(Originally published in "Love and Justice for All" column in Unity Magazine Nov/Dec 2021 issue)
My name, Ogun, is the god or Orisha of Iron in the Yoruba religion that originates from, and is still practiced in, parts of some West African countries. When asked, my parents said they found the name in a book and liked it so much they assigned it to me. They had no information of our lineage past a handful of generations, as is quite common for the descendants of enslaved Africans. A few months ago I spit into a tube, mailed the sample to ancestry.com, and eventually received confirmation that I am indeed descended from the Yoruba peoples that once inhabited the countries now known as Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.
Was it just pure coincidence my name coincided with my ancestry in such a direct way? When my parents first read and spoke my name out loud did the strands of their DNA that bore the imprint of our origins hum with awareness? Or was there some deeper, soul-level recognition of a spiritual lineage that transcended time and space?
The Yoruba religion predates Christianity by at least a millenia. It initially found no welcome in the West as slave owners attempted to systematically erase any reminders of the African Homeland in order to dehumanize and control their human chattel. In spite of their best efforts, and countless horrific homicides, enslaved Africans survived, as did their descendants, as did their spiritual beliefs. Yoruba is but one of many African religions alive and growing in the West as black North American, South American, and Carribean people seek to come home to themselves however they can. Ultimately, every religion is an attempt to understand God, and can ideally be practiced by anyone. But is there something deeper to practicing a religion to which you are ancestrally connected?
Justice suggests a righting of wrongs, or more broadly, making whole again by restoring what was taken or by replacing with comparable measures. For centuries, untold damage was done as Christianity sought to make Jesus’ Great Commission a reality. In order to “...make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” [Matt 28:19-20], the rights and abilities to practice ancestral reflections of God were stripped away, co-opted, or appropriated. Over time, in much of the Western world, Chirstianity became an experience centered around white-body comfort, with the implicit understanding that it was the right and only way.
We in New Thought believe we are more evolved than that. We believe that our spiritual communities and centers are open and welcoming. The striking lack of diversity in most of them would beg otherwise. While the intention might be “everyone is welcome here”, the impact on bodies on culture (non-white people) is “we want you participate in our white-body comfort zone and we don’t want to do anything different...except for maybe Black History month.”
As I wrote previously, Spiritual Justice can be understood as removing the self-imposed roadblocks to the fullness of our Divinity. One of them is the unconscious preservation of white-body supremacy in all its subtle forms, including and especially religion and spirituality. This isn’t an accusation of racism, but rather an invitation into self-awareness. It’s a call to momentarily soar above the waves to see that we are indeed fish swimming in water we do not realize is present all around us and permeating all that we do.
In other words, how uncomfortable are we willing to get so that everyone is truly comfortable?
(Originally published in "Love and Justice for All" column of Unity Magazine Sept/Oct 2021 issue)
From my earliest days in Unity, the 12 Powers is still my favorite and most meaningful teaching. The idea that I am Divine, that the fullness of God exists at the point of me, can sometimes be daunting for a variety of reasons. The 12 Powers gives me a framework and languaging to make my God-self more palatable, accessible, and engageable. While Faith, Strength, Wisdom, Love, Power, Imagination, Understanding, Will, Order, Zeal, Release, and Life make for a thorough list, I’ve often heard a case for Joy as the unofficial 13th Power. I find no fault with this. After all, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” [Nehemiah 8:10]. I want, however, to propose a more germane Divine attribute for such a time as this: Justice.
Too often, unfortunately, justice is conflated with punishment. Rallying cries for justice after the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers were spun as attacks against law enforcement, and twisted to instill fears of lawless anarchy if police reforms were enacted. Following the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict, Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison made it clear: “I would not call today’s verdict ‘justice’, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice. And now the cause of justice is in your hands.” Justice is more than restoration. It speaks to equitableness. It speaks to having the conditions leading up to, and supporting, discriminatory practices not existing in the first place.
Justice is grounded in Love. It’s not just in our hands, it is also in our hearts. From co-founder Charles Fillmore: “When justice and love meet at the heart center, there [is] balance, poise, and righteousness.” Righteousness is “a state of harmony established in consciousness through the right use of God-given attributes.” (Revealing Word). Everything starts at the spiritual/consciousness level, and Justice is both a Divine quality and a Divine mandate. The Psalmist sang to and of God, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” [Psalm 89:14]. Proverbs reminds us that, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” [Proverbs 21:3] Jesus invites us to not neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced…” [Matthew 23:23]
How are we practicing? We say that God is Love in action. Justice is also Love in action. When we love those who are disenfranchised because of the color of their skin or because of who they love or because of who they really are, we are Justice. And to be clear, loving them doesn’t just mean saying we believe them or see them or welcome them into our communities. Loving them is using the power and privilege we have to speak loudly on their behalf, and to help create equitable conditions so they may thrive as we do. It’s the challenging spiritual work of uprooting our own embedded biases and unconscious discriminations. It’s waking up to how we have used spiritual bypassing to not face our own complicity through silence.
True Justice leads to Liberation, the removal of all that holds us back. Since we live from the inside out, human liberation cannot precede spiritual liberation. Removing the self-imposed roadblocks to the fullness of our Divinity is our Liberation. Let us liberate others too. Let us Be Justice.
When Our Spirituality Enables Injustice
(Originally published in Unity Magazine Sept/Oct 2021 edition)
On April 15, 2021, Chicago officials released the police body-camera video of the shooting and killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo as he appeared to be compliantly raising his hands after a foot chase. Someone on Twitter suggested that the media stop replaying the video because it was triggering to see a child die like that. I responded that while I agreed in principle, the “violence against BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] folks is often abstract because we aren’t really seen. Sometimes white folk need to see.” Someone else asked if saying “white folk need to see” wasn’t being racist against her, and she didn’t understand why, as a minister, I was “playing the race card” since “God doesn’t see color.” I probably don’t need to mention she was white.
