Love With A Capital L

A journey towards living an inspired life of love in the modern world

Bikram — December 4, 2019

Bikram

This morning I watched a new Netflix documentary (a new-ish practice for me that is becoming more and more treasured) called Bikram:Yogi, Guru, Predator.

Now, I was about to preface my comments on misused power, sexual violence and manipulation with some wish-washy disclaimer like: I quite like yoga, some days in the right condition and state of mind, I might even say I could love it, and it has absolutely transformed my sister’s life in all sorts of positive ways… but I’m not going to do that. It implies that yoga and monsters are linked and yoga must be exonerated, that any comments I make about this evil are also somehow commentary on yoga, but that’s simply not true. Monsters can be found in every corner of society. Yoga happens to be the vehicle Bikram used to wreak his havoc, but it could have been a big corporation, an elementary school, semi-professional sports, or religion.

Truly, though, yoga has changed my sister’s life and she’s way better since she’s stretchy like Silly Putty.

This doc was strikingly similar to the one I watched several weeks ago called Holy Hell, where another monster leveraged his position and influence to damage those who would follow him. Also, it’s just like most of the cases on the People’s Court, where the vast majority detail a person’s attempts to get something back from someone they never should have lent whatever to in the first place, and when the judge repeats the facts out loud (a tactic of mine when I speak to my kids) and asks, “Why would you do that? What did you think would happen?” Or something like that.

And these documentaries, in the interviews that take place long after the abuse, ask much the same question. It’s a question we ask when we watch the films. How could these strong, intelligent, capable women and men not see what we can see in the first 5 minutes?

I recognize we are not in the situation, being squashed and frightened, and we also have the benefit of hindsight and of course, previews and descriptions, but moving the man you’ve only just met into your apartment and adding him to your cell phone plan has never been very wise, right? And being berated by an openly misogynistic man in a 900 degree room for thousands of dollars might not be, either.

…But I’ve made plenty of decisions I can’t explain afterwards, too.

(I also recognize that I’m walking a fine line, here. When someone asks questions, calling some decisions poor, it can sound judgmental and give the impression that the responsibility is being shifted from the monster to the victim. That is not my intention. Bikram did what he did to people who trusted him, people who DID NOT deserve the horrific treatment they received – no one deserves to be abused. No one. I am also not equating the hell they endured with cell phone plans, it’s like calling a broken arm and a scratch the same. But they are injuries. It’s relative, right? Maybe to the woman with a broken heart being hassled by creditors, they are very similar. Maybe the scratch is deep and infected and will not heal the way your broken bone can. Asking isn’t judgment, some decisions aren’t great – we’re adults, we can talk about different circumstances, draw lines here that would not apply there, acknowledge levels of grey. I’m about to infer that they chose to stay in an unhealthy environment because they were attempting to fill a most basic need of ours, but in another post, on another day, I might infer that they stayed because they were brainwashed and de-valued and told (and believed) the lie that they had no future and no hope without this monster, these classes, this path. This whole paragraph is because these topics need to be discussed, evil must be stopped, we have to be free to speak out, and I don’t want to fight you, I want us to fight him and the kind of systemic sickness that allows him to exist.)

So, how could they and why would they? For the same reason most of us make our mistakes – because we’re seeking a group where we can belong. Because we want to fit in and have a family that accepts us. Because we want some purpose and be loved well.

And to get it, we’ll ignore all sorts of warnings.

I don’t know that I have a point here. I’m just sitting here thinking about decisions and communities and acceptance and love. Probably, the risk is worth it. We get our hearts broken from time to time (too many times, if you ask me) but it’s necessary. This drive for connection ends with lots of dead ends and wreckage, but when we find the real thing, the relationship we have been created for, it’s also what puts us back together.

Cold & Broken — November 22, 2019

Cold & Broken

As you can surely tell, I don’t like the Mariah Carey song.

I don’t like pretense, or anything that smells of inauthenticity. Social media is a wonderful exchange of ideas and photos until it jumps the track into fictional representations of characters who only slightly resemble the flesh and blood human beings that you actually know and have listened to and walked alongside. Jesus called us “whitewashed tombs” when we participate in this sort of masquerade; clean and glistening on the outside and full of dead men’s bones inside.

