It was Valentine’s Day. I was wearing ashes.

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Parents in Parkland, FL (Photo/Joel Auerbach/Associated Press)

Yesterday I went to church. It was Ash Wednesday. I didn’t go because it was an obligation. I certainly felt out of place. It’s been a while since I was in a Catholic church. But I needed a place to mourn. To grieve. To put on ashes and say to god or the universe or to whoever really is listening: I’m sorry. I repent. I am broken.

Yesterday I needed church, because another seventeen people were gunned down in a school. By an angry and broken young man with a Make America Great Again hat. I sit with a lot of young men like that. At our local juvenile detention center. Young men who are angry. And broken. Many who never knew their fathers. Many who have mental health issues. Many who have experienced death in their lives. Many who have found family and safety in groups dedicated to violence. Many who we have failed.

Yesterday, I needed church because it was Valentine’s Day. And instead of swapping candy hearts, the earth soaked up blood. Children’s hearts were broken; torn apart by unregulated bullets and unregulated weapons. Parent’s hearts were shattered with the news that their flesh and blood were trending on Twitter. I hope the victims were told “I love you” at least once before their lives were cut short. I want to believe that some of them received ashes before they were murdered. Just to remember: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Yesterday, I needed to be marked. I needed a reminder. That there is good news; that people really do believe in a message of loving one’s neighbor. That people are willing to lay down their arms and turn their cheeks. Certainly, god weeps along with saints and sinners at such a notion as a “right to bear arms.” Ancestors, pray for us. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. You would think one child would be enough?

It was Valentine’s day. I was wearing ashes. Another day in America.

 

A Christmas Song for a world on fire…

I really enjoy Christmas music. Even though I get frustrated when I hear holiday melodies before Thanksgiving Halloween, the familiar songs fill me with warm nostalgia. My memories of Christmas and Advent are good memories. My house would be filled with the smell of tamales and baked goods. Lights and nativity scenes would appear. Records that laid dormant for a year would be pulled out and played after dinner. Church would echo with carols and hymns to the coming celebration of the Christ child.

I have my old favorites: The Little Drummer Boy (specifically the one with Bing Crosby and David Bowie), O Come All Ye Faithful, Carol of the Bells. And I have some new ones. But my most favorite Christmas song is Do You Hear What I Hear? It breaks me every time in all the ways I need to be broken for the Holiday season; toward hope, giving, forgiving. Most importantly toward peace in a time overcome with the threat of destruction.

The song’s creators, Gloria Baker and Noël Regney, wrote the song in 1962 while the world was reeling from the Cuban Missile Crisis. And after it was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1963, it quickly spread across the world. Baker and Regney’s message was prophetically powerful in a time that needed a message of hope. Which is probably why I have always gravitated toward this simple Christmas classic. It reminds me to live in hopefulness.

The song, like the Nativity story, is subversive. It begins with a message whispered from creation to people on the margins: “Do you see what I see?” “Do you hear what I hear?” And then from the margins to the powers that be: “Do you know what I know?” How I long for those of the halls of power to suddenly realize that out in the freezing night, there are children who need silver and gold; who are homeless and hungry and in poverty. For the wealthy to realize that these children will bring goodness and light. For our leaders to announce peace; turning away from greed, racism, and bigotry.

55 years later, Do You Hear What I Hear? is in the background of a Holiday Season set amid chaos. I am clinging to it in desperation. I want some small whisper in the night wind. I want a voice bigger than all the hate in the world. I want an intervention, reminding the world: “Glory to God in the highest, peace on Earth, and good will to all!

This last Sunday, one of the children at my church came up to me and asked, “Do you want to know something?” I nodded with a smile. He told me, “God is everything. In the wind. In the trees. In the world. In you. In me.” I asked him how that made him feel. He smiled at me and said, “It makes me very happy.”

Do you hear what I hear?

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My prayer for the world…

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“Tobias” by Christopher Matthias

My child is almost three years old. They are typical in their development. They are 38 inches tall and close to 40 lbs. They love trains and cars and really big machines that are “too loud.” (Their words, not mine) They love books and will ask for my partner and I to read the same stories over and over until they can finish sentences with us. They love TV and electronics. They love running in circles and jumping in puddles and giving hugs. They love the color purple. If I were asked to describe them in a phrase, I would say that “they love.”

