explorative musings, in all shapes and sizes, on spirtual and social things

hanging on to god, by an invisible wire

He might be dead now. Once a week, I get a letter from his social worker about a medical appointment that he needs to be reminded about. I do nothing with them. They just pile up on my desk and remind me that I don’t know where he is or how to reach him. The last time I heard from him was a month ago. His cell phone is disconnected. He has not been on the corner of Shattuck and College Avenue, selling newspapers for people’s spare change. The last time we spoke was over lunch at a restaurant in downtown Berkeley. “I can’t go back to the streets this time,” he told me. “I won’t do it.” The following thing he said only with his eyes: If I lose my apartment, I will kill himself.

His name is Oliver Hugh but he goes by Big Man. I had just left a Pentecostal concert in San Francisco the night we met. Had I not been so troubled by what I saw after the concert, we might never have. Instead of walking home from BART, I made my way to the nearest bar. The residual power of the Holy Spirit was simply not enough for me that night. I needed gin. After the concert, I observed hundreds of Pentecostals unnoticingly pass a homeless man begging for spare change. Wasn’t the point of being filled with the Holy Spirit to love other people? Isn’t that what we meant when we sung about bringing heaven to earth? Once the crowd cleared, I asked the homeless man if he is treated better after Christian concerts. “Oh man,” he said, intuiting my real question, “I gave up on Christians a long time ago.” Gin.

Big Man and his friend were sitting on the sidewalk next to a trashcan a block away from the bar. “Can I interest you in buying a Street Spirit tonight?” he asked me. It was 12:30 in the morning and the bar was going to close soon. “I don’t have any cash,” I said, trying to hurry away. “Sorry,” I said dryly. “How about you sit down and have a conversation with us instead,” Big Man said. “That’s better than money, anyway.” Somewhat begrudgingly, and not without pangs of hypocrisy, I sat down.

Big Man is indeed a big man. He is a fifty-something African American with a shaved head. He weighs around 450 pounds. The streets have written their stories on his body: it is large and rough and tired and scared but, somehow, still soft and beautiful. His hands and arms are covered with scabs. The last time I saw him, just after lunch, he told me that he needed to go to the hospital. Big Man is in and out of the hospital; that did not surprise me. It is as though he has a new illness every time I see him. What did surprise me was his concern that he might go into the hospital and never come out. “I can’t even smoke now,” he told me between breaths, coughing. “You know how bad I gotta be not to smoke.” I did.

Big Man grew up in the projects of West Oakland. As a teenager, he joined a gang notorious for, in his words, “taking people out.”   I don’t know the whole story, but I do know that his involvement with them landed him in a federal prison for over ten years. Once he got out of prison, his father, a former black panther, supposedly disowned him. “Said he never wanted to see my face again,” Big Man told me. I knew he left something out of the narrative, but I let it be. Left without a family or the financial means to secure a home, Big Man had nowhere to go but the streets. In order to cope, he became an addict. His poisons are alcohol and heroine. He has been on and off the streets ever since.

You might not know it, talking to him. His laugh is boisterous and his personality is magnetic.   He smiles, beautifully.  Big Man is deeply depressed, though. I often count the number of people that pass him while he is selling newspapers. Most people treat him like he is invisible. Some look at him like he is polluting their air. Subjective consciousness is constituted through social interaction.   What would it be like to internalize invisibility and repulsion, I wonder? Big Man has no family. He has only a few friends. He suffers from immense guilt as a result of his position in society and because of his addictions. I once asked him what keeps him alive amid such dire circumstances. He told him that it is his cell phone. When I laughed, he corrected me. It could be weeks before someone found him dead in his apartment, I think.  He is hanging on to life by an invisible wire, I think.

Big Man believes in God, and he claims to have a personal relationship with him.   He told me that he talks to God “all the time” and that, on occasion, he hears God talk back to him. Lately, he said, God has been telling him to stop using dope. That is part of the reason he has been experiencing challenge in his life, he told me: because God is trying to teach him a lesson.

