Ode to Sterling

Campbell (1)

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.

Advertisements

Is Eckhart Tolle a Christian?

A Christian

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

marc-olivier-jodoin-502572-unsplash

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

Drama Bible

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.

Afraid of the Dark

darkness

I’m afraid of the dark.

I lust after the light.

I want more and more, so no darkness remains.

But despite my best efforts to avoid it, the light begins to fade. Darkness sets in.

I turn on my light, throwing my fist to the natural world and proclaiming, “I can be surrounded by light, even now!”

But then, maybe by accident, I find myself outside.

In the darkness with no light bulb in sight.

That’s when I see them.

The stars.

I suppose they’ve always been there, but the blinding light of the sun has kept my focus on my comparably small reality.

The stars are magnificent.

I wish I could see them in the light of day, but I know this is impossible.

They take my breath away.

The moon!

Where did that come from?

As I walk I notice something strange and disorienting, but also breath taking.

My shadow.

I thought it was pure darkness, but apparently, when my eyes adjust, I see that there is light within the darkness.

They are not enemies after all.

They are one.

What am I afraid of?

Am I afraid to see the stars?

Am I afraid to see my shadow thrown on the ground by the full moon?

Am I afraid of the light within the darkness?

The sound within the silence?

The movement within the stillness?

The communion within the solitude?

I am afraid of the dark.

But as it turns out, the light I so desperately long for today is that subtle one, seen only when my eyes adjust to the mysterious and unknown darkness.

Crossing Over Podcast

facebook-logo

If you are a faithful reader of this blog then you probably know that I am a pretty big fan of podcasts. There is something about listening to a 1 hour conversation with your favorite author and realizing that this less polished platform has shown you more than you have been able to see from reading several of her books.

This appreciation built up over time into a desire to launch my own Podcast.

Crossing Over is a podcast dedicated to exploring the Human Journey.

That’s how I start all my episodes. But what exactly does it mean? Why did I choose those words over any others?

Let’s start with the Human Journey. To engage with this term, I feel I should break down the 3 distinct ways that I have held belief. I am focused on the HOW rather than the WHAT.

Up to the second half of Highschool the way I held my beliefs is best captured with the label, “Without Conviction”. I was a sponge. I believed pretty much everything I was taught, even if it contradicted what I had believed the day before. If we think about the journey of belief as “The Box”, I had lots of pieces, but had not yet begun the process of putting that box together.

Through the second half of Highschool, college, and a few years after, I held my beliefs in a way that is best captured with the label, “With Stubborn Conviction”. That’s right. The pendulum had swung from one extreme to another. That box was built, and it was reinforced with steel.

After my wife and I moved to Denver I had an amazing and disorienting experience that brought to light all my fears that came from the second way of holding belief. I felt as if I lost my identity. I was no longer a part of the tribe that had felt like home for so long. This gave way to a new way of holding belief. It had to. After this experience, the way I held my beliefs is best captured with the label, “With Deep Conviction, and Sincere Humility”. 

I had no interest in becoming a sponge. But my experience of deep disorientation made it impossible for me to reinforce that box with steel once again. So I moved forward with conviction. I believe what I believe. I do not feel wishy-washy. But I also know that I could have life experiences, awakenings, disorientation, etc. that will totally shake it all up again. So I find enough courage to hold my beliefs firmly, while remembering how terribly wrong they could be.

This third way of holding belief led me to the term “Human Journey”. Unlike the second way, it causes me to stand with a posture of listening–even if I stand facing someone I disagree with on nearly everything. It has caused me to see that we are not on individual islands, but are instead journeying together as one species, on one planet, breathing air and receiving life from the One through whom everything was born. Said plainly, we are all in this together. So I want my podcast to be the kind of thing that we can all gain inspiration, challenge, and encouragement from, regardless of what labels we carry around day to day.

So what about the name? Crossing Over is a loaded term. As a Christian person, I understand that my tradition builds itself upon the foundation laid by another tradition–Judaism. In the Bible the word used to refer to God’s People (in terms of ethnicity) is Hebrew. One of the ways that word can be defined is, “One Who Crosses Over”.

Standing at the foundation of my religious tradition is this term pointing to a disorienting journey. This feels significant.

I am no longer very interested in drawing lines in the sand. I still do it often, but I am less and less wanting to do it. Instead I am interested in studying, communicating, relating, etc. in ways that are truly helpful to all of us on this journey of life. I am looking for something universal–as in something meaningful and helpful to everyone regardless of belief, ethnicity, race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

That’s what I’m exploring. I’m digging into the stories of my friends in order to uncover this common thread of human unity–the experience of Crossing Over.