They are concerned about children who are crying. They (sometimes) share their candy, even without being asked. They say “I’m sorry” when they accidentally do something wrong. They are getting better at saying “please” when they want something. They call people “friends.” They are beginning to describe their emotions; and they like to play with words, wrestle, and make silly games of hide and go seek. If I were to describe how they exist in the world, I would say, “They are compassionate.”

Which is why I am so afraid that I, and this world, will break them. Being human, I can be moody, frustrated and selfish. I have inherited systems of racism, misogyny and toxic masculinity. If therapy has taught me anything it is that the unexamined life is filled with a happy ignorance, but the price paid is usually in the pain and suffering of others. I have a choice, be aware of my brokenness so I can mitigate its transmission to my child, or leave him at the mercy of society and media.

When I see my news feed filled with people who hate; who are greedy; who assault; who are the worst parts of humanity, and then see them elected into positions of authority, my instincts tell me to shelter my child to the best of my ability. And my heart breaks knowing that there is nothing I can do to stop their being broken, little by little, as they get older. Which is why my partner and I have made the decision not hide things from our child; but to try and hold everything in their life in context. There is an art to being “age appropriate” and we want to err on the side of transparency. Topics like “sex” and “god” are not off limits (regardless of our own hangups on the subjects). Feelings are encouraged, not stuffed away. There are no off limits toys, colors, or clothing as long as they are enjoyed in playful and loving ways. The only things in our house that are not tolerated without being challenged are “hate” and “supremacy” and “ignorance.”

My example to my child will not be “how to be a strong man” but “how to be a better human.” That to have power and privilege means being a servant leader. That to live simply and with happiness means giving a damn about others and not just themselves. That what matters isn’t the color of skin but the content of character. That listening is better than talking. That the greatest rule is to treat others as they would like to be treated. That if they are not part of the solution they are part of the problem.

I refuse to let the systems that have come before me break my child. They will know the definitions of evil by example: prejudice and bigotry, selfishness and narcissism. And they will know the definitions of good; love and compassion, vulnerability and empathy. If parents cannot help but put our hopes and dreams into our children, at least I can hope for peace and dream of a better future. In this way, my child is my prayer for the world made incarnate. I hope it is a joy for them and not a burden.

There is a time for every season…

7-1266881542-07-pure-seattle-space-needle-and-rainI am weary.

As the grey of a Seattle winter approaches the winter solstice, I find myself feeling the weight of this time a little more keenly. Between fatherhood, work, graduate school, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter and post-election ministering, I haven’t had much of a chance to take a break. And the work is only getting harder.

My training teaches me that this is the time for self-care. Actually, the time for self-care should have been after going to Standing Rock. And then after the election. And then after the BLM march. Or after that presentation. Or after that mid-quarter paper. Really, after anything that required a lot of psycho-spiritual collateral. And I don’t have a good excuse for the not taking the time; I’m just horrible at saying “no” and there just never really seems to be enough time to do “everything.”

I’ve found myself responding to the election by not being able to look away from my news feed. I’ve been consuming every story that catches my eyes; about the escalation of hate crimes across the United States, the escalation of violence against DAPL protestors, more black men being killed by police and more police being acquitted, and Trump’s appointees and their slippery-slope repercussions. Every time I told myself to take a break, I would get sucked back in. Just one more story; one more article.

I realize that what I’ve been doing is arming myself. I’ve been taking an accounting of this early Trump era. I’ve been ticking off one offence after another and hoarding them. Because when my basket of brokenness is full, I’ll be laying it at the feet of every Trump supporter I come across. I so very much want to blame and shame them into submission; I want to beat them with the lash. I want them to pay in pain.

blm_black_friday_seattleAnd this is why I need to do some deep care. Because my psycho-spiritual reserves are depleted and I am tired, angry and weary. In this state, I am dangerous to myself and others. I cannot do the work I am called to do; to be a peace maker. I believe my call to ministry is to heal; through solidarity, listening, and forgiving. At my best I am available to people in vulnerability and love. I keenly see my shadow self right now, and as much as I want to embrace him, he is ultimately self-destructive.

And this era of Trump doesn’t need more self-destructive people. So I’m going to be taking some breaks leading up to the new year. I’ll be taking more walks through nature. I’ll re-discover non-digital reading. I’ll take advantage of more simple moments; good coffee and tea, fresh baked goods, and music that speaks to my soul.

