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Ben Yosua-Davis

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Join us for our holiday-delayed end-of-the-year conversation, where Beth Estock interviews Ben Yosua-Davis (the host!) about his experience hosting Reports From the Spiritual Frontier in 2019, his plans for 2020, and what it’s like to live on an island.

Episode Highlights Include:

  • The Joys of Backbreaking Manual Labor
  • What Islands Teach Us About God
  • Why You Should Just Sit Until You Find Space
  • Why Christianity Just Works Better On the Margin
  • Why White American Christianity Would Be Better Off Without Money Or Buildings

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If you liked this episode, check out:

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Stay tuned next for: Our opening series of 2020, coming in late February, tentatively titled “Why I Left/Why I Stayed”

 

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Statistics:

Rooms Cleaned: .66
Eight Hundred Pound Sofa-Bed Monstrosities Moved: One
Tylenol Taken: 2 (One for me, one for John)
Contractor Bags Filled: Eight
Number of Terrifying Mattresses and/or Box Springs Removed: Also Eight
Number of Loads Of Plague Laundry Unsuccessfully Attempted: One [Wait ‘till next week for this story]
Unintentionally Comic Quote of the Week: “I didn’t notice that mattress has camouflage sheets!”

It is good to be back into our regular routine: holidays completed, family visited, an indeterminate-but-almost-definitely-embarrassing number of pounds gained; much fun had and rest achieved. And so, I joyfully sit in our upstairs bathroom, laptop open, waiting for my boy to fall asleep according to our Pact, gleefully banging out another update.

[Have I told you about The Pact? It has two parties, my boy and myself, in which I, the parent/sleep guardian agree that if the Boy Goes To Sleep On His Own in His Bed(!) then Parent/Sleep Guardian will: sit in the bathroom next door, before checking in to see how he’s doing in “Six Short Minutes”. This is when I get all my blogging done, some of which before editing, has a more than metaphorical connection to the fixture I’m currently sitting on.]

It takes a village to fix a house. At least, it certainly has this last month.

Specs Eaton (recurring character alert!), lumberjack turned teacher turned high school principal turned real estate agent/contractor/tree expert, volunteered to help us take down a couple fifty foot tall trees that had been planted a cushy five feet from the house, including one that was definitely leaning in what could only be described as a domicidal direction.

This involved him bringing his tractor, which is perhaps better described as a high-powered Swiss army on wheels, making a precarious climb up the tree, risking (bad pun alert!) life and limb to tie a rope around the trunk, which we then attached to said tractor. He then gave me a two minute tutorial, and said, “When I start waving frantically, throw the tractor into reverse if you’d still like a house.”

Accessing the perfect trigonometry possessed by every professional lumberjack, he made a bunch of careful cuts around the tree trunk, and began waving frantically. Bucking my long history of mechanical ineptitude, I successfully backed the tractor into reverse, and the tree toppled down perfectly, saving both my house and about a thousand dollars of professional tree work. Afterwards, I had my second lesson on the Usage of the Chainsaw, in which I managed a solid C+, managing to get it pinched twice, before deciding that exhaustion, sharp power tools and a badly overdue lunch were not good for the long-term future of my limbs.

This brings me to the next resident in our village, where my apprenticeship is going far better with Kim Boehm, Master Electrician, whose answering machine message still opens “You’ve reached the intergalactic headquarters of Island Electric…”. I’m now the proud owner of a State of Maine Electrician’s Helper’s License and a bag of tools, which will give me the opportunity to work very slowly under his very careful supervision, with the hope that I’ll soon be roughing out my own lines without posing excessive danger to myself or to others. Kim has been a remarkably patient teacher so far, which is most likely due to the fact that I appear to be a far more naturally talented electrician than I am a lumberjack.

And finally, there are all those online presences which also populate my house-raising village.

A month ago, I went to the Almighty Google to look for a good prayer to start my workdays with. I believe that work like this is holy, although we don’t tend to think of it as such, and at any rate, I find that all good days hauling trash can use some judicious sanctification. I ended up turning to the Facebook for help and received a bunch of great responses, but the one that took the cake was by Wendy Hudson, former guest on my podcast, who volunteered to write me one.

