Dear Son and Honest Faith: On Regret

Dear Son,

Today I’m writing you a letter in joint with my series of writings on rediscovering faith. I’m doing this because I think what I have to say to you today has a lot to do with how I’m dealing with what I’ve been going through spiritually as well. I love watching you grow up. I love that I have had some extra time with you. But I’ve been going through a transition recently. That transition has caused me to look back on my life and think a lot about all that I have been through. Including what your mother and I went through to get to the point where we are now.

Yesterday, while you were napping we watched a movie, or at least we tried to watch the movie you woke up half way through. When you become a parent, you’ll understand how hard it is to actually sit down and watch a movie. Anyway, there was a question asked in the movie, “If you knew how your life would turn out, would you choose to live it again?” After the movie was over your mother and I were discussing what we would talk about in our podcast on Sunday. I asked this question of both of us. If we knew what we would go through to get to this point, would we do it anyway? The answer was quite clear for me, Yes, a hundred million times yes.

Later that evening, when you actually were asleep, we were catching up on our shows. One of the episodes we were watching was based around the idea that “our regrets are what make us human.” I was trying to think of the things that I regret the most in my life. There were a lot of little things like: making fun of that girl I liked because she didn’t like me back, not standing up to those who took advantage of me, thinking I could “save” someone at 2 am, not doing enough to help other people.  I started to think of all of those things in terms of the question, would I do it again, I realized a few things and I wanted to share them with you.

First, Even if I knew something were to happen to you, God forbid, I would do everything exactly the same way again. As if it were a magic ritual to get to be with you. Just one moment with you. Just to see one of your little smiles. Just to hear that magical laugh of yours. It makes everything worth it. I cherish each of those things so very much. It is and will forever be my greatest honor and joy to be your father. I thought about this in the context of the image of God as Parent. God knew. God knew you before the beginning of time itself. God knew all the crap the whole of God’s Creation would create, and yet God still Created. I don’t believe God regrets. I think God wants. I think God wants better for everything, but knows that God gave us the job of cleaning up the holy mess we got ourselves in. God made us for Tikkun Olam.

I started to think about it scientifically. I tried to come up with a formula for life. I know, a very ambitious task for me to take on right before bed last night. But I did come up with something. There is a phrase that is said very often, and because I’m writing a letter to you some people might be angry if I use the actual wording even if you will never read this until you are much older, “Poop happens”. That I believe is a constant in life. So in this formula of life, if you can’t change poop from happening what are the variables that we can change to have a good outcome? I’ve written so many times about my favorite quote from Lord of the Rings, but I think that lays out the variables for the formula quite well. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” The variables for the equation our own response to the situation, both immediate and how much we let it change us in the end. I think the sum of all the parts together give us a life well lived or not. I don’t think we should shy away from experiences for fear of the regret we may have. We have been given life, so therefore we must live it. We must live it in ways that amount to our purpose of repairing the world. So if the sum of the whole equation “Poop happens(constant) + immediate response(variable)+ how much it changes us (variable)=?” does not equal a positive repair of ourselves or the world, we must change the variables. Change the variables.

Thinking back on those regrets I realized I couldn’t change my immediate reaction to what happened. I could change my reaction to those things in the future, though. Right there starting to get into positive territory. I can also change how I let those situations change me. I can work to repair the brokenness caused by those things. I can work to heal the wounds they created. This morning on the radio I heard a man in an interview say, “It’s not his job to care about our community, That’s our job.” It struck me that in the grand scheme of things my regrets are just that, mine. It’s nobody else’s job to clean up the messes that I created. It’s mine. I shouldn’t regret things that made me who I am. I should regret things that caused harm or hurt, but that regret shouldn’t stop there. That regret should drive me to make things better, to clean up the holy messes that I have been a part of.

Finally, I came back to the original question. Would I do it again? This is something I think someone needed to ask me earlier on in my transition, but I don’t regret that. I would be a youth minister again in all of those places I was before. I would because I realize that there were small moments little things that I didn’t notice right away that needed exactly me to be there. They needed me to happen the way that they did. I suffered a lot for those things to happen, but I wouldn’t change it. I would go through all the pain and suffering your mother and I went through to have you here. She said something that made it all make sense, “The suffering makes you appreciate the good things all the more.”

Son, I know that bad things will happen to you. I don’t want them to, I don’t think any parent ever wants bad things to happen to their children. I can’t change those bad things will happen, though. All I can change is how to guide you to change the variables. I can help you to figure out what to do with the regrets you will have. They don’t have to weigh you down. They can drive you to make things better. I pray that they do. I pray that I will show you how to do that through my own life.

