Spikes and All

Priests and punk rock don’t often mix.  As open as I am about my past, stories from that phase of my life don’t often make it into my sermons.  Yet this Christmas, I reached way back to high school to tell the story of a brief conversation with Maggie (not her real name).  And for what may well be the first time in history, a tale of black leather and spikes managed to find its way to Bethlehem.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I liked preaching it.

Christmas, 2016

We’ve got three teenagers at home which means that in addition to the joy of watching them grow into young men and women, we’ve also had to endure our fair share of rebellion. But as difficult as their angst can be for us to endure, I try to take it with a grain of salt. Because to be fair, I put my parents through worse.

Kirk Mowhawk 1
If you’ve seen my Mohawk pictures then you understand just what I mean. My rebellious phase started harmlessly enough- camouflage army pants and some heavy metal sprinkled in with the prog rock. But once my parents announced their divorce things took a much angrier turn. In a matter of months I transformed from suburban dork to punk rocker.

I got a black leather jacket and started wearing the shirts of scary bands. As things progressed I added spiked bracelet and Doc Martens. And as much as it bothered my parents it also made me stand out in the preppy halls of Haddonfield Memorial High School. But here’s the thing about my punk rock phase, no matter how much paraphernalia I piled on, in my heart of hearts I didn’t reflect who I really was. I was really just a poseur.

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Haddonfield High

But there was one kid at school who wasn’t. Maggie was a genuine punk, one of few in all of Haddonfield. Her hair was dyed jet black and her nose pierced which, in 1986, was a MUCH bigger deal than it is today. She knew everyone in the scene on South Street. But her biggest credential was getting arrested. The rumor was that she got picked up for hopping the turnstile of the PATCO High Speed Line coming back late from partying with the other punks. No matter what percentage of my wardrobe came from Zipperhead, I couldn’t hold a candle next Maggie.

Anyway, one day I saw her walking down the hall and noticed that the back panel of her leather jacket had been completely covered with two-inch long spikes. I caught up and told her how cool it was. Maggie smiled and said, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?”

A hug? Really? But I suppose that’s was the point (no pun intended). At the time I really didn’t give it any more thought. But now I realize that her quip, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?” was in fact an extremely serious statement. Far more than just an expression of teen angst those spikes were armor… armor meant not for her body, but for her heart.

And you know what? I bet it worked pretty well. If someone was going to get scared off by those spikes, well then in Maggie’s mind that was someone who wasn’t worth getting to know anyway. But, if a person was willing to make the effort- to look beneath all the leather and scary exterior and still managed to see the creative and caring person underneath, well then that was a person who was worth getting to know… someone who was worthy of her trust.

For the most part, I’ve long since outgrown that rebellious phase. But you know, as far removed as I am from being that angry young man who tried to freak out my parents and scare the holy heck out of the rest of the school, there are times when I am still haunted by the same feelings of insecurity and doubt that so plagued my adolescence. When that happens, when people let me down or I begin to doubt myself, my instinct is to once again armor up and try and protect my heart against more hurt and disappointment.

I suspect I am not alone. Because regardless whether you were a cheerleader, a nerd or if the only leather you ever in high school wore were Sperry Topsiders, there is something universal in the urge to take your pain and project it outwards.

The unfortunate truth is that some of us are still putting on an act or erecting barriers, just daring anyone to actually try and get close. And it doesn’t matter if we wear a suit, work boots or a lab coat, when it comes to our pain and feelings of vulnerability we might as well be wearing Maggie’s spiked leather jacket.

The only way we know to protect ourselves is to keep others at a safe distance. Unfortunately, if we wear it long enough, we forget how to take it off and how to let people in. In the name of self-defense we drive person after person away. Then we look around at our lonely lives and start to wonder if we really are unlovable.

If that describes how you feel, then maybe it’s finally time to try something different. If you’re tired of being lonely, if you’re tired of being held back by fear, if you hurt so badly that all you can seem to do is to lash out at the very people who are trying to help, if what you want more than anything else in the world is for someone to love and accept you for who you really are, then I want you to know that this night is for you. Tonight, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are reminded us of the incredible truth… namely that no matter how many layers of armor we put over our wounded hearts, there is nothing we can do that will scare G-D off.

In fact it’s just the opposite. G-D sees through all the layers of our anger and pain and G-D… G-D loves us anyway. G-D loves us so much that he was willing to do whatever it took to close that distance we had created. In order to draw close to us again he came down from heaven and became one of us.

