The Stories We Live By

Author’s Note: When I use myth I simply mean a symbolic narrative or a story that gives meaning.

When I was in Kindergarten recess time amongst the boys was spent riding blue tricycles all across the playground.  All of the tricycles were the same except one.  All of the tricycles had a rainbow logo on the front except for one that had a lion’s logo on the front.  It was understood amongst us that this lone tricycle with the lion on it was the best and the fastest tricycle there was.  This meant that if you were the chosen line leader for the week that you got first ‘dibs’ on the greatest and fastest tricycle there was in all the playground.  This lionized tricycle also granted its rider a certain leader of the pack authority that was gained only to be lost at the close of each school week.  Kindergarteners would come and go but the tricycle’s lure and authority remained for it was the lion that gave it its power.  Eventually we would move beyond Kindergarten to 1st grade and with due time this myth or story of the fastest lion marked tricycle would lose its power over us.  In case you didn’t know, it turns out that the almighty lion tricycle was not faster than the other tricycles.  Though, the lion on its front was way cooler than a rainbow.

It would be easy for me to dismiss the collective belief of the 1987-88 Kindergarten class of St. Mark’s Lutheran School in the faster lion tricycle because we were five years old but I don’t think that would be fair.  As we get older we may leave behind certain stories or myths but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t replaced by others more fitted to our psychological development.  I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe in the greatness of the United States of America because of the stories and myths that indicate this to be so.  Similarly, I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe that everything happens for a reason with my own hindsight validating this storyline or myth.

We could go on with more examples but my main point is that we all live according to a story or multiple stories that help us to make sense of the world we live in and serve to give us meaning.   The conundrum of life in the 20th and 21st centuries is that so many of our stories have been deconstructed with the advancement of science and we’ve been left picking up the pieces in ways that previous generations never had to before.  We’re sort of left trying to make sense of it all without the certainty that such stories were able to provide previous generations.  While I’m sure there are those who would disagree it was probably much easier to believe in the Genesis creation story before the scientific revolution.   Similarly, no one apart from remote tribes in South America or elsewhere believes that the sun, moon or stars are gods or netherworlds consisting of aliens.

In reaction to this there seems to be two responses: a desire to go back to the ways things were, a sort of toxic nostalgia or throw everything out and move on into a materialist’s paradise.  One extreme resists the urge to change and is in denial while the other extreme wants to unburden itself completely to the whims of change and a hollowness that only modernity could leave us with.  But such results, on either end, seem so dire, boring, and hopeless.  Maybe the problem isn’t so much that we live by stories or myths that can be deconstructed but in the fact that we don’t really have much to offer in response to this deconstruction.  Instead, we carry on with the same stories with the hopes that some will just come to believe what we believe despite evidence to the contrary.  I don’t know, maybe I’m off but denial is a powerful thing.  Still, I am burdened by the fact that toxic nostalgia is almost always inaccurate, anachronistic and leads to a dead orthodoxy.  At the same time I am burdened by how secular materialism simply doesn’t account for the empathic and emotional qualities bound up with being human and those things which really do set us apart from the rest of creation.

We need stories to live by.  It seems to me, though, that now more than ever we need stories to live by that seek to answer and help us with some of life’s deepest questions at this moment in time.  Is it fair to expect a 21st century person to view the world with the ancient eyes of a 9th century B.C. Jewish peasant? Better still, how would they have responded to living in our world today?  What would something like Genesis look like if it were written today? How can ancient wisdom inform our modern approach to life?  Or are these questions not allowed to be asked?  Are they too much to bare?



Jesus Ain’t My Hero

I don’t mean to be picky or to be “that guy” but I really don’t like the idea that Jesus is the greatest hero or superhero of all time. I’m also not into the idea that superheroes of various kinds are reflective of a deep human desire for a savior of some sort. I used to be into these ideas. I used be into finding the Christology in superhero movies which always follow the same script of a Manichaean struggle between good and evil wherein the protagonist against all odds saves the day. It is so easy to see the Jesus story in all of this, at least on the surface. Maybe this angle of seeing superheroes reveals our aversion to who Jesus actually is and what he actually did. In large part, there’s not much ambiguity in these stories; there are good guys and bad guys. There may be some moral ambiguity at times, but nothing that would cause an existential crisis of sorts, at least not on the part of the viewers. And I think that’s why I’ve moved beyond the superhero framework. It is not that I think it is all bad rather I think it’s too easy and if there’s one thing that the gospel stories aren’t it’s easy.

