nirvana songs. Adam Sandler’s moronic humor with a wink and a tinge of edgy social commentary was right up our alley.

It was not until later in life, later in my raising of consciousness that I realized Adam Sandler’s movies are a perfect example of white supremacy culture. To be sure, I am not calling Adam Sandler a white supremacist. Despite the fact that he has made some horrible, horrible movies of late, he has made some outstanding ones too. And I’m not just talking about the classics:¬†Happy, Billy, Water, and Wedding.¬†I’m talking¬†Big Daddy,¬†Fifty First Dates,¬†Spanglish¬†and¬†Punch Drunk Love. He can keep making crap, and I’ll always love him for making me feel good literally hundreds of times.

But the fact is, Adam Sandler represents one of the problems with Gen X men and their attitudes toward race, gender, sexuality, and rape culture. One can engage in it, as long as one vehemently decries it in others. Think of¬†Big Daddy:¬†Sonny’s best friends from law school are gay, but the homophobic jokes don’t stop. Same with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Chuck and Larry make all kinds of gay jokes–and the supporting gay characters are all played as one-dimensional, effeminate queens–but they beat up people who use slurs towards them (the cis, straight, white guys using GLBT legal progress to benefit themselves, perfect symbols for whom the system was built). Almost every film has some sort of ethnic stereotype, but often with poor whites used almost as a way to point and say, “See!? See?! We make fun of our own, too.” As though that will make up for the horribly racist characters played by Rob Schneider. Almost each movie has some resolution with the underdogs being victorious because the white guys exposed the hypocrisy, but not enough to face their own.

Sandler also has a way of casting incredibly beautiful women–Jessica Biel, Joey Lauren Adams–as accomplished women, but manages to either reduce them to essentially sex objects, or to once again use the existence of a strong woman to justify misogyny and sexist jokes.

Again, not casting stones at Adam. But I am saying that it is a perfect example of many attitudes I encounter. White men who are so casual and insistent with their own racism and various phobias, but who don a “lighten up, I was just kidding” attitude whenever anyone calls them out. Often, these guys (and women too, I guess, but I’m kinda writing toward the white dudes here) are good, intelligent, well-meaning guys. They really don’t think they are racist, and they really don’t want anyone to be hurt. Yet, they feel that they have done enough of the internal work to be sufficiently enlightened, that everyone else needs to accept that, and they should be the final arbiters of what is racist, sexist, homophobic.

You get my point.

It really is the epitome of the White, male privilege many of my contemporaries just don’t get. They genuinely believe that if everyone just lightened up, treated each other well, and had a sense of humor, everything would be fine. They don’t understand that generations of oppression¬†is literally written into DNA. They can’t see, won’t see, that it is not up to them (us) to decide what is racist and what is not. It is not up to us to decide what methods of protest are acceptable and which are not. It is not up to us to finally draw the line and say enough is enough. Sadly, though, it will take us doing just that for things to change.

Fellas, we don’t get to be Adam Sandler. There’s no cool, hip, well-meaning, unhurtful racism. There’s no way to jokingly treat women like less, but still be feminists. There are not acceptable Muslim jokes. We cannot be so casual about things that are literally deadly serious. And, Adam. You gotta do better, man. Seriously. It just isn’t funny.

We can’t tell people to lighten up. We’re gotta be as heavy as the times.

White Words, White Inaction

It is not my pain to own, this pain that arises from racism. Mine is a secondary experience. Even tertiary. Mine a bullet that grazes the skin before plunging into a darker-skinned body. My exhaustion and ache and anger don’t matter. This is not sarcasm. This is the truth. It is not mine and I don’t write to claim that it is. I just need that to be clear.

Tyre King. Terence Crutcher. Keith Lamont Scott. I fear the list will grow before I hit publish on this post.

White men on the talking picture box keep talking about how angry they are at athletes who take a knee during the national anthem, a racist screed, to protest police violence. They shriek and condemn–which they do no matter how people protest racism–and take to Twitter to show their patriotism, which (shock) looks a helluva lot like plain, good ole fashion racism to me. (Seriously, click on this link and look at how Google tried to reroute my search from “racist act aimed at protesting players” to “racist act aimed at protecting players”). They get so upset about a cultural custom that has only been around since 2009, but there are crickets when innocent black bodies are in the streets and a cop who has shot an innocent man is consoled. It happens more than you might think.

