D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: Ragged Band

Silver and Gold -- Guest Post by Ben Bishop

Ben is a cool guy. He's a good friend of my good friends, and when I met him I was struck by our mutual affinity for both literature and Jesus (it ain't as easy to come by IRL, people). A few months ago, Ben wrote a stunning and honest portrayal of what it meant to write his book, and then to fail (as of yet) to publish it. Go read it--plus all the other great stuff--at his website Ragged Band. I always leave enlightened  amused, and spurred on to create. This post is something special. It's long, which I like--since life is just so lamentably messy and can't be addressed in a neat little blog. For me, it struck a nerve of honesty that perhaps is missing from even my own discussions of the subject. I cried my guts out when I read it. 

So take some time, sit down, and read this essay from start to finish. Also, I couldn't help but think of this video, which also makes me cry. I guess I am sort of emotional these days. Because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 

 

Silver and Gold -- Guest Post by Ben Bishop

 

I seek an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, and it is laid up in heaven, and safe there, to be bestowed, at the time appointed, on them who diligently seek it.” - The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

^^^^^

 

 

The poor are ugly.

They are not demur widows in biblical robes graciously accepting alms from pastel saints.  They are young black mothers in pajama pants at the grocery store.  They are old white men with no teeth and pornography habits.  They are hardened teen alcoholics, gangbangers, pedophiles, strippers, con men, shtarkers, pimps, inveterate liars and parents perpetuating the very cycles of generational suffering that once shaped them.  They are the children of God turned old before their time by oxycontin addictions, botched abortions, and personality disorders.   They’ve never heard of Pitchfork, they don’t know what selvage denim is, and they don’t care about your organic produce.  They live hand to mouth and, my God, do they suffer.

I am a mental health counselor working in the Portland/Vancouver metro area.  My current caseload of clients is comprised of low-income seniors, many of whom live in the type of government-subsidized urban apartments or predatory single-room occupancy hotels that serve as greenhouses for the kind of stereotypes I’ve just rolled out.

In addition to my current gig, over the last decade I’ve worked and volunteered with impoverished men, women, and children in a number of different settings.  I have been a personal aid and overnight caregiver bearing witness to the loneliness and emotional frustration of the profoundly physically and developmentally disabled.  I have been a case manager for commercially sexually exploited teenage girls.  I have worked at a community mental health nonprofit and counseled at a church.  I have visited prisoners in jail.  I have advocated for impoverished elders, living alone at the end of their lives, crushed by regret and terrified at the knowledge that someday soon the gossamer thin membrane separating them from the world of the dead will vanish with a pop.  I’ve done all this and more, and now I’m contemplating getting the hell out.

My resume wasn’t really what you were interested in, though.  You want to know whether I was being hyperbolic when I sucker-punched poor folks up in the first paragraph there.  The answer’s yes, I am being hyperbolic.  I am engaging in an act of provocation when I say that the poor are ugly.  I do not for one minute believe that the poor—a broad term with vast layers and implications we don’t have space to unpack here—are morally inferior, less capable of giving and receiving love, or suffering acutely, or achieving self-actualization, or anything else human beings are capable of.  In addition to the strippers and meth cooks, the poor are also faithful family men, selfless grandmothers raising young children, unpaid rural pastors, the cheerful guys who collect my garbage and tend my landlord’s lawn.  I have met many joyful, hopeful people living below the poverty line who are choosing to break cycles of generational harm and engaging in acts of generosity even under extreme duress, and I flatly reject the idea that I, a man often transfigured into a vehicle of naked lust and murderous rage, am better than them.

I am, however, better off in many tangible ways, and here we come to the point of my hyperbole.  Poverty has incredibly negative consequences.  Not having enough money to eat, clothe yourself, afford shelter, or provide schooling or healthcare for your children?  That would break anyone.  And it does.  Poverty shoehorns human beings into its brutal crucible and holds them in the flames.  It has the power to demoralize and shatter anyone.  For the record, I’ve met and worked with a number of very wealthy people too.  When it comes to the kind of things that can grind away at the human soul, money and power are just as effective poverty.  But it sure looks more painful at the bottom.

