At the Ford: ‘shaking the wings of their terrible youths freshly disowned in some frozen devotion’ – hozier

I look down my Death
and stare her in the eye
sometimes,
and it’s when I know she comes for me
that I am wont to draw the sword,
to meet her dead on,
engaged on the battlefield
for a fight entirely up to her,
even though I live for pretend
that I could knock her hip out of socket
there,
where the creek ripples over the ford,
but, for what I fear,
she might baptize and
name me something new,
which, after all, is what Death is prone to do
if you choose
to meet her vis-à-vis.

Some Thoughts on Robin Williams

When Robin Williams died a few days ago, I got a text asking if it was real and was a little bombarded by all the Facebook commentary about it. I didn’t want to think about it; I didn’t want to acknowledge it had happened; I didn’t want to write anything about it, and all that’s mostly because I didn’t think it should really affect me that much. I mean, I didn’t know the guy. He wasn’t my friend or yours, and though I suppose it’s always tragic when a beloved comedian or actor dies, I don’t usually dwell on it, so why was this different?

The simplest answer is that we come to know an actor not by who they might really be but by who they portray (although, to a great degree, that is who they are), and throughout (most) of our childhoods, Robin Williams portrayed some of the more compelling characters – the very characters that reminded us of who we really are or who we really wanted to be. He was the inspiring teacher who wanted us to love the world with words or the good-natured, brilliant doctor who taught the medical world that patient’s are people. He dived into the depths of heaven and hell and took us into that fantasy land. He confronted the issues of broken families and made some poor choices in an effort to keep the family together. He was once a boy who never wanted to grow up, but somewhere in there, changed his mind and lost all the innocence of childhood only to find it again years later in his children. Or, he was the only therapist experienced enough to help a brilliant, young man – abandoned but arrogant – find his way out of a book and into embracing the world. And in just about every one of those characters, the man we met was a man who encouraged us to live a life of empathy, a life that acknowledged that loving other people, as well as loving ourselves, is hard but important. He added to a culture that gave us that incredibly important message, and dare I say that there’s a whole generation of us now who want to love the way Robin Williams and his characters loved. But that means we may very well be a generation who hurts the way he and his characters hurt, too.

I think that’s why it hit me, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. A dear friend of mine who, like Robin, can carry about her own tormented soul messaged me after some of the dust of his death had settled and said, “I can’t help but feel like… if Robin Williams can’t beat depression, what hope do I have?” I don’t really think that’s fair. To Robin Williams or to my friend. No one, no matter what amount of happiness they’re capable of giving to the world, is exempt from having that happiness snatched away. The important lesson of Robin Williams’ death is that things like addiction or depression or suicide can grab hold of even the best of us, the ones of us who might on the outside seem the happiest. But that shouldn’t mean there’s no hope. To the very end, Robin Williams sold us a message of hope, a message he was right about despite his ability to hang onto it when, one day, his pain outweighed his ability to cope. I read recently, and it’s worth saying again, that “when pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result. Suicide is neither wrong nor right; it is not a defect of character; it is morally neutral. It is simply an imbalance of pain versus coping resources.” And so, to that end, I think it’s worth saying that there’s always hope because there’s always going to be coping resources – in other people, in literature, in the very kind of comedy and film Robin Williams gifted to us. Robin’s decision in the end doesn’t wash away the coping resources that are out there. But it makes it all the more important to ensure people know what they are and how to find them.

Language as Culture

For most places in the world, you can tell what culture someone’s a product of by the language he or she uses. On a grand scale, that’s really basic and makes plenty of sense. A native Arabic speaker, for example, is probably Muslim, whereas a native speaker of Mandarin has probably been immersed in the culture of China. I realize there’s plenty of exceptions to those rules, especially in America where we’re a hodgepodge of cultures. But as a general rule, the language that we speak speaks volumes about our cultural knowledge. Even on a smaller scale, and this gets to the heart of my point, people in the corporate world use words like “digitization” or “globalization” or “Six Sigma,” whatever that is. People who are part of governmental agencies are fluent in a long list of acronyms like USAID, NGO, NSA, RPCV, etc. So, it’s not just the culture of a country. Organizations, institutions, religions all have their own language, and if you know and engage the language fluently, then it stands to reason that your identity is related to whatever that culture might be.

