Hey Scooby Gang,
Here is my second piece about Emma Richards from Anabaptist World. If you're a cool kid and you think women are neat, you should check it out.
Also, this is a more personal piece from the other blogpost.
Click here to read!
I'm going on another Community Peacemaker Teams (human rights) delegation soon to Colombia, which means I've been rewriting my funeral plans and last will and testament since the last time I did this was in 2018. While the trip overall is safe, the simple fact has to be acknowledged that I am spending time in an area known for conflict and oppression.
Reading sentences like, "We understand from our partners that our presence greatly reduces violence, but we are unable to guarantee anyone's security as we are unable to guarantee our own security," make it hard to ignore that.
When I wrote out my last will and testament five years ago, I found myself having a few regrets. I wasn't where I wanted to be as far as health and life circumstances were concerned.
When I sat down to write it this time around, I prayed and searched myself for what kind of legacy I was leaving behind should the worst happen. I was able to say two things for absolute certain: I don't have any regrets, and I'm proud of the life I've lived.
When COVID first broke out in 2020, I started therapy some time that year. I finally began to unpack the things that had been following me around since I was a kid. I grew up in rough circumstances, and I was applying those survival skills in situations that didn't warrant them.
Soon after that, I got physically healthier, started attending a 12 step group to focus on the trauma (they have one for everything), and the active traumas that I experienced during 2020 pushed me into writing fiction for a bigger audience. None of these changes really happened overnight - it was little by little.
I turn thirty next week, and it occurred to me through reading one of my old childhood journals that I used to not expect to live this long. I was hanging with people I knew were not good for me, and I didn't even think I was going to go to college. In fact, I was a high school dropout.
But, here I am. I'm graduating with a doctorate next year, I've travelled the world a bit, and I'm living my childhood dream. Every day now, since starting my healing journey, has been a massive gift.
The thing about this journey is that I wasn't having a rough rock bottom experience. On the surface of things, I was doing very well. I was pastoring a church, I was doing grad school, and I was helping to manage an afterschool nonprofit. But, on the inside, there was a huge sense of disconnection.
Through faith, self-love, and patience, I was able to find myself again. And now, often, I wake up with hymns playing in my head. It's a perk I didn't ask for, but I'll take it.
I'm really excited for my future. It still seems unreal to me.
If you're at a point in life where you felt like I felt - whether it's due to an addiction or an attachment issue or whatever - I hope you know the choice for a beautiful life is always there. You don't have to go through life miserable, or being afraid of what others may think of the things you carry. You can choose life.
Faith, forgiveness, mercy - those are old school values, but there's something to them. I'd encourage you to explore them, and to know that God is closer to you than you'll ever imagine. Your life will be much richer for it.
I now carry around a recovery token that references a saying that is common in AA circles. It's called Rule 62: "Don't take yourself too damn seriously." On the surface of the coin is a hitchhiker looking fo a ride as the sun is setting.
And on the back it says: "What is for you will not pass you."
I look at it often when things minorly don't go my way, or when I'm having a rough day in general. It's a great reminder of my role in life. I'm not God (apparently.) But I can do things that will make my life better, and trust that there is some kind of method to the madness.
When I look at my summer ahead, I'm jokingly calling it Hot Mennoboy Summer. I'm going to convention, a MCC educational trip to Mexico, and a CPT delegation to Colombia. I'm not sure how much more Anabaptist you can be than by doing all three things in a month.
I didn't plan for any of these things to happen, but when these opportunities presented themselves I chose to say yes. And I think that's kind of the secret of faith and life - choosing to say yes, to risk being loved and vulnerable, to throw caution to the wind a bit. I know my life is all the more better for it.
Not much more to say other than that. Excited for what this next decade will bring, and what is coming my way.
Hey Scooby Gang,
So, I've created a parody Instapoetry page called Frosty Ray. This was created out of a long night looking over Instapoets and listening to some folks in the lit community complain about how poetry is being dumbed down. I wanted to try it out myself to see if the complaints hold any weight.
So, here are the rules I set for myself:
1) They have to be written in 5 to 10 minutes.
2) They have to be absolutely unhinged.
3) They have to be self-centered.
4) They have to lack self-awareness.
