Archive for October, 2019

The Song of the Reed, Part 4 (Letters from the Coast)

This is the final entry in a four-parter on attending RumiFest, my retreat for the year.

When I woke up again, I saw Raqib sleeping on the bench across the hall from me.

I sketched him, entranced by how safe and warm he looked.

Some time later, his daughter Mila came to sit by him, and he put his head right into her lap.

I had never, ever seen anything like that before.

I sketched it as well, and wrote, “This is how we should be with our heavenly Father Allah.”

The (very rough) sketch of Raqib and Mila

She told me later that their relationship had blossomed into something incredible over many years. I felt a piercing lance within my soul. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of relationship with my father.

But oh, I wanted to.

I turned a bit more later, and this time I entered into another state, my eyes nearly closed all the way, feeling straight up and down as a dervish should.

Another dervish from Vancouver had told me the night before she had a dream of me walking hand in hand with God. It felt possible as I turned.

After another lie-down, there was to be a zhikr where all were invited, but women would lead. It was incredible. I wrote the following in my journal:

It was awesome, women singing and sharing [the words of] Rabi’a, then just straight up dancing and shouting and turning [in a long row] like a snake to look at each face and seeing God there and seeing two friends just kiss on the lips like it ain’t no thing and then standing in a big circle singing, “Ya shakur Allah, ya Hamid, la illaha illahah hu…” and weeping because why the fuck can’t we just do this, it would solve every problem.

Later, listening to an incredible sung performance of poetry by a woman named Jessica, I wrote,

The hours have melted into each other… I keep drifting off where I sit. In fairness, the singer is divine and there are sleeping dervishes scattered about the room.

It’s been almost twenty-four hours and now everyone on the floor is turning.

The continuous sema ended soon afterward. We broke for dinner – an Indian feast! – and then I was driven by my host, Khalid, to his home in Mukilteo.

I entered and discovered Efendi, the Mevlevi sheikh, sitting at the dining room table with a bowl of ice cream – yet another strangely beautiful sight.

Khalid asked if I wanted some too. I said yes, and he handed me a bowl, but as his back was turned, Efendi separated a chunk of ice cream with his spoon and dumped it into my bowl.

Khalid turned around, the tub in his hand, saw my bowl, and burst out laughing.

It felt rather theological.

I stayed up for a short while with Efendi, again feeling awed in the presence of such a gentle soul. He said his ex-wife had played harp, and so he could tell that I was good at it.

I slept long and deep, and awoke feeling fresh and renewed. Breakfast was leftover saag paneer folded into an omelette and assam tea. We were joined by Habib, another young man who was hosted by Khalid and his wife Kim.

When Efendi joined us, Khalid expressed deep gratitude for actions he had taken to include dervishes of other orders, which would not normally be done.

Efendi, looking over Khalid’s shoulder, read out words printed on a tea towel: “Love more, worry less.”

We all laughed.

We returned to the hall for a formal Mevlevi sema.

Raqib caught me by the kitchen and told me that he had deeply appreciated my music at the sema. Then he said, distractedly, “I hope there’s coffee.”

“I’ll find out,” I said, and rushed off to make some.

It was the first time I ever made coffee in a coffee maker. When it was done, I looked at it and thought it was nowhere near dark enough, more like tea, and panicked slightly.

When I finally gave him a cup, though, he looked at me like I was handing him a bar of gold.

Bad or not, he chugged it.

The sema was wonderful, as usual, the dervishes whirling endlessly in their white outfits. I almost felt like I had come full circle.

I made arrangements to go back with Seemi, which meant I could stay for a Turkish meal a few doors down. We all laughed as dervishes kept joining us and we had to re-arrange the seating many, many times. Seemi told me there was a joke about how many dervishes could fit into a walnut, and that the agreed-upon number was forty.

I didn’t figure out why it was that many.

After dinner, which was glorious as neither Seemi nor I had had lunch, we decided to go listen to Jessica, the singer from the day before, perform in a Taoist hall.

I’m glad I stayed for it, even though it meant I got back at about 1am. I had spent the whole weekend feeling delighted but like a visitor into a strange and wonderful new land. Jessica’s performance was largely chanted, songs composed and traditional from a variety of cultures.

