Staring Into the Darkness

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the darkness and the abyss humans frequently find themselves gazing into:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

I can’t help but think of this ministry that Jennifer and I am called to. And the two young people who wandered into our lives in the last week, both abused, one abandoned, asking not so much for help but just to let someone know they are alive, hoping they are not alone.

For Nietzsche, the abyss — the darkness — was a mirror that reflected the worst elements of ourselves. And he’s not wrong.

But we also struggle against, as St. Paul wrote, no mere flesh and blood, but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) And because of this, I am learning something about the darkness, about this abyss. It is not simply a mirror that reflects our own horrors, an image of who we really are or can be.

It has being unto itself. The darkness, the abyss, doesn’t simply stare back. It growls, lowly and with real menace. It breathes, its breath is wet and heavy and putrid. It rustles and its paws at you, and you can sometimes feel the currents left in the wake of its swipes.

But this darkness is not all powerful. I am reminded of the words of John’s gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4–5 ESV)

There are a couple of young people I cannot name right now that I’d like you all to keep praying for. They have reached out of the darkness they have been cast into toward the light — the light of Christ reflected off of me — and they seek a way out of their darkness. Pray for them.

And pray for me, and for Jennifer. Because as terrifying as the darkness, the abyss, is, some of us are called to walk into it. To carry light. To be light. Knowing that that darkness has not, and cannot, overcome it.

“Love Me and Do Not Leave Me…”

It’s been a while since I’ve deal with an actual book in this blog. Mostly that has been because Jennifer and I have been poor and unsettled, and because of that, we’ve not had the time and the energy to focus on real books. Plus, to be honest, the Internet has gotten in the way.

A pastor friend, however, recently gave me a copy of Mira Rothenberg’s Children With Emerald Eyes: History of Extraordinary Boys and Girls, I think because of the ministry I have been called to with young people who dwell (or have dwelt) in darkness. To walk into hell with the wounded, to rescue the lost and then find our way back out.

Jesus did it. In that time between he gave up his spirit and rose from the tomb. That gives Jennifer and me the confidence to know we too can walk into hell and carry out the lost.

This is both a hard book to read and an invigorating one. By that, it is helpful to have someone professionally trained (Rothenberg was a clinical psychologist who began working with wounded and troubled kids in the 1950s, a time we can half-romanticize because treating kids, as opposed to medicating them and returning shareholder value, was actually appreciated) confirm a great deal of what I have observed and concluded.

I’m going to let this long passage about Rothenberg’s introduction to her time at the Katy Kill Falls residential treatment center in upstate New York speak for itself. Because I can add nothing to it.

Katy Kill.

Children: Labels. Categories.

Rape, assault, murder; some reached out to the world in this fashion.

Withdrawal, inaction, regression; others removed themselves, withdrew into their shells, and waited—waited for the world reach out to them. They reached out in this fashion.

The ones in-between; they did both.

Katy Kill. Always erupting or ready to erupt. Seething with greed from so much deprivation, with hate from so little love, with rage from needing and not getting, with love hidden deep and yet right on the surface. Seething with terror. Seething with sorrow deep and pain so potent that when the eruption comes, it has the howl of pain that it is driven by, rather than of the rage that it expresses itself through.

Katy Kill. Have you ever heard the sound of rage when it seems noiseless? It roars with an intensity. It grumbles with a desicating rhythm. Its voice is dry and throaty. Sometimes it sounds like hell. And its color is white.

Have you heard the sound of terror when it is noiseless? It rustles helplessly, like a leaf in a hurricane. It breaks hard, like the thunder. And it has a smell, a smell that shrivels your skin, a smell that makes you break out in a sweat so cold it freezes you. And its color is blue—deep, dark blue.

Have you ever heard the sound of pain when it is noiseless? It howls the loudest and it whines the quietest. It sounds as if it comes from the deepest bowels of the earth—that is you. It shakes with intensity and trembles with its own resonance over oceans of nothingness. And its color is black.

Have you ever heard the sound of loneliness when it is noiseless? It has a blast of thousands of trumpets. It has the howling of hyenas waiting for their prey. It has the howl of herds of starving wolves. Its melody is neither nice nor pretty. And it is gentle and full of fury. It is deep and somber, threatening and pleading. And its color is gray.

It shouts and echoes over all of eternity. It reverberates over the whole world and echoes in every cave, cavern, and mountain. It has a frightful sound; it has a howl. And the plea is: “Love, come to me.” Its basic ingredient is: “Give, give to me.” And the other ingredients are pain and terror, hate and rage, anger and tears, and: “Do not leave me, love me, and oh, it hurts so much.”