I think when we view Jesus as a superhero it gets us off the hook from dealing with the deep issues of our false selves. Instead of grappling with these things we project them outwards onto Jesus, our savior and superhero.  I can transfer my being a poor miserable sinner onto Jesus and not have to deal with my deeper “wounded child” issues. I can simply sacrifice the call to follow Jesus to the continual reassurance that he’s done it all for me already.

I find myself wondering if the image of an anti-hero makes more sense when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth.  Or maybe that needs to be taken in tandem with the superhero image.  He’s such a terrible let down in so many ways. I can’t help but think of his response to the rich man who tries to ingratiate himself to him by calling him good.  He’s simply dismissive of such flattery.  When the moment comes to spark the revolution he couldn’t be bothered, swords were to be put down and he was to be bound. No angels were called down and neither does Jesus valiantly fight for his rights. He dies, his disciples having left him because he was such a let down to them and his moment had passed. Cursed is he who hangs on a tree, right?

It strikes me that Jesus on the cross has much more in common with the Jew who was put to death in concentration camp than with the American soldier who died in combat in World War 2.  Instead of giving meaning to the world and its institutions Jesus simply strips it all away.  As Brian Zahnd notes he reveals the world’s best religious system of Judaism to be, well, quite lacking.  He also reveals the world’s best legal system, that of the Roman Empire to be, well, quite unjust.  The end point of Jesus’ life reveals to us the apparent helplessness and meaninglessness of the ways in which we have ordered our lives as human beings.  It doesn’t get us off the hook for examining such things, at least it is not supposed to, instead it serves as an invitation to do things differently.


You Can Be Whoever You Want To Be

Social Media is such a strange place.  Anyone can be whoever they want to be and project that image out into the world through such mediums as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  It is the perfect set up for the narcissist, the abuser, the oppressor, and the deeply insecure because it enables them to be in complete control and frame their persona and narrative.

How often have we heard of the politician who led a double life? The public persona of telling the people what they want to hear and the private persona of corruption and ruthlessness.  How often have we heard of the clergy person who led a double life? The man of the cloth loved by the people he serves and admired for his orating abilities and a private persona of alcoholism and emotional abuse towards those closest to him.

Such real life examples abound and believe it or not they may be right in front of you as you scroll down your News Feed on Facebook.   Strangely, what we may fail to realize is that by simply liking their posts or their photos we are further emboldening them in their abuse and possibly further alienating the abused.  Furthermore, we may be even liking the post of someone who isn’t even real, they are simply a created persona.

It’s striking to me how much we tend to get things backwards.  We are living in a rather tumultuous time and it would seem that calls for justice are everywhere and for good reason.  But are such public calls and cries also easier now because of social media?  They don’t require the same vulnerability and risk that face to face calls would seem to require.  And similarly, don’t such calls also distract us from what is right before us and the seemingly insignificant like the person right in front of us?  Seeking change is good but what good is it if you’re not seeking to change yourself?  Often the change that we seek outside of ourselves is simply the change that we want to see within ourselves.

giving Voice to a Voice that hasn’t been heard

It was a seemingly inconsequential car ride.  A few days ago I hopped into our car to drive to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the road from our house to get a cup of Joe. This is a normal occurrence for me providing a break from sermonizing or whatever church responsibilities are driving my day such as emails, meetings, visits or teaching.  During this rather brief car ride I usually listen to NPR or I listen to music.  On this car ride I opted to listen to the music of a thrash/hardcore band that I recently gotten into by the name of Power Trip.  Listening to the brutal sounds and screams of their album Nightmare Logic it dawned on me in a way that it never had before why I have continued to listen to such heavy brutal music since I was 15 years old.  It validates and gives voice to feelings and thoughts that are seemingly denied or overlooked by pop culture as well as the more traditional institutions of church, government and school.  Here, one can speak of things and express those things in ways that may be deemed inappropriate and impolite by the powers that be.

I can recall being told that I would eventually grow out of such music as I got older but that hasn’t really happened.  While I may have moved on from certain bands and albums I am still a lover of heavy music with a message.   I recognize that I can go to music and seemingly be validated in the noise and the words.  Validated in ways that I may not feel otherwise in my day to day interactions and responsibilities.  This realization is particularly poignant to me because I am a pastor in a conservative church body and over the last 15 years my desire for music with a message has only deepened.  I am recognizing in ways that I hadn’t before why I listen to the bands that I listen to.