Imagine my delight when I heard words from the Carmina Gadelica.

She invited feedback from the audience at the end.

I put my hands over my heart. “You sang the song of my people. You’ve told me that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

She grinned broadly.

Before we left, Seemi held her and sang a song just for her. I watched tearfully as an almost solid wall of love passed between brown face and white face.

Seemi drove me home. She kept singing songs, and I sang with her. I told her my story of faith.

My journey has only just begun.

Sherif Baba will be coming to see us at the end of the month.

I can’t wait to see him again.

In the meantime, I’m turning at night as an evening prayer practice.

Inside my heart, I think I’m still turning.

La ilaha illallah.

The Song of the Reed, Part 3 (Letters from the Coast)

This is the third entry in a four-parter on attending RumiFest, my retreat for the year.

The pashmina I was wearing suddenly slipped and fell over my face. I decided to leave it there, and was entranced by the sight of the dervishes through a layer of magenta fog. Here, unable to see, sweat pouring down my face, I was forced to listen, and trust in those next to me.

I leaned into it like a blindfolded lover.

When I finally had the chance to get it off my face, I became enthralled and delighted with two women across from me, who, as we chanted, turned rapidly toward each other, then away, toward, and away, grinning and giggling like little girls, as if telling each other a delicious secret about the God of Love.

Later, Baba brought us back down again and gave us teaching through Cem. He said we must love one another, must strive only to see beauty in the other, must reject gossip. Then, he told us to embrace one another.

We did, some of us with lingering gazes which I’ve discovered is common among dervishes. It makes one feel exposed but deeply seen.

I turned to Baba, whose face broke out into a grin and who enfolded me saying, “Ah, jan, jan, jan…

“My dear, my dear, my dear.”

Baba went to sit back down and not long after, he left for bed. I stayed, watching the turning.

One woman, who I would later learn was called Samiye, was dressed in layers of incredible silk and linen, with a veil over her head in black and gold. She was olive-skinned, with a beatific smile, turning with hands held out in prayer, and as she turned she became Maryam to me.

Later, I asked Seemi, “Did Maryam turn when the Spirit overshadowed her?”

“Of course,” Seemi said.

Another woman nearby, dressed in red and black, turned with her.

“And did Mary Magdalene turn when she was liberated from seven demons?”

Seemi grinned.

Next to the woman in red turned a woman in blue. This was Asra, one of my favourite new dervish friends, fiery and emotional like me. The two of them together looked like fire and water, or maybe, my Johannine heart whispered, blood and water.

It was only later that I realized that was not only a Jesus image, but a birth image.

It was well past 1am when I decided to take a nap. A room was set aside for that purpose, laid out with sleeping pads and sheepskins.

Music still played softly outside, and a few errant snores greeted me as I lay down with only a sleeping bag and a few pashminas for a pillow.

I had forgotten my earplugs. There’s no way I’ll get more than a nap in here, I thought, but still drifted off.

When I awoke, I discovered that I’d actually slept for about two hours and bolted to my station, monumentally embarrassed.

Raqib found me, panting and bright pink, in the kitchen. “We’re past our limits,” he said gently.

Rafi was barely conscious. He gave me a lopsided grin.

I took my spot and started to play.

I began with a song I had played some time ago while preparing for worship in the semahane back home, a snatch of one of my favourite hymns:

“No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?”

A ney player nearby joined me when he could, switching from ney to concert flute to a very large and deep woodwind I had never seen before. Rafi did too, although eventually he went to take a much-needed nap.

I moved from that piece into one of the songs from a Rachael Weasley booklet I’d received from the composer herself at the Queerest and Dearest Day Camp I’d attended in August. This one, much shorter and simpler, drew joy from me as I saw the dervishes, particularly Asra, whose eyes were closed and who smiled endlessly, join in:

“One who sees me, soak me in your love

One who knows me, soak me in your love.”

I played for about an hour and a half, incorporating hymns along with my own songs, some Taize, and Loreena McKennit’s arrangement of “The Dark Night of the Soul.”

Then I decided to take what felt like a big risk.

I set myself up for “Starsail,” a piece of my own, which I had written years ago while on retreat studying the sacrament of baptism.