This is what she wrote; and this is what I pray at the beginning of every workday on Firehouse Road.

 

[I originally wrote this as a featured article for the BTS Center’s December issue of Bearings, their online magazine. Many thanks for letting me repost!)

Every resurrection requires death. This is written into the rhythms of creation. Spring is preceded by winter. New forest growth is preceded by forest fires. Sunrise is always preceded by sunset. Rebirth comes after walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Easter Sunday comes after Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Nothing escapes this reality.

I learned this lesson about five years ago, when my church gathered for the last time to say goodbye.

This was not the lesson I thought I was going to learn when I began my work as a pastor. Like most Christians, I believed in immortality, even invincibility, before I believed in resurrection. In this spirit, fresh out of seminary, on fire with passion, captured by a beautiful vision, my wife and I set out to plant an experimental Christian community centered around serving a city, not a building or weekly worship—one of the first mainline-missional churches in the country—bolstered by the assurance that as long as we followed Jesus, nothing could really go wrong.

After all, I had been given this assurance through all my years of spiritual and professional formation. A parade of authors and presenters told us the stories of a hundred rabbits that were pulled out of a hundred ministerial hats by churches that had almost closed until they found just the right program and became vital turn around examples for the rest of us. A hundred plucky little bands of people wandered out into forlorn communities, armed with nothing but their faith, and planted churches that grew with such rapidity that it would have put Paul to shame. A thousand saints-in-the-making with deep love for God’s poor effortlessly developed world-famous programs that changed entire neighborhoods of people. Of course, the same thing would happen to you, if you were truly faithful (and hopefully bought their book as well).

Then my ideals collided headlong with reality.

I discovered in those first few years that much of the work was as beautiful as promised. We threw block parties and free markets, with thousands of people joyfully attending. We gathered for amazing Bible study over potluck food in ratty apartments in dangerous neighborhoods. We cleaned up abandoned parks and defiantly celebrated resurrection on Easter Sunday in them, chalking “Christ is risen” on long neglected sidewalks.

But much of it was far harder and far messier than we ever envisioned: filled with disappointments and dead ends, griefs and betrayals, deep hurts and lingering questions; always with the grinding pressure of long hours, and high expectations, and no money, and no end to any of it in sight, even after years of hard labor.

As my joy began to wither, as my body experienced the pain of too many gas station meals and seventy-hour workweeks, as my spirit began to shake under the relentless pressure and the unshakeable conviction that things were not going as planned, I realized two things: this work had broken me, and I didn’t know how to stop.

This is a common tale, especially for people of faith. We think that God has guaranteed our particular story a happy ending. We tell ourselves that we just need to hold on until we reach our promised conclusion. The turnaround is always right around the corner, we insist; we just need to hold on until we get there. And so, what starts as healthy persistence turns into obsession. We become the animated caricature of our own expectations, willing to do anything, try anything, sacrifice anything, just so we can keep going. We become robots in our own lives; so automated by our own habits that we lose any sense of agency, because we fear what will happen if we let go.

And that’s when the good news for us becomes not Easter, but Good Friday.

I remember the Good Friday moment for us. We had taken a month-long sabbatical, my desperate attempt to recover my health and get a break from the nearly ceaseless anxiety attacks I experienced daily. We decided that if six people would sign up for an in-depth spiritual and leadership formation class with us, then we would continue. In the end, only four did, and after receiving the final “no” on our list, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of relief, because it meant that the work could finally just end.

Not that the ending was easy. Death never is. For us, there was no Mr. Holland’s Opus moment—just a sad little death-denying worship service, followed by nine lonely months as we packed our possessions, sold our house, and moved to an island off the coast of Maine to start over again.

In the years that followed, I learned of another grace, one even more ignored than the grace of ending. That was the grace of Holy Saturday, the day of the tomb, of sitting in the ashes.

I had never paid attention to this part of the story before. Authors, when they write books, tend to refer to these moments almost in elision. Five years can pass in a memoir through a mere paragraph: the aftermath of a divorce, of a career ended, of aimless wandering in the wilderness, a long coda where nothing seems to happen before the action begins again.

