Here I Am, Lord

I had a health scare a few weeks ago. It’s the sort of thing that I have been waiting for – waiting for the other shoe to drop, as the saying goes. When you’ve been where I and many of my friends have been, your expectation of your own life expectancy drops dramatically. You don’t expect to really survive the war. When you do, you think about all the things that might kill you later.

It’s actually one of the things that psychologists look for in returning soldiers: that sense that we won’t live long.

For me, it’s been my breathing that concerns me. They’re finding out all sorts of things about what the burn pits did to our lungs while we were in Iraq and Afghanistan, and none of it is good. I was around a lot of burning waste: whether that was “natural” body waste or more man-made waste like plastics. So, any time I hear a wheeze or a whistle when I breathe, it concerns me.

I was at the VA for my yearly physical, which is normally a very rote process. But, as my new provider listened to my lungs, she paused. She told me to take a couple of deep breaths, and then cough. After she finished listening, she said, “You have a crackle.”

A crackle.

A crackle is a big deal. The least that a crackle can signal is pneumonia. It can also signal a whole host of other bad, chronic, sometimes fatal breathing issues.

At 34, a normal person wouldn’t worry about this. But, a 34-year-old who has spent years of his life breathing in some of the worst air on the planet does worry.

Once again, I’m confronted with the fact that I won’t be around forever. But, instead of worrying that it will be a bullet or a bomb that gets me, I’m suddenly concerned that my body is going to betray me – that the final wound that I take from combat will be in the form of COPD or emphysema. And I’m 34.

10 years ago, thoughts of my own mortality would have triggered me agonizing over whether I would go to heaven or hell when I died. But, as I sat considering this a few weeks ago, it was a different thought that came to me.

Have I done enough, Lord? Am I doing enough?

Have I written the right words? Have I been bold enough in my convictions?

Have I helped those in need, or have I turned my face away?

Have I comforted the hurting, or made their pain worse?

Have I loved my own children, my own family, enough? Have I made others feel a part of my family?

The truth is that no number of encouraging words, no amount of affirmation, can ever convince me that I’ve done enough. I feel as though I have just begun to live as the person that I was always meant to be. I feel as though I have finally figured out what it is that I am for, what my purpose really is.

But, what can I do? How can I reaffirm that purpose in a way that, at the end of my life – whether that be tomorrow or in 60 years – I will be able to look at the sum of my deeds and say, “I did the best that I could. I did the most that I could.”

I was 17 when I first heard the hymn, “Here I am, Lord”. It struck a powerful chord in me then, and I have read the story of Isaiah’s response to his vision many, many times since. And, interestingly enough, the Sunday after I got a clean bill of health from the doctor, we sang that hymn that has shaped so much of my Christian experience as an adult.

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

If there is a God (which I believe that there is), and if He truly does hear His people cry (which I believe that He does), then what other response do I have for the question, “Whom shall I send?”

At the end, it won’t matter if I’ve done “enough” – because I won’t ever believe that it was enough. What will matter to me is if I answered, “Here I am, Lord” every single time.

When the poor are crying.

When the hungry need food.

When the oppressed cry out for liberation.

When the victims of violence cry out for peace.

I will hold them in my heart.

I will go, Lord.

Please, lead me.

Loving Yourself (As Much As Your Neighbor)

I have been struggling with a lot of self-doubt, mixed with an unhealthy dose of self-loathing. This is not a new struggle for me. I’ve been having these issues since I was a kid, and my time as a combat veteran has only multiplied the negativity.

“You’ll never be redeemed for the bad things you’ve done/thought/said.”

“You’re ineffective at everything that you do.”

“You’re a fraud.”

“People don’t love you. They tolerate you.”

And on, and on, and on.

This is pretty much a classic case of major depression, but there’s a spiritual component as well. It’s the spiritual component that I want to write about. Because this is a religion blog. And, because I take medication for the psychological part.


No matter what else I have to say about my early years in church, one thing that I will always be thankful for is an early appreciation for Christian Scripture. From the time that I could read, I was encouraged to read kid’s versions of Bible stories. A few years later, when I could understand more of what I was reading, I was encouraged to read the Scriptures themselves – and to memorize those Scriptures, to recite them over and over. This has helped me immeasurably in my life as a lay minister. When asked by someone to pray – whether for them personally, or out loud at an event – I am consistently able to recall to mind a Scripture (or at least a Scriptural allusion) that is appropriate for the situation.

This is so important, because people who are immersed in Christian culture – regardless of how they feel about their “personal faith” – are almost always encouraged when something in the Bible relates to their own struggles or feelings. And, this is what has always impressed me about the Scripture – no matter its flaws, it is timeless. It has had something to say for millennia.

But, what about when it won’t speak to me? What happens when the Scripture that we use to encourage others can’t encourage us?