There are two versions of this song, a fast one (the “comet version”) and a slow one (the “starfield version”). With few changes, I played the starfield version:

“Two or three have come up to sail

Love our Pilot to take the wheel

Can you feel the heat? Can you feel the beat?

Can you feel the sweet call, a gorgeous pain?

We’re here together, have no fear

The millions stretch back through the years

A star burns out but its light still carries on, the story never ends.”

Now Raqib was smiling too.

“‘Cause the wind is high in my hair tonight

‘Cause I won’t be fooled by St. Elmo’s fire

‘Cause I won’t accept a second guess

All I have to give is one precious life

One wild, precious life.”

Raqib paused in his turning, reached over to the bandstand, and picked up a tambourine. Slipping back easily into the turning, he beat it gently along with me. I felt like I would float right up to the ceiling.

I finally ran out of steam, which brings us back to 6am, and the turning.

Meliha had nearly collapsed as I took over for her – there had to be at least two of us turning at all times, as well as at least one musician.

I didn’t know how I’d have the energy to do what needed to be done, but I did.

And I turned for forty minutes, the longest I’d ever turned before.

In the beginning, turning can feel quite artificial, as one focuses on one’s feet and small exercises to not become dizzy. One prays for the moment when such things melt away and turning happens without distraction. I did get to that point, although it was brief.

Later, Asra said, “I would never have known you hadn’t been turning for years.”

That’s what a little sleep deprivation and hours of worship will get you, I think.

I finally took a nap around 8.30am.

When I awoke, Raqib and Suleimann had come together within a small circle of dervishes seated on sheepskins. At the moment I looked up they had fallen into perfect sync, turning as though they were figures on a wind-up toy. I watched for a long time.

Someone beckoned me to the circle, and I got up to find that Junayd had laid out an absolutely massive tesbih. This, he had told me, was crafted from deconstructed beaded seat covers, and he had brought them to be strung by all of the dervishes, which I had seen people doing throughout the previous evening.

There were one thousand beads on this tesbih, and I saw that the circle was passing them along from left to right, again murmuring the name of God. I sat down to take my place among them and did the same, overwhelmed with the smell of rose oil, within which they’d been bathed.

I wrote a poem about it some time later:

Bead by bead

Between my fingers

Leaving rosewater-scented kisses

We pass prayers counter-clockwise

Around a circle of wild lovers on sheepskins

Treasuring them as they click by

As if we’ll ever run out

A thousand beads

A thousand prayers

pass between us

As we sigh your name like we’re making love

and I suppose we are

Passing breath back and forth

As if we’re afraid we’ll run out

Finally Junayd gathered them up again and we rose to turn for a while longer. I didn’t turn for quite as long as I had…but this time I was able to do it faster.

Then, sleep again.

In a journal, I wrote, Allah, you are too much for me.

The Song of the Reed, Part 2 (Letters from the Coast)

This is the second entry in a four-parter on attending RumiFest, my retreat for this year.

Arriving at my first Unity zhikr, I had no idea what to expect.

The first person I saw was Meliha, sweeping the floor, who introduced herself with her English name. I remembered her from the prayer day at the Cathedral, and she remembered me from St. Paul’s Labyrinth. I was given some very basic turning lessons, and to my very great surprise managed to turn for ten uninterrupted minutes before I had to stop due to dizziness.

There followed close to two hours of chanting. I felt myself slipping in and out of time while we did it. I was able to rock and raise my hands, something I had never done before in a communal religious setting. I sang along (when I could figure out the shape of the Arabic words in my mouth). Most of all I remember one chant I haven’t heard since for some reason: “Ya raḥmāni ya raḥīm, ya raḥmāni ya raḥīm,” “the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

We ended with snacks and tea. That part was familiar!

I remember thinking, I can’t wait to come again.

And I did, many times.

Earlier this year, I was invited to play Celtic harp for a visit from Sherif Baba, a teacher to many of the dervishes I met, including Seemi.

Seemi was the one who invited me. She knew I could sing, encouraged improvisation during zhikr, and had felt honoured by a rendition I’d sent her of the Turkish song we often sang to open zhikr: “Merhaba,” or “Welcome.”

She was adamant: “You have to come for Baba. Play at Unity zhikr on Friday, then come to the semahane on Saturday and play there, just for us.”

