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Journey Through Montreal with IVCF, Pt. 4- Markeast, The City, and What’s Next (?)

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Dear Friends, Family, and all of my Supporters!

      Jesus has done so much through our students, our churches, our city and in my own personal life that I truly know what the author of the Gospel of John meant when describing his own journey with Jesus that he’s done so many things that “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) but I suppose that I must try. Let us begin with what I was asking all of you to pray for last time I wrote, Markeast!!! Markeast is one of the camps InterVarsity Christian Fellowship runs every year for undergraduate students to spend a week together in an intensive 40 hours of Bible study, whether that’s the first half of the Gospel of Mark, it’s second half, or the beginning of Genesis and we had over a hundred students decide to take a week of their summer after their exams to do such intensive study! It was held at a wonderful Bible camp called Greenhill Camp in New Brunswick, and though the water still had sheets of ice breaking up from the winter, we had three students commit their lives to Jesus publicly in baptism- it was quite the testimony to the non-believers to see Christians willing to go into such freezing water for this!!! Lastly, I had the joy, due to unforeseen circumstances, to teach on the story of the feeding of the 5000– which was great because I got to teach about God’s provision, and shepherding of us, which is what Jesus has been doing in my own life throughout this year, especially through your generous donation to our ministry!

      Our ministry has been entirely through the city of Montreal, though we did have a little fun excursion to Quebec City in order to really soak in the history and culture of Quebec and its complicated relationship to the church. But there have been some wonderful highlights of this city and I’ve been delighted to participate in and share with all of you! First is, St.Joseph’s Oratory, whose original iteration was built by then Brother Andre and Brother Abundius in 1904. Now while the now basilica is so gorgeous who’d think you were in Europe! The story of Brother Andre however is what has been the real gem at the spiritual heart of Montreal. In 1871 an unassuming feeble man became “the doorkeeper, infirmarian, and lamp tender at Collège Notre-Dame. His duties also include running errands, caring for the garden, cutting students’ hair, managing the laundry and working as general factotum.” Over the years he begins to greet the sick who come to him to the school and begins to heal them with oil, much to the complaint of the church hierarchy. He later dreams of building an oratory to St.Joseph, Jesus’ baby-daddy and the saint of labourers, where he continued to pray and heal thousands of people. When he died at the age of 91, a million people attended his funeral! Finally in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI declares Brother Andre a saint, though he for most of his life was never allowed into the priesthood! It is such a story as Brother Andre’s that we relive the Acts of the Apostles in our own time!

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      The second and last aspect of the city that I want to share with you all, is its thriving art scene! The opportunities I have had to perform some of my Hip-Hop music here have been plentiful and diverse, from performing at worship nights to student bars to shows raising awareness about mental health. It has been a wonderful way to invite students into conversation surrounding faith and art, and to upset all their expectations about what Hip-Hop is suppose to be about! Furthermore, one of my last days here, I finally got the opportunity to take some of my students on a wonderful graffiti tour of St.Laurent! We had the chance to walk around for hours taking photos of all the commissioned (and uncommissioned 😉 ) art that Montreal has to offer! It was a way for us to see the cultural of Montreal and its spiritual expression in our contemporary setting as opposed to its colonial history.

      Now to address the hard stuff, the futures of my housemates and I. As all of you know, and I’m terrible sorry I have not kept you all updated as closely as I would have liked to, we all began this internship knowing that it would be for a limited time and that time is now at a close. What will we all be doing next? Well, I am happy to report that Austin Fedchuk and Sebastian will both be continuing with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as staff this upcoming year, at Calgary and Montreal respectively, and if you would like to contact them about their ministry and help them continue with their work, please email me for more info (calebdupton@gmail.com) or you can feel free to email either of them- AFedchuk@ivcf.ca for Austin or SLee@ivcf.ca for Sebastian! As for Julianna, Megan and myself, none of us will be continuing with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for the next stage of ministry and lives. Megan and Julianna’s stories are their own to tell but for myself it came about through much prayer, discernment and discussion with mentors and friends. While their has been much of this ministry that I have loved, such as the love of students, mentoring and witnessing transformation, and campus outreach there have been other aspects that I have been missing a great deal that this role does not lend itself to very easily such as preaching and teaching. Furthermore, not only have I been missing preaching and teaching but I believe that they are my most abundantly given gifts from God, and I need to nurture them and grow them in a church setting, while still being humbled by my lack of skill in counselling and facilating. It is precisely because I have been humbled in these areas and because God has made a way economically that I will be pursuing my Masters of Divinity studies at Wycliffe college this upcoming fall!  God has shown me this year how much I love the church, how gifted I really am in some areas (preaching, teaching, writing, administration, leadership, vision, and creativity) and how gifted I’m really not in other areas (counselling, emotional awareness, facilitation, and networking) that I will be pursuing my MDiv but also pursuing further ministry work in a church setting for elsewhere.

