Hope Out of Darkness

I wonder where most people gain hope in their lives. I teach religion and see the decline of good old-fashioned,organized, institutional religion. So, if faith or belonging to a religious group or community has been source for maintaining hope in the last, where does that come from going forward?

I am doing a wedding today. And weddings are incredibly hopeful events. They used to be connected to faith communities, that’s why as a pastor, I do them. But like most of my colleagues could attest, weddings are now distantly connected to the church. That doesn’t mean the people who are getting married no longer have belief, or faith, it just means they are decreasingly connected to a meaningful faith community.

Hope is part of the theme of today. And I see glimpses of hope everywhere. The Covid-19 vaccine is a hopeful thing. Spring has just brought us out of a dismal winter season. And people all around are finding ways to reconnect with friends and family after the pandemic quarantine. But there is also a dark cloud that lingers. Young people are captured by depression and anxiety. Suicide rates are up. And people are more lonely now than ever. And that was true before the quarantine!

I’d there is hope to be had. And if the church no longer is the broker of it like a religious commodity, how do hold into it and foster it for the sake of our sanity and wholeness? I’d love to know what you think. I’ll write more this week.


I shared the story of Demi Lovato in my last sermon. www.pennpres.org

As she endured a difficult time of life battling mental illness and depression she attempted to take her own life. After emerging from that season her response to leaving treatment and retreat was to head to her “sanctuary”. This meant going to Unbreakable Performance in LA to train on the BJJ mats. Those mats were her sanctuary.

I understand her retreat to the mats. I often find sanctuary at Gracie Barra Princeton. In a sense it is my sanctuary. Which is funny because I literally work in a sanctuary.

I work at a Presbyterian church in central New Jersey. It is a great place with great people. And I spend Sunday’s welcoming people to a place to break away from their normal rhythm of life to consider deeper things. Things of life. Things of death. Faith, work, kingdom. Existential reality is negotiated among the sacred and ordinary.

But the room I work in is rarely sanctuary for me. It is my office and my factory floor. Worship services are times when I am thinking about facilitating meaningful things for others and hitting my mark. Trying to remember my sermon or prayer. So I retreat on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings usually. I put in a different robe and I commune with different people. I am not the one people take their lead from but simply a follower. I am mentored and guided by those who have much more skill than I do. It feels safe to me. Yet I am challenged beyond belief.

Sanctuary is rarely safe but it is set apart. It is the space where life finds meaning and I am moved from my comfort zone to a place of discomfort where growth and transformation can happen. I enter with anticipation, expectation and a little bit of fear.

I fear getting hurt. I fear looking stupid. I fear getting dominated. And I fear I’m falling behind. And yet. Sanctuary is the place where fear is transformed into hope and belief. Where fear is moved from the drivers seat to the back seat. When I cross the threshold and become a warrior on the mats I am no longer a victim, I am not a disease, I am not a minority. I am not anything but a partner and a learner. Uki or senior. I learn and I share. I take what I need and I offer what I have.

The result is community and growth. Maturity and connection. This sanctuary has a strange commonality to the one I work in. But it is different too.

It has less history. Less baggage. Less institution. Less ego. More hierarchy. More sweat. More blood. More humility.

I hope Demi Lovato finds what she so desperately needs in her sanctuary. I know I have. Both the one I work in and the one I practice in. I hope every reader does too. If you ever need a guide in BJJ head over to Gracie Barra Princeton or North Princeton. Coach Turtle or Coach Wojtek will show you the way. If you ever need sanctuary come visit me at Pennington Pres, I’ll walk with you and share what I have.

I’m Going to be Sore Anyway- Health and Jiu Jitsu

I Choose Soreness!!!

My hands are sore everyday. I am trying hard to teach or train at least 4 days a week at Gracie Barra Princeton and the soreness used to limit my training. Basically every joint in my body is sore…everyday. I have inflammation and hives that make life uncomfortable. That is why the concept of being comfortable being uncomfortable has been so life changing for me. I have an autoimmune disease that has a crapload of daily side effects. This is my reality. Someone asked me how I felt about it and my only honest answer is that it sucks. It sucks. It is aggravating and painful and discouraging. And there are many ways to deal with this reality. I could drink. I could eat. I could complain. I could take too much Advil. I could feel sorry for myself. Well, I’ve done all of these and none of them made me feel any better. So, I tried Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And it is working for me.

