i’ve been a bad boy

“Look, you’ve been a bad boy” 

Odd, at age 34 I have heard this phrase or some equivalent more in the last four months than I had in the previous years combined. It’s a strange phrase to throw at a grown man. I’ve been letting the phrase roll around in my head these couple of days, trying to think of what the intent behind the use of such a phrase might be. Is it meant to make less of the things that I have done? Is it meant to be patronizing? Is it something else? And what am I supposed to do with it? 

Do you remember Gabbo? Of course you do. He’s the ventriloquist dummy from a classic season 9 Simpsons episode. He had a catchphrase. “I’m a bad widdle boy”. It was supposed to be charming, a way of diminishing the effect of the mischief that he caused. 

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Is this what people are trying to do for me? Diminish the impact of my actions? Is that what I need right now? It seems unfair to those that I have hurt to make light of what I have done. Perhaps it’s an attempt to keep me, a walking ball of melancholy, from hurting myself by making less of the matter….

… or it’s meant to make light of me. I’m nothing but a child. My behavior has been childish. That could certainly be seen as the case. But it’s demoralizing to be called a “boy” in any context, it’s particularly damaging for a black male to be called “boy”. I don’t feel like being reduced to that level. I also think about how “bad boy” is something we yell at dogs. Whatever else I may have done wrong, I didn’t pee on the rug. I don’t think anyone meant it this way when it was said to me, but it’s hard for me to not hear it this way at least a little bit. 

… but most of the people in my life are wise and nuanced. I don’t think they would use a phrase like that without some consideration to the possible negative connotations. I think they want me to acknowledge that there is a selfish, immature component to my personality and that I have given that part of my self more sway over decisions than I should. I’m sure they would spur me on to “put away childish things” and to grow into the full maturity of the faith. I can see that and I respect that viewpoint. It is one that is completely apropos for Good Friday. It’s my bad boy side that drove Jesus to the cross, right? I get that line of thinking…

… but what if my attempts to purge myself of my “bad boy” side are what brought me to this point in the first place? What if the goal isn’t to purge myself of that side but to integrate it fully into my life in a way that doesn’t hurt others. Or what if the point is to have a community of people that knows about my “bad boy” side and holds me accountable, keeps me in check, and loves me despite myself?

Coming to terms with the dark side of myself seems to be my current challenge. I think I’ve expected a certain level of perfection from myself, a level that I simply am not capable of achieving. At least, not capable of achieving on my own. I’m wrestling with this. How do we go about accepting our dark sides, maybe even integrating it into an authentic expression of ourselves, without condoning the selfish actions and desires that spring from that side of our personalities? 

So much of Christianity is crazy-making. On one hand we say that we can not achieve salvation without the grace of a loving God and on the other hand we set impossible moral codes for ourselves and others as if we are somehow perfectable. We are not perfectable. Maybe we are to some extent in community, but I don’t know very many perfect communities. It seems to me now, as it always does, that the answer is now and always will be grace. Grace for others, grace for and from our communities, and grace for ourselves. 

I’ve been a bad boy. I have a bad boy inside of me and most likely always will. He will always want to selfishly get his way and I guess what I’m trying to figure out is do I need to keep him locked up in the basement or is it healthier to let him out to play every once in awhile. Is there safe space for him to play where he won’t hurt others? Because maybe he’s not such a bad boy after all. Maybe he’s just lonely and misunderstood…

the dirty work of love

On the night that Jesus was arrested, he had one last object lesson. Being who he was, who he claimed to be, he could have easily had a servant or any one of the disciples do the menial task of wiping down the dirty feet of men who spent most of their days walking the dusty Palestinian roads. Instead, he disrobed, knelt down and cleaned the feet of his followers. He told them that this is what love is, that they must do what he has just done to them for others. 

I’ve always heard and taught this story as being about service. It certainly is that. But it’s not just that. It is a story about intimacy. Jesus takes a submissive position before his male followers and holds their feet in an intimate way. Perhaps to a Jewish audience, it may have reminded them of Ruth lying at the (ahem) “feet” of Boaz. I don’t mean this to sound adolescent, but love touches us in our dirty places. After all, what is the act of making love if not the embrace of and acceptance of another as they are. 

My left foot is pretty normal by the low standard to which feet are held. My right foot on the other hand is a mess. It is rough and gnarly. My younger sister used to refer to it as my alien foot. I hide it when I can. I would feel incredibly exposed if someone touched that foot. I imagine that Jesus would have gravitated toward my right foot. 

For so long I have tried to project an image. It is an irreverent image, but it is irreverence that I then made the wisdom beneath seem all the more profound. The way that people perceive me has been honed over years and finely choreographed. Now that the facade is coming down, my natural tendency is to hide from the world. But there are those in my life who have loved me through this process. They have touched the mess of my life and, in some small measure, their love has cleaned the dirt from the sweaty foot that is my existence. (I, dear friends, am no poet). They have let the mess of my life, both the figurative and literal mess, invade their lives and, in some small measure, the passive act of being loved, warts and all, has been purifying.

So to those who have  eaten with me, cried with me, talked me off the ledge, driven me to places I needed to go, drank with me, laughed with me, sang with me, endured my messiness, told me to breathe, called me a whore, shared their stories with me, nagged me, called me, texted me, tweeted me, prayed with and for me… thank you for doing the dirty work of love. 

I am a pastor…

On Easter of 2011 I had my first ever panic attack. I have written a lot on the church that I was serving at the time. This was a warning sign that I ignored. My chest got tight. I couldn’t breathe. I started to sweat profusely. I thought I might collapse. It was awesome (sarcasm font). It was Easter at Oakland Presbyterian Church, and I was keenly aware that it might be the last time that this most important of holy days was celebrated in this congregation. The pressure felt immense. As it turns out, I was almost right. It was the second to last Easter at the church. 

This week, for the first time in five years, I am doing nothing for Holy Week. I mean… I’m doing stuff. I’m currently doing a load of laundry. I’ll be selling books. I’ll probably play trains with my son and sing songs with my daughter. But I am not serving a church. As deeply as I felt not serving during Advent, not serving during Lent has been truly devastating. I miss the church. I miss the season of loss and wandering through the wilderness. I love Maundy Thursday more than anything. The great commandment to serve stirs my soul. The agony of Good Friday. The waiting through Holy Saturday. The celebration of new life on Easter morning. Holy Week is… everything. 

I am not serving a church. I shouldn’t be. I have some significant work to do on myself. I have hurt many people and I neglected care of myself. I am not fit to lead, not fit to serve. I am not pastoring…

… and yet I am more aware this year than ever that I am a pastor. I have a pastor’s heart. I have a pastor’s mind. Sure, I have a pastor’s training, but I was a pastor before that happened. I love people. They drain me because I am an introvert, but I love people! I love helping them. I love listening to them. I love serving them. I love walking alongside them through life’s many obstacles, even as I not-so-deftly-try to navigate my own. I am a pastor at heart. Maybe a pastor by nature. 

I hope and pray one day to be restored to pastoral ministry. It will take some time. I have some healing to do. Some apologies to make. Some relationships to redefine. In the meantime, I will learn from my mistakes. I will let life be my teacher and I will be a pastor in non-church settings because I can’t frickin’ help myself. And… I will allow myself to be pastored. I will accept teaching and discipline. I will let others guide me and teach me. And I trust I will be better for it. 

So, this year I will rest. I will observe in my own ways and celebrate with people for whom I have no responsibility. I will be undercover. Incognito. Shhhh… don’t tell anyone about my secret identity. Because it’s not just what i do (what I did once and hope to do again), it’s who I am. 

I. Am. A. Pastor.