      To all my Torontonians I will be returning on Tuesday May 23rd, but from now till then and further on you can be praying for (1) our fellowship in Montreal and for my students and their continued growth in outreach to their campus, (2) for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) Canada as an organization as they are currently embroiled in controversy concerning their policies due to sexuality, belief and employment for which they will need to discern and navigate continually*, (3) for those in ministry whether IVCF or not that we will continue to pursue education and skill in mental health areas as it is clear that it is becoming an increasingly difficultly and suffering of university aged people in particular, and (4) for myself as I am currently in the middle of discerning employment and pursuit of ministry whether in Toronto or elsewhere, and that as I am continually anxious about my future with God and for pursuing my own self-care, that in both I will continue to trust that the Lord is Good, Good to me, even when I may have difficultly at times discerning that goodness or feeling it in the moment.

Thank you fellow saints for your support always, with love and gratitude, until next time

Caleb Upton

*I intend to write more personally about this aspect at a later date.

Journey Through Montreal with IVCF, Pt. 3- ‘The People’, and Our Relationships and Invitation to them

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Dear Friends, Family, and all of my Supporters!

         As the fellowship has grown together one of the particular items that keeps coming up again and again, especially in our study of the Acts of the Apostles, is our relationship to ‘The People.’ ‘The People’ throughout Acts are always distinguished from the elites, and always seem to be in and around the apostles but have not quite joined the community. In a similar way our fellowship at Concordia is constantly in the midst of ‘The People’ whether other students, international students, students of other faiths, and others in and around the university pursuing community and careers. One of the major shifts that has happened within the past semester is that our English Corner for international students in now entirely in the hands of student leadership as they continue to provide that program and are now intentionally trying to build a relationship with the International Student Office at Concordia. With this change in leadership then, another student of ours Hailey and I have begun to pursue a new ministry project by the fellowship for the wellbeing of our campus- volunteer teams at The People’s Potatoe!

         The People’s Potato is a vegan soup kitchen run all five weekdays providing a free lunch for any and all who come at Concordia University. that is partially funded by Concordia student fees. As one Macleans article describes it,

“The People’s Potato has decided to take a different approach to the standard model of the university cafeteria. Really different. The place, which bills itself as a vegan soup kitchen, is run by happy student revolutionaries, and is dedicated to such goals as “worker empowerment,” “creating a non-hierarchical, supportive work place” and “building alternatives to corporate-dominated capitalist methods of doing business.” All that, and hey, they also know how to cook. Really well. Communism might still be around if these people had been in the kitchen.”

As I have written in past updates, Concordia has a largely ‘liberal’ or even ‘radical’ presence on our campus, and I for one- love it, as I believe Jesus may have been the most revolutionary figure history has ever seen. Hailey is one of our executive fellowship student leaders who feels the same. She is passionate about the environment and other social justice issues. It has been a supreme joy of mine to share with her Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, as it was such a key work in my walk with Jesus in learning just how central justice is to the Kingdom of God. Both Hailey and myself have seen an incredible opportunity at Concordia to engage on issues that are so important to our campus, and are found on every page of the Gospels themselves. Part of this volunteer recruiting from our fellowship includes prayer and scripture time so that both Hailey and myself not only bring people into serving our campus with us but realize just how important and vital it is to the disciple’s walk to serve our communities and reach out to ‘The People.’ Already we have built friendship with other volunteers in the kitchen, and have brought out a few of them to our Bible studies and other events!

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         As we reach out to ‘The People’ however we recognize that the vital questions of how we relate to one another- whether in romantic relationships, friendships, or family- are often warped, misunderstood, or downright awful and sinful. In response to this our staff leader for Concordia, Charis, suggested that we led a series on relationships for the students where we would use scripture, culture, and particular the viewpoint of Jonathan Grant’s work Divine Sex, to teach our students how as disciples in our context should navigate these waters. Questions of gender roles, desire, our economy, authority, and so much more have been explored and I in particular have had the joy of illustrating to our students through an episode of the hit sitcom Communitythe particular assumptions that our culture has about relationships that we ourselves do not even recognize, that greatly damage our souls!

         In addition to navigating our culture, we’ve also been learning about navigating through others’ cultures. Thanks to the kindness of one of Charis’ close Italian friends, we as a fellowship hosted a pizza making night during which we played games and all made specialized pizzas together. Part of the reason we hosted this evening was so that we could learn more about other culture’s food and hospitality practices. As a fellowship, one of our key ‘strategic priorities’ has been to create a community of hospitality and of sharing life together- as in Acts, when “every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (2:46-47). However what we are learning is that North American culture hardly has a monopoly or even expertise on how to welcome people. One of our other executive team student leaders, Kenika Martinez-Deane, shared at this event her experience of her mother’s hospitality to a Japanese student and just how important that experience was for this student. Ten years later this same student offers a place to Kenika on her trip to Japan- this is sharing all things in common! We then got into a discussion about how each person that comes to the table can be an unexpected gift, such as the angels we may be hospitable to unawares (Heb. 13:2).