And the search. Have you ever seen the search for “that” which one no longer knows by any rightful name, but “that” or “what” or “Oh, God, help me!” or then no longer even that, but the burning ashes of a long, long, long ago fire?

Have you ever seen and felt and smelt and heard them all together? They have cold, sweaty hands. And eyes that sometimes burn and sometimes weep, red-rimmed, sleepless, hopeless. Eyes that try to hide deep into the sockets of the head, and finding the futility in this, just stare—nowhere. And the body, no matter straight or bent, or fat or skinny—something just about the shoulders—a little tilt, which in spite of of all its bravura and all its bravado in a very, very small voice asks: “Protect me.”

A child. Any child when abandoned. But all these children feel abandoned. It is the world versus the child. The child versus the world. In all, the impotence of both. In all, the fear of both.

And sometimes this loneliness of theirs takes you by the shoulders and says, “You are going to give.” And sometimes it kills because you didn’t give. And sometimes it kills because that it is a giving too: their giving. And sometimes it just withdraws and waits till you come and give, and in its waiting often dies. It stops. It doesn’t talk and doesn’t walk, and sometimes doesn’t move. It waits. It often dies, and in its strange perverted way it makes you give.

Sometimes there is sex to fill the voice. And the sex is then strange. There is little giving, but there is taking, there is devouring of you and whatever you can give to fill this voice. The exquisite giving and taking is no longer. The balance is disjointed. Because it is to take, to calm, to quiet this awful howl of loneliness and the hunger that derives from loneliness. To feed, so that for once, for this one short while, the need, the plea, the want is filled.

One doesn’t cry, with tears.

One doesn’t sob, with sobs.

One doesn’t ask, with please.

One waits, one watches. One is ready. One is tough. One pushes away. Except in the dream. One doesn’t talk about the dreams. That is the way to be, out there in the world that is a jungle. One hurts. One fights. One kills. So that one does not get hurt, get killed, one withdraws. In order not to get refused, one doesn’t ask.

The price of the ticket for a lifetimes is high. One pays. But one sees to it that everyone else will pay too. (p. 68-70)

I have never seen it described any better, with such force, power, and clarity, as Rothenberg has here (save maybe by Andrew Vachss). There isn’t a single thing I can add to this.

Not a thing.

How Daesh (داعش) Does Really Effective Ministry

Rod Dreher does the world a tremendous favor today by posting a number of links to anthropologist and terror scholar Scott Atran , including this recent piece in The Guardian on the nature of داعش (Daesh, or The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria), this long interview with Russia Today, this essay in The New York Review of Books, and this piece for Foreign Policy.

Read them. Atran understands the appeal of Revolutionary Islam — he understands the appeal of revolution itself, especially for the young, who seek both adventure and moral clarity as they seek a place and a purpose in the world — and he appreciates the difficulties the bourgeois West faces in dealing what is essentially a revolutionary crusade to make a perfect world. I think Atran underestimates the sheer overwhelming and crushing power of bourgeois banality — it has steamrolled everything in its path, and I doubt Revolutionary Islam, for all its rage and well-planned violence, will prevail over the essential bureaucratic and mechanical meaninglessness of modernity.

I won’t belabor many of the points Atran makes — you should just read them. Mostly, he focuses on the tremendous appeal of meaning and purpose that داعش presents to the young, disaffected and otherwise, of the West, young people who are looking for something bigger to belong to.

Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)

And I’ll have to be honest, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tossed me out of their candidacy process in 2014, saying I was too much of a sinner — too much of a potential liability — to be a pastor, that set off a tremendous crisis of meaning and purpose in my life. One that I haven’t really been able to resolve. Because I still ache to belong to something. And I don’t now. Because I’m not allowed to belong.

So, I get the appeal of داعش, and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.

But none of this is what I want to focus on. In the NYRB piece, Atran notes something stunning as he critiques Western efforts to counter داعش “propaganda”:

In its feckless “Think Again Turn Away” social media program, the US State Department has tried to dissuade youth with mostly negative anonymous messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future, well is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things? As one teenage girl from a Chicago suburb retorted to FBI agents who stopped her from flying to Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that.” And for some, strict obedience provides freedom from uncertainty about what a good person is to do.

By contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustrated aspiration into moral outrage. From Syria, a young woman messages another:

I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.

