The Union Difference


Three years ago today something happened in Dallas that changed my life forever. Well, more specifically three years ago yesterday. Phil Dieke brought a group of us through an alleyway on a Thursday night to see a new thing that was going to open the next day. He unlocked the door of an unassuming storefront and let us look around. I was immediately captured by the space, my head filled with the possibilities of what this could be. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. And that was the first day I stepped into Union.

In the 2.5 years that Union existed while I was in seminary, I spent almost every day there. To start it was merely a place I came because it was impossible for me to get work done in my apartment. It was a friendly place that did good in the community and that’s what I needed at the time. I can still point to the exact location that I wrote most of my papers my first year. It was a place that was calming, a place for people to gather, a place with all the caffeine that I could ever need or want. I should have put product placement on my M.Div for Union Coffee.

And then something amazing happened. Kuneo happened. I started attending Kuneo in August of 2013 because I was bored on a Tuesday night and ended up at Union because of course I did. That night I shared a table with Travis Brown, who’s been one of my best friends ever since. I experienced a worship community that I immediately wanted to be a part of and not two weeks later I was playing banjo with a group of quasi-strangers that became my family as we led worship for the first time as The Misfit Whatevers.

Union taught me so much in the time I spent there. It was integral to my development as a minister and I wouldn’t be who I am now without Union. It gave me a community, it gave me friendship, it gave me a mentor in Mike Baughman who tried to make me the best I can be and helped teach me the lessons that I needed, even when they were hard.

Union taught me how much I love stories. Through hosting and participating in The Naked Stage I learned what a powerful connection sharing a story creates in a room. Being willing to share what you have experienced, what scares you, what inspires you, changes how we see one another and brings a community closer together

Union taught me that everything can be sacred. Kuneo builds worship services out of music that you wouldn’t expect to find in a church and yet some of the holiest moments have been brought forth by Foo Fighters songs or Sufjan Stevens ballads. We planted seeds so that when a song comes on the radio, maybe people would think about things differently. Union taught me to engage with culture and not be ashamed to do so because to ignore it is to deprive yourself of the words that may make a difference in the lives of people who need it.

Union taught me about the value of showing up. When we started Studio, our second worship gathering, we reached out into the theater and performing communities in Dallas. Part of that was getting people together to go to shows that people in the community were involved in. I’ll never forget seeing a now-friend’s eyes light up when he saw that a group of people from a church gathering he had been to once came out to see him do what he loved. Union is all about community, about being there for one another for (as the membership vows claim explicitly) “having each other’s asses.” To be a part of the community means investing in what we love together.

Union taught me that sometimes theology isn’t about the answer. It’s about cultivating a process by which everyone can be heard, where we can wrestle with messy issues and come out more informed  but still on opposite sides. Union taught me that as a preacher sometimes you can have a thoughtful, well-researched sermon and people will disagree with it and you have to learn how to deal with that. Sometimes you have to deal with it in real-time and not get thrown off your game. After preaching at Kuneo where feedback is both immediate and encouraged I am unafraid of any other speaking scenario ever. Bring it. Try me.

Union also taught me that sometimes theology is absolutely about the answer, that there are things happening in the world that the church needs to address and take a stand on. There are times in which the church cannot afford to be silent because our voice is powerful beyond measure.

Union taught me to do things differently and to be a little less afraid of failure. I learned that it was okay to see a new way of doing things and then actively pursuing that goal. And if there’s anything Mike tried to teach me (and I’m sure that I’m still trying to internalize) is that failing isn’t always reflective on my value as a person or a minister. It is a means by which we learn, we grow, and we get new ideas. I learned to fall in love with ideas so that you feel a need to bring them to life, but not to resent if no one else loves it like you do. To be afraid of failing is to stay safe forever and nothing about innovation nor Christianity is supposed to be safe.

Above all, among the many lessons I’m sure I’m forgetting to enumerate, Union taught me exactly how powerful the message of the Gospel is. It is compelling. I watched time after time as people who didn’t know that they were even in a church listened in on a sermon and wanted to be a part of our conversation. I watched the story of our faith be presented in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of to people who weren’t ready for it and it changed the lives of people in that room. I watched people who had been told that the church had no place for them learn that wasn’t true. I watched people learn that they had a home, a place where they belonged. I watched something in the soul of Dallas awaken again.

Happy birthday, Union. Here’s to many more years of lessons that you can teach.

“Know you’re not alone. I’m going to make this place your home.”


