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I Can Never Surprise You: the story of my life outside the church walls

I’ve spent a good deal of time with people who are not Christians, and in fact don’t have any interest in appearing to live by biblical standards. But most Christian pastors I know have limited contact with the wild world of subcultures I frequent. 

I know only a few pastors who have been to Burning Man. The Christian connection with the world of Burners is slim, and typically, it is a negative experience for the Burner. 

The preponderance of church leaders I know have no idea what today’s Pagan is (or ‘Neo-Pagan’, to use an anthropological identification). When they use the word ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’, they typically mean godless hedonistic people. It’s a negative identifier for someone who drinks and parties a lot and should be avoided because they are a bad influence.

My friend Jim Henderson used to arrange discussions with atheists in churches. He would ask the pastor to find a few atheists to discuss their view of Christianity and the Christian church in front of the congregation. Jim came to our church in Salem about 12 years ago. He asked me to find three atheists for the panel––no problem. I found a few friends and acquaintances, and they were ready to be part of this public discussion. Jim was surprised that I found the atheists he needed. Apparently other pastors he had dealt with didn’t know any atheists, and Jim would have to visit coffee shops or pubs prior to the event to fill those slots. I was as surprised as Jim. He was surprised that I knew three atheists in Salem. I was surprised that other pastors couldn’t find anyone to join the discussion.

The other night, I was hanging out with one of my Witch friends in Salem. This Witch friend enjoys a rather hedonistic alternative sexual lifestyle. This is not necessarily standard in Pagan circles, but neither is it uncommon. After being told a few tales of sexual exploits, my friend remarked, “I just can’t freak you out. You never get surprised.” My friend occasionally tries to freak me out, and tests me with these stories.

My Witch friend was not the first person to make the comment that I was not easily surprised. I’ve heard that several times over the years from people who are trying to push my little Christian pastor buttons. It is almost as if I am being tested to see whether I can practice what I preach about loving people unconditionally.

From Burners, to Witches, to Atheists, to general non-believers, and occasionally from Christians who practice such alternative things as open-marriage, I have heard some variation of these words: “You never get surprised.” Typically, what they mean beneath that comment is that I do not reject them, and that I can accept them as friends.

It is true that I am not easily surprised by the weird things people do. I am also not easily offended. I do not need people to agree with me for them to be my friends. Perhaps being surprised easily and being offended easily are closely related. Even if they are not, the world around us that does not follow Jesus appears to think that they are related.

Perhaps our little Christian world is too little. Perhaps it is too narrow. Perhaps that is why we are surprised when we hear things that are part of the world of alternative sexuality, alternative religious beliefs, hedonistic partying, radically differing politics, violence, or criminality. I may walk a narrow way to Christ. In fact, it is narrower than most people think. But this way intersects the broad road in many places, and my lack of surprise and offence is just one more evidence to the non-Christian that I truly love the wide-road walkers I know. We are good friends because I am not surprised by what they believe and how they live. 

Perhaps my lack of surprise is simply a shadow of grace in the storms of judgment and bias raging in our world. Sometimes I wonder why I am so calm in the face of hedonism and heresy, but mostly I am thankful. That calmness allows me to go places that many other Christians can’t imagine.

Interested in more stories from outside the church walls and a theology of wild mission? Check out Love Big or Go Home.

God on the A Line

I’m visiting Long Beach, CA. I lived here for two years recently, and occasionally had to take the A line from Long Beach to Union Station in LA. Last night, I had to take it again. Previous times taking the A Line, I usually boarded the train early in the morning. The train was fairly crowded at 5:30 am. It was filled with homeless people in the seats with their heads on their knees, and their hoodies pulled over their heads. I saw this half a dozen times on my travels from Long Beach to LA.

Last night, I traveled from Union Station southward just before midnight. People who previously had their heads in their laps in the morning were now boarding the train and taking their seats. They’ll stay on the train until it’s last stop. Late in the night people board and take a nap. First ride in the morning, people board and quickly assume the curled-up position for the hour-long ride. 