Hives on the hand…

I am still sore every day and I still get a lot of the same emotions. But, I also have discovered a lot of what BJJ offers. Community, fitness, empowerment, humility and something that I will take the rest of my life to learn proficiently.

I used to choose not to go to class if I was sore. Now I go. Because guess what?!? I’m going to be sore anyway. I might as well get sore doing something I love!! I am going to be sore- so I’m doing it my way. I get to choose soreness. I don’t have soreness put upon me by the weakness of my body or by some stupid disease.

I choose soreness!!!! It’s mine. And I’ve earned it. Gratitude- the powerful gift God has given me. Thank you BJJ for empowering me to make this choice.

Mollie Tibbetts, Violence and Women’s Equality- Be Safe Friends.

My wife’s alarm went off at 5:45 am this morning. I didn’t fall asleep until 11:45 last night, which is pretty late for me these days. I was pissed when I heard it because I knew it meant the treadmill that resides 3 feet from our bed and the house shaking rhythm of her tempo run were next.

I usually catch myself from getting angry at these early morning runs, mostly because I love my wife and think she is amazing. Her discipline to train for marathons, as a working professional and present mom is inspiring. When I had my exercise/competition epiphany a year ago and started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, her resolve and her running exploits were key.

Lately I have been doubly glad to hear the treadmill. After reading about Mollie Tibbetts in the news over the past month, the reality of Kristin’s safety has been a topic that runs through my mind. After reading the account of this young woman who just went for a run and ended up brutally murdered I asked Kristin if she ever feels vulnerable. She disclosed that she thinks about her terrain and the trails or routes she runs every time, with safety on her mind.

Here are some of my thoughts. I am very grateful for our friend Rob who does long runs with Kristin almost every week. He is the same Rob who helped me finish my last half marathon. Yes, he is our running guardian angel. Kristin ran 150 miles last month and every one she ran with Rob I felt safe and she did too. That is a gift!! And two. Kristin needs to take some women’s self defense at Gracie Barra Princeton.

This has been something she has warmed up to over this past year as I describe the empowerment of BJJ and learning techniques that mitigate size or speed in self defense situations. There is no magic potion or spell that will make sure you are safe all the time. But I have seen first hand how important and how possible it is to gain the understanding and the skills that come through training this martial art.

I have said that before my two daughters go to college I want them to have at least two years of BJJ training. Why? 1 in 6 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. More than that experience some sort of physical abuse. There is a power inequality in our culture and it is exploited regularly. The statistics are frightening and they are real. I am not sharing this to be alarmist. I just want our world to be a better place. In my sphere, I have a wife, two daughters, a mom, two sisters and countless other women that I care about. And now I have Mollie Tibbetts. Nameless and unknown to me a few months ago, but now I mourn for her and grieve with her loved ones.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not magic and it will not keep someone from ever experiencing violence. But, it does level the playing field and offers a vision of equality that humanity has not naturally achieved on its own. It allows for the possibility of a smaller, physically weaker person to at least establish a boundary and gain the distance that could save their life or protect their dignity.

This is a game changer. Think about every encounter a woman enters where culture and stigma have defined the narrative that she is less than. Every date. Every relationship. Every job interview. Every hotel room. Every board room. Every parking lot at night. Every alleyway. Every running trail.

I think BJJ empowers. I also think it transforms people. I want every male I know to join in this too. Because it exposes ego and the unique weaknesses that we all carry around with us. These broken deficits in our lives that can be healed or can be filled with negative expressions of masculine strength or violence.

In a world where women can walk into situations knowing that they are strong, have practiced effective and practical techniques and are supported by others, I envision statistics changing. 75 cents on the dollar changes. 1 in 6 changes. And the needle on our culture of violence changes.