There’s a lot to unpack theologically in “God doesn’t see color.” I imagine when someone says it, they’re sharing a belief in God as a benevolent being who does not discriminate, who loves equally, and who sees us not by our race, ethnicity, or identity but by our thoughts, words, and actions. God sees the content of our hearts, not the color of our skin. It’s meant to be a well-meaning, inspiring, perhaps even comforting characterization, but in reality, it is a lazy, juvenile, and harmful theology.
“God doesn’t see color” reflects an understanding of God that has not progressed past a childhood grasp of All That Is as a personified being (likely an old bearded white man) with human characteristics: He sees us, hears us, loves us, protects us. He is essentially a superhuman parent. And parents love all their children equally, right? (Wink, wink.)
Some of us eventually grow up, but only a little. We believe that God isn’t a person, but a Presence and Power, Love, Spirit. And yet we still pray as if God can hear and answer our prayers. We still speak about God as if God thinks about us and our lives. We still ask how God allows the horrors of the world to transpire and answer with a dismissive, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Or as we might translate into New Thought terminology, “It’s all in divine order,” which is a tragic misunderstanding of that principle.
This is when bad theology becomes harmful theology. Since “God doesn’t see color” and it’s “all in divine order,” some of us feel no need to get involved because in the universal scheme of things, this is how it’s supposed to play out. It’s a privileged theology ... a white privilege theology. I understand that when we go to church, we want to be inspired to transform, not implicated in society’s greatest ill.
We want to feel good, not hopeless in the enormity of it all. It’s probably why the topic hasn’t often come up. I invite you to realize that we BIPOC do not have the luxury or privilege of avoiding the issue. I cannot take a break from my Blackness or from how I am perceived as a Black man in America.
It is also spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is the practice of using spiritual beliefs to avoid difficult and unresolved issues or as evidence that these issues don’t exist. Systemic racism affects us all, clearly more so for BIPOC. It will end only when everyone, especially those who directly and indirectly benefit from it, sees it for the scourge that it is and helps do the work to undo it.
Too often in Unity I’ve heard, “It’s not ours to set it right, but to see it right!” and “What we resist, persists,” so we didn’t speak directly about the injustices of the world. We were invited to not even think about them for fear of either polluting our consciousness or energetically perpetuating those injustices.
We were taught to see the Christ in each other, which often meant looking past each other’s problems. The “denial” of the practice of denials and affirmations increasingly felt like “ignore.” We were also constantly reminded of the fifth Unity principle, that it wasn’t enough to know the principles, we had to live them. Is it possible that, over the years, many left Unity churches not because spiritual transformation was too challenging but because the cognitive dissonance was too overwhelming?
When I say “white folk need to see,” I am referencing the racial history and tendencies of this country by which change came after the privileged bore witness to the system of discrimination and oppression they did not want to admit to maintaining. Change came about after white America saw the grainy images of dogs and fire hoses set on peaceful protestors in the Deep South, the batons crushing skulls on Bloody Sunday, and more recently, the knee of a white police officer on the neck of a handcuffed Black man for more than nine minutes.
Suddenly the dubious stories of a tormented people were believed—because they were seen. After George Floyd’s murder, the streets were filled with as many (if not more) white protestors as Black. Thanks to Darnella Frazier, a brave, Black 17-year-old with a cell phone, white America saw centuries of systemic racism encapsulated into one brutal deadly act of violence. Sometimes white folk need to see.
Sometimes we spiritual people need to see too. We need to see that while our teachings of oneness and love hold the seeds for justice and equanimity, they inadvertently encourage spiritual bypassing. When we bypass, regardless of the love in our hearts and the purity of our intentions, we are enabling a system of oppression. There is no neutral ground in racism. We are either being anti-racist in word and deed or we are maintaining the status quo. To live our spiritual principles, we must both imagine a world that works for all and then go about creating it. If not us, who? If not now, when?
It’s no accident that many of the greatest civil rights leaders and activists have been clergy and theologians: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. (and Rev.) John Lewis, Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rev. Anna Pauline Murray, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Rev. Raphael Warnock, to name just a few.
By the way, when you tell me, a person of color, that God doesn’t see color, you have just rendered me invisible. You’ve just told me that God doesn’t see me, and because you are aspiring to be God-like, you don’t see me either. If you’re thinking, That’s not what I meant or that I need to work on how I hear things, welcome to bypassing.
Your intention and meaning don’t matter. You’re telling me that God doesn’t see my pain and neither do you, that you don’t see or believe my suffering, that my fears of being killed during a routine traffic stop because of the color of my skin are unfounded. You are telling me the weighty emotional burden I carry because I am still seen as less than by so many is easily shrugged off, and the realities of being Black are immaterial to God and therefore to you. You are telling me that what I experience doesn’t matter ... that I don’t matter. Even by your theistic theology, there could not be anything more God-less.
I write this not to call anyone out, but to call us in and to call us up. The work begins, as always, with the individual, including me. As a congregant and a minister, I have spiritually bypassed in order not to rock the boat or lose congregants or to assuage my own discomfort.
Check in with yourself right now. How do you feel as you read these words? I’m not asking what you think, but how you actually feel. Are you more relaxed? Tense? No different? Do you feel joyful? Angry? Empowered? Ashamed? Disappointed? Afraid? Stop and take a moment to notice, without judgment. There’s no right or wrong feeling, only the opportunity for insight, acceptance, realization, transformation, and growth.
Remember how you felt when you saw racial injustices on TV or heard people make both obvious and subtle racist comments. Did you ignore them or did you respond? How do you feel about that choice? Do you pray about injustice? How do you pray? How do you feel after praying, and what do you expect to happen after you pray?
Recall the sermons you heard at church. Were any social justice issues addressed? Does it bother you if so? Does it bother you if not? Were you invited to apply spiritual teachings, and if so, in what ways? What do you want to experience for yourself, your spiritual community, and the world? What part might you play in making that happen?