The American poor are being crushed under the tank treads of a society that uses and derides them in equal measure.  They are harried and victimized by corporations, and abused by judicial and political systems which favor those in power.  In their oppression these systems often end up being agents of the middle class, who want the riff raff and all the headaches that accompany them kept out of sight, while still wanting access to their cheap labor and unquestioning consumption.  They pick our strawberries after all.  They buy those Nikes our ad agency helped make seem so impossibly cool.  The middle and upper classes scorn the poor, ignoring the ways in which we step on their faces while simultaneously blaming them for their own situation, as if poverty were a life anyone would choose.

Like so many of my fellow Christians I am often rankly ignorant of—or brazenly calloused to—the workings of the systems that perpetuate the subjugation of the poor.  Yet I claim to hate the evils of injustice and exploitation.  I protest that I desire justice and mercy.  Ok.  Maybe.  Turns out there’s a litmus test for that.  It is the great catch in the contract of love.  The stone, as it were, upon which men stumble and fall:  In order to truly love the poor one must join them in their suffering.

When D.L. told me that she already had a number of contributors who would be writing on the topic of whether aspiring to downward mobility was enough, I thought to myself, No problem.  I’m writing about the opposite; the idea that it might be too much.  I’ve reached a fork in the path of my life.  My friends are starting to buy houses, have children, shovel the last few nuggets of debt into the trash and begin saving in earnest.  Meanwhile my wife and I are six figures underwater, working long, draining hours in social services, and beginning to seriously consider leaping from the HMS Nonprofit and swimming desperately toward any employer who will pay us wages on which we could afford to have a child.

Money isn’t even the main thing.  It’s not as if we’re not living an incredibly privileged, eminently comfortable lifestyle.  The problem is that I’ve never figured out a way to truly love the poor and disenfranchised without becoming entangled in their problems and having to listen to their broken cries up close.  I’ve fought for a decade to somehow “serve” the poor without joining them in their squalor.  I don’t want to be pulled out of my life raft into the raging sea of their sorrows.  So, I’m standing here at the crossroads, a chilly breeze tugging at the collar of my shirt, looking back and forth between the two tracks and wondering which I’m going to choose.

When I first moved to Portland I took a job working at an aftercare facility with teenagers attempting to get out of prostitution.  One freezing February night I was standing outside the house with a 15-year-old girl when she began telling me about her life to that point.  Between drags on her Camel Light she described a childhood journey that had included a drug-addicted mother and more than 20 foster homes, all of which were merely the preface to the point where she began selling her body.  After she finished up and we headed back inside I slipped into the closet of the staff office, shut the door behind me, leaned against the water heater, and cried.  I’d come to have real affection for this girl, and the knowledge of what she’d been through was too much.

I’m tired.  Weary of bearing witness to the violence we human beings rain down on one another.  There are days when I feel wrung out like a washcloth, sick to death of trying to talk to scabby drunks holed up alone in their trashed apartments swilling mouthwash because it’s the cheapest way to dull the pain of life.  What good am I doing?  I’m tired of picking up one starfish at a time and throwing it back into the ocean.

I’m also tired of working for unprofessional, ragtag operations functioning on shoestring budgets.  Tired of making less than my friends who stock the deep freeze at Safeway.  Tired of being patted on the back and told my work must be so meaningful.  Downward mobility?  The siren call of upward mobility is pulling me towards the shore and I’m looking around, wondering who will lash me to the mast of my better angels.

And so I come, at last, to the question of where the good intentions I do occasionally have find their origin, and what it is that has kept me interested in the proposition of selfless love to this point.  For me, that means arriving at Jesus Christ.  He who surrounded himself with the stench of the poor, and had compassion on the peasant crowds, “because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.”  There are many who claim no affiliation with Jesus of Nazareth and yet love the poor more fully and selflessly than I.  There are many days when I shout at the ceiling, asking the Son of God, my so-called Lord (although it’s strange to call him that when I ignore him so much of the time), why he allows the widows and orphans to suffer, disoriented, alone, running forlorn upon the face of the earth like a hill of crazed ants, and receive only silence for my trouble.  But I cannot quit him.  His gospel is the most beautiful story I have ever heard told, and seems to me to explain the burning pageant of the world, including the existential despair that Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death,” in a way that resonates, like a morning bell, with the ring of truth.