There is an advent of expectation that comes when you sit in the ashes, and that season can last for a short while or a very long one, as you learn the hard discipline of patience and keep watch for the coming of spring.

There is an advent of expectation that comes when you sit in the ashes, and that season can last for a short while or a very long one, as you learn the hard discipline of patience and keep watch for the coming of spring.

It’s hard not to attach yourself to the next great thing that comes your way. In those first two years after my church ended, I pitched multiple book proposals, started a podcast, got trained as a church planting coach, began a consulting business, developed a workshop called “The Gift of Failure” that was, in the most ironic moment of my career, cancelled due to lack of registration, and became a pastor of a dinner church. Every one of those efforts sank back into nothingness almost as quickly as they began.

And then, my health collapsed; a previously dormant chronic illness swiftly re-emerged. Sitting up in a chair, going to check the mail, or even going up a set of stairs felt like running a marathon. Without a career, without my health, my ego exhausted, I could do nothing but wait, lying in my own tomb, my whole life happening on the other side of a bedroom door.

Endings are not always easy. They’re frequently messy, open-ended, and exceptionally painful. They also don’t happen all at once. Each thread of your story eventually snaps, one after another, sometimes in quick succession, sometimes only after the weathering of the years, until you float again in space.

Space. That’s what I discovered again, sitting in my bed, having been forcibly untethered from everything that had propped my identity up. And within that space—a space that felt like death—I began to experience new life again.

I started treating my body as something other than an enemy. I fell into a community that held me as I faced the lifelong wounds that my long-automatic expectations had silenced for decades. I learned again the beauty of watching my son play, of receiving a note from a friend, of baking cookies for a neighbor; of experiencing life as good, in and of itself, regardless of what happened next.

After a while, the threads started to reknit. The anxiety, once the monster that rode my back every day, became a quiet friend. My health found its own tentative equilibrium and then bloomed again into full life, after a long-delayed visit to a specialist found a treatment that actually worked. I started to discover how calling could be rooted in something other than expectations and dreams.

It is a beginning that is still beginning. I’ve only been healthy for a couple months now, still confused by feeling better than I have in over a decade. My career is still an ambiguous mess, although more connected to a true sense of vocation than ever before. I still feel shadows of sadness whenever I visit a church for worship or gather with a group of people in my home to study scripture.

But, five years after that most beloved story came to an end, Easter has dawned in my life, and only because I accepted the grace of ending and the even greater grace of sitting in the ashes.

Let me give you permission: it is a good thing to end. It is a good thing to give up that much beloved habit that was once helpful but had gone past its season. It’s a good thing for your church to lay down its dead traditions and commend them to the community of the saints. It is good for us to release the unfinished threads of our story and entrust them to the love of God.

And it is good, when you say goodbye, to just stop, and wait, and hold space, for as long as it takes Spirit to work.

And it is good, when you say goodbye, to just stop, and wait, and hold space, for as long as it takes Spirit to work.

Because in that space, sitting in the ashes, like a forest after the fire, we will notice new green shoots starting to sprout up, so filled with life that we can’t help but wonder how they grew out of soil such as us in the first place.

At the end of this year, and at the end of whatever story you find yourself at: here’s to endings, here’s to the ashes, and here’s to a glorious green resurrection.

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[Clearly it’s the holidays, and I’m not enough of a masochist to have worked this past week and not enough of a sadist to ask other people to work this week either. Soon enough, we’ll be temporally aligned, but this happened a few weeks ago. Happy holidays!]

Weekly Statistics:

Aggrieved Mice Evicted From their Generational Homes In Broad Daylight: 2
Dog Crates In Front Yard: 6
Bird Feeders: 14 (and counting)
Houses Broken Into: 1
Chain Saws Used: 1
Number of Electric Weed Whackers Discovered: 3 (one is still in its box!)
Contractor Bags Filled: Six (and counting)
Friends: John Flint, Joe Ballard

This property requires, as they say, a lot of sweat equity.

And by sweat equity, they quite literally mean my sweat.

