Failing God

This weekend I had a couple of experiences that put me back in the church world for the first time in awhile. On Saturday, I spent time with some folks who are doing new church development (church planting) through the Presbyterian Church (USA). I lead a devotion for them and then helped them to organize their small group time. The next morning I played my bass in worship for the first time in nine years and then assisted in a dialogue sermon about sabbath. Next week, I will be at my alma mater, helping to run the UnConference of which I have been a part for the last five years, helping church leaders to think through new and innovative ways of doing their work. Being back in these spaces, spaces that are still some what unauthorized for me to inhabit, has caused a cascade of thoughts and emotions both about church and about God, often with the two being conflated. I’m struggling to describe where I find myself situated right now, so maybe the best way is to put this into a narrative.

Imagine, if you will, a young boy. He’s six years old. For this boy, church has always been home. He knows God as the Perfect Father, not the absentee father he never knew nor the angry stepfather he had at home. The first thing he ever wants to be, before a marine biologist, fireman, or adventurer is to be a pastor. This is celebrated and nurtured, especially by his grandmother who unashamedly sees the boy as special and does everything in her power to nurture this dream. She buys him videos and cassettes delving into the biblical stories and of course gives him several Bibles, but not children’s Bibles because she believes him smart enough to handle the real thing. By ten, the boy has a pretty good handle on the biblical stories, has dozens of verses committed to memory, and most importantly, has found places in church where he can be involved in leadership. Church for him is where he doesn’t have to be invisible, unlike home where he plays the middle child role to perfection and school where he only stands out for being the only black kid, a way in which he’d rather not stand out. People continuously take this young man under their wing; first a couple who does inner city ministry, then his suburban youth pastor and pastor. Church is his place where he can be seen. 

The being seen for him is not simply about being feeding an adolescent need for approval. It comes in no small measure from his burgeoning understanding of what it means to be a disciple. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he’s taught at home, and he has gifts and a mind that God can use. With great power, come great responsibility, and all that. Heavy stuff to lay on a kid, but he’s a pretty serious kid, and this gives him focus. Throughout junior and senior high he continues to find places to serve, even while he’s trying to be a normal kid and do normal kid things. At some point, toward the end of high school, he gets to a place where he is questioning too much and the burden feels too heavy. He walks away from it all… for about a year. 

He finishes his second year of college and goes to work in a place that redefines faith for him as service to others, a theme that had always resonated in the back of his mind, but was now drawn to the fore. Here he prays to God for direction and loses himself in service to this ministry. He moves into the city, fails a couple of college courses, and is once again taken under the wings of people in ministry. This time, the people who see the “special” in him are church planters; young, innovative, entrepreneurial types who think outside of the box and acknowledge his creativity and evangelistic enthusiasm. The boy is drawn into a new world: “go to seminary, get ordained. This is the next part of your quest”. 

Seminary and ordination bring him into conflict with the institutional nature of church. It is spirit crushing in some ways, but he sees that there are people who are able to thrive within the system and still manage to serve with energy and creativity. So he learns the institution’s rules and plays the institution’s game. This, he believes, will allow him to live out his ultimate mission of being of service to the world. Despite being groomed in community ministry and church start ups, he finds himself in a dying traditional church. The people don’t look or think like him. There is no innovation here. There is no passion here. There is no fire here…

… and he loves it! He works harder than he ever has at anything in his life believing that he is actually called by God to this place to be a catalyst for change, a change that the majority of the people do not want to happen. He’s not perfect, but he works hard. He prays, he studies, he consults, he collaborates, he preaches, he leads, he spends himself fully for a people who totally don’t give a shit. He pushes to a point where he realizes that martyrdom is the only option left with this community and instead of being the martyr, he walks away. And as he walks away, he does so with quiet message in the back of his head, a message which over time gets louder and louder….

“I failed God…”

“I FAILD God!” 

“I FAILED GOD!!!” 

His whole life, he imagined, had been leading up to that one point where he would lead a community of people into fuller love of God and neighbor and he blew it. It is one thing to fail a stranger. Most of us can shake that off. It’s another thing to fail a loved one. It hurts, but reconciliation is almost always possible. It’s a different thing to fail oneself. You can end up stuck with your mind running in circles, questioning and perplexed. It is a completely different thing to imagine that you have failed God. It is simply more than a boy whose whole aim from the time he had any conception of God was to please God can handle. 