If all of that sounds a little too common sensical, I figured I’d lay out the problem: There are certain languages that I know but choose not to speak because I don’t want to be associated with that culture. Christianese, for example, engages in a language of Evangelical Christian culture. You won’t catch me saying something like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” or “Let’s get the prayer warriors together.” And yet, the fact that I know the language as well as I do, on some level at least, suggests that the Evangelical cultural identity is one that I understand and will never fully shed. Even if I was never completely immersed in that culture as someone who came from a more liberal church, it’s part of growing up in the Bible belt. Like a comedian who pokes fun at something, you are (at least somewhat) what you critique. Or put another way, if a Moroccan who speaks fluent Arabic moves to France, wears French clothes, and only speaks in French, are they still a Moroccan? Of course, and they always will be.

One of my favorite stories from college came from a professor who was making fun of new age religious folks. He told a story of a young man – a Westerner – who traveled to meet the Dalai Lama desperate to figure out what to do to achieve enlightenment. When the youth finally met His Holiness, he explained, “I meditate and meditate but nothing ever happens. What am I doing wrong?” The Dalai Lama looked at him, chuckled in his usual “everything is funny” sort of way and said, “You want to achieve enlightenment? Go home and be a Christian.” I both love and hate that story. I love it because it says something true to me about how we are what we’re raised to be and will always carry that with us no matter where we go. I hate it for the exact same reason. Some languages we need to shed, forget, or ignore no matter how much a part of us it is. And yet, at the same time, it raises important theological questions for me -

Who decides what language is appropriate or what identity it carries? What magic box does that derive from? Remember several years ago when everyone wore the “WWJD” – “What would Jesus do?” – bracelets? That’s a good example of someone jumping on a decent marketing idea without ever actually theologically-engaging what they were doing. What would Jesus do? Probably not wear this stupid bracelet. In our modern era where everything is driven by competition, capitalism, and money (the modern triune god), I guess I’m far more skeptical of religious language, because I don’t trust the culture – a culture often obsessed with being relevant for the sake of increasing membership. Maybe there was a time where the language was more honest, searched out, tested, and maybe even during that time, I’d just as easily have questioned or eschewed that language and the culture it entailed.

But to push back on this notion that we are the language we engage, try as they might have, no one decided at the Council of Nicaea what being a Christian was. Did they issue creeds that had a lasting impact? Sure. But to say that what it means to be Christian has been remotely uniform since 325 CE would be incredibly naive. In fact, to say that being Christian means the same thing in 2014 that it meant in 1914 is just as untrue. There’s not some magic box or succinct, clear language that provides one answer throughout history for what it means to be a part of any religion, because there hasn’t been one language or one culture driving the narrative or how it was told. To me, on some level at least, that means that the language I choose to use to describe myself, the culture I engage in or maybe even create from scratch, is wholly mine. That’s not to discredit tradition; it’s to value that we’re just as capable of making our own traditions out of the ones we’ve been handed by our forefathers and foremothers. So, while I value tradition and the power of it, I believe each one of us are just as capable of deciding what our language means and how we should carry it into the future. But that doesn’t happen without community, without challenging one another on what we mean, or without creatively looking both backward and forward at the same time. Because we want our language tomorrow to be better than the language we used today.

Some Changes to the Blog

So, I’ve been playing with the blog lately to try to figure out how to make it more reader-friendly. While I loved the old design, it smashed the text into a relatively small column that ended up making 800-word posts look  like they might take you a century to read. Three-fourths of the page was extra information – links to this-or-that, word clouds, etc. – that just kind of junked up the page and detracted from my whole purpose in even having a blog: my love for writing.

This new layout shoots for “minimalist.” Most of the “junked up” stuff from the old blog is still here but hidden away in the sidebar which drops down when you click the link next to the site title. I have the option of adding a picture as a “header” later on, but at this point, I just want to keep the layout clean. No overwhelming colors. No confusion over where and what to read. A large font-type with more open space that feels more professional and should be easier on the eyes.

So, hope the changes are to your liking, those of you few regulars who read the blog and any newcomers at that.

