Defined by the Fight?
by Brian Peterson
This is a significant day for me to speak for a few different reasons. The first is that it’s Fathers Day, and I am, as many of you know, a father. Also, perhaps more significant is the fact that this is my first time up here holding the microphone at the Bridge. I’ve been connected to this community and called it my family for almost 8 years now, even though some of those years were spent in other states, I’ve always considered the Bridge my home. I’m not sure why I haven’t spoken before – I’ve done all sorts of things around here, but speaking just hasn’t been one of them. I suppose part of it is that I never felt like I had something to say. I’m still not sure that I do, but I do have a story to tell. They say the best thing to do when you first speak somewhere is to tell your story.
This is also a significant Sunday because it’s sort of a season of anniversaries. June has always been a big month for me. One of my old friends reminded me that I started my first punk band 18 years ago this June, which didn’t do much except for make me feel really old. It was also the 4-year anniversary (June 8) of the Porchurch, the outreach ministry in NYC that Kelly and I started, a church plant of sorts from the Bridge. And it’s that anniversary that provides some of the context for this story, because in the last 4 years I have realized some things about myself and about faith and the church that have made me a very different person than I was 4 years ago. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are things that I want to share with you.
This is also the anniversary, 1 year ago, of me breaking my elbow skateboarding. I recently read an article in the NY Times about how skateboarding is the new mid-life crisis for people my age. Instead of getting a Corvette, we get a skateboard. The article was sort of disgusting to me, talking about guys blasting Black Flag in their BMWs on the way to board meetings, but I can’t say that it was too far off the mark. I have been guilty of sitting in my office and blasting Slayer in between conference calls. Maybe I’m more grown up than I want to admit. I guess Father’s Day always puts that in perspective for me, because dads usually don’t go out and break their elbows skateboarding.
So needless to say, this is a reflective season for me. I’m looking back a lot lately – thinking about what things like skateboarding, punk rock, the church, ministry, and even fatherhood have meant to me over the years and what the common threads are. What I’ve found has been sort of sobering, but I think it’s a story worth telling because I see these threads a lot in the people I know and care about.
This is a story about anger, opposition, and identity.
I’ve always been an angry kid. You probably wouldn’t guess it by hanging around with me. My co-workers tell me I’m as so-Cal as it gets, and as a type 9 I’m always seeking to avoid conflict and create harmony. But anger has always played a role, and I wasn’t entirely sure why.
I grew up in a very stable household. I never had to endure abuse, never experienced the fundamentalist horror stories that so many of my friends here have shared with me. My parents were pretty well-adjusted and accepting, and while I was brought up in the church, it was never forced down my throat. You could say I was a pretty normal kid, almost to a fault.
Things started to change as I grew to be a teenager. Like any kid, I wanted to fit in but for some reason could not bear the idea of fitting in with everyone else. I started to feel the anger – anger at people for not accepting those who were different. I found myself identifying with the punks and the skateboarders, and I found a focus for that anger. The anger became the fuel that kept me going.
Looking back, I can see that the source of the anger is really found in a search for identity. The psychologist Erik Erikson talks about the various stages in life where we are met with a particular challenge or dilemma, and how we resolve that affects how we move on to the next step. For the adolescent, the challenge is one of “identity vs. role-confusion” – figuring out who you are going to be when you grow up, or ending up with confusion that carries over into adulthood. Well, I’m of the opinion that most of us don’t resolve this very well. We might come up with an identity, but the way we arrive at that identity usually sets us up for trouble later in life.
For me, identity came to be about opposition. In other words, I came to learn that the way to define your self was based on what you stood against – who you are is based on who you are not. This is convenient because it allows you to write off just about anyone who doesn’t fit the mold of your identity. I think that this is a pretty basic human tendency – evidence of it goes back as far as Cain and Abel. It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t tell us why Cain’s offering was rejected, just that God liked Abel’s more – and this was enough to make Cain pissed off to the point of murder.
Of course as a punk I was anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, so on and so forth – but not really sure what I was for. I might have a vague sense in there somewhere, but mostly it was about the fight. Name the enemy and bring the fight.
Interestingly enough, this approach translates pretty well into ministry in the church. I went through a very brief period where the enemy was “the world” – but you can’t fool a punk, even a punk in church, and I saw through the BS pretty quickly. Yet I still stuck with it, even going to seminary, where I identified the enemy not as the world but as the church. It was at this time that I found the Bridge, which helped me to know that I was not alone, but also helped to stoke the fire that I had inside. I proudly carried around that identity of “anti-church Christian” determined to inflict maximum uncomfortableness on any proper Christians that might come my way. A punk in church is still a punk, like I said.
Now I’d like to take an aside to mention that this, like anything else, is complex and has consequences that are both good and bad. The desire to bring that fight resulted in some amazing ministries over the years. I found the most amazing group of people on the streets of Portland who taught me about a lot of things, showed me who Jesus really was, and gave a focus to that fight in the right direction. But that wasn’t really enough –when you define yourself by what you oppose, you have to keep opposing or you’ll lose yourself. Once you conquer one enemy, you have to keep looking for more. Or at least, if you keep busy you can avoid the ever-present ambiguity out there, that nagging question of “what if I’m wrong about all this?”
