Category Archives: Celebrating Spirituality

Advent: That “c” word is with us, for better or worse

The season ahead signifies a most incredible claim: that God does not live in the clouds beyond but right here, now, among us. Christians call it Advent, which means exactly that, Christ with us. It signifies the birth of a very human man, Jesus, who made outlandish claims to be the Son of God.

This Thanksgiving, a kickoff to Advent on the spiritual calendar, I am trying to think about all the human challenges ahead, about how I can resist hate and not become hateful, how I can listen more, and what in the end is really important. I want to consider more deeply, what brings me purpose, joy and a glad heart, you know, the stuff I’m “thankful for.”

I know it has something to do with this notion of Advent, that God is here with me in all the sordid places I have dragged Her and yet loves me even still.

God’s love–and grace– compelled me to write my manuscript No Religion, Too.  It urges me to better understand the divine while resisting the American brand of Jesus as represented by those who speak the loudest. It demands that I love even while seething against those who take the Lord’s name in vain every time they take to the stage, the radio, the internet or perhaps even in public prayer.

I believe God is with us, and I believe She is pissed.

These thoughts kicked into high gear after I read an email sent to the members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco by Pastor Sheri Hostetler (Sheri plays a vital role in my life, sort of a spiritual tuning fork. I am the worst church member–something about never going to church plays a part– but Sheri treats me like a vital cog,  which is a bit like Advent: God with me).  As I read about the notion of Christ with us, I realized how uncomfortable I am with Christ–not the person, but the brand, which is often very confused. This is the challenge Pastor Sheri addressed when she wrote:

“Most of us would rather talk about Jesus, the historical man, than Christ. We feel on surer footing talking about Jesus the wise teacher, whose parables confound and delight us; or Jesus the compassionate healer, whose miracles of wholeness we try to translate into our life and times; or Jesus the revolutionary liberator, who denounced the political, economic, social and spiritual oppressions of his day and who was killed as a threat to Empire.

“But, as we approach the Christ-mas season, as we sing hymns proclaiming that “Christ is born today,” we are confronted once again with the “c” word — Christ.  Christ is a confusing concept for many of us. Just who is Christ? How is Christ different from the human person named Jesus?”

Which spurred me to wonder how we can ransom Jesus back from his kidnappers. I think I am not alone when I say, I want God with us and I want  this cooked up Christ dismantled.

This real Christ is confounding, to the point that the dark history of atrocities done in the name of Jesus “have made it very difficult for some of us to want to even claim Christ. So, on top of our confusion about who Christ is, we have to add our profound discomfort with the very concept,” Sheri wrote.

So this is my challenge this Advent season, a time when the ugly energy of hate and fear rises with a new American Theocracy about to come to power.

“I hear a deep spiritual wisdom — that if Christ-ians were to reclaim the true Christ, it might actually contribute to the healing of the world. That if we were to allow the true Christ to be born in us today, the world might change for the better. That if we were to more fully embody and experience the wise, healing, liberating energy that is struggling to be birthed today, we might see new manifestations of healing and hope,” she added.

Which again brings me back to where I’ve so often been in times of trouble. Here, present, waiting, listening for the touch of God coming near.

For this, I am forever thankful.

Bucket list check: Goodbye Vin

Several years ago, at the lowest point of my life, I was in rehab and far removed from everything familiar and comforting. Like so many do when life dead ends, I started the so-called Bucket List focused on things I hoped to do again once I put my life back on the rails. Almost every item involved an experience I wanted to share with another person.

One item on the list: listen to a Vin Scully broadcast one more time. I didn’t need to share it with anyone else, just legendary Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.

The sweet, understated, folksy charm of Scully connected me back to my childhood. Night after night, I carried my radio down to the local market that had the game of Pac-Man. I’d put the radio above the game, break out a roll of quarters I saved from my various chores or entrepreneurial activities, and tune into Scully’s Dodger broadcasts.

These times said a lot about me. I didn’t need a lot of others around to find my happy place. I loved baseball and still, do. I loved mastering anything–in this case, Pac-Man, where eventually I could play three or four innings on a single quarter– and I tended to be both competitive and addictive even when the activity didn’t matter to anyone else.

But mostly, they reminded me of a marker in my life that felt uncluttered, uncomplicated and happy. These three things don’t often align in my life.