A thin middle-aged black man talked and screamed and cackled like a cartoon villain to his reflection in the train window. An older Latino gentleman took a swig from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. He smiled and chatted briefly with me. A younger woman and the man with paper bag night cap chatted in comfortable familiarity. A young man had a loud conversation on his cell phone with a girl he loved. He desperately begged for her to give him a chance. Bikes started coming aboard with their current owners. They were dropped on the floor or leaned against the exit doors. Something about the careless treatment of the bikes suggested that the current owners might have picked up these bikes for free recently. The bikes appeared to carry no intrinsic value to the riders.

Across the world, the homeless catch a snooze wherever they can. They sit long hours in late night coffee shops to stay warm. They curl up in the inset store-front foyer cubby-holes. They bundle up on sidewalks over the steaming grates to stay warm in freezing northern cities. They once covered up with newspapers on park benches, but the world of online news has chopped the newspaper industry back. Finding a thick Boston Globe or New York Times isn’t as easy as it used to be.

I wondered how many pastors and concerned Christians make time for the population living on the trains. It’s far sexier to create an outreach to surfers, and far more profitable for the church to reach the middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. It’s more acceptable when our new congregants don’t smell so bad that your eyes burn, and there are fewer interruptions when the man in the third row isn’t screaming and cackling at his demons.

The next day, I met a small group of friends at Fat Stogies––a cigar shop in Long Beach. A homeless man walked up to the railing of the outdoor patio and asked if he could do a job to get a bite to eat. Ru, part of a circle of friends at Fat Stogies spoke up. “I got you. Don’t worry about it.” 

Ru walked down the street and bought the guy ribs and corn on the cob. He sat on the curb and waited for Ru to return. I walked out to meet the guy. I sat down on the curb next to him. 

“Hi. I’m Phil. What’s your name?”
“Hi. I’m Daniel.”

We talked. Daniel told me about getting robbed recently. He told me his history, and said he’s had money and good jobs in the past and spoke about places he’s traveled. He complained about the difficulty of his situation, and how dehumanizing it felt to be in such desperate need. He vacillated between questioning why God put him in this situation and saying there must be a lesson in it all. Daniel cried. I told him that I couldn’t completely understand, but that my recent years on the road in Priscilla the Winnebago taught me about the struggle for dignity when you’re getting chased out of neighborhoods and parking lots. He told me about the loneliness, and how it was difficult to look people in the eyes because of the shame. He bemoaned the fact that others didn’t want to look into his eyes either.

The space between the haves and the have-nots is a shame-based gap. The poor feel like their dignity has been stripped and they have nothing to offer. The better-off, at every level, from stable lower class to rich, feel like they don’t know how to help. I would suggest that if we don’t struggle with that shame, then we don’t have a heart, and something is wrong with us. But I would also suggest that the relief from that shame is not discovered in evading the problem. It is discovered by looking it in the face. I sat down with Daniel to hold a conversation and learn his story. Ru bought him dinner. He cried at both acts of kindness. Ru and I both faced our internal desire to be a solution head on. We did it in different ways, but we did it. Daniel profusely thanked Ru for his generosity. He profusely thanked me for sitting and talking to him like he was a regular guy, because “nobody does that with me anymore”.

Perhaps the deepest desperation of poverty is not the actual lack of money, but the invisibility. The have-nots can’t look into the eyes of the haves because they are ashamed. The rich don’t look into the eyes of the poor. I hope the rich are also ashamed because they are not sure how to help, but it could be that some are simply judgmental.

I rode the A line the other night. God was on the A line for the last trip south. And I wondered how many people recognized him when he talked to his own reflection in the train window. (Matthew 25:37-40)

See article from LA Times about the homeless on the Metro system.