I remember a lecture from my seminary days. Prof. Patrick Miller gave his final lesson in my Old Testament class at Princeton Theological Seminary. He described the scripture in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden with 3 encumbrances that would haunt humanity. 1-pain in childbirth. 2- Labor in the fields to provide for themselves food. 3-inequality between the male and the female. He gave great insight and background. How human ingenuity had partnered to overcome or mitigate the first two curses and were continuing toward addressing them. But the 3rd remained present. With the wisdom he had gathered near the end of his teaching career and as an expert in his field he shared this: the 3rd curse was untouched because it was about power and as humans we are so poor at sharing our power and living as equals. That the last encumbrance would be the easiest and require the least technology or innovation to overcome. But it remains. It remains because it takes choice and partnership and humility and a vision filled with belief in each other. It takes self control and self awareness. I think there is a window of opportunity that we have right now to lean into this inequality. To give it’s end to ourselves as a gift. #metoo? Not anymore!! #endviolence

Get out there and take a BJJ class!! Find a school or a gym where women are welcomed with equality. Call Michael Leonardi at Gracie Barra Princeton. (609)429-0142 or Gracie Barra Princeton

He will get you the info you need.

Waiting Game

I have been out of the gym for a couple weeks traveling. I did get a chance to visit the Gracie Barra-Team Draculino gym in Tavros-Athens, Greece. It was a cool space with really welcoming and friendly guys. Professor Christos Markez showed me around. Another visit and another great impression made.

In Greece there is a profound sense of history. I love history. I majored in it in college and have always felt knowing history and knowing your story are really important things.

While in Greece leading a Footsteps of St. Paul tour, one stop we made was to visit the island of Crete. www.pennpres.org The ruins of the Minoan Civilization are at the Palace of Knossos. You know- the place where the labyrinth with the Minotaur was in Greek mythology. The ruins are around 4000 years old. I saw a lot of other amazing things filled with historical and theological wonder. Ephesus, where the apostle Paul engages with those worshipping Artemis with the Good News, Corinth, Delphi, Philippi. All amazing! With all the history there was a perspective of time that blew me away.

This sense of time struck me in two ways yesterday as I went to class for the first time since I returned stateside. One: I’m still impatiently waiting for my hand to heal. I really want to train and get rounds in and it is driving me nuts. Two: white belts are all impatient. I observed some live training after class yesterday. Our coaches and instructors take up positions and we rotate through in 5 or 6 minute rounds.

It is kind of funny to watch the inexperienced roll with the proficient. One partner goes 100 mph trying to implement that one skill they feel good with. Maybe they achieve a brief position of dominance but it quickly evaporates into Wojtek’s bear trap. The other waits and defends with simple, yet effective fundamentals. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Coach Turtle is as calm as a Sunday nap waiting for the aggressive and amped up partner to simply wear out from white belt fury and lack of breathing. Watching Mike, Turtle and Wojtek roll is like watching water flow through a river, responding to their training partners with deliberate defenses and visionary setups.

Finding your proper place in time and space has occupied the human mind for centuries. People all over the ancient world traveled to the Oracles at Delphi to gain an edge and exert control. Usually without any real gains. The takeaway I’m grappling with is to patiently let it flow. Don’t look for shortcuts and don’t wear myself out for that fleeting sense of momentary control.

“I’ve waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit out of the miry clay.

I will sing a new song”

from Psalm 40

Jiu Jitsu and Grace

There is a saying in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu attributed to master Carlos Gracie Sr. “There is no losing in BJJ only winning and learning”. I also read an article recently by Prof. Tom DeBlass who said he is tired of hearing that quote because losing is an inevitable part of the game.

I happen to agree and resonate with both of these wise men. I think I understand what both are getting at. And I love that Jiu Jitsu offers a forum to practice both humility and excellence at the same time.

Master Gracie’s quote defines the reality that in Jiu Jitsu you will fail over and over again. And that is how you learn. You embrace the failure and take humble inventory of what led to it. To fear failure in this sport is a roadblock to learning and development. For this reason it is a great life practice. You learn resilience and how to deal with discomfort. All for the sake of growing and getting better at the craft. You have to take your lumps. But how you do it and what kind of person you are in the process is really important. Humility and graciousness are key ingredients to consistent growth. If your pride gets in the way you block yourself from the important lessons that are available.