At the time I wrote the list, I knew I couldn’t get a Dodger broadcast until the next season. I told my brother during a visitation about my hope.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Scully is retiring this year.”

I couldn’t believe it, and yet, of course, it made sense. He had already broadcasted for more than 60 years–a staggering run of longevity and excellence. But still, like everything bad happening during that time it felt personal, like punishment. Fate needed to take my to the shed, again and again.

But fate showed some grace. Scully re-upped for quite a few more years bringing us to this day today, the last time he broadcasts in LA. I sit in my dream apartment, my dogs nearby, just passed my seven-year sobriety mark, and I can cross this off the bucket list. I’ve heard Scully a few times in the last few years, but this is special. I’m here at the end of his ride and again, in a better place in my life.

When I added Scully to my Bucket List, I optimistically hoped to listen to a Giants/Dodgers game. If I was going to have a memorable moment, why not go for one of the great rivalries of all time and one that marked my growth. I grew up a Dodger fan and yet long ago moved myself and all my allegiances to the North. I’m San Francisco through and through these days, even if an adopted not naturalized citizen.

Scully’s final broadcast will be later this week, on the road here in San Francisco, for a final Dodgers vs. Giants game. I’m not sure I can get that broadcast, but I’ll watch the game along with Vin for one last time.

In this world so full of grace, it’s nice to be reminded of how much I’ve been given.

“God is so good,” Scully reflected today on this special broadcast.

She is indeed.

 

Life in a selfie-free zone

“The self is something that can be seen more accurately from a distance than from close up.”–David Brooks

Imagine if Ansel Adams arrived here in a time machine.

He would encounter a world that turned everything he knew about his art inside out. We’ve turned the power of capturing beauty through a lens of exquisite composition and clarity back onto the one thing that seems to matter more: ourselves.

Selfies make me feel old. From the start, they seemed a touch banal. But hey, they are fun. You huddle up and squeeze into the photo and usually look weird, but it’s OK. It’s a moment to remember. I tried a few here and there, and they all looked bad. My son told me I had to step up my selfie game.

Now they have sticks to hold the camera to a better length. The selfie game is serious. Occasionally, I wander around Facebook–a neighborhood I liken to a crime-riddled war zone where the danger of mental beatings lurk around every corner–and I see people are EFFin serious about their selfies. And why not? Everyone is now the star of their own reality show. Jay Z and Jay T aren’t the only ones looking to elevate their “brand.” Screw that, I’m a brand too mutherf….

Only most of us are not. We are human, not brand. We can be truth, not pose. We can live real lives that are messy and real, not staged for social media viral approval. We can touch a human being, not text one.

Here’s the twist: We are fearfully and wonderfully made, yet that secret concoction that makes us us, isn’t often captured in a selfie.

If we understood our created/evolved/miraculous beauty a bit more, our need to have it reinforced, moment-by-moment with poses and quips and selfie art and like counts and a whole bunch of other chores in a calculated hope to affirm the beauty within, wouldn’t be so compulsive.

We live in a time of epidemic self-focus. Only the lens is not focused inward toward capturing a picture of a true self, but in search of a photo to be dispensed outward for approval of a pretend self. Psychologically this leans toward narcissism, which is rampant in our culture these days. But holistically it is more simple than that. We’ve lost our focus because we are viewing our lives backward. We are Kim Kardashian, not Ansel Adams. As such, we are missing most of the beauty that gives life purpose, both out there and our own, because a selfie is no way to view either.

I felt myself turning the camera of my life around recently. I looked for validation from the other. I saw instead a side of me that needs more work. Focus blurred. My son was right, I need more work in my selfie game, so I turned the camera back around and pointed it out. My moments of suffocation let up, and air came back in. Sad air. But air. Air is good.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “The question is: How do you succeed in being introspective without being self-absorbed?”

Turn the lens around and try life for a while in a selfie-free zone.

 

Easter touchstones in my long road to redemption

In this seven-year work of grace and redemption in my life, God has used Easter as a powerful touchstone along the way. I spent the most significant Easter of my life running a personal half-marathon and in fasting the day before my release from prison rehab. Everything I thought God was doing my life was wrong. I could never have predicted the arc of suffering and spiritual work that lay ahead, and that too was grace. Had I known, I may have just surrendered and quit the journey, u-turning back into a bottle of ego and self. But that’s a story for another Easter. This Easter, I celebrate the one before that one. A dark day brightened by a visitation from a humble man of God who I’m blessed to call my friend. In that visitation, God visited me as well, and I re-opened my heart to what God may want from me in this life. This is an excerpt from a book I will soon be releasing on EffinArtist.com.  I wish you a blessed Easter and ears tuned to what the Spirit of God is doing in your blessed life.