The resulting state of mind for the boy was one of nihilistic resignation. The part of his mind and heart that was able to receive positive messages from others was totally corroded. Yes, people still told him that he was special. People would say things like “that was the best sermon I’ve ever heard”, but he couldn’t receive it. He lost his ability to feel anything good about himself or the world. His was a mind that could not imagine a future. It was a mind that didn’t care about the damage done to self or others (see previous post) because in this space where such a great failure could occur, the boy could be of no use to anyone. Perceived failure turned into real, moral failure. 

I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of years working with this boy. He’s sad, he’s broken. He’s scared that he cannot be redeemed. And yet, he still believes. Not as he once did. He’s had a couple of years of life beating the idea that he’s special out of him. But he still believes that he has use. He still loves God, still loves the church (most of the time), but he’s watched his theology become evermore expansive and inclusive. He wonders if there is still a place for him.

“Failing God” can be read two ways. One is that a person fails God, the other is a God who fails. Taken on it’s surface, Jesus’ ministry was a failure. A pastor once said to me that ministry in the way of Jesus is when you get down to twelve people and one of them wants to kill you. He died a criminal, betrayed and abandoned, his only lasting impact being that which he had on those he loved and who loved him in return. I suppose that’s a place to start. Part of the work I have been doing with this boy is to help him to let go of all semblance of success. All the parts of him that feed ego and pride. It’s hard work, but at some point, he needs to become friendly with failure.

I work with this boy often. I tell him that he’s loved, that he’s lovable, and that he’s capable of love. and that all of that is despite whatever successes and failures he may have, real or imagined. Somedays he hears me. He has a long way to go. But, for now at least, he’s not giving up. That feels like a success.

 

 

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The Affair Factor

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Something has been bothering me. It has been for awhile, but with the volume on the election rhetoric cranked up so high, it’s really striking a nerve. I’ve been accused of over-sharing in the past and may be again here, but so be it:

I have a really hard time with people criticizing Hillary Clinton for her handling of her husband’s affair. I say this as a man who had an affair. I say this as someone who knows that unfair things were said to my ex about how she was handling things. I say it as someone who has both firsthand knowledge and a lot of guilt and shame in this area.

There are a couple of criticisms that I hear that I think are wildly unfair. The first is that she couldn’t take care of her husband. When said, this can mean a lot of things; that she didn’t satisfy him sexually, that she didn’t have a tight enough leash on him, that knowing the kind of man he is, she wasn’t more proactive. Somehow, without having any real, intimate knowledge of what was happening in their marriage, we are lead to believe that somehow what Bill did was Hillary’s fault.

See, I think this is where I am supposed to be on the side of the critics. After all, if that’s true of Hillary, that’s true of my ex as well. While I fully acknowledge that marriages require both sides be fully engaged in order to work, ultimately, people have to take responsibility for their actions. I don’t know what kind of wife Hillary is or was, but that frankly shouldn’t matter. I also don’t know what kind of husband Bill is, but that doesn’t matter either. Affairs are selfish. Always! An affair takes energy away from the hard work of repairing whatever breaches may develop in a relationship. It is the epitome of passive aggression. It never comes from a place of health. To have an affair is to make a decision against your marriage and the responsibility falls on the one who has the affair to own that.

The other thing I hear that makes it clear that Mrs. Clinton is being treated unfairly is that it was somehow wrong for her to have stuck it out with Bill. The assumption here is that she only did it for her own political aspirations. Perhaps they did have some sort of arrangement, perhaps there was some of “your turn then my turn” deal, or perhaps we’ve all seen  too many episodes of House of Cards… or perhaps she really loved him and didn’t want her marriage to end. Whatever the case, there are so many issues with criticizing her for making this choice. Many of the critics are from the same religious establishment that condemn divorce and often coerce women into staying with their abusers. What we imagine we know about the Clintons’ motives somehow tarnishes their decision to keep their union in tact. So many assumptions are being made about these people who have chosen to live their lives in public service for the last three decades that we’ve lost the ability to see them without projection.

The other side of this is the fact that Hillary is seen as an ambitious woman, which for some, is still a cardinal sin. It’s clear that from her earliest political life, she has had aspirations to high office. I can’t see anything wrong with that. And as I look at this election cycle, you can’t fault her for being overly prepared. When an incredibly qualified woman is pitted against a buffoonish, racist, misogynistic, reality TV star, both being seen as legitimate contenders for the presidency, you’d have to be blind to miss the sexism. I see nothing wrong with a motivated woman working to achieve the dream of millions of women and girls, recognizing that it would be a fight every step of the way.