These questions are invitations to examine our consciousness, our beliefs, and our spiritual communities with compassion. They are not meant to condemn, embarrass, or shame. If you have been spiritually bypassing and want to be more engaged but you’re afraid of getting it wrong, know that there are many safe spiritual spaces designed for that very purpose. Two I recommend are The AntiRacism Institute created by The Unity Center in San Diego, California, and the 8:46 Book Club in project_SANCTUS.
Our personal and denominational theologies are not meant to be rigid. They should be dynamic and evolving, just as we are, thanks to life’s complexities and nuances. Challenging how our spiritual beliefs and principles have been understood and practiced does not make them wrong. It makes them relevant. This is not the time to be irrelevant. This is the time to be the presence of justice.
(Originally published in Unity Magazine July/August 2021 edition)
Timing is everything. Memory helps too. I suppose I could’ve chosen another day to write this article other than the day the roofers were installing new shingles, but it was the day and time I had set aside to write, and I forgot it was the day and time they had set aside to roof. So I donned my noise-cancelling headphones, headed to the basement, and attempted to soldier on.
Noise-cancelling headphones “cancel” ambient noises by producing sound waves that are exactly out of phase with the unwanted frequencies. They work best with steady droning sounds, like airplane engine noise. The sharp loud hammering of nails into shingles a couple floors above me? Not so much. I also suppose I could have found another location to work, but thanks to the not-quite-over-yet pandemic, I wasn’t ready to venture into any public workspaces, let alone take the time to find one that was open. So I sat in my chilly basement, becoming increasingly frustrated with the whole situation.
Frustration, it turns out, is the antithesis to flow. Whether it be in-the-moment creating or every-moment Universal abundance, it drags us out of the present moment because we waste time imagining other times and spaces with much more conducive conditions. Like a virus, frustrations tend to replicate quickly. Before we know it, we’re overcome with past, present, and future grievances and irritations. Associated feelings of resentment, anger, and worry soon follow. Every subsequent event and interaction for the day now has the potential to be soured.
Frustrations are anchored by unmet expectations and imprecise interventions. I had envisioned a quiet day of solitude, the habitual and assumed conditions for optimal creativity. Not only was that not happening, but I tried to mitigate the distractions with a device that was not built for such a purpose. Frustrations are a shame catalyst: something must be wrong with me that I couldn’t remember the day’s schedule; now my already mediocre writing will suffer even more and no-one wants to read that.
We have been conditioned, in both spiritual and secular environments, to hurry a fix so that we can escape the discomfort. We tell ourselves it’s about productivity, or denying the outer, or attaining mastery over the circumstances. Some things can’t be bypassed or affirmed away. In spiritual circles we throw the word “Oneness” around a lot, while blissfully ignoring the ongoing divisions within ourselves. Jesus directed us to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We’ve been doing the second part really well, but not necessarily in the way we want to admit. How we have loved our neighbors, how we have treated each other, especially those on the margins, says a lot about how far we still have to go in loving ourselves.
The turnaround begins with a pause of acceptance. Acceptance does not mean we have given tacit approval to the situation. It is an invitation into self awareness. When we pause to accept how we feel about what is happening, regardless of the emotion, we are no longer in conflict with ourselves. Over the years too many of us have judged ourselves for not being spiritual enough because we kept feeling “negative” emotions. Hot take: Emotional regulation precedes spiritual realization. It’s why meditation works. Let’s give ourselves the space and grace to fully feel, accept, and only then, deeply love ourselves to true healing and transformation.
(Originally published in Unity Magazine July/august 2021 edition)
In the last few weeks of 2020, after almost an entire year of loss and turmoil and illness and death, the world was rewarded with a medical miracle: a vaccine against the COVID virus that had proven to be 95 percent effective—the first of several being developed. The global conversation suddenly shifted from uncertainty around how much longer we would have to endure shutdowns and sequestrations to burgeoning elation that we had finally reached the beginning of the end of the pandemic and soon, a return to normal.
I, however, was not elated. What began as a barely perceptible knot in my gut gradually expanded over the next few weeks into whole-body anxiety. I didn’t understand what was happening in me, or why. Of course, I was glad that a vaccine had become available within a year of the outbreak and that we could finally start reversing the mounting death toll. So why didn’t I feel happy?
As it happened, I was preparing a sermon series based on the book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam Dell, 2003) by the Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, Ph.D. Its theme centered on radical acceptance as a process to awaken from the trance of unworthiness in which we often find ourselves stuck. It includes taking a sacred pause to disrupt our usual pattern of distracting ourselves from pain and discomfort, then really paying attention to our body to allow ourselves to truly feel what’s happening in us, and finally following that pain wherever it may lead us.
More than once I’ve told my congregants that I give only the sermons I need to hear and that they are eavesdroppers who might benefit from my out-loud missives to myself. So I decided to practice what I was preaching and sat in my growing unease for what I hoped would be a few days, but which would ultimately turn into a few agonizing weeks.
Things got so uncomfortable I started to lose sleep over whatever was stirring in me, which is how I knew it must have been serious because I don’t lose sleep over anything! Not long after college, I famously slept through a tornado touchdown less than a mile away as well as numerous tornado sirens while living in the Kansas City area. As I mindfully paid attention and listened, the truth—like a slow rising sun—gradually made itself clear: I did not want to go back to “normal.”
To be more specific, I did not want to go back to doing church normal—gathering in a building every Sunday morning to squeeze spiritual education, inspiration, and fellowship into three or four exhausting hours. This surprised me. Like millions of other clergy around the world, I had not been able to conduct a church service in person for months. Yes, we were doing a pretty good job of putting together a virtual service, but I missed many of the elements that only in-person worship could provide: lifting our voices together in song and our consciousness in prayer, as well as breaking bread and laughing together for hours in fellowship after the service.
What I couldn’t shake, however, was the bigger truth that the “normal” church model was dying a slow death. Fewer and fewer people were attending church, with more and more young adults professing to have no religious affiliation, even though still expressing some interest in spiritual development.