*An Easter meditation

My close friend Mike is a conservative. I’m a liberal. Yet we don’t clash over our faith. We celebrate it. It’s why he’s like a brother to me, or, at least, one of a gajillian reasons and why I am like a brother to him.

We were both athletic in our heyday. We’re both driven. We both work with a passion to succeed. I trash talk. I can’t bait him to return the fodder, even though it’s far more his culture as a black man than it is mine. Every time I jab at him he says, “Oh man,” Eyes rolling as a huge smile lights across his face. “Oh man. We’ll see about that. Yes, we will.”

He just won’t take the bait.

A couple of times in the years I’ve known him, I heard him gently suggest I should take a look at my pride. It can trip you up, he’d say.

I’d shirk it off. Pride to me was thinking you’re better than you are. That’s not exactly my thorn of the flesh. I felt confident in my skills and comfortable when others had skills different or better than mine. Ambition shouldn’t be confused with pride, I thought. And it shouldn’t. But he was talking about pride, not ambition, not confidence, not esteem. I should have listened.

Because the next time we talked about it was when Mike came to see me through a visitation window behind bars.

For eight months I had been smashing my head against those walls that hemmed me in. Every ounce of the make-up that is me fired furiously against my powerlessness. A born problem-solver couldn’t solve anything. Anything. And in that conflicted state I grew weary. In the weariness, I opened my ears to the spiritual truths I’d long ignored. In my ears, I heard Mike’s voice. “Be careful brother. Be careful.”

 

As he came to see me we sat across from each other, a glass wall dividing us. He smiled that huge smile. We picked up our phones.

“How did you know it was my pride?” I asked before we even said hello.

He was speechless. Then he laughed. Then he said, “God is good.”

“Yes,” I said “He is he’s pretty tough too. Believe that.”

Mike just shook his head and then looked in my eyes.

“You’re doing good. I can see it.”

“I am. Barely”

Before he left, he vowed to do anything I needed to get on my feet when I get out.

“What is your goal?” he asked. “What do you want to do? I’ll help you.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let me think about it.”

And I did. Back locked in my cell, I meditated on the question. I breathed it in and out during yoga over and over. I sifted my thoughts. I’ve always just wanted to write books. I wanted to be a daily person of calm for my children. I wanted to be with my wife every single night when my head hit the pillow. This was still what I wanted.

Then I tried to listen. “What is my goal?” I asked.

I recalled a memory verse I learned at 16 years old. It had a tune to it that I recalled. I couldn’t, at first, recall the verse. I took a guess and flipped to Micah. It was right there, where I had left it so many years ago. I picked it up and breathed it in and out the rest of the week.

Mike came back to see me the very next day. Easter Sunday.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Why aren’t you in church with your family?”

He spread his hands wide.

“This is church,” he said into the receiver, looking at me through glass. “You are my family.”

I felt my throat grow tight. He noticed and tried to make easy conversation. I cut him off.

“I know my goal,” I said.

He nodded, go on.

“Micah 6:8, ‘He has shown thee, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee. But to love Mercy, and to do justly, and to walk humbly with thy God.’”

I could hear that faint crackley, echoey sound that makes visits like these difficult and distant. But this silence transcended the thick glass and the circumstance. This silence allowed God to join our visit, to celebrate Easter Sunday with us.

We didn’t know it, but a lot was born that Easter Sunday. I began my rise from the dead. That alignment of priorities opened the way for God to begin a new, terrible, necessary, painful refinement in my life. Exactly one Easter later I fasted for 24 hours, preparing to leave prison. I thought a new day was about to be born, and I guess it was. But it wasn’t what I had in mind. I was banned from seeing my wife on my release. I was put in a difficult trans-leave program with the odds of success stacked against me. Little did I know it, but I’d return to prison, I’d do the entire sentence all over again without having committed any new crimes, still paying a long, difficult, extreme price for my pride.