Born in Bethlehem, Jesus joined us in the whole range of our human existence. That means he knew doubt, isolation, betrayal, anger, fear, grief and all of those other terrible emotions which have caused you to withdraw or to push others away. Yet, no matter how bad things got, in spite of all the pain, Jesus refused to give up on us. In fact, Jesus loved us so much that he allowed himself to be broken so that we had the chance to be made whole.

That’ sounds too good to be true.  Imagine what that must be like… to have someone who looks at all your mistakes you’ve, at all the people you’ve hurt, at the whole of your messed up and messy life and somehow, still love you anyway. If that’s true then it means is that Jesus is someone you can trust with your heart. Jesus’ love for us is so great that if we let him, he is willing to hug us, spikes and all.

Such a relationship would change everything. To finally have someone who accepted you without condition or judgment… someone who could look past your anger and see the pain that lay beneath it… someone who you didn’t make you feel ashamed… someone you didn’t have to push away. To have someone like that would have to be some kind of miracle.

Well guess what? That miracle… that two thousand year old, heartbreaking, universe-changing miracle, that is what we celebrate tonight. In the birth of Jesus G-D comes into our world once again, and he comes so that you might finally know the love and acceptance you’ve always longed for.15673076_1246014532144500_3635799269079202813_n

Tonight you have a choice. You can go about your life as you always have; holding onto your pain, refusing to let go of your anger and doing your very best to keep G-D and everyone else at a safe distance, OR…. or just for tonight you can take a risk and choose to believe that Jesus just might be worthy of your trust. You can dare to let him see you without your armor. Just for tonight you can let your guard down just long enough to let Jesus come close, open his arms in love and hug you, spikes and all. AMEN

Stage Diving Elijah (with a little help from his friends)

Kirk Mowhawk 2

The “whole can of Aquanet” version of my mohawk.

The blood was starting to crust around my nose as the roadies changed the set.  The adrenaline high was wearing off as I surveyed the crowd.  My sense of self righteousness ebbed with it and instead of iconoclastic I found myself feeling a alone in a room full of strangers.  As you might have guessed this post continues the tale of  Elijah with a Mohawk.

Fortunately it wasn’t long till the headliner, the Dayglo Abortions, took to the stage.  With their straight ahead punk, the pit was not nearly as violent or intense as it had been with the previous bands.  Soon into the set the stage diving began.

Minutes later, there I was, perched on the edge of the stage, the music pounding and grating behind me… the crowd surging 6 feet below me. I was giddy and terrified and entirely unsure of what I would do next.

Before I tell you how I got there, let me explain what I was doing.   For those of you who are not familiar with the practice, stage diving is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  Someone climbs up on the stage and then leaps out into the crowd.  Of course it is all dependent upon what happens next, namely that the crowd will catch them. Thankfully this happens most of the time and one surfs the crowd before being lowered back to their feet.

Getting back to the story, when the set began I was up towards the front.  As the pit crashed about to my left, I noticed a group of skate punks trying to climb up on the stage so they could dive.  Because they were only fourteen or fifteen and pretty scrawny to boot, they were having some problems scaling the sheer face of the stage.  After watching their struggles for a while, I walked over, put my interlaced fingers down to form a step and motioned towards the stage.

It didn’t take long for them to accept the invitation.   One by one I flung them up onto the stage and one by one they gleefully hurled themselves out into the crowd.  By the time they had all made their way back to where we started, I noticed they were looking at me.  Two of them stooped down in front of me and offered their hands to help boost me up.

stage diving

I hesitated for a moment.  I had never done this before.  When it comes to stage diving, one’s size can be a serious liability.  Although I was about 25 pounds lighter than I am today, I was still hesitant.  Would the crowd actually catch me or would they spread out in fear and allow me to crash onto the concrete floor?

Then I felt the other two pushing me forward.  Cautiously I stepped up onto the hands and collectively they heaved me up.  And that’s how I came to be standing there in a blood soaked “Rebel for Jesus” shirt, looking out at the roiling crowd.

Just an hour before I had looked at the same crowd and seen the prophets of Baal.  Now I saw my new friends.  Then I had sought to defeat them all singlehandedly.  Now I was counting on them to save me from my own insanity.  I took a deep breath and drove.

Brotherly Shove (a lesson in Pit-iquette)

I really enjoyed your feedback to last week’s post. I have seldom gotten as many comments on my hair (unless it was from the hookers who worked off of Granville Street in Vancouver). But in reflecting on those days I realized that not everyone reading it may have fully understood the subculture I was describing and so what follows is a theological reflection that may deepen your understanding of what I was describing.