The list of projects for a property like this one is nearly endless, but hopefully there are a few that will separate themselves from the pack and clamor for your attention.

The first task was taking care of the dead trees all around the house: those fallen, those partially-fallen, and those still-up-but-could-be-fallen-quite-soon, to avoid vulnerable roofs and to give us good access to the house in case of an emergency. (In retrospect, I’m not sure what emergency could possibly happen that would require me to obtain quick access to the house. After all, I’m not very likely to yell “Fire at the house! Quick! Let’s run inside!”)

The front yard was an arboreal graveyard and I spent the morning, with help from my good friend John Flint (Recurring character alert!) and Joe Ballard, self-proclaimed maniac chainsaw master, (okay, I paraphrased slightly) in cutting them up and hauling them away.

I even got to use a chainsaw for the very first time. (It was a moment, as I remarked to the J’s, where I’m quite sure that my mother, sitting no doubt at her breakfast table in Wells, suddenly felt very uncomfortable for no discernible reason.) I tentatively hacked off several small branches and had a grand time before the adults decided to take over again.

Afterwards, John and I went over to the little cabin, a little winterized place that may be the archetypal Bachelor Pad on the island, replete with questionably framed pictures of wolves on the wall, towels used hopefully as curtains, and a leather sofa-couch that weighs as much as a small elephant.

The door to the cabin had been locked from the inside by some over-conscious real estate tourists, who must have then found a nearby window to climb out of, as there is no door handle on this door, since apparently Real Men Don’t Need Door Handles. It was at this moment I got my first experience breaking and entering, with the help of a short ladder and trusty crowbar, a procedure that went very well until the window slammed down on my knees while I was halfway through, turning me briefly into a very poor imitation of the Wicked Witch of the East. (John laughed, but in his defense, only for a very short while before opening the window to allow me to escape with my legs, if not my dignity intact.)

It was a long, hard day of manual labor, leavened by a couple friends.

And I loved it.

This is quite surprising, since I have not done anything more physically demanding than sit intently at my desk, banging words into existence for the entirety of my adult career. (But before that, I was the Lead FRIDAY NIGHT Fry Cook at Bonanza Steak House one summer during college, so you know I’ve got some skillz.) For the next few years, about half my working hours will be spent working with my hands (or my back or my knees, as both want me to inform you).

Manual labor, as all the great mystics of all traditions reminds us, is also a great means of contemplation; which is something I’m definitely going to try to remember when shoveling two solid inches of rabbit manure out of my basement this spring.

[Read Chapter One of Reports From the Island Frontier here.]

 

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Much to our surprise, we purchased a house about a month ago.

In case you haven’t heard the story yet, let me unpack that statement for you.

First, it was indeed much to our surprise, as we had no particular intention to buy a house, seeing as part-time pastors married to part-time musicians/podcasters don’t generally make enough money to meet the $300-350,000 buy-in that actually owning housing on the island generally requires.

Second, while “purchased” is a rather antiseptic, value-neutral term, this process involved solving the mystery of a rumored gas tank, an epic saga at a cash-only, foreclosure auction on a rather sketchy website, one failed bid process, and a second bidding war where I was so surprised at our success that I literally stared mutely at my laptop for the better part of five minutes, sure that our internet had somehow malfunctioned; before finally getting to the surprisingly complex work of pushing together all the pennies we’ve been meticulously saving since we got married just for an opportunity like this one.

Finally, by house I mean not a “house”, but a sprawling 1.8 cleared acre complex (cleared referring to trees, but certainly not to the 50 abandoned lobster traps and piles of random junk, including six dog crates, fourteen bird feeders, and one cast iron bathtub living merrily outdoors) with a house (more on that in a moment), a cabin, a garage, a horse barn, a horse pasture, and one building that was formerly a clubhouse and/or guesthouse but is now functionally scrap due to a missing back wall.

By house, I also mean a charming old island home, built in the late 19th century, about 1500 square feet; which could only be optimistically described as a “fixer upper”, with broken septic, piles of trash, at least twenty rabbit hutches and two inches of composted rabbit droppings in the basement, and a urine/smoke smell so strong in the front kitchen and living room that if you open the door, you can smell the house from ten feet away. For all of that, also a house with rock solid bones, which, when you’re doing a fixer upper, is all that really matters.