I was just as adamant. “No way! I don’t know anything about Turkish music!” Friday’s zhikr would also be open to the public. They had invited Dawn Avery, an accomplished Mohawk cellist, to sit in with the band. I had never played anything like this before, and I knew enough about the group to know that there would be no sheet music and no practice or rehearsal time.

Seemi didn’t have any such reservations. Her certainty bewitched me. Whenever I was with her I hung on her every word, and would rush to do what she asked. I wasn’t the only one. When she was able to come to zhikr, word spread among the dervishes: “Is Seemi coming? Seemi will be here?! YES!”

She may not be an officially ordained imam or sheikh, but that really didn’t matter in the mystical spheres of God’s good humour. We recognized her as such.

So I obeyed.

I brought the harp to zhikr, sat down in utter terror, and saw Baba enter and sit before the assembled crowd, his large and ruddy companion Cem by his side to serve as translator.

We began, and somehow, despite everything, the music flowed. There was no chord chart, no score, no knowledge of basically any songs at all.

It didn’t matter.

Later, someone said, “And how long have you all been playing together?”

We all fell into giggles. “Um…three hours?”

The next day, I did go to the semahane, a prayer space constructed in my friend Cennet’s backyard. I played more, this time with endlessly smiling Rafi the oud player, and Dawn, the cellist, who gave me a copy of her new album before it was released. We played, and Baba taught. It was all ashq, fiery divine love. That was the most important thing.

Sherif Baba

I chalked it all up to Baba. His energy, his playfulness, his light – all of that provided a sort of semahane in itself for my heart to turn.

All of this was what led to 6am Saturday, October 5th.

Part of my Rule of Life is to take a retreat every year, but this year, plans fell through and my time was cancelled. I searched in vain for an alternative, but there was none, until I received an email from Rafi asking for musicians to sign up for the early morning slot in the continuous sema at RumiFest.

Northwest RumiFest was a gathering of dervishes from up and down the west coast. This was its third year, and it would be held in Seattle. I had ignored the emails going back and forth because, of course, I had planned to be on retreat.

Now, I thought, plans had changed.

Feeling a bit reckless, I signed up for a slot, and arranged a ride and housing. On Friday afternoon, I piled into my friend Junayd’s van and we trundled down to the States.

The gathering was held in an Odd Fellows Hall. Massive oak chairs carved with three chain links were at the four cardinal points of the room we would use for the sema. Below, folks had set up tables and chairs with snacks and things to buy: Tshirts, music, books, and tesbih, Islamic rosaries. This was a specialty of Junayd’s, and I had bought a gorgeous aura quartz one from him several months ago, which I brought with me, wound around my wrist.

I ate and then went upstairs, where zhikr was ready to begin. Rafi invited me to sit in with the band, and I did, feeling static-y with anticipation. A bearded and bespectacled dervish appeared and introduced himself as Michael. He took a seat behind some drums right at my feet.

“I’ll try not to kick!” I joked, and he looked over his shoulder and smiled.

“Unless you want me to go faster!”

Rafi introduced us to the space, and we fell into a familiar movement: music, poetry, turning, and dancing. Three teachers presided: a man who I only knew as Efendi, a Mevlevi sheikh; Sherif Baba, with Cem beside him as always; and a woman, Khadija Goforth, a Mevlevi murshid.

The service opened with two women reciting a poem together. One would read the passage in Arabic, and the other would read the same passage translated into English. They read with their arms around each other, a living symbol of a union all of us longed for:

Listen to the story told by the reed of being separated: Since I was cut off from the reedbed I have made this crying sound. Anyone apart from someone they love understands what I say. Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back.

As they read, their voices floated on a bed of wind as the ney, fashioned from this very reed, wailed.

At any gathering I’m there, mingling in the laughing and the grieving, a friend to each, but few will hear the secrets hidden within the notes. No ears for that. Body flowing out of Spirit, spirit up from body, no concealing to see the soul.

The woman speaking in English, who I would later learn was called Amineh, said emphatically:

“The reed is played with fire, not wind, and without that fire, we will never survive. Be that empty.”

She explained that the reed was the body, the fire the ashq, or divine love. That phrase rang in my head like the echoes of a bell for hours.