Love,

Your Dad

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Honest Faith: A God that Suffers

Back in November, I was having a conversation with a priest. I was telling him about how I was angry and upset. I was angry and upset about several things; the state of the world, my personal situation, and the political climate. We got on to talking about images of God. He said that the traditional image of God had become increasingly outdated and inefficient for the modern world. He, even though he didn’t like putting it this way, said we need a “God for Millenials”. He went on to explain that we need a new image that is more accessible and available for people in the digital age. He said he was really playing with the idea and becoming more comfortable with the image of a God that experienced things with each of us and was with each of us in a much more real way than we could fathom. I think he was onto something.

I think I’ve mentioned before that God was my imaginary friend as a child. I often would picture God with me taking walks, having chats, and just sit with me in a very real way. Or as real as a child’s imagination can make something. I began to slowly break from that image of God growing up due to different circumstances. I began to imagine God much bigger than me. Which is the normal default image of God. A being that is bigger and much more powerful than we can imagine. The problem with this image is that a big God is impersonal, unfeeling, and uncaring. This became my default for God. A being that was out there, but didn’t care about me and my little problems. There was a certain phrase that I heard repeatedly that reinforced that image in my mind.

I was a pretty annoying kid. I’m probably still a pretty annoying adult as well. But I went through a pretty rough patch when I was a teenager. I turned to the people I knew at church for help and I heard a phrase that I would continue to hear throughout my adult life as well. “I’ll pray about it.” I used to tell the teenagers that I worked with that if anyone at church, or even if I, said that to them they had my permission to slap them. It reinforces the part of the Big God image that is distant and uncaring. I understand it was a way for people to distance themselves from me and my problems. I even understand why they would do that, but I think that in doing so to the least and most annoying of us we moved the church. The church became distant, individualist, and impersonal.

We are in a defining moment for the western Church. Do we continue with this image of being distant, individualist, and impersonal; slowly becoming a cult of the uncaring god? OR Do we change our image of God to broaden what we once thought to be true, becoming more inclusive, including, and caring? I realize that nothing is every as black and white as that, but I see that there are a lot of issues that seem to be pulling the church in both directions. Just the other day a prominent “Christian” (sorry, I can’t judge this person, but what he says and his actions speak in a different voice to me) leader said that if we don’t fall in line and support the country’s leader we were going against god. To me, that seems very cult like and a product of an impersonal image of God. I see some other prominent church leaders who are pushing us to think bigger and stretch our thinking of God during this time to be more inclusive. Those voices I appreciate.

Right now in this country, we are being called to help those who are suffering or asked to ignore it. We are asked to believe lies as fact or to stand up to falsehoods. We are called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; or ignore, be selfish and distance ourselves.

The image that the priest and I talked about a few months ago has stayed with me. For the first time since I was a child, I was able to picture God with me in a very real way. I broke down emotionally on my drive out to meet with the priest. I cried about all that I was upset and angry about. I yelled at God. After we talked about that image, I could picture God sitting next to me in the car. God was crying with me. God was upset like I was upset. This God was both my God and everyone’s God at the same time. It was as if God divided Godself to be with each of us. To be alongside all of creation at the same time. This was a beautiful picture to me. It was the picture that informed my ideas about Putting God Back together. 

This is not an image of God that excludes the “Big God” but clarifies it. This God is both everywhere and outside this reality at the same time. This is a God that suffers when we suffer, who is alongside the protester at the march, who is building a habitat for humanity house alongside former President Jimmy Carter, who is helping refugees in foreign lands weeping with them over their losses, who is celebrating alongside those who celebrate. This is a God that is both your God and My God, but much bigger than that too. A God that tasked us with Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. A God that knows you can do it because that God is right there beside you doing the work with you as you do it.

I know this a stretching idea. I know that this is a little bit of a different image, because it asks you to think outside yourself. It’s uncomfortable to think about other people. It’s dangerous to go against the norm. But I invite you to get to know the God who has been beside you all along. The God who suffers with you.

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Honest Faith: Rebel Jesus

If you’ve been following my blog recently you know that I’ve been plagued by a question, “Do you not want to be a Christian anymore?”. I guess that’s what the Honest Faith series has been all about. Trying to find my way back to something resembling belief in a Divine being. As with any transition in life, I’ve been sorting through everything to figure out what I want to keep, and what is just so much fluff. Maybe that’s why I’ve been on my 80’s and 90’s CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) kick recently. I’ve been especially thinking about Jesus and the images presented by the Gospel narratives.