C.S. Lewis noted with incisive clarity that, "the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."  The question for most people is not whether it is good for the broken-hearted to be comforted or the oppressed to receive justice.  The question is whether or not we ourselves want to be the comforters and the bringers of said justice.  Jesus Christ calls all who would follow him to wade out, neck deep, into the suffering of the world.  To embrace the poor, holding nothing back, aspiring not to lay up treasures in this world but in the world to come.

For all his compassion, all his non-violent teachings, all of his physical healings, Jesus was focused on eternal life.  I would argue that he defined that eternal life as something that begins here and now, but he also certainly seemed to be talking about another world as well.  He made no apologies about speaking of a heavenly kingdom, a coming day when he himself would make all things new.  A friend of mine read the following passage from the book of Revelation at my wedding:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

That passage’s searing vision of a reality different from the one I know now is the only vision with enough power to persuade me to continue on with my stumbling attempts to love the poor.  Because the prospect of sacrificing myself upon the altar of love only makes sense to me if eternity is real.  I believe that this makes me something of a small-hearted person.  Perhaps, at times, I could find it in myself, have found it in myself, to love my brothers and sisters out of a pure and selfless place in my heart.  I do not believe that I am all darkness.  But money, security, a sense of calm and order, even if predicated on the suffering of others, exert too strong a pull.  To actively put myself in harm's way and give up on the flat out sprint toward American comfort and financial security that my entire culture is engaged in requires a belief in the most basic truths of the gospel.  That heaven is real.  That God is real.  That there is one who will lead me to the rock that is higher than I and set my feet upon a firm foundation.  Not just figuratively but literally.

In writing this essay I have reflected upon how regularly and with what astonishing ease I reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to an abstraction.  Just an interesting proposition or set of philosophical constructs to be debated in post-modern, vaguely spiritual terms while I go on living a life that shows precious little evidence of any real desire to adhere to his radical, endlessly upsetting teachings.  My brother used to talk about the idea of losing your life to find it.  Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t tried hard enough.  If I might find the grail of contentment if only I could bring myself to unclench my claws from where they are buried in the idol of self-preservation.  We all end up losing our lives in the end, right?  Just let go, Ben.

It’s not that easy.  The fear of suffering is so great in me.  Too great to overcome on my own.  How wondrous then, how ecstatic and deeply comforting are those moments when I turn back, repent, and find renewal in the belief that my Redeemer lives, and that “in the end He will stand upon the earth.”  Nothing else could compel me to go on for one more day, challenging the American Dream and its legacy of bloodshed, and rebuking the part of my very own soul that wants nothing more than to run panting into the arms of material security.

Lord of Life, you’re my only hope.  Speak to me again of the incorruptible inheritance you have laid up for those who cling to the hem of your robe.  Show it to me, that I might run it through my fingers like silver and gold.

 

 

 

 

photoBen Bishop is a mental health counselor working in the Portland/Vancouver metro area.  His essays and features have appeared in The StrangerWillamette Week, and Relevant.com.  He is the editor of Ragged Band, a website devoted to the concerns of young artists and entrepreneurs.

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

talking about writing, or how much i love myself.

1.

Last year there was a very fancy literary writing conference held in Portland. I could not afford to go. In the evenings some of the teaching authors would hold short readings that were open to the public. It was held at a beautiful college just a mile away from my apartment (it may or may not have been the college that Donald Miller wished he was a real student at). I went and sat in the outdoor amphitheater, awkwardly pretending to be just fine thank you at being by myself, the only frumpy sober single gal, while published authors read tales of desperation and beauty. It was like I could touch that world, the world of being literary and great, a world where all the girls wore floppy summer hats and had agents, but I wasn't allowed in. For the rest of the summer, while my husband took our daughter to the park for a few hours a week, I would get dropped off at that same college campus. It was like an oasis from my noisy, crowded life, those two hours every so often. I would wander the library and read literary journals I had never heard of, the sit down at my old laptop and try to produce 1,000 mediocre words.

2.