I think that we sometimes allow God to use us, even when we don’t feel worthy of being used. I know that’s true for me. When I was getting ready to leave the military – after almost 9 years and 2 combat tours – I determined that I was going to let God use me for peace and reconciliation, the way that I had let the Army use me for violence and oppression. It didn’t matter what my own opinion of myself was – I was ready to be used, ready to try and “balance the scales” of my life with positive action.

Most days, it works. Most days, I feel like I am doing some good. But, some days, the doubt takes over. I feel like the Psalmist, who goes from verses that sing praises to God for His presence and blessing to verses that ask God why he (the Psalmist) has been abandoned.

Some days, I love my neighbor far more than I love myself.

I’ve had flashes of insight into this. After a weekend at Walk to Emmaus, I realized that God’s love has to flow through us, not from us. While that’s a worthwhile revelation, it’s much harder to maintain in the day to day.

If God’s love is a river that flows through me, I feel like my self-loathing is constantly building up a dam. I know that it’s trying to get through, and I’m doing my best to use the trickle that I have to love others… but, I eventually run dry.

Even when I feel completely empty of God’s love, I try. I try to give what little love that I can manage to others. But, I can’t help but feel that the bitterness shines through. The anger, the grief, the things that I spend so much time trying to cover up and erase in myself are out there on full display.

Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone else feel that, no matter how hard they try to do it right, they’re constantly doing it wrong?

Does anyone have a solution? Can we ever love ourselves as much as we (try to) love our neighbor?


“The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

That verse is Zephaniah 3:17. It was given to me by a friend at Emmaus, someone who also struggled with depression. He told me to remember, no matter how down I felt, that when I lay down to sleep at night, “God is singing over you.”

The idea that the Creator of the Universe can “take great delight” in me is almost too much to bear. In me? In me?

Take great delight in the man who felt hate in his heart towards an entire nation?

Quiet with love the man who rejoiced in the deaths of people he didn’t know?

Rejoice with singing over the man who refused to treat a sick man because of his nationality?

It’s tough, folks. Even as I read this verse, and meditate over it, I can’t help but feel that Zephaniah probably made a mistake in thinking that God actually said this.

Because, the chasm between my sin and His Grace seems too wide. The gap between who I know myself to be and who I want to be seems too far to be bridged by anything, even His love.




Jesus 2016

I’m sick to death of politicians, and it’s not even that close to November. I’ve allowed myself to get far too wrapped up in the Panic Button Politics that has characterized our 2016 Presidential election, and I’ve kind of lost sight of my initial attitude about this whole herd of cats.

It really doesn’t matter.

I once pledged allegiance to this nation. I put on a uniform, with a flag on my right shoulder, and pledged to defend the nation and the ideals that it embodied. And, you know what I ended up with? A long list of dead comrades to go to sleep with every night, and a sense that nothing I did in uniform really changed anything.

No, my allegiance is with the Kingdom of God. My vote for President is just one of the things that I “render unto Caesar.” And, lest you think that I’m sticking my head in the sand, waiting for some pie-in-the-sky Kingdom while the world that we live in goes to Hell… absolutely not.

The Kingdom of God might have Christ as its King, but it’s not Christ that builds the Kingdom – it’s those that have given their allegiance that build the Kingdom. And, if our hearts are truly with Him – if our lives have truly been transformed by His life, teachings, death, and resurrection – then we will keep building the Kingdom no matter who swears the oath of office in January.

I don’t think that either Trump or Clinton are really the devil, but I don’t believe that either of them will save us from anything. Followers of Jesus have already been taught how to save the world, and each other. I suggest we shut the hell up about Caesar’s candidates, and get to the business of saving each other.

If We Only Had The Nerve

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage this week. I’ve been thinking about it so much that I changed the lesson plan for my youth group to give a talk about it. Courage isn’t something that I think about in the context of my faith much – after all, we’re called to be humble and meek. Courage doesn’t call those qualities immediately to mind.

I think this is because we have, for too long, equated courage with bravado. When I was in the Army, “personal courage” was one of our core values. In fact, when I was asked at a promotion board which Army value I valued most, I chose personal courage. For me, it symbolized the ability to face consequences in the pursuit of right or honorable action.

When we send young men and women off to the military, we give them the idea that the very act of enlisting is an act of courage. I won’t dishonor their sense of duty, honor, or service by denying that enlisting in a dangerous profession is a form of courage. But, the courage that I am so often inspired by is not the kind that involves picking up a weapon and standing guard against enemies. The kind of courage that I’m inspired by is courage of the moral variety.

Earlier this week, in advance of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, 111 UMC clergy outed themselves as LGBT. Hundreds more have joined in support. Ministers are camping outside their churches, as a symbol of the idea that our doors are not open to everyone.

Now, this might not seem courageous to everyone. But, we’re in a time in the United Methodist Church where non-LGBT clergy are being punished simply for being vocal and practical allies to the LGBT community. Church trials have become a regular occurrence. Clergy have lost their credentials. Defying church law by marrying same-sex couples – a practice that is now legally allowed – results in harsh penalties, because of the exclusionary language of our Book of Discipline.