This is a literal experience. This moment is known/familiar, but I will (repeatedly) be crossing over into a moment that is entirely unknown/unfamiliar.

It is also symbolic. We cross over into new realities. We get married. We get divorced. We have children. We lose children. We fall in love. We experience deep heart-break. We get jobs. We lose jobs. We feel secure in our beliefs. Everything we believe falls to pieces. It is truly an unavoidable reality along the human journey. It is universal.

I hope you’ll listen. Below are helpful links to help you subscribe. Go in peace.

Visit the Crossing Over Website

Subscribe to Crossing Over on iTunes

Subscribe to Crossing Over on Google Play

“Like” Crossing Over on Facebook

Exploring Spirituality: We need to have a conversation

20160329_094452

Last weekend I had the chance to visit my brother in Omaha. While we come from the same womb, in some ways we couldn’t be more different. For the past few years, politics and spirituality were things we just pretended didn’t exist. I can’t speak for him, but for me the primary thing that maintained the silence was fear. I didn’t want to drive unnecessary wedges between us, so we talked about his latest hunting trip, my favorite soccer team, what our favorite beer was that week, etc.

Something really cool happened during my recent visit. We talked. I mean, we actually talked. We covered spirituality, politics, and obviously still beer. We didn’t try to convert each other as much as we simply opened up about our own convictions. I feel like I have seen my brother, and that he has seen me, with a new level of raw honesty. It was great and I really believe that it has pushed us deeper into our appreciation and love for one another.

It feels like we restarted the conversation. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of conversation lately. I listened to a podcast recently where Krista Tippett interviewed the philosopher and poet, David Whyte. Whyte sees conversation happening all around us–the conversation between the sea and the shore, between the sun and the moon, etc. I love that imagery. Everything in conversation.

But this also brings up a great tragedy for me. In the Christian household, the conversation has been feared for quite some time. It has been feared so much that in many instances, it has even been forcefully ended by silencing the “other side”. This has happened a number of times, but two specific examples come to mind.

1. Christianity got into bed with the Empire.

When the Christian Church was “Early”, there were many voices in the conversation. The voices ranged wildly and offered different perspectives, asked different questions, and forced the Church to constantly evaluate its beliefs and commitments in an effort to be sure that they were following Christ as closely as possible. Now I don’t want to romanticize this period. People were called “Heretics”. They were passionately argued against. They were told that they were wrong. But…they weren’t silenced. The early church didn’t have the power to silence teachers who challenged their interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. They simply had the power of argument and reason. Essentially, the conversation was lively!

Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, (4th Century) that little problem of not having the power to silence the “other side” was solved. It was during this period of the Christian story that Pelagius was excommunicated and branded a Heretic. He was forced to finish his days in exile away from Rome. It wasn’t the Church that eventually made sure of this, but Rome itself through the tireless effort of Augustine of Hippo. His was only one of several voices that were seen as problematic. And so, the inconvenient voices were no longer present. The conversation was silenced.

2. The Celts were finally tamed.

There was one stream of Christianity that had somehow managed to exist just outside of the Empire’s reach. That was the Christianity practiced in the Celtic world. Largely inspired by voices that were no longer allowed in Rome, like Pelagius, the Celts were off-beat compared to the Roman Mission of Christianity. They held women in high esteem, they saw the essential goodness of all created things, and they had no interest in conforming their way of spiritual practice to the demands of Rome.

In 664, Rome had finally had enough and the head on collision between the Celtic Mission and the Roman Mission occurred. It is no surprise that the Roman Mission was victorious and the Celtic Mission was ordered to conform to the Roman practice of Christianity, including the silencing of the voices deemed “Heretic”.

The tragedy of this moment is not simply that the Roman Mission won and the Celtic Mission lost. The tragedy was that the two could not find a way to engage in conversation, but instead engaged in war–the fruitless fight to prove that I am right and you are wrong. Once again, the inconvenient voices were no longer present. The conversation again was silenced.

We live in an age where many of us are tired of this dualistic mindset. We are a people who don’t buy into the lie that if you are not Republican then you absolutely must be Democrat. We are a people that don’t buy into the idea that wisdom does not exist in the tradition and perspective of “the other”. We are a people who are tired of the silencing of the conversation. So, let’s reclaim it!

Let’s not be afraid to read the Heretics. Let’s not be too proud to embrace our friends with whom we disagree. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s hold our convictions with deep commitment and also deep humility. Let’s reclaim the conversation!