5) They have to be "deep."
6) They have to be bad.
7) They have to *reek* of narcissism.
This is also a fun way to learn the basics of Instagram for writer stuff.
Give Frosty Ray a follow. Let him rise to fame. He survived his wife's infidelity with a clown and needs to get out of his dad's garage, after all.
Hey friends - I wrote two pieces covering Emma Richards, the first woman Mennonite pastor to be ordained in North America. The first one was published yesterday on Mennonite Church USA's blog, Menno Snapshots. The second is forthcoming in Anabaptist World.
Click here to read about Emma!
Passage: John 11: 1-4, 17-43.
For audio, click here.
This passage confronts us with one of those uncomfortable things we in the West tend to ignore: death. I’ve done a lot of funerals as a pastor, as well as sat in on very intimate moments with people as they were going out. I was an on-call hospital chaplain for four years when I was in Wisconsin, through COVID. I consider it a sacred part of my vocation - in fact, it is strangely one of my favorite parts of being a pastor.
My final funeral I did in Wisconsin will always stay with me, because it was so full of the guy’s personality. The man who passed away claimed he had seen a UFO fly by his house late at night. People in our town thought he was full of it. Then there was an article in the newspaper three weeks later talking about other witnesses to a strange, unexplainable light in the area.
That was a unique experience to hear, but then I got an email about a week later from the funeral home. The funeral home was very hesitant because they always worked with more traditional pastors. I was known for being a little edgier because I hung out at bars. That’s all it took in these small towns, really. But this funeral home was overly-apologetic, and then said: “So… the family asked him to be carried out to the country song ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.’ Is that okay?”
I quickly Googled the lyrics. My mouth dropped as I read it. I felt like I had just entered a sitcom. So, after thinking on it for about ten minutes and realizing it was worth taking some potential pushback for, I replied that it was okay.
At the funeral, as I was delivering the eulogy, when I got to the part when I announced what song he was going to be carried out to, the congregation started laughing as I stumbled over my words. I felt odd saying those words out loud, until a family member explained to me that he and his deceased wife used to dance to that song all the time. It was their favorite.
Believe it or not, that is only half the story. There’s other key characters that you don’t need to know about.
But that was a funeral that I will always remember because I felt like I was best friends with the guy. I felt like I was on his porch listening to him tell his UFO story with weird country music playing in the background. I felt like all of his life wisdom and insight he had was passed onto me.
Let's go back to the passage a bit. What’s so interesting about the account of Larazus is that Jesus is shown to spend time intentionally grieving with people over Larazus’ death. He never gives a direct answer about why he was gone beyond some vague answer about it being God’s plan. He just sits and weeps. Jesus, the Messiah of the world, is moved to compassion upon seeing Larazus’ dead body. He doesn’t shy away from the process, He doesn’t tell people some vague platitudes - instead he enters this heavy space, and shows what resurrection will look like someday.
In the United States, we are used to a sense of toxic positivity around uncomfortable things like death. Believe it or not, at least on a cultural level, toxic positivity comes from a response to our earliest founding days. When the Puritans came to the colonies, they brought with them a theology which stated that we were totally depraved and beyond redemption save for God’s predestined grace - but even that was selective. Every earthly desire or hope was basically evil in God’s eyes according to the Puritans. That’s not exactly a message that’s easily sold on a cultural level.
The other competing theologies in the colonial era, the other free church movements like Anabaptism and Quakerism, combatted this by having a more positive view of God. But ultimately Puritanism won the American narrative, however it was a view that wasn’t exactly sold well because, at the basis of it, was this idea that you could never fully tell if you were a Christian and that you were always garbage in some way. Puritan pastors used to have to swear a promise that they would be okay with God if, even after committing themselves to following Jesus, if they would be okay with going to hell if it was God’s predetermined plan.
Eventually, a response to this came out called the New Thought movement. This idea was that you could get whatever you want with positive thinking, and out of this came movements like the Prosperity Gospel and the Christian science movement. To this day, prosperity preachers and more Reformed theologians will actively debate each other.