But it took all that to learn something of humility that Mike suggested I learn years ago. It took all that to learn fully you have to confront your pride. It took all that for me to align my life with God’s plan, to learn to walk humbly. It took all that for me to accept this new phase, to break through my unwillingness to serve, to let the vision of Criminal U, of service, of reconciliation and reform, to emerge. It took all that for me to find this path.

Finally, Mike broke the silence.

“Yes,” he said “Yes. That’s a good goal.”

It was, one I once believed in. If only I hadn’t left it behind so many years ago. Thank God for a brother like Mike that helped me find it.

Dream big. Live well. Be a success. But always, always, check yourself. Confront your pride. It truly does go before a fall.

Lessons in adaptation: Leaders must change to lead well

When working with my brother Dr. Rev. on his book Canoeing the Mountainswe talked a lot about its focus. I lobbied that he expand the leadership message for a broader audience. Leaders across sectors need to hear this core idea about the necessity of adaptability in leadership.

But, Tod kept his target market in mind: leaders in the Christian church. He also stayed true to his authentic passion. The latter part of his exceptional career is focused on trying to help pastors struggling to adapt to post-Christian society.  He knew the importance of helping those who dedicate their lives to a spiritual calling needed to find new ways to engage the changing spiritual landscape.

canoeing social graphic

Tod was right. His book topped #1 on Amazon’s chart for Christian leadership–nudging aside Pope Francis– and thrives in large part because of that focus he insisted on. He thought first of people, not sales, and his book is the better for it.

And his message for leaders? Change. Without it, you can’t lead. He uses the story of Lewis and Clark’s expedition to capture perfectly this compelling idea. He tells is better than I ever could, so take a listen:

Imagine if our political leadership could admit they are trying to canoe over mountains? Imagine if they would adapt to the sweeping change in the 21st-century economy and give up old party divisions and broken political methods that have handicapped our country? Image if the ability to be humble, to learn, to adapt and to learn new skills were prized, not mocked?

Maybe we’d be watching presidential debates with serious leaders talking in civil tones instead of the reality TV spectrum of buffoonery we see replayed each new debate now.

We need leadership more than ever, but capable leaders, humble leaders, yes, adaptable leaders. We don’t need more hubris. We don’t need more hate. There is nothing courageous about the xenophobic, divisive mockery of leadership that seems “popular” today.

So even now, knowing my brother was right to keep his book targeted and focused on “Christian” leadership instead of leadership, in general, I still wish he hadn’t. I wish leaders everywhere would consider this message of change.  More importantly, I wish we would all demand this from our leaders and reward those who proven themselves capable. Far too often today leadership seems capable only of stirring up ratings to amuse the audiences watching and building on hatreds and divisions that could soon leave us in the mountains with no clue how to cross them.

Take action: This holiday season, I’d love it if you could offer some support for genuine leadership advocated by a leader I respect, my brother, Rev. Dr. Tod E. Bolsinger of Fuller Seminary. Supporting authors has never been easier. First, click here and buy a copy of the book. Hell, buy two. Give one to your church leader or someone you know in leadership as a gift. Then read it and share your thoughts. Hate it? That’s great. Share it. Love it? Of course, share it. Honest reviews are the coin of the realm for better or worse. Post a few comments about it on social media and MOST IMPORTANTLY: write a review for Amazon. Many reviews help an author get noticed.

Happy Holidays to all.

 

Digressing into the confusing banality and joy of sports

I’ve reached an odd paradox in my life where my lifelong love of sports no longer captivates me as it once did, yet I remain curious enough to follow them. The one exception is baseball. Baseball for me isn’t a sport; it’s truly a pastime and it falls into another category altogether.

I can’t watch a whole football game anymore. I’d like to say because I now see the wreckage of human life because of concussions and injuries and idolatry of stars that makes the whole product seem so … well, criminal. That’s part of it. But the reason I can’t watch the games is they aren’t compelling. The other day I listened to five ex-athletes and three various news types talk about “breaking down tape” and diagram plays as if they were curing cancer at the volume of a pro wrestling farce.

It all seemed so silly.  I wanted to say, “get a life.” So, I did. To me. I was the one watching the nonsense. At least, they all got paid to be silly.  I turned it off.