But what if someone did have Mariah Carey feeling emotions? Is it fake, like I have assumed, if it sounds amazing? If it is produced and pretty, does that automatically make it another brick in a wall of manufactured image? If it is whitewashed, does that mean that it’s a tomb inside?

Mariah Carey has been gifted in ways most of us aren’t. Where do these gifts come from? Why do I immediately judge her “emotions” as inauthentic? Because she’s not screaming? What if her octaves come from the same place, deep in the seat of the soul?

I also make the same assumptions about Christians in church – if they are meticulously made up with a constant unwavering smile, impeccably dressed, are they faking something?

(And if they are, why is that always wrong? Do they have to advertise their brokenness to everyone? Can they not hold it together through the service – because they just need God right now – before melting in the arms of their trusted friends? Is there value in changing out of our ripped jeans and sweats to dress up in Sunday best, as if for a date, which maybe they are? What if the very act of preparation begins to change the struggle with inadequacy & insecurity, begins to transform the dishonor and subtle devaluation we all fight into a space of dignity, beauty and “Good enough?” Is it possible that washing the tomb can alter the story of the bones inside, perhaps giving them life?

At different points in my life, my heart, soul, psyche, and self-image have been severely damaged. And sometimes, the crack in the dark, dank shack of a hopeless existence that let the light in was a shower or a haircut or brushing my teeth. It may sound superficial (and maybe it is) but it allows the light to shine on a new perspective that the way it feels now just might not be forever, and there is certainly value in that, isn’t there?)

And besides, who am to decide what their motivations are? Who am I to judge if they are “faking” anything? They, and I, might be or we might not be, but it probably looks EXACTLY the same. What makes me an authority of authenticity? Isn’t this the height of arrogance?

SO.

Is all of this, 4 weeks of posts, to say we should each mind our business? Not exactly.

I want everyone – and I will fight with every breath for this to be – to be all of who they are, in every space and situation. I want us all to be “Hallelujah,” sometimes “cold and broken,” sometimes angelic, and sometimes both or neither, sometimes instrumental (because words just don’t work) or full of profound precise words, quiet or loud. The reason I want this is because most of what I perceive to be wrong with us, disconnecting us, burying us under such loneliness and inadequacy is held in our collective hypocrisy.

Either we are pretending to be someone/something else (because what we are is, for some reason, bad or wrong or less than) and this creates a duality that has been dis-integrating us, wearing us out and tearing us apart from the inside out.

Or we are measuring ourselves against another’s carefully crafted (and entirely fictional) public image, and this creates a self-loathing because our pasta or pet or husband isn’t as good as the ones we see on Instagram, because we can’t look as spotless and sound as spiritual as Joel Osteen.

Bullying, minimizing, walls, rudeness, disrespect, all of it comes from this posture of image-making and manicuring these made up images to cover up our fear.

This is what God speaks to when, in Hosea 6:6 says “I don’t want your sacrifices” – your idea of what is perfect, what you think is the right answer – “I want your love” – your heart, your honesty, I just want the gorgeously messy, beautiful you. Bring all of you to Me, to the world, and then, baby, we can start to heal all of these wounds.

In “Hallelujah,” and the Bible, we celebrate, joy, praise, laugh AND we weep, question, rage.

I’m not minding my business, even for a second, and why? Because we need all of you. The world needs you – I need you – (the real you) to step into all that you have been created to be. That’s how the world gets put back together; when we love us and each other enough to be honest & open, and when we love God enough to step into all that He created us to be, which is all we’ve been looking for all along.

(Day to) Week Off — November 15, 2019

(Day to) Week Off

This week took a different sort of turn for me. I had plans that I was forced to abandon, as I got sick. This happens when the weather truly changes and sweaters and jackets aren’t only fashion. This week, I was fortunate enough to have few scheduled responsibilities this week and could crawl under a blanket and take NyQuil and naps.

What is usually a problem for me is actual (physical, emotional, spiritual) rest – as we have been walking through in this space. I know that not everything is fit to be posted , and certainly not everything is interesting enough for you to give such a valuable currency as time. But rest seems to me to be a universal pursuit, especially in a culture that worships at the altar of productivity above all else. It’s funny when I hear that we are no longer a religious society…we are, only the God/god has changed.