         Lastly, this semester we have also had to learn how to relate to ‘The People’ during times of trouble and confusion. As I’m sure many of you saw on the news, Concordia University’s Muslim student population during Islamic Awareness Week was recently the target of a bomb threat by the Canadian chapter of a white nationalist group known as the Council of Conservative Citizens of Canada. The environment created was one of fear and trepidation, and while we are thankful that no one in particular came to physical harm, we have now an acute awareness that the cultural and racial tensions more obviously present among our neighbours to the south, are just as prevalent amongst us, just under the surface. Many in our fellowship have Muslim friends, and we in particular have had a great relationship with many new international graduate Islamic students who are only more than happy to spend time with us, learn about Christianity, and have a good time. As we reflected upon this threat we used the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis, and one line in particular stuck out, “O Master, let me not seek as much…to be understood as to understand.” In our current context our Christian students and ourselves are often having to explain the actions and choices of other Christians throughout history or even in the recent election of Donald Trump, and continually we say ‘We just wish people really understood Jesus, and did not look at us through the lives of others who carry our name.’ As we reflected on this we realized that Muslims the world over have the same cry in their hearts about their faith- may we seek to understand them.

         As always, there is so much more that could be written about such as our past Christmas camp, and the future of our household but what you can be praying about for our fellowship is MARKeast (!!!!) MARKeast is a week long intensive 40 hour Bible study through the Gospel of Mark at camp! So it’s a wonderful time for students to get away after exams (hopefully after exams!) and work to spend more bonding time with one another, learning about scripture very interactively and creatively, as well as growing closer to Jesus and learning to follow him all the more. We at Concordia want to bring as many non-Christians to this camp as possible, and we could absolutely use your prayers in this endeavour! What a better source for a seeker than the Gospel itself? What a better Christian community than your peers away from life’s pressures? As we continue to outreach in a variety of ways to ‘The People’ at our campus we pray that the Lord will continually add to our number (Acts 2:47).

Thank you fellow saints for your support, with love and gratitude,

Caleb Upton

 

 

Journey Through Montreal with IVCF, Pt. 2- Growth, Disciples, Alienation, and Future

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Dear Friends, Family, and all of my Supporters!

         If you are in ministry you already know the truth of this next statement, full-time ministry is all consuming, devastatingly hard, but possibly the most life giving vocation I could have ever given my life to. Ministry is all time-consuming not merely because its full time work, but because you carry much responsibility for those in your care, and, as Paul says, ‘have them in your heart’ (Philippians 1:7). Learning some of the ministry skills for for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s ministry has been the most humbling aspect of ministry thus far–as I thankfully anticipated. But those, fully honoured in their impact upon my heart and soul, are next to nothing when measured beside all the ways ministry has contributed to my own spiritual growth and discipleship. From Dec. 25th to Jan. 9th I will be home to share much more in-depth personally as an individual but for now I want to embrace the lesson of Doctor Strange which I watched with one of my housemates recently, that really, this is not all about me.

         Allow me to introduce you to two of our students- Miriam Carjan and Mae Anne Devera, a dynamic female duo that make me question how much I have to contribute to their discipleship really but am glad for the opportunity anyway. Having known that Mae Anne suffered from an anxiety disorder, I wanted to offer a spiritual perspective on such things given my own experience with O.C.D.. Miriam in her spiritual journey had already been compelled to care for Mae Anne! All three of us then are mutually discipling each other together with the theme of faith, and specifically faith as taking risks toward God. During our Fellowship’s Bible studies in Acts we have been learning a lot about prophecies and dreaming, and that the Holy Spirit is still giving these gifts now in the midst of our students is clear. Mae Anne had created a thought map of spiritual discernment that had lead her to the same clear centre that I had been already led to lead them, which was faith both as asking God to take responsibility for anxieties, but also in taking risks toward him. As we’ve been exploring this idea Mae Anne has been growing in her clear gifts of teaching others such as in our weekly English conversational group English Corner, but also in wisdom as to how to understand Biblical truth and apply it to her life. Likewise Miriam is at a place where she is so effectively leading our English Corner team that when I forget things I am so glad she is there to remind me. Lastly with regards to both of them, they are learning so much about the Bible and both of them are shining examples to the rest of our students as to how to witness to their friends and invite them into learning about Jesus! Mae Anne has invited and successfully brought more people to English Corner than the rest of our team combined, and now has invited a friend of hers to learn about Jesus through the Gospel of Luke. Miriam has surpassed all of us in inviting people from English Corner into learning about Jesus. Miriam genuinely was concerned about how to witness to others, but now that she has been given the confidence she has taken off immensely.