Then, the pandemic disrupted everything.
I use the word “disrupt” intentionally. Many people continue to see what happened as an interruption, a navigable speed bump that temporarily slowed us down before we would soon return to our regularly scheduled pedal-to-the-metal grind. Many of us eagerly await the “return to normal.” While the phrase is a catchall for the reopening of businesses and recreation and the availability of our usual distractions, it also implies that we will go back to being just as we were before the virus.
But there’s no going back. The pandemic was not an interruption. It was a disruption: a radical change from the norm. We may not want to accept it, but we have been forever altered by this experience, knocked off course into some alternate timeline from which there is no return. And if we are being honest with ourselves, many of us do not want to go back to “normal.”
Life in the time of COVID has been unimaginably hard, and the pandemic graced us with something we hadn’t previously taken the time to do: a hard reality check. The past year of forced isolation and separation, of personal and profound losses, of dread and uncertainty, gave us all the opportunity to dive deep into ourselves and reexamine everything: how we spend our time, who we spend our time with, our jobs and the very nature of work, the meaning of home and family, and both the light and shadow of ourselves, our neighbors, and our nation.
As a result of efforts to slow the spread of the virus, we discovered so much about ourselves, for better and for worse. Inequities and injustices were exposed. Relationships of all kinds were put to the test, some breaking under the strain, others morphing to become stronger than ever. Kindnesses, from neighborly to corporate, emerged as the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” became less rhetorical and more a matter of actual life or death.
To be clear, for some of us the pandemic affirmed that we are on the right track, that who we are and what we bring to the world is on point. Yet many of us realized that the life we lived before did not support our whole being or that the pandemic adaptations spoke more to how we wanted to do life all along.
We might feel guilty about this: Aren’t we effectively saying our pre-pandemic life was somehow wrong if we don’t want to resume it? We might even feel shame, thinking something must be wrong with us that we don’t want to return to the life we had before, exactly as it was. But it’s not a matter of right or wrong. There is no right or wrong, with the situation or with us. There is only what works for us in any given moment—and those moments are always changing, and we are always evolving. That’s called growth, and it’s a good thing. As uncomfortable and scary as we might imagine it to be, outside change is also good.
As always with self-examination and inquiry, and the discomfort it brings, there is an invitation for inner healing and transformation. Any inner distresses caused by outer provocations are likely wounds from formative periods and traumas that still cry out for the reparative salve of love, and we cannot love what we do not face. It means that we have to stop ignoring the unease before it becomes a disease, that we have to break the pattern of distraction from our discomfort, that we have to make the time to pause and listen with an open heart to what our deepest, truest self is asking of us, and that we have to be brave enough to say, “Yes!”
In truth, almost everything that happened during the pandemic was likely a trigger for some soul-level injury we’ve been ignoring for years or that we buried so deep we almost forgot it existed. My injury has always been self-doubt. My well-meaning parents, doing their best to keep me safe and free of suffering, often overrode my decisions or just outright chose for me. At least that’s how I remember feeling at the time. As a result, I grew up doubting my ability to make the best choices for myself. The usual failures and disappointments of adolescence and young adulthood reinforced that message.
Fast-forward to present day, and I find myself as a middle-aged man afraid to take major risks unless I know there’s a net to catch me. It’s the antithesis of faith—not blind faith, but the spiritual assurance that all is, and will always be, well, and that God will meet me at the point of my need. It was a message I had been preaching for years, but not living fully.
So I did what some might think was crazy: I decided to quit my full-time job as a church minister at a time when unemployment rates were at their highest since the Great Depression. I partnered with another minister and friend who was feeling much the same way as I was, and we launched a new online experience called project_SANCTUS, a safe and brave online space for us to support and inspire each other in living our holiest selves.
Now, I’m not advising anyone should quit their current jobs without knowing for sure that the next one will work out. When I shared my plans with my 20-year-old daughter, her first response was, “But my college tuition is good, right?” She was very supportive after I assured her that it was.
What I am inviting us all to know is that being true to ourselves by bringing our outer experience into alignment with the truth of our inner being is how we live our holiest self, how we experience true harmony and inner peace, how we live in and from love, how we experience fulfillment and abundance, how we show up as God. So for all our sakes, listen deeply, listen bravely and honestly, and answer the call. The world needs you, the whole you, now more than ever.
(Originally posted May 2021 on vocal.media)
i am a black man
smooth skin of brown
soft hair of ebony
ivory sliver of a smile
from an island green
on limestone white and red clay
surf’s blue sheen
golden sand and sun
memories of laughter and fun
i am a black man
now in a land
of heart thumping fear
when i see the lights in the rear
hands in sight
freeze don’t fight
resist the urge for flight
what is the color of fear?
the shade of belonging?
feeling blue they do not see my value
forgiveness is pink i think
embracing myself until the sickly slick sludge of
unworthiness and self-hatred dissipates
into warm hue
i choose love
i am a black man
A True Story And Tribute To One Of Jazz's Finest
(Originally posted Feb 2021 on vocal.media)
This week we lost another living legend. Armando Anthony Corea aka Chick Corea, one of jazz piano’s giants, passed away at the age of 79. Winner of 23 Grammys, he played for other jazz legends such as Herbie Mann, Stan Getz and Miles Davis, and that was before embarking on an epic solo career. He most notably helped to usher in the jazz fusion era, and was still a prolific performer and composer. He won his 23rd Grammy last year for Best Latin Jazz Album.
I was fortunate to see him perform live, even more miraculously (and hilariously) blessed to perform with him... sort of.
Here’s how it went down…
As a music therapy undergrad, I entertained a multitude of fantasies concerning my future. As far as I can remember, none of them involved ministry, but that is what college is for. It's perhaps the final bastion of imaginative forecasting before the often somber realities of adulthood take full control. For example, I spent a few days during my freshman year, entertaining the heady delusion that I might become a professional Jazz musician.