So, if heterosexual ministers are facing persecution within the church for their willingness to include LGBT persons in the sacrament of marriage, I can only imagine how much worse it might be for those clergy who have declared themselves to be the very people that the Book of Discipline excludes.

That’s courage to me, far more than I ever showed while patrolling the streets of Ramadi. I had a weapon and a platoon of 30 other men to keep me safe; these clergy have no cover, and they’ve given up their concealed positions. While public opinion can protect them to an extent, the denomination has shown no compunctions about ignoring the large segment of our Church that believes in inclusion. At the end of the day, the leaders of our denomination have been content to hide behind the Discipline rather than engage in a substantive debate. This is best evidenced by the current state of General Conference 2016, where they have spent 3 days debating a rule that would govern how they will even talk about inclusion.

The truth – the naked, shrill, dirty truth – is that the United Methodist Church has lost its courage. We’ve become the Cowardly Lion of the mainline Christian Church, willing to engage in “safe” Christian activities (important issues like homelessness and hunger, but still “safe”) but unwilling to even talk frankly about the exclusion of countless members of our Connection from worship, from leadership, from ordination.

The truth, stripped of pleasant Christian language and euphemism, is that our denomination is now more interested in being faithful to the rules of our Discipline, than we are in being faithful to the members of our Connection.

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday, in which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit – the tongues of flame that appeared above the heads of the disciples, the boldness with which they spoke the Gospel to a crowd of thousands.

What we absolutely must remember as we celebrate Pentecost – what I desperately hope the General Conference will remember – is that the Day of Pentecost was a Day of Inclusion. It was a day in which a group of outcasts – a leaderless group of disciples – stood up and spoke in many tongues to a group of people who had no shared language. But, while they spoke in many tongues, they also spoke a shared language – the language of a common faith which they shared (Judaism.)

In our time, so far removed from that day, let us have the courage to speak the languages of all the different, unique members of our great Connection. And, may we have the courage to remember the shared language – whether LGBT or not – of our faith in and commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Punched Up

There’s an old maxim in comedy: “Always punch up.” It refers to a comic’s responsibility to avoid jokes about people or groups who can’t defend themselves, who are vulnerable or already persecuted and oppressed. Because, it’s simply not funny to make fun of people who already face harassment.

I have been following a lot of the news stories surrounding efforts to keep transgender people out of bathrooms to which they do not biologically belong, regardless of how they identify. And, I have been having difficulty articulating my support of trans people from a Biblical standpoint. The truth is that I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Support for transgender folks has always been tied up in my support for the entire LGBT community, and I have never thought of them as an individual community – rather a part of a larger whole.

I think that my lack of specific support is really common among gender “normal” folks: I simply don’t get it. I can understand same-sex attraction, and I have personal experience with bisexuality. But, I was born male, and I have always felt male. Added to that, I have been raised in a subculture that is very suspicious of “effeminate” men or “masculine” women. (Several less kind words have been used, by me and others, to describe people who go outside what we believe to be gender norms.)

Even though I can intellectually accept that people have different gender identities than their biological sex, even though I can support people being their very best and truest selves, I have a hard time articulating that support in a way that other Christians can understand.

So, I’ve been giving it some thought. And, I’ve been reading Scripture, because I know that I’m not making this stuff up – I know that compassion is the highest Scriptural value, and that it’s always correct to choose compassion over exclusion. But, it wasn’t until I was teaching my Sunday School class this morning – we’re covering the Book of Acts – that I really understood what basis my support has.

Jesus always punched up.

Reading Acts again has brought back to the forefront of my mind what an antagonistic and adversarial relationship the early Church had with the religious and secular authorities. It wasn’t because they were intentionally antagonizing them, it was simply a virtue of who they were and Whom they followed. Those authorities had built their power base on their ability to exclude people from the Temple – because of “sin” or because they were “unclean.” And, as I read Acts 3 and 4 this morning – the story of Peter and John healing a man crippled from birth, and then answering to the Sanhedrin for the crime of compassion – I realized that the power of Jesus (and the early Church in His name) made sacred what the authorities, the “religious folks”, had judged unclean. He healed the sick, thereby pronouncing that their sins – that is, the sin that the current teaching held they inherited from their parents – were forgiven. He took the power to exclude away from the Temple, and He did it by pronouncing everyone included. The powerless became powerful, the least became greatest, the last became first.

The fact that those who were “added daily to their number” came from the ranks of the people who had been excluded, pronounced unclean, and persecuted by the religious authorities tells me that Jesus has a special regard for those people.

And the fact that He regards those people as worthy of the Kingdom is enough basis for me.

Make no mistake: the morality of support for oppressed, persecuted, and harassed communities – like the transgender community – requires no further study from me. This is a group of people who lives under constant threat of violence, who has a far higher suicide rate than most of the population, who are misunderstood and mislabeled by a large portion of society. That alone – the fact that they are being hurt, while not hurting anyone – is enough for me to declare my support for them. What the lessons of Jesus and the early Church give me is a way to articulate that support in the shared language of faith.