And any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetitive messages. Young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture at one another. There are nearly fifty thousand Twitter accounts supporting ISIS, with an average of some one thousand followers each.

There’s a word for what داعش is doing here — ministry. While Western governments futz and fiddle (and generally fail) with programs and policies, داعش is building individual relationships of empathy and support, reaching across as individual human beings to other individual human beings, listening to life stories and then slowly, carefully, and deliberately providing a meaning and structure, and then a series of answers about life and the world that lead to purposeful action.

According to Atran, the FBI has only one person — an agent in Los Angeles — doing any kind of counter-engagement.

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

I know many pastors who are deeply frustrated with a bureaucratic church life that seems deliberately and purposefully intent on suffocating or even preventing ministry. The good they do, the relationships they build, the presence of God they share and are part of, seem almost accidents in daily lives given over to bureaucratic and administrative nonsense. Its seems much of the world works that way, on accident rather than on purpose. It is deeply frustrating to live in a world like that.

And deeply human to want to change that.

Atran is right. Since the summer, I’ve done an online ministry with young people that has worked largely in this dynamic. It’s not hard to find kids who ache to be listened to empathetically — they are all over Whisper — and to say a kind word or two to them. To gain their trust simply by listening. I try to give hope, a Jesus-shaped hope (without overtly mentioning Jesus, though as I have read Atran’s work, I think that has been a mistake) to those who express hopelessness and despair. It’s tough work, this empathetic relationship building, even online, and I was successful at it when I was unemployed and could devote myself to it full time. But once I was employed, and had other work that swallowed up my days, well, there have been a couple of significant failures because I could not devote all the time needed to all the people I had committed to.

And as I think about this ministry, I suspect no church in its right mind would approve such a thing — much less approve me to do it. Too risky. Too unquantifiable. Too … strange. Where’s the program? The job description? The accountability? The measures of success?

If the West wanted to properly counter داعش, western governments would create — or better, probably foster and encourage — a cadre of empathetic relationship builders (or pastors, if you will) who will meet the same kinds of people in the same kinds of ways that داعش recruiters do and engage them. By listening, by empathizing, and then by slowly inviting those people into an understanding of their life, their meaning, and their purpose that doesn’t involve the waging of global revolution. I personally think love is a good organizing principle, but then I would. Perhaps we could aim to create an “Army of Love,” jaish al-hub جيش الحب, though what the point of that army would be, aside from doing what Jesus tells us to do — preach, teach, and baptize — I’m not sure.

Mostly because I don’t think there is anything more. But that’s just me.

What I do know is that no Western government could organize this without thinking in terms of call centers or customer support. Without imposing the means and methods of modern management in order to try to continually prove its effectiveness. Without job descriptions and regular metrics. You couldn’t sell mere relationship building, love as both means and end, to a modern organization. Contractors are allowed to rob governments blind but something as “unorganized” as this would simply give managers the hives. I’m not even sure a church could do it effectively. Because churches are wrapped up in the same way of doing business as governments and corporations. It’s all the same rotten culture.

So, داعش will continue to find — and be found — by those seeking meaning. Because young people want to know their lives have value and purpose. Because so many are hungering for meaningful encounters with empathetic adults who will value them and help guide them toward that purpose. I know because I’ve met them. And I still meet them. There are young people out there who hunger for meaning, purpose, and belonging, who yearn for something more than the grand buffet of unlimited consumption and meaningless comfort, of using and being used. And right now, for some, داعش provides that.

A smart society would find room for such people without demanding the kind of complete conformity that liberal modernity demands. But we do not live in a smart society. Most people seem happy with the promises of the modern world (and bully for them) and cannot fathom why some of us are misfits, malcontents, and marginalized — why we want something more. Or something different. So, because of that, it probably won’t matter what even a fairly large portion of the disaffected and the misfit want or even choose. We’ll all be steamrolled by the impersonal machine that is bureaucratic modernity anyway. The West can afford to do nothing. It can afford not to care.

Odds & Ends

Blogging has been light of late. I apologize for that. I have been easily distracted for the last 10 days or so, and more engrossed in job hunting (pray for me!) and actually resting, thanks to our host in Maryland, who has been one of the kindest of the Good Samaritans we have met along this particular road to Jericho. We’ve been amazingly blessed.

First, a report on book sales. According to Wipf & Stock, my publisher, so far I’ve sold 200 copies of The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death. (According to Amazon’s Author Central website, I’ve moved 156 copies through them — usually one or two a week, sometimes more, and sometimes none, like last week.) This does not count copies given away. I’ve sold (or given away) roughly 100 copies, so we’re about in the 300 neighborhood. Not New York Times bestseller territory, but about average for a non-fiction book these days.