The World of Festivals Slowly Pops its Head Above Ground

Photo by Matthew Bornehorst at Unsplash

Since early 2020, large gatherings have been curtailed. COVID stopped our social lives in a time warp, and there are many people who feel that we might not be able to return to the way things were. Others are excited for the possibilities that lie ahead.

Burning Man will return, but it will have an attendance at 2012 levels, and that is intentional. Things had slowly been feeling like they were going astray, and this is an attempt to draw back to the core values. Glastonbury is going to return after a two fallow years in a row.

Do you feel like the cicada coming out of its 17 years in larval nymph form? Are you ready to stop burrowing beneath the soil, and break out into the world to sing?

Many of us feel this way, but we’ve come out into a new wild, and seemingly, more dangerous world. Some of us greet the new day with zeal, but remember, not everyone is popping out of the ground to sing. Many of us will peek out of our holes slowly like the groundhog coming out of hibernation.

To All the Pastors Quitting: Welcome Home. We’ve Been Waiting for You.

Peter Wehner’s article in The Atlantic, Evangelicalism is Falling Apart provides no new insights to the ongoing cultural struggle for the heart of the Evangelical Church, but it has eloquently packaged together a handful of critical issues facing Evangelicalism in America.

We might well look back on this season and see Evangelicalism in the throes of what has already been labeled by some as a post-Evangelical season. Dave Tomlinson wrote about the struggle of The Post Evangelicals in 1995 as he defined and talked to those who were leaving the fold to remain faithful to God.

Is the current refocus upon this the result of the Trump season and the rise of political interests over the foundational Evangelical concern for the salvation of souls? Perhaps, but Molly Worthen’s book Apostles of Reason outlines other earlier political tensions American Evangelicalism was torn by. The dynamics of the pro-life movement, and the Religious Right did their best to simultaneously martial Evangelical forces, and divide the church, but today, things seem even angrier than the 80s to many of us who were there. Issues of Women’s rights and equality are outlined in Wehner’s piece and those topics continue to be foundational to the Evangelical struggles. Of course, it may be that the church will be most deeply affected by a post-COVID season.

But perhaps, as some have suggested, these many and competing experiences are simply highlighting and bringing to light the problems already inherent to the system. Wehner’s article highlights the fact that the contributing external forces to Evangelicalism’s crumbling state is already found in ourselves. Perhaps we are responsible for the momentum toward a post-Evangelical America, and Evangelicalism is the largest contributing factor to its own demise.

There are many of us who have felt that we did not leave Evangelicalism as much as Evangelicalism left us. I am one of those. Even while I championed its most valuable resources in the small churches across America, and the ability to navigate cross cultural relationships for the purpose of introducing the Nazarene to a new generation of spiritual but not religious people, I was treated as a heretic for calling us back to our roots of radical relational evangelism. I was not alone in being rejected, and discovering that there were powerful forces in the leadership of the church afraid to live like our Evangelical and Early Christian forefathers.

If you are one of those who is ready to give up, because the people in the pews and the leaders in the lodges of power seem to have moved away from the simplicity of Christ, welcome back home. There are a number of us out here in the desert, and we will gladly welcome you in.

Traveling Toward Cymru (Wales)

Since my last email update there is much to report. I spent time in Texas. I am now in North Carolina, Salem is coming up, and my first trip in the transition to Wales has been booked.

Let’s walk backwards through this story:

Leaving for Wales – Part 1

Yesterday, I booked a flight to Wales for arrival on August 19th. I will spend my first two weeks in South Wales helping my friends Andrew Thomas and Dawn Wood prepare for Between the Trees festival, which is a mixture of music, science, philosophy, and spirituality. It doesn’t get any better than that for a festival focus, does it? 

After Between the Trees, I plan on spending the rest of my time in and around Caernarfon, North Wales. The focus of this part of the trip is to prepare for my move, which I am hoping will happen at the beginning of this coming year, and to set up plans for all the crazy ideas that fill my head with how to be a positive influence in this town that has captured my heart so deeply.