The songs and turning continued, men and women together, different musicians leading songs and dances for universal peace.

People began to drift away around 10 or 11pm, getting snacks and tea. I left and came back as needed as well. The space was quite relaxed.

Around midnight or so, Baba rose from his chair to join the dervishes. He guided them to stand in a row, and stood among them. Cem followed him with a daf.

Transfixed, I left my chair and joined them.

We stood together, chanting, as dervishes turned and we started to peak, our hands coming up and then down again emphatically. Baba cried out several times with a loud voice, full of vigour and delight: “ALLAH! ALLAH! HAYY!”

He directed us to hold hands. I was standing next to the woman holding his hand, who stood on my right. He looked at her and grinned. “Hold on. Strong hold!”

“Yes, Baba.”

We started to bob and rock, up and down, back and forth, as he led us in the chant: “Hayy, hayy, hayy…”

I was transported back to zhikr on Good Friday in 2017, dancing in a much smaller circle as Meliha turned within it, chanting the beautiful Arabic word for “life,” which sounds so much like breathing, thinking Meliha looked like a seed bursting open underground, reaching tendrils up to touch the surface of the earth and break through into sunlight, like Jesus had done.

Held hands crept up until we had our arms wrapped around each other, leaning and bobbing, and Baba cackled, “Like drunk people!”

“We are, Baba,” I cried. “We are!”

As we continued, Baba, eyes full of concern, suddenly reached out to one of the dervishes, a young woman, taking her shoulders. He pulled her back toward him and held her up.

I never figured out what it was that he saw, but it could have been dizziness, or maybe tears.

Either way I fell a little more in love with him.

The Song of the Reed, Part 1 (Letters from the Coast)

This is the first of a four-parter entry on attending RumiFest, which functioned as my retreat this year.

6am.

I’m sitting in a plastic orange chair which at this point feels grafted to me. I can’t tell whether I’m holding my smaller harp up or she’s holding me up. I think an oud is playing, but I’m not sure.

I’ve been sitting here for about an hour and a half, and my fingers don’t really want to work anymore, so I’m just chanting the name of God in a hypnotic, driving beat: “ALL-ah, ALL-ah, ALL-ah.”

A photo I took of myself as I chanted.

Before me, two dervishes turn. One of them is someone I met last night. The name he was born with is Scott, but here we call him Suleimann. Most of the people I’ve met in my journey into Sufism have been given Arabic or Turkish names. All of them are beautiful: Raqib. Amineh. Junayd. Cennet.

The other is Meliha. The first time I saw her, she was turning at Christ Church Cathedral, which was open all day to facilitate prayers for those who had died during the fentanyl overdose crisis. She was in a corner by the Christ the King window, wearing a kerchief over her brown hair and a blue layered outfit, turning, turning, for at least an hour or more.

Tonight she’s all in white, and has been turning almost ceaselessly since 7.45pm.

That was when sema began.

It will end 24 hours later.

My introduction to Western Sufism was by stages. First, I met Raqib Burke, who came to turn at an event hosted by UBC. I’m not sure what the focus of the evening was, but I suspect it was early Arabic music and art. We were in a building downtown that I remember had columns in the room, framing him as he entered in his tennure and destegul, the white sleeveless robe and long-sleeved jacket. His sikke, a softly conical greyish-brown felted camel’s hair cap, stood tall on his head. Nearby, an oud player plucked strings meditatively, while another man blew haunting cries of sorrow into a ney, a reed flute.

Raqib moved very slowly, tracing a circle around the space of turning, and finally made it to the centre, where he began with his arms folded over his chest, like someone lying in the grave. In a sense, this is the intended image: all of the dervish’s clothing and much of the ritual itself symbolizes a sort of death, but a death to one’s ego. In the more formal Mevlevi sema, this is further underlined by the dervishes entering wrapped in long black cloaks, which they shed just before turning.

At a certain point only known to him, Raqib’s arms opened and began to creep up past his shoulders until they were in the more familiar dervish position: the right arm held up with palm open, and the left arm alongside but palm down. Later it was explained to me that this was to act as a sort of channel, allowing heavenly energy to pass through the hands and into the earth.