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         One other student I want to introduce you to is Josh Brown. Josh is an unexpected gift and challenge from God to our ministry. Josh is half-Canadian, half-American, and was part of the Marine core for many years having been compelled by the attacks of 9/11 to enlist. Having now finished up, he has come to Concordia University to pursue a business education. Josh, much to the surprise of some of our fellowship is an active, dedicated and servant hearted disciple of Jesus. He and I have had many conversations about life, the Bible, and politics. It is his strong political opinions in particular that has put him at odds to the rest of our fellowship. The rest of our fellowship are polite cultural Canadians- Josh is a Donald Trump supporter who believes that God is giving, by Trump, America its last chance to repent. How to both honour all the wonderful passion that he has for us, and his long and genuine desire to serve God and find community, while at the same time learning to navigate and manage such stark differences has been a ministry lesson that will last long beyond this year. In serving students, I did not expect to be serving a soldier. Josh reminds me greatly of the centurion who had greater faith than anyone in Israel (Matthew 8:5-13), though no one would have expected someone like him to have such faith. Nevertheless, we pray that he will grow in spiritual maturity, particular as we study together what the Bible calls us to with regard to politics, and as we learn in practice the important application Paul gave in Romans 14 to “not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister,” including strong political views.

         In the midst of these testimonies however, there are stories about students who choose to run away from God. In one relationship, a student of ours from English Corner was seeking to learn about Christianity in general but as we were studying together his personal confrontation of his own pride from what he was learning in the story of the younger brother in the story of the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) was far too overwhelming. He ran away from learning more about Jesus, his life and teachings, ultimately because addressing our own pride is never easy. In another relationship, a young non-Christian man and his nominal Christian girlfriend had been hurt by other ministries and therefore choose to end our friendship together for fear of further hurt and the disintegration of their relationship. The circumstances around these stories does not permit me to divulge much material but what I can say is that evangelism more than anything else, fills me with such self-doubt. “Was I too aggressive?” “Would it have turned out any different if I had been more gentle?” “Was what I was hoping for from taking these risks of invitation and asking these questions–that of bringing them into a relationship with Jesus–really outweigh the cost that may be incurred, of not only further alienation from me but their further alienation from the Christian message?” Evangelism is when you find out just how much you are really willing to risk for your faith in terms of your human relationships, whether family or friends. Are you willing to risk all the fun, all the affection, and all the joy that comes from those relationships for the sake of the well-being and the very salvation of those with whom you are in relationship with, by the means finding their innermost longings in a joyful and affectionate relationship with God? Conversion is something that I dearly long for, for all people, a result of my heart for evangelism inherited and nurtured primarily by my earthly father as I’ve learned. Bringing such a heart into ministry was one of the most important things God has done in our ministry thus far.

         Friends, there is so much more I could right about, such as  our Myers-Briggs training, our Gender and Sexuality training with InterVarsity, how my outreach to the Socialist club is going, our ministry partnership with Haiti, our annual fundraising dinner, two Hip-Hop performance opportunities I’ve had, my relationship with St.Peter’s Anglican Church, and my latest opportunity to preach there but I would like to end with how you could be praying for us. First, please pray for the men in our fellowship to take a more active role in discipling one another. Since Sebastian, my co-worker at Concordia, and I have arrived the amount of men in around our fellowship has doubled, which, while creating an immense opportunity for the men in our fellowship to be discipled by their male peers, has been mostly reliant upon Sebastian and I, a situation we want to remedy. However, as much as Sebastian and I try to create these opportunities for growth, nothing will change unless God moves in the hearts of these young men to start looking out for one another. Second, and lastly, please pray that our fellowship will continue to have a good relationship with Concordia University for whether it has been the student union or the MultiFaith Centre we have had good relationships with them and they remind us that our fellowship does not exist solely for ourselves but for the betterment of our campus.

Thank you fellow saints for your support, with love and gratitude,

Caleb Upton

In the next Episode:  St. Joseph’s Oratory, Social Service projects, Christmas, more on the outreach to non-Christians, and more!  