The Curious Case of the Toilet Seat Picture Frame

A few years ago, when I was working at a church near Nashville, I took my youth group on a trip to do service work in the Appalachian Mountains at a summer camp there. It was a week filled with hack saws, lots of paint, and conversation with poor or elderly folks of the Grundy County community in East Tennessee. When a former youth of mine began working full-time a few years later at the same summer camp, he mentioned one day that in the staff office, there was a make-shift toilet seat on the wall that functioned as a picture-frame. Inside the picture frame? Me.

Toilet Seat

At first I thought it was hilarious, and on some level I still do, but at the very least, it was an incredibly befuddling thing. Who would put a picture of me in a toilet seat picture frame? What had I done that irked them so, or did they just want someone attractive to be hanging there on the wall (ha-ha)? Were they trying to make a statement about me by hanging my picture in a toilet seat? Where did they even get the picture?

After an old friend asked around, at least some of those questions were answered this week. While I still don’t know who was behind the curious case of the toilet seat picture frame or how they got the picture of me, I now know why they hung the picture. And the answer is Sufjan Stevens.

At the end of our week in 2010, a group of my youth wanted to perform a song for the Friday night talent show. With one of them on banjo, two on guitar, and a percussionist, we performed “Casimir Pulaski Day” for seventy or so youth and adults. Since none of them wanted to sing, I offered to provide the vocals, which is weird because singing isn’t really my thing, but I wanted to be supportive. So, we sang the song straight through, and when it was finished and we’d sat back down, a woman behind me (probably in her mid-40s) sneered, “Well, that was just inappropriate!” At the time, I just shrugged it off and hadn’t thought twice about it. Apparently, though, one of the staffers also thought it was inappropriate, and rather than addressing it with me directly, decided hanging my picture behind a toilet seat was the best way to handle it.

The truth is, I don’t really care. Summer camp staffers are usually in their early 20s, and even us 30-somethings can be incredibly petty sometimes. And yet, I think it’s a really good example of some of the wider problems the church faces today – namely in the way Christian people can sometimes cower in the face of anything a little too human:

“Casimir Pulaski Day” is a heartbreaking song that narrates a crisis of faith in the midst of losing a friend to terminal cancer. It raises questions about morality – the complications caused by a tempting kiss and the shame of creating those complications for someone about to die. It questions God, particularly God’s seeming absence in the face of bone cancer, yet still manages to find “glory” in the face of God whom the narrator encounters the day his friend dies.

“Casimir” is the first and only song I know how to play on guitar, and singing it with my youth group was probably one of more special moments of my three or four years working with them. When I found out someone had found the song offensive for a Christian camp (to the point that they felt putting my picture up as a symbol of human excrement was of equal merit), I poured over the lyrics. There is that one line that says, “Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens.” Maybe they thought the song was pushing a kind of agnosticism? But no less than the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1) or Jesus crying from the Cross in Mt. 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sufjan himself acknowledges this in an interview discussing the song when he says, “Firm belief is a bit unreal. That leads to religious fanaticism. Doubt is inseparable from Christianity. With every figure in the Bible you find doubt – Abraham, Moses, all the kings and the apostles. Even Jesus doubted. So isn’t it funny how religions – especially Christian institutions in the U.S. – have eliminated all doubt? They don’t understand how important it is to doubt.”

Or maybe it was the line about the kiss? In the song, the girl kisses the narrator’s neck, and he says to her that he “almost touched your blouse.” Or even later, there’s an unclear reference to something shameful they’ve done in the night. There’s nothing sexual about it at all – unless you’re looking for something sexual there. But even if it is something risqué, this fear some Christians have that demands topics always have a G-rating can sometimes make Christianity seem at least a little fake. There’s something heart-wrenching about the honesty of a young man torn by the temptation to share an intimate moment with someone dying. In its prude, proper obsession with “holiness,” a lot of Christianity forgoes the earnest struggles anybody could relate with to instead champion some artificial propriety. Those Christians make sin into a kind of laundry lists of do’s and don’ts rather than the simple concept of being alienated or separate from that which we hold sacred. The beauty of “Casimir” is in Sufjan’s heartfelt search for something sacred in the goodbye of this friendship, in the way the things we hold dear can so easily be taken from us, and so he sings, still finding glory in something, “All the Glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face, and he takes, and he takes, and he takes.”