I go to the sounds and yells of Sick Of It All because they articulate and express so well the frustrations of life in post-industrial America while the church and media seem oblivious to such things. Instead they stand on the side of the suburbs and hyper-gentrification theologically validating the way things are and extolling the virtues of neo-liberal capitalism.

I go to Rise Against for an anti-war message because I rarely, if ever, hear such a thing in the news or in the church of which I am part of.   Instead I receive emails encouraging me to become a military chaplain and am expected to automatically believe in the virtues of American militarism.

I go to Madball to process anger that I can’t express publically because that would be not be in accordance with the niceties that so many have come to identify the faith with.  Instead we all go along to get along, feigning smiles and patting backs, soaked in the stain of triangulation and passive aggression.

I go to the Cro-Mags because they express so beautifully the existential angst that I have so often felt since the hormones of early adolescence began to rage through my body.  Instead, I’m told we’ve got all the answers, at least the ones we need.  Modernity’s fundamentalisms are quick to remind us of this much.

While the church I know seems so concerned with life after death I find myself more and more concerned with life right now. A life of repentance and struggle, of hearing and doing, of struggling through the narrow door not to be explained away by easy explanations of what Jesus has done for me.

Save that for someone else.


the gospel of nice

i’m here to tell you about the gospel of nice

it’ll make you feel good even though you’ll lose your life


consign you to death with a smile on my face

“go along to get along”; that is our pace


embedded within is a deep seated rage

to give expression to would surely be rude


can’t have any of that, the show must go on

curtains have been drawn and I must perform


i’ve saved my life and destroyed some too

but no matter now they haven’t a clue


no need to change, just follow me

and entrust your self to the gospel of nice…


Attending the Church of None

This past Friday night I attended a church service of sorts at one of the many Church of Nones throughout the fine city of New York.  Such churches have been popping up more and more in the outer boroughs.  Whereas as a youth I would go to lower Manhattan for church I now find myself going to the northern reaches of Brooklyn where it is rather stinky and all kinds of cool.

Nonetheless, church was packed.  In fact, it was sold out.  The narthex/welcome area had overpriced craft beers that I had never heard of.  Though, they did have Yuengling which seems to be rarer fare these days as microbreweries make beer drinking so much more technical than I ever imagined it could be.  They even had pizza, though I wasn’t hungry enough to divulge myself on what was probably another overpriced item that has taken on a new definition of hip and chic.  No matter I could block out such vestiges of the newer lamer New York for the liturgy that was to take place in just a short amount of time of my arrival.

Thus, the door at the back of the welcome area gave way to the sanctuary which had its typical regalia.  A narrow rectangular room with a sound booth in the back, nestled away from the chaos and danger that would ensue in a few moments, a dance floor with a pole in the middle and, of course, a fine stage about two feet above the ground.

The band was setting up while the previous band was breaking down and more people pushed into the small space like sardines in a can.  These people had come to release the angst of their lives, to connect with one another physically and emotionally and to sing songs that had gotten them through their toughest days.  It was now time to take part in a liturgy of sweat, kicks, fists, pushes, jumps and whatever else the music would bring upon the soul.  Tonight I was just a spectator still trying to get over a terrible cold I had had for the past two weeks.  I would sing along but remain in the safer confines of the room.

A sign that things were about to begin was the prelude music that began to play over the sound system. It was the Clockwork Orange version of Beethoven’s “The Funeral of Queen Mary”.  This music could also be likened to the music that preps a people for an altar call.  It sets the perfect mood for what was about to come: chaos.  The music over, now comes the opening bass line followed by guitar and snare drum and the dance floor opens up.  Bodies are thrown, people rush the stage, the singer growls, and the people yell along as if their lives depended upon it.  Thus, there are the typical call and responses throughout:

A: World peace can’t be done!
C: World peace!
A: It just can’t exist.
C: World peace!
A: World peace can’t be done.
C: World peace!

In those opening moments a disjointed host of individuals from all over the NY metro area becomes a well oiled body of rage. A force that would scare the living shit out of any passer-by, particularly of the gentrified persuasion.  A voice is given to the frustration that so many intuit from the fragmentation and alienation of postmodern life. Here, such yelling and such rage is allowed.  Out there, it’s rude and unseemly.