Journey Through Montreal with IVCF, Pt. 1- “Settling” In

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      “Settling” is in quotations marks because though I am now settled enough to write this update on the ministry, what God has been doing through our household is so unlike anything that I have ever experienced in my spiritual journey thus far that it can be questioned whether settled is something I will ever be again. But before I get into that, let me introduce you to our household- six people, three rooms- again, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced being an only child. First there are our directors, Charis Goh and Steve Schalm. Charis is stern but underneath is extremely compassionate and possibly the wisest of us all- she is a campus minister, not just by profession but by character and love. Steve Schalm was one of the worship leaders at Urbana 2015, so it has been great getting to know him personally. Steve and I are very similar people, we both have masters degrees, love books, and are well versed in genres of music nobody would ever expect. Next are the other interns, first there is my co-worker at Concordia University, Sebastian Lee who was a biochem major in Vancouver who, having come from a missionary family, has taken an interest in theology and ministry- we have some great conversations and have grown quite close. Second is Austin Fedchuk, a native Albertan with a background in teaching physical education. He has a simple Christian faith that humbles me immensely- he is also the most energetic and funny person I have ever had the joy of knowing. Third is Julianna Lei, another Vancouverite with a undergrad in criminology and psychology, who was working in the mental health services but was disenchanted by its operations, and was called by God to serve students. Fourthly and finally is Megan Broadfoot, who was originally from Texas but having done arts school at Emily Carr in Vancouver and having a great deal of experience in discipleship, has been inspired to serve students with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

      Now back to our definition of “settled.” I have found our local Starbucks’, having even made some friends with the baristas and taught them a trick or two.  St. Peter’s Anglican Church has become my church community in Montreal, as it has the same welcoming spirit and heart for mission as is reminiscent of Kingsway Baptist Church. We have explored our local grocery stores, having now committed myself to learning how to cook this year, beginning with a cookbook by Fresh.

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We have our weekly rhythms of Bible study, prayer, intern training, mentorship of students, and leadership meetings- as well as various arrayed social events, and personal one-on-one meetings. Lastly, our chores list is complete, our finances are sorted out, and everyone knows that I rap and have a Masters of Theology. According to most definitions of “settled”- I am now, but lately God has been redefining for me the meanings of ‘settledness’ and especially ‘accomplishment.’

      People have frequently been asking what it is that we are doing, and truthfully, its hard to say. At first, I wanted to give simple answers of ‘we lead Bible studies’ or ‘we evangelize to non-Christians by giving out pamphlets’ both of which seem like pretty tangible activities that can be measured and shown that the investment that has been made in this ministry can have very visible fruit. But truthfully, I have been struggling to articulate exactly what it is that we ‘do.’ Our theological conversations vary between ‘we’re here to minister’ all the way to ‘God is the one doing all the work.’ Caught between being an activist and being a passive receiver, the tension has been eating away at my nerves. Coming into this internship however, I didn’t come just to be everything I am and give to everyone everything I have, I came to grow into what I am not yet, and to receive from the Holy Spirit working through my brothers and sisters what I am lacking. Gifts such as diplomacy, listening, empathy, and actively cultivating sincere love are all things of which I fully acknowledge that I am lacking, but ready to receive.

      I was excited to begin this internship with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because I was impressive by the breadth and depth of their engagement with academic issues and topics relating to justice in this world- I wanted to throw in my lot with the Christians that came out in support of Black Lives Matter. What I didn’t anticipate coming into this internship was all the spiritual work to be done on my own heart and mind in relation to my devotion to Jesus himself. Possessed by a vision of the Kingdom of God, I have yet to learn, like all Christians in one way or another, how to give full homage to Jesus everyday. What are we doing on our campuses? Hanging out with students that need friends, being vulnerable about our brokeness and fragility with each other, laughing together about the most frivolous and unimportant things you could ever imagine, playing games that are fun and learning about each other through them, giving international students who may be lonely a home, preparing BBQs for a bunch of leaders and a few students at Fish Frosh with the hope and the fervour of the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to go find the one. All of my activist and academic tendencies are still being nurtured both by the free books I have been receiving from Steve, sharing my writings and sermons with students that may be interested, and my personal outreach project to the Fightback Socialist Club at Concordia- believing that as much as Christian needs to incorporate socio-economic and political organizations and relationships into their theology, so do I believe that atheistic marxists and socialists need Jesus and the Holy Spirit should they ever want to bring about a poverty-less society. Alongside of this jubilance however is the often painful growth into ministry maturity such as accepting that I am part of a team of diverse people, and that often my notions of success need to be challenged in light of the reality that we are living in and through relationships, not in impersonal visions or ideas.

      Let’s conclude with how you can be praying for us as a household, and for our ministry. We collectively are studying the Acts of the Apostles so please pray that when we teach our students we will teach it to them in unity as well as creatively as Sebastian and I in particular want to instil into our students at Concordia the transformative power of the scriptures when your story is read by the Biblical story. Pray for our Concordia team as we are currently discerning social service projects in which to participate on our campus with other student clubs. We need creative imagination in discerning the needs of our campus and city, and especially our ability to shape our context and society. We took a group of students to see the recent biopic on Edward Snowden– I in particular was hoping that they would be inspired by his moral courage and self-sacrifice- but by the end many of them felt powerless to change our situation. Our students often feel powerless not only to change the mental afflictions or debt that they often face, but even the condition of our world- we need the Holy Spirit more than ever, just as the disciples in Acts did.