Raqib not only turned for at least half an hour, but he did it all with his eyes closed.

I was utterly spellbound.

Then I saw him again, maybe a year or two later, at a VST interfaith event held during the usual time of our community worship service. I recognized him immediately, there with several other semazens, including a woman wrapped in a beautiful veil, with a little boy in her arms.

This, I would soon learn, was Seemi Ghazi, my gateway into Sufism.

All of us who attended were then led into what I would learn was a Yalova style sema, which was a less formal version of the prayer service. We were instructed to get into a circle and hold hands, and taught several chants and movements, such as stepping to the left as in round dance, or lifting our hands together. As we got into the rhythm of things, I felt myself tilting into a whole new world of worship, one that I as a buttoned-up Anglican with a secret mystic’s heart had never encountered before. Imagine my delight as the two vested dervishes and Seemi began to whirl within the circle, Raqib playing a daf, or frame drum, and Seemi holding her young son, whose face absolutely glowed with delight as he whirled with her.

Raqib turning at the sema. You can see me at the upper right in the grey velour shirt, and Seemi at upper left with her son. Photo by Shannon Lythgoe

Something happened there. I couldn’t say what. I just remember being changed by it, and feeling sad when it was over.

When could I get some of this again?

It took another three or four years before that question would be answered, at a Diocesan Clergy Day on Islam. We arrived thinking it would be some sort of panel discussion: informative, but fairly dry.

It was the furthest thing from that.

Instead we were led into the main presentation space, which was laid out with prayer rugs, and introduced to Seemi Ghazi, a sessional lecturer at UBC who taught Qur’an, Islamic languages, and feminist theology. I kept looking at her, and the more I looked, the more I realized she had been the woman I saw turning with her son.

Instead of a panel or a powerpoint, she explained that she would give us a more artistic than academic encounter with Islam. Then, for the next forty-five minutes or so, she told us the story of the birth of her daughter, in a presentation that was half spoken word, half narrative.

Imagine my surprise when Raqib arrived to help her to tell this story.

Seemi began to speak about an evening on the beach when, unable to sleep, she had brought herself and her pregnant belly to a zhikr held around a bonfire. She told us the Qur’anic story of Maryam, the mother of Jesus, at the palm tree, hearing the call of the angel Jibreel. As she told us about the drums overtaking her and her in utero daughter, Raqib played his daf and brought me there immediately: the smell of salt and embers, eyes stinging with ash, skin prickled with cool darkness.

It was such a more intimate encounter with Islam than I had expected.

Seemi also taught us how to do salat, which is what the prayer rugs were for. And before the day ended, we were led in another sema, and I got to see Raqib turn yet again.

Feeling drunk (a condition familiar to Sufis, who use the phrase as shorthand for a state of religious ecstasy), I went to thank her. Like Raqib, grace seemed to pour forth as she grinned at me.

“Every time I encounter this,” I said, “I feel absolutely transported. How can I get more?”

“Come to zhikr with me,” she said. “I’ll tell you when and where. All are welcome.”

“Am I really?” I asked, feeling shy. “Is it okay even though I’m a Christian?”

“Oh, we love Jesus and Maryam too,” she giggled. “There’s nothing precluding you as long as you’re open. Besides, this is Inayati Sufism. It’s interfaith.”

Only a few months later, I went to my first Unity zhikr.

It’s still dark as 6am creeps toward dawn.

I slide out of the orange chair, no longer able to chant or play, too tired.

But I’m not finished.

I take my place among the weary dervishes and begin to turn myself.

The world around me melts away.

Maybe leaders are a bad idea (Letters from the Coast)

Being a crafting nut and introvert, I love nothing more than listening to lectures by people I respect while I busy my hands (it used to be doodling, which I got in trouble for as a kid; now it’s usually crochet, which thankfully there is more grace for these days). This inclination means that podcasts are my absolute Kryptonite. Two summers ago I spent so much time sitting on the couch making baby blankets and listening to podcasts that I almost gave myself carpal tunnel.

What I enjoy most of all is the type of story that takes a hard look at the seamier and stranger parts of human nature. So I love investigative homicide reporting serials like In the Dark and Someone Knows Something, and I love political shows like Canadaland and Some More News (like pretty much every North American Millennial I was bonkers for the Cracked website for a solid seven years and then followed Cracked alumni onto their sophomore projects) but I also love stuff about cults, multilevel marketing, and Internet extremism.