So, I took my “day off” and made it a “week off,” give or take an hour or 2 or 7 or 8.

I didn’t read at all that I can remember, besides email and social media posts. I’m writing another book, and I didn’t open the document once. I wrote one blog post before this one about the band Rise Against and the Bible. I picked my kids up from school, made dinner, did dishes and watched the People’s Court and Netflix documentaries.

One of the documentaries was called Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond about the making of Man On The Moon, which is the 1999 film about Andy Kauffman that starred Jim Carrey. Man On The Moon is a pretty good movie, but Jim & Andy is outstanding, utterly transfixing. It’s odd and unnerving to watch someone disappear so thoroughly into their work – the doc became a meditation on image and identity, which is endlessly fascinating.

But there is a scene where Jim Carrey, who serves as the narrator/commentator, recalls his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was told, “That’s great, this could really turn into something,” and now, with the benefit of experience and wisdom, said, “No, this is something.” I wonder how many times we miss the now waiting for it to “really turn into something.”

How many of us have had a date and immediately began to look for the future in the other? Or skipped words, sentences, and pages to get to the end of the book? Looked to next week, when this over-scheduled and demanding one is over and we can get back to our lives?

Each night, against my warnings, my kids pray, “Please let school go fast tomorrow.” What they don’t know is that it will, it does, it is going much too fast and they are in danger of absolutely missing it. I wonder how much I have missed, how much I still miss. How many awesome experiences I’ve looked past, hoping it could really turn into something, when it already was?

I’ll be healthy next week and off of this couch and back into the hamster wheel.

…Unless I don’t get back into the wheel.

On The Way —

On The Way

Then I met a girl and we fell in love. Then I met 2 families and we fell in love. Then I met Jesus and we fell in love, too, and my life was forever changed. So, I took some Bible classes, mostly because Rob Bell was tying books of the Bible to other books of the Bible to my life that made sense in a way that nothing else could, and I wanted to know how to begin to do that on my own. To borrow a trite expression, I wanted to learn how to fish.

Writing all of those papers, I was discovering something very surprising. The Bible wasn’t perfect, or produced, or pretty. It was beautiful, but in the kind of way that Rise Against is beautiful. 

In 2011, Rise Against released an album called Endgame that’s 2nd track was “Help Is On The Way.” This song was a scathing indictment of the response (or lack thereof) during hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (To be fair, this song, and especially the video, affected me in such a visceral way because we were also the victims of a tropical storm and flooding that ended with my home underwater and all of our possessions gone and a sickening apathy on the part of organizations whose sole purpose is to respond and care for victims like us. I knew what it was to watch your child’s grade school artwork float away, knew the pity in a school secretary’s eyes when she asked if we were still “homeless,” knew what it was to walk barefoot into the Walmart to buy some shoes, knew what it was to face bankruptcy because the flood insurance didn’t cover total losses. But we are not really talking about the video. But as long as we are, you could listen to “One Blue Sky” by Sugarland, too.) The song, when he screams, “Right here, right now!!!” Then later, “We were told just to sit tight, ‘cause somebody will soon arrive, help is on the way…but it never caaaaaaaame!!!” That guttural wail is what it sounds like when your heart is torn out of your chest. Now, maybe Tim McIlrath doesn’t know what it feels like to wait without hope, feeling lost and forgotten, maybe he doesn’t care about people like me, but it sure sounds like he does. It sure sounds like he has something in his soul to say that absolutely must get out, even if no one will ever hear it. 

In the Bible, Habakkuk asks why bad people succeed and good people don’t. We study Jonah and whales as kids, but the book of Jonah is very much about a disobedient boy who runs rather than helps those he doesn’t like. Lamentations is a full book (excepting a few verses in the middle) of how mean God has been to us. One Psalm details a wish that the writer’s enemies will have their babies “dashed on the rocks.” And I could go on and on. These are real people in real places in real times with things to say that have to be said, screamed or cried.