I go back and forth on whether the opposition to Mrs. Clinton is rooted in a hatred for this particular woman or in a hatred of all women. In the last week, I’ve leaned more towards the latter. Donald Trump, now on wife number three, has in his own words and those of an increasing number of women that demonstrated that his behavior is not just unbecoming for the Commander-in-Chief, but in some cases, also criminal. Still, there are those who say that we must forgive. It’s funny how forgiveness is only trotted out for those who oppress in those circles. There are some who would go as far as normalizing talk of sexual assault as something that all men do behind closed doors. I promise you, it is not. That the affair(s) of Mr. Clinton, the spouse of the nominee,  have been made an issue by those who willingly ignore their actual nominee’s behavior is beyond hypocritical. It speaks to a double standard that women have faced in every arena of professional life. That women have been amongst Mrs. Clintons’ strongest critics shows how deep the oppression goes. Mrs. Clinton can’t just be beyond prepared for the position, she also has to be responsible for the behavior of the men in her life. This is simply unjust.

My divorce became official just over two years ago. There are times that I wish my ex would have stuck it out with me, but I know how toxic I had become for her. She’s a strong woman who took control of her life and did what was best for herself so that she could in turn do what was best for our kids. It hurts, but I respect that so much. The burden of changing my behavior wasn’t hers to bear and it’s unfair for me or anyone else to say otherwise. These conversations that have been happening in the media about the Clintons’ marriage have been surprisingly triggering for me. I can’t imagine how much more so they have been triggers for those who have been cheated on. I suppose that I have been able to see things in the treatment of Mrs. Clinton that I wasn’t able to see up close in my own life. Mrs. Clinton is also a strong women who forged her own path. And let’s face it, she would have been criticized regardless of the decision she made. We ask a lot of women in our country. We ask them to be mothers, wives, lovers, and professionals and we ask them to do all of this in an environment where men are rarely held accountable for actions that affect them. This is not the world that I want for my children, my son or my daughter. More and more this election, which many believed would be about choosing the lesser of two evils, is becoming a moral referendum for the kind of nation that we want to be and who gets to have voice. The voices that silence, abuse, denigrate, assault, and burden women have had their say for most of human history. While I don’t think Mrs. Clinton’s election will end sexism, much as Obama’s didn’t end racism, it will mean that a majority of us have said that we’re ready to listen to a new voice.

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Pulling the Trigger

Proud of Shannon for talking about the waus that Trump’s language is triggering for so many violence survivors.

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I’m not the first to say it, this election has been triggering. For immigrants, for People of Color, for women, for men of conscience. For, well, almost everyone.

Today was the latest scandal about Trump’s “locker room talk” in 2005. I won’t even bother linking to an article about it. It’s not worth it, if you haven’t read about it then don’t bother, it comes down to this, rape culture is real.

Several weeks ago something happened in my life that made all the triggers go off. Just about all of them. I was telling my therapist that I was already on high alert because every time I turn on the news I get triggered by something.

I was raw and exposed, again…

Being “triggered” basically means you have an emotional reaction to something that is from your past. It’s like PTSD only hopefully on a less severe level. It could be anything…

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Brown Recluse

Two days ago was the second anniversary of my divorce. I knew the date was coming and I could feel depression creeping in. On the actual day, however, it came and went without my ever acknowledging it. Still, there was a feeling that lingered around in my psyche. Then yesterday I put my finger on it. The grief, the shame, the anger, the sadness all rose to the the top of my consciousness. I sat with them a bit. I went out to my garden and did some work. I made a significant dent in a bottle of rye. Then, I acknowledged what I was feeling to my social network. I have a few people in my life, usual suspects, who hold me up during those times, who know what I’m going through, and who give me advice without trying to fix me. Like clockwork, they all chimed in. And then I felt better. I made dinner. I watched a bad movie and then I went to bed. Maybe it doesn’t sound like it from your perspective, but for me, it felt like a win.

Yesterday afternoon I read this post about two twitter users who started a hashtag. Rapper Kid Cudi posted on his social media that he was going to receive treatment for depression and anxiety. I don’t know Kid Cudi’s music that well, but I deeply admire his openness about his mental illness, something that I try to model as well. In response to this openness, Dayna Lynn Nuckolls (@daynaLNuckolls) and @The Cosby (No Relation) started the hashtag #yougoodman. The hashtag should be read as a question, “you good, man?”. African American males suffer disproportionately in comparison to the rest of the population from mental illness and also receive disproportionately less care for it. There is the general stigma that exists around mental health, amplified by the machismo that all men carry around, a culture that often overemphasizes being “hard”, and a lack of mental health resources in many communities. Add all of this up with a religious culture that often promotes prayer over therapy and it becomes clear why addressing mental health with black men is often times so complicated. The implications of this is that many of the people who are funneled into the criminal justice system are people who are struggling with mental illness. And often, like Alfred Olango, the mentally ill are the ones who end up being the victims of a police force that is actively hostile toward black men. A quick scroll through the hashtag illuminates the challenges that many black men face when dealing with their own mental health issues. One of the recurring themes of the tweets is the feeling of needing to keep these issues to themselves.