I’ve loved the San Francisco 49ers since 1979. And yet, I can barely muster up anything other than disgust when I think about them. Their mockery of a coaching staff, their sliver-spoon owner who ruined a historic team, and their empty stadium seats because “fans” prefer to watch inside the stadium on TVs all disgust me. Most all, moving the team from San Francisco to a nightmare stadium that takes longer to get to than a trip to Tahoe on a Friday night insulted every loyal San Francisco fan that ever donned a jersey or bought a ticket.

But here’s the rub. I still find myself flipping to sports page every morning. I read the stories about the 49ers like a jilted lover stalking their Facebook page. I still have their abysmal games on in the background when I do something else more interesting with my Sunday afternoon.

This odd mix of boredom and fascination with sports came to a head this week when I dedicated parts to three nights to watch the Golden State Warriors play basketball. I gave up any interest in basketball back in the 1990s when the beauty of the LA Lakers Showtime and drama of the historic Magic Johnson v. Larry Bird rivalry came to a close, the day Johnson announced he had contracted HIV. I was such a huge fan, I recall exactly where I was during that announcement. It devastated me and my love of basketball with it.

But these Golden State Warriors are so damn interesting I couldn’t help but be caught up in it. Now they have a potentially record-breaking winning streak and I found myself nervous the last couple of games as they nearly lost. Even as I felt thrilled with the Warriors victory, I wondered why the hell I even cared.

Being a sports fan is confusing if you take a step back from it. It’s not art. it’s not doing much for humanity. It’s often not entertaining. Looked at from afar, it feels foolish. Why care this much about a game? Why spend money on such things. Why do I own sports jerseys that I feel too silly actually to wear?  And more importantly, why do I feel so compelled to think about why I still care about sports?

Here’s why. I’m getting older. I’m more aware of those grains of sand in my life and how I use them. I look back over the life I’ve lived and how many of those grains were spent poorly or harmfully or stupidly and especially carelessly that it absolutely fucking matters how I chose to spend them now. I don’t have near as many left as I used to, so the idea of spending 30 minutes of them every morning reading the sports page feels… empty.

I am choosing to live my life full. But like everything, there is a balance. It can’t all be so purposeful that it lacks normalcy. Sports, I’ve realized, is the white space in my life. It’s needed, just not too much of it. So my task is not to curse my clinging attention to sports but to mitigate it. To remove the banal waste of time and replace it with the best of sports: socializing with others, a bit of joy around the dramatic moments, the compelling stories of people who use it for good or simply a way to rest and relax and turn my mind off a bit.

In all these ways, sports can work for me. In all the others, it is time to let them go.

Rule #5 revisited for #worldkindnessday

In honor of #worldkindnessday I am posting a chapter of my upcoming little book called Rules 101Kindness is a gem of a spiritual gift. I’m in awe of those who seem to come by it naturally. I’m striving to uncover more of it in myself.

May you experience some true kindness today.

Rule #5 Be Kind:

Years ago when I taught high school, I led a tour of a dozen or so students to Washington, DC. I recall much of that trip fondly. The schedule was jammed with museums, historical places, and memorable sights. One stands out, distinctly because it was not enjoyable.

We spent a couple of hours touring the Holocaust Memorial, wandering from exhibit to exhibit, through the vast museum, all of which powerfully conveyed the tragedy of genocide. Few exhibits grabbed the students by the collar and seized their attention like this tour did. It whispered in every ear, “Attention must be paid.” Tears trickled down cheeks. Sweat formed on clammy palms. Our spirits merged and mourned for a people we did not know in an era far removed from ours.

We gathered at the end for a moment of silent
reflection, just our group. I felt the need to say something, yet wondered if this was one of those times to stay out of the way and let each person take a few steps of their own on their spiritual journey. Finally, I took out a big white card and a sharpie and wrote, “Be Kind.” I held it up and said,“If you folks learn anything that lasts on this trip, please learn these two words.”

I’m still working on learning that every day. I hardly knew what I spoke of at the time, but I felt it.

Rule 5

As time passed, I realized that little seed had started to grow. The idea of being kind soon infused much of my response to the world around me. I remained a highly flawed person, full of struggles and failings. But I’ve never forgotten that when in doubt simply try to be kind. I think it became a fundamental aspect of how I saw myself and a standard I could gauge my actions.