This all began when I auditioned for one of the many student Jazz ensembles on campus. I had received about a year's instruction on basic Jazz piano during my final year of high school in Barbados. I should've been hip to the fact that being taught Jazz piano by a Jazz trumpeter probably wasn't the best way to go, but what did I know? During the audition it quickly became evident that I didn't know nearly as much about Jazz as I thought I did. Imagine my surprise when I was assigned to... the trombone ensemble!? Well every Jazz ensemble needs a rhythm section -- drums, bass, guitar, piano. So there I was, a member of my first Jazz ensemble, and now I was receiving instruction from... a Jazz trombonist. He knew his stuff and made the translation from trombone to piano well enough. My playing improved -- not that there was really any place left to go but up. And it happened that my Caribbean heritage came in handy as we learned to play the tune St. Thomas and I was the only one who could teach the drummer an authentic soca beat. At the end-of-semester ensemble concert, our group, the Jazz Bones, were the unexpected hit... at least that's how I choose to remember it. After our performance the head of the Jazz department surprised me by complimenting my playing and inviting me to come to his office on Monday to talk about getting me signed up for times to work with him the following semester.
And that's when the fantasy kicked in. I could see it plain as day...at the end of four years I'd be a music therapist by day, moonlighting in the Jazz clubs by night. I'd catch the ear of some Jazz legend who snuck into the club one night. Could I lend my talents to a studio recording? Would I sit in and jam with other Jazz greats at a benefit concert? My imagination was in overdrive for the next few days. It overshadowed the reality that I probably couldn't take classes without paying extra because Classical Piano was my major instrument. You see, as a music major I had to choose two instruments on which to perform. Classical Piano was the instrument and style that earned my admission into the conservatory; that, and the fact that I could pay full tuition without taxing their scholarship funds. Most non-performance majors would declare voice as their second or minor instrument. Having heard myself sing, I was clear that wasn't an option. And I especially didn't want to learn to sing in foreign languages. The only other instrument I played was guitar, and that was just strumming chords, not the fanciful classical finger-picking style that was required at the time.
But I was determined. Then I had what I would now call a Divine Idea, but back then I saw it as my penchant for finding loopholes (It's still a gift for finding ways around the rules, but Divine Idea sounds so much more spiritual doesn't it?) After carefully scrutinizing the catalogs and requirements I deduced that, because it was listed as a separate instrument and there was no stipulation against it, Jazz Piano as a minor instrument was a possibility. My advisor was momentarily dumbfounded when I presented my case. She argued that my major instrument and my minor instrument couldn't be the same instrument, and I argued that according to the catalog they could be and wouldn't these skills be handy as a music therapist since improvising was a large part of what we did and aren't you glad somebody discovered this wonderful option so please approve it before they close the loophole?
Application approved. Boom!
And so, with great excitement the Jazz lessons began. This time, with an actual Jazz pianist. Within three weeks we both knew we had made a terrible mistake. It was a mistake born from two assumptions that shouldn’t have come within ten feet of each other. He assumed that I understood and would commit to the hours of practice that were required to master the seemingly endless scales and riffs. I assumed I would learn by osmosis. Neither of us changed our fundamental positions, and we both learned something from the experience. I learned that raw talent is not enough for true success; it needs to be supported by an unwavering commitment to work. He learned that my commitment to not work could be just as unwavering. Eventually we settled for four semesters of miniscule to mediocre progress. I was definitely not his success story. I went on to graduate with my music therapy degree and have a successful music ten year therapy career, but after college I played less and less Jazz. Eventually my chops reverted to near pre-college form. I would be reduced to comping chords and avoiding solos. But I retained an impressive Jazz vernacular, using words like "chops" and "comping" to impress upon others that some semblance of a Jazz musician lay within.
About six years after graduation something happened that would teach me about how the power of Imagination can truly shape our reality. We were living in Lee's Summit, MO just a few miles outside Kansas City. Seemingly out of the blue, my wife Jennifer received a call from a colleague who had some tickets to a Chick Corea concert she couldn't use and she thought we might be interested, given our music background. Well of course we were interested! It was freaking Chick Corea!!
That year he was doing a "Solo Piano" tour. We learned that was code for just-me-at-the-piano-without-a-set-list-just-playing-whatever-comes-to-mind-and-it-will-be-okay-because-I'm-a-living-legend." Well, he WAS a living legend and it WAS more than okay. We sat front row center. The performance was unforgettable. Chick alternated Jazz standards with his original compositions. Sometimes he would pause between songs to talk and share his thoughts about the piece or a chapter from his storied history. Other times he played three of four songs in a row, transitioning so smoothly and subtly that I couldn't distinguish when one ended and another began. He was both transcendent and sublime, notes flooding the air in ways that bypassed the intellect and took the soul on a spontaneously creative odyssey of sound.
About three-quarters way through the concert, he spoke to us about improvising. He said it's like an artist who sets out to paint a work of art, and there's an image in mind, but the subject speaks to the artist so when the painting begins it becomes an organic process. It takes on a life of its own and any preconceived notions dissolve into the creative moment. To demonstrate, he asked for a volunteer from the audience to come on stage so that he might "paint" or musically improvise their portrait. (Yeah...you know where this is going) Without thinking my hand shot into the air. Then I looked around, stunned that it was the ONLY hand in the air. What was wrong with these people?! Was I the only one who realized that we were being given the opportunity to share the stage with one the world's greatest musicians, and we didn't have to play an instrument? Beside me, already crimson with embarrassment, Jen hissed for me to put my hand down, to which, judging by the laughter around us I whispered too loudly, "Are you kidding? I get to to share the stage with one the world's greatest musicians, and I don't have to play an instrument!" I should probably mention that I'd had a few Rum & Cokes during intermission which no doubt dulled my inhibitions.