This prompts an interesting puzzle (and a worthy empirical question): how can someone like Big Man hold on to an idea of a personally loving God? What makes this tenable? In a secular age such as ours, in which faith is no longer axiomatic, he has good reason to reject the idea. So I asked him. In response, he told me a story. He said that, just recently, he was on the verge of “taking himself out the game” because he did not have enough money to pay his rent. “I was going to smoke a little dope, get my dick sucked, and then go to sleep and never wake up again,” he said. Shortly before he prepared his overdose, however, he got a call from a friend. His friend told him that he would deposit enough money in his bank account for him to pay his rent. “At that moment,” he said, “God made me a believer again.”

God has many functions in our culture. For many, He is a weapon used to win a political argument and reaffirm a subcultural identity. People are concerned that secular culture is killing God or that God needs to be more like Bernie Sanders. And so they post things on Facebook. All the while, in another universe, some three miles from their computer screens, people like Big Man are looking for God to show up in the form of human benevolence, just to keep breathing.  Still, Big Man is convinced that he’s the one in sin.


love on haight and a nearly bristleless, beaten up old broom: a fragment on homelessness

I see him at least once a week on my way to the gym. He’s usually in front of Peet’s, sipping a cup of coffee. Once I saw him sweeping a busy Berkeley street corner with a nearly bristleless, beaten up old broom. How lovely, I thought. We used to talk regularly but ever since he told me that I was Satan’s handmaiden because I attend the Graduate Theological Union, I have avoided conversation.

Still, every time I pass him I ask myself what keeps him going and how it is that he still believes in God: waking up on the streets every morning, cleaning it with a broken broom like it’s his actual home, experiencing threats and assaults, and then going back to sleep just to do it all over again.

What’s the point?  Why doesn’t God help him find a home?

It is difficult to determine how many homeless people there are in this country. The reports that are available vary wildly, and this variance has a lot to do with who is counting and how.

One congressional report in 2013 found that, on any given night, there are roughly 600,000 people without a home. That same report estimated that just fewer than 25% of the homeless are children, and that the rate of homelessness has been declining steadily since 2007.

A 2014 report issued by the National Center of Family Homelessness indicates that there are over 2.5 million homeless children in the United States: roughly one in every thirty. California, the report found, has one of the highest rates of child homelessness and does one of the worst jobs in the country caring for them.

“Can I offer you guys some cigarettes?” I asked. “Oh, yes, please, brother.”

Their names, I came to find out later, were Phoenix, Mexico, and One Love.  They were hanging out in front of the jazz club in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district that I often go to on my night off.

I wasn’t being a Good Samaritan, mind you: I offered them cigarettes in the hopes of hearing a bit about their stories and whether or not there is a spiritual thread that ties them together. As I get closer to deciding on a topic for my dissertation, I have begun to seriously consider doing an ethnography on the spirituality of the homeless poor.

“Can I ask you guys a question,” I asked. They looked at me suspiciously.

“I guess so,” Mexico said.

“Well,” I said, unsure how the question might be received, “I am curious what you guys think love is.”

One Love, who was holding up a sign that read “One Love” and who I figured would jump at the question, just looked at me, intently.

Phoenix dove in first.

“Let me give you an example,” he said. “A week ago, I was just hanging out on the street with these guys, right? Just like I am now. And then, out of nowhere, this girl shows up.”

His face was radiant. A romantic, I thought.

“Within a few hours,” he continued, “we were spilling our souls into each other and making out. I don’t know man,” he concluded, in a striking shift of perspective, “but I think love is the source of every emotion.”

As I thanked Phoenix for sharing his story with me, a Scandinavian man walked up to them and passed around a number of sandwiches wrapped in foil, a few glasses of red punch, and a handful of bananas.

“How about you,” I asked Mexico as they thanked the man and began eating. “What do you think love is?”

“Basically,” he said pensively, his eyes roaming the streets, “it’s being good to another person as much as you can be.”

He went on to liken his definition to a few stories in the Bible, which I had a hard time following. Initially I was too concerned with how wrong he was getting the stories and not concerned at all with how right the stories were for him.