Thank you fellow saints for your support, with love and gratitude,

Caleb Upton

In the next Episode: Particular students we’ve gotten to know, St. Joseph’s Oratory, more on the outreach to non-Christians, and more! 

_____________________

*For more: http://intervarsity.org/page/media-engages-intervarsity-and-black-lives-matter 

A Personal Note on O.C.D. and Eminem

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      Quite recently much to my surprise but also much to my comfort, Eminem A.K.A. Marshall Mathers himself annotated lyrics to his song “Monster (Feat. Rihanna)”, which were

My OCD is conking me in the head, keep knocking
Nobody’s home, I’m sleepwalking
I’m just relaying what the voice in my head is saying
Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just friends with the…”

He writes, “I really do have O.C.D, it’s not funny b*tch.” Whether an official diagnoses (which I truly suspect it is for reasons that will follow) or not this was of extreme comfort to me, because I have always lived with a central contradiction- I’m a devout Christian, and yet…I love Eminem.944193_575152922527799_64881636_n Ever since I heard “The Real Slim Shady” on a radio in Goodwill, I’ve been hooked.  Eminem was my  to the rest of Hip-Hop to be sure, but for a fat white kid in a  predominately non-white school growing up, it was amazing to have THE rapper of our time be a white guy. Slim Shady was no gangster, and yet, no one could deny that he was THE best emcee at that precious moment of the turn of the millennia. I couldn’t connect with many other rappers of the time, whether 50 Cent, or Jay-Z because well…I wasn’t black, I was a moralistic Christian, and I most certainly wasn’t some gangster (nor could I pretend to be, I mean just look at me as a kid). But Slim shady, this white kid who was into cartoons, was a clown, was picked on and teased, continuously got his heart broken, had violet fantasies (that everyone knew he wouldn’t do), and liked fart jokes–here was someone I could relate to. Despite our differences in faith and morality, particularly as it comes to his use of abusive language, we shared ethnicity, musical interest, and childhood experiences of bullying.

      Until he revealed that he has been diagnosed with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) however, this was all I thought my affinity to him amounted to. Sure, I know a lot of Hip-Hop heads, have problems with Eminem, and sure, I know a lot of Christians have problems with Eminem and as members of both groups, so do I… but as Immortal Technique raps in “Crimes of the Heart”

“I can’t give into hatred or pass judgment
Even towards every illusion I’ve been in love with
Cause the heart that betrays itself willingly
Is like a nation that trades freedom for stability
It’s so seductive to be cold and corrupted
And isolated and try to be an independent republic”

Indeed. I can’t pretend like Eminem wasn’t a childhood music obsession of mine, and a rapper whose skills I’m still in awe to this very day. I can’t pretend like he wasn’t the reason I felt like I could rap, I can’t pretend that he didn’t introduced me to Hip-Hop, I can’t deny that I’m an Eminem “Stan“. But when he revealed that he was diagnosed with O.C.D., I realized that my affinity with him reached deeper than ethnicity and childhood experience–it actually came down to our type of intelligence and the way our brains work, for I too suffer from O.C.D.

      Now for those who are unfamiliar, and especially for those who think they are familiar allow me to explain in the best terms I can what O.C.D. is, how it manifests itself, what some of its benefits are,* and most boldly, propose it as the key to explaining Eminem’s entire approach to writing lyrics. Let’s begin with what O.C.D. is effectively not. Even the revered Stephen Fry has misjudged what O.C.D. is according to popular misunderstandings prevalent throughout all of our media. As David Adam rightly says, “It’s not an exaggerated love of order and hygiene. It’s a disorder of thought…” It is also extremely important that O.C.D. like other mental illnesses are understood properly for as Adam points out, “It takes real courage to confront mental distress and seek help. Yet when people with OCD do so, they often find bafflement and hostility…If OCD is simply someone who washes their hands then why is this patient telling me of unwanted thoughts to hurt their children?…Parents with OCD are separated from their families. Workers are suspended from their jobs, but not because they pose any threat…” but because their O.C.D. symptoms are not recognized as such.

      For someone to have O.C.D., it does not mean necessarily that they are a super clean, tidy, or organized person- though it can include those things- rather it means that someone suffers from constant obsessions. Obsessions are not things that we desire and want, which is what the term has come to mean in popular usage, rather obsessions are quite literally those things that our brains cannot stop thinking about. Nor it is that the obsessions are about various subject matter that we are in interested in, no, the obsessions come in a variety of forms, most commonly known are germ related, but could range all the way to violent and sexual anxieties/fears that our brains cannot stop thinking about. The obsessions, far from being desires are anxiety inducing precisely because they are unwanted, and the obsessions are intrusive upon our normal day-to-day thought process, they come out of no-where and suddenly they are all our brains are able to think about. First then, the ‘O’ refers not to interests but to anxieties and fears that our brains obsess about and literally cannot stop thinking about.