There are prideful people in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Tons of us! Ego is as present on the mats as anywhere else. But in, what I would consider, great schools, there is a culture that allows for ego. And coaches, professors and masters provide ways to address and manage your ego in ways that are beneficial for individual and communal growth. Ego drives us. Channeling that drive to accomplish great things is something I am grateful to the sport for.

I think Professor DeBlass is also making a great point. It is okay to want to get better. And it is good to realize that sometimes you will lose. That does not make you a loser. Accepting defeat and remaining defeated will lead to more defeat. But accepting defeat and being accountable to what makes you better, takes courage, dedication and even enough intensity to overcome. Those are all key ingredients to successful Jiu Jitsu.

So, I think my take aways from these two teachers is that you can be defeated and still gain. Any gain as a person or as a Jiu Jitsu player is a win, even if it comes through defeat. But work hard to learn and grow. And you can shake hands and show gratitude when someone submits or outpoints you. But you don’t have to stay in the same place. And you don’t have to pretend to have false humility just for the sake of seeming like a Jiu Jitsu zen master.

Grace is a mark of strong character. It allows you to accept yourself as imperfect while at the same time drives you to put forth your deepest efforts. In faith it is the thing that makes everything else make sense. Accept your imperfect self, made valuable by God’s love, and set your mind on the goal ahead with fullest heart.

Keep moving. Keep growing, don’t settle for mediocrity.

See you on the mats.

Welcomed. Hospitality As a Way of Life

I have not done jiu jitsu long enough to have it influence my “Bucket List”. In fact, I don’t really do bucket lists. If I did though…I am pretty sure yesterday I would have filled a bucket. I had the opportunity to train at Andre Galvao’s Atos BJJ in San Diego.

I am out in San Diego on a study leave and retreat. I am reading and thinking and praying through what it means to walk with young people in their spiritual formation and how the long held practice of Confirmation fits in. I did this in the context of gathering with 3 of my best friends for retreat. These guys and I are all connected through the journeys of our lives over the past 25 years. We’ve all served at camp, been in bible studies, led worship, led in churches and wondered how to raise our kids well. That last thing has stuck with me after our conversation on how to share our deepest beliefs with our children. We may not have solved the problems of the world but we sure encouraged each other to keep living with purpose and hope for the young people in our lives. We will protect them and nurture them the very best we can. Because we are broken people, struggling and finding wholeness in different ways. As I work today writing out the schedule for my church’s education, mission and formation for next year and work on our curriculum I am deeply informed by own experiences this week. They represent what has been present in my life and nurtured my faith. Connection with people who supported me, helped my have a safe place as my identity cane together and challenged me to take steps the may have been risky to grow and live into my beliefs.

These guys are still speaking that reality into my life and I am eternally grateful. They have listened to me, both my endless external processing, but also to any wisdom I may have shared. They have kept me sane-literally, when I’ve been depressed or hopeless, they have reminded me I’m not alone and I have a tribe. I am still a pastor because I believe in what God is doing in this world. I see it all over the place but it takes a toll on me and my family. Theses guys help pay that toll.

So, I spent 5 days with guys I’d call brothers. And I am full.