“And this guy isn’t joking,” Phoenix chimed in, eagerly. “Just two nights ago he talked me out of ending everything,” he said. Phoenix was on a bridge—I presumed the Golden Gate Bridge—and Mexico convinced him not to jump. “You’re not done yet,” Mexico told him.

I looked over at One Love. He asked me if I was hungry and then turned to Mexico and Phoenix to see if they wanted to shoot heroine. That was the only thing he said about love. It ran up my veins.

We all see the homeless in different ways. Some of us think them a drag on the economy and the result of laziness. Others see personal pain and brokenness. Some, like myself, often see a social problem that needs to be corrected.  Others see fear, as though it’s the manifestation of what psychologist Erich Fromm considered humanity’s biggest one: alienation.

After my father died, my mother began working at a non-profit in San Diego that sought temporary homes for pregnant women without a home. In some sense, it was her courageous way of transforming her pain into something good. A few years later, she became the president of that non-profit and shifted its focus to caring for the needs of homeless and at-risk youth. In time, the kids became like family to me. Hardly a week passed when I didn’t end up sharing my bedroom with one of them. To this day, they remain some of the most beautiful people I know. Just recently, one of them, just over twenty, died after a long battle with her health.

This is written with her lovely memory in mind.

There is a problem, of course, with people like myself who see the homeless only as a problem—whether a problem of theirs or ours or some combination of the two. The problem is that we miss something of their humanity (and ours, I’d argue) and the answers they have already come up with.

Of course, we must be careful not to romanticize another group’s suffering: homelessness is an unnecessary and alterable tragedy that breaks and kills people.  We each share a responsibility for it. At the same time, however, we should also be careful not to miss the beautiful things that grow in unlikely places.

We can learn a lot in these places. I certainly do.

“Well,” Mexico said as I flicked my cigarette to the street, “why are you so interested in love?”

I took a breath, lit another cigarette, and told Mexico and the guys a bit about the suffering that I have experienced in my life and how that has driven me to understand something more about love in order to, in however small a way, create something good for others.

I expected them to be unsympathetic. Surely my suffering is nothing compared to theirs. I experience privileged suffering; it’s supported by a foundation that they don’t have. I don’t have to worry about where I am going to fall asleep or whether I am going to eat or if I am going to be attacked every day.

To my surprise, however, after I told them my story, Mexico stood up from the sidewalk and gave me a hug. “If you ever need someone to talk to,” Phoenix said, “we’re here for you.” One Love tapped his sign a few times and smiled.

Somehow, whatever it is, love is everywhere. I gather this is something that keeps people going.

the beauty (and love) in hell: the first week in the Spiritual Exercises


In a way, I miss hell.  It’s strange to feel this way.  Strange because I don’t believe such a place exists; strange too because, as a kid, when I did believe in such a place, when it thread the fabric of my identity, it caused an immense amount of unnecessary suffering.  Sometimes I marvel that, as a result of that unnecessary suffering, I didn’t slipped into a permanent psychosis–a sort of living hell.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) is not an uncommon name.  Even in evangelical circles.  He is most recognized as the founder of the Jesuits (a prominent Catholic order) and the architect behind the Spiritual Exercises (SE).

In essence, the SE are meant to help a person order all of her or his affections to the glory of God and the salvation of one’s soul.  The SE consist of a four week program.  In the first week, which I want to jot a brief word about here, a person is encouraged to experience oneself as a destitute sinner before God; in Ignatius’s metaphor, as one whose spirituality was influenced by the courtly love literature of his time, a fallen knight, humiliating before his court for failing his King .  Part of this requires a meditation on hell.  Ignatius encourages people to use all five of one’s senses to fully absorb into the imaginative experience of hell: to see, with the eyes of one’s imagination, the huge flames that millions of souls are enflamed in; to smell the “smoke, the sulfur, the filth, and the rotting things”; to taste the bitter flavors of tears, sadness and the “worm of conscience”; to touch the flames burning souls alive.