It is my goal to hit the ground running wherever I go, and of course, this means much of the preparation for ministry must happen long before one lands on the ground. Before moving to Salem, Massachusetts, I sent some years traveling there, and bringing my friends with me, before we all moved. Fortunately, I have made friends and acquaintances throughout Wales over many journeys to the land of my heart, and I have been preparing the way to be able to start working in ministry as quickly as possible. 

North Carolina

Right now, I am in Greensboro, NC with my dear friends Gail and Charles Bretan. I so deeply appreciate their kindness to host me in their home as I jaunt about the state. I have spent long hours with Charles talking about life, religion, philosophy, politics and just about every bunny trail of thought. His Jewish/English professor’s views on the world are always a challenge and encouragement to whatever I happen to be studying and writing. During this time, I have hung out with his podcast partners, Chris Henson, and Rev. Helena––the ampersand of reason. We even did a podcast together, which is a good thing since my own podcasts have come to a halt during this traveling season. This will be posted on their podcast page: A Jew and a Gentile Walk into a Bar…Mitzvah. ––> https://charlesandchris.net

Papy has graciously loaned me the use of his car, and I have been able to spend a couple days with him. I was able to hang out with his parents who are wonderful and dong well, and then we’ve twice now with Robert and Kelly Williams. It was like old home time with one of the Salem outreach teams.

I spoke on Sunday morning at Fellowship of Christ in Cary, NC. I am grateful to have spent time with this wonderful church. You can access the message online at their website ––> https://www.fellowshipofchrist.org/sermons. On the sermon page, you can find the morning I spoke on the 2021/07/25 video in the right column of the page, and I begin at about the 30-minute mark. Spending time with Pastor David MacLean, John Craichy, and other friends from Fellowship of Christ was the real highlight of my time with them. I always feel as though I receive more edification from others than I give, and I am so grateful for all the good people I know around the world.

Before going to Cary, I spent some of my first days in Asheville. Asheville has been a home away from home for a long time. My son, Elijah, used to live here. I have Burner friends, Emergent friends from the Wild Goose Festival, Rainbow Gathering friends, and assorted others. Most of my time was spent with the Deifell family. There was a memorial service for Jey, the patriarch of the family, and fortunately, I was able to be there for this event. It was great to spend time with the whole family. My initial contact with them was Burning Man, where I first met Hope and her brother Tony. Since then, I have done several mission activities in which Hope has been a vital part of the organization and outreach. My time in Asheville is often at Heather and Richmond’s house, which is just too fun.  I am quite sure that Richmond and I start laughing as soon as we see each other, and we don’t stop laughing until I leave. It’s scary how close his humor mirrors my own…hmm, perhaps I should feel bad for the poor guy.

While in Asheville/Black Mountain, I met with a variety of other people. Hope Deifell introduced me the Dean of Spiritual Formation at Montreat College where she works, and it turns out that Rachel Toone and I had several friends in common. I spent time with fellow hippie ministers: Joshua and Shallyn Hanson, of the Rainbow Gathering Jesus Kitchen, at their new Nomads Land property outside Asheville; and then it was tacos and ice cream with Cate, who has worked in places like Rainbow Gatherings, Haight Ashbury, and the Goa. I also saw my Wild Goose festival friends Mike and Jasmin Morrell, and Steve Knight (for a second time). To top of a great time in Asheville, I got to see one of my Salem peeps who moved to Asheville a couple years ago––yes, the famous Glenn French! 

Texas

My first landing place after leaving California was Texas, and quickly I was swept away from the airport by David Brown, and we made our way to College Station. I caught the 4th of July fireworks at Texas A&M on that first night. Over the next 10 days I would also travel to Brownwood and Austin. I spent time with Chai, Shalom, and Zoe, and David, but Chris Gaston who is usually in Brownwood had already left for the Pacific Coast Trail which he is walking in full this summer.