      Second then is the ‘C’. Most people think of the ‘C’ as referring to constant hand washing or door checking, and while these are often some sufferers compulsions other compulsions can be wearing socks to bed, washing one’s feet, constantly flossing, organizing all emails (for those who wish you had this compulsion- no you don’t), or even calorie counting. Compulsions don’t necessarily have any correspondence to the obsessions, and often they could even be just mental compulsions (as opposed to physical activities like hand-washing) the only necessary connection between the obsessions and the compulsions is that the compulsions provide some sort of short-term relief from the over-whelming anxiety that the obsessions cause. The key words here are ‘short-term’, because ultimately compulsions, like scratching a mosquito bite, only exasperate the problem in the long term by making the obsessions even stronger- thus a cycle of obsession and compulsion is established, out of which there appears to be no escape. So thus, finally the ‘D’ does not merely refer to that someone who may exhibit extra attention to cleanliness that’s out of portion, the disorder quite literally refers to this cycle of obsession then compulsion taking over your life and severely debilitating one’s quality of life. For myself in my journey, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I couldn’t concentrate enough to read (for those who know me that was just as troubling as not eating), and I couldn’t take care of myself in any meaningful way. It sends our lives completely out of order.

      Now that we got those clarifications and simple definitions out of the way, let’s move to the neurology of O.C.D. for it is here that we can trace even within Eminem’s own lyrics, the neuro-biological root of his O.C.D. O.C.D. by professionals is sometimes called “basal ganglia disease” because the research on the biochemical level is near conclusive that O.C.D. is rooted in this part of the brain. Now the basal ganglia is responsible for involuntary movements like walking, but also for an awareness of our thoughts, which is where the abnormality of O.C.D.  stems from. The basal ganglia is responsible essentially for sorting out all the thobrain3ughts in one’s brain into those that are not needed and those of special concern for survival. People who do not suffer from O.C.D. sort out these thoughts just fine- information that conforms to previous experiences of fears and wishes is dismissed, and those that do not are retained for further consideration. People with O.C.D’s basal ganglia often keep the absurd random thoughts that everyone has every day- like ‘why don’t I just stab that cat?’- that people (in line with their expectations of the world) would normally dismiss, longer and thus those random thoughts stick, and brew a tremendous amount of anxiety as an obsession. The anxiety is obvious, we know that these obsessions are absurd and couldn’t possibly come about, but our brains retain them and send warnings to our brain about our need to further consider such possibilities as genuine fears- rooted in survival. It over retains absurd information, warns of you of as a genuine fear to which you must respond to for your survival, and you create compulsions, which themselves only reenforce your basal ganglia to think of these fears as genuine and in need of attention.

      Damage to the basal ganglia in any form, whether stroke or head injury, can be a root neuro-biological cause of O.C.D. Many O.C.D. sufferers often have such head injuries as a child. When I was about nine or ten years old, my parents and I went to a camp resort. While playing with one of the other kids there, he kept throwing large rocks behind him, and one of them flew and knocked me right in the head and I was out cold- I got stitches and everything. Some worried about me going to sleep because if I did, I might not wake-up- not knowing the extent of the brain damage. Thankfully after a week everything was fine, but, as I now suspect it damaged by basal ganglia leaving me vulnerable to O.C.D. Now those who know Eminem’s catalogue well know that in one of his more master story-telling tracks, Marshall narrates, in his cartoonish way, the brain damage he suffered as a child. Eminem’s writes,

“Way before my baby daughter Hailie
I was harassed daily by this fat kid named D’Angelo Bailey
An eighth grader who acted obnoxious, ‘cause his father boxes, so every day he’d shove me in the lockers
One day he came in the bathroom while I was pissin’
And had me in the position to beat me into submission
He banged my head against the urinal till he broke my nose
Soaked my clothes in blood
Grabbed me and choked my throat
I tried to plead and tell him we shouldn’t beef
But he just wouldn’t leave
He kept choking me and I couldn’t breathe”

While the song is not literal, it is actually based on such a real life encounter that Marshall had as a child. The man D’Angelo Bailey said in an interview that, “There was a bunch of us that used to mess with him. You know, bully-type things…We flipped him right on his head at recess. When we didn’t see him moving, we took off running. We lied and said he slipped on the ice.” Quite traumatic, and when Marshall himself woke up, he recalls, he said “I can spell elephant.” It was there it would seem that his new love of language grew. Traumatic head injuries like this can provoke the basal ganglia resulting in O.C.D.- this was certainly so in Marshall’s case.