The thing about these very honest questions, doubts, prayers, is that they are never met with judgment. Never does God (or the authors of the individual books) chastise or punish these people for the exchange. They are allowed to exist, just as they are. If you are one who, like me, believes the entire book is inspired by God, and the books collected are collected with God’s divine guidance (So, why would God want these things? If I was writing a book about me, I would probably leave out the parts that weren’t too complimentary. I would only include the parts testifying to how awesome I am), the God of the Bible seems very comfortable with these questions, with the conflict, with the wrestling. Sometimes, (almost all the times), the questions were never answered. Certainly not in the concrete way we’d prefer. 

As I fell more and more in love with the Bible, it was obvious that the Bible was far more Rise Against than it was Mariah Carey. 

The Bible was not what I had been sold, not even close. There was room for me, my questions, my rough edges, and my inadequacies. Right where I was, right where I am.

Now. This exhilarating fact led to an inevitable next uncomfortable question: If there was room for me, was there also room for pretty, perfect production, too?

Old Baby — November 7, 2019

Old Baby

Yesterday was my day off and I want to tell you about an awfully strange special I watched on Netflix. I love stand up comedy, always have, so that category often draws my attention. Maria Bamford, quirky and super-weird, is one of my favorites, and I found a special from 2017 called Old Baby. Now, technically, it was a stand-up routine, but it was delivered to different audiences in awkward, surprising places. It began with her performing in front of a mirror, alone. Then, in front of 4 people on a city bench. Then 1 guy on a couch. Then in a small crowded library room, a dinner party type-setting, a bowling alley, and you get the point. It was jarring and very uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing. She wasn’t interacting with the audience, simply sharing her routine as if she were on a stage in front (which she was, in the last vignette.)

15 minutes in, I was so disturbed by the format, I moved to turn it off, which is exactly what I did with the first one I picked, a Nikki Glazer special called Bangin.’ She began her show with a graphic 15 minute (at least) talk on a sexual act that broke the ONLY rule of comedy: be funny! I am with you for any and all topics, virtually unoffendable, UNLESS it is not funny. In that case, I am out. There are too many awesome things to do and experience. Like Old Baby.

The biggest difference in 15 or 20 year old me and 44 year old me is that I would have loudly proclaimed her special unwatchable. If you liked it, then I would judge you as embarrassingly wrong (only half jokingly.) Now, I’ve mellowed quite a bit and am capable of seeing that it’s possible, if unlikely, that even if I don’t like it, someone else might. So, if Nikki Glazer is your deal, I suppose that’s cool. She is not mine.

Anyway, I didn’t turn Old Baby off. You see, I want art that makes me uncomfortable, that moves me, that has edges that would keep, say, my wife, away. I’m writing other posts about honesty and music and I hate Mariah Carey’s song ‘Emotions’ because it’s built to be so innocuous, so bland and safe, that it would sell a bazillion copies, which of course it did. I sometimes forget that I want honesty and innovation, want to be challenged, want more than mass-produced efficiency.

Old Baby was perfect. It might not have been the best stand-up routine I have ever seen, might not have even been her best. But here’s the thing, after Old Baby I put on (for the millionth time) Richard Pryor’s 1979 concert, which probably IS the best stand-up routine ever, and laughed out loud over and over and over. But the artist/work I have been thinking and talking about from the second it ended, and now posting about, is the genius of Maria Bamford and her 2017 special Old Baby, and that’s the point.

Smells Like Real Life — November 5, 2019

Smells Like Real Life

Around the same time, also in 1991, a band from Seattle called Nirvana released an album that would change everything in music, fashion and culture as a whole. This album would also give me a space (even if it was only in my head and heart) and in doing so, make me not as much of a weirdo, not as much of a misfit.

While we were all trying to be perfect – and what I mean is that while we were all trying to show everyone we were perfect – here was a band and a singer who looked like we all felt. The music did, too. We were insecure and inadequate in a land of make believe and that made so many of us so angry. We were desperately searching for meaning and purpose (there just had to be more than hair spray and insincerity holding us together, didn’t there?) and not only were we not getting answers, our questions were being ignored.

Now. The song. The drums perfectly sounded like doors being kicked down, which of course, they were. Then, the voice of Kurt Cobain mumbled: “Load up on guns, bring your friends. It’s fun to lose and to pretend. She’s over-bored and self-assured.” Hello, hello, hello, how low. Then, our worlds collectively fell apart (or together) at the chorus: “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.”