I was headed toward Houston to see Paul and Joy Burwell, but Joy called and said they were in contact with someone exposed to COVID. Although, I am not concerned for myself, I needed to be wary for those I was visiting, because it included families and elders across the country. So, I missed the opportunity to see and pray with my good friends, the Burwells. At the end of the Texas trip I spent the days in Austin. I stayed with Robert, Kimberly, and Ian Watson-Hemphill. I was treated to some of the notable places of Austin, and Robert and I visited the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, which is traveling around the country.

I spent a couple days with Cathryn Camisa as she in process of leaving one place for another, which was wonderful to see since it represented a season of deliverance for Cathryn. Cathryn and I met with Mike Clawson and Steve Knight, who flew in from Asheville and I would see once again in North Carolina.

Defending Befriending with John W. Morehead from MultiFaith Matters

John Morehead and I are partners in the crimes of trying to do good works that are not always perceived as good works in Evangelical circles. We've taken some hits for befriending the "radical other" - those who think and live differently than ourselves. We think that's what Jesus would do, but not everyone appears to agree.

Wild Theology Podcast: The One Who Names Himself Part 1 Wild Theology

In this episode entitled "The One Who Names Himself", I look at the frantic search for a meaning and fulfillment. Kanye West's declaration at Glastonbury that he was the greatest rock star on the planet and the Self-Help Movement are discussed as examples of this phenomenon.   You can support this podcast at https://Patreon.com/PhilWyman You can find the video version at https://youtu.be/oAZH34Zh4os  Also connect with me at: https://Facebook.com/PhilWyman https://Twitter.com/PhilWyman https://BurningReligion.com
  1. Wild Theology Podcast: The One Who Names Himself Part 1
  2. Love Big or Go Home with John W. Morehead
  3. Wild Theology Podcast – The Tattered Robes of Life: a song, a pre-Easter meditation
  4. Wild Theology Podcast -The Beginnings of Love Big or Go Home
  5. Wild Theology Podcast – Moving to Wales. The Story of this Dream.

Halloween for Christians: How to Respond to It

Reposting this article from 5 years ago. Yes, we still need to remind ourselve to stop freaking out, and start redeeming the time. 😉 For more information about rethinking Halloween see my book The Reformation of Halloween available on Amazon

Halloween has become one of the largest, most influential holidays in America, and is gaining ground in other countries as well. It is a day filled with costuming, horror images, candy, and community openness. That combination seems strangely out of synch with sensibility at first glance, but those issues may not be as far apart as we might assume.

If you come from the conservative to fundamentalist spectrum of Evangelical Christianity, you may have been raised with a fear of Halloween. You have heard stories of its supposed Pagan beginnings, and the dark sinister things occurring on Samhain (pronounced Sow-en). The Fundamentalist mind runs rampant with human and kitten sacrifices on October 31st. Churches hold Harvest Fairs, or 24-hour prayer vigils to combat the dark intentions of the Evil One on this night.

Meanwhile, families are getting dressed up in costumes ranging from bloody zombies to Disney Princesses, and they are traveling the neighborhood knocking door-to-door like vacuum cleaner salesman looking for candy for their children. The neighbors open their doors, cheerily accept a “Trick-or-Treat!” shout, give out candy, and close the doors to declare how cute the kids look. To these neighbors, your concern about keeping your kitty indoor on Halloween, or avoiding a demonic intrusion into your child’s soul seems as distant as Pluto.

Now, I will be so bold as to declare, that I know a bit more about Halloween and its intersection with Christianity than just about anybody reading this blog post. You see, I am a Christian Pastor. But not only that, I am a Christian Pastor who lives and pastors in Salem, Massachusetts, and in our little city, Halloween is a one-month-long experience. But, not only that, I have been running an outreach on the streets of Salem for nearly an entire month each year during our month-long Halloween season. And not only that, our city has real live practicing Witches, and I know many of them well. So, here goes my take on Halloween. I will not give you the supposed history of the event. You can find that elsewhere on the internet, and some of it is sensationalist (stay away from that stuff – it’s just dumb and wrong), and some of it is honest enough to say that we do not really know the origins or activities on this night back in early Pagan history.