      Resulting from O.C.D., and working alongside of it, is a high level of intelligence- as one of my psychiatrist said to me ‘No one who is stupid gets O.C.D.’ Naturally this makes sense given that people with O.C.D. have a higher number of functioning brain cells than the average person, but also that O.C.D. is quite literally a disorder resulting from overthinking. Memory retention and conceptual association are usually off the charts in their exceptionalism for people who suffer from O.C.D. They think more thoroughly than the average person about almost any and everything. Now that we have covered what O.C.D. is, and how it manifests itself, we can move on to its benefits, chief of which are exceptional intelligence, creative thinking, and often, because certain behaviours take on a compulsive nature, an extremely productive work ethic, especially when it comes to writing.

      Certain behaviours that come with O.C.D. like extreme cleanliness and orderliness can seem like things that everybody wishes they had- wouldn’t you like to know where everything is at all times? Or wouldn’t you like to have your email completed sorted and taken care of? But O.C.D. can actually have a variety of benefits, once the activity of your brain is channeled properly into work and not into compulsions. Simply, O.C.D., once its under control and not a disorder that is life debilitating, can lead to some incredible benefits because your brain is running on a completely different and more powerful engine than the average person. As Dr. Ian Osbourne writes, “…there is, quite possibly, a powerfully creative aspect to their [O.C.D. sufferers] cognitive tendencies that we neglect, a creativity fuelled by the unusually vivid real-life quality of certain of their thoughts.” (154) How does this relate to Eminem, a confessed grade 9 dropout? In Anderson Cooper’s famous interview with Eminem there is a beautiful moment when Marshall is showing Anderson his lyric pages kept in a box and Anderson remarks

 “I’ve gotten letters from crazy people and they kind of look like this. Sometimes all in capital letters or scrawled on the page like this.”

“Yeah? Well that’s probably because I’m crazy,” Eminem replied with a smirk.

___

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      The writing habits of people with O.C.D. may look like compulsively written scribbles, and that’s because…they are. af7b2111d1a5f77e0f02f00ce0df055aBut, no matter how random they appear they are well thought over, and the creativity bursts forth constantly. Whatever Marshall’s obsessions are, which may be difficult for anyone who doesn’t know him personally to discern, it is clear that his compulsion, writing, has become his craft. Eminem, studied the dictionary in order to remember words for any scheme. Eminem’s obsessional-like attention to the technicalities of rhymes and rhyme schemes is so profound that when I teach my Element One classes at Yonge Street Mission I use the first verse of “Lose Yourself” to teach at least 13 different kinds of rhyme. Simply put, Marshall may not have been a scholastic genius, but he has quickly became a modern day literary one.

      But more than vocabulary the creativity of O.C.D. sufferers comes from precisely the thing that creates their anxious obsessions, their ability to retain information and have it associated with the most unlikely of improbabilities. Talib Kweli, another master emcee in an interview with Vlad TV said that the most important thing in understanding how Eminem became so successful was not primarily his skills but

“What he had more than other emcees was vision…so even the Slim Shady EP before he linked up with Dre, the idea that there’s Eminem and there’s Slim Shady, the was genius. The idea that all his songs like ‘Just the two of us’…all his songs were super conceptual, super visual…its was him being a visionary and an artist to take chances.”

Kweli is absolutely on point with these observations because Eminem’s success, while due in part to his white privilege and his skill, was primarily propelled by his creativity of associations- that he wasn’t the gangster that so many other rappers were when I was a kid.

      To conclude as to why this personal affinity to Eminem that I have (O.C.D. sufferer to O.C.D. sufferer) is so important for my personal understanding is because it is important to note that though we share this in common- our differences are so vast that it should be clear that no one is defined by their afflictions. O.C.D. does not define me or Marshall. But more importantly what I want to impart to others is that mental illness, while debilitating at times, can also be an opportunity to recognize your kinship with other people who are totally unlike you but who suffer from the same, and for you to discover your own gifts, like Eminem did with his love of language. It may be best to leave with some of Marshall’s own lyrics from his song “Legacy”, which is worthy to listen to in full as a story of Marshall coming to terms with the inner workings of his own brain and is itself a testament to his own writing genius as he maintain a singular pair of syllables rhyming throughout the entire song, a lyrical acrobatic feat.

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Why am I so differently wired in my noggin?
Cause sporadic as my thoughts come, it’s mind-bogglin’
Cause I obsess on everything in my mind
Small sh*t…

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Now I think the fact that I’m differently wired’s awesome
Cause if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to work words like this
And connect lines like crosswords…

The most high exalting and I ain’t haltin’
’til I die of exhaustion, inhale my exhaust fumes
The best part about me is I am not you
I’m me, I’m the Fire Marshall and this is my Legacy”

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*All information regarding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is from the following work that helped me immensely through my own journey: Osborn, Ian Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? A Psychiatrist Explores the Role of Faith in Treatment (Bravos Press: 2008). 

 

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