My pinnacle of podcast delight has to be Robert Evans’s Behind the Bastards.

Robert is also a Cracked alum, and actually interviewed me once via Skype, researching for a possible article on seminarians and clergy-in-training. I started listening because I loved the premise: Robert does a bunch of research on one of the titular bastards – who vary wildly, from Hitler to Keith Rainiere of NXIVM infamy to Alex Jones – and writes an essay, which he then reads to a comedian (or, increasingly, other podcasters and activists). It’s very similar to another podcast I love called The Dollop, which looks at American history, but Robert is the only constant and has revolving guests.

Robert’s Twitter profile photo is a brilliant and dramatic shot which I wanted to link here, but I like this newer one more (he’s in the middle between Daily Zeitgeist co-hosts Miles Grey and fellow Cracked alum Jack O’Brien) because of how terribly serious he looks (the placard says “Miles’s AKAs were an inside job.”)

It was the first podcast I ever listened to, and I’ve always appreciated Robert’s wry wit and in-depth reporting. Despite his comedy chops he has also worked as a combat journalist and has some serious cred, but mostly I like him because he’s funny as hell and the subject matter fascinates me. There are well-known bastards like dictators and architects of mayhem that have made the cut, but Robert is also careful to include lesser-known folks that fly under the radar as bastards, like Edward Bernays, father of modern PR; Rev. Jim Humble, the founder of a church which encourages its congregants to drink bleach for health reasons; and Renee Bach, a fake doctor who I wrote about in passing a few months ago.

As I started following along weekly, I’ve gotten to know a bit more about Robert’s political inclinations and activism. He tends to avoid identifying himself politically in an explicit way, which I rather appreciate. But one thing he has said several times on the podcast (and on a branded Tshirt) which provides me with the springboard for today’s reflection is, “Maybe leaders are a bad idea.”

I have been thinking of this, in far less articulate terms, for years.

The story of my life has, for the most part, been one of participation rather than leadership. I’ve never felt called to step up or mobilize a group. Part of it is a natural inclination, and part of it is probably just chronic low self-esteem, but it’s a core part of my identity.

You can imagine why being called to ordained leadership in a deeply hierarchical denomination – probably one of the most hierarchical after the Roman Catholic Church – was bizarre and frightening. I got really excited about it in those first few heady couple of years after my spiritual rebirth…and then, once I put myself into a place of greater responsibility as a parish administrator, ran screaming in the opposite direction.

I was eventually dragged back on course by those who saw something within me that they said needed to be present in the church. Damned if I can figure out exactly what it is.

I cannot possibly imagine being a rector or lead parish priest. It’s not just the fact that the job is more like being a CEO than a shepherd. It’s not that I don’t know I’m under no obligation to cram myself into the Father-Knows-Best upper management role that so many others believe is still the ideal or only model for ordained parish leadership. It’s not that I’m afraid or dismissive of the responsibility of caring for others.

It’s more the posture that it demands from me and others: a posture of dependence.

My struggle with that is not the first and will not be the last. Some of my young colleagues and I chuckle that ideally, we should be working ourselves out of a job, equipping the saints to one day have no need of “magic hands” and guardians of tradition because they will know God so well themselves. But as white male Baby Boomers continue to dominate the ecclesiastical landscape of Episcopal/Anglican North America, and dictate its culture, we’re feeling really worn out, and no closer to that Kingdom future…and indeed, who knows what kind of world we’ll even inherit in the next few generations.

The worst part is that our people so often demand this from us. They want clear answers and easy tasks. They want our energy and our newfangled tools of engagement and our families (particularly our children) but they don’t want the responsibility that comes with any of those things. We are no longer the little dictator-psychologists of old. Today those are your bosses and your therapists, or the podcasters you listen to.

We, on the other hand, are reclaiming what it really means to be Christian.

And what does it mean?

One of the most profound moments of my marriage was when my atheist raised-by-white-Tibetan-Buddhists husband, during a conversation about North American evangelicals and their overwhelming support for Trump, turned to me and said, “But that’s not what Christianity is about. It’s supposed to be about fighting fascism.”