Stripping away all of the myths and hype (would that be the right word?) surrounding Yeshua Ben Yosef. You have an amazing story of this boy born to a family of nobodies, schooled the religious muckety-mucks at the age of 12, and grew up to start a non-violent (not counting the whole temple table turning thing) rebellion in his 30’s. This is a teacher, leader, and a man that I would still follow even if He turned out not to be the Godman that he claimed to be. His teachings alone show a deep understanding of the Divine. I love this guy! Seriously, That whole thing with the lame (literal, not figurative lame) guy who was lowered through the ceiling by his friends. When He, Yeshua, heals the guy and throws some major shade at the religious teachers who were there… Man, that was Bad-ASS. So, yes, I want to be a Christ follower, but I don’t want to be like the Christians.

Another amazing man who let a non-violent rebellion, Mahatma Gandhi, has a famous quote attributed to him, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I am not sure if he really said that, but it sounds good. I, like this quote, like Christ. Not just like, love. I want to be like the Man in all that I do and say. There is an embarrassing story about my brother growing up. I’m not going to tell it because it’s his story to tell not mine. But there is one line from that story that rings very true for me still. After the incident, He looks up at my mom and says, “I wanted to look like Jesus.” The funny thing about the Gandhi quote to me is that there was a man who was decidedly not “Christian” but looked like Jesus in his actions and words. I want to be like Gandhi, I want to be like Christ.

Jesus, by all accounts, was a rebel. He wasn’t this white, long haired, gently petting a lamb, ripped (“Brah, Doth thou even hoist?”),146110069_5100727239_z and clean person we so often see in depictions of him. In the Gospels and other places, he was called a glutton and worse. He was a middle eastern man, who didn’t care about public images, that hung out with 12 other men (we don’t hear about the women, but from the narratives, I can imagine Martha and Mary hung out with them often). He was crucified because he started a non-violent rebellion that put the religious power structure at risk. I imagine that he probably wasn’t the gentle safe person to be around so many modern “Christians” portray Him to be. I imagine it was probably pretty dangerous hanging out with this guy. Even though he was non-violent, I’m sure that others used violence to make their counterpoints against him. In fact, the stories of the disciples and saints following the crucifixion show that people were not very friendly to the message of Jesus. Even Judas, who gets a really bad rap, wanted Jesus to fit into his image of what a rebellion leader should be; a violent strategist who would kick the Romans out of Isreal.  His message was what was so dangerous.

Jesus’ message was simple. “The Kingdom of God is here”. He told stories of what the Kingdom was like, and how we were meant to be a part of the kingdom. He told us so many things, but ultimately the Gospel was that the kingdom is here and now. We, His followers, are meant to be the arbiters of that Kingdom showing all we interact with that the Kingdom is here and now. The most dangerous thing about the message was that it was so counter to even our modern society that it put the power structures at risk. Jesus taught that there was no power hierarchy. That in the Kingdom, all were free, all were equal (opportunely speaking), there would be no more suffering; there would be no more corruption, greed, or injustice. That is worth standing up for. That is a rebellion I want to be a part of.

Right now in my country, we are facing some major issues of power being misused. It, in my opinion, is being used to mistreat, marginalize, and demonize others. It is using fear, mistrust, and societal anxieties to justify the misuse of power. There are many that recognize this and have begun the work of standing up and speaking truth to power. There are a select few that have used violent means to do so, and I do not agree with those methods. But I do believe that those who are non-violently rebelling are doing the true Kingdom work. They are standing up for those things that Jesus taught were a part of the Kingdom. They are standing up for justice, freedom, and equality. They are standing up for love.

I want to look like Jesus. I want to look like Gandhi. I want it said of me that despite all odds and so many hateful voices to the contrary, I stood up for love. I resist, I rebel because it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing because it is standing against hate, fear, and injustice. It is the right thing because it gives my fellow man, animal, and creation a chance to be a part of the Kingdom with me. I may not want to be Christian, but I certainly want to be a Christ follower. So, reader, may you be like Christ, and join the rebellion.

Rebel Jesus

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Unsolicited Advice: Presidential

Hello Mr. President,

This isn’t going to be one of those letters. I know you have been getting quite a few hate filled letters from people who obviously are not your fans. I’m not really a fan of yours either, but I’m not writing about that today. I’m writing to give you some advice from my years as a youth minister which may be helpful. I found that working with people doesn’t really change across the boards so these things may be helpful to you. Or they may not be, I don’t know I’m just a former youth minister.