While I’m going to continue to try and understand the trans community, the fact is that my faith doesn’t require me to understand: it requires me to show compassion, to help, to protect when necessary, and to speak in support of. Even were I to believe that transgenderism was a horrendous mental illness – which I do not – I would still be required by my Christian discipleship to support and protect transgender persons, for as long as they were being threatened, oppressed, and harassed.

That’s what we do.

We don’t punch down, as Christians. We don’t become the agents of exclusion or condemnation. We don’t declare people unclean or sinful. That’s not our job.

We are Kingdom People, people who declare that everyone is included.

And, we don’t cozy up to the very authorities whose power is built around the exclusion of people they deem unworthy. That’s in direct opposition to what Jesus and the early Church stood for. That’s not Christian, it’s Anti-Christ.

Join me in helping those that are hurting, those that are excluded, those that are declared unclean and sinful.

Join me in following Jesus.

The Divine Absence

I was speaking to a very dear friend of mine a few days ago. She’s been reeling from a number of really awful things happening in her life, and she doesn’t feel particularly connected to a lot of people.

This woman has been a woman of faith for her entire life. She is what some old church folks might call a “Proverbs 31 Woman.” But, after so much struggle over so long a period, she’s beginning to question whether God is there – or, possibly worse, if God is there but doesn’t care about her.

I know this feeling all too well. It has been so long – SO LONG – since I have regularly felt Divine Presence in my life, at least in a direct way. I go through the motions of prayer, because I believe that it is required of my discipleship. I open my heart, even if I don’t always speak. But, as I’ve shared before, I don’t have those moments of religious ecstasy, those moments where I feel the presence of God in prayer or meditation.

My friend is experiencing this in the depths of her soul… and it hurts, like very few things can hurt. When you have lived your life believing that God exists, that God loves you, that God’s presence is a sign of His favor, the sinking feeling that God might not be there, or that you might not be in His favor… that feels a lot like dying.

It’s something that might be hard for a person who has no religion to understand, but I am sure that everyone has that place of surety, of certainty, in their life. And, when certainty becomes uncertainty, it feels like the floor has dropped out from under you.

When I was in my early 20s, I read several unpublished interviews and letters of Mother Theresa. In these letters, she spoke at great length about how she felt God’s absence far more often than she felt God’s presence. Even in the midst of all the good work that she did (and, despite her conservative theological views, she did do good work in feeding and caring for the poor), she had such difficulty feeling God’s Presence.

Naturally, the occasionally awful Protestant crowd cried out that this was a sure sign that Catholicism was not of God, that the reason she didn’t feel God’s Presence was because of her false religion. But, the more that I have thought about it, the more I have come to a completely opposite answer.

I think that her experience of Divine Absence was a sign that hers was a religion of the purest form. I believe that her experience was a greater sign of God’s favor than she could have imagined.

Granted, this is a fairly self-serving theology. I have already expressed my own experience of Divine Absence, so it seems very self-righteous to make this a sign that my religion is better than yours. If you’re willing to look past these implications and hear me out, then read on.

I have a couple of Youth Ministry Assistants that do all the grunt work on Sunday nights. They’re tasked with ensuring that everything behind the scenes remains working well, so that the rest of the Youth Ministry Team can focus on direct ministry. Now, these Assistants are early 20-somethings, and they need some supervision when they start working for the team. Admonitions are given often, reminders are put forth about what they need to be doing at any given time. And, one of the most wonderful compliments that I can give to one of these young assistants is to be absent while they go about their assigned tasks.

They certainly don’t take it to mean that I don’t care what they’re doing, or that their work isn’t important. They understand that trust has been placed in them to accomplish their work faithfully, even when I’m not standing over their shoulder observing. Sometimes, they’ll run into difficulties, and at any point they know that I will be willing to help them through a task that they deem too difficult. But, my presence encourages reliance on me. My absence encourages faithfulness and self-sufficiency.

I’m sure that there’s a relationship like that in all our lives. I’m equally positive that this is not a perfect analogy, and that it runs the risk of sounding calloused and insensitive. But, I really, really think that going about the work that we’re called to, even in the midst of Divine Absence, is the most faithful thing that we can do. It’s easy to do the work of the Kingdom when we’re full of assurance that God is with us. It takes a great deal more courage and will to do that work when we’re not sure if God cares or not.

I don’t judge those who can’t take that step. After all, it’s entirely possible to do good work without a belief in God. But, for me, there comes a point when we have to stop looking for God in the sky, or in our prayers, or inside the walls of a church. Sometimes, we even need to stop looking for God in our own hearts. Instead, we look for God in the faces of the people who love us, and in the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.

Let me say it again, for those in the back:

We look for, and find, God in the faces of the people who love us, and the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.

Jesus said that if we earnestly seek Him, we will find Him. Where would we be most likely to find Jesus, who died, was raised, and who ascended into Heaven?  Where would we find this Jesus who said, explicitly, “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me”?