If it were easy to be kind, the world would be a gentler place. Kindness remains rare, an endangered species of human behaviors despite bumper stickers that state “Practice random acts of kindness.” Easier said than done, though well worth the effort.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that eventually I found my soul mate in a woman who was, and still is, the kindest person I know. I’m enthralled by her kindness. It’s a perfect rose in the midst of thorns, weeds, and crabgrass so common in our world. The more I’m touched by her kindness, the more I’m determined to find reserves of it within myself.

I truly believe kindness kills cancer and other illnesses. Kindness flows out of us releasing a healing energy within us. It is as important to my day as physical exercise, good, healthy food, vitamins and things that strengthen and challenge my mind.

In my journey through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I learned how resentments formed within us like emotional cancers. They fester and latch on and spread through our souls. Yet the only cure is not what I expected. I assumed I’d eventually have me to go to the people that hurt me and the people I resent and tell them how their actions affected me. Instead, it was the opposite. The steps directed me to make amends to those I hurt. In the steps, I had to be kind. And because the process of making amends will likely take me a decade or more, I constantly have to search my actions for the things I do to hurt others and find a way to respond in kindness. The discipline of kindness results.

As for those who hurt me, I learned two powerful things. First, often they are the same people I hurt. By making amends, I often found remission of the cancerous resentments inside of me. I never saw it coming. I assumed it would work like a children’s sitcom. I’d say sorry; the other person would say sorry, we’d hug, and it would all be better. But it didn’t work that way at all.

In one particular instance, I spent a long, difficult time listening to how I caused pain. I wanted to fight back and defend myself. I felt my hurt rise anew. Instead, I prayed. Then I apologized, and I changed how I acted in ways the person said they wanted.

And that was it. The other person never heard me out. They never apologized. But they felt better. They forgave me. Within a short while, I realized my resentments were gone as well. I just felt the kindness I lacked suddenly emerge. For a long time now it seems to have stuck around. The cancer is gone, kindness in its place. Those unexpressed grievances aren’t that important to me any longer.

The second powerful thing I learned is called the resentment prayer. Alcoholics Anonymous instructs people struggling with resentment, to channel their energy differently. Instead of letting those negative thoughts run on an endless loop in our mind, poisoning our mood and fostering bitterness in our soul, they instruct us to pray for these very people. And the prayer isn’t “Lord, smite these sinners!” No, it’s the opposite. The resentment prayer is a prayer of blessing, more along the lines of, “Lord, you know So and So and how I hope they burn in hell, right? Well, change of plans. I’d like you to bless them. I’d like you to make their lives wonderful and beautiful and free them from all that ails them…”

I admit I prayed these prayers through gritted teeth. But I prayed the prayers. In the days that followed, I felt the grip of resentments lessen. Soon, I rarely thought about these things at all. Eventually, I experienced forgiveness to some degree.

Jesus instructed us to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I never fully understood why we had to do this until I actually did it.

I learned one other amazing spiritual truth about kindness the deeper I delved into it and sought it for myself. It is one of the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Against such things there is no law,” The Apostle Paul — himself once an angry, hateful dude — wrote to us. Kindness isn’t something only a few wonderful people are born with. It is a gift from God that we all can have if we take the time to ask for it.

The more we receive, the more we give it away and the cycle continues to gain steam producing positive energy that actually can transform a human heart, a relationship, a community and a world.

In every circumstance, in every relationship, in everyday opportunities to respond to our environment will present itself. In each one, as much as possible, give serious consideration to a kind response. At times, the kindest thing will cut like a scalpel. At other times, it will comfort like a mother’s embrace. In all circumstances, it will infuse you with a sense of empowerment.

Remember, be kind.

Gay Jesus? A question that says so much

I went to dinner recently with some friends. It sounds like the start of a joke: An atheist, a gay pastor, a polytheist, an agnostic and a liberal Christian walked into a bar…

This wonderful collection of people so uncommon in many places is pretty common for me in San Francisco. I relish these times. In a world consumed by modern holy wars and the violence so often associated with it, these peaceful gatherings maintain my faith in humanity.

At the start of dinner, my gay, evangelical pastor friend Paul tried to ignite a storm of controversy when he said plainly, “Jesus was gay.”

In fairness, I tried to ignite a little controversy first, when I introduced Paul to our other dinner companion, a writer friend of mine who is an atheist and deeply committed to the 12-step recovery movement (which is built on spirituality and the need for a higher power). I love these types of apparent controversies, and I played them up when I made the introductions. Neither took the bait. Both were respectful of each other. Listening. Sharing ideas. It was an enjoyable time.