One has not be careful here.  Ignatius, who developed the SE based on his own experience, in his own milieu, after decades of revision and adaptation in conversation with others, did not have a deprived perception of humans or of creation.  In his cosmology, creation was created good. All of the world, and everything in it, is intended to facilitate that goodness.  To receive and give love, basically.  Somewhere along the way, however, things ran amuck.  Our affections became disorderly.  We got drunk on sin; on pain.  Christ, in his view, came to help humanity reorder the disorder; to mend our woundedness with His loving affection.  Ultimately, by absorbing imaginatively in the history of creation, and of the fall, which the SE do not explain in mythical detail, in addition to the life of Christ–the savior; the one who came to reorder our disorder–the SE purport to help people get back to their underlying goodness.  To desire love rather than pain.

Toward that end, the first step is purgative.  It’s meant to purify; not kill.  Ignatius is careful to tell people not to practice anything that will cause undue harm.  The meditation on one’s sinfulness–on hell, the ultimate consequence of sin–is meant to put a fire us: to drive us away from pain and closer to love.  In this, I see something beautiful–and, indeed, loving–in the notion of hell.  Without it–an awareness of how terribly things can run amuck; of how much pain we can cause each other–one may be less motivated to create beauty in themselves and in the world; to order ‘all things” to love for love.

To be sure, this is not a novel insight.

For many evangelicals, and Catholics, hell has yet to freeze over.  In a way, I hope it does.  Pigs, I hope, soon, will start to fly.  It seems to me like we may be on that trajectory.  If that does happen, may we not lose the beauty and love in the flames that are meant to inspire and create love rather than destroy and create unnecessary fear.

Or perhaps it’s just me.  But as I began to read the SE for my history comp, for the first time, really, I began to, again, feel the pain of the pain that I cause.  I found myself asking what Ignatius suggest that I ask for: a sense of sorrow and confusion over who I am.  It’s not easy to bear; it’s a lot to hold.  This fire, though harsh, is also gentle, however.  Ultimately, it’s a loving flame–and one that I need.

john humphry noyes: a biographical sketch


(from time to time, as a means to prepare for a comprehensive exam on the history of Christian spirituality, i will jot some biographical sketches on here about people who interest me on the question of divine/human love.  they are intended simply as a thought-project and will be nothing to write home about)

John Humphrey Noyes (1881-1886) is one of the more interesting figures in the history of Christian spirituality.  He founded the Oneida community which is arguably one of the most successful communist experiments in American history.  Some of his most famous works include Bible Communism (1848) and HIstory of American Socialisms (1870).  Noyes is particularly fascinating because of what he did with his obsession on the relationship between sex and divine love.  He is one of the few figures in Christian history to create an embodied spiritual practice that was sex-positive.  Sex, experienced the right way, can be one of the best spiritual practices (next to work and music) that cultivates a lived experience of divine love; that leads one, in his words, “into the boundless ocean of God’s love.”  This is a radical departure from Origen, who saw sex as antithetical to a lived experience of divine love (Noyes would have likely called Origen something of a devil since he thought that the devil was responsible for the idea that sex was problematic).  For Noyes, however, monogamous relationships bespoke the essence of sin: pride and exclusivity.  “Special love,” a love between only two people, was a form of idolatry and a sin against God.  In order to break this bondage, but affirm the importance of sex as a means to God, Noyes created “complex marriage.”  At Oneida, complex marriage meant that every man was married to every woman and every woman was married to every man.  Under this ideology, one could legitimately practice what Noyes initially called “free love” (though it was only free if a given relationship had his sanction).  This idea was justified by Noye’s belief that Christ had already come back, around the year 70, and that humanity was therefore living in the time that Jesus spoke about when he said that, in heaven, there will be not be marriage as we have known it.  Some think that monogamous marriage is breaking down (I hope they are wrong, personally).  Here, in Noyes, and his rather successful project at Oneida, we see an example of a Christian sub-culture ahead of, rather than behind, its times.