The woman that I spoke of at the beginning of this post does amazing work with people who desperately need the care and love that she gives. I have been a beneficiary of that care and love, and I knew from the moment that I met her that it was a ministry that she was giving. If God doesn’t care for this person, then I don’t think I could care much for God.

But, I believe that God does care for her – just as I believe that God cares for me, even though I can’t feel the Divine Presence every day. I believe that God cares for me because of the people that I help, that I minister to. I believe that God is in them, that Jesus is in their eyes, and that their gratitude and love is the gratitude, love, and favor of God Himself.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” (That’s a bastardization of the actual Victor Hugo line from Les Miserables, but it will do for our purposes.)

May you always see God in the faces of those around you.

May you feel that Divine Absence keenly enough in your prayers and your heart to seek Presence in the lives of others.

May your religion be so pure and simple that you do the good work in all circumstances.

And, may you always have someone in your life that looks so much like Jesus to you that you may as well be face to face with Him.

Only The Dead

Warning: This post contains strong language, as well as opinions that some might consider “anti-military.”

A few days ago, I saw a news story about a 25-year-old Russian soldier, who called in an airstrike on his own position after being overrun by ISIS fighters. I had 2 immediate reactions.

The first was the part of me that is a former soldier: “What a badass.”

The second was the part of me that is me: “What a fucking waste.”

I didn’t know this soldier at all. I’m not even sure where he was. But, I can imagine his last moments with a high degree of sympathy, because I know what it is to know, in your hearts of hearts, that you are about to die.

Sometimes, you walk away from that moment. You know that you’re going to die, and then the universe changes its mind about your demise. Sometimes, you know that you’re going to die, because you are about to die.

But, regardless of the outcome, that feeling is the same. The panic, the anger, the sadness, the sense of loss… and, finally, the acceptance of your fate and the resolve to make it mean something.

I read the transcript of this soldier’s final radio call (I haven’t checked the veracity of this, but I can tell you that the language and tone of it feel right.) As I read his words, I felt that chain of emotions that I just described in what he was saying. I won’t post it here (a quick Google search can find it, if you’re at all interested), because it’s not really important to what I’m trying to say here. I honestly only have the barest of ideas of what I am trying to say here. I just know that I need to say it.

A few weeks ago, a person that I deeply respect sat me down because they were concerned about my attitude towards the military, and that this attitude might rub off on the youth that I try to pastor at my church. This person comes from a military family, and is married to a retired military member. So, the ties to the military are ingrained since early childhood in this person, and these ties have only been reinforced throughout their life.

I was told that, no matter what happened to me while I was in the Army, that I needed to tone down my criticism in front of the kids.

I have avoided posting about this for weeks, even though I have felt a desperate need to speak my mind. I have avoided it, because the person that I’m speaking of – though I feel that I am going to great lengths to conceal that person’s identity – might see this post and feel angry or betrayed that I have written about a private conversation. They might feel that I am attacking their own deeply held beliefs about the military by post my own in a public forum, and using my conversation with them as a launching point.

My need to write this has overcome my caution about this person’s sensibilities. Because, even though I sat through this conversation with a (relatively) calm demeanor, even though I agreed (reluctantly) to avoid any topics that might touch the military… in my heart, in my belly, I was absolutely seething with anger. It’s an anger that has touched many of my thoughts over the last few weeks.

I live and minister in a military town. Our town contains half of one of the largest military bases in the country (the other half of the base is in Kentucky). As a result, we have a large community of active duty soldiers, veterans, and retirees. Many of the kids in my youth group come from families in which one or both parents are or were military, whose parents have been deployed multiple times to “hazardous duty areas”, whose parents are still deployed overseas to different bases and missions.

Of course, I try to be sensitive to the needs and situations of those kids. Hell, my own children are part of that population. I missed my elder son’s 2nd birthday due to deployment to a “hazardous duty area”, along with 2 Thanksgiving’s, 2 Christmases, multiple wedding anniversaries, and more “minor” holidays than I can count. I have spent weeks and months on field exercises, missed countless dinners, weekends, and fun excursions due directly to my military service. (This is not even touching what I have missed out on due to the way my brain was completely rewritten as a result of my time in the military.)

So, you can generally assume that I’m very fucking aware of the challenges faced by military families.

And it is because of, not in spite of that fact that I will never have a positive word to say about the military – especially not to teenagers.

We’re always told about how impressionable teenagers are. I always have that in mind when I speak to these kids. And, if I ever want to leave any single impression on a group of teenagers, it is that joining the military is a waste of their time, talents, and the very best parts of themselves.

My own kids know that joining the military would be the worst thing that they could ever do for themselves or to me. Unlike a lot of parents who went to war and survived (looking at you, Vietnam vets), I don’t sugarcoat my wartime service or refuse to talk about it. I want my kids to understand what happened, why it happened, and why it was a terrible, terrible thing for all involved. Of course, I’m giving them the “PG” rated version of events, but I will never, never attempt to water down the emotional toll of what happened to both the Coalition soldiers and the Iraqis that were affected by our military misadventures in the Middle East.