So up onto the stage I bounded. Chick gestured towards the chair and I sat with great anticipation. He studied me for a moment, his head slightly tilted and eyes narrowed in concentration. Then he launched into a funky hip-hop flavored piece that made me think, "Yes! This is exactly what I would want to hear every time I walked into a room." I bopped my head to his rhythmic explorations. I assumed everyone in the audience was bopping their heads as well but I couldn't see anything past the edge of the stage because of the floodlights. It felt like a rather intimate experience; just me and Chick sharing space. That feeling, plus the aforementioned Rum & Cokes, just might have contributed to what happened next.
When I first made my way to the stage, I noticed that there was a tray of small percussion instruments to Chick's left. Thoroughly lost in the moment, and figuring I had nothing to lose, I stood and pointed to the instruments and mimicked playing. The intended message was, "Can I jam with you?" The erroneously received message was, "Can I jam with you...on the piano?" because next thing I know he scooted over and patted the bench next to him. The collective gasp of hundreds washed through the auditorium as I sat next to one the greatest musicians alive.
I really had to idea what I was doing. To compare Chick Corea's musical skills to my musical skills is like comparing the work of Pablo Picasso to a paint-by-number using crayons with my non-dominant hand. From the deepest recesses of my memory I excavated a few runs. Without missing a beat, and being the master musician that he is, Chick made me sound like a virtuoso. As we played together it felt like time had stopped. It hadn't. In reality our duet might have lasted half a minute, and when it arrived at its natural conclusion, the applause and cheers were deafening. I stood and took a bow, perhaps forgetting for a second that this wasn't my concert. Chick and I shook hands and I returned to my seat next to my now-beaming-with-pride wife. Her look said, "Oh yeah, that's my man!" When Chick asked "Who's next?" about a hundred hands shot into the air.
At the end of the concert, as we exited the theater, more than a few folks congratulated me on my boldness. My favorite comment came from an African-American gentleman who must have been in his eighties. He looked very dapper in his three-piece wool suit, hand-knotted bow tie and silver-handled cane. He grasped me by the elbow and leaned in to whisper much too loudly, "Son, you have balls as big as brass bells!" No higher praise was ever lavished on my impulsivity and apparent lack of boundaries.
I’m now 46 years old, hardly playing, and I've mostly forgotten many of the more mundane events of my life. My time on stage with Chick Corea will stick with me to the end, of that I’m certain. I don’t believe in Heaven as an afterlife destination. But if there was one, I’m sure I’d float down some misty back alley in the clouds to the mother of all jazz clubs, and find Chick Corea continuing to take us to new heights.
Safe home, and thanks for all the music.
A Tribute To Kobe Bryant One Year Later
(Originally posted Jan 2021 on vocal.media)
I’m a one-sport guy. Well, one-and-a-half really. I’ll tune in for the final rounds of major tennis opens. But basketball is my jam. I may or may not have thrown money out the window for a few years subscribing to NBA League Pass. And full confession, when I say I’m a one-sport guy, a watch-one-sport guy is much more honest. It’s a bit inexplicable my obsession with basketball, given the fact I was born in Barbados where cricket and football (aka soccer for you Americans) reigned supreme. Regardless, I fell in love with the game, and that affinity has only deepened over the decades. The sport created one-named global superstars: Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, LeBron, and of course, the Black Mamba, Kobe.
On January 26, 2020 the world was shaken by the news of the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash. Kobe was just 41, and four years into retirement from professional basketball. One year and a pandemic later, it’s still surreal. Kobe still means a lot to many, whether or not we knew him personally. His skill and tenacity were inspiring. He both pushed and pulled the best out of himself and those who shared the court with him. Like all our heroes, like all of us, he was a flawed human being. And like all of us, it is not our flaws that define us, but who we are in spite of them.
I wrote the following a year ago, and it rings just as true today. Rest In Power Mamba.
“Holy shit Kobe Bryant’s dead!” I exclaimed much too loudly for the serene Sunday afternoon lunch setting. One of my best friends and I were wrapping up a post-church meal at our favorite Thai restaurant when my smartwatch buzzed with the news alert: Kobe Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash. Hours later, to add to the tragedy, we learned his 13-year-old daughter and seven others also lost their lives in the crash.
You didn’t have to be interested in sports to know the name, a testament to his athletic greatness. But if you were a basketball fan, even just a casual one, this was a gut punch. Just a few highlights for the uninitiated: Kobe was basketball’s 2nd coming; the heir to His Airness, Michael Jordan; perhaps the most anticipated prospect to enter the NBA right out of high school; 5 NBA Championships; two-time NBA Finals MVP and Scoring Champion; 18 All-Star appearances; 4th on the NBA total points made list; two (not one...two) jerseys retired; two Olympic Gold medals; the only player to come close to challenging Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 1962 100-point game when he single-handedly decimated the Toronto Raptors on January 22nd, 2006 by scoring 81 points; just so we wouldn’t forget his on-court prowess, he scored 60 points in his last professional game; and oh yeah...after retiring in 2016 he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 for his film Dear Basketball because why not?
Celebrity deaths are a strange thing. I did not know Kobe Bryant. Yet the loss felt personal. Was it because his name floated in and out of the headlines for the last 25 years? Was it because his sheer determination and incomparable work ethic (aka “Mamba Mentality”) was an inspiration for millions around the world? Was it because of the beginnings of a post-basketball career dedicated to family? Was it because he was so young? Was it because it was so randomly tragic and unexpected? Was it because it triggered my own grief from the loss of my wife five years ago when she we 43? Was it because I’m the father of a daughter? Was it because we weren’t ready to let him go yet?
We do our best to find or assign meaning at times like this. If we could make sense of the tragedy maybe it would hurt less. If we knew why it happened maybe we would feel more in control. The difficult truth is that there is no meaning. Birth and death are the sides of the coin of life. We don’t know what our life will be when we are born. We also don’t know when we will die, and this is perhaps why death defines us so much more. We do know we get one shot (apologies to the reincarnation crowd), so as the transcendent (and also recently deceased) poet Mary Oliver invited us to consider, “...what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I would take it a step further and ask, “If you know, why aren’t you doing it?” If there is any meaning we can ascribe to Kobe’s death, it is this: Live life as fully and authentically as you can, and do it now.