And we’ve just started… 🙂

I’m hoping some of the radio interviews I’m doing in advance of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon help that. My publicist did yeoman work, but having finished his part of the deal, I blitzed a bunch of Christian radio stations and have booked a few interviews — WIHS in Middletown, Connecticut; Go Mix Radio, a network in eastern North Carolina;  Spirit FM, a Catholic network in Nebraska; Lift FM in New Jersey; and with Advantage Radio Ministries’ Second Chances show. There’s also a radio network in New Zealand which has contacted me, but so far we’ve not worked anything out.

And Chaplain Mike over at internetmonk.com has said he is interested in interviewing me in the run-up to 9/11.

So, good things are happening.

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Would you buy a used gospel from this man?

First, I’d really like to thank everyone who has read my book. And responded to me. I never imagined writing a book, but this book, it is for the wounded, the abandoned, the unloved, and the unwanted. Over the last few years, I’ve come to see that the purpose to human life — well, at least my life — is to witness to the love of God for the entire world ο κοσμος. And that there is no life so disordered, so chaotic, so lost, so misguided, that God cannot use it to witness to the incredible love that God showed for God’s people (and the world) in calling Abraham, forming Israel, redeeming them from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the wilderness, and delivering them from exile.

This is the love Christ showed for the world in calling disciples to follow, to feed sheep and tend lambs, in drawing the crowds to them, in teaching them, in healing them, in casting out their demons and feeding them. In living with us, suffering at our hands, and dying before our eyes, and rising on the third day.

My life bears witness to all this. I don’t know how well the book says any of this, but it is what I am called to do. And to be.

Along those lines, I keep looking for work. My hope had always been that someone would read the book and go, “he needs to be our pastor!” That hasn’t happened (at least not yet), and I don’t know if it will. My great concern about the book was that this was such a non-standard narrative, an odd story, one that didn’t easily fit into preconceived notions from either liberals or conservatives about what a good story of a redeemed sinner ought to look like, that no one would quite know how to market this book. I appreciate my publicist’s efforts, but I’m not sure he quite knew how to publicize my book. (I’ve only gotten the notice I have tying the book to the Christianity Today piece and the 9/11 anniversary.) I know my publisher believes they’ve done a good thing with this, but they also know this is a book that defies easy categories. A recent acquaintance has called it “literature” and has compared my narrative to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. All of my Amazon reviewers have given it five stars.

Speaking Christianity Today, I did write a nice little piece for them, and it has gotten more than 1,000 shares on Facebook (!!!!), so I’m pleased with that. I’m not enamored of the title, but you don’t choose those. I didn’t even choose the title of my own book, but I like it, and it really works.

So, I pray for all of you who read this blog every night, and thank God for you. Please pray for me as well. I still don’t know what will become of me — I’m a bit like Nadia Boltz-Weber without the tattoos and the modicum of institutional support (or, to be blunt, the best-selling book and the worldwide acclaim); had the ELCA felt compelled to find her a call (as opposed to letting her start her own church), she likely would have fared no better than I did in their miserable candidacy process. I hope to find a small congregation out there willing to take a risk on a pastor who wants to preach and teach (and sing!) the gospel, care and tend for them in their joys and sorrows, and yet by simply breathing lives outside just every Christian comfort zone imaginable. I appreciate how difficult that is for a lot of Christians, especially in a time of deep, existential crisis for the American church, when safety, comfort, and ease are desperately sought but nowhere to be found. But it’s also difficult for me, not finding a place to fit, or a people to live out my call among. It may be how I have always lived, but it is no less difficult for me.

I suspect I will have to start my own worshiping community. (Waters of Babylon Missionary Lutheran Church, here we come!!) Which is okay, though it would also mean some kind of work elsewhere. I would rather be tied to a community of support and accountability, and to a bigger tradition than myself, but I think I scare too many church bureaucrats and unsettle too many sheep. And the sheep are what Jesus called us to serve and care for.

However, as a certain incarnate Lord and Savior once said:

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16 ESV)

There are sheep without a shepherd, people out there, looking for me, waiting for me, hoping and praying for me. To be their pastor. The happy accident that will bring us together has not happened yet.

But my life has been full of happy accidents. Amazing, wonderful, life-giving, accidents. (I’m thinking of y’all, Jennifer, Michaela, and Molly!) I don’t see that changing. Ever.