As I read these endless articles about this 25-year-old Russian father and husband, as I read the transcript of his final moments, I was struck again by how we are wasting some of the very best young people in a profession and cause that will only ever cause suffering and death.

Imagine, if you will, that this young man – this young man who had enough courage to give up his own life to accomplish his mission – imagine if this young man had been encouraged and guided towards doing something that actually helped people. Imagine that he worked as a humanitarian, or as a doctor, or as a political leader. Imagine someone who had that level of courage, that level of conviction, that he would be willing to sacrifice everything to aid those in need, to help and heal the sick and injured, to fight against unjust laws and for a better society. Imagine thousands of men and women like that being steered towards something better than fighting wars, and preparing to fight wars, and supporting those who fight wars.

When I was in Iraq in 2006… every time I heard one of our bombs being dropped, or heard the .50 caliber machine guns firing from our guard towers, I had the thought, “What if we just killed the cure for cancer? AIDS? What if we just killed the next Einstein, the next Saint Francis, the next Da Vinci?”

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of young men and women, just in the last decade have been thrown uncaringly into the meat grinder of war. All the while, they’re being fed a steady line of absolute horseshit about duty, honor, country. About becoming a man, caring for their families, keeping America safe and freedom secure. They’re being fed romantic lies about military service, and it all starts when they’re kids and teenagers.

These “military boosters”, from good military families, will always have those wonderful stories from their parents and grandparents about the “Band of Brothers”, all the good things about the military. But, no one wants to tell them about the other side, the side that you’ll see most often.

They won’t tell these kids about what it sounds like when someone screams for help after being wounded.

They won’t tell them what burning flesh smells like, and how you smell it everywhere you go afterwards.

They won’t tell them about how you are constantly afraid, and how that fear infects everything after you leave the “hazardous duty area.”

They won’t tell them that the military will discard you like a tissue once you stop being useful.

They won’t tell them that their families will be an afterthought, at best.

They won’t tell them that the physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological wounds that they carry from their service will make everyone around them uncomfortable, and that they will receive the absolute bare minimum of care to help them.

Impressionable teenagers everywhere will be told a stirring lie, and people who try to tell them the truth will be told to sit down and shut the fuck up.

The truth is that I came to the idea of non-violence before I ever realized that it was a Christian concept. I came to the idea of non-violence when I realized the truths of military life, of warfare. But, my dedication to the Christian faith has reinforced my belief in non-violence, has reinforced my total rejection of the military and the system of lies and misinformation that convinces teenagers everywhere that it’s a valuable contribution to society.

The truth is that there is absolutely no room for a philosophy of violence, warfare, or nationalism in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, until we’re willing to put away our swords – both literal and metaphorical – we’re abandoning an important part of discipleship. We’re rejecting an important part of the message that Jesus came to bring.

The fact that I embrace a philosophy of total non-violence, the fact that I want to keep these people’s kids out of a destructive organization… that fact shouldn’t make me the most controversial figure at a local church. That fact shouldn’t give cause for concerned meetings about and with me. I don’t expect a ticker-tape parade for preaching one of the most basic tenets of the Gospel. I expect to be called out and denigrated by the American people at large. But, I have to admit to genuine surprise to be confronted about it in a Christian church.

George Santayana (not Plato) once said: “Only the dead see the end of war.” This has been used to justify mankind’s continued organized killing of one another for a long time. But, I call bullshit on such blatant fatalism. Maybe the American public can’t create a peaceful society (though we should continue to work for it, as part of our evangelism.) However, the Church – the so-called Kingdom of God on Earth – should at least be willing to reject the blatant nationalism of a society that is built on the bones of its own young people. Until the Church is willing to do this – until it is willing to break ties with the great Military Machine – we can’t really claim to be following Jesus.

The One Day That I Believe in Magic

When I experienced the “reawakening” of my faith a few years ago, I didn’t know what to do with the Easter story. As a kid, I never questioned the supernatural happenings written about in the Bible. I just accepted what my Sunday School teacher told me, what my Mom told me, and what I read in the Bible.

But, being in combat has a way of stripping away all your illusions. After the first time that I went to Iraq, I lost my ability to believe in miracles. I watched too many young men and women die horribly and painfully to believe that prayer accomplished much, or that supernatural intervention existed. I figured that the relationship between God and prayer fell into one of three categories: either God didn’t hear our prayers, God heard but didn’t listen, or God listened, but didn’t care.

So, when I came back to the church and began to practice my faith more intentionally, I felt that I had to re-imagine the story of the Resurrection to fit with the experiences of the previous 8 years of my life. For a time, I professed a view of the Resurrection that was purely symbolic: Jesus rose from the dead “metaphorically”, that symbolism applied to us as well. Jesus rose from the dead and lived forever in the sense that His teachings continued long after He died. After all, isn’t that the only way that we live forever: in the hearts and minds of the people that we affected?