Don’t make changes too quickly!

This was something that my youth ministry professor stressed with us when I was in college. He wanted us to make sure that we had the right tools in ministry and I can tell you from experience he was right! You never want to jump right into a job, especially one of leadership and make changes too quickly. This tends to make those you are working with and leading to resent you. They had a set way of doing things that were working out pretty well before you got there. Sure, it may not be your style of doing things, but if you are in it for the long haul you’ll have time to make the changes you need to suit your way of doing things. Besides you may even find out that those other ways of doing things suit you just fine. Adaptability is key in the first few months to a year in a new position. Once you understand the people you are working with, and when they trust you enough, then and only then should you begin to make changes that you see fit.

I realize you’ve already done some things so far, it’s been a busy two and a half weeks, but you can still delay on all the other things you want to change. Don’t worry if it truly is a good and needed change you’ll still have time to make it.

Don’t bad mouth the last leader

You may be following the worst leader ever when you come into a new position, but it still doesn’t justify bad things being said. This goes for everything he/she did and all the recruits he/she put into place. Trust me, that person was facing some of the worst things in their own lives and careers just like you are going to. It is helpful to seek their advice and to praise what they accomplished. This goes hand in hand with not making changes too quickly. Even if they were the worst leader, they gained the trust of the people they were working with and were able to accomplish what they did for a reason. I have followed some amazing leaders and some not so amazing leaders. I’ve been called the devil by some of those former leaders (long story, ask me about it sometime). I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of belittling the last person to make yourself look better.

Okay, you have done some of this as well. It’s never too late to apologize. A little humility goes a long way!

Never stop growing

The moment that you feel you have it all figured out is the moment you fail. I can’t tell you the number of roadblocks I’ve faced because I felt that things were going along just fine and then… Even if you think you have the job completely figured out, you still have more to learn. One of the greatest things I learned in ministry was how to say “I don’t know, but let me try to figure it out.” I probably could have said that a lot more, but sometimes pride gets in the way. Never be too proud to say those words. Chances are people will help you figure it out! We are never the same person we were the day before. Oh here is another cliche you may hear a lot too, The only easy day was yesterday.

Listen to your haters

Sometimes your critics have important things to tell you. Granted, they come in pretty hurtful packages, but they are still important nonetheless. I have an example for this one. Okay, so you know how if you just read a word but never say it out loud your pronunciation of it can be way off what it should be? Well, I was performing in a show once and I had only ever read the word “respite”. I thought it was pronounced re-spite instead of res-pit. Lordy, did I hear it from a critic in the paper the next day about my pronunciation! I went and found the words that I mispronounced and made those changes. I think it was an excellent show after that. Remember that sometimes you got to take those things with a grain of salt, but try to find the truth in the things they are saying.

I realize you have many, many haters right now. But they have some important things to say. Many of them just want to make sure they are heard. Some of them are a bit hateful and don’t have much to say, but there are still those who have important things to say.

Love your neighbor as yourself

You are going to come up against things you don’t understand. You are going to meet people who are going to change your whole perspective on life. But that won’t happen unless you are open to it. Love, so often, is being able to see the small things in someone else that make them unique and valuable. Everyone has that thing, even you. I call that the spark of the Divine. Even the worst students I’ve encountered had the spark of the Divine in them. I can’t call any one human being evil or not of God because I’ve discovered that everyone, all life for that matter, has the spark of the Divine in it. When we work together, when we are all able to let that spark shine through that is when the world will be truly great again. So it means that sometimes we have to get out of the way, or not stand in the way of someone else letting their spark shine. That means allowing someone else the freedom to be who they are. I understand that is scary. I understand that it puts you at risk sometimes, but I know from experience that it is worth it.

I think you know where this applies, and I’m not going to tread on ground that so many others are treading right now.

Salutations

Although I’m almost positive this would never get around to you. I still think this is advice that could be helpful. I am praying for you. I do have a little hope that you will finally figure out how to be a good leader. I’m not sure that I myself hold out a lot of hope for that, but I like to be surprised in good ways. These are just some of the issues that I think can be helpful to you.

 

Salutations,

A Former Youth Minister

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Unsolicited Advice

I have been wanting to write this for a while now, but the words just weren’t coming to me. I feel like there were much more important things to think about and write about. I figured I might as well make a new category for my blog as this doesn’t fit within my journey of faith or my letters to my son. Unsolicited advice will be a series focused, maybe a little tongue in cheek, on giving unsolicited advice (and very unqualified advice at that) to someone or something pulling from my years as a youth minister.