Something has changed for me. I’m still committed to nonviolence, but I’m also committed to confrontation. I’m committed to confronting these evils, of refusing the notion that there are two sides to this story, at least two equal sides. One side is demanding that police officers stop killing citizens, especially POC. The other said is saying, “Well, it’s more complicated than that and…” Nope. It isn’t. Not really. I mean, I get that there are a lot of moving pieces and there is not a magic bullet (yeah, I went there) that will take care of everything. But it is¬†as simple as making this issue a top national priority, and not for Congress. Fuck them. Fuck them and their corrupted bullshit. It is time for the people who experience this treatment to be given prominent seats at the table, are able to make and implement real, substantive changes on the local and national level, and that the traditional power brokers be locked out of the process. Fuck the NRA. Fuck the FOP, and their endorsement of Trump.¬†¬† And if you think this is an unpastoral thing to say, lemme ask you: have you read the New Testament? Jesus’ whole message is essentially, “Fuck Rome.”

So, yeah. Fuck Rome. And fuck White words and White inaction. Read¬†Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and then you’ll see why I am using the language I am using and why I am trying hard not to give in to rage.

This. Must. Fucking. Stop. img_0138

I Stopped, I Didn’t Quit

In seminary we are taught that with a church assignment comes distinct expectations: prophetic, priestly, pastoral. professorial. Prophetic: we must speak on what we believe God is doing in the congregation and the direction ministry should go. Priestly: to perform the rites and rituals of life (marriage, confirmation), administer the sacraments, bury the dead. Pastoral: providing care, prayer, confidentiality. Professorial: teaching the Word, history, theology, or any other relevant subjects. We’re taught, but not really prepared. Not that such is the failure of a seminary; rather, it is the purview of experience.

Here’s where things get sticky. I’m writing about my work, and everyone knows where I work, and I have to be careful not to write anything that reflects poorly on the congregation or in any way violates confidentiality or the Book of Order. I speak for myself. I am writing about myself as a pastor of a church that exists in space and time and a very simple Google search will reveal very clearly where I work.

But I remain a human person who has thoughts and ideas, goals and aspirations. My job is one in which I literally cannot clock out. I cannot put on my “at home” personality. My faith is my life, my life is my faith. I think about God and justice and love and Jesus pretty much nonstop.

I have been gobsmacked by some of the things that are said to me in the course of my job; being a pastor for 18 hours a week does not give anyone control over how I spend my other hours, as long as I am not living an unchristian life. And you can call me many things, but unchristian is not one of them. Love me or hate me, I’m a pretty transparent person. Some people claim too transparent, but it’s my hot spirituality I’ll do what I want.

cartman

I know that I can be a bit much. I’m big. I’m loud. I get really excited quickly. I hug a lot. I’ll just call you up and tell you I love you because I believe God put it on my heart. I get how for some people it can seem like I’m really self-involved or that I want to be the center of attention. I get that because at different times those were truths. If I’m not careful, they’ll be truths again. Believe me, whatever bad thing you might have thought about me, I have thought much, much worse about myself. And I’m trying to stop that kind of living.

Six months ago, I stopped drinking.

I don’t know if I will write about this again, as this is one area where I am kind of guarded because, to be honest, there are some people who really don’t like me. I think there are some who would be happy if I weren’t where I am. That’s fine. I can’t control them. But I can be careful about what I let out there. Believe it or not, I don’t write about everything that comes into my head. Well, I do write about most stuff but I write more than I post, which is hard to believe I know because, seriously, I post a lot.

I don’t say I got sober. I don’t say that I quit drinking (sometimes I slip and say it, but I try to correct myself). I stopped. I finally accepted God’s free gift of grace. I look now at why and how I got to the point where stopping was necessary and I realize I never want to go back. I can’t go back. Some of this–most of this?–is a result of being on good meds, therapy, prayer, and living a live filled with purpose. And it is only six months. If I let it happen, alcohol could be a problem again. I’m not calling myself an alcoholic, I’m calling myself someone living with bipolar who has mental and emotional pain; that is a heavy cross to bear. I have fallen down before. I fell. I will fall again.

What I do for a living is what I do in order to be able to live. I don’t mean that in just a financial sense. I mean it literally. If I don’t follow Christ, if I don’t do everything I can for justice, community, love, and compassion, I will not know how to live. I don’t know who I am outside of Christ, and God has made it clear to me that I am to be a servant. Here. In this place where I grew up and continue to grow.