And then I also spent 2 hours with complete strangers and felt welcomed as if I was a well known member. I rolled in the 7:30 class on Tuesday at Atos BJJ in San Diego. I was interested in training at a different gym to kind of test out and see if the camaraderie I experience at GB Princeton is unique. It remains unique but it is also shared. I was really nervous and kind of cold called Andre Galvao through Instagram. He responded and welcomed me to try out the gym. So I signed up and showed up. The class was great. Challenging and instructive. We learned some guard techniques. Which was great because I have self-identified that I am terrible and tentative from my guard. And we did 4 rounds of live rolling. I rolled with a really technical blue belt, a really strong and big white belt, an inexperienced white belt and a legit black belt. It was amazing! All different but I learned in all encounters. At the end of class I talked with some of the others and felt a warmth that solidified to me that BJJ universally draws and creates a culture of warmth and acceptance. And the day ended with a highlight. Before the trip, I learned that Andre Galvao would be out of town in Abu Dhabi when I was there. But when I came out of the dressing room, I almost bumped into him! He welcomed me with a big hug and remembered our conversations. His warmth and humility were so apparent. Andre has a bible verse -Ephesians 6:10 on the logo on the wall of his gym. It speaks of the Lord’s strength and our power in that strength. I witnessed that power yesterday. Andre is powerful- like completely ripped! I thought his rash guard might split at the seams. But he displays the power of his faith truly as it is supposed to be shown. With complete humility, grace and hospitality. I am completely blessed to have lifelong friends who sharpen me like iron. And I am completely blessed to have met brand new brothers and sisters on the mats at Atos.

Some Technical Jiu Jitsu Things

This post is just going to be about some cool jiu jitsu I have learned lately.  Not a lot of reflection. But definitely a lot of learning!

Here are the coolest things I have learned over the past couple of weeks –

– Key Lock: So when you get to the mount, which is basically kneeling over your partner/opponent, you isolate their top positioned arm.  You push with straight arms down, making sure you have a C grip, not thumbs around.  This grip is not really intuitive to me yet, but I am working on it. Once you have the arm on the mat, you leave your left grip on the partner’s wrist, while weaving your right hand under their arm, between their bicep and the mat.  You grab your wrist with a C grip and slide their arm down toward their side.  If they don’t tap yet, you lift up with your right arm and they will tap soon!  Now, this was easy in drilling, and really hard in live training.  I was partnered with Big Mike so I literally could not push his arm over.  He showed me how to get more torque on his arm and with technique, I was finally able to get his wrist to the mat.  Once there, it worked like a charm.

– Tiger Tails with Big Mike: Noticing a theme…Big Mike.  Mike is a great guy who I train with fairly regularly.  I would describe him as a giant.  A giant who is really strong, more flexible than you would imagine and frighteningly quick for a guy his size (6’6″ – 265 lbs).  Yeah.  He is a beast.  We do this warmup exercise called “Tiger Tails”.  You put a piece of belt about a foot long in the back of your belt and then try and get your partners before he gets yours.  This is an enormous challenge.  Oh, and if your partner gets your tail, you do 10 quick pushups.  We did two, two minute rounds and I did 70 pushups.  The hardest thing was not defending Mike, or trying to pass his tentacle like arms.  Or even the pushups.  Although all of the above was really hard!!!  The most difficult thing was keeping my attitude and belief strong each time.  By the end, I felt like my mind had been defeated and that defeat was what has stuck with me all week.  I need to do 70 mind push ups…

– How to defend the triangle guard and choke: I have trained with Andre two times lately.  I like rolling with him.  He is more advanced than me, by quite a bit.  He is strong and technical.  The last two times I have trained with him, he has successfully tapped me with triangle chokes.  So, after this last time, I asked Coach Turtle to show me a couple of ways to get out or defend. Positioning is key.  And not losing my posture – which means to surrender my head so he can sink the choke in deep.  I practiced this a bit and unfortunately it was not magic.  It took a lot of work and patience to relax, breathe and work slowly to improve my position.  That is what makes it difficult.  But achievable.

I had a good week of training.  I rolled hard and learned a lot.  I employed the most important thing for me at this point, humility.  I tapped when I needed to and stopped when I was gassed.  And I learned more.  I am thinking a lot about how to relax when I get in dangerous positions.  How to be patient and technical.  I am grateful for Big Mike, Andre, Coach Turtle, Coach Wojtek, Coach Mike, Kyle, Felix, Lisa, Kyle, and all my other training partners.  I am thinking of the sport and looking forward to getting back on Tuesday!!

Have a great week!