An excerpt from Noyes’s Bible Communism:

The abolishment of sexual exclusiveness is involved in the love-relation required between all believers by the express injunction of Christ and the apostles, and by the whole tenor of the New Testament. ‘The new commandment is, that we love one another,’ and that not by pairs, as in the world, but en masse. We are required to love one another fervently,’ (1 Peter’ 1: 22,) or, as the original might be rendered, burningly. The fashion of the world forbids a man and woman who are otherwise appropriated, to love one another burningly – to flow into each other’s hearts. But if they obey Christ they must do this; and whoever would allow them to do this, and yet would forbid them (on any other ground than that of present expediency to express their unity of hearts by bodily unity, would ‘strain at a gnat and swallow a camel;’ for unity of hearts is as much more important than the bodily expression of it, as a camel is bigger than a gnat.

looking back and leaning forward: reflections on an evening of amare (by jonathan orbell)

My car slowed to a stop on Linden, a couple blocks away from College Avenue in Berkeley. I got out and slowly approached the idyllic, two story house temporarily inhabited by my dear friend Paul. This house, like so many in Berkeley, contains an alluring mix of luxury and disrepair. As my mother – a real bohemian at heart – would say, “it has such character!”

I knock on the door, and I am excited when another friend – another graduate student named Graham – greets me. While Graham and I have not spent too much time together, I feel at ease around him. He is a scholar through and through, and despite his intelligence – a trait it is impossible to overlook if you have ever spoken with Graham – he never lets academic pretension get the better of him.

Paul comes downstairs after finalizing his preparations for the evening “amare” service at an episcopal church in San Rafael. The service is, as he describes it, is meant to assist visitors in “[cultivating] a felt sense of God’s loving presence.” After taking a few minutes to gather all our things, Paul, Graham, and I pile into the small Toyota hybrid sitting outside and set out for Whole Foods. There, we are meant to pick up Daniel – another friend of Paul’s I have previously met, and whose presence I thoroughly enjoy – before making for Marin County on the opposite side of the San Francisco Bay.

On the ride across the bridge, our conversations are not exceptionally profound or academic. Mostly, we catch up. I ask how Daniel and him and his wife enjoy living in the Bay Area, having moved only a short time ago. They inquire about my recent marriage. As I describe where life has taken me over the last eight months, I feel understood, and I seemingly never have to elaborate on my thoughts or statements. I get the distinct sense I am with company whose thought lives somewhat mirror my own, and am certain their interest in my life is genuine.

But my mind is on other things. I am eagerly anticipating the evening’s service, and the transformative encounter with the supernatural that is sure to transpire. After all, the whole point of the evening was to provide a context in which service participants could truly feel God’s love. The hope was to transform this abstract, vague principle into a felt reality. Surely, few experiences could be quite so powerful.

With the service already underway, we walked into the sanctuary and took our seats in the sparsely populated pews. The evening was to be composed of musical selections, scriptural readings, moments of silence, and traditional Christian rituals, all of which were meant to remind us that we are loved, and to assist us in experiencing this love more powerfully.

It may then come as a surprise that my profound encounter with a supernatural amare did not occur (at least not in the way I thought it would). Instead of ruminating on the lyrical content of songs, I caught myself mindlessly singing them. I found it difficult to get out of my own head, and to get beyond my self-consciousness, a problem that has pervaded every one of my admittedly few attempts at genuine meditation. After all, maybe the way I was sitting/breathing/blinking/existing really was distracting everyone else and causing them to have the same level of difficulty focusing. As I write, I realize how conceited that sounds. But, there it is.

After a period of silence, and the provision of the Eucharist, the service ends, and it’s participants slowly migrated upstairs to a room in which the church’s youth group regularly meets. There waiting for us were bottles of wine and whiskey, along with some paper cups. After we were all seated, with drinks in hand, we began to share, discussing aspects of the service that resonated most deeply. My peers’ thoughts are uniformly insightful, penetrating, and vulnerable.

Eventually, our evening in San Rafael came to a close. Paul, Graham, Daniel, and myself piled back into the hybrid, and started to head home. While the others are discussing the feasibility of living out Jack Keruoac’s On the Road in today’s surveilled state, I found myself wondering why I was unable to experience God’s love in a way that my peers surely could.