Lil Dicky Aims to “$ave Dat Money” for New Video

By now you’ve probably heard of Lil Dicky. His debut album Professional Rapper blew up when it was released late this summer, signaling that the buzz generated from his earlier releases wasn’t just a joke. Where Dicky has always excelled has been his videos,and on the visual for the Fetty Wap and Rich Homie Quan-assisted “$ave Dat Money” is no different. It doesn’t hurt that “$ave Dat Money” is one of the best songs on the album, but the design for the video is what really makes it stand out. The premise is simple: Dicky sets out to make the most extravagant music video possible while spending no money. The video includes scenes of LD and crew driving around Beverly Hills trying to find someone willing to let them use their house, conversations with a Lamborghini dealer, hanging out at a yacht marina waiting for someone to come by, and posting up outside the club trying to get into the VIP.

The most brilliant move, however, is how Lil Dicky involves T-Pain. T-Pain was shooting a video at the same time and was convinced to let Dicky post up off to the side and frame the shot to make it look like T-Pain’s video crowd was for him. That’s going a long way to pull in a favor to save that money. You can check out the video for “$ave Dat Money” below and be on the lookout for the what’s sure to be fascinating mini-documentary of the making of the video in the near future.

The Two Step: The Wonder Years

no closer to heaven

Sometimes a band comes along that seems to soundtrack your life. It seems like every release speaks to your soul in some uncanny way, like each song was written just for you. This is not about one of those bands. The Wonder Years have this uncanny habit of releasing great albums about two years before I need them. 2011’s Suburbia, I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing was a fantastic album when it came out but a year later when I was in Norman, Oklahoma in limbo between finishing college and eventually heading to grad school in Dallas, “Came Out Swinging” and its sentiment on spending time as a ghost in places that used to be familiar struck a chord with me in a way it hadn’t previously.

Likewise 2013’s The Greatest Generation was probably in my top 3 albums of that year based on its near-perfect execution of everything I love about pop-punk. From catchy hooks to huge riffs and Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s earnest lyrics about growing up and trying to figure yourself out, I loved everything that album had to offer. And a couple weeks ago I actively avoided it because I turned 26, the same age as the narrator on “Passing Through A Screen Door,” and I didn’t want to deal with the narrator’s ruminations on whether or not they had been left behind by their peers as I tried to establish myself in a new place and figure out what it mean to be myself as everything changed around me. These albums were like sleeper cells, waiting to be awoken when the time was right to reach into my very being and say “Okay, here’s where we are now. What’s next?”

The Wonder Years released another album last Friday, No Closer To Heaven, and it’s all I’ve listened to since then. The band trades in their explorations of growing up and being stuck in suburbia for an album-length deep dive into loss. The first single, “Cardinals” opens with a funeral for a bird who crashed into a window, something that Campbell has said is meant to represent crashing into our own limitations as humans. This death of potential is what drives the album forward and the chorus’s cry of “If you call me back or let me in, I swear I’ll never let you down again” echos a longing to make things right far beyond when it’s possible. The repeated chant at the end (that reappears at the end of “Cigarettes and Saints,” about the loss of one of Soupy’s friends to overdose) “We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers” is heartbreaking, seeing this desire to save those we care about and wondering if we can amount to anything if we can’t help those closest to us.

The whole album is rich with such imagery. “A Song for Ernest Hemingway” has one of the most offbeat metaphors for depression that I’ve ever heard but it’s so dang catchy and it’s probably my favorite song on the album. “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then” is a great look at wishing you had been better and trying not to mess things up. “Palm Reader” is another standout. A bombastic riff kicks off the song before going into a soaring chorus about growing into someone strong enough to overcome adversity, needing lessons from others to become a better person. The band really clicks on this album. The instrumentals have the right amount of energy to support Soupy’s vocals, and Campbell sings as if he would actually explode if he didn’t get these words out.  Every song is so earnest and full of such energy and life that I find myself smashing play every time it stops so it can start up again. I think out of my day yesterday there were probably 3 hours where No Closer to Heaven wasn’t playing.

If the woogy, prescient pattern of The Wonder Years releases continues, I’m going to have to deal with loss in the next couple of years. I can offer no greater compliment to this album than to say I have a soundtrack for understanding that pain and trying to move forward. You can listen to “A Song for Ernest Hemingway” below and be sure to check out the rest of  No Closer to Heaven. 

If You’re Reading This It’s About My Dog: Drake Ft. Drake

This is a profoundly stupid idea that I had that may turn into an ongoing series. I don’t know. Each post (if there’s more than this one) will be me taking a lyric from a Drake song and using that to talk about my dog Drake and maybe some other stuff along the way. 

drake dog cover

“I got enemies, got a lot of enemies. Got a lot of people tryna drain me of my energy” ~Aubrey Graham, Energy”

I promise I named my dog after an X-Man and not a rapper.

Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, was always one of my favorites. His powers were so cool (pun not intended) and once I grew up a bit and realized what a creep Gambit was it was clear who my #1 was going to be.

From Chris Sims and Chad Bowers' excellent X-Men '92

From Chris Sims and Chad Bowers’ excellent X-Men ’92

But there’s something about calling your dog “Drizzy” as a nickname. And… maybe we DID listen to Take Care all the way back from Tulsa when I got him…

Anyway this is about enemies, energy being drained and the like. I feel like a bad dad every time I take Drake for a walk. The very first day we were home I found a block that we could never go to again. Passing between this row of houses we were bombarded by a group of other dogs from all directions, barking behind chain link fences, frustrated that my new pup wouldn’t respond to them. Two of the dogs were so upset that they started fighting each other to make up the difference. He’s fresh meat. Every walk is a maze of places where I can’t remember if this dog hates mine or not.

And yet Drake never responds. I’ve never heard him bark in the month I’ve had him. The only noise he’s made was a slight whimper the first few nights I put him in his kennel for the night. He doesn’t let things get to him. He just walks straight ahead, with his tongue hanging out, trying to get to the next place. He never even slows down.

I often find myself apologizing to Drake on walks. “Sorry buddy. I know you probably hate this. It’s the only way to get home though.” I wonder how he feels about the whole thing, the constant bombardment from other dogs, the yank on the leash every time he tries to explore somewhere he probably shouldn’t, the constant stopping and starting whenever a car comes along.

And then I realize that I’ve felt those things. Maybe not in the same way, but I know what it’s like to be the new guy, to only know how to make a few loops around a new place, to get stuck doing the same thing over and over, never seeing anything different. I know how it feels to have it seem like everyone’s out to get you, to hear nothing but the barks of others aimed directly at me. I know what it feels like to think that you’re the lead dog only to be yanked aside when I get into something I think is cool. And more often than not that was the right move.

Most of all I think I understand the end of the walk. That all of this was worth it if I can get to the end, to return to a place I feel loved, and maybe, just maybe, have someone tell me I’ve been a good boy. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Performing for Ghosts

There’s a little park tucked away on Main Street in Wilburton

Passing it at 6:30 may as well have been midnight as most of the shops had already closed for the day

I felt the need to stop in, explore, see what there was to see and so I did, slipping through the gates as if there was something to hide.

Little did I know that this had the potential to be something like a secret garden

Beneath an arch of trees was a stage and out of curiosity I got up on top of it, saw what it looked like from that perch

And from that stage I had a flash to the countless stages I’ve been on and I was overcome  by something. It had been too long.

I started one of my favorite pieces, a stolen verse from the poet Chancellor Bennett

“No weapon formed against me will prosper. My sword looks just like Michael’s”

With no one in the audience save for the plaques on every bench, memorials to someone who had come before, I went through the poem as if I was curating another Friday night set

Performing to open the space, for others to feel okay opening up their lives to strangers

When the piece finished I reached into my pocket as if by impulse, to grab my phone

My notes app, a trove of finished and unfinished work, about half of which I’m happy with, holds everything I’ve ever written

From long odes working through the loss of people I’ve held close to short bursts of creativity, springing forth from dimly lit corners of open mics as I scrambled to have something to perform

I did another piece for the ghosts of those that had come before

And all the while I wondered why I did it. Why I do any of this.

I am a poet because there are some stories I want to tell but can’t without first donning a performer’s mask

There are things I’d rather not deal with as myself but that character, that Jeff that stands on stage finally has the courage to face

I perform because there’s something powerful in that secret poetic language that amplifies the stories, that lets a raw nerve become a collective experience, that reminds me that I don’t do this life alone

I get on stage because sometimes I see something beautiful in this world and it would be a shame if I kept it to myself

And so tonight I shared my soul with the ghosts that are remembered in that small park off Main Street

I may never hear their stories, I may never know what lies beyond “Given in memory of.”

But as of tonight they know mine.



God With Us

One event changes a whole word

In a place named for the incarnation, of the coming of a savior, we now also have to think of it as a place in which the dirtiest part of humanity was made manifest


In Charleston as the state flies the flag of those who fought to keep black people as property, in a church that had been burned because its members dared to dream of freedom,

in a church to which Coretta Scott King led a march in support of striking hospital workers,

in a church where people have gathered for almost 200 years to celebrate Emanuel, God With Us

The unthinkable happened.

Or maybe it would be unthinkable if we didn’t keep watching it happen week after week in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, McKinney, New York

Maybe it would be unthinkable if the nine names that we now remember

Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lance

weren’t nine more names added to the list of those who have been killed this year

We see people in the streets howling for justice, fighting against a tide that seems overwhelming

And yet they still move in a way we can’t deny as if to say that they won’t be beaten even though it keeps looking like the game is rigged against them

When will we stop just saying that this is unthinkable and fight against the reality that we see in our nation that says racism is alive and it’s more than just 21-year-old shooters pulling triggers in sacred spaces.

