Crow Speaks and why holding back is boring as hell!

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Last night I had the chance to see a friend of mine play some music. The “venue” was mostly a joke–a bar with a weekly singer/songwriter showcase that consists of about 5 people semi listening while the college kid who sort of likes music works the “sound board”. The stage was not exactly set for my friend Edgar to feel good about his chance to perform. He could have “saved face” and decided to forego this one in favor of something he could easily set up back home in Arizona–something that would have felt more like a real show.

But pack it up Edgar did not! Instead he plugged in to the shitty sound system, submitted his creativity to the controls of the “sound guy”, and dove head first into the alternative universe of rock ‘n roll that is Crow Speaks!

Maybe it’s because I am usually the last person willing to be so vulnerable, but I am always inspired by people like Edgar. I am inspired by the fact that they are willing, for the sake of their creativity and art, to risk what I generally am not–intense embarrassment. I’m sure that sometimes that happens, but often it doesn’t, and Crow Speaks was no different. Edgar threw himself into the performance, using his pedals to create super catchy loops of percussion, electric guitar bass lines, unique sounds made from nearly every part of the guitar, and unapologetically raw vocals. While he laments the finished product (in terms of sound quality) his performance was awesome in every way, causing me to move along to the rhythm of every song.

People like Edgar inspire me to be just a little more vulnerable, a little less concerned about how “you” might respond to what I create. They inspire me to not settle for boredom.

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Ode to Sterling

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As my approach to spirituality has shifted and changed over the years, my connection to my alma mater, Sterling College, became less smooth and guaranteed. After moving to Denver in 2009, I was invited back to speak at chapel a few times, something I always enjoyed. Then partly because my faculty connections moved on and partly because I became less sure I wanted to stay connected, the invitations stopped. Along with a general sense of the busyness of life in Denver, I was also experiencing the tension I described in a recent blog I wrote about the tendency for cynicism to accompany the growth I was experiencing. As I mentioned in that blog, I am trying to actively address that cynicism. This blog comes directly out of that effort, and I’m more than a little uncomfortable writing it, mainly because my ego wants to hang on to the cynicism as a way to fit the role I’ve been playing for the past decade. Basically, I’m pretty sure this will lose me a bit of “Street Cred” with some folks.

Well, as uncomfortable as this might be, here is my ode to Sterling–an intentional acknowledgment of what the town and school truly meant to me during a particularly vulnerable time in my life.


I get nostalgic about Sterling often, and this blog has brought back all kids of memories that I fear current students would not even begin to understand. So I hope some of my “old alumni” friends will be reading this and laugh (or maybe cry) along with me.

I am so grateful for the people that make up the cast of my favorite memories. I am thinking about Marilyn, who was the Campbell Hall (an all men’s dorm) custodian, and one of the sweetest and kindest people I’ve ever met. Marilyn would often say “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll step out until you’re done” when someone walked in to shower while she was cleaning the restroom. One particular friend of mine would always say, “No worries dude”, drop his towel and jump into the shower. He always found it strange how quickly the custodian would awkwardly leave the restroom. This continued for nearly an entire semester, because Marilyn didn’t exactly look like a “Marilyn”. She was a woman, who identified as a woman, but looked a lot like a man. When my friend found out that he had been unknowingly flashing a woman, a lot of things suddenly made sense, and the upperclassmen sure had a good laugh. It sort of became the running joke that Freshmen were never told this information beforehand, so experiences like that of my friend were common. Students who took the time to get to know Marylin by name definitely had the advantage. I know she appreciated it.

I am also thinking about C.J. She was significantly older than she looked, and she looked pretty old. She passed away a few years ago and several former students shared memories about C.J., the nearly stereotypical “Lunch Lady”. She was always making me laugh, and often making others uncomfortable. One of my favorite memories was on December 1st of 2004. We had just finished “No Shave November” and some of my friends (definitely not me) had some gnarly beards that they had shaved into mustaches, as the tradition dictated. While those of us from Campbell Basement waited in line to get our I.D. badges scanned for lunch, a Resident Director got in line behind us and said “Wow! I love your mustache” to a friend of mine. Immediately after he said those words, C.J., who had been working on picking something up off the floor behind the counter, stood up and said with great pride, “Thank you!” The RD looked a little mortified and C.J. just smiled.