One of the things I love about Sufjan is that very shear honesty. Or maybe honesty is the wrong word. Maybe it’s just some very blunt confrontation with reality. I see that in a lot of people my age. If we can’t get to the heart of matters, acknowledging the best and worst of ourselves pretty quickly, then we’re probably going to lose interest just as fast. In that sense, I kinda hope my picture stays behind the toilet seat for a long time. Like a badge of honor, it symbolizes, for me at least, that I’m a person who is willing to sift through a few heaping piles of dung if that’s what I have to do to watch the garden grow. Admittedly, those of us eager to sift through the manure seeing it as fertilizer rather than something stinky and awful are bound to offend from time-to-time. But the fruit is riper, the vegetables larger, and for that we should make no apologies.

Some Thoughts on the Current Conflict between Israel and Gaza

During Vatican II – a gathering of church officials who reviewed the doctrine of the Catholic church – there was legislation approved called Nostra Aetate, meaning literally “In Our Age.” Nostra Aetate was a revolutionary document that condemned the charge of Jewish deicide (that is, the charge that “the Jews” held the responsibility for the death of Jesus), among other things. It was crucial legislation, and without it, it seems unlikely that Jews and Christians would have made the strides they’ve made to overcome an incredibly negative history. Just to get a picture of how far that relationship has come, it’s worth noting that some members of the KKK, an historically Christian organization for example, have distanced themselves from Christianity, embracing Nordic religions like Odinism, because they regard Christianity as too Jewish, whereas in the past, Judaism was seen as something separate, something other. Nowadays, it’s not entirely uncommon for churches to participate in seders (Passover feasts) around the time of Easter or for pastors to recognize the Jewishness of Jesus, something that was once forgotten or ignored. In our age, interfaith dialogue has made important, incredible strides, and we must be careful to keep moving forward in the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

That said, lately I’ve come to fear that in Christianity’s increasing interest and admiration for Judaism, a kind of Zionism has filtered its way into some Evangelical movements. I don’t mean to suggest that the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue has gone too far. Or that Nostra Aetate lead to something negative. To the contrary, I think Jews and Christians still have much to learn from one another, and perhaps continued dialogue would help curb the problem of Christian Zionism. Still, there are some Christians who expect Jesus to return soon and feel rather strongly that they must support Israel financially with the end goal of seeing the reconstruction of the Temple – a kind of strange effort on their part to usher in the eschaton, the end times. To a lesser degree, that’s created the perception that Israel can do no wrong or that any enemy of Israel is an enemy of the United States, or at least of Christianity (for many of these Christians would not separate church and state). I say “lately” but the truth is, this has been going on for a long time, this weird marriage of Evangelical Christianity and the State of Israel.

Albeit briefy, I’ve lived and worked in Israel on one short archaeological excavation, and during that time I traveled in and out of the West Bank. I loved the whole country; I loved its beautiful geography and colorful people. From the rolling plains of Armageddon to lost inside the Holy Church of the Sepulchre to floating in the Dead Sea or waltzing as close as I could get to the caves of Qumran, I have a deep love of Israel. In fact, I had such a deep love of Israel at the time that when someone on a bulldozer plowed through a crowd in Jerusalem while I was in the country, it fed my other perception that those Muslim folks are all just a bunch of crazies who, every time you hear about them, seem to be blowing something up, running someone over, causing havoc this way and that. It would be several years before my perception would change there.

But I’ll never forget one afternoon in the Old City where that myopic viewpoint first got called into question. A few friends and I had stopped for lunch in a cafe in the Arab Quarter, and a Jewish woman came in and sat down with her two children and ate lunch nearby. When she was finished and had eaten everything, she refused to pay claiming the food had been terrible and harassing the owner of the cafe. That was my first experience seeing these tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel. The owner of the cafe, a Muslim man, was hurt but unsurprised. He handled the situation with incredible tact and went on to tell us that sort of thing happened all the
time.