I have fears that the prophetic nature of the call is already resulting in strife. I pray each and every day to make sure that I am not trying to promote myself, that I am not attempting to use God as an excuse to advance my own agenda. But I think I have done the work to such an extent that God’s agenda is my agenda: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.” Justice is providing a place where all who want to come are welcomed. Righteousness is adhering to continued calls for justice, even when others call you divisive. Confrontational. Controversial.

Getting drunk on God is just as dangerous, if not more so, than being blasted on alcohol. I mean, there’s a reason they’re called spirits. Hey-oh!

I’ve stopped drinking. I’m living more. I don’t assume that I’m always going to feel this strong, this called, this blessed, this in touch with God. And that’s part of the reason why I write as I do, friends. I imagine that many of you have similar stories. You’re just not as stupid or needy as I am to write everything and hit publish. Heh.

I do it for you. For me. To check in. To inspire. To be certain that if people dislike me, at least let them dislike me for being myself. If I’m going to run people away, at least I can do it as authentically or genuinely as I can.

The prophetic part of my call means that I’m not going to stop talking about racism. I will not be deliberately hurtful, but I also will not pretend that certain positions are legitimate. Because many of the arguments used to sidetrack real discussions on race have been refuted and answered so many times, I no longer have patience for people who willfully refuse to see but continue to call me names.

If I stop talking about race, I might as well quit being a pastor. I might as well hang up the collar and do something else. Because the gospel requires of me a total and complete dedication to doing what I can when I can for as long as I can with whomever I can.

chip

 

All Beginnings are Hard: Genesis, Potok, and Why Choices are Good

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“All beginnings are hard.”

The opening line to the novel In the Beginning by Chaim Potok, perhaps my favorite author. Like several of Potok’s novels, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy coming of age in Brooklyn during  the first half of the twentieth century. David Lurie must discover for himself who and what God is amidst growing questions regarding the nature of suffering, a poignant query during the era of the Depression. As the plot unfolds, young David finds himself diverging from his orthodox father, Max. All beginnings are hard, David realizes, for all beginnings are also endings.

The study of religion often begins with examining creation stories. The Sumerian Eridu. The Babylonian Enuma Elish. Egyptian myths of creation out of nothing. And myths of creator parents too numerous to name. Studying religion involves studying where we began. But in almost every myth, birth requires death. Chaos must give way to order. Water is pushed away by land, yet cuts mountains to pebbles. Birth can be traced to the sexual act, but death? That’s elusive. Enigmatic. It comes in so many ways, sometimes fast other times excruciatingly slow. It baffles us. Discombobulates our sense of stasis. In fact, scientists have studied whether a fear of death has an impact on one’s religiosity.

Our sacred scriptures have two creation accounts. One that does not support misogyny, one that does. So the crafters of the Narrative Lectionary have rightly cut out the rib malarkey from the preaching text. It is time to stop the notion that somehow women are created for the benefit of men; we can continue to debate why the account is part of scripture and we can certainly wrestle with the text as scholars, but as preachers? As teachers? As presenters of the Word to congregations? It is time to end that message. It is time to bury those things that are not life-affirming and encouraging of each and every person of each and every gender identification to know that they are created in the image of God. So today, we focus on something other than a foolish notion that Eve brought down Adam. It’s a myth, folks. We’re allowed to critique it. We’re allowed to withhold our consent, to refuse to let misogyny touch our souls. To influence our girls. Our boys. All our gendered children.

The image in Genesis 2 is that of a breathing earth. There’s a flatline and then a pulse. Water is absorbed in soil like air in lungs, so deeply that dust has been created,, and then expelled until streams begin running over the surface of the earth. There is a steady pulse of creation now not a flat line. But notice that it is not from the wetness that God creates the human person. Human is of the dust. Both water and dryness play a role. Both are necessary ingredients for creation to spring forth. But it is God’s breath–the ruach— that ultimately bestows life. In the Jewish understanding, the ruach is akin to the neshema, our soul. It is an eternal reminder that present within us are particles from the moment of celestial inception. As Carl Sagan used to say, we have stardust in us. With the birth of life comes the cessation of unlife. No longer is there a world in which life does not exist. That fact is written into our very existences. 