There are, of course, many professors who helped lay the groundwork for the growth I would eventually experience. I am thinking of Dr. Wells, our Philosophy professor. Dr. Kim, whose only intellectual passion that rivaled the biblical letter to the Romans was the Matrix Trilogy. I was in his class the day after he had seen the third and final movie when he came to the profound conclusion that the series was in fact Gnostic and not Christian in nature. Dr. Hank was our beloved chaplain and professor who is still the only man I know who can make sandals and socks look somewhat normal.

Craig and Anne Smith are absolutely the crowning jewels of my Sterling experience in terms of faculty. Craig was my St.Paul (a class I took) professor and Anne was my Chaplain. They quickly became mentors and friends to my wife, Nicole, and I. Craig was the first professor to get me excited about writing exegetical papers. I was so excited in fact that I got a near perfect score on one I wrote about St. Paul and women–something never before seen during my academic career. They are still dear friends and we miss them more than a paragraph in this blog could express.

Then there are the friends. I will remember the late night C-Mart runs, the nights of (something that sounds less illegal than breaking in…) carefully entering Culbertson for games of Sardines, an experience of riding in the dumbwaiter in Kelsey Hall thanks to the shenanigans of myself and 2 other Freshmen, town-wide games of “Cat and Mouse”, campus wide games of Tuna (an elaborate game of tag that was started by my friends and I, and continues to this day) with all the punishments that made us laugh…and gag. There were all the pranks I never participated in, but enjoyed from the sidelines, and of course the year of “Wholesale Ripoff”, a cover band my friends and I started. Our crowning moment was getting paid to play a show at the local high school. And then there was Nicole.

I thought Nicole was attractive and just the right amount of edgy. Her smile caught my attention long before we actually met. She appeared to be a punk rock chick that wasn’t totally bat-shit crazy–definitely a selling point. We quickly connected over a few things, including February birthdays, a common interest in Monty Python, and the gift of growing up materially poor. But the biggest thing we connected on is what I will always be most grateful to Sterling for: A journey of Exodus.


14 years later I can still remember the feeling I had while I was packing up my truck, about to hit the road back to Sterling. It was a feeling of incredible excitement and relief. During these years I carried a heavy weight that felt inescapable. Delightfully vague, I know, but this blog isn’t about the weight itself, as much as the journey toward freedom. I got into my truck, put it in first gear, and drove to the gas station. Already the feeling of excitement was creeping in, but I would keep it at bay. When I finished paying and made the short drive outside the city limits, the feeling would intensify and I would often shout out the window with excitement, because I was finally returning to the place that was beginning to foster new life within me.

This event was my return to school following summer break. The drive was always cleansing, no matter how many times I had done it. Each tiny town along the way signaled that I was closer and closer to what felt like my true home. I had a few places I liked to stop at along the way to pick up a snack and a Jones Soda, but for the most part I was too eager to drag the trip out too long. 4 hours or so after pumping the gas into my truck I would finally see the edge of McCreery Hall and something profound would come over me. It was a feeling that I can still feel today, though I find it difficult to describe. I was finally home.

Sterling became my refuge, the place of my Exodus out of my own personal enslavement. The fullness of that Exodus wouldn’t be realized for many years, but the journey began in the town once known as “Peace” in the middle of Kansas.


Those shifts in my approach to spirituality (a journey you can read about extensively and follow on this blog) can easily cause me to feel a sort of disconnection from Sterling. But it would be dishonest to my own story, and reprehensibly wrong to the people I met along the way, to pretend that Sterling isn’t Holy Ground in my life. And for that, which is arguably far more important than all the other stuff, I will always be grateful. So here’s to you Sterling College! This blog might not feel like a love note, but it kind of is. I will forever be grateful to you for the home you gave a young man, stuck in his own wilderness, in search of the Promised Land.

Is Eckhart Tolle a Christian?

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I had to laugh immediately after I typed that question on my phone. I found myself doing this search after my wife made fun of me for only reading Christian authors. In typical fashion, I jumped to the defensive and said, “Ha! Jokes on you, because Eckhart Tolle isn’t a Christian!” She then said, “He’s not?” That’s when I realized I didn’t really know and should look this up if I was to give her the “correct” answer, one that would also give me “street cred” because it would prove that I do actually read from a more diverse author pool than those who identify as Christian.

This pursuit felt important, so I grabbed my phone and turned to google. Then 10 seconds later, I laughed out loud and put my phone away. I then closed my eyes and said out loud, “Hello ego.”

Whether or not Tolle claimed the label “Christian” felt super important that night. It felt important, because I wanted to earn that “street cred”, but also because I felt a sudden need to know what “camp” this writing was coming out of. I suddenly felt as if I needed to know so I could pass judgment and decide whether or not I “accepted” his teachings. This all felt important, until I realized what was happening–that my ego had once again jumped into the driver’s seat.