We might talk about “here we are now, entertain us” as the anthem for a generation, and generations to come, but it’s that “stupid and contagious” line that broke my heart. You know when someone says something and you think, “how did they know?”

How could a guy in the Pacific Northwest know who I was and exactly what I was going through? He couldn’t, and that meant there were more like me, disaffected, lost, lonely, and that was unbelievably comforting. There were more like me, I wasn’t alone.

The song destroys all pretense and perfectly sums up the ache in us all and ends… wait’ll you hear this… “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” Whatever, nevermind!!!! Awesome. It’s angry, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, honest, cutting, and hilarious. It is overwhelmingly real.

People began dressing differently, doing (or not doing) their hair, speaking truth, showing their wounds and scars. We started to think about confessing that no, things might not be ok.

3 years later, in April of 1994, Kurt Cobain killed himself. Sigh.

But the world had changed, he shined a light into our souls and exposed us. The images and facades were hollow, the emperor had no clothes. So now what? We could start to find the clothes that did. We could be whatever we wanted, whatever we actually were. So who was I in 1991? Nobody knew. I sure didn’t. I had spent so long being what you wanted me to be that I hardly noticed who I truly was.

I didn’t know how or where to find out – only that it was absolutely necessary. One thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t find anything in Mariah Carey videos. Or the church.

Emotions — November 1, 2019

Emotions

I gave a talk at a youth group near Gettysburg last Saturday. The church is fairly conservative (although it could be said that, to me, maybe every church is fairly conservative) and there was a very good chance that I would not play well there. I shared the message for their Sunday service several years ago and have not yet been invited back. The looks on the congregants faces told me as much, so the fact that I was not yet invited back was far less surprising than that I was for their youth group.

I was because I have very good friends who either persuaded everyone else who (hopefully) had forgotten the past or hidden my visit from them altogether. I didn’t ask which one.

My very good friend asked me to come and speak about music and faith. I said yes, of course, then asked “um, what kind of music?” Because the kind of talk I would give on Christian music might not be what she had in mind. And actually, what music I consider to be Christian might not be everyone’s, and we should probably know what definition we’re using to avoid the kind of misunderstandings I enjoy. She said whatever I wanted, and I asked her to pretty please repeat that. And she did. So, I said yes again.

Now, I think it would be fun to explore those songs and ideas here, in a short series based on that talk, called “It’s a Cold and It’s a Broken Hallelujah.”

The songs are: “Emotions,” by Mariah Carey. (So you know and can follow along as intended, we played the videos – easily found in a Google search. For this one, however, I offered to simply play the song because there was “a significant cleavage issue.” And there is.) “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana. “Help Is On The Way,” by Rise Against. (This one is the only one that the video is absolutely necessary.) And “Hallelujah,” the cover version by Jeff Buckley.

“Emotions” was a gigantic hit record in 1991. It was all of the words that begin with P: polished, produced, perfect. What an unbelievable showcase for that extraordinary instrument of hers, right?!! She looks and sounds absolutely beautiful. The video is exactly like the song, glossy and refined, as if a team of marketers created it in a laboratory for maximum exposure and sales figures.

The problem is that it’s called “Emotions,” and I don’t feel any at all. Except that she’s awesome, I suppose.

Pretending is the other P word that comes to mind with something like this. It’s like an advertisement for LIFE, or at least the life other people are living, that I could be living if only I…whatever. It brings to mind – and the reason I play it in discussions of spirituality – gauzy pictures of Christians with perfect teeth and plastic smiles. This was the perspective I had of people of faith for the first half of my life. To me, they all looked like Joel Osteen book jackets, all smiles and manicured nails. My life wasn’t all smiles and manicured nails. In fact, no life I knew was all smiles. Sometimes, there were tears and dirt and darkness and hairs wildly out of place.

When you’re upset and the wheels are falling off, a Christian, with their cliches and cheery platitudes and “God’s plan,” is often the very last person you’d like to see. The carefully crafted images of rounded edges and masks they wear usually just amplify their uncomfortability and insecurity.

Everything is fine, and if it’s not, shhh, we’ll just hide that behind the closet door and hope it goes away.

Phony (another ‘P!!’) That is what “Emotions” means to me.

I understand that this is not the most positive way to start a conversation, but it gets better. It has to.