Kate Bowler, a Duke university theologian and researcher, spent her academic career looking into the prosperity gospel movement. She didn’t agree with any of it, but she found it fascinating. But as she was researching, she was diagnosed with a lethal form of cancer. Suddenly, all these ideas she was looking into about health, wealth, and prosperity, came to a head. She was coming to these church services unintentionally absorbing this message that Christianity is about personal success, physical healing, and having the perfect image.
What she found in the prosperity gospel was eventually what she found in a lot of other church movements. In her memoir Everything Happens for a Reason, she talks about well-intentioned church folks essentially telling her the same thing as the prosperity gospel folks she was researching. Somehow the American dream of a good, successful life blended into Christianity.
She found, too, this is what’s historically embedded in our culture: this idea of thinking our way to success means only thinking about the positive things around us. It doesn’t take long for us to recognize that is just not how life works.
The thing about Kate that kept her grounded was that she married a Mennonite, something that can solve a lot of problems. He came from a more traditional community, but when she was getting married she was gifted a copy of the book the Martyrs’ Mirror. What she was struck by in Anabaptist culture was their embrace of suffering and loss. It wasn’t ignored and it wasn’t dismissed. It was an acknowledgement that God was present through all of the suffering without denying its ugly effects.
She saw that the Gospel confronts us with this idea that we cannot avoid the inevitable. We are all going to face God some day. Because of that, how we live matters. How we treat those who are suffering matters. And in that space, we can find Christ weeping too. Not success, not unbridled happiness. But a God who loves humanity so much that He doesn’t leave us to ourselves.
Kate is still alive today, with this uncertainty about why she is still around. She spends her time now teaching and podcasting about her experiences. She helps other cancer survivors through their grief and emotions. She helps to acknowledge the uncomfortable things.
This passage shows us that suffering and death happens. We aren’t going to live perfect lives. We need to shed this idea that living a good Christian life is about personal happiness at the door of our churches and our faith. And we need to acknowledge the ugliness that pain brings because Jesus takes time to acknowledge it before raising Lazarus from the dead. He takes time to weep and mourn.
We need to weep with those who weep.
And we need to acknowledge just how precious and valuable our lives are.
Don’t waste a second thinking that just because you’re unhappy, or you have struggles, it means you’re a bad Christian. In this passage, Mary and Martha faced doubts about God’s goodness and presence. They wondered where he was as Lazarus was dying. Jesus doesn’t rebuke them, but rather comforts them.
We aren’t told much about Lazarus, but we are told he is missed so dearly that life seems to stop when he no longer is around. It is only when Jesus fills those wounds that we see meaning and purpose. It is only when we face death that we can face the true beauty of what God promises.
So for this sermon, I tried to do a meta experiment. I read a book about writing your own obituary called Yours Truly by James R. Hagerty. The book is written by a Wall Street Journal obituary writer, and he gives advice on how to form your life so it’s remembered the way you want people to remember you. Part of the project is interviewing your friends. So I tried to interview mine, and offered some light bribery. I figured it’s part of the price of being friends with a pastor. None of them took me up on the offer. They thought it was too weird.
But, excluding that, I did write my own obituary. I wrote down the things I want to be remembered for. I looked at the obituaries of some of my favorite writers. Perhaps it’s what I tend to read, but I noticed how all of the obituaries were very frank about their flaws.
I did the same. I wrote about the things I struggled with and the failures that helped form me into the person I am. Nothing nearly as intense as those writers, but it was honest. It was a very sobering experience, but it helped reshape my goals and what I see in my future. Ultimately though, I realized I had no control over the way people perceive me at the end of the day. People are going to see me as they choose to see me.
I don’t know if the man in the final funeral I did wanted to be remembered for that one UFO story. I don’t know if he would’ve wanted to be carried out to “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” But what I do know is that he was a loving, gentle man who was also a very committed Christian because that’s the way people remembered him.
A part of me wants to make a joke about ending the sermon here by saying, “We’re all going to die. Have a good day.” I’m resisting it, because the good news that follows is so much better. As important as it is to acknowledge death and tragedy, it’s equally important to remember God’s promises.