How we explain death says much about how we regard life. In the creation stories of Genesis–in fact, in the whole of Genesis 1-11–we encounter human beings who are not content with their limits. Think about it. The expulsion from the garden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Cain killing Abel out of jealousy? God flooding the earth because humans are so awful to one another? It’s us being too big for our britches. Discontented. The Tower of Babel is about us trying to reach heaven to make gods out of ourselves, and one need only look at a current presidential candidate and the number of yuge buildings he’s plastered with his moniker to see that God’s Word remains relevant. 

Genesis 1-11 is about us not really understanding what this life is all about, and about the great mystery of death that we hope to unlock before we find out from the other side.

Or just fall into blackness.

All beginnings are hard. They often require a death of some sort. An ending. A turning of the page. The adding of another chapter. But we humans all write in the same book. We face fundamental questions about who we are, what we do, how we love, where we live. There are many things we can’t control. If we are lucky, there are a few key things we can.

We get to make decisions.

So Eve eats of the apple. We can applaud her fortitude, perhaps. Her curiosity. Her determination to learn things on her own. These exegetics have been set forth by better scholars and thinkers than I, most notably Phyllis Trible. But if we look at the story without resorting to literalism, we can see the truth at play: every birth is followed by life; every life reaches its zenith, however that might be played out, before it begins its fall that results in death. For those who gather around the myth of Genesis 2-3, what brings death and suffering into the world is our knowledge of good and evil. For that, we are tossed out of Eden and must make our way in the world.

Why do we think of this as a death? Why is being cast out of the garden a negative? While we should be careful of not slipping into binding binaries, I think we can all agree on some level that our understanding of joy is deepened when we understand sorrow. Our emotions grow and adapt based upon our experiences, and through that we too gain a knowledge of good and evil. The tree does not give Adam and Eve an awareness of good and evil. It gives them the knowledge of good and evil. Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for knowledge is well-known in our culture because of a certain Seinfeld episode. Tri yada. It is like the Greek word gnosis; an understanding that is beyond book learning. A mixture of study and experience. It is the highway upon which you travel to wisdom. It is a beginning.

The story of Genesis 2-3 tells us that the ability to do both good and evil exists within each one of us. And we should not think that any person is strictly one or another. To be sure, there are those who hang out on the extreme poles, but a vast majority of us are within the pithy middle. We are not monsters, we are not saints. But we have within each one of us the possibility to behave like either.

Our Abrahamic spiritual story begins with a simple declaration. There are parameters to life. We’re going to die. Sometimes that is a good thing, sometimes that is an evil thing. We’re going to have a life, but we don’t know how long it will last. We have no guarantees. We almost always have a choice, though. We can orientate ourselves toward good, or we can point the ship toward evil.

Each day, each moment we have beginnings. Deaths. Things that rise, things that converge. Things that come into being, things that cease to exist.

All beginnings are hard. That’s why God gives us one another. Amen.

 

On Turning Forty: Back in

There’s a peace that comes with surrendering. Believe me, I’ve pushed back on that idea for most of my life. Everything I had been taught pushed me to question. To demand evidence. To require definitive answers. Theology is the wrong subject to go into if you simply want to be an academic. If you don’t want your soul or your emotions involved in what you do for a living, don’t pick theology. You can’t hide.

In the past fifteen years, I have completed three masters degrees and started three doctorates. I have taught at four universities/colleges and worked as a youth pastor, a pulpit supply, and a stated supply (Presbyterian for “permanent but paid like the help”). I have applied to ten doctoral programs, and been accepted to six. I don’t state this as a matter of pride. Not at all. Look at the hot mess that is that CV. I’m like whiny Luke in the Degoba System. “All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was… what he was doing.”

I left the classroom two years ago. My Visiting Professorship was up; I was feeling wounded and pouty about having to return to adjuncting, and frankly, I was burned out. There is a certain type of madness that comes with adjuncting at two univiersities teaching five classes total while finishing a graduate degree. I did it twice. By the time I was finishing up my M.Div., I had not updated my class materials in nearly three years because I was so burned out trying to get a leg up to get into a PhD program that would pay for itself, I sacrificed just about everything. The last semester I taught I was awful. I was also having problems in my family relationships. My health was suffering. My sanity was slipping.

Bipolar does some amazing things. If I can harness a mania, I’m a beast of productivity. But bipolar will kill you. Legit, no playin’, fuck you up kill you. Leaving teaching was the first sign, in retrospect, that I was on an unsustainable path.