As we sat across the table from each other, reeling in shock from the news, my friend asked, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow or next week, what would you do differently today?” She knows me well enough to know that I’m pretty much living the life I want to experience. But I gave it some thought, and shared my only regret would be not having seen more of the world. “Where would you go?” she asked, and I said Australia and New Zealand are top of my list. Turns out they were top of hers too. So in that moment, motivated by Mamba Mentality and mimosas, we began planning our trip. As we stood to leave some minutes later, with a hint of incredulity in her eyes, she asked, “Are we really doing this?” Hell yes we are.
We let ourselves believe that we don’t have all we need inside of us to achieve our dreams. In his relatively short lifetime, Kobe taught us otherwise. He taught us well.
Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr's Legacy Of Love
(Originally posted Jan, 2021 on vocal.media)
Allow me to set the scene: The steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, on an unseasonably warm February night. Not just any night, but two nights before my wedding. Jennifer and I decided to kill time on the mall after we arrived at Reagan National Airport to pick up her college best friend, only to discover the flight was running a couple hours late. It was 1999 and cell phones were not the ubiquitous appendages they are now so no heads up about the delay. We evidently didn’t call the airline for a flight status check, which led to my favorite pre-wedding memory.
We only lived about twenty minutes from the airport. We could have gone back home, but we realized we were being gifted an unexpected reprieve from the down-to-the-wire overwhelm that comes when only days away from your own wedding. So we took the time for ourselves. I don't remember why or how we ended up on the steps of the Lincoln. The FDR Memorial was Jennifer’s favorite; a life-sized walking diorama-esqe tribute reflecting various stages of Roosevelt’s life and Presidency. With its numerous water features, it was so much more dynamic and experiential than the static statue of the nation’s 16th head of state, but damn if the Lincoln Memorial isn’t still the most imposingly grand shrine of the lot.
So we found ourselves sitting on the steps, leaning into each other, talking with both an air of excitement and fatigue. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice; a surprisingly recognizable voice that was simultaneously impossible since the voice’s owner was long departed, but also because it was exactly where I should’ve expected to hear his voice. It was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr giving his transcendent “I Have A Dream” speech. Was I having an auditory hallucination? Given the look of confusion on Jennifer’s face, I clearly wasn’t the only one.
We sought out the source, and found a gathering a few yards away. A large gaggle of teenagers were piled on the steps, and on each other. Pacing back and forth in front of them, boombox held high over his head, evoking images of John Cusak’s Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything, was a somber looking man who, remarkably, didn’t fall as he locked eyes with his audience while he moved on the narrow step.We were just as transfixed. There was a weighty and palpable solemness to the occasion. Other passerbys stopped to watch and listen as well. We would learn afterwards that it was a group of high-schoolers and their history teacher from Chicago taking great liberties with the concept of ‘field trip’ as they visited various significant sites of the civil rights movement around the country.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington DC on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. Anywhere from 200,000 to 300,00 people attended the historic event. It was organized to bring attention to the civil and economic plight and rights of African Americans. Dr. King was the final speaker, and as we now know, his “I Have a Dream” speech did not originally contain the words for which the speech is called and known for. At the prompting of Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”, he abandoned his prepared text and famously improvised what might stand as the most inspirational oration of all time.
The timing of us hearing that speech, in his voice nonetheless, was poignant beyond measure. It was not lost on us that, as an interracial couple residing in Virginia, our marriage would have been illegal just a scant 32 years earlier, less than ten years before either of us were born. We were less than one generation removed from the horrific racist miscegenation laws that were the status quo of many states, including Virginia. It would take the arrest of a Virginian interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (the absolutely perfect name) and their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to bring a national end to a heinous restriction in the landmark case Loving v Virginia (again, the name just makes it that much more sweet).
In his dream Dr King envisioned a nation where we would not be “judged by the color of [our] skin but rather by the content of [our] character,” and that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Some of his dream has been realized. Much of it has not. We still live in a nation where white supremacy, while no longer the law of the land, still maintains a firm hold on the hearts and minds of millions. Many of those who laid siege to the Capitol on January 6th were carrying the flag of the Confederacy, the symbol of the states that seceded from the nation in order to preserve their right to treat other humans as chattel, and then lost a civil war over it. They did so in the name of a President who began his campaign with racist rhetoric, and who at one point claimed they were “very fine people on both sides” when one of those sides were Neo-Nazis chanting “Jew will not replace us.” Quick tip: if you're on the same side with Nazis, you might want to rethink where you stand.
It is understandable that many of us felt drained of hope that Dr King’s dream would become reality in our lifetime. Had he not been assassinated, he might have celebrated his 92nd birthday this past Friday. Who knows how much hope he would still have? Then again, who knows how much further along the path of true equality we might be if he was alive today? Regardless, my hope tank is starting to fill back up. While no single person or party can fix what ails us, on January 20th we’ll be officially moving in a new direction. The siege on the Capitol was a taste of what can happen if we don’t. And let’s be clear, we’ve tasted worse before. Looking at you Tulsa, and oh yeah, did I mention the civil war? But we assumed we had evolved past that unrestrained barbarism. We keep being told such violence isn't us, but the truth is, it’s who many generations of us have been for literally centuries.
My hope lies in the notion that we’re beginning to accept that it’s not enough to declare who we’re not. We actually have to want to be who we say we are. And it starts with acceptance that some of us have played the roles of oppressor and victim for far too long, both consciously and unconsciously; that we’re not even aware of our implicit biases around race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, or orientation; that we still struggle to accept ourselves for who we are, much less accept someone else for how they are; that we’ve placed to much emphasis on what’s happening outside of us instead of reconciling and healing what’s happening inside of us; that we will finally feel like we belong when we learn to belong to to ourselves first.