One of the things that has been revealed as I struggle to understand what is going in my own mind is that depression uses everything at its disposal to perpetuate itself and one of its best tools is isolation. I really struggle on this front. I have weeks when I only journey out of the house to go to therapy. I can talk myself out of going anywhere. I avoid phone calls like a pro. I’ve kept my circle intentionally small so that if one person isn’t available for me to interact with, I can easily fall back into isolation. Some of this comes being a natural introvert, but I’ve also found that I’ve developed considerable social anxiety, especially in the last few years. I feel incredibly awkward around people, much more than I used to. I constantly question whether or not I “belong” places. It’s very frustrating. The depression tells me to isolate myself and then I become depressed that I am alone.

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The brown recluse spider is called that because, even by spider standards, they are very shy. They are rarely seen out in the open which makes them notoriously hard to study. They’re also incredibly poisonous, which doesn’t give much incentive to interaction. I often feel that way. I feel like I spend most of my life hiding away from people and that when I do come in contact with them, I am toxic. It’s a hard way to live and many black and brown men live this way.

Social media at its very best is a tool for building community. What I saw online yesterday was a whole lot of black men peeking out of the shadows and seeing if it was safe to to talk about how much they suffer within themselves. #yougoodman brings to light the need for communities of people who hold us up when we feel like we’re collapsing in on ourselves. It also highlights the strength needed to be honest when we are confronted with that question. Sometimes the hardest thing to say is “No, no I’m not good. I need help.” I truly hope that this is the beginning of a robust conversation about trauma that many black men live with and serious need to bring mental health resources into communities of color. If nothing else, I hope that it provides the impetus for people to reach out to one another and show genuine concern for neighbors who might be struggling. Today I’m good. I’m good and I’m grateful for the people in my life who check in on me. I need them. We need each other. No one should have to make it through this world alone, not even spiders.

Luke Cage: Our Side of the Story

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Sometimes you’re having a shitty day. It’s raining, you’re late, the kids are on your nerves thus exacerbating your lateness, the weak coffee you made spills all over you when you hit a bump in the road, your wi-fi is slow, someone’s already eaten the leftovers you were fantasizing about, that weight you’ve gained is really obvious when you look in the mirror… you know… a really shitty day. Oh, and this has just been one in a series of shitty days.

Then a friend calls/texts/emails/Facebook messages and says something like “hey, I’ve been thinking of you. I know you’ve been going through a rough patch. Want you to know that I love you!” Maybe it’s not something quite that sappy. Maybe it’s more like a meme with a dolphin wearing a cowboy hat that makes you inexplicably laugh out loud because dolphins in cowboy hats are that one thing that makes you laugh out loud (for the record, I’ve never actually seen a picture of a dolphin in a cowboy hat, but I kinda feel like that might be the thing that makes me laugh uncontrollably. We’ll see…). In any event, it’s the acknowledgement that, 1) you exist 2) things have been legitimately hard for you 3) you’re not alone and 4) you’re awesome that makes those little reminders from your friends feel like a life preserver.

That’s how I felt watching Luke Cage.

For the uninitiated, Luke Cage is a Netflix series based on a Marvel comics character. The character has impenetrable skin and super power and was, in fact, known as “Power Man” in the comics for a period. Cage was a character in an earlier Marvel series AKA Jessica Jones, which is a part of a larger TV world which includes Daredevil which is a part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe that includes the likes of Iron Man and Captain America. Oh, and he’s black.

In Jessica Jones, Luke was a black character inhabiting a mostly white world. In Luke Cage, Luke is in the midst of a world that could not be more black and it is in that which the show has it’s richness. The series is populated almost exclusively with black characters; black heroes, black villains, black bystanders, black supporting cast. The music, both diegetic and non-diegetic is decidedly black, ranging from funk and jazz, to R&B and hip hop, and a little bit of Gospel thrown in. There are numerous references to black literature, black history, as well as black film and television.