I know all too well that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but in the coming years, between moving to Morocco, studying Islam, and learning Arabic, I’ve taught myself to try to step into the shoes of those whose story is driven too-often by the mainstream media with little complexity. This isn’t intended to be anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian. It isn’t in anyway Zionist or antisemitic or anti-Jewish. It’s one thing: a plea for recognizing how complicated and complex these tensions are. In the few social media arguments I’ve seen, I’ve noticed people rush to say things like, “Well, Hamas started it first,” as if these were events taking place on a third grade playground.
Or, worse, I’ve seen some Christians bemoan the Muslim population entirely and suggest Israel just “wipe them all out.” It’s almost as if the Native American population suddenly decided to start bombing American government buildings demanding to have their land back. Would that be terrorism and wrong? Well, yes. On the other hand, let’s not forget the Trail of Tears, itself a trail of terror. Or let’s not forget that suicide rates are, even today, highest among Native Americans than any other racial group in America. “Terrorism” is in the eye of the beholder. If you were British in 1776, you were probably having to put up with some pesky American terrorists. So, before we rush to label all Gaza or all of Hamas or all Muslims as terrorists, let’s at least recognize the complexity of their history and the pain they – like the Jews they fight – have suffered over time.

How do we do that? We learn to listen to perspectives of others in ways that force us to consider what it’s like living in their shoes. A few years ago, I was at a Jewish-Christian dialogue conference with several seminarians – future Rabbis and Christian pastors, alike. The event was sponsored by an organization that included several survivors of the Shoah who spoke in what was an incredibly moving discussion. But something felt off. When we began to discuss “the land” and the importance of “the land” (i.e. the area now known as the State of Israel but an area that has gone by countless names in the Bible), one point was reiterated by numerous speakers: that Christians must come to recognize the importance of “the land” for the people Israel. There were two things that struck me in that conversation. The first was that we had chosen to have a Jewish-Christian dialogue, not a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue. To talk about the importance of “the land” without any representation from an entire other religion that has some claim to the land felt off to me. If you want to know why such controversial issues remain so controversial, I think that’s part of why; it’s as if no one even recognized the elephant in the room was the absence of our Muslim brothers and sisters at the table. If we can’t listen to one another, we have no hope of progress. On that note, I also realized that we have to listen not merely to our political differences but to our religious differences, as well. The field of political science goes out of its way to recognize the conflict between Arabs and Jews as one that’s strictly political and historical, and I’m convinced that’s part of why so little progress has been made. More efforts where Muslims and Jews are praying together and listening to each other’s religious differences and similarities would go a long way.

So, the story is complicated, more complicated than we have a history of giving it credit, and no one’s going to move forward if they can’t listen to each other. Most of that is just common sense, really. But recognizing both of those things, I’ll say why I think Israel is, currently, making a terrible mistake. I had a friend once point out that Israel likes to see itself as David fighting some Goliath when it paints its struggle with the Palestinians, and I think his assessment is probably true. As he noted, David was a weak, lyricist playing on his harp. No one in the family considered him worthy of being a King. That’s not Israel’s role. It’s a powerful force backed by incredible military and financial might. If anything, Israel is Goliath. And when you’re Goliath, if you’re going to be a good Goliath, you have to be careful how you use your power. If Israel wants peace, it won’t wield it with excessive force. Think of the children growing up in Gaza and put yourself in their shoes. If Goliath comes to your town when you’re thirteen or so and starts bombing the heck out of people you love, and you grow up in that place where you’ve struggled to get food and clean water, where you’re forced to stay in the same, poor conditions with nothing better, then the unfortunate, wrong-headed narrative that “Israel should be destroyed” is more likely to prevail under those conditions. And when there’s not a well-organized military to join, it comes as no surprise that some would turn to terrorism as a means of fighting who they regard as Goliath. Ultimately, though, regardless of which side is more right or more wrong, how many people have to die in this conflict or any other before MLK’s words are believed to be true? That “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That, of course, opens up the usual debates about pacifism and just war, and those are all worth discussing, but just at the very simplest understanding of what all is happening right now in Gaza, I think we can at least agree that a fight that’s leading to such a large number of civilian deaths is not going to encourage long-term peace of any kind. Quite the contrary. There aren’t any short- or long-term winners in this one. And I guess I hold Israel a little more responsible because I expect them to understand that by now.