This fall, I applied for a scholarship for my dream writing conference, more of a workshop really, where like-minded artistic Christians gather round for a week in the high desert to talk about faith and creativity and worship. I sweated through the application, mailed off my best stuff, and received a 50% off discount for the prestigious conference. But even then, at that rate, I could not afford to go. Besides the expense of getting there, the conference was 8 days long. I don't think it was designed for people with young children or limited amounts of time off. Regretfully, with visions of sun-soaked cabins and intense discussions on craft, I turned it down. That kind of life was for other people, not for me.

3.

Last month, I attended a free day-long writing conference held at a very well-known literary center here in the Midwest. It was put on through the public library, and seats went fast. I snapped one up, eager and excited that the cards were finally falling into place. It was free! It was local! It was literary! I arrived with a notebook and a pen and excited for a delicious day of not being a mother/wife/esl teacher/neighbor/friend (no offense to all those dear roles, I just needed a bit of a break). The keynote speaker was wonderful, a Native American woman who had some grand stories and a gentle activist spirit. The workshops on memoir and short essay writing were a bit dull, and very author-centric (they could have used a bit of the War Photographers ethics, if you asked me). But most surprising and most saddening to me was that the crowd was homogenous to the point of being laughable: the vast majority being older, white, (and by the looks of it) upper-to-middle class women. All the things my current neighborhood isn't. The conference was free, less than a mile from my apartment, and yet none of my neighbors came. I realized abruptly, sitting in that prestigious literary center, that my questions, my assumptions, and my experiences are only just starting to scratch the surface of this whole ethic of living with my neighbors in mind. Because the truth is that we are even writing about things like downward mobility because the American dream (the upward trajectory) has left a good many people behind. And even as we change surface-type things (hosting free writing conferences for the community, for example) it doesn't change the heart. It doesn't change the fact that my neighbors didn't attend. Maybe they didn't have access to a computer in which to register for the class. Maybe they are tired of being the only one with their perspective in the room. Maybe they don't feel like their voice would be valued.

I don't know the answer, and that is part of the problem.

 

//

 

I've been thinking a fair amount about downward mobility and writing. or, you could say i have been thinking about myself, which seems to be my favorite thing to do.

I've spent a fair amount of time on this blog debating how we should approach writing (or photographing, or sharing in general) people who are different from us. I walked away from that conversation with some great convictions on how to walk through life with integrity--because I realized I love living and hanging out with people very different from me, and I really love to write. And the reality is, I have to be very, very careful with that combination.

But beyond the actual content of writing, there are the practicalities. First off, I recently decided that I don't actually self-identify as a writer. There are a myriad of reasons why, which I am only just now sorting out. I am very grateful to my friend Ben over at Ragged Band for sending me some prompts about my writing process/writing life, which led me to some great conclusions. You can head on over to hear all my rambly-pambly thoughts about it.

Secondly, how does one learn to write better? I have always wanted to go to a writing conference, for instance, but it doesn't really pass benchmarks I have been trying to live by: is what I want readily available for my neighbor? Is what I want good for my neighbor? I don't know who first introduced me to these two questions, but they sort of ruined my life. They make every decision that much more complicated, the stakes just a bit higher--even attending a writing conference. But those questions are spurring me on to be a better neighbor, to always carry thoughts of them with me, wherever I go.

 

Writing, identity, vocation, art, community, solidarity, downward mobility. It isn't nearly as nice and tidy as I would like it to be. I'm still figuring out this writing thing (I have had a few other adventures in community writing classes, the likes of which I don't feel comfortable sharing here yet), but I am grateful for the struggle. It makes me sharper, gracious, acutely aware of how far the kingdom is and blessedly assured that just a little leaven goes a long way.

 

Our little attempts to love each other mean something. All these questions, means something. We are hanging on to what Jesus said sums it all up, the laws and the prophets, the dreams and the aspirations: we are trying to love our God, to see him everywhere. And we are trying to love our neighbors, even as much as we love ourselves.

 

In the vein of writing/identity and all that, you can also check out an interview I did over at Heather Caliri's site. She is doing an amazing series on what saying "yes" can do. She interviewed me by Skype and I got ALL evangelical up in there. It is quite the sneak peek into my every-day life, which I don't talk about too often in these parts. 

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