We asked Paul if he honestly thought Jesus was gay.

“Of course he was gay,” he said. “The Bible describes John as the discipline he loved, in terms used for more than friendship. It says at The Last Supper John lay his head on Jesus’s breast. Scot, can I lay my head on your breast?”

He leaned toward me. I shoved his head away.

“Don’t think so,” I said.

“See, that’s my point. We’ve been friends for decades, and I’ve never laid my head on your breast. But John did, and it’s in the Scriptures. Then on the cross, Jesus tells John that Mary is your mother and tells Mary that John is you son. Like you might say to your lover left who is left behind.”

We batted the idea around a bit. The atheist was not offended to talk about Jesus. My friend was not offended to talk to an atheist. He never once tried to convert him.

Paul asked him if he believed the man Jesus existed. He said he did. We talked about the historicity of the scriptures. We talked about a great many spiritual themes. Nobody grabbed stones or Bible tracts or hurled angry, hurtful words.

Toward the end of the meal, Paul admitted, “I didn’t get quite the response with this crowd that I normally get when I say Jesus is gay.”

“It’s an interesting idea,” my atheist friend said.

Paul explained that most people are repulsed when he raises the question.

“But take a hard look at it,” Paul said. “If the idea of Jesus being gay is revolting, then gays are revolting. It kind of gets to the heart of the matter, don’t you think?”

In a way it does. In my many years of spirituality I had seen people balk at praying to God in Spanish, as if he only speak English. I had seen the notion of a black Jesus reviled as if God didn’t create all races in Her image. And yes, I had no trouble envisioning the revulsion many would have over the notion of Jesus doing the nasty with John.

Yet, it’s not the strangest thought, nor is Paul the first to suggest it. A Vice article that came out shortly after the court’s legalized gay marriage highlighted the very notion.

The Jewish writer in Vice wrote, “It’s Jesus himself who lights up my gaydar like a Christmas tree. He’s a skinny young otter-like guy, flocked by a mess of dudes, telling everyone to love and care about each other, who later gets the shit beaten out of him by a bunch of closed-minded conservatives who are terrified of change.”

In an era of appalling religious intolerance, I relish that I can go out to dinner with the group I did and talk about a Gay Jesus and not offend anyone. I prize others with the humility to think in this great, big crazy universe we might not have all the answers.

Nothing so characterizes the spirit of Effin Artist as this, a community of people first, who respectfully listen, support, engage and love others despite differences of beliefs. We are not bound by what we believe, but who we are and what we are trying to become. Everyone around that table valued the transformation of the human spirit. We had different ways to find it.

 

From what I see on the news, a dinner like we shared is a pretty rare thing.

It shouldn’t be.

 

Waiting again for the miracle

There was a time when I felt mired very close to that place we call “the bottom.” A miracle seemed the best hope, maybe the only hope. I’d try to step outside the mess during that time and somehow imagine my way forward to a life that made sense. It seemed remote at best. Impossible at worst. Time and again I found myself thinking, praying, hoping, even begging for the “miracle” that would set my life to rights.

The miracle came. Undeniably. I can point to it there, there, over there and here, in so many places. I’m sure it came.

But I’m also sure it never once came as I expected. Never once came in the simple math of asked for equals answered prayer, like spiritual equations I’ve heard so many preachers promise. It didn’t arrive like a torrential downpour that made me gaze up to the heavens with a stupid happy expression over the obvious miraculous intervention. I pictured that many times. It never once became a reality.

But here’s the thing: I have no doubt that waiting for the miracle was the right thing to do.  The miracles came like dew. Everywhere, yet hardly noticeable. Constant, yet seemingly evaporating before the day went very far at all.

A skeptic would say they weren’t miracles at all.

Skeptics question all sorts of things that others insist are true, like love, like faith, like “signs” and especially miracles. They are fueled by often being right. Let’s be clear. The skeptics are right far more than they are wrong.

We believers in miracles are often wrong.

I think it’s by design. If miracles were that easy to see, we’d all want them, like a genie in a bottle. We’d miss the giver of the miracles and the reason for the miracles and all the other stuff to be learned. That’s why the saints call faith a “mystery.” We can’t know it all. We see, at best, like a glimpse. We are often wrong about what we see and experience. We are often wrong about our miracles. As I look back over the last decade and beyond, I realize I am most always wrong about what God is up to in any given moment.