When we call our places of worship sanctuaries, I think we ought to mean it.

I think we should realize that the church is called to stand with those people in the streets, to harbor those that would do justice and seek mercy as we all march humbly with our God towards the kingdom.

Where are you, Church?

Did you think the sanctuary was just for you?

When we claim God With Us we claim God With ALL of us

May we never forget that God With Us came to bring release to captives, to let those oppressed go free

And so when we go into the world

And we’d better go because while we need that sanctuary to prepare us, to fill us, to remind us why we live the lives we claim, we should realize that the sanctuary wasn’t meant to be a panic room.

It wasn’t a place designed for us to lock ourselves away in when things got hard but rather a place from which to be sent out

We go ready to look into the eyes of all we encounter and see that divine spark staring back at us. We go ready to bend that long arc of the world towards justice, even if we have to stretch more than we’re ready to in order to reach it.


God With Us

It’s Still Real To Me

I never got to live in a world where wrestling was real.

It was the first prerequisite to be able to watch wrestling with my dad. Before I even saw one match, I was let in on the secret that most kids have to figure out on their own, or the thing that ruins their ability to love wrestling entirely. It was fake. The people in the ring knew how to do moves without hurting each other, everything was predetermined. The person with their hand raised didn’t get there by some triumph of the human spirit, by being the best in their craft, by having the most devastating finishing move, but rather because it was how the script went. I was in on the joke of wrestling and I loved it anyway.

None of my other friends were into wrestling, save for when we’d play WWF games on my Nintendo 64. I’d always chuckle to myself as they picked wrestlers that were clearly inferior to my favorites. They just didn’t know any better.  I took the advantage and smiled. I wasn’t the kid who ran around in branded merch talking about wrestling with anyone who would listen. It was something for just me and my dad

My dad and I spent every Monday night watching these larger-than-life characters throwing themselves at each other as if the fate of the world depended on it. We never ordered a single pay-per-view, but I’d wait with baited breath for my dad to come home the next day with a stack of printouts with the results from the show the previous night, trying to piece together what it must have looked like for one of my guys to win the title after working so hard.

My hero was Stone Cold Steve Austin, the surly redneck stand-in for every working man who hated his boss. When the bad guys would try to rig the story to go their way, I would almost shake with anticipation knowing that at any minute the sound of glass shattering would burst in through the sound system and Stone Cold would be on his way to the ring to dispense with some comeuppance. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to anyone and he never backed down from a fight. As a goody-goody, I was drawn to the way that Stone Cold Steve Austin was a BAD DUDE without being a bad guy. I may or may not have been grounded once or twice because I thought a friend needed a Stone Cold Stunner at a sleepover. I would get so mad when things didn’t go Austin’s way, even though I knew it was in the script. Even though I knew that everything would eventually end with my hero’s hand raised high and a title belt around his waist. Without fail, those moments came, and glass would shatter, and there he’d be. The winner and the champion. Dad and I would celebrate wildly. Well, mostly me, but Dad was never sad to see me enjoying myself. And in those moments, maybe wrestling had been real.

beat the champ

I write all of these old memories because one new song by my favorite band in the world just brought them all rushing back. The Mountain Goats just released “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” from their upcoming pro wrestling themed album Beat The Champ. John Darnielle tells the story of his childhood hero Chavo Classic, and most importantly, of himself watching Chavo bring justice into a world of uncertainty. Chavo, for Darnielle, was someone who would never let him down, even though others always did. In a triumphant 3 minutes that I’ve listened to probably 40 times since it was released this morning, Darnielle weaves a story of the importance of heroes, of hating everything that stands in their way, of the anticipation of triumph when you see someone you love ascend to the top rope, ready to win in spite of everything that says they shouldn’t.

Darnielle says that he wrote Beat the Champ  “…to re-immerse myself in the blood and fire of the visions that spoke to me as a child, and to see what more there might be in them now that I’m grown.” If this one song can take me back to jumping on my parents’ bed watching grown men in underwear pretend to beat the hell out of each other, I can’t wait to hear the rest of it. You can listen to “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” below and you can get Beat the Champ when it releases April 7th.

7 Reasons To Never Click On ‘Articles’ That Claim To Contain A Specific Number Of Facts About One Vapid Topic And Have Interminable Titles Full Of Ridiculous Capitalization That Are Indicative of Terrible Or Nonexistent Editing

Why did you click on it anyway? Come on! It’s hopeless! Thanks, Buzzfeed.