So here’s the good news. The good news is that God has already written the ending. Through Lazarus’ raising from the dead, we glimpse what’s in store for those who are in Christ. Jesus overcame death on the cross. He was victorious over the powers and the principalities that were set against him and us. He resurrected, and now we know that the worst pain and the worst evil doesn’t have the final say. Resurrection is here. And in our day to day lives, we can see those promises played out. This is what Easter is all about.
My theology dad, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote in Theology of Hope: “[Faith] sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth.”
We are in this middle space where we celebrate the historical resurrection, but we also participate in a continual resurrection in seeing people’s lives changed and seeing how God interacts with humanity still. And until that final day, we are allowed glimpses of what it’s going to be like some day. We see it in our art. We see it in creation. We see it in laughter. We see it in moments of joy. And we also see it during even the darker times, when things don’t make sense - because we know God is there.
Friends, we first have to learn to accept that God is in the mess and the dark for any glimpses of resurrection to be noticed. If we can’t trust that God is there in the mess and the pain, then we deny ourselves the beauty of his work.
It reminds me of a story about a traveling musician. His name was Thomas Dorsey. He grew up in the black Baptist tradition, studied in Chicago. He was actively involved in the blues and Gospel scene in the thirties. His career was up and rising. He married a woman named Nettie, she was pregnant. He had an apartment, things were making sense. He was playing at a revival in St. Louis one day when he got really tragic news.
A boy came running up to him with a Western Union telegram with just the simple words: “YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.”
Nettie, for whatever, reason passed away from childbirth. Both the child and her passed on. Thomas was absolutely destroyed. He buried his wife and child in the same casket. Thomas isolated himself. He locked himself in the apartment and wanted to renounce his faith in God. He wanted to get involved in the booze and drug scene that was so common in jazz.
Thomas shares that everyone was kind to him during his grief. He had a professor friend who took him to the Malone’s Poro College, which was a neighborhood music school. As Thomas sat next to a piano, he remembered a melody that was common in his childhood. The song was called “MAITLAND”, but in his tradition they paired the melody with the lyrics from “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.”
Suddenly, the words came out as he was playing - words that he struggled to pray in his grief, in his darkest days: “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on. Help me stand. I am tired, I am lost, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night. Lead me on to the Light.”
Thomas introduced this song to a church in Atlanta. The choir absolutely loved it, and the pastor especially loved it. It took off like wildfire. It gave people comfort and joy in the midst of their most intense grief.
But something else happened. The church this song was first played in was Ebenezer Baptist Church, and that pastor was Martin Luther King Jr. That song became a guiding anthem during the Civil Rights movement, and it personally comforted MLK when he was at his absolute lowest. It encouraged him to keep going when nothing made sense.
We don’t know what would’ve happened if Thomas renounced his faith or just gave up. We don’t know what would’ve happened if he bought into that lie that faith was about happiness and success. What we do know is that because he found courage to bravely look at his own grief and make space for God, he wrote a hymn that literally helped to change the world. Glimpses of resurrection had come for both Thomas and our culture through that hymn.
When you don’t acknowledge your flaws and your struggles, when you don’t allow people to see your pain, you can’t make space for God to work in good ways. But first you have to accept life on life’s terms. There is no easy solution to this problem.
The way you live matters. You matter. You have a much better impact than you realize. I pray we all remember that as we go out from here. Celebrate resurrection, friends, and remember that God’s not done with us. Our stories aren’t final. We go on, and that is reason enough to keep seeing grace in our day to day lives.
Frederick Buechner famously wrote, “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” Always remember that, and may we sit with both the tension of pain and promise.
(Writer's note: edited for clarity.)
The few people that consider themselves to be my readers are an eclectic mix - Christians, atheists, Muslims, etc. Some like my fiction, others like the nonfiction. But something I have not been open about is my very, very brief stint as a teenage libertarian blogger and influencer - and my strange interaction with Alex Jones that scared me straight.
Before you read further, I'm not here to condemn libertarianism.
I'm here to tell you a wild story of how a teenager infiltrated the political blogsphere and ended up on a talk radio station. Objectively, it's hilarious. If you're offended, just replace "libertarian" with "woke liberal" or whatever.
That being said, you might get bothered because I do talk about some of the reasons I renounced it later on. I encourage you to sit with it though, and at least take away the broader theme of: "Hey, let's not platform really young people, or follow influencers just because their words sound good so they must be correct."