So please check in with me. Ask me how I’m doing and really mean it. Make sure I’m doing my internal work so that my external work can flourish. Ask me to coffee. Come over for drinks. Take a silent walk with me. Let’s make sure we stay strong, because now is when we’re most needed.

At the end, a moment of sacred…

aloneOn Thanksgiving I was approached by a friend with a particular question. She knows that I’ve been volunteering as a chaplain and that I’m in seminary. She asked if I would be willing to visit a friend of hers who was in hospice. He has stage four cancer and doesn’t have much time left. And while he was not a religious man, his mind had been turning toward both the past and the future. She felt that he would benefit from having someone to talk to; perhaps I could offer a presence that would help his transition between life and death.

I explained that I wasn’t an ordained minister. I’ve only been volunteering as a chaplain for a short time and that was with youth who are incarcerated. She said that was probably for the best; her friend was a devout agnostic with secular Buddhist leanings. He didn’t want credentials or conversion. She felt he just needed someone who knew how to talk about spirituality. So I said yes; that I’d be happy to sit with her friend.

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So last night I sat.

For a little more than an hour I listened to his story. He didn’t have any questions and not many concerns. His story always hovered on the edge of faith but never crossed the threshold. For a man with perhaps only weeks to live he seemed accepting of his reality. And yet he acknowledged that he probably hadn’t really accepted that he was going to die soon. But until then he wanted to read St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton. He said that they seemed the most accessible for an agnostic who was looking for possibilities without being sold a bill of goods.

Our conversation wasn’t hard. But it was difficult to walk the tightrope between detachment and empathy that the active listening of a chaplain has to balance. I was reminded in many ways of my own grandfather at the end of his life, as well as the recent passing of my father-in-law. However, in order to be in his moment, I couldn’t be in mine. Also, in him I saw my own mortality; and it was uncomfortable and unsettling.

Footprints-In-The-Sand1Which is why I believe it was also holy and sacred. In this season of “thinness,” I was able to share a space and moment with another human being as he approached his own veil. In doing so, I was an intimate part of a Spirit of mystery and miracle. In the pauses between words, there was the weight of a life. A life in which I was able to share, if only for a moment. And I am grateful.

How heavy is this season…

winter (1)This Autumn has been tremendously heavy on my heart. I usually enjoy this time of year. I love how the days get shorter; darker; deeper. Spiritually, it’s a thin time for me. Like an event horizon, my soul cannot escape from being stretched by this time and space to consider its internal workings. However, this year there has been no time to be slow and gentle and contemplative. There has been nowhere to hide. There has been too much work to do.

When the terror attacks happened in Paris, all I could do was stay away from my newsfeed. It seemed like the tragedy in Paris wasn’t about lives lost but by how to use it to further a political agenda. It was hard to find people talking about how to further peace and justice in our world; more so was the reaction to “buy more guns” and “launch more missiles” and “mobilize more ground troops” and “blame the refugees” and “close our borders.” All I could do was just pray for peace and keep working for justice and remember to say hello to the people who attend the mosque down the street from my house. Did you know that when they greet each other, they say “peace be with you?” I wonder what it would be like to do that to everyone I meet, and mean it?

On Black Friday, I joined the #BlackLivesMatter movement in downtown Seattle. The theme: Black Lives Matter, Not Black Friday. This consumer high holy day is an orgy of capitalism. And yet, capitalism has not found a way to empower those people who live on the margins; the poor, the migrant, the homeless. Capitalists have told them all: “God helps those who help themselves.” And many of them have worked their souls raw with this promise. Yet the only pockets lined were the shareholders and CEOs saying “It will trickle down. Trust us.” And God seemingly remains silent, no matter how hard a black mother works; no matter how many job applications a homeless man puts in; no matter how many cherries a migrant worker picks.

usa-raceI came out because to me, black lives are more important than Black Friday. Period.

So I joined people at Westlake Center to raise awareness and stand in solidarity with the people of my community. The scene was decorated as a Christmas wonderland village. They had a merry-go-round and a performance stage and Christmas decorations. And as protestors gathered, organizers began the hymns: “Who’s lives matter? Black lives matter!” “Black lives matter, not Black Friday!” “We want our liberation! Fuck your assimilation!” “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

Then the organizers began a litany of names. Every name of a black life taken since Trayvon Martin. Then the music from the stage began to get louder. Westlake Center was trying to drown out the voices of the organizers; the voices of people calling out for justice; for peace. And I will probably never forget the joyful carol of Frosty the Snowman as it was used as a weapon to protect the status quo. I turned to my friend Patrick and said, “This is the most surreal thing I’ve ever witnessed.” And I marched.