As more a spectator for the evening I noticed something powerful.  As the liturgy moves from song to song with cries of “I just can’t get through to youuuuuuuu!” and guttural yells of “Overpower! Overcome!” they enter into a different arena.  Bravado and cynicism gives way to spiritual seeking and existential angst, we go from bumping to grooving, from yelling to singing to such words…

“Searching and searching for something real
You gotta know how I feel
‘Cause we been looking after the truth
Rejected those lies of our youth”

And one of my favorites,

“You come into this world
With nothing except yourself
You, you leave this world
With nothing except yourself”

What’s fascinating is the passion with which these songs are sung, a crowd seemingly malignant towards any sort institutional religion is knowingly, willingly and passionately singing along to themes derived from the Bhagavad Gita. Without a doubt, this is a liturgy, a work of these people.  A people giving vent to what they intuit within and around them.  Not everything can be reduced to a petty narcissistic materialism, a hodge podge of consumerist habadashery with the purpose of filling the gaps of our lives.  No!  This can’t be so!  This much we know and so we cry out.

And so this liturgy carries us onwards and it gets hotter and sweatier.  In effect, the sanctuary turns into a sweat lodge.  Maybe some have visions while others find themselves on the edge of blacking out.  No matter, a cleansing takes place, a baptism of sorts, sweating out the toxins of anger repressed, gratification denied, love rejected, and joy deferred.  Such is given expression in the blazing guitar and growling vocals.

After 40 minutes the Church of None is about to end its service for the evening but not without giving final voice to everyone in the room.  Calls and responses, the last opportunities to get it all out.

A: Notice everywhere there’s mass confusion and packs of lies
C: We gotta know!
A: We’re staring down our enemies in the eyes
C: We gotta know!
A: These are the days of the cheaters and the cheated
C: We gotta know!
A: But we’re not gonna bend you know we won’t be defeated
C: We gotta know!

And, of course, last but not least:

C: Hard times! Hard times!
A: Seems I’m being forced into a mold
C: Hard times! Hard times!
A: Forcing me and I’m growing cold

With that it spirals to an end with a long cry and the convergence of all the instruments culminating in a few punching explosions of strong notes reverberating one last time.  Instruments freed and let go for the evening.

“Good night! Thankyou! Peace!” says the singer.

Followed by applause and yells of appreciation church is over.  Some opt to stick around to hang out at the welcome area, maybe buy a shirt or some merch, drink beer or get their much needed water.  Others quickly leave.  The minute they step into the cold the steam rises off of them.   A sign of their visceral cleansing.  Toxins have been released and calm begins to set in as they head back into the world.  The Church of None has done its job.  It has fed, comforted and renewed those who gathered.

Until next time.

The Commodity of Quiet

This past summer we spent three straight days in Disneyland with Becca’s side of the family.  As was expected we had a blast and are already looking forward to going back this coming summer.  Though, there’s something that has stayed with me since we left the parks.  It was the quiet that we encountered when we got back to Becca’s parents house after the three days of madness.  It hit me then how overstimulating Disneyland is from the amount of people to the subtle background music to the full on in your face imagery like fireworks, parades, and Disney characters.  The quiet that we encountered after this was incredibly refreshing and much needed.  Though, I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I was completely out of the Disney environment.

I’ve seen messages that emphasize that the church should glean something from Disney in regards to the way in which they can hold people’s attention.  This point is well taken, especially as it relates to the art of preaching.  But I confess I don’t want my attention held, I want it to disappear in God.  I’d rather have quiet.  It seems like that’s a dangerous commodity these days.  Quiet, that is.  I know, it is a little weird referring to it as a commodity but I’ve got a 3 year old and a 1 year old.  In my world it really seems like it’s something I must trade and invest in given how little of it there is.

Quiet and stillness are truly countercultural in a culture that runs on production and consumption and wears busyness as a badge of honor.  To be quiet, to take a step back means to be missing out on something of importance.  For only the important are out there because they worked hard to get noticed.  They produced and have thereby been rewarded.  It’s fascinating, you know?  We consume never to be satisfied, only to move on to the next thing.  We spend hours Tweeting, sharing, liking and updating only to be more miserable than before.  Yet we continue on like the hardest worker in the world; the junkie.  Motivated by the next hit of dopamine.

And oddly, we already have what we need.  We just struggle to realize it.  Is that not the problem that compels the person to become a junkie, to go looking for more?  I lack, therefore I must fill.  But with what?  Noise?  Distraction? Maybe Jung was right about us after all when he wrote,

“People will do anything no matter how absurd to avoid facing their own psyches.”