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Honest Faith: Get up, Stand up

There is an older Christian Rock song (I know not my preferred genre of music anymore) that went like this:

This is a revolution…
It starts with me and ends at the back of the church…
This is a common solution for you and me…

This is a revolution…
Let us change the world ’til all nations see..
There is no confusion for you and me…

There was a trend in the nineteen nineties for “Christian” music groups to write or produce songs about a revolution of Christianity. Moving from a church that just talked about religion and never did anything to a movement of actually doing something. If you don’t believe me just check out some of them: Revolution by Kirk Franklin, Shine by The Newsboys, Boy on a String by Jars of Clay, Song and Dance by The Normals, What have we become by DC Talk, Unite by The O.C. Supertones, Hands and Feet by Audio Adrenaline, and I could go on and on…

When I was younger this was all I listened to. I listened to these Christian artists who talked a lot about Christianity being about action and service. I know that there were many of us Christian Millenials who grew up with this stuff, as awful as that was. We got the message that faith without works was dead. Which so often went very contrary to the other message the church (small c) was feeding us. We were so often told to lead moral and “good” lives before helping people.

The “Moral” Christianity became the norm for so long that not many questioned it as being the thing that Jesus intended for the church. We became a faith of the inwardly focused that cared more about how we looked in front of other people rather than how much we were doing for those people. It was a religion that certainly was transformative in its own way but it was not Christian. It was a religion that limited life instead of giving it.

I knew there was something wrong with this message. I knew it way back in high school when I was the president of the Bible Club. I knew that there was something that we needed to be doing, but I didn’t know what it was. So many of those songs I listened to talked about a Love that transformed and pushed Jesus people to help those who were hurting and dying. I knew that is what I wanted to do with my life, but I didn’t know what that looked like. I knew I wanted to be a part of a Love Revolution. (ps. I was using that phrase way before Ron Paul)

When I was in college I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Jay Bakker talk to a convention for youth workers. He was as surprised as many of the youth workers were that he was asked to be a keynote speaker. He is the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In 1994 Bakker helped to start a church that was a different kind of church. It was/is called Revolution Church. Anyway, he was asked to come and talk to this room full of youth workers. He used his time, and then some, to talk about how the church was not a museum. He said the Church was a hospital. A place where hurting people could help other hurting people. Not caring about appearance, sexuality, morality, or any of that other stuff. It was a place where unconditional love happened. A place where anyone can come and God would show up. It was that moment that I knew what the Revolution was. Love was the revolution.

It was so much more than just the fire insurance, morality than I was taught growing up. Love God, Love others, and love yourself. So simple yet we wanted to complicate it with all these other rules and regulations. Jesus often talked about how the gospel was that the kingdom is here and now. Jesus talked about coming that we may have life and have it to the fullest. He talked about a love that would lay its own life down for its fellow man. A love that accepted all and couldn’t help but to meet others where they were at. A love that didn’t boast. A love that St. Paul went on to talk about:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

That is what the Gospel is about. The Gospel is a God that loved humanity so damn much that God could not help but to come down and be among God’s creation. A God that loved so damn much that God couldn’t help but to die for those created beings. A God that commanded us to do the same.

God never told us to be selective. God never said only love those who fit into a certain mold. God never told us to change people to fit that mold. God never said that we should take care of our own. God never said that the love was conditional. God never told us to stay still and silent about that love. God told us to share that love by being sheep.

We’ve come to a pivotal moment in our faith where we need a revolution. It’s time to stand up for what we know to be right. St. Francis has a phrase that is often attributed to him which goes, “Preach the Gospel to all the world, if necessary use words.” I felt like I needed to share what the Gospel was in words again because for some reason it appears we forgot. We got so afraid of other people, we got so consumed with what was “ours” that we forgot that it was about each other. It was about love. It was about stepping out of our pews getting up and showing that love to our fellow man. We got comfortable with our self-centered approach to faith that we forgot that faith was an action verb. We turned it into a noun. I write all this because it’s time, as Bob Marley put it, we Get up, stand up. We need to get up, and stand up for the rights of our fellow man. We cannot give in to fear, hate, and despair. It’s a revolution that starts with you and ends at the back of the church. It will change the world, because love can and does change the world. Love is the revolution! intro 10-12-11

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