Was my soul numb to such experiences? Did my hyper-analytic mind render me unable to feel love, even in a context devoted to cultivating such feeling?

It took me a few days to work through this question, and I eventually realized how misguided it was. In the meantime, however, I assumed something in me was broken, defunct, or missing.

In reality, I was experiencing this love, just not in the times and places I was searching for it. In fact, the moments I felt most confident in God’s enduring love for me were not in the service at all (I’m sure more experience in meditative practices will be required for me to reap the spiritual benefits).

Rather, love served as the bookends to my night. It was permeating our trip over the bay, a ride I was sharing with men I had known a relatively short period of time, but whom I feel disproportionately comfortable with. It was taking place in the discussion after the service, as our group freely shared stories of struggle, love, and faith with one another. My evening was initiated and punctuated by God’s love. Indeed, with this group of scholars, I see God providing me with an intellectual community that I sorely need, and in that provision, I come face to face with a tangible and divine amare.

Now, with the luxury of hindsight, I have become aware of this wonderful truth.

lonnie frisbee documentary now on youtube

without lonnie frisbee, calvary chapels and horizon christian fellowships would not exist. neither would vineyards or bethels. at least in the way they do today.

frisbee, the hippie preacher who met jesus on an acid trip and died estranged from the movement he helped create, is the archetypical “jesus freak,” and one of my favorite historical figures. his influence on (neo)pentecostal spirituality, which has been largely overlooked, is remarkable. one of the few resources on his life, a documentary which came out in 2005, is now available in its entirety on youtube. here’s the link if you’d like; it’s worth a watch, whatever your religious mindset.


i wish this didn’t have to be beautiful

I don’t know how he’s smiling right now, I tell myself.  How he’s laughing.  Where the glimmer is coming from.

“Look at this, dog,” he says, pulling up his sleeve.  It’s a nasty infection; it takes up half of his arm.  “I’ve had it for two weeks now. Nurse says it’s probably in my blood.”  I recall that I shook his hand a few minutes ago.  I bet I have Ebola now, I tell myself.  I feel guilty for thinking it.

He’s up to 500 pounds, I think.  His clothes are stained.  He smells foul.  Said he’s relapsed again.  Trying to start again.  Again.

“Street Spirit tonight, miss?  Street Spirit, sir?”  Eight out of ten people that pass don’t look at him.  He must be used to it, I think.  What a terrible thing to get used to, I think.  I don’t think I could get used to that.

It’s 11PM.  We’re sitting on the corner of Shattuck and Kittridge.  Right next to Peet’s coffee.  He’s selling newspapers in order to make some money to eat.  He’s sipping a coffee.  There’s at least ten little bags of sugar in there.

“I’m tired of this shit, man,” he says.  “I don’t know much longer I can do it.”  “You’re a lion,” I say.  “It takes the strength of a lion to survive this jungle.”

“You think so?”  “Yeah,” I say.  “I’m sure of it.”  I mean it.  I really, really mean it.

“What keeps you going,” I ask.  “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Big Man,” he responds.  “He keeps me going.”

Strange, I think.  He believes in God?  This man is homeless.  He’s been homeless.  For at least ten years, off and on.  Kicked out of his home.  In and out of prison.  In and out of the hospital.  Where’s God been for him lately?

“God’s teaching me a lot right now,” he tells me.  “Telling me I can’t keep shooting dope.”

No shit, I think.

“Do you feel God’s love for you right now,” I ask.  “I do,” he says, confidently.  “In people.”

Even more strange, I think.

“Snap out of it,” he says, perception to my malaise.  “Aw, man, I should be the one down right now,” he says, laughing.

“Street Spirit tonight, Mam?  Spear some change to help the homeless get something to eat?”

Hero of faith, I think.  Delusional, others say.  Part of the problem, many say.  But he’s still going, I think.  He’s out here–trying.

It’s a mystery to me–how beautiful this is.  I wish this didn’t have to be beautiful.  This shouldn’t be beautiful, I think.  But it is.