Here are some of Tolle’s words that caused me to laugh it off rather than totally give in to those feelings:

The quicker you are in attaching verbal or mental labels to things, people, or situations, the more shallow and lifeless your reality becomes, and the more deadened you become to reality, the miracle of life that continuously unfolds within and around you.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of being deadened to reality and the miracle that it truly is. So here’s to authentically experiencing things, people, and situations, rather than trying to label, judge, and compartmentalize.

 

Eckhart Tolle and a Living Reality

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Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin

5 years ago I started reading “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle. I got about 2 chapters in before choosing a different book instead. I started reading it again just a few days ago and I swear I’ve never read a single word of this book before. I guess that 5 years of life experience have given me “New Eyes” or something.

Today’s quote that made me pause and scramble to find a pen:

Most people don’t inhabit a living reality, but a conceptualized one.

This book is all about the Ego and how “I” am not who “I” think “I” am. Damn that hurts the brain. Tolle talks about this stuff in a way that makes sense to me like nothing I’ve read on the subject until now. And it really does feel profound.

I really do spend most of my time living in a reality constructed by my obsession with relationships, titles, possessions, anxieties, theories, political ideals, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), feelings of accomplishment, feelings of failure, thoughts about how many people will read/”like”/comment on this blog, and the list goes on and on and on.

So what does a “Living Reality” look like? I am sure I can’t define it in these words, but I believe I have experienced it a few times in my life. When I witnessed my wife magically bring the life of my 2 kids into this world. When my wife told me her campus was on lockdown with reports of an active shooter (After several tense minutes, we discovered it was precautionary due to an arrest in the area). When I stood in the shower suddenly taken in by the sheer real-ness of a shower tile. There are more, but these are a few instances I have seen my conceptualized reality fall away revealing something deeper/truer.

Here’s to hoping my “New Eyes” will see more on the next page!

 

The Enlightened Cynic

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My name is Ben, and I’m a cynic. OK, the label “cynic” might be a bit of an overstatement. I am just incapable (or so it seems) of experiencing paradigm shifting growth without becoming overly critical of where I was standing pre-shifting experience. As an example, my eyes roll so hard when I hear typical evangelical Praise and Worship, that there might actually be a chance they will stay in that position. And it goes much deeper than that. I get super uncomfortable and even a tad (or a lot) judgy when I meet someone who strongly identifies as a Christian, uses the word “Lord”, or refers to the Bible for almost any reason. That list is not exhaustive.

After reading that first paragraph, you’re probably already  up to speed on my “Disillusioned Evangelical” status. If you’ve ever encountered us in a group, where we feel safe enough to let the judgement out, you know that cynical is somewhat the baseline. So much so that it’s not really ever challenged. We feel like we have a right to be cynical. Why? Because we are…wait for it…enlightened. 🙂

Yes, I just used a smiley face in a blog. I guess I am feeling the need (after taking nearly a year off of this whole thing) to take a few layers of polish off and give myself the freedom to be a little messy here. Because, if I’m not blogging with a little bit of mess, I’m not telling you the truth. I digress.

I am totally aware of the trap I could easily fall into at this point–the trap of cynically criticizing the disillusioned evangelicals the same way I often do evangelicals themselves. But obviously that is just another expression of the same mental dysfunction.

So the question I am asking myself today is this. How can I experience personal growth–the kind that truly disorients everything I thought I knew and rips me from my sense of certainty and comfort–without becoming cynical toward where I came from? How can I be honest about where I am today without seeing the people I used to “agree with” as somehow lagging behind?

Does anyone else find themselves in this place? Am I the only asshole in the room? Of course I don’t think this is a phenomenon exclusive to former evangelicals. I think it’s far more universal than that. I have the same problem in political circles, social justice circles, even sports circles. I mean, we all know that the American man who refuses to see Football, Basketball, and Baseball on par with Fußball, is far more cultured than the one who says “It’s not fun, because sometimes nobody scores”.

It’s true. You should never underestimate my ability to think less of you for almost any reason.

But as you will see if you scroll through the archives of this blog, spirituality is what I often think/write about. So I’ll focus on my asshole-ness in that arena for now.

I think the slap in the face I’ve received here is this. If cynicism holds a primary place in my mind, I’m probably 1. being invited to work through some hard shit and 2. not nearly as transformed as I would like to think.