In short, I didn’t have room in my faith or my life for magic.

Oh, what a difference a few years can make.

As the time has passed, as I’ve had the time to re-examine my experiences and my response to them, I have made a decision that seems counterintuitive: I have decided to believe in magic, at least on Easter Sunday.

It’s not that I need to live in a world where people come back from the dead.

I need to live in a world where Jesus rose from the dead.

The lesson of the resurrection, to me, is that God’s love overcame man’s wrath. And, I need to believe that.

I need to believe that love conquers wrath, even if just for one day.

I need to believe that the Prince of Peace was more powerful that the dogs of war, even if just for one day.

I need to believe that forgiveness conquers hatred and violence, even if just for one day.

I need to believe that life overcomes death, if just for one day.

Because, if Jesus truly, literally rose from the dead, these things can be true. And, if they can be true for Him, then maybe they can be true for the world that I live in. Maybe I and my children can live in the world that Jesus created when He walked out of the tomb. Maybe we can live in a world where forgiving your enemies is a more potent act than killing them. Maybe we can live in a world where mankind’s wrath and addiction to violence is finally satisfied, overcome by love, peace, and compassion.

Maybe, we can live in the world where death is not the final answer, where all the men and women who have died on the altar of warfare can rise again – in some other place and time – into a world where the lion lies down with the lamb.

A world with a risen Jesus is a world where there is hope. It’s a hope that says that no matter what happens on Friday night, Sunday morning will be better. It’s a hope that says that promises are kept, and that they can be believed.

So, today, I choose to believe in magic. I choose to believe that Jesus physically walked out of His grave, that He conquered death in a very real sense, and that death is now only a temporary state – a waiting room for everlasting and abundant life. Even if I can’t believe in a single other magical, supernatural occurrence, I have decided to believe in this one. Because, it makes the pain, the suffering, the death that I see and read about every day somehow bearable.

So, a glorious Resurrection Sunday to you all. Even if you don’t believe a word of the Bible, even if you don’t believe in any God or gods, the world that I hope for – the world that the Resurrection shows me – is a world for everyone.

May you find the magic in your own life. May you find the hope in the midst of the darkness. May you always work for the better world, and may you never stop believing that we can attain it.

Where Is Your Cross?

There are way too many homeless in my town, and not nearly enough people or places to help them. There’s an overpass that crosses the big commercial street, and there is always someone there.

“Need help. Will work.”

“Homeless and hungry.”

“Family member with cancer. Anything will help.”

I met a man under that bridge. He has no ID, and no way to get ID. He has been turned away from shelters. He has been living on the streets for FIVE YEARS. He jokingly told me that none of the cops harass him anymore, because they all know exactly who he is.

I can’t express how angry his whole story makes me. I live in Tennessee, which I like to refer to as the Buckle of the Bible Belt. There are churches every half mile in this town. There are big churches, small churches, and churches in between. Some of them help a great deal. Some of them don’t help at all. But, there are enough of them that no one should go without food and shelter for any length of time.

Let me say this again: with the number of churches in our town, NO ONE should have to go without food and shelter for ANY LENGTH OF TIME.

Most of these churches are content to kick the homeless over to our local food ministry, Manna Cafe. And, they do their best to take care of them, as much as they can. But, people like the man I met under the bridge need a lot more than one small organization can give them. Without ID, my friend isn’t even a person in the eyes of the government. He can’t get a checking account. He can’t get a job. He can’t get a phone. He can’t drive a car. He can’t do anything to improve his situation, without someone that has the resources and the WILLINGNESS to commit to HELP him improve his situation.

It makes me so angry that I could spit. It makes me so angry that I want to punch something.

It makes me so angry that I want to go make a whip out of reeds.

Most days, I get angry, I get sad, and then I just resign myself to the fact that 90% of the people who see them will pass them by. Then, I commit myself to being a part of the 10% that sees a person, instead of a problem. But, most days, it ends with that “quiet desperation”, a resignation to the fact that there is very little hope for men and women like that. As a society, we just don’t care.

But, today was different. Today was Palm Sunday. Today, we talked about the commitment of Jesus to begin His road to the Cross. We talked about our need for Good Friday, our need to pick up our own cross, before we celebrate the Resurrection on Easter. We had the kids wave around palm leaves, and we sang songs with the word “Hosanna” in them. I had a really wonderful, deep experience at church this morning.

And, when I saw the man under the bridge, followed by the hordes of people at the restaurant – dressed in their “church clothes” – I thought to myself, “Where are all the crosses?”

It’s sometimes considered controversial theology to say that Jesus has a special place for the poor and homeless, for the sick and infirm, for the hopeless and helpless. The attitudes that Jesus faced in His public ministry is still prevalent in our society today: that wealth and power are a sign of God’s favor. Even though that flies in the face of every word of the Gospel, we still think that the wealthy and the powerful are somehow blessed by God, that they have the Lord’s favor, that their authority and privilege derives from the same Jesus that told a rich young ruler to sell everything that he had and give it to the poor.