151203-ny-daily-news-cover-jpo-440a_6fe5537b92e70148a37fd6e6e94afcd3.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Then there was the mass shooting in San Bernardino. Once information was released about what happened the pundits began to use Islam and Muslims and terrorism to try and distract me from the issue of our culture of violence. And then a few days later as I attended a meeting at my church, gunshots rang out just outside of our windows. It was the first day of Hanukkah; there was a white supremacist rally scheduled in the city; we have a Jewish temple next door to our church; we had children in our building.

And my coworkers and I locked down our church. It breaks my heart even more not just because we, a church community, have a plan to respond to gun violence but that we had to use it. And for what seemed like forever we didn’t know what was going on, until we were told by police that it was a high speed car chase coming to a violent conclusion outside of our church doors. We told ourselves “it could have been so much worse” and yet everything up to that point had us believing that it was. Still, we all were able to go home safe; yet I cannot shake the feeling that so many people do not have that privilege. And why is that a privilege?

This Autumn has been too heavy; some of its issues too close. I cannot take refuge in the carols of my childhood. There have been gunshots in the spaces I call sacred. I have been in the streets with people crying out, “no more killing!” And I remember that of all times in the year, that this is one that has proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) It makes me wonder then, is God pleased with me? I look around and think that, with so many choices toward violence and anger and war and hatred, that if I were this God I would not be pleased either. And like this God, I look at my own son and wonder, “can he make this world a better place? Will this world let him?” And I hold out a ridiculous hope that it will, even knowing how powers and principalities have answered in the past.

My heart and spirit are so heavy right now. All I want is to just relax into this season and enjoy it like I used to. But there is too much work to do. God helps those who help themselves, right? I’m helping God; I really am. So where are you?

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Finding Life in Detention

(Finding Life in Detention was originally written for the BeZine, an online “e-zine” produced by the Bardo Group. Please check out the other amazing writing found in this and other issues of the BeZine!)

SEC Logo copyI’ve only been working as a chaplain with youth in detention for a month. I could have chosen a number of different seminarian internships; campus ministry, church administration, advocacy. But I chose chaplaincy on purpose because I felt a “call.” It is why I’m studying an MDiv; it’s why I stopped running away from ministry.

In this month I’ve heard stories of rape, assault, grand theft, vandalism and trafficking in narcotics. There is something fundamentally disturbing to hear the voice of a child talk about getting so drunk and high that carjacking an elderly woman sounded like a way to “have fun.” All this from the mouths of youths who should be worried about their SATs rather than their next court date. So I’ve been asked the question, “How do you do this?” My answer is, “Because my faith demands it of me.”

fhouseAs a Unitarian Universalist, I believe that salvation is IN my life. My faith as I choose it requires me to work towards the inherent worth and dignity of all people and all creation, not for heavenly reward but for humanity. Which means pushing myself to be in places and meet with people which make me uncomfortable. To speak truth to power. To give witness. To expand beloved community. To be where the Spirit of life needs me to be.

Yes, it is hard to sit in active listening, asking questions, attempting to sift through the psychic refuse to find the innocent child underneath. But let me be clear; there is an innocent child underneath! Because I have also heard these same children’s voices ask for mercy, beg for forgiveness and plead for a fifth, sixth or seventh chance to turn away from the paths well worn by their incarcerated fathers and addicted mothers and economically and educationally depressed neighborhoods. These children’s eyes reflect back at me; “Help me! Heal me! Love me! Save me!” And my faith and my humanity will not let me say “no!”

seedEven though a minister’s trade is in miracles, I expect none here. My ministry is to listen. To be present. To plant seeds of hope. To challenge my world to change for the sake of it’s children. And to push and pull with all my might to bend that arc of history just a little bit further toward justice. It is in this hard work that I find the Spirit of life seeking reconciliation and my own salvation.

In this way, working with youth who are incarcerated is life giving! It reminds me of who I should be. It wakes me up from the soma of my off-white middle class American social location. The work allows me to be so filled with gratitude for my family and baby boy that I have to respond in thanksgiving. And because I did very little to deserve my blessings and privilege, I must pay it forward. Which is where I am confronted by mystery and miracle! The more I give, the more I find that I am being transformed by these youth into a better human being.