I did keep looking – bringing the fight to the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the Poor Church. Again, amazing things happened with this ministry and I saw God’s hand in it all. So much so, that I made it a point to reject any suggestions or help from anyone who did not fit the idea of what I considered appropriate for ministry. One of the huge consequences of identity in opposition is a sort of elitism where you refuse audience to any conception of the truth that might challenge your own. Of course, the resulted in the end, in the classic term that comes around to just about everyone in ministry at some point: burnout. And this burnout left me angry, but this time it was at the God who I was so sure had led me to that place and then let me down.
This burnout led me to run away, to leave everything behind and to retreat to relative safe ground in California. I thought I might be able to resume some kind of ministry there, but still lacked the willingness to give in, to yield my identity, to surrender to the idea that who I am is not wrapped up in a fight, but rather in being present right here and now. I kept looking for something else and missed whatever was going on around me.
Even coming back to Portland eventually didn’t change this fact. Yes, I was back home in a lot of ways, but the old fights were long since resolved. My friends on the street had grown up, they had houses and significant others, jobs and school plans. This should have made me happy, and it did, but again I found that anger looking for something to attack. If I didn’t have an enemy, how could I continue on?
Maybe I felt like I was looking for the presence of God, but in fact I was trying to get as far away from it I could. You see, God is most present wherever you are at right now, at this very moment, very often in the moment where you are least likely to think so. I thought that God would be found in the struggle, but I was actually using the struggle as an excuse to avoid confronting and learning the actual person that God had created me to become.
It was at this time that I happened upon a story in the Bible. This is a story that anyone who has gone to Sunday School or watched Veggie Tales has heard of. It’s the story of Jonah – you know, the guy who gets swallowed by a whale, lights a fire and the whale sneezes him out – or maybe that’s Pinnochio. No, actually Jonah was a prophet of ancient Israel, who like me defined himself by what he opposed. He too went to hide from the presence of God carrying his anger with him. He ends up in a fascinating situation underneath a tree that God provided him for shade so angry that he wanted to die. And God confronts him directly, asking him not once but twice – “Do you have a reason to be angry?”
Do you have a reason to be angry. Those words seemed directly aimed at me, busy stewing underneath my worm-eaten tree, ignoring the life that was happening around me while desparately searching for a good fight to get into, just to make myself feel like I had some control. Like Thomas Merton says, I demonized the things that God was calling good, making curses out of blessings. I wonder how many well-intentioned fathers (and mothers) in the church do this while trying to serve God, meanwhile running from the presence of God in the families that surround them.
The really ironic thing for Jonah is that he finds out his enemies are really more connected to God than he is. Those pagan sailors and Ninevites repent and worship God, and he is left wondering what just happened. When you stop looking for a fight, when you stop trying to define yourself by opposition, you might be able to see how even the things you oppose can speak to you.
How does the story end? Well, like Jonah’s, the story is pretty open-ended. I don’t have a lot of revelations or breakthroughs to give you. I will tell you this – my goal right now is to stop looking for a fight to define me, and to start being present and looking around, paying attention to what’s right in front of me. You are no more blessed in your life than you are at this very moment. So Father’s Day is a good day for this – how could I be any more blessed than as a father? And yet, sadly enough, in the past this probably seemed like a less-important aspect of my identity, because there was no opposition involved.
Now, there was a pastor that we used to work with back in New York who would always say “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” I’m not saying that we should give up the task of standing up against things that aren’t right. As we like to sing around here, some things are worth the fight. What I am saying is that when we let ourselves be defined by the fight, we miss the things that are right in front of us. We fail to see how things like tradition can enrich our lives rather than shackle them. How people we would never expect end up being our closest allies. Opposition sees the world as binary opposites, and doesn’t leave any room for grace.
So maybe that’s the final word – grace. It’s the thing that lies between what we consider to be right and what we consider to be wrong – and realizing that God’s definition of those things is nowhere near our own. It’s realizing that my identity, which is hidden somewhere in God, contains aspects of things that my false self finds repulsive. I’ve started to find this grace in presence – quite literally, showing up. Showing up means showing up even though I’m pretty sure nothing spectacular is going to happen. It’s going for a run because I want to be healthy, knowing damn well that I’m not going to run 3 times a week and train hard, and keep a journal of my progress, but that’s not going to prevent me from doing it. Showing up means, as a father, being present for my kids and knowing that they need that presence, even if I feel like it’s not doing them any good. They just want to be with me. Why can’t it be the same for me and God?
If I have learned anything through the struggles of the last 8 years, it is that freedom is found in having the courage to show up, rather than hiding behind a wall of opposition. I’m less certain about a lot of things now than I was 8 years ago, but I’m ok with that. I’m finding that faith, like grace, inhabits the spaces around certainty. I’m trying to make space in there for ideas I used to oppose, for approaches that I used to run away from.