Plus the show takes place in Harlem. I’ve only been to Harlem once and it was at the beginning of this year in the middle of a historic snowstorm. The city was largely shut down. Still, walking the streets of Harlem feels like watching a tribute to black excellence. I stood and stared at the Apollo theater in a way that I’m sure gave me away as a tourist. For someone who grew up in a city that felt far removed from the places known as epicenters of blackness, Harlem has a gravity to it. Just the name invokes the likes of Gil Scott Heron and Langston Hughes. It feels almost mythical. It’s like black Asgard. It is the only place this story about a black man-god could take place.

And yet, it is grounded in the realities that black people face in every city. That the protagonist spends much of the show moving through the city in a hoodie with his hood up speaks volumes. We’re supposed to be thinking of Trayvon Martin as we watch. It’s impossible to watch a black man on screen be shot repeatedly and not feel triumphant as each bullet bounces off. Without giving too much away, the story leads to Luke being in conflict with both the police and politicians who epitomize the call for “respectability” while being ruthless behind closed doors. It’s also interesting to note what’s not shown but implied. The guns that are being sold off to people of color, the initial conflict that starts the show’s drama, are being supplied by Justin Hammer, a white business man who is never seen in the show but who we (theoretically) know from Iron Man 3 as being a rival of Tony Stark (Iron Man)White people provide the means through which people of color kill each other off.

Even this subtle connection to the larger universe is the real genius of the show for me and here I must veer off into much geekier territory: Luke Cage’s story is thoroughly embedded in a story that has been unfolding in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2008, but Luke’s story is coming from the margins of that world.  Previously, we’ve seen black character integrate into the larger, whiter world of the MCU. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as the head of the government agency SHIELD, James Rhoades (Terrence Howard/DonCheadle) as Tony Stark’s best friend/sidekick, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as Captain America’s sidekick. Across 15 films and 3 seasons of television, we have seen this world from a white (predominantly male) perspective. Now we are seeing the same world from the a different perspective. A world where bootleggers sell DVD’s of “the incident” referencing the climactic events of the first Avengers film. The world that Method Man raps about in the 12th episode when he says “Lord, who to call when no one obeys the law /And there ain’t no Iron Man that can come and save us all”. A world where people who may feel alienated by a blond hero with a magical hammer feel more comfortable with a bald dude who hangs out in a barber shop. The gift of Luke Cage for many black people is that our story is being told in the midst of this heroic epic. The greater gift is that our story is a part of the larger story.

A friend of mine joked (but maybe only half jokingly) that after watching Luke Cage and visiting the National Museum for African American History and Culture in D.C. that she felt 15% blacker. I can’t help but thinking that in some ways both are serving similar functions but on much different scales. President Obama’s remarks at the opening of the museum come to mind:

And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are American, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story, that our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves again, and again, and again, in accordance with our highest ideals.

There are people who are dissatisfied with Luke Cage for being too black. While it’s true that white characters are few and far between in the story, I have to believe that such a criticism can only take place in a vacuum where people live blissfully unaware of/or emotionally unaffected by the fact that representation in all forms of media have been woefully skewed towards white faces and the white gaze. I worry about white people who will tune this part of the story out because they don’t see themselves represented. Black people are never given that option. We can’t tune out the parts of American history that feel too white. We can barely avoid media that feels too white without making very conscious effort. All we ask is that our part of the story be seen as just as legitimate, just as essential to the overall narrative. Some “diehard” comic book fans will opt out of Luke Cage and the next year’s mostly black cast Black Panther and they will deprive themselves of part of the story because they can’t find themselves onscreen. I find that sad. For black fans who have for decades had to try to find themselves in the faces of superheroes who are actually white billionaires behind the mask, Luke Cage offers an easily accessible reflection, both in terms of the image of the protagonist and in the world which he inhabits. Again, to quote Method Man’s “Bulletproof Love” from episode 12: “Look, dog, a hero never had one/Already took Malcolm and Martin this is the last one/I beg your pardon, somebody pulling’ a fast one/And now we got a hero for hire and he a black one”

It’s been another really hard year to be black in this country. So often when we see ourselves on screen, it is in a video where our lives are being taken, or in mugshots where our character is being impugned to justify either an arrest or a killing. To see ourselves, in all of our complexity, on a screen is a glorious feeling, one I did not realize I was missing so much. I feel like the folks at Disney and Marvel basically just sent me a card that said “hey, we know things have been a little rough lately, so we sent you this”. To my black friends who have yet to watch it, I would challenge you to turn off your inner critic, suspend your disbelief, and soak in this magnificent representation of blackness. To my white friends, I would challenge you to sit with the discomfort of having something that was not made with you in mind and push yourselves across that chasm of representation that people of color have to cross daily. And to all of us, I think the challenge is to recognize that none of our stories are complete until all of our stories are told.

 

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