About twelve years ago, I was a high school dropout. I ended up finishing at an alternative ed program, but I had to wait about eight months to graduate. No job would hire me because of the dropout status, so I had a lot of free time on my hands.
At this point, I found Jesus again after a few rough party years. To tell a long story short, when I became a Christian, quite a few folks doubted the sincerity of my re-conversion because of my reputation. If you know me now, you would think that's wild. I live the lifestyle of a hobbit. I watch Father Brown. I meditate. I'm a sucker for a good Cobb salad.
When the Jesus thing happened, I started to deconstruct from a form of atheism called Objectivism, a philosophy Ayn Rand developed to justify selfishness as a virtue. I picked up Anthem and it changed my life. What followed was a chaotic mixture of philosophical dread and bad choices.
In case you ever wonder what certain conservative politicians and LaVeyan Satanists have in common, it's that they both have a deep love for Rand's work. The reason is because the philosophy helped to inspire a lot free market policies, and also it created a spiritual "right hand" path for Satanists to follow based on the self.
I re-entered faith through Quakerism and the broad Anabaptist traditions. For the first two years of so of my spiritual journey, I wondered how I could fit Objectivism into my theology.
I was part of a libertarian Facebook group - many groups, actually - and I saw an opportunity to write for a blog site. I figured, "Why not? I'll write about complex political issues until I get into college. What's the worst that could happen?"
I adopted the screen name "Zen Anarchist" based off of a phrase from the director of Red Dawn. It was the way he described his own politics. By the way, I loved Red Dawn. I used to shout "Avenge me!" at college friends whenever something unfortunate and petty happened to me.
So, I started writing a bunch. I would wake up in the morning, without a job or driver's license or general understanding of most things, and tell the world how they should live their lives.
And it slowly started to get attention. I got about three hundred followers within a few months based solely off of the content I was writing.
Here's the thing.
People ate it up.
I wrote mini-manifestos about the virtues of liberty and private property. People would get legitimately emotional at these things. I was a talented writer. I knew what would tug at people's heart strings.
The attention people gave me got to my head. People with college degrees were interacting with my work. We were throwing around names like Murray Rothbard and Ludwig Von Mises. We guffawed at Ron Paul memes.
The alt-right thing wasn't visible in my circles, in fact I remember several denunciations of racism and antisemitism from others on the blog. I also never wrote anything that would get me cancelled in today's standards. I was never racist, sexist, or homophobic. I was very liberal socially.
One day, I got invited onto a radio show about combining libertarianism and Christianity.
I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say. I eventually came to the conclusion that evangelical Christianity was essentially too collectivist and socialist for my liking.
So I went on this radio show and pretty much ranted free form. And people loved it.
I literally thought I was a genius called by God to do this stuff. I was even open a bit about being a teenager. That didn't stop anyone from reading what I wrote.
One morning, I had a big Come-to-Jesus moment in the form of a Facebook "like" and message from someone I didn't ever want to see support from.
From what I recall, and this could've totally been his social media person, he said something along the lines of: "I really appreciate and learn from what you write. Keep up the good work."
My jaw dropped. I knew Jones as the conspiracy guy who went around saying that 9/11 was an inside job. He was someone that, frankly, horrified me. Even back then, he made my stomach curl.
I scrolled through my blogposts panicked, thinking I must've accidentally written something crazy. But no - it was the usual emotional, vague appeals for a libertarian society where gay couples could grow pot and own AK-47s freely.
I had to accept the fact that Alex Jones, the main proprietor of 9/11 Trutherism, liked my material.
It was an odd disconnect for me, and something I look back on now as one of God's interventions. Shortly after that, the owner of the site and I parted ways - he wanted to talk more about his Mormon faith and take the site in a different direction.
I remember later on going to Bible college trying hard to deconstruct from Objectivism. I still held onto libertarianism for a brief period, until eventually I let go of that too - for more personal reasons, which will be gone into one day in the future.
When I read the Gospels more, I became convicted about my views and I deleted the Zen Anarchist Facebook page.
In 2016, near the end of my time in undergrad, I walked into a buddy's apartment to see the news on his TV. They were talking about how big of an impact Alex Jones was having on the elections.
