Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Conversation With Jeremy Ritch

I meet a lot of interesting people on social media - among them Jeremy Ritch. I first encountered him online through a group called Outlaw Preachers, which came together largely through Twitter. He is a poet (in fact, he has been writing poetry since he was 15), writer, storyteller, and a former pastor - he's been described as a "modern day beatnik." He obviously has a heart for the poor and marginalized in his city, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His new book, Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems, will be released this spring via Autumn + Colour.

I recently interviewed Jeremy about his life, work and views. Here is a transcript of our conversation. Of course, being a pastor myself, I started by asking about his time in church leadership.

Dan: You were a pastor. Tell me about that experience, and why you're now a "former" pastor.

Jeremy: Ha ha, good place to start. I am a former pastor in the formal sense of the word. I was a vocational full-time Pastor for 12 years starting with a small outreach in Wayne PA with my wife, and then as an associate with Jay Bakker. Then I was an outreach pastor with a group called Hope For the Rejected, where I mainly worked with in the punk/hardcore subculture. Finally I started my own church called Hold Fast in Harrisburg, that met in a local pub, a concert venue and eventually a church basement. When that feel apart after four years I started a church service called The Exchange in a local AoG church that had helped me out after Hold Fast folded - I was there for about six months and I left because I was completely worn out from years of doing work with the marginalized, the counter-culture, and all that with out any support system. It just took its toll. I also was ordained through a group in Nashville but we drifted a part both relationally and theologically.

I decided to go into writing/speaking and leave the church pastoring behind. It has been a very freeing experience. I realized that I stayed in the role of pastor about two years too long, and I just crashed. In many ways I was never really cut out to pastor my own church or work with in that structure. I do much better as an outreach minister or motivational speaker. My views are not always in line with denominational churches and I see too many grey areas in life to hold a position within a church that expects absolutes out of me. I believe in being genuine and honest but also having integrity, which means I do not want to misrepresent a church that grants me the privilege of serving them under a certain theological or doctrinal ideology that I do not agree with. I do understand folks who say "Well you can still be a "pastor" without a church or a formal title." This is true and I agree, but I do not consider myself a pastor now, because I no longer have a "flock" so to speak. I am a brother, a neighbour and a friend who happens to be a Christian but more so just happens to give a crap about people.

Dan: Please tell me more about how your faith affects your writing.
Jeremy: My faith affects my writing because mystery is what makes life beautiful. To me faith is completely irrational and completely insane. It is mysterious and unsettling. That is beautiful!

My writing, especially poetry, is that. It is free, unhindered and genuine, but there is a unknown to it. The poet leaves the reader with a sense of mystery by presenting his verse in a way that allows for imagination to work. My faith is based in that mystery, but also in the love of God which is enormous. That love is what fills my poems and my writing in general. My love for people makes me want to write things that are not just creative, but inspiring or thought provoking. I want to write something that will make a person feel alive. It is my goal to encourage others to pick up a pen or run out into the world with a heart overflowing. I am not so much trying to win people to Jesus Christ as I am trying to show people they are made in the image of God, that they matter and are beautiful. My faith is full of magical grey areas and unknowns that I embrace, because while irrational to believe in a deity it is exciting to do that.

I like the idea of not knowing everything and being able to be wrong. That is really fun. We can be idiots and say crazy things because as a child, we have faith in something that is unseen. I love science and I love facts, but man, do I love mystery. It is the essence of love, of romance and of life. Being able to let myself embrace unknowns is the best thing I ever learned, and that comes out in my writing for sure.

Dan: Do you have an example from your new book of how you are trying to show people they are made in God's image?
Jeremy: The new book, which is poetry, is not so much going that direction. It is a collection of poems about the cities I have lived in, but it does have a message of love to it I think. I think I speak to being motivated to change the world around you, but also embrace the beauty that is already there. Of course, there are also some more - I guess I would say cynical - poems as well, because I feel I should be honest with myself and my readers. While I strive to be a positive force, I am also affected by things negatively and I express those things honestly. This first poetry book is really about the wonderful world of urban America that I have been lucky enough to be a part of. So I guess in a way it is pointing out the beauty that is there. Much of it is positive, and encouraging us all to be more pro-active in changing the world around us while embracing it.