Of course, there’s this tendency to throw up our hands, I suppose, and say, “What does it matter and what good does it do us to discuss it,” and on one level, I think that’s very true. I’ve seen a lot of that mentality prevailing, too, in the notion that the Middle East has been fighting since the dawn of time, so why even care at this point? On the other hand, how a few of us discuss it on social media or in blogs slowly but surely contributes to how it’s understood more widely in our culture, and that goes with everything. I guess it’s important to me that we discuss it for two reasons. The first is to encourage empathy. We should be a culture that encourages those we care about to stand in the shoes of others before anyone decides how they feel about something. The second is, more simply, that I thrive off being challenged and so I like to challenge others, too. And that’s what this is, an incredible challenge – to Jews, Arabs, and to Christians, and though we won’t solve the Middle East conflict on Facebook or Twitter or anybody’s blog, I think learning how to talk about it with openness to hearing different perspectives is important.

Gateway to the Somewhere

Walking around St. Louis lately, I’ve noticed how the city changes for me the more I get to know it. It’s like when you walk down an unfamiliar street, and the first few times you do it, the color of the pavement blends just enough with the dull tone of the concrete buildings to almost make it into a blurred background image easily forgotten.

The Lou

Your first time venturing anywhere new, you’re so focused on the destination and on not getting lost that the details of the place just kinda fade. But the more you walk a path, the more familiar it becomes, and the more familiar it becomes, the easier it is to notice the little things. This past week, meandering throughout downtown St. Louis has been that for me as the city morphed from that weird blur of general “downtownness” to something with a personality and a feel to it. There was that one dilapidated Tudor building with the timber framing sitting lonely among the steel-and-glass. Or the way, at night, Washington Avenue is lit-up like Christmas. There was the realization that the Public Library, architectured almost like a great, academic cathedral of sorts, was due west of the apartment and only a few blocks away in relation to everything else that’s come to matter to me since I got here. And, of course, the people – conversations of kindred that even when you don’t know them at all have offered something to the familiarity of the place. Yesterday in the gelato shoppe, a man decked out in a soldier’s uniform walked in with three young, black boys probably between eight and ten years old and bought them all something. On his way out, he confessed, “I don’t actually know them at all. They just saw my uniform and asked for an autograph, so I figured I’d do something nice in return.”

I used to think a place chooses you. Like, if you grow up on a farm, you’re bound to grow into that and the lifestyle that comes with it. I wouldn’t say that I deny the truth of that necessarily, but nowadays, I tend to think we choose the place, too. That it’s a both-and kind of thing. The more familiar a place becomes, the more likely you are to claim it as your own, after all. And St. Louis has become mine in a way that I’ve enjoyed making it mine. Even the buildings that aren’t quite as aesthetically pleasing as the others lend to the familiarity like puzzle pieces filling in the parts to make it whole, and sometimes, it’s the pieces that are the same color as all the others that, without them, keep the puzzle unfinished. In that sense, I’ve come to love and want to know more every nook-and-cranny of the city I can absorb and commit to memory.

To me, St. Louis is a city of choice, a kind of merging of paths. I get why it’s called the Gateway to the West, but a gateway West is a gateway East, too. I sometimes feel as if I’m looking as far down each path as I can see with the naked eye, imagining where it might take me if I choose that path but at the same time perfectly content to simply imagine until something greater pushes me in that direction rather than forcing it. But as I imagine, I’m grown content to be in the here-and-now standing at the entrance neither too eager to enter or exit and recognizing that the door does both at the same time. A city of choices is a city bound to the cycle of life, its ends and beginnings. And I’m grown content to be present to that cycle, however brief or lengthy that may be, without getting caught in the need to move through the doors. It’s a bit like serving as a kind of doorkeeper watching the world pass before me eager to keep some constant pace rushing West or East as though they’re caught in the blur rather than absorbing all the wonderful chaos they might have noticed had they stood still for just five minutes. Having been on both sides of the doorway, it’s nice to just stand there observing, greeting, growing familiar.