I tried a new identity as a campus minister and I met some amazing people who I value and cherish, but it was not my calling. That was tough to take. I believed in the mission and I was inspired by the educators. But it just didn’t work. And my brain finally had enough. Full system shut down commenced. I had a nervous breakdown. I was able to get to the church on Sundays, but the rest of the week I was in bed. I was broken. I quit my campus ministry position. With it, I committed us to financial poverty.

For the second time in my life, God was revealed to me through difficult circumstances. The first, of course, was Stephen’s death; the second, my own dance with madness. Had I lived at another time; if I did not have a certain security net provided by my family; if I had not won the genetic lottery in terms of when and where and how I was brought to this earth, I don’t know if I would have recovered from that experience.

I surrendered. I said, God, I am tired of making plans that blow up in my face.

“So don’t.”

This doesn’t mean that I am passive, or that I do not have goals and aspirations. Not at all. Spend five minutes with me and you’ll learn that I am a go-getter and I like to try to make things better. But I don’t have to go out looking for problems or places to serve. God is presenting them to me in good time and for good reasons. Sure, I fret about money but thankfully Jesus said a whole lot about that and I have his words to assure me. I am following God’s lead.

I was back in the classroom this week.

stewie

I’m no longer an academic. Not the way that I imagined myself. I’m a preacher and teacher of the Word. I am a teacher of history and religion; a pastoral theologian and a servant to God’s people. And if you’re wondering if you’re God’s people, let me assure you that you are. And I can’t know God fully without getting to know you. I think that’s pretty cool.

I’m back up to full speed and I know that there are some nervous people. I get it. I really do. I know that there is a danger of overloading myself. Believe me, I have contingency plans. I always have a plan. It is what I do. But I can tell you this: I don’t dread waking up in the morning. I am not having anxiety attacks about upcoming events, and even when I have full days, I pretty much go at a pace that works for me, and right now it also gets stuff done.

I can’t explain why I have been able to come back from the brink and others have not. I can also safely say that there are people who go through much, much more than do I and they bear it all and continue to be reliable, strong people. I don’t always understand how grace works in other people’s lives, but I see it so clearly in my own. In the end, that is all I can affirm. I’m not making this stuff up. At least, I don’t think so. If I am, that’s okay, too. I like me having surrendered completely to God. This feeling that I will be shown what I am meant to do is working thus far. For that, I am grateful. And let the people of the Church say,

Locker Slappin’ Good Time: The 6th Annual Cyclops Fest

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Justin Galvin and I technically went to school together for a year before he moved away. I was in sixth grade. I knew of him only because I had a huge, huge crush on his sister.* In fact, I am about to share a story I have never uttered to a single person, but one that has been with me since sixth grade.

It was the last day of school in a building that would no longer serve as a middle school. There was no small degree of chaos and don’t give a fuck in the air. The building itself had no windows, except those that were at the entrance. The classrooms were largely divided off by retractable walls. The lockers were in a pit, with two sets of stairs leading to two sides. If there was not a teacher around, you get get away with just about anything in the locker pit; and even if there were a teacher around, their sight lines were minimal. On this day, I honestly think all the teachers were in the back getting drunk, or had already done gone home.

As I was walking from the gym, I heard what was distinctly flesh slapping up against a locker. I knew that from having had my own face shoved into those lockers more than once. As I looked down into the pit, I saw Justin’s sister making out with a guy; she was slapping the locker above her head, presumably because the kiss was that intense.

Think about that. A locker slappin’ good kiss.

I’ve never been able to shake that image and I don’t want to; it has been a standard of measurement for me since sixth grade. “I know it’s good, but is is locker slappin’ good?” I would ask myself. Sometimes in situations I would think it to myself and start chuckling, and people’d ask what was so funny and I would just have to say “nothing.” It’s too long a story to tell and not get a laugh; I always thought that I’d just keep it to myself.

But then Justin came back to the area with his amazing wife Dj and their awesome sauce daughter, and opened up Urban Handmade. Now, they probably won’t tell you this the first time you speak to them because they are humble, good people, but both Justin and Dj were very successful as advertising designers. They were certainly set in terms of money and job stability, but they made the conscious decision to open a shop that provides opportunities and exposure for artists, artisans, jewelry designers, and others. Some of these artists can most likely only have their crafts sold in boutique shops such as this one.  The Galvins’ commitment to art, economic justice, and artistic honesty are central to the ethos of Yellow Springs; they have utilized their cultural privilege to help crafts persons take products to the market in ethical ways that benefit both the artist and the business, as well as the communities they serve. The Galvins’ design business, Clay+Stan, is also integral to their contributions; again, they wouldn’t say it, but they are donating a considerable amount of talent and time to helping launch The Beloved Community Project of Yellow Springs.