So here’s my invitation to you. I expect that I will be blogging more (intentionally vague considering that the mark I’m trying to surpass is 1 blog per year) and I want to do all I can to speak in the affirmative. I mean that I want to speak vulnerably and honestly about my journey, highlighting the things that inspire me, addressing the things I see as objectively harmful, all without that pesky seed of cynicism. So, if you see it pop up, call me out. You can be kind and do so in a private message, or give me the public pistol whip I deserve by commenting it in all caps. I am inviting either as totally valid.

8th & Wyandot: The End of an Era

Nicole and I had no idea how much our lives would be changed the day we hauled the trailer full of our stuff into the Joshua Station parking lot. We had celebrated our one year wedding anniversary only three weeks before that day. Our idealism, spurred on largely by the works of Shane Claiborne, had swept us into the city of Denver with big dreams of how we were going to be a part of this revolution of love that everyone in our circle was talking about. “Denver will be our home for the next 3-5 years”. That was an exact quote from both of us. That day was 8 years, one dog, 2 children this side of heaven, the loss of one of our parents, the purchasing of one house, and too many friendships to count, ago.

I have been documenting this journey, offering reflections along the way. This effort has always (at least nearly always…like 7 years and 10 months give or take a few hours) been called 8th & Wyandot. The name simply comes from the closest intersection to Joshua Station. If you want to take a trip down memory lane with us, or if you have never read a single one of my reflections and you want to get a sense for what this journey has been like, you can find the whole archive HERE.

Last month I had a meeting with Amy (Director of Joshua Station) and Jeff (Executive Director of Mile High Ministries). Through genuine tears, Amy informed me that Joshua Station’s budget would no longer be able to continue providing for my position after this fiscal year (June 30). This place. The place were Daniel schooled me in basketball, Juan schooled me in FIFA ’09, Karen invited us into debate after debate about white privilege (she eventually won that, by the way), Diana introduced Nicole to the pampering experience of a manicure on Federal, we ate our first Tamale, and I first heard my wife utter the words “I’m Pregnant!” This place that has been our “home base” in Denver for 8 years. This place will no longer be “my place”.

This week has been hard. It has also been beautiful. Gifts from co-workers and JS families have reminded me of just how grateful I am for this little expression of light in our city. Parties have reminded me of how much I will miss seeing these people everyday. Meetings have reminded me of the necessary and difficult work that must continue after I am gone.

I will miss Joshua Station more than I could adequately express in this one blog. I have decided to share pictures of our first week and my last day at Joshua Station. Just know that packed into these pictures are so many memories, emotions, and gifts. Perhaps we could unpack some of that in a conversation. But for today, the pictures will have to be enough.

 

These are the pictures we took of our JS apartment the first week after we moved in sometime in May 2009.

 

 

This is the picture I took today of that same view. Things have certainly changed. Most notably, Daniel is no longer on that court with his basketball.

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8th & Wyandot: Your Gift to the World

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I had no idea that she was a poet. Writing was something she only did behind closed doors and she felt too shy to share it with any of us. Over the course of two or three years she had written dozens of poems—some for school, but most of them because it was her way to process the experiences of her life.

One day, perhaps by accident, one of our staff members caught a glimpse of her talent with words. Pretty soon everyone was reading the piece she had decided she was willing to share. You could tell that she was excited to finally have someone else read her work, and maybe a little nervous because of what we might have to say about it.

After repeating this a few times, one of our staff members decided we needed to ask her, and one of our boys, to create and perform a poem at an upcoming event. They were informed that it would give them a chance to perform, but even more than that, it would be an act of service that would benefit Joshua Station. They both jumped on board and prepared rigorously for the event. Something had come alive in them. Her secret hobby had become her gift to the world around her, and she felt the deep significance of that reality.

We all have gifts, skills, passions. In some circles these things get treated like nothing more than a personal experience, something that can serve to inflate our egos, and if we are really lucky, make us lots of money. But this misses the deeper invitation of life.

Our work, our art, our music, our writing, it all has the potential to be a gift to the world. The girl who wrote poetry in secret had no idea how much her words would touch the spirit of our staff, or tug on the hearts of the donors in attendance at the event where she performed. The great irony is that when we recognize the invitation to become a gift to the world, our work becomes overwhelmingly more fulfilling than if we ignore it. So what is your gift? How can you share it with the world around you?

 

This post is the most recent 8th & Wyandot reflection. To find it, as well as the entire 8th & Wyandot archive, Click Here.