Dan: Do you have a particularly favourite poem or poems in Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems that you would like to talk about?

Jeremy: My favourite poem in the book is called "Invisible Man" and Autumn+Colour released a track of me reading it on my artist page at their website.

The poem is about how the poor and the marginalized are pretty much invisible to the world. It ends with saying that those who stand for justice and hope are often just as invisible. It is actually a hopeful piece, but has a heavy message to it. It was actually one of the last poems I wrote for the book. I'm proud ot that one.

Dan: What impact does living in Harrisburg have on your work?
Jeremy: Harrisburg has had an effect on me as a person and as a writer. It is a very interesting city. It is a state capital, so there is a heavy political climate that often shows its ugly side. There is a very conservative base here that is steeped in tradition and Pennsylvania Dutch culture that is quite unique. In the city there is high crime, huge amount of debt and years of poor leadership. The residents, most of which are minority and poor, have suffered for years seemingly unnoticed as the suburbs have grown. There is a small but thriving art community here, and an even smaller and less thriving music culture. The bar and restaurant scene is pretty much the main draw to people who visit on weekends.There are some major racial and class issues amongst the residents that I have not seen in other cities I've lived because of the unique way they are presented. We have the Susquehanna River that separates East and West shores and it is a very polarizing divide. So all of this has an effect on my writing in one way or another.

Dan: Do you have any political aspirations in Harrisburg? (Jeremy comments on municipal issues in Harrisburg from time to time on Twitter)

Jeremy: No. I am not a fan of politics or politicians really. My theology is pretty heavy Anabaptist leaning when it comes to politics. I would rather work to change things in different ways, whether that is art, outreach, community work or something else. Politics for me is a dirty game, especially in Harrisburg.

Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems will be released this spring as an e-book - please check Autumn + Colour. Photos of Jeremy by Dani Fresh.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Winter Games: Sermon, February 23, 2014

I do all this for the good news, because I want to share in its blessings.

You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever. I don’t run without a goal. And I don’t box by beating my fists in the air. I keep my body under control and make it my slave, so I won’t lose out after telling the good news to others.

1 Corinthians 9:23-27, Common English Version

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

Matthew 5:38-48, Common English Bible

I don’t need to tell anyone that this winter has seemed exceptionally cold and snowy. You may remember that one day that the temperature here was colder than at the South Pole. Maybe the Winter Olympics should have been held here, instead of in the warmest city in Russia.

Someone said that there are always two Olympics. There is the experience of the games themselves, where athletes do amazing things, and there is another, darker side, all about in whose service the games are held. There can be no doubt that these Sochi games are intended to promote Vladimir Putin and his regime in Russia. Where the news from the Olympics should be about medal sweeps, in Russia there have been other sweeps, arrests of peaceful critics of Putin’s policies on the rights of gay and lesbian people, the right to a free press, and environmental protection.

Olympic games are ruinously expensive – Vancouver did relatively well, but Russia has spent $51 billion on the winter games in Sochi, the most ever. There have already been riots in Brazil over how much money the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics are costing, money that could be spent on public services. And most of these venues in Sochi, built at such expense and some displacing entire villages of people, will apparently just be left to decay when the games are over, benefiting no one.

One of the big book and movie franchises for young adults the last few years has been The Hunger Games. I feel as if we are the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games, as we eagerly watch these winter games and look past what’s behind the event. Among the few athletes who have drawn attention to this other side during the Olympics are two Canadian snowboarders. Michael Lambert said that he’s all for a pure form of sport with no distractions, but at the same time just because he’s part of the Olympics doesn’t mean he can ignore the controversial realities behind Sochi. Jasey Jay Anderson criticized the extravagant spending on these games, and how distant it is from his life at home, and from the future of humanity. As well, a Ukrainian skier withdrew from the slalom, her best event, saying that she can’t participate when people are dying in protests against the pro-Russian government of Ukraine.