I was stunned. Surely this was not the sum total of my faith.

But looking through the great and confusing library of Scripture, reading about the God who, while wildly inconsistent in character across books, is at least consistent in Her desire to be the centre of all life and devotion to the exclusion of all else; reading about the Saviour of my heart who was murdered by the state for being a troublemaker that spurned social norms and roles, I had to admit that was a truer summary of my faith than I had previously thought, in both political and metaphysical terms (and make no mistake, fascism has always been deeply concerned with the metaphysical).

Today, it means tearing down institutions and hierarchies where they enslave and corrupt the people of God – within and without the church.

It means letting go of idols like full pews, “the biggest Sunday School in Canada,” the moral high ground of the community.

The church of the 1950s these people long for and remember so fondly was 99-100% white, and leadership (lay AND ordained!) was 100% male. There is no moral high ground there.

The challenge for me, of course, is that for some reason I threw my money, talent, and energy at an institution which seeks to solidify and stratify us into perfect systems of domination. Why the hell didn’t I just become a Quaker like I keep grumpily threatening to do whenever Mother Church and her beautiful broken children piss me off?

Part of it, honestly, is that this is so entwined in my identity. My family is Anglican. I was raised Anglican. I will always be Anglican. If I am thrown out I will still maintain that I am Anglican.

But another part is that I see the seeds of something new and beautiful which can be nurtured and grown.

Anglicans saw the pain and devastation that could come from rigid and forced-confessional faith in their homeland, and decided to leave it behind, providing space for different theological perspectives. Sure, we’re kind of terrible at it when we all sit down together, but the intent of that instinct, the heart that beats behind this aggravating practice of having it out when we run into problems of interpretation, is, I think, some of humanity’s greatest wisdom. We gather when it matters – and what matters most of all is the sharing of the Eucharist, which we will always strive to do together when we do gather.

Anglicans fought for a prayerbook and a Bible in their own language. The British Empire sought to impose its culture with violence across the world…and yet in pockets of Turtle Island Anglican missionaries sat down with Indigenous peoples to craft Bibles and rites of prayer in their own languages, because it should not take years of Latin and a theological degree to pray to the One who made us.

Anglicans had ridiculous squabbles over things like altar and candle placement and vestments because liturgy is the crown of the Church. I really believe that. No Christian can claim the label without performing good works and being in fellowship with other believers, but this is not the sum total of the Christian life, because good works and community are the baseline expectation of humanity to become more than its instincts. Worship sets us apart from just “good people.” It de-centers our supremacy in our lives and focuses on a source of wisdom and love which is fundamentally other, challenging us to look beyond our desire and our solitude. Worship is what provides us with rich earth for the strength to give sacrificially.

The hierarchy of my beloved church is such a pain in the ass. It encourages spiritual immaturity and piles too much on the shoulders of those who the community calls to bear the burden, often alone. I couldn’t be that kind of leader if I wanted to.

So maybe leaders are a bad idea.

I walked away from my curacy worn out, broken, and hopeless.

Then I became a chaplain. And it’s been the most life-giving thing, and those to whom I report have noticed. Even my friends have noticed.

This photo was taken by a volunteer at the care home where I work (the resident pictured here has since died). It’s one of my least favourite pictures of myself – I think I look creepy – but she finds the photo very moving. You never know what someone else will see in you.

Even the damn Diocesan photographer, who came to the nursing home where I work to take photos of a visit from the Archbishop, noticed, and commented on it.

Maybe I got on board to model some entirely different (but not original) form of leadership that involves walking beside, rather than ahead.

The other day, at a preaching conference, I thought, “My next business card should say, ‘Chaplain and Preacher.’”

I chuckled to think of myself as an itinerant preacher, walking down the middle of a village road like Jonah, but shouting, “God loves the world! What are you going to do about it?”

I’ve got no aspirations of glory. I’ve got little ambition – something which I’ve admitted freely and sounded almost blasphemous to at least one person I told. I just want to live the very tiny life I’ve been given in this Web of other lives, from the spider in my window to Robert in his studio, with grace and compassion.

Maybe the world would be better if all of us just aimed for that, rather than a crown.