Dr. King reminded us, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As I love myself more, as we all love ourselves more, I gain hope that I will experience my dream: a world of love that works for all.
How Unexamined Beliefs Could Literally Kill Us
(Originally published Jan 2021 on vocal.media)
My Christmas paraphernalia is still out. I usually give it a week into the new year before I start thinking about undecorating. By then, well actually before New Year’s, I’m thoroughly fried on Christmas music, Christmas movies, and Christmas food, with the exception of eggnog which calls me to marshall every last ounce of my will power to stop drinking because that’s some tasty shit any time of year and thank you sweet baby Jesus the stores stop carrying it otherwise I’d probably most likely be still swilling that creamy goodness. I think I’ve made my feelings on eggnog crystal clear. Not taking down any decorations for at least a week also gets me through Epiphany. It’s when some faith traditions observe the visit of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. In Latin American and some European countries it’s called Three Kings Day (Dia de Los Reyes) and it’s sometimes an even bigger celebration than Christmas Day.
Let me take this moment to invoke my annual tradition of calling for the Wise Men to be removed from all Nativity scenes. it propagates an untruthful narrative: they were NOT at the scene of the birth. Not to get too deep into the weeds here, but every biblical account of Jesus’ birth does not included the Wise Men. And it’s pretty clear from the only passage that mentions them that it was at some undetermined time after the birth. Some call their inclusion in Nativity artistic license. I call it lazy writing. It fascinates me how those who would use Bible literalism to stir up anti-gay sentiment don’t have a problem with this prevarication. And don’t get me started on the fact that no-one knows when Jesus was really born, and the scholarly research that disputes the location of his birth. Sorry Bethlehem, it was more likely Nazareth after all, but that wouldn’t fit the narrative of the prophecies would it? Virgin birth? Give me a break.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Christmas. Even after years of believing the story as fact. It’s a time that inspires generosity and compassion like no other time of the year. It's an occasion that bridges the secular and religious worlds. As a parent, some of my most cherished memories included the glee on my daughter’s face, including this past Christmas when, as a twenty-year-old, she unwrapped one of my gifts she didn’t see coming: a custom-ordered throw featuring a medieval-era image of a man falling from a tower with the quote, “Yippee-ki-yay thy fornicator of motherhood!” Yes…Die Hard is a Christmas movie and yes she’s her father’s daughter through and through and yes I’m super damn proud of her.
I had every intention to have packed up Christmas by now, but then on January 6th, Three Kings Day, the Capitol was breached by supporters of the President in a violently ham-handed attempt to stop the certification of an election he doesn’t believe he lost. People died, and the insurrectionists were so confident in their privilege that they recorded themselves before, during, and after their crimes, then voluntarily shared their videos and pictures with the world. Millions across the country and around the world watched in real time with disbelief and shock. Millions like myself are still processing what happened, what else might happen, and as a result we’ve been caught in a limbo of swirling thoughts and emotions that leave us paralyzed.
I am a pastor, and this past Sunday it took everything out of me to focus enough to prepare and deliver a sermon, then moderate our hospitality hour over Zoom. I’m still struggling to get a handle on how I feel about this. I know I’m sad and angry. I’m conflicted that I mourn the death of the two Capitol Police officers, but that I have no sympathy for the deaths of any of the rioters, especially the Darwin Award winner who electrocuted himself repeatedly in the testicles until his heart give out from the taser he held between his legs while trying to rip a painting from the wall. I wonder what accountability would look like for those who poured fuel on ,and fanned the flames of, this dumpster fire of a coup and the misinformation that led to it. I already feel the frustration that there won’t be enough accountability. The lack of security because of “optics” compared to the unnecessarily excessive show of force for the Black Lives Matter rally adds to the weight of the systemic racism felt for so long, even more acutely since last summer.
I realize that much of my disappointment stems from my assumption that people take the time, ever so often, to do a deep dive on their beliefs; to question the ones that don’t make sense; to release the ones that don’t hold up, even if they’ve been at the core of their identity. That last one is the hardest. It’s easy to forget that our beliefs serve us, not the other way round, and it’s okay, even healthy, to change them. Too often, and too easily, in an effort to meet our intrinsic need to belong and feel loved, we adopt beliefs that both our brain and heart rally against. Loneliness and loss, real or imagined, are powerful motivators. They are also very frightening. In an effort to fill the void we let ourselves believe the unbelievable. To quell the fear, “we turn on ourselves and make ourselves the enemy, the source of the problem…[we] make others the enemy [and] the greater the fear the more intense our hostility. Our enemy becomes the parent who never really respected us, the boss who is preventing us from being successful, a political group that is taking away our power or a nation that threatens our lives.” (from Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach)
Loving ourselves is so very hard. Some of us have a lifetime of internalized negative messages to delete so that there’s space to create our own narrative. The messages came from well-meaning parents struggling with their own worthiness; from abuse and trauma; from a society placing higher value on certain insignificant metrics; from a system built on generational oppression. Some of those tapes never fully go away, and then our work is to be mindful when they start playing and turn the volume down. When we don’t love ourselves and write our own narrative, we are easily swayed by those with a compelling story who appear to love us. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, there has been a plea for the rioters to come to their sense because, “This is not who we are.” But it is who many of us are: frightened angry individuals who have not yet learned to accept and love ourselves, who can be swayed to the point of our own demise.
I no longer believe in the literal story of Christmas (or much of the Bible for that matter), but I can still appreciate its message of hope, and the reminder that there is always light in the darkness. I deconstructed my beliefs and came out the other side stronger than when I started. It was scary to challenge the beliefs I once held to be true. It still is. And fear is ego’s effort to avoid pain. Pain will not destroy us, but unexamined beliefs can. We all need a safe community and strong supportive friends who will always encourage us to challenge our beliefs and love ourselves. I am grateful for mine. They are the gift that keeps on giving.