It was precisely in recognizing how wrong I was that I began to see the miraculous dew that kept my life fresh and growing and vibrant in ways I couldn’t have dreamed up. God’s plan for me far outpaced even what I could plan for myself when dreaming of a miracle.

So why on Earth would I ever think the miracles stopped? This hit me the other day as I listened to a favorite song from singer Marc Cohn who sang,

Yeah, I’m willing to wait for a miracle
willing to wait it through
willing to wait for a miracle
what else am I gonna do 

I have these issues in my life that seem undone. I convince myself that God planned this life then forgot to deal with some really important shit.  I want to fix it all myself. I want to just finish the job. God then asks, “are you willing to wait for the miracle…?”

In AA they have this phrase: “Don’t give up right before the miracle.” It’s compelling to think about. Discouragment can pile on. The slog of recovery can become what seems like an impossible burden. Addicts think about just tossing it in. At those times if we hold on just a bit more, the miracle arrives.

I know this well. And yet… and yet. I still have to remind myself to be willing to wait for the miracle.

I’m living the miracle every day and yet far too often I’m not nearly as happy about it as I would expect. The pressures of the moment, the lack of perspective, the stress I allow to creep back around the edges, the lack of balance that knocks me off stride all conspire to rob me of joy and hijack the gratitude.

When I Iact ungrateful, I make my life more difficult even as it is infinitely better. I choose to be less than happy because I look around and see the need for more miracles. I get anxious about what I can’t change. I stress that I don’t have a plan better than looking to God and saying, “help.” Even now, that place, that dependence is perhaps exactly what God has in mind. Still.

Though I believe I shouldn’t need the miracle any longer, I do. Because that’s the plan. I may be a long, long way from bottom, but I don’t ever want to be a long, long way from faith in the plan that God has that I can’t see.

So the song reminds me. I am best when waiting for the miracles. I am best when I’m willing to wait it through. With so much evidence of blessedness in my life, what the hell else am I gonna do?

Long odds pay off with release of ‘Fixed’

Doug Piotter beat long odds in life. He continues to do so, as the release of his comedic memoir attests. A guy who lived the life that my friend Doug has, shouldn’t be breathing, let alone publishing books. But here he is, as of today, a published author.

I’m honored to introduce to you, Fixed: Dope sacks, dye packs, and the long welcome back, by Doug Piotter.

Doug’s story is compelling. The Seattle native’s unique perspective and gratitude for the life he has helps also make it funny. Very funny, which comes through in his quirky writing style.

doug2

It’s staggering to think Doug came out the other side of harsh addiction, a bottom-feeding, crime-riddled youth and a decade in prison. It’s literally miraculous that he came out the person he is, enthusiastic, positive, driven, successful and still, after more than a 22 years of sobriety, giving back in service to us fellow addicts.

Back when I first entered rehab, I thought anyone who went to rehab was weak. I looked down on them and really didn’t like them very much. So as I started rehab, it was the one time in my life where I really didn’t like myself much at all.

The blessing came when I realized how absolutely EFFing stupid I was about the people who went to rehab. Within the recovery community I found examples of transformation, strength, grit, gratitude and courage that I had rarely seen before. Not only did I find a better version of myself, I met a whole community of people who inspired me to be the best self I could be–and to do it joyfully!

Doug is an example of the type of hero I meet every day in recovery. He’s a stellar craftsman, an honest businessman, a mentor to addicts, husband to an incredibly talented artist, Terrell Lozada, and now a published author.

So many people would hear the stories about Doug’s life and tell him, “You oughta write a book.”

I know a lot of people who think that. Many start writing. Very few finish. Doug did.

He beat the odds for those recovering from addiction. He beat the odds for those sent to prison. He never again used or committed crime. He beat the odds by building a successful business. He beat the odds again today by publishing a book.

In life, we are afforded few times to let others know they matter. For an unsung hero like Doug, this is one of those times. Click here, spend a few bucks on a book to celebrate a true Effin Artist. Write an honest review, comment here, and/or visit his web page.  Share Doug’s book on social media, by posting this blog, or sharing the link to his book.

Effin Artist is about the transformation of the human spirit. So is Doug Piotter, an example of how vast that work of grace can be. Let’s celebrate him with our support.

Doug, you’re an EFFin Artist, man!