Human Flourishing On The Jiu Jitsu Mats

I was recently at a store where someone was cleaning.  I smelled the cleaner they were using and all of the sudden I began to feel good.  It was an immediate reaction and my mind tried to process why I had this feeling…what was it?  Oh!!  It was the same cleaner that is used at my Jiu Jitsu school and the smell of the freshly cleaned mats triggered my brain to respond with joy and happiness.  The mats and what they represent are having a profound and meaningful effect on me.  They are beginning to formulate values and represent beliefs that I see realized on them.  The Mats.

I have noticed that at Gracie Barra Princeton we are equal on the mats.  Not equal in skill, that’s for sure.  And there is a clearly defined hierarchy of belt levels.  But as humans, we are equal.  My coaches are three of the most respectful human beings I have met.  They speak of the way of life that Jiu Jitsu has offered them with gratitude and humility.  And that sets a culture for the place. They accept everyone who comes in, no matter what athletic abilities they possess.  Sure, it is a business, so they do benefit from that openness.  But I have grown to trust that these folks are not in it for the money.  There is something more important to them.  They want to advance a way of life that helps others flourish.

Out of a tangible commitment to others flourishing, this Jiu Jitsu school has become a haven of safety for many folks.  It is a place where people of many different religions, races, genders or economic levels gather.  You are welcomed with open arms (and then thrown to the ground…).  I love this place because I know that when I walk in, I am greeted and accepted as a person in all the wholeness of who I am – a Christian man, Native American, father, husband, pastor, 45 year old, couch warrior.  And I see others greeted the same way – Muslim, man, Latina woman, child, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, wealthy, just getting by, overworked, unemployed, African American, White, immigrant, Latino, Brazilian, mother, father, red hair, black hair, no hair, grey hair.  Jiu Jitsu sees all types and welcomes them to the place that I am learning as a safe place of equality. The mats.  I am coming to love the mats.

My faith, as described by theologian Miroslav Volf in his book A Public Faith, is a faith that is about human flourishing.  God and the people of God care about all the things that make humans flourish.  It is unfortunate that most of my conversations with people outside of the Christian faith have to do with apologizing or deconstructing the negative aspects of our tradition and history.  But at its core, we are about human flourishing.  We lift up that creation is good, humanity is created good, the earth is good!  And we are committed to the things that see humanity and creation flourish. When there is isolation, we will work to build friendship and community.  When someone suffers, we will celebrate what they have gained in their suffering.  When they suffer unjustly, we will stand with them and use what power we have to overcome.  We do this because in each other we see value and goodness.

Our culture does not exist with a sense of equality.  We are a fear based culture.  We live in hierarchy.  One person above another and under another.  This is a relentless and tiresome way of life.  It is not sustainable and it does not lend to human flourishing.  I see its wrath everywhere.  Students are burdened with too much activity and school because they are meeting the insatiable need to perform.  Adults work like crazy, fill the calendar and never really accomplish what is satisfying.  True rest is elusive and our sense of accomplishment is stolen by the need to move past whoever is on the next rung of the ladder above us or stay ahead of whoever is on the rung below.  This gives way for shortcuts, ethical dilemmas and escapism to creep in and find a place.  Cheating, substance use and abuse,  or ill treatment of co-workers.  All of these things happen because we are unable to see each other as equals, as human, and we lose our capability to connect.  When we choose this disconnected way of life.  All bets are off.  And the end result is rarely an enduring

grand opening gbprinceton
Gracie Barra Princeton Grand Opening

coaches with prof almeida
My Coaches Mike, Turtle and Wojtek with Prof. Alemeida

happiness, joy or fulfillment.  It is usually emptiness, regret and bitterness.I love that I see tenets of my faith realized on the mats.  Equality and respect for human flourishing is resonating with me.  It is what inspires me to invite others to the mats.  Come and see! I have grown and gained.  I am flourishing!!  Try out this foreign way of life.  Learn how to view others as equal.  Suspend your ego for the sake of personal growth and the result is community, purpose and a new outlook!  These are all things I have  found in my walk of faith and it has been great to see them realized on the mats.  My hope for you is to flourish.  Faith and Jiu Jitsu are two places I have experienced that.  I would love to hear where you experience it!