My face went pale. I remembered that message he sent me, and felt this huge conviction that my words actually mattered. My former silly little hobby on the side was more serious than I thought. I realized that, in a very real way, my words have consequences.
They had consequences in the sense that I had to live with a sense of guilt that the man who promoted conspiracy theories had a vague connection with me because of things I wrote.
It was an ugly feeling. It made my skin crawl when I saw the news that night.
That led me to realize a few things.
The truth is that it's not hard to be popular or to be an influencer if you're willing to stoke flames that are already there.
Once people find a brand or a platform to build off of, it's pretty easy to find your niche if your main tools are outrage and emotional appeals. Our culture celebrates selfishness. Sociologists believe we are in a pivotal moment in our country where cultural narcissism is celebrated above truth.
Something I found was that Americans don't want to know they're right. They want to feel like they're right... and that is incredibly dangerous, especially in a time where we can find the "truth" we like.
To quote the miniseries Chernobyl: "What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
When I started writing fiction again, I remembered how I felt writing about politics. I was concerned. Not because my politics have significantly shifted, but because of the spiritual toll it might take on me. I ended up seeing a spiritual director for a brief period of time. I was able to discern a path forward on how to balance this.
The little glimpse I had of a semi-successful platform told me that it's not worth it to build something based off of manufactured outrage and anger, or even what's cool in the moment. It may last for a small amount of time, but it doesn't have a long-term impact. It's another toxic voice in a sea of toxic voices.
What genuinely matters to me is being open and compassionate with everything I do, but to also speak the truth in a way that doesn't demean others or strip them of their dignity. I'm not perfect at in this, but Mr. Rogers is my go-to guy for a ministry example for a reason.
If that doesn't lead to much, that's fine. I know what the other option feels like, and I enjoy sleeping at night with a clear conscience.
My main concern with the way we do discourse now, especially over social media, is that we've turned each other's side into a brand. I'm not sure how an honest conversation can begin to happen when even our dialogue has a price tag to it.
So, if you get anything from this, if you still want to be that cool guy on Twitter or Instagram or wherever - please heed my warning. You will have to account for what you put out there.
To my Christian readers especially - if you're beginning a serious shift with Bible college or seminary, please be aware that you will be a different person on the other side of your journey. Don't build a platform off of something that will most likely shift in the coming years.
So, the ultimate question: do I regret this experience?
No, because it literally helped to lead to some of the most beautiful, profound moments of my life. When I started re-exploring my political views, I knew I needed to learn more about the world. I traveled the world a bit. I saw firsthand the consequences of what I used to believe.
But, more importantly, I saw the grace and mercy that was waiting for me on the other side of this journey.
The early mystics believed that when we're absolutely stripped raw and we're at a pivotal moment in our lives doorways to compassion and understanding open up. I wouldn't have grown into a healthier person if it wasn't for that weird period.
Repentance was a profound thing for me, and I'm so grateful that this happened to me sooner in life rather than later.
Do I regret what I wrote? Yes and no. I disagree with it now, but when I sometimes re-read stuff I don't see the opinions: I see someone who wanted to be taken seriously and wanted to be known, like every teenager.
Even when I was wrong about my economic views, I see someone still passionate about wanting to make the world a better place. There wasn't any cruel or hateful intentions with those views, and I never convinced someone to believe differently. I was always preaching to the choir.
I just didn't know what I didn't know.
I say this as a white, cis-het man. I have since become very aware of my privilege - from sitting under black preachers to undoing oppressions both within me, and around me. I'm grateful for the often-painful learning I had to go through over the years. While the story is funny to me in hindsight, I also recognize the very real harm that could've happened had I continued down this path.
But for the grace of God throwing a little crazy Texan man my way, I may have turned into the kind of person I wouldn't want to be.
So, yes. There's the long journey. I didn't talk about this much because, frankly, it's so odd. Why in the world was it easy for an 18 year old to be taken seriously with political opinions on a public platform? I still don't have the answer for that.
But that about does it.
Just be good to each other, folks. We're carrying around a lot of baggage. Life is way too short to be harsh with each other, and with ourselves. Own your part, and keep growing.