So, like Michael Lambert, I can’t close my eyes to the reality behind these games, the corruption, the waste, the arrests and intimidation. But the young people from all over the world who have trained for years to compete in the games deserve honour, and the celebration of their achievements. They bring us together as we cheer them on. The whole country pretty much shut down for the hockey games. Complete strangers were gathering around someone’s cell phone to watch, and hugging each other when Canada scored. On Thursday afternoon I was on a church conference call, and suddenly everyone erupted into shouts of joy as news broke that the Canadian women’s hockey team had won the gold medal. We were in Toronto and there was a TV on in a food court, and men wearing Team Canada hockey sweaters were anxiously watching figure skating.

And these athletes inspire us. Who can’t rejoice with the three Dufour-Lapointe sisters from Quebec, who all qualified for the Olympics in moguls skiing, and two of them won gold and silver medals? Who can’t follow with rapt attention Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in ice dancing, or Jennifer Jones and the Canadian women’s curling team? And who can’t sympathize with athletes who finished a fraction of a second out of the medals? These games have produced so many remarkable stories. There’s the story of Noriaki Kasai, the Japanese ski jumper who won a silver medal at Lillehammer in 1994, and 20 years later came to Sochi aged 41 and won another silver. Or Dario Cologna, from Switzerland, who won a gold medal in cross country sking. You would think that after such a gruelling race he would head off to rest, but he waited a half hour at the finish line to congratulate the final skier, from Peru, who was competing with broken ribs from an accident before the games.

For many of us these Olympics expose us to sports we don’t normally follow. A lot of us watch hockey and curling and figure skating, but when else are we so interested in freestyle skiing, or long track speed skating, or what I think are really insane sports like luge, where you go down feet first on a sled, or skeleton, where you go down face first. But as a kid I found tobogganing pretty scary at times, so these are probably not the sports for me. And after the Olympics finish there will be the Paralympic games, which will allow us to watch athletes with disabilities, who don’t get much attention any other time.

The Olympic flame burning in Sochi traveled from Greece, for the modern games are a revival of the ancient Olympics. And the Apostle Paul knew about these Greek games, as did the believers in the churches he was writing to, so he uses sports to make his point to the Corinthian church in his letter we read today: “You know that many runners – or skiers, or speed skaters, or snowboarders – enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! Athletes work hard to win a prize that cannot last, but we do it for a prize that will last forever.”

An athlete must train with intensity to win the contest. We can only imagine how hard athletes need to train to win an Olympic event. What’s more, an athlete went through this self-discipline and this training in ancient Greece, not to win a medal or commercial endorsements, but a simple crown of laurel leaves that withered within days. When we refer to laurels, that’s what the expression refers to. Nowadays the point is still the same: Athletes may work for a prize that can’t last, but followers of Jesus do it for the prize of eternal life.

To win the race demands discipline. But Paul is telling us that to win this eternal prize we must be just as self-disciplined in our lives. We have to discipline our bodies, our minds, our souls, because to follow Jesus and live in his way isn’t easy. Look at what Jesus tells us today: Don’t oppose those who want to hurt you. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. That’s hard, to put it mildly. It goes against the script our society has socialized into us. TV shows are called Revenge, and Die Hard, they’re not called Turning the Other Cheek or Loving Your Enemies.

Paul tells the Corinthians, “I don’t run without a goal.” In life we need to know our goal. And, Paul says, he won’t be able to reach his goal if he gets distracted by his own purposes. To reach our goal in life, to live in the way Jesus taught us and shows us, we need to practice self-discipline, self-control. William Barclay said that we can’t do what Jesus tells us to do, to serve others, until we have mastered ourselves. We can’t tell people the Good News of Jesus unless we know it. We can’t bring others to Jesus unless we ourselves are with him and found in him.

Remember on Thursday, when the Canadian women were down 2-0 in the third period to Team USA? No one gave up. These women responded as they had been trained to do, they pressed on, they showed discipline, they showed passion, they showed that, as they put it, every minute matters – and they tied the game and took it to overtime, and then scored to become the Olympic champions. Sisters and brothers, Olympic medals are for the young and fit, but our game, our race, is for the young and old, of all stages of health and ability, for all of us. And every minute matters. You know those Canadian Tire commercials, We All Play For Canada? Well, we are all athletes in this race of life, heading for the goal. Run to win!