I promise that I’m not writing an advertisement here; I’m starting a series of entries I will do over the course of the year to highlight businesses and events in Yellow Springs that reflect the giving, nurturing, mindful work that goes on in our village. Thanks to Justin and Dj, one of those events is celebrating its sixth anniversary, Cyclops Fest, which takes place on Saturday, September 10 at Mills Lawn from 10am-6pm.

Now I’m going to start writing like this is being published in some cute little zine and not on the blog of a guy who is 40 and still wears cargo shorts. Also, heads up, I’m taking answers Justin gave to The City Paper‘s questions and re-appropriating them, so this conversation never happened anywhere but my mind, but the answers are still accurate.

We’ve gotta start with the name, right? What’s up with the name?

Honestly, because all the other mythological creatures were already taken by other art and music festivals. Traditionally, the Cyclops is a really weird and unique character in stories and fairy tales. They also have a tendency to terrorize small towns and villages. So we thought, let’s just take a Cyclops, make him loveable and huggable, endear him to an amazing small town and brand an entire handmade festival around him. Luckily, it’s worked out pretty good.

Actually, that’s pretty rad. I like this idea. But Justin. Baby. Don’t we have enough festivals in YS? Is this just another Street Fair? 

Well, first of all we‚Äôre smaller and second of all we focus strictly on handmade culture. The Street Fair is an amazing event that the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce has been able to pull off each year with an incredible amount of organization and infrastructure. As retail shop owners in town it‚Äôs also a huge boost for business. However, our focus has been to remain a relatively small festival that celebrates the power of creativity and community on a more personal level. 

Wow. That’s cool. So, what has been the reaction of our temperamental village in which no one is happy unless someone is upset? 

Well, Yellow Springs in particular has been incredibly supportive and invested in our success. In addition to organizing Cyclops Fest we also own Urban Handmade and a small ad agency called Clay + Stan. Being able to make a living doing what makes us happy is truly because of all the love and support this weird, inspiring, crazy and amazing town has given us. 

People can go to the website to see the amazing number of vendors, along with learning about the music, food, beer, stuff for the kiddos, and all those goodies. But what kind of goods can people expect? 

This year we’ll feature apparel, accessories, jewelry, bath & body, kids, home goods, food trucks and just about every type of art imaginable. The best part is, independent artists and small businesses make everything. Each person who visits Cyclops Fest has the opportunity to not only support independent artists and small business owners but also have the experience of getting a t-shirt that the artist not only designed but also picked the garment, the ink, made the screen and printed themselves. Handmade culture has a very personal vibe to it. You get to know the person you are buying from. A sort of history lesson, if you will.

Alright, man. Well, make the check out to Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari, and I’ll post this after it clears.


For realsies, though, here’s the deal. One of the things that has always made Yellow Springs special is how supportive we are of artists. Of all types. Think of how many dance concerts, plays, band concerts, chamber music performances, gigs at the Peach or the Emporium, you’ve been to in just the past two years. We support art here. Justin and Dj are doing something special and important, and they are doing it here in the village because they want to give back. And I know my Communist friends are going to argue that capitalism is inherently cruel and even altruistic motives do not mitigate the damage that is done. Blah. Yeah, perhaps. And we can go to the Sunrise and take turns at who gets to play Trotsky and who gets to be Lenin, but for right now I’m gonna say that Cyclops Fest is locker slappin’ good. Each year the festival gets bigger, but for the right reasons: more sponsors, more vendors, more local bands, more local food trucks. Yellow Springs continues the tradition of providing space and time and opportunity for artists of all sorts to support themselves and one another.

I hope that you’ll come. Check out Cyclops. Help support local business. We fight hard to prevent sprawl; let’s make sure we support those people that help keep YS weird.

*Sister, if you read this I know that you are engaged and I am offering to do your wedding for free (especially if you are in any way embarrassed, which I hope you’re not because that memory is like one of my favorites and you’re why).