Mosh_Pit_by_Shadow_TanninThe mosh pit, or just the Pit for short, is a scary place. That is no accident.  The bodies of mostly young men, some of whom are big and strong and all of whom are pissed off, flying around is a frightening prospect for most folks.  After all, most people tried to avoid getting bull-rushed.  Yet those who go into mosh pits are doing exactly that- seeking out such attacks with a relish.  The point of the whole thing is to give physical expression to the violence of the music that inspires it.

So it might be surprising to learn that there is also a very committed community and ethos of care and protection that governs the Pit.  But how can this be if the whole point of the enterprise is to knock the other guy’s head off?  Here’s how it works.  Yes- the point is to try and hit the other guy and hit him hard enough to knock him down if you can.  But what happens next is what defines the ethos.

If someone is knocked down, a group of people, often including the guy who just knocked him down, will stop everything else and pull him back to his feet and make sure he is OK. The obligation doesn’t stop there- if someone looses their glasses or is really having trouble getting up, a group will instantaneously form a cordon to protect them until they can get up safely. mosh pit

It is intriguing find such a commitment to caring and compassion in a place otherwise dedicated to violence.  Pits vary, sometimes wildly in character and intensity.   From the upbeat fun of Gogol Bordello, to old school hardcore punk to the adrenaline and speed of Arch Enemy to the unbridled ferocity of Slayer…. they are all distinct.  And yet, throughout them all I have found that this diverse community, which is united only by its love of music and moshing, does a better job of living out its ethos than do many churches.

To be fair, it exists in rather limited parameters.  Yet when you consider that many of those who go into the Pit may not believe in God at all, it is undeniably compelling that a truly spiritual community should take shape in the midst of a circle of anger and violence.  Our willingness, indeed our need, to create community at all times and in all places never ceases to amaze.

Elijah with a Mohawk

I waded into the crowd as hardcore band, Death Sentence, tore into their next song.  The music became a wall that pushed into me, almost as forcefully as the careening bodies.  All around me were enemies.  And, having just turned 20, I took them all on.  Eventually I emerged, soaked with sweat and with blood running down the front of my “Rebel for Jesus” t-shirt…. a triumphant Elijah, emerging from the midst of the prophets of Baal.

Biblical prophets and mosh pits don’t often go hand in hand.  I agree that it is not a common connection so allow me to explain.  I had taken a semester off from college and moved to Vancouver, BC.  I was living in Christian community run by Youth with a Mission (YWAM).  Our primary focus was ministering to and  assisting the many street kids and runaways who flocked there because of the temperate climate, particularly in the winter.

Kirk Mowhawk 1Looking to blend in I was at the height of my punk phase complete with leather, spikes and an 18 inch Mohawk.  In the photo I am standing with my friend Mark (RIP).

At the concert, which was headlined by the Dayglo Abortions, I ran into an acquaintance.  While myregalia helped me blend in with the punks, metalheads and skinheads who filled the hall, my t-shirt did not.  It read “Rebel for Jesus” with “Rom 12:2” in the background.  I got it at an Altar Boys (a Christian punk band) concert a few years earlier and it derives from a verse from the Book of Romans- “Do not be conformed to the things of this world, but be transformed.”

Anyway, when my acquaintance introduced me to some of his black metal buddies, it most certainly did make an impression.  To be fair, they actually didn’t make much of an issue of it. But since I walked in the door with a chip on my shoulder I allowed their supposed Satanism to become an issue.  Needless to say, the conversation went downhill from there.

And so it was that, in my post adolescent egotism, I began to envision myself as the prophet Elijah facing off against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40).  Standing alone against overwhelming odds, but with the force of righteousness and indeed, G-D himself on my side, I pushed my way into the surging mass of humanity.  At one point, I took an elbow in the nose and felt the blood running down my face, but I didn’t stop.  Caught up in the adrenaline I kept on throwing shoulders.

I emerged transcendent, feeling affirmed in my (self) righteousness and glowing with pride over my battle scars.  I made sure that I walked by the black metal guys so that they saw my sweat and blood soaked glory.  Of course, most that battle took place only in my own mind.  Truth be told, while many people noticed my shirt, they probably couldn’t have cared less.

So it is interesting that what happened next, took me out of my self-imposed isolation and into a most creative and enjoyable partnership.  But that, as they say, is another story.