But, I truly, deeply believe that the poor are the favored ones, that their crosses are being carried already, and that our job is to be the ones that help take the weight when they stumble. I believe that when we stubbornly hoard our resources, when we look down on those men and women holding signs under bridges, we curse ourselves, we damn ourselves. It is the great sin of our society that we ignore the most vulnerable among us, that we place the blame for their destitution on the very ones that are destitute.

We watch them struggle under the weight of their cross, and we curse them for not carrying it better.

But where are our crosses? Why aren’t we falling all over ourselves to help bear that weight? Why aren’t we emptying our hearts, our pantries, our wallets to help lighten the load on the poorest among us? Why aren’t we pounding on the doors of our churches, begging for our brothers and sisters to be let in from the cold? Why aren’t we marching on our city halls, on our state capitals, demanding that we do more to lift up the poor?

Because it’s hard. Because it takes away from what we think we deserve. Because we want it to be someone else’s problem. Because we think the poor are somehow deserving of their own poverty, that the homeless somehow chose to live under the bridges, out in the cold. We want to believe that their destitution is their responsibility, and no one else’s. Because, if we absolve ourselves of responsibility, then we can pass right by. Not a second look. Not a moment’s remorse.

“They made their bed.”

“They should get a job.”

If you’re a person who doesn’t believe that they have an obligation to help those less fortunate… move along. Nothing to see here.

But, if you’re a  person who dares to claim that they follow Jesus… if you’re a person who rejoices in the Resurrection on Easter Sunday:

Pick up your cross.

Help someone else carry theirs when the weight gets too heavy.

If you can’t do this, if you can’t bear the scars and the splinters, the bruises and the battering of following Jesus into the Garden and up the hill of Golgotha, then don’t bother rejoicing on Easter Sunday.

You can’t have a resurrection without a cross.

You can’t have a new life without first dying.

To pretend that you can is to have a counterfeit faith.

When The World Hurts Too Much

I know that I need to write today. I haven’t written a blog post in over a month. There are important things to write about. There are things that need saying, and I know how to say them. I have important ideas, and I know how to articulate them well. I have a responsibility to write, no matter how small my audience is.

But, the world hurts too much right now.

I’ve been dealing with that old dragon, depression. I haven’t had a single week in the past month without at least one day of dragging myself out of bed, and just trying to summon up enough energy to stay awake. I haven’t had a single week without at least one day of having no desire or energy to do anything at all. I haven’t had a single week without, at some point, curling up in my bed and just wishing that I could close my eyes and die.

I try to keep up appearances. I try to pantomime a semi-normal life. After all, I have kids. I have a spouse. I have friends. I have responsibilities. I have people who rely on me to be invested in what’s going on around me. I try so hard, and it sucks all the life right out of me by the end of the day.

Because, the world hurts too much right now.

When the world hurts too much, it’s like my head is swimming with thoughts and ideas that cry out for expression, but they’re all locked in because I just don’t see the point in letting them out.

When anger, violence, ignorance, and hate seem to rule the world, it feels pointless to talk about love, peace, understanding, and compassion. Who is listening? Who cares?

When so many Christians aren’t interested in acting at all like Jesus, why bother trying to bring the Gospel to the Church? When there are no ears to hear, why even open your mouth?

When the streets are filled with so many homeless and destitute, when homes are filled with abused children, with hungry children, with children who will never get a chance to rise above their upbringing… you know you’ll never be able to help even a fraction of them, so why bother?

Why walk out into the world when everyone is shouting at you to stay home? Why try to be the dissenting voice when everyone is telling you to sit down and shut up?

I try not to grow weary of doing good, but I’m weary of never making a difference. I’m weary of pretending that I matter.

I’m weary of feeling embarrassed that the world hurts so much that I want to disengage from it completely. I’m weary of “sucking it up”. I’m weary of being hurt, of taking one for the team. I’m weary of fighting fights that I can’t win, fights that can only leave me bleeding and bruised.

Yet, in those moments of clarity – those rare moments when I can see past the hurt – I realize that I’d rather die fighting those fights that I can’t win than curled up in bed, whimpering that it all hurts too much. I’d rather be ineffective while trying to make a difference than living a life where I don’t try at all. I’d rather help a few individuals in my life than despair over all the ones that I can’t help. I’d rather preach the Gospel to deaf ears than never preach it at all.

Maybe we all need a moment when the world hurts too much to speak, or think, or breathe. Maybe we all need those times that feel so much like self-pity, but are actually self-protection. Maybe we need these moments of crying out that we’re so damned tired of it all.

Because, once we’re done crying out, we know it’s time to move again. It’s time to speak again. It’s time to fight again.

When the world hurts too much, just let it hurt a little. And remember that if it’s hurting you this much, it’s hurting itself far, far worse.

Go out and try to heal it.