By house, I also mean a story. It’s the story of a well-beloved island family, an old garage and gas station, horses running in a field, a sweet little home that once was kept utterly immaculate, with red geraniums around the driveway during the summer. It’s also the story of a sad spiral downward for an island son and a community that fought hard to keep him in the house, through love and sweat, and couldn’t succeed. It’s the story of a four-year eyesore that stares at you every time you drive down Firehouse Road to the center of town.

All of this spoke to us. It’s the chance to buy in to a community we love at a price we can actually afford. It’s the chance to turn the whole property around and provide good opportunities for other islanders in a way that could also help support us. It’s the chance to reclaim a sweet little house in a sweet little spot on this island. (And yes, we’re full eyes open on the incredible amount of work that’s needed to make that happen. Seriously. You should see my spreadsheets.)

Most importantly for us, it’s a chance to take that story and write a happier one. Melissa and I have always been drawn to taking dead things and bringing them back to life; from throwing block parties in abandoned neighborhoods, to celebrating Easter in run-down city parks, defiantly scrawling “Christ is risen” on the sidewalks, to holding space for grieving youth and giving their spirits room to revive. Believe it or not, buying this house is not the craziest thing we’ve ever done. Stuff like this is pretty much all we’ve ever done.

We’ll be sharing our experiences (and pictures) as we go through this process over the next couple years. So stay tuned here; because coming next week: the stories of my first month at work, which includes some generous neighbors, some judicious breaking and entering, and an adventure with a chainsaw.

Join us for a conversation with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz of Congregation Beith Simchat Torah as he shares his experience as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi advocating for transgender inclusion.

Episode Highlights Include: (Or better yet, just look at Steve Silbert’s amazing sketchnote!)

  • Why Mike is a self-identified religious fundamentalist and religiously non-cforming
  • Why G-D is an all gender God and why Adam and Eve were the first trans folks
  • Losing his job, losing friends, nad wandering in the wilderness
  • How he found his new job through civil disobedience

Support us by:

If you liked this episode, check out:

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Thanks as well to our sponsors for 2020:

Stay tuned next for: Our closing conversation of 2020, where Beth Estock interviews Ben about what he learned during season four of Reports (plus his plans for big changes in 2020!)

Join us for a guest episode from one of our favorite podcasts, Neighbor Next Door, as hosts Adam Barlow-Thompson and Matthew Johnson of the Neighboring Movement interview Mike Mather of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

You’ll also hear about our campaign to fund a fifth season of Reports. Short version is that we’ve made progress, but we’re still short of our goal, so pledge before our deadline on Thursday, December 5th!

You can find more episodes of the Neighbor Next Door by visiting their website or subscribing to them wherever you get your podcasts!

Support us by:

If you liked this episode, check out our conversation with Adam and Matt, guest hosted by Daryn DeZengotita, “Finding God In Your Neighborhood”.

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Stay tuned next for: A conversation with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz about advocating for trans inclusion in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.

 

Join us for a conversation with Sarah Heath of Costa Mesa United Methodist Church.

Episode Highlights Include:

  • What it means to say “This is who I am.”
  • Rob Bell and Fifty People In A Room
  • Being a pastor without being a type
  • Making space to be yourself and for your community to be itself
  • Creating space for God and community at Costa Mesa UMC

Support us by:

If you liked this episode, check out:

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Stay tuned next for: An episode from “The Neighbor Next Door”, a podcast from our friends at the Neighboring Movement!

Join us for a conversation with Dr. Alex Gee, of the Justified Anger Coalition in Madison, WI; and the Black Like Me podcast. 

Episode Highlights Include:

  • Why we can’t know American Christianity apart from the impact of slavery
  • Woke white supremacy
  • Why white Christians need to stop rescuing and start listening
  • Why the sky isn’t falling for all Christian churches
  • God and the experience of being other
  • White People Go Home

Support us by:

If you liked this episode, check out:

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Stay tuned next for: A conversation with Sarah Heath of Costa Mesa United Methodist Church.

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