Here are some suggestions I have for you:

1) Don’t get freaked out by the gory aspects of Halloween. Yes, some people go overboard, but then again so did Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and so did some of the descriptions of war, sickness, depravity and suicide in the Bible. There is a strong connection between death and apocalyptic scenarios in literature and film, and these connections carry spiritual meaning. From stories of zombies to vampires to monsters to antichrists we find interesting correlations to finding safety in God during apocalyptic crisis in literature and film, and social commentary is ripe in story lines like The Walking Dead.

2) Take advantage of the community openness. What other day of the year will people happily open their doors to a knock from a strangely dressed stranger saying funny things to them? In fact, they will be so happy to see you, they will give you a gift of candy. How often does that happen? You couldn’t get that to happen on Christmas Day while everyone is excitedly opening packages under the decorated piney tree.

3) Don’t get all caught up in the supposed dark intentions of the night. How many Witches do you actually know? My guess is that most people reading this will answer “none.” I know hundreds – literally hundreds. That is because I live in Salem Massachusetts, and have friends from the Neo-Pagan Witchcraft community from around the world. I have yet to encounter any dead kitty cats, or sacrificed babies. I have found very few examples of curses upon churches or individual Christians. I am not saying that there are not any examples of curses by Witches, but the Witches I know are generally kind people who want the world to be a better, more peaceful place. For this reason, I do not have to hide on Halloween to pray the darkness away.

4) Join someone doing something both fun and redemptive, if you can. Because I am in Salem, and 500,000 to a million people will visit our city in October, we will provide live music on the streets, give away free hot cocoa, free hugs, and will set up booths to offer a variety of spiritual counseling. This is our way of connecting to a searching world during a searching season.

I believe that Halloween is the most open and community oriented holiday in our culture. It is filled with wild creativity, and offers Christianity the best moment in the year to shine with its own creativity, love and giving. Don’t let that moment pass you by, because you are afraid of some bogey man of urban myth in fundamentalist garb.

Monthly Update from Mom’s in Long Beach

I am still in Long Beach, California taking care of mom. I have been here since November, and will be here through May (at least – perhaps longer). Mom still needs lots of care, and that is not likely to change. Meanwhile, Charlie – her begging little Miniature Doberman is a senior citizen as well, and his health is not the best. So, I am taking care of two little old persons.

Charlie would eat himself to death, if we were to allow it. He begs for food all day long. When I am in the kitchen, he dances around my feet, making it difficult to cook and not step on him.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to get back to a somewhat regular rhythm of writing, podcasting and playing music. I have been reunited with my acoustic guitars, as well as now having a beautiful (and beautiful sounding) graphite travel-sized guitar which I shall be able to use during backpacking, train and bus travel, and working in festivals in the UK. This graphite Cargo guitar was given to me by a friend, and I can not be more thankful for the generosity. It solves the problem I’ve had over the last few years needing a guitar I could travel with that was impervious to the extreme elements I am often found in.

I have completed a couple podcasts recently. The first podcast  is with Edmundo Santiago, and follows his ideas on politics and the Christian life. His thoughts fall between, or perhaps more accurately – outside the parameters of our polarized two-party system. The second podcast is my first video-podcast, and it is a discussion with my good friend Jim Hogue on developments in the Burning Man Gathering, and how that relates to the struggle Christianity has with the incursion of consumerist culture upon the church.

I am looking at talking to Trump supporting Christians, and Christians who are planning on voting Democrat in the next election, in my future podcasts. I am looking for people who can talk about difficult issues in a friendly manner. This is meant to be part of series that breaks down the polarization between extreme positions. Does this describe you? Contact me, if so.